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.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Everything Was Quiet Again by Daybreak

The Inhuman Endurance of Trench Routine, Flanders, July 1916

“At 1.30 a.m. a minor operation was carried out by our bombers
And two Stokes guns….Our bombers threw about 500 Mills bombs
from the saps and the Stokes guns fired 90 rounds.  The enemy retaliated.
Our artillery also joined in the operation. Everything was quiet
again by daybreak.  Our casualties were light.”

War Diary Entry, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry[1]
18 July 1916

“Quiet”, it appears, could be an extraordinarily relative term when used in context of the First World War.  Later on the same day, further along the line from where the PPCLI had demonstrated, the 13th (Royal Highlanders of Canada) Battalion was clipped in a sudden torrent of shellfire.  “At 1.05 p.m. the enemy sent over seven bombs of some description which burst in the air…with scarcely any warning whistle, these were followed by six 4.1 air bursts.”[2]  This quick barrage killed six and wounded thirteen, on a day aside from a few moments’ of terror which was noted in the battalion’s War Diary as “quiet.”  For the 13th Battalion, this day in mid-July was the fourth of five which they would spend at the Front in this rotation, all of which had been quiet, yet each day added to a grim total of dead and wounded.

I spoke last week about how this period- from the successful counterattack reclaiming lost ground at Mount Sorrel to the Canadian Corps’ transfer to the Somme- gets little historical attention; and honestly, it’s easy to see why.  Notwithstanding events occurring elsewhere on the Western Front, this period of time at this place lacks the panache which attracts many to the history of military campaigns.  Events in the Ypres Salient through July 1916 came as close to “normal” as could be found during the Great War as to be dismissed as mundane.  While 2,291 casualties reported by the Corps in July[3] cannot be compared to the horrendous figures for the British in one day alone in that month, their happenstance would be anything but mundane for those who had been wounded of for the families of those killed.

This was no period of merely “holding the line”; it couldn’t be.  Wars are not won by remaining defensive.  The purpose of the Canadian Corps at this place and time was twofold.  First, it was to prevent the enemy from making a successful attempt to collapse the Salient inwardly to take Ypres while making all necessary preparations for an offensive aimed at pushing the Germans further away from this critical juncture.  Corps Headquarters fully expected such an offensive and had issued warning orders to that effect to its component divisions. “This attack…will be carried out by the 1st Canadian Division supported by the Heavy Artillery of the Canadian Corps….All preparations for the attack will be completed by 31st July.”[4]

Even when not directly engaging the enemy, it must have been terrible ground to defend.  Terrain had long since lost any splendour it had claimed as rolling Belgian countryside.  Two years’ worth of static conflict had, quite literally, reduced it to a perversion of what it had been.  Positional battles in June had further contributed to the degradation of a land already beaten to a pulp.  The Salient had become little more than ragged scars of ditches, given depth by sandbag walls, mounds and craters of clotted earth, shattered limbs of trees and endless tangles of barbed wire.  Artillery had been the chief actor in this destruction of land and men.  Some sixty percent of casualties in the First World War were caused by artillery[5] and most of the daily effort was spent in building up defenses to improve protection only to have them shattered again by shelling.  Ypres isn’t suitable ground for deep defences in any circumstance, a high water table makes any deep excavation prone to collapse and flooding.  Trenches here, such as could be were mostly comprised of shallow scrapes given depth by walls of sandbags piled in running bonds.  This landscape of milled earth and sundered trees seems as though very little difference would be appreciated if viewed in colour as opposed to black and white.

Amongst this confusing devastation, where for the most part infantry seemed inconsequential, preparations to push forward, in accordance with Corps directives still had to be made.  The 7th Brigade undertook such preparations in their sector on the night of 17/18 July.  It was reliably believed that the Germans were withdrawing troop strength from front line positions, and minor operations were proposed to take advantage of this.

The 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade (3rd Canadian Division) was the closest thing to a Regular Force brigade Canada could put in the field.  One of its battalions was the Royal Canadian Regiment, part of Canada’s pre-war Permanent Force, another was the PPCLI, which, although war raised had an initial requirement of regular Army service for its volunteers.  By 1916 this was less the case, the Patricias taking whatever reinforcements it could get.  On the night of 17/18 July, the RCR, PPCLI and a third 7th Brigade unit, the 42nd, a battalion of the Black Watch (Royal Highlanders) of Canada sent parties forward to establish blocking positions and improve forward trenches for use as assembly areas.  The Patricias were to, along with strong bombing parties “thoroughly scout and assist in pushing saps forward…embodying the German sap in our Front Line System (and) drive in all German Patrols and Bombing Posts.”[6]  This tasking illustrates to the latter day observer how confused, close and, at times, intertwined the trenches could be.  Some of these lines were only yards apart and the pocket battles of the month before had created trench lines between enemies which actually intersected, making it truly difficult to determine where everybody was.  The Black Watch would also push saps forward and conduct a raid on opposing lines “to secure identification” of the enemy units they faced.  Similar orders were given to the RCR- conduct a raid, set up blocking points, work on re-establishing ruined trenches and preparing specific areas for the assembly of attacking troops.

The Patricias threw a tremendous amount of grenades and mortars while working on forward saps.  In the spirit of the gritty, limited fighting in which the Canadians and the Germans knocked each other about in small scraps, the next night “the enemy commenced to bombard our right trenches…with trench mortars and rifle grenades.  The bombardment was intense…being probably in retaliation for our bombing operation in which we probably did considerable damage.”[7] The saps they had improved the night before were demolished.  This sort of retributive action was becoming quite common and was not entirely unlike a fight between two street gangs.

Finding the wire in front of German lines to be “thick and strong and would form a formidable obstacle to advancing infantry,” the patrols of the Black Watch also constructed a sandbag barricade “30 yards long, 2 feet 6 inches thick and 2 feet high” and prepared a detailed “stretcher system” to efficiently deal with expected casualties.  Other groups destroyed German wire at “weak and tactically important points.”  The moon was very bright that evening, and this made any work dangerous, the Black Watch proceeded with these tasks exercising “extreme caution.”  Caution worked, as they came through this night with no casualties taken.[8]

Men of the Royal Canadian Regiment also tested the German wire and after a length of time attempting to cut through it “found in this time that cutting the wire in one night was out of the question.”  Not being able to get through the wire, the men assigned as the bombing raid were sent instead to attack a German working party.  As this could be largely impersonal and anonymous warfare, no chance was missed to visit death upon the enemy, making such times as when the enemy was spotted in the open intensely personal.  “At about 1.00 a.m. Lieut. WOODS party threw 16 bombs at the enemy Working Party and then retired….Much damage was done to enemy as the range of the bombs was so short, being just about 12 yards.  The operation was carried out without loss.”[9]

For the moment, while the expected offensive was being prepared for, the infantry- in their traditional role- were peripheral to the situation, as helpless to circumstance as those aboard a ship in rough seas; largely inconsequential in the development of events, yet disproportionately affected by them.  The 13th Battalion, also of the Royal Highlanders of Canada, to take one example, from the 14-19 July, occupied trenches along the front line.  The War Diary records nothing unusual in these days spent forward, daily notations on the exchange of fire between the two sides and observances of enemy activity.  Also noted was the everyday event of manpower loss. From the advent of one major campaign to another, “the days and weeks in between had borne witness to the slow, insidious and unpredictable phenomenon known as ‘trench wastage.’  Men, one or two at a time being caught by an errant shell, a sniper’s bullet or any number of sickness or circumstance that shaved away at effective strength.”[10]  Relieved on the night of 19-20 July by the 8th Battalion, the 13th went into billets, this tour of nothing much having cost them 16 killed and 41 wounded. For those who made it through, their exhaustion was noted and on the following day “no parades of any kind were held,” and very quickly life returned to as normal as it could be, or as normal as the army could allow it: “An order was issued to the effect, that while the Battalion is in Billets, the Highland uniform will be worn at all times, and no man to be allowed to leave Camp, unless properly dressed.”[11]

This was the reality of a large part of the First World War.  Over-the-top rushes and grand battles might make for more interesting reading in the latter day, but largely fails to account for the terrifying grinding and often deadly monotony of life at the front.

[1] War Diary Entry, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, 18 July 1916
[2] War Diary Entry 13th  (RHC) Battalion , 18 July 1916
[3] Appendix III 5, Canadian Corps War Diary, July 1916
[4] Canadian Corps Operations Order 34, June 1916
[5] Mitchell, JT, Maj. & Mrs. GM Smith “History of the Great War Based on Official Documents: Medical Services; Casualties and Medical Statistics of the Great War” H.M. Stationary Office, London, 1931 pg.40
[6] 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade, Operations Order No. 33, July 1916
[7] War Diary Entry, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, 19 July 1916
[8] War Diary Entry, 42nd (RHC) Battalion, 18 July 1916
[9] War Diary Entry, Royal Canadian Regiment, 18 July 1916
[10] Harvie, Christopher J, “Killing is a Sin” (publication pending) 2016, pg. 15
[11] War Diary Entry, 13th (RHC) Battalion, 21 July 1916

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