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Keeping The Corps Together: Army, Part 58



From top: Soldiers wear gas masks while examining a rifle in 1917; Medical personnel tend to a soldier burned by mustard gas in WW I.

The Canadians who captured Vimy Ridge in April 1917 were proud of their nickname, the Byng Boys, but by June of that year Sir Julian Byng had moved on to take command of the 3rd British Army while Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie assumed command of the Canadian Corps. As Jack Hyatt has demonstrated in his biography of this unusual Canadian hero, Currie’s promotion occurred during a period of personal financial difficulty and considerable political pressure. To Currie’s everlasting credit, these issues were not allowed to interfere with his leadership of the corps or the conduct of operations.

On July 7, 1917, Currie was informed that General Sir Douglas Haig had ordered a new attack in the Arras sector of France. The objective was to pin down German reserves that might otherwise be sent north to oppose Haig’s main offensive in the Ypres salient. Currie’s instructions were to advance towards the French city of Lens, a plan that had little appeal for an officer who had front-line experience. Currie persuaded the army commander that if Hill 70—the high ground north of Lens—were captured, the enemy would be forced to counterattack. This would allow his dug-in troops, supported by artillery, to inflict heavy casualties on the enemy. This classic example of “bite and hold” was exactly the kind of operation that won battles without massive losses and Currie was determined to get everything right in his first corps-level battle.

One of the major problems the corps needed to overcome was the increasing use of gas warfare. After the capture of Vimy Ridge in the spring of 1917, the Germans had bombarded the area with a mixture of gas and high-explosive shells. Historian Tim Cook’s gut-wrenching account of gas warfare, titled No Place To Run, notes that the corps war diary records “gas was used almost every day against the Canadian Corps front during the last three weeks of April and all of May.” To make matters worse the Germans began mixing a lethal gas with one that was just an irritant, forcing the soldiers to stop wearing the goggles that had protected them during tear gas attacks, and instead use the much more cumbersome gas mask in all situations.

Canadian artillery regiments were also learning to use gas as a method of overwhelming the enemy. In the weeks before the attack on Hill 70, thousands of gas shells were fired into the defences of Lens to demoralize the enemy and convince the German commanders that the town would be the Canadian objective. Gas was part of the extensive artillery program demanded by Currie, an expenditure of shells that led Haig to protest that the Canadians always want more guns and “always open their mouths very wide.”

On the morning of Aug.15, 1917, there were enough guns and shells to lead the 10 attacking battalions up onto the hill where everyone quickly dug in and established artillery observation posts and machine-gun positions. Using gas as well as high explosives, the Canadian artillery broke up attacks and struck at German guns with observed counter-battery fire. As German losses mounted they turned to the latest horror, mustard gas, a lethal agent that destroyed nerve cells causing uncontrolled vomiting, burning and in some cases blindness.

The Germans inflicted hundreds of casualties and created a temporary crisis in morale throughout the corps by firing more than 15,000 mustard gas shells at Canadian artillery positions on Hill 70. The only defence against mustard gas was the disciplined use of the mask-respirator, a process that exhausted the soldier and limited his capacity to fight effectively. Despite mustard gas and “no fewer than 21 counterattacks” involving five German divisions, the Canadians held and then resumed the advance, seizing parts of Lens.

The August battles had cost the Canadians almost 10,000 casualties. However, in the calculus of attritional warfare the much heavier German losses and the mauling of five enemy divisions allowed the Canadians to claim a victory. The Canadian Army’s official historian, Colonel G.W.L. Nicholson, has argued that the capture of Hill 70—high ground which was never retaken—also gave the Allies a “tactical advantage” that “may well have brought immunity from attack in the German offensive of 1918.”

After their extraordinary achievement and sacrifice at Hill 70 the Canadians looked forward to a lengthy period of rest and recovery, but despite Currie’s best efforts the Canadians were drawn into the Third Battle of Ypres, known to history as Passchendaele. Even Haig’s most ardent defenders are unable to persuade themselves that the continuation of offensive operations in Flanders made sense in the fall of 1917. The original plan, with its promise of an advance to the Belgian coast, may have had some merit, but by October, when the Canadians were sent into action, the battle could be justified only as an effort to pin down and wear out the German army. Attritional warfare is a two-edged sword, however, and British losses at Passchendaele were at least as great as those suffered by the enemy.

Currie protested vigorously against participation in the battle and tried to enlist Prime Minister Robert Borden in the cause. Hyatt suggests that his opposition was overcome only when Haig intervened to personally persuade Currie that Passchendaele must be captured. Because he had great respect for Haig, Currie obeyed, and the Canadians were committed to a battle that has come to symbolize the horrors of the Western Front.

Currie’s opposition to Canadian participation at Passchendaele did not mean he was opposed to Haig’s overall strategy of wearing down the enemy by attacking on the Western Front. What Currie and a number of other generals questioned was Haig’s stubborn persistence in continuing operations that had little chance of success.

The best study of the battles of late 1917 is by Australian historians Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson. Their book, titled Passchendaele: The Untold Story, offers a detailed critique of the strategy and tactics employed by the British army. They suggest that the loss of over 275,000 men, including more than 70,000 killed, “reduced the strength of the British Expeditionary Force by the equivalent of 10 to 12 divisions out of 60,” losses greater than those suffered by the enemy. Passchendaele, they argue, was not a tragedy because there was nothing inevitable about it. A different approach to attritional war was possible as the success at Messines Ridge (and Hill 70) demonstrated. What is more, the campaign was “eminently haltable” with a number of opportunities to call it off and save lives.

One such moment occurred before the first battle for Passchendaele Ridge began in early October when continuous rain turned an already sodden battlefield into a muddy lake. But despite these terrible conditions, the attack by Anzac and British forces went forward to a disastrous conclusion. The next attempt was to be made by the Canadian Corps—and given Currie’s reluctance to involve his men—a second opportunity to cut losses was missed. Instead, Haig accepted Currie’s request for a two-week delay to prepare a proper set-piece attack to seize the ridge in three stages, each separated by five or six days to deal with enemy counterattacks and ensure full artillery support for each phase.

Georges Vanier, who fought with the Van Doos at Passchendaele, recalled his experience there “as the most haunting of the war.” One of his comrades wrote, “We spent 24 hours in hell before we were relieved…we returned to the rear marching in mud up to our waists under the fire of an unrelenting bombardment. Surely Napoleon’s veterans of 100 years ago could not have been more miserable than we….”

Haig explained his determination to continue the Passchendaele offensive as necessary to assist the French army and draw attention away from preparations for the British tank attack at Cambrai. He also hoped the Canadians would capture the ruins of Passchendaele village and thus gain control of at least part of the ridge. It would then be possible for Haig to claim a victory of sorts and bring Third Ypres to an end.

Currie’s careful preparations and his modest “bite and hold” objectives proved to be a recipe for success on Oct. 24 when two Canadian divisions followed a heavy barrage so closely that they secured their objectives with few losses. The ground to be traversed was a sea of mud so the artillery plan allowed the infantry four minutes to cross 50 yards before the barrage lifted to the next position. The first phase of the battle ended three days later after the enemy’s last counterattack was defeated. The assault was resumed after a three-day pause to supply the guns. This time, the corps objective—the Blue line—was reached before nightfall and everyone dug in to meet the enemy who suffered heavy casualties in a series of failed counterattacks.

Currie’s timetable now called for a seven-day pause to allow his two reserve divisions to relieve the forward troops and prepare the final assault. On Nov. 6, these fresh troops were able to lean into a barrage that led them to the village and the high ground around it. Unfortunately, neither the Anzac corps on the right nor the British corps on the left was able to keep pace, and the Canadians found themselves holding a salient projecting into enemy lines. Currie was forced to order a further attack to seize the most dangerous enemy position on the high ground to the north of the village and when this difficult and costly task was accomplished, the battle called Passchendaele was finally over.

The Canadians did succeed in capturing the ruins of what had once been the village, but the cost of the month’s fighting, more than 15,000 casualties, was a price no Canadian thought worth paying. As Third Ypres ended, the first large-scale tank battle in history was fought at nearby Cambrai, and for a brief moment it appeared that the long-sought breakthrough had been achieved. Then the Germans counterattacked, regaining most of the lost ground. The war would continue into 1918.

At home, Canadians reacted to the war news and the endless casualty lists in varying ways. In French-speaking areas of Quebec the war had never seemed of much importance and few young men had volunteered. The exploits of the one French-Canadian battalion, the 22nd Regt. (the Van Doos), were featured in the daily newspapers, but public opinion remained generally indifferent or hostile to pleas for new recruits. Henri Bourassa and other nationalist leaders demanded redress from the “Boche” of Ontario, where French-language schools had been abolished, but there is no evidence that reversal of this policy would have altered French-Canadian attitudes towards the war. The Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge had no discernable nation-building impact in Quebec.

The situation was very different in most English-speaking communities. Hundreds of thousands of young men had joined and tens of thousands had been killed or wounded. Winning the war, thereby justifying these sacrifices, was a shared goal that few challenged. When the pool of able-bodied volunteers dried up in late 1916, public opinion favoured conscription long before Borden announced its introduction. The near unanimity of opinion in English-speaking Canada was evident in the 1917 federal election, when most opposition candidates, ostensibly loyal to Wilfrid Laurier and the Liberal party, campaigned on a with-the-war, pro-conscription platform.

Currie tried to keep the Canadian Corps out of politics, but the Unionist political managers were determined to use the military vote to influence the outcome in marginal ridings. The manipulations of the soldiers’ vote for partisan political purposes should not be allowed to obscure the overwhelming endorsement the men serving overseas gave to the Unionist cause. Borden, it should be pointed out, had announced the formation of a Union government on Oct. 12, 1917. Made up of Conservatives, Liberals, independents and Labour representatives, the Unionists won a large majority in the December 1917 general election.

The prospect of an Allied victory appeared remote in January 1918. The collapse of czarist Russia and the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks led to negotiations to end the war in the east. Inevitably the peace treaty, signed at Brest-Litovsk, was dictated by Germany and included vast transfers of territory. The German army could now bring large numbers of troops to the Western Front and seek victory on the battlefield before the American Expeditionary Force was ready for combat. The French government and military believed the best they could hope for was to withstand the expected German attack and prepare to renew the offensive in 1919, relying on the full force of the American army. The British government shared this view, though Haig insisted that, after defeating a German attack, the Allies could win the war in 1918 by vigorous action.

In 1918, the Canadian Corps played a major role, out of all proportion to its relative size. One reason was the decision to maintain all four Canadian divisions at full strength rather than follow the British example and reduce the number of infantry battalions from 12 to nine. The Canadian Corps found the men it needed not through conscription but as a result of the decision to break up the 5th Division forming in England and use its battalions to reinforce the four divisions in the field. This move allowed the corps to solve its manpower problems for the spring of 1918, though it was evident that if the war continued, tens of thousands of conscripts would be required. Currie was also responsible for improvements in the training and organization of the corps, including a reorganization of Brigadier-General R. Brutinel’s machine-gunners into a mobile reserve mounted in armoured cars and directly under the control of the corps commander.

Between March and June 1918, the Germans unleashed four major operations, recovering all the ground gained by the Allies since 1914, capturing 250,000 prisoners, and inflicting more than one million casualties on the Allied armies. It was all in vain. The German commanders gambled everything on a collapse of Allied morale, but when the offensive ended in July, their armies, overextended and exhausted, faced a powerful and resolute Allied coalition under the command of Marshal Ferdinand Foch.

The Canadian Corps, holding ground well to the north of the main point of the German attack, was initially required to place divisions under British command, but after Currie protested, the corps was reunited under his control. Although this policy was bitterly resented by the British senior officers, who were fighting a life-and-death struggle with the German army, Currie and Borden were adamant: the Canadians would fight together.


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