Canada and the 3rd Battle of Ypres: Passchendaele

“I died in hell. They called it Passchendaele.”

Siegfried Sassoon

A black-and-white photograph of a bombed landscape. The ground is muddy with water-filled craters and a burned out forest.

Passchendaele, now a field of mud. Photo taken by William Rider-Rider in November 1917 (MIKAN 3194937)

The town of Ypres, Belgium and its surrounding countryside has special significance to the history of the Canadian Corps. In 1917, this area was the last portion of Belgium that remained outside German control. Little had changed in the region since Second Ypres in April 1915; the British held the city of Ypres while the Germans held the high ground of the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge to the south, the lower ridges to the east, and the flat terrain to the north.

On July 31, 1917, British, Australian, and New Zealand forces launched an offensive that would be known as the Third Battle of Ypres. As heavy rains poured down on the thick clay soil, shell holes created by a massive artillery barrage filled with water. Attacking soldiers struggling in deep mud offered easy targets for German gunners, and by some accounts as many soldiers drowned in the heavy mud as died from their wounds. Casualty estimates for the battle, which lasted from July 31 to November 20, 1917, range from 300,000 to 400,000 for the Allies and a roughly equal number for the Germans.

A black-and-white photograph of a soldier walking in a field of mud and puddles.

Mud and barbed wire through which the Canadians advanced during the Battle of Passchendaele. Photo taken by William Rider-Rider in November 1917 (MIKAN 3194807)

In early October, the four divisions of the Canadian Corps were transferred to the Ypres salient and tasked with the near impossible: capturing Passchendaele and the ridge. The offensive, to be executed in three stages, began on October 26, 1917. In the first stage, the 3rd Canadian Division captured Wolf Copse before reconnecting with the British 5th Army line. In the second stage, beginning on October 30, Canadian units secured a number of objectives and sent patrols into Passchendaele itself. In the final stage, from November 3 to 5, troops of the 1st and 2nd Divisions captured the village of Passchendaele in less than three hours. A final push on November 10 ended the campaign as the Canadians captured the remaining high ground north of the village.

While the Canadian Corps had achieved what no other Allied force had been able to, over 4,000 men died in the effort and 12,000 were wounded. The Third Battle of Ypres bolstered the Canadians’ reputation as storm troops, one of the best fighting forces on the western front. Nine Canadians were recognised with the Victoria Cross for their extraordinary actions in one of the most horrific battlefields ever known.

Library and Archives Canada’s series, First World War Centenary: Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients will profile each of them over the next three weeks.


Emily Monks-Leeson is an archivist in Digital Operations at Library and Archives Canada.

Launch of First World War personnel records database

We are pleased to announce an updated version of our “Service Files of the First World War, 1914-1918 – CEF” database. The new database, now called “Personnel Records of the First World War”, provides access to the service files of members of Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) along with records for other First World War personnel.

The new database includes records for the following groups:

Canadian Expeditionary Force

  • Imperial War Service Gratuities recipients
  • Non-Permanent Active Militia
  • Rejected CEF volunteers
  • Royal Newfoundland Regiment and Forestry Corps

Discover the Personnel Records of the First World War collection today!

And be sure to visit the First World War page of the Military Heritage section of our website for an overview of all our First World War records.

We wish to acknowledge the participation of the Provincial Archives Division of The Rooms corporation of Newfoundland and Labrador for access to its digitized personnel files.

 

 

Jeremiah “Jerry” Jones

This Black History Month, Library and Archives Canada highlights the service of black Canadians during the First World War. While all Canadians were equally caught up in the patriotism of the early part of the war and the opportunities offered by military service, black Canadians had difficulty enlisting due to the racism of the era. Although there was no official or explicitly stated policy of exclusion, the Canadian military left recruitment decisions to the discretion of individual commanding officers. Black Canadian volunteers along with those from other minority groups were left to enlist in whichever regiments would accept them. A special unit, the No. 2 Construction Battalion, was formed by members of the black community in Nova Scotia. The battalion, whose members weren’t allowed to fight, dug trenches, repaired roads, and attracted hundreds of recruits from across Canada and even the United States.

A sepia-coloured photograph of a man in uniform wearing an officer’s belt and cap holding a baton in both hands across his upper thighs.

Jeremiah “Jerry” Jones, First World War private taken by an unknown photographer, from the personal collection of the Jones family (Wikipedia)

Among those black Canadians who volunteered and served was Jeremiah “Jerry” Jones, a Nova Scotian soldier who enlisted with the 106th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles) in June 1916. Born in East Mountain, Nova Scotia on March 30, 1858, Jones was over 50 years old when he enlisted and lied about his age in order to join the army. Jones was sent overseas, where he transferred to the Royal Canadian Regiment and saw combat on the front lines in France, including the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917. During the battle, with his unit pinned down by machine gun fire, Jones moved forward alone to attack the German gun emplacement. He reached the machine gun nest and threw a grenade that killed several German soldiers. The survivors surrendered to Jones, who had them carry the machine gun back to the Canadian lines and present it to his commanding officer. It is reported that Jones was recommended for a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions, though no record exists to show that he ever received the medal. In the decades following the war, the Truro Daily News and Senator Calvin Ruck highlighted Jones’ bravery and lobbied to have the Canadian government formally recognize his actions. Ruck in particular argued that the racist sentiment of the time had prevented Jones and other black soldiers from being properly recognized for their heroism.

A nominal list showing the regimental number, rank, name, former corps, name of next of kin, address of next of kin, country of birth, and the place and date on which they were taken on strength.

Entry for Jeremiah Jones in the “Nominal Roll of Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers and Men” of the 106th Battalion (MIKAN 2006098)

Jones was injured at the Battle of Vimy Ridge and again at the Battle of Passchendaele. He was formally discharged in Halifax in early 1918 after being found medically unfit. He died in November 1950. Jeremiah Jones was posthumously awarded the Canadian Forces Medallion for Distinguished Service on February 22, 2010.

Digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Personnel Service Files – Update of January 2016

As of today, 240,545 of 640,000 files are available online via our Soldiers of the First World War: 1914–1918 database. Please visit the Digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Service Files page for more details on the digitization project.

Library and Archives Canada is digitizing the service files systematically, from box 1 to box 10686, which roughly corresponds to alphabetical order. Please note that over the years, the content of some boxes has had to be moved and, you might find that the file you want, with a surname that is supposed to have been digitized, is now located in another box that has not yet been digitized. So far, we have digitized the following files:

  • Latest box digitized: Box 3962 and surname Halliwell.

Please check the database regularly for new additions and if you still have questions after checking the database, you may contact us directly at 1-866-578-7777 for more assistance.

Digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Personnel Service Files – Update of July 2015

As of today, 171,771 of 640,000 files are available online via our Soldiers of the First World War: 1914–1918 database. Please visit the Digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Service Files page for more details on the digitization project.

Library and Archives Canada is digitizing the service files systematically, from box 1 to box 10686, which roughly corresponds to alphabetical order. Please note that over the years, the content of some boxes has had to be moved and, you might find that the file you want, with a surname that is supposed to have been digitized, is now located in another box that has not yet been digitized. So far, we have digitized the following files:

  • A to Dagenais (boxes 1 to 2257)
  • Free to Gorman (boxes 3298 to 3658)

Unfortunately, due to unforeseen circumstances, the following boxes were skipped in the digitization process, but will be done in the next few months.

  • Dagenais to Fredlund (boxes 2258 to 3297)

Please check the database regularly for new additions and if you still have questions after checking the database, you may contact us directly at 1-866-578-7777 for more assistance.

Digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Personnel Service Files – Update of June 2015

As of today, 162,570 of 640,000 files are available online via our Soldiers of the First World War: 1914–1918 database. Please visit the Digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Service Files page for more details on the digitization project.

Library and Archives Canada is digitizing the service files systematically, from box 1 to box 10686, which roughly corresponds to alphabetical order. Please note that over the years, the content of some boxes has had to be moved and, you might find that the file you want, with a surname that is supposed to have been digitized, is now located in another box that has not yet been digitized. The latest digitized box is #3655, which corresponds to the surname “Gore”. Please check the database regularly for new additions and if you still have questions after checking the database, you may contact us directly at 1-866-578-7777 for more assistance.

Library and Archives Canada to Digitize 640,000 First World War Service Files

As part of the commemoration of the centennial of the First World War, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) announced in its News section that it is undertaking the digitization of 640,000 personnel service files of the First World War’s Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) members with a view to ensuring the long-term preservation of these frail paper documents.

Transferred to LAC about 20 years ago, CEF service files represent LAC’s most heavily consulted collection. A victim of its own success, the high number of transactions to which the collection has been subjected is putting strains on the mostly paper-based documents and is hastening their deterioration.

Many readers who have had the opportunity to hold these precious historical documents in their hands in recent years will certainly remember how some of the sheets are beginning to crumble. If LAC does not undertake action to preserve these files now, they are at risk. Once lost, they are lost forever.

To be able to perform this important undertaking, LAC will temporarily close portions of the service files. The first quarter, beginning with the letter A through D, will be closed as of March 2014 and will be available on-line as of Summer 2014.

While 75% of the collections will always be open, LAC will not be able to accept requests to consult documents in person, nor take orders for copies for a period of up to 4 months on the portion of the collection being digitized.

The files to be digitized will complement the approximately 13,500 service files and the more than 620,000 attestation papers already available on LAC’s website. At the end of the project, expected in 2015, Canadians will be able to research high-quality digital copies of the 640,000 newly digitized service files from the comfort of their own home and will no longer have to pay reprography fees.

LAC is pleased to contribute to the Commemorative Initiatives of the Government of Canada to honour the contributions and sacrifices made by Canadian men and women during the First World War. We wish to recognize Public Works and Government Services Canada’s support in this endeavour.

LAC appreciates your understanding and patience during the course of this extensive project.

For more information on this initiative, please consult the Fact Sheet: Digitization of Canadian Expeditionary Force Service Files.

Contributions of Aboriginal Peoples in the First World War (1914–1918)

Aboriginal peoples have a long tradition of military service in Canada dating back several centuries. Although not legally required to participate in the war, an estimated 4,000 Status Indians, and an unrecorded number of Métis and Inuit enlisted voluntarily and served with the Canadian Corps in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF).

Almost all of the young men on many reserves enlisted for service. For example, approximately half of the eligible Mi’kmaq and Maliseet from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia volunteered for overseas duty. In other provinces, the number was even higher. In the small Saskatchewan community of File Hills, nearly all of the eligible men signed up to fight.

Postcard image of Aboriginal men from File Hills, Saskatchewan, who joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force

A number of Aboriginal men who served in the CEF became snipers or scouts. Private Henry Norwest, a Métis from Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, was one of the most famous snipers. Another proficient sniper was Corporal Francis Pegahmagabow, an Ojibwa from Parry Island Band, near Parry Sound, Ontario. Three-time recipient of the British Military Medal and two bars, Corporal Pegahmagabow was the most highly decorated Aboriginal soldier of the First World War. Lieutenant Cameron D. Brant, from the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve near Brantford, Ontario, enlisted only three days after the Germans declared war on August 4, 1914. He died from poisonous gas during the Second Battle of Ypres, Belgium, in April 1915. Another Aboriginal man who served in the war was Olympic runner Tom Longboat, also from the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve.

Aboriginal women also made great sacrifices and played significant roles working behind the battle scenes. Nurse Edith Anderson, a Mohawk from the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve, joined the Army Nurse Corps of the American Expeditionary Forces, and worked at an American hospital base in Vittel, France. Most of her work involved caring for patients who had been shot or gassed.

The exact number of Aboriginal soldiers who lost their lives during the First World War is not known. It is estimated that at least 300 men were killed during battles or died from illness, such as tuberculosis.

From Enlistment to Burial Records: The Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First World War

Each year, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) receives countless questions on how to locate military services files, such as:

  • How do I find out more about a soldier (or a nursing sister) in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF)?
  • When and where did he enlist?
  • How old did the soldier say he was? (Many underage soldiers gave an earlier year of birth when they enlisted)

A great place to begin your research is on our Genealogy and Family History’s Military pages.

To help guide you through the process, our experts have put together the following explanations.

Attestation papers

Also known as “enlistment” documents, these records indicate the date and place of birth, the marital status and the name and address of the next of kin.

The Soldiers of the First World War database contains references to more than 600,000 people who served during that conflict. Most of the corresponding attestation (enlistment) papers can be viewed online, including those of the Nursing Sisters.

To learn more, consult our article “Canadians and the First World War: Discover our Collection”.

Service files

These records contain key documents such as record of service, casualty form, discharge certificate and medal card. It also provides the name or number of
the unit in which the individual served overseas.

Find more information in our articles “What You Will Find in a Canadian Military Service File” and “Understand the Abbreviations Commonly Found in Military Service Files”.

War diaries

The War Diaries are a daily account and historical record of a unit’s administration, operations and activities.

Consult the War Graves page for information on the burial location of a soldier who was killed in action.

If the soldier survived the war, the Veterans Death Cards give information such as the next of kin, burial location and date of death. The digitized images, which are in alphabetical order, can be navigated in sequential order.

For the soldier who was decorated, a nominal index to medal registers, citation cards and records of various military awards provides further information on many soldiers’ achievements.

Our article “War Diaries: Discover what individuals or military units did during the war” can also guide you with your research.

Published histories

For an easy-to-read overview of the unit’s activities, we recommend starting with “published histories.” These books are often called “regimental histories” and our article Published Histories: Discover what individuals or military units did during the war” will give you more information.

Thematic guides

The Guide to Sources Relating to Units of the Canadian Expeditionary Force
lists references to records and files that complement the research in First World War records. This thematic guide further describes the contribution of most units in the CEF.

Other past articles of interest this Remembrance Day:

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!