A well deserved rest: The 1st Canadian Division in the summer of 1915

[In trenches, France,1915] Horace Brown/Library and Archives Canada/ PA-107276. Please note that this image has been slightly cropped for this post.
[In trenches, France,1915] Horace Brown/Library and Archives Canada/ PA-107276. Please note that this image has been slightly cropped for this post.
The 1st Canadian Division fought two costly engagements in the spring of 1915, the 2nd Battle of Ypres and Festubert, which resulted in a combined loss of over 8 000 killed and wounded in the space of two months. Battalions lost up to three quarters of their fighting strength in a single engagement, with the PPCLI being reduced to just 150 men after they held the line at Frezenberg in early May. At this point, the division was moved to the relatively quiet front between Ploegsteert and Messines, where they would spend the summer months until September 1915 holding the lines.

Though they would fight no pitched battles, this did not mean that the “quiet sector” was without danger. Casualties occurred daily as men were hit by shells or snipers, or fell victim to disease in the unhygienic and crowded environment of the trenches. Such losses were referred to as “wastage” by high command, and were calculated to be part of the cost of war; there were acceptable levels of wastage, meaning that morale was likely to be undamaged, and unacceptable levels, meaning that the morale of the frontline fighters was likely to be negatively affected. Ideally, it was up to the frontline officers to prevent unnecessary wastage, such as trench foot or the spread of disease; casualties as a result of shells or snipers could also be dealt with, though they were, for obvious reasons, largely beyond the control of the commanding officer.

The area around Messines would eventually be the scene of one of the largest mining campaigns of the war, with the blowing of the Messines Ridge in 1917 felt even in England, but in the summer of 1915 it was the site of feverish work as the GHQ sought to fortify the front lines there in case of attack on the Messines road that ran through the Empire lines. Soldiers of the 1st Division dug support trenches and manned the newly built concrete redoubts guarding Hill 63, the highest point in the division’s stretch of trench. At the same time, members of the Royal Engineers and the Canadian Engineers created complicated tunneling systems beneath the trenches to prevent offensive mining by the Germans, and eventually began a series of countermining strategies that would later result in 19 mines being blown simultaneously on the ridge in 1917.

At this time too, the 1st Division was largely resupplied with the British Lee Enfield rifle, replacing the Ross Rifle, which had plagued the infantry since their arrival in France. As reinforcements from England flowed in, the survivors of the battles of the spring of 1915 were also sent behind the lines for training courses, which provided instruction in bombing, machine gun operation and gas safety. Men who had been sent to these courses were expected to return to their battalion to instruct their comrades, making infantry battalions increasingly self-sufficient as each could count its own machine gun officer, grenade officer and gas safety specialist. As the summer drew to a close, the 2nd Division, fresh from final training in England arrived in France, forming what became known as the Canadian Corps, which would by the end of the war be one of the most successful fighting units of the Allied armies.

NB Andrew Iarocci’s book Shoestring soldiers: The 1st Canadian Division at war, 1914-1915 provides an extremely detailed account of Canada’s first combat division in Europe.

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