If Ye Break Faith

This blog is dedicated to the promotion of educating about the Canadian experience of World War One. To discover who we are as a nation in the 21st Century, we must understand our past.


Friday, 17 April 2015

A Most Terrible Day

This article, including original source material (letters, diaries and photographs) and particularly the input of BGen Greg Young was made possible through the gracious assistance of the 15thBn CEF Memorial Project ; a voluntary organisation dedicated to preserving the history of this proud regiment.

Battalion HQ, Farm “ARBRE” April 24/15. “Enemy attacked our line of trenches (front line, adv HQ & St Julien).  Heavy casualties.  Weather- fine & warm.”[1] That terse assessment, in less than twenty words describes the single highest one day loss of effective strength of any Canadian Battalion in the entire war.  After months of training at Valcartier in Quebec and a miserable winter on Salisbury Plain in England, the 15th Battalion (48th Highlanders), along with the rest of the 1st Canadian Division had taken to the field in France, along the Western Front.  There had been a short period of work up training with British units but by April the Canadians were operating on their own.  Assigned a “quiet sector” the 1st Division took possession of trenches just outside of the Belgian village of Ypres.  The 15th Battalion occupied front line positions on the 20th.

A lot has been made of the Canadian’s performance at the 2nd Battle of Ypres.  Much has gone down in the annals of history as a fine feat of arms; a foreshadow of the great national achievements yet to come in the unfolding years of the Great War.  There remains little doubt that despite terrible odds and a terrifying new weapon that the 1st Canadian Division held a succession of lines during the battle which prevented the Germans from breaking through to the town of Ypres. 

A battle on the scale of 2nd Ypres is fluid, involving thousands of men in different units along a varying landscape and changing circumstance over several days.  Looking at events broadly might bring a wide perspective and a general comprehension of the battle.  Examining it from the point of view of a single unit, over the span of a single day will certainly overlook key dynamics of events, but may help in understanding the experience.  This type of focus can tell more, perhaps, about how men behave under fire-in this case under fire for the first time.

The battle had begun on the afternoon of the 22nd when the Germans opened
cylinders of chlorine gas against the French divisions opposite them, to the left of the line occupied by the 1st Canadian Division.  The immediate result was a complete collapse of the French lines.  There was now a gap, nearly four miles wide, in the Ypres salient, and very little between the three German divisions following the gas cloud and the village of Ypres itself. 

These events were only on the periphery of the men of the 15th along their section of line, which they had occupied since the 20th.  Any word that was getting to these forward units was fragmentary-incomplete and confusing.  What was understood was that the 13th Battalion (Royal Highlanders of Canada) to the left of the 15th which had shored up with the French units now departed, had become the left edge of the salient and “that the entire left flank of the Canadian position was now in danger of being 'rolled-up',” says BGen Greg Young of the 15th Bn CEF Memorial Project.  The initial collapse had been blocked by the British 13th Brigade supported by the 10th and 16th Canadian Battalions.  This formed a ragged line sweeping west south west from the Royal Highlanders’ left elbow to the Yser Canal. “The entire line from the Canadian boundary with the 28th Division near Gravenstafel round to Kitcheners Wood was now manned by the equivalent of eight battalions.  These were to be attacked by at least three times their number of German Battalions.  The 5th and 8th Battalions (of the 2nd Brigade) and the 15th Battalion held the original front on the east side of the Salient.”[2]  

The ideal place for an attack in a scenario such as this would be to do so at the least defensible portion of line, close to the apex of the salient so that it could be easily enveloped, and if possible near to a command boundary.  The 15th Battalion were, to their misfortune, exactly in this type of place.  Of four companies (from positions right to left), No’s I, III and IV were in the line, No II Company being held as Battalion reserve outside of St Julien.  Captain McGregor, Officer Commanding (OC) No I Company was on the far right , abutting (with a hundred yard gap between) the 8th Battalion, marking the boundary between the 3rd  and 2nd  Brigades.  Major Osborne, OC No IV
Company tied in with a company of the 2nd Buffs who stood in between the 15th and the 13th Battalions to their left, the Buffs having the dubious position of a narrow apex, in a place that would come to be known as “Devil’s Corner.”  It was difficult ground and no proper trench line existed. “The line resolved itself into a series of strong points.”[3] This disposition had the effect to isolate the Battalion’s companies from one another. Gen Young notes that this was “the result of having to occupy a French style trench system based on platoon sized, forward facing redoubts connected with shallow communications trenches.”  Major Osborne described his company’s disposition: “The arrangements here were somewhat different than on former occasions.  Two platoons only were kept in the first line trench, while the remaining two were kept in reserve at Battalion Advance Headquarters.  In addition the position of the Company Commander was not in the trenches, but in a dugout about two hundred and fifty yards to the rear, and connected to the main trench by a communication trench.”  He continues “Our section consisted of two redoubts about 30 or 40 yards apart and connected by an earthen screen about 3 feet high.”[4]

April 23/15-“Enemy shelled trenches and St Julien and Adv Bn HQ.”[5]The 15th Battalion’s officers had all done what they could to make their positions more defensible, building up with sandbags or even relocating to better ground.  Constant shelling had prevented movement, particularly of getting the wounded out and rations and ammunition forward; several probing attacks had determined the point for the next advance.  Orders had been to “stand to the end,” and each man would have prepared himself for what that might mean.  Early in the morning on the 24th, it was “evident that the Germans were through some of the gaps and were well behind the 13th Battalion.”[6] This infiltration threatened Major Osborne’s position will possible surrounding from the rear.    “This danger was very real for the entire forward line. Equally of note, the entire backside of the 15th line was exposed to fire - both MG and artillery, from the exposed left flank, made all the more dangerous by the lack of a parados at the rear of their trenches.”-Gen Young.
  
Lt Maxwell-Scott, of 11 Platoon, No III Company, to the right of Major Osborne’s company describes what he witnessed that morning “We stood to at 3a.m., Sat. morning.  Shortly after 3.30, when it was fairly light, we noticed far away on our right front a German captive balloon which hadn’t been there the day before.  As we watched it four red stars were dropped from it, making quite a pretty sight.  Our gaze must have lingered a little too long, for when I turned the men were leaving the trenches on our right and a great wall of green gas, about 15 to 20 ft. high was on top of us.”[7]  The renewed attack fell upon the divide between the 8th and 15th battalions.  Although much narrower than the gas attack on the French days before it was more concentrated, and thus just as effective. Gen Young provides further information on an increasingly desperate situation:  “the 15th Bn was only unit in line that had no artillery support. Their supporting battery, unknown to them, had been withdrawn out of range.”


Here, the popular image is played of stalwart defenders in urine soaked kerchiefs pouring deadly fire into the advancing enemy despite the wisps of pure chlorine all about them.  It is almost certain that events here were much different.  Those units hit by the gas, No I Company and the right edge of No III Company of the 15th and the left edge of the 8th were of little use in the ensuing battle.  No I Coy “was annihilated.  Two or three men were seen staggering back ...but they were so badly gassed they had to be helped to the rear.”[8] Lt Scott recalls of No III
Coy “it was hopeless to try and stand up against the stuff, so we returned, choking, coughing and spluttering.  There was a hill behind us, and up this we went in small groups.  We hadn’t been there long before the shells started coming and for about 7 hours they shelled us most unmercifully, the shells dropping all around, some hitting the parapet, some going just over, causing a good many casualties.”[9]  Lt Scott would be evacuated to hospital before days’ end.

With the Front line reduced and now consisting of small isolated groups, the concurrent assault from the left flank tore up the remains of “Devil’s Corner.”  The German’s attacks were pressing the right areas and isolating trouble spots created by a fragmented line.   No I Company’s positions were vacant from the gas, and were being used by German infantry to roll up the right flank of the 15th Battalion.  Those of No III Company who could get away did, either to the rear or further left to join IV Company positions.  The two forward platoons of No IV Company were attacked on all sides, and left little option.  Says Major Osborne, trying to keep to his order to stand, “More of the enemy however must have come across further to the right, for they came down  the trench in considerable numbers....considering the situation more than serious made my way to Company H.Q. to try and get a message to Major Marshall for reinforcements and more ammunition.”[10]  This he was unable to do, his telephone lines were cut.  So, “I sent Pte Odd out with Pte Wilson to try to get through on foot with a written message.  Whether they were successful or not in getting out I do not know as I never saw them again.”[11]  Major Osborne, who was twice wounded, had tried to move his men back into a more defensible position, but this proved of little use as No III Company had indeed been surrounded.  He and his party were taken prisoner by about 25 Germans. 

The last position along this line, being commanded by Lt MacDonald- an amalgamation of 15th Battalion men and the remnants of the Company of the 2nd
Buffs- having suffered heavy casualties and run out of ammunition surrendered. “I want to call attention,” Maj Osborne would later write, “to the splendid work of Lieut. Fred MacDonald.  His judgement and foresight as well as his steadiness and nerve in the face of very critical and trying circumstances on the 24th...was most praiseworthy.”[12]

By 9:30 in the morning the 15th Battalion had lost the majority of its three front line companies. A hard fight at St Julien, which had started with the Germans moving in from the west, and then supported by their comrades moving south from the reduced front line involved No II Company and elements of the forward lines who had managed to fall back in good order.  The small village was quickly cut off and surrendered by noon. 

As night drew in and the day came to a close, the artillery in the gun line providing an artificial twilight with the flash of each shot, the 2nd Battle of Ypres was over for the 15th.  They were moved off, a collection of souls more than a regiment to the GHQ line where they would remain throughout the next day, going into support lines further south, beyond Ypres itself on the Monday.

Monday, the 26th of April, 1915, when Quartermaster Sergeant Stevens “called the roll of stricken No I Company.  Six men answered.  The whole regiment numbered about 150- less than 200 when the band and transport were included.  That out of 912 effectives....The casualties of the Battalion...were: 20 officers and 651 other ranks.  Of these, 5 officers and 218 other ranks were killed or died.”[13]

Professor Tim Cook notes “Within this chaos the Canadians continued to remain an effective fighting force.”[14] This observation wasn’t just self generated, praise for the 1st Canadian Division came from the highest levels:  “In spite of the danger to which they were exposed, the Canadians held their ground with a magnificent display of tenacity and courage, and it is not too much to say that the bearing and conduct of these splendid troops averted a disaster” said Field Marshall Sir John French, British Commander in Chief. [15]

For the 15th, they may be deserving of Field Marshall French’s praise, but could not be fitted into Professor Cook’s assessment. Of the more than one thousand men who had set off in high spirits from Toronto eight months prior, only slightly more than ten percent could be counted as effective after their first day of battle.  Three long years of war remained before them, and would be faced by a very different, rebuilt, 15th Battalion.




[1] 15th Battalion CEF War Diary via Library and Archives Canada
[2] Nicholson, G.W.L (Colonel) “Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War” Queen’s Printer, Ottawa 1962 pg 71
[3] Beattie, Kim, “The 48th Highlanders of Canada, 1891-1928” pub. 48th Highlanders of Canada, 1932 pg 55
[4] Osborne, J. Ewart (Major), Personal letter to Lt Gen. Sir Richard Turner, 1918
[5] 15th Battalion CEF War Diary via Library and Archives Canada
[6] Beattie, Kim, ibid. pg 64
[7]Maxwell-Scott, Herbert (Lieutenant), Personal account, date unknown
[8] Beattie, Kim, ibid. pg 72
[9] Scott, ibid.
[10] Osborne, ibid.
[11] Osborne, ibid.
[12] Osborne, J. Ewart (Major), Appendix to Personal letter to Lt Gen. Sir Richard Turner, 1918
[13] Beattie, Kim, ibid. pg 79
[14] Cook, Tim At the Sharp End Penguin Group (Canada) 2007 pg 161
[15] Greenfield, Nathan M., “Baptism of Fire”: The Second Battle of Ypres and the Forging of Canada, April 1915,Harper Collins 2007 opening leaf

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