How Armies Work

The Canadian Army at the beginning of the Great War consisted of one full time regiment of roughly 3000 men (the Royal Canadian Regiment under British Command). By the end of the Great War there were 4 Divisions (a fifth was created in 1917 but broken up the following year and used as reinforcements).


The structure of the Canadian Army—and most others of the Allied force—was based on that of the British Army of which it was effectively a part.  An army consisted of 2 or more Corps and there were 3 British Armies involved in the conflict—a total of 4,000,000 men.


The Canadian Expeditionary Force (the infantry), in effect a Corps, consisted of 100,000 men or more under the command of a Lieutenant  General.

Front Line Arrangements:  Not all of the Army’s soldiers were in the front lines all at once or all of the time.  A great deal of attention was paid to rest, training, and re-equipping the troops. 


Divisions were the main fighting force sent to undertake a battle or task. 


Of the Division’s Brigades, one or two would be sent forward, the others kept in reserve.


Of the Brigade’s four Battalions one or two were in  the conflict area, one in support and the others in reserve. From each Battalion’s (Bn) four Companies (Coys), one or two would be in the front line, one behind it in support trenches and the others well to the rear in reserve (either in Brigade Reserve or Divisional Reserve) to be called upon as required. 


Thus of the 20,000 or more men in a Division, as few as 500—1000 were in the front line or support trenches at any one time. They would be there for 5—8  days before rotation. Not all of this time was spent in active combat. Most men spent most of their time behind the lines.  For this reason 9 out of 10 men survived the war.  So perhaps the question is not why so many died, but rather why so many survived.


This does not in any way diminish the losses, but there was a great deal of ‘being in the wrong place at the wrong time’ that determined a soldier’s fate.


It is important to note that ‘casualties’ means, dead, wounded, missing presumed dead and missing presumed captured.

The Corps, Brigade, Battalion and Company had their own Headquarters.  Company Headquarters being closest to the front line.  These HQs moved as the battles progressed, receiving messages continually and monitoring and amending the action.  Far from being in safe and secure locations with respect to the dangers around, the officers were very much in the action.  The average life span of a British officer in the front line was a mere six weeks.  Quite apart from the action in the front line, there was considerable  movement between the rear sections to the front:  communications, medical, rations, equipment, munitions, men in rotation, reinforcement or evacuation were constantly on the move through the communication trenches.

The War Diary of Lieutenant William L Hayes M C


In addition to Infantry, a Corps had associated artillery, headquarters, veterinary services, labour units, medical services, communications/signals, engineers, sometimes forestry, tunnelling units, mounted units and others, under the command of the Major General.


The numbers varied considerably depending on losses, specialist attachments and so on.


This Diary follows the 2nd Division, 6th Infantry Brigade, (numbers 1,2,3 Infantry Brigade were part of the 1st Canadian Division), the 28th Battalion and its D Company.

Because of the static nature of this war in which the front line did not change dramatically for a great part of the four years of war, the front line was a series of trenches. Each side had its own trench system separated from the enemy by an area of no man’s land, which in some cases was a matter of yards deep; in others it was a greater distance, usually protected by lines and lines of barbed wire.


Consisting of

Commanded by

Sub Divided into


20,000+ men

Major General

3 Infantry Brigades


5000+ men


4 Battalions


1200 men

Lieutenant Colonel

4 Companies


250 men


4 Platoons


65 men


4 Sections


10+ men

Sergeant or Corporal