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


  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

    1. Thank you. Feedback is always appreciated, and I'm glad that I am engaging readers in the way I had hoped.

  2. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.