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.


Monday, 29 August 2011

Relief from the Front

Keeping up with this site and the project it supports can be done by following our Facebook Page, and Twitter Feed.  Any suggestions, questions or comments, please forward them to me here: ifyebreakfaith@gmail.com.


In previous posts, such as In the Trenches I and II I explored the reasoning behind the nature of defensive warfare on the Western Front as with Life on the Line I speculated on what the experience at the front might have been.  I'll attempt to complete that picture by discussing the other aspects of a soldier's life, that of time spent away from the front.  With the understanding that units placed too long at the firing line become less effective, the British and thereby Empire system of rotation in and out of the line was established early and made to be as equitable as possible.  The viewpoint was that a soldier is a resource with limitations so measures were put into effect that on a regular basis men wouldn't be at the front for much more than five to seven consecutive days.  While occurrences of offensive actions, either attacks or defending against enemy movement might require a longer time in the combat area, those units would be relieved by fresh troops as soon as the situation allowed.


The French didn't have such a comprehensive system and their policy of holding units at the front until attrition required relief was one of the grievances which set the "Collective Indisciplines" in motion in 1917.  That the British suffered no such lapse of discipline is testimony to a system that worked well.  


The first thing in moving from front to rear which must occur is the manoeuvre known as "relief in place."  While the idea may seem pretty straightforward, it is actually one of the most complicated and risky phases of operation.  The troops leaving will be tired, having been under stress and vigilant during their time forward, those coming in to relieve them may be well rested but not recently familiar with the line.  To reduce enemy observation these reliefs were often carried out at night, but working in the dark has its own detriment.  Sound carries father, and men become more easily lost.  Communication trenches, conduits running perpendicular to and from firing line to the support and reserve lines would become congested and confused.  A dedicated enemy assault at such a time could net on the disarrayed, with the advantage to inflict casualties on two units instead of one and quite possibly catch the front line at a low state of readiness.  The Germans were particularly adept at this and based their "StrossTruppen" tactics which succeeded so well during the 1918 Spring Offensives on such a doctrine of quick gains against an off-balance adversary.


Out of the line, though, men were relatively safe.  There were some sections of front, of course where the rest area was still within striking distance of enemy artillery and aircraft, but it was a fair bit better than being up the line.  The first priority would be cleanliness and rest, once again viewing the soldier as an asset to be looked after in the best way to be kept effective.  Men would bathe, have uniforms cleaned and deloused, exchanged when available and be given a billet.


While sports, church services, theatre performances and other amenities such as YMCA, Salvation Army and Red Cross rest centres were available to the men, being out of the line by no means meant a cessation of work.  Fatigue parties which carried supplies and rations up the line were daily occurrences, as were burial parties and the need for Engineers to second soldiers for labour in road building and rail laying.  With that as well was the requirement to carry on with training, stating with small units (Sections, Platoons) and moving onto cooperative exercises with larger bodies (Comapnies, Battalions, Brigades). 


Only when on leave did a soldier have opportunity to have completely free time, and though the system of granting leave was aimed to be as equitable and established as that of front line rotation, one soldier was only eligible for a few days' leave in a year.  It was during the routine time away from the fighting that a man had time to reflect, to decompress.  He could write his loved ones, receive his mail and pay, be able to augment his rations with fresh food from local sources, perhaps even sleep indoors and feel some comfort, no matter how short lived.  This period is what made it possible for the troops to once again move towards the line when their turn came.  The realisation that human beings have limitations and enacting a policy to best work within them was a large contribution to victory, and a first step into beginning to understand the psychological effects of war. 

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Order of Battle

I cannot over-emphasise the importance of networking.  As you know, I had been hoping on a submission to a literary agent to bear fruit.  When this didn't come to pass, I found myself rethinking the potential presentation of this project.  It was through Twitter that I first became aware of  Warfare Magazine, and through that example the possibility of interactive online publication began take hold.  The format of the magazine tied in with niche advertising is a brilliant marriage.  I contacted the editor to express my support and as such have been invited to make a submission introducing my work to their audience.  I'm absolutely thrilled, and will keep you all in the loop as to when my article goes to print.  While I'm touching on the subject of networking; plans are still afoot to begin posting video blogs, though I'm not working with a definite time frame to when those will be available.  In the meantime, there is still my Twitter feed and Facebook Group.  In light of beginning a more interactive experience, I'm looking forward to doing a post with a dedicated Q&A section, so please forward your questions, comments and suggestions here.


One of the things about military history that I find too often left without adequate explanation is the way in which armies are organised.  In this column, I myself have been guilty of bandying about such terms as "Battalion", "Corps" and "Division" and not accompanying them with a definition.  It's unfair to assume that the reader is familiar with these elements and what size and type of organisation they denote.  Failure to clarify those terms makes the subject mater less accessible to those with less of a military background.


Military formations, especially as related to British and Empire forces went through a period of drastic change during the First World War.  Partly this was due to the unprecedented size of armed bodies taking to the field while the way in which warfare itself was evolving both strategically and technically necessitated a change in basic organisation.  Larger bodies such as Armies and Corps had not been used much prior to the war as it was rare that such numbers of troops would be deployed at any one time.  Their emergence in the war required a great deal of dedicated positions of staff and command at high levels that heretofore had not existed, a new experience for what had been a lean professional force before the onset of the war.  With this came a process of learning; of mistakes and successes whose lessons when absorbed would aid in the victory on the Western Front and provided a doctrine that would be a benefit during the Second World War.


It is a long standing military maxim that states there is no such thing as an individual, so troop order starts at the lowest level of team structure, which for the infantry in the Great War was the Section.  This was a body of eight or ten men, under the command of a junior NCO, usually a Corporal.  It's purpose was to take the fight to the enemy and during the war each Section in a Platoon provided a specialised task.  There was a Lewis Gun Section that gave mobile fire support, a Rifle Grenade Section to soften objectives from a distance with specially propelled grenades, a Bombing Section equipped with hand grenades and aided with bayonet men to clear trenches, bunkers and other hard points and a Rifle Section which would close with the enemy to deliver aimed direct fire, with the support of the other three.  Four Sections made up a Platoon which was further staffed by a Sergeant as second in command, a junior officer (known as a "subaltern") in command along with his batman (a personal valet responsible for the officer's well-being) and perhaps a couple of runners to communicate messages back and forth to the next level of command, the Company.  This made the number of men in a Platoon about forty.  There were usually four Platoons in a Company (identified by either a letter or number designation, ie "A" Coy) plus staff which included the Company Commander, usually a Captain or Major, his second in command, their batmen and runners and the Company Sergeant-Major.  A Sergeant-Major is the highest ranking NCO with the particular formation to which he is named and whose responsibility is the welfare and treatment of all enlisted personnel in that formation.  He would often have the longest service experience, inclusive of the officers and even though subordinate to them was relied upon for his advice and expertise.  The Company at around 160-180 men was a soldier's immediate home, but not near so important as the next level, the Battalion.


In regards to Canadian organisation, the term Battalion is more or less synonymous with Regiment.  While British Regiments tended to have two or even three Battalions under it, with the CEF  the ratio was usually one-to-one, hence a lot of confusion regarding these two elements.  The Battalion, commanded by a Lt. Colonel would be comprised of a Headquarters Detachment of support staff, Regimental Sergeant-Major, Chaplain and Surgeon and four Companies.  Each Battalion has it's own particular identity, unique heraldry and traditions, though many were raised for the war and demobilised afterwards, so tended to be more generic.  Longer standing units, typically from the Militia had a deeper traditional element, but one always felt a pride and belonging to his own regardless of its establishment.  A soldier in his time in the army is likely to move from platoon or company as the need arises but would rarely leave his battalion.


Battalions are fairly self contained bodies, but lack certain elements that enable them to do their job entirely.  Trench mortars and heavy machine guns would be attached with two or more Battalions (usually not more than four) that, along with its own headquarters staff would make up a Brigade, commanded by a Brigadier General.  At this point we are discussing formations numbering about 4 000.  This is a rough number as supporting elements would and were attached or detached as required


Three Brigades along with supporting arms such as artillery, cavalry (and later, armour), engineers, supply transportation and medical services comprised a Division, which again had a headquarters staff with coordinating officers to the attached supports and was commanded by a Major General.  Two or more (again, typically four) Divisions with further attachments of supporting arms made a Corps.  Unless otherwise designated (such as Canadian Corps, or ANZAC's) Corps were usually identified by use of Roman numerals.  We are now referring to numbers nearing fifty thousand, though it was more likely to be less depending on acquisition of resources and attrition.  A Corps was commanded by a Lt. General and aided by his staff.  It was the Corps that signified the highest level of organisation for Canadians during the war, and the Canadian Corps, once established in late 1915 fell under command of 2nd British Army.  An Army as an element consists of two or more (again, usually four until reorganisations late in the war reduced the number to three) Corps.  A full General commanded an Army and was only subordinate to the Commander in Chief, Field Marshall Haig, who at the top of the chain had five Armies under him, all in all more than a million men and officers at any one time in the field.


It's difficult to visualise.  I myself have never been in the field with a larger force than a battalion, and even that number of individuals left quite an impression.  It remains to my imagination to wonder how awe-inspiring higher and larger formations must have been, so many thousands all working towards one clear purpose.

Monday, 22 August 2011

A Fair Night Out

Keeping up with this site and the project it supports can be done by following our Facebook Page, and Twitter Feed.  Any suggestions, questions or comments, please forward them to me here: ifyebreakfaith@gmail.com.


A special thanks goes out this week to Pam Calvert, a High School History teacher in Oakville who has made available to me some great work her Grade 10 students produced with regards to those of the Oakville area who were killed in the war.  In future it may be possible to bring you here in this column some of these wonderfully researched and award winning essays.


It's a moonless night, a handful of figures moves slowly and quietly along the broken ground between the firing trenches.  About an hour past last light they had moved from the safety of their own lines into no-man's land through gaps in the tangle of wire, intent on getting as close as possible to the enemy lines.  They wear no helmets and have darkened their faces with char and mud.  A Very light hisses and pops overhead, casting flickering shadows across the marred landscape.  The group halts, and moves with deliberate slowness to ground as the flare descends.  A nervous machine gunner, some yards down the line lets off a long burst.  It stops, though, the man probably chastised by an NCO for wasting ammunition.  When all is quiet, the little band moves off again, getting quite near to their objective.  Coming upon the enemy wire, a similar gap to the one they passed through is found.  This could be dangerous.  Moving through here would mean not having to take time cutting, and the chance of being discovered by the noise, but lanes like these are usually overwatched with machine gun teams.  The patrol commander decides to work with speed and surprise as his advantage.  It's a cool night, the weather has been damp for most of the week, and the line is generally quiet.  With luck the enemy won't be too vigilant tonight.  The Lewis gun team is left outside the wire to cover a quick retreat while the other four men, armed only with pistols, bayonets and improvised cudgels sprint at a crouch through the obstacle.  As rehearsed, once beyond they spread abreast, one each going left and right to cover the traverses, the other two dropping right into the firing bay.  The pair of enemy soldiers in the bay are taken completely unaware.  To his credit, the first one moves for his rifle and is about to shout the alarm when he is clubbed and knocked senseless.  The second man, much younger, puts his hands up quickly, his fear understanding the language of violence.  He is quickly patted down and roughly manhandled out of the trench.  The patrol regroups and heads back to their line, their prize in tow; all in all a fair night out.


As I alluded to in my post Life on the Line, patrolling became a crucial phase of operations for both sides during the war.  There has always been the need to know what opposition is being faced.  Crucial information such as enemy resources, deployments, location of heavy weapons and strong points must be gained in order to give advantage to a successful attack.  Taking prisoners by force, in what are known as "snatch patrols" are a valuable tool.  Not only does it inspire an element of fear in the enemy, so much can be learned directly from a captured soldier than could be observed at a distance.  This remains true whether he talks or not.  If he is hungry or well fed, in a fresh uniform or covered in filth, if he struggles or gives himself up readily can all tell volumes about his morale, his supply system and just who exactly might be across the way.


The second nature of patrolling, besides gathering of information was to keep men active and aggressive.  Working in the defensive can quickly become routine and the sharp edge necessary to the offensive must be kept honed somehow.  The ability to strike the enemy at will and on one's own terms inspires confidence in the troops while at the same time demoralising the enemy. Active patrolling taught men how to act independent of larger commands, a crucial skill to inspire initiative and a good way to educate NCO's and junior officers who may have to assume control of a battle when attrition rates leave them senior.  Becoming familiar with the ground had great benefits in planning offensives and would help to raise the men's confidence during attacks.  Pent up aggressive spirit can be expended, the enemy softened up and let known that they are not as safe as might be thought, as well as reducing that same fear among friendly forces.


The Canadians seemed to gain the reputation of being aggressive and expert patrollers.  Our Forces carry this tradition on today by spending a lot of time in training in different types of patrols, from reconnaissance to ambush.  We always prefer to operate in weather and conditions that would work against the enemy, and are well practised at moving silently in darkness.  Some have suggested that our Great War reputation stems from the backwoods nature of the men that went overseas.  I'd debate that.  There were as fair a share of bank clerks and factory boys as there were lumberjacks and roughnecks.  Like many things related to war, this notoriety is not easily explained.  Moreover, this expands to how we as a nation are perceived.  Generally, Canadians are viewed as polite and peaceful, but our military experiences give us a reputation almost in duality of this.  I myself can't come to terms with a comprehension on why this is so, except that I believe that is is a grand thing to be recognised as a nation that will help, aid and promote well being throughout the world, but can still meet force with force when it chooses to. 

Monday, 15 August 2011

Mutual Support

Well, it's been another good week for me, with a lot of new followers and insightful feedback.  However, as I made mention in my last posting, I'm currently in the middle of moving to my new apartment, and just haven't had the time to put together my usual update and essay as has been the fashion these past couple of months.  I will return on Thursday with a discussion on the purpose and execution of patrolling during the Great War, and investigate why Canadians seemed to do so well in this particular aspect of warfare.

In lieu of an essay, I thought it might be a nice idea to assemble a collection of links to sights and feeds of some people with which I have a mutual following on Twitter, as many of them support the same cause that this space is dedicated to, and they have shown me the courtesy of offering their support of my work.

The Memory Project is dedicated to recording first person experiences of war, through video and verbal interviews with veterans.

For the Fallen is a British site that acts as a catalogue and photographic record of Commonwealth war graves.

Blackboard Battlefield is a blog written by Laura Fraser, focussed on the education of history.

Honour our Forces is a not for profit group which supports charitable veteran's organisations in the UK.

Active History is a site which networks between historians and various media.

Regimental Books specialises in print media for Australian military history.

NATO Veterans, a Canadian site supporting veterans of NATO operations.

Pen and Sword Books a UK based publisher of military history.

History of Canada Online is a web resource for history education.

Memory to History is an event presented by the University of Western Ontario; a conference to be held in November to discuss the move of the First World War from living memory to distant history.

Soldiers of the 38th is a dedicated work of Ken Reynolds to record the members of the 38th Battalion, CEF.

Imperial War Museum, the official site of the IWM, one of the finest military history museums I know of, and a favourite spot of mine when visiting London, England.

There are so many more, and if I have neglected to mention you here, I apologise.  Please point out my oversight, and I will be sure to rectify any omissions in a future post.  I will endeavour to continue to bring to my small but growing audience interesting and thought provoking insights as to what the Great War means to history and to Canada, while keeping in mind the dedicated purpose of recording the lives of those who were killed on Active Service.  See you all here on Thursday.

Enjoy your week,

Christopher J Harvie,
Project Director, If Ye Break Faith

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Necessity and Invention

Keeping up with this site and the project it supports can be done by following our Facebook Page, and Twitter Feed.  Any suggestions, questions or comments, please forward them to me here: ifyebreakfaith@gmail.com.



“If you wanted to make a lot of money, invent something that will enable these Europeans to cut each other’s throats with greater efficiency.”  This was the advice that the American inventor Hiram Maxim states he was given at the Paris Electrical Exhibition of 1881, just prior to the development of the recoil-operated automatic gun, or as it became known, the machine gun.  This was just one of many new, emergent or developed technological ideas that brought warfare and the world into the Twentieth Century.  With the political climate in Europe in the receding decades of the Nineteenth Century one of posturing and positioning, the situation was rife for military innovation and each major power sought the technological advantage that could give an edge to victory in the next war.  The complete history of human conflict has a long standing precedent of giving rise to new concepts, ideas and inventions.  The Great War was certainly no exception.  As it was begun at a time when the Industrial Revolution had really picked up steam (sorry, couldn’t resist) the events unfolding between 1914-1918 would change the world forever; some consequences negative but others quite positive.

This idea is what leads some historians, including myself, to adhere to a philosophy known as “The Late Twentieth Century.”  What this theory proposes is that the delineation between the 19th and 20th Centuries occurred not chronologically but rather because of the tremendous impact the cause and effect of the war, happened when the conflict was joined.  The deadlock which came about when the opposing armies met nearly equally matched in the autumn of 1914 was just the beginning of inspiration to figure out new ways to breach the line and re-institute open, manoeuvre warfare.  That the opening moves of the war happened as quickly as they did is directly tied to the armies’  reliance on well developed rail networks, some having been expressly built for the possibility of war, such as those required by the German’s “Schleiffen Plan.”

Advent of chemical warfare came as a direct by-product of industry.  Waste material from textile mills had been stockpiled with no practical use.  Despite the animosity that followed its primary offensive release, chlorine was the first effective method enacted as a call to overcome the defences that stalled the infantry on the advance.  An arms race of sorts ensued, with each side quickly developing first the defences against chemical attack, and more damaging gases to overcome the invented protections.  Bigger and more powerful combustion engines made heavy armed and armoured vehicles a possibility, giving birth to the tank and an entirely new branch of military operations, which would actually wait until the next war to come into its full maturity.  Developments in chemistry coupled with higher industrial output gave the competing powers greater numbers of more effective and longer ranged artillery shells and the guns with which to deliver such ordinance at a high rate of fire.  This changed the way in which battles were conducted and started the school of tactical thought known as the “Barrage Theory”, the genesis of the idea that battles and wars could be won by submission to superior firepower.  The development of flight, an entirely novel concept at the start of the war accelerated much quicker than perhaps would have occurred without it.  The advantage of having use of three dimensions to conduct operations spurred better engine designs and more stable airframes.  Ostensibly this was to enable planes to fly faster and higher and to carry more munitions.  The negative impact was that now distant civil targets could be reached, in an extension of the Barrage Theory, to demoralise one’s enemy and reduce the will and capacity to produce for war, again an idea that really took hold during World War II.  Conversely, the improvements in flight technology were responsible for the emergence of civil aviation at first with mail and eventually with passengers that made worldwide communication more quickly accessible. 

Unforeseen numbers and types of casualties required those in the medical services to work towards making treatment a quicker process and noted the institution of triage, the assessment of the wounded in order to prioritize their care.  The science behind prosthetics and reconstructive surgery experienced groundbreaking advances.  Conditions being what they were on the front, doctors progressed ideas of sanitation and disease prevention that would benefit civil practice after the war.  One of the most notable successes in post war medicine was the discovery and synthesis of insulin led by Dr. Frederick Banting who gained his clinical experience as a surgeon with the Canadian Medical Corps.

All of these innovations called industry to increase productivity and efficiency leading to improved output, better production methods and higher quality control.  These processes were translatable to industrial method in civil sectors and lent a great deal to the economic boom that occurred in the decade following the war.

While it is the purpose of this blog and the project it supports to investigate the human cost of war; a consideration of the loss on a personal level that occurs in armed conflict, it cannot be entirely separated from the advantages and developments which came to aid society as a result of the war.  For Canada, the benefits of a rapid advance in industry, technology and transportation clearly assisted in bringing a small, insular nation to one prepared to enter international affairs in business and politics in its own right.  This was a concerted effort that took into account not only our military contribution overseas but also those made in other public and private sectors at home.


Monday, 8 August 2011

Messages of War

The more I have been networking my posts with various other sources, the more I come to the realisation of the timely nature of this and other projects setting the First World War as their focus.  We are at a very crucial point in a race against the passage of time to preserve this aspect of our past in order that the lessons which might be taken from it don't suffer a permanent loss.  The idea, one which I hold very close, is to achieve as clear and objective viewpoint as possible.  Only in this way can the cause and effect of events in history be completely understood.  This past week was one of great success in brining awareness to my project, and hopefully this will act as a bridge between this work and others of its kind.  My Twitter feed, Facebook page and this blog itself have picked up in growth just in the past seven days that overshadows that of the past two months combined.  This serves a dual purpose of both getting my message across to a wider audience while at the same time providing proof to the marketability of the published work I hope to soon receive approval for.  I took some time to sketch out a few discussion topics to keep this space fresh with new ideas, but would still like to hear from my audience on what they feel to be relevant subjects I've yet to bring forward.  As always, feedback, suggestions and questions can be forwarded here.

It is difficult to imagine, in this day and age, how information about the war was imparted.  Case in point, once I hit the "Publish Post" button, my message becomes immediately available to anyone with an internet connection anywhere in the world, even though I can't flatter myself that I have such a wide audience (yet).  Ninety-five years ago, the quickest way news could travel was by telegraph and then only through official and highly censored news agencies.  It was a lot easier back then to control public consumption of media and thereby influence opinion on the war.  Modern sentiments call out for truth in representation of world affairs, of some right to full disclosure.  No such thing was available contemporary to the Great War, and keeping the public at a lack of full understanding was crucial in the maintenance of positivity towards the war aims.

As I mentioned briefly in my post on The Home Front propaganda posters were a highly visible means to evoke emotive responses, to extol the benefits of civil sacrifice towards military efforts or to either inspire or shame men into enlisting.  The public was very keen on war news and any such that would be available would be consumed ravenously whether it was a news article, a letter from a relative at the front (which were also heavily edited) or works of art. Many of these, like the paintings of Richard Jack, a Briton commissioned as an official Canadian War Artist, were more evocative than representational considering they were produced after the events depicted and without the artist having seen the battle area.  In all media, the one thing that could not be kept secret were the casualty lists which were published as they became available.  This, tempered against incomplete and rhetorically positive print led to a great confusion and the beginning of doubt of public opinion.

The advent of motion picture film gave a completely new dimension  to the way in which civilians would witness war.  Films like "The Battle of the Somme" allowed those at home to visit cinemas and see for themselves what those on the Western Front were experiencing.  Some front line footage was shot and remained part of the final edit, but the majority of the movie was compiled through shooting staged scenes  well behind the line.  Regardless, it was a propaganda success:

In 1916 the film was a media phenomenon, featuring the first documentary war footage....it remains the most viewed feature in British cinema history....It was the War Minister's (Lloyd George) belief that viewing the film would develop civilians' sympathy with the cause...would encourage men to enlist; and would engage women's support for the war.

Philpott, Bloody Victory pp 301-02

After the war, however, there was a dichotic switch as privately published novels, memoirs, histories and anthologies made their way into the mainstream.  From the same hunger to want to know what war is like to those not experienced of it, these publications became incredibly popular.  In the same way that propaganda during the war swayed opinion in favour of the war the prevailing anti-war sentiment of the post-war media has done a great deal to public conciousness in regards to World War One that remains with us to a large extent today.  It is important to acknowledge the source and influence of these opinions, however.  Many were written by those who had no professional attachment to the armed forces beyond their war experience, and were being related to a civil population that had no understanding of military affairs.  Graves, Owen and Sassoon, three of the most influential British writers in the post war era and as such responsible for the detractive sentiments that became widely believed all had incredibly negative war experiences to the extent that each one had received treatment at one point or another for neurological ailments, then known as "shell shock" and little understood, but their bias speaks from very dark places.  Even official histories, such as those written by Sir Basil Liddell Hart contain harsh opinions on the conduct of the war that were personally held and now have become inseparable from the ideology of the conflict.

Two of the most revered fictional accounts of the war "All Quiet on the Western Front" by Remarque, and "Generals Die in Bed" by Harrison tow the populist line of the futility of war.  Both are often cited as being thinly disguised works of autobiography, when in actual fact the authors were late entries into the war and each had no more than six weeks' experience at the front line before being evacuated due to wounds.  This belies the authenticity of their storytelling despite the praise they have received in years beyond the war as being an accurate depiction of the conflict.  It should be noted that this praise has mostly been given by those who did not have first hand experience of the war either.

It was of crucial importance during the war to keep control of the media and public opinion, otherwise the notion of "total war" may have collapsed.  Afterword, the public shift in anti-war thinking, propagated by persuasive writers and personalities so adjusted the view of armed conflicts as to lead many nations to an unpreparedness  for the next world war to follow.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Life on the Line

Today, the Fourth of August marks the 97th anniversary of Britain's declaration of war on Germany for violation of Belgian neutrality, and by Imperial proxy, Canada's entry into what would shortly become known as the Great War.  It's also, as coincidence would have it, my birthday.  Just thought I would mention that, as I'm expecting cake.  Seriously, though, I have received some great gifts, most notably in the way in which my project has grown and raised awareness of the cause it supports.  This blog has just passed two thousand site hits, and I get an enormous sense of accomplishment from that as well as the positive encouragement many of you have sent to me.  I shall show my gratitude in continuing to write posts that will hopefully engage interest and inspire thought on Canada and the First World War.Keeping up with this site and the project it supports can be done by following our Facebook Page, and Twitter Feed.  Any suggestions, questions or comments, please forward them to me here: ifyebreakfaith@gmail.com.  I'm still open to topic ideas or perhaps if you would like to guest blog, post suggestions requests or questions here.

When the war began in earnest, not many believed that it would last very long.  The German plan to capitulate France was based on a six week timetable, and the other major belligerents estimated, perhaps arrogantly, that this conflict would conclude by Christmas 1914.  The most notable voice that decried these assertions was Field Marshal the Lord Kitchener, First Soldier of the Empire and at the outset of the war a popular (if not politically astute) choice for the office of Secretary of State for War.  He was firm that the war would last no less than three years and that Britain would need to field an army of 1 000 000 men.  Never mind that this in itself turned out to be a gross underestimate, at the time he made the prediction, his Parliamentary colleagues thought he was well off base.  As I illustrated in my posts In the Trenches and In the Trenches II the grinding down of the war from one of open manoeuvre to that of mutual entrenchment played a part in the length of duration of the war.  What was it really like; I've often found myself wondering, to live in such conditions?

First, we need to separate ourselves from images of trenches that we've been subject to in popular films and television (more about media misrepresentation of the war in a future post) even many contemporary photographs were staged and as such not truly representative of actual living conditions on the front line.  Trenches were rarely as neatly constructed or well maintained as we would like to think.  There was a standard doctrine on how to construct defensive positions, but often suitability of the land; time and material available and enemy interference dictated how entrenchments were laid out.  In fact, many parts of the Flanders area in Belgium where the Canadian Expeditionary Force spent much of the war is so low lying and has a high water table that many works there were developed by "digging up" rather than digging in.  As deep trenches would be likely to flood, walls of wood, sandbags or other material were built upon natural land features for the men's protection.  Quite aside from neatly engineered textbook positions, trenches very often were a Boschian experience; collapsed in parts from artillery, choked with muddy effluence and the prospect of disinterred remains were quite common.  The struggle was to attempt to maintain the trenches as best they could be, and hygiene was a primary concern, but often that was an impossible task.  Traffic in and out of the line was also tightly controlled, but could become muddled and jammed during times of crisis-bringing up quick reserves to press forward an attack or counter enemy incursion; falling back from overwhelming offensives (fairly common during the "Kaiser's Battles of spring 1918).

Despite a well developed system of rotating units in and out of the front line, so that troops would never be at the front for extended periods of time and allowed to rest, when at the front, men were exposed to the weather, enemy shells and mortars as well as snipers and raiding parties at any given time regardless of there being major offensive actions in the area or not.  Certain areas could be quiet for extended periods, while others experienced constant enemy attention.  Exhaustion was common and a bedlam of noise a constant distraction.  Routine and discipline helped to keep men focussed and attentive.  Each day would begin with

stand to every morning at first light....that every soldier was either on the fire step or ready to get onto it...weapon loaded and ready to fire....(After standing down) would be improving the trench, pushing saps out towards enemy lines, digging sleeping bays into the bottom of the trench wall or in the command trench, or sleeping to order....Much time was spent keeping weapons clean and serviceable, and there was an inspection by officers and NCO's of every man's rifle at least once each day, usually after breakfast
Corrigan, "Mud, Blood and Poppycock" p 113

It is that part of routine which belies the Ross Rifle's malfunctioning due to dirty conditions as extolled in my post Made in Canada.

Ever present in all of this, through tedium of routine and daily attrition of four or five days in the firing line was the notion that at some point an advance would have to be made to root the enemy out of his works.  The idea of "live and let live" did exist from time to time along various points of the line, but that attitude could easily dull an army's required offensive spirit.  To counteract this, patrols would be mounted across no man's land, from groups as small as four men or so to extravagant raids of hundreds at a time.  Their purpose was to gather intelligence, capture prisoners, cut wire and reduce strong points, or to make a general nuisance to keep the opposition on edge.  Canadians seemed to flourish in this phase of operations, to the point that just prior to the attack on Vimy Ridge the Canadian Corps was ordered to stop patrolling altogether as the large parties were seen as being too aggressive and causing needless casualties.  This wasn't the case of over ambitious leaders sending men out without cause, as every man who went on patrol was a volunteer.

We can read in Will Bird or Donald Fraser's accounts as well as other good first person sources on what it was like to exist in a subterranean world, cluttered by detritus, a blank and burned landscape where death was a constant factor and disease close to hand.  We can never truly know, however, what a bleak land looked like to eyes seen in colour, the sounds of shells and scrape of spades, the smell that must have been beyond vile, the taste of tea tinged with petrol from being carried in interchangeable canisters, the feeling of damp feet and present dread that the next "one" might be yours.  It's a wonder, then, how men ( mind you from a time where everyday life was more a hardship than we can easily understand) endured these conditions.  But thank goodness they did. 

Monday, 1 August 2011

The Home Front


Keeping up with this site and the project it supports can be done by following our Facebook Page, and Twitter Feed.  Any suggestions, questions or comments, please forward them to me here: ifyebreakfaith@gmail.com.

World War One was not the first "Total War", even though that turn of phrase came to define it.  The term means that economy, industry and the civil population are all engaged in efforts to support the country's military actions.  This idea is as old as warfare itself, but perhaps it hadn't been seen on such a scale since before 1914. I don't even think it can even truly be defined as the first industrial war, as the American Civil War was won on the factory floor (the Union's industrial output far overshadowed that of the Confederacy) as much as it was on the battlefields of Antietam and Gettysburg.  It was, however due to the sheer size of the campaigns that required a level of participation on the home front such as never been seen.


For Canada, as with other countries, this required government control of resources in the form of rationing as well as collection of waste material from scrap iron to hog fat for recycling into military materiel.  As so many men were away on the Western Front, essential farming and factory work fell to those who had been previously viewed as unsuited for this type of employment.  In small ways this meant children volunteering for the harvest, but the large benefit was that women for the first time began to enter the workforce as never before.  Even though it was largely understood that women were working for the purpose of the war and because men were absent, the belief was that the status quo would return at the end of the war, this gave rise to the movement that would first secure the vote and eventually lead to the equity of women under the law.


Propaganda directed at civil society expounded the patriotic nature of the duty of civilians to support their country's effort.  This drive took on a monetary nature in  the form of "Victory Bonds", private savings lent to the government for the prosecution of the war, such as the poster I use as my masthead advocates.  These savings did help to provide for the war effort, but didn't prevent Canada from incurring its first national debt.  One way of thinking about it is that we are still paying for the First World War.


Canada's ability to produce resources for the war, from munitions to food and fodder, even a large market for horses, coupled with the supremacy of the Royal Navy to secure lanes of transit helped our young county to come into its own as much as our reputation on the battlefield. 


Of course, with all these positive outcomes, there were detractions.  Opportunists and profiteers abounded, some in very secure positions in or strong links to the government.  War, as is often quipped, is good for business so it is not difficult to see how corruption and graft would occur, particularly as the preceding decades were witness to a terrible recession.  Whenever goods are rationed, black markets and hoarders will take advantage, and industrialists will grow rich off of the abundance of secure contracts to produce for the war.  


Perhaps the most detrimental and divisive aspect of the Home Front was the issue of conscription.  The struggle to fulfil the commitment of manpower on the front in regards to losses with a lack of appropriate numbers of volunteers inspired the government to pass legislation for conscription in 1917.  This led to protests and riots enacted by groups opposed to involuntary enlistment, especially among the Canadiens who felt marginalised by not having equity of French language regiments, and a deep disdain for participation in what was felt as a British war.  The agitators in this cause mainly had political objectives of their own, not the least being the issue of language laws to protect Francophone interests and even the genesis of the separatist movement, and were using the conscription issue to rally supporters to these objectives.


All of these aspects showed us as a country what we could accomplish when we worked together to a common goal while at the same time that aspects of this cooperation could serve to keep us divided.  It gave us the framework for moving forward during a time of crisis that would also see us through the Second World War a generation later.