If Ye Break Faith

This blog is dedicated to the promotion of educating about the Canadian experience of World War One. To discover who we are as a nation in the 21st Century, we must understand our past.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Dominion Day

If anything my own military experience has taught me, it is that one should never expect the expected.  It is more often than not that the situation will develop beyond that which is planned for, and so a good lesson in contingency and flexible preparedness.

Tomorrow is Canada Day.  On the First of July 1867, Confederation came into effect, and thus the country of Canada was created.  Unlike many other nations which arrive at their inception through revolt or revolution, our nation was brought forth in a spirit of compromise, and as those nations forged in a crucible of violence seem to have that nature endemic to them in their later affairs, so has Canada maintained that compromising ability throughout our history.

However, the first of July has itself another poignant anniversary.  In 1916 it marked the first day of the Battle of the Somme, a day which remains the single bloodiest in British military history.  It is also significant to the last province to enter Confederation, Newfoundland and Labrador as the Newfoundland Regiment (the title "Royal" was bestowed afterward) lost nearly eighty percent of its active strength on that day and remains in many minds a day of mourning for those men rather than a celebration of nationhood. 

I won't divest on the nature of the battle itself, it's objectives and reasoning, but rather,  I'm going to put a little perspective on the amount of casualties which were caused in the first twenty-four hours.  Most estimates place these numbers at 60 000 of which approximately 20 000 were fatal.  These are difficult numbers to conceive in the abstract.  Meaning it is hard to fathom the amount as, no matter how popular one might be, even on Facebook, it is nigh on impossible to be personally familiar with that many people.  

Consider this, then.  Imagine if you will attending a game at Roger's Centre.  Extend that imagining that the Blue Jays have managed to fill every seat (a bit far fetched, to be certain).  Today, on this notional day, a double header is being played.  Before the end of the second game, everyone sitting along the first base line will be dead, and everyone else in the stadium will be hurt in varying degrees of seriousness.  Much easier to picture it that way, isn't it?  That is the level of loss which the British had to cope, and one in which they were not adequately prepared for.  The perception of that loss is magnified by the way in which the units who went into action that day had been recruited, which was mainly geographical.  This means when such a unit suffered severely, the impact was absorbed by a singular community.  Which is why, then, that Newfoundland and Labrador looks to this day as one of loss rather that the festival nature felt elsewhere in Canada.  

However, a bit of news came up recently that is a cause for, if not celebration than one of the relief of closure.  Remains of a Canadian soldier of the First World War have been recently been positively identified as those of Alexander Johnston of Hamilton, Ontario, believed to have been killed in action on or about 29 September 1918 during the battle of the Canal du Nord.  The Hamilton Spectator has written a great article with regards to Pte. Johnston.  He was conscripted in 1917, which isn't odd for that time as volunteers were not coming in enough numbers to replace losses. Like a large portion of the CEF, he was only a recent arrival Canada.  There is a slight connection in that with me to him as he was born in my mother's hometown of Coatbridge, Scotland.  He will be laid to rest with full honours along side his fallen comrades in France, and I hope his surviving relatives will be able to take solace in that he will now have a known resting place.  

I would then like to dedicate this Canada Day posting of If Ye Break Faith to the memory of Pte. Johnston and his family.  His name liveth forever more.

Monday, 27 June 2011

In the Trenches

I have decided, as this project grows, ever so slightly, to adjust the format of my blog once again.  Still posting on Mondays and Thursdays, I will give a brief project update in the opening paragraph each day, but will follow on both days with my subject essays.  I find the writing of them much more enjoyable than what has become a bald appeal for financial means , and I do hope they are that much more enjoyable to read.

When I say the project is growing slowly, I couldn't think of a more apropos way of describing my progress.  Many of you are aware that my ability to continue research towards the project's mandate has been suspended, but I've had a good amount of feedback pointing me towards usable links and resources (with thanks to Reddit user PHDepressed).  Not only that but I've picked up a solitary follower on this blog, s it feels as though I am writing directly to a single reader which is a nice way to think about it, and my Facebook and Twitter posts have been receiving positive feedback.  As always, support for the project moral or otherwise can be made through  the PayPal "Donate" button below, at IndieGoGo, by joining the Facebook Page,  by following the twitter feed or this blog itself.  Comments and questions can be directed here.

One of the questions that is often asked by those with little study in World War One is why did the war on the Western Front stagnate into that of nearly four years of entrenchment?  The quick reply is that the technology brought forth by this new industrial emergence of war had the main opponents equally matched in that regard, being led by fussy old generals who had no idea how to cope.  Like most quick replies, though, there is very little actual understanding of the entire situation.  There is a little truth to it, but not nearly enough to provide a comprehensive answer.

It becomes much more clear when it is understood as to why armies adopt a defensive stance in the first place.  The primary reasoning for this is that they do so because they lack the ability to continue offensive action.  Denying one's enemy important territory or hoping to force his attacks in a particular direction are definite benefits to being on the defensive to  be certain, but not reason enough to stall or cease an advance.

With that reasoning in mind, we go back to the initial question, that being why in the case of the Great War did the opposing forces both take up defensive postures at much the same time in the Autumn of 1914 and remain so (more or less) until November 1918?  By September 1914 Germany had overextended its lines of communication.  the German plan at the outset of the war was to advance rapidly through Belgium and France before the latter could be adequately prepared so as to gain a quick victory in the west whereby they then could concentrate on Russia in the east.  This, known as the Schleiffen Plan after the German chief of staff who developed it, relied on a strict adherence to timetables in order for it to capture Paris within six weeks.   Ergo when the German army encountered harder resistance than anticipated, the scheduling of the plan was, in a sense derailed and necessitated a defensive posture to shore up their forces before resuming the advance.

In the case of the Allies, the rapidity by which they countered the initial German advance had greatly depleted their initial strength and they required time to reinforce against those losses.  In Britain's case this was very pertinent as they were possessed of a small professional force and were in the process of raising armies from scratch (which was to include the arrival of the Canadian Contingent).

Both sides attempted to turn the other's flank in what became known as "The Race to the Sea", but both lacked the means to make a decisive thrust, which then only extended the defensive lines until they ran from the North Sea to the Swiss border.  Of course, the misconception of one long line of dug earth between these two points is a fallacy.  Trenches can only be dug where ground is suitable.  Land features, natural obstacles and built up areas not able to be entrenched were otherwise defended.  

Taken that reason into account, why then did the war fall into stalemate for the following three years?  that question answered plus the Canadian perspective on the trench war in Thursday's update, so stand to for that!

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The Empire Called to Arms

People are reading my posts, that much is certain.  Some have been very kind in offering advice and moral support.  It's also been made clear to me that my solicitations for donated funding, since I'm unable to make assurances of how these funds would go towards the production of the printed works, will be difficult or impossible to realize.  For those of you who do not know me, my name is Christopher Harvie, an enthusiastic self taught historian with no academic credentials and no previous publication experience.  So, I can understand why folks would be shy to part with donations to a cause someone such as myself is championing.  The corollary is that this is my passion, and the only work to which I wish to dedicate myself.  I may never get it to the point where I can make it a professional endeavor as is my goal, simply put, but as this is work I feel called to do, I will continue to do it as long as I am able.

That being said, support for this project, moral or otherwise can be made through  the PayPal "Donate" button below, at IndieGoGo, by joining the Facebook Page,  by following the twitter feed or this blog itself.  Comments and questions can be directed here.

The problem with a study in history is that everything is done in hindsight, with knowledge that those who went through the events in question may not have had.  What this does is leave a lot of leeway in the interpretation of the past.  History, though is a fairly linear subject summed up succinctly by three questions:  What happened, how did it happen, what was the effect of it happening?  It is, of course rarely as simple as that, but those three questions serve as a good guideline to examine what has occurred.

With regards to the First World War, an objective study is hard to come by.  the commonly held perceptions are taken not from the war itself but from the sense of disillusionment coming afterward from writers and poets wishing to divorce themselves of the notion of romance which occurred at the onset of the war.  from these popularly held notions comes the idea that World War One was an avoidable waste.  With hindsight it is easy to see how conflict could have been avoided or at least contained.  If Serbia had acquiesced to Austria's demands following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand (which was impossible anyway as the concessions Austria required were designed to be rejected) the war may not have happened.  If Russia and Germany had not mobilised their armies to support their respective allies, the ensuing conflict may have been contained to the Balkans, not drawing in the rest of Europe.  But to paraphrase Ben Elton's "Blackadder" TV series, "It was too much bloody bother not to have a war."  Gordon Corrigan, in his book "Mud Blood and Poppycock", which I cannot recommend highly enough, states that all the major players had geographic, economic and political ends to be met by going to war, and the circumstances leading to the war were ripe for the belligerents to achieve their goals.  It is not whether or not the war was avoidable based on a series of "if's", the fact remains that it did happen.  

Where does Canada fit in to how the Great War began?  The circumstances of the onset of war being what they were, with Great Britain being drawn in ostensibly to protect Belgian neutrality, but in actuality to protect its own interests on the continent (mainly having to do with the balance of power between them and Germany), Canada was automatically involved.  At the time, a Dominion of the Empire, Canada was far less autonomous than perhaps imaginable today so that when Britain was at war, Canada was too.  Even accounting for all the "if's" that really can't be accounted for, in our country's case the war was most definitely not avoidable.

Canada's participation in the war, however, allowed our tiny country to gain recognition on the world stage and was our first real step into international affairs.  Despite the loss and hardships caused by the war, the end result was the emergence of what would become, before the 20th Century was out, the best country in the world.  Which is yet another reason why we continue to remember those that gave their lives, perhaps not so much for the reasons for which they fought but more so the benefit our nation has gained because they fought.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

We Shall Not Sleep

This blog will now be updated twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays.  While the purpose is stille to promote the "If Ye Break Faith" project (about which more here), the Monday post will have updates directly related to the project, and the Thursday post will be short essays pertaining to Canada in the First World War.  Support to the initial volume can be made through the PayPal "Donate" button below, at IndieGoGo, by joining the Facebook Page,  by following the twitter feed @ifyebreakfaith or this blog itself.  Comments and questions can be directed here.

I have been thinking a great deal about the four words with which I have given my project its name, the man who wrote them and the conditions under which they were written.  Also, what hasn't slipped my attention is the very fitting nature that Lt. Col McCrae will at some point be given a tribute through the work titled from his famous poem as he died on active service in 1918.

Most anybody who attended primary school in Canada knows some details about him and the lines he wrote which have become a touchstone for remembering those that fell in the Great War.

As a surgeon, McCrae would have been familiar with disease, suffering and death that even in civil practice would have benn beyond our understanding in this advanced age.  It can not be expected that even a doctor of his experience could have been prepared for the volume and type of wounds he was to encounter at his aid post during the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915.  The nature of his work would place him well behind the firing line, the place known as the "forward edge of battle", but his post would have been close enough to the artillery to hear and feel the blast of outgoing shells and to smell the heavy and sweetly metallic scent of carbon and burnt cordite from the big guns.  This smell would have mixed with those of his patients wounds, sickly fecal reeks of exposed intestines, the rusty wiff of blood and perhaps a faint chenical tingle of chlorine gas that was dissapating through a strong westerly breeze.

Operating on several patients as quickly as possible, he would have kept his hands as clean as possible, but the iron in blood stains fast so that his fingers would be blotted with maroon and probably caked under his nails.  He worked solidly as men were brought to his care, more perhaps than he was prepared or expected to treat at any one time, but only taking a short break when word was passed to him that a friend had been killed in the fighting.  It was during this time he took to himself that he composed "In Flanders Fields" to express the grief he felt by the loss of his companion and was to become a fitting memorial to all who died in the war.  That is the idea that has stuck with me, that a man such as McCrae, indoctrinated as a medical professional to accept death on a level others might find complaicent, to carry on his duty surrounded by it, but to be overcome by the news of one individual passing-putting the suffering around him to a personal level.

Such as it was for all the friends and families who lost someone in the war.  Deaths of thousands is a terrible thing, generally understood as such but fails to register until it is directly tied to someone close.  This is where this project sets its aim in that by allowing the reader to know these people on as personal a level as possible, their loss is much more easily quantifiable, the cost of war reduced from an abstract number to a personal level and perhaps a reason to consider why we as a people go to war at all.