THE 1st Canadian Division sailed from Eng.. land on February 11th, 1915, and after a tempestuous voyage landed at St. Nazaire, on the west coast of France, on February 14th.’ The troops were hurried to Flanders and, on the 24th, after a few days’ rest, went into action in the trenches near Armentières.
The arrival of the Canadians in France will always be regarded as marking an epoch in the history of the world. For over four hundred years the movement of population and of troops had been to the New World. Never before had military forces from America taken part in a European war. True, Canada had sent a small contingent to aid in the South African campaign ; and a handful of Canadian voyageurs had assisted General Sir Garnet Wolseley in his Nile Expedition, which failed in its mission, the rescue of General Gordon at Khartoum. But the armada which landed the 1st Canadian Division at St. Nazaire was to be only the forerunner of many other such armadas that were to arrive later at this port and disembark vaster armies of the American Expeditionary Force to take part in the Great War.
No one in the Canadian division at that time realized the magnitude of the task in hand ; and had anyone attempted to foretell to those cheerful Canadians that many of them were to lay down their lives in Flanders, only to be followed by thousands and still thousands more, they would have laughed incredulously. The idea that the war was likely to end in a few months predominated. This was due largely to the illusive utterances of British writers, who were daily predicting the immediate collapse of the German Empire. This foolish forecasting of events by the armchair military critics kept the British people from realizing the gravity of the conflict and unduly prolonged the period of military preparation, and, as a consequence, of the struggle. Fortunately the British Government placed the conduct of the war in the hands of Field-Marshal Lord Kitchener, and his professional training and knowledge of the resources of the enemy put a brake on the ” Business as Usual ” policy of the British. From the beginning Kitchener foretold a war of at least three years’ duration. Subsequent events were to show that his estimate fell far short of the reality.
Previous to the arrival of the Canadians, St. Nazaire had been a base for British troops. When the Germans made their first thrust at Calais, and Ghent had ceased to be the forward base of the British army in Belgium and France, the headquarters of the British military supplies had been transferred to the mouth of the Loire. As the French Government had moved to Bordeaux when Paris was threatened, so the British had gone to St. Nazaire when the German spear had been levelled at Calais and Boulogne. The embarkation of British troops was therefore no unusual sight to the Bretons of St. Nazaire.
St. Nazaire is to the city of Nantes what Avonmouth is to Bristol. Situated on the north arm of the estuary of the Loire, it is one of the great seaports of France. Millions of dollars have been spent by the French Government in making it a great harbour. For centuries Nantes, some forty-five miles up the Loire, which here flows a mile wide between level banks, had been one of the principal seaports of Brittany. But between 1831 and 1887 extensive harbour improvements had been made at St. Nazaire and some eighty acres of docks built to accommodate large ships. From St. Nazaire sailed the principal steamship lines from France to South America and New Caledonia. A number of ships engaged in the Argentine trade were docked in the harbour when the Canadians landed there.
There was little in St. Nazaire to interest the Canadian visitors. It had no ancient cathedral with Gothic rose windows to provide a target for German guns should they reach the environs; no library or town hall filled with priceless paintings ; and no ancient castle or moated grange. It is a modern business town, given over to transportation. History, Art, and Antiquity are usurped entirely by Nantes.
As the transports, one by one, were towed into the harbour and warped alongside the docks, small groups of Bretons gathered to watch the performance. Women predominated in the crowd. The few men that were to be seen all showed signs of having but recently returned from the trenches, as some limped and others had their arms and heads swathed in bandages. The uniforms were of a very nondescript character, and did not strike the smart Canadians very favourably. Many of the French soldiers wore brown corduroy blouses and trousers. The brilliant blue coats and scarlet trousers of the Zouaves were missing. France was short of uniforms and many of her gallant sons at that time were fighting in the front line in civilian clothing.
It did not take the Canadians long to disembark. More care had been taken in loading the vessels which bore the division to France than was the case at Quebec when the armada was made ready for its memorable Atlantic voyage. Each unit was accompanied by its transport, and this made for convenience. The horses, guns, and wagons were unloaded first. When all was ready the men fell in smartly, marched off the ships and wharves, with transport-wagons, food, and ammunition, and were soon under way to the trenches.
The accommodation provided by the railway was not of the best; but the men were cheerful, even if they did not have Pullman cars. Each train was made up of a number of small box cars for the men, horses, and mules, one passenger car for the officers, and flat cars for transport-wagons and guns. The box cars bore the legend in French that they were intended to hold ” Chevaux 8, Hommes 40 “ eight horses or forty men in a car. Only eight men could sit or lie down and rest at a time, while the others stood. The men all carried three days’ rations ; and the general impression was that they were to go into camp for further training at Rouen, as they had been told that a Canadian base had been established there. But such was not to be the case. The military situation was desperate; and the Canadians were hurried as quickly as possible to Flanders.
The weather was beautiful during the journey to the front. Owing to the proximity of France to the Gulf Stream, spring weather is experienced there much earlier than it is in Canada. The air was warm and there was no snow to be seen. The first large city the troops passed through was Nantes, where a hasty breakfast was eaten at a switch. Camp kettles were unloaded, tea made, and the men had a few minutes to stretch their legs. They, however, had no time to spend in sight-seeing in this ancient city, famous for the edict of the French king, Henry IV, granting a measure of civil and religious liberty to the Huguenots. Their mid-day meal was eaten at the railway station of Le Mans, some forty miles west of Paris, in whose cathedral rest the remains of beautiful Berengaria, queen of Richard Coeur de Lion. By evening the divisional troop trains reached Rouen, the ancient capital of Normandy. After a short stay there to change engines and crews, the division hurried on during the night through Abbeville, arriving outside Boulogne about noon the next day. On the English Channel, a short distance south of Boulogne, at La Touquet, a Canadian base hospital had been established earlier in the year under the charge of Lieut.-Colonel Shilling-ton, A. M. C., of Ottawa .l In the evening the weary troops reached Hazebrouck, which was the point of disembarkation. The men were very tired after their long, tedious journey, occupying, as it did, two days. They had to stand up most of the time in the crowded cars, but they were as cheerful as sandflies, and no grumbling was heard.
Hazebrouck was virtually the railhead for all British troops on the Ypres-Flanders front. It is a short distance east of St. Omer, which was then the general headquarters of the British army, where, on November 14th, 1914, Lord Roberts had died within sound of the guns. St. Omer was at one time noted for its great Jesuit college, where Daniel O’Connell was educated. It was the centre of Jacobite activity in France, and tradition has it that there is an underground secret passage from the town to Calais, on the Channel, through which spies and other equally troublesome diplomatic agents used to travel on desperate missions between England and France. A military hospital now stands on the site of the Jesuit college.
When the Canadians disembarked in the evening at Hazebrouck, they heard for the first time the rumble of the guns, which for them was not to cease until they left France on furlough or took leave for the Elysian fields.