This story was first published Oct. 4, 2018
Canada’s army on the Western Front had a very strong reputation by the summer of 1918, four years into the Great War. Its soldiers were recognized as “shock troops,” men who would carry out the hard tasks and fulfill their objectives. The army’s commander, Lt.-Gen. Sir Arthur Currie, was known for competence and determination, and the general officers commanding his four divisions and brigades were all proven leaders. The 100,000 men of the Canadian Corps were good, and they knew it.
This army had been created out of almost nothing. In 1914, Canada had a tiny cadre of professional soldiers and a largely untrained militia of some 50,000 men. The leaders were untried; the soldiers, unready. But somehow contingents took shape, units were organized and shoddy equipment was replaced. The Canadians faced their first test in April 1915 at Ypres, the site of the Germans’ initial gas attack, and in a chaotic, terrible battle held the line and prevented a breakthrough. The cost was high, with more than 5,000 casualties, a toll that sent a shock through a country that had never suffered such carnage. Further battles in 1915 and in 1916 on the Somme made apparent that this war was to be prolonged and deadly.
By the beginning of 1917, the Canadians, now forming a corps of four divisions, were ready for the next battle. The objective was to prise Vimy Ridge, looming over northern France, from the enemy. Still led by a British officer, Lt.-Gen. Sir Julian Byng, the Canadians took the ridge in April in a signal achievement. The Corps’s reputation had been made, and Byng went on to command the British Third Army. In his place as Corps commander was Currie, a Victoria land speculator and militia officer who had proven himself as a brigade and division commander. Currie led the Corps to victories at Hill 70 and Passchendaele in the summer and autumn of 1917, and he was held in high esteem in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and with Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, under whom the Corps served.
Although the Canadians served in the BEF, Currie had a somewhat special status as a national commander, a leader who could play a nationalist card if he found it necessary. He wanted his four divisions to stay together and fight under Canadian command, and he was largely successful in this. He resisted British efforts in 1918 to create a Canadian field army of two corps, arguing successfully that this would increase staff and support elements without improving fighting effectiveness in battle. If he had agreed with the British plan, Currie would have received a promotion, but that did not sway him.
Nor did demands from Ottawa much alter his military decisions. He supported Sir Robert Borden’s call for conscription in late 1917, but he did not go overboard in his messages to voters at home. Currie had resisted the demands of Minister of Militia and Defence Sir Sam Hughes that he accept his son, Garnet Hughes, as one of the Corps’s division commanders, instead relegating him to command of a Fifth Division in England. This earned him Sir Sam’s bitter enmity, but Currie wanted only proven battlefield commanders, and when he drew on the Fifth Division as a pool of reinforcements for the front-line units, Garnet Hughes stayed in Britain. Currie was a man of high principle in his leadership role. He wanted what was best for his soldiers.
Until the spring of 1918, his soldiers were all volunteers. Enlistment in Canada had been strong until late 1916, with most of the volunteers coming from British-born immigrants to the Dominion. At Vimy Ridge, for example, 60 per cent of the Corps’s men were British-born. Native-born Canadians enlisted in smaller numbers; francophone Canadians with little attachment to the British Empire, less still. Support for the war was strong in Canada, and although compulsory service had divided the country sharply, once men began to be called up under the Military Service Act in January 1918, the army found the 100,000 conscripts it needed. The 24,000 conscripts who reached France beginning in the late spring played a critical role in sustaining Currie’s 48 infantry battalions in severe, prolonged fighting.
The conflict in 1918 was at its tipping point. The Russians were effectively out of the war. The United States was in it but only gradually getting its army to France. The Germans, their economy in great difficulty because of the British naval blockade, had launched huge offensives in France in March and made major gains. As their assaults continued into June, they gained substantial ground, but the losses of their best troops were irreparable. There was an opportunity for the Allies to strike, and like the best French, British and Australian formations, Currie’s elite Canadian Corps was ready.
Their lines located near Vimy, the Canadians had largely escaped the full force of the German offensive, thanks in substantial part to Currie’s insistence that his four divisions stay together. Instead, they trained hard in realistic exercises, practising for open warfare. The infantry platoon, the basic fighting sub-unit, was reorganized into two Lewis machine gun sections and two rifle sections, grouped into two equal half-platoons that could support each other with fire and movement. Sections trained to advance in rushes and spread out to reduce casualties, and initiative was now the order of the day. “And did we train?” Charles Savage, an officer promoted from the ranks, recalled. “Day and night battles all over the place, tanks, airplanes, cavalry, artillery: they were all there . . . It was exactly what we needed to shake us out of the habits acquired by years in the trenches . . . ”
The Canadian infantry units, as Savage noted, spent time training with the new and better models of tanks to destroy enemy machine-gun bunkers. They worked with aircraft, preparing to use the Royal Air Force’s fighters to strafe enemy strongpoints and reinforcements moving to the front. They practised using phosphorous bombs to create smokescreens, and they mastered the use of the Stokes mortar. They learned anti-gas drills, trying to ready themselves for the enemy’s use of phosgene and mustard gas. That meant marching and fighting in gas masks. One officer called this “an abomination of the flesh. I know of nothing more uncomfortable . . . stumbling about the country, half-stifled and almost blind, with the saliva drooling out of the valve down one’s jacket.” Uncomfortable, yes, but very necessary.
While the infantry practised attacks, so, too, did the gunners, working on their methods of locating enemy guns so they could be quickly silenced. The artillery worked to perfect the creeping barrages that led attacks and forced the enemy to stay in their trenches. The Canadians used their heavy machine guns well, adding indirect fire to thicken artillery barrages, and the two Motor Machine Gun Brigades, their weapons mounted on armoured cars, roamed at will, usually on the flanks.
The engineers played a critical role in the Canadian Corps, with Lt.-Gen. Currie actually saying once, “I would prefer to do without infantry than to do without engineers.” The Corps had an engineer brigade of almost 3,200 men in each division, enough men to build bridges, clear roads, deal with obstacles and disarm booby traps left by retreating Germans. They could also put out fires—the Germans had left Cambrai in flames in October 1918, and Canadian engineer units doused the flames.
Currie had increased the numbers of machine guns in the Corps, adding a battalion of 96 guns to each division with enough soldiers to lug the heavy weapons and ammunition forward. The British, short of men, had been forced to reduce the number of machine guns in their units; the Canadians, with reinforcements coming from Canada and England, increased the number of guns and personnel. In 1914, a Canadian infantry battalion had two machine guns; in 1915, four; in 1918, one gun for every 13 men (compared to one for 61 men in a British division).
All this meant that the Canadian Corps of four divisions was the biggest corps in the British Expeditionary Force. Each Canadian division had 50 per cent more infantry than a British division, and more engineers and artillery, too. The Canadian Corps, in effect, had the punch of a British army of two corps.
The Canadian staff at every level had also learned on the job and become very competent. The plans for Vimy in 1917 had taken months to draft. Drawing up the strategy for the attack on the Drocourt-Quéant Line east of Arras at the end of August and the beginning of September 1918 took scarcely any time: “Four days ago,” staff officer Maj. Maurice Pope noted, “I knew nothing of this affair and the job is at the very least of equal magnitude.” And now the staff were, except for a few British officers, all Canadian.
So, too, were the battalion officers, almost all young men who had fought and survived and learned how to lead in action. The inefficient had been weeded out, the capable promoted, so that many battalion commanding officers were under 30 years old, the average being 37, and a few brigade commanders were under 35. War was a young man’s game, the Canadians had learned.
Above all, the Canadians had Currie, considered by all to be one of the best—if not the very best—corps commander on the Western Front. Forty-three years old in 1918, Currie had been a militia officer in Victoria, where his artillery regiment was judged the best in the country. He had taken command of an infantry battalion just before the war, but in a collapsing land boom Currie had panicked and used funds intended to buy uniforms for his new Highland regiment to save his personal financial position. This huge misstep hung over him throughout the war, and while he worried about it constantly, Currie did not allow it to distort his military decisions. Those tactical and personnel decisions, while not always correct, were well thought out and founded on sound judgment.
Currie knew the Germans were superb soldiers who could only be beaten by careful planning and well-trained men. He wanted his Canadians to have every possible advantage, to learn the lessons of what had and had not worked in battle, and to get the full advantage of the massed artillery, tanks and logistics the Allies could now muster. He would plan surprise attacks at night, advance without preliminary bombardment, and train his units for both hard slogging against concrete bunkers and open warfare with rapid movement. And Currie had learned that German tactical doctrine called for quick counterattacks to retake lost positions. To defeat them meant quickly bringing up machine guns, ammunition, barbed wire and reinforcements. Currie had been a part-time soldier who was transformed by four years of war into a highly competent, innovative professional commander.
The Canadians were lucky to have him, but unfortunately, Currie was not popular with most soldiers. He was a fat man with a weak chin, and he did not look like the mostly mustachioed British generals. He was shy, and his written messages to the troops sometimes sounded pompous. The troops thought he sought rewards for himself—he didn’t—by sending them into the hardest battles. Some even called him “the butcher,” not understanding that he tried hard to save lives with guns and good planning. Currie knew that the Great War could be won only with hard pounding, and he sometimes believed that the British army wasn’t as willing to do this as the Canadians and Australians were. He wanted to win the war, and he understood that his first-class troops had the will to do it.
Canada’s Hundred Days, which began in August 1918 and lasted to the Armistice on Nov. 11, would include the Canadian Corps’s greatest victories. Canadian soldiers defeated one-quarter of the German army on the Western Front, cracked the enemy’s major defence lines and advanced well into Belgium. Currie had created, trained and led a formidable force, and he was Canada’s greatest soldier. Sadly, 100 years later, few Canadians know anything of this man or the army he led.
J.L. Granatstein is a former Director and CEO of the Canadian War Museum and author of many books, including Canada’s Army: Waging War and Keeping the Peace.