Canada in the Great World War – Introductory

THE German High Command during the first months of the Great World War had three main purposes in view — the capture of Paris, the seizure of the Channel ports, and the utter destruction of the French and British military forces in France. The capture of Paris would have enabled the Central Powers to levy an enormous tax on France ; would have supplied them with a vast amount of material necessary for a prolonged war; and, above all, would have had a disastrous moral effect upon the French people : the heart of France gone, all would seem to have been lost; at the most the nation could have sustained only a losing fight. Even more important than the capture of Paris was the seizure of the Channel ports. Had Calais and Boulogne once been in the hands of the Central Powers the destructive work they were able to do by means of submarines from Zeebrugge and Ostend could have been increased a hundredfold. The transportation of troops to France by the Channel route would have been impossible. Air raids on English cities and English military bases could have been a daily occurrence ; great guns stationed along the French coast could have bombarded the thickly populated districts about Dover; and with the ” Big Berthas ” such as were developed later on in the war, shells might even have reached London itself.

At the beginning of the war the Central Powers seemed careless about Russia — that slow-moving, clumsy, badly armed, badly led giant. They could attend to Russia when they had settled with France and Belgium and the small forces that England was “tie to send to Europe at the commencement of military operations. But they made serious miscalculations. They overshot their mark, partly through their own over-confidence and failure to allow for the skilful generalship of Joffre ; and their gigantic drive on Paris was halted when they were at the very gates of the city.

The deciding factor in checking their progress and turning victory into defeat was the ” Contemptible Little Army ” of Great Britain, which the Kaiser and his advisers considered negligible. Defeated in their main purpose, they dug in within striking distance of the French capital, reorganized their forces, and turned their attention to the Channel ports. Practically all of Belgium was swiftly in their hands, and they had gained important naval bases on the North Sea. It looked for the moment as if Calais must inevitably fall; but once more they were halted before their objective was fully attained, and in the fierce fighting of October and November, 1914, were pressed back east of Ypres ; and until the close of the war in November, 1918, they were held practically in their original lines in a state of siege.

Defeated by recognized methods of warfare, they turned from their guns and their man power to the laboratories, hoping for victory through the genius of their chemists. With poison gas they sought to triumph over their foes and win a clear road to Calais. The ” Contemptible Little Army ” had been largely instrumental in breaking their hosts in the fall of 1914. A force which they held in even greater contempt the Colonial troops from the Dominion of Canada — was to be the main factor in nullifying the effect of their nefarious method of warfare. The Second Battle of Ypres was to give to the Canadians a distinct place in military history and to render the ground on which they nobly fought and nobly died forever sacred to Canada.

The present volume of this series deals largely with the work of the 1st Canadian Division in the Ypres salient, where they fought gallantly for many months, helping to guard the Channel ports. From their arrival in France until the Somme offensive in the fall of 1916 the Canadian forces fought almost continuously in the salient. Even when they were engaged in battle at Festubert, Givenchy, Messines, and about Loos they had the same great task before them — to keep the Hun from reaching the English Channel.

The first body of Canadian soldiers sent to France — the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry began their battle work on the edge of the salient; and it was in its defence that that gallant regiment was to fight gloriously as a part of the 27th (Imperial) Division until only a handful of its original members were left. Within sound of the guns in the salient the 1st Division received the finishing touches in its training for battle; and in the Second Battle of Ypres it was to stand firm against a new and diabolical weapon of war-fare, showing a dogged courage and initiative that amazed the military world. It is rarely in warfare that raw troops are able to meet unexpected conditions. But the Canadians were not altogether raw troops. The commander of the 2nd Brigade, the first of the Canadians to feel the full force of the German gas attack, was a veteran of the South African War and a V. C. ; and in every battalion were officers and men who had seen previous service. And the great majority of the men in the ranks were of a different breed from the average conscript of the European armies. They were men of initiative ; men of quick intelligence, who could adjust themselves rapidly to new conditions. The Second Battle of Ypres, like the great majority of battles in the Great World War, was a soldiers’ battle; and the salient was held only through the determined will of men who could act for themselves when faced by circumstances that officers had little power to direct and control. The Canadian division, by holding firm, enabled the Imperial divisions to come into the fight and thus completely saved a most critical situation. Their work on this occasion forced the Germans once more to dig in and content themselves with holding the line they had won in the fall of 1914. The Russian giant was hammering at the back door, and Germany found that it was necessary immediately to attend to him. Just here a word about Russia ! The Russian débâcle at a critical stage in the war and the selfish, traitorous conduct of the later Russian leaders have had a tendency to make all men treat Russia with contempt. But it must never be forgotten that without Russia’s work at the beginning of the war France could easily have been overrun, the Channel ports reached, and the armies of the Allies captured or driven into the sea. So far as winning the war is concerned, history will undoubtedly show that the Russian effort in its first months had a greater effect than the efforts of the United States, great as they were, in its closing months. It enabled the Allies to hold the German armies in the West in a state of siege and to reduce their numbers ; gave time for the training of men in Great Britain, France, and the Colonies ; and, most important of all, enabled the Allies to build up that great war machine that made victory for them inevitable. And Russia played her part with armies badly equipped and badly led, and with traitors at headquarters and in the field. Russian hordes bravely faced death, charging guns and fortifications almost literally with naked hands. Then there was their ” Battalion of Death ”— a regiment of women who faced the horrors of war for the liberty of the world. No other of the fighting nations could show a similar regiment. Russia, with all her faults and shortcomings, was a mighty factor in holding large German armies until such time as the Allies could fight them to the finish. But for Russia, Germany would not have had to resort to such diabolism as gas attacks ; for by her man-power concentrated on the Western front she could have swept all before her. Russia was of important assistance to the divisions holding the Ypres salient and guarding the Channel ports.

Over a year later, in June, 1916, the Canadians, now grown to three divisions, were once more to be severely tested in the Ypres salient. The Germans, with greatly increased strength, had renewed their efforts to hack a road through to Paris; but a living wall of French heroes barred their path, and as in 1915 they made a determined attack on the lines defending the English Channel, with vast masses of men, with greater sup-plies of gas than they had used in the Second Battle of Ypres, and with an assemblage of guns such as had never before been gathered together in war. But, as in April and May of 1915, the Canadians proved an important factor in thwarting their plans. At St. Eloi, Sanctuary Wood, and Hooge they met the Germans in battle ; and although they suffered heavy losses and for a time had to give ground, the series of battles then fought ended with the salient intact.

In the autumn of 1917, after winning new laurels in battle at Vimy Ridge and about Lens, the Canadians, now increased to an army corps of four divisions and under a Canadian general, Sir A. W. Currie, returned to the salient. This time they immediately began to play an important part in the long drawn out Battle of Flanders. They aided in sweeping the Germans out of a large portion of the salient, and won their way to the Passchendaele Ridges in a mighty thrust that threatened the German naval bases on the North. Sea.

The battles in which the Canadians played such an essential part in the Ypres salient in 1915, 1916, and 1917 were all waged for the one great purpose — to guard the Channel ports. This task was not accomplished without tremendous loss of life. Thousands of Canadians fell in these battles, and every part of the salient is dotted with the graves of gallant lads from the Land of the Maple Leaf; while in shell craters and destroyed trenches and in lonely corners of wood and marsh many more lie unnoticed where they fell.

Canada has within her borders a number of places of peculiar national interest. Quebec stands first; but, after all, the battle glory of Quebec is merely of historical interest to Canadians — at least to those of the British race. In 1759 an army of invasion under General Wolfe captured it from the French; a force of regulars with a sprinkling of loyal French Canadians, under Guy Carleton, skilfully defended the fortress against the American invaders in 1775-76. During the War of 1812 Queenston Heights, Chateauguay, and Chrystler’s Farm were memorable engagements where with British regulars a considerable force of native Canadians fought nobly for the maintenance of British rule on the North American Continent. In these battles only small bodies of men took part, and they were rather battalion struggles than army contests. But the soil on which Canadian heroes fell has become sacred soil, making for national pride. Now, far away in Belgium, there is an immense battle-field which will ever be holy ground for Canada. In the salient an army of the flower of the manhood of the Dominion lies buried; and for long years to come, Canadian pilgrims will visit this battle-ground, tears in their eyes and pride in their hearts, to plant flowers on the graves of their loved ones. For all time the Ypres salient, the Somme, Vimy Ridge, and other battle-fields in Belgium and France, although not a part of Canada, will have an important influence on Canadian history. The idealism the sons of Canada fought and died for on these battle-fields will take on new life and meaning from their glorious death. In fighting in France and Belgium for the liberty of Europe, Canadians fought that the free institutions under which they lived in their homeland might remain ; the lines they guarded were the outposts of the Great Dominion. Had the Hun broken through them to the Channel, and won victory over the Allies, the battle would inevitably have been brought to the shores of Canada. In guarding the Channel ports the Canadian divisions were at the same time guarding the St. Lawrence and the coast of British Columbia.

The fighting in the Ypres salient was of high importance in giving tone and character to the Canadian forces in France. The example set by the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and the 1st Division created a military tradition for the forces that were to follow them into the field. General Alder-son was able to say of the 1st Division that the Canadians ” never budge “; and, until the close of the war, divisions, brigades, battalions, companies, platoons, and even individuals, time and again held their ground against fearful odds ; and if, as at the Battle of Sanctuary Wood, they were compelled to give ground, they quickly reorganized their shattered forces and won their way back to their old positions. The fighting in Belgium and France, guarding the Channel ports under the hardest of battle conditions, against a war machine without a parallel in the history of the world, made the Canadian army. In a few brief months of war the citizen soldiers became the equals of the best regulars in the Allied forces ; and as division followed division into the field the reputation won by the First Contingent was maintained, and the Canadian Army Corps, led by a Canadian general, had at the close of the war a reputation unsurpassed by that of any army in the field.