Monday, July 03, 2006

Stanway's Sombre Reflection on Somme

Edmonton Sun editor Paul Stanway gives serious sobre reflection on the importance of the battle of the Somme for Canadian military strategy.

Ninety years on, losses remembered Sun, July 2, 2006

Despite the loss of life, the meaning of the Somme was lost on Haig (who considered it a victory) and British newspapers that hailed it as a triumph (as did the Toronto Star). Its meaning was not lost on the troops, who called the Somme a name that is unprintable here. Nor was it lost on Arthur Currie, the commander of the 1st Canadian Division who was horrified by the slaughter.

Currie, tubby and unathletic, was an unlikely battlefield commander. Yet by the time his troops arrived on the Somme in August, the 42-year-old former B.C. teacher and realtor had already formed strong opinions about the string of suicidal frontal attacks that had already cost thousands of Canadian lives.

When Currie was asked to plan an attack on heavily defended Vimy Ridge, he did everything Haig had not done before the Somme. The four divisions of the Canadian Corps trained throughout the winter on a recreation of the Vimy battlefield behind their own lines. Enormous tunnels were built to deliver men and equipment to the front out of sight of the Germans on the overlooking ridge.

And having seen the fiasco of the Somme artillery barrage, Currie had his officers develop new tactics that would cover the Canadian advance and concentrate on destroying enemy strong points and guns.

The result, on April 9, 1917, was perhaps the most significant Allied success in three years of war. New fuses meant shells actually destroyed the German wire, and the meticulously timed barrage kept the enemy troops in their shelters until the Canadians were virtually on top of them. Three-quarters of the German guns were silenced before the attack even began, and instead of massed ranks of slow-moving infantry, Currie's men attacked in platoons, moving rapidly from one objective to the next.

Vimy was the anti-Somme, and established the Canadians' reputation as the most effective Allied troops. Currie was knighted and became commander of all Canadian soldiers in France. In the fall of 1918, his Canadian Corps would use its new tactics to lead the final Allied assault of that dreadful war, to eventual victory.

Our greatest military strength has not been our Airborne, nor our Sea or Airforce, rather it has been our engineers.

And the Somme gave them the model of both what to do and what not to do when it came to taking Vimy Ridge.

Ironically it was a very real Colonel Blimp, Arthur Currie, who would devise the solution to taking the ridge that had cost so many lives.

It was an engineering problem, the seige, as it has been since the middle ages. All forteified warfare is an engineering problem.


One of the most important functions of the Sappers during the war was to dig tunnels underneath enemy trenches, with which to plan explosives to destroy them. At the Battle of Vimy Ridge, several such mines were used to win the battle.Canadian Military Engineers - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


And the Canadian Engineering Corp gets little recognition that it is due for its feats during both wars.



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2 comments:

Larry Gambone said...

Could this be a class thing? Engineers were once looked down upon, compared to "high class professionals" like doctors and of course the men who actually did the work of digging those tunnels and laying mines were workers, mainly miners, I would bet...

eugene plawiuk said...

You hit the nail on the head, I left the clues with sappers, who were miners orginally, all engineers were workers until the after WWI with the rise of the PEGGA and other 'professional' associations to recognize their increased importance with Fordist manufacutring and Taylorist Management.

Think back to the Crusades and later to Henry the V and you have sappers, miners working underground, blowing up seige walls around castles and protective walls.

That tradition continues through the 19th century and the early twentieth, ending with the use of SeaBees in the Pacific, the famous John Wayne movie about ordinary blue collar workers fighting on an island.

All Engineering corps represented logistics, transportation, the work of the hodsman, the teamster, the miners and the navvies.

It is after WWI that the Engineer becomes a professional, and Veblen challenges them to identify with their own class rather than the owners and bosses. Hence the origin of Technocracy Inc.