Canada's Sons in the World War
From the Introduction written by
Sir Arthur Currie
for the book,
Canada's Sons in the World War
by Col. George G. Nasmith, C.M.G
Published in two volumes by
John C. Winston Co., Toronto, 1919
In the Introduction to this book, one of the first published after the war, Sir Arthur Currie describes the character of the men in the Canadian Corps that he led, with descriptions of the commitment, heroism and hardship these men faced during four long years of war.
This book, published so soon after the war ended, carries with it the immediacy of the battle and its aftermath, still so fresh in the minds of the participants, some of which Sir Arthur Currie shares here.
Sir Arthur Currie
To write a foreword for a book all the chapters of which one has not had an opportunity of reading seems a departure from one of the principles which has guided one's conduct since leaving Canada in September, 1914. But when asked to do so by the author I gladly acceded to his request, for I know him to be a true Canadian and one who has played a gallant part in the recent struggle.
To me, it seems a good thing that soldiers like Colonel George Nasmith, C.M.G., should record what they themselves have seen on the battlefields of France and Flanders. Because it is almost impossible to recover the spirit of past years, official histories, though correct in fact, often lack the personal touch of the eyewitness. I therefore welcome this work, and confidently recommend it to the Canadian public.
As Commander of the Canadian Corps the temptation is strong to take this opportunity to recount some of its doings, and to give an appreciation of the value of those achievements. But this is not the time nor the place to follow that inclination, rather let me attempt an appreciation of the man who made for the Canadian Corps whatever reputation it enjoys, the man whom the Germans liked the least and feared the most-the Canadian soldier.
The gathering together as a fighting force of so many men from Canada, and the comparison of these men with other soldiers on the battlefields of Europe have impressed upon us the realization that a Canadian type of manhood has been evolved, by virtue of the admixture of races, the influence of environment, and the manner of life in our home-land. Canadians derive their parentage chiefly from the Scots, the Irish, the English, and the French, and while they have inherited traits from every one of these races, yet they are quite distinct from them all.
All Canadians are pioneers themselves, or are the immediate descendants of pioneers. Most of them have gained for themselves, or have inherited those indelible signs with which nature graces the bodies and souls of those who have pitted their will, their strength, and their determination against her elemental forces and have earned for themselves a portion of her riches. The life of a Canadian pioneer, be it that of a woodsman, a prospector, a hunter or a settler upon the land, calls forth and demands brains, mettle and brawn.
If the rewards are, as a rule, generous, the difficulties to be overcome are many, and none but the brave, the patient, and the strong can survive them. The severities of our climate eliminate the unfit, while the incessant activities of the community either reject or correct the lazy. Thus we see in operation through various agencies, and in their moral and physical aspects, the laws of selection. The operation of those natural laws have already resulted in the creation or the segregation of a race of men approximating a particular type, with distinct moral, physical and intellectual characteristics.
The rugged strength of the Canadian is depicted in his broad shoulders, deep chest and strong, clean-cut limbs. His eyes are keen and steady, while behind the calm gravity of his mien lies a tenacious and indomitable will. These are the invaluable gifts of our deep forests and lofty mountains, of our rolling plains and our great waterways, and of the clear light of our Northern skies, gifts which have enabled the Canadian to adapt himself readily and well to the new conditions he found confronting him as a soldier. In the vigour of their bodies and the strength of their character we find the secret of their endurance to the dreadful sufferings and hardships of the earliest days of warfare, when the trenches were most primitive, and the comforts almost nil.
I recall that the First Canadian division was in the line continuously for fifteen months from May, 1915, to August, 1916. And a greater demand still was made on these qualities of endurance in the last hundred days of the war when, fighting bitterly every day for every foot of ground against almost fifty German divisions, they penetrated the German defensive organizations to a depth exceeding in the aggregate one hundred and fifty-five thousand yards, captured nearly thirty-two thousand prisoners, more than six hundred and twenty pieces of artillery and thousands of machine guns.
Wide awake, and full of intelligent initiative, we see them engaging early in daring night patrols, models of hunting craft. To them there was no No Man's Land. What is usually called such was ours, and regarded merely as an outpost of our fixed position. Later they initiated the daring cutting-out raids, which were soon to become a feature of trench warfare.
Their thirst for accurate information, for maps, for models, for aeroplane photos and sketches of their front was most striking, and what good use they made of this information! In the preparation of trench-to-trench attacks it was an interesting as well as an inspiring sight to see junior officers, N.C.O.'s and men gathered together about the models and maps of the area to be attacked, studying these and discussing the details of the operation, and often as a result of these discussions suggesting modifications of the original plan, which I on many occasions was only too pleased to accept.
All these officers and men were soon to go over the top. Some of them would be killed, many wounded, but they were not giving a thought to this aspect of the situation. They were engrossed in their task, enamoured with the technique of their art, their minds were concentrated on the operation, and in the working out of the details which were to secure them such striking success.
Death had for them no peril. Our men could give lessons of stoicism to Roman soldiers. A little incident well illustrates their attitude in this respect. It was during the battle of the Somme in August, 1916. Many of the readers of this volume will recall the headquarters dug-out in the cemetery near Pozieres. In front of the entrance to this dug-out a runner had been killed early in the morning. He had been buried up to the waist by the shell, the upper part of his body stood up and the head was leaning forward. Runners were constantly arriving from the front line with information. On entering headquarters they had to pass this body, that of their chum they all knew, and whom anybody could see they liked. Each took a good look at him and with the remark: "Hello, poor Jim! Bad luck!" passed on.
The shelling was heavy and the machine-gun fire most violent. The same fate might soon overtake any of these runners, for death faced them all, yet that fact left them undisturbed. What mattered at the moment was their job, nothing else; and I pray you, gentle reader, do not believe that these men were callous. There was more tenderness in their hearts than words can tell. One cannot forget that at any time any man would gladly, freely and voluntarily risk his life to bring in a wounded comrade. Our records are full of such deeds, and if Victoria Crosses were given in this war for the saving of human life at the risk of one's own, Canadian soldiers could boast ten times the sixty-four they now so proudly wear.
Selfishness was unknown to our soldiers, even when suffering bitterly. Once, during the heavy fighting in June, 1916, at Mount Sorrel, a man had his back cut up by machine-gun bullets, another had passed through his shoulder, while still another was lodged in his knee. He considered himself a walking case, and unaided, started limping back under heavy shell-fire to the dressing station two miles in the rear. He had been walking for over two hours, and still had half a mile to go, when he was overtaken by an officer who bade him remain where he was while a stretcher would be sent for him.
He declined the offer, and, though bleeding profusely and suffering agony at every step, he suggested that the stretcher be used instead to carry another wounded man who had collapsed some few hundred yards farther up the trench. For himself, he would continue to walk, and hoped to have sufficient strength to reach his destination. Can you imagine what this meant, and what a heart of pure gold that man had? But even better examples of unselfishness and self-sacrifice have come to my notice.
I remember the case of a corporal in charge of a patrol of six men operating near Farbus Wood during the battle of Vimy Ridge in April, 1917. They were pinned to the ground by machine-gun fire. To move meant almost certain death, yet it was necessary that the information they had secured should be reported as soon as possible to battalion headquarters. The corporal sacrificed himself in cold blood in order to do his duty, and to save his comrades.
He said to them: "I am going to move away in that direction. When they see me and start sprinkling, you beat it." The men got away; the message reached headquarters; but the corporal lies buried near an old gun emplacement on the eastern slope of Vimy Ridge.
The results achieved by our men are sufficient testimony to their great bravery, yet Canadians would be the last to claim that they possessed this quality in a greater degree than other troops. Thank God, the war has proved that the "guts" are still in the British race, otherwise, it might well be that we at this moment would not be dictating the terms of peace. I cannot refrain, though, from telling you of the superhuman deed of Sergeant Hugh Cairns, late of the Forty-sixth battalion, Saskatchewan regiment. He was recommended for and awarded the Victoria Cross for most conspicuous bravery before Valenciennes on November 1, 1918.
When a machine gun opened fire on his platoon, without a moment's hesitation, Sergeant Cairns seized a Lewis gun, and single-handed, in the face of direct fire, rushed the post, killed the crew of five and captured the gun. A little later the line was again held up by machine-gun fire. Sergeant Cairns again rushed forward and alone killed twelve of the enemy, captured eighteen prisoners and two machine guns. Here he was wounded in the shoulder.
Subsequently, when the advance was again held up, by the fire of machine guns and field guns, he led a small party to outflank them, killed many and forced about fifty to surrender. Here were captured a number of machine guns and five field guns. After consolidation he ascertained that a battle patrol was pushing out to exploit (the town of) Marly.
It came on a yard filled with Germans. The officer in charge of the patrol, Sergeant Cairns, with his Lewis gun, and two others broke open the door and entered the yard, Sergeant Cairns firing his machine gun from the hip. About sixty Germans threw up their hands. Their officer passed in front of them, and when close to Cairns shot the latter through the body with his revolver. He sank to his knees but again opened fire with his machine gun. The fighting became general, the enemy picking up their arms and opening fire. Sergeant Cairns was shot through the wrist, but he continued firing inflicting heavy casualties.
A moment later the butt of his gun was smashed by enemy bullets and he collapsed from weakness and loss of blood. The officer and one of the other men held the enemy at bay, while the other comrades dragged Sergeant Cairns from the yard. Others of the patrol came up, and, placing him on a door attempted to get him away. The enemy opened fire on this stretcher party, killing one man and again wounding Cairns. By this time more of the patrol had joined in the fighting, and what was left of the sixty Germans in the yard were forced to surrender. As the record says, "throughout the operation he showed the highest degree of valour, and his leadership greatly contributed to the success of the attack. He died on November 2nd from wounds."
Battle of Fresnoy
Let me give one more example. The conduct of Captain Learmouth of the Second battalion was first brought to my notice at the battle of Fresnoy on the morning of May 3rd, 1917. Our men had to form up in the very exposed ground between Arleux and Fresnoy. The shelling was extremely heavy and only those who have waited for the zero hour in a heavily shelled area know the tension that existed. In order to set an example to his men, Learmouth knelt and prayed to the God of Battles in whom men have more than ever learned to put their trust.
Learmouth took part with his battalion, again in the fighting at Hill 70. In one of the innumerable counterattacks delivered by the enemy, our men faced for the first time liquid fire. Men began to retire. Jumping on the parapet, Learmouth shouted, "Second Battalion, we hold this trench for Canada. Not a man must leave."
With his revolver he shot down the leading attackers. Standing on the parapet he hurled bombs at the enemy and drove them back, himself catching and returning bombs that were thrown at him. He was badly wounded and fell back into the trench. His men wanted to carry him out, but he refused to leave. His men assured him that the trench would be held as long as one of them was alive, for the Second battalion in all the years of the war has never lost an inch of ground nor failed to take an objective.
Learmouth fainted, and his comrades carried him out. He revived and recognized that he was near battalion headquarters. He insisted on seeing the battalion commander, reported the situation, what had occurred, and advised as to steps that might be taken to make the position more secure. He again fainted and never recovered consciousness.
In these few paragraphs I have endeavoured to point out some of the salient characteristics of the Canadian soldier. Vigorous; clean-minded, good-humoured, unselfish, intelligent and thorough; not leaving anything to chance; fully imbued with a sense of their responsibility and the determination to win. The qualities distinctive of the race enabled him to become rapidly one of the best soldiers in the field. He is going back now to civil life still possessing these qualities, while having learned in addition the value of well-organized, collective effort, backed by discipline and self-restraint.
The change from the indescribable sufferings endured on the battlefields to the normal conditions of life is so great that the mental readjustment necessary may require a little time and make a call on the sympathetic care of the nation, but I have every confidence that the period of transition will be short. Just as readily as the Canadian citizens became well-disciplined, hard-fighting soldiers, just as readily will the Canadian soldiers resume their former status of useful citizens, and their mutual tolerance, broad understanding, and wide outlook on things social and political will be a distinct asset to the Canadian future national life.
Finally, the Canadian soldier is leaving the mother land and going home filled with a deeper appreciation of the might, the majesty, and the power of our empire, more than ever convinced that Britain never unfurls her colours except in the cause of justice and right. Our empire has suffered much, but nobly responding to every call and to every duty, has won through in the good old-fashioned British way. Besides the material benefits that will accrue on the completion of peace, she has benefited greatly; she has learned to know herself, to know the true value of that sentiment which binds us so closely to the throne.
Let us guard well the integrity of the British empire. The Canadians who have been spared in the providence of God are going home to their loved ones better equipped than ever to assume the duties and responsibilities of citizenship. They are going back to Canada, to that wonderful land of promise and of hope, the cherished land of freedom and a new chance, and as they have cheerfully borne untold hardships and suffering on the field of battle, and forgotten self for their comrades and their empire, I feel that when they return home they will take up their lives where they left off with a broader outlook, a more kindly humanity, and a truer conception of the things really worth while than ever before.
"Oh Canada, our heritage, our love,
Thy worth we praise, all other lands above.
From sea to sea, throughout thy length
From pole to border land,
At Britain's side whate'er betide
Unflinchingly we stand.
With hearts we sing, God save the King,
God bless our Empire wide, do we implore,
And prosper Canada from shore to shore."
General Sir Arthur W. Currie
London, May 27, 1919