A Centennial Action
As the war dissolved even further into static warfare over the long winter months, trench raids became increasingly appealing to higher command. Moreover, the successes achieved by the Canadian Corps ensured that the high command desired larger and more elaborate raids with each new plan. The advances in trench raiding tactics culminated into one of the most successful raids of the war on January 17, 1917 (Cook, Shock Troops, p. 57).
Three miles east of Lens, in the area of the Lens-Bethune railway, the 2nd Division’s 4th Brigade was slotted in for a raid, with 860 troops attacking along an 850-yard front. The men were hand-picked from the 20th (Central Ontario) and 21st (Eastern Ontario) Battalions, with support from engineer and machine gun units, and all specially trained for the job at hand.
With such a large undertaking, the planning was meticulous – five storming parties were formed around riflemen, bombers and wire-cutters, followed by Lewis gunners for mopping up and support. Canvas-covered boards were carried by each party, to be laid down as a mat over barbed wire. Attached to each party were engineers, armed with “bunker bombs”, (often a “phosphorous grenade attached to a gallon of gasoline and rigged with 10 kilograms of ammonal”), tagging along to collapse dugouts and destroy emplacements (Cook, Shock Troops, p. 57-58). The most surprising element of the planning came from its timing – scheduled to take place at 7:45 AM in the daylight.
Once the raiders rushed across the snow-covered No Man’s Land, the raid became the typical smash-and-grab operation. Infantry cleared out trenches dugouts, taking prisoner those who would surrender, while Lewis gunners fired into any of the enemies who tried to get away over land. The engineers followed up with their “bunker bombs”, tossing the mobile charges down dugout steps if the enemy below refused to come up. “You come to a dugout – light the fuse – drop the charge in – run like hell – look over your shoulder and see the dugout come out the door” (Cook, Shock Troops, p. 58).
After forty-five minutes had elapsed, green rockets fired from Canadian lines signalled the retreat and the men stole back the way they came, taking any and all booty and prisoners they had managed to corral in the melee. “One engineer blasted the chains of a heavy German MG-08 machine gun… and dragged it across No Man’s Land under enemy fire” (Cook, Shock Troops, p. 59).
The raid was an overwhelming success; in less than an hour, the Canadians “blew up more than 40 dug-outs, exploded three ammunition dumps, captured two machine-guns and two trench mortars and destroyed several others, taking 100 prisoners” (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 234). The expenditure of thousands of artillery shells and 327,000 small arms rounds for just an hour-long operation earned the raid the nickname of the “Million-Dollar Scrap”, as this was the price tag rumoured throughout the Canadian Corps (Cook, Shock Troops, p. 59). In human life, the cost was less jovially remarked, with forty killed and 135 wounded. But the precedent had been set – command would continue to push the Canadians for larger and increasingly frequent, set-piece trench raids.