Les soldats canadiens dans les tranchées de France et de Belgique

On the northern front in France, 1918
Corps 1
Canadian soldiers in the trenches of France and Belgium
Corps 2

Between the arrival of the Canadian conscripts in France in February 1915 and the end of military operations in November 1918, some 620,000 men and women would put on a uniform and leave for Europe, including 400,000 on the western front. More than 60,000 would never return and just as many would remain handicapped for life. The Great War deeply affected Canadians, not just in terms of the losses suffered, but also because many of them had traumatic experiences.

Captain William Withrow was not an archetypal warrior. Quartermaster of the 2nd pioneer battalion, he died on the 4th May 1917, at the age of 48, whilst watching a baseball match. However, in carrying out his mission, Withrow was a typical example of the method adopted for leading operations during the First World War. A member of the Canadian engineer corps, his role in planning the assault on the Vimy ridge, which took place between the 9th and 12th April 1917, was to supervise the creation of geographical maps, so that troops sent into battle could find their bearings during the fighting. He was a member of a Canadian army corps composed of specialists, where within a single infantry squad, the duties of riflemen, machine gunners and grenadiers were carefully defined. In signing up, Withrow was also a typical example, in so far as all those who took place in this battle had enlisted voluntarily in the army. The first to leave their native land to serve on the western front were, in fact, volunteers. However, following fierce battles such as that of Ypres in 1915, where the Canadian contingent lost a third of its strength and the Somme in 1916, where 30% of the soldiers from four divisions were killed, wounded or taken prisoner, the Canadian government stated that volunteers could no longer compensate for human losses. Having promised an army of half a million men, he therefore announced on the 18th May 1917, his intention to enforce conscription. In order to do this, the conservative government of Robert Borden announced an election in which a so-called "unionist" party would confront Wilfrid Laurier's liberal party. Victorious, the unionists enforced conscription at the beginning of 1918.

1917 thus saw the first divisions starting to arrive in the country. For English speakers, it was the year of the victory of Vimy, where, following several months of planning, four Canadian infantry divisions took the ridge after a battle lasting only a few days. The only true victory of the spring offensives, Vimy was a source of pride for most Canadians. But for French speakers, 1917 was also the year of the election of a government that enforced conscription. And so today, the historiography of the First World War still remains marked by such diverging memories.

For the soldiers of the Canadian army Corps, 1917 meant something completely different. The battles of 1915 and 1916 accounted for many victims. Also, at the end of this period, their commander, the British General Julian Byng, was seeking a way to launch an attack on the western front whilst trying to avoid heavy losses. Aware that the French had had some tactical success with the counter-offensive that they had launched towards the end of 1916, he sent the commander of the 1st division, Arthur Currie, to Verdun. This resulted in the specialisation within the squad that we have already mentioned. This sub-division, comprising around thirty men, was divided into four sections: one of riflemen, another of grenadiers, a third of rifle grenadiers (using their rifles to launch their grenades) and the last one of machine gunners armed with Lewis machine guns. This reorganisation allowed the employment of more sophisticated tactics, in terms of both fire and movement. For example, when faced with strong resistance, the machine gunner would try to force the enemy to take cover, whilst the rifle grenadiers "swept" the trenches with their bombs, as they waited for the assault by grenadiers and riflemen. This strategy proved useful at Vimy. The operation was in fact successful after just one day of fighting in the sectors of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd divisions, and within two days on the front of the 4th division. Amounting to more than ten thousand men, the losses, although considerable, represented 13% of the workforce, which was less than half of the toll of Ypres or the Somme.

This success was the first in a series of victories, the Canadians taking hill 70 in August and the heights of Passchendaele in November. Although this battle later became a classic example of suffering on the western front - the wounded faced the threat of disappearing in the mud - from a purely tactical point of view, the Canadian army Corps had achieved its objectives, in extremely difficult conditions, with a loss rate of 20%. Stalemate in the trenches However, such tactical and statistical matters were far from the soldiers' minds. During an assault, the operational doctrine was, of course, of major importance, but we must not forget that such attacks were quite rare. The western front was mostly about the routine and stalemate in the trenches. The infantry battalions took it in turns to spend several days on the front line, followed by a period in reserve and finally at the rear, before recommencing the rotation.

On the front, however, soldiers had to remain on the alert, ready to repel any attack that the enemy could launch. But they also had to get down to dozens of everyday tasks. The trenches, the barbed wire and the shelters forming the defensive positions had to be constantly maintained, work which was carried out mainly at night in order to avoid enemy artillery and machine gun fire. In addition, patrols had to be carried out in no-man's land to ensure that the enemy was not using it to prepare an attack or direct assault. As part of these sorties, checks were made to check that the barbed wire in front of the Canadian position was in a good enough state to slow down or channel any German assault. The most dangerous thing that could happen on the front line was a raid, a small-scale operation often led by a handful of men, although sometimes by a whole company. The objective was to destroy enemy shelters, take a few prisoners and hinder operations. During a raid, soldiers would cross no-man's land, running from one hiding place to another in order to breach enemy lines; they would launch grenades or bombs, taking a few prisoners, before going back to their base. Sometimes operations were more complex. They would begin with artillery bombardment to isolate the target sector, then heavy machine guns were put into action in order to force the enemy to hide in the bottom of their trenches; the infantry would then launch an attack using the same tactics as in a pitched battle. As part of the preparation for an offensive such as the taking of the Vimy ridge, raids of this kind could take place nearly every evening. Life as a reserve was much less eventful. The troops occupying the lines prepared for launching counter attacks in the event that the Germans should succeed in taking a section of the Canadian front. Given the fact that the German Empire was fighting on two fronts, and that, following the failure of the Schlieffen plan (1) in 1914, it had concentrated its troops against Russia, its army rarely attacked on the western front. The reserve battalions were not, however, just resting. They had numerous tasks to carry out, such as digging the channels through which the troops and their equipment could advance towards the front, or towards the rear lines.

It was in this final sector that the soldiers could perhaps finally "get their wind back", although, even when a battalion was officially at rest, there were still many duties to perform. In addition, it was in the rear zone that troops learned or improved their skills, even taking specialist courses in order to become machine gunners or grenadiers. Despite everything, these periods provided a few days of respite during which they could find some semblance of normal life.. They could go to a café for a glass of beer or wine and a more enjoyable meal than the usual army fayre, where tinned beef featured all too often on the menu. It was also an opportunity for them to experience the company of women and forget, for a moment, all the fear, mud and commotion. Bonds were formed and relationships made, which, whether ephemeral or lasting, were not without effect on the health of the soldiers. During the course of the war, some 45,000 Canadians out of the 400,000 troops who served in France and Belgium had to have medical treatment for gonorrhoea and 18,000 for syphilis. As far as operations were concerned, after three bite and hold type offensives in 1917, the following year the Canadian Army Corps was continually in operation. From August to November, it fought relentlessly along the canal du Nord, at Amiens, Drocourt-Quéant, Cambrai and Valenciennes. The end of the war saw it at Mons, where the famous British Expeditionary Force) had carried out its first battles in 1914. It was upon entering this village that the Canadians learned that the enemy had agreed to sign the armistice.

Stone memorial

In tribute to its soldiers fallen on the battlefield, CANADA has built some memorials. In France: [list]At Vimy, an imposing monument dominates a memorial park (see no. 164). [list]In the bois de Bourlon (6 km from Arras), a memorial erected on a hill honours Canadians who died in the fighting that allowed the breaching of the canal du Nord. [list]At Courcelette, (30 km from Amiens), a granite block in the heart of a park is dedicated to the soldiers of the Somme in 1916. [list]At le Quesnel, (25 km from Cambrai), tribute is paid to the achievements of the Canadian Corps during the Battle of Amiens in August 1918. [list]At Dury, (16 km from Arras), a reminder of the operations that resulted in the breaching of the Drocourt-Quéant line is carved in stone. [list]In Beaumont-Hamel, (28 km from Arras), a caribou in bronze, the emblem of the Newfoundland Regiment, watches over the memorial to all the Newfoundlanders who took part in the Great War. [list]At Monchy-le-Preux, (7 km from Arras), a caribou looks out towards the hill where, in April 1917 a handful of Newfoundlanders held back the enemy. [list]At Masnières, (10 km from Cambrai), a large caribou honours the dead of the Newfoundland Regiment involved in the Battle of Cambrai in 1917. [list]At Gueudecourt, (30 km from Arras), Newfoundland has erected a statue of caribou for its men who fell during the fighting at Transloy in 1916. In Belgium: [list]At Passchendaele, (40 km from Lille), a memorial is dedicated to the Canadians who, in the mud and under mortar fire, lost their lives there in the autumn of 1917. [list]At Saint-Julien, (7 km from Ypres), an impressive granite block with a meditating soldier upon it recalls Canadian resistance to the first toxic gas attacks in the area in April 1915. [list]At Courtrai, (30 km from Lille), a caribou commemorates the crossing of the Lys by the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in October 1918. [list]On Hill 62 - Sanctuary Wood, (3 km from Ypres), there is a block of Quebec granite in memory of the Canadians who defended Ypres. [list]At Ypres, (42 km from Tourciong), the Porte de Menin commemorative monument is dedicated to those soldiers of the Commonwealth who fell in Belgium, including thousands of Canadians.