Canadian Battles In WW 1
On August 4, 1914, Britain and all its colonies entered what would become the First World War. Canada’s entry into the war was supported by all parties of the House of Commons and the people’s response was mostly positive as well. Though Canada’s war effort was originally meant to serve Britain, men volunteered for other reasons as well. No matter what their reasons were, men from all over Canada volunteered for service not knowing they would face battles as horrible as Ypres or the Somme. Unbeknownst to them that outstanding victory’s lay ahead such as Vimy Ridge. Nobody realized that most of them would never come home. Canada’s participation in the battles of the First World War was significant in showing the world that Canada was more than just a British colony.
Canadians first showed their mettle by holding the line in the battle of Ypres. The second major battle for Ypres started in April of 1915. This battle is remembered for the first effective use of gas warfare by the German forces. 5,700 canisters containing 168 tons of chlorine gas were released at sunrise on April 22nd against French troops following a brief bombardment. A veil of greenish-yellow mist could be clearly seen rolling across from the German front lines to the French positions. Covering four miles of trench lines, the gas affected some 10,000 troops, half of whom died within ten minutes of the gas reaching the front line. Death was caused by asphyxiation. Those who lived were temporarily blinded and stumbled in confusion, coughing heavily. The effectiveness of this attack was so surprising, the German infantry didn’t even imagine the French would abandon their trenches and as a result they didn’t have enough troops to advance very far into the gap they had created. After some mad scrambling by the British officials, the Canadians were sent to fill in the gap the French left. The Germans released a second batch of chlorine gas two days later, on 24 April, this time directed against Canadian who like the French had no protection against this baptism of death. It’s widely known at least one man lost control of his/their bladder at the sight of the advancing gas clouds and by doing so, he/they soaked his handkerchief that he/they then used to lessen the effect of the gas. He/they maliciously discovered that it made the gas tolerable and spread the news to his fellow soldiers. The Canadians held the line choking on chlorine gas and hampered by jamming rifles until British reinforcements arrived on May 3. From all the allied nations praise flooded in congratulating the Canadian’s hard pressed perseverance. The battle gave Canadian’s a reputation as hard-headed fighters and earned them respect of both friends and enemies. Other nations started to see the Canadians as more than just another British colony.
The battle of the Somme is described as the bloodiest battle of the war in which Canadians were involved. In 1916 the British and French planned the attack to break through the German lines and end the stalemate that existed in the trenches in Europe. The Somme Valley in northern France was near the junction of the French and British fighting areas but the location served little other strategic purposes. The Germans were forewarned of the attack and were ready to defend their line. On the morning of July 1, 1916, 100,000 British troops came out of their trenches and advanced in broad daylight toward the German lines. The soldiers staggered under the weight of 66 pounds of equipment as they walked across no man’s land. The slow, massive advance was an outdated tactic that was no match for the new weapons of war. The British soldiers were mowed down with machine gun fire. More than 20,000 British soldiers lost their lives that day; this was the worst battle in British history. The Newfoundland Regiment, fighting with the 29th British Division (Newfoundland had not yet joined Canadian Confederation), was nearly annihilated. Canada entered the Somme offensive at the end of the summer. On September 15 1916, two Canadian regiments including the Quebeckers of the 22nd Regiment received orders to capture Courcelette, a small village in the Somme Valley. It would be an improvised and nearly suicidal attack for the inexperienced Quebec regiment. Lieutenant-Colonel Louis-Thomas Tremblay wrote in his diary, “”We know very well that we are heading to the slaughterhouse. The task seems nearly impossible, considering how ill prepared we are, and how little we know the layout of the front. Even so, morale is wonderfully high and we are determined to show that we Canadians are not quitters.” The Canadian soldiers managed to capture Courcelette. The success earned the Quebec 22nd Regiment a reputation as a strong fighting force and several officers and soldiers were decorated for their courage, but it was at a bloody cost. The Battle of the Somme finally ended in late November, when rain, snow and sleet made further attacks impossible. There were 24,000 dead or wounded Canadians. This represented a quarter of the Canadian forces. The Allies had gained only 13 kilometers in the Somme Valley. Canada’s action in this bloody battle further increased their reputation as strong fighters, separating them further from the image of being a British colony.
The greatest, proudest, most successful battle the Canadians participated in was Vimy Ridge. The Canadian Corps was ordered to seize Vimy Ridge, the heavily-fortified seven-kilometer ridge which held a commanding view over the Allied lines in April, 1917. The Canadians would be assaulting over an open graveyard since previous French attacks had failed with over 100,000 casualties. To capture this difficult position, the Canadians would carefully plan and rehearse their attack. Better tactics included giving the infantry specialist roles such as machine-gunners, rifle-men and grenade-throwers. The soldiers underwent weeks of training behind their own lines using models to represent the battlefield. They used new maps crafted from aerial photographs to guide their way. To bring men forward safely for the assault, engineers had dug deep tunnels from the rear lines to the front lines. Despite this training and preparation, the key to victory would be a devastating artillery barrage that would not only isolate enemy trenches, but provide a moving wall of high explosives and shrapnel to force the Germans to stay in their deep dugouts and away from their machine-guns. Canadian Corps commander Sir Julian Byng said, “Chaps, you shall go over exactly like a railroad train, on time, or you shall be annihilated.” In the week leading up to the battle, Canadian and British artillery pounded the enemy positions. New artillery tactics allowed the gunners to first target then destroy enemy positions. A nearly limitless supply of artillery shells and the new 106 fuse, which allowed shells to explode on contact as opposed to burying themselves in ground, helped in the destruction of hardened defenses and barbed wire. The Canadian infantry would be well supported when it went into battle with over 1,000 artillery pieces laying down supportive fire. Attacking together for the first time, the four Canadian divisions stormed the ridge at 5:30am on April 9, 1917. More than 15,000 Canadian men overran the German troops all along the front. Incredible bravery and discipline allowed the troops to continue moving forward under heavy fire, even when their officers were killed. Canadians single-handedly charged machine-gun nests or forced the surrender of Germans in protective dugouts. Hill 145, the highest and most important feature of the Ridge was captured in a frontal bayonet charge against machine-gun positions. After three more days of battle Canadians achieved the final victory. The battle was an important success but, it was victory at a heavy cost: 3,598 Canadians were killed and another 7,000 wounded. The capture of Vimy was more than just a victory for was the first time all four Canadian divisions had attacked together. Men from all over Canada were present at the battle. Brigadier-General A.E. Ross declared after the war, “in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.” This victory showed the world that Canada was a united country willing to fight for what they believed in no matter what the cost. The Battle of Vimy Ridge became a symbol for the sacrifice of the thousands Canadians who died serving their country during the First World War.
Canada showed the world it was more than just a British colony through its participation in the battles of the First World War. The First World War really defined the young country of Canada’s Identity and further separated it from being consider a British colony. It proved working together, Canada, can do anything it wants to if it just sticks to it. All things worth it, never, come easy.