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, 19 April 2012

Known Unto God


Thanks to all for standing by.  Once again, I'd like to offer sincere apologies for there not being an update on Monday.  It is especially unfortunate that this is due to my internet provider, Wind Mobile and their appalling customer service.  I've registered a complaint against them with the Better Business Bureau and advise my Canadian readers to avoid giving them their custom.  If I could afford any other service, I would have voted with my feet long ago, but necessity is what it is.

I've been enthusiastically working on the article I've been invited to submit to a Canadian periodical.  I'll give more details soon, but don't wish to speak out of turn until I've got the go-ahead from the publisher.  Let's just say this:  It is a tremendous opportunity for me, and more importantly for this body of work.

You can keep up to date with developments through out presence on Facebook and Twitter.  As always, comments questions and suggestions can be forwarded here.

Via one of our followers is a link to the Australian War Graves Photographic Archive, an effort to preserve through images the resting places of Australia's war dead.  This brought me to consider the roots of "If Ye Break Faith" and its primary purpose to perpetuate the memory of the fallen.

There is a melancholy sentimentality to those killed in the First World War, perhaps due to the indecisive nature of the conflict, but owing mostly to the contemporary shock at the unprecedented loss of life.  It is estimated that the war is responsible for a figure of 15 million dead, both civil and military.  The most difficult aspect of these deaths were the large numbers listed as missing and whom still today have no known grave.  There are few things more evocative in the history of human conflict than the three words "Known Unto God." 

It is a practical necessity as well as human sentiment to inter the dead as soon as possible.  Quite frequently fatal casualties were given a quick burial, then later re-buried when proper cemeteries were established.  For convenience, many of these were built near casualty posts though not altogether too near. There were considerations for both hygiene and the psychological health of wounded expected to recover that the dead be kept separate as situationally possible.

But it is the very nature of the war which is responsible for the lack of identification for so many lives lost.  The dangers of crossing No Man's Land made it difficult or impossible at times to retrieve the dead.  There were local cease-fires arranged from time to time to bring the fallen in, such as that between the ANZACs and Turkish forces at Gallipoli on 24May 1915.   The other part to this question is quite simply that the prime cause of casualties in the war was artillery fire.  Shrapnel and high explosive shells often do not leave intact corpses; buried men under collapsed trenches or bunkers and even more gruesomely would disinter men already buried, confusing the identification process further.

What the large numbers of missing and unidentified did was add to the sense of the war lacking closure, and had a profound effect on those who had no answer as to what happened to a loved one lost.

After the war, the former belligerents made tremendous efforts to establish permanent resting places for those killed, and commissioned monuments to the missing such as those found at Theipval, Vimy and the Menin Gate.  Today, organisations such as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission continue to maintain these monuments and markers, as well as undertake efforts to identify remains. 

Many countries have tombs dedicated to unknown soldiers, the unidentified remains symbolically representing all from that country who’s bodies have not been recovered or identified.  For Canada alone, between the First and Second World Wars and the Korean Conflict there is an estimated 28 000 service personnel Killed in Action who have no known grave.

Last year, that number was reduced by one upon the positive identification of Pte Alexander Johnston, a handyman who lived in Hamilton, Ontario killed while serving with the 78th Battalion (Winnipeg Grenadiers) 12 Brigade, 4th Canadian Division on the 29th of September 1918.

The 78th Battalion had been on the Western Front since August of 1916, Johnston joined them early in September 1918 after his conscription under the Military Service Act in January of the same year.  Less than a month later, after heavy and near continuous fighting in the campaign known as “The Hundred Days”, Johnston would be dead; one of 30 000 casualties in the first phase of operations.  “The Hundred Days” offensive would carry on until the Armistice in November and Johnston would remain missing for a further ninety years.

On the 26th of September 1st and 4th Canadian Divisions moved into starting positions on the western bank of the Canal du Nord, an incomplete artificial waterway running roughly north-south at appoint east of the small town of Barille.  Here the canal was not overlooked by the enemy as it was further north; the crossing, down one high embankment to the other on the eastern side was dry as well.  The only detraction was the crossing point was far too narrow to allow a general advance.  At zero-hour, 0520 27 September, Canadian artillery began shelling German lines.  Shortly after: “four battalions of the 1st and 10th Brigades dashed across the dry canal bed.  Light opposition on the east bank was rapidly overcome, and within an hour a 2000-metre-deep bridgehead was firmly held.” (Marteinson, 200)  Now, follow up units could pass through and continue towards the objective city of Cambrai. 

The 4th Division was held up by dedicated enemy resistance from the direction of Bourlon Wood.  Flanking units from the XVII Corps of 3d British Army had not kept pace, requiring 11 and 12 Brigades to clear the heights surrounding the wood, which they accomplished by 2000hrs.  (Marteinson, ibid)

The next day, the 78th Battalion had consolidated along the Douai-Cambrai Road in preparation for the advance on Cambrai itself.  The Battalion War Diary cites “stiff resistance...and heavy shelling” throughout the day.  It was during this shelling that Pte Johnston was killed.  Once Johnston was listed as killed, his next-of-kin would have been informed, but with the disturbing news that his body could not be found.  It wouldn't be until an excavation for a construction project in 2008 disinterred his remains that his journey into recognition would begin.  The lands of the Western Front still surrender vast amounts of physical history; from the hundreds of tonnes of unexploded munitions collected each year known as the “Iron Harvest”, to geographical features such as bunkers and trench lines, an unthinkable amount of human remains and countless other artifacts.

Even when a body is found, identification is not a guarantee.  In Johnston’s case, badges known as “collar dogs” helped to place the body with a particular unit.  There is then a process of elimination to narrow the field to as few probable candidates as possible.  DNA samples between the body and potential living relatives are compared to give a positive ID.  This process, pending the availability of information, takes years to complete; undertaken by dedicated researchers and volunteers.  Pte Johnston wasn’t identified until last year, and was buried with full military honours at Cantimpre Canadian Cemetery in Sailly lez Cambrai, France on 26th October 2011 with a handful of his surviving relatives in attendance.

The difficulty is that Pte Johnston is a rare case.  Despite the amount of remains and artefacts found each year, the odds of identifying a body from hundreds of thousands of candidates after nearly a hundred years are long indeed; and that is pending having enough evidence on hand to begin the process.

For one family this gives a piece of closure in a war that has a notorious reputation for lacking closure.  It is only through the continued efforts put forward by various museums, universities, departments of defence and civil projects from many different nations that give us the opportunity to more completely understand our past. 

The ambiguity of the Great War persists through the vast amount of missing information which will never be part of a complete picture of events.  If, though, as a society we choose to push beyond our past without as thorough an understanding we can build, not only do we stand to lose the lessons history has to teach us, we also abandon any hope that more lost soldiers will get to go home.











Sources
Marteinson, John “We Stand on Guard” Ovale Publications, 1992

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Rank and File


I really must get cracking; I’ve just received a tentative acceptance for an article pitch.  I don’t have a deadline yet, so I’ve got a head start to put my best effort in.  I’m quite chuffed by this, and it came at a great time for me. 

My last couple of posts, the first after a short absence were well taken in, and once again I extend thanks to you all, and a certain appreciation for the fantastic direct feedback some of you were very kind to express.  For those of you just joining us, either upon a recommendation or through a random Google search, welcome.  I plan in short order to begin developing posts based upon frequent search terms which drive people to this site.  At the same time, feel free to let me know if there is a particular topic you wish to address in this forum. You can always get the latest updates and links from our Twitter feed, Facebook page, or direct inquiries can be posted here.

As I see this space as a forum, I need to express my disappointment with History Television for what I believe to be poor programming decisions for the prime time line-up on the 9th.  They had a great opportunity to present available shows which would have reflected such an important day to Canadian history, but for some reason failed to do so.   I’ve written a letter to them in this regard, so I shall say no more about it.

One of the most difficult stumbling blocks I come across in relating military history is a general lack of understanding the leadership structure of armies.  This is to do with the nature of the structure being two-tiered.  Historically, armies were led by sovereigns, with subordinate commands given to landed and titled members of the aristocracy.  Technically, only a sovereign can give orders to their forces.  Not being able to be at all places at once, they would allow their subordinates to act with sovereign authority in their place.  This consent was in the form of a commission.  As a means of leadership this worked well; one holding a commission was acting as the head of state.  Their word and orders were therefore law.  This tradition carries on today, with the term “Queen’s Commission” being used still to indicate from where an officer derives their authority.

The other tier, of non-commissioned officers, is quite different from that of the former.  A need for capable men to administer and discipline those in the ranks led to allowing those found able being given subordinate authority, granted in this case from the officers themselves.  This would allow these leaders to act with the right amount of authority.  Centuries earlier, when private soldiers were not much more than mobile weapons platforms, NCO’s were only responsible in assuring the line didn’t break, and for the direct care and feeding of the ranks. 

                “It was up to the sergeants to enforce discipline- usually by toe-to-toe combat if it came to that, and it often did.  Sergeants were the point of collision between the officer caste and the enlisted men....It was also up to the sergeants to be a father to their men, to see that they were well fed and well lead and well buried if they were killed.”  (Stroud 58)

Typically, NCO’s were drawn from soldiers with a certain length of service, and thus a relative level of experience and job knowledge.  They had enough authority placed upon them to carry out administrative tasks, but were rarely given autonomy to direct troops in the field.

The First World War was again an agent of change; the purpose and function of NCO’s underwent an immense transformation.  One of the main proponents of this change was the unprecedented size that armies reached to meet the needs to pursue war aims for all sides.  For the French, Germans and Russians this was made easy through long standing policies of universal conscription.  There were for them a greater pool of men with some military experience to pull from and as such had the structure to quickly place NCO’s and officers in appropriate positions. 

Britain, with its tiny all-volunteer force found the going more difficult.  As new regiments were being built from scratch to create the New Armies, serving NCO’s and those brought back from retirement were disbursed as could be, along with re-activated officers to these new formations.  There were, though, not enough to go around so more frequent was the practice of making leaders out of those who had experience with authority in civil life.  A popular if not perhaps generic illustration would be a Pal’s Battalion raised from a factory district, where the owner would be commissioned as Colonel, his managers to subordinate offices, with the workers becoming the private soldiers and the first line of authority coming from giving shop supervisors a few chevrons.

However, the translation of civil leadership to that required by the military is not direct, and a lack of appropriate leadership contributed to the restriction on how well these units were deployed and functioned under fire.  This had terrible repercussions on the eve of the first Battle of the Somme:

                “The men of these (New Army) battalions had, of course, been in the army for at least a year, many of them since August 1914, but it is one thing to train private soldiers and quite another to furnish the officers and NCO’s to lead them....To produce those officers and NCO’s takes far longer.  With only two or three officers and perhaps half a dozen NCO’s with any experience in a battalion of 1,000 men, only the simplest of tactics could be employed.”  (Corrigan 259)

The high attrition rate of officers was directly responsible for elevating the level of authority NCO’s had prior to 1916.  The reform of the base of tactical structure undertaken in early 1917 from the company to the platoon level relied primarily on giving NCO’s more autonomy than before.  More and more it was realised that corporals, sergeants and warrant officers when properly trained and motivated could respond well to tactical circumstance and make sound decisions in the moment, when time to consult with an officer would have been wasteful; providing there was an officer left alive and effective.  Building the confidence of rankers to take initiative worked against the inevitability of leadership attrition and could help stop an attack from stalling for lack of officers to lead and direct.

The Germans went a step further and developed a platoon structure lead by a senior NCO as opposed to a junior officer, allowing their forces to continue to function effectively despite a lack of a full complement of officers. (Holmes 536-7)  The evolution of raising NCO’s to a level of true leadership from that of a mere whip began in the war.  As well as schools and courses to develop officers for staff positions created by raising a large army, similar courses were introduced to adequately prepare junior ranks to take on the newly important role NCO’s had begun to assume.  Non commissioned officers are the line of memory to lessons inherent to combat and the military in general, and remain the backbone of structure of armies. (Stroud 58)

                “Senior NCO’s are considered the primary link...in a military organisation.  Their advice and guidance is particularly important to junior officers, who begin their careers in a position of authority but generally lack practical experience” (Wikipedia.org)

I come from a long line of NCO’s.  One of my great-grandfathers (more about him here) spent a great deal of time with the colours, serving for the duration of both the South African War and the First World War.  My paternal grandfather was a Chief Petty Officer with the Royal Navy; my mum’s dad was a Corporal in the RAF.  My father insisted that should I join the army, I should do so with the intention of receiving my commission.  His argument was imbedded in his perceived ideas of class.  I did at one point have the ambition to follow through on this goal, but lacked the educational criteria required of officers in the Canadian Forces.  As such, I remained an NCO during my five years.  While my service may have left a lot to be desired, I take great pride in identifying myself among the finest men and women our armed forces have; a cadre of non commissioned officers who carry on the traditions of our military heritage and inspire those they lead to follow them in the successful execution of mission.


Sources:
    Corrigan, Gordon   “Mud Blood and Poppycock”     Cassell Military Paperbacks 2003
    Holmes, Richard     “Tommy”                                            Harper Perennial 2005
    Stroud, Carsten       “Iron Bravo”                                       Bantam Books 1996
    Wikipedia.org          “Non Commissioned Officers”

Monday, 9 April 2012

The Six P's

There's a lot of buzz afoot with regards to the 95th anniversary of the Battle of Arras.  One event I'm very excited about is Oxford University's World War One Centenary Project examination of the battle, which will include real time tweets of the battle's events, with contribution and participation from the public greatly encouraged.  Find this Twitter feed here; the tweets will begin as the battle did on the 9th of April.

With these events in mind, I thought I should put a piece together about the importance of this battle and the lead up to it.  The merits and failures on both sides of the fighting are worthy of examination for what they teach us about the conduct of the war from that point forward, and revel truisms of warfare in general.

The Battle of Arras was fought in an effort to fix German forces locally, preventing them from shifting troops further south to meet the French in the upcoming "Nivelle Offensive."  The difficulty was that the Germans had recently made strategic adjustments of which the most game changing was a tactical withdrawal.  This is a risky undertaking in general, with the great possibility of failure.  If the enemy becomes aware of rearward movement, a hasty offensive could catch troops in the open between positions and annihilate them.

It is a question of morale, as well.  Turning back and ceding ground hard fought for could sponsor a defeatist attitude.  These questions were presented to General Robert E Lee at a crucial point during the opening phases of the Battle of Gettysburg.  The thought of retreating from a field on which he had not been defeated, even if it were to a highly defensible position would have so damaged the fighting spirit of the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee didn't seriously consider the option valid and committed to attacking where he was. (McPherson, 655)

The hindsight of history can allow us to speculate upon decisions made in retrospect.  Lee's failure at Gettysburg, and conversely Ludendorff's successful move to the Hindenburg Line as well as the initial Allied successes during the first five days of Arras can all be summed up by tautology.  Perhaps the one quickest to mind would be along the lines of "fail to plan...", though I'm more partial to one I learned in the army known as "the Six P's."  Spelled out it's "Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance", and it is a lack of this which dictated both Allied and Central Powers' policy towards the Western Front in 1917, and its inclusion on both ends would seethe tactics and approach which would entirely change the way the war would be fought.

General Erich Ludendorff
In the opening months of 1917 it became more evident to German High command that their army, and by extension their entire war effort, was in crisis.  Continuing to fight on two fronts and costly campaigns in 1916 had stretched manpower to the limit.  The effective blockade of Germany's sea routes by the Royal Navy continued to deny essential materiel and shortages for both the military and the home front were beginning to become acute.

On the Western Front, German forces of roughly two and a half million men organised into 134 divisions faced combined Allied forces 175 divisions strong, numbering nearly four million men.(Meyer 493)  Perhaps the only thing Germany had in 1917 in any abundance was land captured from France and Belgium in 1914 and held since.  The luxury was that a properly executed withdrawal would still see them on foreign soil, causing those who wished to liberate it to throw themselves against their defensive works.

This is where the six P's comes in.  Ludendorff had long known the Western Front as it was in 1916 would soon become untenable.  The army hadn't the strength to mount any offensives in the upcoming year, necessitating a doctrine of strong defence.  When he and Hindenburg took joint command of German forces, replacing von Falkenhayn, Ludendorff took the opportunity to initiate his grand scheme.  Not only would his men move back to well  prepared positions, the move itself would shorten the line his diminished resources would hold.  The line shortening also allowed him to reorganize the compliment of his divisions and change the doctrine of not only how these new lines would be held, but also how these lines would look.

"The creation of the new line would also enable Ludendorff to install, from scratch, the kind of physical infrastructure needed for a new kind of defence.  Under his new approach, there was no longer to be a German front line in the traditional sense.  The now-customary continuous line was replaced by small, mutually supportive steel-and-concrete camouflaged blockhouses laid out in a checkerboard pattern and manned by machine gun crews."(Meyer 493-4)  These constructions were fronted by vast ditches as a countermeasure for tanks and several tens of yards of wire obstacles.  These structures would absorb the initial brunt of an attack, but were to be abandoned prior to being overwhelmed.  The line to be moved back to under pressure was a true trench line, but lightly held.  The majority of reserves were units particularly trained for rapid counterattacks.  Before the enemy could consolidate any gains, these "storm troops" would push them out when the attacking forces were at their most vulnerable.  Ludendorff had astutely observed the overall situation and put forward a suitable strategy which remained flexible to contingency.  His new method of holding lines under attack became known as "elastic defence."

General Edmund Allenby
Due to these shifts and a grand French offensive planned for April, Haig had his overall situation dictated to him.  Ostensibly under French command, the British commander was relegated to mounting diversionary attacks to keep pressure off of the French flank.  With a mind to mount his own offensive later in the year on his preferred ground of Flanders, he assigned the supporting role in the "Nivelle Offensive" only to Third Army, under General Allenby with attachments (Canadian Corps) from First Army at the outset.

The British army was at a very crucial point itself.  1916 had been a costly year for them.  While there were greater reserves of  available manpower due to the vastness of empire, the logistics of putting them into the filed were complex as a result of distance.  This is also providing that troops would be sent to meet the main enemy on the major front and not disbursed to side campaigns in Italy, Africa, the Balkans or Palestine.  What men they did have on the Western Front had been through their baptism of fire and were implementing lessons learned; new soldiers just joining had the benefit of learning from those who had been on the front and training cycles were beginning to reflect the combat style two and a half years of trench warfare had created.

The German lines beyond the village of Arras were a tempting target.  The right hand edge of the Hindenburg Line abutted the river Scarpe two miles east of the town.  If the unchanged German lines north of the Scarpe could be broken, it might have been possible to turn the flank of the new German defensive line.

This would be the main British effort, undertaken by VII, VI, and XVII Corps of Third Army.  First Army's responsibility would be to commit a corps to attacking and holding Vimy Ridge.  This feature was so dominating that should the Germans retain control of it, they would be able to bring fire down over the Arras battlefield and possibly stall Third Army's attack.  Both Allenby and General Byng commanding the Canadian Corps had luxury of time to prepare their forces for the initial assault.  In this, their prior planning forestalled poor performance.

The offensives of 1916 were the benchmarks of what not to do.  It was now proven that high explosive artillery shells and not shrapnel were most effective against wire and hardpoints, and now that the munitions shortages were being made good, the commanding generals would have adequate support of big guns.  The gunners themselves had improved their trade with both new tools and techniques.  Sound ranging and flash spotting counter-battery fire was estimated to reduce German artillery assets by 80%.  Not the least factor in this was a new type of shell:  "the new British gas shell was most effective in paralysing the defending artillery, for it not only compelled the gun crews to keep on their gas masks for hours at a time, but by killing off the horses like flies prevented ammunition being brought up."(Liddell Hart 319)  The fire plan preceding the attack and for when the assault began were complex mixes of varying types of barrage, accounting for terrain and opposition, completely geared towards supporting and protecting the infantry.

The method by which the attack would be made involved restructuring how the infantry operated.  The base of tactical structure devolved from the company to the platoon level.  Organised into four specialized sections of Lewis gun, rifle grenade, riflemen and bombers (grenadiers) this new platoon type was capable
of bringing mobile firepower to the enemy.  Detachment from the next level of command enabled these units to operate with more independence and initiative; this structure would prove more than capable of isolating and reducing the fearsome bunkers of the Hindenburg line.

There was also time to school the troops in tactics which had been abandoned for convenience.   No longer would straight lines of men move forward en masse; platoons were taught to use "fire and movement" to pin the enemy down with indirect fire (via the Lewis gun and rifle-grenadiers) and encroach their lines an a leap-frog fashion.

Nothing had been left to chance save one glaring error.  Allenby had chosen the village of Arras itself as an assembly area for reserves.  The routes in and out of the area were narrow.  Congestion in Arras and the bottleneck at the forward edge prevented timely and effective deployment of supplemental forces to carry the attack.

The great care in planning the Arras battle was responsible for limited but unprecedented gains in the opening phases.  Not having a practical contingency for follow up actions reduced the situation to stalemate within a month of battle.

What both the German and Allied doctrinal changes of 1917 proved was that the commanders had taken account of failure, discarded what didn't work and endeavoured to improve on what did.  By no means was this evolution complete by the spring of 1917, but the way in which the war was to be fought (and won) saw its genesis in a little known attack historically overshadowed by the larger French effort, its failure and the fallout which nearly ended France's contribution.

"If Ye Break Faith" is an initiative to inspire the study of our collective history of the Great War.  We can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.  Any comments or questions, requests or suggestions can be posted here.

Sources:

Holmes, Richard, "The Western Front" BBC Books, 1999

Liddell Hart, Basil, "History of the First World War" Pan Books, 1979

McPherson, James "Battle Cry of Freedom"  Oxford University Press 1988

Meyer, G.J., "A World Undone"  Delta Books 2007


Friday, 6 April 2012

Commemorating Vimy

Hello, all.  I last left off in February with my announcement of gearing up If Ye Break Faith to become a niche publisher in order to best pursue our project goals. I don't like that there's been more than a month between updates; and you'll forgive me if real life gets in the way.  I wish I had the ability to focus on driving this work to where it needs to go, but I've been concerning myself with getting a paying job (another effort that I've had little recent success with) and keeping myself afloat with very tenuous and inadequate finances.  I've been despondent lately as I'm rather thin on the ground resource-wise and I feel as though I'm fighting a losing battle at times.

There is something which fills me with hope and keeps the desire to continue this work, which is despite the lack of new content, IYBF still attracts new followers.  Our audience has grown in the absence of me doing anything.  What this indicates to me is that people are finding this space and following it's development based on perceived merit.  First, thank you all for that unspoken compliment.  Second, I feel obligated (in a good way; not in a "my mum is making me do it" fashion) to provide something new, fresh and intriguing particularly for my new followers as well as those of you who have been here for a while.

IYBF is almost a year old, and in that time we've come from nothing to an audience in the hundreds with more than 10 000 unique hits.  Small potatoes as far as internet demographics are concerned, but I'm immensely proud of what we've accomplished in getting to this point.  Moving beyond will be difficult as the direction the project needs to go is really beyond my present ability in relation to both skill and resources.  Again, I'd like to solicit for any advice or expertise that could be given to push us in the right direction.

 For those of you already following IYBF on Twitter and Facebook you may have already seen the dual announcement of  Mirvish Productions and stage director John Karastamatis presenting a short film festival and a commemorative ceremony to mark the anniversary of Vimy Ridge.  I encourage all of you in the Toronto area to participate in these events.

I'd also like to say something about our audience outside the Toronto area.  I get absolutely giddy when my site analytics tell me someone from a very distant country has read my work.  I love the dynamic of having an international following.  What pleases me most is that a disproportionate number are young people from Belgium.  That those who inherit the land over which so much was contested and proven about humanity still feel a strong connection to those events gives me hope of success with my desire to perpetuate the memory of our collective past.


One friend of mine deserves special mention.  An artist and tour guide in Ypres, Soren Hawkes produces wonderful artistic tributes to those lost to war.  The portrait displayed here is titled "Canadians Never Budge", a tribute to the 15th Battalion's stand at Second Ypres, 1915.  His other work can be viewed and ordered at his site passchendaeleprints.com.  I really enjoy these prints, and the style is reminiscent of the work produced by A Y Jackson when the Group of Seven painter was employed as a war artist.  I would strongly recommend checking out Soren's works.

Monday, April 9th will mark the 95th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.  By a remarkable coincidence it not only falls on a Monday,but an Easter Monday which it was in 1917 when the Canadian Corps went into battle complete at four divisions for the first time.  The ridge itself was a dominant geographic feature, and had been in German possession since the lines settled into the Western Front by the end of 1914.  Formidable on its own, the Germans ingeniously constructed up to four defensive lines along the crest and reverse slope with other works and fortifications mutually supportive and designed to deny the vital industrial area marked by the town of Lens.  As a dominating and threatening feature, the reduction of German presence at Vimy was a requisite to any attack made along the Ypres area of the front.  Previous attempts made by the French and British had been repulsed, with terrible loss.  With Haig planning an offensive at Arras for spring 1917, the need to take and hold this position was crucial.  Not only would it help open the way towards the capture of Lens; but the desire to hold the feature would fix German forces to the area, disallowing them to be shifted to meet the main British effort further south.

Great care was taken in the planning, preparation and training of the Canadian Corps to ensure a successful attack.  By 1917, the Corps was a decent mix of veteran troops and fresh replacements.  General Byng, commanding the Corps, took the opportunity time allowed to bring these men to the standard of British Regulars, concentrating on marksmanship and field manoeuvring.  For the first time since the BEF was shattered at Mons in 1914, troops would be capable of performing complex moves such as the leap-frogging "fire and movement" tactics which had gone by the wayside early in the war because the citizen soldiers of the New Armies hadn't time to learn it.

To this was added the new science of flash and sound spotting, a bit of trigonometric alchemy which allowed counter-battery artillery to find and eliminate enemy guns.  To protect the infantry, tunnels were pushed into no-man's land, reducing the distance from jump off to objective.

That Canada does not have as deeply ingrained a class structure as did Britain, the inclusion in the planning of all involved was made easier.  All officers and men were required to study in detail a huge sand table of the ridge and its defences.  For the first time, junior NCO's were issued maps and given specific orders and objectives.  This greatly increased confidence and allowed small units to operate with more initiative and independence than heretofore.  Chains of command were well established with subordinates made aware of their superior's goals in order to counteract the confusion which takes places when leadership suffers attrition.

On the morning of April 9th, 1917, in the face of driving sleet, the four divisions of the Canadian Corps set our from their assault positions.  The preparatory bombardment had been successful in reducing German guns and blowing gaps in the wire.  The following fire plan to coordinate with the infantry was a complex mix of lifting and shielding barrages that in no small way enabled the foot soldiers to carry the ridge.

In the following five days of battle, not only did the Corps take and hold its objective, but had also "made an unprecedented advance on a front of 6 kilometres, capturing   more than 4000 prisoners and 54 guns at a cost of over 11 000 casualties" (Marteinson, John "We Stand On Guard" pg 162)

Vimy, and the battle for its ridge in 1917 has become a touchstone moment in Canadian history, and many view it as the moment in which we began to form a true national identity segregated from the previous notion of being only a component part of a larger empire.  I've contested this notion previously in a very unpopular post, Taking the Ridge.  That essay proved unpopular because I chose to call into question this perception of achieving our national identity through battle as well as looking at the battle objectively alongside the events concurrent to it can seem as though we as Canadians ascribe too much precedence to the small part Vimy played in the Battle of Arras.

Nevertheless, it does not discount that achievement itself, nor lessen the reputation the Canadian Corps would build from that time forward as an elite fighting force.  Historian G J Meyer in his book on the First World War, "A World Undone" sums up the criteria of this reputation, stating that by 1918 (under Currie's command) the Canadian Corps had:

a record that is nothing less than astonishing in the context of the Great War.  They never once failed to capture an objective, never driven out of a position they had an opportunity to consolidate and never lost a gun. (Meyer pg 691)


The significance of the war on Canadian history is undeniable.  Through our country's participation in events from 1914to 1919 both at the front and at home, our Dominion proved itself as modern, progressive and capable as any other nation.  That our military accomplishments gained us a recognition on the international level beyond the obscurity we were subject to beforehand is unquestioned.

Expanding this line of thought beyond Canadian identity brings us to consider how the war effected the whole world.  I touched on this idea in the essay A Wide Reaching and Lasting Influence where I purported that the Great War is the single most influential event in modern history. I believe that all events prior to the war created the environment for it to happen, and all else that followed, including the present is a direct or indirect consequence of the events of those four years.

It is terrible, then, that the common perception of the First World War as a needless and inconclusive slaughter greatly diminishes any significance the war had to humanity.  If looked at in any cause and effect detail, the First World War's impact on history is relegated to it's influence on the start of the Second.  By and large, the Great War is seen as a destructive effort holding little redemptive qualities.  The upcoming hundredth anniversary of the war has spiked interest in it's study, but my fear is that after 2014 this part of our journey will recede into the mists of time, scarcely thought of, rarely studied and incompletely taught.

If we want to continue to diminutise  the outcome of the war's history, all we need do is nothing.  By doing that, though, we forfeit the inherent lessons and devalue the sacrifices all nations made for better or worse.

The other option is more difficult, because it involves changing minds hard enough to do on the face of it, especially difficult when it involves things which happened several generations ago.  I began If Ye Break Faith as an effort to ensure that those of the CEF who gave their lives in the war wouldn't retreat into anonymity; but I can't help to realize that notion is only a small part of the work to be done.  We need now, more than ever, to study, educate and preserve the history of the Great War because of what we can learn of ourselves through it, and IYBF wants to be a driving force behind this effort.  If only I knew how exactly to best accomplish this desire.  Thoughts, suggestions, comments and questions can be posted here.