- History of the 31st Canadian Infantry Battalion, CEF
This history of the 31st Battalion might have been forgotten if not for Barbara and Darryl Knight, who lightly edited the original work, included a wonderful collection of photographs, and compiled a less than stellar index for this reprint. Their grandfather, Arthur Watson, fought with the battalion and earned the Military Medal in May 1917. The grandchildren should be commended for their efforts, but it is ironic that their grandfather's name appears only in the book's nominal rolls.
This omission should not be surprising, for most early regimental histories were produced by and for the commissioned ranks. Author Horace Singer had a real challenge, for he did not serve with the 31st Battalion during the war. He was an accountant and a reservist living in Calgary when the South Alberta Regimental Association commissioned him to write their wartime history in the early 1930s. It was slow going. Singer drafted a manuscript, but the Battalion Association History Committee prompted 'many revisions' (20). When the battalion history was published in 1938, Singer received a clock and some copies of the book. His royalties were donated to the Regimental Association.
The work is thus a product of its time and circumstance. Singer draws his unrelenting detail and formal tone from the battalion's war diary, its daily record of its actions. These records differ widely in quality, and the 31st Battalion was blessed with a diary better than most (available online through the Library and Archives Canada). To his credit, the author includes some useful strategic discussions to widen this otherwise narrow view. But seldom do the battle descriptions go beyond the [End Page 426] battalion or its officers. The sergeants, corporals, and privates are referred to only as 'the men.' Several more decades would pass before regimental historians dared speak to soldiers, but Singer wisely cautions not to depend on oral accounts: 'So much confusion exists in the minds of survivors of an action that it is almost impossible to untangle the knotted threads of circumstances to arrive at the actual facts' (25).
The 31st Battalion drew its first recruits from Calgary, Edmonton, and southern Alberta when it mobilized in the fall of 1914. Soon after departing Calgary in May 1915, the battalion was overseas. By October, the battalion was in the line south of Ypres, Belgium, as part of 6 Brigade, 2 Canadian Division. Singer's descriptions of the fall and early winter of 1916 help explode the notion that soldiers were in continuous battle. They were not, but the weather could be a difficult enemy. Not until St Eloi in April 1916 did the battalion suffer its first major casualties. The toll was relentless thereafter. In four days fighting for Regina Trench on the Somme in late September 1916, the battalion endured another 398 killed, wounded, or missing (179).
Like any good accountant, Singer realized that the casualty figures offered one tangible way to navigate the narrative. At Vimy Ridge, the battalion was far luckier than many. Far more costly was the lesser-known battle of Fresnoy in May 1917, where the battalion lost nearly half its strength (225). The battalion's casualty toll reached 2,000 by July 1917, which afforded the battalion some time to rest, reorganize, and train reinforcements. But in helping take the village of Passchendaele in November, the 31st Battalion suffered another 290 casualties (276).
With so much emphasis on Vimy Ridge and the battles of 1917, historians have for too long overlooked the enormous cost to the Canadians in the final year of the war. The veterans knew this. At Amiens in August 1918, the battalion lost another 253 casualties (357). Another 200 men were lost in the first half of October (399). Overall, a battalion first raised in southern Alberta lost over 940 dead and over 2,300 non-fatal battle casualties (431). Singer notes at one point that many thought that the war had become a 'permanent institution' (279). What drove men like Arthur Watson on...