The Context: WWI, August to November 1917

Mud and barbed wire through which the Canadians advanced during the Battle of Passchendaele Mud and barbed wire through which the Canadians advanced during the Battle of Passchendaele
source: William Rider-Rider/Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-002165

When we started editing Ross’s letters, it was clear that in order to let the reader make sense of what Ross is talking about, some understanding of the First World War would be necessary. We have relied on notes in the letters to provide some background as well as links to helpful websites. Nonetheless, there is nothing available that succinctly details where Ross’s battalion was and the influence that the “greater war” and the global political environment was having upon them. Below, we have attempted to provide a condensed version of recent events that we hope will provide a useful context for the letters.

Happy Canadians who captured Vimy Ridge returning to rest billets on motor lorries. Happy Canadians who captured Vimy Ridge returning to rest billets on motor lorries. May, 1917.
source: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001353
The Battle of Vimy Ridge Detail of The Battle of Vimy Ridge
artist: Richard Jack; source: Library and Archives Canada

The period of August to November 1917 marks the beginning of a decline in Allied fortunes. Gains such as the Canadian victory at Vimy and the entry of the United States into the war in April, are soon followed by more ominous signs:

In April 1917 after a number of disastrous campaigns, combined with poor food and appalling conditions, the French army begins to mutiny. These mutinies last through May, at which point the French command is reorganized and the situation is stabilized. But the French Army is in no condition to go on the offensive. In July, partly to relieve pressure on the French, the British launch the Third Battle of Ypres (Ieper, Belgium). The poor conditions and strong German defence turn the battle into a bloodbath. The battle continues through the summer and fall and ends with the Canadian capture of Passchendaele on November 8.

Wounded French soldiers in Montreal Ward, No. 8 Canadian General Hospital, St. Cloud. Wounded French soldiers in Montreal Ward, No. 8 Canadian General Hospital, St. Cloud.
source: William Rider-Rider/Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001918

As the Third Battle of Ypres is coming to a conclusion, the Italian front is collapsing. The Italians had joined the war on the side of the Allies in May 1915. Like the Western front, the Italian front stagnated into a stalemate. By the fall of 1917 the Italian lines were beginning to weaken. On October 24 Austrian and German troops overrun the Italian lines at Caporetto.

The most worrying news for the Allies is the Communist Revolution and the subsequent collapse of the Russian front. On November 7, the Communists overthrow the existing Russian government and install a new Communist government under Lenin. On December 3 Russia signs an Armistice with Germany, which closes the Eastern front. This allows Germany to begin moving troops to the Western front.

Stretcher bearers struggling through the mud near Boesinghe Stretcher bearers struggling through the mud near Boesinghe, August 1, 1917, during the Battle of Pilckem Ridge (part of the Third Battle of Ypres).
photographer: Lt. J.W. Brooke; source: Imperial War Museum, catalogue number Q 5935

The impact of all of this activity on the 50th Battalion is substantial: When Ross arrives at Chateau de la Haie (Vancouver Camp) he moves to the front lines north of Vimy. This is where the war is in stasis; there is little movement but constant shelling and machine gun activity with occasional raids and airplane engagements. By the end of September, the British ask the Canadians to take part in the final push at Ypres. This triggers the 50th’s movement north in early October, which has them joining the battle on October 24th. The 50th are in rest for a week then are sent back to Ypres to rejoin the battle in early November, but, luckily, the battle ends before they are required to take over the front line. After Passchendaele the 50th is sent back to the region around Vimy.

In November the French and British send Divisions to Italy to staunch the Austrian-German advance. This level of troop movement and focus away from the Western front will determine the fate of 50th. At the end of November 1917, the 50th finds itself in Bruay, France awaiting its next assignment.

Through the letters, we can see that Ross is aware of what is going on in the world around him. He is mindful of the censors but his anxiety does occasionally show through. As we continue to annotate the letters, we will try and make the link between Ross’s thoughts and the actions of the world around him. Any help on this front would be greatly appreciated. (Click on the email feature to send us information, photos or documents.)

Canadian Pioneers carrying trench mats with wounded and prisoners in background during the Battle of Passchendaele. Canadian Pioneers carrying trench mats with wounded and prisoners in background during the Battle of Passchendaele.
source: William Rider-Rider/Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-002084