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, 15 July 2016

Hard and Determined Fighting

“During the next five days our troops followed up their advantage hotly, and in spite of increasing resistance from the German rearguards, realised a further deep advance.  The enemy clung to his positions…with much tenacity….and the progress of our troops was only won by hard and determined fighting.”- Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, Despatches, Describing offensive actions, late August 1918[1]

The fighting was intense, constant and every yard hard won.  Each river crossed, village cleared or trench destroyed in the final three months of the war was wrested from an enemy who would not concede easily to defeat.  Everywhere along the Western Front, the war was moving more quickly than it had in the previous three years.  These last hundred days would be a series of battles, clawing forward, relentlessly pushing the Germans back from and beyond the ground taken during their daring Spring Offensives.  Keeping constant pressure on the enemy meant that commanders no longer had the luxury of months in which to train and rehearse for set-piece battles such as Vimy the year before.  Urgency and haste can be seen in archived operations orders contemporary to the Hundred Days.  Many are hastily handwritten in an expedient script on small leaves of notepaper in the hours before an attack rather than thoughtfully typed out weeks in advance in perfectly edited clerical lines.

On the evening of the 26th of August, 1918, the 18th Canadian Infantry Battalion moved from its support position to jumping off points along the Arras-Cambrai road. “By nightfall, as the forward troops began to approach a trench system known as the Fresnes-Rouvroy Line, German resistance grew more resolute…The Germans brought in fresh divisions and many additional machine guns.”[2]  The 18th Battalion had been adequately reinforced since their last stint on the front, and although while in support on the 26th it had taken some casualties, these were to be considered “light” and would not have been viewed as a diminishment of effective ability. Tomorrow was going to be worse.  Tomorrow they would be at the head of the advance.

My last post, “In the Event of My Death” was very well received, and wanting to do a similar post, I was held up by not having a ready subject.  However, through The Vimy Foundation’s Facebook page, I found out about a community art project being done in Huron County Ontario.  With the Poppy Installation at the Tower of London as inspiration, Huron County plans to make and display ceramic poppies in numbers representing that County’s fallen from WWI. (more on the project here)  The Tower Installation was an awesome, thought inspiring display, the association between the deep red of the poppies and that of spilled blood was quite a powerful and sombre image.  I love the idea of such a thing being done on a much smaller scale; at the level of an individual community; for it was as communities we sent our sons to war, and it was communities who suffered as one when so many failed to return.  Huron County raised a battalion for overseas service, the 161st (Huron) Battalion, CEF, but this unit, like many others raised from 1916 onwards would not be deployed to the front intact but would be used to supplement existing battalions already in the field.  This made the prospect of finding an individual to commemorate a bit tricky. As it happens, the system of appointing regimental numbers (an individual identifier like today’s service or serial numbers) was done in blocks, and the 161st was authorised a block of numerals beginning with “654.”[3]  A search for matching numerals in the CWGCDatabase turned up, as a first result #654805 Graham AJG, L/Cpl. 

Alexander John Goggin Graham, a farmer from Fordwich, Huron County Ontario attested to the 161st Battalion on the 10th of May 1916 and embarked with his battalion for England that November.  Aside from three weeks that following April in hospital with the mumps, Graham spent the fifteen months since arriving in England at a training camp.  His records show he was twice promoted, to Lance and later full Corporal, but such must have been his desire to serve at the front he “reverted to Private at (his) own request in order to proceed overseas” on the 28th of February, 1918.  Graham was assigned to the 18th Battalion (4th Canadian Infantry Brigade, 2nd Canadian Division) and joined them in the field on the 15th of March.  Aside from the change in scenery, the day of his arrival must have seemed like the routine he’d left behind in the camp at Kent.  The 18th, out of the line in a rest area reported on that day:  “Company inspections of rifles and equipment.  Serialised training as per syllabus attached. 91 OR’s (Other Ranks, including Graham) arrived from 5th Canadian Division…as reinforcements…..Recreational training i.e. football, baseball etc. during afternoon.”[4]

A few months later, it was a different story altogether.  The Germans had taken a huge series of offensives throughout the spring, pushing the Allies back a great distance, but had failed to definitively break the line before their momentum was lost.  In response, the Allies launched a coordinated counter-offensive which, three months after it had begun in August would conclude with the Armistice.  Throughout the month of August “the Canadian Corps was confronted by a series of formidable defence positions which the enemy was holding in strength.”[5]
Graham, still with the 18th Battalion had just been appointed to the rank of Lance Corporal on the 8th of August, to replace a man who had died of his wounds the day before.  On the morning of the 27th, he was present with the men who had made it this far, some of them only recent arrivals; waiting tensely in the trenches captured only hours previously to set off behind a creeping barrage- a sheltering wall of steel- to assault a subsequent defensive line along the Sensée River and the town of Vis-en-Artois.  Historian Tim Cook notes: “The fighting since August 26th had been of the worst kind.  The Canadians had excelled at plunging ahead behind the battle winning artillery barrage and, when that failed, at employing fire and movement infantry tactics.”[6] With Zero hour set for ten that morning, the artillery was planned to be a creeping barrage lifting 100 yards every four minutes, “a pause being made and a protective barrage formed approximately 300 yards beyond the River SENSEE.  This pause will last for thirty minutes; the barrage will then continue at the same rate as before.”[7]

A report received at 2nd Division HQ at 11:05 was positive, the attack was going well.[8]  Later, close to four that afternoon, the Division received conflicting reports.  The first was that the attacking battalions (18th and 19th) had taken Vis-en-Artois and were moving beyond the river.  This was only half true, the latter report corrected: “4.10 p.m. 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade advise- the 18th Battalion was held up at SENSEE RIVER at 3 pm….Hostile opposition very heavy from the East.”[9]  The rapidity of these advances and the fluid nature of battle tore at the ability of the artillery to cooperate and coordinate with infantry units operating well in front of their line of sight.  The 6th Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery, responsible for covering the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade on the 27th stated: “The attack was resumed on the morning of the 27th with a barrage starting at 10.00 a.m…..The barrage was completed about 1.00 p.m. and the batteries began to push forward.”[10]

At the tip of the spear, though, while the first objectives had been reached by noon, helped by the covering barrage, “At this juncture, a barrage scheduled to continue after half and hour’s curtailment failed to materialise.  Consequently an outpost line had to be formed.”[11]  Meaning that the battalion could not move against the strong enemy positions to their front without artillery support. When “the barrage sputtered…the German machine-gunners were able to emerge.”[12]  The 18th Battalion was pinned by this fire, well short of their main objective at the Sensée, and prepared a hasty position in a captured German trench.  Somewhere in all of this, LCpl Graham was taken from the field with a penetrative GSW (Gun Shot Wound) to the abdomen.  He was brought to Number 42 Casualty Clearing Station, no doubt in great pain.  Nothing could be done for him and later that same day, Alexander Graham, farmer from Huron County, died of his wounds.[13] 
Casualties had been heavy, the 18th Battalion recording “Approximate casualties all ranks 15 killed & 150 wounded.”[14]  Altogether, the losses of the 4th Brigade in the five days of fighting at the end of August were the equivalent to the loss of an entire battalion, between 25-30% of effective strength.

Lance Corporal Graham is buried at the Aubigny Cemetery Extension. “From March 1916 to the Armistice, Aubigny was held by Commonwealth troops and burials were made in the Extension until September 1918. The 42nd Casualty Clearing Station buried in it during the whole period.”[15]  He rests among 2,771 of his comrades. 227 French, 64 German war graves and seven burials from the Second World War are also present at Aubigny. Lance Corporal Graham is fittingly remembered by the inscription on his grave stone: “Gone, But Not Forgotten.”

[1] Boraston, Lt-Col JH (ed.) “Sir Douglas Haig’s Despatches” JM Dent &Sons ltd. 1919 pg. 269
[2] Marteinson, John “We Stand on Guard: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Army” Ovale Publications 1992 pp 196-7
[3] http://cefresearch.ca/
[4] War Diary Entry, 18th Canadian Infantry Battalion, 15 March 1918 courtesy Library and Archives Canada
[5] Nicholson Col GWL “Canadian Expeditionary Force: Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War” Roger Duhomel, Queen’s Printer Ottawa, 1962 pg. 430
[6] Cook, Tim “Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918” Penguin Canada 2008 pg.475
[7] 2nd Canadian Division Operations Order 248, Appended to 2 Can Div. War Diary, August 1918 Courtesy Library and Archives Canada
[8] War Diary Entry, 2nd Canadian Division dated 27 August 1918, Courtesy Library and Archives Canada
[9] War Diary Entry, 2nd Canadian Division, ibid.
[10] War Diary Entry, 6th Brigade Canadian Field Artillery dated 27 August 1918
[11] War Diary Entry 18th Battalion dated 27 August 1918
[12] Cook, Tim ibid. pg. 469
[13] Service Records 654805 Graham, L/Cpl AJG, Courtesy Library and Archives Canada
[14] War Diary Entry 18th Battalion, ibid.
[15] http://www.cwgc.org/find-a-cemetery/cemetery/5300/AUBIGNY%20COMMUNAL%20CEMETERY%20EXTENSION

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