From 2014 to 2018, we commemorate the centennial anniversaries of the First World War. The Vimy Foundation is actively working to ensure that these major battles of the First World War involving Canadians are recalled and our losses commemorated.
Festubert and Givenchy | May-June 1915
In May and June of 1915, at Festubert and Givenchy in Northern France, Canadian troops went on the offensive for the first time in the First World War. The battles were part of the Allied effort to challenge entrenched German positions and where possible push the invaders back. Hampered by poor information, unrealistic goals, a lack of substantial artillery support and facing unbroken barbed wire and hidden machine gun nests, Canadians troops were unable to make any significant gains. 2,868 Canadians were killed or wounded in these two battles alone. The stalemate of trench warfare had now become painfully real to the Canadian soldiers and public.
Sanctuary Wood and Mont Sorrel | 2-13 June 1916
The high ground between the villages of Hooge and Zwartelleen was by 1916 the only raised area near Ypres still until Allied control. The ground, comprising of Hill 62, Hill 61, and Mont Sorrel were held by the 3rd Division, Canada’s most newly arrived division and as yet untried in battle. After the disaster at Saint-Eloi in April, Alderson had been removed from command of the Canadian Corps and replaced by a British cavalry officer, Lieutenant General Julian Byng.
The stretch of ground was the only thing holding back the German army from complete domination of the Ypres sector, so in a rare aggressive move the Germans mounted an attack the morning of 2 June 1916, surprising the 3rd Division with a hail of artillery fire at 8h30 and the detonation of 4 mines under their front lines. Preparations for the attack had been observed by the RFC in the weeks leading up and the intelligence passed on, but the 3rd Division’s commanders had not prepared their lines sufficiently for the coming attack, and had made no arrangements for artillery support. After the devastation of most of the 3rd Division’s line, the flanks were held by the PPCLI for 24 hours under heavy fire.
Counter attack was arranged for the following morning at 2am, but was repeatedly delayed as the battalions leading the attacks struggled to get to their jumping off points. The counter attack took place under a weak bombardment at 7am, in broad daylight and under clouds of German gas. A failure from the start, those commanding officers left after the first few minutes called off the attack and told their men to dig in. Casualties for 2-4 June were 3 750 for the 3rd Division. Those left alive dug in to hold the lines as best they could until Byng gave the order for another attempt to take back their lost position on 13 June.
Currie’s 1st Division was moved in to take the ground between Hill 60 and Sanctuary Wood, after 4 bombardments the attack began on 13 June, with the artillery working closely with the infantry, a first for the Canadians. Currie’s men went over the top at 1h30am, bayoneting the enemy and pushing to the German second line. By 2h30am, all the ground lost on 2 June had been retaken and the Canadians prepared for the coming German counter attacks. Total casualties for the actions at Mount Sorrel would be about 8 700, many of them prisoners of war.
- The failure of the 3rd Division on 3 June was blamed largely on lack of cooperation with the artillery. Artillery Forward Observation Officers were attached to infantry front line command to better direct fire. For the attack on 13 June, the artillery would also use aerial observers to better pinpoint enemy gun positions to knock them out.
- The attack on 3 June made use of the PH helmet, a chemically treated cloth hood with goggle eyes and a breathing tube for protection against chlorine gas. The PH helmet was soon replaced by the box respirator but was a significant step up from the urine soaked pads used by the 1st Division at Ypres the year before.
Did you know?
Pte (Lt. Later) A.Y. Jackson (60th Battalion ) Already gaining renown in Canada as a member of the Group of Seven, Jackson was wounded at Mount Sorrel on 3 June going over the top with the battalion. He later returned to the front as one of Lord Beaverbrook’s official Canadian war artists and would paint haunting canvases of the blasted landscapes on the Western Front.
Major-General Malcolm Smith Mercer (3rd Division) Mercer was killed by a British artillery shell fragment during a front-line inspection after his appointment as leader of the 3rd Division during the surprise German bombardment of 2 June. Lieutenant-General Byng was invited to accompany Mercer on his tour and declined. Brigadier-General Victor Williams accompanied him and was captured by the Germans, Canada’s highest ranking prisoner of war.
Capt. Percival Molson (PPCLI) The son of John Thomas Molson, of the Montreal brewing family, Percival was an avid hockey player and part of the team that won the 1897 Stanley Cup. He was wounded in the face near Sanctuary Wood on 2 June as the PPCLI struggled to hold the flank left open by the 3rd Division. Molson later returned to the front and was killed near Avion in July 1917 after a direct hit from a Howitzer shell. He was awarded the Military Cross before his death. In his will, Molson bequeathed 75 000$ for the building of a sports stadium at McGill. It was named in his honour after a decision by the board of governors of McGill in 1919.
Beaumont Hamel | July 1, 1916
100 years ago, the 1st Newfoundland Regiment faced devastating losses at Beaumont Hamel on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Going “over the top,” Newfoundlanders were completely exposed to intense machine gun fire and the attack was a horrific failure. Within 20 minutes, approximately 85% of those who had started forward were dead, dying or wounded.
While the casualty list varies, most records indicate that 287 Newfoundlanders were killed in this battle, on the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. Due in part to the incredible courage and bravery demonstrated at Beaumont Hamel, King George V honoured the Regiment’s actions by granting it the designation “Royal”.
Recent high school grad Victoria Jackman of Mount Pearl, NL has been forever changed by her trip to Beaumont Hamel. In April of 2014 as a grade 10 student, she was awarded the Vimy Foundation’s Vimy Pilgrimage Award. This program recognizes the actions of young people who demonstrate outstanding service, positive contributions, and leadership in their communities, and awards them a fully-paid week-long trip to France and Belgium to visit the key sites of the First World War. Watch her reflections on the 100th anniversary of Beaumont Hamel:
Courcelette | 15-22 September 2016
The Battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916, however the Canadian Corps did not arrive on the field of battle until September 1916. Their first test? To take the fortified village of Courcelette on 15 September. Aside from the Canadian victory at Flers-Courcelette, the battle also marks the debut of General Sir Douglas Haig’s latest weapon, the tank.
The Canadian 2nd and 3rd Divisions attacked the outskirts of the village at 6:20AM on 15 September, under a creeping barrage. The barrage malfunctioned, lifting 100m before the German lines and leaving the men of the advancing first wave open to machinegun fire. Despite this setback, the attack was an unexpected success. With the help of one of the several tanks that were able to reach the battlefield the 20th and 21st Battalions took the Sugar Refinery, an objective outside the town and a German strongpoint. The trenches in front of Courcelette fell around 8AM.
At this point, Byng was faced with a decision. Should he consider the attack as a single success and halt? Or continue with a second attack on the village itself, exploiting the advantage of the Canadian successes in the morning? Byng decided to take the second option and gave orders for the 22nd and 25th battalions to move up from the reserves for an attack on the village at 6PM, with the 26th Battalion in suppoer. The men had to quick march from their reserve positions to their jumping off points, crossing the battlefield of the morning as medics moved the wounded and dying back to the regimental aid posts.
Due to the spontaneous nature of Byng’s attack, both battalions would advance in full daylight without jumping off trenches, and only a light bombardment. The 22nd and the 25th advanced almost 2km to the outskirts of the village proper, sustaining heavy casualties. Upon reaching the first occupied German trenches, they attacked with bayonets, driving the Germans into the village itself. Attacking from the right, the men of the 22nd split into smaller groups to clear the village, with the 25th Battalion approaching from the left to meet in the middle. The Germans were pushed out of Courcelette by 6:30PM, though for how long no one knew.
Both battalions now had to dig in to face the inevitable German counterattacks. They were low on ammunition, food, and water, and scavenged German ammunition for use. The Germans attacked four times the night of 15 September, by the next day the 22nd Battalion was down to 200 men of the original 900. The battalions received a food and water party from the 26th Battalion on 17 October, their first meal in three days, and were ordered to attack the German trenches outside the village. On 18 September, the 22nd and 25th battalions were finally relieved, after 4 days of constant counterattacks. Casualties for Courcelette were 7,230 killed, wounded, or missing.
The use of tanks, a first during the war, was certainly the technological highlight of Courcelette. The British version of an armoured combat vehicle had been under development since 1915, with the formation of the Landships Commission. Haig had hoped to use the new tanks on 1 July, but production delays had plagued the project, and they were not able to be used until September. Unfortunately, there were only 32 tanks available for use at Courcelette, of those 9 actually arrived at their starting positions. Most of those were quickly knocked out by German guns. The tanks moved slowly and at that time had very thin armour that could be easily pierced by a shell. Tanks in the First World War were still very much under development and did not see the widespread use that they would in the Second. They would appear again on the British front in 1917 at the Battle of Cambrai, and in the 100 Days campaign at the end of the war.
Captain (Later Lt.col) Joseph Henry Chaballe (22nd Battalion), MC for the capture and defense of the village or Courcelette against 13 counter attacks. Chabelle was wounded during the defense and continued fighting. He was later promoted and invalided out of a combat position after being diagnosed with shell shock in 1917. He wrote an article for La Canadienne in 1920 describing his experiences at Courcelette, as well as a history of the 22nd Battalion in both wars.
Corporal Arthur Fleming (26th Battalion), MM for leading a party that captured an enemy strong-point in the village of Courcelette. By the end of the battle 4 days later only Fleming and one other man of the party remained alive.
Pte John Chipman Kerr (49th Battalion), VC for singlehandedly taking 62 prisoners and over 200 yards of trench with only a rifle on the second day of Courcelette. Kerr had the fingers of one hand blown off in the process, but survived the war.
Thiepval Ridge | 26 September 1916
The Canadian victory at Courcelette earlier in September pushed the Corps up several hundred metres to new lines just after the village. Several weeks later, as part of Haig’s bite and hold plan, the 1st and 2nd Divisions would be jumping off from the new Canadian lines to take Thiepval Ridge, some 1 000 metres north west of their current position. The divisions would be covering fully half of the 6 000 yards of front planned for the attack, and would be advancing in broad daylight towards the Germans’ elevated position on top of the ridge.
After a three day bombardment, the 1st and 2nd Divisions attacked at 12h35 on 26 September. Like most of the Somme attacks there was little room to manoeuvre or conceal preparations, so the divisions were caught out almost immediately under the German counter bombardment. The Canadian bombardment was able to keep the frontline trenches from functioning, but could not knock out the guns further back, which rained shells onto the battalions trying to cross the open ground to their objectives. Both divisions successfully moved across No Mans Land, though at high loss of life, and crashed into the trenches opposite, over running most over the course of a 3 hour struggle. As with Courcelette, the problem was less capturing a trench than holding the trench, and the battalions holding parts of Hessian, Kenora and the Zollern Graben struggled to hold them against multiple counter attacks.
By the end of the day, the trench systems at the ridge where still not fully captured and the British commander of the operation, Hubert Gough, called the attack off for the night, planned to begin again in the morning. However, the German regiments pulled out during the night, consolidating in the fortified Regina Trench system at the top of the ridge. Some effort was made to probe Regina trench, and the Canadian Divisions continued to skirmish around Kenora trench, but the large scale battle for Thiepval was over for the time being. Canadian losses for the day were extremely heavy, total Allied losses for Thiepval were over 12 000.
After their use at Courcelette, Thiepval was the second site of employment for the new British Mark I tanks. The Canadian divisions were given the use of the Corps two remaining workable tanks for the battle, one of which was a casualty of the mechanical problems that continued to plague them, and the other of which was knocked out by a direct hit from a German shell. As with Courcelette, the small scale of their usage, problems with co-ordination and mechanical failure prevented the tanks from being effective.
Lt. Charles Edward Reynolds, DSO & MC 29th Battalion –Reynolds received the DSO for an attack against German positions that were firing on the 29th Battalion’s new position, one of the only objectives reached during the first minutes of Thiepval. Along with Sergeant W.A. Tennant, Reynolds led the attack, killing two German officers, and the strong point was taken. Tennant and Reynolds were the only survivors of the party.
Regina Trench | 1 October – 11 November 1916
The Regina Trench system dominated the area held by the Canadians after the initial attack at Thiepval on 26 September. Regina Trench had been part of the original Thiepval objectives, which called for the capture of the system by the end of the day on the 26th, but like most of the battles fought on the Somme, the attack had devolved to a multi-week slog, as the British army tried in vain to take increasingly smaller chunks of territory.
The 3000m system was perfectly placed for defense, being slightly over the top of Thiepval ridge, and surrounded by miles of thick barbed wire. To take Regina Trench, the Canadians would have to advance in full view of the defenders up the slope, with no options for outflanking and massed in a tight area of attack. Pre-attack bombardments were largely unsuccessful in removing the wire and many shells fell short as the Canadian gunners struggled to hit their target. Byng would again be calling on the beleaguered 2nd Division, fresh from the attempt to take Thiepval Ridge in September, to take Regina Trench. Despite protestations from the divisional commanders Turner and Lipsett, and an additional protest from Byng himself, Gough refused to call off the attack, and the 2nd and 3rd Divisions would go forward into Regina Trench on 1 October at 3:15pm.
The German Marine Brigade, an elite group originally stationed in Belgium, had been moved to the Somme as the German regiments slow weakened from loss of men, and were stationed at Regina Trench. The attack on 1 October briefly took control of Kenora Trench and part of the eastern end of Regina Trench proper, but were pushed out by the Marines by 2 October and forced to abandon their positions. Bad weather and low visibility delayed the next attack until 8 October, though the Canadian barrage continued during this time, always trying to remove chunks of the barbed wire that had proved so disastrous the 2nd and 3rd Divisions on 1 October.
The attack on 8 October would be carried out much as the failed attack on 1 October, this time with the 1st and 3rd Divisions. Both went over the top before dawn behind a creeping barrage towards the maze of trenches making up the Regina system. Most of the battalions would run again into uncut barbed wire, which funneled them into concentrated zones of German machine gun fire. Both attacks, on the Quadrilateral and Regina Trench proper, were ultimately repelled as the Canadians were pushed back to their jumping off points.
A combined British and Canadian attack on 21 October would finally see a large part of Regina Trench captured by the Canadian 4th Division, and many German prisoners taken. It would not be until 10-11 November that the final western section of the trench would be captured during a lightening night attack by battalions of the 4th Division. The same division would be called upon to take Desire Trench, the final support trench in the Regina system on 18 November, which they would do in four successive waves, following their creeping barrage closely. Unlike the early attacks on Regina, Desire was taken relatively easily, though fighting was still fierce in some areas. In the end, Regina trench would cost thousands of Canadian lives; in total, the Canadian Corps counted over 24 000 casualties during the time it was on the Somme, almost all in the area surrounding Courcelette, Thiepval Ridge and Regina Trench.
After Thiepval and the first attempt to take Regina Trench, General Gough released a “Memorandum on Attacks” addressing many of the problems that had arisen, and calling for a more platoon based organisational structure empowering leaders at the company and platoon level to make decisions on how to reach their objectives as the need arose, instead of waiting on high command. Gough also called for better organisation of reserves and using those groups who had already taken their objectives to better maintain the force of battle; almost all the battles fought by the British on the Somme had suffered particularly in this regard, with reserves held back behind the front lines who could not move quickly enough to support those objectives already taken. In 1917, the reogranised Canadian Corps would use this “leap frog” technique in every battle, greatly increasing their ability to take and hold objectives.
Lance Corporal Ralph Lewis (25th Battalion CEF) One of the few survivors of the battalion to take KEnora Trench on 1 October, Lewis manned a Lewis gun in the defensive line formed to hold the trench. He was awarded the Military Medal. Later a Lieutenant of the battalion. [Battalion report detailing the conditions in Kenora trench that Lewis fought under ]
Piper James Cleland Richardson (16th Battalion CEF) The 16th Battalion was tasked with a portion f Regina Trench on 8 October and were being driven back to their own trenches when their piper, James Cleland Richardson, stepped above the trench and began to play his bagpipes. Richardson was surrounded by flying bullets, but continued to play, and the men of the 16th turned and stormed into Regina Trench, taking their objective. Richardson continued to play throughout the day, later putting down his pipes to bring in a wounded comrade, when he returned to retrieve them he never returned and was listed as MIA. His body was found in 1920 and buried in France. His pipes were found in 2006. Piper Richardson, age 20, was awarded a posthumous VC for his bravery.
Lance Corporal Leo Clarke VC (27th Battalion) Clarke received the VC earlier in September for his actions at Pozières. The 27th Battalion was ordered into Regina Trench on 11 October to secure the area, Clarke was buried by a shell hit and his spine broken. His brother, Charles, was able to dig him out and he was sent to hospital, but died under care on 19 October 1916.
We will remember them.
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