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First World War action frozen in time in archives, photos

Library and Archives Canada is in the process of digitizing all the personnel files of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The First World War soldiers were struck down in their youth, but the records, maps, personal letters and photographs live on.

Library and Archives Canada

This series commemorates the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele and Canada's role in the First World War and its enduring legacy.

The German forces had released a searing, yellow-green cloud of chlorine gas.

French troops, gasping in agony, had to reliquish their position, leaving the Canadian left flank open. Canadian battalions were ordered to fill the hole in the battle line with an assault at Kitcheners' Wood just before midnight.

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Despite the valour attached to the counteroffensive, it's impossible to know the full barrage of emotions that went through the minds of the men during that moment in the Second Battle of Ypres, Belgium, in April of 1915. Yet we know the action that took place in minute detail.

As fighting continued one day into another, and another, the Canadian troops were hit with a chlorine attack head on. Some miraculously survived, trying to breathe through urine-soaked hankerchiefs over their mouths and noses. The death toll ratcheted up, hundreds at a time, as the battle raged on, the fighting frozen in time in troves of archived documents, as it did throughout the war to the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele (or the Third Battle of Ypres) and beyond.

"The big difference with the First World War is that we have such a detailed record of what happened," said Mark Humphries, associate professor of history at Wilfrid Laurier University and director of the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies. He conducts study tours of First World War battle sites.

"You can actually pinpoint exact locations right down to a couple of dozen feet. If you're at Kitcheners' Wood, you can pull up the orders and give them to students," he said. "You can physically go where the 10th Battalion started their advance, and you can walk to the point at which the German gunfire opened up on the battalion."

The woods are no longer there, but the German front line was only a few hundred yards away, steps now so easily retraceable with original maps and aerial photos in hand. "And you can do that at multiple places across the landscape," Dr. Humphries noted.

Just as so many thousands were killed by murderous, new technology – machine guns and chemical weapons – new technologies such as aerial photography document what happened.

The soldiers were struck down in their youth, but the records, communiqués, maps, personal letters and photographs live on. Library and Archives Canada is in the process of digitizing all the personnel files of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, the force created to serve overseas in the First World War. Many of the files contain 20, 30 or more pages. There are 640,000 personnel files being digitized alphabetically. As of last month, they were up to the "R"s.

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Lee Windsor, an associate professor of history at the University of New Brunswick and Fredrik S. Eaton Chair in Canadian Army Studies, conducts tours of the Belgium and French battlefields with teachers, and he uses the digitized files extensively with those on the tour.

Each participant is given the file of a Canadian soldier and is asked to create a biographical sketch that they read to the group at the soldier's gravesite. Obviously, the point is to bring the history lesson to a human level.

"I think that anyone who goes to see a First World War battlefield, because the dead are buried where they fell more or less, and with the large Commonwealth and German and French cemeteries, no one can go there and not be struck by the scale of human catastrophe, regardless of your interests, regardless of your reason for going there," said Dr. Windsor, a former soldier with the 8th Canadian Hussars regiment.

The variety of people taking the tours makes it impossible to generalize, he said, although many are army officers, as well as regular-force and reserve-force soldiers, who are interested in learning about their regiment's historic past.

At any battlefield, there's an emotional charge that can be hard to square with the benign countryside and farmland before your eyes. There's a visceral feeling of the hell that occurred, but it takes a leap of imagination. That's less the case, though, with First World War battle sites, Wilfrid Laurier University's Dr. Humphries said.

"When you are standing in a place like Ypres, keep in mind that these sound like large places, but you can bike the Ypres Salient [the area surrounding the Belgian city of Ypres] in half a day. If you wanted to, you could walk most of the ground in an entire day. They are not huge places," he said. "You are struck, or at least I am, by the small scale, and the fact that some of these offensives which lasted months, moved the lines such a very small distance."

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The earth itself is a kind of archive. Metal pieces from munitions still can be found everywhere in the dirt. The outlines of trenches can be seen in places. And there are still signs of the landscape pockmarked by craters.

Equally remarkable, though, is how farmhouses have often been rebuilt in exactly the same spot they once were, and the road network takes many of the same routes. "Even the trees have grown back in the same place," Dr. Humphries said.

"It's an eerie sense when you're standing in the woods, and you say [to students], 'This is the German front line. And there's the trench line zig-zagging off into the distance.' And you try to imagine running at that trench line, from the 50 yards you just covered in the walk," he said.

It's a haunting juxtaposition, the present and the landscape of the past. "You tell the students, 'Picture this happening with thousands of shells going off and machine-gun bullets all around.'"

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