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, 8 August 2016

Battered and Death-Accursed World

Preparing for a renewed offensive, Ypres August, 1916

“all ranks agreed in the hope that they would never
again hold a trench in the pounded, battered and death-accursed
world between the Hun and the stricken, dead City of Ypres”[1]
-Kim Beattie “The 48th Highlanders of Canada”

"Fire Swept Algoma" by Frank Johnston 

A consistently heavy, drowsy heat became the daily expectation for the first week of August, 1916 along the Ypres Salient.  The war had just gone into its second year and the lines which had solidified by that first autumn had remained more or less intact and immovable since.  In early July, the Canadian Corps had issued warning orders to the effect that all necessary preparations be made for a renewed assault in the Mount Sorrel area to recapture and consolidate positions still in German hands.  These preparations were to be complete by no later than 31 July, the operation itself to begin at a time and date to be specified later[2].

The bulk of this preliminary work was a sequence of shifts along the Canadian held portion of the line.  Moving the three divisions in sequence would put all of them in the best possible starting positions for the assault.  A critical aspect would be to form a definitive understanding of the enemy.  Information as to the nature and complexity of his trenches, heavy weapons emplacements, wire obstacles and even unit identification were all valuable intelligence to ensure a well-developed plan of attack.  The Corps’ directive to its divisions, and they to their brigades was that aggressive and constant raids and patrols were expected to gain this vital information.  3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade, holding 1st Canadian Division’s front line positions in the first week of August issued a directive to its component battalions (13th, 14th, 15th and 16th) which was explicit on the subject: “Identifications- dead or alive, are required by the Division at all costs.  You will send out offensive patrols each night and all night, in order to effect this purpose.”[3]  Brigadier general Tuxford, G.O.C. 3rd Brigade minced no words to convey the point that these patrols were not merely reconnoitering in purpose, they were to be fighting patrols.  “Any hostile patrol that is seen,” his memorandum continued, “is to be engaged and followed up….Enemy listening posts will be destroyed, and an endeavour made to secure the occupants.”[4]

The night before General Tuxford issued these orders, on the 3rd of August, Major Davis’ 3rd Tunnelling Company had used a combined total of 3,600 pounds of ammonal in two charges as a countermine.[5]  Having detected another German effort underground, the Canadian tunnellers had once again acted pre-emptively and the explosion collapsed the German gallery, and was powerful enough to form a crater on the surface.  It had been hoped that this “bump” might breach the German front line, and a consolidation party from the 16th (Canadian Scottish) Battalion rushed to the crater.  Opposing lines were very close together at this juncture, and Major Davis’ work had done “more damage to our front line than expected, in the way of pushing the parapet over and filling the trenches with debris.”[6]  Some casualties were caused by this collateral damage, but most of the 16th’s losses (two killed, twenty-seven wounded) were due to the swift German retaliation.  The enemy front line had not been hit by the mine as expected, and the Germans were able to keep up a steady fire of rifles, machine guns and trench mortars which discouraged the Can Scots from entering the trench.

The following night, in a direct response to General Tuxford’s directive, a patrol from the 14th (Royal Montreal Regiment) Battalion went out in search of the enemy.  Having been put on the alert from the mine the night before, the Germans were wary of any follow-up; which the Montrealers found out first hand:

Patrol of 1 Sergt. And 3 men of the 14th Bn. went out…and entered a shell crater….There was an entrance to an underground sap…which led to German trench.  When patrol entered hole none of the enemy were seen, but board was pushed away and simultaneously a light was fired from trench landing close to patrol, and throwing them into relief.  Two Germans then came out of the sap and attempted to bayonet the Sergt. and one man who were in the hole, but both were shot point-blank with revolvers-one actually lunging over the Sergt’s. shoulder and running into his revolver.  A third man was shot through the back by another of patrol….Groans were heard but more Germans came out of sap and started throwing bombs in all directions, while bombs were being thrown and rifle and M.G. fire kept up from enemy trench.[7]

Outnumbered- they estimated there were a dozen Germans in the sap they had discovered- and outgunned the four men beat it back to their own lines without losing a man, but likewise not gaining any enemy identification.

Activity, of the mine blown on the third and the failed patrol on the fourth had done plenty to really set the Germans on edge.  This was the situation facing Lt. Colonel Bent’s 15th (48th Highlanders) Battalion on the night of the fifth.  Colonel Bent had been ordered by General Tuxford to raid enemy trenches opposite his battalion’s positions, in keeping with the earlier, aggressive memorandum.[8]  Set to go ahead at eleven that evening, trench mortars would be employed to cut the German wire and destroy a known machine gun position.  The mortars would then shift their fire to portions of the German front line adjacent to the raid’s objective, isolating the area for the duration of the operation.  Colonel Bent’s preparations included detailing men to provide cover to the raiders, men to hold the point of entry and those who would actually gain a foothold in the enemy trench.  These men, a veritable gang of thugs were to be armed with an assortment of weapons- bombs, bayonets, pistols and a type of club called a knobkerrie- and would commit as much violent mayhem as they could while searching for the desired information, it not mattering much if the source was still living or not.  To ensure they gave nothing of themselves away, “All ranks must be divested of all identities, before leaving.”[9] No one was to carry any letters or papers, and all identifying badges or patches would be removed from uniforms.
It was all rather anticlimactic, as Colonel Bent would later report.  Patrols sent to assess the damage done to the wire by the trench mortars “found the wire practically untouched, and as the T.M. fire put the enemy very much on the alert, it was impossible to cut the wire by hand, and the original plan had to be abandoned.”[10]  A subsequent patrol, sent to capture a listening post was also held up by strong wire entanglements and resulted in a bomb throwing match- around fifty to each side- before returning, also without any credible intelligence. 

For the other divisions, it was much the same, there being only one prisoner taken along the entire Corps’ frontage from 3-10 August.  A bombing post of the 43rd Battalion was attacked on the third, but the Germans were scattered back by the quick actions of the post’s commander, Lieutenant J. G. Young. Afterward, a wounded German was taken back to Canadian lines and found to be a Brandenburger from the 359th Regiment, 4th Ersatz Division.[11] Now, at least in a very small way, the Canadians knew who they were facing.  They also knew that the enemy was putting a great amount of work into his defenses, concrete and fresh timber had been reported as being seen in German lines.  The wire that had scuppered the Highlanders also indicated that the Germans were ready to make a great effort to repulse any attack upon their positions.  All indications were that the coming fight would be as hard as any the Corps had yet seen.

This was, however, to become someone else’s problem.  The attack, what all the previous weeks had gone towards, in effort and blood, would not take place.  Events further south required a relatively fresh Corps to relieve another which had been heavily embattled.  The Canadians were going to the Somme.[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] Beattie, Kim, “48th Highlanders of Canada: 1891-1928” 1932, pg. 156
[2] Canadian Corps Operations Order No. 24 30 June 1916
[3] War Diary Appendix 16, 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade, August 1916
[4] War Diary Appendix 16, ibid.
[5] War Diary Entry, 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Company, 3 August 1916
[6] Leckie, J.G., Lt-Col. “Preliminary Report on Operations Night of 3rd-4th August 1916” 16th Battalion to 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade
[7] Intelligence Summary 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade, 4 August 1916
[8] 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade Operations Order No. 88 5 August  1916
[9] 15th Battalion (48th Highlanders) Raid Orders 5 August 1916
[10] Bent C.E. Lt-Col, “Report on Operations 5 August” from 15th Battalion to 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade
[11] War Diary Entry, 43rd Battalion, 3 August 1916

[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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