Na­tion forged in ‘Great War’

Hero­ism and ul­ti­mate sac­ri­fice a cen­tury ago helped to make us who and what we are to­day

Kingston Whig-Standard - - FORUM - GE­OF­FREY JOHN­STON Fol­low Ge­of­frey P. John­ston on Twit­ter @Ge­offyPJohn­ston.

This Re­mem­brance Day is es­pe­cially mean­ing­ful, be­cause it marks a cen­tury since the end of the First World War.

It was on Nov. 11, 1918, that the guns fell silent and the so-called Great War in Europe ended. Although the con­flict took a ter­ri­ble toll in terms of Cana­dian lives lost and per­ma­nent wounds suf­fered on the muddy bat­tle­fields of France and Bel­gium, it also marked a turn­ing point in Cana­dian na­tion­hood.

Be­fore the First World War, Canada ex­er­cised only min­i­mal au­ton­omy, Univer­sity of Cal­gary mil­i­tary his­to­rian Prof. David J. Bercuson ex­plained in a 2017 tele­phone in­ter­view. In 1914, Canada “was still very much part of the British Em­pire when it came to two ma­jor ar­eas: one was for­eign pol­icy, the other was de­fence,” he said.

How­ever, by war’s end, Canada was much closer to be­com­ing an in­de­pen­dent, sov­er­eign na­tion­state.

A muddy, bloody war

Canada was brought into the war on Aug. 4, 1914, when Bri­tain de­clared war on Ger­many. The British dec­la­ra­tion was pre­cip­i­tated by the Ger­man in­va­sion of Bel­gium.

A deadly stale­mate quickly de­vel­oped on the bat­tle­fields of Europe in the fall of 1914. With the British and French Al­lies on one side and the Ger­mans on the other, tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tions made a quick vic­tory im­pos­si­ble.

“It sim­ply be­came too dan­ger­ous to fight on the sur­face of the ground,” Bercuson told the WhigS­tan­dard. “Too many men were be­ing killed in huge num­bers by ma­chine-gun fire and by new types of ar­tillery that were tak­ing lives at an un­prece­dented rate. So they be­gan to dig in.”

Both sides de­vel­oped com­pli­cated sys­tems of trenches fac­ing each other across “no man’s land,” lit­er­ally stretch­ing from the North Sea to the Swiss bor­der, Bercuson stated. “Both sides, for the next three years, are try­ing to break this trench sys­tem and at­tack the other side and win the war.”

The his­tory of the First World War is full of sig­nif­i­cant bat­tles and sto­ries of hero­ism. And it is im­pos­si­ble to do jus­tice to the Cana­dian war ef­fort in a sin­gle ar­ti­cle. How­ever, there are three sig­nif­i­cant mil­i­tary cam­paigns that all Cana­di­ans should study.

Bat­tle of the Somme

On July 1, 1916, the Al­lies launched an of­fen­sive in north­ern France. On the very first day of the four-month cam­paign, Ger­man ma­chine-guns and ar­tillery cut down British forces in stag­ger­ing num­bers. More than 57,000 Al­lied sol­diers were killed that day. Yet the Brits ad­vanced only one kilo­me­tre into Ger­man-held ter­ri­tory.

The New­found­land Reg­i­ment, at­tached to the British forces, suf­fered dev­as­tat­ing losses that same day. Ac­cord­ing to the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Canada web­site, “only 68 of the more than 800 men who had taken part” in the bat­tle were “able to an­swer roll call the next morn­ing.”

On Sept. 15, the Cana­dian Corps lost 2,600 sol­diers in a bat­tle close to the French vil­lage of Courcelette. The Cana­di­ans ad­vanced be­hind a creep­ing bar­rage of Al­lied ar­tillery fire, forc­ing the Ger­man de­fend­ers to take cover. Later that day, the Cana­di­ans, sup­ported by the mil­i­tary in­no­va­tion of tank war­fare, cap­tured Courcelette.

“In the weeks that fol­lowed, sol­diers of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Cana­dian Di­vi­sions would be re­peat­edly flung against a se­ries of Ger­man en­trench­ments,” Vet­eran Af­fairs Canada notes. The Cana­di­ans’ ob­jec­tive was to cap­ture the Ger­man de­fen­sive line, which they re­ferred to as the Regina Trench.

In mid-Oc­to­ber, the 4th Cana­dian Di­vi­sion re­lieved the other di­vi­sions, tak­ing heavy losses on the bat­tle­field. On Nov. 11, the 4th Cana­dian Di­vi­sion suc­ceeded in cap­tur­ing Regina Trench.

“A week later, in the fi­nal at­tack of the Bat­tle of the Somme, the Cana­di­ans took De­sire Trench,” Vet­er­ans Af­fairs re­ports. With that vic­tory, the Al­lied of­fen­sive halted, hav­ing ad­vanced 10 kilo­me­tres.

Vet­eran Af­fairs Canada de­scribes the cam­paign as a “wa­ter­shed event” in the Great War, demon­strat­ing that the Cana­di­ans were “first-rate front-line troops who could cap­ture en­emy po­si­tions in the face of heavy fire.”

By the time the Somme cam­paign ended, 24,000 Cana­di­ans had been killed in bat­tle.

Bat­tle of Vimy Ridge

The Al­lies planned a ma­jor of­fen­sive for April 1917 in the Ar­ras area of France, and Canada was tasked with tak­ing Vimy Ridge.

“At that point, in the spring of 1917, the Cana­di­ans had got­ten a lot bet­ter at learn­ing how to fight that par­tic­u­lar kind of war,” Bercuson said. Four Cana­dian di­vi­sions were “phys­i­cally suited to the job at hand, and they were all blood­ied.”

Af­ter months of prepa­ra­tion and a pre-at­tack ar­tillery bar­rage on Ger­man gun po­si­tions, the at­tack was launched at 5:30 a.m. on Easter Mon­day, April 9, 1917.

The Cana­di­ans ad­vanced across no man’s land be­hind a creep­ing bar­rage of in­tense Al­lied ar­tillery fire. Ac­cord­ing to the Bercuson, “the first part of the at­tack was quite suc­cess­ful in the south­ern part of the area.” How­ever, he noted that in the north­ern part of the bat­tle­field, “there were dif­fi­cul­ties and heavy ca­su­al­ties, right up to about three days later.”

Over­all, the Cana­dian as­sault on Vimy Ridge was a suc­cess in the mil­i­tary his­to­rian’s es­ti­ma­tion, es­pe­cially com­pared to pre­vi­ous Al­lied at­tacks. In past of­fen­sives, ex­plained Bercuson, “there was a lot of at­tri­tion fight­ing where these at­tacks peter out very quickly; they don’t make very much progress; there are very heavy ca­su­al­ties.”

How­ever, he said that it was a very dif­fer­ent story at Vimy Ridge. “The Cana­di­ans had taken heavy ca­su­al­ties, but they had taken all of their ob­jec­tives within three days, and many of their ob­jec­tives within the first day.”

Ac­cord­ing to Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Canada, 3,600 Cana­dian sol­diers per­ished at Vimy Ridge and many thou­sands more were wounded.

Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele

Af­ter se­cur­ing the costly vic­tory at Vimy Ridge, the Cana­dian Corps were de­ployed to Bel­gium to help break the stale­mate be­tween Ger­man and Al­lied forces along the heav­ily for­ti­fied trenches.

Canada won a sig­nif­i­cant vic­tory at the bloody Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele in north­west Bel­gium in the lat­ter half of 1917. More than 4,000 Cana­dian sol­diers were killed and nearly 12,000 were wounded on the killing fields.

Lo­cated in Bel­gium’s Ypres area, Pass­chen­daele was the only part of Bel­gium that had not fallen com­pletely un­der Ger­man con­trol af­ter light­ning ad­vances ear­lier in the war.

A low-ly­ing re­gion pro­tected from flood­ing by a se­ries of dikes and ditches, Ypres be­came a muddy bat­tle­ground af­ter the drainage sys­tem had been ripped apart by ar­tillery fire and heavy fight­ing.

The British launched the Third Bat­tle of Ypres in the sum­mer of 1917 in an at­tempt to force the Ger­mans to di­vert some of their forces from the south, thereby re­liev­ing pres­sure on French forces.

The British of­fen­sive, launched in July, im­me­di­ately be­came bogged down af­ter heavy rains turned the bat­tle­field to mud, mak­ing rapid ad­vance im­pos­si­ble. Al­lied troops in no man’s land be­came easy tar­gets for for­ti­fied Ger­man ma­chine­gun po­si­tions.

“Early in Oc­to­ber 1917, the Cana­di­ans were sent to Bel­gium to re­lieve bat­tered New Zealand’s [AN­ZAC] forces and take part in the fi­nal push to cap­ture Pass­chen­daele,” the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs web­site notes.

The Cana­dian of­fen­sive was launched on Oct. 26, 1917. Progress was slow but steady. On Oct. 30, the Cana­dian troops found them­selves at the edge of the vil­lage of Pass­chen­daele. And a week later, Cana­dian and British forces un­leashed the fi­nal as­sault on Ger­man po­si­tions in the vil­lage. The 27th Bat­tal­ion of the Cana­dian Corps cap­tured Pass­chen­daele on Nov. 6, 1917. And four days later, the Cana­di­ans drove the Ger­mans from the eastern part of Pass­chen­daele Ridge, bring­ing the Al­lied of­fen­sive to a con­clu­sion.

Ac­cord­ing to Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Canada, 100,000 Cana­dian sol­diers took part in the Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele. The record shows that nine Cana­dian sol­diers were awarded the Vic­to­ria Cross, hon­our­ing their val­our at Pass­chen­daele.

The Cana­dian con­tri­bu­tion to the vic­tory at Pass­chen­daele added to the Cana­dian Corps’ rep­u­ta­tion as an ex­tremely ef­fec­tive fight­ing con­tin­gent, demon­strat­ing that the Cana­di­ans were the best fight­ers on the West­ern Front.

Great place among the world’s na­tion.

Prime Min­is­ter Robert Bor­den ad­dressed the House of Com­mons on May 18, 1917, to in­form Par­lia­ment of his re­cent trip to Great Bri­tain, where he vis­ited eight mil­i­tary train­ing camps. He also vis­ited hospi­tals in Great Bri­tain and France, where Cana­dian sol­diers were be­ing treated for their wounds.

Ac­cord­ing to Prof. Bercuson, most of war wounds suf­fered by the Cana­di­ans at Vimy Ridge were caused by ar­tillery fire. In­deed, some of the Cana­di­ans suf­fered dis­fig­ur­ing wounds.

Bor­den re­called meet­ing “only two men from Vimy Ridge who did not smile with great sat­is­fac­tion when I spoke of their hav­ing driven the Ger­mans back.” Those two wounded war­riors had suf­fered ter­ri­ble fa­cial in­juries. “Those men could not smile with their lips by rea­son of their wounds, but they did smile with their eyes,” Bor­den told the House of Com­mons.

Just two months be­fore the armistice was signed, Bor­den an­tic­i­pated the end of the con­flict and what it would mean for Canada. “The Cana­di­ans who have fought so gal­lantly for our lib­er­ties and those of the world, and who have given to our coun­try a great place among the world’s na­tions, will re­turn to Canada with a wider vi­sion and with a higher ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the op­por­tu­ni­ties that lie be­fore them,” Bor­der de­clared in a Sept. 9, 1918, ad­dress to the Di­rec­tor’s Lun­cheon at the Canada Ex­hi­bi­tion in Ot­tawa.

Ac­cord­ing to the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Canada web­site, more than 650,000 men and women from Canada and New­found­land served in uni­form dur­ing the Great War. More than 66,000 Cana­di­ans gave their lives in the ser­vice of Canada dur­ing the war. In ad­di­tion, 172,000 were wounded in bat­tle.

In recog­ni­tion of the ma­jor role that Canada played in the Al­lied Vic­tory, Canada was ac­corded the right to sign the Treaty of Ver­sailles — the peace treaty that ended hos­til­i­ties. With­out a doubt, Canada’s con­tri­bu­tion to vic­tory ad­vanced the coun­try’s drive to­ward au­ton­omy from Bri­tain, which even­tu­ally came with the Statute of West­min­is­ter in 1931.

All Cana­di­ans, whether born here or else­where, owe a great debt to the brave Cana­dian sol­diers who laid their lives down in the Great War. Their hero­ism and ul­ti­mate sac­ri­fice a cen­tury ago helped to make us who and what we are to­day.


Wounded Cana­dian and Ger­man First World War sol­diers help one an­other through the mud dur­ing the Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele in Pass­chen­daele, Bel­gium, in 1917.

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