Saturday, November 8, 2008

What I'm Reading: Shock Troops

Tim Cook. Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War,1917-1918, Volume Two, Toronto: Viking Penguin, 2008.

Tonight, most likely, officers and senior NCOs of my former reserve unit, Fourth Battalion of The Royal Canadian Regiment, are gathering in London, Ontario for an annual event called The Pursuit to Mons dinner. This custom falls on the Saturday before Remembrance Day, and commemorates the last Battle Honour earned by the Regiment in the First World War. On November 10th, 1918, the Canadian Corps was attempting to capture the Belgian city of Mons, where the British Expeditionary Force had been thrown into retreat by the overwhelming power of the Imperial German army in August 1914. Thus the war came first circle, with the Empire’s new army of shock troops from Canada regaining what ground the mother country’s professional army had lost at the outset of the war.

Canada’s military coming of age in 1917 and 1918 is the subject of Tim Cook’s book, Shock Troops. Cook, the Great War historian at the Canadian War Museum, completes in this volume the story he began in At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1914-1916. Shock Troops begins with the Canadian Corps battered after the 1916 battles of the Somme, and shivering in the winter of 1916-17. Herbert Burrell, an infantryman at the unimaginable age of forty-six (my age next week) wrote that “We are like the rats which infest the trenches burrowing in the ground; sleeping by day; grovelling in the mud at night. Mud in your bed. Mud in your bed; in your mess tin; on your food. We seldom wash. No water to spare. One marvels at the cheerfulness of the boys who have been out here a long time” (p. 14). Comradeship in the midst of unrelenting hardship and casualties is a constant theme in Cook’s study. His other major theme is the increasing professionalism, operational and tactical organization, and national pride which made the Corps such a powerful force on the Western Front.

Under their last two commanders, Sir Julian Byng and Sir Arthur Currie, the Canadians spent the winter of 1916-17 reorganizing and training in ways that allowed the Corps’ four divisions to build on their staff strengths and lessons learned. “Canadians understood one another, often knew their counterparts in their division or other divisions from prewar life in Canada or from serving in the First Contingent, and would come to know each other better in the various divisional and corps training schools that were established from 1916 onward to impart lessons and bring senior and junior officers together” (21).

The story of how Currie and his staff achieved their goal in the methodical, set-piece battle of Vimy Ridge is well told by Cook and is too well-known to deserve much space here. We can be grateful to Cook that he spends as much time describing the Canadian effort at Passchendaele, a battle which has been memorably and lyrically evoked in film this fall by Canadian actor and director Paul Gross. Passchendaele, a winter battle fought in appalling conditions amidst bottomless quagmires of mud, has long been a symbol of the idiocy and sacrifice of trench warfare. However, given the bleak strategic situation of 1917 for the Allies, with Russia failing and the French army in a state of mutiny, there was a grim logic in the British general Douglas Haig’s plan of keeping the pressure on Germany. While Currie won his demand to fight the battle on his own terms, he only had two weeks to plan the offensive, far less time than the Canadian Corps had to plan the attack on Vimy Ridge. Cook gives Currie full credit for standing up to his British superiors to win every possible advantage for his Canucks by spending shells instead of lives:

“Currie needed more guns to adequately prepare for the battle. Returning from his tour of the front, the red-faced general barged into GHQ demanding replacements for the guns that had sunk beneath the mud. Kilometres from the front, the British staff chided Currie and asked how he could know for sure if the guns where there or not. Currie exploded, cursing and pointing to his mud-stained uniform; he had been there to inspect the bloody guns, he bellowed, and there were far fewer of them than the British claimed in their handover reports! The surprised and chastised British acquiesced.” (p. 321)

Passchendaele, as one Canadian gunner remembered, was “really hell on earth … a complete nightmare of mud, slush and everything else. It was frightful, and if I’d been in for a week I’m sure I’d have gone mad” (p. 364). However, it was a tribute to the Canadian Corps that it managed four set-piece attacks in October and November, using increasingly sophisticated tactics. During the capture of Passchendaele village, spotter aircraft from the Royal Flying Corps, using state of the art wireless radios, called in seventy artillery missions from the air to support the Canadian attacks. The use of aircraft for fire control and ground attack, combined with tanks, armoured cars and mobile artillery, all assisting infantry with robust tactical leadership and initiative at the section level, would be widely used in the above ground battles of the Hundred Days in late 1918 as the Canadians got better and better at the art of war. Readers who think that the Western Front was simply the repetition of mindless and stupid tactics by idiot generals need to read Cook’s book.

The battles of the Hundred Days (August to November, 1918), when the Canadians broke the German lines at Cambrai, Amiens, the Canal du Nord and Valenciennes, deserve to be as equally well known to Canadians as Vimy Ridge. In these last, desperate battles, against German lines lavishly equipped with machine guns, the Canadians infantry was often forced to attack before their supporting artillery could be brought within range over recently captured ground. In these last days of the war on the western front, the Candians suffered 45,835 casualties, an eighth of the losses of the British Expeditionary Force during this period, even though the Canadians only made up one-fifteenth of the BEF’s total strength (579). The breaking up of the Fifth Division in England, plus the arrival of conscripts from Canada, allowed a flow of replacements to keep the Canadian infantry at full strength and fighting. When one considers the number of men who flowed through the Canadian battalions, being destroyed and rebuilt five and six times over (the 1st CEF battalion, with an OOB of about 1000 men, had 6,449 men pass through its ranks during the war), it’s a marvel and a tribute that the Canadians fought as well and as hard as they did.

The surprising cohesion of the Canadian Corps, as Cook suggests, came from its camaraderie, the loyalty of mates in a platoon to one another when Generals like Currie seemed far away. It came as well from the special discipline of the Corps, noticeably more relaxed and democratic than the tone of the British army, but still an army that prided itself on its soldiering reputation. And, as Cook suggests memorably, it came from the fact that they embodied a nation:

“Close to seven percent of the country’s total population left Canada during the war years, which included an astonishing twenty percent of the total male population between the ages of eighteen and forty-five. And when they arrived in their camps, and later in the fighting formations of the Canadian Corps or other units, they met men who hailed from across the country. English Anglo-Saxon Protestants served next to French-speaking Catholics; east-coast fishermen rubbed shoulders with big-city Toronto factory workers; Natives, blacks and Japanese fought side by side with men who might never have seen them in Canada, let alone talked to them. This is not to suggest that the Canadian Corps was one big, happy family that experienced no friction or fights. But the country did come together in its corps, taking great pride in the significant victories on the Western Front, which created a new pantheon of soldier heroes. The corps’ success in the war also created a new sense that Candians had done something important together, that indeed something “Canadian” existed beyond the political federation of provinces and localities.” (p. 630)

If this all seems rather abstract and academic, read the book for the many soldier’s voices that Cook includes in its over six hundred pages. Among these voices is Gunner Robert Hale, writing a poem home to his girlfriend Alice, knowing, as all Canadian soldiers did, that the odds were stacked against them ever coming home. Hale wrote:

Remembrance is all I ask
But if remembrance proves a task
Forget me. (p. 189)

As another Canadian historian, Duff Crerar, has written, “all of our historians gaze across the white crosses and memorials with awe and sympathy for the grief and pain that still haunts those who have been lovers of those who signed away their right to life for the defence of Canada”. Thanks to Cook, Gunner Robert Hale and others like him will not be forgotten. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.


1 comment:

styler said...

Poppies in the states are popular in May for Memorial Day, but I had hoped to jump the border last week and find one to wear when I made a quick trip I had to take to Buffalo. Alas, getting back home to get the kids off the bus was the priority.

One nice thing we do have here are POW/MIA flags. They tend to memorialize those who served during the Vietnam War, but so many are still missing from all wars and should especially be remembered. One is flying outside my house today.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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