General state of political alignment during the First World War.
Sequence of Events
On 28 June
1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne, was
assassinated on a trip to Bosnia, in Sarajevo, by Gavrilo Princip, a
Serbian anarchist who belonged to a group seeking independence from
Austria. While not a direct cause of the outbreak of war, the
incident set in motion many actions related to ongoing relationships
between the major powers of Europe.
On 23 July
1914, Austria demanded that Serbia admit responsibility for the
assassination and apologize, in addition to formally ending
anti-Austrian rhetoric in the Serbian press. Other measures were
also demanded, including Austro-Hungarian presence at any trials
conducted of assassination conspirators. The demands were sent in
the words of an extremely strongly worded note. Germany secretly
gave Austria its support unconditionally. Attempts to mediate and
localize the conflict during the 48-hour ultimatum came to nothing.
At 1500hrs on 25 July 1914, Serbia mobilized its military, while
three hours later formally replying to the ultimatum, meeting all
demands save two. The demanded apology would be printed in the
national press, but the demand to also publish it as a general order
to the army was refused out of fear of sparking an uprising. The
involvement of Austro-Hungarian officials in Serbian trials was also
not acceptable (though Serbia did agree to try conspirators).
Austria, knowing they had
German support, closed their embassy in Belgrade and on 28 July 1914
declared war on Serbia.
Europe in 1915.
The complex web
of prewar treaties and alliances now influenced events as the various
countries mobilized for war.
Britain to guarantee its neutrality in a European war; Britain refuses
to declare neutrality, ironically fearing that to do so would encourage
other nations to war.
partially mobilizes its military in support of fellow Slavs. Germany
replies that unless mobilization is stopped, she too will mobilize.
Austria-Hungary both order full mobilization. Turkey follows suit,
having suffered losses in the recent Balkan Wars.
France (a Russian ally) and Germany both for a guarantee of Belgian
neutrality. France agrees, Germany does not respond.
demands passage through Belgium, Belgium appeals for help to Britain.
Germany invades France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Russian Poland,
declaring war on France and Belgium.
orders mobilization and issues ultimatum to Germany to withdraw from
desire to remain outside of the conflict was tempered by the spectre of a
single powerful nation in Europe dominating Belgium and controlling
Britain's routes to and from the Continent. A predominant Germany - with
access to the resources of a defeated France and Russia - was too terrible
for Britain to contemplate.
Germany had fomented this
war; Germany had struck the first blow; Germany had violated neutral
countries that were no threat to her. It was necessary, and in the
British interest, for Britain to declare war, and at midnight German
time (2300hrs British time) on 4 August 1914 she did so.2
As a colony of
the British Empire, Canada was also automatically at war. Canada went
cheerfully and enthusiastically to war, pledging a full division of 25,000
men to the cause on 5 August 1914, and in the third week of August 1914 32,665
men were assembled at Valcartier.3
While the UK
did not realize the extent of German planning with regards to conquered
territories in Belgium and France (which, as it turned out, included
clearing border territories in Belgium and resettling with Germans), it
was apparent that a "victorious Germany, in occupation of the Channel
ports and the coastal strip, would pose a threat to Britain that could not
be contemplated. Its prevention was not just worth fighting for: it was
Africa and the Pacific
The extent of
European overseas colonization was what turned the war in Europe into a
true global war, though many of the battles abroad were relatively minor
In August 1914,
French and British forces invaded the German protectorate of Togoland in
West Africa. Shortly thereafter, on 10 August, German forces based in the
southwest quadrant of the continent attacked attacked South Africa. New
Zealand occupied German Samoa (later Western Samoa) on 30 August. On 11
Australia landed forces on Neu Pommern (later New Britain), which formed
part of German New Guinea. Japan seized Germany’s Micronesian colonies and
the German coaling port of Qingdao, in the Chinese Shandong peninsula. In
essence, in the span of a few months, Allied forces gained control of all
German territory in the Pacific. Sporadic and fierce fighting, however,
continued in East Africa for the remainder of the war, as German forces
recruited native soldiers and evaded capture.
In Europe, the
Central Powers suffered from communication problems; Germany's promise to
support an Austrian invasion of Serbia was not effectively co-ordinated.
Austrian assaults on Serbia were turned back at great coast to the
attackers. Large numbers of soldiers from both empires were tied down in
Eastern Europe facing the Russian threat, and the war was fought in
several theatres, though Canadians were active only on the Western Front
before the Armistice.
Western Front 1914-1915
The Western Front was the main
theatre of war for Canadians between 1914-1918. Warfare on that front
consisted of fluid, open warfare in the opening weeks and closing weeks of
the war, but is most commonly associated with trench warfare and battles
The First World
War began with a speedy mobilization. Germany had a standing army of
700,000 men with three million more soldiers able to be activated
immediately. France, the immediate target, had a standing army of 820,000
(including some 45,000 colonial troops from Africa and largely stationed
in France itself). Some 2,750,000 more troops were able to be activated
also. France and Germany both had conscription in which able bodied males
served for a number of years as regular soldiers, then were released to
civilian life with reserve army commitments and subject to recall for full
time service during a mobilization.
regular army was small by comparison, 247,432 with a third of that number
in India, Ireland, Africa, the Middle East, and small garrisons around the
world (including Bermuda and Canada). The Boer War had seen forces sent
abroad in greater numbers than ever before; Canada had assisted then and
would be necessary in the new conflict, as Britain lacked both the large
standing army and large pool of trained reserves that the continental
armies relied on. There were some reservists liable to recall, and small
numbers of Special Reserve and the Territorial Force - part time,
Militia was also tiny, and the mobilization scheme adopted actually
excluded the regular infantry of the Permanent Force, Canada's standing
army in 1914. Canada had only one regular infantry battalion in 1914, and
it was sent to Bermuda to relieve a British garrison there. Two regiments
of cavalry and the single regiment of artillery that Canada had serving
full time in 1914 were sent with the First Contingent, along with signals
and medical personnel from the PF.
Expeditionary Force (BEF, the name of the British field force) moved to
France very quickly, and by 9 August 1914 was across the Channel and
concentrating on the left of the French armies in northern France; on 23
August 1914 the BEF moved forward into the corner of Belgium known as
of Opposing Armies
1914 Infantry Divisions
1914 Cavalry Divisions
1918 Infantry Divisions
1918 Cavalry Divisions
51 British, 10 Empire
mobilized its forces, the BEF went into action at Mons (known to the
Flemish as Bergen); French withdrawals to the right forced the BEF to do
likewise, and crossed the Marne River on 3 September. The German plan called for
a sweeping movement far to the west of the French capital, Paris, but
French counter-attacks caused the Germans to reorganize and their grand maneuver stopped short of Paris. The Germans were pushed back to the River
Aisne, some 40 miles away. What happened next is characterized as the
"race to the sea" - successive attempts by both armies to find their
enemies' flank, and so the two armies shifted north until the Allies
reached the Channel coast at Nieuwpoort in the first week of October. Both
armies began to entrench, and a state of siege ensued, both armies
burrowing into the ground and eventually occupying long systems of
trenches and deadlocked behind barbed wire barricades and concentrations
of machine guns and artillery.
That state of
siege was still in effect when the 1st Canadian Division went into the
trenches on 17 February 1915, having been assembled at Valcartier and shipped
to the UK to train on Salisbury Plain. The BEF, growing all the time (in
August 1914 the BEF held 25 miles of front to the French 300; by 1918 those
totals would be 64 and 260 respectively), held positions of importance in
the Ypres Salient. It was here that the Canadian Division first saw
action, during the Second Battle of Ypres amid the first German use of
poison gas on the Western Front. The Canadian Division performed well
under extreme pressure, but by the time the battle was over in the last
week of April 1915 had lost 50% of its manpower.
second contingent had already been drafted in October 1914, and as the battles
at St. Julien raged was on the way to Europe. The 2nd Canadian Division
went into the trenches in September 1915. The year remained a trial for both
sides, as they experimented with methods of trench warfare. Like the BEF,
the Canadian Expeditionary Force was destined to keep growing also; the
Canadian government set a ceiling of 150,000 in June 1915, raised it to
250,000 in October 1915 and again on 1 January 1916 to half a million.5
offensive operations, at Festubert in May 1915, were not successful.
Running into strong German defensive positions wired in strongly and
supported by massed machine guns, other problems presented themselves as
well. Despite over 100,000 shells being fired, the high explosive shells
couldn't cut the German wire. Maps were inaccurate. German weapons were
more effective, including grenades and mortars, than the British weapons.
The Canadians withdrew and went back into action at Givenchy in June 1915,
and suffered heavy losses again.
The arrival of
a second division heralded also the creation of a Canadian Corps. The
Canadians in France rested; the attention of the Allies turned elsewhere,
notably the Dardanelles where fighting at Gallipoli had raged since the
initial landings in April 1915.
Western Front 1916
strategy for 1916 was largely formulated at Chantilly where a conference
held between 6-8 December 1915 decided that simultaneous offensives were to be
mounted by the Russians in the East, the Italians (now fighting with the
Allies) in the Alps and the Anglo-French on the Western Front. The new
British Commander in Chief, General Sir Douglas Haig, favoured his
offensive in Flanders — close to BEF supply routes and positioned to drive
the Germans from the North Sea coast of Belgium, from whence their U-boats
were operating. However, as junior partner in the alliance, the British
had to follow French direction and in February 1916 the decision was made to
mount a combined offensive where the French and British armies met - at
the Somme River in Picardy. The year 1916 would be a costly one for all
the combatants on the Western Front.
action began for the Canadians at Mount Sorrel in June 1916, where the
Corps performed well. Their actions were overshadowed by the worst single
day in centuries-long history of the British Army. The Battle of the Somme
is best known for those appalling casualties on the first day, 1 July 1916,
in which 20,000 men were killed and 40,000 more were wounded. In fact, the
battle would last into November 1916, and Canadians - though not involved on
the first day - would come to play an increasingly significant role as the
battle progressed. Plans for the planned British-French joint offensive
were still being formed when the Germans initiated the battle at Verdun on
21 February 1916. French capacity to carry out an offensive on the Somme
dissipated as the battle raged on, and the Somme offensive now became a
British attempt to relieve pressure on the overburdened French.
majority of divisions, the first day of the Somme was a terrible
bloodletting. The Newfoundland Regiment, serving with the British 29th
Division, was engaged at Beaumont-Hamel. According to Middlebrook, 752
Newfoundlanders left their second line trenches, deciding not to take the
congested communications trenches to the front line, and were mostly mowed
down before making it past their own barbed wire. In the end, 255 men were
killed, 386 wounded, and 91 went missing, in only 40 minutes. The Canadian
Corps itself did not see action at the Somme until September 1916, and using
tanks and artillery managed to make impressive gains at Courcelette. The
Corps was rewarded for its success by additional missions. The battle
raged on until 18 November 1916. Officially known as the Battle of Albert,
419,654 British soldiers had become casualties, along with nearly 200,000
French. The Canadians - now numbering four divisions - lost over 24,000
men. The Germans lost 670,000 soldiers.
Western Front 1917
Manpower in the
Allied armies was becoming problematic; the United Kingdom introduced
conscription in 1916, and as a result of the Somme, Canada too was falling
short of enlistments. The problem would be exacerbated after the costly
victory at Vimy in April 1917. Under a new commander - Sir Arthur Currie,
the Canadian Corps returned to Ypres in the autumn. The battle at Hill 70
followed, while The Newfoundland Regiment, rebuilt after the Somme, was
nearly wiped out in such a counter-attack at Monchy-le-Preux.
By October 1917,
the war situation was still bleak; the Germans and Austro-Hungarians were
preparing war-winning offensives in both Italy and on the Eastern Front,
and in the west, the Americans were still not mobilized despite their
declaration of war. The French had recovered from their mutinies of the
summer but little was expected from them. And objectives set in July for
the British armies still fighting in the Ypres area were still in German
hands. This was Passchendaele, officially, the Third Battle of Ypres. And
once again, the Canadians were called in to do what the British could not.
Western Front 1918
The final year
of the war saw the Allies stretched to the limit; the Russian Revolution
and capitulation on the Eastern Front freed up large amounts of German
troops for the west. The collapse of Italian forces at Caporetto meant
that French and British divisions had to be bled from the Western Front in
order to hold the line in Italy. The United States declared war on the
Central Powers in 1917, but as was the case with Canada, mobilization took
time and large numbers of combat troops didn't arrive until mid-1918. The
Germans sought to press their advantage in the meantime by massive
offensives in March 1918.
Erich Ludendorff's plans (Operation MICHAEL) for a 1918 general offensive
along the Western Front were executed in March, aimed at dividing the
British and French armies in a series of feints and advances and striking
a decisive blow before the United States had a chance to deploy
significant forces on the Western Front.
began on 21 March 1918 with an attack against British forces near the rail
junction at Amiens. German forces achieved an unprecedented advance of 40
miles and were able to effectively maneuver en masse for the first time
Canadians at Vimy the year before, the Germans organized their infantry
into small groups and used small scale infiltrations (called Hutier
tactics after General Oskar von Hutier). Artillery was used sparingly in
comparison to the large offensives of the early war years. These small
infiltrations by "stormtroops" were followed up by attacks by more heavily
armed German troops.
With the front
line extended to within 75 miles of Paris, super-heavy Krupp railway guns
were able to shell the French capital, causing a panic among the civil
population. Kaiser Wilhelm II declared 24 March 24 a national holiday, taken
by the success of the offensive.
was premature; the Germans lacked tanks and motorized artillery and the
British and French had learned to give ground on the defence, forcing the
Germans to attack over extended areas vulnerable to counter-attack. By the
end of March, American forces began to deploy to French and British
formations. A supreme commander for all allied forces was created, with
the BEF (and, consequently, the CEF) subordinated to French Marshal
Operation MICHAEL was Operation GEORGETTE, an attack against the Channel
ports. The offensive was more easily stopped with less material loss to
the Allies. Other offensives, Operation BLüCHER and YORCK were aimed at
Paris and Operation MARNE was launced on 15 July in an attempt to encircle Rheims. Allied counter-attacks drove the Germans back to their starting
positions by 20 July. The spring offensives in the end had gained little,
with 270,000 German casualties in March and April 1918 alone.
dissent in Germany - which would later be incorrectly blamed for their
defeat, especially by the Nazis in the 1930s - became rife in Germany,
with anti-war protests becoming common, industrial production sagging,
food rationing dropping to subsistence levels, and morale in the Army
The Last 100 Days
Days Offensive was the final act of the Allies on the Western Front,
covering the period 8 August 1918 to 11 November 1918.
offensives on the Western Front had petered out by July 1918; while the
Germans had advanced to the Marne River, they failed to achieve a decisive
breakthrough. French Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Allied supreme
commander, ordered a counter-offensive which became the Second Battle of
the Marne forcing a German withdrawal to the north. The Allies then
embarked on new offensives, and Field Marshal Haig agreed to attack east
of Amiens and southwest of the 1916 battlefields of the Somme. The region
was chosen for a number of reasons. As in 1916, the Somme area marked the
boundary between the BEF and the French armies, in this case defined by
the Amiens-Roye road. Picardy provided good terrain for tanks, which was
not the case in Flanders. Finally, the German defences of the Second Army
were relatively weak, having been subjected to continual raids by the
Australians in a process termed Peaceful Penetration.
The Battle of
Amiens opened on 8 August 1918 with an attack by 10 divisions and more than
500 tanks, breaking the German lines and opening a 15 mile wide gap.
German losses were 17,000 men and 330 guns captured, with total losses
estimated to be 30,000 on 8 August alone. The Allies suffered roughly 6,500
killed, wounded and missing. By 10 August 1918, the advance had slowed as
Allied units outran the range of friendly artillery and the Germans
withdrew to the Hindenburg Line. The offensive was called off on 15 August
Battle of the Somme opened on 21 August 1918, aimed at Albert and eventually
achieving a deep breakthrough, as German forces were driven back 35 miles.
Albert fell on 22 August, Bapaume on the 29th, and Péronne on the 31st.
The battle for
the Hindenburg Line followed, as the Germans withdrew to this series of
fortifications by 2 September 1918, entrenching from Cerny on the Aisne River to
Arras. German salients west of the line were reduced in separate battles;
at Havrincourt and St Mihiel on 12 September 1918, Epehy and Canal du Nord on 18
On 26 September 1918
a general offensive across much of the Western Front began. The Hindenburg
line was broken by Allied troops within hours of the start of the assault.
period, known to the Canadian Corps as the Pursuit to Mons, was part of a
general pursuit all along the front throughout October 1918. The Germans
surrendered in November, with the Armistice declared to take effect on the 11th
hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1100hrs, 11 November 1918.
Military Technology and
months of the First World War were a dichotomy of 20th Century technology
and 19th Century tactics. Infantry units were still organized with the
company as the main unit of maneuver. Cavalry, while not completely
ineffective given the right conditions for their employment, were retained
for breakthroughs that never seemed to come. Artillery in some cases in
1914 was still deploying forward with the infantry firing directly over
open sights as a matter of course.
progressed by 1918 to the point that a Canadian force on the battlefield
resembled very closely what the Germans would utilize so effectively in
1939; combined arms forces using such technologies as tanks, armoured
cars, aircraft in a tactical role, the scientific application of indirect
artillery fire, and at the most basic level, small sections of men under
the independent control of junior NCOs. It would be a long process of
change, however, as the armies of all nations groped their way forward to
breaking the deadlock imposed by mud, machine guns and barbed wire, with
the summer of 1916 and the bloodbath of the Somme providing the turning
failure of the Great War to produce its expected results - lasting
peace, an ongoing prosperity, and the ever-widening acceptance of
democracy - has caused that struggle to be viewed negatively...The war
has certainly shown that, with the application of industrialization to
the business of battle, armed conflict had become - even more than in
the past - a cruelly destructive transaction...But this is not all that
should be said. Offsetting, if only in a measure, warranted revulsion
against this war...are three elements.
particularly in Britain (and Canada), war helped to generate, if
haltingly, notions of a more equal and a more benign society. Women
received the vote, the working week was reduced...and people thrown out
of work acquired some entitlement to unemployment benefits.
the war advanced the notion that identifiable nationalities were
entitled to self-government and self-determination...
But it is
the third aspect that most requires emphasis. Manifestly, in August 1914
the status quo of western Europe was about to vanish. Either the liberal
democracies would engage in a terrible episode of bloodletting in order
to preserve their independence, or they would avoid bloodshed by
permitting the autocracy and militarism of the Kaiser's Germany to
presented to these values by militant, expansionist kaiserism may not
have equaled the horrors presented twenty-five years later by aggressive
Nazism. But it constituted horror enough: the reversal of so much that
had been achieved towards human betterment in the centuries just past,
and the desolation of hopes for yet further advancement.
Correspondingly, the Great War's vindication of liberal ideals and
democratic forms, and its severe rebuff to rampant authoritarianism, was
a mighty accomplishment. 6
- Corrigan, Gordon. Mud,
Blood and Poppycock: Britain and the First World War (Cassell,
London, UK, 2003) ISBN 0304366595 pp.29-30
- Ibid, p.38
- Granatstein, Jack.
Canada's Army: Waging War and Keeping the Peace. (University of
Toronto Press, Toronto, ON, 2002). pp. 55-56
- Corrigan, Ibid, p.39
- Granatstein, Ibid, pp.72-73
- Prior, Robin and Trevor
Wilson. The First World War (Cassell & Co., London, UK,
General Accounts - Political
and Social (may also include military subjects)
Keegan, John. The Face
of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme
(Jonathon Cape, Ltd 1976) 352pp Not about Canadians, but perhaps the
best history ever written dealing with how men (and horses) behave in
battle. An example of serious British historical research at its finest.
Morton, Desmond. When
Your Number's Up: The Canadian Soldier in the First World War
(Random House of Canada, Toronto, ON 1993) Most complete description yet
of Canadian soldiers, their morale, training, tactics and equipment, in
the First World War.
General Accounts - Military
Dancocks, D.G. Welcome
to Flanders Fields: The First Canadian Battle of the Great War: Ypres
1915 (McClelland & Stewart, Toronto ON 1988) 292pp ISBN
0771025459: Account of the raising of the First Contingent and their first action
at Second Ypres.
Official History of the Canadian Army
in the First World War: Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919
(Duhamel, Queen's Printer and Controller of Stationery, Ottawa, 1964)
Berton, Pierre. Vimy
(McClelland & Stewart, Toronto ON 1986) 336pp ISBN 0771013396
Greenhous, B. Canada
and the Battle of Vimy Ridge, 9-12 April 1917 (Department of
National Defence, Directorate of History, Ottawa, ON 1992) 149pp. ISBN
Sheldon, Jack The
German Army on Vimy Ridge 1914-1917 (Pen & Sword Military,
Barnsley, UK, 2008) ISBN 978-1-84415-680-1