Road between Arras and Bapaume, France, March 1917.
John Buchan, A History of the Great War, vol. 6 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1922). ©Chinook Multimedia Inc

Road between Arras and Bapaume, France, March 1917.

After the Somme, the 49th Battalion moved on to the Arras sector, where the men could rest and even take leave in England.

The next five months were relatively tranquil ones for the battalion. They moved north to a quiet sector of the line near Arras where good drainage allowed the construction of adequate trenches and deep dugouts. Here the cycle of front line, support, reserves, and "rest" could be carried out in relative safety. Occasional trench raids and mine explosions took place, but periods of as much as a week in line passed without a single casualty. Most of the men were even granted leave in England. On 21 February, Colonel Griesbach left the battalion to take command of the 1st Brigade in the 1st Division. He was replaced by Major R.H. Palmer, also a veteran of the South African War and one of the original officers of the 49th on its formation in 1915. By the time of the transition in command, the 49th was well into its preparations for the attack on Vimy Ridge. Part of this process consisted of digging one of the 11 large tunnels used to hide the Canadians from German observation before the attack. The rest of the battalion's preparations involved practising for its assigned role of mopping up German strong points that the other three battalions of the 7th Brigade had bypassed in the initial assault.

1)NAC (PA-001029).
2)The Ministry, Report of the Ministry (London: The Ministry, Overseas Military Forces of Canada, 1919)
3)NAC (PA-001086).
4)Canada in the Great World War..., vol. 4 (Toronto: United Publishers of Canada, 1918-1921). ©Chinook Multimedia Inc
5)NAC (PA-001128)
6)Canada in the Great World War..., vol. 4 (Toronto: United Publishers of Canada, 1918-1921). ©Chinook Multimedia Inc
7)Canada in the Great World War..., vol. 4 (Toronto: United Publishers of Canada, 1918-1921). ©Chinook Multimedia Inc
8)Canada in the Great World War..., vol. 5 (Toronto: United Publishers of Canada, 1918-1921). ©Chinook Multimedia Inc

Battle of Vimy Ridge, April.1917.

Lauded as an event that greatly assisted Canada in emerging as an independent nation, militarily, Vimy Ridge was the product of meticulous planning and execution. Indeed, success in the battle depended on tactical preparations and the efficient carrying out of battle plans, including even the mopping up responsibilities of the 49th Battalion..

The story of the Vimy Ridge attack is the most celebrated in the history of the Canadian Corps in the First World War. Given the opportunity to plan a major operation on their own, the Canadians, under the intelligent and sympathetic leadership of General Sir Julian Byng, came up with an attack that was a model of planning, preparation, and economy of force. The experience of the 7th Brigade and the 49th at Vimy was typical. The other three battalions were part of the assaulting force on La Folie Wood, near the centre of the ridge. Half the strength of the 49th went over the top at 5:30 a.m. on 9 April in platoons attached to the RCR, the 42nd and the PPCLI. Their job was to mop up, reinforce where necessary, act as stretcher-bearers, and bring up ammunition. The simple fact that even this supporting role had been carefully rehearsed showed what a different kind of battle this was from the Somme six months earlier. By noon on the day of the attack, all of the 49th had been committed to the fighting and all objectives captured. The battalion had fewer than 100 casualties for the operation.

Sea of Mud, Passchendaele, Belgium, 1917.
The Ministry, Report of the Ministry, (London: The Ministry, Overseas Military Forces of Canada, 1919).

Sea of Mud, Passchendaele, Belgium, 1917.

Many Forty-niners regarded the return to the Ypres salient in 1917 with great trepidation. The Battle of Passchendaele (Third Ypres) proved that their fears were not ill-founded. In percentage terms, the battle was the most costly that the battalion ever fought.

During the spring and summer of 1917, the 49th spent a relatively uneventful period in the Lens sector. The only exception to the quiet was an ill-conceived trench raid on 8 June. The raid, which was conducted by no fewer than six battalions, cost the 49th twice as many casualties as Vimy Ridge. In the first week of October, however, the battalion moved north with the rest of the Canadian Corps to take over from the Australians who had been ground down by Haig's offensive in Flanders. The Battle of Passchendaele, or Third Ypres, revealed that the high command had learned little from the futility of the Somme the previous year. Given that the winter rains were coming on, going back to the waterlogged Ypres Salient seemed like a bad idea to all the Canadians from the commander of the corps, General Arthur Currie, down to the newest private. Their fears were more than justified.

Passchendaele Duckwalk, October 1917.
Passchendaele Duckwalk, October 1917. ©Chinook Multimedia Inc

Sea of Mud, Passchendaele, Belgium, 1917.

The Passchendaele "duckwalk" was used to facilitate troop movements and communications over muddy and uneven terrain. Without it and other duck boards, movements would have been impossible. The Canadians took the village of Passchendaele, a central objective of allied forces, on 6 November 1917.

The Canadian Corps attack, which began on 22 October during a brief spell of dry weather, had some initial success. When the 49th went in a week later, conditions had become much worse. The mud was so deep that movement was only possible on wooden duckboards. Trench systems dissolved completely. Dispersal was not an option, and moving up to attack position meant a heavy drain on manpower. Enemy domination of the air and the impossibility of finding firm platforms for field guns reduced the effectiveness of the artillery preparation. Just before 6:00 a.m. on 30 October, "B" and "C" companies climbed out of their shell holes and began their advance. Devastating machine gun fire immediately confronted them. Colonel Palmer reported that "B" Company lost most of its strength in the first 35 metres. In the midst of this carnage, Private Cecil John Kinross threw away all his equipment except for his rifle, charged a machine gun, and single-handedly killed its six-man crew, enabling the remnants of the company to advance. Private Kinross was awarded the Victoria Cross for his amazing feat.


Wounded Canadians, Passchendaele, Belgium, 1917.
Canada; An Illustrated Weekly Journal, 12 January 1918. ©Chinook Multimedia Inc

Wounded Canadians, Passchendaele, Belgium, 1917.

The Battle of Passchendaele was unduly costly in terms of casualties. General Sir Douglas Haig pressed the attack far longer than he should have, with thousands of men being needlessly lost as a consequence.

Passchendaele was, in percentage terms, the costliest battle the 49th or its successor, The Loyal Edmonton Regiment, ever fought. The battalion lost three quarters of its strength in a few hours on the morning of 30 October. By the time the battalion was pulled out that evening, only 145 of the nearly 600 soldiers that had started the day remained standing. Haig and his supporters claimed that the Flanders offensive was essential to relieve pressure on the French whose army was shaken by mutinies. This may have been so up to a point, but Haig never seemed to know when it was time to bring his attacks to an end. The later stages of Passchendaele in the fall of 1917 devoured battalions to no purpose, leaving the British army too weak to follow up on the breakthrough achieved by the first large-scale tank operation at Cambrai in November.

The 49th, along with the rest of the Canadian Corps, once more moved south to the Vimy sector to recover and absorb reinforcements. This was a much slower process than it had been earlier in the war. Voluntary enlistments had slowed to a trickle by 1917, and, even when the Union government won the election in December, it took a long time to get the conscription machinery to produce numbers of men. Luckily for the Canadians, the Germans chose to make their last big effort to win the war in the spring of 1918 elsewhere and Currie refused to allow Canadian units to be committed piecemeal to stem the attack. The Bolshevik revolution in November of 1917 and the subsequent end of the war on the eastern front freed dozens of German divisions to join the conflict in the west. Germany hoped that this infusion of troops would tip the balance in its favour before the Americans arrived in sufficient numbers. New German tactics involving elite assault units of storm troops (Stosstruppen) trained to bypass strong points promised a real breakthrough at last. They almost worked. The Germans advanced up to 60 kilometres in places against the British and French. But the new methods, which were to succeed brilliantly for the Germans in the early stages of the Second World War, could not be sustained long enough in 1918 to achieve a strategic victory. (18) Radio communication and mechanical transport technologies were not yet sufficiently advanced.

 

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