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Rodney's Ramblings: Insights From Past Battlefields - Part IV

Rodney Gascoyne tells of the tactics devised by a Canadian general which troubled the Germans during the first World War.

During The Great War, much life was lost fighting an almost impossible war, using outdated techniques and having learned almost nothing from earlier actions, showing the faults clearly.

It quickly developed into trench warfare where many actions achieved no more than a few hundred yards of territory gained, but often none at all. None of what follows is meant in any way as a criticism of the troops and field leadership for the Allies or the Germans. It is mainly a review of the tactics and lack of adaptation by the Allied High Command when faced with a reality they could not understand and were unable to learn from. On the Western Front, most of the senseless maiming and killing followed an almost unaltered pattern from early on, with little general modifications from past experience.

I have seen endless newsreels, movie clips and dramas of the actions and have done some reading of the events on that front. The main scenario for the infantry was repeated almost endlessly. The two front lines were often separated by a mere few hundred yards of no-manís land, with front line troops living in the muddy trenches in all weathers, waiting for their next Ďadvanceí or to repel counter attacks.

British and Commonwealth forces were mostly armed with Lee Enfield 303s with a small magazine, holding less than 10 cartridges. (I trained with those same weapons when in the Cadet Force at School.) German troops also had machine guns with long belts of bullets. Both forces were supported from areas behind the lines, with various forms and sizes of field artillery. Initially, Canadian forces were armed with a locally built gun ordered by the army commander, which proved so bad and likely to jam, that they too later changed to the Lee Enfields.

From early on, after the armies were bogged down in the trench system, attacks would be planned to move forward early in the morning, after some hours of pounding of the enemy lines by heavy artillery. The troops were then to rise from their trenches and cross the waste lands ahead, through barbed wire and shell holes, to storm the trenches of those opposite their positions, the moment the shelling stopped. It did not take long for the Germans to learn to take cover but then emerge and man their machine guns when the artillery ceased firing. They made machine gun emplacements that provided them much initial cover and gave them a wide field of vision of the no-manís land they were defending. It is this pattern that went unchanged for years.

At first outbreak of war, Commonwealth troops were classified as British and placed under field and central command of the British forces. Sometimes they were assigned in small groups as replacements in British units, rather than fighting in national companies with their own company officers. As the war progressed, this was questioned and governments back home wanted their men placed separately under their own command, even if still run by senior British officers and High Command.

The Canadian Corp was formed on arrival of the 2nd Canadian Division in 1915 in France, and later joined by other divisions as they were formed and sent to Europe. Initially this was still under senior command from British leaders, but by summer 1917 General Sir Arthur Currie, the Canadian commander of the 1st Division, took over the Corp and remained in charge till the warís end. Under his influence they mostly fought only as a dedicated unit.

Currie was different to the former commanders. He had developed a new reaction to the conditions and history of tactics beforehand, even while still serving under a senior British officer, using rolling, or creeping, rather than static barrages from the artillery in advance of an attack. Thus the aim of the guns was elevated as time progressed, and troops started their movements while they were still firing. Progress was controlled and coordinated so the front line of advancing troops were close to but behind the advancing shells, which then kept the Germans in their trenches till the advance was quite close to their front line.

They also targetted the machine gun emplacements and artillery positions during the barrage, so reducing the losses suffered and gaining more ground by protecting the line. These techniques were shared with and observed by other nations but not generally adopted even much later in the war. Using them, the Germans found the Canadian attacks much harder to defend against and found them one of the forces they would rather not face in action. Under Currie, Canadian gains in the field were important in major offensives, right up to the end of hostilities.

The arrival of the earliest tanks did also contribute to lower losses but High Command was very slow to adapt to any new ideas and particularly those from outside their members. As often the case, they were still fighting the previous wars where they learned their trade.

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