Lest we forget – forging a nation

Last week I talked a bit about the War of 1812 and role it had in the myth-making of Canada and the USA.  With Remembrance Day coming up on November 11th I would like to speak a bit about the role Canadians, and in some cases LDS Canadians had during World War One.

Few realize today that Mormons in Canada were considered disloyal interlopers to the country.  There were Members of Parliament who felt that these Americans could not be trusted.  And so it fell to young Hugh B. Brown to change the hearts and minds of Canadians.  In 1912 he joined the fledgling Canadian militia as an officer.  His role was to train LDS soldiers to create Mormon Troops to prove their loyalty to their adopted country.  By 1915 over 200 LDS men from the Cardston area served in the military.

Canadian participation in World War One came about simply because the British Empire was involved.  There was never going to be consideration of going, we were going end of discussion.  This is best displayed by the message of the Prime Minister of the period.  “It is our duty to let Great Britain know and to let the friends and foes of Great Britain know that there is in Canada but one mind and one heart and that all Canadians are behind the Mother Country.” Prime Minister Robert Borden.

The population of Canada in 1914 was approximately 8 million.  The total number of Canadians to serve in the war was 600,000.  It meant that much of the country had sent brothers, sons and fathers to war.

The Canadian militia of 1914 was ragtag at best, much of the troops were not really even used to fighting.  It took many months to get them overseas, then they still spent more time camping on the Salisbury plain drilling and fighting each other.  Canadians were seen by some as loose cannons, rough and simple colonials.

So when they moved out the first Corp to Ypres to participate in what is now called the second battle of Ypres there was little inkling of what was about to occur.  German forces, facing a largely colonial forces of Britain and holding the high ground released for the first time chlorine gas as a weapon on the battlefield.  As the gas spread, many soldiers begin to drown as their lungs were infested by the gas and created fluid which drown them.  Many others seeing what was happening fled from the great clouds, others grabbed hankies and after urinating on them tied them around their faces to keep the smoke out of their lungs.

Then the Germans attacked.  They blew a 4 mile hole in the trenches as troops died or fled.  Unable to take advantage of the devastation of the weapon the Canadian forces were able to consolidate the shattered troops putting up a determined offensive.  It was the first time they proved their ability to fight at the cost of 2,000 Canadians killed in 48 hours.

The next major offensive to include Canadian troops, would be at the Somme.  Newfoundland, though still nearly forty years from entering confederation, still sent a regiment of troops to the War.  The Newfoundland regiment was based near Beaumont-Hamel.  On July 1st in early morning daylight the British and commonwealth troops crossed the barbed wire seeking to punch a hole in the German lines.  57,000 troops were slaughtered in little more than a few hours.  The Battle of the Somme as a whole cost the allies 650,000 troops killed to move the front lines a grand total of 10 miles.

In the Newfoundland Regiment was decimated.  Of the 801 troops that rose from the trenches on July 1st only 68 could assemble the next morning.  255 were dead, 386 wounded and 91 MIA.    To understand how staggering this is, every single family on the island lost someone.  In the case of the Ayers family they lost four brothers in the battle.

The commander of the 29th British Division said of the actions of the 1st Newfoundland Regiment on that July morning:“It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valour, and its assault only failed of success because dead men can advance no further.”

For most Canadians however, the Great War has at least one event which left an indelible impression on the young country.  For the French troops who were relieved by the Canadians they felt pity on them.  Vimy Ridge was held by the German troops.  They had cost the French nearly a million men trying to take it during the French half of the Somme battles, and yet they still failed.

The Canadian Corp, made up of four all Canadian divisions entered the line hoping to change that. However for the French the Canadian attack was simply a diversion from the real battle.  Vimy was seen as too difficult to really be threatened by the Canadian forces.

Canadian commander General Julian Byng and his staff put in months of preparation for the attack.  His careful plan combined with some innovation on the part of the artillery in the area allowed the Canadians to slowly creep ahead just behind their own artillery which beat on the German positions.

20,000 Canadian troops participated in the battle.  They surprised the Germans, French and British who underestimated the ability of the Canadians.  It was said by the troops which got above the rise that nothing stood between them and Berlin.  Yet the Canadians over the two days were so worn out they could not have followed up the battle, they has over 10,000 casualties and were not reinforced enough to take advantage of the situation.

The miracle at Vimy became a national symbol. Speaking a month after the battle, as the Canadians pressed their advantage against the Germans the Canadian Newspaper Globe and Mail said, “What Vimy Ridge and Arleux began, Fresnoy has completed.   The Hun have been taught that it is a very dangerous thing to despise men who go at winning a battle as if it were their job.”

The Canadian government exalted in the news of the battle.  Representing the government the Duke of Devonshire said, “Please accept on behalf of the Government and people of Canada my heartiest congratulations on the brilliant success of the Canadian troops under your command.  The news has been received with the greatest enthusiasm by the Dominion.” (The Times, April 13, 1917)

To Canadians Vimy Ridge was a Canadian victory.  It was perceived as the point that the country went from a semi-independent colony to country.  Unlike so many other countries that ended the war devestated or demoralized by War Canada in fact looked positively on their experience.  The losses in the war were heavy but the cost was weighted against what was gained in creating a true country.

For many LDS servicemen it would unite them with their new country in a way other things could not.  No more was the country looking at the Mormons as Americans of faulty patrotism.  They were now one in suffering and one in success.


6 Responses to Lest we forget – forging a nation

  1. Jon, this is all new to me and I have nothing worth saying, but wanted you to know I had read it and learned from it. You have a knack for taking a complex story and telling it step-by-step so that it is understandable to a newcomer. Are you planning on teaching, maybe, or writing, for a living?

  2. Jon W says:

    I want to, not sure if it will happen but it is something I love doing, both writing and teaching.

  3. Jon W says:

    And thank you Ardis, I felt recently that it was important to get some more Canadian oriented stories out there because so little is known about our history or the history with the Church. Both of which are significant.

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