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, 28 July 2011

Divisional Wedge

Things here are still moving slowly forward, and the gains I've made in the last two months since this project was initiated have been more than worth the effort I've put forward thus far.  Which only goes to indicate that if I put forward more effort, the results will be that much more rewarding.  I have plans to shortly roll out a weekly video blog in order to reach a wider audience, and that will be in cooperation with this column, my Facebook group, Twitter feed and the upcoming content which will soon be available on ifyebreakfaith.com.  Again, I pass along my appreciation to all my followers and supporters, old as well as new.  Feedback is always well received, and I am open to suggestions for topics for discussion on this page.  Submit your ideas here.  If I use your idea, I will be certain to mention your input.

The nature of fighting battles and winning wars is to eliminate your enemy's ability to fight.  Even more simply put it is the goal of an army to close with and destroy the enemy.  That exact phrase is the stated role of the infantry, those at the forward most edge of battle, the rifleman, foot slogger, ground pounder.  It is the infantry's task to take the fight to the enemy, and that aspect of warfare hasn't changed for thousands of years.  Saying that, close your eyes and picture the first thing that comes to mind when the First World War is mentioned.  Perhaps it was something along the lines of a group of men, standing in a deep trench, soaked with mud and water with weapons at the ready, preparing to charge the enemy across a shell marked no man's land.  I'll not debate your visualisations, but I do wish to point out that while an army's purpose is dedicated to the infantry, it takes so much more than that to prosecute a war; many individuals and jobs that tend to be overlooked from time to time but absolutely essential nonetheless.

Known as "supporting arms", their work ensures that those on the front line can do their job.  Of course the attention is paid to the ones doing the fighting and in my own personal experience it was that ideology which had me select the infantry as my trade when I joined the army in 1994.  We of the "PBI" do tend to look down on those who we derisively call REMF's (I won't elaborate, but you're free to look up the acronym if you don't understand it.)  Even looking to tell stories of the war, more people prefer to learn about the fighting and conduct of battles rather than the logistics and administration that goes on behind the lines.

In one way of looking at it, in an effort of fairness, those in the supporting arms are no less heroic than their colleagues at the sharp end.  Men can not fight without bullets for their rifles, food in their bellies and clothes on their backs.  Often, they will not fight without pay or the knowledge that someone will fetch them back and care for them if they get hurt.  I met a man from Sweden once, a pacifist who had volunteered to be a cook when called up for national service.  "I not like to fight," he told me, "so I make food.  When I give food, I make happy."  As someone who has been a the receiving end of a hot meal in my canteen cup after a miserable "day out" I knew straight away what he meant.

In the First World War, the efforts of the supporting arms were nothing short of epic.  At the time, the administration was having to deal with armies much larger than had previously existed, care for and supply it on a level heretofore unknown.  In sometimes appalling conditions they struggled to keep roads open, built new ones and constructed railways. Under fire they risked themselves to get essential supplies to the fighting front.  They rushed out into the danger area to care for the wounded, and ensured as best they could that men would be able to bathe, get clean clothes and rest out of the line.

It was more likely to be killed in action as an infanteer than any other branch of service, and more likely that those behind the lines would lose their lives to accident or illness than to enemy action.  The essential nature of their work and dedication to their task in no small part made winning the war possible. Because of this the losses they incurred are to be held in as high an esteem that we typically only tend to apply to those on the front.

On a lighter note, via Reddit.com user tommygunner91, I give you a short paragraph analogising the First World War as a bar fight.

Germany, Austria and Italy are standing together in the middle of a pub when Serbia bumps into Austria and spills Austria's pint. Austria demands Serbia buy it a complete new suit because there are splashes on its trouser leg. Germany expresses its support for Austria's point of view. Britain recommends that everyone calm down a bit. Serbia points out that it can't afford a whole suit, but offers to pay for the cleaning of Austria's trousers. Russia and Serbia look at Austria. Austria asks Serbia who it's looking at. Russia suggests that Austria should leave its little brother alone. Austria inquires as to whose army will assist Russia in compelling it to do so. Germany appeals to Britain that France has been looking at it, and that this is sufficiently out of order that Britain should not intervene. Britain replies that France can look at who it wants to, that Britain is looking at Germany too, and what is Germany going to do about it? Germany tells Russia to stop looking at Austria, or Germany will render Russia incapable of such action. Britain and France ask Germany whether it's looking at Belgium. Turkey and Germany go off into a corner and whisper. When they come back, Turkey makes a show of not looking at anyone. Germany rolls up its sleeves, looks at France, and punches Belgium. France and Britain punch Germany. Austria punches Russia. Germany punches Britain and France with one hand and Russia with the other. Russia throws a punch at Germany, but misses and nearly falls over. Japan calls over from the other side of the room that it's on Britain's side, but stays there. Italy surprises everyone by punching Austria. Australia punches Turkey, and gets punched back. There are no hard feelings because Britain made Australia do it. France gets thrown through a plate glass window, but gets back up and carries on fighting. Russia gets thrown through another one, gets knocked out, suffers brain damage, and wakes up with a complete personality change. Italy throws a punch at Austria and misses, but Austria falls over anyway. Italy raises both fists in the air and runs round the room chanting. America waits till Germany is about to fall over from sustained punching from Britain and France, then walks over and smashes it with a barstool, then pretends it won the fight all by itself. By now all the chairs are broken and the big mirror over the bar is shattered. Britain, France and America agree that Germany threw the first punch, so the whole thing is Germany's fault . While Germany is still unconscious, they go through its pockets, steal its wallet, and buy drinks for all their friends.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Why, and Why Now?

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I've been thinking a great deal about a letter I received last week.  First, I'm very flattered by the compliments on my writing and the interest it's generating.  At the same time, the questions that were posed deserve an amount of reflection on my part and how I answer them serves to show the importance of what I've set out to achieve.  

In light of a resurgence of study and popular thought on the First World War, I was asked why I was choosing to embark on my work, and why I had chosen this conflict as my focus.  Perhaps it's simple enough for me to say that this was had always held me in fascination, but the question as poised forced me to think on why it did so.  From a historical perspective, both in a global as well as a national sense it is easy to view this as a crucial event that had long and far reaching consequences in world affairs.  In certain regards, the war, its conduct and conclusion still effect the geo-political situation at present.  For an example of proof, I invite you all to think about the Middle East today and realise the boundary disputes and balance of power issues endemic to the area stem directly from the events of 1914-1918.  

For me, it has not always been a point of the importance of the war in world affairs.  As a young child I had very typical if not naive views of war.  The notion of gallantry and glamour, of abject courage in extreme conditions struck a rather romantic chord with me, perhaps in much the same way that young men viewed the war as it was beginning and those dreamy notions coupled with a patriotism not easily found today is what filled the queues at recruiting offices nearly one hundred years ago.  I've always had a bit of a rose-tinted vision of hard fought struggles, evidenced by my other studies of Operation MARKET GARDEN and the action at Rorke's Drift in Natal Province in 1879.

As I've matured, I would like to think that I've become more objective and understanding.  Though I believe that to be completely objective one cannot divorce entirely from virtues of gallantry and courage as long as its tempered with an equal consideration of the suffering and cruelty which encompass the whole spectrum of human conflict.  To do so would be to devalue the most important aspect of history in my opinion in that it is the study of humanity.

As to the other part, the "why now?" question, that for me is a much more straight forward answer.  The cusp of the events moving from a living memory towards a distant past is well upon us and my feeling is that the importance of the war in a global, national and especially personal sense needs to be preserved with the reflection of these aspects lest we lose touch with part of our story and the lessons to be gained from a broad understanding of the past.  My idea, the project's aim of documenting the stories of those lost to the war, is my effort to maintain that link in a relatable way between the past and the present.  I strongly believe that we owe a great debt to those that gave their lives and to remember them well is a small step to repay them.  The larger balance of payment would be, of course, to ensure that their loss was not done in vain and we collectively will be able to realise their dream of living in peace.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Made in Canada

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The sun has just come up over the horizon and all is tense along the trench line.  Over the past two days the Germans had made several pushes in the area, but haven't come this way yet.  A mist appears from the wood line to the front, starts slowly rolling on, pushed by a rare westerly breeze. Eyes sting and throats burn as the vapour approached the parapet.  "Stand ready!" the young Lieutenant orders, voiced masked by a handkerchief, his pistol in his other hand.  Ghastly figures materialize from behind the gas. "Targets to the front," is his next caution.  The man beside him drops, coughing, struggling for breath.  The advancing enemy is closer now, moving swiftly but careful to stay beyond their poison.  "Rapid rate," he splutters, "fire!"  Ragged shots bang out at the command while the Colt machine gun begins to chatter.  Aster the first shot, a rifleman pulls the bolt back, then closes the breech.  Bang!  The second shot, a miss, and another quick reload, the Germans nearly on top of the line.  Bang!  This one couldn't miss, they're so close now, his right hand reaches for the bolt, having to move quickly there's less outgoing fire.  The bolt doesn't budge, not with all force applied.  His eyes water, from the gas, from the effort, from the frustration, but the weapon won't cooperate.  A reflective flash of steel catches his eye as the bayonet is thrusted towards him.

I've made mention of Sam Hughes being known for having shady dealings with business associates in the equipping of the CEF.  No one item stands out more than the controversy attached to the Ross Rifle.  It's failures in combat are well documented facts, but the issue of why it failed is still not certainly understood.  The Ross was a great weapon in ideal conditions, range shoots gave it laurels for its function and accuracy.  The fact that it was Canadian as well suited Hughes who had the ostensibly patriotic idea that "his boys" were to be given nationally made equipment.  Although, this allowed him to give contracts to friends of his which surely didn't hurt his bottom line.  At Second Ypres, under the duress of rapid fire conditions, though, the Ross failed miserably.  On the home front, an uproar went out, and blame began to be placed. As often happens, this was not to resolve the issue but rather for some to try to escape culpability.

The most commonly cited issue for the rifle jamming is poor weapons maintenance, meaning that the Ross was temperamental in dirty conditions; a situation in abundance on the Western Front.  It's an idea of absolute rubbish.  Any rifle if not properly cared for will malfunction if dirty.  This notion points away from the manufacturer and lends squarely on the troops being negligent.  Another, lesser known issue raised was that the problem was related to the ammunition being defective.  since the same .303 cartridge was being used by the Canadians with the Ross as well as the British Lee Enfield which didn't suffer from the dame critical issues, problems stemming from ammunition can be discounted.  A third flaw could have been the bolt being a straight pull mechanism.  Since it didn't require the locking quarter turn more common in rifles of these types it could be surmised that a lack of leverage made jams more frequent and harder to clear. Again, though, other straight pull designs from Austria and Sweden are not prone to the same frequent stoppages.  I am led to believe that the case was a manufacturer's fault which had been gently brushed aside in favour of deflecting where blame should lie.  

The bolt and the receiver-where the bolt meets the chamber to seal the breech-may have been tooled with different tolerances.  What this means is that under range conditions, firing slowly and carefully aimed shots, the Ross worked well, but quick firing and the resultant heating and expansion of metal parts at different rates without chance to cool slightly would cause a weapon to stick.

The Ross was not phased out until 1916, in favour of the Lee Enfield, and even remained a weapon of choice for snipers and a popular weapon for collectors today.  It did, though, go a long way to the detriment of Canadian manufacturing.  Conversely it added to the reputation of the CEF as a unit still capable of successful operations with non-effective equipment, quite unironically a reputation that stays with the Canadian Forces of the modern era.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Taking the Ridge

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It's the taking of Vimy Ridge that I'm going to discuss today.  Years ago I wrote a highly marked essay about the battle and how it was related to Canadian identity.  I'd really rather like the existential opportunity to debate with my younger self some of the points of that work.  When I began to read more in depth about the war on the whole, works by Liddel-Hart and Keegan, I would become very upset at how little attention was paid to the Canadian effort at Vimy.  Didn't these historians know how important that victory was?  Was their British bias that obvious to not include in their work an appropriate regard to something the Colonials accomplished that they could not?  There had been two French attempts in 1915, May and September, to seize the heights from the Germans which had not met with any success and resulted in a total estimate of 150 000 casualties.  A British attempt the next year was taken as part of a counter-attack against German offensives in the area.  Limited successes gained British control of the ridge but these gains were not able to be held against a later German assault.

I think I had rather worry about my own biases before pointing fingers.  Let me say this:  Vimy Ridge was an important victory for Canadians, but taken in a larger context it was a moderate gain in a diversionary attack in support of larger operations further south.  The Canadian Corps' objective was set in March 1917 to be their contribution to what became known as the Battle of Arras.  The offensive there would be what is now known as a "containment operation."  The British goal was to keep German forces in the area engaged so as they could not be brought to support against French operations further down the line seeking that ever elusive breakthrough.

I've often heard the success of the battle being attributed to newly developed (often cited as Canadian developed) tactics.  This is not entirely true.  The victory was won through the marrying of some new ideas with established military doctrine and was completely directed by the British.  The established doctrine of assaulting fortified defences, by first digging forward running trenches and tunnels called "saps" to jump off from and using the leapfrogging method of fire and movement ( where one element uses covering fire to keep the enemy pinned while the other moves forward in turn) were elements the British had employed in previous conflicts.  They seemed new because they were new to the volunteer armies raised for the war, and not put into use until later in the war as this kind of work requires many months of practice and training.  The Canadian Corps received this training between November 1916 and March 1917 in preparation for the attack.  Section organisation, meaning the distribution of specialised weapons and the idea of moving after limited objectives in a style known as "Bite and Hold" were newer developments, but not Canadian in origin.  They came down the pipe from General Headquarters, the British commanding element on the Western Front, and were adopted by all forces under that command.

It was due to the integration of old and new, along with the time allowed to perfect it (training in large groups when away from the front lines was often superseded by using the infantry as brute labour when in reserve, a detriment to professional growth) that gave the Canadian Corps a particular edge in comparison to other Corps under British command, lending credence to the idea of being an elite unit, and the success of operations of which the first was Vimy.

The victory at Vimy was a great accomplishment, removing the enemy from a high ground feature overlooking allied lines, but must be measured in the perspective of the bigger picture of which Canada was a small participant in a grander operation.  It reflects still on Canadian identity as this was the first large operation in which the Corps had undergone as a complete unit of four Divisions, from all across Canada, and historically the first quantifiable military success our country has had on the world stage.  I don't think, though that a military success, no mater what the scale or scope does much to give a complete idea of national identity, as we as a country are so much more than what can be valued by a test of arms.  

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Canadian, Eh?

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There's something about the term "Canadian Expeditionary Force" that has struck me with a sense of romanticism ever since I first began to study the First World War as a grade school student.  the middle word of the title for the fighting force Canada deployed to the field conjures certain notions, and even still I sometimes can't help to picture, completely incongruously to the war explorers such as Stanley and Livingstone.  There was something of the explorer about them, what is often ascribed as a sense of adventure in their moving into uncertain, new and dangerous territory.  What I want to look at here is the first part of the designation. 

Canadian, in this instance, of course, indicates the point of origin and a certain distinctness apart from other corners of the Empire and Britain herself.  Even the fact that there was a separate entity of Canadians within the British military was a hard won privilege.  As Britain had almost exhausted its cadre of highly professional regulars in the opening campaigns of August-October 1914, the Imperial General Staff wanted to take small units from the Dominions piecemeal as they were ready to deploy and integrate them to standing British Divisions.  The idea was sound.  Troops were needed as quickly as possible, sending battalions or even companies as they were trained would plug immediate gaps rather than waiting for larger bodies to be available. As well, placing an untried battalion in amongst others with a little experience helps to smooth out the learning curve.  This did happen in a couple of cases.  The PPCLI, raised privately went overseas and served with the 80th Brigade, BEF before joining the 3d Canadian Division later.  The Newfoundland Regiment, on the basis of being separate from Canada at the time was similarly integrated into the 29th Division.

With the CEF, this looked the way in which it was going to happen as well, even to the point of projecting a policy of assigning individual drafts of replacements directly into British units as needed.  That is did not happen in this way we have to (reluctantly) thank Sam Hughes, the Minister of Militia.  I say reluctantly because Hughes did plenty to the detriment of the force he helped raise.  If not quite a profiteer, he did defer to crony-ism in awarding materials contracts to equip and supply the CEF, often resulting in sub-par or unneeded items issued.  He was just carrying a long tradition in Canadian politics in corruption, since old John A. lined his pocket with railroad funds or John Graves Simcoe adjusted the route of Yonge Street to increase his property values.  On the issue of deploying troops, though, the bombastic Hughes stuck his ground and Canada never took the field in less than Division strength (a unit numbering about 12-15 000 men).  As the war went on we added three more divisions to the effort, enabling the creation of the Canadian Corps by September 1915.  Made up of 1st and 2nd Divisions, CEF it would be four divisions strong by the following year.

Taken in a certain context the term "Canada" can not, with reflection be a face value definition of its members.  Many were immigrants, mainly from the UK (speaking contemporarily it still included Ireland) or sons of immigrants.  There's nothing strange to this as Canada was a new nation and saw her growth at the time more from people arriving from other lands than were born here.  Perhaps the strong ties to homeland explains why there were a larger number of newer arrivals in the ranks than those who had been in Canada for a few generations.  Looking through the Attestation Papers for Oakville alone pulls up many birthplaces and addresses of next of kin closer to the front lines than to Canada.  The pause for thought is how strange it must have been to say goodbye to a loved one going to live so far away only to have them pass back the same way, often without the opportunity to visit before meeting their deaths in France and Belgium.

These people may not have been Canadian by birth, not unlike many Canadians today, but the effort they made helped to define what it means to be so, as had others before them and those yet to come.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Pursuit to Mons

I must say I'm very encouraged by the way in which support through social networking has been building.  Above all else it lends credibility to the purpose of the project and, if I dare say it, my appeal as a writer.  I again offer my thanks and recognition to all those that have taken the time to note their appreciation of my efforts, whether that's been through Facebook "likes", Twitter following or Reddit "upvotes".  If you'd like to show support of this project, it can be made can be made through  the PayPal "Donate" button in the right hand column, at IndieGoGo, by joining the Facebook Page,  by following the twitter feed or this blog itself.  Comments and questions can be directed here.  I've just recently become acquainted with the Calgary Military Museums Society a great resource for military history with the very noble mandate of making our military heritage more available to students.  They are a not for profit group, and I recommend visiting their site to learn more about their cause and how you can help.

One of the things I run into from time to time, given my depth of knowledge on the subject matter, is people asking my opinion on certain aspects or events on the war.  I had one such conversation the other day.  A friend said to me "Do you know about the general who decided to attack this town just when the war was about to end?  Didn't he only sacrifice his men for the prestige of it? Wasn't that a waste?"  Not an easy set of questions to answer.  As noted before, I'm a great fan of Gordon Corrigan's expository book on the First World War "Mud Blood and Poppycock" mainly as it is quite successful in waylaying the the misconceptions most have about the war to the point that these mistakes of opinion are taken as fact.  It took me a long time to pick up the book, as I didn't want my perceptions tampered with, yet Corrigan uses straight fact, thoroughly researched, which brokers little argument with the ideas he seeks to change.  I'm very glad I took the time to read it (and re-read it) as I can not pursue an objective look at history without an open mind and all available evidence.

Which leads back to the questions my friend asked.  The general he was referring to was Sir Arthur Currie, the Officer Commanding the Canadian Corps.  The town was Mons.  Currie was an opportunist, and had relied on his Corps' elite reputation to mount difficult operations beginning with Paschendaele in late 1917.  The success of these battles won respect for the Canadians as a fighting force and prestige for its commander.  So was his attack and capture of Mons on 10-11 Nov 1918 just another bid at securing accolades, or in other words, did Currie sacrifice good men only to have Canadians end the war where the British began?  It is a case of a little bit yes, a lot of no.  The thing to keep in mind is that the Armistice going into effect at 11 am on November 11th was not, as many see it, the end of the war.  That took place with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.  The Armistice was only an agreement to a cessation of hostilities.  At any point in between the war could have flared up again.  With that as a possibility, it made strategic sense to have the best possible position to "jump off" from should the fighting resume.  Liberating and holding Mons was absolutely practical.  It is far better to occupy and defend a built up area when opportunity is present, rather to leave it in enemy hands and give the Germans that same advantage if the Armistice wasn't upheld.  The other stipulation was that Germany was in possession of foreign territory, which could be used as a bargaining point at the peace table.  The more gains that could be made against them before the cease fire went into effect weakened their diplomatic position.  Having Mons in Allied hands was a large windfall which helped to undermine Germany's ability to make concessionary demands.   

In the end, of course, the peace process went rather well which is why in hindsight it looks like a waste of lives and effort.  The thing most easily forgotten with looking at history, as I've mentioned before, it that we in the present have the advantage of that hindsight which is not practically available to those at the time of the events studied.

At the end of the war, Canada had come from being an obscure nation from a far off continent with a negligible and amateur military, to one renowned for its contribution to the war effort which concluded with the Pursuit to Mons.  We as a nation hardly flout this reputation, but it's one we've continuously upheld in other conflicts and is present today.

I'd like to express on behalf of the "If Ye Break Faith" project a warm "Welcome Home" to our troops returning from Afghanistan, a heart felt sense of gratitude and thanks for the mission they undertook, and my deepest sympathies to the families and friends of those that gave all.  

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Thursday, 7 July 2011

In the Trenches II

I'd like to thank everyone who took the time to read Monday's post regarding Captain Bath.  I imagine that the published version of the book will contain chapters formatted in much the same way.  As that chapter was included in my book proposal to a literary agency, publication might not be a far reaching goal.  All of your support and belief in this project enabled me to put a great amount of effort in telling his story.  I hope I've done him, and all those stories yet to be told, justice.

There's been no return yet on my submission, though it is still early to expect any yet.  As soon as I hear news (positive thinking here, please) you all will be the first to know.  I have, though, picked up a few new followers on my twitter feed, and would like to acknowledge them here:  TVOntarioThe Imperial War Museum, and Ken Reynolds who has an excellent blog on the 38th Battalion, CEF found here.  I welcome them as warmly as I welcome all those who read and enjoy my work.

Now, I've delayed it long enough, but a promise is a promise and I here now follow through with the second part of my essay on the reasons behind the stalemate on the Western Front.  As always, the project requires support to push forward, both in feedback and contributions.  Support can be made can be made through  the PayPal "Donate" button in the right hand column, at IndieGoGo, by joining the Facebook Page,  by following the twitter feed or this blog itself.  Comments and questions can be directed here.

In my last segment it was discussed why the Western Front solidified as it did.  For a refresher, here is the first half.  So the question remains, why did these lines not move?  First, contrary to the general idea, the Front was quite fluid.  Looking at maps that delineate the basic layout of the trench lines over the course of the war, it seems as though they are more static than dynamic but what is usually failed to take into account is the size of the landmass the Front occupied.  It really is a question of scale.  Nevertheless, though it shifted in one direction or the next during the war, neither side effected a breakthrough.  The question then is still a why.  With regards the Allies, their lines of communication, and thereby the means to resupply and reinforce were closer to hand.  Any rupture made by the Germans was only a day or two at most away from being plugged by fresh troops from behind the line.  Not only that, but the Germans didn't put too much offensive action against the Allies in the first place, especially after limited probes in the first half of 1915.  The concentrated effort at Verdun in 1916 and the all or nothing "Hail Mary" of the Kaiser's Battle in the spring of 1918 are the two major exceptions.  While the 1918 Spring Offensives were designed with a break between the French and British lines in mind, Verdun actually stands out as the one battle in which atrrition of the enemy was the primary goal.  In the words of Field Marshal Erich von Falkenhayn the Imperial German Army was to "Bleed the French White."  

Germany was for most of the war fighting on two fronts.  In France and Belgium, they had the advantage of being on captured ground, which meant that they could site defensive works to suit them best, and it would be up to the Allies to dislodge them.  Since they had "first pick" of ground, as it were, and didn't foresee going on a grand offensive until Russia in the east could be sent packing (effected by spring 1918) they used topographical features and resources such as poured concrete to strengthen the gains they had made in the west.  This of course made any prospect of a direct attack a difficult venture to say the least.   Normally, in attacking prepared positions, the aggressive force would want to move towards the flank as opposed to taking it head on.  Problem being, of course, that there were effectively
 no flanks to move for.  Next best thing then is to attack the enemy line where it is weakest, either where one unit's area ends and another begins, or where the ground itself isn't suited for defense.  The inherit problem with this is that since the Germans had the ability to build strong, interlinked entrenchments with many lines in depth, assaults had to be well planned and aggressively mounted.  Due to the inexperienced nature of the British New Armies (raised in 1914) and the French Army, though much larger was made up of conscripts with limited field experience, such efforts were not possible to any great degree of success until well into the second year of the war. 

Even at that point, where great gains could be made, by 1917 the Germans had completed the Hindenburg Line, a masterworks of concrete fortifications, wire and pillboxes with well sighted artillery and preregistered kill zones.  So once the allies learned their trade well enough to effect a breakthrough, they now faced a more insurmountable obstacle.  By the fall of 1918 the beginnings of such a break were being realised, but by that time Germany was exhausted, it's ability to continue the war non-existent and thence set forward to negotiate the Armistice.

So, what of Canada in all of this?  Our country went through a tremendous learning curve with trench warfare, beginning with 2nd Ypres in 1915.  By the time two years had passed, the experiences on the front coupled with taking on board British doctrine that existed prior to the war but difficult to execute with uninitiated civilians turned soldiers enabled our Divisions to successfully assault and capture Vimy Ridge.  Throughout the war, our infantry gained high reputations for the aggressive nature of mounting patrols into enemy trenches, crucial for intelligence gathering.  Our engineers were looked upon as experts in mining, that is digging under the enemy trenches in an effort to place explosives.  The Canadian artillery made first good use of new techniques of flash spotting and sound ranging to locate enemy guns.  The only successful cavalry actions of note in the war included the charge of the Fort Garry Horse at Cambrai in 1917.  Overall, we displayed what has become endemic to our national personality of taking an adverse situation and overcoming it in our own particular way.  Something to be proud of, for certain.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Mentioned in Dispatches

As most of you know by now, I love using my discretion in the publication of my blog, as exhibited in my delaying to complete my essay on trench warfare in favour of a special post for Canada Day.  Well, once again I'm delaying that essay, but for some very good reasons.  On Thursday morning, I received an email from a literary agent requesting I send them a book proposal.  This is a very important step as I am led to believe that agents don't make requests unless there is at least some interest in the work being proposed.  I have submitted this proposal just this morning, and in it was included a sample chapter of the first book.  I include this chapter below to share with you the work I hope to achieve.

Edward Osler Bath
Edward Bath, known to his family as “Tod” was born in Oakville Ontario in 1892 to Percy and Alice Bath who had recently moved to the town from East York. The Bath family was rather well to do and were able to provide well for Tod's education. He was enrolled in Upper Canada College at the age of twelve, continuing his secondary education at the exclusive private school of St. Andrew's College until 1907. Perhaps due to his privileged education and his father's influence, by the time of his enlistment at the start of the war, Tod was employed as a clerk with the standard Reliance Mortgage Corporation in Toronto.
Shortly after war was declared, Tod enlisted in the 48th Highlanders, a local Militia regiment. Due to his level of education and work experience he was awarded a commission to the rank of Lieutenant by the 19th of September 1914, and was assigned as a platoon commander in C Company of the regiment.
A photo taken around the date of his commission shows a handsome young man with a smooth, gentle face wearing a neatly trimmed perhaps a touch rakish moustache that makes him appear slightly older than his twenty-two years. Deep set, penetrating eyes described as “grayish blue” look directly towards and seemingly beyond the camera. Lt. Bath wears a neutral expression, giving a read of a thoughtful, practical young man who takes his office seriously. There is not a hint about him that impresses a notion of one looking for the romance and adventure of war. The peaked Highland headdress known as a “Glengarry” is canted quite carefully in the stylish manner lending an air of dash that is still practised today.
The 48th Highlanders arrived as a complete regiment to the training camp at Valcartier Quebec, which meant that as units were organised into the First Overseas Contingent, the regiment was a rare exception in that it wasn't amalgamated with other Militia units. This amalgamation caused some consternation, especially with other Highland units who had to decide which elements of traditional dress and tartan would be worn, an idea for which deep traditions offer little compromise and left many men and officers disappointed and upset that they would not be wearing their tartan into battle.
Not so with the 48th. The cap badge of a calling falcon and the Davidson tartan taken from the heraldry of John Irving Davidson, the Toronto banker who raised the regiment in 1891 would remain a strong sense of tradition and pride for the unit throughout the war. One point of controversy was that the regiment was officially renumbered the 15th Battalion. All documents, reports, maps and other correspondence would be sent with this title, but those of the regiment never accepted this new nomenclature. They refused to wear a standardised maple leaf badge stamped with the number 15, always referred to themselves as the 48th and kept a fierce regimental pride that exists still today.
The training at Valcartier was fairly basic and there was little sense of direction. This was due to the fact that Canada had quickly raised a large force without many experienced officers and NCO's. Those who had recently come into positions of authority, like Lt. Bath, would have had to learn on the job, a delicate balance of keeping enough steps ahead of their subordinates in an illusion of expertise. Usually desirable for a new officer to have a strong and experienced Sergeant to act as a guide and support, at this early stage a dearth of available men with suitable experience meant that this was not a guarantee either.
Things would change in a very drastic way when the First Overseas Contingent sailed for England and further training to take place at a new camp at Salisbury Plain. The British, under whose command the Canadians fell, held the colonials in contempt. They were viewed as undisciplined, rough and extremely under trained. Over the winter months of 1914-15 an intensive program of training was undertaken. Conditions were miserable. The winter was severely damp and cold, with rain far more often than not. Soldiers were billeted in accommodations that weren't adequately heated. Disease and illness such as influenza and pneumonia accounted for some of the first Canadian casualties of the war. Through this difficult and trying regimen the uninitiated such as Lt. Bath were learning valuable lessons in working under adverse conditions that would serve them well once they reached France and the trenches of the front line.
When they had been deemed properly trained, and after an inspection from King George V, the First Contingent was ready to depart for the Western Front. It was slightly reorganised, leaving three battalions of the fourth brigade behind to create the Canadian Training Depot. The remaining three brigades plus supporting units of cavalry, artillery and non-combat support comprised the Canadian Division, commanded by the very able British officer, Lt. General Alderson.
Lt. Bath and his battalion comrades left England aboard the SS Mount Temple on the 11th of February 1915, landing in France four days later. The following month was one in which the Canadian Division, so new to the front, continued it's learning curve. Battalions practiced trench occupations, routines and proper reliefs in a well established nature of rotation. The idea was to keep new units in quiet areas in order to indoctrinate them to the war, and such rookie elements would never be thrust into a “hot” sector for the reason that it would do far more harm than good.
The 15th Battalion spent their first month in France in the area of Esteres, rotating from billets to trenches. Though deemed a “quiet” area, the battalion war diary notes a few casualties from enemy artillery fire, including some fatalities. By mid April they had moved to Ypres, also considered quiet, and continued a routine of taking up trenches just outside of the small town of St. Julien to the north and east of the larger city of Ypres. This occupation including the entire 3d Brigade to which the 15th Bn belonged occurred on th 20th, with Lt. Bath's company, now known as No. 3 Coy in the middle with 4 Coy on the left shoring up with elements of the 13th Bn, and 1 Coy on the right.
The Germans, at the time, were planning an offensive in the area, despite British belief to the contrary. Higher command felt that the area would remain non-active. On the 22nd, canisters of chlorine gas were released against the French Colonial troops holding the line to the left of the Canadian Division, forcing them to retire and leaving an open gap. Hasty counterattacks by the Canadians mounted that night and throughout the next day towards Kitchener's Wood where the line had dissolved prevented a German breakthrough. The effort had strained the Canadians, with the rapidity of the German advance and the fluid nature with which the battle was joined disrupting the usual chain of command and communication. Contradictory orders were issued at different levels of organisation, and misunderstanding of the situation led General Alderson to misdeploy elements. These were all good lessons to be learned as battles rarely unfold in an orderly fashion, and perhaps it was the Canadians knack for disorder that allowed them to respond effectively to a fluid and dynamic situation.
By the 24th , units could no longer rely on cohesive command from higher levels, and it fell to junior officers and NCO's at the Company and platoon level to direct the battle when it came upon them. The Germans renewed their efforts that morning, pushing forward past Kitchener's Wood, once again using poison gas in advance of their infantry. This attack came directly against the 3d Brigade. The 13th Battalion, on the left of the Highlanders retired, overcome by the gas, but the 15th remained in place despite, as the diary entry on that day states “heavy casualties.”
The fighting was close and confused, men weeping and wheezing from the gas, their only protection being urine soaked handkerchiefs and cloths. Officers shifted men in the shallow trenches to respond to enemy movement, shouted orders given in hoarse voices that would have been hard to hear over the fire of small arms. Rifles jammed under the stress of rapid fire, machine guns overheated and became inoperable, hand to hand fighting took place along the line. With their left flank “up in the air” the Highlanders maintained their post, plugging gaps as they occurred and preventing the Germans from exploiting an opening to the Canadian rear, keeping the rest of the front from collapsing. Lt. Bath was suffering from the gas, but was still able to direct his platoon in defending their front. He took a bullet wound in his left hand, probably incurred as he was exhorting his men to keep up the fight. The battalion commander, Lt. Col. J A Currie later related about Lt. Bath in his narrative on the battle, describing him as a “quiet and mild mannered youth” who “greatly distinguished himself.” By the time the battalion was relieved the next day, Lt. Bath's whereabouts were unknown. In the after action casualty report 17 officers and 674 other ranks are detailed as killed, wounded or missing. Eleven officers, which included Lt. Bath are listed as missing. It was not until the 30th of April when a telegram was received from a Captain Harvey that informed his battalion that Lt. Bath was now a prisoner of war. Following this telegram he was reported to be at a prison camp at Hof Cusmar, transferring later to a camp at Hanvo-Munden, from which he successfully escaped.
He was recaptured not long afterwards and placed in the Citadelle Wessen, a fortress of sorts where prisoners who had shown determination in escaping captivity were held. It is the express duty of those who have been captured to use any means they can to free themselves from the enemy. The purpose of this is twofold. Primarily, it's the notion of being able to return to duty to continue the fight. Secondly, escape attempts disrupt and disturb the enemy, forcing them to use assets to prevent escapes and recapture those who've made good attempts that otherwise might be used on the front line.
Lt. Bath spent 7 ½ months at Wessel, and was then placed in a camp at Gefeld. He was moved twice more, to Holzmunden and Schwarmstadt. These frequent moves indicate he continued in his duty to agitate his captors. By March of 1918, in time for his twenty-sixth birthday he was exchanged and interred in neutral Holland, on account of being ill with bronchitis. Upon his arrival in Holland he was promoted to the rank of Temporary Captain in recognition of his attention to duty, having the promotion backdated two years to 1916, the idea being to give his rank some seniority, a particular privilege reserved only for those considered worthy of the distinction. In a letter written to his mother during this time he tells about “the best sailing we've had yet but the weather was pretty bad most of the time, being cold, blowing a young gale and thunderstorm....we had to drop our anchors and a little while later the dingy swamped.” Also expressed is his desire to be able to spend the winter in the town of Haarlem with a friend of his. This didn't occur. Capt. Bath's condition worsened and he was allowed to be repatriated on the 4th of November. He was taken from France by hospital ship and admitted to the Prince of Wales Hospital for Officers at Marylebone Road in London with influenza and pneumonia. A week later, Capt. Bath was transferred to Endsleigh Hospital with his condition noted as “seriously ill.” He died the next day, his condition believed to have been aggravated from his exposure to poison gas during the fighting at Ypres.
For his attempts to escape from captivity, Capt. Bath was mentioned in dispatches, a rather particular honour for recognition of service beyond the regular call of duty. His citation, printed on page 1235 of the January 30 1920 Supplement to the London Gazette notes that he was “brought to the notice of the Secretary of State for War for gallant conduct and determination displayed in attempting to escape from captivity.”

Captain Bath's body was brought back to Canada and he is buried in a family plot in Oakville. His name is also noted on the Upper Canada College Memorial Tablet.