Largely Calgarian unit was an elite fighting force
The 10th Battalion, which was mobilized in Calgary on Sept. 22, 1914, was indeed a highly successful battalion through the course of the Great War, taking part in prominent engagements such as the second and third battles of Ypres, Vimy Ridge, Hill 70 and Passchendaele to name a few.
This regiment was part of the first full Canadian contingent of soldiers that went overseas, made up of members from the 103rd Canadian Rifles and the 106th Winnipeg Light Infantry. However, this unit largely was made up of Calgary men.
Barry Agnew, curator for the Calgary Highlanders Regimental Museum and Archives — the unit that perpetuates the legacy of the 10th Battalion — says it’s not exactly clear what made this unit so great.
“It’s hard to define these sorts of things,” says Agnew. “Possibly, it’s because of their training that they had and there were some soldiers with previous battle experience.
“I really don’t know. This certainly was the reputation of the Fighting Tenth and all of that stuff. I suppose because they had tenacity and battle. They were very serious. (They were) led by terrific commanding officers and that made a big difference at the time. “
The sheer amount of battle honours and decorations earned by the 10th Battalion helps make the cases that it was indeed an elite unit in a very strong Canadian corps. The 10th Battalion collected over 500 military decorations and gallantry awards for its battlefield achievements. With its victory at Hill 70, this battalion set a Canadian First World War record for most medals awarded — 80 — to a single unit for a single battle.
Agnew’s point about this battalion having strong leadership has credence. The battalion’s second, but arguably most prominent commander, Lt.-Col. Russell Boyle was a veteran of the South African War, which took place between 1899-1902. This young unit relied on his leadership and experience as they went through intense battle training on England’s Salisbury Plains, beginning on Oct. 20, 1914. The discipline of this unit during training was recognized by many different battalions. It was Boyle who laid down the law.
Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives PB-396-9During the battalion’s first parade, according to Gallant Canadians: The Story of the Tenth Canadian Infantry Battalion 1914-1919, Boyle took off his coat and threw it down on the ground then addressed his troops:
“Now I’m just the same as you fellows,” he told them. “I’m just an ordinary private as far as you’re concerned, as far as I’m concerned. There were four men on that boat (who) said they would like to punch the hell out of me. Now I invite you four men, if you have the guts to come up, we’ll have it out right here.”
None of the men in the unit dared to make a move. That speech earned the men’s hearts and they were apparently ready to go through any wall to make their commander proud.
When the battalion finally received its orders to head to France on Feb. 7, 1915, the unit was well conditioned and mentally prepared for what laid ahead of them. The 10th Battalion’s first tour of duty in the frontline trenches came on the night of March 5-6, near La Boutillaire, France.
Four days later, on March 10, the Calgary-formed battalion stood to arms as the British watched its major offensive at Neuve Chapelle. The Canadian battalion suffered casualties from enemy shelling as the offensive ended up being a defeat for the British.
The Battle of Kitcheners’ Wood
It would be over a month until the Fighting Tenth made its first dramatic impact on the war in the Battle at Kitchener’s Wood on the night of April 22, 1915?.
It was a major tactical goal for the German military to destroy the Ypres Salient (a salient is an outward bulge in a line of military line or attack) in order to break the Allied defensive efforts.
By using poisonous gas, the Germans were able to overwhelm the French in an assault and achieve a clear-cut break-through of the Allied lines. Their much-desired salient was theirs for the taking. There was a gap in the lines over four miles wide. The 10th Battalion, which was on reserve at the time, was hastily thrown into battle to seal the broken line.
Before making a desperate attempt to hold the line, the tough Col. Boyle told his men, “We have been aching for a fight and now we are going to get it.”
The 10th Battalion was joined by the Canadian Scottish Regiment (the 16th Infantry Battalion) at 11:30 p.m.
It could be argued that the two battalions were marching into an unwinnable situation. They had no time for proper reconnaissance and they could not set up any artillery support. It appeared the only advantage they had was the element of surprise.
Both the Canadian and the German forces charged 200 yards toward each other in a battle of intense machine gun and rifle fire. Hand-to-hand combat also took place in the woods near Saint Julien. By midnight, the battle was complete. The first Canadian major attack of the Great War was successful as they took the position held by the seasoned German soldiers.
According to Gallant Canadians, a prisoner captured by the unit showed respect to his captors by telling the 10th Battalion, “You fellows fight like hell.”
The victory was not all positive however. Col. Boyle was severely wounded by machine gun fire. One of the bravest Canadians died three days later.
Photo courtesy of Glenbow Archives NA-4927-2
The 10th Battalion contributed to the newly formed Canadian Corps’ major victory at Vimy Ridge by being able to achieve all of its objectives on time. The Battle of Vimy Ridge represented the very best of the Canadian army’s tactical planning, military engineering and use of war technology.
Hill 70 was another shining moment for this infantry battalion. On Aug. 15-16 the Fighting Tenth was able to shutdown a German counter-attack on this Belgian hill. The 10th Battalion overcame a fierce machine gun and artillery barrage by knocking out the enemy’s guns with bombs. The battalion not only captured the line but also grabbed 100 German prisoners and six machine guns.
The 10th Battalion took part in major battles at Passchendaele, Amiens, the Hindenburg Line and Canal du Nord to close out its time in the First World War.
Agnew says the bravery of units such as the 10th Battalion had an immediate impact on Canada after the war.
“Canada was able to provide their own representatives as a country in the peace negotiations in Versailles after the war. They were permitted to have representatives as a country so this participation of Canada as a separate nation was vital for the ongoing independent process in Canada becoming its own nation.”
The unit mobilized for the Second World War but this time as the Calgary Highlanders. It earned over 20 battle honours during that six-year global conflict. Today, this regiment continues to serve as a light infantry unit that has seen action in Afghanistan. Similarly, the Calgary Highlanders also participated in UN peacekeeping missions in Cyprus and Egypt.
In whatever action or mission the Calgary Highlanders participate in it strives to live up to the legacy of the original Fighting Tenth.