Malcolm & Dan Joe (WW1)

"Dan-Joe & Malcolm (WW1)" -- TOC

Ch. 4 - "France On The Defensive"

Map, Western Front

The Germans soon found their way through Belgium, though the people of Belgium, under their king, put up a spirited fight and held out for awhile in their fortified places such as Antwerp, indeed they did so for a number of weeks right up to October, 1914. The Germans carried on through and around and pushed into France. The French took to the defensive while the Germans marched deeper into France. On August 4th, 1914: England declared war on Germany. In very little time there was sent to France the British Expeditionary Force, mostly regulars, many with experience in the Boer War of 1899. They landed at the ports of Le Havre, Boulogne and Rouen. They headed for Mons, there to take a stand against the advancing Germans. The British, under General Douglas Haig, due to their experience, knew the power of the magazine-rifle and the necessity of digging deep to escape its effects. The first trenches were soon dug. The French defence strengthen, as her supply lines became shorter; while the Germans weakened, as their lines became longer. However, by September, Paris was under such a threat that the French government moved its seat to Bordeaux.

By September of 1914, the German army was at its furthermost reach into France. The line bulged out from Ameins to Verdun with Meaux in the middle. The advancing German armies, each protecting the flack of the other, then, stopped and regrouped as a gap had opened up and threaten the flanks of two, maybe three of their armies. To get rid of the gap it was necessary to fall back; and the Germans did exactly that and in doing so chose the best defensible positions. By the end of the year (1914) the line did not bulge as much as it had settled back on the River Somme. The race thereafter for both the German and Allied Armies was to cover their flanks. This race led to a solid line of defensive works from the English channel (around Dieuport) to the eastern reaches of France at the border of Switzerland.13 Both sides extended their lines as men and supplies headed to both ends. In these first few months of the war, men, hundreds of thousands of men died, figures could hardly be ignored by the statesman of the involved countries; but, it did not deter them from pouring more and more men into the conflict. The French suffered great losses in that first four months (August to November): over 300,000 fatalities; the Germans, 250,000.14

As mention, the British did send their troops over to help Belgium and France within weeks of the Britain having declared war on August 4th, 1914. On September 25th, the British went on the offensive at Loos (in the Artois nearby to Souchez). The British gained little, and over the three weeks, or so; lost 16,000, dead; and 25,000, wounded. The German machine guns had done their work with great efficiency. By October, the British Expeditionary Force, now three corps strong, took up positions on the right of the Belgians around Ypres. On October 30th, the Germans launched an attack against the Allied lines. This has become known as the First battle of Ypres. The First Battle of Ypres, as Michael Howard wrote, "saw the end of the old British army. It also saw the end of mobile war on the Western Front. The trenches hastily scabbed in the boggy soil round Ypres became part of a line stretching from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier that was, as we have seen, to remain essentially unchanged for four more terrible years."15

The British, who had long since agreed to come to Belgium's aid, made a demand of Germany to get out of Belgium, and gave the Germans 24 hours to do so. No matter, armed Germans spilled into this neutral country and pressed on to their French objectives. On August 4th, 1914, Britain declared war. Canada, ever loyal to the British crown, did likewise, on the same day.

And thus it was, that Canada made a call to its people. Volunteers, citizen soldiers, came out in great numbers. Canada, it is to be remembered had little experience in raising an army, certainly not like anything that the Europeans countries had, who have long known what is involved in going off to war. It had no experience in organizing the military departments with appropriate staff necessary to train, to move, to supply, to deal with emergencies, and to minister to the injuries that come about. Canada had gained some experience in sending troops overseas in an earlier British war in South Africa. In any event, there was formed the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The force was to be made up with new consecutively-numbered battalions.16 The First Contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force sailed on October 3rd, 1914. (Dan-Joe and Malcolm were not part of this first group; they came over to England with the Second Contingent in October of 1915.)17

Within a day, September 24th, 1914, the First Canadian Expeditionary Force travelled from Valcartier over to the port of Quebec, but 18 miles away. The whole, consisting of horses, men, guns and wagons, was embarked in less than three days on a fleet of ships. The Canadians arrived at Plymouth, England, on October 14th. The troops marched through the local towns and cities, to the cheers of the folk who, due to the secrecy of the trans-Atlantic crossing, had but just heard of their arrival.

The Canadians were camped and trained on the Salisbury Plain just inland of Plymouth. The Canadians remained there until their departure for France which first started Early in December 1914. One principal embarkation point was at Avonmouth, on the Bristol Channel. The landing point in France for this first group was St. Nazaire on the north-west coast of France. From there they were put on troop trains and transported to a place 20 miles west of Ypres in Belgian Flanders. Though apparently kept together, these Canadians troops were put under British command. Now, up to this point, our young heroes were but following events, in the safety of their homes.

NEXT [Chapter 5, "Dan & Malcolm Join The Army"]


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Peter Landry