Problems in Russia, the U.S. Declares War, and the Stalemate Continues
In 1917 there were myriad significant events occurring throughout the world and in Canada. For example, the Great War was having a huge impact on Russian society. Morale among both the public and the soldiers was worsening and on March 8, following ongoing food riots, the Russian government was overthrown. Soon thereafter, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated and a Russian provisional government took control. Throughout the spring and summer of 1917, the world was unsure how the Russian situation would play out. Only time would tell.
In the meantime, the French army continued to teeter towards collapse while the British tried their best to support them. After the U.S. declared war on Germany in April, largely as a response to the Zimmerman telegram and all out Atlantic assaults by German U-boats, the Canadians took Vimy Ridge in an action that preceded other British summer offensives. Suddenly the Canadian Corps found itself with over 10 000 new casualties, 3 598 of which were deceased soldiers. To get an idea of how many deaths occurred solely at Vimy (Apr. 9-12), count every second for an hour; each of those seconds represents a life (60 seconds x 60 minutes equals 3 600). At that time in the war, successes for the Entente were rare and the Canadian feat was welcomed eagerly by the Belgians, the British, and the French.
For the next couple of weeks, while other Allied offensives continued at different locations on the Western Front, the Canadians worked to re-fortify Vimy so that it would be as impenetrable, or more secure, than it was before their attack. Departed mates were buried, the injured were treated and given rest, and the artillery pieces were brought closer to the front.
A Memorial to their Sacrifice
Come the end of April, British Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig wanted the Canadians to continue engaging the enemy in France, albeit in a limited manner, so that Robert Nivelle (French Commander in Chief) in the south and Haig’s own forces in the north would be less concerned about potential German reinforcements originating from the Arras area. As a result, Canadian units attacked in a series of battles along the Scarpe River in the area to the southeast of Vimy Ridge. Canada experienced battle success at Monchy-Le-Preux, Arleux-en-Gohelle, Oppy Wood, and Fresnoy, but the bill was always paid with more death and casualties. By this time, there was growing realization by all participants in the war that Byng and Currie’s Canadian Corps were an elite fighting force.
In recognition of these successes and the Canadians’ unexpected achievement at Vimy, Byng was promoted in early June 1917 to General and given command of the British Third Army. Lord Byng was not the only one to be recognized. On June 4th, Currie was knighted by King George V and then on the 9th, he was given sole command of the whole Canadian Corps and the rank of Lieutenant-General. But still, all was not well on the Western Front.
Nivelle’s plan, carried out a month prior, was a huge failure and the French General was quickly replaced by Phillipe Petain. Haig strategized to always engage the Germans at multiple positions along the line so that the German High Command would be unable to stage large numbers of troops at a single location for a massive attack. The British commander felt that a breakthrough by the Germans now could threaten the Entente’s ability to continue the war, so he was content with small wins and small defeats, here and there. Currie and the Canadian Corps would be called on once again, very soon.
The Canadians take Hill 70
The city of Lens was a coal mining town in northeastern France. It had been held almost continuously by the Germans since the start of war. Haig wanted it, not merely to continue to wear away the invaders, but for strategic reasons as well: to take the coal resource from the furnaces of the German war machine.
In early July 1917, Currie was tasked with taking Lens and subsequently travelled to the area to evaluate the battlefield. The new Lieutenant-General did not like what he saw and communicated to his superior, General Henry Horne of the British First Army, that if the Canadians “were going to fight at all, let us fight for something worth having.” That “something” was Hill 70 that overlooked the city. Currie argued that attacking and trying to hold Lens, while the Germans on the nearby hill could see everything, would be extremely difficult and costly. He felt that in consideration of all factors, it was tactically smarter to take the hill first and then take Lens. Horne agreed, Haig consented to the change in plan, and the operation was placed under Currie’s full control, the first of entirely his own making. The Canadian Lt.-Gen. knew that the key to success here would be repelling the inevitable counterattacks by the German 6th Army.
The Canadian Corps was dispatched northward from the Arras/Scarpe area to just west of Lens and were ordered to attack on July 31st. Too soon, thought Currie, and he asked for a delay so that his group could better prepare. Horne responded that Currie could attack on a day of his choice, but that the Canadian Lieutenant-General would regardless be held accountable for the outcome. As at the Battle of Vimy Ridge, which was situated only a few short kilometres to the south, preparation was not overlooked. The soldiers were informed of the plan and drilled, the engineers built roads and buried communication wires, and supplies were stocked and readied. More than the “bite and hold” that occurred at Vimy, the battle of Hill 70 used a “bite, hold and destroy” strategy.
Prior to the attack, the Germans could see that a large number of Canadian soldiers were gathering west of Lens. A battle was expected, but where? Currie, again thinking several steps ahead, ordered feints where Canadians would attack in an area different from the zero-hour location, destroy the enemy’s setup, and then return to the safety of their home trenches. The hope was that these actions would keep the defenders guessing about the position of the next attack.
Finally, in the early hours of August 15th, 1917, a creeping barrage was released and the first wave of Canadians followed it. Despite being shelled with mustard gas for the first time, the Corps pushed onto Hill 70, took their objectives, dug in, and then proceeded to repel 21 German counterattacks over the first 3 days of battle. By the 25th of August, the city of Lens was in Entente hands. Six Canadians would be awarded the Victoria Cross for their selfless actions. The “bite, hold, and destroy” strategy seen at Hill 70 would lead to a butcher’s bill of 25 000 German and 10 000 Canadian casualties over those ten August days.
Canadian Politics, late 1917:
The Military Service Act and the Wartime Elections Act
While the British and Anzacs were bogged down in the 3rd Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) and Currie’s soldiers were holding Hill 70, the Canadian Conservative government of Prime Minister Robert Borden enacted the Military Service Act (August 29). This allowed able-bodied men to be conscripted to the CEF, but not all were in favour of the decision. Conscription became an issue that divided portions of the country and would have a huge impact on the election coming a few months down the road.
On September 20, 1917, as the Canadian Corps moved to the fight in Passchendaele, Borden, with the help of some Liberal politicians, passed the Wartime Elections Act. Women would now be enfranchised, but their gain was in contrast to voting rights being taken from men who had recently immigrated from enemy countries. When the Canadian federal election occurred on December 17, Prime Minister Borden was under pressure to scrap conscription. However, with some crafty dealing and the help of some supporting Liberal Members of Parliament, the reigning PM’s “Unionist” government was re-elected with a large majority. Interestingly, elected Unionist politicians predominantly represented English-speaking areas, while francophone areas voted Liberals into parliament, almost exclusively.