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   1914 ~ 1918

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A Brief History of the Canadian Expeditionary Force

The First Canadian Contingent 1916

Shortly after the First Canadian Contingent left for England the Canadian government authorized the recruiting of a second contingent. During the Winter of 1914-1915 the units composing this new force were mobilized and trained at various centers throughout Canada; and in the spring of 1915 they sailed for England, not in one Armada like the First Contingent, butt in separate transports. The summer of 1915 was spent in training at Shorncliffe, on the Kentish coast, which had now become a great Canadian military center; and in September, 1915, the Second Division left Shorncliffe for the front, under the command of Major-Gen. R. E. W. Turner, a Canadian soldier, who had won the Victoria Cross in the South African War.

The Second Division joined the First in the southern portion of the Ypres salient, which was for so long a Canadian sector. As soon as this junction was completed, the Canadian Corps came into existence. An army corps is any number of divisions, placed under a corps commander. The two Canadian divisions Were now placed under the command of General Alderson, who relinquished the command of the First Division to Major General Currie

From their very first day the men of the Canadian Corps proved themselves to be fine soldiers, and they were quick to adapt to the new skills and requirements of trench warfare. One of the new skills was the science of bombing or what we today call throwing grenades. Bombing was an ancient mode of warfare, and it had played a part in the Russo-Japanese War; but the British had not foreseen the part that it would come to play in the Great War, and they were ill-equipped with bombs. Under these circumstances, the men in the field invented such home-made grenades as the .jam-tin bomb and the hair-brush.

Another development of trench warfare was patrol-fighting in No Man’s Land and trench raiding. Here too the Canadians proved themselves no mean adversaries. It is difficult to say just when trench raiding by night began on the Western front. But in the development of the art of raiding enemy trenches the Canadians have a good claim to be regarded as pioneers. Early in November, 1915, the Canadian staff came to the conclusion that strong parties of determined troops, working on carefully rehearsed lines, could enter the enemy trenches, inflict damage and casualties out of all proportion to their own losses, take prisoners, and get away. A raid was planned against the German positions at La Petite Douve; and on a dark night a raiding party from the 7th Battalion crossed the Douve River, entered the German trenches, killed at least fifty of the enemy, wrought untold damage on dug-outs and machine-gun emplacements, and brought back twelve prisoners, with the total loss to themselves of one killed and one wounded. Not all raids, of course, were so successful as this.

During the winter of 1915-1916 several Canadian raids were repulsed with heavy losses. But gradually experience brought greater surety of success. On January 8th, 1916, a most successful raid was carried out by parties from the 28th and 29th Battalions, who blackened their faces in order to avoid detection from the German flares. It was a Canadian officer, too, who hit upon the idea of warring white cotton nightgowns for use when the ground was covered in snow. And in the summer of 1916 the 19th Battalion went a step further, when they carried out in broad daylight a dash into the enemy lines which may fairly be described as the first daylight raid on the Western front.

Just after New Year’s Day, 1916, the Canadian Corps was strengthened by the addition of the Third Division, the formation of which had been authorized the preceding December. In this division were included the Princess Pats, who had joined the Canadians shortly before, after a year of the severest fighting with the British army, and the Canadian Mounted Rifles, who were now transformed into infantry. The command of the division was placed in the hands of Major-Gen. Mercer.

The fighting of the year 1916 was among the bitterest of the whole war. The first heavy fighting in which the Canadians were engaged was in April around the craters at St. Eloi, at the southern end of the Ypres salient. This sector had been much fought over. Huge underground mines had been detonated; the ground had been churned up by shell-fire; and the rains had made it a veritable quagmire. On April 2nd the Third British Division had established themselves on a line well within the former German defenses. The next day they were relieved by the Second Canadian Division. The position which the Canadians took up was not consolidated; and the next day before any consolidation could be carried out, the German counterattack began with the most severe bombardment yet seen in that section of front. The Canadian advance posts were overwhelmed, and nearly all the gains of the British were surrendered. For over a week the Canadians strove repeatedly to recover the lost ground, but in the end they had to give up the attempt as impossible, and to dig in on the line from which the British had set out.

The battle of St. Eloi was the only occasion in the Great War when the Canadian Corps had to admit defeat. That the failure was due to bad staff work, the inability of regimental officers to read their maps properly and to the impossible conditions under which the fighting was carried on, is of little comfort to the men who lost there lives. The rank and file of the Canadian army fought at St. Eloi with a courage, a determination, a doggedness which could not have been surpassed; they did all that it was possible, amid mud and rain and darkness, and the withering fire of machine-guns, and the obliterating crash of the most intense shell-fire they had yet encountered.

Two months later, at the battle of Mount Sorrel, directly east of Ypres, the Third Canadian Division had an experience which threatened at first to be a repetition of the reverse at St. Eloi. On the morning of June 2, 1916, there broke on the trenches occupied by the Mounted Rifles and the Princess Pats a tornado of shellfire. It destroyed not only a line of trenches but a whole area, and almost every living thing within the area. Therefore, when the first German attacking wave came over in the early afternoon of June 2, they met with little opposition. A few knots of dazed survivors surrendered, or died fighting; and the Germans swept on to their final objective.

As so often happened, however, the Germans did not press their advantage to the full; and the arrival of reserves made it possible for the Canadians to hold up a further advance. But a counterattack undertaken the following day failed; and on June 6 the Canadians lost the village of Hooge to the north. It began to look as though the Canadians had once more been defeated. They had lost Major-Gen. Mercer, who had been killed by a burst of shrapnel, and Brig.-Gen. Williams, who had been severely wounded and taken prisoner; and whole battalions had been virtually wiped out of existence.

But Sir Julian Byng, who had succeeded General Alderson as the Corps Commander, had not given up. He was determined to regain the lost ground. To this end he assigned Major Gen. Currie's 1st Division to plan and carry out the counterattack. Currie used the same strategy of intensive artillery preparation as the Germans; and he assembled on the Canadian front 218 guns. On June 12 these guns blew the Germans out of their trenches, just as the Canadians had been blown out of them a few days before; and a attack by the First Division, completely re-established the lost positions. The “Byng Boys”, as the Canadians now came to be known, had demonstrated the fact that, under all but hopeless conditions, they could turn defeat into victory.

The arrival in France of the Fourth Canadian Division In August, 1916, Brought the Canadian Corps up to what was to become its full strength. At this date the first battle of the Somme had been raging since July 1st. While the Canadians Corps had no part in the early stages of this battle the Newfoundland Regiment which was part of the British Army had been annihilated on July 1st at Beaumont Hamel. It was not however until the beginning of September that the Canadian Corps was moved down to the battle area; and not until the middle of September was the Corps engaged in any serious action.

From the middle of September, however, to the middle of November the Corps bore its full share of the Somme fighting. The first important action in which the Canadians were engaged was the capture of Sugar and Candy trench and the sugar refinery at Courcelette on September 15, this action is notable not only for the fierce fighting involved but by the fact that for the first time Tanks were used in cooperated with the Canadian infantry. The following day the Canadians swept on and captured the village of Courcelette itself, in one of the most successful operations of the Somme fighting. For many days the Germans strove stubbornly to retake Courcelette; but their efforts resulted only in further loss of ground and further punishment.

At a later stage of the Somme fighting known as the battle of Thiepval Ridge the Canadians suffered heavy losses in the taking of Regina Trench. This was a line of German defenses beyond Courcelette. which it took the Corps a full month to capture. As the Autumn had advanced, the weather had turned bad, and the heavy Somme mud had made the problem of the attacking troops heartbreakingly difficult. Nevertheless, in the end they succeeded in capturing Desire Trench, which was the German support line, However when the Somme fighting stopped in the later part of November there was little to celebrate. The Canadian Corps had sustained 29,029 casualties for a mere six kilometers of mud.

The end of 1916 found the Canadian Corps finally fashioned into the army which during 1917 and 1918 was to be the spear-head of many attacks. It had now attained the strength of four divisions; and in the fighting about Courcelette, Regina and Desire Trenches the men of these four divisions and there commanding officers had gained valuable experience, experience that would serve them well in there next battle Vimy Ridge. The growth and development of the Canadian Corps was now complete.

Continue reading about the CEF (Canadian Expeditionary Force) in 1914 & 1915

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These pages were researched and written by Brian Lee Massey & are Copyright © 1997 - 2007. This site may be freely linked to but not duplicated in any fashion without my consent. Poppy graphic and poppybar graphic designed by Brian L. Massey and may not be used on other sites

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