First World War Victoria Cross Recipients

The Victoria Cross is awarded for most conspicuous bravery or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy. The medal was instituted on February 5, 1856 with awards retroactive to 1854. The first award to a Canadian was in February 1857, to Lt. Alexander DUNN (Charge of the Light Brigade). There have been 1,351 Victoria Crosses and 3 Bars awarded worldwide, 94 to Canadians (Canadian-born or serving in the Canadian Army or with a close connection to Canada).

The following list (though not complete) is of Canadian soldiers awarded the Victoria Cross during the First World War.

Lieutenant Robert Grierson Combe, VC – Battle of Fresnoy May 1917.

Captain George B. McKean, VC, MC, MM – Raids of 28-29 April 1918

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The Battle of Fresnoy
3-8 May 1917

A Centennial Action
The Battle of Fresnoy – 3-8 May 1917

The village of Fresnoy-en-Gohelle was the next objective of the Canadian Corps after their victory at Arleux in April. Fresnoy was the retreating point for the German forces from the village of Arleux-en-Gohelle, and an important part of the Oppy-Méricourt Line, one of Haig’s objectives for what was known to the British as the Third Battle of the Scarpe, or the Battle of Bullecourt.

Canadian Troops marching through a French town. May, 1917.
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001365

Like Arleux, Fresnoy was heavily fortified, and the area for manoeuvring very small. Haig decided that all operations along the line would take place at night, which worked to the advantage of the Canadians since they had a very small advance area. The plan of attack at Fresnoy was very similar to Arleux, with practice runs beforehand and extended slit trenches dug into No Mans Land to allow for a quicker advance into the village. The 1st and 6th Brigades went over the top on 3 May at 3:45 AM under cover of darkness.

Fresnoy was taken within several hours, but the Canadian brigades were now in the typical problem facing armies on the Western Front – holding their position. Counter attacks began almost immediately and the village was shelled for the next seven days, absorbing some 100 000 German artillery and gas shells. For the soldiers of the 1st and 6th Brigades in the village, the time between 3 May and the final German counter-attack on 8 May must have seemed endless.

Beginning at 4:00 AM, the Germans advanced into the village, even reaching Canadian trenches before they were fought off. The day ended with a German retreat and the Canadians were relieved the next day; however, disaster struck during the relief in the form of another German attack against the British troops relieving the village. Fresnoy was lost on 9 May, 1917. Canadian losses for the battle were 1 259 casualties, 1 080 of which were from the 1st Brigade, Canadian Corps.

Technological advancements

In addition to the use of preparatory practice attacks and slit trenches, Fresnoy was initially fought in the dark. The Canadian Corps would frequently use night attacks, one of the most famous being the Canal-du-Nord in 1918, and if successful they could be extremely effective.  For the initial attack, Currie was also lucky enough to have the use of artillery from three of the four Canadian Division, in addition to British units, allowing for a very heavy concentration of fire in such a small area.

Characters 

Signaller Wilfred Kerr: A student at the University of Toronto, Kerr enlisted in 1916 with the Canadian Field Artillery. His memoir of 1917, Shrieks and Crashes was published for the first time in 1929. Kerr survived Fresnoy and the war, returning to university where he received his PhD. He worked at the University of Buffalo and died in Kenmore, New York in 1950.

Lieutenant Ernst Junger: Junger is now known as the author of the German war memoir Storm of Steel, but in 1917 at Fresnoy he was a company leader with one of the regiments stationed at Fresnoy. Of the battle, Junger wrote Fresnoy was one towering fountain of the earth after another. […] Eyes and ears were utterly compelled by this devastation. After his demobilisation, Junger became an entomologist and a prominent public critic of the Weimar Republic; he had a complicated relationship with the Nazi Party and was never a member, though he served with the army in Paris before being dismissed in 1944 after being implicated in an assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler.

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28-29 April 2017
The Arleux Loop

A Centennial Action

Artillery observers watch the fall of shells on the village Arleux. Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001139.

The Arras offensive, of which Vimy Ridge was just one part, continued well after the capture of the ridge until 16 May, 1917. Following Vimy, the Canadians pushed their way forward, mopping up scattered outposts and advancing for two weeks in mid-April before stacking up against serious German resistance. In the midst of the floundering Nivelle offensive, British General Haig hoped to achieve a redeeming victory by ordering a four-battalion attack by the Canadians on the troublesome “Arleux Loop” at Arleux-en-Gohelle.

Canadians search Germans captured at Arleux. Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001210.

Assigned to the attack, the 5th (Western Cavalry), 8th (90th Winnipeg Rifles), 10th (Canadians), and 25th (Nova Scotia Rifles) Battalions refused to be hampered by supply problems, with the 8th Battalion alone hauling 40,000 rounds of ammunition into forward dumps. The Canadians advanced at 04:25 A.M., pushing their way into the village despite a weak barrage. Desperate, chaotic battles of hand-to-hand fighting broke out, favouring the Canadians who were actually outnumbered. Swarming through Arleux’s devastated streets, the German forces were simply overwhelmed; no sooner had they started to check one skirmish before another running firefight would break out elsewhere. By 06:00 A.M., a disjointed retreat from the village was underway.

Admitting the village lost, the German commander of the 111th Division ended all counter-attacks on 29 April. The two-day battle had cost the Canadians 1,255 casualties. As they consolidated their positions they looked out at the next objective a mere two kilometres away – the village of Fresnoy and its accompanying Fresnoy Wood.

A stretcher-bearer and German prisoner tend to a Canadian wounded at Arleux. Note the crucifix in the background – one of few shelters left standing in the village. Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-001360.
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14 April 1917
Monchy-le-Preux

A Centennial Action

All that was left of the village of Monchy-le-Preux in April-May 1919. Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada/PA-004367.

On 14 April 1917, two days after the Canadian Expeditionary Force had secured its positions atop Vimy Ridge, an attack was launched by the Newfoundland Regiment (NFLD R) and a battalion of the 1st Essex Regiment from the village of Monchy-le-Preux with the objective of Infantry Hill, along with Bois du Vert and a smaller stand of trees known as Machine Gun Woods.

As a separate dominion of the British Empire, Newfoundland’s military contribution operated independently of Canada’s forces. Consequently, the men known as The Blue Puttees had just entered the line after a lengthy period of recuperation and refitting, following their devastating losses at Beaumont-Hamel on July 1, 1916, and the larger Somme campaign.

Striking east of Arras from the village of Monchy-le-Preux at 05:30, the men were fighting with a hurried and inadequate tactical plan, the attack stuttered and stalled under withering fire from German machine gun and artillery positions. By 09:00, the attacking forces were surrounded and pressed from three sides by German counter-attacks.

The nine men of the Newfoundland Regiment, who defended Monchy-le-Preux. The tenth man, of the 1st Essex Regiment, is not in the photograph. Credit: © IWM (Q 5348).

It soon became apparent to Lieutenant-Colonel James Forbes-Robertson that he and his Battalion HQ staff were all that stood between the counter-attacking Germans and a major breakthrough, west towards Arras. Gathering up his staff, along with weapons and ammunition from the dead and wounded they passed, Lt.-Col. Forbes-Robertson led the tiny force of no more than 20 men through the deserted streets of Monchy, toward the battlefield. At the edge of the village, they dashed across 100 yards of open ground to a small embankment and hedge. By the time they reached it, machine gun, rifle, and artillery fire had reduced their force to just ten men.

From the diminutive safety of the embankment, armed only with rifles, the ten men then held off the approaching Germans for eleven hours under Lt.-Col. Forbes-Robertson’s leadership. By alternating between both rapid and sniping fire, while dashing along and firing from various spots of the embankment, they were able to confuse the Germans as to their actual defence and number. Sniping of German scouts sent forward also nullified attempts to gauge the size of the Newfoundlanders’ defence. During a lull in the shelling, Private Rose escaped back to Brigade HQ with the message of Monchy-le-Preux’s endangerment. Against orders, Private Rose returned to his fellow Newfoundlanders’, guiding the first platoon of reinforcements. Finally, at 22:00, Lt.-Col. Forbes-Robertson’s little band of fighters was relieved. Another dark day in the history of the Newfoundland Regiment was over.

In the initial morning attack the NFLD R’s total casualties numbered 460; 166 killed in action, 141 wounded, and 153 Prisoners of War. One of the dead included Lt. Robert Holloway, whom we discussed in our 100 Days of Vimy post on 15 March 2017 (read it here: http://www.vimyfoundation.ca/100daysofvimy-march-15th-2017/ ). Lt. Holloway was killed by artillery near Bois du Vert while carrying a message back to Battalion HQ.  In a cruel twist of fate, British artillery fire called into later defend the ten men at the embankment fell into the fields east of the village, killing many of the wounded Newfoundlanders who had laid there since the morning attack. After the battle, all ten men of the defence of Monchy-le-Preux were cited for gallantry:

Lt.-Col. James Forbes-Robertson, Commanding Officer – Distinguished Service Order
Lieut. Kevin J. Keegan, Signalling Officer – Military Cross
Sgt. J. Ross Waterfield, Provost Sergeant – Military Medal
Cpl. John Hillier, Battalion Orderly Room Corporal – Military Medal
Cpl. Charles Parsons, Signalling Corporal – Military Medal
Lance-Cpl. Walter Pitcher, Provost Corporal – Military Medal
Pte. Frederick Curran, Signaller – Military Medal
Pte. Japheth Hounsell, Signaller – Military Medal
Pte. Albert S. Rose, Battalion Runner – Military Medal
Pte. V. M. Parsons, 1st Battalion, Essex Regiment – Military Medal

The Monchy-le-Preux Newfoundland Memorial in 1919. Built atop a German strongpoint, the Caribou faces east toward Infantry Hill. Credit: © Artist’s Estate (IWM Q 49547).

Epilogue

In detailing the attack, planners chose to extend a thin salient even deeper into the German lines, which only increased its chances of being surrounded. A shortage of shells led to inadequate fire support in the initial stages of the attack.  Planners also appear to have forgotten to send an occupying force into Monchy-le-Preux, leaving the village-wide open to a counter-attack succeeded through the remnants of the destroyed Newfoundland and 1st Essex Regiments. Re-occupying the village would have provided the Germans with an elevated vantage point just a few kilometres east of Arras, making its defence by “The Monchy Ten” all the more important.

For a detailed account of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment’s attack and defence of Monchy-le-Preux, we suggest reading “The Greatest Gallantry” by Anthony McAllister, CD. взять деньги в долг на карту

Announcing our 2017 Beaverbrook Vimy Prize Recipients

Congratulations to the Canadian recipients of the 2017 Beaverbrook Vimy Prize! 14 students were selected from across the nation to participate in an immersive educational program in England, Belgium, and France. From August 7-21, 2017, they will learn about the interwoven history of our three countries during the First and Second World Wars.

David Alexander – Pointe-Claire, Quebec
Yaman Awad – Anjou, Quebec
Claire Belliveau – Dartmouth, Nova Scotia
Madelyn Burgess – Bow Island, Alberta
Ariadne Douglas – Prince George, British Columbia
Abigail Garrettt – Conception Bay, Newfoundland, and Labrador
Eric Jose – Oshawa, Ontario
Evan Kanter – Toronto, Ontario
Daniel Schindel – Surrey, British Columbia
Patricia Kennedy – Fredericton, New Brunswick
Cecilia Haymin Kim – Surrey, British Columbia
Enshia Li – Richmond Hill, Ontario
Cole Oien – Calgary, Alberta
Si Hui Pan – North York, Ontario
Paul Toqueboeuf – France
Lala Israfilova – England

We will be announcing the names of our Beaverbrook Vimy Prize winner from England in early May.

There were so many amazing applications that once again our task was extremely difficult, and we thank all who applied.

This program is made possible due to generous support from the Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation and also from the Government of Canada.

 

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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.

Technological advancements

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.

Notable participants

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 of 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.

German Prisoners captured by Canadians in the storming of Regina Trench. October, 1916. Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada. PA-000825.
German Prisoners captured by Canadians in the storming of Regina Trench. October, 1916. Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada. PA-000825.

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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.

Technological advancements

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.

Notable participants

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.

 

Burial of Major Edward Lewin Knight, commander of the Eaton Motor Machine Gun Battery (Canadian Machine Gun Corps). Knight was killed on 26 September 1916. Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada. | Colourized for the first time ever by Canadian Colour.
Burial of Major Edward Lewin Knight, commander of the Eaton Motor Machine Gun Battery (Canadian Machine Gun Corps). Knight was killed on 26 September 1916. Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada. | Colourized for the first time ever by Canadian Colour. ]

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Courcelette

15-22 September 1916

 

Dressing wounded in trench during the battle of Courcelette. Sept. 15, 1916. Library and Archives Canada | PA-000909 (modified from the original)

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.

Technological advancements:

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

Bringing in a wounded Canadian from the Battle of Courcelette, Sept. 1916. Photo: Library and Archives Canada | PA-000664
Bringing in a wounded Canadian from the Battle of Courcelette, Sept. 1916. Photo: Library and Archives Canada | PA-000664

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.

Notable participants: 

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.

 

 

 

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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”.

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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:

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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.

Technical advancements:

  • 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.

Battle of Mount Sorrel. Attacking under smoke. Credit: Henry Edward Knobel / Canada Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-000169
Battle of Mount Sorrel. Attacking under smoke. Credit: Henry Edward Knobel / Canada Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-000169

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