As the war progressed the Canadian troops were more and more regarded - as were the Australian troops - as the most effective, respected, and feared by the enemy - of all the military formations on the Western Front, often going into battle first as elite 'shock troops' (German word: Stoßtrupp). For a nation of just eight million people at the time Canada's war effort was quite simply remarkable. Over 619,000 men and women served in the Canadian forces in the First World War, with the horrific casualty figures of over 59,500 killed and 154,360 wounded
Canada's sacrifices and huge contributions to the war contributed - like NZ and Australia - to the formation of its own national spirit and in many ways the start of its independence away from the British, however it opened deep divisions between its French and English speaking populations. For the first time in its military history, Canadian forces fought as one distinct unit under a Canadian-born commander. Battles like Vimy Ridge, the horrific Second battle of Passchendaele and the Battle of the Somme are still vividly remembered with great reverence today as part of Canada's heritage and coming of age.
The majority of Canadians in 1914 were of of British descent and argued that Canadians had a duty to fight on behalf of their mother country. Sir Wilfrid Laurier was considered to speak for the majority of English-Canadians when he proclaimed: "It is our duty to let Great Britain know and to let the friends and foes of Great Britain know that there is in Canada but one mind and one heart and that all Canadians are behind the Mother Country."
Canada's casualties in the Great War was a staggering 67,000 killed and over 173,000 wounded out of an expeditionary force of 620,000 people mobilized for the war. A HUGE 39% of mobilized men were casualties.
An amazing 70 VCs were awarded to Canadians in the First World War
The Canadian Corps was formed from the Canadian Expeditionary Force in September 1915 after the arrival of the 2nd Canadian Division in France. The soldiers of the Corps were mainly volunteers, as conscription in Canada was not effected until near the end of the war mostly to try and replace the effects of the casualty rate and the debilitating effect of the war on the general population who had grown very weary of the war and its effects on the population especially the dreadful casualty rate. The Corps was expanded by the addition of the 3rd Canadian Division in December 1915 and the 4th Canadian Division in August 1916. The organization of a 5th Canadian Division began in February 1917 but was not fully formed when it was broken up in February 1918 and its men used to reinforce the other four divisions. Although the Corps was within and under the command of the British Army, there was considerable pressure among Canadian leaders, especially following the Battle of the Somme, for the Corps to fight as a single unit rather than spreading the divisions through the whole army.
Originally commanded by Lieutenant General Sir E.A.H. Alderson until 1916, command was then passed to Lieutenant General Sir Julian Byng who later was made Lord Byng of Vimy and Governor General of Canada. When Byng was promoted to a higher command during the summer of 1917, he was succeeded by the commander of the 1st Division, General Sir Arthur W. Currie, giving the Corps its first all Canadian commander.
Neuve Chapelle 1915
The Canadian Expeditionary Force's first battle of World War I was in the French town of Neuve Chapelle. After arriving from Salisbury Plain in England the Canadian forces were to prevent the Germans from reinforcing the sector at Neuve Chapelle, allowing the British 1st Army to break through the German lines and establish a new Allied front line on conquered territory. Although the British were unable to exploit their advantage due to poor communication it proved to be a huge - and successful learning curve for the Canadian who learnt the critical lessons of good artillery support, in that the artillery bombardment they were provided with was too light to knock out the enemy trenches prior to the attack. They learnt immediately invaluable lessons of correct artillery implementation that stood them in enormous stead for the rest of the war: better artillery observation points were critical to the success of the bombardment; troop reserves were too few to follow up the initial success quickly; and most importantly that the current wire carried communications telephone across the attacking field procedure of transmitting information and sending orders to the advanced troops was slow, difficult, subject to being the prime attack target by the Germans and that the whole system of communication was extremely vulnerable and inflexible.
Second Battle of Ypres 1915
In early April 1915, the 1st Canadian Division was moved to reinforce the salient where the British and Allied line pushed into the German line in a mushroom shaped bend. On April 22, the Germans sought to eliminate this bulge in their line by using poison gas - the first use of this dreadful weapon in the war. Following an intensive artillery bombardment they then released 160 tons of chlorine gas from cylinders dug from the forward edge of their trenches. As horrible thick clouds of yellow-green chlorine drifted into the trenches of the French colonial defences on either side of the Canadians they either died or broke and fled from this horrific weapon, opening up a massive four mile wide breach in the Allied line. Overall, 6,000 French and French colonial troops died within ten minutes at Ypres from the gas.
intriguingly, someone in the Canadian division found that the gas could be semi-neutralised by urinating onto a cloth or rag and pressing the urine soaked cloth over their noses and mouths. The Canadians were the only division that held the line and all through that night the Canadian Division fought to close the gap.
Prior to the attack the village of St. Julien had been at the rear of the 1st Canadian Division until the poison gas attack of 22 April when it suddenly became the front line. The first fighting in the village was hasty and uncoordinated and included the stand of VC winner Lance Corporal Frederick Fisher of the 13th Battalion CEF's machine-gun detachment; who twice went out with a handful of men and a Colt Machine-gun and prevented advancing German troops from passing through St. Julien into the rear of the Canadian front line. He was awarded the VC for these actions but like most other brave VC winners was killed when he attempted to repeat his actions the next day.
On the morning of 24 April 1915 the Germans released another cloud of chlorine gas, this time directly towards the re-formed Canadian lines just west of the village of St. Julien. On seeing the approach of the greenish-grey gas cloud, word was passed among the Canadian troops to urinate on their handkerchiefs and place these over their noses and mouths however the countermeasures did not work as the gas was too concentrated being released directly in front of the division and the Canadian lines retreated en masse as a result of the attack, allowing German troops to take the village. The Canadians suffered over 6,000 casualties from the gas of whom more than 2,000 died.
The following day the York and Durham Brigade units of the Northumberland Division counterattacked but failed to secure their objectives but did establish a new line close to the village. The third day they attacked again, briefly taking part of the village but forced back with the loss of more than 1,900 men and 40 officers – two thirds of its strength. However, valuable lessons were learnt by the allies - albeit at a terrible cost, and and anti gas measures and gas masks were developed and quickly rushed into service.
Battle of the Somme 1916
The next area where Canadians fought was at the Battle of the Somme (01 July - mid-November 1916). Initially launched as a campaign to relieve pressure from the beleaguered French forces at the Battle of Verdun, the Allied casualties were horrific. On July 1, 1916, the "flower of Britain and the Commonwealth" rose from their trenches on a hot summers morning to be completely annihilated - resulting in the largest massacre of British & Commonwealth forces ever recorded in one day or one action, with over 57,550 casualties on that day alone. Field Marshall Haig was the Supreme Allied commander mainly responsible for this dreadful tactical blunder & accompanying loss of life.
Newfoundland Regiment ("Newfies")
Among the casualties were 732 men from the 1st Newfoundland Regiment. Of the just over 800 men of the regiment, only 68 men answered the regimental roll call after the attack; 255 were dead, 386 were wounded, and 91 were listed as missing. Every officer in the regiment was either wounded or dead. On this day the 1st Newfoundland Regiment also suffered the worst loss in its history. The Newfoundland Regiment however was NOT a part of the Canada Division in 1916 (It did not become part of Canada until 1949 after the Second World War) and did not fight under the Canadians, this one battalion of soldiers were from the Dominion of Newfoundland and fought as part of the British forces. (Their story and memorial is shown in our WW1 Photo Gallery.)
The Canadians' first action in the Battle of the Somme was on September 15th when they along with the new 4th Canadian Division were tasked to secure the town of Courcelette. In the major offensive which began at dawn the Canadian Corps on the extreme left attacked a 2,200 yard sector west of the village of Courcelette. 25 days later on November 11th the 4th Canadian Division had finally secured most of the German trenches in Courcelette, rejoining the main Canadian Corps at Vimy Ridge.
The Battle of the Somme claimed 24,029 Canadian casualties but it created forever the reputation of the Canadian forces as an elite assault force of 'Shock Troops'. British Prime Minister Lloyd George wrote, "The Canadians played a part of such distinction that thenceforward they were marked out as shock troops; for the remainder of the war they were brought along to head the assault in one great battle after another. Whenever the Germans found the Canadian Corps coming into the line they prepared for the worst."
Battle of Vimy Ridge 1917 (courtesy Wikipedia)
For the first time, all four Canadian divisions were to be assembled to operate in combat as a corps. The Canadian divisions were joined by the British 5th Infantry Division, and reinforced by artillery, engineer and labour units. The Canadian Corps was supported to the north by the 24th British Division of I Corps which advanced north of the Souchez river and by the advancing XVII Corps to the south. The attack began at 5:30 a.m. on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917 whereupon every artillery piece at the disposal of the Canadian Corps began firing. Light field guns laid down a barrage which advanced in predetermined increments, often 100 yards (91 m) every three minutes, while medium and heavy howitzers established a series of standing barrages further ahead, against known defensive systems.
The 1st, 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions reported reaching and capturing their first objective, the Black Line, by 6:25 a.m. The 4th Canadian Division encountered a great deal of trouble during its advance and was unable to complete its first objective until some hours later. After a planned pause, during which positions were consolidated, the advance resumed. Shortly after 7:00 a.m., the 1st Canadian Division had taken half of its second objective, the Red Line, and moved a brigade forward to mount an attack on the remainder. The 2nd Canadian Division reported reaching the Red Line and capturing the town of Les Tilleuls at approximately the same time. Units at the 3rd Canadian Division reached their section of the Red Line at around 7:30 a.m. However, due to an exposed left flank caused by the failure of the 4th Canadian Division to capture the top of the ridge, the 3rd Canadian Division was forced to stop and establish a divisional defensive flank to its north. It was not until 11:00 a.m. that the defending German 79th Reserve Division mounted a counterattack, by which time only the 4th Canadian Division had not reached its objective.
Three fresh brigades were moved up to the Red Line by 9:30 a.m., 10 April to support the advance whereupon they leapfrogged existing units occupying the Red line and advanced to the Blue Line. By approximately 11:00 a.m., the Blue Line, including Hill 135 and the town of Thélus, had been captured. The advance briefly halted, the artillery barrage remaining stationary for 90 minutes to give troops time to consolidate the Blue Line and bring supporting machine guns forward. Shortly before 1 p.m., the advance recommenced with the Brown Line being secure around 2:00 p.m. By this point only the northern half of Hill 145 and "the Pimple", a fortified highpoint outside of Givenchy-en-Gohelle, remained under German control. Fresh troops finally forced the remaining German troops from the northern half of Hill 145 at around 3:15 p.m and by nightfall of 10 April, the only objective not yet achieved was the capture of "the Pimple". Supported by a significant amount of artillery and the 24th British Division of I Corps to the north, the 10th Canadian Brigade attacked the hastily entrenched German troops and captured "the Pimple" on 12 April, bringing an end to the battle. By nightfall on 12 April 1917 the Canadian Corps was in firm control of the ridge.
The Canadian Corps corps suffered 10,602 casualties; 3,598 killed and 7,004 wounded, and the German Sixth Army suffered an unknown number of casualties with an approximate 4,000 men becoming prisoners of war. Four Victoria Crosses were awarded in this one action. The Germans never recaptured the ridge - even during the Spring Offensive, and it remained under British control until the end of the war.
Battle of Passchendaele: Second Battle of Passchendaele: 1917
Overview: Horror, Incompetence and Utter Futility
Passchendaele has been become a byword and probably the worlds most potent symbol of the incredible horror - and futility of the Great War. The name itself is symbolic of images of a shattered, blasted 'moonscape' of cold, filth, slime, mud, barbed wire, blasted tree stumps, a sea of mud and corpse-filled shell craters and of thousands and thousands of incredibly brave - but doomed young men scythed down by machine-gun fire, horrific artillery barrages and drowning in the filthy rat infested mud of no-mans land. The capture of the Belgian village of Passchendaele (Passendale), near Ypres (Ieper) in Flanders, became in the end - an absolutely pointless objective that cost the lives of many thousands of Canadians, Australians & New Zealanders.
Of the battle of Passchendaele, British military historian J.F.C. Fuller wrote about Field Marshal Haig - the Allies Supreme Commander and principal architect of this battle: "To persist… in this tactically impossible battle was an inexcusable piece of pigheadness on the part of Haig." It is said that Haig's chief of staff being driven to the front and viewing the true horror of the mud and blasted landscape said as he burst into tears:, "Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?"
Second Battle of Passchendaele
The four divisions of the Canadian Corps were transferred to the Ypres Salient and tasked with the final assault in their capacity as 'shock troops' on Passchendaele to finish off the previous unsuccessful assaults by the British, Australians and New Zealanders who died in their thousands previously due to the atrocious rain, mud and cold as well as incredibly strong German resistance. On 18 October the Canadian Corps relieved the Anzac Corps from their positions along the valley between Gravenstafel Ridge and the heights at Passchendaele. Interestingly this was the same front that the 1st Canadian Division occupied back in April 1915.
The Canadian Corps operation was executed in series of three attacks each with limited objectives, delivered at intervals of three or more days. The execution dates of the phases was 26 October, 30 October and 6 November.
The first stage began on the morning of 26 October. The 3rd Canadian Division was assigned the northern flank which included the sharply rising ground of the Bellevue spur. South of the Ravebeek creek, the 4th Canadian Division would take the Decline Copse which straddled the Ypres-Roulers railway. The 3rd Canadian Division captured the Wolf Copse and secured its objective line but was ultimately forced to drop a defensive flank to link up with the flanking division of the British Fifth Army. The 4th Canadian Division initially captured all its objectives, but gradually retreated from the Decline Copse due to German counterattacks and miscommunication between the Canadian and Australian units to the south.
The second stage began on 30 October and was intended to capture the positions not captured during the previous stage and gain a base for the final assault on Passchendaele. The southern flank was to capture the strongly held Crest Farm while the northern flank was to capture the hamlet of Meetcheele as well as the Goudberg area near the Canadian Corps' northern boundary. The southern flank quickly captured Crest Farm and begun sending patrols beyond its objective line and into Passchendaele itself. The northern flank was again met with exceptional German resistance. The 3rd Canadian Division captured Vapour Farm at the corps' boundary, Furst Farm to the west of Meetcheele and the crossroads at Meetcheele, but remained short of its objective line.
To permit time to facilitate reliefs, there was a planned seven day pause between the second and third stage. British Second Army was ordered to take over section of the British Fifth Army front adjoining the Canadian Corps, so that the central portion of the assault could proceed under a single command. Three consecutive rainless days between 3 and 5 November were instrumental in the successful logistical preparations and reorganization of the troops for the final third stage. The third stage began the morning of 6 November with the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions having taken over the front, relieving the 3rd and 4th Canadian Divisions respectively. Less than three hours after the start of the assault, many units had reached their final objective lines and the town of Passchendaele had been finally captured. A final successful action to gain the remaining high ground north of the village in the vicinity of Hill 52 was launched 10 November. This attack on 10 November brought to an end the long drawn-out Third Battle of Ypres.
The Second Battle of Passchendaele cost the Canadian Corps 15,654 casualties with over 4,000 dead, in 16 days of fighting. A truly horrific price to pay for a piece of land that was strategically useless and was given up to the Germans some months later with no resistance. Utter Futility.
The Hundred Days Offensive: 1918
Throughout these three final months, the Canadian troops saw action in several areas. The first was near the enemy salient on August 8 where the Canadian Corps (along with the New Zealanders, Australians, French and British) was charged with the task of spearheading the assault on the German forces in Amiens. In the subsequent battle, the morale of the German forces was badly shaken. In the German General Ludendorff's words, the battle of Arras was a "black day for the German army." After their breakthrough at Amiens, the Canadians were shifted back to Arras and given the task of breaking the Hindenburg Line in the Arras area.
Between August 26 and September 2, the Canadian Corps launched multiple attacks along the German front at Canal du Nord. On September 27, 1918, the Canadian Forces broke through the Hindenburg Line by crashing through a dry section of the Canal du Nord. The operation ended in triumph on October 11, 1918, when the Canadian forces drove the Germans out of their main distribution centre in the Battle of Cambrai.
Battle of Cambrai 1918
On 8 October, the 2nd Canadian Division entered Cambrai with light resistance (fewer than 20 casualties were taken) and pressed northward, leaving the securing of the town to the 3rd Canadian Division following them close behind. When the 3rd entered the town on 10 October it was deserted. Frederick Banting, the discoverer of insulin, was wounded in this battle as he was performing his duties as a medic. The battle incorporated many of the newer tactics of 1918 particular tanks, meaning that the attack was an overwhelming success with light casualties in an extremely short amount of time.
In the final one hundred days of the war, the Canadian Corps marched successfully right through to Mons, however along the way it took over 46,000 casualties. The last Canadian to be killed was George Lawrence Price, two minutes before the armistice took effect at 11 am. on November 11. His death is universally recognised as being the last soldier to be killed during World War I.
Royal Canadian Flying Corps
Many hundreds of Canadians flew in WW1 with the Royal Air Force, amongst them the crack Canadian Ace Billy Bishop officially credited with 72 victories, making him the top Canadian ace, and according to some sources, the top ace of the British Empire. He survived the war and later went on to become Air Marshal William "Billy" Bishop VC, CB, DSO & Bar, MC, DFC, ED dying in 1956.