Charles G. D. Roberts
Canada in Flanders, Volume III
In writing this preface to Vol. III of "Canada in Flanders" I am saying good-bye to my task as author of the first two volumes. The increasing pressure of other duties has made it impossible for me to pay those prolonged visits to the Front which alone keep a writer in vivid touch with the constantly developing realities of modern war, or to spare the time for the proper study of the historical material. Under these circumstances it seemed better to retain the Editorship of "Canada in Flanders," but to hand over the story of the Somme to the practised pen of Major Charles G. D. Roberts, who was present with the Canadian Corps during that Autumn Campaign.
But in doing this it is necessary to make good as far as possible the errors and slips which have come to light and been pointed out by the critics in the text of Vol. II.
As in the case of Vol. I., the majority of the mistakes is in the misspelling of names or the confusion of identity between officers with the same surname. I particularly regret the mistake by which the leadership of the advance on the lost craters at St. Eloi on the night of April 6th is ascribed to Lieutenant V. P. Murphy, of the 25th Battalion, instead, as it ought to have been, to Lieutenant G. D. Murphy, of the 28th Battalion (pp. 129, 132). Similarly, on p. 42, the name of Sergeant-Major Benton should have been inserted as the sergeant-major who went out with Private Donoghue to the rescue of the wounded; while the commanders of the raiding party of the 19th (Ontario) Battalion in August, 1916, should have been given as Captain C. E. Kilmer and Lieutenant H. B. Pepler (p. 68).
In the description of the battle of Sanctuary Wood there are several mistakes of the same character. Lieutenant Glassco, of the P.P.C.L.I., has his name misspelt on pp. 181 and 182, and Captain A. G. Wilken, the heroic chaplain of the 1st C.M.R.'s, is reported as being killed, whereas in reality he was taken prisoner. On p. 216 it should be made clear that the Colt guns under Lieutenant Ziegler, which played so important a part in the defence of the Hooge position on June 6th, belonged to the Machine Gun Company of the 7th Brigade. On p. 70 Lieutenant-Colonel C. H. Hill, D.S.O., is wrongly given as the Colonel of the Royal Canadian Regiment when the 3rd Division was formed in January, 1916, instead of Lieutenant-Colonel A. H. MacDonnell, D.S.O.; while the Commander of the 5th C.F.A. Brigade at the same period was Lieutenant-Colonel W. O. H. Dodds, and not Lieutenant-Colonel E. A. Carruthers.
Among more general errors it may be noted that Lieutenant Elliot is described on p. 104 as the "signal" instead of the "signalling" officer, and that the German unit opposed to us at St. Eloi was the 214th Regiment, and not the 214th Battalion – a German regiment consisting of three battalions and approximating more in numbers to our brigade.
On more general questions, such as the position and actions of units, only one controversy has been raised, and that is concerned with the early stages of the Battle of St. Eloi. This difficulty is to some extent inevitable, for with the exception of the Second Battle of Ypres there has been no action in this history of the Corps in which the true facts have been more difficult to obtain than in that confused fighting in the mud on the dreary dawn of April 6th of 1916, which lost us the craters and the advanced line. But all the available evidence has been sifted with the greatest care, and nothing has been brought to my attention which makes me inclined to modify or alter the provisional account given in the second volume. This does not mean in the least that in the future quite fresh material, both from Canadian and German sources, may not become available after the war and throw a totally new light on certain episodes. With this additional evidence before him the future historian may be able to rewrite parts of the story from the standpoint of this fuller knowledge. There is, however, one particular correction which can be made at once. I find that I have done something less than justice to the work of the 2nd Pioneer Battalion during the St. Eloi fighting. Their task here was one of incredible difficulty owing to the conditions of the weather, the state of the ground, to the severe and continuous shelling to which the whole area was subjected, and the uncertainty as to positions which wrapped the whole action in a fog. Yet the Pioneers' work was carried through with great courage and energy. In particular, the reconstruction of the old front British line from Shelley Farm to No. 2 Crater, which is ascribed on p. 144 to the infantry of the 5th Brigade, was in reality done by the Pioneers, who also took a large share in placing No. 2 Crater itself in an adequate state of defence.
There is an inevitable tendency to give to the work of the troops immediately behind the firing-line less attention and credit than they deserve.
The infantry sustain most of the hard knocks when it comes to climbing the parapet, and in return obtain the greater notice from the historian. But behind the thin and scattered lines, which wave after wave fall or go plodding on, the gunners, the sappers, and the pioneers are preparing or consolidating the victory. The battle is no longer between the opposing lines of the infantry, for to win a position you must hold it, and to hold it you must have brought up swiftly and safely from the rear bombs, ammunition, wire rations, and a means of entry for the supporting and relieving troops, the area of the battle is no longer the front line, it is behind this that the enemy barrage descends, and over a wide field of fire the German shells are searching for all those who would bring up succour and relief. It is under these conditions that the pioneers must do their work. In the night, only illumined by the fitful flare of the star-shells shedding a pale and sudden luminance behind the front line and leaving the darkness more intense than ever, the old and battered communication trench of the Germans has to be made good to the front line. The trench from previous occupation is well known to the enemy, and as the pioneers shovel out the mud and the dirt to the left and right a new illumination is provided by the sudden glare and suffocating fumes of the heavies bursting right or left or in the trench itself. But night at least gives the appearance, if not the reality, of safety. As the infantry go forward the work must often be done in the broad daylight, the trench driven through to the new line, or a new resistance built to face the counter-attack. The men of the Pioneers who have to undertake this task must do it in cold blood. They are robbed of that excitement of personal conflict which can carry the fighting man through the most desperate dangers in a frame of mind which hardly remembers the horrors through which he passes, and crowns the story of his achievements with a halo and a fascination not granted to work less interesting but no less vital.
The achievements of the 2nd Pioneer Battalion at the Somme will take rank with any of those of the infantry. At Courcelette their duty was to follow on the heels of the 2nd Division, to drive communication trenches through without delay to the new lines, and to relieve the infantry immediately of the final consolidation of the captured trenches. In the darkness before the assault Lieutenants McGhee and Davis crawled out into No Man's Land and pegged out the line of trenches to be dug next day. The moment the 2nd Division had taken the German front line the Pioneers started out to drive these trenches through in broad daylight and under a sweeping rain of heavies. Lieutenant McGhee exhibited great courage and devotion to duty; he was three times buried by the explosion of heavy shells close to him, and three times dug himself out with his entrenching tool and continued to mark out the line of the advancing trench for his men. What the effect of such shelling may be is illustrated by the extraordinary and gruesome story of the death of Lieutenant Tracy of the same regiment some days before. While prospecting in advance of the line a German shell burst right on him. A rescue party of Pioneers went out immediately to find him on the spot of the shell-burst. Not a sign of the unfortunate officer could be found, and the search was abandoned. On the day of Courcelette his body was found by the advancing infantry fifty yards from where he had been struck down. For the Pioneers this kind of work must be done, day in and day out, or night in and night out, for weeks at a time. When the infantry is too exhausted by its efforts to make good the line, the Pioneers must be called up to supplement their efforts. If a strong point has to be built, it is to the Pioneers that the engineer officer will look to carry out his instructions, and in the achievement of all these tasks the Pioneer Battalions of the Canadians have covered themselves with glory.
It is now my duty to hand over to my successor. Major Charles G. D. Roberts continues in Vol. III. of Canada in France and Flanders, for France has now given us the names of the Somme and of Vimy, the story of the Autumn Campaign of 1916. I retire gladly in favour of one who has a real claim to literary and historical fame. The first and second volumes were the hasty product of one who was an amateur in the art of describing, but who, as an amateur, did his best. Major Roberts is a professional in the sphere of letters and of history, and therefore sets up a new and higher standard for the volumes which are to follow. In the sphere of letters he is well known throughout the Empire for his stories of the life of the men and the denizens of the wild, through which there blows, like the breeze shaking the pine-trees in the snows, both the warm wind of romance and the cold breath of reality. His History of the Dominion is equally familiar to all Canadians who care to consult the past of their country. In his record of the great deeds of the Canadian Corps on the Somme we shall find combined the two qualities which make letters last, the imagination which can convey to the future the agonies and heroisms of the past, and the chiselled style shaping the rough outlines of the records into a clean-cut and enduring narrative.
THE FOURTH DIVISION
In the first and second volumes of this history Lord Beaverbrook has told the war-story of Canada from the mobilisation of the 1st Canadian Division at Valcartier in August, 1914, to the conclusion of our work in the Ypres salient in June, 1916. He has dealt progressively with from one to three divisions, bringing the second and third in turn into his narrative, recording the organisation of each as it came into being, and then co-ordinating its military exploits with the exploits of its sister divisions.
During all that time the 4th Canadian Division was on its way. It was struggling into existence. Its battalions were forming, training, being reduced to skeletons by the necessities of the veteran units in France, and recovering strength by the absorption of raw material. The 44th Battalion was mobilised in the winter of 1915, while the 1st Division was still on Salisbury Plain; yet it was not until the autumn of 1916 that it reached France as a unit of the 4th Canadian Division. Between the date of its mobilisation and that of its first contact with the enemy it supplied many drafts of officers and men to reserve and fighting battalions in England and France, and absorbed drafts of all ranks from junior units. It was so with all the infantry battalions which, in time, went to the composition of the new Division, only to a lesser degree than in the case of the 44th.
Of the infantry brigades of this Division only the 10th is of purely Western origin, its battalions – the 44th, 46th, 47th, and 50th – having been recruited in Winnipeg, Southern Saskatchewan, British Columbia, and Calgary respectively. These battalions had comprised the 14th (Reserve) Canadian Infantry Brigade during their period of training in England previous to the formation of the 4th Division. The brigade sailed for France on August 10th, 1916, and took a place in the front line for the first time twelve days later, when it relieved our 4th Brigade in a section of our tortured defences before Ypres.
During the first five months of its active service the 10th was commanded by Brigadier-General W. St. Pierre Hughes. On January 18th, 1917, it was taken over by Brigadier-General Edward Hilliam, D.S.O., late C.O. of the 25th Battalion. The story of this Brigade's offensive and defensive operations is to be found in subsequent chapters of this history incorporated in the general narrative of Canadian activities.
The 11th Canadian Infantry Brigade, organised in May, 1916, lost two of its original battalions in the following month, owing to the great and immediate need of reinforcements at the front in consequence of the bitter fighting of June in the Ypres salient. These units were replaced by others; and when it commenced its actual war-service it consisted of the 54th from Kootenay, the 75th from Toronto, the 87th of Montreal, and the 102nd of Northern British Columbia. This Brigade was originally commanded by Brigadier-General F. O. W. Loomis, D.S.O., who had previously commanded a battalion of the 1st Canadian Division; but after Major-General Mercer was killed in action in June, the 2nd Brigade contributed its G.O.C., Major-General Lipsett, to the 3rd Division, Loomis was recalled to France to take the 2nd Brigade, and Lieutenant-Colonel V. W. Odlum, D.S.O., of the 7th Battalion, was promoted to the command of the 11th Brigade and the rank of Brigadier-General.
The 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade was organised from the 16th (Reserve) Brigade in May, with Brigadier-General Lord Brooke in command. It originally consisted of the 51st, 72nd, 73rd, and 87th Battalions, but in June twenty-four officers and more than seven hundred other ranks of the 51st were drafted to France, and their place in the Brigade was filled by the 78th. The 87th was transferred to the 11th Brigade. The final composition of the 12th Brigade was as follows: – 38th Battalion of Ottawa (its personnel representing such well-known Canadian Militia regiments as the Governor-General's Foot Guards, the Duke of Cornwall's Own Rifles, the Brockville Rifles, the Lanark and Renfrew Regiment and the Stormont and Glengarry Highlanders), the 72nd Battalion of Vancouver, the 73rd of Montreal, and the 78th of Winnipeg.
Shortly after its arrival in France the command of the 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade was transferred to Brigadier-General J. H. MacBrien, D.S.O.
From the date of its organisation the 4th Canadian Division has been commanded by Major-General David Watson, C.B.
This Division has been fortunate from the first in the matter of the personnel of its higher commands and senior appointments. Major-General Watson commenced his military service in this war in August, 1914, as a Lieutenant-Colonel. He did splendid work with his battalion – the 2nd (Central Ontario) – during the Second Battle of Ypres and until he was promoted to the command of the 5th Brigade in the autumn of 1915.
Brigadier-General Edward Hilliam, who took over the command of the 10th Brigade in January, 1917, has had a career of distinguished activity since the first day of Canada's military participation in the war. As a Captain of the 5th Battalion he was wounded at Gravenstafel Ridge on April 25th, 1915, while engaged on a service of exceptional danger and importance. The story is told in Vol. I. of this history. After months more of hard service with the 5th, and a step in rank, he was promoted Lieutenant-Colonel and transferred to the 25th (Nova Scotia) Battalion. His success continued unfalteringly with his new command, as the splendid work of the Nova Scotians at Courcelette on September 15th, 1916, has proved to the world.
Brigadier-General Loomis, who commanded the 11th Brigade for a time in England, is another survivor of the Second Battle of Ypres. His original battalion was the 13th Royal Highlanders of Canada. From the 11th Brigade he was recalled to France in June, 1916, to command the 2nd Brigade. His Brigade-Major, Captain Gardner, a veteran of the 7th Battalion, returned to France at the same time and took over the 7th from Lieutenant-Colonel Odlum, who was appointed to the command of the 11th Brigade.
Brigadier-General V. W. Odlum, D.S.O., before his promotion to a brigade had commanded the 7th (British Columbia) Battalion at the front since the death of Lieutenant-Colonel Hart-McHarg in April, 1915. To those who know, this statement sufficiently explains Odlum's fitness for any fighting command.
Brigadier-General J. H. MacBrien, commanding the 12th Brigade, was at one time D.A.A. and O.M.G. of the 1st Canadian Division, and in recognition of his services in this capacity he was mentioned in despatches and made a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order. He was afterwards promoted to the General Staff of the Canadian Corps.
Lieutenant-Colonel W. E. Ironsides, D.S.O., Major K. D. B. Murray, D.S.O., and Captain A. A. Aitken, General Staff officers, first, second, and third grade of the Division, all have served actively on one or more of Britain's fighting fronts since the first days of the war. Captain R. M. Redmond was drawn from the Casualty Centre after he had seen service with the 60th Battalion of the 3rd Division. All other officers of the Divisional Staff had seen previous service in France, and a number of them had been decorated for their good work. By hard work or hard fighting Lieutenant-Colonel E. B. Panet, Colonel H. A. Chisholm, and Captain F. R. Burnside had won the D.S.O., and Captain Meurling and Hon. Major the Reverend A. M. Gordon the Military Cross, long before the materialisation of the 4th Canadian Division.
The 3rd Canadian Divisional Artillery, which was organised and trained in England during the spring and summer of 1916, and went to France with the 4th Division, consists of the 8th, 9th, 10th, and 11th Canadian Artillery Brigades and the Divisional Artillery Ammunition Column. The batteries and sections of which this force was formed came originally from almost every corner of Canada, north and south, east and west.
For a time the Brigades were composed as follows: – The 8th, of the 30th, 31st, 40th, and 41st Field Batteries; the 9th, of the 32nd, 33rd, 45th, and 46th Field Batteries; the 10th, of the 37th, 38th, 39th, and 44th Field Batteries; and the 11th (Howitzer) Brigade of the 29th, 35th, 36th, and 43rd Howitzer Batteries. This organisation was not satisfactory. The 29th (Howitzer) Battery was left with the 11th Brigade, and to it were added the 41st, 44th, and 46th Field Batteries. To replace these field batteries in the other Brigades the 35th (Howitzer) Battery went to the 8th, the 36th to the 9th, and the 43rd to the 10th. Thus each Brigade was composed of three field batteries and one howitzer battery.
The 8th Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery, which was brought from Canada to England by Lieutenant-Colonel Gillies, passed into the hands of Lieutenant-Colonel D. T. V. Eaton, of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, on March 9th, 1916. Eaton had commanded the R.C.H.A. with our 1st Division in France in 1915. He is a professional as well as a practical artillery officer, with years of theoretical and scientific study behind his experience in the field.
The command of the 9th Brigade, C.F.A., went to Lieutenant-Colonel H. G. Carscallen, who had long ago been mentioned in despatches for his work at the Front with the 11th Battery; that of the 10th to Lieutenant-Colonel G. H. Ralston, who distinguished himself as far back as June, 1915, at the "Duck's Bill," when two guns of his battery were established and fought in our front-line trench, seventy-five yards distant from the German trench, with disastrous results to the enemy's wire, parapets, and machine-gun emplacements (see Vol. I., p. 133). Lieutenant-Colonel A. G. MacNaughton, late of the 2nd Brigade, C.F.A., was appointed to the 11th Brigade.
These four Brigades and their ammunition column went to France under the command of Brigadier-General J. H. Mitchell, late of the 3rd Brigade, C.F.A. This officer had been mentioned in despatches and awarded the Legion of Honour, Croix d'Officier, a year before.
The 4th Canadian Division went to France in August, 1916, the 10th Infantry Brigade arriving on the 11th, the 11th Brigade on the 14th, and the 12th Brigade on the 15th. On the 17th they assembled, and within the week were moved into positions on the war-torn front of the Ypres salient. There they remained until the first week in October, when they joined the Canadian Corps on the Somme. During their occupation of the Ypres salient each of the three Brigades was withdrawn in turn for a course of tactical training.
So it was that the autumn of 1916 saw the Canadian Army in France flooding to and beyond the one hundred thousand mark. Four Divisions, according to the old establishment, which gave twenty-two thousand men of all ranks and arms to a division, would account for eighty-eight thousand Canadians in France at that time, but the development of the machine-gun service and the creation of trench-mortar batteries long ago caused the outgrowth and consequent revision of that establishment. And still, without the addition of a further Division, the Canadian Army Corps continued to grow, waxing greater daily to meet every progressive need and condition of modern warfare. By January, 1917, Canada's man-power in France reached the significant total of one hundred and twelve thousand. This figure takes no account of the wastage of battle. The seriously wounded and work-worn who are returned to England are, like the dead, immediately struck out of the tally. This figure stands for fit Canadians actively employed at the moment in first-hand combat with the enemy.
In the past, great battles have been won and long wars brought to a swift and violent end, tyrants have been broken, races enslaved, and thrones overturned by armies far weaker in numbers and in spirit than these fighting legions of Canada.
To enforce the significance of this Canadian Field Army of 112,000, we may compare the numbers engaged in some of the decisive battles of the past. The army of Napoleon, for instance, numbered but 70,000 men when he broke the power of Austria and Russia at Austerlitz. Wellington won the crushing victory of Vittoria, in the Peninsular War. with a force of 65,000; and at Waterloo he commanded rather less than 68,000. The terrific battle of Gettysburg, in the American Civil War, was fought by 78,000 Federals against the slightly smaller forces of the Southern Confederacy. Even at the great battle of Sedan, which decided the issue of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the army of France, on which all her hopes were staked – and lost – numbered but 150,000. From such figures may be estimated the importance of Canada's contribution in the present gigantic struggle for liberty and right.
In the summer of 1914 Canada was a land of peace, of self-interest, of political warfare, and commercial and agricultural prosperity; and now her thousands lie dead on foreign battlefields; thousands of her sons have returned to her, maimed, broken, and blind; her forward army fights on, continually bleeding yet continually growing in strength, reinforced from her trained troops in England; and to her own home camps and garrisons her sons continue to gather from counting-house, school, and farm.
HOLDING THE LINE
The Battle of Sanctuary Wood was fought and endured throughout the first two days of June, 1916. Canada's resistance to that terrific and overwhelming onslaught of metal and men will live as long and gloriously as any victory in the great story of our arms. During those two fateful days Canadian trenches were obliterated – blown out of the ground; dug-outs were buried and strong points crushed; woods in our positions were mown and torn to earth; Major-General Mercer was killed and one of our Brigade commanders wounded and taken prisoner. The Canadian front was crushed by that indescribable deluge of exploding metal – but it was not broken.
Between the heroic actions in the Ypres salient in June (1st to 15th) and the commencement of our strenuous thrusts on the Somme front in mid-September, no unit of the Canadian Corps was in any major offensive operation. But the routine work of holding and strengthening our positions continued with the full measure of that activity for which the Canadians have become famous. The vitality of our opposition to the confronting masses of men and machinery did not lessen for an instant. Relieved from the recent terrific efforts of defence and counter-attack, we were stationary yet aggressive. Hostile trenches and strongholds were raided and bombarded, wire was cut by hand and smashed by shell-fire, and mines were sprung. All arms continued to carry on enthusiastically, and the mental peace and physical security of the occupants of opposing positions were shattered constantly by bayonet and grenade, trench-bomb, bullet, and shell. The following instances will serve to illustrate the nature of our activities throughout this period of waiting, of preparation, and of so-called quiet.
Dominion Day (July 1st) was celebrated by the 26th (New Brunswick) Battalion in a manner little appreciated by the grey ranks across the way. Supported by the fire of our artillery and trench-mortars, two officers and twenty-five other ranks operated against a convenient point in the German front-line trench. The assaulting party were observed and subjected to a brisk but inaccurate fire of machine-guns and rifles before they had passed the enemy's inner wire. They pressed forward without a pause and rushed the parapet. The garrison of the trench immediately retired from this threatened point except for three men, who stuck to their loopholes and continued firing. Lieutenant Fleming accounted for one of these by thrusting his revolver into a loophole and returning the fire. The trench was then entered and its remaining defenders disposed of. After our party had investigated about forty yards of the trench they were driven out by a heavy bombardment of rifle-grenades and mortar-bombs. They then returned to our own lines with a few slight casualties, some useful information, and a quantity of German equipment.
An encounter in No Man's Land between a patrol of the 22nd (French Canadian) Battalion and a German patrol on the night of July 4th resulted in the dispersion of the enemy and our capture of two prisoners.
Ten nights later a reconnoitring patrol from the 25th (Nova Scotia) Battalion attacked an enemy listening-post at the moment of its being strongly reinforced. After a brisk exchange of grenades the Germans ran for their trench, leaving the field and one of their wounded to us.
On the night of the 25th a large German mine was blown in our lines on the Bluff. This was not the enemy's first attempt to possess himself of that advantageous position. It will be remembered that he attained his object in January of the same year and was not driven out until a month later, and then only at a heavy cost of killed and wounded. Fortunately the second attempt to secure a foothold on that ground failed utterly, thanks to the alertness and prompt action of our troops immediately concerned. Briefly, the story of the foiled effort is this: —