Canada's other great battles

On the anniversary of Vimy Ridge we should remember not just one battle but a whole proud heritage in which Canadians saved the world. Twice. In freezing salt water and stinking mud. Our schools should teach students to be proud of the desperate struggles against German submarines in the North Atlantic in 1940 and 1941 and the slaughter in Passchendaele in 1917. The Canadian assault on Juno Beach on D-Day is one part of our history that is still generally remembered and celebrated. Most schoolchildren could place it in Normandy, not Norway, maybe even on June 6, 1944. D-Day was indeed the beginning of the end for Hitler. But our most important contribution to his defeat came earlier, at sea.

Winston Churchill confessed that the only thing that ever really worried him in the Second World War was the U-boat campaign through which Hitler sought to starve Britain into submission. Had it succeeded, he would have gained control over all of Europe. And then what?

The Battle of Britain was a very close conflict, and we should not forget the 103 Canadians who flew over England from July to October 1940, of whom 23 died there and 30 died later in the war. But as Niall Ferguson wrote in his book Empire, “Without Canadian pilots the Battle of Britain might well have been lost. Without Canadian sailors, the Battle of the Atlantic surely would have been.” And with it the war.

No admiral towers over that grim struggle the way Nelson does over Trafalgar. All credit goes to ordinary sailors and seamen depicted in Frank Curry’s War at Sea, with its petrifying description of “white mist” striking the corvette Kamsack. Unprepared but not unready, thousands of young and not-so-young Canadians answered the call of duty in the most unglamorous, uncomfortable and dangerous conditions imaginable. There was no defence against torpedoes, no medal and no final resting place, only the dreadful end of Jack Nichols’s haunting painting Drowning Sailor (1946).

During the war Canada’s navy went from 13 fighting ships to 373, including two aircraft carriers, and from 3,000 personnel to 95,000, plus 6,000 women in the Women’s Royal Naval Service or “WRENS.” (After equally dramatic expansion our shipyards churned out about 400 merchant vessels.) Canada built what was then the third-largest navy in the world, and it did roughly half the work in the North Atlantic, helping escort 25,343 voyages by merchant ships carrying 164 million tonnes of cargo. There was a tremendous cost: 24 warships sunk and more than 2,000 sailors killed.

As well, according to Wilfrid Laurier University historian Roger Sarty, 752 Canadian airmen perished in maritime operations, mostly in the Atlantic. And our flag flew on 210 merchant ships, of which 62 were sunk, killing 1,600 Canadian merchant sailors, or one in eight of those who braved those hazards. That men continued to go to sea in the face of such casualties should not be forgotten; nor should the simple truth that they did not die in vain.

By May 1943 the Battle of the Atlantic was over, and the surviving U-boats fled the North Atlantic. Did Canadians sink the U-boat fleet? Not by a long shot, though our ships and planes sank or helped sink 50 submarines. Our largest contribution came not at that turning point, or later. It was getting the Allies to the turning point at all, going out into the freezing dark without proper equipment or protection again and again and again, even as losses mounted.

Without that effort, when the margin of survival was thinnest, Britain would have fallen, there would have been no Juno Beach, and Hitler would probably have won. Instead, what Canadians endured, more even than what they inflicted, turned defeat into victory in the Allies’ darkest hour.

The notion of a vital Canadian contribution to the First World War is harder to assert or defend. The reasons for that struggle are mostly forgotten, its importance buried under a flood of pacifist ridicule dating to the 1920s. Definitive histories such as A. J. P. Taylor’s The Great War lean toward the view of philosopher Sidney Hook who, though an atheist, called 1914 “the second fall of man,” if not to Edmund Blackadder’s jibe about the master plan “to continue the slaughter until everyone’s dead except Field Marshal Haig, Lady Haig and their tortoise Alan.”

In this country we have somehow converted In Flanders Fields into an anti-war poem, and tend to remember not Canada’s contribution to the Great War but its contribution to us, how Vimy Ridge made us a nation. It did. But the rest of the conventional wisdom is dubious.

The outcome did matter: An aggressive, undemocratic power dominating the Eurasian land mass and challenging freedom of the seas would have been bad in 1914, as in 1940 (or 1814). And while technology and geography gave generals and politicians few options, they were not soulless morons. The combatants went into war with cavalry, balloons and frontal assaults and came out with tanks, airplanes and the “leapfrog” tactics behind a creeping barrage developed, let us not forget, by Canadian Gen. Arthur Currie at Vimy Ridge.

To be sure, the Great War did not “end all wars,” but appeasement in 1938 was not the fault of the victors in 1918. And we should be proud, not ashamed, that the German high command considered Canadians “the enemy’s elite soldiers,” while their troops dreaded the kilted Canadian soldiers they called the “ladies from Hell.” And we should be proud, not ashamed, that Canada’s contribution at Passchendaele in 1917 helped the Allies survive to 1918 and victory.

If Passchendaele is remembered at all today it is as a byword for bloody futility, incompetence and heartlessness. There’s a famous story of Sir Douglas Haig’s chief of staff seeing its bloody mud, weeping and crying out: “My God! Did we send men to fight in that?” Yes, they did, and as with the even-more-notorious Battle of the Somme in the summer of 1916, not because they were idiots.

The Somme cost 620,000 Allied casualties, including the infamous first-day destruction of the Newfoundland Regiment at Beaumont Hamel. But the German losses, probably higher, were certainly less affordable. The Somme, later described by a member of the German general staff quoted in Philip Warner’s book World War One as “the muddy grave of the German field army and of faith in the ability of German leaders,” prevented Germany from breaking the French line at Verdun and winning the war in 1916.

Nevertheless, in spring 1917 the French army mutinied. After three years of appalling leadership, mistreatment and genuinely futile offensives, entire divisions refused to fight. They could not be disciplined: Who would do it, and how?

Meanwhile, the road to Paris lay essentially open. French military leaders concealed the disaster from politicians lest they blurt it out and lose the war. But they told their British counterparts, who with similar fears decided faut de mieux to launch an all-out offensive in Flanders in late July to draw German manpower and attention away from the French sector. And the soldiers responded — including Canadians at Hill 70 in August 1917, in what Canadian War Museum historian Tim Cook calls “one of those battles that no one knows about.”

With the British foundering in Flanders, Currie was ordered to launch a suicidal frontal assault on the town of Lens to divert some German troops south from Passchendaele. Instead, in his first battle as commander of the Canadian Corps, Currie seized Hill 70 overlooking Lens, forcing the Germans into more than 20 counterattacks and at least 20,000 casualties in three days, against just more than 9,000 Canadians killed or wounded. In October and November the Canadian Corps lost another 15,600 men finally taking what was left of the town and the ridge of Passchendaele. That victory was less strategically important than the one at Hill 70, as the French were now back in their trenches, but it was psychologically significant given the losses the British had sustained trying to take it, and those the Germans had sustained trying to hold it.

True, the Canadian soldiers did not know why they were being sent over the top. They knew how bad the terrain was, and the odds. But their sense of duty was far stronger than their sense of self-pity. And because they responded, the whole Allied line held. Given how close the final German offensive in 1918 came to breaking through, the psychological and material losses Canadians inflicted in 1917 may have saved the Allies twice.

These stories are rarely told nowadays for several reasons. One is that both world wars divided Quebec from the rest of Canada over conscription. Another is that in 1917, and in the 1940s, it was not multiculturalism, peacekeeping or tolerance that Canada brought to the struggle for freedom and decency in the world but courage, determination and an honourable willingness to kill or be killed.

No one should forget the horror of war, nor should they conclude that because of it appeasement, surrender or quick defeat are preferable to grim determination.

Canadians did not do it alone, to be sure. Nor could they have. But in a desperate “all hands on deck” situation, they filled positions without which the Western alliance would have foundered despite others’ heroics.

Winston Churchill once told his countrymen, “It is no use saying, ‘We are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.” In precisely that spirit, Canadians saved the Allies in 1940-41 and in 1917.

Schools should be ashamed not to teach it.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]