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, 22 December 2014

Stille Nacht

Christmas of 1914 had been envisioned, as the war was getting under way, much differently as it had turned out.  Victorious armies were predicted to have been in occupation of Paris or Berlin by year’s end.  Many may be familiar with the term “Over by Christmas” which was touted by both sides as the war began in the summer of 1914.  The common interpretation of this phrase is either one of arrogance and ignorance or a naive sentimentality.  That, though, is a conceit of hindsight.  The underlying meaning in place at the time was that a quick victory was essential.  The material, human and financial cost of a protracted war against industrial nations was predicted to be so prohibitive that either a nation’s population or its financers would withdraw support for the war if those costs proved too high.  The one problem with waging the First World War as a quick and limited campaign was that everybody had the same idea at the same time, and neither side had a clear advantage.  In terms of military strength, the Entente had a 1.28:1 (man to man) advantage over the Central Powers.  While this advantage might seem clear, they are by a far margin away from being the military ideal of tactical advantage which is, even today, 3:1.[1]

Now, a vast network of trenches stretched for miles on end, forbidding any attempt at advancing and dislodging defenders on either side.  The forbearance of a long war and its prohibitive cost, in lives and wealth, could not be enough to leave it without conclusion.  Too much had been sacrificed so far that anything less than a total victory would be satisfactory.  A long, grim sequence of several years was now due to play out.

Very little good is seen to have come as a result of the First World War.  A century later, the common perception based upon a general notion of the futility of the years of near stalemate is that this war, more so than others in recent memory, was wasteful and cruelly inconclusive.  This view may not take into account the large impact that such an event must have upon humanity; but it is the popular notion.  Which is why, perhaps that tiny instances which inspire a feeling of sentimentality within such a dark episode can grow into the stuff of legend. 
 
For an event with such anecdotal provenance as what became known as the “Christmas Truce,” it is remarkably odd that neither Sir Basil Liddell Hart nor Sir John Keegan, in their respective books on the First World War make any mention of holiday related fraternization.  Such things did occur, and there is plenty of evidence of there being “a strange, spontaneous eruption of fellow feeling.” [2] G J Meyer describes the event as it is understood to happen:  “On Christmas morning, in their trenches opposite the British near Ypres, German troops began singing carols and displaying bits of evergreen....The Tommies too began to sing....Step by step this led to a gathering in no-man’s-land of soldiers from both sides, to exchanges of food and cigarettes, even to games of soccer.”[3]

Such informal arrangements at other times were not uncommon, and usually had a humanitarian purpose- such as the evacuation of wounded or the burial of dead.  Reciprocal periods of 'quiet time' emerged when soldiers tacitly agreed not to shoot at each other. Between battles and out of boredom, soldiers began to banter, even barter for cigarettes, between opposite sides. Informal truces were also agreed and used as an opportunity to recover wounded soldiers, bury the dead and shore up damaged trenches. In many ways, for the last of the professional soldiers, this was all part of the etiquette of war.[4] That certainly would have been part of the purpose behind localised truces.  In his book “The Truce: The Day the War Stopped” Chris Baker describes burials taking place, sometimes in a cooperative effort between sides, that there were exchanges of personal items, but only half, by his estimate, of British units at the front had any notion of these events.  Even during this period of relative quiet, Baker notes that 81 British soldiers died on Christmas day, some even at the places where the truces were in effect.[5]

These incidences were rather isolated, mainly in the British area of Ypres, as there was fighting in other places along the line.  French offensives in Artois had ended on the 24th, and another had begun in Champagne on the 20th.[6] Even some British units experienced “considerable activity: 2nd Grenadier Guards suffer losses in a day of heavy fighting. As night fell, things grew quiet as men fell back to their trenches to take whatever Christmas meal that had been provided for them.[7] Nor was it all fun and games in the areas gone quiet “a virtual truce at Christmas 1914 helped the British even more than the Germans to improve their defenses.”[8] The nature of the ground the British occupied at Ypres being unsuitable for defensive works as it was low-lying waterlogged clay meant that any chance to make improvements during a lull in fighting would have been seized.

The reaction to these events was certainly mixed.  Press coverage was largely sympathetic, and from their messages does the popular notion of widespread episodes of goodwill and fraternity develop.  Military leaders were more concerned.  Regardless of the holiday, this sort of behaviour could lead to a larger lapse in discipline.  The London Rifle Brigade's War Diary for 2 January 1915 recorded that ‘informal truces with the enemy were to cease and any officer or [non-commissioned officer] found to having initiated one would be tried by Court Martial.’”[9]

Christmas itself would still be a celebratory occasion, but forward from 1914, that would be confined to rear areas. “Great efforts were made to provide something special for Christmas dinner, and if a battalion was in the line for Christmas, then it was granted an ‘official Christmas’ once it was relieved and in billets.”[10] This indicates an “all business” approach to the front line, at least from 1915 onward.   The men, even at the front did not go without “Throughout the month, 460,000 parcels and 2.5 million letters were sent to British soldiers in France. King George V sent a card to every soldier, and his daughter, Princess Mary, lent her name to a fund which sent a small brass box of gifts, including tobacco or writing sets, to serving soldiers.”[11]

The Canadian Expeditionary Force, not yet at the front, faced a dreary, miserable Christmas at training camps in England.  “Heavy rains began only a week after arrival (in October) and it continued to rain for 89 of the next 123 days, turning the rolling countryside around Salisbury into a quagmire of mud.”[12] Living conditions were terrible: “By 17 December the Engineers and the 2nd and 3rd Infantry Brigades had gone into huts at Larkhill, between Bulford and Bustard Camp; but Christmas found 11,000 Canadians still under canvas. From the beginning of the war, the War Office had sought to solve its accommodation problems by billeting a large part of the ‘New Armies’ recruited by Lord Kitchener.  Now, as the continual exposure to the wretched weather threatened the health of the Canadians on the open plain, billets were requisitioned for as many as possible in the adjoining villages.”[13] Though, the Official History continues to record “Officers and men did their best to improve conditions. Welfare agencies helped to ameliorate the lot of the soldier in his off-duty hours. Welcome parcels of food, knitted goods and tobacco came from the Canadian War Contingent Association, an organization of Canadians in England and their friends. The Y.M.C.A. supplied reading material and stationery and operated refreshment centres. The Canadian Field Comforts Commission, organized from voluntary women workers by two Toronto ladies, who on the Minister of Militia's authority had proceeded overseas with the First Contingent, looked after the distribution of gifts received from Canada.”[14]

It may not have been that masses of men grouped together in a peaceful way on a day highly prized for the promise of “Peace on Earth” and “goodwill toward men,” but it should be admirable that these glimpses of humanity’s great desires, no matter their actual scale, occurred.  While it might do well to be cautious in placing more significance on it than fact would allow, perhaps it may be more fitting to ask why these small truces couldn’t have been more common.


This has been the last post that If Ye Break Faith will publish in 2014.  Overall, it has been a remarkably kind year with many of the essays receiving very favourable response.  I would like to extend my thanks to all of you who have read and enjoyed this work, and all the best for a great holiday season.  I shall be enjoying the holidays with family and friends, as I sincerely hope you all will do as well, and return to publishing new material in January, 2015.  Until then, please like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.

Merry Christmas,


Christopher J Harvie




[1] Notes from lecture ““Beyond the Front: The Efforts in Winning Canada’s Total War” MTP 1: The Concept of “Total War” CJ Harvie
[2] Meyer, G.J. “A World Undone”: The Story of the Great War 1914-1918, Delta Books, 2006, pg 237
[3] Meyer, G.J. ibid.
[4] Snow, Dan “What Really Happened in the Christmas Truce of 1914?” via bbc.co.uk
[5] Baker, Chris “The Truce: The Day the War Stopped” Amberley Press, 2014 via 1914-18.net
[6] Keegan, John “The First World War” Vintage Canada Edition, 2000, pg 181
[7] Baker, Chris, ibid.
[8] Desmond Morton & JL Granatstein “Marching to Armageddon”: Canadians and the Great War 1914-1919, Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1989, pg 54
[9] Snow, Dan, ibid.
[10] Corrigan, Gordon “Mud, Blood and Poppycock” Cassel Military Paperbacks, 2004, pg 98
[11] Snow, Dan, ibid.
[12] John Marteinson “We Stand on Guard”: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Army, Ovale Publications, 1992 pg 101
[13] Nicholson, G.W.L. “Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919” Queen’s Printer and Controller of Stationary, Ottawa, 1962 pg 36
[14] Nicholson, G.W.L., ibid. Pg 38

Monday, 15 December 2014

Never Pass a Fault

It is a curious thing, from a civil standpoint, how an army can endure such conditions, fierce and fearsome as are found on the front line, and continue to operate beyond what must seem the limit of human endurance.  The well regarded, if not sometimes controversial historian Niall Ferguson, in his work on WWI muses “Given the awfulness of the conditions soldiers had to endure the most surprising thing of all about the war, perhaps, is that military discipline did not break down much more often, or earlier, than it did.”[1] His curiosity is not misplaced, but reveals that from his perspective there is no intimate understanding of how the military functions as a system.  As the military is poised to operate at such extremes, it must be structured to incorporate those extremes and still function effectively.  That structure is found, in both deterrent and encouraging factors within one key element: Discipline.


Professor Gary Sheffield writes: “Armies in the First World War drew upon a pool of recruits, some of which were already accustomed to industrial discipline in factories and other workplaces…. Even so, all armies subjected new recruits to basic training which ranged from the unpleasant to the brutal, the aim being to break down the individuality of the new soldiers and to mould them into a group that would carry out orders unquestioningly….

“Military discipline makes the difference between a mob and an army. It is a form of behaviour that is the consequence of training and indoctrination, designed to ensure compliance to orders among individuals and groups, to create and maintain cohesion in military units.”[2]

Discipline is the foundation upon which the military is based.  With clear, simple and easy to understand rules a soldier is indoctrinated to appreciate what behaviour is expected, what will be rewarded and what will be punished. “Military discipline is rather different from the code of conduct found in any other workplace.  It has to be….It has long been recognised, in all armies, that a legal code designed to regulate civilian society is impractical for the business of waging war.”[3]

To that end, the military has a very rigid and codified system of laws and conduct.  For the Canadian expeditionary Force, these laws, offences and the procedures for addressing them were found within the King’s Regulations and Orders for the Canadian Militia; the Manual of Military Law; the guide: A Manual for the Canadian Militia (Infantry); and the Canadian Officer’s Guide to the Study of Military Law.[4] “The whole purpose of military law is to maintain the discipline of the army, and acts and omissions that in civil law may be mere breaches of contract…must, by the very nature of what the army is for, be made offenses that attract penalties.”[5]

The most egregious of those offenses, which would attract the most severe penalties would be dealt with a trial by Court Martial.  Library and Archives Canada lists in their database 11,878 Courts Martial occurred for the CEF during WWI, with the understanding that the number includes serial offenders.[6] Lesser crimes were tried within the Regimental or Company level as “Summary Offences”, since Courts Martial were reserved for more serious offences, or were recommended if it was believed an infraction merited a more strict punishment.  It was to the discretion of the commanding officer which would be tried as such, or which would be held over for Courts Martial.[7] While the powers of punishment at this level were remarkably less severe, it did afford the opportunity to handle disciplinary matters “in house” as opposed to involving higher command and quite possibly putting a battalion and its command in a negative light.  Similarly, further down the chain, more minor infractions, which at times might merit a summary trial would be dealt, unofficially, with what is known as “Administrative Punishment.”  In order not to draw lapses of discipline and thus scrutiny from above, errant soldiers might find themselves in possession of extra duties, be automatically volunteered for unenviable jobs or be dealt with in a more “hands on” way.

As far as punishments went, Courts Martial were the only disciplinary procedure to have had the authority to issue a capital sentence.  “There were 361 military executions carried out in the armies of Great Britain and the British Empire during the First World War.  A further 2,719 death sentences were passed and eventually commuted.  Within the Canadian Expeditionary Force specifically, there were 25 executions and another 197 death sentences were commuted.”[8]  Of those twenty-five, twenty-two were executed for desertion, one for cowardice, and two for murder.

There are some important factors to place into the consideration regarding this type of penalty.  First is the severe consequences which may occur du to the offence- such as a collapse of order from mutiny, desertion or severe insubordination (i.e. striking a superior); or placing other’s lives at risk with cowardice or being asleep at a sentry post.  The nature of the crime may be one that would reflect poorly upon the military as a whole, such as murder, sexual offenses or looting.  Another consideration is that these punishments, as they were severe, were not dealt out lightly.  Not quite two percent of Courts Martial for the CEF resulted in a sentence of death, and of those, only 12% were carried out. 

 Nor was an execution as swift as public imagination may have it- the condemned dragged from his conviction to a brick wall and blindfold.  All such sentences needed to be confirmed by the Commander in Chief (Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, from 1915 onward, preceded by Sir John French) who would only be required to do so if no one else in the chain of command from brigade to corps to army, then to C-in-C had deferred the sentence.  This process put a great level of check into the system to ensure that utmost attention to law and procedure had been upheld.

“On 16 August 2006, British Defence Secretary Des Browne announced that the government would issue full pardons for all 306 Commonwealth soldiers who were executed under these circumstances [specifically desertion and cowardice-CJH] during World War One.”[9]  These pardons have come after lengthy campaigns of public support from relatives of those executed and human rights groups.  This placed pressure on the government to act, without addressing the public perception of law and justice is often not congruent with the way in which those concepts work in a military context.  Naturally, there is some dissention from those who have an innate understanding of how the military operates that these men have been exonerated for their severe offences; regardless of whether or not those crimes committed today would warrant a death sentence.  

Something else to be observed is that the punishments awarded for infractions, from the unofficial “administrative” level, to the most severe capital case, is not only to have in place consequences for behaviour, but that they are also a symbolic act of purification.  A soldier who stands his punishment and returns to his unit is regarded as having been cleansed.  Even the coward or deserter being put to the post can be said to at least have had the courage enough to face his final volley.
A rigid system of this sort would be of little use, though, if it were not made clear to soldiers not only what behaviour would result in punishment, but why; as well as the corollary- what behaviour was expected and how adherence to this conduct could be rewarded. “Discipline was an important factor in holding armies together, but it was not the only one. Depending on the army and the individual, belief in the cause, loyalty to unit and/or comrades, leadership and other issues were also significant.”[10] 

 There are few better explanations of this balance than that offered by Captain John Paul Jones upon the founding of the US Navy during the American Revolution.  In his opinion a good officer observed that “No meritorious act of a subordinate should escape his attention or be left to pass without its reward, even if the reward is only a word of approval.  Conversely, he should not be blind to a single fault in any subordinate, though at the same time, he should be quick and unfailing to distinguish error from malice, thoughtlessness from incompetency, and well meant shortcomings from heedless or stupid blunder.”[11]  This is the nature which exists in the modern era as the proviso of “Never Pass a Fault,” to not allow a mistake, no matter how minor go unnoticed and uncorrected.  This idea alone ensures a high standard of behaviour among service personnel. 

Through a strict balance of these two factors, reward and punishment can discipline be achieved to the point that it can withhold the stresses of war. “In fact, high casualty rates do not correlate consistently with collapses of morale.  Some of the most reliable regiments on both sides were the ones which suffered the highest casualties.”[12]

In an age where once again veterans of the armed forces are highly regarded by the public they serve, it becomes important to rely on the high standard of personal behaviour which they were subjected to in that service.  Elements such as personal accountability, decorum and deportment in public can help to set the standard and a good example to follow which will continue to inspire public support.  Falling into bad habits, appearing in public agitated or crude and airing grievances in a public forum in an aggressive and accusatory way is not only contrary to the conduct we once abided by, it will serve to turn that support, so dearly won, against us.

 "If Ye Break Faith" values your input.  Comments, questions and suggestions can be made through our Facebook Page or following us on Twitter.





[1] Ferguson, Niall “The Pity of War: Explaining World War I”, Basic Books, 1999 pg 343
[3] Corrigan, Gordon “Mud, Blood and Poppycock” Cassel Military Paperbacks, 2004, pg 215
[4] http://regimentalrogue.com/misc/researching_first_world_war_soldiers_part15
[5] Corrigan, Gordon, ibid. pg 216
[6] http://regimentalrogue.com/misc/researching_first_world_war_soldiers_part15
[7] http://regimentalrogue.com/misc/researching_first_world_war_soldiers_part15
[8] Iacobelli, Teresa “Death or Deliverance: Canadian Courts Martial in the Great War” UBC Press, 2013 pg 4
[9] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Canadian_soldiers_executed_for_military_offences
[11] http://www.usna.edu/
[12] Ferguson, Niall, ibid. pg 339

Monday, 8 December 2014

He Who Places His Brother in the Ground is Everywhere

Some 750,000 British and Commonwealth service personnel died on the Western Front.  They are remembered in over 1,000 military and 2,000 civilian cemeteries, or, for the more than 300,000 who have no known grave, are commemorated on Memorials to the Missing.[1] The particular way in which these cemeteries and memorials came to be is the result of one man’s effort to ensure that these deaths would have continued meaning; that these lives lost would not be forgotten.  Sir Fabian Ware, working with the British Red Cross who was “saddened by the sheer number of casualties...felt driven to find a way to ensure the final resting places of the dead would not be lost forever.”[2] Beginning with painstaking recording and maintaining the first gravesites by 1915 his “work was given official recognition by the War Office and incorporated into the British Army as the Graves Registration Commission.” [3]


Death comes to us all.  Knowledge of this somber fact is the burden created by self awareness.  Our evolution to this level of intellect has also given us the ability, through a psychological theory known as “Terror Management”[4] to successfully deal with the difficult notion of individual mortality.  By and large, this is accomplished, as are so many unpleasant life aspects, by avoidance and denial.  At times, particularly in the event of the death of someone close, those coping skills are insufficient.  Psychology professor Nathan Heflick describes that “humans developed cultural symbols of meaning and value that offer a sense of significance and importance, and ultimately, immortality...as a means of coping with their own death.”[5] Such things have been part of our cultural heritage for millennia.  Anthropologist Philip Lieberman cites the oldest known intentional burial is at least 100,000 years old.  These are “the oldest fossil hominids who possessed speech producing anatomy and brains that are the biological bases of speech and syntax.  The evidence of their burials with grave goods is consistent with their having possessed cognitive abilities that approach our own....If we assume that the minds of our distant ancestors worked like ours, we can take burials that include grave goods as evidence for religious beliefs.”[6]

If it is difficult enough to appropriately cope in an emotionally healthy way an individual death; such numbers of deaths as were caused by the First World War must have been beyond normal comprehension or ability to process.  When dealing with numbers in the hundreds of thousands of lives all taken in violent circumstances, it no longer becomes necessary to have a personal connection to the dead for it to have resonance.  By year’s end in 1914, Britain alone recorded 26,886 deaths.[7] At the point of such a volume, it becomes a communal event.  When paired with the notion that these lives were lost in an act of preserving that community, society copes en masse by assigning a higher level of importance to lives lost in war.  It assuages fears of our own mortality by assuring ourselves that those who died on our behalf have achieved that level of immortality.  That we can assign a higher level of significance to particular circumstances relating to death goes a long way to reason why war graves are so revered.

Professor Heflick’s research indicates that things which inspire thought of death, “death reminders” as he puts it, cause people to defend cultural worldviews more strongly, identify more with members of their own group, show increased interest in close relationships, show preference for clear, well structured information, become more religious and believe more in the supernatural; and show reduced self control and self regulation.[8]  This becomes a salient point when discussing veteran’s issues so close to November 11th.   Prof Heflick says “I would suspect that the death thoughts activated naturally by Remembrance Day would make people more defensive of their belief systems. This would conceivably include any political issues, related to Veterans or not. So basically, people's views should become more strong/extreme. If they are liberal, they would become more liberal; if they are conservative they would become more conservative, for instance….  I would think most people would become more extreme.It is a bit more complicated than this, as it always is when leaving the lab and trying to extrapolate it into the real world. But, this would be what terror management theory would predict.”[9]

Sir Fabian Ware’s devotion to ensure proper burial for the war’s dead would not be an easy task.  The war would continue another three years, cause millions of deaths and be fought in dozens of places throughout Europe, Africa, Asia Minor and the Middle East.  Due to the intensity of battle along with considerations for hygiene and morale, bodies would be buried as quickly as practicable; often with little regard to ceremony or within an established cemetery.  “It was often impractical to dig individual graves, and bodies were laid side by side in a long trench”[10] The static nature of the First World War would complicate matters of burial and identity of the dead further “the worst of improvised burials close to the front line was the near certainty that the body would be disinterred by shellfire.”[11]

Many of the men taken out of the line as casualties who would later die of their wounds had been brought to Advanced Dressing Stations- “These were mobile treatment centres...far enough back to be out of the line of fire.”[12] These locations “later formed the basis for several Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries on the Western Front.  Perhaps the best known former dressing station is Essex Farm, just north of Ypres, where the Canadian medical officer John McCrae wrote the poem In Flanders Fields.”[13]

Ware and his staff would continue in their work of recording burial sites, but the task the Commission had set for itself would really begin after the Armistice.  Using the collected registry, bodies would be exhumed and re-interred in uniformly designed cemeteries, as close to the initial burials as possible.  Ware had set guidelines for this purpose- that the grave markers be identical in shape and size; to promote the idea of equality amongst the dead, and that every man be remembered, regardless of known burial.  The psychological notion of immortality is interrupted when there is no closure; particularly in these cases of no definitive burial.  It would tend to deepen the feeling of loss because it is paradoxically finite and inconclusive.

An immense undertaking such as this can have its oversights.  To this day, remains of individuals buried in haste and not recovered directly after the war are still being discovered.  In other instances, known burial sites have been lost over time, like that of Grave CA40, in Thelus, France.  CA40 is known to contain the bodies of 44 Canadian soldiers of the 16th Battalion killed during the Battle of Vimy Ridge.  Norm Christie, author, TV presenter and battlefield tour operator has made his latest project the investigation into and search for CA40, believed to be a mass grave made from a mine crater in no man’s land.[14]

In the unfolding years, the Imperial War Graves Commission, later taking on its current designation of Commonwealth War Graves Commission would assume further responsibilities with the dead of the Second World War.  The CWGC is responsible for the care and maintenance of cemeteries and memorials dedicated to the more than 1.7 million individuals who died in the two World Wars at 23,000 locations in 153 countries.[15] The CWGC has done this, tirelessly, for almost a century, relying on funding cooperatively contributed by the governments of the six member nations:  “Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, South Africa and the United Kingdom. The cost of the Commission's work is met by the member governments in proportion to the number of their war graves. The Secretary of State for Defence in the United Kingdom is the chairman of the Commission. Each of the other member governments appoints its High Commissioner in London to be its Commission representative.”[16]

Under their care these sites and memorials are kept from falling into disrepair or neglect, ensuring the continued memory of our war dead and offering the comfort to those still living, of that sense of immortality.



"If Ye Break Faith" values your input.  Comments, questions and suggestions can be made through our Facebook Page or following us on Twitter.



[1] Holmes, Richard “Tommy, The British Soldier on the Western Front 1914-1918” Harper Perennial, 2005, pg 14
[2] http://www.cwgc.org/
[3] http://www.cwgc.org/
[4] http://www.psychologytoday.com/ “How We Cope With Death: A theory of Terror Management”, Dr. Nathan A Heflick (University of Kent) 
[5] Dr. Nathan A Heflick, ibid.  
[6] Lieberman, Philip, “Uniquely Human: The Evolution of Speech, Thought, and Selfless Behavior” Harvard University Press 1993 pp 163-64
[7] Bridger, Geoff, “The Great War Handbook” Pen & Sword Military 2013
[8] Dr. Nathan A Heflick, ibid.  
[9] Dr Nathan A Heflick; in interview with author, 06 Dec 2014
[10] Holmes, Richard, ibid. Pg 300
[11] Holmes, Richard, ibid. Pg 298
[12] Corrigan, Gordon “Mud, Blood and Poppycock” Cassel Military Paperbacks, 2004, pg 104
[13] Holmes, Richard, ibid. Pg 477
[14] http://www.centenarynews.com/article?id=2973
[15] http://www.cwgc.org/
[16] http://www.cwgc.org/