Unending Seige

From Canada to Britain and France

To the Front

On 6 February 1915 the first group of Canadians crossed the Channel. Leaving from Bristol, they landed at St Nazaire and headed for their billets at Hazebrouck in northeastern France. The 2nd Division reached the front in September 1915 and, with the 1st Division, formed the Canadian Army Corps. They were joined shortly afterwards by the 3rd Division, including the PPCLI and the Royal Canadian Regiment, the latter back from a year's garrison posting in Bermuda. The 4th Division would arrive in 1916. Each of these divisions was made up of three brigades of four battalions. Until 1917 the Army Corps would have British commanders: Lieutenants-General E.A.H. Alderson (September 1915 to late May 1916) and Sir Julian Byng (to 23 July 1917). From then until the end of the war the command would be in the hands of a Canadian, Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie.

The 18,000 men of the 1st Division were gradually initiated into combat. Between 17 February and 2 March each of the three brigades was detached for one week with a British division, where it became acquainted with the routine surrounding the siege that the First World War had already become on its western front. Under the British procedures that the Canadians had adopted, approximately 2,000 men from the same division would be at the front at the same time. A battalion was in the front line for four days and then moved to direct support for four days. After this came four days of rest away from the front, though their time was actually spent working and training. As they moved into battle, the Canadians would experience tension and boredom, action and terror.

At Neuve-Chapelle from 10 to 12 March 1915, the 1st Division saw its first engagement. Supporting an Anglo-French attack, the Canadian artillery played the role expected of it, but the infantry, paralysed by the Ross rifle that jammed all too often, were unable to produce rapid fire. With sheer initiative, however, they succeeded in filling this gap in the system: A number of them grabbed Lee-Enfields abandoned on the battlefield by the English dead and wounded. In August 1915 the Ross Mark III was modified by fitting the Lee-Enfield chamber on it. The 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th divisions (the 5th, which never left England, was later disbanded to provide reinforcements for the other four) would receive this modified rifle. In 1916, however, the Lee-Enfield would replace the Ross, which was used thereafter only by snipers, who could take advantage of its greater accuracy.