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, 18 August 2014

The Crucible

It has been a rather busy time, and enjoyably so.  Already I have had a couple of articles picked up and published by The Centenary News, with several other prospective pieces being green-lit.  It is a wonderful addition to my portfolio.  My recent posts here are under consideration by Active History, and I shall be just as pleased if they decide to move forward with my submissions.  I am continuing in my self-assigned role as an educator of Canada and the First World War, mainly because, as mentioned last week the appalling lack of understanding of this event by ordinary Canadians.  The Vimy Foundation contacted me with results of another survey revealing that many Canadians have no frame of knowledge of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.  Find the survey here.  In this week's post I take a look at how the notion of a separate national identity really began to take form once the First Contingent went into the line on the Western Front.  Following, this series will conclude with the evolution of that identity through the rest of the war, how total war shaped what it meant to be Canadian from the perspective of the home front, and how these concepts merged after the war setting the stage for our further development as a nation. Comments, questions or suggestions are always welcome, and you can follow along with Twitter and Facebook

By February, 1915, the previous seven months of war had exhausted the combatants and settled the Western Front into the shape that would dictate how the remainder of the conflict would be fought.  With the war of manoeuvre essentially over, either side had to figure out how best to breach the line and bring the war to a close.  It was into this burgeoning siege that the 1st Canadian Division arrived.  Deemed fully trained by their task-masters at Salisbury Plain, the men were in high spirits, but aggression in training might amount to little more than bravado; only actual combat could be the sole judge of fighting quality.  Confusion and turmoil at Valcartier followed by months of soggy misery on Salisbury Plain had done more to prepare the 1st Division for combat than could have been guessed.  Since their inception, everyone from private to general learned their new trade and stumbled along the way.  This inured the Canadians to operating in the chaos which was bound to occur in battle.

In order not to overwhelm new arrivals, it was common practice to assign recent arrivals to a quiet sector of the line so as to slowly acclimatise them to the war.  In the first two months the 1st Division would practice trench operations under the watchful eyes of veteran British units.  By April, they were prepared to conduct their own operations.  It was in this fashion that they went into the line just beyond the Belgian town of Ypres, alongside the 45th Algerian Division, a French Colonial unit of questionable quality.  The Germans were well aware of the learning policy and where along the front these untested units were.  A vicious attack which would involve poison gas was planned in the Ypres sector mainly because the shock of this new weapon and the following assault would be made against new arrivals.  The 2nd Battle of Ypres was as tough a test of mettle for green troops as could be imagined.

Late in the afternoon on the 22nd of April with wind conditions at last favourable to them, German engineers began to release chlorine gas from cylinders which had been installed along their trench line.  Wafting on a light westerly breeze, the gas cloud rolled over the Algerian’s positions.  Panic ensued and the French-African troops broke, abandoning the line.  German troops following the cloud at a safe distance had little resistance to contend with.  They had created a gap of over four miles, seized a strategic position within Kitchener’s Wood and captured four British field guns which had been abandoned there.  Undoubtedly, if they had been aware of how successful the attack had been, the Germans would have continued the advance, rolling up the rest of the salient.  However, with daylight fading and uncertain of the safety of moving too quickly with poison gas to their front, they decided to consolidate the gains they had made “little but their own caution remained to keep the Germans from Ypres.”[1]

The Canadians were faced with a nightmare situation in defensive warfare.  In the centre of the line, they held the apex of the salient.  Already contending with an entrenched enemy to their front, left and right, no there was no supporting units on their left flank and the German advance threatened their rear and made very real the prospect that the whole division could be cut off and surrounded.  Lt General Alderson, the professional British commander of the Division knew immediately what to do.  He ordered reserves from 1 Brigade to be brought forward in defence of St Julien and instructed the 10th and 16th Battalions to mount a counter attack against Kitchener’s Wood.  This would be the first major combat action for Canadians in the war; a night attack over difficult terrain that had not been reconnoitered against an enemy in hastily prepared positions within a dense tree line.  It had all the makings of a fiasco.  More experienced troops would have hesitated; senior officers would have been within their rights to call for adjustments to the plan. Naiveté paid off.  The Canadians went forward not knowing that perhaps they shouldn’t and secured their objective because nobody had the idea that it should not have been possible.

The attack was costly, though, and the two battalions included were so reduced they could not hold their gains against a German counter-attack.  Proving ability to take quick, aggressive action did serve to hold the enemy in place.  The Germans remained checked at Kitchener’s Wood.

Throughout the 23d, Canadian lines were continually shelled while the Germans prepared to renew their attack.  Again gas would be used as a preliminary to infantry assault, and it would fall upon the centre of the Canadian line, at the boundary between 2 and 3 Brigade.  How inexperienced soldiers will respond to a given situation can win or lose a battle.  They might fall back in disarray before they should or try to hold a position long after it has stopped being tenable.  Or they can out-perform all expectations and fight through, adapting as the battle develops.  All of this was reflected in the events of the morning of the 24th.  Shelling had intensified and just before first light another cloud of chlorine was released.  The 8th and 15th Bn’s took the brunt of this.  The 13th Battalion on the extreme edge of the line withdrew, creating another dangerous gap, and individual companies of the 15th stood their ground, “C” Company holding out in danger of being surrounded, allowing the remaining 15th companies to redeploy rearward.  

The 15th’s stand had slowed the German advance and had bought time to form a secondary line of defense.  It cost the battalion the entire compliment of “C” Company, mostly as prisoners.  All told, the 15th lost 647 casualties, the worst single day’s loss by a Canadian battalion in the entire war.[2]

Confusion had ruled the day.  Battalions couldn’t communicate with each other and were out of touch with their brigade headquarters- division General Headquarters had no clue at all.  What communications and orders did get through were often out of place in the changing situation.  Yet through all of this, men who had been farmers, clerks and labourers not nine months before performed like seasoned regulars.

By the time the Division was withdrawn from the line, it had taken 5,400 casualties, 1,737 of which were fatal, (NG 369) or about a quarter of its strength.  Author and historian Tim Cook notes “Within this chaos the Canadians continued to remain an effective fighting force.”[3] This observation wasn’t just self generated, praise for the 1st Canadian Division came from the highest levels:  “In spite of the danger to which they were exposed, the Canadians held their ground with a magnificent display of tenacity and courage, and it is not too much to say that the bearing and conduct of these splendid troops averted a disaster” said Field Marshall Sir John French, British Commander in Chief. [4] Already begun was a reputation for pluck and audacity.  The Canadians may be rough rustics in the eyes of their allies, but they could fight.

Being through such an experience bonds men together.  That they had performed well and were recognised for their conduct raised their esteem and prestige.  It was the beginning of there being a pride of place in the term “Canadian.”  When replacement troops and later subsequent Divisions arrived to form the Canadian Corps, these troops would strive to live up to the precedent set by the 1st Canadian Division at 2nd Ypres.

[1] Desmond Morton & JL Granatstein “Marching to Armageddon”: Canadians and the Great War 1914-1919, Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1989, pg 59
[2]  Marteinson, John “We Stand on Guard”: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Army, Ovale Publications, 1992,pg 113
[3] Cook, Tim At the Sharp End Penguin Group (Canada) 2007 pg 161
[4] Greenfield, Nathan M., “Baptism of Fire”: The Second Battle of Ypres and the Forging of Canada, April 1915,Harper Collins 2007 opening leaf

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