Monday, October 18, 2010

The 1st. Battalion

Yes I have been researching the 1st. Battalion with the idea of writing a history of this unit. Why? Perhaps the simplest reason is that no history of the 1st. Battalion has ever been written. Mind you, the 18th. Battalion which was recruited from Southwestern Ontario as well also does not have a published history. This somewhat makes them unique of all the other 48 Battalions (1) that saw active service with the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the Great War. One Battalion at a time.

There is more documentation available now than ever before.We will see the 100th. Anniversary of the end of the First World War on November 11, 2018. Library and Archives Canada has released a huge amount of material from attestation papers to unit diaries. There is a great deal more that needs to be made available. John Babcock was the last man standing from all who served in the C.E.F. There are no more remaining.
1st. Battalion, Salisbury, England, 1915. Library and Archives Canada.
Canadian memory of the Great War over the last 90 odd years has been shaped then re-evaluated, and re-evaluated again. Once again historians are looking at the war. Opinions on how the battles changed, and defined Canadian nationalism, has been hotly debated over the last few years.The debate goes on.

What is known is that Canada, and particularly the 1st. Battalion, paid a butcher’s bill from 1915 until November 11, 1918. In a country of 7 to 8 million people Canada enlisted around 620,000 men and women into the Canadian Corps. That figure does not count those who served in Imperial services. The highest percentage of casualties were of course “the poor bloody infantry”.  There was no more dangerous spot to be in than in the infantry.

The 1st. Battalion holds the dubious distinction of being the single most devastated battalion in the Corps. From the spring of 1915 to 1918 6,449 of the rank and file passed through the battalion.(2) If we take battalion strength as 1,000 men that means that the 1st. Battalion was destroyed six times through the war. Of course, a statement like this is not always accurate as the battalion was not ever wiped out in one battle as were the Newfoundlanders. Instead this represents a constant bleeding of manpower as the war dragged on.

When you read an outline of the battalion you can understand why kids tend to fall asleep during history class. There must be more to it than that!

(1) There were many more than 50 battalions recruited; however, Currie resisted  re-organizing the Corps into an Army with more and smaller divisions in favour of larger divisions within the existing Corps. So newer battalions were broken up as reinforcements for the 50 active frontline battalions.
(2) Tim Cook, “Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting The Great War 1917-1918”, Viking Canada 2008, p. 614.
Flags of the 1st. & 18th. Battalions in St. Paul's Cathedral, London, Ontario.

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