Feature Articles - The Canadian Expeditionary Force: Central Ontario Regiment
The 20th CEF battalion was authorized by the Privy Council on 6 August 1914 for service overseas and was mobilized on 7 November 1914 at the Exhibition Grounds, Toronto.
It was raised from volunteers from the following Militia regiments of Central Ontario:
- 12th York Rangers
- 20th Halton Rifles
- 23rd Northern Pioneers
- 31st Grey Regiment
- 34th Ontario Regiment
- 35th Simcoe Foresters
- 36th Peel Regiment
- 37th Dufferin Rifles
- 39th Haldimand Rifles
- 44th Lincoln and Welland Regiment
- 77th Wentworth Regiment
- 97th Algonquin Rifles
France and Flanders
Upon arrival in France on 15 September 1915, the battalion was assigned to the 4th Brigade, 2nd Division, Canadian Corps and given a section of the front on the Ypres Salient, near Messines. Duty holding the line included: nightly patrolling in no man's land, endless repairs to wire and trenches, and almost continuous enemy shelling. The winter of 1915-16 was spent in a routine of 18 days on the front and 6 days in the rear, all the while battling lice, trench foot, and disease. In March 1916, steel helmets were issued to all ranks.
In the spring of 1916, the Commander of the British Second Army decided that it was essential for an enemy salient near the village of St. Eloi to be eliminated. Following attacks and counter-attacks, the 4th Brigade tried to retake the craters that the 6th Brigade was forced to fall back from. The 20th Battalion managed to retake one crater and held it through a month of concentrated shelling. In one month, the 4th Brigade suffered 1373 casualties.
On 15 September 1916 the Second Division joined the attack at the Somme, supported by tanks for the first time. The infantry captured three lines of trenches and reached their final objectives in just 40 minutes. The tanks, however, had broken down. Meanwhile, the 20th was trying to consolidate its position despite taking machine gun fire from both flanks.
Early October brought heavy rain and a second attack at the Somme. Under heavy shelling, the 20th captured two lines of trenches in close combat, mainly with grenades and bayonets. In both these actions, the 20th captured all of their objectives and held them until relieved, but at a cost of 111 killed and 319 wounded in only three weeks.
The winter of 1916-1917 was spent holding different parts of the line, patrolling, and carrying out trench raids. One particularly large raid was carried out on the morning of 17 January 1917. On this raid, in 90 minutes, the battalion took 57 prisoners, including one officer, captured one mortar piece, and destroyed 35 deep dugouts, two bomb stores, and two mortar pieces. Two officers and thirty men of the enemy were counted dead, besides an indeterminate number killed inside dugouts. Our casualties were two officers wounded, 27 other ranks killed, 51 wounded and one missing.
Spring of 1917 found the Canadian Corps preparing to take Vimy Ridge as a part of the Battle of Arras. The ridge had been in the hands of the Germans since the early days of the war and provided them with good observation on our rear area, while denying us a view of the wide Douai Plain behind it. The French made an unsuccessful attempt to take the ridge in May 1915.
They tried again in September 1915, and this time got as far as the second trench lines. These positions were consolidated by the British but were lost to German counterattacks in May 1916. Vimy was one of the most heavily defended points on the whole Western Front.
The Second Division attacked in the direction of Farbus, on an initial frontage of 1500 yards and a final frontage of 2500 yards. The total depth was 3500 yards. The attack went in on 9 April 1917 with the 4th Brigade right, the 5th Brigade left, and the 6th Brigade and the 13th Imperial Brigade moving through the lead brigades to capture depth objectives.
The 20th Battalion attacked in right depth of the 4th Brigade, mopping up the enemy still holed up in trenches and craters, taking prisoners and collecting maps and documents. During the attack, contact was lost with the 5th Brigade troops on the left, a gap filled by C Company of the 20th. This company also captured a German Field Gun at the entrance to Thélus.
The attack was a complete success. The Canadian Corps captured the entire ridge, a stunning achievement that many in the High Command had declared impossible, but which proved the worth of Canadian troops. Casualties of the 20th Battalion were relatively light, i.e. under one hundred, of whom only six were killed. This was, unfortunately, not true of the Canadian Corps as whole.
After Vimy, the battalion spent the summer in intensive training exercises, learning the new principles of fire and movement.
On 15 August 1917, the Canadians began their attack on Hill 70, where Sgt Hobson won his Victoria Cross.
This German wireless report of 18 August 1917 was referred to by the Corps Commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie, when he visited the battalion:
In Artois, the British by destructive fire lasting for four weeks have turned the foremost German positions into a shell hole area like that in Flanders. . . . They engaged the whole of their four Canadian Divisions. The Canadians, whom the the British Higher Command always employs for the most difficult and costly fighting, advanced with obstinate bravery during the whole day against the German positions. . . .
For some time rumours - which were hoped false - had whispered that a number of units of the Canadian Corps were on their way to Passchendaele. . . . One morning, the Battalion were ordered to fall in very hurriedly and mysteriously, without any of the usual preliminaries. Then Lieut.-Gen. Sir Arthur Currie appeared and ordered the ranks to close in around him. He made a speech, characteristically brief and to the point, saying that although he had begged the Commander-in-Chief to spare the Canadians the ordeal of Passchendaele, his plea had been refused because pressure on the enemy must be maintained. The Passchendaele Ridge had to be captured, for reasons he was unable to divulge, and for that task the Canadians had been chosen.
The terrible conditions of Passchendaele are legendary. All features of the landscape were completely obliterated, leaving nothing behind but water-filled shell craters, trenches like drainage ditches, and endless mud. There were hardly roads left, or even solid ground. Board walks were constructed to make movement possible, but were frequently destroyed in the constant enemy artillery bombardment. The bodies of men and horses were left unburied to rot in the muck.
When the battalion was finally relieved, the struggle to get out was so great that many of the walking wounded died of exhaustion. "The memory of it is still horrible. Never had been experienced such general suffering from shelling, aircraft activity by day and night, such weather and ground conditions." The Canadian Corps captured two square miles at Passchendaele, suffering 16,404 casualties.
Following Passchendaele, the 20th saw action at Cambrai and then spent a relatively quiet winter, holding trenches in the Vimy area and patrolling. The collapse of Russia in November 1917 was bad news for the allies. The Germans could now divert many more divisions to the Western Front for a large attack before American troops arrived at the front. When the first attacks came in March, it was disastrous for the Allies; the British were unable to hold their ground and were driven back almost to Amiens. That summer, the 20th relieved British troops who were exhausted from the constant pressure of the Germans.
Canada's Hundred Days
Early August 1918 found the movements of the 20th Battalion cloaked with secrecy. Marches were made at night and orders to move were sudden. Eventually, it was revealed that the whole Canadian Corps would be taking part in a counter-attack near Amiens. "The great secret had been well maintained up to the last moment; the Germans would naturally expect an attack on any front where they found the Canadian Corps, which had been held in reserve during the fighting in March."
The Battle of Amiens was the turning point in the war, the beginning of the end for the Central Powers. It began on 8 August 1918 and its spearhead was made up of the Canadian Corps and the Australian Corps. On the first day, the Second Canadian Division advanced an unbelievable eight miles. On the second day, they made another advance of 5000 yards. Ludendorff, the German Commander-in-Chief, in his memoirs called 8 August "the black day of the German Army". The battalion met with more success at Arras, later that same month. These gains, however, exacted a heavy toll on the battalion; casualties during the month of August 1918 totalled 18 officers and 563 other ranks.
While the Allies had finally managed to win ground and build momentum, the Germans also continued to resist fiercely.
On 10-12 October 1918, the battalion found itself exploiting bridgeheads across the Canal de l'Escaut. In 42 hours of almost incessant fighting there were casualties of 11 officers and 319 other ranks. It was here that Lt W.L. Algie won his Victoria Cross.
The fighting continued in the Pursuit to Mons up until the last moments of the war. In the last 24 hours before the armistice, the Battalion lost one officer and 11 other ranks killed, and 30 other ranks wounded. Also, the 20th captured the last prisoner taken by a Canadian unit, at 10 A.M. on 11 November 1918, at Mons.
No Canadian unit of the First World War has a prouder record of service. The 20th Battalion won a total of 18 Battle Honours and 398 decorations and awards, including two Victoria Crosses. During the entire war, on no occasion was the battalion ever driven out of its trenches by the enemy, nor did any company, platoon, or section ever flee the battlefield. Altogether, 855 officers and men of the 20th Battalion died in the First World War. Over 60,000 Canadian men died in the First World War, one out of every eleven who served.
Following the armistice, the 20th marched 280 miles from Mons and crossed the Rhine at Bonn on 13 December 1918 with colours flying and bayonets fixed, reviewed by General Sir Arthur Currie.
They finally took up their post as part of the Army of Occupation in Siegburg, 16 miles south-east of Cologne. The battalion returned to England on 7 April 1919, and received colours from HRH the Duke of Connaught on 25 April 1919. They participated in the Victory Parade of Dominion Troops in London on 3 May and departed for Canada on 13 Mar 1919.
The 19th and 20th Battalions arrived at the North Toronto station of the CPR (now Summerhill Subway Station) on 24 May 1919 and marched to an official reception in Varsity Stadium: "Police were powerless to stem the rush of friends and relatives who had been waiting the arrival of the two battalions for what seemed hours on hours. . . . The speeches of welcome were never delivered...the Battalion dismissed itself." The following day, the 20th C.E.F. Battalion was officially demobilized.
At the request of the officers and men of the battalion, the unit was perpetuated as an active unit of the Canadian Militia as the West Toronto Regiment on 15 September 1921. On 1 August 1925, The West Toronto Regiment was amalgamated with the 2nd Battalion, 12th York Rangers to form the Queen's Rangers. In 1936, the 1st Battalion, 12th York Rangers was amalgamated with the Queen's Rangers to form the Queen's York Rangers, 1st American Regiment, which perpetuates the 20th Battalion to this day.
Note on the Battle Colours
The blue rectangle identifies the Second Division. The colour green identifies the the first brigade of the division (the 4th Brigade) and the triangle identifies the third battalion of the brigade (the 20th Battalion).
Article reproduced by permission of (c) The Regimental Council of The Queen's York Rangers (1st American Regiment), website.
A "conchie" was slang used to refer to a conscientious objector.
- Did you know?