The 10th Battalion, or “Fighting Tenth” as it became known, was created in 1914 as a war-service infantry battalion; it was populated heavily by men from the 103rd Regiment (Calgary Rifles), saw extensive service with the 1st Canadian Division in France and Flanders, and was later perpetuated by The Calgary Highlanders.
The Canadian Expeditionary Force was a separate entity created by Canada’s Minister of Militia in 1914 for service to Britain in the First World War. Technically distinct from the standing land forces of the Militia, soldiers were legally attested into the CEF in order to serve overseas. Hughes refused to mobilize the existing regiments as units, and instead numbered battalions were created into which a combination of Permanent Force (regular) soldiers, Militia (reservists) and civilian volunteers were combined.
The Provisional 10th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force was created around cadres of Militiamen from two existing units; the 103rd Regiment (Calgary Rifles) and the 106th Regiment (Winnipeg Light Infantry). The unit was assembled at Valcartier in Quebec, and sailed for the United Kingdom with the first Canadian contingent in late 1914. Their commanding officer was Lieutenant Colonel Russ L. Boyle, a veteran of the Boer War, and in 1914 the commander of the 15th Light Horse, an Alberta cavalry unit. The unit trained on Salisbury Plain and went into the trenches in France in early 1915 with the rest of the Division. After brief service in the trenches in February and the early spring, the division first saw major combat at the Second Battle of Ypres in April. This the use of poison gas as a weapon of war on the Western Front. A wide scale German attack using chlorine gas routed two entire French Divisions, but the 1st Canadian Division held firm, at a cost of some 6,000 of its 10,000 men. The 10th Battalion, with the 16th, actually executed a counterattack on the night of 21-22 April into the face of the German offensive, at Kitcheners’ Wood during the Battle of St. Julien.
The town of St. Julien was located east of Ypres, in the south-western part of Belgium known as Flanders. The 10th Battalion was called forward on the night of 22-23 April to counterattack the strong German formation advancing through a large gap in the line created by the rout of two French divisions. Forming up in front of the 16th Battalion, the two units mounted a hasty assault on an oak plantation known as Bois de Cuisineres, or Kitcheners’ Wood, so named because the French had located their field kitchens there. The assault cost the life of the 10th’s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Boyle, and of the 816 men who crossed the start line on 22 April, only some 193 survived. Nonetheless, the German advance was stopped. This action moved the overall commander of the French Army to describe the attack as the single bravest act of the entire war.
Lieutenant Colonel Boyle was mortally wounded early in the initial counter-attack at Kitcheners’ Wood and many of the originals were killed or seriously wounded. Also featuring prominently in the fighting was the Gravenstafel Ridge, a low rise east of Ypres and one of the key features in the German attacks from 24-26 April. The 10th Battalion by this point, after suffering heavily in its counter-attacks of 22-23 April, mustered only 174 men but still contributed enough to the defence of the position to merit a Battle Honour for their work. The end result of the fighting was that a major German breakthrough was prevented.
The next major action was at Festubert, about twenty kilometres north of Vimy in France. This unsuccessful attempt to capture a small hill known as K5 was stopped short with heavy losses due to wet terrain, strong German defences, and little time to prepare. Major offensive operations did not follow for a full year afterwards, at Mount Sorrel. This was another unsuccessful assault, a counter-attack launched on a small knoll in the Ypres Salient on 3 June 1916. Considerable losses were suffered. Despite the relatively low height of this feature, it provided an excellent viewpoint over the otherwise flat terrain in the area and was of considerable strategic importance.
The Canadians were not involved in the opening phases of the Somme campaign, which began on 1 July 1916, commonly known as the “July Drive.” That first day was the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army, with 20,000 men being killed and 40,000 more being wounded. That opening day was only the beginning of several months of major operations by both the British and French armies. By the time the battle wound down to an official conclusion in November, hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides of the lines had been killed, and thousands more maimed and injured. The 10th Battalion was involved in a series of operations from 8 September and 17 October, primarily defensive actions which were successful, north of Albert, France near the town of Boiselle.
The 10th Battalion had success at Thiepval Ridge, near the town of Courcelette, where they fought a successful action on 26 September 1916, at the cost of 241 casualties, followed by a successful defensive action at Ancre Heights near the town of Albert, France. Modest casualties were suffered during the action on 10-11 September 1916.
Early 1917 saw a change in strategic initiative, as the Canadian Corps prepared for its assault on Vimy Ridge in April. Intended as a diversion to draw attention away from French actions farther south, and often serving only as a footnote to the less successful overall Battle of Arras in 1917 waged by the British armies, Vimy was the greatest victory of the war for the Canadian Corps, which by 1917 numbered four divisions. In a dramatic assault on Easter Monday, the 9th of April, and representing the best in Canadian tactical ingenuity, military engineering, and technical innovation, the Canadians seized most of this dominating feature in a few short hours, and finally clearing the entire ridge in three days. The British and French had been unable to clear these heights since the Germans first seized them in 1914, and had lost more men in the process of trying than the Canadians as a whole started out with on 9 April. The 10th Battalion had its own role to play in this great drama, and reached all its objectives on time, at the cost of 374 casualties. The Arleux Loop was a follow up to the Vimy operation, launched on 28 April 1917, aimed at capturing a major German billeting area at Arleux-en-Gohelle. The operation went in over open ground and produced serious casualties.
Rising only 15 feet over surrounding terrain, Hill 70, north of Lens, Belgium was the scene of a diversionary attack to relieve pressure on the city of Lens itself. On 15-16 August 1917, a strong German counter-attack was repulsed by the 10th Battalion. Private Harry Brown, who was killed acting as a courier during this battle, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. In addition to the VC, three DSOs, 7 MC, 9 DCMs and 60 (!) Military Medals were awarded to the 10th Battalion, giving the unit the distinction of receiving more medals than any other Canadian combat unit in a single action in the course of the First World War.
Named for a village located on a low rise in the Ypres Salient, the very word Passchendaele has become synonymous with suffering and waste. Strong German defences in this area, developed over the course of more than two years, gave the British extremely hard going. The 10th Battalion were called out of reserve to assist an attack on Hill 52, part of the same low rise Passchendaele itself was situated on. The Battalion was not scheduled to attack, but the CO wisely prepared his soldiers as if they would be making the main assault—a decision that paid dividends when the unit was called out of reserve. On 10 November 1917, the 10th Battalion took the feature with light casualties.
The Canadians were spared the brunt of the German spring offensives of 1918, and participated in the Allied offensives of the autumn. The offensive Allied campaign under the command of Marshall Foch of the French Army cleared the Germans from positions near the important rail centre of Amiens. Consisting of a series of battles fought from August to September of 1918, it signaled the beginning of the end of the war on the Western Front. The 10th’s battle honour for Scarpe recognized a defensive operation which found the 10th Battalion once again in the Somme sector in a successful defence of the Fampoux area on the Anzain-Arras Road, beside the Scarpe River, between 27 April and 4 May 1918. The Drocourt-Quéant (or D-Q) Line was but a part of the famous Hindenberg Line, a large series of German fortifications and defensive positions. During the Amiens campaign above, the 10th Battalion was part of a successful advance along the Arras-Cambrai road towards Viller-lez-Cagnicourt. Acting Sergeant Arthur Knight was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his exemplary courage during this action. The Hindenburg Line was the last line of defence for the German Army in the Amiens campaign, broken when Cambrai fell on 9 October 1918, and the beginning of a German retreat that did not end until the Armistice on 11 November. Canal du Nord was the last major operation of the 10th Battalion, during the Battle of Cambrai. The Fighting 10th mounted a crossing of this obstacle on 27-28 September 1918, suffering heavy losses.
The fight at Mons in August 1914 had been one of the opening acts of the war on the Western Front, and the city had great sentimental significance to the British, who had lost it to the Germans. The 10th Battalion entered the newly captured city during the war’s last days, when it was a prime objective for the British Army seeking revenge, and were there when the Armistice was declared.
During the First World War, more than 1300 soldiers were killed while serving as members of the 10th Battalion.
The unit crossed the Rhine as part of the Canadian occupation force in 1918, and returned to Canada in 1919. The battalion remained in existence on paper into 1920, until the Otter Commission resolved the question of how to perpetuate the CEF in the postwar army. The thorny problem of who would lay claim to the traditions of the 10th Battalion was solved by permitting a dual perpetuation by the Calgary Highlanders and the Winnipeg Light Infantry, whose predecessors had contributed men to the initial drafts that created the 10th in 1914.