The Canadian Corps, a force of 100,000 soldiers by late 1916, fought for the entire war on the Western Front, along a static trench system that ran 700 kilometres from Switzerland to the North Sea. There was no easy solution to overcoming the power of defending armies properly situated on ideal terrain and protected by barbed wire, machine guns, artillery, and backed by reinforcements. But as the war progressed, armies on both sides introduced new weapons and tactics in the attempt to break the stalemate. Canadians were at the forefront of this evolution, earning a reputation as shock troops whose innovative, combined-arms approach to battle helped break the conundrum of the trenches.
Western Front Bogs Down, 1914
While the generals who led the fighting armies of 1914 had envisioned a manoeuvre war, where cavalry and fast-marching infantry would aggressively sweep around the flanks of enemy forces and destroy them from favourable positions, the firepower of modern weapons — rapid-firing rifles, machine guns, and artillery — killed tens of thousands in the first months of the war.
This heavy, unexpected death toll brought the war of movement to a halt on the Western Front at the end of 1914. The Germans occupied most of Belgium and northeastern France and they chose the best ground to defend, usually ridges that offered views of the enemy positions, good fields of fire, and allowed for reinforcements to dig into the reverse-slopes of hills that were largely protected from artillery shellfire. There was no easy solution to overcoming the power of the defenders properly situated on ideal terrain and protected by barbed wire, machine guns, artillery, and backed by reinforcements. Still, throughout the war all armies evolved and introduced new weapons and tactics in the attempt to break the stalemate.
Once attacks had been reduced to frontal assaults against prepared positions, both sides dug trenches to protect against bullets and shells. Over time, the trenches were thickened with secondary and tertiary lines. The Western Front stagnated as vast armies faced off against each other in underground fortresses and across seemingly empty battlefields. To go above ground invited mass death.
The popular memory of the war is that of battlefield commanders stymied by the stalemate and unable to imagine battle plans other than to hurl the infantry forward against enemy lines, which were protected by barbed wire and swept by machine gun and rifle fire. The horrendous casualties seemed to reveal bankrupt tactics and immoral generals. But while the front remained stalemated for much of the war, there was constant innovation in weapons and tactics to break the riddle of the trenches.
Canada’s Fighting Force, 1914-1915
Canada's First Contingent of more than 31,000 soldiers went overseas in October of 1914 and then trained on Salisbury Plain in southern England for four months. This first group of Dominion citizen soldiers was largely British-born, and most had professional soldiering backgrounds or militia experience. They were anxious to fight on the Western Front but were lucky that the British held them back to miss the killing battles of late 1914.
Instead, the Canadians marched, fired their Canadian-manufactured Ross rifles at targets, and practiced bayonet fighting against straw-filled dummies. And they did it during one of the most miserable winters in British history, when it rained 89 out of 120 days. The parade grounds were reduced to a muddy bog, but the Canadians kept up their spirits with beer, song, and camaraderie.
The Canadian Division, about 18,000 strong, was finally sent to the Western Front in February 1915. (The remaining 13,000 members of the First Contingent stayed in Britain as reinforcements.) Commanded by Lieutenant General E.A.H. Alderson, a British professional soldier, the division consisted of three infantry brigades, each of four battalions that were 1,000 strong. Most of the infantry battalions and artillery batteries were commanded by Canadians, although many of the important staff officers (who oversaw logistics, training, or planning) were British professionals.
The division consisted of about 12,000 infantrymen drawn from across the country and from all classes. The decision was made in Ottawa early in the war to avoid the historic militia names, like the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada or the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, and give the battalions bland numbers, such as the 4th or 10th Battalion. This was done to avoid competition and bitter rivalries between newly-formed overseas battalions whose members had been drawn from multiple militia units. There were also several thousand artillerymen who manned 54 18-pounder field artillery guns, four 60-pounders, and 18 4.5-inch howitzers, which fired a plunging, heavier shell. Rounding out the division were engineers, medical units, and transport formations.
The Canadian infantryman was armed with the Ross rifle. During the South African War (1899-1902), Canada tried to arm its soldiers with the British Lee-Enfield rifle but was denied due to shortages. The Liberal government, in 1902, decided to press forward with a Canadian rifle. Designed by Sir Charles Ross, the rifle went through numerous adaptations and evolutions. Constant tinkering eventually lengthened the barrel considerably, and the Ross was considered a very accurate sniping rifle. Unfortunately, the Canadian rifle was later found to be far less robust than the Lee-Enfield, which more consistently fired the mass-produced, and often poor quality small arms ammunition issued during the war. The Ross would fail as a battlefield weapon.
Like all soldiers new to the front, the Canadians found the trenches bewildering. The soldiers’ enthusiasm for battle was soon dampened as they lived underground, stood in glue-like mud, stared into mud-filled sandbags that lined the trenches, and watched with disgust the tens of thousands of rats who fattened on unburied corpses. Most trying of all was to see comrades killed by bullets through the head or by shrapnel bursts that shredded their bodies, and be unable to strike back at their tormentors. Canadian infantrymen who tried to climb above the trenches and fire at the enemy only made themselves targets, and there was little to hit as the enemy opposite crouched for safety in his own trenches. The Canadians suffered 278 casualties in March 1915.
Battle of Second Ypres, April 1915
The first major Canadian engagement was the Battle of Second Ypres in the Belgian salient, a bulge in the front lines to the east of the city of Ypres. The Allies — British, French, and Canadian troops — held the lines there and were attacked by German forces that sought to create a diversion as they transferred fighting divisions to the Eastern Front, where the Germans were fighting the Russians. The Germans marshalled their forces in March 1915, and their attack would follow the first unleashing of chlorine gas. The gas — transported to the front as a liquid in large metal canisters before it was released — required a stiff wind to blow it over the Allied lines.
The long wait for the proper wind left the Germans uneasy, but the weather conditions cooperated on 22 April and the Germans unleashed their chemical pestilence. The 6 km-wide death cloud swept through French lines to the north and west of the Canadian Division. Behind it, German infantrymen, wearing their customary field grey uniforms and clutching their Mauser rifles, advanced tentatively into the gap where the French forces had fled or suffocated.
Chlorine attacks the lungs and closes down respiratory pathways, leaving the afflicted suffocating to death on their own fluids. Having avoided the worst of the gas, the Canadians held their ground and fired into the German troops. Later on the 22nd, they launched their first attack of the war in a two-battalion bayonet charge on Kitcheners’ Wood, where the Germans were dug in.
The Canadians fought almost non-stop for four days, facing a second lethal chlorine attack on the 24th with no gas masks other than wetted cloths. The four Colt machine guns per battalion, a two-man crew weapon, were invaluable in holding off the attack, but the Canadians were still pushed back by the relentless enemy pressure and heavy artillery bombardments. But the Canadians’ resilience in battle purchased time for the British and French to rush forward reinforcements. The chlorine gas had shocked the Canadians (and the world), but it had been conventional bullets and shells that had killed or wounded the bulk of the 6,000 Canadians lost during the battle.
While the Canadians made a name for themselves at Ypres, the Ross rifle had failed during the fighting, jamming frequently when used in a rapid-fire role. But the Minister of Militia and Defence, Sam Hughes, who was desperate to control the Canadian forces in the field from Ottawa, remained a fierce champion of the rifle that he saw as a symbol of Canadian military pride. Hughes refused to allow the Ross to be replaced by the Lee-Enfield. It took almost a year and many additional examples of the rifle’s failure before the Canadians were armed with the Lee-Enfield. During that time, the relationship between Hughes and Alderson was irreparably damaged.
Trench Warfare, 1915
The Canadians engaged in another major battle, at Festubert, France, in May 1915, where they were slaughtered in horrific numbers in frontal assaults against dug in enemy troops. After suffering 2,500 casualties at Festubert, the Canadians settled into the boredom, banality, and brutality of trench warfare.
With no other major battles to fight in 1915, the Canadians began to experiment with new weapons, including grenades. Made of jam tins filled with nails and gun powder, these highly unstable explosive weapons required the thrower to light a fuse and hurl the grenade into the enemy lines. There were many cases of these bombs detonating prematurely and blowing off hands. Within a few months, however, the Mills No. 5 grenade was being manufactured in England, and it proved a much more stable and deadly device. The grenade, usually called a bomb during the war, could be thrown up to 35 metres or, with minor modifications, launched from a rifle to a distance of some 200 metres.
The artillery shelling never stopped, and frontline soldiers grew frustrated with their inability to strike back at the enemy. Snipers on both sides lay still and camouflaged, shooting anyone who was foolish enough to expose himself. The Ross rifle remained a favourite for many Canadian snipers, who usually fired only one or two bullets in their ambushes, and it was all the deadlier with telescopic sights.
Patrolling and Raiding
At night, intelligence-gathering patrols skulked into no man’s land — the unheld ground between the opposing frontline trenches that could stretch to several hundred metres wide — to spy on the German trenches, test enemy fortifications, and snip paths through the barbed wire. By early December, the Canadians, in following the lead of a few other British units, planned a more aggressive raid on the enemy lines. In the early hours of 17 November 1915, at Petite Douve farm on Belgium soil, the Canadians launched their attack. In a hit-and-run operation, a number of Germans were killed and prisoners snatched.
The high command liked the aggressive nature of raids and demanded more. And so began a new level of low-intensity warfare that saw battle patrols or raids launched night after night against the enemy lines. These operations could involve a few scouts or several hundred soldiers. Larger raids were supported by artillery, machine gunners, and complex medical arrangements.
The Germans launched their own night-time operations, but the Canadians acquired a reputation for being fierce and effective raiders, and these minor battles honed tactics. At the same time, they also increased the number of casualties to attackers and defenders. There was no danger of peace breaking out at the front.
Learning to Fight
The raids taught the Canadians the importance of coordinating infantry operations with the artillery in preparing for assaults on the enemy lines. It was suicidal to advance until the deep rows of barbed wire protecting enemy trenches were cleared by high explosive fire. But clearing wire with shells was ineffective, as most buried themselves in the ground before exploding. It took until late 1916 for more sensitive fuses (primarily the 106 fuse) to be developed and longer for them to be manufactured in large numbers. The new fuses allowed shells to explode upon even a grazing impact with the wire. The evolution of artillery throughout the war introduced new and larger calibre guns, more shells, reliable fuses, and refined tactics and technological advances to locate enemy guns.
Mortars were also introduced early in the war, but they were bulky weapons and their crews ran through their ammunition too quickly. The Germans favoured mortars, however, and Canadian soldiers soon learned to fear the bombs filled with high explosives that were fired along a high arc and dropped into their trenches.
As the fighting gathered in intensity, additional firepower was required at the front. The heavy, water-cooled Vickers machine gun formally replaced the Colt machine gun in the summer of 1916 and proved capable of spitting out hundreds of bullets a minute. The Vickers, with its five-man crew, was often grouped in independent machine-gun companies (and later battalions) to augment their firepower. It was devastating in laying down defensive fire and firing indirectly on enemy lines, sending thousands of bullets to spray the enemy trenches and rear areas.
The infantry were also issued a light automatic rifle, the Lewis machine gun, in the summer of 1915. It had a 47-round circular clip and was not as powerful or effective as the heavy Vickers machine gun in providing continuous fire, but the Lewis helped the infantry fight its way forward, and more were added to infantry companies and platoons throughout the war.
Battle of the Somme, 1916
By the summer of 1916, the long-awaited French and British offensive was launched against the German lines around the River Somme in northern France. It was to have been a French-led operation, but the Germans spoiled that when they attacked the French at Verdun, in February, at the southern end of the French front. The fighting at Verdun continued throughout much of the year. The British contributed more forces to the Somme fighting because the French were being bled white to the south, and the British Expeditionary Force’s commander-in-chief, Sir Douglas Haig, relied heavily on firepower to pave a way to victory.
But in the face of million-shell bombardments, the resourceful German defenders just burrowed deeper for protection, in dugouts some 50 metres below the surface. When the pre-battle bombardment stopped to allow the attacking infantry to cross no man’s land, the surviving defenders, ears ringing and often suffering from concussion, raced up the dugout stairs to man their guns and shoot down the vulnerable infantry.
The supposed breakthrough on the Somme, behind a steamroller of shellfire, never materialized, and the fighting from 1 July to mid-November 1916 revealed that the advantages afforded to the defenders — deep dugouts, barbed wire, and trench systems in depth — were still difficult to overcome.
Canadians on the Somme
The first day of the Somme offensive was a disaster. On 1 July, the British surged forward into the mouth of the waiting German guns and suffered almost 60,000 casualties. As part of the battle, close to 700 members of the 800-strong Royal Newfoundland Regiment were killed or wounded in an attack at Beaumont Hamel.
The Canadians had fought the costly Battle of Mount Sorrel, in the Ypres salient, in June, so they were excluded from the slaughter of 1 July, but they served on the Somme from September onwards. In a series of battles, the Canadian Corps, now three divisions strong (a fourth would arrive in October), succeeded in capturing a few key positions, especially the ruined village of Courcelette on September 15th. But the cost was appalling; more than 24,000 Canadians were killed and wounded.
The British had attempted to break the enemy’s line by introducing the tank at Courcelette, but the tanks could be knocked out by shellfire and often broke down on the cratered battlefield. The front lines shifted only a few kilometres at the cost of over a million casualties to the British, French, Dominion, and German forces.
In the aftermath of the Somme and Verdun battles, both sides studied the lessons of combat. More shells and guns had not brought victory and neither had the introduction of tanks, more airplanes, exploding underground mines, and a heavier reliance on new chemical weapons. The challenge of the attacker was to cut the enemy’s barbed wire or create enough paths through which the infantry could advance; kill or suppress enemy defenders, especially machine-gun teams; suppress or destroy enemy artillery guns further behind the lines; and defend newly won territory against the enemy’s rapid counterattacks that often drove the weakened attackers from their newly won trenches. The Somme had proven there were no easy answers to the stalemate on the Western Front.
The Canadian Corps, now four divisions strong and under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Julian Byng, ushered in new reforms after the wreckage of the Somme. The command of infantry platoons and sections was increasingly decentralized, and information and battle plans were shared with lower ranks. Junior officers had been shot down in sickening numbers on the Somme, and their deaths had led to confusion on the battlefield; now, senior NCOs and privates were instructed to keep moving forward to objectives, using their platoon’s firepower of rifles, grenades, and Lewis guns to fight and manoeuvre on the battlefield.
The artillery, too, honed its tactics and employed scientific principles to better locate hidden enemy guns. A specialized Canadian Corps Counter Battery Office was established in early 1917 under command of a former professor of engineering at McGill, Andrew McNaughton, who would rise to command the Canadian army during the Second World War. The Office employed sophisticated methods of tracking the sound of hidden enemy guns firing shells and then triangulating back to the gun position. It also used flash-spotting, which was based on a similar method of multiple observation sites locating the gun-muzzle flash and triangulating its location. These tactics allowed the Canadian artillery to find and then smother enemy positions in high explosives and poison gas.
The creeping barrage was also refined since it was first used on the Somme. This new tactic involved hundreds of guns laying down a slow-moving wall of shellfire to tear through the enemy trench system, either killing defenders or forcing them into their dugouts. On the Somme, artillery bombardments had often stopped at zero hour (the moment the infantry began to leave the trenches) thereby signalling the start of the Allied attack. In the winter of 1916-17, the infantry instead rehearsed following closely behind the rolling artillery barrage. This tactic would keep the enemy pinned down and prevent the attackers from being caught in the open before reaching the German lines. The Canadian and British forces expected to lose soldiers to friendly fire as they “leaned into the barrage,” but it was better than the wholesale slaughter of forces caught in no man’s land.
Battle of Vimy Ridge
The attacking Canadians used these new tactics to deliver victory at Vimy Ridge on 9–12 April 1917. The formidable 7 km-long ridge had been held by the Germans from the start of the war and the defenders there had repulsed several Allied attacks. But Byng’s Boys had planned thoroughly, and the 100,000-strong Canadian Corps surged forward on 9 April, all four divisions in the attack, with 15,000 men in the first waves of the assault.
The infantry followed the creeping barrage up the ridge and drove the enemy back in countless small battles. Grenades, rifle fire, and machine guns knocked out enemy strong points. There were several official accounts of infantrymen using their bayonets to drive the enemy back or force his surrender; he 17-inch blade of the bayonet was an original weapon from 1914 and continued to find a role on the battlefield. For one of the first times in the war on the Western Front, the attackers decisively dislodged the enemy from a fortified position. The challenge remained of how to turn a single victory into a series of victorious campaigns.
Hill 70 and Passchendaele
While the successful weapons and tactics contributing to victory were in place, they were difficult to replicate consistently. Each battle was different since terrain, weather, and enemy strength and morale could influence the outcome. The Canadians fought aggressively over the summer and fall of 1917 at Hill 70 and Passchendaele, where they beat the Germans in battle but at a terrible cost in lives.
At the August 1917 Battle of Hill 70, near Vimy Ridge, in northern France, the Canadians employed their infantry, artillery, and machine gunners to attack and hold an enemy position and set up a sweeping field of bullet and shell fire to tear apart the counterattacking enemy forces. The Germans were chewed up in the fighting.
However, at Passchendaele, in October and November 1917, incessant shellfire mixed with rain reduced the battlefield east of Ypres, Belgium, to a bog of mud and unburied corpses. The Canadian Corps, now under command of Canadian-born Sir Arthur Currie, had to find new ways to win in the mud. Relying heavily on the creeping barrage and counter-battery fire to suppress enemy defences and guns, the Canadians in four methodical attacks — on 26 and 30 October and 6 and 10 November — clawed their way out of the mud and up the ridge. The victory cost another 16,000 casualties, but the Canadians solidified their reputation as an elite fighting force.
The final year of the Great War saw further advances in warfighting. The Germans knocked the Russians from the conflict in early 1918 and imposed a harsh peace. The victory in the east allowed the Germans to transfer dozens of divisions to the Western Front for a final assault against the Allies. The Kaiser’s armies sought to drive France or Britain from the war before the full strength of the United States (which had entered the war in April 1917) could be brought to bear.
On 21 March, 1918, behind hurricane bombardments of high explosives, shrapnel, and poison gas, rapid-moving German infantry units surged forward, attacking through the soft spots in the Allied lines. By fighting and manoeuvring around strong points as opposed to trying to bash through them, they made deep advances into the British, and, later, French lines. In the confusion and chaos of battle, Allied soldiers found themselves behind enemy lines and thousands surrendered. But after a week or so of defeats, the British eventually slowed the German advance through a resilient defence. The Germans had nearly found a way to break through the trenches, but the casualties had been horrendous, as infantry pushed beyond their artillery’s range and then faced Allied guns and defences without heavy supporting firepower. This desperate offensive, which ran for about three months, cost the Germans around 800,000 casualties.
Combined-Arms Warfare and the Hundred Days
The Allies counterattacked east of Paris, in July 1918, at the Second Battle of the Marne and then in northern France, on 8 August, at Amiens. In that operation, the Canadian and Australian Corps spearheaded a larger British and French attack. The battle was planned in secrecy and was the culmination of almost four years of tactical reforms. The weapons and tactics had been in place since 1917, but now they were welded together in a combined-arms approach that saw the infantry advance behind creeping barrages, tanks and armoured cars thrusting forward, fighter planes shooting up ground targets and reporting back to headquarters on advances or enemy targets, and machine guns and mortar fire, along with chemical agents, further harassing enemy positions. The front was blown open on the 8th, but the deep Allied advance of 13 km outdistanced its artillery and logistical lines, and the Germans were able to rush reinforcements to the front.
The Battle of Amiens, fought intensely from 8-11 August, and then over several more days, was the start of the Hundred Days campaign, a series of relentless hammer blows against the German lines by all of the Allied forces on the Western Front. The elite Canadian Corps, its fighting divisions brought up to strength with conscripted soldiers, was thrown into several battles, breaking the enemy positions at Arras, the Hindenburg Line, Cambrai, and finally, on the last day of the war, 11 November, capturing Mons, Belgium.
The Canadian Corps beat the enemy with a honed, combined-arms approach to battle, using all the weapons at their disposal. These offensive weapons, wielded by determined soldiers and commanded by efficient leaders, overcame the power of the defensive weapons, fortifications, and defenders on the Western Front.
The Canadians had earned their reputation as shock troops, and they were widely recognized as one of the most effective fighting formations within the British Expeditionary Force. But the tremendous fighting during the Hundred Days had also inflicted more than 45,000 casualties on the Canadian Corps. The German army was decisively beaten in the field, but it had come at a withering cost.