TWO GENERALS BRING CANADA TO NATIONHOOD

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The opinions in the article are those of the author only and are about how a Dominion of the British Empire became a nation during the War Years of World War I.

When Canada declared war on Germany in 1914 the men in Canada stood up and enlisted into the Canadian Army while a smaller number of men left Canada and returned to Great Britain to enlist into the British Army. The men who stood up and enlisted into the Canadian Army were from England, from Scotland, from Ireland and Wales and when they left for overseas they were not going overseas to fight for Canada but were fighting for their motherland which was Great Britain. In addition to these men there were other nationalities who enlisted and they were Scandinavians,Ukrainian and other nationalities from throughout Europe.

Two generals had very much to do with Canada growing into a nation.

The actions of one were negative and the actions of the other was positive. I feel that a country cannot become a nation during a war if you are losing your young men needlessly, your advances were failures, your objectives were not being met and the Commander had no issue with sacrificing lives. That is not positive.

The second general was General Currie, the Commander of the 1st Canadian Division and he was a Canadian. He and General Byng following the disaster on the Somme planned the assault onto Vimy Ridge and all their planning led to success at Vimy. Shortly after this, Byng became commander of the British Third Army and General Currie of the 1st Division became commander of the Canadian Corps. Following Vimy the next assault for the Canadians was Hill 70 and under Currie this was a success. Every assault from that point that the Canadians made led to success and all objectives being achieved. When you trust and respect your commander and he cares about the lives of his men and you advances lead to success it is not hard to believe that you can succeed at anything and you hold your head high. From their negative experience on the Somme to all their successes in the second half of the war led the way to Canada becoming a nation. In fact, Canada was invited to sit at the table during the Treaty of Versailles to end the war and only a nation would be allowed to do so.

General Haig - Commander in Chief of Commonwealth Armies

General Haig had no imagination, no audacity, no composure, no intelligence, no intuition, no courage, was unable to calculate and as a result he could or would not act when the time arrived. Under his leadership the British Army by the end of hostilities was very close to being destroyed and he failed to achieve his objectives in the Somme and at Ypres.

General Douglas Haig, the Commander in Chief if the British and Commonwealth forces during World War I has been called "the butcher of the Somme" and "the worst Military leader of World War I".

Haig was a cavalry man and believed that the infantry should face the enemy, suffer the losses with the cavalry then advancing to deliver the "coup de grace". He also felt that the machine gun, the tank and the aeroplane were very much over rated weapons and that in the years and decades ahead the cavalry would always be the heart of any army. The facts speak for themselves during this conflict and that was that the cavalry was vulnerable and they were obsolete.

On the very first day of the Battle of the Somme Haig wrote "very successful attack this morning.....All went like clockwork.....The battle is going very well for us and already the Germans are surrendering freely". The fact of the matter is that the British artillery fired hundreds of thousands of shells and were not able to destroy all the enemy dugouts. Many of the shells fired were "duds" while others lacked sensitive fuses that would explode on contact with the enemy barbed wire. Many enemy machine gun positions and dugouts were untouched and deep rows of barbed wire were uncut. The losses on this day were 19,000 men dying for three square miles of French soil. There were another 41,000 men either wounded, missing or becoming prisoners. The wounded would lie for days in "no man's land" This was the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. The British did not achieve one of their objectives.

One British officer then wrote " The events of July 1st bore out the conclusions of the British Command (Haig) and amply justified the tactical methods used".  On July 2nd, Haig stated " the enemy has undoubtedly been shaken and has few reserves in hand" and went on to discuss with his subordinates of how to continue with the advance using the same methods.

There are very small, very large and communal Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries throughout the Somme area of France and many of the stones have an inscription which reads  "A Soldier of the Great War - Known Unto God"

German forces had also suffered and the British pressed their attacks for months and well into the fall with both sides suffering 600,000+ casualties.

The Battle of the Somme lasted 141 days with over 1,000,000 casualties. 

The ruling class of Britain was exposed with their incompetent Generals such as Haig, Rawlison and Gough and Alderson. These men had no second thoughts about sacrificing the lives of men which is nothing less than murder. The Battle of the Somme was an exercise over 141 days of pointless slaughter. The British kept attacking over and over, his men gained a few yards and all the while the goal was to wear down the enemy. The British Command fought a war of attrition because they could not come up with anything better. When the British advanced, it was in neat files at a slow walk which was the way Haig maintained control. Over the course of the war Haig had sent the flower of British youth to death and mutilation.

The Battle of the Somme for the British  "was the greatest tragedy....of their national military history and it marked the end of an age of optimism in the lives of the British that they still have not recovered from". 

Haig's legacy could well be that he thought very highly of himself and thought he was more important than he actually was. He also lacked any scruples whatsoever. His ambitions sacrificed hundreds of thousands of British and Commonwealth soldiers. He betrayed those who were under him, his government and the peoples of the Commonwealth. He was a man who achieved his success by trickery that was immoral and criminal.

Losses during the Battle of the Somme were British 350,000+, Canada 24,029, Australia 23,000, New Zealand 7,408, South Africa 3,000+ and Newfoundland 2,000+ for a total of 419,654. The French lost 204,253. Allied losses were 623,907. German losses were 600,000+.

It is no wonder then why the men of the Canadian Corps and the men of the other Commonwealth countries were demoralized after countless advances and very few successes under the command of Haig.

Over 2,000,000 men under his command became casualties.

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Lieutenant-Colonel Currie

Currie was given command of the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Canadian contingent and while at Valcartier and with few supporting staff he began to organize the four battalions and it here he learned how to improvise. He earned the confidence of his men and Prime Minister Borden.

Once Currie and the 2nd Brigade were overseas there was months of difficult training with Currie proving himself to be an adept trainer and was very hard working and was open minded. Even at this point there were those who considered him "one of the best". 

Prior to the Battle of the Somme in 1915 and then half of 1916 Canadian losses on the battlefield under the command of the British and their commander Haig were estimated to be in the area of 18,555. These took place during the Second Battle of Ypres at Gravenstafel, St. Julien, Festubert, St Eloi and Mount Sorrel. 

Brigadier General Currie

In February of 1915, the 1st Division moved into France and by April was in the Ypres salient and here the Allies were surrounded by the enemy on three sides. On April 22nd, two of the Battalions of the 2nd Brigade were on the front lines with the other two battalions in reserve. Late in the afternoon the enemy used gas for the first time and the French lines were decimated. The Canadians counter-attacked and Currie planned the defence of his sector. The next day his Brigade was committed to battle even though they were outgunned, outnumbered and ill equipped. Then on April 24th, the enemy gas came floating into the Canadian lines and they were slowly being pushed back and became dangerously exposed. Eventually, the circumstances stabilized following three days of battle but the Canadians suffered heavily.

Near the end of the month at Festubert the British showed once again their inability to successfully launch an offensive. They went ahead with the advance without proper intelligence and poor artillery support for the infantry. The 2nd Brigade was shattered in that they failed to achieve their objectives and in a few days had suffered 1,200+ casualties. 

Lieutenant-Colonel Currie had pleaded with the British command to postpone the frontal assault which he said was suicidal against an entrenched enemy protected by uncut barbed wire. He was overruled.

Currie now understood that the infantry must have better artillery protection as they advanced. The artillery would have to come down on the enemy with high explosive and shrapnel to clear the enemy wire, destroy enemy strongpoints and also keep the enemy underground in his dugouts and way from the firing line. He also understood the challenged of trench fighting and he tackled these problems in a well organized manner.

Major General Currie

In mid September of 1915, Currie was given command of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division and surrounded himself with a group of strong officers.

Currie was a different sort of commander. He was overweight, did not have facial hair. He encouraged an "exchange of opinions" was easy going and well liked by his staff and officers. He was cool and distant with his troops and they called hum "guts and gaiters" but he did have the ability to inspire the men under his command. At this point in the war, the men of the Canadians Corps did not know just how much their commander cared for them and when he planned an offensive he tried to limit the casualty count. Following Vimy Ridge and Hill 70 they would become very aware of just how much their commander worked in planning an advance to limit their losses. Currie never backed away from a fight and the 1st Division were the first to conduct trench raids. These were go in and out quickly by sneaking across no man's land, attacked the enemy and then retreated. They gathered important intelligence and eliminating the enemy instead of capturing a trench. They soon became known as expert trench raiders.

From May of 1916 until June 1917 General Byng had command of the Canadians and under his command the Canadians became a well trained and effective fighting force. The Canadian officers and ordinary ranks under his command referred to themselves as "Byngs Boys" because they thought so highly of him.

On June 2nd the enemy opposite the 3rd Division brought down a heavy artillery barrage onto Mount Sorrel that shattered the Canadian lines, with entire platoon and sections were killed to a man and the Canadians gave up important ground. Later that day a counter-attack against the enemy failed as did another counter attack the next day. Up to this point in the war the performance of the Canadian Corps was very erratic.

The 1st Division, under Currie, was the senior division and he gathered his forces, had 200 pieces of artillery and had his infantry practice and then on June 13th in the dark the Canadians advanced and took back what was lost. The set-piece strategy was successful was a turning point for the Canadian Corps. It was the first attack and the first success by the Canadians. The artillery had destroyed the enemy wire and pounded their defenses.

The Battle of the Somme began on July 1, 1916 and for the British it was not going well at all. The British artillery  and the bombardments were powerful they just forced the enemy deeper underground and when the artillery moved to another point the Germans came up from below and mowed the infantry down. British losses were appalling.

The Canadian Corps arrived in the Somme in September and in the middle of the month won a victory at Courcelette and following this were attacks by the Canadians and the Germans over the same ground followed by counter-attacks. The 1st Division had no successes but thousands of men fell as they tried to take shell holes and craters. They left the field in mid October and they had suffered during two battles.

 During the 141 days of battle during the Battle of the Somme the Canadian casualties numbered approximately 24,029. These losses took place at Flers-Courcelette, Thiepval, Le Transloy and Ancre Heights.

Following their time in the Somme, the Canadian Corps was far from being a cohesive fighting force and they had experienced defeat in the bitter fighting. The Canadian Corps in my view was disheartened and disorganized.

Between the end of the Battle of the Somme and the advance onto Vimy Ridge the 4th Canadian Division arrived and joined the Canadians Corps. General Byng it was time for the Canadians to examine their failures and their successes. Currie then went to the French and British to learn of their experiences and then in January 1917 he began to study the information given to him. He questioned and challenged what he was told. The French, used small unit infantry tactics  which relied on decentralized platoons having greater firepower and Currie felt this was an important innovation. These groups would be able to find their way around a battlefield more easily as they advanced forward. The Canadians were learning as they went.

Currie pushed himself, he operated on a few hours of sleep, his face showed stress and he was gaining weight.

The Canadians were now opposite the enemy at Vimy Ridge and  General Byng along with General Currie then began the planning for the spring assault onto the enemy positions at Vimy. They planned, they strategized and each man and officer knew what his duty was. Then they went back and planned some more. The artillery, the engineers and the infantry were expected to be one cohesive unit during the attack. They were and they took their objectives in a day and in four days had all their objectives. The French had tried to take Vimy and had lost 150,000 men. Canadian casualties were 3,598 men killed, 7,004 men were wounded and enemy losses were 20,000 men killed, wounded or missing and 4,000 becoming prisoners.

A week later, the 1st Division was going against enemy fortified positions at Arleux-en-Gohelle and Fresnoy-en-Gohelle. They attacked and captured both fortified positions. The Canadians were then relieved by the British who refused to change their battlefield tactics resulting in the loss of ground gained by the Canadians.

In May of 1917, General Byng was given command of the British Third Army and Major General Currie was knighted on June 3, 1917 and was given command of the Canadians Corps with the rank of Lieutenant-General.

Lieutenant-General Currie

Currie was not at all intimidated by using unorthodox methods in his planning and use of strategy as he prepared for an upcoming battle. His doctrine of using combines arms advances along with a set-piece limited objective plan was extremely successful. This type of leadership would take the Canadian Corps to successive victories through to the end of the war.

The British then ordered Currie and the Canadian Corps to plan a frontal assault onto the city of Lens. Currie knew this was suicide as the city was in ruins and the enemy was throughout the city in well organised strong points. Using the artillery was not an option as it would be nothing more than hit and miss against the enemy. Currie instead planned an assault onto the high ground surrounding the city. This was Hill 70 about 230 feet high. He again planned the assault completely. His plan was to have a zone of concentrated artillery fire and machine gun fire, assault the high ground and hold the high ground against enemy counter-attacks. The assault worked as Currie knew it would and the enemy counter-attacked 21 times and all failed. They retreated leaving their wounded, dying and dead on the slopes of Hill 70. The Canadians suffered 9,000 casualties and the enemy suffered 20,000 casualties.

In October, the Canadian Corps  moved to the Passchendaele area to assist Haig's British armies. Even at this stage of the war the British tactics had changed little. They used frontal assaults and these were uninmaginative and all had the predictable results of total failure. The German military knew exactly what the British were going to do and were well prepared. During the complete war the losses taken by the British were extreme. This was not the case when the Germans were across from the Canadians. The enemy knew there was a fight coming and they also knew the Canadians were the "shock troops". And following Vimy and then Hill 70, the enemy suffered defeats such as the British suffered throughout the war. 

Again, Currie refused to march to the drum of the British command. He was not going to attack until the Canadian Corps was ready. He and his staff planned, prepared, used strategy, constructed models of the battlefield. Once again each man knew his duties, knew exactly where he was going and what to do if a superior fell in battle. He used reconnaissance to his advantage, he constructed roads, he constructed a light rail system. Then he massed his artillery and his machine guns. He estimated that the Canadian losses would be 16,000 men. Instead of one main assault there were a series of assaults and each time Canadians took their objectives.They gained the outskirts of Passchendaele and held there for 4-5 days under intense enemy fire and enemy counter-attacks. The Canadian Corps was once again successful and losses were 4,028 men being killed with 11,626 men being wounded, missing or taken prisoner. Losses were 15,654 men.

Following Passchendaele, the Canadians Corps would now lead the Allies assaults until final victory in November of 1918. The battle in 1918 included Amiens, The Scarpe, the Drocourt-Queant line, the Canal du Nord and finally Cambrai and Valenciennes. All were victories with Canadian losses being 45,835.

General Sir Arthur Currie without a doubt has been Canada's most competent and successful military commander. As the war progressed following Vimy, Hill 70 and Passchendaele it is my belief that the men of the Canadians Corps began to understand their commander and that he was always trying to minimize the Canadians losses and that in fact he cared for them. Currie had the ability to rapidly use the tactics of a brigade to the need or demand of trench warfare and he uses a set-piece format along with a bite-hold strategy. He knew the enemy would always counter-attack and he knew the Canadians would hold as the wwar progressed. He had the ability to assess a situation and then issue his orders and he also had the ability to construct a fluid defence. And perhaps most importantly of all is that he had common sense.

Following Vimy, Hill 70 and then Passchendaele, the feeling among the ranks of the Canadian Corps began to be noticeable. The men were walking with their backs straight and their heads were held high. They was also a bit of cockiness. The demeanour was positive.

Then, when hostilities had ceased and the men of the Canadian Corps came home to Canada it was very evident that these men were now Canadians and were not citizens of their motherlands. It is my view that the disasters of the Somme, the successes beginning with Vimy and continuing until the war ended led to this country becoming a nation. I do not feel for one moment that one battle made a nation.

The losses for the British Commonwealth during the war were.....

  • Canada                                   66,996 killed                                               149,732 wounded
  • Australia                                  62,149                                                        152,171
  • India                                        73,905                                                          69,214
  • New Zealand                          18,060                                                           41,317
  • South Africa                              9,726                                                          12,029       
  • United Kingdom                 1,011,687                                                      1,675,000

French losses                              1,737,800                                                      4,266,000

German losses                            2,800,720                                                      4,215,602