Hope in Hell

The things that kept the common fighting man from cracking in the trenches were sometimes very small.

They were new to the soldiers’ life. They did not expect to be digging themselves into the ground, and staying there, in their troglodyte world, where the shovel was more useful than the rifle; to be burrowing like frightened animals to escape the terrible firepower of modern weapons. They were farmers, bankers, clerks, and miners — men of every class and occupation, from every part of Canada — but very few of them were professional soldiers.

How many of them could have imagined the horror of the trenches, where rats and lice plagued them year-round? In summer, they were overwhelmed by sweltering heat and the overpowering stench of bodies both living and dead. In winter they huddled like the homeless people they were, wrapped in layers of wet, mouldering clothes, boots nearly sucked from feet by the clinging mud.

By day, the battlefield was deserted; at night, nocturnal warriors crept into the foreboding no man’s land between the two opposing armies, laid barbed wire, patrolled, and raided the enemy lines. How did these civilian-soldiers from the young Dominion of Canada withstand such ghastly conditions?

The Great War raged for more than four years, killed ten million soldiers, wounded and maimed at least double that many, and forever changed world history. This cataclysm continues to haunt us ninety years after the guns fell silent. Canada paid a heavy price: more than 60,000 dead and 172,000 wounded from a country of not yet eight million.

In the war’s strange, static battlefield, where the front lines rarely shifted, the large battles that signposted the war — Second Ypres (1915), the Somme (1916), Vimy (1917), and Amiens (1918) — were relatively rare, but always the soldiers faced death. And it was random death: death by shell, shrapnel, sniper’s bullet, and all manner of weapons. Lance-Sergeant William Curtis described life in the trenches in a letter to his mother. “Ten days under heavy shell fire all the time, day and night. Our casualties were heavy, mostly wounded. It is nerve shattering to be under shellfire.” Curtis’s candid letter to his mother captured the strain at the front, where men became more and more unsteady over time. The young Curtis, who had grown up in Peterborough, Ontario, did not survive the war.

There was no escape and no rest from the battering, both physical and mental. Standing shoulder to shoulder with comrades helped, but there was no single method of enduring the death and destruction. Many soldiers were deeply religious, and their faith was only strengthened in the wasteland. “I do believe God will preserve me again when I go back to the trenches,” wrote Frank Maheux to his concerned wife. Although wounded, Maheux survived. Other soldiers found the fighting so brutal that their faith in a higher power was shaken. Weariness led to fatalism, which was a form of psychological coping where the soldiers continued to serve until the inevitable claimed them. It was summed up in the phrase, “When your number’s up.”

Even with these fatalistic beliefs, most soldiers tried to load the odds of survival in their favour. They armed themselves with good luck charms, embraced complicated superstitions, and followed patterns of behaviour. In a world of chaos, it was important to cling to something solid, even if it was based on a construction of the mind.

Small rewards also kept soldiers going. Letters from home created a sense of normalcy. A daily ration of rum and ample supplies of cigarettes offered respite from bland, starchy cooking and stale water. Also encouraging were the constellation of good billets (like a dry barn), junior officers who cared for their men, and even the rewards of medals.

While soldiers became hardened to the death and destruction around them, many truly believed in the justness of their fight. George Ormsby, who at age thirty-five left behind his wife and two children, wrote: “If it should happen that I do go under, I trust you will be proud that I have had the courage to get out and fight against such a domineering race. Should Germany win this war then may God help Canada — in fact the whole world.”

Not all men endured. Some broke under the strain, seeking wounds to give them honourable escape, or inflicting their own. Close to 10,000 soldiers were diagnosed with shell shock and another 700 were caught injuring themselves to escape the front. Desperate soldiers ran away from their units. They were almost always caught in the rear areas and many were sentenced to death, with twenty-five sentences carried out — twenty-two for desertion, one for cowardice and two for murder. Behind the multiple factors that kept soldiers in the line was the ultimate threat of a firing squad.

Despite the strain, British and Dominion forces were among the very few armies that went through the meat grinder of the Western Front without succumbing to mass mutiny. The Russian forces broke in 1917; the French and Italians mutinied that same year after spectacularly poor leadership and the accumulation of morale-shaking casualties; even the much-vaunted German army was in ruins by the end of the war — but not the Empire’s forces. While the Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, Newfoundland, and British Tommies paid a terrible price at the sharp end, they did not break. In the end, they fought because they refused to surrender. They were not simply victims in this massive industrialized war. They found ways to cope; they created new survival tools.

The key to victory in the Great War was the endurance of the common fighting man. We can sometimes forget this, ninety years later, as we look back over the wreckage of war that tore apart the twentieth century, the cities of silent white crosses in Europe, and the several thousands of stone memorials in local communities that span this country as mute testimony to a lost generation.

— Text by Tim Cook. This article originally appeared in the October/November 2008 issue of The Beaver.