Preparing for Battle
Added Training for the Troops
Throughout the war, soldiers trained behind the lines to sharpen their fighting skills such as bomb throwing, musketry, and bayonet fighting, in addition to general physical exercise. Prior to the Canadians’ attack on Vimy Ridge, however, the training became site specific and occurred on a large-scale replica of the German trench system and surrounding area. Trenches, machine gun emplacements and tangles of barbed wire were all marked. Soldiers walked through the model of the Ridge until they knew the Vimy terrain like the backs of their hands.
Attacking from behind a Creeping Barrage
Soldiers also practiced the precise timing needed to operate under a creeping barrage.
In a creeping barrage, artillery fire moved forward in steps, slightly ahead of the advancing infantry. It was very important that the infantry walked at a steady pace of 100 yards (a football field long) every 3 – 5 minutes. This allowed them to stay far enough behind the wall of fire that they wouldn’t be killed or injured by friendly fire, yet close enough that they were ready to attack as soon as the barrage stopped and before the enemy emerged from their dugouts to defend their trenches. Soldiers lagging the barrage in no man’s land could end up as sitting ducks for enemy defensive fire.
Into No Man's Land
In the Winter before the Canadians’ attack on Vimy Ridge, there was constant activity happening in No Man’s Land. Small groups of soldiers crept into the craters that separated the two trench systems to scout out the terrain, listen for enemy activity and repair barbed wire. One such soldier was Captain George McKean:
The Canadians took part in numerous trench raids, 29 of them within the first three months they were stationed at Vimy. Whereas patrols involved small numbers of soldiers, trench raids were much bigger. The largest trench raid Canadians participated in involved over 1 500 troops. A trench raid is an attack that doesn’t aim to capture and hold territory. Instead, the goals are fourfold: to capture prisoners for interrogation, to diminish enemy morale, to gather information about the enemy, and to damage trench infrastructure.
For more information on Canadian trench raiding, see Raiding.
Behind the Scenes:
No. 2 Construction Battalion
Behind the scenes of a battle there are a large number of supporting units and personnel. In the First World War, the critical support from behind the front lines included medics, nurses, cooks, tailors, launderers, veterinarians, animal trainers and caregivers, miners, loggers, mechanics, railway workers, and builders. Labour, space, and resources were required to feed, clothe, and provide shelter for all involved.
One critical aspect of battle preparation that is often overlooked is construction: the creation of the infrastructure that permits physical support of the fighting. One of a number of construction battalions in the First World War was the No. 2 Construction Battalion, the only segregated Canadian military unit made up of entirely black soldiers.
Early in the war, black volunteers were largely turned away by recruiters. In a reflection of the deeply racist attitudes prevalent at the time, they were seen as unfit for service in what was considered a “white man’s war.” Despite the official policy handed down in December 1915 that men could not be denied entry based on race alone, discrimination persisted. Permission for a segregated unit was granted in 1916 and the No. 2 Construction Battalion, known as the Black Battalion, was created.
Command of the Black Battalion was given to Lieutenant-Colonel Daniel H. Sutherland. He, like all the officers in the unit, save one, was white. Members of the unit came from all over Canada, the United States, and the British West Indies, though about half of the approximately 600 men were from Nova Scotia, where the unit was headquartered.
Once overseas, the unit played a diverse variety of non-combat roles including digging trenches, and building bridges, roads, and rail tracks. A large part of their service involved processing timber at a sawmill at La Joux in France for duckboards and wooden supports in trenches as well as railway ties necessary for moving supplies quickly to the front.
William A. White
The lone black officer of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces, and in fact, the entire British Army, was the Chaplain of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, Reverend William A. White. Within the unit he also held the honorary rank of captain.
In 1900 White immigrated to Canada, travelling from Virginia to Nova Scotia. Once there he quickly enrolled in Acadia University and in 1903, he graduated with a degree in Theology. Acadia later awarded White an honorary Doctorate of Divinity.
Following the war, Reverend White continued to be a pillar in the Halifax community where he ministered at the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church.