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, 15 August 2016

Assault on Trench 38

German troops make an attempt on Canadian lines, Ypres August 1916

“The conduct of the 60th Battalion holding trenches
38-46 was all that could be desired”

-Lt Colonel Gascoigne, O.C.
60th (Victoria Rifles of Canada) Battalion[1]

Warm days and cool nights, common to the Low Countries in mid-August combined to create a series of misty mornings.  Big guns behind the trench lines barked and growled at irregular intervals, harassing and probing for weakness; destroying by day the trenches, outposts and wire obstacles both sides worked nightly to repair.  It was a tiresome cycle of building and demolition which by now had become routine.  The underground war of mines, countermines and dangerous collapses brought on by unstable, saturated earth continued, and nightly small groups of men crept forward in attempts to fulfill the desire for accurate and current intelligence.

Nothing at all on the morning of the twelfth could, with all of this going on, be considered unusual, as that term was hardly of use to describe anything in the Ypres Salient in the depths of summer 1916.

The Canadian Corps was decamping from the Salient, moving in stages to areas rearward in preparation for redeploying at the Somme.  It had to be done in such a measured way so that no portion of the line was weakened, and due to the vast number of men and amount of materiel involved.  With the inclusion of the 4th Canadian Division, now in the process of shipping to France, the Corps would soon be complete “with a strength of nearly 100 thousand men.”[2]  To avoid any difficulties- logistically or tactically- each active division would be pulled from the line one brigade at a time.  This was begun by the 1st Canadian Division shifting the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigades in turn to “the Second Army Training Area west of ST. OMER, where (the Division) will come into Army Reserve.”[3]  

The portion of the Salient which had been held by 1st Division would be taken over by extending the frontage covered by 3rd Division.  By putting all three of its brigades (7th, 8th and 9th Canadian Infantry Brigades) forward when two was more usual and having these brigades organised so each would have “two battalions in line, one in Brigade Reserve and one in Divisional Reserve,”[4] 3rd Division could maintain the density of front line occupation.  A trade off in doing so, however, was in having less units available in immediate reserve.  This might make reinforcement or counterattacking any German offensive more difficult.  If this was a concern, no note was made of it.  After all, despite all the background noise, Ypres was still a “quiet” sector, and 3rd Division would only be this extended for ten days before withdrawing its brigades in place of a British Division due to arrive on the week of the 25th.

Transfer out of 1st Division was completed when the 60th Battalion (9th Brigade, 3rd Division) fresh from a rest position took over front line trenches from the 1th Battalion (2nd Brigade, 1st Division) overnight, 11-12 August.  A highlight of the recent stay out of the line for the 60th- the Victoria Rifles of Canada from Montreal- must have been at last having their turn in the Corps-wide exchange of the Short Magazine Lee Enfield in place of the notoriously poor-performing Ross Rifle.  They might not have thought they’d get much of a chance to make use of them this time up the line.  Had any man had thought that; he would have been wrong.

Just as the morning moved towards nine o’clock, the Germans opened up a terrific artillery bombardment, concentrating their fire on the front line trenches which the Vic Rifles had only just taken over, and those adjacent to their right held by 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles of 9th Brigade.  The onslaught was fierce an accurate, plowing through their wire and blowing portions of the parapet down. The prospect of getting clipped by a shell splinter was just as fearsome as becoming entombed in the sliding wreck of the very thing built to protect them from shelling.  Canadian batteries were alerted and began their own counter-bombardment.  Such an intensity of fire could only mean one thing- that the enemy was planning to come over, in strength.

When, a little more than an hour after it began the German shelling checked pace, a push by their infantry was almost certain.  Exactly where they would hit, and in what strength remained to be seen.  Ground between opposing lines was uneven, undulating and shattered; a combination of rolling topography and explosive cosmetic changes.  This tirade of shelling had whisked the loose, dry surface dirt into a filthy clouded screen.  Observing enemy movement would be difficult, if not impossible, until their troops were directly on top of Canadian lines.

At close to ten o’clock, the first German probes hit-hard; leading their attempts with showers of grenades.

The main body of German infantry, estimated to be between 150-200 strong were pushing forward in two waves, their apparent objective to gain lodgement at a point of the Canadian defensive system labelled “Trench 38.”  It was evident the Germans knew exactly what they were doing.  They had chosen to attack the place which not only marked a boundary between battalions- the 60th Bn. and 1st CMR- but Trench 38 also denoted the right and left edges of 9th and 8th Brigades’ area of responsibility. A rapid thrust at this precise point would send shock waves and quite possibly situational confusion through several chains of command.  The Germans also seemed to have timed the attack to coincide with units fresh to the front- 1st CMR had only arrived the day before from a reserve position, the Vic Rifles had been in place less than twelve hours, and both had taken over trenches in an area they were not immediately familiar with, it had belonged to 1st Division just a few days ago.

When the assault was made, 1st CMR joined in with the Vic Rifles- “the enemy was seen to advance….Front parapet was immediately manned and vigorous fire from rifle and machine guns was brought to bear, checking the advance and causing many casualties.”[5]  Both battalions’ fire forced the greater part of the German assaulting troops back to their own lines-those that were capable of doing so.  Trenches held by the Vic Rifles were only breached in two places, by barely a handful of German troops.  In both cases, the attempt to gain lodgement was foiled by quick thinking Sergeants using grenades and one enthusiastic private who “jumped over the parapet and bayonetted one of the raiders.”[6]  This deft act, worthy of note in Colonel Gascoigne’s report, would in fact cost Pte Cann his life.  He’d been overseas less than two months.[7]

Using the dead ground to their advantage, a small number of Germans were able to get as far as the outposts the battalion had set up in the craters immediately in front of the firing line.  The Canadians here were killed to a man, but the enemy couldn’t hold this ground for long, coming under direct rifle and machine gun fire “with good effect, as only a few of them were seen to crawl back into German lines.”[8]

Exactly what the Germans had intended that morning was unclear.  Aside from smaller bombing parties making demonstrations elsewhere, and believed to be feints, the action was confined to this specific portion of the Canadian line.  If it had been a raid, it was unusually large, at an unusual time of day and presaged by an hour’s bombardment which was out of character for these regularly swift and surprising attacks of opportunity.  Observation of German trenches had generated reports of high concentrations of troops- possibly reserves- in full packs and equipment.  Later consensus by Canadian intelligence was that the Germans had mounted a raid in strength with the intention of following through by deploying their reserves in force should the raiding party gain possession of the Canadian front line.

It was, all considered, a fairly minor action, developing and concluding between breakfast and lunch on the morning of the twelfth.  Both 1st CMR and the Vic Rifles were able to report the situation as stable before one in the afternoon.  Total casualties between the two battalions were 32 Killed, 93 wounded and 3 missing.[9]  What was shown in this brief, intense skirmish, however, was that the Canadians certainly weren’t the soft target their critics- both friend and foe- may have thought judging by the worrisome loss of ground in June.  The Corps had learned from error and lack of preparation, incorporating these lessons in the ongoing training of both officers and men.  This would be to their credit in the months and years ahead, particularly in such a war with a constantly increasing learning curve.[i]

It is with extreme pleasure that I can announce that my first full length work of fiction,

 is now available for sale through Kindle Direct Publishing:

Moments before the men of Six Platoon 'B' Company, King's Own Canadian Scots Regiment will go forward to assault Vimy Ridge, each one of them must reconcile themselves to their probable fate. Felix Strachan, a teen-aged corporal about to lead his men into battle, has already seen a lot of this war; its arbitrary cruelty to life. In the past eight months he's been fighting in France, he's lost friends and a little of his faith in mankind, though nothing has bothered him more than the death of a stranger- a transferred officer left on the field after a failed patrol. Not only can no one seem to remember who the officer was, his death may not have been at the enemy's hands. Felix, in the seconds before Zero hour tries to come to terms with a question he has held for as long as he can remember- "What does it mean to die well?"

This book uses the extreme human experience of war to explore ideas of morality within a historically correct, visceral and realistic narrative.  I have, in order to achieve this, relied upon my strength as an essayist and lecturer on the history of the First World War, as well as my own service with the Canadian Army.

[1] Gascoigne, F.A., Lt Col. Report Dated 12 August 1916 from 60th Bn to 9th Bde
[2] Marteinson, John, “We Stand On Guard: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Army” Ovale Publications 1992 pg. 139
[3] Operations Order 93, 1st Canadian Division 08 August 1916
[4] Summary of Operations, Canadian Corps, 11-17 August 1916
[5] War Diary Entry, 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles, 12 August 1916
[6] Gascoigne, F.A., Lt Col. Report, ibid.
[7] M.F.W. 54: “Casualty Form, Active Service” per No. 139543, Cann J A Pte.
[8] Gascoigne, F.A., Lt Col. Report, ibid.
[9] War Diary Entry, 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles, 12 August 1916 & Gascoigne, F.A., Lt Col. Report, ibid.

[i] All Primary Sources Cited, and Information Used to Construct this Article is due to the courtesy of Library and Archives Canada.

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