Chapter V – Attrition

Grand Strategy

The First World War is generally remembered as a time when innocent young men were slaughtered in pointless battles planned by stupid generals.[1] This view has proven difficult to eradicate, despite the best efforts of revisionist historians,[2] because the battles the generals planned almost always turned into chaotic blood baths rationalized by declaring that the purpose was wearing down the enemy through attrition. If the generals themselves are to be believed only one major sustained operation, the German offensive against Verdun in 1916 was in fact planned as an attritional battle where the enemy would destroy itself in attempting to recover lost ground.

A sustained critique of generalship on the western front requires an understanding that the war was shaped by the initial German advances into Belgium and Northern France as well as success on the eastern front. The small group of men in Berlin who decided to wage war to alter the balance of power had no clear ideas about re-making the map of Europe before August 1914 but the German Army’s initial victories led them to agree on what became known as the “September Program”. This document, accepted as reasonable by moderates including Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, outlined war aims which included annexations and indemnities from France, control of Belgium as a “vassal state”, an expanded colonial empire and the creation of a new Poland under German sovereignty. Similar ideas about the necessary conditions for peace dominated German opinion through to the last months of the war.[3] The achievement of such war aims required an overall German victory and were incompatible with the minimum demands of the Allies, the liberation of France, Belgium, Serbia and Russia with reparations for war damages. In the early months of the war France declared that the recovery of the “lost provinces” of Alsace-Lorraine was also a war aim adding to the difficulty of negotiating a peace.[4]

As the limits of offensive military operations became apparent the German high command adopted a new strategy for 1915 fighting a defensive war on the western front and shifting resources to support the campaign against Russia. They fortified positions on higher ground and protected them with stretches of barbed wire. General Joseph Joffre, the Commander-in-Chief, recognized this realty and declared, in November 1914, that his armies could not begin new operations until reserves had been created, shattered battalions rebuilt and special equipment, especially heavy artillery, was available. After protests from Russia that it would be left to bear the burden of a one front war Joffre relented, ordering three major attacks between December 1914 and March 1915. From the end of the Battle of the Marne to the spring of 1915 the French Army lost close to one million men including 268,000 fatal casualties in these attacks.[5]

British leaders agreed on the need to continue fighting but not on how the war could best be waged. Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, the War Minister, was among the first to recognize that the war might last for years and he proposed to raise a volunteer force of more than a million men. There was no difficulty in finding soldiers for his “New Army” but time was needed to equip and train them. Producing the guns and shells necessary to overcome the enemy was an equally challenging task directed by the energetic Welsh politician David Lloyd George who became Minister of Munitions in April 1915.

Kitchener was reluctant to see his new divisions rushed into the battles of the western front and he therefore accepted a plan pressed by Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, to go to the aid of Russia by attacking Turkey. The Gallipoli campaign cost the Allies more than 20,000 casualties at a time when their armies on the western front were also suffering heavy losses. The French army’s Artois offensive, including an attack on Vimy Ridge, required British support in the form of a diversionary attack north of Arras near the village of Loos. With the enemy firmly entrenched on high ground and the approaches so swept by machine-gun fire that an advance in the open was impossible, senior British commanders resisted the French demands arguing for an attack further north.[6] Joffre appealed to Kitchener, who fearing a breach between the two nations, ordered his generals to co-operate with Joffre. We must, he declared, “act with all our energies and do our utmost to help the French even though by doing so we suffer heavy losses.”[7]

General Sir Douglas Haig who commanded the British forces tasked with the operations at Loos, had the opportunity to devise a diversionary attack conserving men’s lives, instead he choose to stage a break through battle, aimed at Douai, Vallencienes and beyond. The first use of chlorine gas by the British would, he argued, facilitate the break-in and then by using the “utmost energy” the infantry would press on through the German defences. Cavalry reserves were to be available for exploitation. Haig converted an operation designed to assist the French offensive into one of the great disasters of 1915. Some 50,000 British soldiers were lost at Loos, almost half of whom were killed or missing.[8]

A small number of these were Canadians who tried to assist the British advance with a simulated gas attack and artillery fire.[9]

British Infantry advance during the Battle of Loos


Canadians had been introduced to frontal assaults on well defended positions at Festubert, one of the several attempts to seize the Aubers Ridge, a low lying fold in the Flanders plain that dominated the British front. The first attack 9 May, ended in defeat, swift, bloody and complete with losses of more than 10,000 men. Haig had tried a “Hurricane Barrage” in the first attack but a week later he employed 433 howitzers and guns to target 5000 metres of frontage over two and a half days of preparation.[10] One hundred thousand shells sounds like a lot unless you do the math and realize that the enemy position was at least 500,000 square metres. Since most of the guns were 18 pounders firing shrapnel at the wire the burden on the heavy batteries, plagued by poor observation conditions and dud shells, was enormous. Much of the German position remained untouched and the gaps in the wire were turned into killing grounds as men struggled forward in broad daylight. This did not stop Haig from ordering repeated infantry attacks which over a ten day period resulted in close to 16,000 casualties.[11]

The Canadian Division was in reserve when Festubert began, attempting to absorb several thousand replacements. There were not enough men in the first contingent’s reserve battalions so company-size drafts from Montreal’s 23rd Battalion were sent to the Patricias as well as the 13th and 14th Battalions. The 23rd had recruited a large number of British Army veterans and men who had served in the militia but less than six weeks had passed since their arrival in England.[12] Haig’s decision to employ such men as well as dismounted troopers of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade[13] in a failing operation suggests how determined he was to pursue the dreams of a breakthrough.

The most detailed account of the Canadians at Festubert suggests that in a “featureless terrain devoid of cover… officers at the battalion and company levels either modified or ignored orders” to avoid annihilation.[14]  Montreal’s 14th Battalion went into the attack in as open a formation as space permitted. The two forward companies advanced in four lines, each separated by fifty yards limiting the damage from both shell bursts and machine gun fire.[15] When the advance stalled, Lieut-Colonel William Burland, the newly promoted commanding officer, ordered his men to halt and dig slit trenches, the best protection against shelling. The next morning Burland, on his own initiative, withdrew his men. This early example of agency at the sharp end, finding a middle ground “between mutiny and obedience” left the 16th Battalion which had continued forward with an open flank until they too ceased to advance.[16] Both battalions avoided the heavy casualties inflicted on other units, which over a ten day period, involving the capture of the “Canadian Orchard”, cost the division 2,468 men.[17]

Coming so soon after the struggle in the salient, Festubert was a shock to many Canadians. Officers complained bitterly about the lack of time to prepare and the inadequate artillery support. Sam Hughes wrote a scathing letter to Lord Kitchener, the British War Minister, criticizing Alderson’s conduct at Ypres and condemning the Festubert attack as a “silly attempt to gain a few yards here or there with no preconceived plan or effective drive to smash the enemy.” Hughes read part of his letter to friendly journalists and briefed the Prime Minister so when the Governor-General wanted the “conceited lunatic” court martialed[18] Borden sided with Hughes but neither man could actually influence the conduct of operations. Fortunately, the next action fought by the division at Givenchy was called off before another heavy bloodletting began and for much of the next ten months 1st Division was not required to participate in offensive operations. As lightly wounded officers and men returned to their units and replacements were integrated the division was maintained at full strength.

On May 25, 1915 the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division became part of the British Expeditionary Force with headquarters at Shorncliffe Army Camp in Kent, England. The men had been recruited during the fall of 1914, but as there were no winter quarters available for an 18,000-man division, the battalions remained scattered across the country attempting to train, without proper equipment, in the Canadian winter. The new division was commanded by Major-General Sam Steele, a 66 year old Canadian warrior who fought in the North West Rebellion and led Lord Strathcona’s Horse in the Boer War. Steele was selected by Minister of Militia and Defence Sam Hughes, who wanted a Canadian in command. Kitchener was equally determined to appoint an experienced British officer “to do justice to the troops.” Kitchener’s offer to allow Canada to choose any British general on the “unemployed active list” enraged Hughes, who believed that British commanders at Ypres had sacrificed Canadian lives and he was in no mood to accept claims of British superiority. An agreement to appoint Brigadier Richard Turner to command 2nd Division while Arthur Currie took over 1st Division satisfied Hughes, but he had to accept the promotion of Lieutenant-General Edwin Alderson to command the Canadian Corps.[19]

While in England, 2nd Division was able to draw on officers and NCOs with experience on the Western Front for both leadership and training. Lieutenant-Colonel H.D. de Prée, a veteran British officer, returned from France to become senior staff officer, and other staff college graduates provided the administrative skills required to integrate the Canadians into the British way of war. There were also opportunities for junior officers to attend battle schools and take part in battalion, brigade and even divisional exercises. When it crossed to France, the 2nd Division was, by 1915 standards, well prepared for trench warfare on the Western Front.

Montreal’s contribution to the 2nd Division, the 22nd and 24th battalions were, part of the 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade, commanded by J. P. Landry a Royal Military College graduate and permanent force artillery officer. Landry was the son of Senator Phillipe Landry the Speaker of the Senate and a leader in the campaign to repeal Regulation 17.[20] Some thought the decision to replace Landry with David Watson[21] was influenced by such political considerations but common sense suggests an experienced battalion commander was a better choice.

The division reached France in September 1915 and given responsibility for a particularly nasty stretch of ground overlooked by the Messines Ridge. There was no opportunity to learn the routines of static trench warfare from veterans, the men were to learn on the job. As the autumn rains continued the trenches became drainage ditches requiring constant effort to prevent the sides from collapsing. Battalions were rotated in and out of the line every six days. The 22nd was paired with the 25th Nova Scotia and the 24th with the 26th from New Brunswick. The Nova Scotians had the misfortune of holding a sector that the German had mined and when the mine exploded “half of one platoon simply disappeared… another twenty men nearby were wounded…”[22] The Montreal battalions avoided such singular events but static trench warfare produced a steady stream of casualties and incapacitating sickness. The division initially failed to deal effectively with the problem of “trench foot”, a fungal infection caused by prolonged exposure to cold, wet conditions. Discipline and the threat of cancelling leave for officers helped to curb the problem though what really mattered was enforcing instructions that “all men before going into the trenches should be stripped, rubbed down and anti-frost grease rubbed-in from the waist down to and including the feet.” In addition every man was to have extra socks and to change them every 24 hours.[23]

Lieutenant Georges Vanier

Extra socks, knitted by Red Cross and Croix Rouge volunteers were plentiful. Lieut Georges Vanier noted that he had twenty pairs or more and asked for some maple syrup instead. Vanier, a romantic Francophile, who had no doubts about the purpose of the war, wrote frequent letters home and kept a diary. One letter to a young family friend described life in the front lines in reassuring terms. During their six day tour the officers of D Company he wrote, lived in a two room dugout with a “stove blazing away… dry socks, dry boots, hot coffee, Bovril or cocoa” and enough food to have some left over for “the thousands of mice and rats.” His diary recorded a different war. A November entry began “A dismal morning; low clouds; everything is heavy. You feel oppressed and stiffed; you paddle in a foot of mud and water. These are appropriate conditions for the month of the dead.”[24]

Influenza and a number of other common ailments added to the steady toll of losses from German artillery, mortars and snipers.[25] The field ambulances serving the Canadian Corps dealt with a total of 8,472 men in the winter of 1915-1916, 3,159 of whom had to be evacuated to general hospitals.[26] Wastage, the military term for losses from all causes averaged 700 men a month in both 1st and 2nd Divisions.[27] With four Montreal units at the front the demand for reinforcements exhausted what was left of the 23rd Reserve Battalion which was replenished by the special reinforcement drafts of 250 men from each new Quebec battalion.

A fifth Montreal unit, the 42nd Royal Highlanders, was also in France as part of the 7th Brigade which served as corps troops through the winter supplying working parties to perform heavy labour behind the front. Throughout November 1915 the 42nd provided a daily quota of 580 men who tried to improve communication and support trenches frequently “working in mud above knees”. As winter approached all he Highland battalions traded their kilts for “Trews” with “kilts, hose tops and sporrans sent to Paris to be renovated and stored.”[28]

The Sacred Way, Verdun, 1916
French infantry assembling outside of the Verdun

By February 1916 the situation confronting the British Empire and France was incredibly bleak. The failure of their 1915 offensives on the Western Front and the crushing defeat of the Russian armies in the east were paralleled by German victories in the Balkans, the failure of the Gallipoli expedition, the defeat of British forces in Iraq and the bloody stalemate in the war between Italy and Austria-Hungary. Then on Feb. 21, the German 5th Army, with 40 full-strength infantry divisions, each of 16,000 men, began the assault on Verdun. The German commander, General Erich von Falkenhayn, had decided that the war would only be won if the French army was bled to death in a battle of attrition while a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare was waged against Britain. Falkenhayn was allowed to begin the attack on the “sacred heart of France” but the Kaiser, fearing war with the United States, refused to authorize the full U-boat offensive. The French responded to the attack with determination and as the battle continued and losses mounted it became evident that both armies were bleeding to death. By mid-August, when the fighting died down, losses on both sides were roughly even with more than 700,000 total killed, wounded or missing.[29]

Most of the French army was committed to the defence of Verdun and there was understandable pressure on the British to draw off German forces by a major attack elsewhere on the front. The British Expeditionary Force, now commanded by General Sir Douglas Haig, had been greatly strengthened by the arrival of Kitchener’s new divisions, made up of eager volunteers and troops brought back from the Mediterranean. Initially, Haig had hoped to move slowly and allow more time for training but on March 27 the British and French prime ministers agreed on the necessity of destroying “the morale of the German army and nation” by military action. There was to be “one policy, one army and one front.”[30]

St. Eloi

The final decision to launch a major offensive in the Somme Valley was made in late May and the buildup of supplies for 18 British and 11 French divisions began immediately. While these events unfolded, the Canadian Corps, now including the 3rd Canadian Division, was spending the summer attempting to train while holding the Ypres salient. The enemy was still able to shell the salient from several directions, making life in the forward lines both miserable and very dangerous. Many Canadian (and British) officers expressed their bitter opposition to orders to hold and attempt to expand the Ypres salient. Sam Hughes, always suspicious of decisions made by British professional soldiers, created a major controversy when he publicly denounced the policy in a letter to Kitchener. Hughes claimed that in discussions with a number of Canadian officers he had learned that the sector the Corps was to occupy had “no proper trenches… they will be under fire practically on two sides or in fact three sides much of the time.” Hughes suggested that since Ypres was no longer “fit for habitation the line should be straightened.”[31] The problem with this apparently sensible proposal was the continued possession of part of the main Ypres Ridge which overlooked the German rear area. No operational commander could easily surrender such an advantage.

As the German army continued the assault on Verdun a series of small scale diversionary operations were authorized in other sectors including the Ypres salient. One such attack was on an unusual piece of high ground constructed from soil evacuated to build the Ypres-Comines Canal. Known to its British garrison as “The Bluff” it was an obvious target for a limited local attack which quickly succeeded. Capturing such a position did not mean it could be held and after several days of bitter fighting and several thousand casualties the British won back control of the battered hill. German attention then shifted to other objectives but General Sir Herbert Plumer, who commanded British Second Army, including the Canadians was under pressure from Haig to retaliate with his own local offensive. Plumer was apparently willing to sacrifice yet more men and agreed to attack the enemy in an action that became known as the St. Eloi Craters.[32]

The St Eloi Craters

The objective was a 600 metre wide salient containing a half acre pile of earth from canal excavation known as the “Mound”. The position had been captured by the Germans in March 1915 but left alone because it was overlooked by main Ypres Ridge and would be difficult to hold if captured. By late March 1916 tunnels had been dug from three fifty-foot shafts with the intention of exploding the mines under the “Mound” and destroying the German defences. Plumer decided to exploit the situation after the mines were exploded and occupy the salient. A single brigade from the 3rd British Division carried out the assault but were unable to establish a continuous line in the newly cratered landscape.[33]

After seven days in dubious battle for an inconsequential objective the British had suffered more than 1000 casualties and required immediate help. The task of relieving the British was given to Brigadier H.D.B. Ketchen and his 6th Canadian Infantry Brigade. They quickly discovered that the British troops were holding ground which was “more of a line on a map than an actual line of defence.” The existing trenches were from two to three feet deep in water, in full view of the enemy and exposed to artillery fire from the left flank as well as from the front.[34] The Canadians did their best to improve the positions, employing more than 600 men to dig a communication trench and pump out water. At dawn, with the work far from completed, an intense artillery barrage inflicted heavy casualties. “The shelling was, as one soldier noted, “painfully accurate… (they are) using trench torpedoes and shells of all kinds and sizes. Hundreds of shells must be bursting per minute. We must expect heavy losses….” Casualties began to flow back to casualty clearing station where a medical officer recorded “cases of shattered nerves… (due to) some men being buried by shells” and “a number (of men)…coming in with chilled, sodden feet…(from) standing in water and mud for 48 hours (without relief).”[35]

The Canadians endured thirteen days of misery at St. Eloi losing 1,373 men including 619 from 6th Brigade.[36] Both 4th and 5th brigades provided support to their comrades sending carrying and working parties forward to help improve the defences. One 300 man strong detachment from the 24th Victoria Rifles suffered seven fatal casualties and twenty men wounded while performing this duty.[37] Battalions from both of these brigades relieved the 6th Brigade in the last phase of the battle enduring more casualties.[38] After the battle, Turner and his divisional staff officers were severely criticized for their inability to resolve conflicting reports about who was where on a battlefield that resembled a water-saturated, lunar landscape. Since it is not at all clear what difference it would have made if the actual positions were known, the real issue was one of responsibility for continuing an operation which again demonstrated that you could not hold ground if the enemy concentrated a sufficient quantity of observed artillery fire upon it.[39]

Plumer saw it differently, insisting that the operation had failed because of serious command problems in 2nd Canadian Division. He ordered Alderson to take “severe disciplinary measures” and to fire both Turner and Ketchen. Alderson initially chose to make Ketchen the scapegoat, but when Turner refused to endorse an adverse report on his brigadier, Alderson asked Haig to remove both men for insubordination and incompetence. Alderson soon found himself up against a formidable foe, Sir Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook, who was serving as Canada’s special representative, publicist and historian in France. Aitken had just published Canada in Flanders, a best-selling book that portrayed the Canadians in heroic terms. Aitken, who was part of Winston Churchill’s circle as well as a friend of Sam Hughes, had no intention of allowing Canadians to be made scapegoats for British generals and he orchestrated a campaign to replace Alderson instead of the two Canadians.[40] Haig could not afford to allow a feud between British and Canadian generals to develop, and he refused to dismiss Turner or Ketchen. In discussions with Aitken, Haig even agreed to remove Alderson if the Canadians could find a position for him. Alderson was informed that he was to become Inspector-General of Canadian troops in England.[41]


The new Canadian Corps commander was Sir Julian Byng, a veteran of the South African war who had commanded the Cavalry Corps in France before earning good reports for his leadership in supervising the withdrawal from Gallipoli. Byng was the grandson of a field marshal and a prominent member of the English aristocracy. Like many other British officers, he retained his schoolboy nickname, “Bungo.” His self-confidence and easy manner won him friends throughout the army and especially within the Canadian Corps. Historians have repeatedly lavished praise on Byng as the single most important figure in transforming the Canadian Corps into a battle-hardened formation. Perhaps so but upon his arrival in late May the problems confronting the Canadians could not be fixed by a Corps commander however charismatic.[42]

Sketch map of the Battle of Mont Sorrel

When Byng took over the Canadians were defending a sector of the Ypres Salient that included the only part of the dominant ridge still in Allied hands. Known as Mount Sorrel, the flat knoll included the slightly higher Hill 61 and “Tor Top” or Hill 62. From Tor Top “a broad span of largely farm land aptly named Observatory Ridge thrusts nearly a thousand yards due west between Armagh and Sanctuary Wood.”[43] Despite the tactical  importance of the position and detailed information about new enemy trenches or “saps” running directly to the front line on either side of Tor Top, neither Army nor Corps believed an attack was imminent and on the night of 31 May the normal rotation of brigades brought the 8th Canadian Brigade forward, with two battalions up, to occupy 2000 yards including Mount Sorrel.[44]

The 8th Brigade had been formed by converting the six regiments of Canadian Mounted Rifles into four infantry battalions, known as the 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 5th CMR. Commanded by Brigadier General Victor Williams, a Boer War cavalry officer, the battalions had borrowed infantry instructors and worked hard to adapt to their new role. To the CMR’s left the 7th Brigade held another 2000 yards of front line. The 7th was a composite brigade stitched together to include the Royal Canadian Regiment, the only Permanent Force infantry unit, released from garrison duties in Bermuda, the Princess Patricia’s, reluctantly transferred from the British Army and two 1915 battalions, the 42nd Royal Highlanders from Montreal and the 49th from Edmonton. The 9th Brigade, in reserve on 2 June when the German offensive began, included the 60th Battalion Victoria Rifles from Montreal and three other units recently arrived on the continent. The divisional artillery was not yet formed and support was provided by British artillery brigades formerly with the Indian Army’s Lahore Division.[45]

The divisional commander, Major-General Malcolm Mercer, who had led 1st Brigade at Second Ypres, was understandably nervous about the activity on his front and he decided to go and see for himself. Brig. Williams was with him when the German artillery began an intense bombardment. Mercer was killed and Williams taken prisoner adding to the confusion created by the unprecedented scale of the German barrage which turned the 8th Brigade’s trenches into “a cloud of dust and dirt, into which timber, weapons and equipment and occasionally human bodies were hurled up”.[46] Two battalions of the Canadian Mounted Rifles were reduced to “small, isolated bands of survivors… who could offer little effective resistance”. On the Canadian left flank, in Sanctuary Wood, the Princess Patricia’s fought a delaying action which cost them 400 casualties. The 42nd Battalion was also heavily involved in what the men called “the June show” their first major action. Rushed forward to support the Patricias who were cut off, they re-established contact and helped to close the gap that the enemy had opened. Their losses were 55 killed and 233 wounded.[47]

Lieut-General Julian Byng compounded the corps’ problems by ordering an immediate counterattack. Two brigades from 1st Division were placed under the command of the senior brigadier in 3rd Division who happened to be the commander of Lahore artillery. It is not clear why Byng though an Indian army gunner was the best person to co-ordinate such an attack particularly when employing battalions from Arthur Currie’s division.[48] Presumably Byng, thought that elements of 3rd Division would be involved and opted for Edward Hoare Nairne, the division’s senior brigadier. Seniority was a very serious matter in the British army. The advance was as disastrous as all previous attempts to counterattack without adequate preparation. All eight battalion suffered losses but Montreal’s 14th Battalion was the hardest hit. “Every officer taking part in the advance was killed, wounded, blown up or buried by shells.” The next day two officers and fifty volunteers returned to the killing ground to search for wounded and recover the bodies of their comrades. Three of the men were killed bringing total losses to 372 men, half the rifle strength of the battalion.[49] Few men were now left from those who had enlisted in 1914 and no attempt was made to re-establish the original composite character of the battalion with a French Canadian company.[50]

The 13th Battalion, which had been in reserve, enjoying a sports day, when the Germans attack was now committed to join a night advance in driving rain. Orders required each soldier “to carry 270 rounds of small arms ammunition, one days rations, one iron ration, full water bottles, two grenades and five sandbags. Every second man will carry a shovel.”[51] Byng, apparently sadder and wiser, began to plan an organized attempt to recover the lost ground. The Germans pre-empted him, exploding four large mines under the Canadian position at Hooge then occupying the craters and rubble that were left. For once common sense prevailed and Byng won Haig’s agreement to let the Germans keep Hooge and endure British artillery while everyone concentrated on recovering the Mount Sorrel. [52]

Two composite brigades of the 1st Division were to attack, this time under Currie’s control. After a ten hour bombardment by more than 200 guns, followed by an intense concentration of fire to cover the approach and final attack, four Canadian battalions quickly recaptured the lost ground. Canadian casualties in the twelve days of combat totaled 8,340 of whom 1126 were killed and 2037 missing presumed dead.[53] This was a startlingly high ratio of killed to wounded, making June 1916 one of the most desperate months of the war for the Canadians. It would get worse for on 1 July 1916 the “Big Push”, the Battle of the Somme began.[54]

The Somme

The idea of mounting a major offensive in the Somme River valley was first discussed in December 1915 when Joffre proposed a join Anglo-French operation astride the river where the two Allied armies were in contact. The German assault on Verdun, which forced the French army to commit most of its strength to the defence of the “sacred ground”, reduced the number of French divisions available but ramped up the pressure on the British to launch an offensive at the earliest possible date. Kitchener’s new volunteer army divisions were to provide most of the manpower.[55] Apart from the proximity of the two Allied armies there was little to recommend the Somme as a battlefield, especially in the British zone north of the river where rolling hills offered defensible reserve slopes and the chalk subsoil permitted the construction of deep dugouts. As one German general noted “Everything that could be dug-in or placed underground, from spare ammunition to entire field kitchens, disappeared downwards.”[56]

General Sir Henry Rawlinson, whose Fourth Army was to carry out the operation, had conducted a careful study of the German defences constructed since the occupation of the area in 1914. There were two main positions with a third under construction. The first position included two 30-metre-wide belts of barbed wire protecting an outpost line. Two hundred metres behind, the main defence line included well-built trenches and deep dugouts to protect the troops during bombardments. A support line still further back held local reserves in similar dugouts. The second positions, 3000 metres to the rear, was on a reverse slope and visible only from the air. Here, three lines of trenches linking fortified villages and strongpoints presented a still more formidable obstacle. Rawlinson and his corps commander planned to wage a limited, step by step approach designed to overwhelm the first position before continuing the advance.[57]


Haig, who became Commander-in-Chief in the fall of 1915, rejected this plan as too cautious. He believed that German casualties at Verdun and a crisis in enemy morale that surely must follow, a breakthrough was possible. He ordered Rawlinson to seize both positions on the first day and open up the way for exploitation by the Cavalry Corps. Rawlinson’s corps commander protested arguing that “everyone was strongly opposed to a wild rush for an objective 4000 yards away”; the plan they warned risked “losing the substance by grasping at shadows”.[58] Haig, whose decisions seemed to be based on intuition rather than evidence was unmoved, the objectives and the artillery program targeting both positions remained unchanged and the slaughter known as the first day of the Somme, when 19,240 British soldiers were killed and 37,000 wounded, began.

Several days passed before the full extent of the losses suffered on 1 July were known but there was no disguising the failure of the opening attack. On 2 July Haig was told that “total casualties are estimated at 40,000 to date.” His diary entry for that date reads “This cannot be considered severe in view of the number engaged and the length of the front attacked”.[59] Rawlinson’s Fourth Army continued to fight a series of costly engagements to secure the German second position without much success. Even Haig’s most ardent defenders were alarmed. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff warned Haig that the cabinet “will persist in asking whether the loss of 300,000 men will lead to great results, because if not we ought to be content with something less than we are doing now.”[60] Winston Churchill, who returned to England after serving at the front as a battalion commander, composed a memo, sent to the Cabinet on 1 August, arguing that since the Verdun crisis was over and there was no question of breaking the line or letting loose the cavalry what was the point of capturing more ground at such cost?[61] The government ignored Churchill and accepted Haig’s recommendation to “maintain a steady pressure… push my attack strongly” and prepare for another campaign next year. The Somme had been transformed into a purely attritional battle to kill Germans and demonstrate “the fighting power of the British race”.[62]

The Australian branch of the British race suffered 23,000 casualties in August in a series of attack on the Theipval-Pozières section of the front. Exhausted they were to be replaced by the Canadians who began to arrive at the end of the month. The sector was dominated by the ruins of Pozières “a scrambled mound of red bricks, bristling with timber and torn fragments of homes, the whole half-buried under mud…” Beyond the village a series of “sterile, shell-pocked ridges” stretched to the north, “above which floated countless observation balloons roughly paralleling the windings of the battle line. The rumble of gunfire was deep and steady”. The 13th (Black Watch) Battalion was the first Canadian unit to be introduced to the Somme when it was tasked to support a last Australian attempt to secure one of the original first day objectives, Moquet Farm, a heavily fortified strongpoint with deep underground tunnels. As the battalion historian notes they were, “thrown into a fight before they had any real conception of the area” they fought with their “flanks in the air and under strange command until forced to withdraw”. Just two companies were committed, perhaps 400 men, of who 60 were killed, 16 recorded as missing and 247 wounded.[63]

During the following week, as the Canadians relieved the Australians, a further 600 casualties were reported. By September 13, without further engagement in any significant action, the Canadian Corps’ losses totaled close to 3000 men,[64] not enough in Haig’s view “to justify any anxiety as to our ability to continue the offensive”.[65] Haig met with Byng to discuss the role the Canadians would play in the new offensive planned for 15 September. He urged Byng to “encourage his men so as to be fresh when an opportunity is offered to exploit our success”. He also noted the “presence of comic posters” in the corps area announcing “the Bing Boys are here”[66] a play upon the Corps Commander’s name and the hit London Musical that featured songs such as “If you were the only girl in the world and I was the only boy”. As the Byng Boys the Canadians were to join in another attempt to break through the German lines. Once again General Rawlinson had prepared a plan designed to wear down the enemy in a bite and hold operation. He proposed a night attack with modest objectives, a pause to deal with enemy counterattacks and advance the artillery, then a further advance as a means of attriting the enemy. Haig rejected this proposal demanding a daylight advance so that a new and secret weapon, the tank, could be employed to demoralize the enemy. He told Rawlinson that “a success sufficient to repay all our great efforts made during the last 2 ½ months is now with reach and urged “bold and vigorious action” preparing the way for a “large mass of cavalry” to exploit success.[67]


The Canadians, part of General Hubert Gough’s Reserve Army, were also affected by Haig’s optimism. Their original assignment, seizing the German position in fronht of Courcelette to protect the British flank, was in Haig’s view too cautious and Byng was told to capture Courcelette “on the afternoon of the first day as a prelude to a further advance.”[68] Three Canadian brigades supported by six of the forty-nine available tanks were to capture Sugar and Candy trenches plus the fortified Sugar Factory while 5th Brigade prepared to follow through and clear Courcelette. The 4th and 6th Brigades, advancing behind a creeping barrage, seized the trenches and the “Sugar Factory”, prized for its deep dugouts and abundant supply of drinking water, in the first hours of 15 September. The tanks played a minor role, all six being put out of action during the advance. The attack on Courcelette could not take place until the 15th Scottish Division captured Martinpunch, a village on the right flank. At 6:15 pm, dusk in northern France, the 25th (Nova Scotia) and 22nd Battalions with the 26th New Brunswick in close support won the village, taking large numbers of prisoners. Then the really hard part began as repeated German counterattacks from the maze of trenches north and east of Courcelette began.[69]

Ruins of the Sugar Factory

For the next three days 5th Brigade held on to the Courcelette perimeter which formed a salient into a maze of trenches, part of the enemy’s original second position. On 17 September the 24th Battalion, in reserve, was ordered to try to improve the situation on the open right flank. Three companies were committed to the attack along with two understrength companies of the 22nd. As the troops formed up the barrage which was supposed to neutralize the enemy “struck well behind the line” allowing the front line garrison to pour aimed fire on the Canadians. The brigade’s casualties now exceeded 1200 men reducing the rifle strength of each battalion by more than a third. The division as a whole had lost 3,589 killed wounded and missing in the three days and was withdrawn for a short rest.[70]

Courcelette became a battle honour for all units involved in the fight for the village and was to become a name engraved on memorials across Canada but in 1916 Max Aitken and his publicity machine associated the capture of the village with the 22nd Battalion. The 22nd had played a major role in securing the objective but as the historian of the Nova Scotia battalion pointed out “the 22nd took only half the town and the 25th the other fully equally and difficult half… the 26th and 24th had an equally dirty job and did it just as well.”[71]

The identification of Courcelette with the 22nd was encouraged by the need for French Canadian soldier heroes who some believed could help to inspire recruiting. Thomas-Louis Tremblay, the battalion’s commanding officer was an obvious choice. Tremblay, just thirty years old in 1916 was a graduate of Royal Military College who served in the militia with the Franc-Tireurs du Saguenay while working as an engineer and surveyor in Quebec. He volunteered in 1914 serving as second-in-command of the 22nd until late 1915 when he was promoted. Tremblay, like most of the other officers of the battalion was fluently bi-lingual, a necessity in an army that issued all order and instructions in English. He was well aware of the difficulties encountered by the other French Canadian battalions and understood the unique role the 22nd would play in 1916. When rumours of a German attack on the battalion’s front were circulated he issued an order reminding his men “that we represent an entire race and that a great deal – even the honour of French Canada – depends on the way we conduct ourselves.” After Courcelette all French Canadians, even the nationalists took pride in the achievements of Tremblay and his men providing extensive press coverage.[72]

Canadian infantry prepare to attack Courcelette.

The battle of Flers-Courcelette was portrayed as a significant victory for Haig’s armies suggesting just how low the barrier for success had been set. Unfortunately, the capture of six square miles of shell-torn terrain, at a cost of 25,000 casualties, seems to have inspired Haig to believe that more such operations would break German resistance and allow his cavalry divisions to advance “through mud and blood to the green fields beyond”.[73] New attacks were ordered for 26 September to clear Thiepval Ridge. The Canadian objectives included a series of trenches on higher ground including the ones they had named “Regina” and “Kenora”, some of the deepest and strongest defensive positions on the Somme front. After two days of brutal combat the enemy gave up 800 metres of ground but not the crest of the ridge. The 14th Battalion, which had reached Kenora trench on the 27th and been pushed back, was told to try again. “The battalion, which after 40 hours of continuous fighting could only muster 75 men, attacked through mud and rain. As they neared the Kenora position the Canadians were brightly illuminated by enemy flares and became easy targets for the German frontal and flanking fire.”[74] The Royal Montreal Regiment which had suffered crippling losses at Mount Sorrel would have to be rebuilt as part of the process of replacing the 6000 men lost to 1st Division in September. The Princess Patricia’s who had lost so many men at Mount Sorrel experienced similar losses but there were “no more McGill or other university students” available so they had to make do with “indifferently trained” general reinforcements.[75]

According to Haig, “General Byng was disappointed that the Canadians had failed to hold the trench which they gained.” Haig suggested that “the cause was that in the hopes of saving lives they attack in too weak numbers” and were unable to overcome fresh German troops in “hand to hand struggle”. The Canadians, he complained “have been very extravagant in expending ammunition! This points to nervousness and low morale…” Byng told Haig that he hoped for “good results when 4th Division arrives”. The corps, he noted had “suffered heavily and no sufficient drafts had yet joined them.” Byng complained that Hughes wanted “the glory of having a Canadian Army in the field and is forming a 5th Division with the reinforcements”.[76] Hughes was in fact refusing to break up battalions he planned to use for new Canadian divisions. He told his representative, Major-General Carson to “stand firm. Let our divisions rest. We will get all six divisions in shape. Surely Byng cannot repeat June 3rd every month.”[77] Haig’s diary entry concluded with the comment that the 19,025 casualties suffered since 25 September “must be considered small by the results gained…”[78] With such leaders the armies of the British Empire could only look forward to more pointless sacrifices.

One 1 October battalions from the 2nd and 3rd Divisions returned to the attack with Regina Trench as their objective. As the men prepared to advance in a light, cold rain, the crucial barrage fell well short inflicting friendly-fire casualties and inspiring the German defenders who had little difficulty in fending off the attack. Yet another attempt was made on 8 October this time with four brigades from 1st and 3rd Divisions. Some men made it through the uncut wire but only the dead stayed to occupy the position. As one battalion commander complained, the wire might have been “passable” if the enemy trench had been “well battered in”. Since little damage had been done, the “flimsiest wire” became an “impassable barrier”.[79]

The arrival of the 4th Division allowed the rest of the Corps to leave the Somme for the Arras front. Placing an untried Canadian division under direct British command with generals determined to continue the offensive was bound to produce a large number of casualties and so it proved. On 21 October after days of continuous rain, the sky cleared and the battle for Regina Trench was resumed. The 11th Brigade, including Montreal’s 87th Battalion, leaned into the barrage seizing a 600 metre section of what had become a faint ditch line, punctuated with water-filled craters. The men established an effective blocking position at the eastern end of the penetration and linked up with British troops on their left. Despite another 24 hours of rain orders to capture an additional section of Regina Trench led to the near destruction of a Winnipeg battalion. The Germans were still willing to mount local counterattacks and this time the 87th prepared an ambush evacuating the trench and lying flat in open fields. This successful action cost the battalion 114 fatal casualties and 169 wounded.[80]

The rain continued and it seemed as if general mud would put an end to this folly but Haig met with his army commanders on 12 November urging them to make one last effort to end the campaign with a dramatic victory. A success as this stage, Haig argued, would “encourage the Russians and help him to win support for a Flanders offensive in 1917.” The next Allied conference was less than a week away and the “British position will be much stronger (as memories are short) if I could appear there on the top of the capture of Beaumont-Hamel…”[81]

Haig got his wish. After another costly attack British troops won control of Beaumont-Hamel, a key objective of 1 July was finally in British hands. On the Canadian front the 10th and 11th Brigades seized another stretch of Regina Trench and after a pause went on to capture 1000 metres of moonscape including Desire Trench.[82] Among the thousands of additional casualties were 27 officers, 20 sergeants and 467 other ranks of the Canadian Grenadier Guards who as part of 11th Brigade were involved in two major actions.[83] The 73rd Black Watch Battalion served in an arduous but less dangerous supporting role and emerged from the Somme in much better shape. Their Padre, who witnessed the agony of life and death in the landlocked lake of mud and blood, described the “incredibly folly” of the Somme in a letter home which read:

How the nations and politicians happened to enter such an abyss is impossible to imagine. It is not the dying that is difficult for the men – it is the enduring – the ground work back of it all. The long interminable lines of haggard men coming out of the trenches, unshaven, covered with mud, staring dully in front of them, plodding through the mud and driving rain – telling the men, only a little less weary, who are trudging in the opposite direction to take their places – that is not so bad.[84]

During their three months on the Somme the Canadians suffered 24,000 casualties, a small part of the 420,000 killed wounded and missing under British command. Additional tens of thousands were lost, at least temporally, when evacuated for respiratory and other diseases. Soldiers suffering from shell shock added yet more thousands to the total. Haig and his supporters justified the costs of the campaign claiming that they had achieved three important goals in 1916; relieving the pressure on the French army at Verdun, preventing the transfer of enemy divisions to the Russian front and inflicting “well over 600,000 casualties” on the German army.[85] Any one of those three, he believed justified the continuation of the Somme campaign.

Haig’s critics challenge each of these assertions. Australian historians Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, Haig’s severest critics, note that the Somme was not planned with Verdun in mind, 15 German divisions were transferred to the Eastern front, and British Empire casualties far exceeded those suffered by the Germans in the British sector. “Every casualty inflicted on the Germans by the British cost them almost two casualties of their own,” they conclude. “Haig was wearing out his own armies at a much higher rate than he was wearing down his opponents.”[86]

This loss rate might be explained by the fact that it was British Empire troops who were attacking, but with heavy losses such as those suffered on the first day of the Somme were also due to Haig’s rejection of “bite and hold” tactics in search of a breakthrough. The same criticism can surely be offered of the repeated attacks on Regina Trench, ordered in circumstances that made success unlikely. Even the British official history, generally supportive of the decisions of the high command, commented on this:

“By the middle of October, conditions behind the battlefront were so bad that mere existence was a severe trial of body and spirit. Little could be seen from the air through the rain and mist, so counter-battery work suffered. Objectives could not always be identified from ground level, so it is no surprise that the British artillery sometimes fired short or placed its barrages too far ahead. The ground was so deep in mud that 10 or 12 horses were often needed to move one 18-pounder gun. The infantry, sometimes wet to the skin and almost exhausted before zero hour, were often condemned to struggle painfully forward through mud, under heavy fire, and against objectives vaguely defined and difficult to recognize.”[87]

British historian J. P. Harris begins his “assessment” of Haig’s conduct of operations in the Somme by arguing that while “the campaign deserves its reputation as one of the most ghastly episodes in modern British history: four and a half months of slaughter and suffering on an almost unimaginable scale” the Somme “wrested the initiative from the Germans on the western front”. Haig according to Harris is “open to criticism less for his strategic intentions than for his operational methods”. Even the “victory of Flers-Courcelette was marred by unnecessarily heavy casualties, the result of Haig’s rejection of Rawlinson’s plan for a step by step approach”. Haig was “slow to realize the likely impact of climate” and acted as if, “by sheer willpower” he could “overcome the frequent blindness of his artillery, the collapse of logistics and the misery of his infantry”.[88]

For Canadians who have accepted a version of the war in which their army won great victories and forged a new national identity at Vimy Ridge, Hill 70 and the “Hundred Days”, interpreting the Somme has presented a real challenge. By focusing on tactical success at Courcelette and Desire Trench it has been possible to picture Canadian troops in the early stages of a learning curve preparing for later battles. The evidence offers little support for the idea of a learning curve. The tactical doctrines of 1916 were essentially the same as those used by the Allies for the balance of the war. As Mark Humphries has argued, “tactics designed to utilize fire,  movement and the enemy’s flanks were simply useless against a strong enemy…”[89]A much better argument can be made for a German learning curve. Their losses at Verdun and the Somme led to the replacement of Von Falkenhayn and the development of new ideas about defence-in-depth which were implemented successfully in 1917.[90]


Well before the full horrors of the Somme were realized the British cabinet was confronted with proposals to consider the purpose of continuing the war. On 31 August 1916 Sir William Robertson, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, presented a memorandum suggesting that British foreign policy was historically based on three principles: the maintenance of the balance of power in Europe; maritime supremacy and preventing occupation of the low countries by a great power. The first aim required the existence of a strong Germany, the second a check to the development of Germany’s naval power and the third German withdrawal from Belgium. Robertson recognized that French demands for the return of Alsace-Lorraine and German insistence on the return of her colonies would complicate negotiations for an armistice but concluded that from a British perspective “the withdrawal of all enemy troops inside their pre-war frontiers”, the “Immediate release of all prisoners of war” and the “Tentative surrender of a certain portion of the enemy fleet” were the minimum requirements for an armistice.[91]

Vimy Ridge

The Prime Minister of France, Aristide Briand also addressed the idea of an armistice in response to a speech by Pierre Brizon, a socialist member of the National Assembly, who argued for negotiations because France had suffered enough. Briand’s emotional reply rejected all compromise, “What peace would you set for France?… if you wish for the idea of liberty and justice to prevail, ask for victory and not the peace obtainable today, for that peace would be humiliating and dishonouring”.[92]
David Lloyd George, who succeeded Kitchener as Secretary of State for War, went even further than Briand in a September interview with an American reporter. He opposed any peace initiative at this stage of the war and warned the American President, Woodrow Wilson, against butting in “before we could achieve victory.” This statement came to be known as the “Knock Out Blow”, a commitment to total victory. At least one of his colleagues disagreed. On  13 November Lord Lansdowne, a former Governor-General of Canada and British Foreign Secretary, 1900 – 1905, questioned the idea of the knock out blow asking the cabinet to consider the human cost of a war in which “our casualties already amount to over 1,100,000… We are slowly but surely killing off the best of our male population.” We must Lansdowne declared be receptive to “any movement no matter where originating… as to the possibility of a settlement.” The Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey thought that Lansdowne’s proposal was premature but should be considered if it became evidence the Allies could not further improve their position.[93]

Neither Lansdowne nor Grey survived the change in government of December 1916 which saw Lloyd George become Prime Minister and leader of a coalition dominated by Unionists. A War Cabinet of just five ministers was formed, each committed to an all our effort to win the war so there was no hesitation in rejection the German proposal of an armistice announced by the German Chancellor on 12 December. Bethmann-Hollweg believed that the war was all but won and he offered “to stem the flood of blood and to bring the horrors of war to an end.” No peace terms were included in the offer though, Germany and its allies “feel sure that the propositions they would bring forward… would be such as to serve as the basis for the restoration of a lasting peace.”[94]This transparent piece of propaganda was timed to divert attention away from President Wilson’s plan to serve as a mediator. Wilson’s note dated 18 December 1916 with its unfortunate words declaring that the war aims of “the belligerents on both sides” are “virtually the same” was even more firmly rejected in London and Paris though it did prompt formal statements of war aims, statements that demonstrated just how impossible a brokered peace was in 1916.

Canadian reaction to the peace proposals was in lock step with opinions expressed in France and Britain. Even Bourasssa, who urged the Allies to “take Germany at its word, consider the terms and reject them if they were not acceptable” acknowledged that the Germans were offering peace because “they were in a stronger position than the beleaguered Allies.” [95] The Canadian government was as usual uninformed and not particularly inquisitive. Borden was pre-occupied with domestic issues including a new confrontation with his Minister of Militia which led to Hughes’ resignation in November. During December Borden was on a fence-mending tour of western Canada and his diary does not mention the German proposal and makes only passing reference to the American note. All that was about to change because Lloyd George decided to establish what came to be called an Imperial War Cabinet and on 26 December Borden received an invitation to come to London and participate in “special and continuous meetings of the War Cabinet”.[96]

While Borden consulted his cabinet and the leader of the opposition, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, about adjourning the parliamentary session during an extended trip to Britain the Canadian Corps began preparations for its part in the 1917 campaign. A young, dynamic French general Robert Nivelle, who had won some important tactical victories in the last phase of the Battle of Verdun, had replaced Joffre as commander-in-chief. His plan for an April offensive required the full support of Haig’s army to draw reserves away from the French front.[97] The battle of Arras was to involve fourteen British and Canadian divisions on a frontage of similar length to the Somme battle of 1 July 1916.

The Canadians, now part of Lieut-General Henry Horne’s 1st Army, were to capture Vimy Ridge and hold it against all counterattacks as a firm defensive flank for the main advance by the 3rd British Army. The four Canadian divisions were each allocated a sector of the 7000 yard front. To the south 1st Division on 3rd Army’s left faced the lower slope of the ridge while at the north end 4th Division confronted the highest ground including Hill 145 where Vimy Memorial stands. Giving the least experienced division the most difficult task does not seem to make much sense nor does the decision to order Major-General Watson to launch the largest Canadian raid of the war a month before the opening of the Arras Offensive. The raid was a disaster. The artillery failed to cut the wire, the barrage fell short striking the advancing troops and gas from shells fired at the Germans drifted back on the Canadians.[98]

Montreal’s 73rd Royal Highlanders was one of the attacking battalions, despite or perhaps because of plans to break it up for reinforcements. With Sam Hughes gone and a more systematic regime installed at Canadian Military Headquarters in London reserves were grouped, corresponding to military districts in Canada. It was quickly evident that they were not enough replacements for English-speaking Montreal units and both the 73rd and 60th were to be used to reinforce their sister battalions from the city.[99]

A tank advancing during the Battle of Vimy Ridge

The battle of Vimy Ridge began in earnest on 20 March when the artillery began to fire the first of more than one million shells directed at the German defences creating a “pock marked wilderness of mud-filled craters”. On 2 April the rate of fire was stepped up for what the German soldiers called “the week of suffering”.[100] As the men moved into position:

Each man carried his rifle and complete equipment less pack, 120 rounds of small arms ammunition, 2 Mills bombs (grenades) 5 sandbags, 48 hours rations, unexpended portion of current ration, waterproof sheet, box respirator (gas mask) worn at the alert, smoke helmet, goggles, 1 ground flare and filled water bottle. In the case of bombers, rifle grenadiers, Lewis gunners and runners small arms ammunition was reduced to 50 rounds to permit the carrying of special equipment or to aid rapid movement. Warrant officers and NCOs were instructed to carry rifles and fixed bayonets and officers were to equip themselves with revolvers and very signaling pistols. All ranks were ordered to wear steel helmets and half the battalion was to carry forward 33 picks and 67 shovels.[101]

At 5:30 AM, 9 April 1917, after a hot meal[102] and a rum ration the attack began. “A driving north-west wind swept the countryside with snow and sleet…”[103] On the 1st Division front the southern slope of the ridge was barely noticeable Currie’s division advanced with six battalions following a creeping barrage through acres of mud seizing the first and most of the second German lines before confronting serious resistance from well-sited machine guns in the undamaged shelter of a German strongpoint. As the reserve brigade passed through advancing down the eastern slope of the ridge to the final objective stretcher bearers worked to save the wounded. Victory came with a price, the experience of the Royal Montreal Regiment who lost 98 killed and 176 wounded[104] was particularly severe but overall the division suffered more than 3000 casualties in a four day period.[105]

The 2nd Division, supported by a British brigade, and the eight tanks made available to the Corps, also met resistance at the “Blue Line”. Montreal’s 24th Battalion with a company of the 22nd attached as “Mopper Uppers” lost 250 men in securing its objective.[106] On the 3rd Division front progress was rapid but by mid-day as the men consolidated their gains, German strongpoints that had survived the barrage as well as snipers exacted a terrible toll. On the left, where the problems encountered by the 4th Division in front of Hill 145 presented 7th Brigade with an open flank, losses were especially severe. Overall the division reported 1,913 casualties.[107]

By the standards of any previous First World War battle the 9 April assault on the south and central portions of Vimy Ridge was a spectacular success but this was not the case on the northern flank where the 4th Division suffered heavy losses and failed to reach all its objectives. The 87th Canadian Grenadier Guards were especially hard hit advancing uphill over broken ground against enemy troops who had survived the bombardment in deep dugouts. The 87th lost 309 officers and men, close to half their strength.[108] Hill 145 was captured the next day and by 12 April the entire ridge was in Canadian hands. Brave men, supported by the massive application of firepower, had won a significant victory, one which was immediately celebrated as “Canada’s Easter Gift to France”.[109] Eight battalions originally recruited in Montreal were part of that victory but by the spring of 1917 there were few of the originals left to mourn. The city’s newspapers which had previously published long lists of men whose next of kin lived in Montreal reported much small numbers then in 1916. It seemed the city’s Anglo-Celtic community had been bled dry.

Richard Jack’s Battle of Vimy Ridge


[1] Samuel Hynes, A War Imagined The First World War and English Culture, (London 1990) p. XIV

[2] Revisionism began with John Terraine’s biography Douglas Haig the Educated Soldier (London 1963). See Gary Sheffield, Forgotten Victory (London 2002) for a recent example of the revisionist approach

[3] German History Docs “September Memorandum”. See also Fritz Fischer, Germany’s Aims in the First World War (New York 1968) p. 98 – 107

[4] Robert Doughty, Pyrrhic Victory, French Strategy and Operations in the Great War (Boston 2005) p. 18

[5] Doughty, Pyrrhic Victory, p. 107

[6] J. P. Harris, Douglas Haig and the First World War (Cambridge 2008) p. 154

[7] Gary Sheffield and John Bourne (eds) Douglas Haig, War Diaries and Letters 1914-1918 (London 2005)

[8] Harris, Douglas Haig, p. 176

[9] The Canadians burned sulphur-infused waste to imitate a gas cloud. Nicholson, CEF p. 121.

[10] Nicholson, CEF, p. 97

[11] This account of Aubers Ridge and Festubert is based on Harris, Haig. p. 132 – 152

[12] Nominal Roll 23rd Battalion CEF

[13] Stephanie E. Potter, “Smile and Carry On: Canadian Cavalry on the Western Front, 1914-1918” PHD Thesis Western, p. 84.

[14] Iarocci, Shoestring Soldiers p. 194

[15] Bill Rawling, Surviving Trench Warfare Technology and the Canadian Corps 1914-1918 (Toronto 1992) p. 43

[16] Iarocci, Shoestring Soldiers p. 203. For the phrase “between mutiny and obedience” and the most detailed account of agency and proportionality among front line soldiers see Leonard V. Smith, Between Mutiny and Obedience (Princeton 1994)

[17] Nicholson, CEF p. 103

[18] Haycock, Hughes, p. 269

[19] Haycock, Hughes, p. 271

[20] Michelle Brassard el. Jean Hamelin Landry, Philippe DCB online

[21] Jean-Pierre Gagnon, Watson, Sir David, DCB Online

[22] Robert N. Clements, Merry Hell, The Story of the 25th Battalion (Toronto 2013) p. 65

[23] David Campbell, The Divisional Experience in the CEF: A Social and Operational History of the 2nd Division 1915-1918, PHD Thesis Calgary 2003. Available Online.

[24] Speight, Vanier, p. 43 – 46

[25] The 5th Brigade reported 23 men killed in action and 95 wounded during February 1916, a month of trench routine War Diary 5th Brigade. LAC

[26] Andrew MacPhail, The Medical Services (Ottawa 1925) p. 54

[27] “Monthly Strength Infantry 2nd Division” statistics compiled by C.E.F. Registry, Director of Records, Department of National Defence. LCMSDS Archive

[28] War Diary 42nd Battalion, November 1915. Transcription available at

[29] Doughty, Pyrrhic Victory p. 269 – 289

[30] Sheffield, Haig Diary p. 183.

[31] Haycock, Hughes, p. 268 – 269. See the Letter, Hughes to Kitchener dated 24 March 1915. Montreal Witness 20 June 1916 p. 6

[32] Plumer was under pressure from Haig who was unhappy with Second Army’s performance. William F. Stewart, The Embattled General (Montreal 2015)  p. 84

[33] Edmonds, 1916 Vol 1 Part 1 p. 185

[34] Stewart, Embattled General, p. 87

[35] Tim Cook, The Sharp End, (Toronto 2007) p. 328. See also Tim Cook “The Blind Leading the Blind – The Battle of St Eloi Craters” Canadian Military History Vol 5 No. 2 (1996) p. 24 – 36.

[36] Edmonds, 1916 Vol 1 Part 1, p. 191

[37]Fetherstonaugh, 24th Battalion p. 46

[38] The 22nd Battalion lost seven killed and 30 wounded holding the line for three days, War Diary, 22nd Battalion, April 14-17 1915, LAC

[39] Stewart, Embattled General p. 104 – 111.

[40] Haycock,  Hughes, p. 297 – 298

[41] Stewart, Embattled General, p. 104-109

[42] Jeffery Williams, Byng of Vimy, (London 1983) Williams notes that Byng “wrote no memoirs… and had his personal papers destroyed” p. 10, we therefore know little about Byng’s thoughts or planning.

[43] Nicholson, CEF, p. 148

[44] Edmonds, 1916 Vol I Part I p. 229 – 230

[45] Nicholson, CEF, p. 134

[46] Edmonds, 1916 Vol I Part I, p. 231

[47] The 42nd Battalion RHC p. 56. The War Diary of the 42nd Battalion provides more detail. Transcription available at

[48] Currie later recalled cautioning Byng against an immediate counterattack but did not comment on Hoare-Nairne’s role. Daniel Dancocks, Sir Arthur Currie: A Biography (Toronto 1985) p. 70

[49] “Counter Attack on Maple Copse and Observatory Ridge Positions Night of June 2/3 1916” War Diary, 14th Battalion June 1916

[50] D Company of the 14th Battalion originally formed from 65th Regiment volunteers ceased to be a French language unit in March 1916 when the surviving members were scattered among all four companies. Radley, We Lead, p. 81-82

[51] Fetherstonhaugh, 13th Battalion p. 102

[52] Hooge, once a village on the Menin Road was on the forward, western slope of the Ypres Ridge and therefore subject to observed artillery fire from British and Canadian artillery.

[53] Edmonds, 1916 Vol I Pt I, p. 242

[54] This summary of the Somme is drawn from Terry Copp, The Somme: Legion (Ottawa 2016)

[55] The French army provided just eleven divisions to “support” what Joffre saw as a British offensive. Doughty, Pyrrhic Victory p. 291. On 1 July the British employed 14 divisions, the French six. Harris, Haig, p. 229

[56] Edmonds, 1916 Vol I Pt I p. 252

[57] Harris, Haig, p. 216 – 220

[58] Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, The Somme (London 2005) p. 41

[59] Sheffield, Haig Diary, p. 197

[60] Sheffield, Haig Diary, 29 July 1916, p. 213

[61] The full text of the memo is reproduced in Winston S. Churchill, The World Crisis Vol 3 (New York 1927) p. 188-194

[62] Sheffield, Haig Diary, 2 August 1916 p. 214

[63] Fetherstonaugh, 13th Battalion, p. 130-131

[64] Williams, Byng, p. 136

[65] Sheffield, Haig Diary, 2 August 1916, p. 214

[66] Sheffield, Haig Diary, 5 September 1916, p. 227

[67] Harris, Haig, p. 261

[68] Wilfrid Miles, Military Operations, France and Belgium 1916 2nd July to the end of the Battle of the Somme (London 1938) p. 302

[69] Nicholson, CEF, p. 170-171

[70] War Diary, 5th Brigade, September 1916 Appendix 25, LAC. See also Fetherstonaugh, 24th Battalion p. 88-90. For divisional casualties and the reinforcement problem see Stewart, Embattled General, p. 136-137, David Campbell, “A Forgotten Victory, Courcelette 15 Sept 1916” Canadian Military History Vol 16  No 2. (2007) p. 27 – 48.

[71] Robert N. Clements, Merry Hell, p. 152

[72] See for example Le Devoir 23 September 1916. La Presse editors provided readers with the most detailed stories about the role played by the 22nd at Courcelette. See Vennat, Polius Vol I p. 274 – 283. See also Geoffrey Keelan, “Il a bien merité de la Patrie: The22nd Battalion and the Memory of Courcelette” Canadian Military History Vol 19 No 3.

[73] The phrase became the unofficial motto of the Royal Tank Regiment and the Royal Canadian Armored Corps.

[74] Nicolson, CEF, p. 178-179

[75] N. M. Christie (ed) The Letters of Agar Adamson (Ottawa 1997) p. 225.

[76] Sheffield, Haig Diary 2 October 1916, p. 236.

[77] Hughes to Carson 14 October 1916 cited in Stewart, Embattled General p. 152

[78] Sheffield, Haig Diary 2 October 1916 p. 236

[79] Nicholson, CEF, p. 186

[80] Duguid, Grenadier Guards,  p. 113 – 114

[81] Sheffield, Haig Diary, 12 November 1916, p. 254

[82] Nicholson, CEF, p. 196 – 197

[83] Duguid, Grenadier Guards p. 125. Overall 4th Division suffered 4,311 casualties in the last weeks of the Somme Campaign. Andrew Godefory, “The 4th Canadian Division” in Geoffrey Hayes et al. Vimy Ridge A Canadian Reassessment (Waterloo 2007) p. 214

[84] Hutchinson, 73rd Battalion p. 84

[85] Sheffield, Haig Diary, 5 November 1916, p. 252

[86] Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson, The Somme, p. 101-102. See also James McRandle and James Quirk, “The Blood Test Revisited A New Look at German Casualty Counts in World War I” The Journal of Military History Vol 70 No. 3, p. 667 – 701

[87] Miles, Military Operations 1916 Vol 2 Pt 1, p. 457

[88] Harris, Haig, p. 272 – 273

[89] Mark Osborne Humphries, “The Myth of the Learning Curve” Canadian Military History Vol 14 No 4 (Autumn 2005) p. 28 – 29

[90] Robert Foley, “Learning War’s Lessons: The German Army and the Battle of the Somme 1916” The Journal of Military History 75 (April 2011) p. 471 – 504

[91] The memorandum is reproduced in full in David Lloyd George, War Memoirs Vol 2 (London 1933) p. 833 – 845.

[92] Lloyd George, Memoirs p. 850 See also Ebba Dahlin, French and German Public Opinion on Declared War Aims 1914-1918 (Stanford 1933)

[93] Lloyd George, Memoirs Vol 2, p. 862 – 873

[94] James Brown Scott, Official Statements of War Aims and Peace Proposals, December 1916 to November 1918 (Washington 1921) p. 1 – 3

[95] See Geoff Keelan “Catholic Neutrality: The Peace of Henri Bourassa” Journal of the CHA 2001. New Series Vol 22 No 1, p. 108

[96] Robert Craig Brown, Robert Laird Borden A Biography Vol II (Toronto 1980) p. 70

[97] Doughty, Pyrrhic Victory, p. 323-336.

[98] Tim Cook, “A Proper Slaughter: The March 1917 Gas Raid at Vimy Ridge” Canadian Military History Vol 8 No 2 (Spring 1999) 7 – 23

[99] Morton, Peculiar Kind of Politics p. 101-102. Hutchinson, 73rd Battalion p. 97 The 73rd suffered 161 casualties in the raid.

[100] Nicholson, CEF p. 250 – 251

[101] Fetherstonaugh, RMR p. 141

[102] The 13th Battalion (Royal Highlanders of Canada) were in reserve on 9 April. As they waited for their hot meal “the cookhouse used by three companies was shelled and the cooks killed consequently the soup was lost”. War Diary 13th Battalion 9th April 1917.

[103] Nicholson, CEF p. 253

[104] Featherstonaugh, RMR p. 148

[105] Andrew Iarocci, “The 1st Canadian Division: An Operational Mosaic” in G. Hayes et al Vimy Ridge: A Canadian Reassessment (Waterloo 2007) p. 166

[106] David Campbell “The 2nd Canadian Division” in Hayes, Vimy, p. 171 – 187

[107] Geoffrey Hayes, “3rd Canadian Division” in Hayes et al Vimy, p. 206

[108] Duguid, Canadian Grenadier Guards, p. 144n

[109] Tim Cook, Vimy, The Battle and Legend (Toronto 2017).

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