Manitoba Organization: Manitoba 44th Battalion
by Ian Stewart
1914-1915: Preparing for War
Three months after the start of the Great War, the Canadian government approved the creation of two new contingents to supplement troops of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) training in England. The 44th Manitoba Battalion was part of the Third Contingent and was raised on 7 November 1914. It took men from local militia battalions: the 90th Battalion Winnipeg Rifles, the 100th Battalion Winnipeg Grenadiers and the 106th Battalion Winnipeg Light Infantry. The 44th would be incorporated into the 4th Canadian Division and fought alongside the 46th (South Saskatchewan), 47th (British Columbia) and the 50th (Calgary) Battalions in the 10th (Western Canadian) Infantry Brigade.
The Battalion’s first officers, like those who had joined Winnipeg’s 8th Battalion (90th Winnipeg Rifles) and 27th (City of Winnipeg) Battalion in 1914, were young, well-educated members of Winnipeg’s professional class: businessmen, merchants, real-estate agents, accountants, bankers, engineers or lawyers and most had some militia experience. One officer, 22-year-old Lieutenant Charles Dufferin Roblin, was the son of Manitoba’s Premier Sir Rodmond Roblin.
Winnipeg newspapers quickly gave the new battalion the nickname “The Athletic 44th” as it actively sought out men from Winnipeg’s hockey, lacrosse and football teams, and tennis and rowing clubs. The athletic “pals” were promised that, if they joined up with teammates, they would be kept in the same company. Some of the city’s prominent young sportsmen, including Charles Belcher, Francis Caldwell, Lesley Moffatt, Harold “Corky” Fowler, Raymond Fowler and Charles “Chuck” Stewart attested (enlisted) and became some of the Battalion’s first officers.
Early in the war, Manitoba men were eager to enlist, and the Battalion quickly reached its 1200-man complement. On 15 June 1915, the 44th set off for Camp Sewell, near the farming town of Carberry, to begin training. In 1915, Camp Sewell’s name was changed to Camp Hughes to honour Canada’s Minister of Defence and Militia Sir Sam Hughes.
Today, Camp Hughes looks much like it would have in 1915: barren rolling prairie, spindly poplars and a few cows grazing on the tough grass growing in the sandy soil. In the Battalion history, 6000 Canadian Men, Edgar (Ed) Russenholt gave his first impression of Camp Hughes. “Crowding off the trains the men look over a tumble of sand-hills clothed with sparse brown grass and ground cedar. Bluffs of discouraged poplars dot the rolling plains; while here and there scrub oaks and evergreens struggle up to the crest of the sand ridges.” Camp Hughes was a windy, dusty place, and soldiers complained that the sand seeped into their eyes, food and beds and also claimed that the average man ate a pound of dirt a day. Others complained about the summer’s scorching heat and the mosquitoes. Prairie thunderstorms often came through the Carberry Plains and soldiers’ letters and photographs reveal that storms roared through the camp causing flooding and general mayhem in the summer of 1916.
The 44th began five months of training, and, as James Barclay wrote, “it was a great adventure sleeping in tents with all his pals.” The 15 July 1915 Winnipeg Free Press reported that over 8000 men were needed in Saskatchewan to get the bumper grain crop off the land before fall frosts destroyed it, and, so, farmers’ sons, Winnipeg boys, including James Barclay, were given time off from training to help during harvest season. The men worked and trained hard, gained weight and, soon, pale, scrawny recruits became hard and healthy soldiers. Every morning there was a mile run, a run which soon became a two-mile run. There were also long marches to increase stamina and discipline, both of which, as the men would learn, were vital on the front. Bandsman Duncan Munroe wrote that the band played for the Battalion’s 15-mile route marches in the blistering heat of the prairie summer. During the day, the men practiced bayonet fighting and rifle firing on the ranges. There was also drill during which the troops learned how to maneuver in platoon, company and battalion formations.
In a June 1915 letter to his sister, Ed Russenholt described one Saturday’s inspection by the camp commandant. This letter from Camp Sewell portrays youthful innocence, enthusiasm and exuberance at playing war:
Camp Hughes had a ten-kilometer trench system modeled on trenches found on the Western Front in 1915: fire (front-line) trench, support (second-line) trench and communication trenches. The recruits moved forward, up the communications trenches to the support and fire trench and trained in the daily routine of trench warfare: establishing listening posts, setting sentries, eating meals, cleaning equipment and practicing frontal assaults across no man’s land into the enemy trenches. Because the area’s sandy soil caused the “trenches to cave in at the slightest provocation”, repairing the trenches was a regular job, wrote Boissevain’s Private James Bowes to his mother in June 1916.
As the winter of 1915 approached, leaves were cancelled, and on 18 October 1915, the 37 officers and 1097 other ranks boarded trains and headed east to Winnipeg. In the Battalion history, Russenholt wrote that “on reaching Winnipeg, hometown to nine-tenths of the men…Crowds throng the station. In that sea of faces are friends, families, wives, mothers; spectators cheer, soldiers thunderingly reply, a mad rush of greeting—then stillness. Amid the surging crowd and the confused roar of casual greeting and badinage, loved ones say goodbye.”
In his memoir, James Barclay remembered that there was great excitement in Winnipeg that day and he was lucky enough to see his parents. It was the last chance for many as over 1300 of the 6000 men who passed through the ranks of the 44th Battalion were killed in action or died of wounds. In four years of war approximately 70,000 men served in Manitoba battalions, sadly nearly 8000 were killed in action, died of wounds, illness or accident.
The long train ride from Winnipeg to Halifax was uneventful. The Battalion boarded the transport ship Lapland and, other than some cases of seasickness, the Battalion made the ten-day Atlantic crossing safely. The 44th was stationed in Bramshott, one of the three training camps for Canadian troops in England. The changing realities of trench warfare demanded new training methods, weapons and tactics for specific situations. The recruits were instructed in bombing [throwing grenades], digging and wiring trenches, range-finding, signaling, machine gunnery, rapid fire shooting, scouting, sniping and bayonet fighting.
When the 44th was assigned to the 4th Division in the spring of 1916, training became more systematic and intensive as they would soon to be sent to the battlefields. Men were sent to specialist schools to learn how to command a 36-man platoon or an eight-man squad, to use and maintain wireless radios, to operate the heavy Vickers machine gun or the light Lewis machine gun, and trench mortars. After a final inspection by Major General Sir Sam Hughes, the Battalion marched out of Bramshott Camp to board HM Transport Viper at Plymouth. On 12 August 1916, the ship docked at the French port of Le Havre. During their overnight train ride from Le Havre towards the frontline, the men of the 44th heard the rumble of the big guns.
1916: Ypres and the Somme
The men were issued British Lee-Enfield rifles, steel helmets and gas hoods, and they began their march towards the Ypres salient in Belgium. Captain Charles Belcher, one of Winnipeg’s famous athletes, told his company, “I feel that I am going into the biggest game I’ve ever played. I feel, too, that I am going in with the biggest and best team I ever played with.” The big game turned deadly on the Battalion’s second night in the trenches. On 21 August 1916, Corporal Allen Lyne was shot and killed by a German sniper. He is buried in Ridgewood Cemetery, Belgium with five others who died during the first weeks the Battalion was in the Ypres salient.
After their first few weeks in the trenches, the men tramped back to the rest billets. The Battalion’s second tour up the line was much the same as the first, and the oppressive, grinding daily routine began to weigh on the men’s spirit. As Russenholt sarcastically wrote in a September letter to his sister, “If it wasn’t for the rain and mud & alarms & biscuits & bully beef & Hienie's rum jars & sausages & the noise & lugging a cart-load of household goods on your spine… & the rats & the wee companions & having clothes on for a week or so at a stretch and one or two small items, this would be the ideal life. The life humanity has been searching for ever since the dawn of time…”
After their second tour, the Battalion was again ordered to rest billets. On 20 September 1916, the 44th marched off the Ypres salient towards St. Omer, France. Two days later, they reached St. Omer to begin training in newer battle techniques. The men were taught how to advance in waves behind an imaginary artillery barrage. They were told that they must almost “lean up against it”; the “curtain of fire” thrown up by the artillery would be so intense that the enemy’s guns could not shoot through it.” As the Battalion War Diary reported on 29 September 1916: “Battalion carried on Brigade scheme. Co-operation with aircraft, and an advance under a creeping barrage -- which was successfully carried out.”
On 3 October, the 44th Battalion, along with the rest of the 4th Division, headed towards the Somme battlefields where the three other Canadian divisions were already fighting. The Battle of the Somme had begun 1 July 1916, and the Canadians had joined the fight on 15 September, facing their first action at Courcelette where British tanks were first used in battle. In late October 1916, the 44th was ready to follow the other Canadian Divisions into the front lines. In Ypres, the weather had been clear and calm, and the shelling limited. But on the Somme, the fall weather was hellish, the shelling incessant, and, after three months of fighting, the battlefield reeked of death. Jack Quelch, a 19-year-old from Beulah, Manitoba, wrote home: “You could smell the place half a mile away. They were mostly Hineys, but there were some of our own chaps among them. If I see this through, I shall not forget that place…” The 44th’s War Diary entries of October 19 and 20, 1916, described the conditions the men faced and reported that men were being killed every day: “Showery clearing towards evening. Battalion was to have been relieved tonight by 47th Bn. but were later ordered to evacuate immediately it became dark. 2 O.R. were killed and 3 wounded in 24 hours, 19th-20th. Sickness is very prevalent owing to state of trenches.”
The Canadians were tasked with taking Regina Trench, a strongly built, sophisticated trench system whose deep dugouts protected German soldiers from artillery shells, heavy wire entanglements impeded attack and hundreds of machine guns spewed countless deadly bullets. Although they were able to capture part of the trench system the Canadian battalions were constantly thrown back by determined German counter-attacks. On 23 October, the 44th Battalion moved forward to take its turn attacking Regina Trench. Russenholt writes that the heavily loaded men carried 4 Mills bombs, 220 rounds of ammunition, rations for 48 hours, a water bottle, five empty sandbags and a pick or shovel. They trudged for hours through sludge and reached the front line and waited for the order to attack; however, the weather delayed the attack for 24 hours. The men remained overnight in the water-logged ditches with no protection from “the hammering of rain and the bursting shells, enfilading enemy machine gun and shell fire.”
All Winnipeg infantry battalions faced a first great bloodying: the 8th Battalion (90th Winnipeg Rifles) during the 2nd Battle of Ypres on 24-28 April 1915; the 27th (City of Winnipeg) at the St. Eloi Craters on 4-6 April 1916 and the 43rd (Cameron Highlanders) during the Battle of Mount Sorrel on 6-11 June 1916. The 44th faced their “baptism of fire” on 25 October 1916 when they “went over the top”. The creeping barrage’s protective artillery screen failed to cut the German wire and keep enemy machine gunners in their dugouts. As James Barclay remembered, “We got orders that we were going over the next morning and we started out in good faith…. I was in the second wave. After going some distance, we realized something was wrong. We had no artillery support.”
Death came suddenly as the Battalion moved out of their trenches. The Germans opened up with machine guns, forcing the men to try to crawl back to their trenches or to take cover in shell holes. In early evening, the Battalion stretcher bearers (medics) attempted to carry the wounded out to safety. However, as Victor Wheeler wrote in The 50th Battalion in No Man’s Land, “volunteers from the 50th Battalion went over the top to help rescue many of the 44th men whose lives were ticking away in No Man’s Land. Not all stretcher bearers and their bloodied comrades, however, reached the field dressing station. They were tempting sweetmeats for hungry Heine snipers.”
The Battalion War Diary’s entry of 25-26 October 1916 stated: “Battalion attempted to capture portion of REGINA TRENCH. The operation failed owing to insufficiency of Artillery Barrage. The Battalion suffered heavily. Three officers were killed, seven wounded and one removed for shell shock; thirty-seven other ranks killed, one hundred twenty-five wounded, thirteen missing and presumed dead. The Battalion rested today. The condition of their clothes and equipment was deplorable and shows the hardships they had to endure during the tour, many of the men suffering from exposure and exhaustion.”
On the 27th, the Battalion made its way back to Albert to recuperate and take on replacements. Six days later, they returned to the front; Regina Trench still needed to be taken. The horrible weather continued, and working parties had to carry all supplies miles up to the front. As Russenholt wrote in 6000 Canadian Men: “Rations must be carried up front from far back in the line. Bread, in sandbags, is water soaked and mixed with mud; water is brought up in tins tied in pairs with strips of sand bags—these tins have previously held three gallons of gasoline each, and a goodly portion of it apparently, remains in the solution with the water. Finally, for three days no rations can get through the sustained shell-fire with which the enemy rakes the roads, trenches and paths. Men subsist on biscuits and cheese.”
On 11 November 1916, Regina Trench was finally taken by battalions of the 4th Division. The summer “fighting season” ended, and Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig called for an end to Allied offensive operations in mid-November. On 28 November 1916, the 44th left the Somme battlefield. They rested, recuperated and took on replacement troops until mid-December. On 25 December 1916, the Battalion took up its position on the Canadian line near Vimy Ridge.
1917-1918: Vimy, Hill 70, Passchendaele and the Last 100 Days Battles
On Christmas Day, the 44th was ordered to take its turn on Vimy’s front-line. The winter of 1916-1917 was one of the wettest in many years, and the men suffered. Russenholt remarked in a Christmas letter to his family that “water and mud is over the knees.” The War Diary reported on 30 December 1916 that “Wet weather has made trenches in an awful state. Both Front-Line, Support and Communication trenches have caved in, in many places. There is also a great deal of water in them in places. Large parties working on them.”
In early 1917, under the command of British Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, aided by Canadian Major-General Arthur Currie, the four Canadian infantry divisions on Vimy Ridge went through a major reorganization. The commanders urgently wanted to solve the “riddle of the trenches”. What lessons could they draw from the 1915-1916 Battles of Ypres, the Somme and Verdun? They determined that, to take the “Ridge”, the Canadian Corps had to be transformed from an amateur army into a professional army.
As March of 1917 began, the Battalion continued its training and prepared for the upcoming attack. On 20 March, the Canadian artillery barrage began. In two weeks of shelling, nearly 90% of the German guns and most of the wire was destroyed. On 9 April the Canadian battalions came out of their trenches and the tunnels they had dug into the soft Vimy chalk. The 44th was not due to go into battle until 11 April, but, on the morning of the 9th, the men of the 44th climbed out of their tunnels to wait for “Zero Hour”. Russenholt wrote that suddenly they saw:
He believed he would be out of the fighting from now on.
The 44th was rushed into action on 10 April. The 4th Division battalions that had been ordered to take Hill 145 ( Where the Canadian National Vimy Memorial stands today) had run into heavy machine gun fire and were not able to capture the strong point. They pressed on under heavy fire and, although many of their officers were killed or wounded the Battalion, in a testament to its training and morale, moved forward to capture their objective, consolidate a trench line and connect with the battalions on the flanks. The men moved forward into unfamiliar terrain, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Davies, who would end the war as one of the CEF’s most decorated officers, winning the Distinguished Service Cross three times in 1917-1918, as well as being Mentioned In Dispatches five times.
As Wesley Runions, a young soldier from Dugald, Manitoba, stepped into No Man’s Land, a piece of shrapnel hit him in the stomach and shoulder, and he went down. But, as he recalled, "I heard the men cheer, as they took the Ridge." Canadians now looked beyond the mud and the blood into the broad Douai Plain. The operation cost the Battalion 100 casualties. Their job wasn't done; they still had to complete their original objective, taking a fortified position on Vimy Ridge’s northern slope known as “The Pimple”.
On the evening of 11 April, the Battalion moved forward to attack. As Lieutenant D. Marshall remembered, “It was early in the morning, pitch-dark and this was our home territory, that was our area that we had been in and out of all winter. We had trained on the tapes, but when we got up there, there was nothing, it was just a quagmire that was turned into just muck overall. Anyway, we started out, and it started to snow like the Dickens too, just when we were going, and you couldn't keep it online, I mean we had to skirt these craters to--... it was a matter of single file and everyone reaching back and pulling someone out of the mud to keep with the crowd and we really got stuck in the mud there. The mud was so bad that you couldn't stand in any place, you'd have to move, or you would sink practically. And they were shelling us then heavily, and the shells were bouncing around and they did no damage at all-- they went into the mud and they blew up in the air. So, nobody got hurt much.” With the 12 April taking of “The Pimple”, the Battle of Vimy Ridge came to an end.
After the battle of Vimy Ridge, the Canadians moved their front lines onto the flat French plain below the Vimy heights. The 44th Battalion’s position on the line faced the village of La Coulette and an enemy trench system known as “The Triangle”, “a name”, writes Edgar Russenholt, “that is to acquire a sinister significance in the terrible weeks to come,” as many men and officers gave their lives in fruitless heroic attacks and counter-attacks.
The operations the 44th faced in May and June 1917 are not found in standard Canadian First World War texts, but this series of engagements was seared into the hearts and minds of Manitoba’s trench warriors. The Battalion suffered over 600 casualties in the most sustained fighting of the war. The Battalion historian queried his readers as he told the story of these hard months:
After these operations, the Battalion rested and took on much-needed replacements. In July, the Canadian divisions prepared for their next major operation, the Battle of Hill 70, 15-25 August 1917. The 4th Division was held in reserve in the opening days of the battle, and the 44th Battalion was assigned to take the Green Crassier.
Today, the Green Crassier is a pleasant, forested park in the center of Lens, France, but, in 1917, it was a huge slag heap of mine tailings and abandoned, rusting machinery. Taking the Green Crassier would be, as described in Col. G. W. L. Nicolson’s, The Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919, “a costly and unprofitable task”. The ill-fated plan to take the Green Crassier on a narrow front with only one battalion and without clearing the entrenched enemy positions nearby spelled doom for the 44th. They took their objective on the night of 23 August, but, by mid-afternoon the next day, 247 Canadian men on the slag heap had been killed, wounded or captured. No further attempts were made to retake the objective, and it remained in German hands until the end of the war.
In October 1917, the Battalion marched to Belgium to join the Empire and Dominion troops in the great horror known as the Battle of Passchendaele. They entered the battle in late October, along with the other battalions of the 4th Division. Their task was to take Decline Copse (Woods) near the village of Passchendaele. In the early hours of October 27th, the Battalion worked its way forward while facing unchecked machine-gun fire and gas shelling. Finally, the whole of Decline Copse was taken, and the Battalion was able to repel counter attacks. Two days later, Jack Quelch wrote to his mother and described the battle.
The Canadians returned to their lines near Vimy Ridge after the Passchendaele battle. They rested, were restored to a full-strength of 1000 men and trained to peak efficiency. After the failed German Spring Offensive of 1918, the Allied High Command decided the time had come to attack. In the almost continuous bloody battles of the Last 100 Days (8 August to 11 November 1918), the Canadian Expeditionary Force suffered over 45,000 casualties with 11,000 dead, a number virtually equal to losses during the battles of the Somme and Vimy Ridge.
On 8 August 1918, the Canadian and Australian divisions spearheaded the attack at Amiens and dealt a crushing, but not yet deadly, blow to the German army. The 44th was always at the front of the battle and played its part in the deadly fighting at Amiens. In late August, the Canadian forces attacked the enemy in the Battle of Arras and in early September broke the enemy’s defenses at the Droquert-Queant Line. In late September, during the battle of the Canal du Nord, tragedy was averted when officers and NCOs of the 44th rushed into the allied creeping artillery barrage to stop over-anxious soldiers who had advanced too quickly and were caught by deadly “friendly fire”. Then, finally, the 44th helped break the Hindenburg Line at Cambrai and fought in the last major battle at Valenciennes.
The Battalion had had a trench-strength of 1000 men before the Battle of Amiens, but, at the end of the war, they were down to less than 200, even after taking on hundreds of replacement soldiers in September and October. Because of the shortage of replacement troops from Manitoba and because many draftees were coming from the eastern provinces, the 44th Manitoba was designated as the 44th New Brunswick in August 1918. It demobilized in May 1919 in New Brunswick, but the original Manitoba members completed their discharge papers in Winnipeg.
Although the war ended on 11 November 1918, Canada’s soldiers were forced to wait for up to six months in make-shift camps in England and Wales before their turn came to return home. The 44th Battalion’s turn finally came in May 1919. On 2 June 1919, at St. John, New Brunswick, the men of the 44th Battalion stood in front of Colonel Davies who dismissed them for the last time. Six days later, on 8 June 1919, a train carrying 50 members of the Battalion drew into the Winnipeg train station where the men signed and completed their discharge and the 44th (Manitoba) Battalion passed into memory.
Government of Canada
Government of Manitoba
Royal Winnipeg Rifles Museum & Archives
Selected Secondary Sources
Page revised: 20 September 2020