116th (Ontario County) Battalion Raid
23 July 1917

A Centennial Action

Having been tasked with the capture of Lens on 7 July 1917, the Canadian Corps spent the rest of the month preparing for the attack, conducting raids in the meantime to keep the enemy guessing as to the whereabouts of the next push, hopefully drawing their attention to the “entire First Army front south of La Bassee canal” (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 285). Consequently, the 116th (Ontario County) Battalion was ordered to conduct a raid from the Mericourt trench on the night of 22 – 23 July1917, “with the object of destroying German dug-outs and trench-mortar emplacements behind the railway embankment” (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 285) 

While forming up for the attack, the 116th Battalion fell victim to a chance enemy gas attack: 

“About midnight, therefore, the platoons were being led quietly and stealthily into position. Suddenly the bells in the German trenches, not a hundred yards from the right flank, began to ring; gas fumes were rapidly making their way over our positions… A desperate situation confronted the Battalion; in a little while our artillery barrage would open, and its programme would be carried out while our men were stumbling blindly through the gas fumes, and in due course the enemy artillery would open up in retaliation, and our men, helpless with their gas helmets on, would be wiped out without a chance for their lives.” (The Adjutant, The 116th Battalion In France, p. 34). 

“Chances had to be taken, and gas helmets were removed, the mouthpiece alone being used, and in this manner, our eyes streaming with tears and nerves strung to the highest pitch, we eventually reached our positions around the Quebec Road about five minutes before zero hour.” (The Adjutant, The 116th Battalion In France, p. 35). 

Then, at 1:00 am of 23 July 1917, on the heels of a chaotic gas attackthe entire 116th Battalion went over the bags. Hand-to-hand fighting ensued as they passed the first trench and pushed through to the railway embankment, blowing up dugouts and tunnels as they came upon them. From the War Diary of the 116th Battalion comes the following excerpt detailing just a small part of the raid:

“Pte. W.M. Johnson, No. 1. Lewis Gunner, went with his crew up the gully in the slag heap, and swept the top of the same. He fired all his pans, and got more, and although two of his men were wounded, he kept the enemy at bay on the slag heap, and when his ammunition was running out, and men were being killed and wounded, he withdrew, fighting and covering the posts as he withdrew. He brought in his Lewis Gun, thoroughly exhausted, but full of fight. Pte. Kissock, and Pte. E. Carnaby of “A” Company together captured eighteen prisoners, and marched them back to Battalion Headquarters.” (The Ontario Regiment (RCAC) Museum, War Diary – The Logistical Summary for the 116th (Ontario County) Canadian Infantry Battalion’s Sojourn in Francep. 11)

Within thirty-five minutes the 116th Battalion returned back to Canadian lines, suffering 74 casualties but bagging 53 prisoners. Interrogations determined that the prisoners were from the 36th Reserve Division, a unit that had just transferred over from the Eastern Front (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 285-286). 



The entire 116th (Ontario County) Battalion, at Camp Niagara in July 1916. This photograph gives an idea of just how many men went “over the bags” during the Battalion’s night raid of 23 July 1917.
Credit: Merrilees, Andrew/Library and Archives Canada/Ecopy/MIKAN no. 4473483

 

Dominion Day 1917

The Dominion Day Shoot

In 1917, July 1st marked the 50th Anniversary of what was then called Dominion Day. The Canadian Corps HQ issued orders that at 12:00 noon “all guns on the Canadian front shall fire” totalling three salvos in two-minute intervals (Wheeler, The 50th Battalion In No Man’s Land, p. 129). From the memoirs of Victor Wheeler, of the 50th (Calgary) Battalion:

‘ “All guns” included those of the Heavy Artillery, Field Artillery, Siege, Field, Howitzer and Anti-Aircraft Batteries. In addition, thousands of machine-guns, trench mortars, bombs and grenades of all descriptions, plus two million rounds of .303 bullets from thousands of Ross and Lee-Enfield rifles thundered magnificently. This was truly the grandest of all sounds ever to simultaneously belch from the barrels and muzzles of Allied guns and trench pieces!’

‘If Orpheus’ music could move trees and rocks, the exquisite music of Canada’s massed guns, played a few short bars at two-minute intervals, must have flattened all the trees and pulverised all the rocks that afforded shelter to the enemy on the Canadian Corps Front. The synchronous delivery of our terrific fire must have convinced l’Armee allemande that Canada had become a Nation that memorable Dominion Day! Bienvenue aux Allemands!’ (Wheeler, The 50th Battalion In No Man’s Land, p. 129).

Canadians celebrating Dominion Day in a village they have recently taken, 1 July 1917.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001414.
(modified from the original)

1 July 2017 – Memorial Day, NFLD

1 July 1917 – 2017
Memorial Day – Newfoundland & Labrador

The launching of the Battle of the Somme was first announced with an air of celebration in newspapers on 1 July 1916. The St. John’s Daily Star July 1, 1916. Courtesy of the Digital Archives Initiative, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, NL.

Today we gather with our families and communities to celebrate Canada Day, marking the 150th Anniversary of our nation. In the midst of these celebrations, it is important to note that for some this day also marks sadness. In Newfoundland & Labrador, July 1st marks a sombre anniversary; that of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment’s massive losses at Beaumont-Hamel. On 1 July 1916, the youth of Newfoundland went over the top on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. In just half an hour, the entire regiment would be destroyed, suffering 324 killed and 386 wounded. Of 801 available men, only 68 volunteers could answer roll call the next morning.

As casualty lists began to trickle in, the horrific losses of that first day became apparent. The St. John’s Daily Star July 13, 1916. Courtesy of the Digital Archives Initiative, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, NL.

In response to these great losses, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador established their own day of mourning, actually preceding Remembrance/Armistice Day of 11 November, by marking 1 July 1917 as their Memorial Day. Consequently, 1 July 2017 is not just the 150th year of Canada, but also the 100th Anniversary of Memorial Day. In Newfoundland and Labrador, 1 July is first and foremost Memorial Day, marked by the observance of solemn ceremonies at cenotaphs, honouring the province’s immense sacrifices. Only after these sacrifices have been mourned does the province begin the transition to the celebration of Canada Day in the afternoon.

This sign marked a trench line in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment’s sector during their attack at Beaumont-Hamel.
© IWM London (FEQ 68)

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.

Billy Bishop’s Victoria Cross
2 June 1917

Capt. Billy Bishop, VC seated in the cockpit of his Nieuport 17 fighter, in August 1917. Credit: William Rider-Rider/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001654 (Modified from Original). Colourized by Canadian Colour.

A Centennial Action – 2 June 1917

2 June 2017 marked the 100th Anniversary of the events for which Canadian pilot William Avery “Billy” Bishop, VC, CB, DSO & Bar, MC, DFC, ED was awarded the Victoria Cross. Quickly winning the confidence of his commanding officer, Bishop was allowed to fly with a generously loose leash, allowing him to go out on lone wolf patrols without supporting wingmen, and more importantly, witnesses. On June 2, 1917, Bishop set out on his own, patrolling over German lines.  His citation for the Victoria Cross reads as follows:

“For most conspicuous bravery, determination and skill.

Captain Bishop, who had been sent out to work independently, flew first of all to an enemy aerodrome; finding no machine about, he flew on to another aerodrome about three miles south-east, which was at least twelve miles the other side of the line.  Seven machines, some with their engines running, were on the ground.  He attacked these from about fifty feet, and a mechanic, who was starting one of the engines, was seen to fall.  One of the machines got off the ground, but at a height of sixty feet Captain Bishop fired fifteen rounds into it at very close range, and it crashed to the ground.

A second machine got off the ground, into which he fired thirty rounds at 150 yards range, and it fell into a tree.

Two more machines then rose from the aerodrome.  One of these he engaged at the height of 1,000 feet, emptying the rest of his drum of ammunition.  This machine crashed 300 yards from the aerodrome, after which Captain Bishop emptied a whole drum into the fourth hostile machine, and then flew back to his station.

Four hostile scouts were about 1,000 feet above him for about a mile of his return journey, but they would not attack.

His machine was very badly shot about by machine gun fire from the ground.” (London Gazette, no.30228, 11 August 1917)

A very young Cadet William A. “Billy” Bishop while at the Royal Military College in Kingston.
Credit: Henry Henderson / Library and Archives Canada / PA-20347

In the years following his death in 1956, Billy Bishop’s war record has come under scrutiny due to discrepancies in his claimed actions. Researchers have found that many German war records and casualty reports do not match with Bishop’s claimed victories, while a vast number of his victories are logged in British records without any sworn statements of the necessary supporting witnesses. Meanwhile, proponents of Bishop’s impressive record argue that Germany’s spotty records may have been the result of their struggling to figuratively “keep a lid” on what would have been a propaganda disaster if Bishop’s successes became public. Moreover, the Germans were becoming increasingly selective of reporting damage at this stage of the war, often preferring to not take note of bad news. Ultimately, Billy Bishop’s career is marked by both unquestionable bravery, as displayed in his confirmed actions but also clouded by what may be half-truths and fabricated encounters.

For a more complete presentation and understanding of the arguments for and against Billy Bishop’s legacy, we suggest reading the following two articles:

The Incomparable Billy Bishop: The Man And The Myths by Lieutenant-Colonel by David Bashow http://www.journal.forces.gc.ca/vo3/no3/doc/55-60-eng.pdf

Billy Bishop – Brave Flyer, Bold Liary by Brereton Greenhous
http://www.journal.forces.gc.ca/vo3/no3/doc/61-64-eng.pdf

 

Taking Down A Zeppelin
14 May 1917

A Centennial Action

German Zeppelin LZ 77. The sheer size of Zeppelin airships in the skies over England could cause panic amongst civilians.
© IWM (Q 58481)

With the drive up the Belgian coast successfully underway, (the Battle of Messines ending June 14, 1917), it was hoped the cross-channel air raids would slowly be reduced. In the meantime, pilots and gunners continued to do battle with massive Zweppelin airships and winged bombers in the skies over England. One Canadian patrolling english skies in 1917 was Air Marshal Robert Leckie, CB, DSO, DSC, DFC, CD.

Just over 100 years and one month ago, in the early morning of 14 May 1917, then-Flight Sub Lieutenant Leckie was piloting Curtiss Flying Boat type H.12 No 8666, on a patrol to the north-east from RN Air Station Great Yarmouth. Off the coast of Terschelling, the Netherlands, the crew spotted Zeppelin L 22 10-15 miles away, seemingly at the end of its route patrolling the Dutch coast at 3,000 feet.

They increased speed and climbed to 6,000 feet. Nearing L 22 and still undetected, Leckie took control of the Curtiss from Flight Lieutenant C J Galpin, jettisoning three of their four bombs to lighten the aircraft as the crew moved to battle stations. CPO Whatling went to the rear Lewis Gun while Flt.-Lt. Galpin manned the two Lewis Guns in the bow.

Unspotted until only half a mile away from L 22, Leckie dove at the Zeppelin, roaring down out of dark fog and cloud to 3,800 feet, levelling out 20 feet below L 22’s gondolas. In the bow, Flt.-Lt. Galpin seized the moment and:

“opened fire with both guns at 50 yds range and observed incendiary bullets entering the envelope… the port gun jammed but the starboard gun fired nearly a complete tray before jamming also. We were then 100ft from her and turned hard a starboard while I tried to clear the starboard gun. As we began to turn I thought I saw a slight glow inside the envelope and 15 seconds later when she came in sight on our other side she was hanging tail down at an angle of 45 degrees… Five or six seconds later the whole ship was a glowing mass and she fell vertically by the tail. CPO Whatling observing from the after hatch saw the number L22 painted under the nose before it was consumed. He also saw two of the crew jump out, one from the after gun position on top of the tail fin and one from the after gondola. They had no parachutes. When the airship had fallen to about 1000ft four large columns of water went up below in quick succession either from bombs or engines becoming detached from the framework. After 45 seconds from the first ignition, the envelope was burnt off and the bare exoskeleton plunged into the sea, leaving a mass of black ash on the surface from which a column of brown smoke about 1500ft high sprang up and stood.” (Report by Flight Lieutenant C J Galpin on the destruction of Zeppelin L.22 on 14 May 1917, addressed to the Commanding Officer RN Air Station Great Yarmouth, dated 14 May 1917. Air 1/660 ).

The crew landed back at Yarmouth at 7:50 AM, with only two bullet holes from L 22’s return fire in their aircraft. For their actions that day, Flt.-Lt. Galpin received the Distinguished Service Order and Flight Sub-Lt. Leckie received the Distinguished Service Cross.

Curtiss H.12 ‘Large America’ flying boat, No. 8661. Flt. Sub Lt. Leckie flew the same aircraft, but No. 8666, on 14 May 1917.
© IWM (Q 67581)

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).

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.