29 June 1917
Capture of Avion Trench - Part II

A Centennial Action – Part II

On the heels of their success in the early morning of 28 June 1917, at 7:10 p.m. the same day, the second phase of the advance along the Souchez River resumed. Kicked off in the midst of a heavy thunderstorm, the surprised Germans were quickly beaten and objectives consolidated. North of the Souchez River, the 46th Division held Hill 65. On the southern side, the 4th Canadian Division had secured Eleu and most of Avion, while the 3rd Cdn. Div. established a strong flank astride the Avion-Arleux road. Flooding of the Souchez restricted the opportunity to exploit the advances and as the Germans regrouped from the initial surprise they put in strong counter-attacks. By the end of 29 June 1917, the advance had gained approximately half a mile, with British troops entering the western outskirts of Oppy.

Taken in August 1917, this photograph depicts a solitary rail car amidst the utter destruction of the Canadian sector along banks of the Souchez. Not a trace of rail tracks or a station remain, while in the background, the “famous Central Electric Generating Station” is merely a twisted heap.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001728.
Map of the Souchez-Avion Sector, where the Canadians and British advanced along the Souchez River, 28-29 June 1917.
Credit: Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 280.

28 June 1917
Capture of Avion Trench - Part I

A Centennial Action – Part I

Map of the Souchez-Avion Sector, where the Canadians and British advanced along the Souchez River, 28-29 June 1917. Credit: Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 280.

Late in June 1917, as the 46th British Division attacked, German forces holding the Souchez River defences began falling back. The month-long battering by Canadian trench raids had taken their toll on the enemy, now facing a renewed attack. Sensing a weakening line, the 3rd and 4th Canadian Divisions immediately advanced to maintain contact with the enemy. Then on 28 June 1917, at 2:30 a.m., the British attacked to the north of the Souchez while the Canadian Corps attacked along the south, with the 3rd and 4th Cdn. Div. securing Avion Trench by daybreak. From the 85th (Nova Scotia Highlanders) Battalion, a patrol had reached Eleu dit Leauvette, a hamlet occupying the crossroads to Arras and Givenchy. A pause during daylight allowed the Canadians to muster for the second phase of the attack that evening.

21 June 2017
National Aboriginal Day

Pte. Tom Longboat the Indian long distance runner buying a paper from a little French newspaper boy. June 1917. Library and Archives Canada / PA-001479 (modified from the original)

During the First World War, thousands of Indigenous soldiers served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Many became snipers or reconnaissance scouts, but Indigenous soldiers served in numerous roles throughout the CEF. Fighting in regular military units, over 37 were decorated for bravery during the war.

Despite close camaraderie with non-Indigenous soldiers, their return home was plagued with unequal treatment and marginalization.

Notable Indigenous soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force include long-distance runner Tom Longboat, Cameron Brant, Oliver Milton Martin, Sniper Henry Norwest and Sniper Francis Pegahmagabow whom we featured in our 100 Days of Vimy Post on 13 February 2017.

14 June 1917
Battle of Messines

German observation post and trenches on Messines Ridge wrecked by shell fire during the Battle of Messines, seen on 11th June 1917.
© IWM (Q 2323)

On June 14, 1917, the Battle of Messines came to an end. The first phase of fighting up the Belgian coast had ended in resounding success. While the Canadians provided large diversionary raids, the British Expeditionary Force had advanced two and a half miles over the Messines Ridge, straightening the line between Mount Sorrel and Ploegsteert and thus ending the German domination of the Ypres Salient (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 282).   “The completeness of the victory and the speed with which it was attained surpassed that of any previous major operation of the B.E.F. Only the Canadian capture of Vimy Ridge – a lesser operation which the Second Army used as a model – bears comparison” (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 282).

June 1917
A Near Canadian Corps Scandal

Lt.-Col. Cosgrave showing Gen. Currie a battered Hun steel helmet picked up after a recent advance. July, 1917.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001532

Sir Arthur Currie, Commander of the Canadian Corps 

Just as Sir Arthur Currie took command of the Canadian Corps, a fault from his past haunted his success. A senior member of the pre-war 50th Gordon Highlanders militia unit in Victoria, B.C., Currie had diverted $10,883.34 of regimental funds to pay off debts incurred with the collapse of his real estate investments at the start of the war. When Currie left Canada for overseas deployment, the 50th Highlanders were still short of their diverted funds.

In the years since his departure, successive commanding officers of the 50th Gordon Highlanders had slowly traced the missing funds to Currie, coincidentally catching up to him in June 1917, just as he achieved his most senior promotion. Raising the issue with Minister of Militia and Defence Sir Edward Kemp, who had just replaced Sir Samuel Hughes, the government officials desperately sought to resolve the issue without a public scandal. Even Canadian Overseas Minister in London, Sir George Perley wired Prime Minister Borden asking if Kemp would “be willing put up half the money personally if I do same” (Brown, Morton, The Embarrassing Apotheosis of a ‘Great Canadian’: Sir Arthur Currie’s Personal Crisis in 1917 in The Canadian Historical Review, p. 60).

Fortunately for Currie, his momentary lapse in judgement was superseded by his outstanding military leadership qualities and the Canadian Corps’ clear dependence on his success. In an interesting twist to the story, it appears Currie’s ability to obtain the faith and trust of his subordinates carried him through the scandal; indeed, it was only through loans from Major-General David Watson and Brigadier Victor Odlum that Currie was able to repay the $10,883.34, staving off his dismissal and avoiding bringing public disgrace to the Canadian Corps (Zuehlke, Brave Battalion, p. 168, & Brown, Morton, The Embarrassing Apotheosis of a ‘Great Canadian’: Sir Arthur Currie’s Personal Crisis in 1917 in The Canadian Historical Review, p. 58).

The Missing Airman

“The Missing Airman” was written by Nelson Moses, of the Delaware band, Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, upon receiving word that his son, Lt. James Moses of 57 Squadron, RAF, had been reported missing-in-action. His body was never identified. Lt. Moses first served in the same 107th (Winnipeg) Battalion as Lt. Milton Martin from our 100 Days of Vimy post of 30 January 2017. (Read it again here: http://www.vimyfoundation.ca/100daysofvimy-january-30-2017/ )

The Missing Airman
By Nelson Moses

O, sometimes yet I feel lonely,
For him who went away overseas;
Time’s healing wing, and time only,
Can soothe the empty heart with ease.

That parting hour was hard to bear,
When we shook hands and said good-bye.
Hope alone breathed over our prayer,
While tears rose up and dimmed each eye.

But our Mother, in sore distress,
Was heard from o’er the restless wave
Her sons falter’d not in her stress,
It was victory, or the grave.

Jim sleeps, with many comrades brave,
Sleep on; your battle is done.
No lonely cross will mark the grave,
Where rests the Empire’s warrior son.

Moses is “6” in the photograph below, and Milton “1”. Photo sourced from: “Canada’s Great War Album” Project, Canada’s History.

 

 

 

9 June 1917
A Canadian Corps Commander

Lieutenant-General Currie (middle) and His Majesty King George V (left) tour the Vimy Ridge battlefield in July 1917 with General Horne (right).
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001502.

June 2017, marks the 100th anniversary of Sir Arthur Currie‘s appointment to command of the Canadian Corps. On 6 June 1917, Sir Arthur Currie was summoned to Canadian Corps Headquarters and notified of his promotion as Lieut.-General Sir Julian Byng was vacating the position by taking over the British Third Army. However, without consulting the Canadian government, Currie‘s command had not received official approval. A burst of messages passed back and forth across the ocean between Prime Minister Borden and Canadian Overseas Minister Sir George Perley. Quickly reaching a consensus that they desired a Canadian in commandCurrie‘s promotion was made effective from 9June 1917 (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 283-284).  

It would the first time a Canadian took command of the entire Canadian Corps, but it was not without controversy. Next week we will look at a scandal that nearly brought down Currie’s command.

Download our poster commemorating the 100th anniversary of Sir Arthur Currie’s appointment here.

8-9 June 2017
Battalion Strength Raids

Map of the Souchez-Avion Sector, where the Battalions attacked on the night of 8-9 June 1917. Credit: Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 280.

A Centennial Action

In early June 1917, Canadian troops carried out massive raids involving multiple battalions to divert the enemy’s attention from Messines Ridge. On the night of June 8-9, six Battalions struck out on a two-mile front, from the southern railway embankment leading into Avion to the north side of the Souchez River. The Royal Canadian Regiment, 42nd (Royal Highlanders), 49th (Edmonton), 87th (Canadian Grenadier Guards), 75th (Mississauga) and 102nd (Northern British Columbia) Battalions left approximately 1,000 enemy casualties in their wake. The effectiveness of the raid was not lost on General Plumer, commander of the Second Army which had launched its attack on Messines Ridge just the day before. In a message to the Canadians, General Plumer stated: “Hope you will let the troops concerned know how much I appreciate their efforts. Your raids last night must have been splendid.”

Subjected to numerous raids by the Canadians in June 1917, little remained of the hamlet La Coulotte once finally taken.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001694.
3. The damage surrounding this German concrete gun pit at La Coulotte indicates the battering that could be endured.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001740.

17 January 1917
The "Million-Dollar" Scrap

A Centennial Action

As the war dissolved even further into static warfare over the long winter months, trench raids became increasingly appealing to higher command. Moreover, the successes achieved by the Canadian Corps ensured that the high command desired larger and more elaborate raids with each new plan. The advances in trench raiding tactics culminated into one of the most successful raids of the war on January 17, 1917 (Cook, Shock Troops, p. 57).

A snow-covered scene of destruction along the Lens-Bethune Road. The landscape would only worsen as aggressive raids in the area increased.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-002358.

Three miles east of Lens, in the area of the Lens-Bethune railway, the 2nd Division’s 4th Brigade was slotted in for a raid, with 860 troops attacking along an 850-yard front. The men were hand-picked from the 20th (Central Ontario) and 21st (Eastern Ontario) Battalions, with support from engineer and machine gun units, and all specially trained for the job at hand.

With such a large undertaking, the planning was meticulous – five storming parties were formed around riflemen, bombers and wire-cutters, followed by Lewis gunners for mopping up and support. Canvas-covered boards were carried by each party, to be laid down as a mat over barbed wire. Attached to each party were engineers, armed with “bunker bombs”, (often a “phosphorous grenade attached to a gallon of gasoline and rigged with 10 kilograms of ammonal”), tagging along to collapse dugouts and destroy emplacements (Cook, Shock Troops, p. 57-58). The most surprising element of the planning came from its timing – scheduled to take place at 7:45 AM in the daylight.

Once the raiders rushed across the snow-covered No Man’s Land, the raid became the typical smash-and-grab operation. Infantry cleared out trenches dugouts, taking prisoner those who would surrender, while Lewis gunners fired into any of the enemies who tried to get away over land. The engineers followed up with their “bunker bombs”, tossing the mobile charges down dugout steps if the enemy below refused to come up. “You come to a dugout – light the fuse – drop the charge in – run like hell – look over your shoulder and see the dugout come out the door” (Cook, Shock Troops, p. 58).

After forty-five minutes had elapsed, green rockets fired from Canadian lines signalled the retreat and the men stole back the way they came, taking any and all booty and prisoners they had managed to corral in the melee. “One engineer blasted the chains of a heavy German MG-08 machine gun… and dragged it across No Man’s Land under enemy fire” (Cook, Shock Troops, p. 59).

The raid was an overwhelming success; in less than an hour, the Canadians “blew up more than 40 dug-outs, exploded three ammunition dumps, captured two machine-guns and two trench mortars and destroyed several others, taking 100 prisoners” (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 234). The expenditure of thousands of artillery shells and 327,000 small arms rounds for just an hour-long operation earned the raid the nickname of the “Million-Dollar Scrap”, as this was the price tag rumoured throughout the Canadian Corps (Cook, Shock Troops, p. 59). In human life, the cost was less jovially remarked, with forty killed and 135 wounded. But the precedent had been set – command would continue to push the Canadians for larger and increasingly frequent, set-piece trench raids.

Farms At The Front

Two teams of Canadian Cavalry ploughing and harrowing ground on Vimy Ridge where potatoes are to be planted. April, 1918.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-003810.
Troops were instructed to assist French farmers where possible if a battalion was unable to manage its own field of produce. Here two Canadians help a group of French women.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-000768.

Starting in 1918, while occupying defensive lines around Vimy, the Canadian Corps carried out perhaps the most unaggressive, yet official, military order on the Western Front – farming.

Faced with ever increasing challenges of maintaining food supplies, the British Government ordered that the “English Armies undertake the growing of certain foodstuffs in the way of green vegetables and potatoes” using the land they currently occupied as a fighting force (NAC RG 9, Vol.4044, Radnor, “Statement of the policy to be adopted by Army, Corps, Area and Divisional Officers under the Directorate of Agricultural Production,” 7 February 1918).

Surprisingly, many of the Canadian Battalions took great interest in the project and its positive effects were two-fold; alleviating the strain on food supplies and providing an outlet for the burdened men. Farmers-turned-soldiers proved their worth providing expertise in planting and harvesting. As one unit rotated back into the frontline, those being relieved were expected to take over the farming plot. By the summer of 1918, the farming scheme was such a success that the addition of pig farms was considered, albeit briefly.