"One day the great European War will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans,” Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had predicted toward the end of the nineteenth century. That foolish thing happened on June 28, 1914 in the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo when Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated. The bullets that killed them, unravelled the web of treaties between European nations, sending them heading for a military showdown that set the world on fire from 1914 until 1918 in what at first became known as the Great War, the first truly global conflict.
Because we’re close to the 100th anniversary of World War I, a host of tomes on this subject are being published these days. Canadian Mark Zuehlke, author of many fine histories on Canadian military exploits, enters the fray with “Brave Battalion”. What makes this one different? Most other works provide a general overview of the course of the war or chronicle one specific landmark battle. In this outstanding history, he focuses on a single Canadian battalion, following the war’s course from beginning to conclusion through their eyes, as the 16th Battalion was present from outbreak to end of hostilities at virtually every major battle Canada fought during the war.
The 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) was a unit of the First World War Canadian Expeditionary Force and composed of recruits from the 91st Canadian Highlanders (Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders), the 79th Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders, the 72nd Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, and the 50th Regiment (Gordon Highlanders). The color of their kilt: the yellow stripe of the Gordons, the white of the Seaforths, the red of the Camerons and the dark green of the Argylls. Later in the war their kilt was to be replaced by one of khaki when not on parade.
Zuehlke starts his narrative with an account of how the Battalion went from marshalling and training in Canada, with all the teething-problems involved in going from a peace-time army to a full war-footing, to how they were transported across the Atlantic to England, before finally landing in Europe and moving up to the front.
First blood was drawn at Second Ypres, April 1915, when the Canadian Scottish took responsibility from two French divisions for the eastern section of the Ypres Salient. But this Highland Regiment also fought at Somme, Vimy, Passchendaele, Arras, Amiens, to name a few of the battles whose names are written in blood. It chills the blood as Zuehlke narrates how the Can Scots went “over the top” and the appalling casualties they suffered for little or no gains.
The Can Scots had the distinction to suffer from the first gas attack. And, as noted by the author, Vimy Ridge was also a defining moment in Canadian history, as this was the first time all four Canadian Corps divisions had attacked as one and carried the day, and that came to symbolize its emergence from colony to nation.
By 1918, the Canadian Corps was one of the most professional forces in the Allied army, masters of the methodical offensive. They were involved in what became known as “the pursuit” in October/November 1918, driving the Germans back with hardly any fighting required. These were the final stages before hostilities ceased at 11:00 hours on November 11th, with the last Canadian casualty falling at 10:58 a.m., two minutes before the war officially ended. It took until May, 1919 before the Can Scots returned to Canada and were disbanded.
The overall narrative is accompanied with maps of the major battles as well as contemporary photographs, some of them even taken on the battlefield. “Brave Battalion” is an exceptional account, vividly told through use of eye-witness accounts like diaries and letters, and recommended for anyone who is interested in the First World War as seen from the trenches.
The Can Scots butcher’s bill:
Total enlisted in CEF (Canadian Expeditionary Force): 619,636, of which, killed or missing: 58,990; wounded: 149,710; prisoners of war: 2,820 (Source: “The Canadian Corps in World War I”, by Rene Chartrand, Osprey Men-At-Arms # 439). Thus showing in cold hard numbers that Canada represented an extraordinary contribution to the British Empire's struggle.
For further reading on the First World War, I recommend “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914” by Christopher Clark, a history which focuses on the causes of World War I; “Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War” by Max Hastings, a history that chronicles the breakdown of diplomacy and the battles in the first year before the war bogged down in the trenches; and “The Great War: 1914-1918” by Peter Hart, a military history of the full First World War.