The last elements of 1st Canadian Infantry Division left the Ypres salient on May 4, 1915, having suffered just over 6,000 casualties. One Canadian battalion, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, (PPCLI), serving with 27th British Div., was, however, in action throughout the last three weeks of those battles and suffered a further 678 casualties, two thirds of the battalion’s strength.

The Princess Pats were not involved in the chaotic struggle to seal the breech created by the German gas attack, but on May 8, the enemy began a massive conventional assault on Fresenberg Ridge. Once again a gap was created, but this time six German divisions were committed. The PPCLI held the southern edge of the penetration and fought with determination. However, casualties were so great that the remaining members of the unit became part of a composite battlegroup that included remnants from a British battalion. For a time, the senior surviving officer was a young lieutenant who had recently been promoted from the ranks.

Canadian troops share a smoke in the trenches in France in 1915. Photo: Horace Brown, Library and Archives Canada.

Second Ypres was a battle that had to be fought and won. Today, historians who have examined the German sources, tell us that the Kaiser’s army was staging a spoiling attack and lacked the reserves to turn a breakthrough into a breakout. But in 1915, British and French commanders feared the worst: a German advance to the Channel ports.

Historians have also raised questions about the achievements of the Canadians at Ypres. Desmond Morton points out that official accounts ignore the reality that 1,410 Canadians surrendered during the battle, just slightly less than at Hong Kong or Dieppe during World War II. Tim Travers has outlined the severe criticisms directed at then Brigadier Arthur Currie who was accused of something close to cowardice for ordering his battalions to retreat at the peak of the battle. Travers argues that Currie may have made a mistake, but the real problem was with Brig. R.E.W. Turner VC commanding 3rd Brigade, who withdrew his men leaving a 3,000-yard gap on Currie’s flank. Such comments suggest a full account of the battle is yet to be written.

Whatever conclusions future historians reach about Second Ypres, they will surely understand the importance of what was achieved by British, Canadian and Indian troops. The same will not be said about actions carried out by General Douglas Haig’s 1st British Army across the border in northern France. The battles known as Aubers Ridge, Festubert and Givenchy, fought in May and June 1915, will surely retain their reputation as the most ill-conceived, mismanaged operations of the first half of the war.

The origins of the Artois offensive can be traced to the decisions of the French high command that the war must be won on the Western Front in 1915. Gen. J.J. Joffre, the chief of the French general staff, was determined to seize Vimy Ridge and trap large German forces in a converging attack with a British advance from the north. Intelligence reports of substantial German troop movements to the Eastern Front and hopes for the success of the Dardanelles expedition contributed to Joffre’s confidence, but it is evident that as one of the leading apostles of offensive action, Joffre was determined to attack no matter what the situation.

Sir John French, the British commander-in-chief, was under orders to conserve manpower but to co-operate with Joffre. He agreed to mount a 10-division assault on Aubers Ridge, employing an intense 40-minute bombardment instead of the prolonged artillery programs used in other battles. This plan was explained as an attempt to achieve surprise, but was mainly due to a shortage of shells aggravated by the continued demands of the fighting at Ypres. The justification for a short bombardment was particularly ironic in light of First Army’s earlier offensive against Aubers Ridge between March 10-14, 1915.

Delivered through the village of Neuve Chapelle, which was successfully captured on the first day, the March offensive failed to reach Aubers Ridge in part because of inadequate artillery support and poor observation. In time for the May attacks, the enemy created unusually strong defensive positions on the ridge that were scarcely affected by the brief bombardment and in just 12 hours inflicted 11,000 casualties on the British and Indian troops.

Haig might have reconsidered further offensive action but the French had fought their way onto the lower slopes at Vimy Ridge and were accusing the British of failing to pull their weight. When several German divisions left the British front to help save the German positions on Vimy Ridge, Haig agreed to renew the offensive, employing a systematic bombardment of 5,000 yards of the enemy line near the village of Festubert.

Although the Canadian division was just beginning to recover and to absorb replacements, Haig ordered it to join the assault. He committed the 3rd Cdn. Brigade to support a British attack by seizing an orchard known to be heavily defended. The commanding officer of the 15th Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel W.R. Marshall, made a personal reconnaissance of the ground and discovered “tall uncut wire covering the German position.” Turner informed divisional headquarters that the attack could not succeed, but his protest was ignored.

The official historian A.F. Duguid described what happened next: “At a quarter to eight it was still broad daylight, the four assaulting companies, as they moved to the frontal attack, were in full view of the enemy whose machine-gun bullets swept like sleet across the open level fields. The extended waves advanced by short rushes; but the German artillery was now firing also, and both the machine-guns of the 16th were put out of action. After each rush the numbers were fewer until, when still a 100 yards short of the German trench, the attack on the right came to an end. On the left, where the orchard and the breastwork afforded some dead ground for the advance, the companies of the 16th Bn. moved quickly forward into and through the orchard to dig in behind a hedge some 50 yards from the enemy’s line. The flank attack to capture a fortified house with a nest of machine-guns covered by a network of barbed wire, was pressed across the open by two platoons which after suffering heavily were compelled to abandon the enterprise.

“As darkness fell, a line was organized along the trench to the houses and around the orchard. To cover the left rear, a detachment of 12 (from) the 1st Field Company—with a working party of 50 from the 3rd Bn.—built a barricade of sandbags across la Quinque Rue at the junction with the road from the orchard. The supporting company of the 15th Bn. was moved up to strengthen the line on the right, and during the night the 13th Bn. relieved the two companies of the 16th on the left. Casualties in the four assaulting companies totalled about 250.”

The capture of what came to be called the Canadian Orchard was one of the few achievements in a six-day battle that yielded little except death and destruction. More than 15,000 British, Canadian and Indian troops were listed as killed, wounded or missing at Festubert without any serious damage to the enemy. At the time, the generals saw it differently. Impressed with the offensive spirit and self-sacrifice of the infantry, and convinced that with more artillery and fresh divisions a breakthrough could be achieved, they planned to renew the offensive a few kilometres to the south at the village of Givenchy. Once again the Canadians were asked to play a major role supporting the British divisions assigned to the main attack.

The plan for Givenchy called for 48 hours of slow bombardment directed at just 2,000 yards of the German front line. The Royal Flying Corps was to provide air observation to correct artillery fire and after an additional 12 hours of heavy fire, infantry from 51st Highland and 7th British divisions went over the top. The Canadians were ordered to advance and form a defensive flank for the division. The British official history describes the events of the day: “The attacks were made with great dash and gallantry, but no covering fire was arranged for and…a thick row of rifles appeared over the German parapet…. In spite of severe losses owing to little of the wire having been cut, the German trenches were entered and some progress was made even beyond the front line; but the strong points were not captured…. The contest now became one of hand grenades and trench weapons.”

The Canadian artillery was able to cut most of the wire on a 900-yard front so the main challenge facing 1st Bde. was “how to get the assault across the last 75 yards of no man’s land.” Field guns with armoured shields were brought forward to provide direct fire support but neither they nor the explosives-filled tunnel dug under the German front line were successful. More than 700 men were killed or seriously wounded at Givenchy, an action “not rated as a battle in the long list of British engagements.”

Duguid insisted that Givenchy was “in many respects a prototype in miniature of successful major engagements later fought by the Canadian Corps,” and argued that the “experience gained by the troops and staffs compensated to some extent for the casualties suffered.” G.W.L. Nicholson, author of the one volume official history Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919, makes no such claim and more recently Desmond Morton has described Givenchy as a “mess” comparable to the disaster of Festubert. “Changes were needed,” Morton writes, “the generals, who wanted to breakthrough and resume the kind of open warfare they had trained for had to learn to rely on scientific gunnery and engineers to develop the tools to conduct siege warfare. They proved to be slow learners.”

The failure of both the French and British attacks in the first half of 1915 led many of the key political figures in France and Britain to question the offensive doctrine advocated by the generals. The idea of “active defence” was seriously discussed in July but the generals won support for a renewed offensive largely because of the fear of a complete Russian military collapse. It was this danger that led Kitchener, the British war minister, to argue “the British army must act with the utmost energy in helping the French even at the cost of very heavy losses.” This was the background to the battle of Loos which began on Sept. 25, 1915. Losses on the first day, some 15,000 men, equalled one sixth of the attacking force. Fortunately, the Canadians were not involved.

The arrival of the 2nd Cdn. Inf. Div. in England during the spring of 1915 led to a decision to create a Canadian corps with Alderson promoted to corps commander and brigadiers Currie and Turner to take over the 1st and 2nd divisions. When 2nd Div. arrived in France it was immediately placed beside the veterans of Currie’s division in a relatively quiet sector. Here the corps began to develop the techniques of the trench raid that were to embellish the Canadian reputation for aggressive tactics. Historian Bill Rawling’s 1992 book, Surviving Trench Warfare: Technology and the Canadian Corps 1914-1918, remains the best single book on the corps. It describes trench raids as the “laboratory” for experiments with the technology of war. The Canadians did not invent the raids, but they got much of the credit or blame thanks to the war poet Siegfried Sasson who wrote that “such entertainments became popular work with the staff” after some “Canadian toughs” proved it could be done effectively.

The Canadian toughs were men from the 2nd Inf. Bde. who volunteered to carry out a raid designed to capture prisoners and demoralize the enemy. Rawling describes the preparations: “A reproduction of the enemy’s trenches was laid out in a nearby field through which the raiders practised bombing attacks, setting up blocks in the trenches to prevent the Germans from counter-attacking and withdrawing to their own lines. They built and tested bridging ladders to cross ditches in no man’s land and rehearsed crossing barbed wire with mats. In the nights before the raid scouts took them over the ground they would cover on their way to the German trenches. The men were trained to fill highly specialized roles, each of the two attacks comprising no less than seven parties. A small wire-cutting party would make gaps in the wire; bombing and blocking parties, loaded down with grenades would assault the trench and seal it off, one on the left, the other on the right; in the centre a trench rifle party, complete with telephonist, would move into the trench, capture prisoners, and sketch the area; a bridge-covering party would protect the withdrawal while a listening party, again with telephonist, would warn of impending counter-attack; finally, a reserve party would be available to help if there was trouble.”

All went according to plan. Surprise was achieved, prisoners were captured and the withdrawal conducted without drawing German fire. Total casualties for the raid were one killed and another wounded. The Douvre Farm raid of November 1915 and a similar effort carried out by the 5th Bn. in December were bright spots in an otherwise dismal winter. It seemed to rain every day and as the trenches flooded, their sides caving in, the liquor ration—a few ounces of strong navy rum—was a crucial aid to maintaining morale. A large number of flu cases were inevitable in such conditions as was “trench foot” and other diseases. There was also a steady drain of casualties from enemy artillery and snipers. It is difficult to imagine a more dismal existence than the one experienced by the infantry in the winter of 1915-16. Fortunately, battalions were rotated frequently usually spending four days and three nights in the line then moving into brigade reserve until the rotation of the whole brigade was ordered. Life behind the lines was no picnic, but sleep out of immediate danger, sports and even drill were welcome diversions.

The mood in London and Paris was also gloomy and like the soldiers, civilians sought diversion. The failure of the Gallipoli expedition, the defeat of a British and Indian force in Iraq, the failure of the first Italian offensive and defeats inflicted on Czarist Russia were enough to make anyone pessimistic, but since the Allies could not concede defeat and allow Germany to dominate Europe, there was little choice except to prepare for new offensives to begin in March 1916. While these preparations were under way, the enemy struck first at Verdun.