L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia
The First World War and Canada
[This text was written by Lt.-Col. Wilfrid BOVEY in 1948. Parts in brackets [.], as well as links, have been added by Claude Bélanger. For full citation, see the end of the document.]
[ In considering this text, it is safe to say that Bovey overestimated, in his analysis of the causes of the war, the responsibilities of Germany and of France , while downplaying somewhat those of Britain . The war was far more popular in Great Britain, and throughout the Empire, than the author is prepared to admit. While he outlines briefly the contribution of the Canadian Corps to the victory of the Allies, especially in the latter part of the war, it is clear that the main focus of his text is to describe the evolution of the military situation globally. He does not dwell at length on Canadian successes; he refrains from using laudatory vocabulary. He makes no allusion to recruitment in Canada, to the divisions that surfaced over the issue of conscription, the formation of a Union Government, to the changes that came to Canada as a result of the war. It is often said that Canada came of age at Vimy Ridge. While the battle is discussed in his text, the consequences are ignored, except for the military situation. Still, his text is informative, rather objective, and devoid of the jingoism and the derogatory comments that were still frequently associated with writings on the war in the 1940's. In attempting to define the role that Canadians played in the victory of the Allies in the First World War, Bovey displayed the qualities of modesty and selflessness that mark the Canadian character. The reader should keep in mind that Canada supplied more than 600,000 soldiers to the war effort, while industrial and agricultural production, for war purposes, were also drastically increased. In the end, more than 60,000 Canadians lost their life in the war. All this was achieved by a country of no more than 7,000,000 people.]
[A last comment should be made: in joining the war, and pursuing it strongly to a satisfactory conclusion, Canada desired only to stand by Britain's side and to oppose aggression. The country neither demanded anything for itself, nor did it receive any of the war's rewards.This was sharply at variance with the other participants in the war.]
The World War of 1914-18 [for Canada see this page] was a remarkable event in the history of humanity. Even those who had foreseen and prepared for it for many years had no idea what enormous armies would be engaged, what stupendous supplies of ammunition would be expended, how many millions of men would die. Special attention is here given to the part played by Canadian forces; their operations are therefore given perhaps disproportionate prominence. Yet it is only right to recognize that, during the last few months of war, the Canadian Corps, which was then at its highest efficiency, carried out a far more important task than has even yet been generally attributed to it.
The first and most important set of causes of the war is to be found in the general conduct of international relations since the days of Napoleon. To the European diplomat, war was always the main feature of the outlook, just as today he concerns himself mainly with economics, and his calculations were aimed at getting as much force as possible on his side. The second set of causes lay in the commercial development of European states which took place towards the end of the nineteenth century, in personal greed of gain and national projects of aggrandizement. The third set of causes came from the actions of a controlling, or at least very influential, class to which war was normal or even desirable, the class from which both in Germany and England most of the army officers were drawn, and which was mostly made up of their friends. The fourth set of causes consisted of the sprouting, in Europe particularly, of a new "nationalist" spirit. Finally, came the events of 1914. In those days these were almost all that were thought of. We realize now that they were only the culmination of a long series of other events.
It became evident, well before 1900, that Germany, even with her new colonies, her South American trade, and her excursions into the home markets of England and France , would find it hard to discover consumers for her increasing production. With a view to obtaining these consumers, many influential Germans began to look to southeastern Europe and beyond into the adjacent parts of Asia . Some, more politically minded, saw an opportunity for the establishment of a great "sphere of influence", extending from the North sea to the Persian gulf. They were encouraged by the weakness of the Austrian Empire, ready to break up at a touch.
So began the project of the Drang nach Osten, the "Storming of the East", which was during the war to develop into the policy of a German "Middle Europe". The first step towards the objective was the planning of the Baghdad Railway. Berlin was to be linked with Constantinople, and Constantinople with the Persian gulf , by a line which was to be owned and controlled by German capital. The original scheme was blocked, it may be here observed, by the control of the Persian gulf established by Britain; but it had nevertheless a considerable effect in rousing hostility to Germany , especially in France and Russia . Finally, an agreement was reached with Russia, and in 1914 Britain, having been granted control of the south-eastern end of the line and places on the directorate, withdrew her opposition. Then, of course, it was too late.
Edward VII of England made his influence felt in foreign affairs as no British monarch had done for many a long year. His first step was to visit Paris ; the French president returned his visit; and in 1904 was established the relationship between the two countries which came to be known as the "Entente" [i.e. the " Entente cordiale"]. Various agreements were made, which settled all the outstanding differences, and Britain and France undertook a new course of policy. [A by-product of this period of good relations between France and Great Britain was the settlement of the thorny French Shore issue in Newfoundland .] Without an alliance they determined to keep their interests parallel.
This was the beginning of the "encirclement" of Germany, which was for years to be the nightmare of German statesmen. They attributed to British diplomacy the fact that they were gradually surrounded by hostile powers.
In 1907 the Russian and British governments settled all their outstanding difficulties, and while they did not make any such agreement or establish any "entente", such as those which bound them respectively to France, the very fact that they were both so bound committed them to each other.
The first crisis came over Morocco. In 1905 the Kaiser landed at Tangiers, and announced a protectorate. France objected, and apparently the British government of those days was ready to support her even by war. The crisis was deferred, and a conference was called at Algeciras. Here for the first time Russia, France, and Britain openly stood together, and Italy, bound by her treaty with France, still secret as far as her former allies were concerned, stood with them. For months war was in the air. The final result was that the German protectorate disappeared, and that France got the foothold in Morocco she had desired, by obtaining the right to "police" the southern section of the country.
Between 1899 and 1914 the peace strength of the French and Russian armies grew from about one and a half million to about two and a quarter million men, and the peace strength of Germany and Austria from about a million. to a million and a quarter. These figures, while interesting, do not tell nearly all the story. Germany 's military expenditure is the key to the situation. Germany spent far more on her army than did France, largely because of her provisions of munitions and the completeness of her preparations. Russia 's expenditure, as we know today, was largely wasted, and the enormous force she paraded largely valueless.
Militarism, the belief in war for its own sake, appeared in Germany not as a political plan, but as a philosophy. The idea did not, and this must be clearly understood, obsess the minds of the whole nation, or even of a majority, but it did seize upon an intellectual and influential group. It is impossible to exaggerate the effect which the growth of this philosophy had on the German mind. The most brilliant youths, the greatest leaders were filled with it; it was obvious that if Germany were to conquer the world it must be by war, and if by war Germany were to conquer the world, to fulfil her destiny, then war was the most magnificent undertaking in which the German people could engage.
In France at the same time there was an unrelenting desire for "revenge" in the hearts of a large part of the population. No one who lived in that country towards the end of the last century could fail to take account of the strength of this idea. The French wanted Alsace and Lorraine back, and nearly every French boy prayed for a chance to kill Germans. It is true that the Socialists, whose power was continually increasing, were opposed to war, but nevertheless the longing in the hearts of so many of the French people to regain the lost provinces was one of the main guiding forces of French policy.
Alone in Europe the people of Britain were in general opposed to war. But, dislike war as they might, the British people were deeply impressed by their naval traditions. They regarded naval supremacy as an essential to their very existence; they were ready to make almost any sacrifice to maintain it; and when Germany threatened it, they were, as we have seen, ready to take up the challenge.
Early in 1912 Serbia and Bulgaria made a treaty; soon after, Greece and Bulgaria did the same thing, and the three powers at once attacked Turkey, with a view to seizing some territory. The victory lay with the attackers, who promptly began a new war over the loot, Rumania joining in the fight in order to steal some territory from Bulgaria. Finally, a division was made, but the ill feeling and suspicion which existed between the various European powers was increased by their interests in the subsequent quarrels of these Balkan states, to which another, Albania, had now been added. Serbia wanted a port on the Adriatic. Austria opposed her. Montenegro also wanted one, and even took Scutari; but the Great Powers - for once in agreement "induced" the Montenegrins to withdraw. Russia favoured the Serb ambitions; France had only thoughts for Russia, just as Germany knew that she must stand with Austria. In the result it became evident to every thinking man that within a few years a Balkan quarrel would start the World War.
The agitation in Serbia for the " Greater Serbia" project had been considerably increased by Austria 's formal annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had taken place in 1908. This was a deadly blow at the cause of Serbian unity, and was bitterly resented by all Serbs, especially those in the annexed areas. The younger element, entirely uncontrolled, organized a secret society in Bosnia, aiming at terrorist methods, and a revolutionary movement rapidly took shape.
On June 28, 1914, came the flame which was to set Europe alight. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated at Sarajevo in Bosnia, during a formal visit.
Austria, strengthened by German assurances, prepared her demands. On July 23 the ultimatum was delivered. Serbia was accused of permitting antiAustrian propaganda, and was required to publish a statement of regret, to suppress all secret societies and propaganda, to remove all officers with anti-Austrian tendencies, to allow Austrian representatives to help in repressing the Greater Serbia movement, and to carry out a judicial enquiry under Austrian surveillance. At this same moment the President of France was in Russia , the feeling of friendship was being strengthened, and the fever of approaching conflict was at its height. [See the Serbian response to the Austrian ultimatum]
On July 28 the Austrian government declared war. Austrian guns bombarded Belgrade from across the Danube. On the night of July 29 Russia mobilized. Immediately afterwards Austria followed. Next day Germany followed suit, and despatched ultimatums to both Russia and France . France mobilized on August 1. Meantime Britain had been trying to persuade the continental powers to cease preparations. But this failed too, and here again we must not underestimate the tremendous momentum of the forces which had been unloosed. The movement of armies collecting for war cannot be stopped as water can be turned off at a main. On the evening of August 1, Germany declared war on Russia, and France accepted the obligations of her alliance.
Germany 's first acts were to bring in Britain. As already mentioned, it was generally known that the German war plan involved an attack through Belgium and the British army had based its plans on such an operation. Britain was a guarantor of Belgian neutrality, and must be ready to stand by her contract. The attack did not come at once, but what did come was a statement by Britain on August 2 that her fleet would defend the northern coasts of France . This was in accordance with the contract already mentioned. It was still not war. But on August 4 the German invasion of Belgium began. For Britain the casus belli had arisen, and at midnight Germany and Britain were at war.
The first month of war showed the power of two great entities, each of which had been rather undervalued by those whose task was to face it, the German army and the British navy. From their very nature they could only meet in comparatively minor operations, yet every success of the German army was countered by British power at sea.
Active naval operations were so few by comparison with the extraordinary struggles of the armies that most writers and most readers have an entirely inadequate conception of the influence of the British fleet on the course of hostilities. Like a tremendous snake, it wrapped around the warring land forces leaving one side free to escape from the folds as it pleased and to attack in some other quarter, constricting the other side ever more tightly. A great increase in German naval strength had been followed first by the concentration of the British fleet in home waters, and second by the construction of more ships. To these British changes we must add the development of very heavy guns and the organization of a very fast subordinate fleet of battle cruisers and battleships, armed with new and powerful weapons.
On July 29 the British Grand Fleet left secretly for Scapa Flow; by July 30 it was safe from surprise attack and in command of the sea. This was an event of supreme importance. It secured for the British navy the incalculable advantage of the initiative. It was in a position which enabled it to assume the offensive at its own time and on its own terms, and to dictate the character of the war, not only by sea, but by land.
The German High Seas Fleet, of which so much had been expected, was paralyzed; German overseas commerce, which had been a bitter rival to British trade, completely disappeared; Germany could not raise a hand to save her overseas colonies; and at least two million Germans of military age were prevented from crossing the sea.
Britain, on the other hand, was enabled to land troops when she liked and where she liked, to import enough food for her people and her armies and to maintain her financial credit.
It would scarcely be fair to omit mention in this place of the work done by the French fleet, which, with some help from the Japanese, maintained control of the Mediterranean; by the Japanese themselves, who helped to clear the German detached forces from the Pacific; and by the Americans, whose destroyers were a valuable aid during the last stages of the submarine war. But the main burden throughout fell on the British navy.
The first task was the destruction of the isolated German forces in various parts of the world, most of which, it may be observed, did much damage before they were put out of action. By December, 1914, this piece of work had been accomplished, and the navy could devote its energies to its main duty, the constriction of Germany by blockade.
But if the Germans were surprised in 1914 by British sea-power, the Allies were even more surprised by the magnitude of Germany 's land effort. Armies of unprecedented size advanced at unexpected speed, smashing down formidable defences without difficulty, and forcing their way onward by sheer weight of man-power. There were errors of judgment on both sides, but in the first days of fighting they were not evident; all that was apparent was the relentless advance of the Kaiser's armies.
The general scheme of the German High Command was to dispose of France by one tremendous blow, before Russia could get into action. Seven German armies, 1,500,000 strong in all, moved westward. The two armies on the right, under Von Kluck and Von Buelow, were enormously large, containing altogether 600,000 troops; their task was to pass through and crush Belgium , then to swing southwards along the short route into Paris . The Belgian army put up a stouter fight than was anticipated. Although Liège was entered on August 7, its forts did not fall until the 15th. That was, in effect, the end, so far as Belgium was concerned. The great fortress of Namur was taken without difficulty, but the delay had been useful; the French, under Marshal Joffre, had been able to complete their concentration; the British Expeditionary Force of six divisions and one cavalry division under Sir John French had been moved into France by August 13; and were concentrating on the northern border. Four German armies held four French Armies on the right, leaving the Fifth French Army and the British expeditionary force on their left to oppose three armies on the German right, including the immense forces of Von Kluck and Von Buelow coming through Belgium. The task was impossible, although, owing to their lack of knowledge of the German dispositions, neither the British nor the French knew it was impossible.
The Belgian army, meantime, separated from the British and French, had retired on Antwerp, and from that point made two attacks, which, while they accomplished nothing in themselves, kept a certain number of German troops occupied.
It was at this time that the world first heard the stories of "atrocities" in Belgium. Many soldiers apparently were mentally affected; others were, as many must be in every army, criminal. Towns were looted; individuals and groups of civilians, even women and children, were shot when no offence had been proved. There were without doubt some Germans who thought this "frightfulness" would have a salutary effect; but what it did was to rouse public opinion, especially in England , to such a pitch that the war fever grew beyond belief.
On August 22 the French Fifth Army was heavily attacked by two German armies and forced to fall back. The Germans then turned eastward against the balance of the French line (which was, as we have noted, already pinned to its ground by other German forces) and westward against the British; on August 23 came the first engagement between British and German forces, the first battle of Mons. Now the extraordinary value of the British force became apparent. It was so small that a German communiqué referred to it as "that contemptible little army", a phrase which has given its veterans the proud nickname of " Old Contemptibles" It was composed of seven-year volunteers, stiffened by highly trained noncommissioned officers, led by officers who had learned coolness and discipline from their youth up; and most of its units had seen fighting in India or Africa. These troops met the Germans as professionals might meet amateurs. But with the huge German forces working around on their left, retirement was inevitable; and so began the famous "retreat from Mons ".
More masses of Germans kept pouring in on the west, the armies pivoting on their left flank; the best the French and British could do was to keep disengaging and retiring. Before long the line of battle was on the latitude of Paris, then south of Paris . It was off to the east, and the Germans did not attack Paris, their main object being to destroy the French armies. The Germans now turned their two western armies towards the south-east, in order to take the Fifth French Army on its flank. This movement took them across the front of the French Sixth Army and the British, and laid them open to the attack which paralyzed their whole scheme. On September 6, began the battle of the Marne. The Germans had to retreat; all their armies became involved; and by September 12 their centre had fallen back fifty miles, their right more than thirty.
Starting in the last week of September, there began a gradual extension of the line towards the British channel. The British army marched around the French flank, northwards into Flanders. On the day they started their march, another event was happening three thousand miles away which was to bring into the war a factor which Germany had never contemplated: the first Canadian division, with its first reserves, was leaving Gaspé bay.
The river Yser became the general line of demarcation in the north, and by opening of sluices and damming its mouth the Belgians made it almost impassable. To the south the forces still swung this way and that. The Germans made one effort to break through the extreme left wing, but it was frustrated by the British navy, which brought three shallow draft monitors into action, and paralyzed the enemy. The Germans attacked the British at Ypres, using a completely new army, and attacked the French at Arras . Both attacks failed, but the blows at the British line were renewed again and again, and the German reserves were brought into the fighting line with complete disregard of consequences; the German High Command was making a desperate effort for victory before the year's end.
But the winter settled down, and it became evident that 1914 was to bring no conclusion. By November 22 the heavy fighting ended, and the line became stabilized, as it was, for the most part, to remain for three and a half years. The trench system of the southeastern part of the line was extended to the north-western, and the troops settled down for the first winter.
The story of the western front in 1914 has been given first, because it was the scene of Germany 's main effort. But all through those early days the Allied nations had been hoping for some great demonstration from their third ally, Russia. Germany had left only some 200,000 regular soldiers to defend her eastern front. To oppose these the Allies calculated on 1,000,000 Russian regulars, 3,000,000 first reserves, with millions of additional men available. The "Russian steam roller" was a favourite figure of speech, and both professional and amateur war critics expected it to flatten Germany and Austria out. What actually happened was something very different.
The Russians advanced into east Prussia and eastern Galicia, meeting at first with comparatively easy success. But the success did not last long. Hindenburg, a veteran who had made a careful study of the defence of eastern Prussia, came out of retirement and organized a new army. In the great battle of Tannenberg he completely annihilated the Russian right. The Russians forced their way forward on the left into Galicia. The loss of Galicia was serious for Germany for more reasons than one, since it exposed the rich German mineral regions of Silesia and Westphalia, and deprived Germany of most valuable oil reserves.
The Austrians had meantime been busy with operations against Serbia but within a month, so far as the Balkans were concerned, the situation was, as in the west, a stalemate.
But other events were happening in the Near East, which were to have a serious effect on the whole conduct of operations by the Allies. Turkey had always been ready to serve German interests; the Turkish army had, as we have noted, been trained by German officers; the Young Turks, who formed a very important political element, were strongly pro-German. The fast German battle cruiser Goeben and light cruiser Breslau finally reached Constantinople . Here, in accordance with international law, they should have been interned. Suddenly it was announced that the two cruisers had been sold to Turkey ; and with their German admiral, German crews and all, they became part of the Turkish navy. If any extra inducement were needed to bring Turkey over to the German side, this considerable naval force at her very gates supplied it. On September 28 Turkey announced that the Dardanelles were closed; on October 29, apparently on its own initiative, the "Turkish" fleet, with its German admiral, officers, and crews bombarded Odessa. Russia naturally declared war on Turkey, and on November 5 Britain and France did the same.
One other series of land operations must be mentioned before we end this brief survey of the kaleidoscopic events of 1914. The Union of South Africa found itself between two colonies of the enemy power and, in addition, facing a large disaffected group of its own people. A rebellion aiming at independence began on September 15. It was shortly and sharply dealt with by Smuts and Botha, and within three months the threat was over. The capture of the German colonies in south-west Africa took some time longer, but a joint French and British expedition seized on the Cameroons without much difficulty.
Now we come back to the story of the navy and its allied forces, the navies of France and of Japan . Next to its main duty of operating against the German fleet, the immediate task before the British navy was to protect the passage across the British channel. This was done by establishing a joint English and French guarding force in the straits of Dover and at the western entrance, with two battle squadrons in the centre. The whole channel was thus transformed into an Allied lake, and the troops passed across without danger. By August 18 most of the army had crossed, without any knowledge of the fact having reached the Germans. The next job was the support of the army in a landing at Ostend , which had little ultimate value. Then came the " Heligoland action". This was, in a way, the result of the Ostend effort. The Admiralty expected a movement by the Germans, and an independent flotilla was ordered to prepare for an attack on the German destroyers and light cruisers, the Grand Fleet battle cruisers coming in to support them. When the engagement was over, the British had lost no ships and had only 75 casualties, whereas the Germans had lost three cruisers and a destroyer, and had suffered at least 1,000 casualties.
There was other work to be done by the navy, the importance of which cannot be minimized. At the declaration of war, besides the Goeben and Breslau in the Mediterranean , the Germans had a number of other cruisers in foreign waters. There were also a large number of merchant ships which might have been transformed into cruisers. Finally all these threats were disposed of.
Japan , acting under her treaty with Britain , summoned Germany to leave Tsingtau on the Shantung peninsula, and Tsingtau surrendered on November 7. Meantime a considerable fleet had been assembled at Sydney, made up of Australian and New Zealand vessels, later reinforced by some French ships. After various preliminary operations, this fleet proceeded to capture, without any difficulty, German New Guinea and the other German possessions in the eastern Pacific.
The northern Pacific was now controlled by Japan, and an arrangement made at this time was destined to have an important effect years later. The Japanese took over the Caroline islands, which had hitherto been German, and thus extended their empire a considerable distance into the Pacific ocean.
Now came a serious setback. The German Pacific squadron was actually better than Admiral Cradock's, but when he ordered another cruiser to join him his orders were countermanded by the Admiralty. On November 1, with a fine regard for the traditions of the service, he met and tackled the enemy. The Germans got to the eastward and windward, and kept out of range until the sun went down; then, when the British were silhouetted against the sky and they were themselves invisible, they went into action. There could be but one end.
The Coronel defeat followed a good deal of other German activity. A minefield destroyed a battleship, a German squadron tried a raid into the North sea . More important still, the German submarines had shown that, if the rest of the navy were inactive, they were not. In September one of them had sunk three cruisers with most of their crews; in October another sank the Hawke near Peterhead; another attacked some of the cruisers near Scapa Flow ; another was said to have actually got into the anchorage. There had, owing to all this submarine activity, been a good deal of anxiety as to the Canadian transports which had left Gaspé on October 3, carrying about 25,000 troops. They were convoyed by several cruisers, two battleships, and a battle cruiser. When the convoy, which was destined for Southhampton, was off Ireland, a German submarine was spotted near the Isle of Wight , and the convoy was diverted into Plymouth .
It was obviously necessary that Coronel should be avenged, and that very quickly, and no time was wasted. Lord Fisher, now at the head of the Admiralty, established a new command for the south Atlantic and Pacific, and sent out the large battle cruisers Inflexible and Invincible. On these rallied five smaller cruisers, and the squadron proceeded to the Falkland islands. On December 8 the Germans appeared, surprising the British who were coaling, but far more surprised themselves to see the big cruisers. After a long chase, the large German cruisers accepted action, in order to save the smaller ones. The fight lasted some time; the large German cruisers were sunk, and there were no British casualties. Not long after, although at widely separated spots, two other German cruisers were sunk, leaving only one, which finally escaped. Such was the battle of the Falkland islands, described at the time as "the most decisive battle in naval history".
The following two years of the land fighting were marked by experiment and disappointment.
In all the armies the early battles had seen the growth of a new arm, which was to become more and more important, the aeroplane. It was still new at the beginning of the war. Only in 1909 had aviation begun to emerge from the stage of experiment; only in 1912 had the Royal Flying Corps been formed in England. The French Flying Corps had been formed just previously. The Germans had fewer aeroplanes, but had been successful in the construction of Zeppelins.
The British Flying Corps, when it went to France, consisted of four squadrons, each containing three flights of four machines each. They were of varying types, although that did not matter much when there was no formation flying and machines worked independently. A Naval Air Service had also developed, and some progress had been made in spotting submarines and in bomb-dropping. Aerial reconnaissance began early, and although some of the reports, owing to lack of experience, were faulty, it was quite evident that troop movements in rear of the main battle line would soon be no secret. Air fighting began, although aeroplanes were not yet fitted to carry machine guns, and still used bombs and rifles; by September 7, 1914, five enemy machines had been brought down. By the time of the battle of the Marne the Allied aeroplanes were doing excellent work; not long after began the system by which aeroplanes observed the effect of artillery fire, and reported it by wireless and also undertook the task, afterwards so important, of photographing enemy positions. The Royal Naval Air Service was as active as the Royal Flying Corps. It carried on, mostly in motor cars, a series of operations in Belgium, and before the end of the year made four attacks on Zeppelin sheds at Cologne, Dusseldorf, and Friedrichshafen . It also co-operated with the fleet in the Heligoland action.
The need for improvement in machines and organization was now obvious; and before long British factories were competing with the French in the production of aeroplanes. By May, 1915, over 500 machines had been acquired, and over 2,200 were building. The strength of the Corps grew. By the middle of 1916 the number of squadrons had increased eight times, and Sir Douglas Haig, now commander-in-chief, was asking that this should be nearly doubled. Fighting between formations in the air became common, and before 1916 was over still more machines were demanded.
An even more sensational development came in guns and munitions. From September, 1914, to March, 1915, the output of munitions increased twenty times, and by that time the factories were producing 15,500 shells per day. But the Germans and Austrians were producing 250,000 per day; and though the French did all they could, they could not make up the deficiency or come anywhere near doing so. By December, 1915, the British output increased twelve times, while the construction of heavy guns and machine guns was enormously accelerated. In September, 1916, the British expenditure in the field was five and a quarter million rounds. Even this was to be far surpassed; in April, 1917, the expenditure was over 8 million rounds, and in September, 1918, almost 12 million.
There was a corresponding increase in the number of guns. When the original British force went to France , it had only 504 guns. By the Armistice the British possessed over 6,000 guns. Towards the end of 1918 the Canadian Corps used in one day, for one comparatively small operation, almost as much ammunition as the whole British army used in the whole South African war.
The Allied signal services, which supplied telephones to gun positions, had to be immensely improved; the Allies had to develop an intelligence service which located enemy guns by observing flashes from different positions, or noting the time required for the report of a gun to be heard; above all, they had to obtain sufficient artillery officers trained under active service conditions and staff officers who understood the use of guns.
The commanders had very little comprehension of the value of machine guns, but finally the way was led by Canadian developments.
The collection of information concerning the enemy was an important matter. The aeroplane "observers" and observers in captive balloons took photographs; scout officers and patrols crept out into the "no man's land"; "trench raids" by bold little groups forced their way into the enemy's line, and brought back prisoners whose uniforms could be identified. And each nation had its secret service "spies" who worked behind the lines.
The main characteristic of the fighting on the western front during 1915, 1916, and 1917 was that it was " trench warfare". Those trenches were laid out on an irregular line, so that artillery had difficulty in ranging on them. The Germans carried the trench system to its highest perfection. Their trenches came to be very deep, strengthened by wooden supports, strongly protected in front by rows and rows of barbed wire, dotted everywhere with concrete "pill-boxes", proof against anything but a direct hit from a heavy shell, where machine-gun crews waited to mow down an attack. Their officers' dugouts were luxuriously furnished, and the whole system seemed more like a permanent fortress than a temporary construction in the field.
A battle during this trench warfare period was a highly complicated operation. The first step was the preparation of special maps showing as exactly as possible the position of the hostile trenches and wire. Before the operation, the hostile position was bombarded for days with high explosive shell in order to destroy the wire and strong points. The hostile artillery replied to this attack by bombarding the attacking artillery; so that the duel could be heard for scores of miles. Finally, on the day appointed, as the dawn came, a heavy artillery fire, a "barrage", was laid down on a given line, and under its protection the infantry, armed with rifles, with bayonets fixed, machine-guns, and bombs, leapt from their trenches and advanced. They were met by the fire of rifles, machine-guns, and field guns, so far as these had not been silenced. If the attack was successful, the new position had to be consolidated and quickly prepared for the inevitable counter attack. Gun positions were altered, machine-guns placed, and the captured trenches reversed so that they faced in the other direction. It may well be imagined that after three years of this artillery warfare the ground for a long way on both sides of the front became a complete waste. In rainy weather, the front-line area was practically impassable. The shell-holes were full of water, guns sank up to the hubs; ammunition trucks were bogged. It can easily be seen that a "break-through" in winter was impossible; for even if the troops could move, artillery and transport could not.
Behind the front line was a complicated organization, the object of which was the direction of operations or the movement and provision of men, munitions, and food. The movement of men, ammunition, and supplies, in accordance with the needs of the situation, was arranged by the various branches of the staff and carried out by the railways, or by Army Service Corps trucks or busses. When men were wounded they were taken back by the Army Medical Corps, through a complete organization of frontline "dressing-stations", "divisional dressing-stations", "corps dressing-stations", "casualty clearing-stations" (small field hospitals, near the front, where the wounded first met the tender care of "nursing sisters"), and "stationary hospitals" (larger field hospitals), to "base hospitals", or perhaps to hospitals in their home countries.
Other arrangements had to be made for the replacement of casualties and the reconstitution of units. This was at first a very slow business, but finally a method was devised and put into practice in the Canadian Corps, by which, through the use of a special organization, reinforcements were brought up to the line as regularly as ammunition.
Another organization was kept busy building or repairing railways; another, in supplying wood for necessary construction. The battalions of the Canadian Railway Troops and of the Canadian Forestry Corps were responsible for most of this work.
There were also the Pay Corps, the chaplains, the Inland Water Transport (which manned canal boats, a prosaic but useful duty), the Postal Corps (which carried mail), the Veterinary Service, and last, but not least, the "fighting" services, the cavalry (which had no chance during trench warfare to do anything but act as messengers, and not much chance of that), the machine gun corps (which worked with the infantry and handled those very useful weapons, the heavy machineguns), and the engineers, who were responsible for the proper construction of positions, the building of concrete emplacements for guns and machineguns, the construction of camps behind the line, the building and maintenance of roads and railways, the explosion of mines under enemy lines, and an infinity of other jobs.
The organization of the three great armies was more or less similar. At the head was the commander-in-chief surrounded by his staff, General Headquarters, Grand Quartier Général, or Main Headquarters. This staff was divided into branches, one of which dealt with fighting, one with the supply and appointment of officers and men, and one with the supply of food and ammunition. There were many subsidiary offices to deal especially with the different services which we have mentioned above. By the end of the war, there were nearly 700 officers at British General Headquarters, and a still larger number of other ranks, clerks, signallers, servants, etc.
Directly under General Headquarters came the Air Force, the Tank Corps, except for those parts detached, as they usually were, to serve under subordinate armies and the troops on the lines of communication, and at the bases, that is, the concentration points for men, supplies, and munitions. Each of these three bodies had a commander and staff of its own.
The remainder of the troops were organized into armies, each with its own staff; each army was subdivided into army corps, each again with its own staff. Under each army corps were several "divisions", each with a commander and staff, and these were moved about as necessary from one corps to another. The composition of "divisions" varied in the different forces; in the British army they were made up of three "brigades", each consisting of four infantry battalions, with artillery engineers and other accessory troops. The German and French divisions were constituted in a slightly different manner, but in all cases the "division" at full strength amounted to about 18,000 of all ranks.
The most important event of 1915, apart from actual operations of war, was the astonishing growth of the British army. By the middle of that year there were half a million British troops in France ; and by the spring of 1916 the original small British force in France had grown to forty-two divisions, and more were coming.
Moreover, greatly to the surprise of the Germans, the Dominions were beginning to make large contributions. The first Canadian Division with its reinforcements and subsidiary units was in England by October 14, 1914; by February 11, it was in France. In September, 1915, the Second Canadian Division reached France; in January, 1916, the Third was formed in France; and in August, 1916, the Fourth, a Corps headquarters having been established to control the whole. Before the end of 1914 the First Australian Division was in Egypt; then it went to the Dardanelles, where the Second joined it. By the spring of 1916 they were both in France, where three more Australian divisions joined them within the year. New Zealand sent a division to the Dardanelles, and to France with the Australians. Two Indian divisions went to France, and later, with several others, served in eastern theatres.
Another important event was the accession of Italy to the Allied cause. Both the Central Powers and the Allies had used every effort to gain Italian support. Austria, pushed by Germany, offered considerable territorial concessions, but not enough. The Allied Powers promised a great deal more. In the event of their success, the eastern shore of the Adriatic was to become Italian; and they also promised more financial aid. In the end Italy declared war on Austria on May 22, and against Turkey on August 20.
Germany decided to direct her main effort towards the construction of a German Middle Europe reaching from the North sea to the Aegean. The first thing to do was to dispose of Russia; for Russia, as has been noted, was the main obstacle in the way of Germany's continental, as contrasted with her world, ambitions. The defeat of the Russian army, therefore, and the extension of the eastern border beyond Poland, became the main objectives of German strategy. At the same time Britain and France had to be prevented from helping Russia , and the foothold already established on the English channel had, if possible, to be enlarged. Therefore there was to be a violent, though secondary, offensive on the west. Russia 's early movements, as we have noted, had put her army in a huge salient, of which the head was in Silesia, while one flank lay along the Carpathians. In April a great German drive, presaged by a terrific bombardment, was launched on the Russian left, north of the Carpathians. In little over a fortnight the Russians were forced back nearly 100 miles; by the end of June they were almost driven out of Galicia. By September the eastern line was stabilized. The Germans had so far failed in part of their main objective, the destruction of the Russian armies; but they had carried the boundary of German "Middle Europe" several hundred miles to the east, just as they hoped to do.
The western attack, which was a short affair, was launched at about the same time as the eastern, and began with a drive towards the channel ports. The attack was on the salient east of Ypres on April 22. Here the First Canadian Division held the left of the British line. On their left again were French auxiliary troops, Turcos and Zouaves. The Germans, contrary to the Geneva agreements, began the attack by releasing a cloud of poisonous gas, which rolled over the French and some of the Canadians. The effect on those who felt its full force was appalling. Their lungs filled and burned with the fumes; gasping for breath, twisted by pain, many died on the spot. The remnants of the French colonials broke back to the rear. The Canadian line was extended to the left rear to cover the flank; then, for three days, they were on the defence, sometimes counter-attacking with incredible courage. With the help of a few British troops, the new Canadian formation stood off the immensely superior German forces. The German effort to reach the channel had failed.
This episode came in the midst of a general offensive which had been undertaken by the French in Champagne and Alsace. The British had backed them up by an attack at Neuve Chapelle; neither was successful.
Now came the attack on the Dardanelles. If it could have been carried out successfully, it would have decided the war. The story of the naval and military effort at Gallipoli is an epic of heroism which will never be forgotten, but in spite of gallant efforts and dreadful casualties, no success was possible. More British troops were sent, but by then there were more Turks. Finally, skilfully enough, the invaders withdrew on December 18 and January 8. A total of over 32,000 killed and almost 115,000 wounded was the cost of this unfortunate campaign.
The French were to make just as costly an error. Their commanders too had failed to realize that success without adequate munitions was impossible. In May and June, with some help from the British, they attacked north of Arras ; the Germans, in accord with their new plan, remained on the defensive, and the attack, after heavy casualties, petered out. In September the Allies tried again, the British at Loos, the French near Lens and in Champagne. There was not nearly enough artillery; the arrangements for reinforcing the attacking troops, especially with the British at Loos, were poor and failed; and again the attacks broke down.
Meantime Italy had, without much regard for the general conduct of the war, directed her efforts towards Trieste. But they did not get very far, and when their attacks stopped they had lost over a quarter of a million men.
By autumn the Allied offensive, from which so much had been expected, wore itself out. The casualties had been far greater than those of the enemy, and nothing had been accomplished.
Early in October the Germans attacked Serbia on the north, the Bulgarians, who had not joined the Germans, on the south-east; and the King of Greece, a henchman of the Kaiser, kept his country neutral. The Allies landed an expedition at Salonika, but it was weak and it came late. After a campaign of atrocious cruelty Serbia was occupied, although its army and some of its people escaped. At the same time Austria seized on Montenegro . Before the new year was well begun, the whole Balkan peninsula, except for the French and British troops at Salonika and semi-neutral Greece, was a German dependency. "Middle Europe " had been established.
The Germans had cause for satisfaction, the more so by reason of another British failure. The control of the head of the Persian gulf, and important oil-producing area, was essential to Britain , and a force was despatched there from India. In the summer of 1915 an inadequate little army was sent up the Tigris, and reached Kut-el-Amara. There it was besieged by a considerable Turkish force; all attempts at relieving it were defeated; and it finally surrendered in April, 1916. The force at the head of the Persian gulf remained in possession of its ground; and more was to be heard of it later.
Now developed considerable marine activity of a new and unpleasant kind. Early in the war German submarines attacked several merchant and passenger vessels, although without much success. In February, 1915, the German government announced that all Allied merchant vessels in the waters around Great Britain and Ireland would be sunk without warning, and that neutral ships would not be safe "in view of the misuse of neutral flags". This declaration was contrary to all established law and usage; the sinking of merchantmen, even after warning, had never been permitted by international law, except in case of extreme necessity, and the use of neutral colours by a merchantman attempting to elude capture had always been permitted. A number of ships were destroyed soon after this. In most cases there was considerable loss of life; ships were deliberately destroyed before the crew and passengers could leave, and sometimes life-boats were fired on. On May 7 the British steamship Lusitaniawas sunk without warning, and nearly 1,200 persons, among them a number of Americans, were drowned. In order to mollify the Americans, the orders given to the German submarines were modified; neutral vessels were to be spared, and also all large passenger ships. Action against other vessels continued, and during the year 1915, over 1,000 were destroyed. President Wilson of the United States, by the threat of severing diplomatic relations, was able to extract from Germany a promise that merchant vessels in the war zone would no longer be sunk without warning.
In 1916 began a new attack on France. This time the High Command tried at Verdun, and the attack, which began on February 21, 1916, lasted until September. In method it showed a slight improvement on previous battles, in that it began with a tremendous bombardment. The Germans used up troops without compunction, but Verdun had become a symbol; "They shall not pass" was the watchword of France .
An attack on Britain by sea, the secondary attack of German strategy, had been timed with the attack at Verdun. It began, as has been noted, with submarine activity and the raid on Lowestoft . It culminated and ended with the battle of Jutland. On May 30 the British admiralty sent out word that the German High Seas Fleet was out, and by daybreak the British battle cruisers, with a squadron of fast battleships, were cruising southward near Jutland, the Grand Fleet battleships some distance astern. The German battle cruisers were travelling north, to the eastward of the British. The light cruisers of both sides met; then the big British cruisers turned east, astern of the Germans; the Germans turned east to escape, and finally both lines of battle cruisers were heavily engaged. The battleship Queen Mary and the battle cruiser Indefatigable were both sunk; wild fighting between destroyers followed; then Admiral Beatty saw the whole High Seas Fleet. He turned away at once, to lead them towards the Grand Fleet. The British destroyers were able to ride off the enemy, battle cruisers while this was happening; the British battleship squadron, which also turned, fought as a rearguard. Cruiser and destroyer fighting was going on all the time, and the boldness of the British destroyers, added to the heavy fire of the large ships, sent the German battle cruisers back to their main fleet. Finally, in a mist, the two main fleets came in sight of one another and presently were on parallel courses running south-east. Admiral Scheer's hope had been to destroy the British battle cruisers, then to tackle a section of the Grand Fleet before the latter could deploy, but Admiral Jellicoe's tactics were too fast for him; and although the battle cruiser Invincible was sunk in the subsequent fighting, the Grand Fleet in line was too much for his ships. The Germans turned away. Then they turned back to attack the British centre. Again the Grand Fleet was more than ready, and Admiral Scheer ran his van into a huge semi-circle of battleships waiting to meet him. Again he turned away and tried to escape to the west. The British battle cruisers kept level with, and south of, the head of his line, and after a good deal of confusion the Grand Fleet came along behind them. It seemed as though the Germans were cut off from home and certain to be destroyed, but by a brilliant manoeuvre Admiral Scheer turned clear around north of the British fleet, made off to the south, and regained his base.
Thus ended the second stage of the war, Germany 's establishment of her European empire, the first succession of costly Allied failures, and the failure of the second German attempt at a swift knockout in the west.
The rest of 1916 and the whole of 1917 was marked by offensives in which the Allies battered vainly and with terrible losses against the walls of German middle Europe, by defeatism in France and Italy, by the elimination of Russia and Rumania, the appearance of America, and the return of Germany to violent submarine warfare.
The Somme offensive, which began on July, 1916, was not a battle, in spite of the official reports, but a series of infantry attacks, directed against the southwest corner of the battle-front. Here, as almost everywhere else along the British line, the Germans had the high ground; they held a series of ridges running roughly north-west to southeast, from which they commanded the British positions. The attack was planned for July 1. The battle began by a week's heavy bombardment, which made quite clear to the Germans what was going to happen. The result, at first, was an apparent success, the German line being driven in for a considerable distance. The French attack, timed for the same hour, was still more successful. When the first attack was over, others were pressed forward without adequate preparation. The wire was not always destroyed by gunfire. Infantry, instead of attacking in small groups, were ordered to move in "waves", lines in regular formation, and they suffered in consequence; the British casualties in July alone were over 180,000, greater than those of any other month in the war, the Australian Corps, lost over 15,000; and in the whole course of the battle their casualties were over 32,000, more than half their infantry strength. August was another costly month, although not as costly as July, with almost 72,000 casualties, of which 13,000 were Australian. But the line was advanced a little further.
In September came the British "tanks", mobile fortresses on caterpillar wheels, armed with machine-guns. There were not enough of them; half of them did not work; but at first they were certainly useful and with their help another advance was made. By September 25 the main ridge position was gained. In this month the Canadians came on the scene, and suffered about 15,000 out of the 100,000 or so casualties.
The total result of the Somme battles was an advance of about five miles on a twelve-mile front. The cost to the British armies alone was over 400,000 casualties. The final position of the British was if anything worse than the first; it was in the middle of a devastated area instead of near comfortable billets, and the frontline trenches were low and waterlogged.
While the operation was going on in France and during the few months preceding it, Russia had been having a considerable, if illusory, success on two fronts. On the Caucasus, in the spring, a determined advance had carried the Russians well into Turkish territory. In June the Russians attacked along the whole southern half of their western line and broke the Austrian right, pushing their troops well forward into Austrian territory. In July they attacked in Galicia , and had another considerable success, which was more or less consolidated during August.
The Italian front, during the summer of 1916, was also the scene of some activity. The campaign began with an Austrian attack, which came to an early end. The Italians struck back quickly, and made a considerable advance, but this too gradually came to a standstill.
Greece, ever since the beginning of the war, had been courted by both sides, and each had a strong group of supporters - the king, a German himself, being naturally pro-German, handed over to the Bulgarians a fort which blocked the Allies' route from Salonika. This began trouble at once; German control soon spread over the whole district; and the Allies replied by a futile blockade of Greece. This brought about a sort of revolution, although most of the country remained under the king. The pro-Ally party set up a provisional government, or the shadow of one, at Salonika , which was recognized by the Allies and declared war on Bulgaria . Its aid was, needless to say, not very valuable.
At the same time Rumania became involved. The Rumanian objective was Transylvania. The Russians informed Rumania that the Allies would permit annexations in Austria-Hungary only if Rumania intervened at once. This finally brought Rumania in on August 28, 1916. Her army invaded Hungary, and at first all went well. But success did not last. The Germans took this new threat very seriously, and two efficient, although not large, forces were despatched to deal with it. One of these attacked from the north, and finally forced its way into the western part of the country; the other, aided by Turks and Bulgarians, came up from the southeast. Before the autumn was over, Rumania had lost all but part of the northern province, and had ceased to be a factor of any importance.
In two of the outlying theatres of war the British were having better fortune than in France. At the beginning of the year the South African forces, having disposed of the rebellion and occupied German South-West Africa, were able to undertake their long-planned campaign in German East Africa . In Arabia, the Sherif of Mecca, whose country had long been subject to the Sultan of Turkey, began a revolt, captured Mecca, and was declared "King of the Arabs".
There was to be one brighter spot before the year closed. On October 24, before the British attacks on the Somme were quite over, the French attacked at Verdun, and pressed the Germans back almost to the line from which they had started months before.
The German plans for 1917 involved a general defensive, while internal reorganization was in progress. To facilitate this, Ludendorff, now chief of the German staff, decided during the winter to shorten the line around the Somme . At the conclusion of the movement, the Germans had left a dangerous, deep, and irregular salient, and held a prepared and very strong position on a long shallow curve which could be better garrisoned by fewer troops. The Allied plans, on the other hand, called for an offensive. The British armies, by March, 1917, had risen to 1,800,000 and the French forces were still larger, while the German total in the west was about 2,500,000. Joffre and Foch had been retired, and Nivelle had become the French commander-in-chief. His original plan was for a "pincers" operation, the British going eastward from Arras, the French northward from Champagne .
The Canadian Corps of four divisions, formed some time before, was the main fighting force of the British First Army, and included a large number of British troops. On April 9, at a strength of 175,000, it attacked the German positions on Vimy Ridge, north of Arras; it was successful at once, on the right and after two days fighting on the left. At the same time the British Third Army on the right of the First attacked, and made a corresponding advance. The ground won was consolidated, and the rest of the battle of Arras (1917) was a desperate struggle for a further slice of territory, most of the fighting being south of the Canadian area. It finally came to a standstill. It was difficult and sometimes impossible to get the necessary guns and ammunition forward over the sea of mud, soaked by spring rains and pitted with huge shell holes, and the Third Army lost very heavily in constant infantry attacks. It was clear again that there was to be no "break-through", and that the hopefully waiting British cavalry were of no use.
By the end of April, the total British advance was about four miles on a 15 mile front, with about 100,000 casualties, of which over 13,000 were Canadian. On January 31, 1917, a German note to the United States announced blockade zones around Britain, France, Italy, and North Africa, all traffic through which would be stopped. On February 3, in consequence of this notice, the United States severed diplomatic relations with Germany, and when submarine operations began in accordance with the German plan and American lives were lost, the American Congress, on April 3, declared war.
The example of the United States was followed by a number of other nations. Nevertheless, in February, 1917, Germany began all out submarine warfare. Ships bearing supplies for the starving population of the occupied areas, hospital ships, neutral merchantmen, all that could be sunk were sunk. Before the year was over, 10,000 deaths had been caused. Supplies in Britain ran low; the nation was rationed although the army was never stinted.
The Germans at the same time made further efforts to destroy the morale of the civilian population. In 1917 and 1918, 37 aeroplane raids were made on Britain; and the total of civilians killed and injured in the two years was 2,266. The same activity went on over France , where the raids had possibly more effect, both physically and morally. The Allies replied by similar raids over Germany, the total casualties amounting to 2,474 persons.
The Royal Air Force grew fast. In January, 1917, there were 39 squadrons in France; by December, there were 58, with 11 in other theatres of war; but in 1918 there had to be a change, old machines had to be discarded, for they had no chance against the German ones, and it was well on in 1918 before the R.A.F., with 1,500 first-class ships, was again a factor in the situation.
The spring of 1917 saw a tremendous event, the significance of which was scarcely realized at the time. This was the revolution in Russia. The revolution began on March 8, 1917, with the assembling of comparatively orderly crowds in the streets of Petrograd protesting against the failure of the food supply. The police and some of the troops attempted to repress them by force; but by March 11 the Czar's government was paralysed, by March 14 that government had disappeared, and all the troops in the neighbourhood of the capital had joined the revolutionaries. A committee of democratic leaders of the Duma (Parliament) was in control, as far as any organization could be in control, but a Council of Workmen's and Soldiers' Deputies was already challenging it. The army was rapidly disintegrating; thousands of soldiers were going home; others were fraternizing with the enemy. The Czar Nicholas, who was the nominal commander-in-chief, set out from his army headquarters for Petrograd, but was unable to reach the city. On March 15 Nicholas abdicated in favour of his brother Michael.
The socialist Kerensky now came into power; socialism, for the time being, was in the ascendant, and the central Council of Workmen and Soldiers appealed to their "comrades" of the army to fight for the freedom of Russia and the liberation of downtrodden Europe. In November a new group, the Bolsheviks, or communist extremists, came into power, and on December 17 an armistice was signed, leaving Germany in control of a huge area, including Finland, the Baltic provinces, and Poland, from which Russia was later to be excluded by a treaty of peace made on March 3, 1918. And the collapse of Russia forced Rumania also to agree to an armistice on December 10. The remainder of the history of the Russian revolution, including the futile efforts of Britain to combat the new regime in North Russia and Siberia, belongs less to the story of the war than to general history.
In Palestine, in the deserts of northern Arabia , and in Mesopotamia the early British failures against the Turks were more than redeemed. In Mesopotamia British arms were at last successful. Farther to the west matters went equally well. The Arab tribes, united for the first time in centuries, waged a guerilla warfare under the newly made King Feisal and his adviser Lawrence. By March, 1917, the British were in Palestine attacking the Turks. Jerusalem was captured in time for Christmas, an event which brought some badly needed cheer to the British people.
But while this was going on, matters on the western front were not satisfactory, and in Italy the Allies had a bad setback. The operation on the Arras front had been followed almost at once by a French attack along the line of the Aisne. The French attack made some headway, stopped, started again, but finally broke down completely; again preparations had been inadequate, and the French toll was 200,000 casualties. France was now sunk in gloom and defeatism (there is not much doubt that the "defeatists" were made more influential by clever German propaganda), and the contagion spread to the armies. Unrest and disobedience appeared in sixteen corps; there were thousands of desertions, troops refused to attack, and the situation became dangerous in the extreme.
The French difficulties at this particularly critical moment forced action on the British. Something had to be done to prevent the Germans from taking advantage of the opportunity to turn their defensive into an offensive. On June 7 Haig tried, for one and the only time, a new kind of attack. Hundreds of tons of ammonal were exploded in mines laid under the German lines on the Messines Ridge, a very strongly held hill to the south of the Ypres area. It was by far the greatest explosion ever brought about by man, the ground shook for miles, and the report was heard in London. The moral effect was valuable, for the Germans regarded the Messines Ridge as a key position, and felt their loss even more than the British appreciated their gain.
On July 31 the British Fifth Army began the long series of attacks at Ypres. The key of the German position was now the Passchendaele Ridge, east of Ypres, and the British staff believed that if the Germans could be driven off that point of vantage it might be possible to cut into them still farther, and make them abandon their hold on the North Sea coast. For months the fighting went on here with little result but thousands of casualties; gradually the British bombardment and the German counter-battery fire churned up the ground on both sides of the line into a mess of earth and broken stone.
There were two minor offensives on other parts of the line. The first, in August, 1917, was the Canadian battle of Hill 70. The public importance of this was beyond its military importance. The coal reserves of France occupied a long narrow strip of land running east and west through the area north of Arras, which the Canadians were holding and about the city of Lens . A large portion of them were in German territory, and Hill 70, north of Lens, provided the Germans with a jumping-off point from which they might operate to seize more. And the loss of more coal, as Clémenceau, president of the Council of France, said the next year, would have finished France as a combatant. The attack on the hill, which began by a very heavy surprise bombardment, was completely successful and very costly to the enemy.
Before the second diversion, however, a blow was to fall on the Allies elsewhere. The Italian First Army was facing north-west on the Asiago plateau. Some distance to the right of the First their Second Army was facing north in the mountains of the Tyrol , but the Austrians opposing them were still higher up. South of this, a considerable sector was held by the Austrians, with a small Italian force against them.
Then, further south, almost on the Austrian border and facing east, came the Italian Third Army, which had actually reached the summits and commanded the Austrian position. Although there were reserves, they were not near by.
Italy had suffered from the same defeatist troubles which had almost paralyzed France; Bolshevik envoys had been actively preaching the social revolution to rioters in Turin, and some at least of the Second Army regiments had fraternized with the rioters. On October 24 a small but efficient German-Austrian army, which had been concentrated on the Italian Second Army front, climbed the summits, attacked, and broke through to the southward at Caporetto. They were thus in rear of the Third Army, which, it will be remembered, was off to the east; and an additional menace to the Third Army was an Austrian force advancing along the north shore of the Adriatic. The men of the Second Army, which had thus been cut in two, surrendered (it is said that 200,000 were taken prisoners) or deserted. The army disappeared like snow in the sun, leaving the Third Army to get out of the trap as best it might.
The impression on the French and British was very serious. Without delay British and French armies were constituted in Italy, and by December were holding the most important section of the line. The German divisions gradually withdrew, the Austrian divisions made a last effort; finally their attacks wore themselves out.
All through the autumn the British staff, with much perseverance, but complete lack of vision, pounded at the ridges in front of Ypre. The tremendous bombardment for months on end of an area which needed drainage gradually smashed all the drains and turned the country into a morass pitted by enormous shell holes. Finally, the Canadian Corps was ordered to repeat its effort of April. Some time before, the command had passed to Sir Arthur Currie, who had more than once made it clear that while he was entirely subject to the direction of Haig, he should be consulted regarding the disposal of Canadian troops. He lacked confidence in the army commander and staff who had been responsible for the Passchendaele attacks, and induced Haig to hand over that section of the front to another army. He found that half the guns which were supposed to be supporting the infantry were out of action, and refused to attack until they were replaced. Very careful arrangements were made; roads were built over the swamps; and finally the attack began. Passchendaele was duly taken, and there, as was to be expected, the advance stopped.
Now came the second of the minor offensives, which might have been much more. The British Third Army throughout 1917 was in front of Cambrai. General Byng suggested a breakthrough. Byng asked for reserves, in case of a breakthrough, but did not get them. The attack came off on November 20. An army of tanks, followed by lines of infantry, swept into the German lines with no long preliminary bombardment, and apart from a delay in one spot, where field guns came into action against them, went through without any difficulty and made a deep square salient in the German line. Before the new position could be consolidated most of the ground the Germans had lost was retaken. Cambrai was a lesson, but not a victory.
So ended 1917. Russia was out; America was not ready; Italy had been badly defeated; the western wall of Middle Europe was intact; and the Allies had lost their supremacy in manpower on the western front.
On January 8, 1918, President Wilson of the United States, set up " fourteen points" which he considered a proper basis for peace. Although they were not generally accepted, they have been given so important a place in literature that they must be mentioned. But, as will be seen, General Pershing , not President Wilson, had the final say as to America 's proposal.
The fourteen points, summarized, were: (1) open diplomacy; (2) freedom of the seas; (3) removal of economic barriers and the. establishment of equality of trade conditions; (4) reduction of armaments; (5) adjustment of colonial rights; (6) evacuation of Russia (by the Allies); (7) restoration of Belgium; (8) evacuation of France, including Alsace and Lorraine; (9) return to Italy of territory inhabited by Italians within Austria; (10) freedom of Austria's subject races; (11) restoration of the Balkans; (12) freedom of Turkey; (13) re-establishment of Poland; and (14) setting up of a League of Nations.
When Clémenceau, President of the Council in France, heard of this he said: "Fourteen Points, the good God himself only had ten."
The terrific economic cost of the struggle was beginning to appall everyone. Taking one man serving one month as the unit, Britain 's land effort was immense. Including only men in active theatres of war the Empire expended, up to the Armistice, 88,780,000 man-months, and in France alone 64,180,000 man-months. Canada's contribution was 4,319,000 man-months. The total war borrowings of Britain in the United States were about £2,000,000,000 of which £888,000,000 were borrowed after the United States entered war. All the proceeds of these loans were expended in the United States. Advances to Britain from Canada were $709,000,000, the proceeds of which were spent in Canada .
The cost to the main Allied nations and to the United States has been calculated as follows: Britain, $36,072,000,000; the United States, $32,000,000,000 (without credit for profit on material supplied to the Allies); France (including devastation losses), $54,000,000,000; Canada, $1,000,000,000.
During 1917 another important factor had become more clearly appreciated. The newspapers had learned that their power was even more immense than had been realized, and it is no secret that Lord Northcliffe, who controlled the most influential section of the English press, wielded so much authority that he was the main factor in the replacement of one prime minister by another. The defeatism of France in 1917, the withholding of reinforcements by the British government after the Passchendaele losses were largely the result of press criticisms. The delay in the final decision of the United States was largely due to the attitude of a section of the sensational press that was unsympathetic to the Allies even to the end of the war. By 1918 it became evident that by the press, by addresses, by posters, and by the skilful use of censorship, the public must be impressed with a belief in victory.
At the beginning of 1918, the battle-line in France and Belgium was a long, shallow curve bent south-westward. It stretched from Nieuport on the Belgian coast to Mezières, ten miles south of Metz on the Lorraine border. There were a few detachments in the Lorraine front between Mezières and Switzerland, but this section of the line had no importance. On the left of the Allies were the Belgians, holding a very small sector. Then came the British armies in the following order: Second, Fourth, First, Third, Fifth, holding about 120 miles in all. The British armies included a corps and some railway troops furnished by Portugal under an old treaty. The French, with a few Americans, held the last two hundred miles of battle-front and the quiet Lorraine sector.
The British casualties up to March, 1918, had been over two million. The French had been even greater. The Central Powers had suffered the appalling total of seven million, six hundred thousand.
Early in 1918 the British took over a section of line from the French, and the Fifth Army was entrusted with it. The defences of the new British sector were poor; the Fifth Army was comparatively weak, with its troops strung out.
The date, the place, and even the time of the offensive were known days before, but lack of coordination of the Allied forces prevented them from making any adequate preparation. On March 21, Ludendorff struck his terrific blow. Fourteen British divisions were attacked by sixty-four German divisions, and the attack was aided by a heavy fog which blinded the British gunners. A small infantry force gathered at random and the Canadian Machine Corps Motor Brigade tried gallantly, but vainly, to stem the tide. Within a week a salient forty miles deep was driven into the Allied line.
The Germans next attacked the Third Army near Arras. The Third Army to the North, had a resolute commander, Sir Julian Byng, a good staff, and a strong position. Its front bent back on the right and left, but it never broke.
A proposal for a unified command, was now renewed, and on March 26, at a conference held just behind the line at Doullens, Foch was entrusted with the general co-ordination of the British and French forces. On April 3, at Beauvais the momentous document was signed which placed British, French, and Americans all under the Marshal's orders.
On April 9 the Germans struck another blow, this time in the Lys valley, a few miles north of the Canadians. They were successful almost without fighting. The Portuguese retreated; other troops went with them. Most of the First British Army was left in a salient. And it is worth recording that during the next six weeks of the German offensive against the British, the Canadian Corps held between a fifth and a quarter of the total British and Belgian line.
The total casualties of the British armies in March and April were about 300,000, a terrible addition to the Passchendaele losses.
On May 27, forty enemy divisions drove southward at the French on the Chemin des Dames and forced them back, just as two months before they had forced back the British. The advent of a number of British divisions sent to help hold the French line was not enough to stem the flowing tide, which filled up another great salient and began to press westwards. The Allies now told the President of the United States that "the crisis still continues . . . 162 Allied divisions now oppose 200 German . . . [Marshal Foch] urges that the maximum number possible of infantry and machine gunners should continue to be shipped from America in the months of June and July to avert the immediate danger of an Allied defeat in the present campaign . . . . He represents that it is impossible to foresee ultimate victory unless America is able to provide such an army (about 100 divisions)."
At the same time, the neutral nations who were selling goods to the Allies refused further credits, and the commission responsible for purchases reported that unless a successful attack was soon made, supplies could not be kept up.
But the United States was at last on the move. For nearly eight months after war was declared, no American divisions had reached the line. By the twelfth month there were only two divisions in the line, or the equivalent of four British. By the fifteenth month there were only five, equal to ten British. But there were seventeen (equal to thirty-four French or British) in France by June, 1918, seven of them trained, and by November twenty-nine (equal to fifty-eight French or British) were trained, and twelve more in training.
The Allied armies were filled with confidence, the Germans with despondency. General Pershing, the American leader, insisted on organizing a new force, to take over an entire sector from the hardly tried French.
The rôle of the Canadians also had been gradually increasing in importance. Up to 1918 they had, according to the casualty lists, made a much smaller contribution, relatively, than Britain , and until 1917 they had been treated as a small section of the British army. Even if the whole campaign be included, Canada only contributed about one-fifteenth of the total man-power effort of the Empire. But during the last months of war they were to play an unexpectedly important part.
The Canadian Corps was, during the summer, organized into a large homogeneous striking force, consisting of four strong divisions, now making up about 52,000 infantry. (A Canadian division numbered 21,802, as compared with a British division of 16,035.) In addition to this, the Canadian Corps had a special and large machine-gun corps of four battalions and two mechanized brigades, a large engineer corps of four brigades, and far more mechanical transport than any other corps possessed. The various units composing it were well used to working together. It had a single staff, and functioned as smoothly as any smaller formation.
This was an entirely different plan from that which had prevailed, generally, in the British forces. A corps, as a rule, consisted of a commander and staff, a group of "corps troops", including heavy artillery, and a number of divisions. The division, as has been observed, had been the fighting unit, the corps a directing headquarters, and the divisions of a corps were withdrawn from time to time as they became depleted. In the Canadian Corps a new system was devised by which divisions were reinforced during operations; thus the organization could be kept continually in action. The value of this great machine was soon to be demonstrated. It was just as formidable an addition to the British forces as the tank or the heavy gun.
It must be made clear that, while the main body of the Canadian Corps consisted of the four Canadian divisions with the Canadian artillery, it was far from being entirely made up of Canadians. It had several British staff officers, and frequently, on important occasions, a large number of British troops, mainly artillery. In the first battle of the Hindenburg line, for instance, its strength was 148,090, of which 46,491 were British.
The composition of the British divisions was altered; they were reduced to nine battalions instead of twelve. This made them about equal in size to the existing German divisions, and naturally made the problem of reinforcement much simpler.
Improved aeroplanes became available, and before very long British and French machines had regained supremacy.
On July 15, 1918, the Germans launched 47 divisions in the Friedensturm, the attack which was to bring the Allies to their knees, striking southward from the Aisne, and also to the east of Rheims, and reaching the Marne. This time they were checked and held east of Rheims, and on July 20 the French counter-attacked from the west and drove them back to the line of the 15th.
Now came the first Blitzkrieg operation of modern warfare. With complete secrecy, by fast mechanical transport and trains, the Canadian Corps moved 40 miles south almost overnight and, on August 8, with the Australians and an American corps on their left and French troops on their right, attacked the line in front of Amiens. This time advantage was taken of every lesson. The preliminary bombardment was very short, the surprise was absolute; a brigade of tanks cooperated; the Canadian cavalry too had, at last, their chance; and, with comparatively small losses, a fourteen-mile gain was made in a few days. Fifteen German divisions were met and defeated by the Canadians. The effect on German morale was more serious than the military result. The tide had turned, and the Germans knew it.
The Canadian Corps was moved north again. It was its first duty to break into the Drocourt-Quéant line (part of the Hindenburg system), a very strong position with huge trenches guarded by many lines of heavy barbed-wire and hundreds of machine-gun posts. In front of this lay two other trench systems. By now the lessons of the past four season's fighting had been learned. The Corps, owing to the new reinforcement arrangements, had left the Amiens area at full strength. The Arras area was quickly but carefully mapped; every enemy gun-position was "spotted", and every "machine-gun nest" that could be seen was marked. The preliminary bombardment was short, but heavy and scientifically accurate, aeroplanes marking the progressive destruction of the wire. On August 26, the infantry attacked, supported, not preceded by tanks. By the 28th the outlying position was taken. On September 2 the main attack was delivered on the Drocourt-Quéant line, which was successfully carried in a similar manner.
Soon afterwards the newly constituted American army undertook its first serious work. Ever since the early days of war the Germans had held a salient, covering nearly 200 square miles on the east of Verdun . It was held by seven German divisions, of which four were mediocre. On September 12, after heavy artillery preparation and much aeroplane bombing, the salient was attacked from both sides by strong American forces, accompanied by small French tanks, and was captured with comparatively small loss.
Meantime, at sea, the submarines were being fought to a standstill. Q ships (merchant ships with naval crews and guns), depth charges, and spotting seaplanes destroyed 200 out of 371. The submarines' only chance now was to make a raid from the German ports on the Belgian coast, Zeebrugge, and Ostend, which could be reached by water from Germany.
The mouth of the canal at Zeebrugge was guarded by a large curving mole; the whole area was strongly garrisoned and protected by heavy guns. At midnight, on April 22, 1918 , Zeebrugge was attacked. A cruiser and two ferryboats made fast to the outside of the mole, in spite of strong currents, and landed a large detachment which chased off the Germans; and a British submarine was exploded near the neck of the mole, and by blowing it up prevented a counterattack: By this time the German guns and all their machine guns were firing hard, but they could not prevent what happened next. Three old cruisers, laden with concrete, made their way in towards the canal. One went ashore outside, but the other two made their way in and were sunk in the channel, their crews being taken off by motor launches. The other vessels then left, with the survivors of the attack on the mole. It was a well-organized and heroic attempt. It cost many lives, but by its blow at the submarines it saved thousands more. Zeebrugge had been rendered practically useless as a submarine base. A few days later a similar effort was made at Ostend and, in spite of a fog, was very successful. The submarine menace was to all intents ended, and Britain had no longer cause to fear shortage of food or supplies.
Meantime, one after another the merchant ships which had survived the submarine campaign were crossing the Atlantic ferrying American troops; and before the spring was over seven American soldiers per minute, day and night, were landed in France.
In the Middle East the German structure was weakening fast. On August 31, a joint attack was made on the Bulgarians by French, British, and Greeks,. aided by the reconstituted Serbian forces. Before September was over the Bulgarians were begging for an armistice, and on September 30 it was granted. At last light was breaking for the Allies, and darkness falling on the other side. Ludendorff was ill with rage and despair, and on October 4 the Czar of Bulgaria abdicated.
Not long before, on September 18, a new offensive had begun in Palestine. The British forces, which had been stationary since February, advanced northwards, and while the infantry held the Turkish army in front of them the cavalry went around the flank and cut off the Turks' retreat. Meantime, the British in Mesopotamia, who had by now established a cordon across Persia , reaching to India , having first sent a courageous but largely useless forlorn hope to Baku, attacked the Turks again, and on October 28 the Turks surrendered. Turkey was knocked out. On October 30 an armistice was signed; the Allies were given their long-sought control over the Dardanelles .
But on the western front all was by no means over. A heavy weight of German forces was still massed against the British. Fifty-eight British and 10 Dominion divisions faced 76 German divisions, while 130 French and American divisions, the latter of double size, faced 102 German. The central sector of the curving line was to be the main battlefield. At the north-west end of this sector were the Canadians facing east. The American army was at the southeast end, and was facing north. The operations which followed were designed to cut off the whole German force between these two, and were finally settled at a conference between Foch, Pétain and Pershing on September 2.
On September 26 the battle of the Argonne began, after a rapid but heavy bombardment by nearly 3,000 guns, with nearly 200 tanks and 800 aeroplanes. In two days the Americans advanced nearly seven miles, and were then held up by the need of reorganizing their transportation arrangements. At the other end of the pincers, and twenty-four hours later, on September 27, the Canadian Corps broke through the main key position of the Hindenburg line, the Canal du Nord. This was a deep canal running north and south across the front. It was only available for crossing on a front of 2,000 yards, and the whole body had to pass over by this narrow space and fan out to eight miles. This movement, under enemy fire, was highly complicated, and at the crucial moment of crossing the tension was high. But the preliminary arrangements had been careful; the operation was successfully completed. Farther to the north the British troops in Flanders had also begun an attack on the ridges east of Ypres, and had made very satisfactory progress.
The Americans and French were now close to the hinge on which the German armies must turn in order to escape from France; they had gone more than halfway through the defence system. On October 8 a French attack east of Verdun, preceded the day before by a delusory American advance, caused a good deal of confusion, and a general attack on October 14 went through the Hindenburg line in front of the American position.
The success of these pincer operations in France, the collapse of Turkey, and the impending collapse of Bulgaria made it clear to the Germans that they could not succeed, and on October 3 Hindenburg called for an offer of peace to be made. But what Germany expected was an "equal" peace, and that did not suit the Allies, who proceeded to continue their advance.
On October 8 the Canadian Corps attacked towards the south-east, entered Cambrai, then changing its direction towards the north-east, crossed the Canal de I'Escaut, running from Cambrai to Valenciennes. At the same time the British troops on the right of the Canadians advanced, took over Cambrai, and linked up with the forces on their right.
The remainder of the 1918 campaign consisted of continuous advances at the two ends of the "pincers", the Germans putting up an unexpectedly stubborn resistance, using machine-guns and gas and high-explosive shells. The Canadians reached Valenciennes on November 1, pushed on, and by November 10 were in front of Mons. The Americans advanced towards Sedan, and by November 7 had cut the main line of German communications.
The career of the German navy was now to be ended. Late in October, the High Seas Fleet was ordered to sea, without any very clear idea of what it was to do. But revolutionary activity was now active in Germany; the propagandists had found fine material on the ships; and practically all the crews mutinied and hoisted the red flag.
At the same time, the Austrian Empire had fallen to pieces. Austria 's control over the "subject races" had gone. Every nation was declaring itself independent, and only the Austrian army in Italy was intact. Nothing had happened there during the whole year except for a brief Austrian attack in the spring. On October 23 the Italians began the great battle of Vittorio Veneto . The Austrians were hopelessly beaten; more than 400,000 were prisoners; and on November 3 their commander signed an armistice which amounted to an unconditional surrender.
On November 7 the German High Command asked for an armistice. On November 8 the German plenipotentiaries reached the Allied lines, and saw the terms which had been prepared. These were, in effect, unconditional surrender. They would not sign. Foch replied by issuing an order on November 9 for a further advance. The Canadians complied by entering Mons, the Americans by reaching Beaumont, and completing their control of the Meuse line. The two ends of the "pincers", which had started 160 miles apart, were now separated by only 65 miles. The German army could not get out of the trap, and at 5 A.M. on November 11 the armistice was signed, to take effect six hours later. In the meantime, on November 9 the Kaiser had abdicated. The War was over.
Source: Lt. Col. Wilfrid BOVEY, "World War I", in W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. VI, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1848, 398p., pp. 322-347.
© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College