“Burn Rate” or Just How Many Men Served in a CEF Battalion During the War?

One of the problems with history and the study of it is there can be a very subjective aspect to the analysis of the past. Information may not be accurate. Sources may be in error, and other myriad of issues can impinge on one’s understanding of history. Due to the subjective nature of history another factor that effects our understanding of history is that the lens by which we are viewing this information is skewed by the presenter’s and the audiences’ perceptions. Each case is an individual unique example and cannot, on aggregate, be taken as the “typical” experience of an actors or actors.

Thus, to surmise the experiences of one battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force by studying another is full of pitfalls. Depending on the battalion a range of factors make each battalions’ experience unique. Be it a First, Second, Third, Fourth, or Fifth Contingent battalion, the war service of each battalion, even within the same brigade, was distinct.

IMPORTANT NOTE: It is not implied that this analysis is based on accurate information. The statistics of the source of the data may be in error. The 18th Battalion indicates that its death count includes those who where “killed” or “died” while the 4th Battalion seems to only count those who dies as “Battle Casualties” excepting those who died of accident or illness. Dealing with the “Wounded” numbers brings to mind that both sources may count soldiers who had multiple wounding’s and returned to service.

Comparative analysis has its value, even as a basic intellectual exercise and two Canadian battalions that have significance to the author will have a specific set of statistics analyzed and compared to show the uniqueness of experience between these two battalions.

The focus of this article will be the 4th and 18th Battalion. The reason for this focus is simple – the author’s Great-Uncle and Grandfather served in each battalion respectively. In the case of my family’s background my grandfather enlisted first in the 18th Battalion (Galt, Ontario) as it was formed in South-Western Ontario. His younger brother would initially enlist with the 111th Battalion at Galt, Ontario and be transferred into the 4th Battalion.

These battalions had a distinct and different martial heritage during the First World War. The 4th was formed at the beginning of Canada’s involvement of the war and was part of the 1st Canadian Contingent. The 18th was formed later in the fall and was part of the 2nd Canadian Contingent. The initial engagement of service on the Continent was only separated by 6-months, but the net result of this and the unique service history of these two units led to some differences in experience in several measurable categories.

This simple dataset demonstrates several aspects of the service experience of a soldier, whether he be an officer or an “other rank.”

It is estimated that the 4th Battalion had a total of 6,700 men who served with the battalion at some time during the conflict. The 18th Battalion estimate is 5,052 men. This was a “burn rate” of 489% and 344% for each battalion respectively. In other words, both battalions, through the act of replacing men who died, where wounded, invalided, transferred, or otherwise was replaced, each battalion had several times their initial number serving at one time or another during the war after each battalions’ initial enlistment upon its formation. For every original member of each battalion almost 5 men replaced them for the 4th Battalion and 3 men for the 18th.

From the information available from the documentation the casualty rates are as follows[i]:

 Initial EstablishmentTaken on Strength“Burn” RateEstimated Total Attached to BNDiedWounded
4th Bn.11375563489%670011414573
Percent 4th    17.0%68.3%
18th Bn.11373915344%50527702877
Percent 18th    15.2%56.9%
  9478 1175219117450
Total Percent    16.3%63.4%
CEF Overseas   424,00051,748138,000
Percent CEF Overseas    12.2%32.5%

As this matrix illustrates, the comparative differences between the experience of the 4th, 18th, and the Canadian Corps is quite different and reflects the unique experience of each battalion and that of the entire Corps during their service from March 1915 to November 1918. The 4th Battalion suffered a higher proportion of killed in action/died than the 18th. It was in action longer than the 18th. It had experienced, as one example, during its early service at the Battle of 2nd Ypres it suffered 505 casualties[ii], or half its strength according to its Nominal Roll upon embarking for England in September 1914.

The 18th Battalion has similar rates of attrition with a 5% lower rate of men wounded over its time of service from September 1915 to November 1918.

Comparison Graph of Dataset

The CEF, shows different numbers but these numbers do not reflect accurately as the totals are an aggregate of the experience of the entire Corps covering active fighting units as well as support and non-combatant units. These numbers also indicate a data skew in relation to the percentage of personnel killed in action to those that were wounded. The proportion killed in action appears to be high in relation to that of the personnel wounded. For the 4th and 18th Battalions the ration of wounded to killed in action is approximately 3.9 to 1. In the CEF dataset it is 2.7 to 1. This discrepancy may possibly be eliminated if the data contained only data from front-line units or from infantry battalions only.

It is interesting to note that the common estimate for wounded and killed in action in many military operations is a ratio of 4 to 1.[iii]

Part of the interest for this subject in relation to the author is that of his two relatives, his Great-Uncle died of his wounds and his Grandfather was wounded twice during his service and survived the war. Their experience was completely different with my Grandfather, the first to be wounded in the 18th Battalion, being hit by a German Machine gun bullet in his right thigh on September 24, 1915. He convalesced and returned to the 18th in May 1917 and served until he was wounded by a German shell hitting his billet on July 9, 1917. With his war over he returned to Canada and was in Toronto by March 19, 1918, only days before his brother was to be wounded on April 1, 1918, and then died of those wounds on April 3rd.

His brother, in contrast, enlisted with the 111th and arrived with the 4th Battalion on December 3, 1916, and, other than a spot of leave in December 1917, served uninterrupted with his battalion until his wounding and subsequent death.

As the matrix illustrates, the numbers give some indication of the cost of war. It is not a definitive reflection of the experience of these battalions. It does help one to see the cost of war in the scope of these two units. For each man that served each had to be fed, trained, equipped, inoculated and all the other myriad of necessary procedures and resources required to maintain a soldier in a combat unit. These services had to be replicated over and over as each replacement passed from England to the Canadian Infantry Base Depot and then on the Canadian Corps Reinforcing Camp before they were passed into active service with their battalion.

Finally, a stark reminder of the cost to a fighting battalion is illustrated in this photograph of the “original” men of the 18th Battalion who enlisted in Fall 1914-Winter 1915 shows a total of 80 men. That is 7/10th of one (0.07) percent of the total men who were listed in the April 1915 Nominal Roll. This is a simple, effective illustration of the “burn rate” of this battalion.

[i] It is unknown of the number of “wounded” reflects total number of men wounded or the total numbers of wounds – that some soldiers were wounded more than once.

[ii] War diaries: Canadian Great War Project – 4th Canadian Infantry Battalion. (1915). Retrieved 14 February 2022, from https://cgwp.uvic.ca/diaries/viewer.php?u=4th_canadian_infantry_battalion&m=04&y=1915&i=e001077584

[iii] For a more in-depth look at this issue refer to: https://www.forces.net/heritage/history/what-were-actual-odds-dying-ww1

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