Hammering the Blade - Preface
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The magnificent pluck, gallantry, and resourcefulness of the Canadian troops at the front saved a difficult situation, as the highest authority has publicly declared. They have proved themselves equal to any troops in the world, and, in doing so, they have brought distinction and renown to the Dominion. I deeply lament the long list of casualties and send our profound sympathy to every home which is plunged into sadness and sorrow by the tragedy that reach us from hour to hour.
Sir Robert Borden, April 26, 1916
At the start of 1915 the Canadians were still training at Salisbury Plain in England wondering if they would ever see action in France. In February, the War Office finally ordered the Canadians to deploy to the western front.
The Canadian Division, made up of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Brigades, totalling 18,000 men, boarded 30 vessels at Avonmouth to sail to Saint-Nazaire on the western coast of France. The 4th Brigade, acting as a reserve and training depot, moved from Salisbury Plain to the new Canadian base at Shorncliffe.
Unlike their trip across the North Atlantic, in October of 1914, the ships were hit by a severe winter storm just as the fleet was within reach of Saint-Nazaire. After limping into port, they were packed into 40 hommes and 8 cheveau train cars for transport to the trenches.
The Division was sent to the quiet sector at Ploegsteert Woods in Belgium for their introduction to trench warfare. Over the coming months, the Canadians were involved in the following engagements and battles:
- Battle of Neuve-Chapelle, March 1915 - The Canadian Division provided support for the British offensive in the Artois region of France.
- 2nd Battle of Ypres , April - May 1915 - The Canadians were transferred to the Ypres Salient, a bulge in the Allied line, to relieve the French. On April 22 the Germans unleashed their first gas attack. For twelve days, the Canadians fiercely held their positions until reinforcements could arrive. It was here that the Canadians earned a reputation as a formable fighting force. The reputation was hard earned. A third of the Canadian Division, 6,035 men, were killed or wounded.
- Battle of Festubert, May 1915 - The Battle of Festubert was a continuation of the Battle of Artois. The Canadian Division assaulted the German trenches resulting in 2,204 wounded or killed.
- Battle of Givenchy, June 1915 - The Canadian Division had been assigned the task of capturing the German trenches in Givenchy as part of the British plan to capture La Bassée. The Division suffered 400 casualties during the fighting.
In July, Sir Robert Borden sails to England for meetings with the British government and to visit Canadian troops in France.
In August, the 2nd Canadian Division arrives in England. They will spend the month training at the Shorncliffe Canadian base before joining the 1st Canadian Division in France. Also, in August three Canadian stationary hospitals were sent to Lemnos Greece to provide medical services for the Gallipoli campaign.
In September, the Canadian Corps was officially formed with the arrival of the 2nd Division at the western front.
In November, the Canadians first successful trench raid was conducted against the Petit Douve Farm. The raid became a blueprint for future Canadian trench raids.
In December, the 3rd Division was added to the Canadian Corps when the Royal Canadian Regiment arrived from Bermuda and the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry was transferred to the Corps from the British 80th Division.
On the home front Sir Robert Borden's government is being rocked by scandals such as:
- The soldiers' bad boots. Borden struck a royal commission to investigate.
- Charges of graft and corruption in the Department of Militia and Defence's contracts. The contractors on the approved list were all Major-General Sam Hughes' friends and Conservative supporters.
- Problems with the Ross Rifle, the Canadian Expeditionary Force's main weapon.
- The controversy, political and militarily swirling around the Ross Rifle.
By the end of 1915 the Canadian overseas force had grown to approximately 115,000 men. In addition, there were 75,000 men training in Canada.