The Suicide Battalion

This one I read solely because Gilbert Stuart MacDonald served in the 46th Canadian Infantry Battalion (South Saskatchewan). He’s my closest personal link to World War One combat. And not a very close one at that. If I understand genealogical terminology, he’s my fifth cousin three times removed.

Review: The Suicide Battalion, James L. McWilliams & R. James Steel, 1978.

As the authors point out at the very beginning, the 46th Canadian Infantry Battalion (South Saskatchewan) was not the only battalion to be designated the “Suicide Battalion” in the Great War. Its losses in the war were heavy. Of the 5,374 men who served in the unit during the war, 1,433 died and 3,484 were wounded. Only 457 were unscathed. But there are units on both sides of the war that could claim similar statistics.

This is a very personal book for the authors. McWilliams is from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, home of the unit. Steel’s grandfather served in the unit.

The book is from Hurtig Publishers, founded by Mel Hurtig because he thought Canadians should have some Canadian history books in their bookstores instead of just American history books.

The British Empire went to war on August 4, 1914, and that meant Canada went to war, but it wasn’t until December 17, 1914 that the request went out to form the unit. It was from Sam Hughes, Canada’s controversial Minister of Defense, who sidestepped existing mobilization plans. Three groups of men left from Moose Jaw to go overseas in the next two weeks. Even local nurses went overseas.

But it wasn’t until December 21, 1914 that recruits were accepted for the unit, and training begin after Christmas. But their training was in makeshift circumstances. They slept on straw on the floor of an armory. Recruits had to provide their own meals. Physical training was marching about Moose Jaw and its environs. There were no uniforms. Rifle practice was with “decrepit Ross” rifles. (The authors don’t mention that the notorious Ross rifle, dubbed by some the “suicide rifle” because of incidents of the rifle’s bolt being driven into the chest of the shooter on firing, was sponsored by Hughes. It was actually a very accurate rifle and would come to be prized by Canadian snipers and hunters after the war, but it was not suited to trench warfare and the attendant dirt. The bolt accidents were because the lock lugs had to be carefully engaged, hard to do in the dirt and distractions of the trenches.)

Training for the unit would also be done in Regina. To the end of the unit’s existence, there would be a rival between the cities about who could claim the unit.

After further training at Camp Sewell in Manitoba, the unit was sent to England for more training. (Because of Hughes not informing British officials he was sending the unit there, it didn’t have any rations its first three days there.) They finally entered the trenches in August 1916, and they would serve on the Western Front seeing combat through November 1, 2016.

This is a fairly typical book of its sort. It draws from interviews with the unit’s members and an unpublished war diary of the unit. It’s a worm’s eye view of battle with several colorful characters. Of course, it was a unit of the British Empire, but two members had served other empires. One had served in the Russian Army. The other had been a soldier in the Imperial Army of Japan. Most, though, were farmers and shopkeepers. There was one college professor who would not survive the war. Several groups of brothers served in the unit, and some families lost more than one son in it.

In this type of history concentrating on personal experience, you don’t get a systematic description of tactics or the soldiers’ experience.

There are some striking stories: soldier’s taking time to take meat off horse’s killed by retreating Germans; a soldier realizing, after trying to light his pipe in a shell hole he’s sheltering in, that there is not any oxygen there; and a soldier cleverly lying his way out of a charge of drunkenness.

And, of course, we get a description of the actions of Hugh Cairns, winner of the Victoria Cross for his deeds at Valenciennes, the unit’s last battle.

This is a barebones book. There are no photos. The only maps are on the inner covers and mark the unit’s battles at Mount Sorrel, Ypres, Passchendaele, Vimy Ridge, Amiens, and Canal du Nord and the various actions during the Last Hundred Days.

Hill 70 is covered, but my relative is not mentioned which is not surprising. He was just another private who died without winning a medal.

There is an index and also an interesting appendix summarizing the fates of some of the men in the unit, both those who died and those lived on well after the war. Obviously, this book is of limited interest. (Though I’ll note my ex-library copy was checked out 12 times as opposed to the shelf-bound Scientific Romance in Britain 1890-1950.) But, if you are interested in the Canadian Army during World War One or this particular unit, it’s worth reading.

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