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, 25 August 2014

The Solidification

It has been a tremendous week for me.  Many of you know that I have been submitting articles to The Centenary News.  I have been invited by the editors to continue to write copy, and I am more than pleased to do so.  My last article, on Dr. Gusky's photographs, received this reply from the artist: "Thank you for your article.  It’s beautifully written and, I believe, one of the best articles I’ve yet seen on the Hidden World of WWI."  In return, it must be said that this is the highest praise that I've ever received.  As always, comments, questions and suggestions are most welcome, and I invite you to follow "If Ye Break Faith" on Twitter and Facebook.

Earlier in this series, it was explained that the prevailing sense of identity held by Canadians prior to the war was one that reflected the British roots of the majority of the population.  Through their experiences in training and combat in the early stages of the war, a new sense, a more national sense of being was beginning to emerge.  As the war continued and involved ever more Canadians both at home and at the front, this new nationality spread and developed, eventually becoming the notion of what it is to be Canadian which would form the basis of the type of national identity present in the modern era.

Canada would commit ever more resources to the war in Europe.  Speaking strictly of manpower, not only would the losses of battle need to be replaced, but three whole divisions were to be recruited, equipped and trained to be sent to France joining the 1st Division in turn to form the Canadian Corps.

This was the beginning of a demographic shift in the constitution of the Canadian army overseas.  While the men of the First Contingent had been largely British born, those that followed would increasingly be younger, on average, and more likely naturally Canadian.  Much like the First Contingent, all provinces of Confederation were represented, including the first francophone regiment, the 22nd.  Geographical recruiting still existed and battalions of the 2nd, 3d and 4th Divisions were composed of nuclei from the same area.  With casualties, though, it would become more common that men of one part of Canada would wind up in a unit from another.  The impact of this integration can not be underestimated in its influence on a national identity, particularly with a country as geographically wide as Canada.  Being under adverse conditions would have helped to create a commonality amongst men who in other circumstances would not have known each other.  This would foster an understanding that people from other parts of the country or different walks of life had more in common than could be thought.

The four divisions of the Canadian Corps went into action together for the first time at Vimy Ridge.  In an effort to protect the left flank of the British who themselves were making diversionary attacks in support of a general French offensive, the Battle of Vimy Ridge has entered Canadian mythos precisely because it was a great success for the Corps’ first full commitment.  In capturing the Ridge, the Canadians were, in the opinion of General Henry Horne, British 1st Army commander, “the pride and wonder of the British Army.” [1]  What really secured the Corps’ reputation, and thus tempered the sentiment of this fledgling nationality was a far more difficult, but more crucial victory later in 1917.

The Third Battle of Ypres, or more commonly, the Battle of Passchendaele had begun on the 31st of July 1917.  Involving British and Australian units, by mid-October casualties had reached more than 100,000[2] with very little gain.  Passchendaele Ridge was a high feature in the area and taking possession of it would grant a large tactical advantage.  Multiple attempts to take the Ridge on the 9th and 13th of October had met with failure.  In what was becoming a habit of the British General Staff, the Canadian Corps was requested in an expectation it could succeed where others had not. 

Years of continuous shelling in an area with a low water table mixed with unseasonably heavy rain had turned the Ypres area into a horrific muddy mess: “Of all the battlefields in which Canadians fought during this war, Passchendaele was by far the worst.”[3] The attack would have to be made across hundreds of yards of glutinous mud, defended by the interlocking fire of the concrete pillboxes and dense barbed-wire entanglements of the carefully engineered German defenses known as the “Hindenburg Line.”  Movement would be agonisingly slow and under observation from the high ground which was the battle’s goal.  General Arthur Currie, the first Canadian born commander of the Corps was reluctant to commit to the attack.  His opinion was that the ground had been fought over for months without any advantage, and further attacks would prove useless.  Passchendaele, he thought wasn’t worth “one drop of Canadian blood.”  Protesting his orders to the highest level, he told Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig that the Corps would sustain 16, 000 casualties in such an assault.  Haig insisted that Passchendaele “Must be taken” but he couldn’t freely state why.  The officers of the Canadian Corps would have to accept his word of the critical necessity.[4]

Only Haig and a few of his top aides were aware of the highly suppressed details of the near collapse of the French Army through widespread mutinies that had happened in June.  By October, the situation was more stable, but the incidences had so weakened French resolve it was a serious concern that if the Germans were to mount a concerted effort against them, the French Army would disintegrate.  It fell to their chief ally, the British, to keep the enemy occupied until the French could get back on their feet.

Time, therefore was of utmost concern.  While Vimy had been planned and prepared for over a period of months, Currie was only given nine days before he must execute his attack.  It is here that the Corps proved itself as having grown into war.  Showing a remarkable aptitude and adaptability at all military levels, the Canadians were achieving a professional competence not expected of non-professional soldiers.  A knack for thoroughness and detailed planning showed a desire to succeed. General Currie himself believed "Thorough preparation must lead to success. Neglect nothing."[5] Their reputation having been made, there was no option but to uphold it through continued success.  Terrain, weather conditions and a shift of German tactical doctrine were all incorporated into the Corps’ battle plan, which took shape as a three stage attack against limited objectives with fresh units moving forward through the consolidated gains.  Known as “bite and hold” this British developed strategy was quickly replacing the wide-front mass attacks of the early years of the war.

Over sixteen days, the Divisions of the Canadian Corps struggled forward through diabolical mud. The artillery fire supporting the infantry was some of the heaviest of the war, but in most places it proved impossible to move the guns forward, leaving advanced units without fire support. Momentum was staggeringly slow, the terrain deep in muck and littered with waterlogged shell holes that were death traps for the wounded.  As the Divisions advanced, unit cohesion devolved as elements worked around the wire obstacles and thick-walled bunkers.  Often the battle was reduced to skirmishes of platoon and section strength rather than massed assault.  By the 10th of November, they held the Ridge, at a cost of 15,654 casualties, of which 2,600 were fatal[6] (JM 177), eerily close to Currie’s initial estimate.

The growth of the reputation of the Canadian Corps, which had seen its genesis with the 1st Division’s stubborn defense at 2nd Ypres and maturing at Vimy, coalesced with the tough victory at Passchendaele.  Colonel Nicholson, in his Official History sums up this reputation, and the factors relating to its cause “There has not been lacking testimony from senior Allied commanders that in the latter part of the war no other formation on the Western Front surpassed the Canadian Corps as a superb fighting machine. ‘Whenever the Germans found the Canadian Corps coming into the line’, wrote Lloyd George in his War Memoirs, ‘they prepared for the worst’. Much of its success the Corps owed to the fact that…the Canadian Corps was in the unique position of being able to preserve its composition unchanged….The men who made up its units were heartened by the comradeship that comes from shared experiences in the face of difficulty and danger, whether the result be reverse or triumph. Their morale was high, and they endured grievous hardships and bitter setbacks with a dogged optimism and irrepressible cheerfulness.”[7]   It is how these men would take those notions of pride home with them that would help create the dynamic shift of Canada feeling as a small component of Empire to a country of itself.

[1] Meyer, G.J., “A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914 to 1918”, Delta 2006, pg 691
[2] Zuehlke, Mark “Brave Battalion”: The Remarkable Saga of the 16th Battalion in the First World War, John Wiley & Sons, 2008 pg 175
[3] John Marteinson “We Stand on Guard”: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Army, Ovale Publications, 1992 pg 170
[4] Zuehlke, ibid.
[5] http://www.worldwar1.com/bioccurr.htm
[6] Marteinson, pg 177
[7] Nicholson, GWL, “Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War”, Queen’s Printer and Controller of Stationary, 1964, pg 507

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