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, 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]

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[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.

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