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, 26 September 2016

Facing Annihilation

15th Battalion (48th Highlanders) at Thiepval Ridge, September 1916

“At 12.35 pm the 14th and 15th Canadian Battalions launched their attack on the Enemy.  The Battalions went over in fine style and carried everything in front of them, till they gained their objective.”- War Diary Entry, 13th (RHC) Bn.
                    26 September, 1916


The memorandum sent out by 1st Canadian Division Headquarters had been clear- “Owing to the time fixed for zero hour being late in the day, all units should be warned that there should be as little movement in the trenches in the Forward Area as possible in daylight to-morrow.”[1]  There was good reason for this.  Objectives for the attacking troops included German positions sited along a fingertip ridge which gave the enemy superb fields of view to the valley below.  Men in the jumping off trenches had even been cautioned against fixing bayonets earlier than absolutely necessary, least bare steel catch the sun and signal to German observers on the crest.  Efforts such as these intended to obscure intent were largely superfluous.  Thiepval Ridge was far too obvious a target.  The increase of artillery fire- “the heaviest yet fired by Reserve Army gunners”[2]- pummeling trenches on the heights and those on the reverse slope was a sure signal that an attack was imminent.

What this attempt at concealment meant for the men in the leading waves was having to be in their staging points before first light and remain there, immobile, until 12.35 that afternoon.  Not only would they be terrifyingly close to the preparatory bombardment, it allowed several hours for German artillery to seek out the scrapes and holes the infantry clung to from which they would spring at the given time.  Instinct would compel the men to brace up; tense their limbs and set their jaws as the proximate blasts crashed all about.  Experience had taught some that keeping supple, mouths agape, made the slam of concussion easier to bare.

There weren’t, however, altogether too many among those waiting to attack who had such a depth of experience.  Nowhere was this more true than with the 15th (48th Highlanders) Battalion.  In April the previous year, the 15th had been roughly handled at the 2nd Battle of Ypres.  They had faced up against a chlorine gas attack swiftly followed by a determined push against a disconnected line.  “By 9.30 in the morning (24 April 1915) the 15th Battalion had lost the majority of its three front line companies.”[3]  Casualties, all told, would be nearly 90%.  Since then, the battalion had been reinforced and rebuilt, but a further year and a half of front line duty constantly whittled strength.  As it was, in September of 1916, the Highlanders couldn’t field anything close to a full-sized battalion.  Returns of 24 September show a reported effectiveness of 662, all ranks.[4] 


Very, very few of them now preparing to charge uphill at Thiepval had gone through that terrible day at Ypres.  John Pollards Girvan had.  After Second Ypres, Girvan was one of only six men from No. I Company to report fit for duty.  He’d been made a sergeant shortly thereafter[5], probably because there was hardly anyone else left.  Sergeant Girvan’s appointment seems more than one of desperation, but rather one of aptitude as a commission soon followed.  By the time a year had passed from the fighting at Ypres, Girvan was a Captain and in command of No. I Company; the same outfit, though with different men, he had been an ordinary private in not all that long ago. 

Today, his task was fairly straightforward.  Captain Girvan was to lead his company up the gentle rise of Thiepval, reducing German points on the slope just beyond Courcelette Road.  From there, No. I Company would move against and clear the enemy line running along the crest code named “Hessian Trench,” establish strong points and await reorganisation to take the day’s proposed final objective, “Regina Trench.”[6]  All this Captain Girvan and his men would have to do in quick succession so as to keep apace of the covering barrage and maintain touch with flanking units.  The first hurdle would be getting across an older German trench “Zollern Graben” directly to I Company’s front; but thankfully it had been unoccupied for some time now.

Precisely at 12.35, the shelling shifted to secondary targets, both “machine gun, and artillery barrage opened on the enemy’s front line with a perfect barrage,”[7] and the piercing note of tin whistles screed across the Canadian front.  Troops leapt to their feet, officers waved forward and a wail of bagpipes set a fine edge.  “Faces were masks, and men moved as they do when facing a hail of fire, like automatons, appearing unafraid but with a white, strained look of waiting for something.[8]  What had become apparent, almost immediately, was that the inconsequential scrape of Zollern Graben was not unmanned.  German troops had crept forward through the bombardment and set up blocking positions.  Men of No. I Company had barely got beyond the jump-off trench when a well concealed enemy machine gun chewed right through them.  Men scattered and fell, some before they’d taken a forward step.  Seconds into this battle No. I Company was facing annihilation for the second time in its short history. 

Come what may to him, Captain Girvan was having none of it.  With two bombers, Pte’s Bradley and Duffey he rushed the trench, Mills bombs shocking the German gunners who Girvan put to the pistol himself.  The three men carried on down the length of the line, flushing out a handful more enemy troops, allowing those of No. I Company still on their feet to carry forward.  It was a delay of minutes, costly more in human terms than time lost; the first objective was reached and secure by 12.50.[9]

The second objective, Hessian trench, was pressed hard; the Highlanders fighting uphill.  German resistance was mixed.  “Our artillery fire perfect…lifting in good order, with the boys close behind going strong.  At some points meeting with stiff resistance from the Huns which the boys handled in good shape; other points we met with very little fight from the Huns.”[10]  Confusion in the heat of battle led to regrettable actions; where men giving up were killed out of hand, or those thought to be surrendering still had hostile intent.[11]  It is here that Captain Girvan’s day ended. While accepting a surrender, he “received a bullet wound which penetrated the sternum and lodged in (his) abdominal muscle.”[12]  Command of No. I Company was passed to Lieutenant EW Haldenby, who was only slightly wounded, and the attack pushed forward after final good-byes were given to the Captain left to wait for the stretcher-bearers. 

By four in the afternoon, Corps HQ received a detailed report from an aerial reconnaissance pilot.
  Among much else, it had been observed that the shell holes just beyond the second objective line were being consolidated.[13]  The situation at the ridge had reversed; the Germans had been evicted and “from position now gained we command high ground and have good observation on the Hun’s position to our front.”  Patrols and bombing sorties were sent out from the 15th Battalion’s new line against portions of Regina Trench.  Two companies of the 16th Battalion had been rushed forward to reinforce the Highlanders in preparation for a dedicated effort against the day’s final objective.  However, success hadn’t been universal.  The 11th (British) Division on the left had a much harder fight through Mouqet Farm and didn’t tie in with the Canadian flank.  Moreover, indications were, despite the 15th Battalion getting in and harassing portions of Regina Trench, the majority of this line was firmly held.  “There was no question,” Corps HQ records, “for the moment of our future advance against REGINA TRENCH, which was reported to be heavily wired.”[14]  Resuming the offensive was held off until the following day.  One day’s effort was all the 15th could put in.  Punching through a succession of German lines, uphill and forming a position to ward off the inevitable counterattacks had exhausted the battalion, physically and numerically.  They were relieved after sundown by the 24th Battalion, having taken an estimated 350 casualties on the day’s fighting.[15]

One casualty, Captain Girvan, would make a recovery from his wound after a long convalescence due to the “result of 20 months’ service in Flanders is debilitated and his nerves are shot.”[16]  He would return to his regiment some months later, promoted to the rank of Major and still carrying the bullet that hit him “in situ.”  John Pollards Girvan would continue to inspire his men with his spirit and bravery which would be recognised by multiple decorations including the Croix de Guerre.  By war’s end, he was commanding the Battalion in which he had joined as a private in 1914.[i]   


My premier work of fiction, “Killing is a Sin: A Novel of the First World War” is now available for download through Kindle Direct Publishing:

Much like the essays and articles I have written which are being appreciated by a growing audience; I put a great deal of effort into telling a story of moral questioning in the setting of the Western Front in 1917 as realistic as possible.  In crafting the environment and situation my characters experience throughout the book, a lot of time was spent consulting the very same war diaries which I have been using to accurately portray the situation of the war in my non-fiction work.  “Killing is a Sin” takes my strengths as an accurate and expositive essayist to give a genuine feel to a work of the imagination. 

I sincerely hope that those of you who have been enjoying my articles here with “If Ye Break Faith” would also be captivated by the story told within “Killing is a Sin,” where Corporal Felix Strachan is faced with having to find an answer to his own question- “What does it mean to die well?”


[1] Kearsley, RH, Lt Col Memorandum 25 September 1916, 1st Canadian Division War Diary September 1916 Appendix 25
[2] Philpott, William, “Bloody Victory: The Sacrifice on the Somme” Abacus books, 2009 pg. 375
[3] Harvie, Christopher J. “A Most Terrible Day: The 15th Battalion CEF at 2nd Ypres” The Great War Magazine Yr. 15 Issue 81 Sept 2015
[4] War Diary Entry, 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade, 24 September 1916
[5] Service Records, Girvan JP
[6] 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade Operations Order No. 107, 3CIB War Diary, Appendix 50, September 1916
[7] War Diary Entry, 15th (48 Highrs) Canadian Infantry Battalion 26 September 1916
[8] Beattie, Kim, “The 48th Highlanders of Canada, 1891-1928” pub. 48th Highlanders of Canada, 1932 pg. 174
[9] War Diary Entry, 15th (48 Highrs) Canadian Infantry Battalion, ibid.
[10] War Diary Entry, 15th (48 Highrs) Canadian Infantry Battalion, ibid.
[11] Cook, Tim, “At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1914-1916” Penguin Canada 2007 pp 476-7
[12] Donald, D, Maj. Et al., CAMC “Army Form /a.45A: Proceedings of a Medical Board” 21 October 1916
[13] War Diary Entry, Canadian Corps, 26 September 1916
[14] War Diary Entry, Canadian Corps, ibid.
[15] War Diary Entry, 15th (48 Highrs) Canadian Infantry Battalion, ibid.
[16] Donald, D, Maj. Et al., CAMC, ibid.



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

Troops leapt to their feet, officers waved forward and a wail of bagpipes set a fine edge. -15th Battalion (48th Highlanders) at Thiepval Ridge, September 1916

Monday, 19 September 2016

Send Help and Artillery Fire

A Tenuous Line Tenaciously Held; Courcelette, Sept. 1916

“Am in Quarry in front of COURCELETTE.  Enemy attacking on front and left.  My men nearly all wiped out"
 -Capt. H F Renwick,
 O.C. ‘D’ Coy, 
4th Canadian Infantry Battalion, 
19 September 1916



Capt. H F Renwick
Captain Renwick’s ‘D’ Company, 4th (Central Ontario) Battalion was in a most unenviable position.  4th Battalion had relieved the 22nd Battalion on the night of 17 September; a small part of the overall rotation of the fresh 1st Canadian Division into the line at Courcelette in place of the exhausted 2nd Division.  Since taking the village on the 15th in a spectacularly bloody fight, the VanDoos had held off thirteen separate counterattacks despite the numbers they had lost in killed and wounded.   Nothing indicated that these persistent attacks were going to stop anytime soon. 

Positions taken may have been held, but were by no means considered secure.  Defensive lines encompassing Courcelette needed to be improved, strengthened and in some places pushed outward from existing boundaries.  Many sections of the line were incongruous-they didn’t meet.[1]  One such gap existed where a confluence of roads met at the north-east end of town.  Captain Renwick’s company was, then, not in direct touch with units to his left; 3rd (Toronto) Battalion’s ‘D’ Company under the temporary command of Lieutenant Harry Hutchison.  It was a breach nearly fifty yards wide; but that wasn’t the most urgent of the many concerns Renwick faced.  His company now occupied a junction of trenches in the vicinity of the Quarry which lay just beyond the town’s edge.  This place, along with the cemetery a little further south had been the focal point of the continuous German attacks the VanDoos had been contending with since they had captured Courcelette.


When the French-Canadian battalion traded off with the Ontarians on the night of 17/18 September, they had suffered 312 casualties.[2]  Times in between German rushes were filled by an intense artillery fire; gunners on both sides seeking to blast their opponent into a state of incapability to resist a ground assault.  Trenches had been built with the intention of protecting from this, but herein was another difficulty facing Captain Renwick.  The better constructed, deeper and more protective trenches around Courcelette were well behind him, at the south end of town which had been the German front line before the attack of three days prior.  Canadian front line positions were making use of the narrower and comparatively shallow works of the old German support trenches.  3rd Battalion, stretched across seven hundred yards to Renwick’s left (not including the fifty empty yards between them) reported “trenches very poor, where there are any.”[3]  Renwick’s own battalion admitted “the line was taken over…in an unorganised state.”[4] 

Under ideal circumstances, trenches once captured were to be rebuilt and fortified, though in this case, it is evident that the VanDoos did not have much chance to accomplish anything near to a decent consolidation.  It was all they could do to hang onto their gains; making them to desired specifications was beyond limitations.  One thing that had been managed was the pushing of a sap out to an isolated scrape which had created a good outpost position at the periphery of the Quarry.

That aside, when the relief was complete in the small hours of the 18th, the line could not be thought of as ideal, at best, and in the worst case, indefensible.  Autumn rains had been steady for days running, adding to the hardship and degrading trench conditions further.  “Constant artillery fire throughout the night,” Major TP Jones (in command of 4th Battalion while the OC was in hospital) wrote in the War Diary on the take-over, “Trenches wet, and mud one foot deep, making progress difficult.  A number of German wounded still left in trenches, and unable to evacuate them.”[5]  Primary concern was to put effort into making sense out of the ground they were now charged with.  This came straight down the chain from General Gough’s Reserve Army HQ.  1st Canadian Division, specifically 4th Battalion was directed to “clear up (the) situation N. and E. of COURCELETTE.  This was partially done last night (17 Sep.) but there are still parties of Germans holding out.”[6]  These directives made it understood that the line now occupied was to be considered the staging point for the next advance.

Specifically in need of clearing was a pocket trench scarred across the main Albert-Baupame Road.  4th Battalion was set to attack this position at 7pm on 19 September, following a five-hour bombardment from the Corps’ Heavy Artillery.[7]  Proximity of Canadian trenches to the area to be shelled required troops “be withdrawn clear of our present front line along the SUNKEN ROAD…and also from the front line East of the QUARRY.”[8]  ‘D’ Company would have to pull in their outpost that morning, before daybreak and re-occupy it in the evening once the bombardment lifted to secondary targets 250 yards distant.

Owing to poor visibility for aerial observation, the attack was postponed, the bombardment didn’t occur, though Captain Renwick couldn’t replace the garrison at the outpost in daylight and would have to wait until dusk when movement was safer.

A German patrol had taken possession of the outpost in the absence of ‘D’ Company, and when the returning garrison approached, the interlopers sprung an ambush.  “These men were driven back by the enemy with machine guns and bombs and suffered heavy casualties.”[9]  The ambush evolved into a direct attack against ‘D’ Company and by nine o’clock it was fully engaged.  One of the company’s Lewis guns fell into enemy hands “the whole crew of which were casualties.”  Renwick’s left flank was already vulnerable- with that gap between battalions, and now Germans were in a position to cut him off from the right, move through the open left and reduce his company, who were now having to take furtive snapshots against a machine gun which had belonged to them only moments before.  The level of outgoing fire was worrying; there was less of it as time wore on.  Captain Renwick had no lines of communication to his headquarters, and either didn’t want to risk or couldn’t spare a man to run a message.  He hastily scratched out a few lines and sent a pigeon aloft:  “Am in Quarry in front of COURCELETTE.  Enemy attacking on front and left.  My men nearly all wiped out.  Send help and artillery fire.”[10]

His terse tone, succinct yet pleading gives a glimpse of Captain Renwick’s dilemma.  He could keep his company fighting on the ground he still held in the hope his battalion commander, half a mile away at the Sugar Factory could organise a counter attack before the fragile line collapsed and ‘D’ Company was dead to a man.  In that event, Fritz could get right inside Courcelette and be able to take the front-line Canadian trenches from behind.  Renwick could attempt a withdrawal, but such a move would expose his men to fire more so than where they were. How many more would he lose by trying to save them?  Even so, that would still leave the NE edge of town exposed, and Captain Renwick would be held to account for that disaster.  It was better, perhaps, to die trying.

Integrity of the trenches was growing worse, the rain, still pelting, sloughed at muddy walls which had already been shattered to oblivion.  The men of ‘D’ Company were fighting to hold filthy ditches from an unknown number of Germans rushing at them through the miserable night.  Shelling from enemy guns had abated to allow the attack; its absence only amplifying the snap and crack of small arms fire gaining volume and edging closer; spent shot splattering the gruely muck.

Word of the situation reached Battalion HQ; it’s not mentioned how, the pigeon didn’t land until the next morning, and “A heavy artillery barrage was immediately called for….Our artillery did splendid work…especially over the enemy’s trenches opposite the QUARRY, no doubt (it) played a large part breaking up the enemy’s attack.”[11]  4th Battalion’s ‘B’ Company, in the reserve trenches was warned off for a counterattack to go in at 11.15.  Meanwhile, Captain Renwick’s neighbour, Lieutenant Hutchison and his ‘D’ Company from 3rd Battalion swung out and pitched men forward to 4th Battalion lines to reinforce Renwick.  Hutchison led them on, despite having a lame arm from a hit he’d taken the day before which he’d yet to have seen to.

“Lieut. Hutchison handled his company very skillfully and greatly assisted in turning the Hun out.”[12]  During the fight, Hutchison was again wounded, in the same arm, and was persuaded to seek treatment.  His actions would be recognised with the Military Cross.[13]  With his help, Captain Renwick was able to hold out; the German attack vanishing by the time ‘B’ Company appeared, who were able to occupy the outpost line, now abandoned, with very few casualties.[14]

The left edge of the Battalion around the quarry had been dealt a strong blow and the next few hours were invested in shifting elements to strengthen the point most likely to be hit by the next German attack.  ‘B’ Company stayed in place, immediately supplementing what little was left of ‘D’ Company.  These distributions had just been completed at a little after four in the morning when once again German artillery ramped up, signalling another “go” at the Canadian lines.  Well placed Lewis guns and an SOS barrage from Division artillery stopped this attempt before it could develop.  Two hours later, the situation at the Quarry had stabilised.  The line, still incomplete, perhaps insufficient, had nevertheless held.

4th Battalion was taken out of the line that evening, its short but sharply eventful tour had shorn strength by eight officers and one hundred fifty other ranks,[15] the majority from Captain Renwick’s hard fought company.[i]

My premier work of fiction, “Killing is a Sin: A Novel of the First World War” is now available for download through Kindle Direct Publishing:

Much like the essays and articles I have written which are being appreciated by a growing audience; I put a great deal of effort into telling a story of moral questioning in the setting of the Western Front in 1917 as realistic as possible.  In crafting the environment and situation my characters experience throughout the book, a lot of time was spent consulting the very same war diaries which I have been using to accurately portray the situation of the war in my non-fiction work.  “Killing is a Sin” takes my strengths as an accurate and expositive essayist to give a genuine feel to a work of the imagination. 

I sincerely hope that those of you who have been enjoying my articles here with “If Ye Break Faith” would also be captivated by the story told within “Killing is a Sin,” where Corporal Felix Strachan is faced with having to find an answer to his own question- “What does it mean to die well?”



[1] 1st Canadian Division War Diary, September 1916, Appendix 18
[2] War Diary Entry, 22nd Battalion, 18 September 1916
[3] War Diary Entry, 3rd Battalion, 18 September 1916
[4] War Diary Entry, 4th Battalion, 18 September 1916
[5] War Diary Entry, 4th Battalion, ibid.
[6] 1st Canadian Division War Diary, September 1916, Appendix 18
[7] 1st Canadian Division Operations Order 111, 19 September 1916
[8] 1st Canadian Division Operations Order 111, ibid.
[9] Report- 1st Can Infantry Bde. To 1st Can Div. 23 September 1916 (1 Can Bde. War Diary Sept. 1916 appendix “R”)
[10] War Diary Entry, Canadian Corps, 20 September , 1916
[11] Report- 1st Can Infantry Bde. Ibid.
[12] War Diary Entry, 3rd Battalion, 19 September 1916
[13] Supplement to the London Gazette No. 29824, 14 November 1916, pg. 11078
[14] War Diary Entry, 4th Battalion, 19 September 1916
[15] War Diary Entry, 4th Battalion, 20 September 1916




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

Monday, 12 September 2016

Not War, But Bloody Butchery

Taking and Holding Courcelette, September, 1916

“General, I have the honour of commanding the finest body of men I have ever seen”
-Lt Col E Hilliam, O.C.
25th Canadian   Infantry Battalion



"Battle of Courcelette"
by Louis Alexander Weirter  Beaverbrook Collection of War Art 
What little was left standing of Courcelette had either been incorporated into hasty defensive positions or had been too shattered to provide much useful purpose.  Several small fires among the ruins provided a flitting backlight for the engineers who’d been sent forward to build redoubts for twenty rifles and two machine guns each[1] that were to provide pivot points for the holding of a prize the Germans were loath to relinquish.  Already, several counterattacks had been repulsed; each one heralded by a furious bombardment.  More were to come.


Isolated skirmishes in the preceding weeks had helped to gain advantageous start lines for a broad advance.  The Reserve Army, of which the Canadian Corps was part would provide and aggressive cover to the left flank of the main effort to be made by Fourth Army.[2]  Unlike the plan of attack which opened the Somme battle on 1 July; which had placed emphasis on the achievement of that day’s final objectives, experience influenced a shift in putting focus on primary targets with contingencies in place such that success could be exploited to gain subsequent objectives.  Here, then, was a first large scale implementation of a leap-frog style of attack which would come to be known as “bite and hold” tactics.  If the new line could be held, the men and officers of the Canadian Corps would have done a large part of proving the approach to defeating defensive stalemate was best done in incremental gains rather than setting sights on distant goals.


“The Capture of the Sugar Refinery at Courcelette
 by the Canadians on September 15, 1916
” 
 by Fortunino Matania Beaverbrook Collection of War Art 
The 2nd Canadian Division would first move against German trenches nicknamed “Candy” and “Sugar” and then reduce the German strongpoints at the destroyed Sucerie, the beet refinery which leant much to the “sweet” codenames.  A thorough artillery bombardment on these lines would precede the infantry assault, but the real ingenuity of the day for the gunners would be in laying down a precisely timed “creeping barrage.”  Two batteries of 18 pounders would fire a specific programme designed to lift and shift trajectory and range in coordination with the infantry.  In the first few minutes the guns were to change from shelling fifty yards short of the German front line, to the front line itself, then lifting and increasing range one hundred yards each at two three minute intervals.[3]  All this would be done while maintaining a high rate of fire- four rounds per minute per gun-to create a protecting barrier for the infantry to move behind. 


For the most part, it worked.  21st Battalion, on the left edge of the Corps’ front encountered very little resistance at first.  “No difficulty was experienced in taking 1st line trench as the artillery had thoroughly demolished this trench and killed most of the occupants.”[4]  Resistance was more stubborn beyond the front line, mainly from machine guns garrisoned around the ruined Sugar Factory.  “Our troops, however, knowing this to be well defended, attacked it with great vigour.”[5]   From Zero hour at 6.55 am, it was a little more than an hour before the message “Sugar Factory entirely in our hands”[6] was received at 2nd Division Headquarters from the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade, and another hour more before all attacking battalions reported reaching their objectives.  This was a gain, across the Corps front 2200 yards wide of 400-1000 yards in depth.[7]


What had hoped to be of help in the attack, but turned out to be anticlimactic and largely
inconsequential was the first battlefield deployment of tanks.  Of the six Mark I Tanks from No. 1 Section, ‘C’ Company, Heavy Section Machine Gun Corps assigned to the 2nd Division’s attack, four became stuck or otherwise immobile on the way to their objectives.  The other two, No.’s 721 and 509 reached positions at the Sugar Factory, but only after the infantry had taken the objective.[8]  This sojourn would be helpful in improving future use, and it had an enormous psychological effect on both sides.  Attacking infantry were bolstered by the presence of these machines, while defenders were terrified.  No. 721, commanded by Captain Inglis took the surrender of more than fifty Germans.[9]  It was later reported to Major General Turner’s 2nd Division HQ that after a tank had gone astride a German trench and enfiladed it with heavy fire, a “prisoner’s opinion of Tanks say it is not war but bloody butchery.”[10]   General Turner’s own assessment was that of promise- what these weapons could become- as a possible vanguard to assisting the infantry by “increasing the enemy’s demoralization and keeping him on the run; thereby enabling units…to push well out in front and possibly into a further objective.”[11]  Turner’s superior, Corps Commander Lt General Julian Byng concurred on their potential, but cautioned that “No action of the infantry should ever be made subservient to that of the tanks.”[12]


This was rather academic on the day of battle, as by the point of Byng deciding to press his next set of objectives, there were no tanks capable of continuing.  4th Brigade’s quick and aggressive seizure of the Sugar Factory was echoed by similar victories for the main portion of the attack being made by Fourth Army.  At 11.00, General Byng issued orders to 2nd Division, that “Preparations will be made to exploit success already gained by a further advance of the Canadian Corps”[13] pushing towards Courcelette.  The 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade would pass through the morning’s gains; 25th (Nova Scotia Rifles) Battalion left, 22nd (French Canadian, aka “VanDoos”) Battalion right with 26th (New Brunswick) Battalion in close support, all behind another creeping barrage.  Needing time to organise and coordinate the infantry and artillery, as well as allowing for 3rd British Corps to secure a flank at Martinpuich[14] meant that 5th Brigade couldn’t go into action before six that evening.  In the meantime, 2nd Division was receiving conflicting reports on enemy strength at the village.  One had indicated the Germans were massing at Courcelette, while another, sent shortly afterward estimated it was only being held by light rearguards and snipers.[15]


“At 6.15,” the VanDoo’s War Diary states, “assault launched.”  Brevity of this report matches the swiftness of the action.  “The 22nd Battalion, after a sharp fight of 10 minutes, during which the bayonet was freely used, arrived at their objectives at 6.45 pm.”[16]  The VanDoos secured the north east end of Courcelette by seven, immediately consolidating their new position. 


Lt. Colonel Edward Hilliam, O.C. 25th Battalion advancing on the left of the VanDoos would later submit a handwritten report on his unit in battle. “We moved 2000 (yards)….under heavy artillery fire…and not a single hitch.”[17]  They, too gained their objective “after a sharp bayonet fight of 5 minutes,”[18] making their objective at 6.25 pm.  Fighting may have been brief, but it was costly.  “All the officers of B and C Coy’s,” says Hilliam, “were killed or wounded excepting Lieut. De Young of ‘B’ Coy (since wounded) and Lt. Matheson, ‘C’ Coy.  These two boys, that is all they are, were so excellent that I am sending their names in later.”[19]  Colonel Hilliam was true to his word.  Lt.’s De Young; (whose left arm had been fractured by a machine gun bullet), and Matheson would both receive the Military Cross for their conspicuous gallantry on the day.  While extolling his men -“young soldiers behaving like veterans, going through a very heavy artillery barrage without a quiver”[20]- for their courage and dedication, modesty seems to disallow Hilliam mentioning that he was also wounded during the attack.  Despite this, he remained with his battalion.


During the night, counterattacks came, were repulsed, only to come on again.  Shelling was intense; the night sky lit by the flare of explosions, signal rockets of arranged colours showing green and red
to alert men miles away to bring their guns to action.  Smaller affairs, the rending crunch of bombs and grenades were followed by screams and curses, all punctuated by tongues of hot flame, winking out of blackness, the flicker of flashing rifle fire.  Men of the 5th Brigade held firm; they would not be driven off.  Using the 26th Battalion as a “flying squad” to reinforce gaps in the tine to drive off several strong patrols and bombing attacks, the 25th and 22nd remained stalwart in their new line, absorbing a total of seventeen separate attempts by the Germans to re-take Courcelette between 15-17 September.  Within those days, in which “no other Canadian ever defended against such a sustained fury of attacks during the war,”[21] the 22nd Battalion suffered 207 casualties, the 25th 222, and the 26th 224.[22]  Tenacity won out, and Courcelette remained in Canadian Hands.[i]




My premier work of fiction, “Killing is a Sin: A Novel of the First World War” is now available for download through Kindle Direct Publishing:

Much like the essays and articles I have written which are being appreciated by a growing audience; I put a great deal of effort into telling a story of moral questioning in the setting of the Western Front in 1917 as realistic as possible.  In crafting the environment and situation my characters experience throughout the book, a lot of time was spent consulting the very same war diaries which I have been using to accurately portray the situation of the war in my non-fiction work.  “Killing is a Sin” takes my strengths as an accurate and expositive essayist to give a genuine feel to a work of the imagination. 

I sincerely hope that those of you who have been enjoying my articles here with “If Ye Break Faith” would also be captivated by the story told within “Killing is a Sin,” where Corporal Felix Strachan is faced with having to find an answer to his own question- “What does it mean to die well?”


[1] War Diary Entry, 2nd Canadian Division, 15 September 1916
[2] Philpott, William, “Bloody Victory: The Sacrifice on the Somme” Abacus 2009 pg. 359
[3] 2nd Canadian Divisional Artillery Operations Order 69, 14 September 1916
[4] War Diary Entry, 21st Canadian Infantry Battalion, 15 September 1916
[5] Report: “Operations 21st Battalion 14-15 September 1916” Appended to War Diary September 1916
[6] Field Message from 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade to 2nd Canadian Division rec’d 8.15 am 15 September 1916
[7] Nicholson, GW, Col. “Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War” Queen’s Printer, Ottawa 1962 pg. 169
[8] Inglis, AM, Capt. “Report of Operations of the Tanks of No. 1 Section, ‘C’ Company, Heavy Section Machine Gun Corps, September 16 1915
[9] Inglis, ibid.
[10] War Diary Entry, 2nd Canadian Division, 15 September 1915
[11] Turner, RE, Maj. Gen., Report on Tanks in action, submitted to Canadian Corps 19 September 1916
[12] Byng, J Lt. Gen., report on Tanks in Action, submitted to Reserve Army, 21 September 1916
[13] Field Message from Canadian Corps to 2nd Canadian Division rec’d 11.30 am 15 September 1916
[14] Nicholson, GW, Col., ibid. pg.170
[15] War Diary Entry, 2nd Canadian Division, 15 September 1916
[16] War Diary Entry, 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade, 15 September 1916
[17] Hilliam, Edward, Lt. Col. Report on 25th (Nova Scotia Rifles) Battalion in action, 15 September 1916, submitted to 5th Can. Inf. Bde.
[18] Operations Report, 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade, September 1916
[19] Hilliam, Edward, Lt. Col. Ibid.
[20] War Diary Entry, 25th Battalion
[21] Cook, Tim, “At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great war 1914-1916” Penguin, Canada 2007, pg. 461
[22] Nicholson, GW, Col., ibid. pg. 171



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