Battle Studies
The 1st Canadian Division


Second Battle of Ypres


Lt Col John McCrae


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Mobilization of the 1st Canadian Division

The British ultimatum to Germany, in which Great Britain demanded that the neutrality of Belgium must be recognized by Germany, expired at 23.00 hours (British time) on 4 August 1914. Following this the Canadian Government made the decision to raise an Expeditionary Force. The Canadian Parliament was in summer recess at the time, but the Prime Minister, Robert Borden, returned from his vacation and summoned his cabinet ministers together. Canada declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914. The Prime Minister stated: "... our recognition of this war as ours ... determines absolutely once and for all that we have passed from the status of the protected colony to that of the participating nation." (1)

The Minister of Militia, Sam Hughes, was already back in his office; the British Government had immediately accepted the proposal from the Canadian Government to raise 20,000 men for the Expeditionary Force and Sam Hughes took charge of the mobilization. The news of the formation of a Canadian Expeditionary Force was flashed across the Dominion and every province rallied patriotically to the cause. Mobilization began on 8 August and in less than a month the Government, which had asked for 20,000 men, found over 40,000 men at its disposal. The Minister of Militia issued orders that no more recruits were to be enrolled in the first contingent.

By late September 1914, within seven weeks of the declaration of war between Great Britain and Imperial Germany, one division and half a reserve division were assembled from Canadian volunteers; this was the first Canadian Division ever to be assembled. Of the men about two-thirds had been born in the British Isles. About one-third of the officers were Canadian-born and had been trained in the Canadian militia. Men had answered the call to arms from all parts of Canada: from the cities, the lumber camps and the forests, from the prairies of the west and the farms of the east, from the Rockies, the shores of Hudson Bay, the banks of the Yukon river and the St. Lawrence seaway. The force comprised men from every walk of Canadian life: some had served in the Boer War (1899 - 1902), some were barely within the age limit of 45, some were so anxious to join up that they were prepared to re-enter the army at the lowest rank in spite of having already retired from the service as a senior officer.

The Initial Assembly of the Expeditionary Force

The largest military camp ever to be seen on Canadian soil was established at Valcartier, about sixteen miles to the west of Quebec City. The site was well chosen as it lay within a day's march of the transport ships in Quebec port. The transformation of the site was a remarkable triumph, effected within a few weeks by an army of engineers and workers.

Within four days of the opening of the camp, nearly 6,000 men had arrived. A week later the number of personnel in the camp had swelled to 25,000 and soon after there would be 32,000 men and 8,000 horses. During the month of August it seemed as though all roads led to the rendezvous of the first Canadian Expeditionary Force at Valcartier. The railways rose to the occasion, too. Great trains brought 600 men at a time from every corner of the country.

Equipment Provision

While the new army underwent its preliminary military training at Valcartier, there were preparations of every kind to be made elsewhere. The cloth mills of Montreal began to manufacture khaki cloth, which was converted into uniforms, greatcoats and cloaks by an army of tailors. The Ordnance Department had to equip the men with the Ross rifle, which was a Canadian-made weapon. Regiments were shuffled and reshuffled into battalions. Battalions were formed into brigades. There were all kinds of stores to be manufactured and accumulated. A fleet of transports had to be assembled.

The Composition of the Force

The original intention was to form up a Division with the regular component of three infantry brigades. The number of volunteer recruits who were selected for service were enough to make up 16 infantry battalions. On 1 September General Hughes announced at Valcartier camp that a forth brigade would be formed up. This additional brigade would be used as draft troops to supply the 'war wastage' (i.e. casualties) in the other three brigades. All four brigades were to move over to Europe together.

The 1st Canadian Division comprised

  • Cavalry
  • Artillery
  • Infantry
  • Engineers
  • Signallers
  • supply and ammunition columns
  • field ambulances and hospital staffs (provided with all the apparatus required for the handling and treatment of the wounded)

The division carried its own complement of rifles, machine guns, field guns, and heavy artillery, and a store of ammunition.

Review of the Division

Towards the end of September, a few days before embarkation, the Duke of Connaught took the salute from the First Army of Canada at Valcartier Camp. At this final review the First Canadian Contingent was led past the saluting base by General Sam Hughes, the man whose name, more than any other, would be linked in history with the 1st Canadian Division; he had cause to be proud of the fully armed and fully equipped men who marched past that day. Within two months of the declaration of war in Europe the Dominion of Canada had assembled and armed an Expeditionary Force of 1,424 officers, 29,197 other ranks, 7,000 horses, motor and wagon transport.

The feat of raising such a force was all the more remarkable when one considers that, with the exception of the Princess Patricia's Light Infantry, the overwhelming majority of men who volunteered for service were civilians without previous experience of military training.

Princess Patricia's Light Infantry (or the 'Princess Pats' as the famous regiment was commonly called) was the only one that consisted almost entirely of trained ex-regular soldiers who had served with the British Army. The regiment was raised by Hamilton Gault and named after the Duke of Connaught's daughter, Patricia.

Departure for Europe

The transportation of the army to the port of Quebec began on the wet night of 23/24 September 1914. The weather that night was so bad that the infantry were not expected to make the journey on foot and were brought from Valcartier camp in a long succession of trains. However, columns of field artillery and transport wagons and vehicles crawled the sixteen miles down the valley from Valcartier to Quebec in the rain and the mud. Arriving at daybreak the men were drenched, but morale was high because at last they were off to do the job for which they had volunteered. The whole embarkation of horses, men, guns and wagons was completed in less than three days.

Atlantic Crossing

The fleet of 33 Atlantic liners assembled in Gaspé Basin off the coast of Quebec province for a rendezvous with their Royal Navy warship escorts. On 3 October the transport ships steamed ahead out of Gaspé Bay in three lines led by Royal Navy warships: His Majesty's Ships were Charybdis, Diana, and Eclipse, with the Glory and Suffolk on the flanks, and the Talbot in the rear. Later, the Suffolk's place was taken by the battle-cruiser, Queen Mary.

Making its way up the St. Lawrence seaway the convoy passed through the gateway of Canada, the Gulf of St. Lawrence. As it passed the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland the sealing-ship SS Florizel, with the Newfoundland Regiment aboard, joined the fleet.

As the army set sail for Europe it was the first time that such a large contingent of troops had ever crossed the Atlantic.

The Reception

The voyage was uneventful and long. The fleet entered Plymouth Sound off the south coast of England on the evening of 14 October 1914. Censorship about the arrival of the Canadian Armada had been so strictly controlled that the fleet was completely unexpected by the local people of Plymouth and Devonport. However, the word quickly got about that the Canadian transports had arrived and the townspeople flocked to the waterfront to cheer. When the Canadian troops disembarked they marched through the streets to a warm welcome.

Training on Salisbury Plain

The Canadian Division, the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, and the Newfoundland Regiment occupied camps on Salisbury Plain at Bustard, West Down South, West Down North, Pond Farm, Lark Hill, and Sling Plantation. The Canadians remained on the Plain until their departure for France.

Here, they spent four dismal winter months in the mud, cold and rain. On the sodden fields, in the fog and mud of the battalion lines, in the dripping tents and crowded, reeking huts morale was low and sickness was common. But once the rains stopped and training could begin properly the men of Canada gave promise of the great spirit they possessed. They displayed a spirit of endurance, courage, and willingness that proclaimed them to the world as troops of the finest quality.

Visitors to the Division

On 4 November King George V and Queen Mary, Lord Kitchener and Lord Roberts visited the First Canadian Expeditionary Force. The principal points in Lord Roberts' speech to the Canadian troops were:

"We have arrived at the most critical moment of our history, and you have generously come to help us in our hour of need.

Three months ago we found ourselves involved in this war, a war not of our own seeking, but one which those who have studied Germany's literature and Germany's aspirations, knew was a war which we should inevitably have to deal with sooner or later. The prompt resolve of Canada to give us such valuable assistance has touched us deeply. That resolve has been quickened into action in a marvellously short space of time, under the excellent organizing and driving power of your Minister of Militia - my friend Major-General Hughes.

We are fighting a nation, which looks upon the British Empire as a barrier to her development, and has, in consequence, long contemplated our overthrow and humiliation. To attain that end she has manufactured a magnificent fighting machine, and is straining every nerve to gain victory.

It is only by the most determined efforts that we can defeat her."

The Movement to France

Early in December 1914 Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry regiment left Salisbury Plain and joined the British 27th Division in France. The Regiment was brigaded with the 3rd King's Royal Rifles, 4th King's Royal Rifles, 4th Rifle Brigade and 2nd King's Shropshire Light Infantry.

A few days after an inspection by King George V on 4 February 1915 the 1st Canadian Division marched off Salisbury Plain and entrained for their port of embarkation at Avonmouth on the Bristol Channel under the command of Lieutenant General Edwin Alderson. The Division was composed of three infantry brigades, three artillery brigades, an ammunition column, divisional engineers, divisional mounted troops and divisional train.

The 6th, 9th, 11th, 12th, and 17th Battalions were left in England as the Base Brigade of the Division. These battalions were formed later into the Canadian Training Depot and later still, together with reinforcements from Canada, into the Canadian Training Division.

The 1st Canadian Division sailed for the Bay of Biscay. The last transport reached St. Nazaire on the north-west coast of France on 16 February.

The Division was then put into freight railway cars and taken on a three-day 500 mile rail journey to Steenwerk, twenty miles west of Ypres in Belgian Flanders. (It was only 50 miles from the French port of Boulogne.)

General Sir Douglas Haig

On 1 March the Division was part of the British First Army under the command of General Sir Douglas Haig.

Having replaced the British 7th Division in the line at Fleurbaix the 1st Canadian Division formed the left wing of the British IV. Corps under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Rawlinson. Between 10-12 March the Division took part in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle.

On 27 March the 1st Canadian Division was relieved from the line and sent to rest at Estaires.

From 6 April the division was moved into the British Second Army area, arriving at Oudezele, 10 miles west of Ypres. Their orders were to take over the line from the French 11 Division in the north east of the Ypres Salient.

From 15 to 17 April 1st Canadian Division took over the Allied front line from the west of Gravenstafel to the Poelcapelle-Keerselare road.

Following the launch of a German offensive on 22 April 1915, the division was involved in the Second Battle of Ypres.


Canada In Flanders, by Sir Max Aitken MP

(1) In Flanders Fields, by John F Prescott, p. 76

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