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, 31 October 2016

The Somme: A Post-Mortem

“The operation failed owing to insufficiency of artillery barrage.  The Battalion suffered heavily.”- 44th Battalion War Diary 25 Oct 1916

Time was wearing thin and the weather more constantly vile.  If the Somme battle was to achieve a final overwhelming success, it would have to come soon, or not at all.  On the 25th of October, 1916, the 4th Canadian Division, on loan to II (British) Corps to gain combat experience committed elements of the 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade to a minor operation against portions of Regina Trench opposite their line.  A few days prior, the 11th Brigade, on 10 Bde.’s left lad put on a resoundingly successful attack on the western edge of Regina Trench, and now the 10th Bde needed to shore up.

Weather had been a contributing factor for 11 Bde.  Days of cold and dreary rain grounded observer
aircraft and saturated the ground rendering any prospective advance blind and lame.  This had delayed the start for two twenty-four hour postponements.  Damp had further eroded the conditions of the trenches and forty-eight more hours of artillery was enough to destroy the wire which had so frustrated the earlier assaults.  “Assisted by an excellent artillery preparation and barrage, our infantry carried the whole of their objectives very quickly and with remarkably little loss.”[1] 11 Bde.’s assaulting battalions, the 87th and 102nd met uncharacteristically spotty resistance.  Men from the 3rd Reserve Ersatz Regiment “mostly recruits” were quick to surrender.  These prisoners had been “only five days on (the) Somme front,” their morale was notably low.  “Want peace,” says the 11th Brigade’s report.[2]

Counterattacks over these captured gains were more typically determined and frequent.  It was defending against these attempts which created the majority of the casualties for the 87th and 102nd.  It also leant to a greater readiness in the portions of Regina Trench still in German hands.  Thus, the 10th Brigade’s effort on the 25th, in a single battalion assault was a disappointing and costly failure.  “The 44th Bn. minor operation,” the after action report states, “was not successful.  The barrage was insufficient & the Bn. met with great opposition, making it impossible to go forward.”[3]  It cost the 44th Battalion 40 dead, 132 wounded and 26 missing within a few hours’ action.[4]

I ended my last post with an excerpt from the first chapter of “Killing is a Sin” which described an attack much like those which had occurred with the untested units of the 4th Canadian Division.  The fictional assault at “Spoon Farm” echoes the actual unpreparedness of officers and men in battle for the first time and that the fine edge between success and failure is found in how such a deficit of preparation is overcome.  It is a theme which strikes at the heart of the history of the Battle of the Somme.

Very little captures the notion of the Great War’s futility than does the Somme.  Much of that has to do with the battle concluding not with an appreciable victory; an obvious strategic triumph, but rather that nothing more could be hoped to be gained as weather grew worse.  Nearly five months of consistent effort- at many intervals successive efforts against the same objectives- had come down to gaining the most advantageous position from which offensives could resume in 1917.

Admittedly, it can be heartbreaking to think that for each square mile gained in the Somme campaign, British and Empire forces suffered 44,000 casualties.  However, this figure- only an approximation- used to drive home the point of excessive human cost made for small territorial gains often is presented without the mention of its corollary. The Germans lost an estimated 40,000 casualties for each square mile they were forced to cede, not to mention materiel expended, captured or destroyed which their industrial output could not hope to replace at the same rate the Allies could make good these losses.  Which brings up the point that the Battle of the Somme was largely not about territorial gain.

The official despatches of Sir Douglas Haig make it plain that “Verdun had been relieved; the main German forces had been held on the Western Front; and the enemy’s strength had been considerably worn down.”[5] 

Drawing his thorough examination to a close, William Philpott agrees that the Somme was “the decisive victory of the attritional was of which it was the centrepiece: a moral victory based on growing materiel predominance and improving tactical and operational ability.”[6]  He goes on to say: “It is perhaps surprising that an event that changed so much has come down to posterity as an indecisive, futile encounter.”[7]

Perhaps that has much to do with one of the most influential early histories of the war, written by an English officer who had seen it first hand and made no disguise of his disenchantment in his volume on the Great War.  Sir Basil Liddell Hart writes that the Battle of the Somme “closed in an atmosphere of disappointment, and with such a strain on British forces that the coincidental strain on the enemy was obscured.”[8] 

Brigadier Allan Mallinson, in his recent History Today article “The Permanent Stain of the Somme” attempts to straddle the divide of how to define the battle by declaring “the Somme was not futile,” while arguing that the battle itself was not even necessary.  It would have been far better, he posits, if the untested regiments of the New Armies would have taken over “more of the Allied line” to free up French units and allocating “heavy artillery and aircraft to Verdun” rather than mounting a broad offensive at the Somme to affect Verdun’s relief.  With respect to the Brigadier, his assessment is fundamentally incorrect.  Retaining the New Armies as a defensive force would have only exchanged British lives for French; the strategic consequences of such being the hastened collapse of French morale.  Most importantly, such an avoidance would have left the British Army still largely offensively inexperienced.  This delay could have had a direr outcome than as actually occurred.  Without the adjustments to tactics that the Somme helped set in motion, this novice force, when committed to battle would have been contending with a German doctrine evolved from their experiences in 1916; creating the potential of a greater disaster in human cost at a more critical juncture of the war.  Casualties may be lamented and desirably avoided, but wars are only won by closing with and destroying the enemy.  Inarguably, the time for British forces to do so was both where and when they actually committed to battle at the Somme.

Liddell Hart’s notion of a “dealer’s push” and Brigadier Mallinson’s theory of possible avoidance both fail to recognise one of the most critical elements of the battle.

This was the gain of what could be learned from the Somme in an immediate sense of applicable tactical doctrine.  Any or all of General Haig’s above stated objectives had very little bearing on the outlook of those men more intimately acquainted with the fighting.  For these men, taking account of what had worked and what had failed over the months of the campaign and incorporating those lessons into proactive changes would become a large part of subsequent successes, including, most notably for Canada, Vimy Ridge.  In my story, while waiting for Zero-hour at Vimy, Felix sums up this experience in telling Lt. Thorncliffe: “Spoon Farm was a while ago, Sir.  I can’t guarantee we’ll know what to do; but we sure as Hell know what not to do.”

From a modern point of view it may seem the Battle of the Somme generated excessive casualties to no tangible purpose.  As a battle of attrition, not one of territorial gain, the success of the Somme is more measurable, but only marginally so. If viewed as a critical campaign to develop proficiency and foster an evolution of arms, the Somme is responsible for the Allied victory as no other.  To regard it as less than that; to relegate the battle as “futile” devalues the sacrifice of life and blood given at the Somme which in no small way contributed to winning the war.

[1] Boraston, J H, Lt Col (ed.), “Sir Douglas Haig’s Despatches” J M Dent & Sons Ltd. 1919, pg.48
[2] War Diary, 11 Canadian Infantry Brigade, October 1916, Appendix K
[3] War Diary, 10 Canadian Infantry Brigade, 25 October 1916
[4] War Diary, 44 Battalion, 25 October 1916
[5] Boraston, ibid. pg. 51
[6] Philpott, William, “Bloody Victory: The Sacrifice on the Somme” Abacus 2009 pg. 624
[7] Philpott, ibid.
[8] Liddell Hart, Sir Basil, “History of the First World War” Pan Books, 1970, pg. 253

Monday, 17 October 2016

Killing is a Sin

What does it mean to die well?

"Five and Six Platoons had walked straight into machine guns hidden behind the ruins of the high wall which enclosed the Farm.  It was a dear price to pay."

For some reason, my brief Thanksgiving post last Monday has now become the most viewed single article on this site. I'm at a loss to explain exactly why that might be. Honestly, had I known it would take off and outpace everything I've written over five years within a week, I'd have made better use of the opportunity to tell everyone more about my book.

Perhaps you've noticed the plugs I've been giving to "Killing is a Sin" at the tail end of my more recent essays. So far, it's only been available for e-readers, but just last week I approved the final draft and it can now be purchased as a paperback from Amazon sites in North America and the UK. I feel that it is an important work for several reasons, not without self-interest, and I hope you'll forgive my departure from the usual nature of this space so that I can tell you all the reasons as to why I wrote it.

Foremost, I'm not so much a historian as I am a storyteller with an abiding passion for history. Failing to find purchase beyond my work here in academic writing, I accepted a challenge last year to attempt to write fiction. I’d never attempted anything on the scale of a full length novel. A main motivator for me was that of the majority of military history novels, particularly those of the First World War, there was a lack of realism, and, in my opinion, too heavy a reliance on cliché and tropes that don’t necessarily hold up to factual scrutiny. I wanted to tell a story that, besides involving invented characters could really have taken place. I wanted to immerse the reader in as real a representation of the Western Front as was possible, and give them characters who were personalities that felt genuine and substantial; to develop scenery that played on the reader’s senses and imagination. I’ll have to leave it to you to judge whether or not I’ve been successful with that. In my opinion, if the work I've been presenting here has been to your liking, "Killing is a Sin" delivers just that. 

While it concerns soldiers at war, and using the historical touchstone of Vimy Ridge as a backdrop, it is not exclusively a war story. Mainly the book is about a young man in the middle of a vast and dangerous situation he cannot control, using the extreme human experience of war to explore ideas of morality within a historically correct, visceral and realistic narrative. Where this story is set, on the Western Front in 1917, has allowed me a superlative event in human history to work with.  My attempt to re-create this period with any hope to realism was based upon available primary documents including war diaries, reports and orders, military manuals and expert consultation.  I am in the deepest gratitude to a gallery of archivists, librarians and passionate devotees to history in the work they have done in making such material so accessible. 

To free myself from re-writing history, much of anything specific, all of the characters and most of the locations are made from the whole cloth of imagination.  Foremost for me was to look at the war from a Canadian perspective, which could have been problematic.  Canada’s contribution to the war militarily was organised- our Army still is- in what is known as the “Regimental System.”

Briefly, this meant that soldiers were grouped around a nucleus of command just below that of a general.  From 800-1200 officers and men at different levels of strength, each of Canada’s overseas regiments had their own, and quite well recorded, identity and experience of the war.  I could not interfere with that.
This difficulty has been side-stepped by widening France by an arbitrary seven hundred yards, North to South, to insert the 16th Canadian Infantry Brigade, and its component units. Though I've made it appear that the 16th Brigade reports to the 4th Canadian Division, an extant formation, no such Brigade numbered 16 existed.  Which means of course, the one battalion within it where this story is told,
The King’s Own Canadian Scots Regiment, is my own creation, but founded deeply in the traditions and pride of units which would have been its contemporaries had it been real.  It made sense for the nature of the book's plot to put my imaginary players within the 4th Division.  I required my protagonists to be within a unit whose camaraderie hadn't been much disturbed by attrition, so the King's Own would have to be late in arriving to the war. 

There is little coincidence that this book is being released now as the majority of the narrative takes place during the winter/spring of 1916-17.  The first chapter opens with the recollection of the men's introduction to the war at the tail end of the Somme campaign in October, 1916- almost a century to the day of this post:

By October, when the Regiment went up the line in earnest for the first time, the Germans
were now fighting from positions which had been, at the beginning of it all, far to the rear.  That fact had been used to reassure the men of the King’s Own; they weren’t to expect prepared defences.  When the leading platoons of the attack came upon the road they had to cross and were able to see beyond, all there was was the farmstead and what barbed wire there was had mostly been mounted on frames, lattice-like and scattered across the frontage, more an impediment than a true barrier.

“Take and hold the redoubt known as ‘Spoon Farm’ and the crossroads in locality to support assaults on sections of ‘Regina Trench’,” had been the Regiment’s orders that day, and now those in the van, Felix among them, were just beginning to believe they were going to do it, and without a lot of fuss, either. 

Five and Six Platoons had walked straight into machine guns hidden behind the ruins of the high wall which enclosed the Farm.  It was a dear price to pay.  Felix remembered how, at first, the dust splattering around him seemed to be rain.  That was, until Sergeant Merrick’s back tore open, grotesquely ripped in half from hip to collar. 

For more about this title, please see my author site or this short film:

Monday, 10 October 2016

A Thanksgiving Message from "If Ye Break Faith"

Today, Monday October 10 2016 is the Thanksgiving Holiday in Canada.  Many of you have come to expect a new article on a Monday morning, but this week, I have decided to take time to spend with family and reflect on what my gratitude is, and will return next week with my usual posting.

First and foremost, I am grateful to all the men and women, past present and future who stand up and volunteer to serve in the Canadian Forces. The memory of our antecedents in this service to country is the primary reason why I started "If Ye Break Faith"; to do what little I could to help perpetuate the memory and sacrifice of those who went before.  I am also extremely grateful for having the privilege of being
counted among their number. Thank You.

I am also grateful to you all who read my work, especially those of you who have been so kind as to give me feedback and helped me to get better at telling the stories I post here.  Everyone of you who counts as a "site hit" encourages me to make my next essay better than my last. Thank You.

I am extremely grateful to my family and friends, for their encouragement and support. There would be little motivation for me to continue this work without strong backing of loved ones, and without them, I certainly would not have had the courage to attempt larger projects, such as the "To You From Failing Hands" military decoration re-investment or my new book, "Killing is a Sin."

Thank You 

Monday, 3 October 2016

Attempting the Impossible With Nothing

Assaulting Regina Trench, October 1916

“It was now getting on to 3 p.m. and things were getting rather desperate.”
-3rd (Toronto) Battalion War Diary, 8 October 1916

It had been about half an hour since Lance Corporal Durbin, at great risk to himself had volunteered to dispatch through the gauntlet of shellfire enveloping no-man’s land with an urgent plea for 3rd Battalion Headquarters.  The attack, which had begun so well was now in danger of being turned out completely.  German troops had overwhelmed the Toronto men, pushing them in succession from the second, and just now, the first objective lines.  What remained of the 3rd Battalion’s right echelon, a mere handful with a spattering of 4th Battalion men mixed in were loosely grouped in the shell holes along the frontage of the line from which they’d just been ejected.  Once the enemy could make sense of how delicate the situation was, they would surge right over the Canadians and be able to sweep clear almost all the way back to Courcelette.

There was no way to know if Durbin had made it back, if he’d been able to deliver the message to Major Yates, or for that matter, if the Major would be able to do anything to help.  Those at the tip of the spear could only rely on what they had if they were to prevent a failed assault becoming a rout.

            “Who’s here with me?” a voice called out.  It was Lieutenant Chatterton, the only officer from ‘D’ Company- one of only two officers of the 14 who went forward that morning[1]- left standing.  Strained voices from the pockets and folds of the ragged ground answered back.

            “Fix bayonets!”

Nearly ten hours before, the assault had begun with decidedly mixed results.  On the 3rd Battalion’s right, the 4th (Central Ontario) Battalion had fought through to their objective, a confluence of perpendicular trench-lines known as the “Quadrilateral” with very little difficulty.  The 3rd had much the same experience.  Within the first hour of the operation, the assaulting companies were consolidating the first and second objective lines and “the first two hours after taking our objective was fairly quiet.”[2]  They were in touch with the 4th on their right, and elements of the 16th (Canadian Scottish) Battalion on their left.

Gaining the German trench had been much more harrowing for the Can Scots.  Wire entanglements, left unmolested by preparatory artillery, or having been repaired where damaged stalled the advance, forcing the men to bunch and crowd up seeking passable defiles; making generous targets of themselves for pre-sited machine guns and precisely concentrated rifle fire.  This “caused heavy casualties and demoralised the formation.”[3]  One of the men there, who’d had to beg permission from the battalion commander to go forward as he was technically a non-combatant, grasped his shining moment.  James Cleland Richardson, not yet twenty-one years of age, a piper from Bell’s Hill, Lanarkshire “strode up and down outside the wire, playing his pipes with the greatest coolness.  The effect was instantaneous….the company rushed the wire with such fury and determination that the obstacle was overcome and the position captured.”[4]  Richardson’s courage would be recognised with a Victoria Cross, which would be awarded posthumously.  Richardson, escorting wounded and prisoners rearward, “remembered that he had left his pipes behind.  Although strongly encouraged not to do so, he insisted on returning to recover his pipes.  He has never been seen since and death has been presumed.”  His pipes would be found by a British Chaplain in 1917, and remained at a prep school in Scotland until they were identified and repatriated to Canada in 2006.  They are on display at the British Columbia Legislature Building.[5]

The 13th (Royal Highlanders of Canada) Battalion, on the left flank of the 16th, had an even worse time, being forced back to their starting positions without gaining any portion of the German trench.  A message received at 1st Canadian Division HQ “definitely ascertained that the 13th Battalion did not gain their objective….Casualties were exceedingly heavy and so far no Officer who went forward had been accounted for.”[6]  Failure here was critical as the 13th represented the left edge of the 1st Division.  Their retirement created an indefensible gap, a length of trenches filled with German Marines, between 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions.  It did not take long for the enemy to begin counterattacking laterally along the trenches to oust the Canadians whose hold on the line was fragile to begin with.
General Sir Douglas Haig, the British Commander-in-Chief believed that the campaign at the Somme, now in its fifth month had so reduced and worn down German fighting strength that beyond their present line, they had very little in the way of prepared defenses.  Delay on Haig’s part in pursuing the offensive would only work to his enemy’s advantage.  A dedicated, wide-scale attack could pierce these last fortifications and deal a winning blow.  It had to be done quickly and comprehensively.  This meant starting positions must be firmly held and in line with flanking units across the frontage of attack as early as could be managed.  For the Canadians, this meant gaining and control of Regina Trench.[7]  “The powerful Regina Trench system ran the entire length of the Canadian front- more than 3 000 metres- and it had withstood all previous assaults.”[8]

An attempt was made in the afternoon of 1 October.  Two brigades of the 2nd Canadian Division and one brigade of the 3rd surged forward only to encounter an impossible situation.  Artillery had not destroyed the German wire; avenues of approach were overwatched by machine gun emplacements with intersecting fields of fire and the trenches themselves were held in force with fresh, determined troops.  The attack was a costly failure, but due to the grand nature of Haig’s offensive planning, the Corps would have to make another attempt at the soonest opportunity.  Weather of consecutive heavy, wet days would frustrate expedience and afford the enemy a respite.  Roads quickly became swamped and sufficient ammunition could not be delivered to the artillery.  “Rain fell again on October 5, 6 and 7, preventing the Royal Flying Corps observers from acting as spotters for the British Artillery.  The ground became impassible for any sustained infantry assault.”[9]  A slight break in the weather over the afternoon of the 7th had to be made use of as the planned start of the general offensive was less than a week off.  Regina Trench must fall.

Ten minutes before five o’clock in the morning of 8 October, four brigades of the 3rd and 1st Canadian Divisions advanced in serried company-sized waves, only to find that, again, “in many sectors…the preliminary British artillery had failed to cut the German wire.”[10]  Only in isolated spots, mainly on the right flank, was any progress made.  A hard fight to get to the objective, however, left too few men to hold against a counterattack, the bombs and ammunition expended in taking the lines now meant these vital resources were in too short a supply to make any stand of defense.  Reinforcements and resupply could not be brought up across the deadly ground of no-man’s land in broad daylight.  The only means of retaining these meager gains was to keep fighting in the vain hope that help could be brought forward after sundown.

They had to of known that expectation was a strain of even the broadest optimism, but the men left with Lt. Chatterton, less than one hundred remaining of the 481[11] who had begun the day rallied in their shell holes and rushed the trench again with little more than cold steel.  “Our bombs and (ammunition) were completely exhausted, all the Lewis guns but one had been destroyed and this one was out of ammunition.  A retirement was inevitable.  The men were fighting with their fists.”[12]  Lt. Chatterton, already seriously wounded during the bayonet charge was still inspiring his men in the fight when he was felled by a sniper.  It was a hopeless situation.  Once again, the enemy trench was forfeited and what remained of the battalion put up a fighting retreat all the way back to the jumping-off trenches.

Dirty, tired and without the basest materials to defend themselves, they nevertheless resolved “to make a further stand”[13] on this sparse line.  Giving the enemy such a hard fight, which had been the case along most of the frontage may not have won the objective, but had so wearied the enemy that the Marinier lacked the desire to follow through with what might have been a decisive blow against the Canadians, which in turn would have put the Allied position in serious jeopardy.  Regina Trench may still have belonged to Germany, but at least Canada maintained hold of the ground they had prised from their enemy since arriving at the Somme in September.[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, 3rd Canadian Infantry Battalion, 08 October 1916
[2] War Diary Entry, 3rd Canadian Infantry Battalion, ibid.
[3] Supplement to the London Gazette, No. 30967, 22 October 1918 pg. 12488
[4] Supplement to the London Gazette, ibid.
[5] “A fine Memorial for a VC Winner JC Richardson” by Robby McRobb 21 May 2012 via theguardian.pe.ca
[6] War Diary Entry, 1st Canadian Division, 08 October 1916
[7] Nicholson, GW, Col. “Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War” Queen’s Printer, Ottawa 1962 pg. 180
[8] Cook, Tim, “At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1914-1916” Penguin Canada 2007 pg. 485
[9] Gilbert, Martin, “The Battle of the Somme: The Heroism and Horror of War” McClelland & Stewart 2006, pg. 207
[10] Gilbert, Martin, Ibid. pg. 210
[11] War Diary Entry, 3rd Canadian Infantry Battalion, ibid.
[12] War Diary Entry, 3rd Canadian Infantry Battalion, ibid.
[13] War Diary Entry, 3rd Canadian Infantry Battalion, ibid.

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