Where Were We in the Great War in November, 1916?
An address prepared and delivered by Orland French to the Eastminster United Church Poppy Service* on November 5, 2016
By November of 1916, one hundred years ago, both sides on the western Front must have felt like throwing in the towel. It had been a bloody, destructive, costly year in which almost nothing was gained. Although the combatants could not know it, they were only halfway through the war, with another two years of bloody contest to come.
Battle of Verdun
The two biggest ongoing battles were the Battle of Verdun and the Battle of the Somme. The Battle of Verdun began in February 1916 and ran until the end of the year. It pitted mostly German versus French forces, and in the end the number of dead counted much the same on both sides: 348,000 Germans and 328,500 French.
Battle of the Somme
The Battle of the Somme, with the British attacking German forces, opened on July 1 in a spectacularly tragic fashion. On the first day of the battle, the British lost 20,000 men killed and 40,000 men wounded. You would wonder, in retrospect, how an attack could be planned so badly that an army could lose 60,000 men in a single day.
Think about those numbers. Never mind the 20,000 dead. You can’t do much for them. But how do you treat 40,000 wounded, many of them so severely mangled that restoration was impossible?
How many is 60,000 people? Sixty thousand people represents all the people of Belleville, today’s entire population, plus 10,000 from maybe Quinte West. That’s you, your families, your friends, everyone you meet on the street or in the Mall or in your workplace. And we are all given a rifle and sent across the fields north of Belleville, to be machine-gunned and shelled and bombed by an enemy until not one of us is left standing. One third of us are dead, two thirds are wounded.
I’m sorry if this seems a bit graphic but that’s what 60,000 represents.
A specific slaughter relevant to Canada took place on the same day at Beaumont-Hamel where the First Newfoundland Regiment was nearly eradicated. In only half an hour, the regiment of 801 men was reduced to 68 able bodies who could answer roll call next day. Remember that Newfoundland was not part of Canada in the First World War. To this day, when the rest of us celebrate July 1 as Canada Day, there is still a heavy feeling felt on The Rock as the island remembers its terrible loss.
A couple of years ago I walked the battlefield of Beaumont-Hamel. It wasn’t very big; we walked around it in an hour or so. The field slopes downward toward the German positions. As the Newfoundlanders started down the slope, they were silhouetted against the sky. Because of congested British trenches, they had to fight their way through their own barbed wire until they got into no man’s land. In the middle of the field there was a skeleton of a dead tree called The Danger Tree, marking the point where German fire seemed to become more intense. Many men died here. In his novel of the same name, The Danger Tree, author David Macfarlane describes men advancing into the hail of machine-gun fire, their chins instinctively tucked into their shoulders, as if they were advancing into a blizzard of snow, not lead. In less than 30 minutes, most of them were dead.
War of Attrition
The First World War was truly a war of attrition. The individual soldier meant nothing; last man standing would win the war.
Here’s how Canadian officer C. G. Barns recalled the heavy losses that were typical of those battles: "We went in about forty strong to a platoon, 160 to a company, and if you brought out 40 or 50 men out of a company of 160, you did well. They weren't all killed, they were wounded, but out of action."
When the Battle of the Somme finally fizzled out in the rains and snows of November, the Allies had lost 623,000 men and the Germans an estimated 660,000. That’s 1.2 million men. And how far did the British advance their lines? About 13 kilometres. Roughly eight miles. Not even as far as from here to Trenton.
Allied leaders, particularly General Douglas Haig, were severely criticized for the apparently pointless slaughter. There had been no significant gains in territory. The only positive thing that came out of it was a determination on both sides to find a better way to fight the war.
Canadians at the Somme
Canadians didn’t get involved in the Battle of the Somme until September, when three divisions were moved south from Belgium to help the struggling British forces. On September 15, Canadians captured Courcelette in a rare Allied victory in the Battle of the Somme.
There were two innovations in that battle. Canadian troops advanced across no man’s land, flat farmland where there seemed to be no natural cover, behind a creeping artillery barrage which kept the Germans pinned down in their bunkers. The troops were also accompanied by six “land cruisers” or tanks – the first time these lumbering machines had ever been used in action. Although the tanks all bogged down or were disabled, they terrified the Germans, some of whom surrendered at the sight of them. The three divisions captured about a thousand Germans in taking Courcelette but at the cost of several thousand Canadian casualties.
Canadians stayed on in the Somme, continuing to pay a high price as they fought through September and October. By the time the campaign ended on November 18, Canada had suffered 24,000 casualties.
In the north, around Arras, which would eventually be the location of the Battle of Vimy in April 1917, there wasn’t much action in the fall. The daily diary of the 6th Canadian Machine Gun Corps shows a similar entry day after day, “Nothing to report.” War was often described as weeks of sheer boredom punctuated by hours of sheer hell. I have read portions of that diary because my Uncle Oscar was a member of the 6th Canadian Machine Gun Corps. It records his death in the attack on Vimy Ridge in April, 1917.
Well, this is pretty heavy going. Let’s lighten up a bit and see what else was happening to Canada in 1916.
Canadian Parliament Building Burns
For one thing, the Canadian Parliament Building burned down on February 3. Because we were at war, saboteurs were immediately suspected. However nothing was ever proved. Other equally likely sources of the fire were new electrical wiring or a cigar dropped into a garbage receptacle in the reading room.
The war hastened social change, including recognition of the rights of women. During the war, women began in gain political power. In 1916, in Manitoba, then Saskatchewan, and then Alberta, women gained the right to vote. Almost immediately Alberta prohibited the sale of alcohol, whatever you can deduce from that.
One of the strongest and most vocal advocates of giving women the vote was Nellie McClung. She was convinced that empowered women could make the world a more civil place. Women hated to see their sons and fathers and husbands and lovers going off to war. Women might modify the public lust for battle, she believed. On the other hand, men loved war, she thought, and the male-written histories of war tended to glorify military actions.
Canon Frederick G. Scott
An example would be the memoirs of Canon Frederick G. Scott, senior chaplain of the First Canadian Infantry Division. In his memoirs, he wrote about the Battle of Vimy Ridge:
“In spite of the numbers of wounded and dying men which I had seen, the victory was such a complete and splendid one that April 9th, 1917 was one of the happiest days in my life … my heart was full of thankfulness to Almighty God for his blessing on our arms. I arrived at my room in the Chateau at about half-past two a.m., filled with dreams of victory and glory, and awoke well and fit in the morning, more than ever proud of the grand old First Division which, as General Horne told us later, had made a new record in British war annals by taking every objective on the scheduled dot of the clock.”
Nellie McClung’s Writings
In McClung’s book In Times Like These, published just after the opening of the First World War, she held a different view. She wrote: “History, romance, legend and tradition have been written by men, have shown the masculine aspect of war and have surrounded it with a false glory and have sought to throw the veil of glamour over its hideous face. Our histories have followed the wars. Invasions, conquests, battles, sieges make up the subject-matter of our histories.” And also, “Modern warfare has not even the faintest glimmering of fair play. The exploding shell blows to pieces the strong, the brave, the daring, just as readily as it does the cowardly, weak, or base.”
It was also during the war that women realized that the country could run itself quite well without men. While the young men were off fighting the war, women took over their jobs and guess what? The country didn’t grind to a halt.
Racist Recruitment Policies
In 1916 Canada finally faced up to racist policies in its recruiting program. The army was desperate for new bodies to replace the blown-up ones, so it began admitting natives and blacks into the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Until then very few blacks had been accepted by recruiting officers. This was not an official policy, it was simply a reflection of the built-in racism of individual recruiting officers.
But in July, 1916 the No. 2 Construction Battalion was authorized in Halifax, to be formed of black recruits. Eventually, with the addition of some recruits from the United States, the battalion’s strength was just over 600 men. But, all 19 of the battalion’s officers except one were white. The exception was the unit’s chaplain who became the first black officer in the British military. His name was William A. White. Go figure!
But these black recruits were denied any opportunity to meet the enemy face to face. In Europe the battalion was downgraded to a company and attached to the Canadian Forestry Corps. It was used primarily to produce timber; very few of its members ever saw any action although several were wounded or killed by poison gas, artillery or construction accidents.
Natives in First World War were discouraged from enlisting at first, but as time wore on and the number of available whites dwindled, native Indians and Inuit became acceptable. It is estimated that about 4,000 aboriginal people served in the CEF, a rather disproportionately large number. They did well, especially as scouts and snipers, and more than 50 were decorated for bravery on the battlefield.
Sir Sam Hughes
A more direct action related to the war was the firing of Sir Sam Hughes. Sir Sam has developed a reputation as one of our most notorious and outrageous characters of the First World War. I take the view that he was a good man to have around at the beginning, to get organized, but he turned sour as time went on and his hatband became progressively tighter and tighter, if you get my drift.
Sam Hughes was the Canadian Minister for the Militia and Defence when war broke out in the summer of 1914. Within three weeks of Canada getting drawn into the war, he had begun rounding up recruits and establishing a mustering and training base in Quebec. By October the first troops were on their way to England and by early 1915 the first were fighting in France. Contrast this to the American entry into a war which had been raging for almost three years before they formally announced their entry in April, 1917. And even then, it took them almost another year to show up in Europe. Of course, their presence tipped the balance and they claim they won the war.
One of the biggest contributions of Sir Sam was his insistence that Canadian troop formations be kept intact. It had been the intention of the British army to draw troops from Canada and plug them into the British forces wherever necessary. But Hughes resisted, and as a result at Vimy Ridge all four Canadian divisions worked side by side to knock the Germans off the hill and begin to forge Canada as an independent nation.
Still, Hughes had assumed too much power for himself and was eventually fired, in the fall of 1916, by Prime Minister Robert Borden. In my forthcoming book on Vimy Ridge, I treat him more kindly. I describe Sam Hughes as an abrasive, insufferable, pompous, irascible, nationalistic old goat, but he, inadvertently or not, had a lot to do with laying the groundwork for the birth of our national pride at Vimy Ridge.
So that was 1916. From our perspective a century later, it seems to have been a year of useless, pointless, bloody confrontations that did very little expect kill millions of people. But history is 20-20; we weren’t there to offer any other advice.
*Individuals may purchase ceramic poppies in memory of anyone who died in military service for Canada. These poppies, created by Belleville artist Perry Poupore, are “planted” temporarily in the Shorten Garden at Eastminster United Church each November to commemorate those who sacrificed their lives for Canada. They may also be taken home and used elsewhere. Anyone wish to purchase a poppy ($30) can do so by calling Eastminster United Church in Belleville (613-969-5212). The Poppy Program has been sanctioned by the Royal Canadian Legion which receives a portion of all sales.