English Literature

Over the Canadian Battlefields by John W. Dafoe

Over the Canadian Battlefields by John W. Dafoe



In the first days of March, 1919, I made hurriedly a pilgrimage that will be made in more leisurely manner by thousands of Canadians in coming years. For while the memory of the Great War endures and Canada retains her national consciousness, Canadians, generation after generation for centuries to come, will follow the Canadian way of glory over the battlefields of France and Flanders, with reverent hearts and shining eyes, learning anew the story of what will doubtless always remain the most romantic page in our national history. For lack of time I had to forego my visit to the bitter battlefields of Flanders: Ypres, where the Canadians held the line against all odds when German hopes for the Channel ports appeared for the moment to be on the point of fulfilment; Festubert, St. Eloi and Sanctuary Wood, the scenes of desperate encounters where the Canadians learned hard lessons in the art of beating the Boche; and Passchendaele, where the very doubtful and questionable Flanders campaign of 1917 had a victorious finale by the resounding achievement of the Canadian corps in capturing the ridge which had so long defied assault. But the other Canadian battle-fronts I saw, albeit hurriedly and under weather conditions which were far from propitious; and perhaps some notes of my impressions may not be entirely lacking in interest to the Canadian public.

But before going on to this something might be said on the general subject of visits to the Canadian battlefields of the western European front. At the moment of course this area is sealed to visitors. It constitutes a military zone which can only be entered under the authority of a “white pass.” Unless one is accompanied by a member of the military staff he cannot get this pass nor would it be of use to him because there is in this belt of wilderness which lies athwart one of the oldest and most populous areas in Europe no means of transportation and no accommodation for the unattached civilian. But this of course is a condition that will speedily pass.

In a year’s time, or less, the tides of travel will pour over these highways; and among the travellers will be all sorts and conditions of men; from the idle sightseers seeking a new sensation amidst these mute memorials of human conflict to the reverent pilgrim following step by step the road of sacrifice and glory trodden by his countrymen in the Great Crusade.

It is desirable that for Canadians making this pilgrimage there should be, so to speak, a beaten path which they can follow with the certainty that, with a minimum of time, they can bring away with them something approaching adequate understanding of Canada’s contribution to the great European campaigns. There is a proposition, not without strong support in army circles, that Canada should erect and maintain in perpetuity a number of battle shrines which would be stations on this pilgrimage. The suggested sites are Ypres, Vimy Ridge, Bourlon Wood and some point in the district of Amiens, either in Courcelette or further south, in the track of the Canadian avalanche of August 8, 1918. These shrines, it is proposed, should contain plans of the adjoining battle-fields in topographical relief, maps, diagrams, detailed histories of the actions, information as to the Canadian cemeteries in the neighborhood—they should be the headquarters for all that a Canadian, ten, twenty or fifty years hence, will want to know. If this plan is carried out there should also be available official Canadian guides fully equipped to tell the story of Canadian achievement.

The project is one well worth careful consideration. Canada’s participation in the war is a fountain from which succeeding generations should drink deep, learning thereby lessons in valor, sacrifice, patriotism and national pride; and nothing will make this living inspiration more available than maintaining in perpetuity upon the European battle-fields authentic records of the deeds done there. It is a reasonable expectation that once normal conditions of life are resumed thousands of Canadians will yearly make the tour of the Canadian fronts—visiting in turn the Flanders battlefields; the scenes of the heroic achievements around Vimy and Lens; that portion of the tragic field of the Somme “which is forever Canada” by virtue of our dead; and finally following step by step the Canadian advance during the One Hundred Days, which saw Germany’s military effort pass, by successive disasters, from the high tide of the July offensive to the hopeless ruin of the November surrender. Even a casual inspection will take several days for, during their 42 months of war, the Canadian troops ranged wide and shed the glamor of their achievements upon many localities. The names of these places, many of them already storied from battles long ago, make a list full of significance to the Canadians of today and tomorrow. Langemarck, St. Julien, Festubert, St. Eloi, Sanctuary Wood, Courcelette, Regina Trench, Vimy, Hill Seventy, Passchendaele, Amiens, Arras, Monchy-le-Preux, Bourlon Wood, Cambrai, Valenciennes, Mons.

In my three days flying trip in a motor out from Paris and back again I covered in some sort the more southern fields of Canadian operations. We struck into the battle-fronts from the west having gone north from Paris by the traditional road to England—out St. Denis Gate and north through Beauvais, crossing the Somme at Abbeville and then turning eastward towards Arras. At St. Pol, which was the extreme limit of the range of a high powered German naval gun, the first signs of shell fire were seen. Thereafter mile by mile, as we sped through a countryside familiar to Canadian troops as a rest area, the evidences of war damage increased until we ran into the battlefields of the Souchez and saw the slope of Vimy rise gently to the sky-line. From there our course ran over the Ridge to that huge pile of red-brick rubble that was Lens—once a city of 50,000 souls; thence on through Douai and Denain to Valenciennes. This was the way of the German retreat; at every crossroads hasty repairs to the paved way bore witness to their scheme of systematic destruction; over every canal and stream the road was carried on improvised bridges, the original structures sprawling in ruined heaps athwart the waterways. From Valenciennes—relatively damaged but slightly—we ran into Cambrai, the latter half of the road through villages that bore ample marks of the rear-guard actions between the Germans and the onward-pressing Canadians. From Cambrai—a shell of a city systematically destroyed by fire by the Germans as they fell back—the road to Arras took us through the centre of the great battlefield over which the Canadians drove the Huns in the fighting of late August and September—to the left a huge blur on the sky-line seen through the driving rain was Bourlon Wood; to the right the ruins of the villages where the desperate German counter-attacks at the end of September were stopped; further on, three huge streaks of blackened wire stretching across the gaunt countryside marked the once-vaunted impregnable Hindenburg line; then to the right rose the high ground of Monchy-le-Preux, wrested out of hand from the Germans by the Third Division in the early hours of a bloody August day; all about, on both sides of the road as far as the eye could see stretched the tortured and scarred countryside over which the tide of carnage flowed and ebbed for two years; and so to Arras—a ghost city where the shattered houses, no longer habitable, stand in their empty loneliness. From Arras we went to Bapaume by a road which crossed diagonally the old German-British front line; from Bapaume to Albert, across the waste of the Somme battlefield; on to Amiens in which the tides of business are again feebly flowing; along the highway to Roye, with the great Canadian battlefield of August stretching along the left for ten miles—a road memorable, too, to Canadians because along every mile of it Canadian cavalry and motor machine-gun men fought against the German flood in March 1918; in every copse hereabouts there lie Canadian dead. From Roye southward to the Oise we passed through a countryside which was fought over, foot by foot twice last year—to say nothing of the battles of earlier campaigns; everywhere there were ruin, desolation and the marks of death. After crossing the river the ruins of war diminished, but not until we passed Senlis—where the marks of the beast left by the Hun high tide in 1914 are still to be seen—did we leave them behind; and so came back to Paris by the old Roman road over which the legions marched to Flanders nearly 2,000 years ago.


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