“The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice; tragic because the consequences of the first clash ended the lives of ten million human beings, tortured the emotional lives of millions more, destroyed the benevolent and optimistic culture of the European continent and left, when the guns at last fell silent four years, a legacy of political rancour and racial hatred so intense that no explanation of the cause of the Second World War can stand without reference to those roots.”[i]
Canada was drawn into the conflict because it was a commonwealth country. Many Canadians enlisted and went overseas to fight. Northwestern Ontario (more commonly known at that time as New Ontario) heeded the call to action. The 52nd (New Ontario) Battalion was created so that men from this area could enlist and fight overseas.
In February of 1916, the CEF landed in La Havre, France. The Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) was primarily responsible for defending northern France near the Belgium border at a town called Ypres. All around Ypres was a place called “The Salient.” Fighting was fierce here. Artillery, gas and snipers killed and wounded thousands of soldiers. Men from the 52nd Battalion, attached to the 9th Brigade/3rd Canadian Division, fought bravely here, defending Paris against invasion by Germany.
Private W.C. Millar, who fought with the 52nd Battalion around Ypres, described their first stronghold in 1916, “Our first position in Ypres was at Maple Copse, to the left of the famous Hill 60, on March 23rd.”[ii] (Shown in the red square in figure 1 – Map of Ypres. The green squares in the next two maps, Figures 2 & 3, show the area of the Maple Copse.) “We held our position in Maple Copse for seven days, and then went out to support trenches for another seven, then out beyond Ypres for a bath, change of clothing and a rest.”[iii]
Millar writes, “Our next trip into the salient was at that point of the Menin Road called Hooge…In the first year of the war, Hooge was the headquarters of Byng’s third cavalry division, and around it some of the bloodiest battles of this war have been fought.”[iv] Survival was paramount for officers and soldiers. Death could come from artillery or sniper fire, and making one’s way to a particular position along the line was dangerous. Millar describes a day of the commanding officer of the 52nd Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Hay:
“About this time we had a Canadian major come over from England for ‘experience’ and, for this, he was temporarily attached to our battalion. He came to the right man for experience when he came to Colonel Hay. The third night after he arrived, the Colonel took him up to the Hooge craters, to show him how a crater is held. Next morning the dread news spread amongst the boys that the two officers had not returned to headquarters, and were last seen leaving the Hooge trenches just before daylight came in. Everyone’s spirits sank to zero at this news, as we knew only too well what it meant. Two scouts volunteered to worm their way up through the shallow trench between the Culvert and Hooge, and reported back from Hooge by telephone that they had arrived there, but could find no trace of the missing men. Nothing more was heard all day, and, even before darkness really set in, small patrols were out looking for the bodies of the missing officers. About eight o’clock that evening two figures staggered into the lines. A shout of joy went up when, through the mud which covered them, we recognized Colonel Hay and the visiting major. The latter was in a state bordering on collapse, and was supporting himself upon the arm of the Colonel. It appears that after leaving the Hooge craters that morning, the Colonel and his companion had stepped out of the shallow trench to examine the ground a little way over, to see if it were possible to improve the trench there. Daylight was just coming in, and an enemy sniper had seen their forms against the sky-line, and had let go a couple of shots at them. The Colonel made back for the trench, but, upon reaching it, found that the major had not followed him. He immediately went back, and after creeping around, found the major lying beside a huge shell hole half filled with water. By that time daylight was nearly in, and the Colonel saw at once that if they did not get right down into the shell hole some sniper would surely get them. This accounted for the state they were in that evening, as they had lain all day with their bodies submerged.”[v]
Unfortunately, Lt.-Col. Hay would be killed in combat sometime around 3-June-1916.
 See appendix A for news article referring to Col. Hay
There were many battles in the Ypres area during the years of World War One, indeed the front lines moved very little from beginning to end. Men thirsting for water lay dying in the “no man’s land” unable to move due to injury, unable to be saved due to snipers or machine-gun fire. Some of these soldiers would die and decompose, unmoved as the war raged on without them.
It was a hellish spring for the soldiers of World War One in 1916, but the bloodbath would continue for two-and-a-half more years and would claim many more lives.
June of 1916 saw the Battle of Mount Sorrel. Norm Christie (2000) gives the dates of Sorrel as June 2nd to 14th[vi]. Furthermore, he writes:
“The Battle of Mount Sorrel was in many ways the true face of the First World War. It had horror, slaughter, mass destruction and the futility of having no effect on the outcome of the war. In addition the fact that it has been completely forgotten only lends to it being the ‘perfect’ representation of a First World War battle. Unfortunately it was not unique. During the Great War there were hundreds of ugly, little battles or actions as they were often called. They had no strategic significance and were played out, almost like a game. It was one commander trying to outwit his opponent to secure a slightly better observation or to impress his superiors.
“The Battle of Mount Sorrel was precisely that. A German General (Würtemburger) wanted to improve his position on the heights south-east of Ypres. To do so he unleashed a devastating explosive force of artillery and underground mines on a one km front between two high points, Hill 62 and Mount Sorrel. His unlucky opponent was the newly arrived and inexperienced 3rd Canadian Division.
“For Canada the Battle of Mount Sorrel was a turning point. It marked the beginning of a progression that would ultimately result in the undisciplined colonials becoming the most formidable attacking Corps on the Western Front. The Battle would challenge the three infantry divisions of the newly-formed Canadian Corps. It would test their fighting strength, tenacity and resilience against a determined enemy. In the end the Canadians hung on at a heavy cost of almost 10,000 killed, wounded or taken prisoner. They lost two Generals and six Colonels. The 3rd Division had been shattered, and Canadian confidence severely shaken. Mount Sorrel was definitely a bloody nose for Canadian arms, but they had regained the lost trenches; they had come back.”[vii]
Through this “baptism by fire,” Canadian soldiers proved their toughness and earned the respect of their enemies who would come to call Canadians sturmtruppen…“storm trooper.”
Appendix A: Newspaper Articles
“Alsace Listening Post” This First World War image comes from a glass slide recovered from a home in France during the Second World War. These slides were maintained by Donald Fulford and passed down to his grandson in later years. (Donated by Calvin Fors). http://images.ourontario.ca/gateway/2846948/data?n=24
“Treating the Wounded” This First World War image comes from a glass slide recovered from a home in France during the Second World War. These slides were maintained by Donald Fulford and passed down to his grandson in later years. (Donated by Calvin Fors). http://images.ourontario.ca/gateway/2847319/data?n=55
“Group of Soldiers” January 1916. From the collection Julia Shapton’s Photo Album. (Donated by Mark Chochla). http://images.ourontario.ca/gateway/2823261/data?n=61
[i] Keegan, J. (1998). The First World War. Key Porter Books. p.3
[ii] Millar, Pte. W.C. (1918). From Thunder Bay Through Ypres with the Fighting 52nd. p.14
[iii] Millar, Pte. W.C. (1918). – p.16.
[iv] Millar, Pte. W.C. (1918). – p.17.
[v] Millar, Pte. W.C. (1918). – p.19-20.
[vi] Christie, N. (2000). For King and Empire: the Canadians at Mount Sorrel, June 2nd-14th, 1916. CEF Books.
[vii] Christie, N. (2000). – p.1