WAR AND THE COMING OF AGE
As the one hundred anniversary of the start of World War I is coming up on 28 July and I already wrote on that calling it an unnecessary war, this will be about a young nation and its’ coming of age in the cess pool called “The Western Front”.
Canada as a nation was but 47 years old when WWI started. Young and with a population of just 8 million it was largely an agrarian society. From this small population 600,000 would volunteer and serve, 67,000 would pay the ultimate sacrifice and 250,000 would return wounded both in body and soul. In the 4 years that Canadian troops fought they would gain a reputation second to none as excellent fighters. They along with their Anzac cousin would become the Storm Troops of the British army. Canadian young men like those all over the Empire rushed to the colours. In Canada so many volunteered that they had to send a second contingent overseas to Britain. The Canadians were sent to Salisbury Plain. Britain’s’ main training ground for the Army, (Their home away from Home). Here they would train and learn to be soldiers. They would also prove difficult adjusting to the regimentation that they were not used too. Some senior British Commanders thought of them as half civilized cowboys. Well think what they like in the next 4 years these farmers, clerks, book keepers, bank tellers, lumber jacks, cowboys, business men, realtors, university students, and trappers would emerge as one of the premier fighting forces in the British Expeditionary Force.
The Canadian Corps’ first engagement with the Germany at the French village of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915 was a small success not the big one that the Brits hoped it would be but it taught the Canadians some sorely needed lessons. The lessons that were taught were that artillery support was inadequate and that communications in the line were a bloody disaster. The Canadians were partially blooded but not ready for what they would experience next. The Canadians were moved into the Ypres in early April 1915 to bolster the allied salient into the German lines. Here at Ypres on the 22nd of April 1915 the Germans introduced Gas into the War. On that day a yellow-green cloud approach the line. It struck the French Moroccan and Algerian Troops first and within 10 minutes they has suffered 6500 dead. The Chlorine Gas destroyed the mucus membrane and destroyed the lungs. These Colonial troops didn’t stand a chance. Not that the chances of the Canadians was any better. If it wasn’t for an officer who remembered his chemistry class in which he knew that Ammonia in Urine neutralized the gas. A lot of Canadians owe their life by breathing through a piss soak kerchief. Because the Germans also feared the gas the hesitated on exploiting the 1500 yard hole in the allies line and this gave the Canadians and the Brits time to close the gap. Chemical Warfare had arrived and unfortunately for the French Colonial Troops and the Canadians were the first recipients. I am not going to give an account of the Canadian Corps over the next four years. They would distinguish themselves at the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, and the Last 100 Days where they fought at Amiens, Broke the Hindenburg Line and retook Mons in November 1918. An aside on The Battle for Mons. It would become a controversy in Canada because at 2 minutes to 1100 A.M. on 11 November 1918 the last Canadian, possibly the last soldier would die killed by a snipers’ bullet.
I would now like to direct attention to the conditions these young men both amateur and professional lived fought and died. It is my intention in the next segment to attempt to convey, as closely as possible the sights and smell of the trenches on the Western Front. The system of both allied and German trenches ran some 475 miles across Europe from the North Sea to the Swiss Border in a zigzag line with the ground in between designated No-Mans’ Land. The trenches were roughly 10 feet deep with sandbags piled on the parapet (Front edge) and also on the parados (the rear) the sand bags also lined the bottom and both walls, a firing ledge was also built into the front wall so soldiers could fire at the attackers. In essence it was siege warfare with each side laying siege to the other. It is in these trenches that the Canadians would live, fight and die and this segment will try to describe what a Hell they had dropped into.
Imagine if you will a cesspool add to that rotting corpses of men, and animals multiply it by 1 billion and you might start to realize what it is like. The ground is churned, upheaved, and blasted and when it rains turns to a glue like mud that clings and sticks to everything. At other times the mud is so saturated with water it comes almost a quicksand drawing the unwary in and drowning its victim be it man or animal. Every night the artillery rearranges the landscape, creating new shell holes or enlarging the ones already there, The artillery also throws the bodies of those killed previously and buried in No Mans” Land and above all the putrid gut wrenching smell. With the putrid smell comes the vermin and carrion birds. The rats and crows grew fat off the cornucopia of rotting flesh and innards. The rats were the worst for they ran in the trenches, stealing food were ever they could and leaving behind fleas. The men suffered horribly from lice, fleas, and anything else that could make a home in their clothing. Trench foo was rampant from standing in cold filthy water for hours at a time, Tuberculosis, pneumonia, and influence, took their toll and always the stench. It was reported after the war that some men returned with their sense of smell destroyed. Within hours of wounding and laying in the mud the wound turned septic. There were no anti-biotics in those days and seriously infected limbs were amputated. If you were lucky and got a good wound it was called “A Blighty) meaning you were being sent to England for treatment and recovery. There were the wounds inflicted by the Gas (Chlorine, Mustard, and Phosgene) me blinded, lungs badly damage beyond healing or repair and always the stench.
For 4 long bloody years both sides fought and when it ended there was a new kid on the block, Canada. Through the fighting prowess, tenacity, and brains the Canadian Corps with its 4 Divisions gain a place for Canada in world affairs. Canada entered the war a 47 year old child and came out a 51 year old leader. No more would the Brits look upon us a colonials not when in the long run the puppy taught the old dog how to do it.