Mike Kennedy Reviews: Baptism of Fire & Victory at Vimy

Over the next number of summer Issues we will be posting – books reviewed by 12570 Mike Kennedy. These ‘reviews’ first appeared in the VERITAS magazine.

Baptism of Fire

The Second Battle of Ypres and the Forging of Canada, April 1915

By Nathan M. Greenfield

Published by Harper Collins

474 pp. 

***

Victory at Vimy

Canada Comes of Age: April 9 – 12, 1917

By Ted Barris

Published by Thomas Allen Publishers

300 pp.  

 

Just over one hundred years have passed since the midsummer day in 1914 when the Serbian anarchist Gavrilo Princip fired the “shot heard round the world” that proved to be the flashpoint for igniting the Great War of 1914 – 18. In the first few weeks of the conflict it was widely expected that hostilities would be over by Christmas; certainly, no one foresaw that the war would bring four years of appalling carnage that would eventually destroy four European empires and devour 20 million lives.

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The cenotaphs that can be found in numerous Canadian cities and towns offer a stark testimonial to the significance that the events Great War played in shaping our evolution as a nation. Out of a population of just eight million inhabitants in 1914, over 600,000 Canadians enlisted for service over the course of the war; of these, nearly 65,000 would not live to see the Allied powers’ eventual victory. Even more impressive than the sheer numbers of Canadians who volunteered for military service was the performance of those who fought on the front lines. By the time the Armistice was signed in November 1918, the officers and men of Canadian Corps had earned over sixty Victoria Crosses and acquired a formidable reputation as being the “shock troops of the British Empire”.

New books published over the past year recount the determined struggles Canada’s soldiers mounted against their German adversaries in two of the most pivotal engagements of the Great War. Baptism of Fire, by Nathan Greenwood, examines the Second Battle of Ypres in the spring of 1915, an occasion which marked the first time that Canadian troops came under hostile fire. Victory at Vimy, authored by journalist and broadcaster Ted Barris, tells the story of the moment that is widely considered to have been the Canadian Corps’ finest hour, their triumph at Vimy Ridge at Easter of 1917. Meticulously researched and flawlessly written, both books do a masterful job of taking readers “on the ground” by painting a vivid picture of both the horrors that Canada’s soldiers encountered during the war and the heroism that many of them exhibited in combat.

By the time the Canadians arrived at the Ypres Salient in the March of 1915, it had already been the site of one of the most crucial battles of opening months of the war. During the First Battle of Ypres, fought in October and November of 1914, a combined force of British and French troops has stopped the Kaiser’s army from advancing southwards through Belgium towards Paris. As Baptism of Fire points out, Ypres was a vitally important position for the Allies to hold because, had the Germans been successful in breaking through, they would almost certainly have been able to advance to the English Channel and take over 50,000 British and Canadian prisoners in the process.

The Canadians’ mission was to shore up a crucial five-mile gap of the front lines. Apart from a handful of Boer War veterans, very few of them were professional soldiers; the vast majority were greenhorns with only a few months’ service under their belts. After enduring a miserable winter on England’s Salisbury Plains they landed in France in mid-February of 1915 and began to move into the trenches a few weeks later. Ypres was where they cut their teeth in combat, and it would prove to be the place where the inadequacies of many items of their kit would be laid bare, most notably the now infamous Ross rifle.

Ypres would earn a noteworthy place in the annals of military history for another reason: it was the first battle in which chemical weapons were employed. Although the usage of such weapons had been nominally prohibited by the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, in the years leading up to the war both sides had conducted experiments with poison gas, with inconclusive results. The Germans eventually gained the upper had through the work of chemist Fritz Haber, who perfected a system to use hoses to release chlorine gas from cylinders. Haber’s invention would have its first battlefield test at Ypres, with devastating results on the opposing Allied troops.

Over the approximately one hundred hours that they were on the line at Ypres, the Canadians endured two separate gas attacks, the first on the evening of April 22nd and the second on the morning of the 24th. When the deadly green clouds of chlorine first engulfed the Canadian troops its effects were almost instantaneous; large numbers of soldiers were incapacitated and many of those who were not immediately killed by the gas would die later as a result of its effects. Completely unprepared and lacking any form of proper protection, the Canadians could do little to protect themselves other than breathe through urine-soaked handkerchiefs that helped to neutralize the chemicals in the gas. Even so, they held fast in their positions, and mounted a fierce resistance to the Germans’ assault.

Fast forward to Easter of 1917. By now, the Canadian presence in the war has grown to four full divisions under the command of Sir Julian Byng, a capable and greatly admired British officer who would later become Governor General of Canada. “Byng’s Boys”, as they called themselves, were tasked to capture Vimy Ridge, a nine-mile long piece of ground that offered a commanding view of central France. Occupied by the Germans for the past two years, it had been transformed into a seemingly impregnable complex of heavily fortified tunnels and bunkers. Previous attempts by French and British troops to capture the position had both proven to be costly failures, and now it was the Canadians’ turn to try their luck.

Not quite two years had passed since the Canadians had had their first taste of action, but nevertheless in many respects the troops that fought at Vimy were a very different lot from the crew that manned the trenches at Ypres. For one thing, their equipment had been greatly improved. Gone was the much-despised Ross rifle, and in its place the soldiers now carried the much more reliable Lee Enfield. Steel helmets had now become standard issue, and the small box respirator which had been introduced the previous summer provided a measure of effective protection against gas attacks.

Most importantly, the Canadians at Vimy were no longer the untried neophytes that had landed in France just a couple of years earlier. Over the months that had passed since their initial baptism of fire they had learned many important lessons; as a result, by the time the Canadian Corps arrived at Vimy, its ranks included many who were accomplished masters of trench warfare. They had also become highly adept in the use of artillery, and were known for their skill in using innovative tactics such as the “creeping barrage” that would make a vitally important contribution in the forthcoming battle.

Vimy Ridge marked an important turning point in the war for the Canadians because it was the first engagement in which the four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together as a unified formation. Zero hour was at 5:30 AM on April 9, and by late evening of that day the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Divisions had all successfully reached their objectives. The 4th Division, which had been assigned to capture the two highest vantage points on the ridge, would not prevail until the early morning of April 12. Nevertheless, by the time it was all over the Canadians had scored a spectacular coup. They could not have known it at the time, but their triumph at Vimy Ridge would later come to be regarded as the greatest victory ever attained by Canadian men-at-arms.

Taken together, these books provide a fascinating look at two of the most important junctures in the evolution of the Canadian Corps. If Vimy could be considered as being an unqualified knockout, then Ypres was at best a split-decision. But even so, in many respects it constituted an important rite of passage for the Canadians. The raw recruits who served at Ypres squared off against German troops who had the dual advantages of greater experience and much more extensive training. As Baptism of Fire observes, had the Canadian lines collapsed and the Germans broken through, many thousands of Allied soldiers would have been taken prisoner and the subsequent course of the war might well have been very different. The fact that the inexperienced Canadians held fast in the face of the ordeals they faced at Ypres speaks volumes about their courage and resilience.

Perhaps one of the most important messages to come out of these stories may be the notion that the Canadians’ magnificent performance at Vimy was made possible only by the valuable experience they had gained over the previous two years of the war. Ypres was the battle where many Canadian officers who would become key players in the Canadian Corps – among them, Arthur Currie, Victor Odlum, Andrew McNaughton, Louis Lipsett, David Watson, and numerous others – got their first real taste of action. Baptism of Fury describes their experiences in that initial engagement; many of the same names appear once again in Victory at Vimy, but this time around, they are older, wiser, more senior in rank, and hardened to a fine edge by two grueling years in the trenches.

If either one of these otherwise excellent books are guilty of any sin of omission, it may be the fact that neither one really acknowledges the extraordinary contribution that Ex-Cadets made within the Canadian Corps. By the time the Armistice was signed in November 1918, the College was still a young institution barely 40 years of age, and just under 1,500 recruits had signed on at RMC, one third of whom had arrived during the war years. Nevertheless, as Richard Preston points out in his book Canada’s RMC, during the Great War nearly one thousand Ex-Cadets saw service either in uniform or in civilian work that was deemed to be essential to the war effort.

The performance of those who did make it to the front lines was exemplary. In addition to Billy Bishop’s much-celebrated Victoria Cross, by the end of the war 118 Ex-Cadets had been awarded the DSO and 125 had earned the Military Cross. One hundred and forty-seven Ex-Cadets made the ultimate sacrifice for their country; of these, three (Captain E.D. Carr-Harris, Major F. Travers Lewis, and Acting Major G.A. Trorey) were posthumously recommended for the VC, but none of them ever received the decoration.

One noteworthy Ex-Cadet who figures prominently in both Baptism of Fire and Victory at Vimy is 246 Sir Henry Burstall. A gunner by trade, Burstall went through life with the somewhat dubious distinction of having been obliged to withdraw from RMC in 1889 after failing to earn the qualifications required for academic promotion. It is perhaps a somewhat ironic twist of fate that the subject in which Burstall had failed – artillery – was the same field in which he would later prove himself to be one of Canada’s most distinguished soldiers of the Great War !

Following his untimely departure from the College, Burstall’s military career was salvaged by the intervention of his father, whose political connections in Ottawa helped secure a Permanent Militia commission for his son. Over the next 25 years Burstall soldiered on in obscurity, serving in the Yukon, seeing action South Africa, and rising slowly through the peacetime ranks to eventually earn command of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery in 1907.

Burstall arrived in France as a newly promoted Brigadier, and was one of the very Canadians to bring previous combat experience to that engagement. At Ypres, he served as commander of the artillery component of the Canadian Contingent, a post he was to hold for the first two years of the war. Later, as a Major General, he commanded the Corps’ Second Division at Vimy Ridge. Following the Armistice Burstall remained in uniform for another ten years, ending his career in 1928 as a Lieutenant General and Inspector General of the Canadian militia.

Burstall died in 1945, the same year that some of the young officers he had commanded during the Great War were once again leading Canadian troops to a decisive victory over the Germans. One of former subordinates was fellow gunner 749 Harry Crerar, who had fought at Ypres as a 27 year-old Captain and had narrowly avoided being killed. Crerar finished the Great War as a Lieutenant Colonel, returned briefly to RMC as Commandant in 1938-39, and went on to command the First Canadian Army in Northwest Europe during the Second World War.

Incredible as it may seem, out of the approximately forty-five months during which Canadian troops served in the Great War, Ypres and Vimy Ridge accounted for a total of a mere eight days. But they were eight unforgettable days that would have a crucial impact on forging the character of the Canadian Corps, and eight days that would irrevocably alter the future destiny of the nation. Without question, they were days of unspeakable horror, as evidenced by the 6,000 Canadian casualties suffered at Ypres and the 10,000 more that later came at Vimy. But they were also days of extraordinary valour that produced no less that eight Victoria Crosses for Canada, as well as numerous other stories of individual resourcefulness and tenacity that would later provide a compelling inspiration for subsequent generations of Canadian soldiers.

Baptism of Fire and Victory at Vimy tell the story of Canadian sacrifice and heroism in these two momentous battles of the Great War. Both of theses books will be greatly enjoyed and appreciated by readers interested in learning more about a conflict in which Canadian soldiers distinguished themselves on the field of battle, and one that provided the backdrop against which their country ascended from the status of a colonial dominion to become a modern, and highly respected, nation-state in its own right.