The “Van Doos” and the Great War

​As the only combatant unit in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) whose official language was French, the 22nd (French Canadian) Infantry Battalion, commonly referred to as the “Van Doos” (from vingt-deux, meaning twenty-two in French), was subject to more scrutiny than most Canadian units in the First World War.

As the only combatant unit in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) whose official language was French, the 22nd (French Canadian) Infantry Battalion, commonly referred to as the “Van Doos” (from vingt-deux, meaning twenty-two in French), was subject to more scrutiny than most Canadian units in the First World War. Known for its rowdiness and, at times, indiscipline, the battalion was also one of the CEF’s fiercest fighting units. To its commander, Lt. Col. Thomas-Louis Tremblay, the 22nd was more than a mere battalion: it represented all of French Canada. The reputation of French Canada was at stake, and Tremblay worked hard to ensure that the 22nd acted with poise and bravery throughout the war.

"Damn Good Fighters"

In 1962–63, the CBC conducted a series of interviews with First World War veterans. The men spoke about their experiences at the front, motivations for enlisting and the lasting friendships they made. Some also commented on the character of the 22nd Battalion. The veterans painted a picture of a rowdy but brave battalion. Major Mitchell, of the 24th Battalion (Victoria Rifles), noted that the Van Doos “weren’t as susceptible to discipline as we were.”

Mitchell also recalled a story: “[The Van Doos] scared the pants off the quartermaster in this Sandling Camp; I remember they chased him. There was some trouble over food. We went out there and here was the quartermaster running away and the whole gang after him.” Fellow officer F. Portwine added that, “They were good fighters, give them credit.” A veteran of the 25th (Nova Scotia) Battalion similarly said, “. . . these Frenchmen are damn good fighters [and] the 22nd was a good unit.”

St. Eloi

Officially created on 15 October 1914, the 22nd Battalion was meant to resolve a specific need in the CEF: bolster French Canadian involvement. It remained throughout the war the only fighting unit whose official language was French. After months of training in Canada and England, the battalion finally arrived in France on 15 September 1915. It was inserted in the 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade alongside the 24th, 25th and 26th Battalions. In their first months at the front, the men of the 22nd Battalion learned to live and survive in less than ideal conditions. They learned to defend themselves against enemy shelling, snipers and raids, survive food and water shortages, and deal with the physical and psychological impact of wet, humid and muddy winters.

In April 1916, the unit participated in one of the Van Doos' most dangerous assignments of the entire war, the Battle of St. Eloi Craters. St. Eloi was fought on a very narrow Belgian battlefield and on ground that had been decimated by shells and rain. The unit was also subjected to constant enemy shelling and counterattacks. The craters, six in total, resulted from mines exploded by the British underneath a section of the German front line. A fierce battle ensued — with heavy casualties and eventual defeat for the Canadians, as the Germans gained control of the battlefield.

Courcelette

Following St. Eloi, the battalion prepared for its first major offensive — taking the French village of Courcelette in the Somme sector of France. This attack was especially important for battalion commander Lt. Col. Thomas-Louis Tremblay. There was more than victory at stake. The honour and reputation of French Canada was on the line, a reputation that had been tarnished by claims that French Canadians were “slackers” for not enlisting in greater number. Tremblay was determined to prove that “les Canayens” were not “slackers.” He wrote in his diary (translated from French): “This is our first significant attack; it must be a great success for the honour of all French Canadians we represent in France."

Cdn. solider-Battle of Somme
Canadian soldiers returning from the Battle of the Somme in France. November, 1916. Image: W.I. Castle/Library and Archives Canada/PA-000832.

On the evening of 15 September 1916, the soldiers emerged from their trenches and led the attack — capturing the village that very night and defending it for two more days against the enemy’s relentless counterattacks. The conduct and courage of the battalion was noted by several of its officers. Capt. Georges Vanier (the future governor general), who was on leave following an injury, noted that he had tears in his eyes reading about the battalion’s conduct. To Tremblay, his men had been quite simply sublime. However, the victory came at a tremendous cost as the battalion suffered hundreds of casualties.

The greatest loss, however, was that of Tremblay. Although buried three times by the debris from shell explosions during the attack, he was not injured. Instead, he fell victim to a pre-war medical problem and was forced to return to England. His second-in-command, Major Arthur-Édouard Dubuc, took over.

Indiscipline and Desertion

Although Courcelette went down in history as a great victory, the violence, casualties and loss of Tremblay left their mark on the battalion. To many, it showed just how violent war could really be. Tremblay famously noted that if hell was as bad as what he saw at Courcelette, he did not wish the experience upon his worst enemy. More importantly, in the months following the Somme operations, the battalion began suffering a serious disciplinary problem, especially with illegal absences (desertion and absence without leave).

This was not the first time that the unit suffered from indiscipline. The transition from life in England to life at the front had been difficult, leading many to illegally absent themselves in October 1915. The battalion had also suffered a disciplinary breakdown following St. Eloi. However, order had always returned. After Courcelette, these problems lasted for months with no end in sight. Infractions were so prevalent that even outsiders like Brigadier General H.D.B. Ketchen, commander of the 6th Brigade, commented that “the crime of desertion . . . is very prevalent in this [22nd] Battalion.”

According to Tremblay and other battalion officers, the months following Courcelette witnessed a complete breakdown in troop morale. Scholars and specialists agree that morale and discipline are two intricately connected elements. When morale breaks down, soldiers are no longer willing to give it their all. Although the arrival of more than 600 recruits from “feeder” battalions (described by historian Desmond Morton as incompetent and undisciplined) fueled the problem, it was the loss of Tremblay that hurt the unit’s morale and subsequently its discipline.

Military psychologists agree that one of the most important factors in keeping troop morale high is the commanding officer. Tremblay was a special leader. He had the trust of his men, risked his life with them — frequently leading attacks — and was a constant source of courage. His loss tremendously affected his men. When he left the unit, “a fear rose up, and confidence was gone,” wrote battalion member Claudius Corneloup. Tremblay's replacement, Arthur Dubuc, could not fill the void. Many Canadian Corps senior officers longed for the day that Tremblay would return to the front and restore the unit to its former glory.

1917

When Tremblay returned in February 1917, he found a different battalion than the one he had left, a battalion that did not live up to the standards it had established at Courcelette. Disciplinary problems had stained the unit’s reputation. Tremblay believed the battalion was not only an infantry unit, but the representative of an entire people. Something had to be done to fix its conduct and repair its reputation.

Tremblay pressed for stricter and more rigid discipline, and even argued that his men would not take this seriously until someone was executed. In the next 10 months, 70 soldiers were brought before a court-martial (48 for illegal absences) and several were executed by firing squad. The tactic worked, and by the summer of 1917, the situation had dramatically improved. At Private Alexandre Dumesnil’s court-martial in September 1917, for example, Dubuc noted that the battalion’s discipline was very good and that illegal absences were infrequent. Morale was also higher.

This return to discipline was just in time for the Van Doos' third and busiest year on the Western Front. The battalion played a large role in three of the CEF’s most important campaigns. The first two, Vimy Ridge (9 April ) and Hill 70 (15 August) were resounding successes. The battalion helped the CEF secure all of its objectives and suffered significantly fewer casualties than at the Somme. Tremblay was proud of his men.

Cdn. soldiers returning from Vimy Ridge
Canadian soldiers returning from Vimy Ridge in France, May, 1917. Image courtesy of W.I. Castle/ Canadian Department of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/ PA-001332.\r\n
WWI-Passchendaele-mud
Laying trench mats over the mud during the Battle of Passchendaele, November, 1917. Image courtesy of William Rider-Rider/Canadian Department of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-002156.
Passchendaele
Wounded Canadians on their way to an aid-post, Battle of Passchendaele, November 1917 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-2107).

In November 1917, the battalion arrived at the Ypres sector in Belgium. The objective was Passchendaele ridge. Despite the capture of the ridge, the men of the 22nd Battalion do not remember the operation as a victory, but as one of the most terrifying ordeals they encountered. Even seasoned veterans were deeply affected by the horrors of Passchendaele. To Tremblay, the battle was a nightmare. The image of dead bodies rotting in the mud was seared into the minds of many.

Final Push

The battalion’s final year at the front (1918) began with Russia's departure from the war — which freed up German troops in the east to reinforce those on the Western Front. In a matter of weeks, starting on 21 March, the Germans pushed some 60 kilometres into Allied territory and threatened to split British and French forces. By June, however, the Germans had called off their advance as a result of British resistance, a shortage of supplies and severe losses. The Van Doos did not take part in any of this, as they were stationed away from the German offensive.

After the German advance, the Van Doos joined the Allied attack at the French city of Amiens. The attack plan, eight kilometres in depth, stunned the soldiers of the 22nd Battalion. Many believed that General Arthur Currie was mad for thinking such a plan, with such massive gains, would end in success. But it did, and on 8 August the battalion helped push 13 kilometres into the German line. The next day, it pushed another six. These successes had a tremendous impact on troop morale. To officers like Georges Vanier, it seemed for the first time that the war was nearing its end.

There was much hope and optimism in the hearts of Allied soldiers, as static trench warfare had given way to a war of movement, and for the next three months, the battalion headed the advance towards Germany. Along the way, the unit pushed into German lines at Arras and Cambrai, and liberated several French towns such as Valenciennes and Belgian towns such as Mons — the last city liberated by the battalion.

With the signing of the armistice on 11 November, the war was over. After a few months in Germany and England, the Van Doos were ready to return home. On 10 May 1919, aboard the troop transport Olympic, they bid farewell to Europe and sailed for Canada.

Like most units in the CEF, the battalion was disbanded after the war. In 1920, it was reactivated and renamed the 22nd Regiment, the only French-speaking, permanent regiment in the Canadian Forces. A year later, the designation “royal” was added in honour of its service during the First World War, and the unit officially became The Royal 22nd Regiment – later changed to the Royal 22e Régiment.


Further Reading

  • Geoff Keelan, “Il a bien merité de la Patrie.” The 22nd Battalion and the Memory of Courcelette.” Canadian Military History 19, No. 3 (2010); Maxime Dagenais, “‘Une Permission! … C’est bon pour une recrue.’ Discipline and Illegal Absences in the 22nd (French-Canadian) Battalion, 1915–1919.” Canadian Military History ( 2009); Thomas-Louis Tremblay, Journal de Guerre (1915–1918), Marcelle Cinq-Mars, ed. (2006); Patrick Bouvier, Déserteurs et insoumis: Les Canadiens français et la justice militaire, 1914–1918, Tome 1 (2003); Jean-Pierre Gagnon, Le 22e batallion (canadien-français), 1914–1919: étude socio-militaire. (1986); Desmond Morton, “The Short Unhappy Life of the 41st Battalion, C.E.F.” Queen’s Quarterly 81, No. 1 (1974); Col. Joseph Chaballe, Histoire du 22e bataillon canadien-français, 1914–1919 (1952); Claudius Corneloup, L’épopée du vingt-deuxième Canadien-français (1919); Arthur Lapointe, Souvenirs et impressions de ma vie de soldat, 1916–1919 (1919).

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