The Fortyniner, No. 5, 1916 (cartoon by George Brown).

"In the 'Salient"


By 1915, the basic objectives of the German and Allied high commands were clear. Germany wanted simply to defend its newly gained western territories by launching limited offensives until it could smash the Russian armies in the east. Then, Germany would refocus its military efforts on the Western Front. The Allies, led by the French, wanted to reclaim the lands they had lost to Germany in 1914. Neither side would achieve its objective, however.

Until the German spring offensive of 1918 and the Allied counteroffensive, the 100 Days Campaign, the First World War was synonymous with trench warfare. It was a war of attrition in which armies on both sides sacrificed hundreds of thousands of lives, often for limited territorial gains. Trench warfare was the product of poor planning, muddled military thinking, and limitations of technology. Tactics had not kept pace with the developments in military technology during the previous decades. Machine guns, quick firing artillery, high explosive shells, air burst fuses, high explosive grenades, and trench mortars had given armies tremendous firepower, and defence had gained a significant advantage over offence in military operations.

The Fortyniner, No. 5, 1916, p. 19.

"The First Trick in the Trenches," by C.F.F.

Many soldiers dealt with their experiences in the trenches by writing poetry and prose. This poem, written in 1916 by a soldier in the 49th Canadian Battalion, the Edmonton Regiment, describes an attack on German lines at Ypres.

After the initial German offensives, army commanders on both sides were inadequately prepared to develop new offensive tactics to break defensive lines. Instead, the combatants established an elaborate network of trenches augmented by minefields, sand bags, and barbed wire. They then used machine guns and artillery to pound the enemy positions and to prepare for attack.

Provincial Archives of New Brunswick (P37-381).

First World War Machine Gun.


The machine gun became the model defensive weapon against attacking troops. Cheap, light, easily manned, and able to fire as many as 450 rounds per minute, the machine gun was able to repel almost any attack, Indeed, the weapon mowed down attacking soldiers by the score. With the exception of the Second Battle of Ypres (April 1915), in which gas decimated the opposition, attackers suffered far more casualties than did defenders. This situation was largely due to the impact of the machine gun. The Canadian army, which was at the forefront of developing machine gun technology and tactics, sent infantry battalions overseas with more machine guns than British battalions. Local supporters often provided these weapons. In August 1914, Sam Hughes accepted the offer of various interested businessmen and authorized the formation of machine gun batteries. Among these batteries was what was effectively an armoured car unit, the 1st Canadian Automobile Machine Gun Brigade.

Thomas H. Russell, Europe's Greatest World-War (Toronto: J. L. Nichols, 1914). ©Chinook Multimedia

Krupp Siege Mortar, n.d..

The Krupp mortar was one of Germany's most powerful weapons. In the First World War, such heavy artillery was used largely for offensive purposes, specifically to lay siege to entrenched defensive positions. Although military theorists realized that artillery bombardments were most effective when used in conjunction with infantry attacks, they did not know how to coordinate the two types of attack until the final stages of the war. Supporting fire could provide a powerful means of incapacitating the enemy when attacking soldiers were most vulnerable.

The "Motors," conceived and commanded by a French immigrant, Raymond Brutinel, were initially underemployed but quickly became the basis for a machine gun training cadre for all Canadian machine gunners. The Motors also have a legitimate claim to being the British Commonwealth's first armoured unit. In the subsequent years, Canadians would maximize the tactical potential of the machine gun on the battlefield in both defensive and offensive operations. Brutinel proved that machine guns could be used for indirect fire barrages just like artillery. By 1916, machine guns were commonly used for harassing fire and during pre-attack fire plans (detailed plans outlining the targets and timing of the operations). The Motors were used to their full mobile potential to stop German offensives in 1916 and particularly during the 1918 Spring Offensive where they plugged holes in the collapsed British line.

Roland H. Hill, "Cambrai to Valenciennes," in Canada in the Great World War: An Authentic Account of the Military History of Canada from the Earliest Days to the Close of the War of the Nations, vol. 5 (Toronto: United Publishers of Canada Limited, 1920), pp. 218-220.


The careful planning and precise execution of the artillery attack is emphasized in this account of the 25 October 1918 assault on Valenciennes.

Artillery proved even more destructive than did the machine gun. First World War artillery, although seriously limited by the lack of radio communications, an element absolutely critical for implementing fire support in mobile warfare, was almost as advanced technologically as it would be during the Second World War. Yet its use favoured defensive strategies that kept the opposition pinned in place rather than pushing the attackers own lines forward. Armies used heavy guns day and night to lob shells into enemy trenches. Artillery had become an essential weapon in the war of attrition. Again, Canadians pioneered new methods for the use of artillery, particularly as an offensive weapon. These methods included the "creeping barrage," and counter battery techniques such as sound ranging, and flash spotting.


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