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Shoestring Soldiers

Shoestring Soldiers: The 1st Canadian Division at War, 1914-1915

Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 384
  • Book Info
    Shoestring Soldiers
    Book Description:

    The Great War was a pivotal experience for twentieth-century Canada.Shoestring Soldiersis the first scholarly study since 1938 to focus exclusively on Canada's initial overseas experience from late 1914 to the end of 1915.

    In this exciting new work, Andrew Iarocci challenges the dominant view that the 1st Canadian Division was poorly prepared for war in 1914, and less than effective during battles in 1915. He examines the first generations of men to serve overseas with the division: their training, leadership, morale, and combat operations from Salisbury Plain to the Ypres Salient, from the La Bassée Canal to Ploegsteert Wood. Iarocci contends that setbacks and high losses in battle were not so much the products of poor training and weak leadership as they were of inadequate material resources on the Western Front.

    Shoestring Soldiersincorporates a wealth of research material from official documents, soldiers' letters and diaries, and the battlefields themselves, surveyed extensively by the author. It marks an important contribution to the growing body of literature on Canada in the First World War.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-8913-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-2)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 3-13)

    Individuals from all walks of life rushed to answer the call to arms across the Dominion of Canada as five powerful German armies invaded Belgium in August 1914. Many of Canada’s first wave of volunteers had been born in some other part of the British Empire, while others crossed the border from the neutral United States to enlist when war was declared. Some had never spent a day in uniform, but more than a few had soldiered before, either with the Canadian Militia, the British army, or the military forces of some other nation. Frank Tidy, of Kildonan, Manitoba, was...

  5. 1 Soldiering and Canadian Soldiers: The State of the Art at the Outbreak of War
    (pp. 14-39)

    According to traditional narratives, the high summer of 1914 was as beautiful and peaceful as any then in recent memory. Across the European countryside farmers tended crops, while their urban counterparts strolled the thoroughfares of London, Paris, Berlin, Brussels, and Vienna. An industrialized Europe seemed to have reached a new pinnacle of confidence, stability, and prestige. Along with Great Britain, the continental powers were masters of extensive colonial empires spanning much of the globe. Since 1815 there had been no major protracted European conflict fought on such a scale as the Napoleonic Wars. For many living in a new mechanized...

  6. 2 Training for War: The Salisbury Plain Camps
    (pp. 40-55)

    Vessels carrying the men of the 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade sailed into Plymouth Sound on 14 October 1914, among the first elements of the Canadian Expeditionary Force to land in England.¹ The chaos that had reigned supreme when the ships were loaded at Quebec City resumed very shortly as hundreds of soldiers poured down the gangplanks. The western Ontario men of the 1st Battalion were fortunate, as they had to wait only four days before disembarking from theLaurantieat the Devonport Dockyard. The troops of the 2nd Battalion, arriving on theCassandra,were not so lucky. They sat on...

  7. 3 Across the Channel: Apprenticing for War
    (pp. 56-76)

    The training of the 1st Canadian Division did not cease when the troops crossed the English Channel in February 1915. Having learned the basics on Salisbury Plain, the eager Canadians passed into the custody of two British regular divisions for a gradual introduction to combat service in the vicinity of Armentières, near the Franco-Belgian border (see fig. 3.1). Some Canadian troops first entered the firing lines on French soil while others found themselves on the Belgian side of the border, in Ploegsteert Wood. This sector was reputed to be relatively quiet, but as the troops soon learned, it was by...

  8. 4 Ypres: The Salient and the Armies
    (pp. 77-96)

    It is impossible for today’s traveller to pass through Ypres and its environs without confronting ubiquitous vestiges of the Great War. Approaching the town by car – no matter the direction – large and small military cemeteries with unusual names appear ever more frequently in fields, farm yards, and village greens – Railway Dugouts Burial Ground, Essex Farm, Passchendaele New British Cemetery, and Bedford House, to name but a few. Entering town from the east brings one through the Menin Gate, an enormous archway bearing the inscribed names of 54,000 British Empire soldiers who were lost in the Ypres Salient between 1914 and...

  9. 5 22 April 1915: Green Clouds
    (pp. 97-119)

    Two decades after the guns of April 1915 had fallen silent, A.F. Duguid wrote that Second Ypres was ‘probably the most complicated battle ever fought by British troops.’¹ Writing coherent narratives of combat operations is always daunting, but Duguid was quite right. The Second Battle of Ypres is especially vexing. It was an unplanned, ad hoc defensive engagement for the Canadians and their allies. Beginning on the late afternoon of 22 April, British, Canadian, and French soldiers reacted to situations demanding decisive action, sometimes without any immediate guidance from higher headquarters. In many instances the reasons for a particular decision...

  10. 6 23 April 1915: Holding Back the Tide
    (pp. 120-134)

    There was no rest for the 13th Battalion during the night of 22–23 April. As the regimental history reports, ‘all night the defence was maintained under a veritable storm of rifle fire,’ from front, flank, and rear.¹ Only two platoons, from C Company, had not yet been committed to battle. A desperate Major McCuaig hoped that these humble reserves would be released to him. For the moment, they remained at St Julien under the command of Major V.C. Buchanan, a Montreal stockbroker and militiaman.²

    In the meantime McCuaig ordered his officers to withdraw the line running along the Ypres...

  11. 7 24 April 1915: The Breaking Point
    (pp. 135-163)

    The thirty hours of battle following the gas attack of 22 April severely tested the training, endurance, cohesion, and morale of Canadian soldiers. Thanks in part to prompt counterattacks and reinforcement, there was some evidence of diminished German initiative throughout the afternoon and evening of 23 April, but the danger of a further breakthrough remained very real. A number of factors exacerbated the desperate defensive situation. Many officers and men had been awake and active for between thirty-six and forty-eight hours by the break of dawn on 24 April 1915. Coupled with the effects of exposure to chlorine gas on...

  12. 8 25–26 April 1915: The Canadian Denouement
    (pp. 164-192)

    After three days of sustained fighting in the salient, men on both sides of the firing line verged on numb exhaustion. The beleaguered state of Alderson’s division was already painfully obvious by dusk on 24 April. But the German divisions of the XXIII and XXVI Reserve Corps were also growing weak by the fourth day of fighting. Just as the Allies sacrificed heavily in the defence of Ypres, the Germans’ rapid progress against the northern part of the salient was achieved at near-prohibitive cost. The Canadians and the British had repeatedly cut bloody swathes in the massed ranks of field...

  13. 9 On the Offensive: The La Bassée Front, May–June 1915
    (pp. 193-233)

    The Second Battle of Ypres tested the 1st Canadian Division beyond all limits. The battered survivors of the gas clouds, close-quarters fighting, and counterattacks emerged from the salient as veterans. For many, the distinction was to be short-lived. Just two weeks after withdrawing from the furnace of the Ypres Salient, the old originals, along with newcomers who had since filled the gaps in the ranks, found themselves on the offensive in one of Canada’s most difficult battles of the First World War. On the La Bassée Front, near the otherwise unremarkable rural villages of Festubert and Givenchy, Lieutenant-General Alderson’s men...

  14. 10 Trench Warfare: The Ploegsteert–Messines Front
    (pp. 234-267)

    In the official history of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, G.W.L. Nicholson remarked that a ‘strange’ tranquillity characterized the later months of 1915, coming as they did in the shadow of grinding offensives at Festubert and Givenchy.¹ In strictly relative terms, Nicholson was correct. On their new frontage between the towns of Ploegsteert and Messines, life for the Canadians was far less dangerous than it had been in the Ypres Salient or on the La Bassée Front.² But to pass over the second half of 1915 as little more than a quiet interlude between more notable offensives would be to ignore...

  15. Conclusion
    (pp. 268-276)

    The twilight of 1915 bordered on anticlimax for the 1st Canadian Division and the new Canadian Corps. Operational activity decelerated in the wake of the Loos offensive, leaving the Canadians to hold the line between Ploegsteert Wood and St Eloi. For the veterans of Salisbury Plain, the winter of 1915–16 was a nightmarish reprise of the previous year in England. Heavy rainfall melted the breastworks, transforming the front-line trenches into an undifferentiated web of flooded ditches. Days spent knee-deep in muck resulted in frequent cases of trench foot and flu, but the troops soldiered on. Many of them had...

  16. Appendices
    (pp. 277-290)
  17. Notes
    (pp. 291-332)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 333-346)
  19. Index
    (pp. 347-362)