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.
Read more about the battle of Thiepval-Ridge