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ARCHIVED - Canada and the First World War

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We Were There

Claudius Corneloup

The Battle of Courcelette

Like many Quebeckers and other French Canadians, Claudius Corneloup enlisted in 1915 as a volunteer with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He immediately joined the ranks of the only Francophone infantry unit, the 22nd Battalion, where he experienced the exhausting routine of trench life and the indescribable horror of combat. His prior military service very likely helped him rise through the ranks and no doubt contributed to his survival.

A Frenchman, like a significant number of his fellow soldiers, Corneloup's career was rather unconventional. His prior experience (a five-year campaign in Tunisia) set him apart from the outset. He also appeared before a court martial and was sentenced, but this did not prevent him from moving up through the ranks and being decorated twice. He also suffered three slight injuries.

Corneloup was very different from his fellow soldiers in that he left a written record of his memoirs. One can count on the fingers of one hand the number of veterans from the 22nd who published their memories of World War I, and there are very few handwritten journals. In 1919, Corneloup published a chronicle of the battalion and, fifteen years later, a novel set in the Somme in 1916. In writing these two publications, the author no doubt drew on his personal diary - the whereabouts of this diary is unknown.

Chronicler

Corneloup served for a long time as orderly to the commanding officers for the unit and had received permission to keep a personal diary of the unit, no doubt with a view to writing an epic of the battalion. Published in 1919, his story is a gripping account of the operation at Courcelette, as cannot be conveyed in official reports. This operation, and the one a few weeks later at Regina Trench, are episodes in the bloody Battle of the Somme. In total, there were nearly one million dead, injured or missing, including some 24,000 Canadians. The heavy losses and the nominal gains in territory were a serious blow to the victory of the British and French troops. The troops' morale also suffered greatly, as they felt they had been needlessly sacrificed. In Canada, reinforcements became a matter of great urgency.

Novelist

In addition to his chronicle, Corneloup published a novel in which patriotism figures prominently. But he also described the behaviour of the soldiers who served alongside him in the trenches. Most of the story takes place in the summer of 1916, during the Battle of Courcelette, which ended in September 1916 when the soldiers entered "no man's land" and attacked enemy positions. Death and desolation abounded.

Rebel

After the Battle of the Somme, reinforcements became a pressing issue. Caught in the bureaucratic complexities established by the Minister of the Militia, Sam Hughes, the troops were not even able to leave England. In Canada, the pool of volunteer soldiers had been exhausted and the last battalions left the country often not having reached authorized strength. Reform had become inevitable and the only solution being considered by political and military authorities was compulsory military service, an unlikely alternative as long as Hughes was in office. With the Minister's resignation in November 1916, Prime Minister Borden made an about-face. Having promised that compulsory service would never be imposed, Borden went back on his promise, running up against overwhelming opposition among the people of Quebec to any measure leading to compulsory service. On July 25, 1917, the Military Service Act was passed, and opposition continued to grow.

To garner government support with respect to soldiers, it was decided that soldiers' parents would be exempted from compulsory service. In spite of this decision and the crying need for reinforcements, many soldiers were opposed to the measures. Corneloup was one of them and, during a period of calm after the Battle of the Somme, he wrote a letter of protest to Henri Bourassa of the newspaper Le Devoir. The letter also accused a number of officers of incompetence. Lost by the author, this letter was found by a battalion officer. Courneloup was court martialed and sentenced to a humiliating punishment, which was later somewhat reduced. Nevertheless, Courneloup finished the war on a more honourable note, earning a promotion to warrant officer, the Distinguished Conduct Medal and a military medal.

Record of Claudius Corneloup's Trial by Court Martial

Library and Archives Canada holds nearly 12,000 records of courts martial conducted at the Front or in England. The original documents have disappeared, leaving only the microfilm copy, a negative copy that is unfortunately of poor quality.

This file is fairly typical and consists of the court convening order, an order of commutation of sentence, the confirmation of the sentence by the corps commander, the division commander and the brigade commander, the record of proceedings, a record of conviction and a conduct sheet.