Famous Canadian Military Engagements
The following famous Canadian Military engagements are summarized in this section of the website:
WORLD WAR 1
- Ypres 1915
- The Canadian Corps and the Battle of the Somme
- Hill 70 and Lens
- Cambrai 1917
- Festubert and Givenchy
- The Battle of Vimy Ridge
- The Battle of Passchendale
- Canada’s 100 Days
- Newfoundland and the Battle of Beaumont Hamel
WORLD WAR 2
- The Battle of the Atlantic – The First Convoys
- The Early Battles
- The War Intensifies
- The Campaign Moves to North American Waters
- The Tide Turns
- The Achievement
- The Cost
- Bomber Command
- D-Day and the Battle of Normandy
- The Dieppe Raid
- The Italian Campaign
- The Liberation of Belgium
- The Liberation of the Netherlands
- Canadians in South-East Asia
- The Defense of Hong Kong
THE KOREAN WAR
World War 1 Battles
In the first week of April 1915, the Canadian troops were moved from their quiet sector to a bulge in the Allied line in front of the City of Ypres. This was the famed—or notorious—Ypres Salient, where the British and Allied line pushed into the German line in a concave bend. The Germans held the higher ground and were able to fire into the Allied trenches from the north, the south and the east. On the Canadian right were two British divisions, and on their left a French division, the 45th (Algerian).
Here on April 22, the Germans sought to remove the Salient by introducing a new weapon, poison gas. Following an intensive artillery bombardment, they released 160 tons of chlorine gas from cylinders dug into the forward edge of their trenches into a light northeast wind. As thick clouds of yellow-green chlorine drifted over their trenches the French defences crumbled, and the troops, completely bemused by this terrible weapon, died or broke and fled, leaving a gaping 6.5 kilometre hole in the Allied line. German troops pressed forward, threatening to sweep behind the Canadian trenches and put 50,000 Canadian and British troops in deadly jeopardy. Fortunately the Germans had planned only a limited offensive and, without adequate reserves, were unable to exploit the gap the gas created. In any case their own troops, themselves without any adequate protection against gas, were highly suspicious of the new weapon. After advancing only 3.25 kilometres they stopped and dug in.
All through the night the Canadian troops fought to close the gap. In addition they mounted a counter-attack to drive the enemy out of Kitcheners’ Wood, an oak plantation near St. Julien. In the morning two more disastrous attacks were made against enemy positions. Little ground was gained and casualties were extremely heavy, but these attacks bought some precious time to close the flank.
The fierce battle of St. Julien lay ahead. On April 24, the Germans attacked in an attempt to obliterate the Salient once and for all. Another violent bombardment was followed by another gas attack in the same pattern as before. This time the target was the Canadian line. Here, through terrible fighting, withered with shrapnel and machine-gun fire, hampered by their issued Ross rifles which jammed, violently sick and gasping for air through soaked and muddy handkerchiefs, they held on until reinforcements arrived.
Thus, in their first major appearance on a European battlefield, the Canadians established a reputation as a formidable fighting force. Congratulatory messages were cabled to the Canadian Prime Minister. But the cost was high. In these 48 hours, 6,035 Canadians, one man in every three, became casualties of whom more than 2,000 died. They were heavy losses for Canada’s little force whose men had been civilians only several months before—a grim forerunner of what was still to come.
The Canadian Corps and the Battle of the Somme
The First World War was fought from 1914 to 1918 and was the most destructive conflict that had ever been seen up to that time. The Battle of the Somme was one of the war’s most significant campaigns and Canadian soldiers from coast to coast would see heavy action in the fighting there in the summer and fall of 1916.
The Western Front
After the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, the combat in Western Europe soon turned into a stalemate of trench fighting along a front line stretching almost 1,000 kilometres across parts of Belgium and France. On one side of this “Western Front” were the forces of France and Britain (along with allies such as Canada) and on the other were the Germans. From their opposing trenches they faced one another across a bleak “No Man’s Land” of barbed wire and shell craters.
These strong defensive positions were well-protected by machine guns, snipers and artillery which made a decisive breakthrough of the enemy lines very difficult. Military leaders struggled with devising effective tactics to deal with the realities of this new kind of warfare. Nevertheless, plans were made to break the deadlock and the British and French marshalled their resources for the “Big Push” that would finally shatter the German defensive lines. This bold offensive was planned for the summer of 1916 in the Somme River valley of northern France.
The Opening of the Battle
The Battle of the Somme began with a massive attack by hundreds of thousands of British and French troops on the morning of July 1, 1916. It would be a disastrous start for the Allies as their forces were pounded by heavy enemy fire when they climbed out of their trenches and advanced across No Man’s Land. Tragically, more than 57,000 British Commonwealth troops would be killed, wounded, taken prisoner or go missing—the highest single day losses in the British Army’s long history. This shocking total included more than 700 soldiers of the Newfoundland Regiment (who were not fighting as part of the Canadian Corps as Newfoundland did not become part of Canada until decades later in 1949).
The Battle of the Somme was not a one-day affair, however, and the offensive would continue for more than four and a half months. While the Allies did have some battlefield successes later in July, a major breakthrough never materialized and the bloody fighting dragged on.
Canadians on the Somme
For most of the summer of 1916, the Canadian Corps had been manning a section of the Western Front in Belgium. In late August, however, they began to shift to the Somme front near the French village of Courcelette. The Canadians immediately encountered some stiff action there and suffered some 2,600 casualties before the major new offensive they had been tasked with had even gotten underway.
On September 15, our soldiers took part in a large-scale attack that was launched at dawn and pushed forward on a 2,000-metre wide front. Making use of a newly developed tactic called the creeping barrage, the Canadians advanced behind a carefully aimed wave of Allied artillery fire that moved ahead on a set schedule. This heavy bombardment forced the enemy defenders to stay under cover for protection and prevented them from cutting down the advancing troops with their rifle and machine gun fire. For this tactic to work, though, the soldiers had to stay perilously close to the heavy shellfire and many were wounded by the Allies’ own artillery explosions.
The Courcelette battlefield also saw another Allied innovation—the first use of the tank in warfare. They were primitive, few in number and mechanically unreliable, but the tanks’ shock value alone was enough to throw the enemy into confusion. The attack went well and by 8:00 a.m., the shattered German defensive position known as the Sugar Factory was taken. The Canadians then pushed ahead to Courcelette itself which was captured later that day. The Germans did not relent, however, and launched numerous counter-attacks which our soldiers repulsed as they consolidated their newly won positions. As was often the pattern during attacks on the Western Front, however, the enemy soon brought up major reinforcements, the defences solidified and any further gains became incredibly hard.
The fighting would not yet come to an end on the Somme, though. In the weeks that followed, soldiers of the 1st, 2ndand 3rd Canadian Divisions would be repeatedly flung against a series of German entrenchments. The final Canadian objective was a defensive line that had been dubbed Regina Trench, but it repeatedly defied capture.
The 4th Canadian Division arrived on the Somme in mid-October to take over from their exhausted fellow Canadians who had been fighting there. They faced a battlefield that had turned to mud and a determined German defence that continued to take a murderous toll on Allied attacks. Despite these great challenges, the Canadians finally captured the shattered remains of Regina Trench on November 11. A week later, in the final attack of the Battle of the Somme, the Canadians took Desire Trench. There were no further advances as the winter weather came and the offensive staggered to a halt. The ‘Big Push’ had resulted in the Allied lines being moved forward only some ten kilometres.
The scale of the fighting and the shocking toll it took still makes the Battle of the Somme synonymous with the horrors of the First World War for many people. The losses were truly appalling—the Allies suffered more than 650,000 casualties, including some 200,000 who had lost their lives. The Germans, who had also suffered greatly in the fighting, dubbed the Battle of the Somme “das Blutbad” (the blood bath).
Sadly, Canadian losses would contribute to this grim toll. More than 24,000 of our soldiers were killed, wounded or went missing on the Somme. The fallen from this battle were among the more than 66,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders who lost their lives in the First World War.
The Battle of the Somme was in many ways a watershed event in the First World War. The great courage and accomplishments of Canadian soldiers there helped confirm their growing reputation as first-rate front line troops who could capture enemy positions in the face of heavy fire. Indeed, the hard lessons on battlefield tactics that the Canadian Corps learned on the Somme would prove to be very valuable in their future actions.
After the Somme, the Canadians were transferred to the sector of the Western Front near Vimy Ridge. Beginning in the spring of 1917, our soldiers would put together an unbroken string of battlefield successes that culminated in them playing a leading role in the Allied offensives in the last hundred days of the war which would finally end the conflict in November 1918.
Hill 70 and Lens
Following the victory at Vimy the Canadians continued operations in the Arras area to divert attention from the French front, and to conceal from the Germans the planned offensive in Flanders. In the Battle of Hill 70, August 15-25, Canadian forces captured this strategic position on the northern approach to the city of Lens and secured the western part of the city. The fighting here cost the Canadian Corps 9,198 casualties. However, considerable ground was gained and enormous casualties inflicted on the Germans by skillful use of machine guns and the creation of deliberate “killing grounds” across which the Germans would have to counter-attack. The battle also hampered enemy plans to send fresh troops to Flanders.
That there was a possible alternative to the ghastly strategy of attrition was shown by the brilliant British success at Cambrai in November 1917. This was the first effective tank attack in history. Three-hundred and eighty of these new monsters rolled across No Man’s Land, just as a massive bombardment opened up. Huge technical advances in the methods available to artillery meant that the entire bombardment was able to be planned off the map. The elimination of the usual preliminary bombardment took the Germans by surprise, not to mention the fact that they thought the British would be incapable of an attack while Third Ypres still continued. The trenches of the first systems of the Hindenburg Line were quickly crossed; and by nightfall the Allies had reached the open countryside beyond, but still with the prospect of facing the German second and third lines of defense. The hoped-for breakthrough appeared to have come at last. In Britain church bells were joyfully rung; and the German Supreme Command considered options for a general retreat. Both reactions were premature. The initial gains could not be exploited because the British lacked a reserve of tanks and had insufficient troop reserves available in France. The Germans meanwhile rallied and checked the attack and in fact launched a major counter-attack of their own. Despite the obvious limitations of the tank—its unwieldiness, its lack of mechanical reliability, the appalling conditions in which the tank crews had to operate, Haig remained a great enthusiast.
Cambrai also has an important place in Canadian battle records, for here the Canadian Cavalry Brigade and the Newfoundland Regiment fought with distinction with the British formations. Soon after the battle, the Newfoundland Regiment was granted the title “Royal”—the only regiment so honoured during the war.
Festubert and Givenchy
Following the Battle of Ypres the decimated units of the 1st Canadian Division, reinforced by volunteers from the Cavalry Brigade, marched south to join in the Allied offensives which were already under way. While the British mounted diversionary attacks in French Flanders, the French launched an only partially successful attack in Artois. Although the British were partly successful at Neuve Chapelle and bloodily repulsed at Aubers Ridge, the offensive continued, chiefly as a support for French operations further south, and for the Canadians who were thrust into the fighting at Festubert in May 1915 and Givenchy in June. The fighting followed the grim pattern of frontal assault against powerful enemy defenses, and although the Canadians achieved some of their objectives the gains were negligible and the cost in lives extremely high. The Canadians suffered 2,468 casualties at Festubert and a further 400 at Givenchy.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge
The decades since the Battle of Vimy Ridge have slipped by, but the legacy of the Canadians who accomplished so much in that important First World War battle lives on. Some say that Canada came of age as a country on those harsh April days in 1917.
The First World War
The First World War was the largest conflict the world had ever seen up until that time. It came about due to the political tensions and complex military alliances of the era. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the summer of 1914 resulted in an international crisis and by August, the fighting had begun. This bloody four-year war would see Britain (and her Empire), France, Russia and the United States lining up against Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.
Canada Goes to War
In 1914, Canada’s external affairs were governed by the United Kingdom. This meant that once Britain declared war, Canada automatically followed. The First World War opened with great enthusiasm and patriotism on the part of many Canadians, with tens of thousands rushing to join the military in the first months of the conflict so they would not miss the action. They need not have worried as the war would grind on for more than four years, killing as many as ten million combatants in fighting that would be revolutionized by high-explosive shells, powerful machine guns, poison gas, submarines and war planes.
The Western Front
After the initial German advances of the war, the battle on the Western Front quickly turned into a stalemate of trench fighting, with the front line zigzagging for nearly 1,000 kilometres from the coast of Belgium to the border of Switzerland.
Life for soldiers in the trenches was miserable. They were often muddy and cold and had to live in the midst of pests like rats, lice and fleas. In this form of warfare, soldiers faced the enemy across a narrow strip of land between the opposing trenches. This was a harsh “No Man’s Land” of mud, barbed wire and shell craters, swept by enemy machine gun fire, and menaced by artillery and snipers. This is what soldiers had to cross when they went “over the top” and launched an attack. The dead and injured who fell in No Man’s Land often could not be recovered.
By the spring of 1917, Europe had been at war for more than two-and-a-half years, with neither side being able to make a significant breakthrough. As part of an Allied offensive, a major attack was planned for April in the area of Arras, France. In this attack, the Canadians would be tasked with capturing Vimy Ridge.
Preparation for Battle
Vimy Ridge is located in northern France, about 175 kilometres north of Paris. It is a long, high hill that dominates the surrounding landscape. Germany captured Vimy Ridge early in the war and transformed it into a strong defensive position, with a complex system of tunnels and trenches manned by highly trained soldiers with many machine guns and artillery pieces. Previous Allied assaults on Vimy Ridge in 1914 and 1915 had resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties but had been largely unsuccessful.
The Canadians moved to the front lines across from Vimy Ridge in the late autumn of 1916. The Battle of Vimy Ridge would be the first time all four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together as one formation. The planning and preparations for the battle were extensive. The Canadians spent the entire winter strengthening the lines, preparing for the assault on Vimy and training rigorously. Models of the trench systems were built and the soldiers drilled on what they were to do. They also raided German positions to gather intelligence on enemy defenses.
Extensive “mining” operations were undertaken in which the Allies dug tunnels beneath the German lines and set large caches of explosives to be detonated when the time for the attack came. Elaborate tunnel systems with train tracks, piped water, lights, and huge underground bunkers to stockpile supplies and arms were also established to aid the Canadians in the battle.
To soften enemy defenses in preparation for the attack, the Allies made a massive and prolonged artillery barrage. The heaviest shelling was spread over a week to avoid tipping off the Germans on exactly when the assault would begin. More than a million shells rained down during what the Germans called the “Week of Suffering.” The early military aircraft of the day also played a role in the battle by sweeping enemy aircraft and observation balloons from the skies.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge
The Battle of Vimy Ridge began at 5:30 a.m. on Easter Monday, April 9, 1917. The first wave of 15,000-20,000 Canadian soldiers, many heavily laden with equipment, attacked through the wind-driven snow and sleet into the face of deadly machine gun fire.
The Canadians advanced behind a “creeping barrage”. This precise line of intense Allied artillery fire moved ahead at a set rate and was timed to the minute. The Canadian infantrymen followed the line of explosions closely. This allowed them to capture German positions in the critical moments after the barrage moved on to the next targets but before the enemy soldiers could emerge from the safety of their underground bunkers.
Canadian battalions in the first waves of the assault suffered great numbers of casualties, but the assault proceeded on schedule. Most of the heavily defended ridge was captured by noon. Hill 145, the main height on the ridge, was taken on the morning of April 10. Two days later, the Canadians took “the Pimple,” as the other significant height on the ridge was nicknamed. The Germans were forced to withdraw three kilometres east and the Battle of Vimy Ridge was over. The Allies now commanded the heights overlooking the Douai Plain, which was still occupied by the enemy.
The Canadian Corps, together with the British Corps to the south, had captured more ground, prisoners and artillery pieces than any previous British offensive of the war. Canadians would act with courage throughout the battle. Four of our soldiers would earn the Victoria Cross, the highest medal for military valour, for separate actions in which they captured enemy machine gun positions. They were: Private William Milne, Lance-Sergeant Ellis Sifton, Captain Thain MacDowell and Private John Pattison.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge proved to be a great success, but it only came at a heavy cost. The some 100,000 Canadians who served there suffered more than 10,600 casualties, nearly 3,600 of which were fatal. By the end of the First World War, Canada, a country of less than eight million people, would see more than 650,000 men and women serve in uniform. The conflict took a huge toll with more than 66,000 Canadians losing their lives and over 170,000 being wounded.
The Battle of Passchendaele
Canadians have a proud history of bravely serving in the cause of peace and freedom over the years. A name from Canada’s First World War military heritage that still stirs emotions is “Passchendaele”. On a muddy battlefield in northwest Belgium, Canadians overcame almost unimaginable hardships to win an impressive victory in the fall of 1917.
Canada and the First World War
When Britain went to war in Europe in August 1914, Canada—as a member of the British Empire— automatically found itself at war as well. The First World War soon turned into a stalemate of trench fighting along the Western Front, with a heavily defended 1,000 kilometre-long network of trenches stretching across Belgium and northern France from the English Channel to the border of Switzerland. On one side were the forces of France and Britain (along with other allies such as Canada) and on the other were the Germans. From their opposing trenches they faced one another across a blasted “No Man’s Land” of barbed wire, exploding artillery shells and deadly machine gun fire.
In the fall of 1917, the Canadian Corps—after its great success at Vimy Ridge that April—was sent north to Belgium. It would be all-too-familiar ground for the Canadians who had seen heavy fighting there earlier in the war.
The Ypres area of Belgium—where the village of Passchendaele is located—was the scene of several First World War battles, including the first use of poison gas when the Germans unleashed deadly chemical attacks there in April 1915. The Ypres salient was the last portion of Belgium that was not in enemy hands after the initial German advances of the war and, as a result, held great symbolic meaning to the Allies.
Ypres was a very difficult place to fight. It was a region largely made up of flat, low ground that was kept dry only with the help of an intricate series of dikes and ditches. Three years of heavy fighting there, however, had entirely destroyed these drainage systems. The ground, churned up by millions of artillery shells, turned to sticky mud when wet. In 1917, the autumn rains came early and turned the battlefield into a sea of muck, the likes of which still make the name Passchendaele synonymous with the horrific fighting conditions many people picture when thinking of the First World War.
The Opening of the Battle
The Third Battle of Ypres was undertaken by the British primarily to take the pressure off the French forces to the south. The British commander, Sir Douglas Haig, launched a drive in Belgium to wear down the German capacity to continue fighting the war while hopefully seizing strategic German railways in the occupied country and capturing the German submarine bases along the coast which were being used to menace Allied shipping.
The campaign began at the end of July 1917. British, as well as Australian and New Zealand (ANZAC) forces, opened the attack with a pounding artillery barrage. Heavy rains came down the very night the ground assault was launched, however, and shell holes quickly filled with filthy water. The battlefield soon became peppered with countless flooded craters, all too often containing wounded and fallen soldiers. A heavy toll was taken on the attackers as they had to struggle through thick mud with little cover while German machine gunners in pill boxes (reinforced concrete machine gun positions) tore them to pieces. Despite these conditions, the Allied forces slowly gained much of the higher ground as the summer turned into fall. The main objectives of the offensive, however, remained out of reach.
The Canadians at Passchendaele
Early in October 1917, the Canadians were sent to Belgium to relieve the battered ANZAC forces and take part in the final push to capture Passchendaele. Canadian Corps commander Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie inspected the terrain and was shocked at the conditions he saw. He tried to avoid having his men fight there but was overruled by his superiors. As at Vimy, the four divisions of the Canadian Corps would see action. However, the ubiquitous mud, flat terrain, and relative lack of preparation time and artillery support would make Passchendaele a far different battlefield than the one the Canadians had encountered at Vimy Ridge.
Currie took as much time as he could to carefully prepare and on October 26, the Canadian offensive began. Advancing through the mud and enemy fire was slow and there were heavy losses but our soldiers clawed their way forward. On an exposed battlefield like that one, success was often only made possible due to acts of great individual heroism to get past spots of particularly stiff enemy resistance. Despite the adversity, the Canadians reached the outskirts of Passchendaele by the end of a second attack on October 30 during a driving rainstorm.
On November 6, the Canadians and British launched the assault to capture the ruined village of Passchendaele itself. In heavy fighting, the attack went according to plan. The task of actually capturing the “infamous” village fell to the 27th(City of Winnipeg) Battalion and they took it that day. After weathering fierce enemy counterattacks, the last phase of the battle saw the Canadians attack on November 10 and clear the Germans from the eastern edge of Passchendaele Ridge before the campaign finally ground to a halt. Canadian soldiers had succeeded in the face of almost unbelievable challenges.
The fighting at Passchendaele took great bravery. Nine Canadians earned the Victoria Cross (the highest award for military valour that a Canadian could earn) there: Private Tommy Holmes, Captain Christopher O’Kelly, Sergeant George Mullin, Major George Pearkes, Private James Peter Robertson, Corporal Colin Barron, Private Cecil Kinross, Lieutenant Hugh McKenzie and Lieutenant Robert Shankland. Two of these men, McKenzie and Robertson, sadly lost their lives in the battle.
The efforts of all these men were truly remarkable, but it has been said that the Battle of Passchendaele could not have been won if it were not for the heroic actions of Major George Pearkes of the 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles. Despite a leg wound, he led a few dozen of his men through heavy enemy fire across open ground to capture a strategically located farm. They then fought off numerous counter-attacks for more than a day, preventing the Germans from destroying the main advancing Canadian force from their vulnerable flank side.
Canada’s great victory at Passchendaele came at a high price. More than 4,000 of our soldiers died in the fighting there and almost 12,000 were wounded. The some 100,000 members of the Canadian Corps who took part in the battle were among the over 650,000 men and women from our country who served in uniform during the First World War. Sadly, a total of more than 66,000 Canadians lost their lives in the conflict. The sacrifices and achievements of those who gave so much will never be forgotten.
The Canadian victory at Passchendaele was truly impressive and added to our nation’s growing reputation as having the best offensive fighting force on the Western Front. This status meant that our forces would be at the forefront of the series of advances that eventually won the war for the Allies a year later. Canada’s great sacrifices and achievements on the battlefields of Europe indeed gained our country a new respect on the international stage. This esteem helped earn us a separate signature on the Treaty of Versailles that formally ended the First World War.
At Vimy Ridge, regiments from coast to coast saw action together in a distinctly Canadian triumph, helping create a new and stronger sense of national identity in our country. Canada’s military achievements during the war raised our international stature and helped earn us a separate signature on the Treaty of Versailles that formally ended the war.
Today, on land granted to Canada for all time by a grateful France, the Canadian National Vimy Memorial sits atop Hill 145, rising above the now quiet countryside. This great monument is inscribed with the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers who were listed as “missing, presumed dead” in France during the First World War. It stands as a tribute to all who served our country in the conflict and paid a price to help ensure the peace and freedom we enjoy today.
Canada’s Hundred Days
August 8 to November 11, 1918, has come to be known as “The Hundred Days,” and in effect for the Canadian Corps it was Canada’s “Hundred Days,” for in this period it was in the vanguard of the successful march to Mons.
When the Allied advance began the Canadian Corps was assigned the task of spearheading an attack on an important salient near Amiens on August 8. Utter secrecy was vital since the Germans had come to regard any movement of Canadian troops as a sign of imminent attack. To deceive the enemy, part of the Corps was sent north to the Ypres section. After making their presence known to the Germans they hurried back to Amiens. Preparations for battle were carried out at night, and there was no preliminary bombardment to warn the enemy of impending action. Surprise was complete. Flanked by Australians and French, and spearheaded by British tanks, the Canadians advanced 20 kilometres in three days. The morale of the German High Command was badly shaken. In Ludendorff’s words, August 8 was the “black day of the German Army.” The three days of heavy fighting came at a cost—the Corps suffered 9,074 casualties.
The Allied plan was to advance on a broad front with a series of connected attacks in sensitive areas. Only now, in mid-1918, did the British have sufficient rolling stock and guns to be able to carry out offensives on a number of Army fronts without having to stop and regroup. Therefore, after the breakthrough at Amiens, the Canadians were shifted back to Arras and given the task of cracking the Hindenburg Line—Germany’s main line of defense in the Arras area.
Between August 26 and September 2, in hard continuous fighting, the Canadian Corps launched a succession of attacks that broke through the German defenses, including breaching the infamous Drocourt-Queant Line, in front of the Canal du Nord, part of the main Hindenburg Line. The rapid movement from the Somme caught the Germans by surprise, but nevertheless the fighting was most intense and the Canadians suffered 11,400 casualties. Currie regarded the breaching of the line as “one of the finest feats in our history.”
The Corps was now in front of the main part of the Hindenburg Line, defended by the Canal du Nord, an only partially completed canal. There was a pause while the Corps regrouped and the British armies to the south came up to the Hindenburg Line themselves. The combined offensive to smash the line came on September 27. Currie came up with a breathtaking and audacious plan, so daring that it took Haig to over-rule the Army commander and to give it his blessing. The whole Canadian Corps (with an attached British division) was to be channeled through a 2,600 yard dry section of the Canal du Nord. The attack along the whole front was accompanied by the most massive single day bombardment of the war. The Canadians not only crossed the canal and breached three lines of German defenses, they also captured Bourlon Wood, a staggering achievement. Coupled with great successes elsewhere on the British front, the Hindenburg Line was well and truly breached.
Further heavy fighting led to the capture of Cambrai. By October 11 the Corps had reached the Canal de la Sensée. It was the last of the actions of the whole Corps, though individual divisions continued to perform effectively as the Canadian Corps continued to overcome opposition in Valenciennes and Mont Houy before reaching Mons at the time of the armistice.
The Canadian troops remained in Europe to share in the Allied occupation. They crossed the Rhine into Germany at Bonn where Sir Arthur Currie was accorded the distinction of taking the salute in honour of Canadian achievements.
Finally, in 1919, the Canadian troops came home where they were greeted by grateful and enthusiastic crowds in cities and villages across the country.
The Newfoundland Regiment and the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel
Most Canadians know July 1st as Canada Day. However, in Newfoundland and Labrador, the day has an additional and more solemn meaning. There, it is also known as Memorial Day and marks the anniversary of the fighting at Beaumont-Hamel during the First World War.
Newfoundland Goes to War
During the time of the First World War (1914-18), Newfoundland was a dominion of the British Empire and not yet a part of Canada. Once Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, Newfoundland—like Canada— was automatically at war. The people of Newfoundland responded with a great outpouring of patriotism and many rushed to enlist. From a total population of about 240,000, more than 12,000 Newfoundlanders would join up during the war.
The Newfoundland Regiment was quickly assembled and hastily trained, with the first recruits sent overseas in October 1914 to become a unit of the British Army. They would become known as the “Blue Puttees” because of the colour of the uniform leggings they wore on their lower legs.
After seeing action in the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey from September 1915 to January 1916, the regiment was withdrawn and the Newfoundlanders sent to the Western Front in France in the spring of 1916.
The Western Front in 1916
Following the opening battles of 1914, the First World War in Western Europe quickly bogged down into trench warfare with the opposing armies dug in, facing one another from a complex series of trenches across a blasted ‘No Man’s Land,’ defended by lookouts, barbed wire and guns. Artillery, snipers, grenades, mines, machine guns and sickness took a great toll.
The generals could see only one way to end the stalemate—brutal frontal assaults in the face of intense fire to break the enemy defenses. The Allied plan for 1916 was to make the “Big Push,” and the Somme was chosen as the site for a joint French and British assault. It would be on the first day of the Battle of the Somme—near the village of Beaumont-Hamel in northern France—that the Newfoundland Regiment would enter the action.
Battle of Beaumont-Hamel
At 7:30 a.m., on July 1, thousands of British and French troops began their advance across No Man’s Land in broad daylight toward the German positions to open the Battle of the Somme. The result would be slaughter—more than 57,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers were killed, wounded or missing—the heaviest combat losses ever suffered by the British Army in a single day.
The sector of the front at Beaumont-Hamel where the Newfoundland Regiment would see action was supposed to be taken by surprise, but the Germans knew the attack was coming. In addition, the initial Allied bombardment failed to damage most of the German defenses.
At about 9:15 a.m., the Newfoundlanders—forming part of the 29th British Division—attacked from a support trench nicknamed St. John’s Road. They advanced from this trench, which was actually behind the front line, because of the sheer number of soldiers involved in earlier attacks who were dead or wounded and clogging the front trenches. This meant that the Newfoundlanders had to traverse more than 200 metres before they even made it to the Allies’ own front line. Once they made it to No Man’s Land, they were then expected to cross through tangles of barbed wire to reach the enemy trenches more than 500 metres away.
As the Newfoundlanders advanced toward the enemy, there was a tree partway down the slope that marked the spot where German fire seemed to become particularly intense. This gnarled tree was nicknamed the “danger tree” by the Newfoundland troops and it marked the spot where many of them would fall that morning. As they walked into the hail of machine gun and artillery fire, it was said that many of them tucked their chins in, almost like they were walking into the teeth of a blizzard back home. But this time it was not snow flying all around them—the Newfoundland Regiment would be practically decimated in less than half an hour of intense German fire.
July 1st would only be the first day of more than four brutal months of fighting during the Battle of the Somme, a campaign in which Canada would also see significant action. By the time it was all over, the Allies would have more than 650,000 soldiers killed, wounded, missing or taken prisoner, and both the Allies and the Germans would each lose about 200,000 lives. For this incredible cost, the Allies moved the front line forward about 10 kilometres.
The losses sustained by the Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont-Hamel on July 1, 1916, were staggering. Of the some 800 Newfoundlanders who went into battle that morning, only 68 were able to answer the roll call the next day, with more than 700 killed, wounded or missing. The dead included 14 sets of brothers, including four lieutenants from the Ayre family of St. John’s.
The Newfoundlanders’ sacrifice did not go unnoticed on the front lines. The commander of the 29th British Division said of the actions of the Newfoundland Regiment on that July morning:
“It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault only failed of success because dead men can advance no further.”
The Newfoundland Regiment would be practically wiped out, but the survivors would continue to see action in the fighting and reinforcements would come to help rebuild the regiment. The regiment would go on to earn the official designation “Royal” from the British Crown in recognition of it’s gallant actions in battles at Ypres and Cambrai later in the war—the only unit of the British Army to earn that distinction during the war years. By the end of the war, more than 6,200 Newfoundlanders had served in its ranks, with with more than 1,300 of them losing their lives and another 2,500 being wounded or taken prisoner. The loss of so many young lives, compounded by the number of wounded, disabled and sick who returned to Newfoundland after the war, would have a significant impact on the colony for many years afterward.
The incredible sacrifices of the men of the Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont-Hamel still echo in Newfoundland and Labrador. The citizens of the province pause July 1 to remember those who gave so much to help protect the peace and freedom people in our country enjoy today.
As one of the most striking First World War memorials in Europe, the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial in France stands as a monument to those from the dominion who gave their lives in the First World War. The site is one of few where visitors can see a Great War battlefield much as it was, its artillery craters and trenches left untouched after the war. The twisted skeleton of the danger tree has been preserved and still stands at the spot where many brave Newfoundlanders fell on that tragic morning—a permanent reminder of the great courage and sacrifice seen that day. The monument of the great bronze caribou, emblem of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, stands on the highest point overlooking the former battlefield. At the base of the statue, three bronze tablets bear the names of more than 800 Newfoundlanders who died in the war and have no known grave