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, Canadi
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 attack, the
“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 France, p. 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).