Manitoba History: Book Review: Bill Rawling, Surviving Trench Warfare: Technology and the Canadian Corps, second edition.

by Lyle Dick

Number 82, Fall 2016

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Bill Rawling, Surviving Trench Warfare: Technology and the Canadian Corps, second edition. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016, 337 pages. ISBN 978-14426-2678-2, $34.95 (paperback)

A popular image of trench warfare of the First World War is of troops waiting idly behind the front lines, and periodically sent over the top into intense assaults on entrenched enemy positions, only to be cut down by machine gun fire and survivors driven back to the same trenches, with little or no ground gained despite massive loss of life. For nearly four years between 1914 and 1918, Allied and German armies remained seemingly entrenched in the same positions, locked in an interminable war of attrition along the former Western Front. Bill Rawling’s fine book, Surviving Trench Warfare, perhaps does more to revise these conventional notions than any other book on the history of the Canadian Corps in that war. Through a careful examination of original sources, Rawling effectively documents rapid changes in technology and accompanying tactics that changed warfare over the course of that conflict, eventually enabling the Canadian and Allied forces to break the stalemate and win the war.

This is the second edition of Surviving Trench Warfare, which was first published in 1992. The book is organized roughly chronologically around three defining battles of the Canadian Corps and stages of the war—the Somme in 1916, Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele in 1917, capped by the Hundred Day offensive of 1918 that ended the war. The narrative explains not only the technological advances of Canada’s forces, but also the vernacular adaptations of this technology by ordinary soldiers on the ground that helped produce the Allied victory.

At the beginning of the war the British military commanders deployed their armies in much the same manner as their predecessors had done during the Napoleonic wars a century before. They emphasized offensive rather than defensive strategy and tactics, and had not seriously considered the possibility that their adversaries would take steps to avoid being hit by machine guns, artillery, or the rifle fire of advancing infantry. The emergence of defensive trench warfare on a large scale introduced a form of combat with which the adversaries had little prior experience, knowledge, or methodologies to break such stalemates.

Rawling takes an expansive approach to his discussion of technology and includes under its rubric military planning, tactics, and vernacular adaptations of military equipment. Some of the major technological innovations are well known. The military use of aircraft, in its infancy at the start of the war, became a major strategic component by the later stages of the war. For example, at Hill 70 near Lens, France, the site of a pivotal battle in August 1917, Canada’s pilots shot down six German balloons, bombed railway junctions, aerodromes and other facilities, and may have played a key role in the battle.

Rawling argues that the great Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge, part of the larger Battle of Arras, was significantly achieved through the astute application of the available technology, including the Canadian commanders’ effective deployment of counter-battery gunners, careful observation through photography, and precise calibration of distances to ensure the accuracy of artillery fire.To these he adds the sheer weight of firepower: with 12,000 rounds fired on Easter Monday 1917 alone, Vimy represented one of the most devastating barrages of the war up to that point in time, accompanied by the tactical use of bombs, rifle grenades, rifles, and machine guns.

Contrary to the conventional notion of extended intervals between battles as periods of relative inactivity, Rawling shows that Canada’s military made good use of these periods to develop and hone their troops’ techniques and knowledge. The Canadian commanders put their men through repeated training regimens and numerous drills, during which they simulated the use of technology in combat. Across the Canadian Corps, soldiers at every level learned from applying technology on the ground, resulting in modifications that enhanced their battle readiness and effectiveness. The Canadian Corps’ refinement of battle tactics continued throughout the war, including the summer of 1918 that preceded the famous Hundred Days advance between 8 August and 11 November, that concluded with the armistice that ended the fighting.

Assessing the impact of these initiatives, Rawling divides the war into two distinct phases: 1915 to late 1916 coinciding with the end of the Somme campaign; and Vimy Ridge in April 1917 to the end of the war in late 1918. The first phase was characterized by a preponderance of military defeats, while the second phase occasioned more victories than defeats.The casualties are enumerated for the two phases in a table and comprehensively tabulated in an appendix. Notwithstanding the great loss of life at Passchendaele in late 1917, its casualties were still significantly lower than the disastrous Battle of the Somme of the previous year.

The emphasis on the casualties of individual battles somewhat misconstrues the overall tallies, as in the case of the Hundred Days offensive during which Canada suffered 45,835 casualties, or about 20 percent of the total losses sustained during the entire war. However, the point about the last two years being a period of military success relative to the earlier period is well founded.

Among the most important insights of the book are Rawling’s observations regarding the role of ordinary soldiers in adapting the technology for practical use on the battlefield. Previous historiography stressed the role of the Canadian commanders such as Arthur Currie and especially A. G. L. McNaughton in embracing and advancing the science of technology and applying it to tactics on the Western Front. Rawling does not challenge these interpretations but amplifies them with his discussions of the role of lower-level military personnel in developing various practical applications of the technology. The role of lower-level commanders and ordinary soldiers is well illustrated by a case study of a trench raid involving members of the Canadian Corps on the Douve River on the night of 16-17 November in the lead-up to the Battle of the Somme. With methodical planning—including building and testing bridging ladders to cross ditches in No Man’s Land and rehearsing the use of mats to cross barbed wire emplacements—they facilitated the infantry’s passage towards the German trenches. Soldiers were given specialized roles including the cutting of barbed wire, bombing and blocking parties were assigned the role of assaulting the targeted trench on either flank, while a trench rifle party was ordered to capture the centre, take prisoners, and sketch the site. Rawling concludes that the Canadians learned four valuable lessons from this raid: the importance of careful rehearsal and training that prepared these men to accomplish their task; the usefulness of artillery to cut off Germans from their reserve troops, enabling the Canadians to retreat in safety; the value of advance scouting enabling the cutting of barbed wire left uncut by the artillery barrage; and the importance of carefully selecting specialists to form a team that could work effectively as a unit.

At the level of ordinary soldiers, Rawling discusses their roles in producing their own jam-tin bombs, cutting off the stocks of their rifles to lighten the guns, and developing slings for their Lewis small machine guns, enabling them to fire them from the hip. Taken in ensemble these and numerous other adaptations deployed across the Canadian Corps helped ensure military success and the Allied victory in 1918. Rawling effectively brings out the agency and resourcefulness of Canada’s soldiers in that terrible conflict, revising the popular, but inaccurate, perception of them as lambs led to the slaughter. The book is illustrated with some well-chosen historical photographs, although it would have benefitted from the inclusion of maps illustrating the typical spatial relationships of entrenched fortifications of the two sides. Specialists and non-specialists alike will learn a great deal from this insightful and engaging book.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 8 November 2020