Still remembering the Great War
A tendency to forget now just how long the suffering of this war lasted, and how futile was so much of the fighting
On this day 100 years ago the First World War entered its 1190th day. News reports showed that British and Canadian troops repulsed German counter-attacks along the Menin Road and at Passchendaele, that the Italians were giving ground along the Brenta, that the Austrians had captured Cismon and that the British had advanced to within three miles of Jaffa.
And in Russia the Bolsheviks were securing their hold on power in Petrograd while there was bitter street fighting in Moscow costing some 4,000 lives.
The “War to end War” dragged on, seemingly war without end. As 1917 headed to a close there was fear on all sides that the war might be lost.
In Germany and Austria-Hungary there was fear that the Western allies, with the support of the Americans, would overwhelm the Central Powers before the Germans could strike a decisive blow against the French and British Empire troops before the Americans made their million-man army felt.
In Britain and France there was fear that the Germans, witnessing the collapse of Russia into revolution and anarchy, would move most of their army to the Western Front in order to deliver a crushing blow before the American army could shoulder its responsibilities.
In Russia chaos reigned, Italy seemed beaten, the Turks were losing their empire but Turkey itself had yet to be invaded, the AustroHungarian Empire teetered on the brink of collapse and starvation ravaged Germany. There were still 361 days to go. We tend to forget now just how long the suffering of this war lasted, and how futile was so much of the fighting. The year 1917 had witnessed the Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge in April, and the eventual capture, by the Canadian Corps, of Passchendaele in early November.
Total Canadian casualties at Vimy Ridge numbered 3, 598 dead and 7,004 wounded. At Passchendaele the “Butcher’s Bill” was even steeper, with over 4,000 Canadians killed and some 12,000 wounded. Most of these losses came in just two weeks of heavy combat.
By the time the Canadians finally captured Passchendaele on Nov. 6, the once quaint Belgian village was nothing but muddy ruins. And then, come the following spring, during the great German offensive of 1918, all this territory was recaptured by the Germans.
1917 was a brutal year in a brutal war. It marked, in the words of British military historian John Keegan, the “breaking of armies.” In a war of attrition also marked by pigheaded stupidity by so many senior generals on all sides, there comes a time when soldiers and peoples can no longer take the strain.
These times began to be witnessed in 1917. First in Russia, in the spring, with the advent of revolution, then in France, in April, with great mutinies sweeping the French army. War weariness also began to plague the Austro-Hungarians and the Germans. By the fall of 1917 Italy was on the brink of collapse and British Empire forces were no longer able to maintain their complements of men with or without conscription.
“As 1917 headed to a close there was fear on all sides that the war might be lost.”
If 1917 had a decisive moment, and it did, it was not the Canadian victory at Vimy on April 9, but the American entry into the war on April 6. It was on that date that the allies were guaranteed a millionman U.S. army entering the fray; numbers the Central powers could not match.
It is altogether fitting and proper to remember the sacrifices made by Canadians, men and women, both on the war and home fronts. These people lived through a world-wide catastrophe that few of us today can even imagine. Our modern understanding of war was very much forged in the crucible of the Great War.
The ultimate tragedy of that war was that its punitive plan for peace, the Treaty of Versailles, set the stage for the next great one. Lest we forget.