Webmatters Title
Webmatters : The advance from Arras to Cambrai in 1918

The Battle of the Scarpe

Colonials – v – Imperials

The suggestion that Field Marshal Haig appears to have used the Australian and Canadian soldiers as his shock troops has been raised a number of times over the years.

Whether this was intentional or not, it would be fair to say that by 1918 the flower of British youth (and indeed middle age) had succumbed to the statistics of this war of attrition. Conscription was just about keeping up with the Army’s requirements, but Prime Minister Lloyd George had courted disaster that spring by leaving Haig crucially short of replacements.

Since their startling capture of Vimy Ridge on 9th April 1917 the four Canadian Divisions formed their own fully complete Army Corps, initially under the command of the Englishman Sir Julian Byng and then the Canadian, Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Currie.

This homogeneous Corps did not suffer the same problems of recruitment and strength as their British counterparts in 1918. Whilst the British Army was required to reduce the number of Battalions in each Brigade (due to an acute lack of trained recruits) the Canadians were able to maintain their units at reasonable levels of effectiveness.

By contrast the Australian Divisions would not be formed into a national Corps until November 1917 and an Australian (Sir John Monash) would only rise to command it in May 1918. The Australian Corps would eventually suffer from a shortage of recruits. Following two close votes the country had definitively eschewed the idea of conscription.

The Army Corps for the British Tommy was a purely administrative organisation. GHQ assigned the Infantry Divisions to a particular Corps as and when necessary and the objects of the soldiers’ loyalty and pride remained the Regiment and then the Division. This attachment to a particular Division led to a great deal of upset when the manpower problems of 1918 forced the breaking up of some of the Divisions.

Industrial Britain did not produce the same breed of man as the pioneering, outdoor spirited Colonies where society was far less industrialised. Life was grim working in the factories, coal mines and ship yards and the standard of diet on the poor wages left many of those called for service being turned down on medical grounds. To help ease the shortages the age limits were widened and the height limit reduced, giving rise to Bantam battalions of shorter but otherwise healthy soldiers.

It could also be argued that the Colonials were undergoing a mental transformation. The idea of nationhood had taken root and the demand for home grown commanders as opposed to British became virulent. It would later be successfully argued that the colonies had earned their right to a place at the post-war conference tables.

By 1918 then, the Canadians and Australians were serving together in nationally designated units and this inevitably gave rise to a fine esprit de corps.

Did this national cohesion truly make them more efficient fighting units or is it is all just a myth that has sprung from the desire to create that moment when a nation came of age. Wherever the answer lies the myth prevails — certainly across the seas.