Most Canadians have heard John McRae’s “In Flanders Fields,” but the famous 1915 poem doesn’t tell the whole story of the fighting in Belgium. Here are 11 little-known facts that highlight the brutality—but also the humanity—of life in the trenches, lest we forget.
1. We gained a lot…but lost even more
In the late summer and fall of 1917, Passchendaele, Belgium, was a truly terrible place to be. For four rain-soaked months, the Allies advanced through eight kilometres of suffocating mud and suffered 320,000 casualties—one man dead or wounded for every two-and-a-half centimetres of ground gained. A German offensive five months later recaptured all of these gains (and more) until the end of the war.
2. Who shot down the Red Baron? We don’t actually know
Credit is officially given to Canadian fighter pilot Captain Arthur Roy Brown, but some eyewitness accounts and modern forensics dispute that claim. Also seeking credit are two separate Australian anti-aircraft machine-gunners as well as several individual riflemen on the ground.
3. Another very dangerous mystery remains
At Messines Ridge in Flanders, the Allies spent a year digging six kilometres of tunnels, which they filled with more than 500 metric tonnes of explosives. On June 7, 1917, they detonated all the mines simultaneously in an explosion that could be heard as far away as Dublin. The craters left by the explosion can still be seen today, but two of the 21 mines failed to explode, and the location of one is still a very dangerous mystery.
4. An Olympian fought for Canada
When message-runner Alex Decoteau fought in Flanders, it wasn’t his first time running for his country. The Saskatchewan native, an accomplished distance runner, was part of the 1912 Canadian Olympic team in Stockholm. Decoteau did not survive the war—he was killed by a sniper at Passchendaele—but you can visit his grave in Flanders at the Passchendaele New British Cemetery (pictured below) or watch Edmonton students participate in the Decoteau Run every spring.
5. The killing didn’t stop when the war ended
Nearly 1.5 billion shells were fired during World War I, and 100 years later, many are still causing havoc. Bomb-disposal teams in Belgium, called DOVO, extract an average of 150 tons of unexploded World War I ammunition per year in what is known as the “iron harvest.” Despite this effort, over 260 civilians and 20 DOVO team members have been killed by shells since 1919.
6. Soldiers produced their own satirical newspaper
Between 1916 and 1918, a small paper called The Wipers Times (a play on the British soldiers’ pronunciation of Ypres, Belgium) was produced a mere 650 metres from the German trenches. Its Onion-esque satire and gallows humour featured spoof ads for real estate in No Man’s Land (great bargains!), took swipes at officers and heads of state, and featured jokes and poetry about the horrifying aspects of trench life.
7. A lot of our modern slang came from the trenches
The British soldiers had an endless slew of nicknames for everyone and everything. Canadians were Canucks, Aussies were Diggers, New Zealanders were Kiwis, Scots were Jocks, and the Irish were Paddies. Germans were Jerries, officers were brass hats and red tabs, chaplains were devil dodgers, and cemeteries were rest camps. A lot of WWI slang is still used today, including lousy, crummy and cooties (associated with lice), pushing up daisies (death) and thingamajig (from the onslaught of technology).
8. The war sparked some terrible inventions…and a few good ones
Many destructive things were invented during World War I—tanks, machine guns and flamethrowers, just to name a few. But there were also some lesser-known innovations designed to help, not hurt. Absorbent cellulose bandages were repurposed as sanitary napkins by nurses at the front and evolved into Kotex pads in the ’20s. The same material was used to create what would later become Kleenex. Other notable wartime inventions include the zipper and vegetarian sausages (developed as a cheap alternative to meat).
9. There was a rare moment of peace
Guns had been blazing for months leading up to Christmas 1914. But on the evening of December 24, soldiers on both sides suddenly began singing carols. This led to a gift exchange of cigarettes on Christmas morning and a game of soccer in No Man’s Land. The site is now a farmer’s field in the idyllic Belgian countryside.
10. One Canadian soldier was also an eight-time Stanley Cup winner
Conn Smythe was the owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1927 to 1961, but that’s not his first claim to fame. He was also a decorated veteran who served in both world wars, earning a military cross in 1917 for killing three Germans and leading several wounded Canadian soldiers back to safety. That same year, he was shot down by the Germans and held as a prisoner of war until the fighting was over.
11. A Canadian died just two minutes before the war ended
The guns fell silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. But for 25-year-old Nova Scotian George Lawrence Price, they stopped two minutes too late—he was killed at 10:58 a.m. and is listed as the last Commonwealth soldier to die in the war. American private Henry Gunter was killed at 10:59 a.m. and was the very last soldier to die. In stark contrast is John Babcock, the last Canadian veteran from the first world war, who died in 2010 at the age of 109.