Tragi-Comedies of Error
By Wilfrid Bovey
The First Canadian Contingent left Valcartier for Britain; their armada, convoyed by ships of the Royal Navy, finally sailed from Gaspé on October 3rd, 1914. After that we over here knew very little, but rumours flew on wings about the streets. The most extraordinary tale – which may have been true – was that Minister of Militia and Defence Sir Sam Hughes had heard of German submarines in the English Channel and had demanded and ensured that the Canadian convoy be diverted to a different port from that originally planned. We also heard, by letters from friends, of the incredibly muddy camps of Britain, and of confusion which would have been worse confounded had it not been for the speedy advance preparations made by a Canadian staff officer, Major J.H. MacBrien, later Major-General Sir James MacBrien, Chief of the General Staff and later still, Commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
A GREAT SOLDIER
Jim MacBrien was a great soldier and a great Canadian. He was calm, determined, an excellent judge of men and horses, swift in action and exceptionally courageous. He had, moreover, the uncanny prescience of Nelson and few others. Starting out in the Royal North-West Mounted Police he smelt battle in the distance, like the Bible’s war horse, switched to the Royal Canadian Dragoons, went to South Africa, climbed the ladder quickly and was on a staff course in Britain when the need came. I can tell another tale of his foreknowledge but it must wait for another day.
The First Contingent was followed by a Second and other units began forming. We in Canada had still the vaguest notions of what was happening overseas. Censorship was very tight. Dozens of enthusiasts, many of them like Captain, later Colonel, A.L S. Mills from my own regiment, transferred from Third to Second Division units “in case they missed the show.” It was not surprising that our young men were afraid the war would be over before they had a chance at it. In October 1914, the British Director of Military Operations, Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Wilson, thought all would be over by the spring – which leaves one wondering why he was DMO. We found out later that the German High Command had the same ideas on the date of the victory, though quite different notions on the identity of the winners! In May of the next year, Joffre, the French Commander-in-Chief (who had been only a little more successful than his successor of 1939), announced victory for autumn.
These miscalculations of the senior officers primarily responsible for the conduct of the war were truly incredible; none of us at the time could believe that our revered leaders were so inept. The British General Staff seem really to have thought that the six-division Expeditionary Force was all that would ever be needed. That mistake was almost fatal. We in Canada were all completely taken by surprise when we heard that the three huge armies on the German right had struck westward into Belgium and by August 15th, 1914, had taken and passed the great Belgian fortress of Liege. Then they swung south and fell on the small British Expeditionary Force which had only landed on August 13th, and on one French Army. The next news that reached our astonished newspapers was that the picked troops of Britain and France were in full retreat from Mons in Belgium. There was one grain of comfort: the British regulars, facing far superior numbers in a continuous rearguard action, showed themselves the best soldiers in the world. What the Germans had called General French’s “contemptible little army” gained the proud title of “The Old Contemptibles”.
This belief in an early end of the war was one cause of other dreadful mistakes, the news of which drifted slowly westward to our scarcely believing ears. Uncounted thousands were sent against strong positions without proper artillery preparation to meet certain death. By the end of the First Battle of Ypres in November, 1914, the British force was reduced to the strength of one division instead of six. How many French were killed and wounded no one knows, but later it was told that there were a million corpses within ten miles of the Canadian headquarters near Vimy Ridge.
There came still grimmer news. We had talked of “the Russian steamroller” – the huge army which was to crush Germany and Austria flat. It never rolled far and was hopelessly defeated in the Masurian swamps between Russia and Berlin.
The only cheerful piece of information was that Lord Kitchener, a tough soldier who had been mainly responsible for the British successes in the Sudan and South Africa, had become Secretary of State for War. He saw much further than the War Office. He realized that the huge German masses must be met by masses. He set up a great new force, nicknamed “K.I.”, made up of new battalions of old regiments linked into new brigades and divisions. Of course, the Director of Military Operations looked down his nose at this project. “Under no conditions”, said Sir Henry Wilson, “could these mobs take the field for two years.” Echoes of the controversy rang in our Canadian ears. Fortunately Sam Hughes saw eye to eye with Kitchener, not with those who disagreed, and we went on with our recruiting and training.
Eight months after war was declared, one Canadian battalion, the “Princess Pats”, had been in action with the British, and our First Division had stemmed the first poison gas attack in April, 1915, at Ypres. “Kitchener’s Army” was fighting very soon. My brother, who happened to be in Britain and found himself in a new battalion of the Gordon Highlanders, was badly wounded in September, 1915, at Loos. The “mobs” were doing well before Sir Henry Wilson ever saw a battle.
But long before the beginning of 1915 we in Canada had realized more than we had ever done what we were up against. The flow of bad news, the tales of atrocities in Belgium, all taken at face value, had a terrific effect and the intake of recruits never stopped.