War of Attrition

Legion Poppy

“Older men start wars, but younger men fight them.” So said Albert Einstein.

And he was right, dead right. And no where was the slaughter more tragic than in World War I. For the Great War was the War of Attrition. It was acceptable to our politicians and generals if 10,000 men on our side died in a battle along with 15,000 men of the enemy. That’s what attrition is all about. Grind down the enemy and their resources by expending our men and resources. Just be sure their losses are greater than ours. If both sides are approximately equal in men and resources such a strategy exercised successfully will win the War… eventually. But at horrible costs.

In a few days we will be bowing our heads in special remembrance for our soldiers who fought and died. Their valour deserves our utmost respect. But one can’t help but wonder how such a questionable strategy for victory could have been accepted by young soldiers without serious backlash if not outright revolt. Possibly by the time they realized the horror of trench warfare with its countless attacks and counter attacks for a few feet of land, it was too late. The machinery of war was firmly in place — deserting and going home as an option was as deadly by firing squad as going ‘over the top’. Certainly these young soldiers had little knowledge of political events that had lead to war.

Hodgetts and Burns address this understanding in their revised edition of “Decisive Decades: A History of the Twentieth Century for Canadians.” They say “this country entered the War (referring to Canada and World War I) with practically no knowledge of the tangled events leading up to it.”

True. Europe was a particular hotbed of intrigue, alliances, secret deals as countries tried to gain back old influence and powers or create new ones. Great empires were starting to fracture. And Britain faced social unrest at home. The fuse that triggered a series of declarations of war among the participant countries was ignited with the shooting deaths of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his Duchess by a young Bosnian, Gavrilo Princip. Princip was only 19 years old but not acting alone. He was part of a Serbian plot orchestrated by Colonel D. Dmitrivitch who was conveniently silenced before the war ended.

Hodgetts and Burns continue, “During the War, Canada was subjected to as rigid a censorship as existed anywhere in the world. The law read that ‘it shall be an offense to print, publish or publicly express any unfavourable statement, report or opinion concerning the causes of the present war or the motives for which Canada or any allied nation entered into it which may tend to create unrest or unsettle public opinion — under penalty of a maximum fine of $5,000 or of imprisonment for five years or both.’ Under these circumstances, Canadians acquired their ideas about the causes of the War almost exclusively from completely controlled propaganda sources.”

Canadian conscription was passed in 1917. The flow of volunteers had shrunk to a trickle. English-speaking Ontario and French-speaking Quebec were at odds. Ontarians were angry at Quebecers for not volunteering to fight (which was untrue, many did). Quebec, in turn, explained their loyalty was to Canada, not Great Britain. (Britain was the country of origin for many living in Ontario and it was Britain’s declaration of war which automatically committed Canada, too.)

By now Canadians were better informed at home and overseas. Amputees were returning home and talking. Evidence of what was going on overseas could no longer be easily manipulated by censors and spin doctors. Hodgetts and Burns point out:

“In the first draft call of 404,000 single men, 391,000 applied for exemption and well over two-thirds of these were allowed! Thousands of men refused to respond when called or deserted at the first opportunity: a military police force formed for the purpose, worked with the Mounties to rout these people out from their hiding place; mines, lumber camps, farms and at least two Roman Catholic colleges were raided, sometimes with gunfire and with loss of life. In these and other drastic ways about 30,000 defaulters were apprehended and turned over to the Army, but as many more were said to be hiding in the bush country of Ontario and Quebec when the war ended.”

Meanwhile back in Europe, Canadian soldiers continued to display their skills and fighting abilities in battle after battle. German soldiers were quite unhappy when they learned that they were about to face Canadian troops. Giving Hodgetts and Burns the final word:

“Time and good training revealed that the devil-may-care attitude and the extreme individualism of the Canadians were a final source of great strength on the Western Front. The Canadian Corps became not only a credit to the Empire but a source of tremendous and very justifiable pride to their own countrymen.”

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