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, 1 August 2016

Hard Won Ground

Vigilance Prevents Disaster at the Ypres Salient, July 1916

“I beg to report on the situation caused by the enemy
exploding a mine in the ‘Bluff Sector’ on the night of the 25th inst.”
-Lt. Col Gardner, O.C. 7th Bn.
Report to 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade
26 July 1916
"The Ypres Salient at Night" by Paul Nash (wikimedia commons)

At about four o’clock in the afternoon on the 25th of July 1916, headquarters of 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade received information which the entire Canadian Corps had been told to anticipate.  The No. 1 Listening Post of No. 3 Tunnelling Company had picked up definite sounds of enemy activity.  Underground listening posts had been tracking the German miners, and it was firmly believed that a mine was being prepared for detonation.  Earlier that month Major Davis, O.C. No. 3 T Coy had ordered a pre-emptive strike- a camouflet- to collapse a known enemy gallery opposite his No. 6 LP.  “This was apparently very successful, smoke being seen rising from the enemy’s lines for some time after the explosion occurred.”[1]

A charge of 1,000 pounds of the high explosive called ammonal seemed to put this German mining effort at bay, at least for the time being.  It appears that Major Davis’ initiative had prevented a potential disaster; but it wasn’t as if he and his miners were the only ones prepared in the eventuality of enemy success underground.  His reports were treated with the utmost gravity; both the artillery and infantry had been cautioned as to what may happen, and what to do in such a case.  It was plain that nobody, at any level of the Canadian Corps wished to have repeated the catastrophe which had opened the Battle of Mount Sorrel the month before.

On the 2nd of June “(a) mine exploded on the battalion front at about 1 p.m. and an order came down the line to withdraw.”[2]  The 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles had been caught in what was later determined to have been a concurrent detonation of four mines.[3]  “At this time the whole front line was flattened out and there were no trenches of any description, and very few of the battalion were able to carry on.”[4]  Destruction caused by the mines and the lack of any counter-preparedness on the Canadian side made the following advance of German infantry a near walk-over.  It had cost the Corps quite dearly in ground lost and men who’d simply vanished.  “During the afternoon and evening of the 2nd, about 45 men reported to Brigade HQ from the front and support lines.”[5]
Competency of the Canadian Corps began to be under question from such a defeat.  Moreover, any further successes for the Germans here could find the vital hub of Ypres in enemy hands and the entire Western Front in serious jeopardy.  There could be no repeat of the same type of complacency surrounding the June 2nd explosion.  It was up to Major Angus Ward Davis and his Tunnelling Company to be vigilant enough to be able to provide ample warning of a repeat attempt, and those above ground at all levels of command to be prepared to take swift action in the event.  Having blown the camouflet on the 17th seemed to discourage the Germans, but it was only a week before Major Davis was alerted again to a possible mine.

This was the nature of the report he’d sent to 1st Canadian Division HQ on the 25th, who then subsequently alerted the Brigades under its command.  If the enemy were determined to blow a mine on the 25th, they had picked the right day for it.  2nd Brigade was due to be relieved by 1st Brigade all along the Division front that evening and the Germans had the chance of creating twice the amount of casualties if their timing matched that of the change-over.

Immediately upon receiving intelligence of the German mine, Brigadier General Loomis, G.O.C. 2nd Brigade put contingency planning, all worked out beforehand, in place.  Within an hour of the warning, he’d ordered Lt Colonel Gardner, whose 7th Battalion was directly above the suspected mine “to reduce the garrison in these portions of the front so that the localities would only be held by posts; and to organise bodies of troops immediately in rear and on the flanks with which to make the counterattack.”[6]  Col Gardner complied, re-distributing his battalion in order to minimise the effect of any explosion and detailed a company, split into different holding positions augmented with bombers, light and medium machine guns under Captain William Archer Casey as the counterattack force, thinning out his front line trenches and outposts, keeping relief forces on hand in the support lines.

Captain Casey seemed the right choice for the job of leading the counterattack.  He’d risen through the ranks quite rapidly, a mark of an astute and indispensable man.  Part of the First Contingent of volunteers in the autumn of 1914, he’d made Sergeant at Valcartier, gaining his commission to Lieutenant while convalescing from shrapnel wounds received in 1915.  He’d become a Captain in February, and was shortly due to be promoted again to Major.  Col Gardner reported to Brigade Headquarters by seven that evening that his battalion was set.  The relief was to go ahead as planned, and all battalions, incoming and outgoing had been informed and made ready to act accordingly.  Rallying points had been set up behind the lines and units moving up to the front would hold in those places until the situation was in hand.

Nothing, though, seemed to be happening which was out of the ordinary.  As the sun set, the usual stream of fire- sniping and bursts of machine guns- was reported up and down the line, though this was minimal.  Oddly enough, there was no shelling by German artillery, which General Loomis mad a note of in his after-action report: “At 9.50 p.m….the night seemed to be an exceptionally quiet one on the front of the 1st Canadian Division.”[7]  He was confident the relief now underway would be completed by midnight.

Five minutes after his observation on how quiet it seemed, General Loomis’ Headquarters was rocked by “an earthquake.”  Colonel Gardner, near the epicentre, immediately sent up an S.O.S. flare to signal the artillery.  Within thirty seconds, three batteries, the 18th, 20th and 23rd of the Canadian Field Artillery combined as “Dodds Group” opened up their pre-arranged salvo of high explosive and shrapnel on the German forward lines.  Col Gardner remained at his headquarters to receive and pass upward the initial reports from his forward area, then he proceeded to the scene to gain his own appreciation of the situation.

Much of his front line trenches “had been obliterated and filled in”, making them impassable.  Captain Casey’s men had already rushed forward, over this destroyed ground and were setting up a strong position in the brand new crater, which was a pretty fair size.  “The crater formed was, approximately, 300 feet by 150 feet and from 25 to 40 feet deep.”[8][i]  Colonel Gardner came as far ahead to the forward most positions his men had established in “New Crater”, and was satisfied that the situation was under control.  Machine gun and rifle fire was complimenting the artillery bombardment, pasting the German trenches so fiercely that the enemy could make no attempt to get beyond their own parapet.  Other men of the counterattack were watching the canal to their right for any encroachment or were working quickly with shovels and sandbags to solidify and consolidate this new position.

The entire affair was over within an hour and a half.  German troops had been stopped cold by the counterattack and the fire from Dobbs Group, which had dropped a total of 194 4.5” high explosive and 536 18pdr shrapnel shells on the enemy’s works.  A scheme to take the Canadians by shock had been an effort wasted, in no small part by Major Davis’ work underground and Captain Casey’s swift action above.  By 11.35 that evening, the situation had stabilised and the 7th Battalion was relieved at the front by the 4th Battalion, having lost 6 men killed, 25 wounded and 17 missing.  It was a triumph of proper preparation and coordination between arms, such as would become a hallmark of the Canadian Corps, which prevented what could have been a calamity.
Captain Casey, with a few other officers and men was singled out by Colonel Gardner and General Loomis for praise for the “prompt and efficient manner” in how the situation was handled.  His Majority was well deserved if not shortly held.  Major William Archer Casey was killed in action just two months later, at the Somme, once again during a fight to keep hard won ground.

* * * * *

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] 1st Canadian Division Intelligence Summary 91, July 1916
[2]War Diary Entry, 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles, 2nd June 1916
[3] Cook, Tim, “At The Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1914-1916”, Penguin Canada, 2009 pg. 351
[4] War Diary Entry, 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles, ibid.
[5] War Diary Entry, 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles, ibid.
[6] BGen Loomis, Report of Operations 25-26 July 1916 to 1st Canadian Division from 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade, , 28th July 1916
[7] BGen Loomis, Report of Operations 25-26 July 1916, ibid.
[8] War Diary Entry, Canadian Corps General Staff, 25 July 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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