The Battle of Poelcappelle
A Centenary Action

“When the sweating horses became bogged belly-deep in the mire, manpower took over and dragged the guns into position.”
© IWM (Q 3007)

On 9 October 1917, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment took part in the Battle of Poelcappelle, in Flanders, Belgium.

True to form, the mud of Flanders wreaked havoc with the preparations for battle; “Gun teams were struggling to bring the field artillery forward; and when the sweating horses became bogged belly-deep in the mire, manpower took over and dragged the guns into position.” (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 392).

The mud slowed the Newfoundlanders to such extent that while forming up the night before the attack, it took them five hours to march only five miles along washed out roads and mud-slicked duckboards, invariably skirting one shell crater before falling into the next (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 393).

As positions were taken up in support of the 4th Worcesters, the Newfoundlanders saw a Very light suddenly soar into the sky from the opposing lines at 5:10 AM. Though wracked with suspense, no response came as the light fizzled out. “A few minutes later a solitary shell was heard whining far overhead, followed a minute later by the sharp bark of a French 75. Then promptly at 5.30 came pandemonium as the barrage crashed down.” (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 394).

Credit: Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 391.

Wading across the Broembeek, the 4th Worcesters and Newfoundland Regiment became disorganized and entangled, to the extent that the Newfoundlanders now formed part of the leading wave in the attack. Fortunately, this left more men on-hand to mop up the enemy dugouts found along the Ypres-Staden railway embankment (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 395). By 7 AM, the Green Dotted Line was gained, and the combined units continued the push to the Blue Dotted Line against mounting resistance.

At Pascal Farm, concrete ruins bristled with machine guns but thorough tactics of fire and movement carried the day. Additional buildings along the Poelcappelle-Houthulst Forest road were to be shelled by four tanks, but the mud had prevented them from getting past the start line. On the left flank, the Newfoundlanders watched as Lewis Gun teams from the Irish Guards stood upright, resting the Lewis barrels on their shoulders while their comrades fired continuously during an attack on Cairo House. (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 394).

By noon, the Newfoundlanders were consolidating their thinly held positions along the Green Line, the third and final objective. Enemy counterattacks were successfully thrown back, but trouble on the flanks forced an orderly retirement to stronger positions just north of the Poelcappelle-Houthulst Forest road. The Newfoundlanders were relieved by the 2nd Hampshires at nightfall, signalling the end of another hard-won victory.

The Royal Newfoundland Regiment suffered 67 killed and 127 wounded on 9 October 1917. For their bravery, thirty-three decorations were awarded to the Newfoundlanders; seven received the Military Cross or Bar, five the Distinguished Conduct Medal, while the Military Medal or Bar went to twenty others. The fighting at Poelcappelle produced “the only appreciable gains on the northern flank, in the Fourteenth Corps’ sector.” (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 397).

The Battle of Passchendaele
A Centenary Action

The Canadian Corps entered the Battle of Passchendaele in October 1917 after a largely successful spring and summer of wins at Vimy and Hill 70. They were confident, well trained, and most importantly, rested. Passchendaele had been dragging on since the end of July, and had consumed thousands of British troops in the slog to take the ridge from which the battle took its name. Plagued by bad weather, Haig’s battle had not gone well. By October, it became clear that he would need more men to reinforce the British Fifth Army.  

The original plan had been for the Canadian Corps to re-attack Lens, the town they had failed to take at the end of the Hill 70 campaign in August; however, Haig met with Currie to explain the need for the Corps at Passchendaele instead. Here, Currie played the position of the Corps within the political structure of the Allies to its fullest advantage. The Corps would not be subordinated to Gough and the Fifth Army, Haig would provide extra artillery, and Currie would plan the attack himself. Even so, Currie predicted that the Corps would likely lose around 16 000 much-needed men at Passchendaele.  

The Canadian attack began on 26 October at 5:40 am with a creeping barrage as the 3rd and 4th Divisions began their advance. Communication was problematic and the mud, sometimes waist high, hampered those going forward. It took two days, but the first objectives, including Bellevue Spur were captured by 27 October. The next phase of the four part battle began on 30 October, once again using the 3rd and 4th Divisions. Advances on the 30th were smaller, and the creeping barrage was less successful, particularly on the 3rd Division front. 

The third and fourth part of the advance took place after the divisions were relieved, and the 1st and 2nd Divisions moved in to begin their work on 6 November. It was easy to get lost on the Passchendaele front, even with a map, and a member of the Canadian Corps wandered into German lines accidentally and revealed the date of the next attack – 6 November. Even with the warning, the Canadian barrage was heavy enough that the divisions could advance relatively safely and by the end of the day the village of Passchendaele had been captured. By 10 November, the last remaining German forces had been pushed from the ridge entirely and the offensive was called off – Haig declared it a victory.  

Currie’s prediction was correct. Passchendaele cost the Canadian Corps 16 404 casualties. Many of the wounded left on the battlefield drowned in the mud and water before they could be rescued. In total, Passchendaele cost 275 000 British and Dominion lives, compared to 220 000 German casualties. A high price for victory.  

Technological Advancements|  

-Currie and his commanders planned Passchendaele in 14 days; in comparison, planning at Vimy took 3 months, at Hill 70, 1 month. In 1918, Currie would plan his Hundred Days assaults in even less time. The Corps had become a well trained, professional army, and needed less and less time to train  

– Currie understood that artillery and its use were critical to the success of the soldiers on the front lines. Without a working creeping barrage and strong support, the men were trapped in their own lines and easy targets for German machine guns.  

-as at Vimy, transport in and out of the Passchendaele lines was critical and the Canadian Army Service Corps and Engineers spent the 14 days before the battle laying hundreds of metres of road and duckboard in a desperate bid to create walkable paths in the mud. In many cases, the duckboards saved lives, as wandering off them meant drowning. The artillery transport crews worked at night to move up the guns needed for the battle, and thousands of horses and mules were killed in service.  

Notables| 

Major Talbot Mercer Papineau, MC, was killed on 30 October, 1917, while serving with the PPCLI. Papineau, a grandson of the famous Patriote, Louis-Joseph Papineau, is most famous for his series of public letters written to his cousin Henri Bourassa that make a case for support of the war effort. Papineau was hit by a shell and his body never found.

No less than 9 Canadians received the Victoria Cross (VC) for their actions at Passchendaele. On the centennials of their actions, full accounts of the VC recipients will be available by clicking on the hyperlinks in the men’s names.

Thomas William Holmes, VC, of Owen Sound, ON, was awarded the Victoria Cross for his lonesome attacks on a series of machine gun nests on 26 October, 1917. Holmes survived the war and died in 1950. His VC was stolen in a home robbery in the 1930s.

Christopher O’Kelly, VC, MC, of Winnipeg, MB, rallied two companies and made an advance forward of 1,000 yards, securing the enemy trenches and leading further attacks against concrete pillboxes. 

Robert Shankland, VC, of Winnipeg, MB, (by way of Ayr, Scotland), cobbled together a rag-tag force of reinforcements to bolster his own platoon and established a small hold on the Bellevue Spur. Shankland’s force held firm, enabling the 52nd (New Ontario) Battalion to come forward and re-establish the line. Pine Street in Winnipeg, Manitoba would later be renamed Valour Road, as the home address of Shankland and two more Victoria Cross recipients from the First World War (Leo Clarke and Frederick Willian Hall).

Cecil Kinross, VC, of Lougheed, AB, (by way of Uxbridge, England) charged a machine gun nest alone, with nothing but his rifle, enabling his company to advance 300 yards. Kinross was wounded at Passchendaele, but survived the war.

Hugh McKenzie, VC, DCM, of Verdun, PQ (by way of Inverness, Scotland), left his machine gun section to take charge of a faltering infantry attack.  He placed himself at the head of the frontal assault and charged an enemy pillbox. With McKenzie drawing the attention of the enemy, the flanking parties made quick work of the position, but not before McKenzie was shot and killed.

George Mullin, VC, of Moosomin, SK, (by way of Portland, Oregon), ambushed and destroyed a sniper’s post before crawling up on top of a concrete pillbox itself. In full view of the other Canadians rushing the post, Mullin used his revolver to eliminate the two German machine gunners, before taking the surrender of the remaining ten defenders.

George Pearkes, VC, DSO, MC, CDG of Victoria, BC (by way of Watford, England), led the 5th CMR’s through hard fighting to their objectives and beyond. With only 20 men left, Pearkes established a defensive line from Source Farm to Vapour Farm, and they continued to beat back enemy counter attacks. The advantageous position gained by Pearkes’ band of fighters was appreciated by General Currie, who  issued orders “that every effort should be made to hold the line.” (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force – 1914 – 1919, p. 323).

Colin Fraser Barron, VC, attacked a machine gun nest that was holding up his unit, killing the crew, and turning the gun around to use on the enemy. He survived the war and served in the Second World War with the Royal Regiment of Canada.  

James Robertson

Beaverbrook Vimy Prize Blog – 13 August 2017

Credit: Rachel Collishaw, Vimy Foundation 2017.

Today in France, the BVP 2017 students visited important sites from the battle of the Somme, including Beaumont Hamel, Thiepval, and the Historial de la Grande Guerre museum. At Neuve Chapelle British Cemetery, Yaman delivered a powerful presentation about the contributions of Sikh soldiers in the First World War.
Please note: the students will blog in their preferred official language.

Today was our first day in France. After all we did today, our visit to Beaumont-Hamel left an impression so deep and significant that I will truly never forget it. Being a Newfoundlander myself, Beaumont-Hamel and the tragic story of the “Blue Puttees” is forever seared into our cultural memory. We lost a whole generation of young men from which our Dominion, (and now province), has never fully healed. Seeing the Caribou Monument, the shell craters, and trenches triggered something inside me to the point where I was overcome with emotion. The fact that I was there in remembrance of my great-grandfather and that I was commemorating my soldier there added to this emotional connection. I had never been to Beaumont-Hamel, having only seen the monument through photographs and video at home, but for some reason it felt like I had seen it before. The overwhelming response of love and support I received from my fellow Beaverbrook Vimy Prize participants after doing my soldier presentation was inspiring and heart warming. The connection I have developed not only to the fallen comrades, but also to my fellow BVP recipients is overwhelming, and I have never been filled with so much emotion. I hope that my great-grandfather, Fred, and my soldier, Cecil, would be proud and touched by my actions here today.

-Abigail Garret, Conception Bay, Newfoundland & Labrador

 

Aujourd’hui, je me suis senti très fier de présenter au groupe – lorsque nous étions en train de visiter le monument commémoratif de Neuve Chapelle – le soldat canadien sikh Buckam Singh, dont l’histoire a été oubliée pendant plusieurs décennies. Cet homme a souffert beaucoup et il est mort seul, sans avoir droit à un rituel religieux. Dû à l’absence de Sikhs au Canada à son époque, personne n’est venu visité sa tombe… jusqu’à ce qu’un historien ait retrouvé sa médaille de victoire dans une boutique anglaise.

Ensuite, nous avons visité Beaumont Hamel. J’ai adoré observer les réseaux de tranchées qui zigzaguaient dans l’herbe. Un caribou symbolique dominant le paysage se tenait majestueusement par-dessus un support. Abbey, l’une des participantes, nous a distribué à chacun deux drapeaux de Terre-Neuve et Labrador que nous avons planté devant les tombes de nos choix.

Finalement, lorsque j’ai aperçu le monument à Thiepval, c’était immense ! Les drapeaux français et britannique donnaient l’impression que ces deux pays se serraient la main. Il y avait un cimetière derrière la structure, séparé en deux sections : une section pour les soldats français où se tenaient des rangées de croix portant la mention « Inconnu » ; et une section pour les soldats anglais un peu différente, où les tombes étaient conçues d’après les standards de la CWGC, malgré que la plupart étaient également des tombes de soldats inconnus.

-Yaman Awad, Anjou, Quebec


Immense archways, thousands of inscribed names, a cemetery placed against the background of a picturesque countryside; today we visited the Thiépval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, dedicated to the missing British and South African soldiers who fought at the Battle of the Somme. As I walked through the memorial, my heart dropped at the sight of all the names of the soldiers who lost their lives in one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War, and whose bodies have not yet been found. Continuing down the stairs of the memorial to the cemetery, I saw the graves of the French and British soldiers; the French on one side and the British soldiers on the other. The difference between the two nationalities could be easily spotted as there were stone crosses erected at the graves of the French soldiers, while for the English soldiers, there were the rounded Commonwealth tombstones that we had seen previously at other cemeteries. As I approached the French crosses, I realized that they all bore the same inscription, “Inconnu,” or “Unknown.” Row after row, there were crosses without the names of those who were buried there. When I saw this, my heart shattered. All these fallen soldiers once had names and identities, which have been buried under the horrors of the war. I now have an understanding of the contributions made by those who served their countries and felt a greater need to commemorate the fallen soldiers. I will continue to remember these soldiers and to search for and share their stories with others so that we will never forget those who gave up their lives so that we may live ours in peace.

-Cecilia Kim, Surrey, British Columbia

Y Ravine Cemetery, Beaumont Hamel
Credit: Rachel Collishaw, Vimy Foundation 2017.
Historial de la Grande Guerre – Museum of the First World War
Credit: Hanna Smyth, Vimy Foundation 2017.
Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme
Credit: Rachel Collishaw, Vimy Foundation 2017.
Y Ravine Cemetery, Beaumont Hamel
Credit: Hanna Smyth, Vimy Foundation 2017.

Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery

This weekend our Beaverbrook Vimy Prize group has been visiting a large number of cemeteries and memorials in the Ypres Salient, as well as the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial on the Somme. Visits such as these underline the extent of the work undertaken by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but also the emotional impact of the cemeteries and memorials. In respect of this, for today’s post we are sharing another video that was initially broadcast live by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission from Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery as part of their  #Passchendaele100  commemorations.   

Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery has a very interesting history to its origins, with a moment of war-time romance that ensured its future care. In addition, there is a unique commemoration of modern art built alongside it, that helps visualize the dates on which those interred within the cemetery died. 

Follow the link to watch the video in the second largest CWGC cemetery in Belgium: 
https://www.facebook.com/commonwealthwargravescommission/videos/10154850115546094/#

Live from #CWGC Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery. #Passchendaele100

Posted by Commonwealth War Graves Commission on Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Essex Farm Cemetery

Today, the Beaverbrook Vimy Prize group is visiting Essex Farm Cemetery, the Passchendaele Memorial and taking part in the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate. In May 1915, it is believed Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae of the Canadian Army Medical Corps wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields” while operating at Essex Farm Cemetery. To mark the centenary of the Third Battle of Ypres, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission historians broadcast a series of live videos while visiting CWGC sites. Today we share the recording made at Essex Farm Cemetery.

https://www.facebook.com/commonwealthwargravescommission/videos/10154839965761094/   

Live from #CWGC Essex Farm Cemetery

Posted by Commonwealth War Graves Commission on Friday, July 28, 2017

Aerial Combat In The Summer of 1917
A Centenary Action

In the weeks prior to kicking off the great offensive known as the Third Battle of Ypres/Battle of Passchendaele, (31 July – 10 November 1917), the British commanders sought to achieve air superiority over the battlefield. This was imperative for the protection of reconnaissance and spotting planes, as well as the artillery and infantry on the ground. Consequently, the numerous air branch services were instructed to draw the enemy out into pitched aerial battles. Such battles would result in a mass of aircraft, swirling, diving and looping through the skies, like a mechanical swarm of bees. As an indication of this chaos, a single battle above Polygon Wood on 26 July 1917 amounted to a total of ninety-four single-seater aircraft engaged in a scattered dogfight ranging through 12,000 feet of airspace (Collishaw, The Black Flight, p. 139).

“Major Raymond  Collishaw, Commanding Officer, in a Sopwith F.1 Camel Aircraft of No. 203 Squadron, R.A.F., Izel-le-Hameau (Filescamp Farm), France, 12 July 1918. ”
Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-002788.

The next day, a strategic battle would play out east of Ypres involving a number of Canadians, including Raymond Collishaw, of Nanaimo, British Columbia, who was serving in B Flight of the Royal Naval Air Service’s No. 10 Naval Squadron at the time. Already having received a French Croix de Guerre and a Distinguished Service Cross,  Collishaw  would put up an impressive record in the summer of 1917, battling Manfred von Richthofen’s ”Flying Circus”, the Jagdgeschwader1.

For 27 July 1917, the plan was to send out slower, less agile F.E.2d’s over enemy lines and lure the responding German planes westwards towards an agreed upon rendezvous point  (Collishaw, The Black Flight, p. 140). ”The FE’s would then turn and fight and overwhelming formations of fighters would come down on the Germans…” (Collishaw, The Black Flight, p. 140).  

Accordingly, at 6:15 p.m. on 27 July 1917, seven British F.E.2d’s of No. 20 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps headed towards German lines. Over Menin, nearly 32 kilometres behind enemy lines, approximately 24 Albatros fighters greeted them. Rather than form into their usual defensive circle, the greatly outnumbered F.E.2d’s turned about and made a break for friendly lines, hoping to lure the German Albatros’ along. Reaching the rendezvous over Polygon Wood, “by the time the F.E.’s arrived there, still furiously fighting off their attackers, a sizable number of additional German machines had joined in. Waiting for them were no fewer than 59 Allied fighters…” (Collishaw, The Black Flight, p. 141). Diving down into the massed formations, what ensued could be considered sheer bedlam, as described by Collishaw:   

“I dived on a formation of three Albatros D-V’s, picking out one of them and opening fire… The pilot, I am sure, was hit, but so was something else, for the wings folded and the Albatros went straight down, shedding pieces as it fell. Off to one side I saw another German fighter go down… and then half a dozen of the enemy came down on my flight from high above” (Collishaw, The Black Flight, p. 141-2).   

The London Gazette for 11 August 1917, announcing Flt. Sub-Lt. Ellis Reid’s receipt of the Distinguished Service Cross. Reid’s entry is second to last from the bottom, in the left hand column.  Note that he is listed as missing at the time. His surname is also misspelt, which was corrected in later publications.  
Credit: The London Gazette, 10 August 1917, Supplement: 30227, Page:  8207

In the resulting melee, “scraps extended all the way from 16,000 down to 4,000 feet” (Collishaw, The Black Flight, p. 141). Collishaw’s friend, Ellis Reid, of Belleville, Ontario, single-handedly fought off the attacks of five enemy aircraft in quick succession, sending three of them down before he was able to pull away (Collishaw, The Black Flight, p. 142). ”The fight carried on furiously for about an hour and then, as was usually the case, suddenly ceased and none of the enemy was in sight” (Collishaw, The Black Flight, p. 142). 

Large aerial battles such as these helped achieve air superiority prior to the start of the third Ypres offensive. Sadly, only a few days later, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Ellis Vair Reid would be killed in action, his Distinguished Service Cross for actions in June 1917 being awarded posthumously. Reid’s body was never recovered, and so he is commemorated on the Arras Flying Services Memorial.  

Editor’s Note: The Black Flight was originally published as Air Command in 1973 by Raymond Collishaw and Ronald Dodds .