The Queen’s York Rangers: Canada’s Historic Regiment Stewart Bull & David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye Please do not quote or cite without my permission
6. The Great War
In summer 1914 Canada had been at peace for a century. Over the past hundred years, Britain’s colonies in North America had already gone well on the way to full sovereignty - without the fire and sword of rebellion against the Crown. They still maintained a close bond with the mother country. Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier had reminded the House of Commons four years earlier, “When Britain is at War, Canada is at war.”1 Therefore, when the assassination of the heir to the Habsburg throne in Sarajevo in late June ultimately led Great Britain to enter hostilities with Germany on August 4, Canada immediately entered the fight.2
The causes of the Great War continue to be a lively source of debate amongst historians in the 21st century.3 While they probably won’t ever agree about who or what was responsible, the aggressive insecurity of Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II undeniably played a major part. The geopolitical anxieties of Europe’s older eastern empires were another element of the suicidal struggle’s genealogy, as was the complicated network of
1 G. W. L. Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919: Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War, Carleton Library Series (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2015). 5.
2 For a more detailed account of the regiment’s participation in the First World War, see John Thompson, The Rangers during the Great War. Toronto: Queen’s York Rangers Regimental Council, 2017. This section draws liberally on Capt. Thompson’s text. On Canada’s role in the war, see Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, as well as Tim Cook, At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War (Toronto: Viking Canada, 2007). and Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War (Toronto: Viking Canada, 2008).
3 The Great War’s centenary yielded several new books about its causes. For a balanced study, see Margaret MacMillan, The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (London: Profile Books, 2013).
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alliances and alignments among the Great Powers. But the basic reason for its eruption may simply be that, during the 19th century’s long peace, most of the continent had forgotten about the horrors of war. At the end of the eighteenth century, in a different context, Edmé Restif de la Bretonne mused, as he imagined himself looking back on the terror and violence of the French Revolution,
I saw in the pages of history all the terrible jolts it had endured. I thought I heard the readers saying we’re glad that we didn’t have to live through those horrible times when human life was worthless. But pain, once it’s over and you survive it, becomes pleasure. You need those jolts now and then so that men appreciate peace and quiet, just like you need sickness to value good health...Today we are at peace because [we] are weary of war. But beware! After a long period of rest, you’ll feel strong. And then, I fear, you will start all over again.”4
None of the powers had wanted war, but they had all prepared for it. According to the “ideology of the offensive” that dominated the thinking of their generals, most of them assumed that the war would be won through a vigorous advance that would crush the foe in a matter of a few months5. It would all be over by Christmas, they confidently thought. The Germans were the most audacious. The late chief of its general staff, Field Marshal
4 Nicholas-Edmé Restif de la Bretonne, Les Nuits De Paris, Ou Le Spectateur Nocturne (Paris: Livre Club du Libraire, 1960). 240.
5 Jack Snyder, The Ideology of the Offensive: Military Decision Making and the Disasters of 1914 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989). As Snyder points out, most analyses of Japan’s victory against the Russians ten years earlier drew the wrong lessons about the fundamental changes in the technology of modern war by the turn of the twentieth century. See also Tohmatsu Haruo, "Approaching Total War: Ivan Bloch's Disturbing Vision," in The Russo-Japanese War in Global Perspective: World War Zero, ed. et al. David Wolff, History of Warfare (Leiden: Brill, 2007). 180-202.
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Count Alfred von Schlieffen, had devised a plan that would have the army quickly smash the French in the west by enveloping the capital through a flanking manoeuvre along the coast. Having taken Paris, he would then rush the troops eastwards on the empire’s excellent railways, and take on the more sluggish Russians.
Like the belligerents overseas, Canadians greeted the outbreak of war with wild enthusiasm. Even in Montreal, a city not noted for its allegiance to the King, people spontaneously sang “Rule Britannia” and “La Marseillaise” in the streets. Since Parliament was not in session, Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden hurried back from his holiday in Muskoka to confer with Cabinet about how his government might support Britain. Within a few days, Sir Robert informed London that he would provide one division of 25,000 men in its expeditionary force to France.
Canada’s permanent active militia, or regular force, only numbered about 3,100 men. However, 55,000 soldiers served in the non-permanent active militia.6 Anyway, the Minister of Militia, Colonel Sam Hughes, thoroughly disliked the former. Scrapping the army’s mobilisation plans, he called on Canada’s 226 non-permanent units to provide the volunteers. Their response was both eager and immediate. Some 33,000 men quickly gathered at the new base of Valcartier near Quebec City. After a few weeks of basic training, the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) set sail from Gaspé Harbour on October 3. The troops disembarked at Plymouth Harbour 11 days later and were taken to Salisbury Plain for more instruction in the basic arts of war.
6 Bercuson, Fighting Canadians, 131.
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Rather than retain their regimental names, the volunteers were organised into numbered battalions. Of the 300 York Rangers who answered the minister’s summons, most were assigned to the 4th Battalion of the CEF. Eventually the 4th Battalion of the 1st Division’s First Brigade, the unit is perpetuated by the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry.
The 12th York Rangers did remain active during the war, but mainly served as a recruiting office. Since Aurora proved to be impractical for most volunteers in Toronto, the Regiment set up a tent on University Avenue. Eventually, the city provided Yorkville’s former town hall on the west side of Yorkville Avenue and Yonge Street, which would serve as the regimental headquarters until 1936. Throughout the war years, LCol Arthur G. Nichol performed yeoman duty to keep the Rangers going, despite being over fifty and in poor health.
A few days after the first division had left for England, the Dominion Government offered another division of 20,000 men. Now, instead of training the new volunteers at one base, Hughes decided to spread the task regionally. In Central Ontario, the task fell to the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition, close to the future Fort York Armouries.
Together with men from other regiments in the area, the 12th Yorks were rebadged as the 20th Battalion of the 2nd Division. Because the Yorks formed the largest contingent, the Queen’s York Rangers perpetuate the 20th Battalion and proudly display its battle
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honours on the Guidon. Therefore, the history of the 20th is an integral part of the current Regiment’s storied past.7
The battalion was formed on November 7, 1914, with Lt Colonel J. A. W. Allen as commanding officer. His recruits were largely farmers, lumberman and others used to manual labour, but with uneven military training. Housed in several buildings of the Exhibition they went through the basics, such as drill, gymnastics, route marches. For marksmanship, the soldiers marched ten kilometres to the range at Long Branch and they practiced digging trenches and basic field tactics at High Park and Cedardale. Much of this was new to many of them. According to one apocryphal story, when his sergeant gave him the command “About Turn!” one soldier did not move. “Didn’t you hear ‘About Turn’?” the sergeant roared. “No,” the man innocently replied, “What about him?”
In northern France, what almost everyone thought would be a “frischer und frölicher Krieg” (brisk and jolly war) ground down into a lengthy stalemate after French and British troops checked the Teutonic juggernaut on the Marne River in early September. For four years, the Allies would face the Central Powers along a 700-kilometre long series of trenches that sliced through Flanders and France from the North Sea to Switzerland. The industrialisation of combat, which enabled a defending army to grind up thousands of advancing enemy troops in a matter of minutes with its heavy artillery and machine guns, made it almost impossible for two roughly evenly matched adversaries to decide the
7 The Battalion published a detailed history, written by one of its officers. D. J. Corrigal, The History of the Twentieth Canadian Battalion (Central Ontario Regiment) C.E.F. During the Great War, 1914-1918 (Toronto: Stone & Cox, Ltd., 1935)
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fighting. As Tim Cook wrote, “by the end of 1914 all of the great powers were too weak to win but too strong to lose.”8
When the fighting on the Western Front wound down for the winter, the lethal First Battle of Ypres and other engagements since early August had already inflicted about a million casualties on the Allies. There was a pressing need for more troops, and in mid-May the 20th Battalion boarded the S.S. Megantic for England. With German U-boots prowling in the waters around the British Isles, it was a hazardous journey. On Victoria Day, the men were relieved to reach Plymouth’s harbour and they proceeded by rail to Sandling Camp in Kent for more training.
As the 20th Battalion honed its skills, Lt Colonel Allan handed over his command to Lt Colonel C. H. Rogers on August 27. The great, great grand-nephew of the Robert Rogers who had first raised the Rangers nearly 170 years earlier, the new CO had already seen action in South Africa and at Ypres. He would lead the 20th until June 1917.
A little over two weeks later, the 20th left for France along with the rest of the 2nd Division. Landing in Boulogne on September 15, within less than a fortnight its troops were on the front at the Ypres Salient in West Flanders. Here they joined their comrades from other battalions in the trenches on the foot of the Messines Ridge and began their encounter with dangerous routine of the infantryman on the Western Front: almost continuous enemy shelling, deadly machine-gun fire, as well as endless work parties out in
8 Cook, At the Sharp End, 67.
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no-man’s land to repair trenches and barbed wire. Not to mention sleeping in the mud with such uninvited companions as rats and lice.
Two days after the battalion’s arrival at Messines, Private Harold Browne became its first soldier to be killed in action. There would be many more casualties, especially when the men were on patrol or laying barbed wire out in the open. And there was a good deal of sickness, such as trench foot and trench fever. However, vast improvements in the medical corps kept disease’s toll on the men much lower than in previous wars.
The fighting slowed down during the winter. Now the men alternated 18 days at the front with six at rest areas at the rear. Here they enjoyed baths, exercise, quieter nights, and relaxed. Canadian soldiers also got new equipment, such as leather coats, waterproof capes and steel helmets. At the same time, they grew increasingly unhappy with their Ross rifles.
Although the British Army had adopted the Lee-Enfield at the turn of the century, Canada’s army issued the domestically-built firearm designed by Sir Charles Ross to its troops. A straight pull, bolt-action hunting rifle based on the Austrian Mannlicher, its superior accuracy served the men well on the firing range, despite the alarming habit of its bolt to blow back in their faces. A far more dangerous flaw turned out to be the Ross’ tendency to jam on the battlefield after only five to ten rounds. The Canadian Expeditionary Force’s men openly despised the weapon and, whenever they could, replaced them with
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the Lee-Enfields left by fallen British soldiers. When they fought at the Battle of Festubert in May 1915, more than 3,000 of the 1st Division’s troops had already done so.9
Despite their many hardships, the men of the 20th Battalion were beginning to develop their esprit de corps. As one veteran put it,
The bond between officers, N.C.O.’s and men was strengthened by the consciousness of danger. All were now brothers in arms...In this first trip in the trenches a new spirit was born, of that understanding, that strange intangible feeling of friendship, which differentiates those who have been “there” from those who have not.10
The heavy fighting resumed in Spring 1916 when the Second Division was ordered to join the assault on the village of St Eloi, whose location atop a low hill at the southern edge of the Ypres Salient provided the enemy with a good view of Allied positions. Engineers from the 3rd British Division began the attack shortly before dawn on March 27 by exploding powerful mines under the enemy position, which drove the Germans from their lines and left seven large craters. Infantry from the division then attacked and took many prisoners.
Having successfully repelled a counterattack, the British were eventually replaced by the 2nd Canadian Division. However, a second German counterattack drove its troops from most the craters. When on April 6 the 4th Brigade, which included the 20th, was ordered to the area, only one of them was still in friendly hands. Four days later, the 20th was ordered “over the top” along with the 21st in the middle of the night to try to retake
9 Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 156. 10 Corrigal, History of the Twentieth Battalion, 32.
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some of lost ground, but despite their “splendid, though fruitless, efforts,” they were driven back by intense enemy fire.11 Nevertheless, the 20th continued to show its mettle over the next few days by repelling two German raiding parties.
After some rest away from the front, the 20th returned to St Eloi on May 8. Three days later, at about 2130 hours, some advanced posts reported a large German working party in no-man’s land well within range of the remaining crater, which a platoon from the 20th occupied. Its enterprising leader, Lieutenant Keslick, quietly added two more Lewis machine guns to the one already in his platoon, and at 0200 hours, together with artillery support, directed their deadly fire on the unsuspecting enemy.
The enemy’s retaliation the following morning was fierce. For over five hours, German guns battered the crater. When it was all over, all but six of Lieutenant Keslick’s men had either been killed or wounded. According to Colonel Corrigal’s history of the 20th, “for concentrated shelling, those who survived the war can recall nothing to compare it with.”12 The month’s action had inflicted 1,373 casualties on the four battalions at St Eloi, but the men of the 20th still held the lonely crater.
Early June saw an enemy attack near Mount Sorel, a little to the north of St Eloi, that drove the Canadians from that high ground on the edge of Ypres Salient. The 1st Division retook the lost ground a few days later. While the 2nd only fought in a supporting role, the 20th saw plenty of action. On June 6, a German raid took part of the battalion’s trenches, but in a fierce counter-attack, two of its platoons drove them back out.
11 Corrigal, History of the Twentieth Battalion, 54. 12 Corrigal, History of the Twentieth Battalion, 62.
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The summer brought both good news and bad to the 20th. Like all soldiers of the CEF, its men were delighted at last to be issued the battle-tested Lee-Enfield already standard in the other Commonwealth armies. The Army’s Commander-in-Chief took this step despite furious resistance by, now Sir Sam Hughes, the increasingly controversial Minister of Militia. He had rightly earned his knighthood the previous year by raising and sending the first division of the CEF in a remarkable two months. However, Sir Sam offended many by his shameless self-promotion and favouritism – to the point of claiming that jealous superiors had denied him two Victoria Crosses for supposed gallantry in South Africa. By fall even the Prime Minister had had enough, and sacked him. One officer in the CEF rejoiced that “the mad mullah” was gone.13
Less welcome was the order to fight on the Somme River in Northern France. Timed to coincide with the Brusilov Offensive on the Eastern Front, this five-month clash proved to one of the war’s most catastrophic encounters. When it was all over, the five-month Battle of the Somme had claimed well over a million casualties on both sides. On the very first day, July 1, the British took 57,470 casualties. In August, the 4th Brigade was asked to do its part. Nevertheless, the 20th eagerly marched south.
During the march, the men of the 20th were ordered to sew the new battalion patches on the top of their sleeves. Unlike the cap badge, its design was entirely abstract: The colour of the rectangle at the base denoted the division, while the colour and shape of the piece of cloth above it identified the battalion and division, respectively.
13 in Granatstein, Oxford Companion, 206.
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Together with the rest of the 2nd Division, the task of the 20th was to attack on the village of Courcelette during the British Army’s third and final offensive in the operation on the Somme. As part one of the lead units, the battalion awaited “zero hour,” 0620 on September 15, with much trepidation. It was a beautifully sunny late summer morning when “At last the storm broke,” one of its veterans recalled,
The whirring shells whizzed over our heads and shrapnel spouted into the enemy’s trenches. Machine guns spat forth their deadly bullets. From the German lines flares – the S.O.S. alarm – were shot frantically into the air. At 6.24 a.m., with bayonets gleaming, we left the trenches.14
For the first time, a new device joined the troops, the Mark I tank. Moving at a stately pace of no more than 6 kilometres an hour and impervious to almost all small arms fire, these massive metal rhomboids on tracks at first impressed them. But their admiration was short-lived. Like an elegant British sports car, the Mark 1 proved to be a finicky beast, and many soon broke down before even reaching the enemy’s trenches.
Fortunately, the infantry was more effective. Within 40 minutes the infantry had reached the final objective. As the tanks broke down behind them and became sitting ducks for enemy artillery, the 20th held off the inevitable counter-attacks and even advanced further into the German lines. Here Captain L. D. Heron distinguished himself by taking 60 prisoners with only eight men. The job of the 4th Brigade done by early afternoon, the divisional commander now gave the order to the 5th brigade to take the village itself. When night fell, Courcelette had been liberated.
14 Corrigal, History of the Twentieth Battalion, 83.
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Three days later, the 20th was ordered to assemble in the driving rain. Colonel Corrigan describes the scene,
There took place one of the most impressive ceremonies of the war – the parade when every Officer and man was mustered and the paymaster called the roll to account for those “present” and “absent.” Only those present, of course, answer...Nothing hurt so deeply as hearing the name of a comrade being called – once, twice, three times, when we knew that perhaps no answer could possibly be given.15
Ten officers and 279 other ranks could not reply.
After a brief respite, at the start of October the 20th Battalion participated in another 4th Brigade attack, on a strong Germen defensive position near Pozières to the south. Pummelled by punishing enemy shelling, the men inched forward and took the first two trench lines. It was rough going. Brutal close combat with bayonets and bombs took many of them out. Meanwhile, heavy October rains combined with the unceasing artillery and machine gun fire to make it virtually impossible to maintain communications or supplies, while the wet transformed the chalk soil of the trenches into slippery slime. After more than a week of this virtual hell, the 20th had to break off its action, which left the final objective, Regina Trench, in enemy hands.
To everyone’s relief, the next day the Battalion was ordered to the rear for well- deserved rest and recuperation. It soldiers had performed splendidly on the Somme against formidable opposition and in often gruelling conditions; it had taken all its
15 Corrigan, History of the Twentieth Battalion, 86.
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objectives and held them until relieved. But the three months had exacted a grim toll, with 111 killed and 319 wounded.
Winter was much like the previous one. The action slowed down and the men guarded their trenches in the Lens area, in Pas-de-Calais. The fighting did not cease entirely. Guarding against enemy raids, carrying out their own, and the occasional work party into no-man’s land kept the troops alert. It also took considerable effort to keep the subterranean quarters even somewhat fit for human habitation. By now well disciplined, the soldiers of the 20th were meticulous. In one trench the black boot of an earlier Allied casualty projected about a foot through the parapet. Every day whoever was on duty there conscientiously polished it.
On the morning of January 17, 1917, the 20th and 21st Battalions carried out one of the largest raids of the season, when 860 soldiers, along with sappers, were ordered to attack German trenches, kill or take prisoner their denizens, and destroy the earthworks. Daybreak, with its deceptive light, is a favourite time for such operations. But that day the timing was a little different. Zero hour was mischievously set for 0730. At this moment, the enemy usually began to relax after their daily dawn stand to.
The Canadians had already trained for five weeks, and they performed like clockwork. Divided into five parties on an 850 metre front, they went over the top carrying large canvas slats to cover the barbed wire in their path. It took a frantic five minute dash through the snow to reach their destination. As the infantry herded their captives, the sappers detonated charges throughout the trenches to reduce them to impassable heaps of dirt. One of the latter laconically described how he went about it. “You come to the dugout
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– light the fuse - drop the charge in - run like hell – look over your shoulder and see the dugout come out of the door.”16 All the while, Lewis guns spat their bullets at Germans trying to flee to the rear.
After 45 minutes, green rockets signalled the order to head back. The morning’s yield amounted to 100 prisoners, two machine guns, and two mortars. Meanwhile, the sappers managed to blow up three ammunition dumps and destroy more than 40 dugouts. The operation had used up so many shells and bullets that it came to be called the “Million Dollar Scrap.”17
Just 15 kilometres south of Lens, the whale-shaped ridge at Vimy juts out into the grey Artesian skies. “Tactically one of the most important positions on the Western Front,” in the words of Canada’s official history of the war, Vimy Ridge provides an excellent view of the Douai Plain that stretches below.18 It had already fallen into German hands in October 1914, and over the next two years withstood three French and British efforts to retake elevation. In April 1917, it was Canada’s turn to give it a try.
Aware of the enormous challenge ahead, Lieutenant-General Julian Byng, the Canadian Corps’ British commander, decided to use all four of his divisions. His preparations were thorough. He began by ordering his best division commander, Major General Arthur Currie, to study how the French had successfully launched a counterattack at the Battle of Verdun in December 1916. Interviewing both senior and junior officers,
16 in Corrigan, History of the Twentieth Battalion, 103. 17 Cook, Shock Troops, 59.
18 Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 244.
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Currie concluded that there were four important lessons to be learned: careful staff work, thorough artillery preparation and support, surprise, and extensive training of the infantry to be used in the assault.19 Byng followed his Canadian subordinate’s advice, and using aerial photos of the enemy’s defences, he simulated them in a full-scale model on which he trained the troops exhaustively to carry out their tasks exactly as they would at Z-hour.
The attack was scheduled to begin on the morning of April 9. To pulverise the German defences, already on March 20 artillery began to bombard them ceaselessly. They had 1.6 million shells at their disposal.20 Nearly a thousand guns were still firing early on the morning of the attack as the soldiers steeled their nerves for the assault. The chilly snow that buffeted them would prove to be an advantage, since the westerly wind would drive it right in the enemy’s faces.
The men went over the top at 0530. They were preceded by a creeping barrage, which advanced at a regular pace of 90 metres every three minutes. General Byng had hardly reassured the Canadians when he warned, “Chaps, you shall go ahead exactly like a railroad train, on the exact time, or you shall be annihilated.”21
The troops did keep to their schedule, and they achieved complete success. The artillery had clearly been effective, and had not only devastated the trenches on Vimy but also the morale of the Germans who had occupied them. Instead of trying to defend their
19 Christopher Pugsley, "Learning from the Canadian Corps on the Western Front," Canadian Military History 15, no. 1 (2006). 13.
20 Cook, Shock Troops, 85.
21 Pierre Berton, Vimy (Toronto: Anchor Canada, 2009). 158.
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positions by close-quarter combat, they meekly climbed out with their hands in the air. By the end of the second day, the ridge was entirely in Canadian hands.
The 20th Battalion was assigned the difficult job of “mopping up,” or clearing out enemy dugouts and disarming any remaining enemy, after the rest of the of 4th Brigade had stormed them. Its men carried out their orders superbly by clearing the dug-outs and machine gun nests, capturing 57 prisoners and a field gun in the bargain. Again, there was a grim toll with six dead and 90 injuries. The Queen’s York Rangers are rightly proud of their role as the 20th in this magnificent achievement, which won them another well-deserved Battle Honour. To commemorate Vimy’s centenary, they organised a formal dinner in Aurora on April 7, 2017 and had the leading role in the 32nd Brigade’s parade at Old Fort York the following day.
Canadians regard the Battle of Vimy Ridge as their greatest victory during the war. And as they continued to prove themselves over the coming year, they acquired the reputation of formidable warriors. One captured German officer supposedly said, “The British, they are good soldiers, but the Canadians, they are madmen.”22
There was more fighting over the next six weeks. In all, between April 9 and the end of May, 33 members of the Battalion were recommended for decorations. Meanwhile, some important changes were made at the top. On June 17, Lt Col Rogers was transferred to England and Major H. V. Rorke now assumed command of the 20th Battalion. Meanwhile, General Byng’s success at Vimy earned him a promotion to the rank of general, and he
22 in Cook, Shock Troops, 9.
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became the Third Army’s CO. At his recommendation, the 1st Division’s able leader, Major General Arthur Currie took his place.
Now a lieutenant general, Arthur Currie was the first Canadian to command the Canadian Corps. Pear-shaped and with pudgy, chinless features, Currie looked more like the insurance salesman he had once been than a leader of men. But his decidedly unmilitary bearing was very deceptive. Having risen rapidly in the ranks from gunner in an artillery militia regiment, Currie proved to be one of the most capable generals on the Western Front, not to mention in Canadian military history. Rumour had it that Britain’s Prime Minister David Lloyd George had at one point even considered replacing the British Expeditionary Force’s commander, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, with the erstwhile gunner.23
Four short months after Vimy Ridge, the 20th added yet another Battle Honour to the Guidon in the Battle for Hill 70. Haig had ordered Currie to attack Lens to draw German forces away from his own offensive at Passchendaele to the north. Carrying out his own reconnaissance, the Canadian general understood that the key here was to possess the high ground, without which it would be difficult to hold Lens. Therefore, he convinced the field marshal to allow him to redirect his attack from the city itself to Hill 70, which rose just to the north, to tempt the enemy into making costly counterattacks.
Currie used the same approach that had been so successful at Vimy. For about a month he trained his troops without cease. The general then launched the attack on August 15 at 0425 under the cover of another creeping barrage, with the 20th on the right. Despite
23 Cook, Shock Troops, 373.
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some troublesome machine gun nests, the battalion reached its objective by 0540. But now the real fighting began, as the Germans repeatedly launched counterattacks. There would be 21 over the next three days. While a subsequent attempt to take Lens as well proved unsuccessful, Currie achieved his primary objective in, as another general put it, “the greatest Boche-killing week that anyone in the Canadian Corps has ever taken part in.”24 Compared to some 9,000 Canadian casualties, the Germans lost over 25,000 men.
It was at Hill 70 that Sergeant Hobson won his posthumous VC, on August 18. During one of the many German counterattacks, a shell buried a Lewis gun in one of the forward trenches, killing all but one of its crew. Hobson rushed ahead, dug out the gun, and it resumed firing. Then the gun jammed. While the crew’s lone survivor corrected the stoppage, Hobson held off the advancing enemy until struck down. But by now the gun was back in working order. Some 15 enemy dead lay beside the fallen sergeant.
Because it was more vicious, the Battle for Hill 70 is considered by some to be an even greater accomplishment for the 20th. Like Vimy, the Rangers also observed the centenary of that important victory with a dinner and parade.
Unlike Currie at Hill 70, Haig was not doing well at Passchendaele. Since the operation had begun in June, neither British nor Anzac troops had been able to take it. The Flemish village lay on a low ridge that was separated from the Allied lines by a battlefield reduced by months of artillery fire to a grey expanse of slippery mud pocked with water-
24 Cook, Shock Troops, 305.
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filled shell holes. Countless German blockhouses and pillboxes provided more lethal obstacles.
Currie strongly opposed taking the objective, arguing that it would be too costly in Canadian lives. According to his projection, the assault would result in 16,000 Canadian casualties. Haig insisted and on August 26 Currie sent the 3rd and 4th Divisions onto the water-sodden plan, which the autumn rains, combined with regular German uses of poison gas, had turned into a virtually impassable quagmire. Neither managed to reach their objectives, and on November 2, the 1st and 2nd entered in the fray. Despite heavy losses, the 5th and 6th brigades took what was left of Passchendaele on four days later.
Now the 4th Brigade was sent to relieve them and advance further. With the 20th Battalion in the lead, it reached its objective and was relieved on November 11. According to Colonel Corrigal,
The struggle to get out alive had been so great that many of the walking wounded died from exhaustion. All were almost unrecognizable. Everyone had three-day old beards. Faces, hands, and clothing were covered in mud. A few had no shoes, several had no putties, many had no helmets, but none cared much.
He concluded, “the struggles had not been in vain. Our role had been to attack, and to keep on attacking, to prevent the Germans from moving their reserves.”25 Yet once again, the cost was steep, with nearly 200 casualties. The total losses for the Canadian Corps were 15,654 men (eerily close to Currie’s estimate before the battle).
25 Corrigal, History of the Twentieth Battalion, 165.
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The year 1918 began badly. With Russia’s exit from the war after Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks seized power there, fighting on the Eastern Front came to a standstill, freeing up some 250,000 German troops for the West. While the United States had finally joined the Allies the previous year, it would still take many months for their doughboys to be ready to make a difference. Germany’s generals were therefore desperate to exploit their temporary numerical advantage and launched a major offensive in March. For a time, they gained ground and drove the British almost back to Amiens. But the Hun could not keep up his momentum. And then, in August, the 1st US Army arrived on the scene. Two months later, the 2nd US Army was also deployed.
Winter and spring 1918 were relatively quiet for the 20th Battalion. After the difficult struggle at Passchendaele, its men returned to the Vimy area, where they patrolled the front from their trenches. They also raided the German lines, most spectacularly near Arras on the night of June 2nd and 3rd.
That mission’s objective was an enemy position known as “The Maze,” on the outskirts of the village of Neuville-Vitasse. As was General Currie’s practice, the Battalion prepared for its task meticulously, including considerable reconnaissance and careful study of RAF photographs. Zero hour was scheduled for 0045, at which time the artillery laid down a “box barrage” on the village’s southern end, to seal off the objective, while also shelling all known German emplacements elsewhere in the area. Four raiding parties of 30 men each from the 20th went over the top, dashed over no-man’s land with some hurling Mills bombs, and leapt into the enemy’s trenches at the Maze. It was all over in 20 minutes. A complete success, the raid yielded 14 prisoners as well as a mortar and machine gun.
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Aside from a few more sorties, the coming weeks continued to be relatively inactive. On Dominion Day, “one of the hottest as well as one of the most memorable of holidays during the war,” Currie even managed to organise a large sports tournament for every man in the Canadian Corps who could be spared. Fifty thousand khaki-clad soldiers as well as nurses and civilians crowded the little village of Tinques to enjoy the games. According to the 20th Battalion’s historian, “it was a day of reunions and rejoicings.”26
August saw the 20th once again in action. As the last of the German Kaiserschlacht offensives petered out, the Allies decided to retake Amiens in Picardy. The Canadians, who had by now developed a reputation of an elite, were called upon to participate. However, transporting them from Flanders would tip off the enemy that preparations were under way for a major assault.
In a successful deception, Currie’s corps quietly joined the 15 British and Australian divisions, 12 French, and one American, along with nearly 2,000 aircraft and 542 tanks near Amiens for a massive offensive that would mark the start of the “Hundred Days” of nearly continuous Allied advances that led up to the Armistice on November 11. On the battle’s first day alone, August 8, the 2nd Division drove the enemy back 13 kilometres and took 1,500 prisoners. To their commander-on-chief, General Erich Ludendorff it was “the black day of the German Army.”27
26 Corrigal, History of the Twentieth Battalion, 208.
27 Erich Ludendorff, Ludendorff's Own Story August 1917-November 1918 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1919). vol. 2, 326.
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Initially held in reserve, the 20th soon participated in the action and captured a German headquarters and a hospital train in the bargain. At one point, Captain George Marr intercepted an enemy party trying to flee the Allies and took them prisoner. Although he couldn’t speak English, the group’s officer insisted that, because of his rank, he merited having an officer detailed to take him to the rear. Captain Marr somehow made it known that, unless he went back with his men, he would be shot where he stood. That ended the discussion.
August 8 cost the 20th 144 lives. While the advance lasted a few more days, the Battalion did not see any more fighting at Amiens. It was a brilliant victory for the Allies. And the Canadians had played no small part in their triumph. General Currie wrote his men,
Canada has always placed implicit faith in her Army. How nobly has that confidence been justified, with what pride has the story of your gallant success been read in the Homeland! This magnificent victory has been won because your training was good, your discipline was good, your leadership was good; given these three, success must always come.28
Later that month, the Battalion accompanied the rest of the Corps back north to the area around Arras. Now commanded by LCol B. O. Hooper, MC, their new task was to break through the formidable defences between the cities of Drocourt and Queant. Known by the Germans as the Wotan Stellung, it was a key part of their Hindenburg Line. It would not be easy. Barbed wire entanglements hundreds of metres deep protected a warren of trenches
28 in Corrigal, History of the Twentieth Battalion, 229.
6. The Great War 23
fortified by machine gun posts and pill boxes that went back several kilometres. But breaching the Hindenburg Line would be an important step towards final victory.
Together with British forces and supported by tanks and aircraft, the Canadian Corps launched the attack with an artillery barrage on August 26 at 0300. Assigned to a kilometre-wide front, the 20th easily advanced 2,000 metres to its first objective. This was entirely according to Ludendorff’s plan, according to which his 17th Army would offer battle three or four kilometres behind the front.
As the 20th approached their second objective, they came under intense machine gun fire while clouds of poison gas enveloped them. Together with the flashes of their own artillery barrage, which fell short of the enemy, the respirators severely hampered their visibility. A tank briefly came to provide supporting fire, but was soon taken out by an enemy shell. Nevertheless, the men advanced further and resumed the attack the next day. But by now it was too much. Badly battered by enemy fire and out of ammunition, the 20th simply could not go on and withdrew about 200 metres to a sunken road.
After the encounter, Lieutenant R. C. Germain, who had just joined the Battalion wrote his mother from hospital, where he lay recuperating from the gas,
We were held up by machine gun fire from a ridge in the front. We had got into the Boche transport lines. What do you think they did? They tied their horses, placed machine guns under the horses’ bellies and fired point blank into us. I don’t know how I escaped because I was lying right out in the front. Well after losing half of my company there, we rushed them and they had the nerve to throw up their hands and cry, “Kamerad.” All the “Kamerad” they got was a foot of cold steel thro (sic) them
6. The Great War 24
from my remaining men while I blew their brains out with my revolver without any
The lieutenant caught himself as he remembered about his correspondent, and explained, “You may think this rather rough but if you had seen my boys go down you would have done the same and my only regret is that too many prisoners were taken.”30
With a sadly depleted 20th in the lead, the attack continued the following day. It initially made good progress, but once again the storm of Maxim gun bullets brought the Battalion to a halt. By now it was down to eight officers and 120 other ranks. The 20th had lost nearly 600 of its soldiers over the past eight days. Other battalions came to relieve the survivors, who were withdrawn to a rest area.
Replenished by fresh troops, the 20th eventually returned to the battlefield, where they moved into former enemy positions that the 1st and 4th Divisions had taken. There was little new activity for the men. Other battalions crossed the Canal du Nord at the end of September, which left the way open to Cambrai, another important obstacle in the German defences.
By early autumn, the enemy was steadily being driven back. However, the fight wasn’t over yet. In early October, the 2nd Division was ordered to cross the Canal de l’Escaut, north of Cambrai. After the 5th brigade had seized the bridgeheads, the 4th pushed through and pushed beyond. The 20th performed well, despite having no artillery support and coming under heavy machine gun fire.
29 in Cook, Shock Troops, 465. 30 in Cook, Shock Troops, 465.
6. The Great War 25
Here Lieutenant Wallace Lloyd Algie won the 20th its second Victoria Cross. Determined to eliminate the machine guns that were spraying lead from the nearby village of Iwuy, the subaltern gathered a group of volunteers and led them over the open ground to the enemy’s nests. After capturing two guns, he and his men turned them on another group of Germans that were hurrying to the scene with more Maxims. They dealt with them as well and the lieutenant now had his troops begin clearing the rest Iwuy while he brought up reinforcements, which cleared the way for the battalion to continue its progress. Sadly, Lieutenant Algie did not survive the action.
Still largely bereft of artillery support, the 20th moved ahead so rapidly that it soon outdistanced the flanking battalions and had to pull back to avoid being isolated. Enemy fire continued to reduce the ranks. By now down to the size of a company, the 20th was trying to hold a front of nearly a kilometre. After three days of unceasing battle with no rest and almost any food, the exhausted soldiers were permitted to stagger back to a rest area in the rear. In all, this action had inflicted another 330 casualties.
Despite heavy ongoing losses, the 20th kept up the momentum along with the rest of the Canadian Corps. Midnight on November 11 found them advancing on the Belgian city of Mons, which the Germans had largely abandoned. Troops of the 3rd Division entered the city shortly before dawn to a population ecstatic at the end of four years of occupation. Anticipating liberation by the British, one citizen played “Tipperary” on a church’s carillon.
At 0800 Battalion headquarters received a wire announcing, “Hostilities will cease at eleven hours on the 11th instant.” Suddenly all was silent. No artillery. No machine guns. No sound of battle at all. Stunned and in disbelief, the soldiers could hardly grasp that it
6. The Great War 26
was all over. At two minutes to 11, a German machine gunner fired off a complete belt without pause. Rising beside his weapon, he took off his helmet, bowed, turned around and walked slowly to the rear.
“The depth of feelings was too great for expression,” Colonel Corrigal recalled. “Troops emerged from cover and silently shook hands. Victory, utter, complete, had been achieved; all the sacrifice and effort, all the courage and toil, the thought and patience, were justified in the triumph.”31
According to the Armistice, the British would occupy a zone from the front to Cologne. To avoid any unpleasant encounters, the Germans were given a week to evacuate the area, which give the victorious troops ample time to celebrate and rest. As the 20th marched through Wallonia, its overjoyed inhabitants warmly greeted their liberators. In one village, the mayor even placed his mansion, including its wine cellar and servants, at the disposal of the Battalion’s officers.
With the Battalion colours unfurled and the band playing its march, the 20th marched into Germany on the morning of December 6. A week later, the troops of the 2nd Division triumphantly crossed the Rhine River as General Currie took the salute, and proceeded to the university city of Bonn. For a month, they would be billeted near Cologne, in the town of Siegburg. In January, the men then travelled back to Belgium and eventually, by way of London and Liverpool, back home.
31 Corrigal, History of the Twentieth Battalion, 281.
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The 20th arrived at the old Canadian Pacific Railway’s Toronto North station on the afternoon of May 24, 1919. Now they began their last route march. Along with the 19th Battalion and a rousing band, they proceeded down Yonge Street to Varsity Stadium, where their relatives cheered their arrival. The 20th was demobilised the following day,32 and a year later General Order 149 disbanded it.33
Of the 700 soldiers in the 20th who returned in Toronto, few had left with the unit back in 1915. Over three long years the Battalion had fought valiantly, but at heavy cost. A total of 843 men, one-fifth of the soldiers who had worn its badge on their caps, remained in graves overseas, while another 1,855, or more than two-fifths, were wounded. Never having relinquished any ground taken in battle, the 20th left a record unexcelled by any other battalion in the Canadian Corps. The Queens York Rangers honour its achievements with pride.
After the 20th Battalion had been formed, the York Rangers had continued its role as a recruiter of troops for the front. The Rangers carried out this important task in Barrie, Aurora and Toronto. By summer 1915 they had raised enough additional volunteers to form another battalion, the 35th. Commanded by LCol F. C. McCordick, it arrived in England in October, where it was sent to a reinforcement camp in Kent. In January 1917, the unit was absorbed into the 4th Canadian Reserve Battalion and therefore never fought as a distinct battalion.
32 PAC RG 9 III C3, Vol. 4101, folder 8, file 1. 33 PAC G.O. 149 15 Sept. 20.
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Later in 1915, the York Rangers provided a third battalion to the Canadian Expeditionary Corps. Authorised as the 127th Battalion on December 22, 1915, it was mobilised in Newmarket in spring 1916. Commanded by LCol Frederick Fieldhouse Clarke, the new battalion completed its training at the new base near Barrie, which had been named after Prime Minister Borden.
When the battalion arrived in England, it was slated to be broken up to replenish others already on the front. However, Colonel Clarke managed to head off his unit’s dissolution with a creative proposal. He pointed out that, along with himself, 21 of his officers and 800 of the 1,100 other ranks had been engineers or had engaged in either railway work or construction. Therefore, he suggested, they could better serve the war effort as part of the new Corps of Canadian Railway Troops. His superiors agreed, and the unit left for France in January 1917 as the 127th Battalion, 2nd Battalion of Canadian Railway Troops.34 Together with 12 other railway units, it operated as a special engineering service for the British Expeditionary Force and therefore almost never saw service with the Canadian Corps.
Its first posting was on the Ancre River, where it discovered the challenges of building and maintaining railways in a combat zone. Given the poor roads and scanty motor transport at the time, trains were vital to bring men, ammunition, rations, and supplies to the front as well as to evacuate the wounded. Some lines already existed, but most were in bad shape because of previous shelling. Meanwhile, the 127th also had to
34 Harold McGill Jackson, The 127th Battalion C.E.F. 2nd Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops (Montreal: Industrial Shops for the Deaf, n.d.)
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build more central years, with repair shops for rolling stock and housing for the many animals used to haul supplies.
The work on a new railway began with a reconnaissance of the area, followed by “posting,” or driving stakes every 100 metres along the projected route. Then came the levelling and grading, which could be difficult over hilly or swampy terrain. Lining and ballasting to give extra support for the ties were the final tasks.
The men of the 127th could handle all the skilled and technical work. However, they needed far more bodies for manual labour than the battalion possessed. Since there was no permanent supply of men to work for them, they had to call on infantry units, whose men were often exhausted from the fighting. Meanwhile, because they changed frequently, the battalion had to repeatedly instruct their temporary labourers as well as closely supervising them.
The war added its own challenges. Any ground that had been the scene of fighting was disfigured by thousands of shell holes, huge craters left by land-mines, demolished bridges, and torn-up roads, not to mention booby traps and unexploded munitions. The constant shelling by enemy guns was a more serious hazard. Troops in the combat arms faced this danger as well, but at least they could retaliate.
Somehow, the 127th got the job done, often in record time and against overwhelming odds. They laid the track, maintained it, drove the trains, and delivered the goods – at an average of 20 carloads a day – so efficiently that corps and army commanders did not spare their praise. The battalion’s companies often worked independently, which meant that their officers and NCOs had to be both very competent and self-reliant.
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The courage of the railway troops never failed. According to John Thompson, “the 127th rose to every challenge both routine and unusual. When they could, they also remembered that they were soldiers and not just railway workers in uniform.”35 The soldiers deservedly earned many awards for gallantry.36 LCol Clarke, an able, energetic and enormously resourceful CO himself, won the Distinguished Service Order – twice. And there were the inevitable casualties, as high explosive and gas shelling killed dozens and wounded scores. In all, the battalion lost 27 men from the fighting, another 37 died from accidents or illness, and injuries or enemy fire wounded another 127.37
After eight weeks east of the Ancre River, the 127th were tasked further north to the Bapaume-Achet-Albert area. In the first four months, its men laid more than 80 kilometres of steel while maintain many more. They often moved. In the two years in action, they served in ten different areas, including Passchendaele and Amiens.
During the last two months, as the Germans retreated, the Battalion was never in one spot for more than a week. Keeping up with the advancing Allies was hard work. Meanwhile, with Teutonic thoroughness, the enemy had done its best to wreck all their railway yards and track with mines. November 11 ended the fighting, but not the toil of the 127th as it continued rebuilding the line to Charleroi and Namur in Belgium through January. Their return to Canada in Spring 1919 was more low-key than that of the 20th.
35 Thompson, The Rangers in the Great War
36 For a list and some citations, see Jackson, 127th Battalion, 176-179. 37 The Honour Roll is in Jackson, 127th Battalion, 169-175.
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Instead of a parade through Toronto, as the unit was disbanded the men quietly returned home to resume their previous lives.
According to a summary compiled in December 1918, since the beginning of the previous year, the 127th laid over 450 kilometres of track, while repairing, maintaining and ballasting many more.38 A remarkable achievement by these hardy Ontario soldiers. Thompson puts it well, “They might have only briefly been the sinews of a victorious army but they were the stuff of its veins and arteries.”39
As the 127th were mobilised in spring 1916, the York Rangers were called upon to raise yet another battalion to replace the heavy casualties on the Western Front. According to General Order 69 on June 15 that year, the unit would be known as the 220th Battalion. After training in the Niagara Camp and the Exhibition grounds over the winter, the new unit sailed for England at the end of April 1917 with a strength of 18 officers and 446 other ranks. But unlike the 20th and the 127th, this battalion did not continue as a separate entity overseas. Absorbed into the 3rd Reserve Battalion at West Sandling, Kent, it reinforced various units in the Canadian Corps.
Throughout the war the York Rangers had remained active in Toronto and York County under LCol Nichol. Despite repeated efforts to be posted to the Western Front, the colonel served the Regiment well. Under his leadership, it had contributed to the original division of the CEF in 1914, and had fathered the 20th, 35th, 127th and 220th Battalions as well as a detachment for the Canadian Forestry Corps.
38 Jackson, 127th Battalion, 164.
39 Thompson, The Rangers in the Great War
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LCol Nichol retired after the war was over to hand over command to someone with overseas experience. One indication of his outstanding achievement came when in 1921 the Rangers were the only regiment in the area deemed capable of providing a guard of honour for the Lieutenant-Governor when he opened the Legislature.
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