WWI

A century of remembrance

John Weissenberger
November 11, 2018
2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. Despite the passage of time, the events of that terrible human tragedy still have the power to horrify, inspire, and unleash our tears. Lest we forget the sacrifices of the Canadians who fought and died in that war and all the military conflicts that have tested our nation’s mettle, C2C Journal is marking Armistice Day with an essay by John Weissenberger that is bookended by the stories of the first and last Canadians who died in the Great War.
WWI

A century of remembrance

John Weissenberger
November 11, 2018
2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. Despite the passage of time, the events of that terrible human tragedy still have the power to horrify, inspire, and unleash our tears. Lest we forget the sacrifices of the Canadians who fought and died in that war and all the military conflicts that have tested our nation’s mettle, C2C Journal is marking Armistice Day with an essay by John Weissenberger that is bookended by the stories of the first and last Canadians who died in the Great War.
Share on facebook
Share on Facebook
Share on twitter
Share on Twitter

Charles Raymond, a native of Windsor Ontario, was the first Canadian combat death of the First World War. A Corporal in the (British) King’s Royal Rifle Corps, he was killed southeast of Paris on September 14, 1914. He left a widow, Ella Isabel Raymond, of Church Street, Aldershot, England. His death would be followed by that of approximately 61,000 fellow Canadians who perished in the Great War.

Raymond’s unit was part of the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.). It landed in France on August 13 and ran headlong into the nine divisions of the German First Army near Mons, Belgium. The B.E.F.’s five divisions were well-trained but were overwhelmed at Mons by the skilled and more numerous Germans. Raymond and his comrades then marched more than 250 kilometres south in the “Great Retreat” as the Germans pushed to the gates of Paris. At his death he would not have known that the Battle of the Marne River where he fell was a pivotal early moment in the war, forestalling as it did a quick German victory. Nor would he have known that he was part of a body count that was mounting at a pace previously unknown in human conflict.

One-and-a half-million men were engaged in battle at the Marne alone, with millions more elsewhere in France and on the eastern front. The French alone suffered over 300,000 dead just from August to December 1914. From the beginning it was clear this was a new kind of war, introducing the “industrialization” of human slaughter.

The sheer magnitude of death and suffering is almost unimaginable today. When the carnage finally ended four years later, it had claimed some 40 million lives, including an estimated 10 million military combatants. In at least seven countries, more than 10 percent of military-aged men were killed. Tens of millions more were wounded, maimed or disfigured. In addition, more than 2.2 million civilians were killed globally as a direct result of military action, and an estimated 5-7 million civilians died from disease and malnutrition. Revolution and regional wars unleashed by the great conflict killed millions more in the years following the Armistice. And finally, the end of the war spawned the Spanish Influenza epidemic, which killed another estimated 50-100 million. In a phrase derived from the title of a book by H.G. Wells, it became known as “the war to end all wars”. In fact, it was but the opening act to the monstrous global bloodletting of the 20th century.

The details and enormity of this tragedy have inevitably faded from public consciousness, even though the war has been continuously studied to the present day. Its origins, strategies and tactics, social and economic impact, the effect of the imposed peace; all are still under serious debate. And its after-effects linger, particularly in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

As the conflict wore on and the cost in lives, money, material damage and suffering mounted, the warring parties fought on past the point of sanity, seeking to achieve gains commensurate with the great cost. Propaganda rose to an unprecedented, fever pitch, with vilification of the enemy unseen since the era of religious wars.

Canadians on sentry duty in a front-line trench in 1916. (All the photos accompanying this essay feature Canadian troops. The colourized images are from a new book published by the Vimy Foundation titled They Fought in Colour.)

The fighting literally stretched around the globe. What Canadians know of the war is generally seen through the lens of Flanders’ Fields and the Western Front. There was of course also fighting in southern Europe, on the Balkan and Italian Fronts, along a 1,000-plus km front in Russia, another in the Caucasus, as well as epic campaigns in the Middle East and East Africa. Naval combat spanned the seven seas; German U-boats alone sank about 5,000 merchant ships.

Canadian soldiers experienced most of the new military technologies and tactics inspired by the war. The use of sophisticated chemical weapons, notably mustard gas, is perhaps the best-known and most horrifying innovation. But even before its introduction, advanced machine guns and rapid-firing rifles, and more accurate and lethal artillery and mortars, had outpaced 19th century military tactics, leading to the adoption of defensive trench warfare. The rival armies spent most of the war dug in along the Western Front – with Canadians in Flanders and the adjacent lowlands – that extended from the English Channel to the Swiss border.

Filling water bottles from a ditch in Amiens in 1918.

Both sides tried to break the stalemate with mass infantry attacks supported by ever-increasing artillery bombardment (aerial combat, though highly romanticized on both sides, was immaterial to the war’s course). The enormous casualties led to an in-retrospect sickening doctrine of attrition, with the objective of “bleeding the enemy white” and achieving a positive “body count” over the span of months. At Verdun, the Germans specifically planned such a protracted battle of annihilation, while at the Somme and elsewhere, Allied commanders consciously bled out the ranks trying to breach the trench barrier.

The Somme was fought from July to September 1916 and is often cited as the war’s benchmark for death and futility. The British suffered almost 60,000 casualties on the first day of the battle – including over 19,000 killed – with entire units mown down. One of these was the Newfoundland Regiment, consisting of volunteers from towns, villages and outports across the island. During an assault on the Belgian village of Beaumont Hamel, the regiment lost a total of 324 dead and 386 wounded in a matter of hours. Only 68 men answered roll call the next morning.

The triumphant return from Vimy Ridge.

One survivor, Private James McGrath, crawled about 2 km before reaching safety. His recollections bring the nightmare to life: “The Germans actually mowed us down like sheep. I managed to get to their barbed wire, where I got the first shot; then went to jump into their trench when I got the second in the leg. I lay in No Man’s Land for fifteen hours….They fired on me again, this time fetching me in the left leg, and so I waited for another hour and moved again, only having the use of my left arm now. As I was doing splendidly, nearing our own trench they again fetched me, this time around the hip as I crawled on…I was then rescued by Captain Windeler who took me on his back to the dressing station a distance of two miles.” From the other side, a German machine-gunner reported: “They went down in their hundreds. You didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them.”

Short-lived breakthroughs were achieved in exceptional cases, like the famously well-executed Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge. But by and large soldiers were condemned to live in sodden, filthy trenches, plagued by lice and disease, often surrounded by the half-buried corpses of friend and foe alike. The farm fields of France and Belgium were churned into mud. The worst perhaps was Passchendaele, where in July 1917 the British launched another offensive, which the autumn rains ultimately stalled. Trenches filled with water, access to the rear was on improvised “duckboard” paths – which were relentlessly shelled – and anyone who strayed off the paths was liable to drown in the mire. The Canadian Corps arrived there in October, only to lose almost 16,000 men in the morass, while total British casualties were over 275,000.

Telephone testing station at the front in 1916.

Artillery bombardments were equally hellish. At the Somme, the British fired over 1.5 million shells in seven days. At Verdun, the Germans fired 1 million rounds in the first 10 hours, while they and the French expended over 10 million in the 10-month battle. Soldiers hunkered down in dugouts endured hours, often days of continuous shelling, wondering if the next round would strike them. One Frenchman described it as, “a torture the soldier can’t see the end of…he’s afraid of being buried alive…[he] stays put in his hole, helplessly waiting for, hoping for, a miracle”.

Shellshock, a debilitating reaction to this unrelenting horror and stress, wounded more than 10,000 Canadians soldiers. What we would now call PTSD was then a new phenomenon, often ascribed to cowardice, with improvised treatment, if any. Back home, survivors had to deal with it as best they could: often with a few stiff drinks, or many.

French Canadian Soldiers of the 22nd Infantry Battalion.

The centenary of the war has revived a number of contentious questions, not least whether the war and its slaughter was actually worth it. The Canadian historian Margaret McMillan maintains that our soldiers fought “for hearth and home” and to “maintain a way of life” – which sounds like a contemporary way of saying “for King and country”. Her Scottish colleague, Niall Ferguson, is less sanguine. He questions the inscription on his grandfather’s Great War medal – “the war for civilization” – and doubts the war was worth the cost. Ferguson’s research shows that soldiers often fought out of loyalty to their comrades, to avenge their deaths, and, for some, the sheer pleasure of killing “beautifully”. Almost incomprehensibly, many veterans recalled it as the best time of their lives.

It’s worth remembering how different the world of 1914 was from our own. Fewer than half of Canadians lived in cities. Most were used to hard physical labour for limited reward. Normal life expectancy was 52 for men, 57 for women. Inured to the hardships of life, most people were about as far removed from the relative comforts of modern life as one can imagine. Many had seen siblings die of childhood diseases, or mothers or wives in childbirth. They were buoyed by a strength of community and faith little known today.

Dressing the wounded during the Battle of the Somme.

For long, deadly months and then years, it seemed as if the Great War might never end. But then the end came fairly suddenly, and the great empires of the Central Powers disintegrated. Casting aside the political calculus and the retrospective rating of dead political leaders, it is perhaps best to remember the strength and perseverance of that generation in the face of tremendous hardship. The war caused social change and unrest even in Canada. Still, the loyalty to their fellows of so many of that generation, their willingness to sacrifice when called upon, and their simple returning to society without complaint is remarkable, memorable, and an example to this day.

Special ceremonies will be held this month to honour George Lawrence Price of Falmouth, Nova Scotia. He was felled by a sniper’s  bullet at 10:58 am on November 11, 1918 – two minutes before the Armistice – near Mons, Belgium, where Charles Raymond first saw combat.

There is a poignant symmetry to the experiences of these two young Canadians, at the very beginning and very end of the war. One hundred years on, perhaps Raymond and Price can represent for us the tens of thousands of Canadians – and millions of others – who perished. Lest we forget.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Hanging on the old barbed wire

The First World War inspired an extraordinary amount of music, including many songs which will be heard at Remembrance Day family and social gatherings in Canada. One of the most poignant is Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire, a soldier’s sardonic criticisms of his officers. Although the original author is unknown, the lyrics below are one of several variations passed down over the last century, including a powerful acapella version recorded in 1988 by the British pop band Chumbawamba.

 

If you want to find the Sergeant,

I know where he is, I know where he is, I know where he is.

If you want to find the Sergeant, I know where he is,

He’s lying on the canteen floor.

I’ve seen him, I’ve seen him, lying on the canteen floor,

I’ve seen him, I’ve seen him, lying on the canteen floor.

 

If you want to find the Quarter-bloke

I know where he is, I know where he is, I know where he is.

If you want to find the Quarter-bloke, I know where he is,

He’s miles and miles behind the line.

I’ve seen him, I’ve seen him, miles and miles and miles behind the line.

I’ve seen him, I’ve seen him, miles and miles and miles behind the line.

 

If you want the Sergeant-major,

I know where he is, I know where he is, I know where he is.

If you want the Sergeant-major, I know where he is.

He’s tossing off the privates’ rum.

I’ve seen him, I’ve seen him, tossing off the privates’ rum.

I’ve seen him, I’ve seen him, tossing off the privates’ rum.

 

If you want the C.O.,

I know where he is, I know where he is, I know where he is.

If you want the C.O., I know where he is

He is down in a deep dug-out,

I’ve seen him, I’ve seen him, down in a deep dug-out,

I’ve seen him, I’ve seen him, down in a deep dug-out.

 

If you want to find the old battalion,

I know where they are, I know where they are, I know where they are

If you want to find the old battalion, I know where they are,

They’re hanging on the old barbed wire,

I’ve seen ’em, I’ve seen ’em, hanging on the old barbed wire.

I’ve seen ’em, I’ve seen ’em, hanging on the old barbed wire.

Love C2C Journal? Here's how you can help us grow.

More for you

The New Riel Rebellion: Who is Métis?

Whether you consider him a patriot or traitor, Louis Riel’s two rebellions in the 1800s were grounded in practical matters of geography and political representation – with the overarching goal of bettering the lives of the Métis people Riel claimed to represent. But today, a nasty dispute among Métis organizations is fixated on internal power struggles and matters of racial identity rather than greater prosperity and respect for all. At the centre is a multi-million-dollar lawsuit that turns on competing definitions of Canada’s mixed-race Métis and arguments over who should represent them. Peter Best explores the legal origins of this fruitless struggle and what it might hold for Canadian taxpayers of all races and combinations.

Parental Pushback: The Fight Against Critical Race Theory at an Ontario School Board

If the first precept of medicine is to do no harm, then surely that same principle should hold for education as well. And yet the growing determination among school boards and teachers’ organizations to force critical race theory into the classroom threatens great harm to the children they’ve been entrusted to teach, as well as to the targets of critical race theory and society at large. David Millard Haskell offers a first-hand account of what happens when this socially-divisive and fact-blind Marxist ideology infects a major school board in southwestern Ontario. It’s an education in chaos.

Rush to Outrage: The Case of Collin May

A successful society depends on the contributions of many unelected civic-minded individuals who feel a duty to serve others. But who would put their name forward for such public service if they knew it was likely to unleash a torrent of politically-motivated abuse? Case in point: Collin May, recently appointed chief of the Alberta Human Rights Commission. Despite being eminently suited for the job, May was last week accused of “overt racism” and faced calls to resign because of a book review he wrote for C2C Journal 13 years ago. It’s an accusation built on a blatant misreading of the text and disregard for historical truth. The editors of C2C Journal examine the toxic implications of this “attack first, ask questions never” approach to public discourse.

More from this author

Is Populism Simply Whatever the Elites Don’t Like?

With Canada’s Conservatives possibly inclined to select a discernibly conservative candidate as their next leader, the nation’s opinion leaders and news media have swung into action to convince them of the error of their ways. And if Conservatives still decline to choose an all-but unelectable Liberal-lite/Red Tory who, even if they reach office, won’t upset the establishment’s applecart, then the alternative candidates must be discredited. If they aren’t a religious throwback, then surely they are sinister, or have a hidden agenda, or would destroy health care. And if that doesn’t stick, then reach for the secret weapon: accuse them of populism! John Weissenberger explores the favoured narrative-du-jour of our governing elites and proposes that the true source of their angst lies in their own woeful underperformance.

Va-t’en/Bye-bye:
Quebec’s 60-Year War Against English

In western Canada some large corporations now voluntarily provide services not only in English and French but Chinese. In cities across English-speaking Canada one can find shops and services emblazoned with virtually any language and form of writing known around the world – often without an English version alongside. Hardly anyone seemingly gives such practices a second thought. They certainly don’t spark bitter public debate. So why is one Canadian province so fixated on elevating one language above all and stamping out one other in particular? Drawing on his lived experience while applying the detachment of a historian, John Weissenberger chronicles the obsessive, ahistorical, unnecessary – and ongoing – campaign by Quebec’s francophone nationalists against the province’s English-speaking minority.

Scorned Heritage: How the Laurentian Elite Erased English Canada

Any Canadian possessed of a basic curiosity and sensitivity who ventures abroad will notice the tendency of locals to extol their country’s achievements and their culture’s delights, rendered with an enthusiasm and detail that quickly make it plain what the place and its people are all about. So why should Canadians be condemned to inhabit a country that has been engineered not even to have a culture all its own? John Weissenberger, a Montreal native and son of postwar refugees, chronicles the disturbing decisions of an increasingly self-loathing governing elite, how it spurned the legacy of a once-confident millennium-old society and offered millions of newcomers a hollowed-out shell.

Share This Story

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on print

Donate

Subscribe to the C2C Weekly
It's Free!

* indicates required
Interests
By providing your email you consent to receive news and updates from C2C Journal. You may unsubscribe at any time.