Trench Raiding
Earning a Victoria Cross

Captain George B. McKean, VC, MC, MM

On the night of 28-29 April 1918, while a Lieutenant with the 14th (Royal Montreal Regiment) Battalion, George B. McKean, took part in just one of many raids he experienced as a Scout. The following chaotic account, drawn from McKean’s memoirs and the official citation, is typical of the sudden and vicious brutality encountered on trench raids.

George B. McKean, 
Department of National Defence, 2017

“Turning to the boys behind, I called: “Fire your rifle grenades!” They did… Pete and I sprang up together. We saw them lined up waiting for us as we stumbled forward entangled in the wire. Suddenly there were several blinding explosions at our very feet and the wicked rasping noise of the machine gun in front of us.”

Their way forward obstructed by a wire block, Lt. McKean desperately sought a way out of the gunfire.

“I braced myself up, ran forward and took a flying leap over the wire. I just cleared it, staggered forward a few steps, and then hurled myself head first on top of a Hun who was just levelling his rifle at me.”

They crashed to the bottom of the trench, seven feet deep. Whilst lying there, he was attacked by another with fixed bayonet. Dispatching both enemies with his revolver, Lt. McKean was getting to his feet when a third man rushed him with the bayonet:

“I let go with my revolver; he gave a howl of pain, turned around and ran. Being a great believer in the demoralizing effect of noise I ran yelling after him. There were quite a few Huns in that trench, and soon the bombs began to fly about.”

Throwing all the grenades he possessed, Lt. McKean took on the German position alone until one of his men caught up. Taking the man’s grenades, McKean sent him back for more as he tossed them over and charged with his revolver. Capturing four more Germans, McKean caught sight of the machine gun crew disappearing into a dug-out. Calling for a mobile charge, “a man came staggering along with one – pulled the pin and threw it down the dug-out. A few seconds later the air was filled with flying debris.”

“Some weeks later the C.O. sent for me, “McKean,” he said, “I wish to congratulate you heartily on being awarded the Victoria Cross.” I felt rather staggered and bewildered – “Thank you, sir,” I replied – and that was all I could say.” (Quoted from George B. McKean, VC, MC, MM, Scouting Thrills – The Memoir of a Scout Officer In The Great War, p. 96-97).

McKean VC Citation pg 1
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/Reference: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 6941 – 48. Item Number:166001.
McKean VC Citation pg 2
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/Reference: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 6941 – 48. Item Number:166001.

30 May 2017
CWGC 100th Anniversary – Part I

May 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s inception. In honour of this occasion, we will be starting a new series exploring the creation of both the CWGC and the many memorials and cemeteries it now cares for in perpetuity.

Sir Fabian Ware (Photo presented to Mrs Isabel Ward his great niece 2008). Credit: Commonwealth War Graves Commission, History of CWGC, 2017.

At the onset of war, former schoolmaster, Director of Education in the Transvaal, Morning Post editor and mining director, Fabian Ware found himself too old to serve in the British Expeditionary Force. With a wealth of worldly experience and determined to still do his bit at the age of 45, Ware managed to obtain command of a mobile ambulance unit with the British Red Cross.

Once overseas, Ware became troubled by the absence of an official process for the marking and recording of the fallen. Under his own initiative and direction, Ware’s ambulance unit began recording and caring for all graves they came across. Ware’s efforts quickly drew the attention of his superiors and his unit was transferred from the British Red Cross to the British Army. The War Office followed suit by providing Ware’s unit official recognition as the Graves Registration Commission in 1915. By October of the same year, Ware’s unit had 31,000 graves registered.

Clydesdale Horse

Founded in 1910 in London, Our Dumb Friends’ League worked to ensure the welfare of animals used in the war. The League continues its mandate today in Denver, Colorado.
Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-28-302.

While the memories and images of wastage often prevail when considering the use of animals in the First World War, it should be noted that many of the men were deeply impacted by their suffering. In his memoirs, Sniper Frank S. Iriam relates the following account of a Clydesdale horse with affection:

“We had an old roman-nosed Clydesdale in the transport that was a veteran and had been with the battalion through many battles. He had been wounded, shell-shocked and gassed. Now when he was taken to a bad place that was under fire, he knew what to expect. He would shiver, tremble all over, and break out in a sweat and whinny softly for sympathy. That old Clyde had real courage for he never baulked or refused to go… It seemed to get your goat worse than seeing men cut up. The men have an idea what it is all about but the horses have to take it as it comes and say nothing.”
(Glenn R. Iriam, In The Trenches – 1914-1918, p. 189)

Horses were employed in a myriad of positions, conventional or not. Pictured here is an Army Motor Car at Lark Hill, Salisbury, pulled by horses. [1915.]
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-004964.

My Boy Jack

My Boy Jack by Rudyard Kipling

My Boy Jack was written by Rudyard Kipling in 1915. Emotionally distraught by the death of his son John at the Battle of Loos, Kipling was likely expressing his grief and loss while writing; however, most agree today that his son was not the subject of the poem. Published as a prelude to Sea Warfare, Kipling’s book on Royal Navy actions, My Boy Jack makes use of nautical imagery and likely refers to a “Jack Tar” – the naval equivalent to the British “Tommy” of the infantry.
My By Jack
-Rudyard Kipling

Second Lieutenant John Kipling. Unit: 2nd Battalion, Irish Guards. Death: 27 September 1915 wounded and missing at Loos beyond the Chalk Pit Wood, Western Front. © IWM (HU 123608)

“Have you news of my boy Jack?”
Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Has any one else had word of him?”
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?”
None this tide,
Nor any tide,
Except he did not shame his kind —
Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.

Then hold your head up all the more,
This tide,
And every tide;
Because he was the son you bore,
And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

Uxbridge Secondary School Remembers

Lt. Col. Samuel Sharpe, DSO

Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Sharpe, DSO.
Credit: Veterans Affairs Canada, 2017.

On 3 April 2017, as part of our 100 Days of Vimy project, we shared the post of Lt. Col. Samuel Sharpe, DSO (Read it again here: http://www.vimyfoundation.ca/100daysofvimy-april-3rd-2017/). A Member of Parliament, Sharpe used his influence to raise and recruit the entire 116th (Ontario County) Battalion from his constituents in the Uxbridge area. Serving as its Lieutenant-Colonel, Sharpe ultimately returned to Canada devastated by the losses to his county, committing suicide while seeking treatment in Montreal on 25 May 1918.

In honour of Lt. Col. Samuel Sharpe’s impact on his county and his ultimate sacrifice, students of Uxbridge Secondary School have dedicated themselves to commemorating the First World War’s impact on their county. For Vimy 100, a large group travelled overseas after nearly a year and a half of preparatory work. The following video was made for the Lt. Col. Sam Sharpe Gala that Uxbridge Secondary School’s Vimy 100 students hosted for the community, sharing the stories of those that went to serve King and Country from Uxbridge Secondary School.

The logo of Vimy 100 shirts of Uxbridge Secondary School students. Emblazoned on the back are the names of the Uxbridge Secondary School students who went to serve King and Country.
Courtesy: Tish MacDonald, Uxbridge Secondary School, 2017.
Students of Uxbridge Secondary School gather beneath the Vimy Memorial in April 2017.
Courtesy: Tish MacDonald, Uxbridge Secondary School, 2017.

 

Raid Reconnaissance
Spring 1917

A Centennial Action

Prior to a trench raid taking place, an even smaller party of men would be tasked with the reconnaissance and gathering of intelligence on the opposing trench, wire networks, and pathways. Conducted in the dark of night, often in a party of only two or three scouts, raid reconnaissance could be a very lonely and nerve-racking experience as they crawled through the wire up to the enemy’s outposts and trenches. Indeed, there was no comforting “strength in numbers” enjoyed by the trench raiding parties.

Lieut. McKean, V.C., 14th Battalion.     Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence collection – W.W.I/Library and Archives Canada/PA-002716.

Captain George B. McKean, VC, MC, MM was one such reconnaissance scout, of the 14th Battalion (Royal Montreal Regiment). His memoir, Scouting Thrills, provides stunning insight into the physical and emotional strain experienced by the scouts while they daily went “over the bags”. The following provides just one example of what it was like to be part of a small reconnaissance party, while stationed in the Lens Sector in the spring of 1917:

“We were making good progress…when someone caught his foot in some old wire. The sound was unmistakable – so also was the Huns’ reply to it… The volley of bombs that fell… told us that our coming was neither unexpected nor unprepared for… his S.O.S. lights went up – beautifully coloured… His artillery replied with amazing and disconcerting promptitude, and soon we were in the midst of screaming, bursting shells. We began to withdraw… when the battalion on our right… sent up a call for our artillery, and our artillery were no slackers. They promptly came down with a bang.

Dinner plate depicting Bruce Bairnsfather’s well-known comic. Courtesy: Canadian Centre For The Great War, 2017.

Imagine how happy we were! Shells in front of us, shells behind us, shells all around us! A screaming, deafening din and noise! We crawled into a shell-hole and waited. We splendidly illustrated Bairnsfather’s picture: ‘If you can find a better ‘ole, go to it!’ The sky was a blaze of light; S.O.S.’s were going up along the whole front. We could see them spreading to the right as far as Vimy, and to the left as far as Loos. On the whole length of this front both our own and the Boche artillery blazed away, and all because a scout had caught his foot in some wire!” (George B. McKean, VC, MC, MM, Scouting Thrills, p. 44-45).

 

Read more on Trench Raids:

What are trench Raids

Dirty Tricks

Tools of the trade

 

Bombs Over England
May-July 1917

A Centennial Action
May-July 1917

The drive up the Belgian coast in June-July of 1917, for which the Canadians provided diversionary trench raids at the Souchez River, was undertaken for a number of reasons. One hope was to combat the threat posed by the Zeppelin airships and Gotha bombers. British forces fighting up the coast would require the Germans to depart from airfields further from England, as well as to fly over more British-controlled territory. This would shorten the loiter time available to the German flights once over English skies, reducing their effectiveness, while also increasing the chances of British ground forces shooting down aircraft whilst flying overhead on the coast.

The threats from air attack had increased with the continuing development of Gotha bombers, used in addition to the Zeppelin airships. On May 25, 1917, a daylight raid of 21 Gotha bombers struck in the Folkestone-Shorncliffe region, creating approximately 300 casualties. Of these, 17 fatalities and 93 wounded were Canadian soldiers, training and awaiting transfer to the front. On 13 June 1917, London suffered its first daylight bombing raid, with 162 persons killed and 432 injured.

(Cdn Military Demonstration, Shorncliffe Sept. 1917.) An aerial greeting during lunch. Library and Archives Canada/PA-004772. (Modified from Original). Colourized by Canadian Colour.

Trench Raids – Tools of the Trade

Today we continue our series on Trench Raids. (See last week’s post here).

In this brutal environment, a number of factors led to the development of improvised weaponry for use in trench raiding. Economically, the wartime industry was already overwhelmed with maintaining pace in weapon and munitions production. The thought of adding to that workload was simply inconceivable. Additionally, the nature of trench raids required the ability for stealth, but also sheer viciousness once engaged in close quarters combat. Consequently, long, unwieldy and loud rifles simply were not practical.

The Push Dagger – Used in trench raids when soldiers might experience hand-to-hand combat, the handle was placed perpendicular to the double edged blade to allow maximum force in a thrusting attack.
Credit: CWM 20060208-001.
The Spiked Trench Club – The head of this trench club is formed from wound steel cable, studded with nails. The nail heads have been cut off to form blunt spikes.
© IWM (WEA 3069).
The Trench Club – This club was fashioned from the handle of an entrenching tool, modified with an eight-pointed cast-iron ring, similar to a cogwheel.
Credit: CWM 19620071-013.

In response, raiding parties had battalion carpenters and armourers begin fashioning improvised weaponry that suited their needs. Many of these crude weapons drew frightening inspiration from medieval warfare. The trench club was one such example – variously fitted with nails, cogwheels or iron studs. The French Nail was a stabbing weapon fabricated from its namesake, an iron nail, bent round into a handle with its point sharpened. Other knives and push daggers were fashioned from discarded bayonets.

Bully Beef

 

Men of the 2nd Australian Division in a front-line trench cooking a meal, Croix du Bac, near Armentieres. A variety of cooking methods were employed including primus stoves and braziers and soldiers produced a lunch of hot ‘bully beef’ hash from tins of corned beef.         © IWM (Q 583)

Last Thursday we shared a story about Canadians using tins of bully beef, (generally known as corned beef today), to lure enemy troops into a raiding trap (full story). While not the best, nor the worst food available, the troops eventually grew restless of eating bully beef day after day – hence their willingness to “feed it to the Germans”. The tins of bully beef were often re-purposed for other more practical means. Once emptied of their contents they were often “recycled” by troops who turned them over and stamped them into the ground, shoring up their footing in the muddy trenches. Behind the front at the armouries, the tins were melted down for solder. Interestingly bully beef was only just removed from British military rations in 2009, after over a century of service.

 

Empty bully-beef tins being put into a “Beehive” kiln for the extraction of solder. Etaples, 16 May 1918.
© IWM (Q 8789).

 

Major Jack
16th (Canadian Scottish) Battalion

Throughout our 100 Days of Vimy posts, we discussed the rise of war poetry and its use as a form of commemoration and mourning.The troops themselves were continuously writing their own poems and songs, often honouring respected leaders and lost friends. Conversely, there were also a great number written to humorously attack the military hierarchy or make light of the dismal life the men were now living. Over the next few weeks, we’ll feature some of the works from the troops. This week we share “Major Jack”, written for Lieutenant-Colonel John Edwards ‘Jack’ Leckie, of the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish). Dashing, impulsive and thriving on action and adventure, one soldier said of Leckie: “We liked the way he talked, and the way he walked.” (Zuehlke, Brave Battalion, p. 83). “Major Jack” was first published in the 16th Battalion’s trench magazine, Brazier.

 

Major Jack
16th (Canadian Scottish) Battalion


Come call your boys together,

The 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) attend the funeral of another respected and well-liked officer, Major R. Bell-Irving at Cagnicourt, France in October 1918.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-003324.

Major Jack,

They will follow to the death,

Where you lead them, when you need them,

Major Jack.

For they know you’re tried and true,

Major Jack,

And they’ll each along with you

Do their whack.

In your heart no thought of fear,

On your lips a word of cheer,

Ever ready, cool and steady,

Major Jack.

(Zuehlke, Brave Battalion, p. 83)