World War One (WWI), which was fought between 1914 and 1918, was at that time, arguably, the fiercest battle that the world had witnessed. Soldiers from the US, Japan, Europe and its colonies and other parts of the world battled on all fronts on land. Besides, industrial giants used this war to implement their technological and strategic warfare, which led to catastrophic outcomes. By the end of WWI, the misery and torment that was experienced by the soldiers and civilians reached inconceivable heights. One of the participants of WWI was Canada, which was part of the British Empire. Canadian troops, therefore, had a significant role to play in fights that involved the UK. For instance, in August 1914, Britain called upon Canadian forces along with other allies, such as France and Russia, to strengthen its military power when it declared war on Germany (Trueman, 2012). The Canadian legislature did not decide on participating in this war when it began. Most of the country's foreign dealings were conducted in London and, thus, was prompted to join the Allied forces when Germany declined the British ultimatum to pull out its military from Belgium. With that brief overview in mind, this essay explores Canada's strategy in the First World War by specifically focusing on how they approached the seven major battles fought during this war.
As stated above, as at that time, WWI was the most gruesome warfare fought across the world. Among Canadians, the war wiped away any romantic views of combat by infusing the fear of foreign associations until World War Two (WWII). This fear was as a result of the anguish that Canada had to endure where about 170000 people got severely injured, 60000 lives were lost and numerous cases of manslaughter reported (Trueman, 2012). With Canada being under Britain's rule, most of its decisions regarding WWI were directly determined by the British.
To gain an understanding of how Canada fought, it is prudent to explore its contribution in seven key battles between 1914 and 1918. These battles include: The Battle of Ypres (1915), Festubert and Givenchy (1915), The Battle of the Somme at Beaumont-Hamel (1916), The Battle of Vimy Ridge (1917), The Battle of Hill 70 and Lens (1917), The Battle of Passchendaele (1917), and Canada's Hundred Days (1918).
The Battle of Ypres (1915)
The Battle of Ypres was the first key warfare that Canadian soldiers fought during WWI between April 22nd and May 25th 1915. This battle, which mainly involved the Germans and the Allies, was fought in Belgium on the Ypres salient. It was on this front that the strength and military tactics of the Canadian troops would be tested.
According to Parks Canada (2017), during the first four days of the Battle of Ypres, Canadian combatants showed great bravery and grit to subdue Germany's aggression. These combatants proved their mettle on the frontline through their audacious and resolute actions to guard the Allied positions. However, the odds were against the Canadian soldiers, who had to endure a chlorine gas attack from the Germans that resulted in numerous fatalities.
On 22nd April, the Germans released about 150tons of poisonous chlorine gas from storage cylinders into the Ypres salient (Trumpener, 1975). This move by the Germans was not welcomed by the Allied forces who deemed it to be a violation of the policies and regulations of war. The Germans were relentless in their attacks as Trumpener (1975) notes that two days later, their infantry compromised the Canadian troops' position in Saint-Julien.
During the second gas attack, Canada's mission was to shield the Western Front whose frontline was relatively quiet. Therefore, their strategy was to defend this front from all sides. The Canadian soldiers, who were on this occasion referred to as the 1st Canadian Division, engaged the German infantry in a gruesome encounter as they strived to close the void left by Allied forces from Algeria and France who had either pulled out or perished from the first assault. However, unfortunately, the asphyxiating gas overwhelmed most of the militias in the 1st Canadian Division rendering them powerless to continue fighting (Parks Canada, 2017).
British combatants were forced to step in and assist their Canadian counterparts in withdrawing. On seeing the aftermath of the chemical assault, Canada opted to send another troop, the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) to try and avenge for their fallen soldiers. To defend the Allied front at Bellewaarde Ridge, the PPCLI was embroiled in a gory fight with the Germans and effectively thwarted the German offensive. Following this triumph, Canada's approach that was characterized by resolve and tenacity received acclamation from all over the world (Parks Canada, 2017).
Festubert and Givenchy (1915)
After the Battle of Ypres, volunteers from the Cavalry Brigade reinforced the much-weakened troops of the 1st Canadian Division and moved southwards to bolster the then ongoing Allied invasions. Unlike in the Battle of Ypres, the Canadian forces were more prepared for this clash. Jenkins (1999) asserts that the Festubert and Givenchy were fought at a critical period when Canada had begun embracing combat intelligence in its warfare strategy. A loss of control, obliviousness and command confusion were mistakes that cost the 1st Canadian Division dearly and, thus, could not afford to repeat them. For that reason, there was a need for meticulous planning in Festubert and Givenchy.
The Canadian soldiers pushed for victory in Festubert and Givenchy by gathering all information, regardless of how insignificant it looked, on the positions of the German Infantry. The 2nd Canadian Division, which was being trained in Britain and was formed to reinforce the 1st Canadian Division, started establishing battalion-level intelligence units that did not exist earlier on (Jenkins, 1999). During this war, the Canadian intelligence systems advanced to adjust the strategic environment and ultimately meet the growing needs for warfare.
The 2nd Canadian Division was called upon by the Governor General who wanted to send a second contingent of overseas militia to the battlefield (Nicholson, 1992). Despite the fact that the 1st Division had already being given most of the available artillery in addition to a shortage in militias, Ottawa instantly mobilized the second division that included 15 new battalions and 30000 armed men.
Nicholson (1992) purports that on 13th May 1915, the Allied forces launched a methodical assault on the Germans' position in the Festubert front. This assault involved a tactic which was referred to as "wearing-down" where the Allied infantry utilized howitzers and guns to relentlessly bombard the Germans' defense till they retreated. After retreating, the Army Commander mobilized the Canadian unit to attack the Germans on the 7th front. The plan was that the Canadian troops would launch simultaneous offensives on the Germans.
To that end, the Commander called upon two battalions, the 14th and the 16th, to attack from the left and the right respectively. The Canadians executed this frontal assault in a grim pattern and even though they achieved their goals of subduing the German defenses, the costs and losses suffered were more considerable compared to the gains. There were 2468 and 400 fatalities reported in Festubert and Givenchy respectively (Nicholson, 1992). All in all, the intelligence that the Canadians gained by collecting information about the German defenses was crucial to their Festubert and Givenchy battlefield success.
The Battle of the Somme at Beaumont-Hamel (1916)
According to Veterans Affairs Canada (2019), the Battle of the Somme was among the most important encounters in WWI that saw the Canadian combatants being involved in intense warfare in 1916. During the summer of 1916, Canadian forces were in charge of a part of the Western Front in the Belgian territory. However, in August, they started relocating to the Somme Front near Courcelette and were straightaway met by a stiff reaction from the German defenses that had camped in this front. The German offensives were so severe that the Canadian Corps lost 2600 men before they could launch their planned annexation.
The battle of the Somme was different from all the previous fights that the Canadian forces had experienced. Despite them having prepared for this battle, they were still short of the skills required to wage fierce warfare (Jenkins, 1999). The intelligence structure that the Canadians established during the Festubert and Givenchy battle would face its greatest test on the Somme Front. To enhance Canada's intelligence, Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell organized a corps-wide intelligence meeting on 9th August to discuss issues such as infantry intelligence co-operation, the roles and organization of battalion scouts, and tactical intelligence. The Colonel's objective was to formulate a set of standardized warfare protocols in addition to improving the corps' unity and teamwork. With these improvements in his ranks, Mitchell's combatants were ready to go to war (Jenkins, 1999).
On 15th September 1915, the Canadian unit executed a massive assault at Beaumont-Hamel on the Somme and was able to gain a 2000-meter wide front. The infantry was aiming for more tactical flexibility and, therefore, used the information gathered about their enemies to execute a well-calculated ground strategy (Jenkins, 1999). In this assault, the Canadians adopted an approach known as the creeping barrage, where they moved behind a well-aimed wave of howitzers that advanced ahead on a predetermined plan. For this strategy to work, the combatants had to remain dangerously close to the artillery where they were exposed to the risks of sustaining injuries due to explosions. Nonetheless, Veterans Affairs Canada (2019) maintain that the strategy proved to be largely effective since the Canadians' unremitting barrage of the German positions forced them into retreating for protection thereby quelling any possible counterattacks.
In the Courcelette battleground, the Allied forces engaged their first war tanks. These tanks were 261ft, 14ft and 71ft in length, width and height respectively. Additionally, the tanks had a 6-cylinder, 105-horsepower engine with a maximum speed 3.7mph. In a heavily shelled battlefield, this speed would, however, reduce to 0.5mph (Nicholson, 1992). Irrespective of the tanks' mechanical limitations and primitiveness, their shock capabilities were enough to neutralize the German defensive lines.
The Canadian units continued their unrelenting barrage on the Germans and were able to annex Courcelette. A revolutionary feature of this attack was that it was planned to a series of sequential aims rather than an uninterrupted advance to the final line (Nicholas, 1992). After this annexation, the Canadians consolidated the acquired positions and effectively repelled an ensuing wave of German counterattacks (Veteran Affairs Canada, 2019).
The battle did not stop on the Somme Front. In the subsequent days, the already deployed three Canadian units, which included the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions were constantly met by a sequence of German retaliatory invasions. The Veterans Affairs Canada (2019) state that, in the end, the divisions' aim was to consolidate a strong defensive line for the next missions and encounters with their rivals. To this end, Canada opted to organize a 4th Division that would strengthen their counterparts who had been battling out with the Germans. With a reinforced fighting unit, the Canadians executed the "Big Push" that saw them seize the Regina and Desire Trench and eventually bring to an end the battle on the Somme.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge (1917)
The battle of Vimy Ri...
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