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SIMON LLOYD: Fierce fighting creates ‘critical’ war situation

Soldiers could be in trenches for months during the Great War.
Soldiers could be in trenches for months during the Great War. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Germany’s “Great Drive” offensive on the Western Front, commenced in late March, 1918, continued to preoccupy The Guardian through early April.

The initial German assault, “Operation Michael”, had faltered by April 5, but new attacks were launched April 9, realizing further German gains. The Guardian front page for April 13 reported on General Sir Douglas Haig’s command that British forces, “with their backs to the wall,” must defend every position, “to the last man.”

A front page article on April 19 noted that a special secret sitting of the Commons and Senate had been held earlier in the week, to allow Prime Minister Robert Borden to share with Parliament a confidential letter from his British counterpart, David Lloyd George, regarding the “critical” war situation.

Fierce fighting continued through April and Allied counter attacks mid-month saw the first major combat deployment of American troops. Although there were terrible losses on both sides, history would ultimately vindicate Allied hopes, resolutely echoed in The Guardian, that the Germans would be unable to sustain any short-term gains they might realize.

Nevertheless, it must have been appalling, at the time, for Islanders to contemplate how much pain German forces could still inflict, even after more than three years’ pounding from the Allies, including Britain and her loyal Empire.

As if to underscore the seemingly interminable duration of the war, April 1918 saw a pair of unhappy historical coincidences. Even as ceremonies in Charlottetown and elsewhere across the Dominion marked Ypres Day on April 21. It recognized Canadian troops’ brave stand in April 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres, fighting swirled again near the Belgian city, in what later became known as the Fourth Battle of Ypres.

Forty miles south, the German advances also threatened Canadian positions on Vimy Ridge, captured at such great cost exactly one year before. Interestingly, given the iconic status accorded the Battle of Vimy Ridge today, its first anniversary seems to have attracted no direct mention in The Guardian, save for two tiny In Memoriam notices on an interior page on April 9, honouring Frank MacCormack and John Fairchild Leslie, “killed in action at Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917.”

As bleak as the prospect of further fighting may have been, it did at least offer some apparent vindication to supporters of conscription, as The Guardian regularly pointed out. An April 19 editorial, for example, admonished: “There must be constantly increasing effort … to minimize the incidental injustices and difficulties of applying the Military Service Act ... approved by this country for the purpose of reinforcing our divisions at the front. The need of constant reinforcements was never so clear as it is now.”

By this point, readers of The Guardian could have had little doubt as to just how serious authorities were becoming in, “applying the Military Service Act”. On April 1, an extraordinary news item headlined “Military Roundup,” reported that, at the conclusion of a recent performance at the Prince Edward Theatre, women and children had been asked to leave first, so that all men in attendance could be examined by military police. Every man who looked to be of Class 1 age – 20-34 years old – was asked to produce either his birth certificate, to show he was underage, or his exemption papers. The Guardian seemed to find nothing untoward in this impromptu detention and questioning of citizens going quietly about their business: instead, the report expressed the finger-wagging hope that, “this ‘drive’ should have a good a good effect in educating young men,” to have the proper papers with them at all times.

A small item on April 16 reinforced the point, reporting that a P.E.I. teenager working in New Brunswick had been detained for “some weeks” by military authorities while his father – no doubt rather frantically – had worked to procure the young man’s U.S. birth certificate.

With incidents such as the foregoing apparently not deemed worthy of any special news coverage or editorial comment – beyond a passing reference to “incidental injustices” – it is perhaps not surprising that frightened rumours began to spread. On April 13, for example, The Guardian felt it necessary to a run a full-length editorial column reassuring readers that teenage boys volunteering for the Soldiers of the Soil agricultural labour initiative were not going to be, “conscripted and sent wherever the authorities wish.”

Simon Lloyd is librarian responsible for the P.E.I. collection at the University of Prince Edward Island Robertson Library's University Archives and Special Collections. This is part of a monthly series of lookbacks at the First World War he will be providing, drawing on the historic issues of The Guardian available online at islandnewspapers.ca.

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