“The Gardeners of Salonika” was Georges Clemenceau’s jibe at the French and British divisions tied down in entrenchments round the Greek port for a good part of the First World War, because all they seemed to do was dig, rather than launch a Balkan offensive. The Canadian Corps, from Field Marshal Haig’s perspective, was similarly removed from the war when Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie, strongly supported by the Canadian government, refused to accept the piecemeal breakup of the Corps to help shore up the British line during the great German offensive which began in March 1918. Haig never forgave this rebuff, and his diary is studded with unfavourable comparisons of the Canadians with the Australians, who permitted their divisions to be detached from the corps organization and shifted to menaced sectors of the Western Front.

As a result of Currie’s action, which Lord Derby, the British Secretary of War, forced Haig to accept, three of the four divisions which made up the national army were restored to Canadian command, occupying the Vimy bastion and lines extending from it northward. The Corps had last fought in a major operation in October/November 1917, at Passchendaele; it was not to be employed again (except for small operations incidental to holding a substantial portion of the front) until the climactic battle of Amiens in August 1918. In the interim, while the Allies fought with their backs to the wall to stem the great series of German onslaughts, the Canadians, secure in the immensely strong lines they had created around Vimy, were given opportunity to rest and to train for the moment when they would be used to spearhead a renewal of the Allied offensive against the German army.

The Canadians held a vital and extensive part of the Allied line, and were obviously performing a major defensive function during the long weeks of the German offensive, even though their relative inaction occasioned much British resentment. In that sense they bear little resemblance to the Gardeners of Salonika. In another, however, they were the genuine article, and can legitimately be termed “The Gardeners of Vimy,” for during the spring and summer of 1918, as well as guarding the Vimy lines, the Canadian Corps was also involved in battle zone farming in a big way. How did the Corps come to be engaged in an essentially peaceful and bucolic enterprise, especially during such a critical period?

This activity was completely unknown to me, until a few references in the enormous finding aid to Record Group 9 in the National Archives of Canada piqued my curiosity. The Canadian Corps, as a large fighting formation of over 100,000 men, required many non-fighting units and sub-units to support it in the field, supply it, provide it with reinforcements, medical services, legal and police services, and so on. All its parts generated masses of paper, and much of this is deposited in Record Group 9. Among this immense volume of documents is to be found a memorandum of early 1918 entitled “Suggested Establishment for Agricultural Employment Coy.,” signed by Major F.C. Washington, who is identified as “Canadian Corps Agricultural Officer.” Why did the Corps need an Agricultural Officer and an Agricultural Employment Company? The story that emerges from fragmentary evidence is incomplete, yet while hardly of cosmic significance, is an unusual and interesting one.