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IN FLANDERS FIELDS the poppies blow  
Between the crosses row on row,  
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below
–John McRae, "In Flanders Fields"

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we remember. Veterans march, choirs sing, wreaths are laid, all with dignity and solemnity. Whether you call it Veteran's Day (U.S.) or Remembrance Day (Canada), the day honours all those who have served in the military. But its specific date commemorates the end of the First World War, on November 11, 1918. Photobucket - Video and Image HostingThe battlefields of that war remain bywords for pointless slaughter: Gallipoli, the Somme, Passchendaele. Yet out of its horrors emerged a nation: Canada. Follow me below the fold for a closer look at Canada's role in the "Great War," and at just a few of the brave men who helped forge a nation...

Cross-posted from The Next Agenda:For Progressive Canadian Politics and from Progressive Historians.

A Dominion Divided    


At the beginning of the  First World War, Canada was a Dominion, enjoying complete control over its internal policies. But its foreign relations were controlled by Great Britain, and so in 1914, Canada entered World War I when Great Britain did. Canada's army numbered a mere 3,110; within a few weeks more than 32,000 men gathered at Valcartier Camp near Quebec City to serve in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. 70% of these volunteers were recent immigrants from Britain.

Canadian feelings on war were matter were mixed. Although some were eager to serve, others were not so sure. Many in Quebec, for example, mirrored the opinions of the United States: this was a European conflict that had little to do with North American concerns.

For francophones, it didn't help that Canadian military policy dictated that the earliest French-speaking  volunteers were assigned to English-speaking units. There, they were often discriminated against because of their Catholicism and lack of English.  It also didn't help that the war came during a period of intense English-French tension, as the province of Ontario was working to eliminate all use of French in its schools. The creation of the all-francophone 22nd Regiment (known to anglophones as the "Van Doos," for the sound of 22 in French: Vingt- Deux) helped ease the problem of French-speaking recruits in English units. But the war remained unpopular with many Canadians–especially (but not exclusively) in Quebec.

Yet over the course of the war, Canadians of all backgrounds–French, English, Ukranian, German, Afro-Canadian, Irish, Scottish, First Nations and more–served their country. An unpopular Conscription Act came into effect in 1918, but the vast majority of Canada's soldiers were volunteers. While Canadians at home debated the war, their fighting forces were serving with distinction.

Trial at Ypres

The legend of Canadian mettle really began in April 1915. At a Belgian town named Ypres, they were among the first Allied troops on the Western Front to be attacked by chlorine gas. Their discipline and bravery in the face of this assault was remarkable.

On April 22, the Germans used chlorine gas  against Algerian and Canadian forces. One of the officers recorded the unfamiliar sight:

Maj. McLaren, Maj. Ormond and Capt. Glidden [the Medical Officer] riding between Elverdinge and Brielen hear bombardment from the northeast and see shells breaking, also cloud of peculiar colour (greyish, yellowish, greenish), darker near the ground and lighter in colour near top.

The Algerians bore the brunt of the attack and were unable to hold the line. The Canadians sealed the gap, and pushed the German forces back. On 24 April, Canadian troops were submitted to another barrage of gas; this time, some men had figured out that wet cloths would stop the gas, and they fought through the shocking cloud.

Despite the innovation, the gas was still horrific. It burned skin and lungs alike; some men were permanently blinded from getting it in their eyes. Still they held off the advancing Germans, who were once again forced  to retreat. 1000 Canadians lost their lives at the battle; a further 5000 were wounded (many of these later died from the complications of the gas.)

The horrific casualties inspired Canadian surgeon John McRae to pen the famous poem "In Flanders fields."

We are the Dead. Short days ago /
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, /
Loved and were loved, and now we lie /
In Flanders fields.

McRae and the other Canadian medical forces faced almost as much horror as the fighting men. They worked under terrible conditions and the awful knoledge that they were patchign men up to face more gas, shelling, and disease. It should be noted that a total of 3,141 women enlisted as nursing sisters in the Canadian Army Medical Corps Force–and they, too, suffered from the loss of life. 46 Canadian military nurses died during the First World War from drowning, disease and air raids on field hospitals.

The Horror of the Somme

Ypres was the place time that any "colonial" force had beaten back a European power. The world was impressed. Canadians  were major players in 1916's horrific  Battle of the Somme. Intended to relieve pressure on the French at Verdun, this British-led assault on the German lines turned into a costly disaster.

On the first day, the forces of Britain, along with those of her Dominions and colonies suffered nearly 60,000 deaths. In the 1st Newfoundland Regiment (a colonial regiment but not a  Canadian one), every single officer in the battle was killed or wounded. 255 men were killed that day, while 386 were wounded and 91 were "missing"--likely drowned in mud, or mangled beyond recognition by explosive devices. Of 801 Newfoundlanders, only 68 responded to the next morning's roll call.

Canadian forces at the Somme were tasked with securing the town of Courcelette, surrounded by German trenches. In a gruelling, two-month assault, they did so, taking the German positions slowly, trench by trench. Canadians achieved some truly amazing feats during this assault.

Acting Corporal Leo Clarke, for example, found himself the only man left standing after his section assaulted a German trench in gruelling hand-to-hand combat. When a force of 20 Germans counter-attacked, Clarke continued to advance, firing his service revolver until it ran out of ammo; he then picked up a dead Germans' rifle and continued his fire. The Germans retreated. Clarke followed, single-handedly killing 19 of the enemy and capturing one, an act which garnered him the Victoria Cross.

The Canadian success provided one of the few bright spots at the Somme, where 200,000 men lost their lives—all for less than six miles of territory. Canadians suffered over 24,000 casualties (out of an Allied total of 650,000) , but they had secured a reputation as disciplined and motivated shock troops. British Prime Minister Lloyd George wrote of the day:

The Canadians played a part of such distinction that thenceforward they were marked out as storm 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.

Glory Enough for All

Although this diary is focused on the achievements of Canada's Army, let me also note that other Canadians were winning distinction during the war. The Royal Canadian Navy, grew from 350 men and two ships to a force of 9,000 men and 100 ships, doing heavy service in the Atlantic. It formed the basis for a truly formidable Navy–at the end of World War II, Canada would boast the third largest navy in the world.

 As for Canada's pilots, they were some of the Allies' finest. An estimated 22,800 Canadians joined the British flying services. Who were these daredevil Canadians? They were men like William Barker,  Canada's most decorated soldier. Barker first served in the trenches from 1914 to 1916, when he transferred to flying, He achieved numerous victories at the Italian front before transferring to the Western front, where, in October 1918, he single-handedly battled 15 German planes. Despite being severely wounded (he fainted twice during the battle), he downed four planes and drove off the rest.

Fellow Canadian Billy Bishop was another of the Allies' most daring pilots. He singlehandedly assaulted the German aerodome at Arras in 1917, for which he received the Victoria Cross. He also received the Distinguished Flying Cross for scoring 25 kills in just 12 days. Of the British Royal Flying Corps' 27 aces, 10  were Canadian.

Valour at Vimy

Canada's reputation for valour  was forever sealed atVimy Ridge, where they did the impossible.   This heavily-defended, 8 km German fortress in northern France prevented the allies from moving into the Lens-Douai plain. Although the French had tried repeatedly to take the ridge (losing 150,000 in 1915 alone), German forces held onto it determinedly, using a seemingly-impregnable collection of dugouts, concrete machine-gun emplacements and barbed wire, and mortars to hold the position.

The Canadians trained meticulously before the assault. Canadian General Arthur Currie took charge of the planning and training. Although he had only militia experience before entering the war, the former businessman  had distinguished himself at Ypres. In 1917, he became the first Canadian to gain top command over the CEF.

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Currie  had a reputation for being somewhat cold and distant (not to mention foul-mouthed when angry), but his troops respected his meticulous planning and care to minimize fatalities. He is still regarded as one of the finest military commanders in Canadian history.   While few of the tactics used by Currie were new, the Canadian troops were some of the first to use them so successfully–and in a battle so many had attempted before with so little success.

Building a replica of the ridge behind their own lines, Canadian troops were drilled in detail what to do when they stormed the ridge–every platoon had its own task to achieve, and soldiers were individually instructed on their duties. Every man had a map(it was more standard practice at the time to give these only to officers and NCOs). No matter what happened during the battle, each man was informed and prepared enough to accomplish the mission.

One week before the battle was to begin, Canadian guns began a withering barrage of fire at the German position. Although the ridge offered cover to German artillery, the Canadians were able to determine the position of the German guns by using sound and light from the barrage. They destroyed over 85% of the artillery before the battle even began.

But the real innovation of the Canadians was their highly successful use of the "creeping barrage," a technique in which soldiers advance just behind a line of artillery barrage. The idea is that the artillery fire will suppress any enemy interference. The advance must be very carefully timed, however; its use at the Somme had been only minimally successful because of this problem. At Vimy Ridge,  Currie and his men made it a stunning success for the first time.

The training and preparation paid off. On Easter Monday, April 9, 1917, all four divisions of the Canadian Corps (and one British division under Canadian command) assaulted the Ridge. Thanks to a system of tunnels 7.6 metres beneath the service dug by the tunneling companies, they could get fairly close without risking counter-bombardment. They emerged from the tunnels in a blinding mess of snow and sleet. Still the troops moved steadily up the ridge, advancing in perfect co-ordination with the artillery barrage..

British war reporter Philip Gibbs wrote of the battle:

By three in the afternoon yesterday the Canadians had gained the whole of the ridge except a high strong post on the left, Hill 145, which was captured during the night...This morning Canadian patrols pushed in a snowstorm through the Farbus Wood, and established outposts on the railway embankment.  Some of the bravest work was done by the forward observing officers, who climbed to the top of Vimy Ridge as soon as it was captured, and through a sea of heavy barrage reported back to the artillery all the movements seen by them on the country below.

...In spite of the wild day, our flying men were riding the storm and signalling to the gunners who were rushing up their field guns.  "Our 60-pounders," said a Canadian officer, "had the day of their lives."

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In 10 days, the Canadians had gained control of the ridge, at a cost of about 10,000 casualties--; 2,598 men gave their lives in the attempt and more than 7000 were wounded. By comparison, the Germans suffered over 20,000 casualties. Veteran Clifford Holiday still had vivid memories of being wounded in the battle many decades later.  (You can view several veteran's interviews here.)

There is a story that a French soldier, upon hearing of the battle, exclaimed, "C'est impossible!" After all, this was the same ridge that cost the French 150,000 men in 1915 alone as they tried again and again to take it. But upon learning of the circumstances, he exclaimed, "Ah! Les Canadiens! C'est possible."

Doing the Impossible:Passchendaele    

The Canadian reputation of making the impossible possible was confirmed at the murderous second battle of Passchendaele in October of 1917. For months, British and Australian forces under the command of British General Haig  had been trying to oust Germans from their position at Ypres, in Belgium. The Germans held Passchendaele Ridge, the only high ground in the plain.

The plain was actually reclaimed marshland; since shelling had destroyed drainage in the area, rain turned the battleground back into marsh. It was not a battleground so much as a sea of mud punctuated by water-filled shell craters.  Stunted, burned trees overlooked the men struggling to walk only on the wooden duckboards that provided a small path through the mud. 90,000 British or Australian bodies were never identified, 42,000 bodies were never recovered from the mud.

After a brutal summer and early fall,  an October offensive was supposed to  oust the Germans from their entrenchments.  The mud hampered the use of heavy artillery, and the offensive was a disaster, gaining minimal territory and costing over 13,000 Allied casualties.

At this point, General Haig tasked Currie and his Canadians with taking the German position. Allied casulaties for this battle stood at over 100,000; Currie gave Haig his frank opinion that the losses would be unacceptably heavy; about 16,000 in his estimation. Haig ordered the Canadians in anyway. Currie refused to budge unless he had at least two weeks of preparation–time that was granted him.                       

Once again, preparation was key to Canadian success. They experimented with the new radio wireless sets, and formulated a way to keep the troops in the field informed as to when bombardments would begin. They built rail tracks and wooden gun platforms in order to counter the awful mud.

On October 26, a preliminary advance began that tested the German defences. 20,000 Canadians, under constant gunfire, inched 7 km forward over the mud, going from shell-crater to shell-crater. On November 6, the final assault on the village of Passchendaele began. The Canadians, under heavy gunfire, managed to use the creeping barrage technique–made possible by the wireless radio sets, which allowed the troops to learn immediately where Canadian artillery would be aimed. By late morning, the village had been taken. But at what a cost.

 Currie's prediction proved tragically accurate; the Canadian Corps suffered some 16,000 casualties in taking the village. Of these,  12,000 were wounded, 3,000 were dead, and 1,000 were missing—probably drowned in mud or blown to bits by shelling. All this for 7 kilometers of land–land that proved useless to the British command anyway. Winston Churchill called it“a forlorn expenditure of valour and life without equal in futility."

Nine Canadians received the Victoria Cross for their actions at Passchendaele. The stories of their bravery sound almost impossible.

As soon as the assault on Passchendaele Ridge got started, the 49th Canadian Inf. Bn. came under severe artillery fire. However, it was the intense enemy machine-gun fire that stopped the advance. Pte. Cecil Kinross came to the conclusion that the only way to put an end to the machine-gun fire was to attack the nest head-on. He stripped off all his gear except for his rifle and cartridge belt, and then—in full view of the enemy—dashed toward the nest. Undaunted, Kinross charged into the emplacement and killed the six-man gun crew. He then seized the weapon and destroyed it. The action allowed his company to advance for 300 yards. Kinross continued fighting all day until he was wounded so severely he had to be evacuated from the battlefield.

—Arthur Bishop, writing forLegion Magazine

One Hundred Days

Canadians continued to play a key role in 1918, especially at the Battle of Amiens, a major Allied assault that helped shift the momentum fo the war to the Allies in 1918.  Their reputation was now such that news of their troop movements was kept top-secret by the Allies; the Germans had learned that wherever the Canadians went, a major offensive was sure to follow. To maintain the deception, Canadian units were sent to Ypres, and Canadian wireless traffic was maintained in Flanders.

The British command had faith in the Canadians–and they had faith in themselves. Arthur Currie invoked this new national pride addressing the men before battle:

...I place my trust in the Canadian Corps, knowing that where Canadians are engaged there can be no giving way....Canadians, in this fateful hour I command you and I trust you to fight as you have ever fought, with all your strength, with all your determination, with all your tranquil courage.  On many a hard-fought field of battle you have overcome this enemy.  With God's help you shall achieve victory once more.

On August 8, 1918, British, Canadian and Australian troops led an assault on German machine guns that successfully punched a hole in the German lines near Amiens, an important railway juncture. They then advanced quickly, pushing German lines back so rapidly that one group of officers were still eating breakfast when they were captured.  The Canadian Corps covered the area between the Amiens - Roye road, and the Amiens - Chaulnes railway line. As at other engagements, Canadians proved valorous as individuals as well as in aggregate.

Take, for example, the story of Lt. Jean Brillant of the 22ieme ("Van Doos"), who had already earned the Military Cross for his actions in May 1918.  On August 8, Brilliant had been wounded by a machine gun, but refused to leave his command. As men were  being pinned by another machine-gun post, Brilliant personally led two platoons in a charge that successfully captured 150 prisoners and 15 guns.

Wounded a second time, Brillant still refused to leave his command, using only field dressing to stop the bleeding. On August 9th he led yet another "rushing party" against a field gun and was once again wounded. He continued to march on, stopping only when he fell unconscious. Brilliant died on August 10; he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his courage.


Thanks to the courage of Brillant and men like him,  the Amiens assault was successfully concluded on August 11.  The Canadians  lost 9,074 in battle, of which 2,266 were deaths; total Allied casualties for the day were 22,000.

By contrast, the Germans lost 75,000. The effect on German morale was devastating; German Quartermaster General Ludendorrf called it a "Black Day"–not only for the loss of lives and materiel, but also because of the fact that entire units surrendered to smaller forces.

As British correspondant Gibbs put it:

...the change has been greater in the minds of men than in the taking of territory. On our side the army seems to be buoyed up with the enormous hope of getting on with this business quickly...there is a change also in the enemy's mind. They no longer have even a dim hope of victory on this western front. All they hope for now is to defend themselves long enough to gain peace by negotiation.

The period August 8 to November 11 has been called Canada's Hundred Days. In the final months of the war,105,000 Canadians advanced 130 kilometres and captured 31,537 prisoners, 623 guns, 2,842 machine guns and 336 mortars. Canadian battle casualties totalled 45,830. After Amiens, the Canadians were moved to  Arras. There, between August 26 and September 2, in hard continuous fighting, the Canadian Corps they fought through the Hindenberg line. They then advanced  through Valenciennes and Mont Houy and reached historic Mons on November 11, 1918.

The last VC of the war went to Sergeant Hugh Cairns of the 46th Battalion. At Valenciennes, he charged first one machine-gun, then two more and then a third post, where he captured machine-guns and field guns. He was seriously wounded when he attacked yet another group. He died of his wounds November 2, just nine days before the Armistice.--Veterans Affairs Canada

Acquiring Merit

The official announcement by the Canadian War Records Office on the Battle of Vimy Ridge states in its opening: "Again the Canadians have 'acquired merit.'"

What an understatement. And what a perfect description of the entire Canadian contribution to the War.

They had indeed "acquired merit" in the eyes of the world. It was hard won, and on their own terms. Canadian troops, commanded by Canadians, again and again achieved the impossible. In many way he First World War was a pointless (and avoidable) conflict. Canadians lost 66,655 service members in that war; an additional 172,950 were wounded. One out of every eleven men who served lost his life.

Their sacrifices helped give  Canada its nationhood. The war contributions of Canada, Australia, and the other Domnions forced the British government to recognize their autonomy. Thus, Canada was an independent signatory to the Treaty of Versailles in 1919; it was an independent member of the League of Nations. A Canadian, Raoul Dandurand, served as President of the League in 1925. In 1923, Canada signed a treaty on its own for the first time.

In 1926, the Balfour resolution was adopted at the Imperial Conference, recognizing Canada, Australia, and the Other Dominions as  "autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate to one another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations."

The men at Ypres, at the Somme, at Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele had won this respect-- not as mere "colonials," but as Canadians.

War and Rembrance                            

Today, we remember many sacrifices. For many of us, the day evokes thoughts of World War II. The war in the Pacific, perhaps, or the air war over Europe. We might think of the Battle of the Atlantic.

Canadians might also remember the forces who have aided in 20th century peacekeeping missions, and also recall those serving now,  giving their lives in the controversial action in Afghanistan.

And we listen to the stories of the now-deceased soldiers who helped make Canada a nation in the years 1914-1918.

We listen. We honor. We remember.


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It's not because these men and women are saintly. They're human--full of virtue and sin, love and hate, selfishness and sacrifice. For all that,  they do something very special. From Vimy Ridge to Khandahar, they put their lives  at our disposal. It is no easy or light thing to take the life of another human being. It is no easy or light thing to lay down one's own life. It is no easy or light thing to risk being maimed or crippled, scarred in body and perhaps in soul.

The men and women who serve do these things, not for a mad dictator or a hereditary emperor, but for you and me. In a democracy, the soldiers truly serve the citizenry. And in a democracy, the choice of how to use their service lies with every voter.  The soldiers do not choose whether they fight for freedom or for folly–that choice is with every single one of us.  

This Remembrance Day, let those of us who are citizens of democracies spend some time pondering our responsibility. May we consider how best to truly keep faith with the fallen.

...If ye break faith with us who die  
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.


Originally posted to aphra behn on Sat Nov 11, 2006 at 03:15 PM PST.

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