One hundred years ago, our soldiers arriving on the Western Front in 1915 were serving under Field Marshall Douglas Haig, a freemason. Although biographers typically vilify his name, mainly because of the two million casualties suffered under his leadership, ultimately it was Haig’s ability to enable his front-line generals to adopt new tactics and technologies that led to victory in 1918.
Canada, as a Dominion within the British Empire was expected to join the fight and did when war was declared in August 1914, and which ended 4 years later on November 11, critical to our annual Empty Chair ceremony. So, this month I shall note several other remarkable men who led our forces overseas and were members of the Craft: Sir Arthur Currie, Sir Sam Steele and Sir David Watson.
It was Bro Currie who commanded the 1st Canadian Division and at a top level insisted throughout the war Canadian troops fight together, not merely as colonial reinforcements. He opposed the obviously futile frontal assaults and advocated what became known as “Bite and Hold” tactics. While under his command, the Canadians never lost a battle, including Hill 70, Passchendaele, Arras, Amiens and Cambrai. After Canadians had captured Vimy Ridge in 1917, Currie was knighted and appointed to head the now-elite Canadian Corps for the remainder of the war.
Bro Steele, who while with the North West Mounted Police had famously maintained order during the Klondike Gold Rush, led a Canadian cavalry unit in the Boer War and for his actions was personally decorated by the King. In 1914, due to his age his request for active duty was turned down, eventually though he was chosen to command the critical 2nd Canadian Division sent to France to effectively create the Canadian Corps. Upon refusing to return to Canada to act as a recruiter in 1916, he was replaced, preferring to live in England where he kept his British command until retiring in July 1918 – after being knighted for his efforts in January. Sadly, he died a year later during the flu pandemic.
Bro Watson, of the three, is perhaps the least known. He was a journalist based in Quebec City, wealthy and a member of the Canadian delegation to the Imperial Press Conference in 1909 in London, while also serving and rising through the ranks in the army. At the age of 45, he enlisted in the first contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1914 and assumed command of the 8th Royal Rifles, who, by the spring of 1915, were stationed in Belgium, at Ypres, and it was he and his men who stood their ground when the Germans attacked, first using poison gas in their attempt to overtake Allied positions.
As a reward for his battalion’s conduct during the battle, in August 1915 with the rank of brigadier-general he was commanding the 5th Infantry Brigade, and then a year later took command of the 4th Canadian Division, who on the first day of the battle of Vimy in 1917 was given the job of capturing Hill 145 and a nearby height known as the Pimple. Three days later, having reached its objectives, Major-General Watson reported simply to HQ: “Mission accomplished!”
Under Watson’s command, the division next took part in the battles of Hill 70 and Passchendaele in Belgium, and of Amiens, Arras and Cambrai in France. For his bravery and distinguished conduct, Watson was awarded the Croix de Guerre by both France and Belgium and was appointed a commander of the Legion of Honour, and knighted by the King before returning home. Lest we forget.