By February 1916 the situation confronting the British Empire and France was incredibly bleak. The failure of the 1915 offensives on the Western Front and the crushing defeat of the Russian armies in the east were paralleled by German victories in the Balkans, the failure of the Gallipoli expedition, the defeat of British forces in Iraq and the bloody stalemate in the war between Italy and Austria-Hungary.

Wounded soldiers receive treatment during the Battle of Courcelette, Sept. 15, 1916. Photo: Library and Archives Canada.

Then on Feb. 21, the German 5th Army, with 40 full-strength infantry divisions, each of 16,000 men, began the assault on Verdun, France.

The German commander, General Erich von Falkenhayn, had decided that the war would only be won if the French army was bled to death in a battle of attrition while a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare was waged against Britain. Falkenhayn was allowed to begin the attack on the “sacred heart of France” but the Kaiser, fearing war with the United States, refused to authorize the

U-boat offensive. The French responded to the attack with determination and as the battle continued and losses mounted it became evident that both armies were bleeding to death. By mid-August, when the fighting died down, losses on both sides were roughly even with more than 700,000 total killed, wounded or missing.

Most of the French army was committed to the defence of Verdun and there was understandable pressure on the British to draw off German forces by a major attack elsewhere on the front. The British Expeditionary Force, now commanded by General Sir Douglas Haig, had been greatly reinforced by the arrival of Field Marshal Earl H.H. Kitchener’s new divisions made up of eager volunteers and of formations brought back from the Mediterranean.

Initially, Haig had hoped to move slowly and allow more time for training but on March 27 the British and French prime ministers agreed on the necessity of destroying “the morale of the German army and nation” by military action. There was to be “one policy, one army and one front.”

The final decision to launch a major offensive in the Somme Valley was made in late May and the buildup of supplies for 18 British and 11 French divisions began immediately. Haig appears to have believed there would be sufficient artillery to overwhelm and destroy enemy defences and he hoped to employ cavalry divisions to exploit a breakthrough. While these events unfolded, the Canadian Corps, now including the 3rd Cdn. Div., was spending the summer attempting to train while holding the Ypres salient.

The enemy was still able to shell the salient from several directions, making life in the forward lines both miserable and very dangerous. Many Canadian (and British) officers expressed their bitter opposition to orders to hold and attempt to expand the Ypres salient. Sam Hughes, the Canadian minister of militia, always suspicious of decisions made by British professional soldiers, created a major controversy when he publicly denounced the policy. By the spring of 1916, Hughes had little credibility left and Borden moved to dismiss his troublesome minister.

The men serving in the front lines knew little of these policy matters which seemed remote from the soldier’s experience of war. The best social history of the Canadian Corps is Desmond Morton’s book When Your Number’s Up: The Canadian Soldier In The First World War, which is rich in detail.

Morton notes that except during an attack, battalions spent one week in the forward positions with companies rotating between the three lines of trenches. Even quiet periods brought a steady drain of casualties from shells, mortars and enemy sniping, with much heavier losses recorded during raids on enemy trenches.

The war also produced tens of thousands of non-battle casualties, including 7,796 who died of disease or by accident. By 1916, the army and its medical officers had begun to recognize and treat “shell shock” as a traumatic stress disorder of the mind rather than a physiological reaction to explosions. This, however, did not necessarily mean more humane treatment; many medical practitioners believed nervous soldiers could be made to recover by using electric shock and other methods of forcing a return to duty.

It is impossible to determine how many soldiers suffered from or were treated for shell shock, but if the ratio observed in World War II applies, the total may have reached 20,000.

In a chapter titled Officers and Gentlemen, Morton presents a series of anecdotes describing the “rigid class system” which separated officers from the men in the ranks. All commissioned officers, he notes, had soldier-servants called a batman, “from the Hindi word for baggage.” Officers wore a collar and necktie and ate whenever possible in an officers’ mess rather than lining up to have food ladled into mess tins. Even the most junior officer was better paid than the most experienced soldier and could look forward to the prospect of leave which was denied to the ranks.

Preferential treatment was provided when recovering from wounds or coping with the trials of the military justice system. “In return for these privileges,” Morton asks, “what did officers actually do?” The answer “at least for regimental officers is that they gave leadership, took responsibility, and set an example, if necessary by dying…. Officers were the first out of the trench in an assault or night patrol and last out in a retreat.”

Not every officer was able to lead by example and some historians have argued that regimental officers were the weak point in the Canadian Corps. Much the same argument exists with regard to staff officers, brigadiers and generals. Canadian historians and journalists have concentrated most of their attention on Arthur Currie because he assumed command of the Canadian Corps in the aftermath of the successful battle for Vimy Ridge. To the general public, Currie remains a heroic figure, but as his biographer Jack Hyatt notes, Currie was a complex man with both strengths and weaknesses. Hyatt reminds us that “any reasonable judgment of military leadership…requires a consideration of historical record and context.” It also requires some basis of comparison and so in the absence of studies of other divisional and corps commanders, conclusions about Currie must be tentative.

For example, we are just beginning to receive balanced assessments of individuals like Major-General A.C. Macdonnell who led 7th Infantry Brigade before his promotion to command 1st Div. Ian McCulloch, who has studied the operations of 7th Bde., suggests Macdonnell was an exceptional officer who emphasized high training standards “and the development of a new, distinctly Canadian attack doctrine.”

Macdonnell’s colourful personality and personal bravery earned him the nickname Batty Mac and the kind of popularity that Arthur Currie, with his stiff personality, could never achieve. We know little about the other senior officers, all of whom require study.

While the Canadians endured life in the Ypres salient, the British and French armies prepared for their joint offensive in the Somme. The battle is now chiefly remembered for the events of the first day, July 1, 1916, when 21,000 men were killed and 35,000 wounded in a largely fruitless attempt to breach the German lines. It stands as the worst single-day disaster in British history. The Canadian Corps did not take part, but the Newfoundland Regiment, part of the British 29th Div., was decimated on that day.

The Newfoundland Regt. (it became the Royal Newfoundland Regt. the next year) had participated in the final stages of the Gallipoli campaign before reaching France in March 1916. The regiment and the rest of the division took over the trenches in the Beaumont Hamel sector in late April. Patrols established that the enemy was “alert and well prepared, entrenched behind thick wire” so if an attack here was to succeed the artillery would need to break the wire and suppress the enemy and its machine-guns.

A few kilometres of the initial attack went according to plan as the Ulster Div. broke into and through the German defences. They were soon forced to withdraw because no progress could be made on either flank. At Beaumont Hamel the lead batteries were wiped out by enemy fire before they reached the enemy’s first line of trenches. Divisional headquarters, unaware of the scale of the carnage, ordered the reserve battalion, the Newfoundlanders, over the top and in “a display of trained and disciplined valour” they moved forward in extended order, wave behind wave….” That is why July 1 is Memorial Day in Newfoundland.

The failure to achieve the hoped for breakthrough did not mean the battle was over. Indeed, the Somme fighting continued throughout the summer. One of the few bright spots was the success of the Royal Flying Corps in winning air superiority over the battlefield. S.F. Wise, who wrote the book Canadian Airmen and the First World War, notes that with new tactics and the concentration of 400 aircraft the RFC was able to dominate the sky, forcing the enemy to find the resources to meet this new threat. Fully 10 per cent of the pilots engaged at the Somme were Canadians who had transferred from the army.

The RFC also played a major role in the offensive which began Sept. 15, 1916. The Canadian Corps, three divisions strong, was part of an attack that involved two British armies. The battle of Flers-Courcelette began with the first ever attempt to employ tanks on the battlefield. Haig’s decision to use the small number of tanks then available to assist in a set-piece attack was, and continues to be, criticized because it sacrificed the element of surprise. But it is evident that Haig believed a breakthrough was still possible in 1916 and he insisted on using whatever was available.

The Canadians, attacking astride the Albert-Baupaume road, were supported by two detachments of three tanks each. According to G.W.L. Nicholson’s history of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, the “presence of the tanks encouraged many Germans to surrender” but most tanks were put out of action in the first hours of the battle.

The RFC, which attacked the enemy’s trenches with machine-gun fire, may well have played a larger role in securing the initial gains. Despite improvements in artillery doctrine and a vast increase in the supply of shells, Flers-Courcelette quickly degenerated into an attritional battle that was to cost the Canadians 24,029 casualties. These losses included 1,250 men of the 4th Cdn. Div. which fought its first battle in November 1916.

Haig’s policy of continuing the Somme battle after it was evident there was little hope of defeating the enemy in 1916 was bitterly opposed by many British political leaders, including David Lloyd George who became prime minister in December 1916.

Lloyd George’s criticisms of Haig and the war of attrition on the Western Front would continue until the armistice. However, in the absence of a convincing alternative strategy the British and French armies continued to plan to renew the offensive in 1917.

The battles fought in the Somme Valley in 1916 have come to symbolize the horrors of WW I and the area is dotted with memorials that commemorate the events. There are also a number of museums and interpretation centres that try to make sense of what happened here, including a superb museum at Perrone which studies the Somme battle in the context of a war that ravaged Europe. The most powerful display is a collection of the drawings by Otto Dix, a German artist who portrayed the agony of trench warfare.

The government and people of Newfoundland chose to commemorate the sacrifice of young lives by establishing a memorial park at Beaumont Hamel and the architect decided to leave the trenches and shell holes as they were at the end of the war. A bronze statue of the regiment’s emblem, the caribou, was positioned on a mound facing the battlefield. Inscribed on three bronze tablets at the base of the monument are the names of 820 members of the regiment, the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve and Mercantile Marine who died during WW I and have no known grave. The park was dedicated in 1925 by Haig who was then regarded as the esteemed leader of a victorious British Army.

The Canadian government transformed the park into a national heritage site in 1997 and a new interpretation centre is now open. The designers decided to tell the story of Newfoundland and the men who volunteered to serve in the Great War rather than focus on the battle. The result is a fascinating and deeply moving tribute to early 20th century Newfoundland.

Veterans Affairs is to be congratulated for this extraordinary achievement. The information presented at Beaumont Hamel and most other Great War museum and interpretation centres focuses on the soldier’s experience of war rather than the reasons for the continuation of a conflict that seemed to threaten the future of Europe.

This approach was particularly appropriate during the brief period of hope between the end of the Cold War and 9/11, but as the world tries to understand the ongoing war against terror and the conflict in Iraq we need to ask different questions. Why was it so difficult to end the fighting once it was evident there was no military solution to the war? Why was Germany, which had gained most of its objectives by 1916, unwilling to offer peace terms acceptable to the Allies? Why were Britain and France unwilling to compromise? Why did military commanders on both sides continue to issue orders such as those that sent the Newfoundland Regt. into the hopeless situation facing the brigade? Why did men obey such orders?

Historians are unable to offer definite answers to such questions, but exploring possible explanations may help make sense of WW I and help us to think more clearly about the world we live in.

  • Originally published in Legion Magazine on January 1, 2005.