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, 21 November 2016

Their Glory Shall Not Be Blotted Out

“The tour just ended has been characterised by considerable Enemy artillery activity”
- War Diary 12 Canadian Infantry Brigade 19 Jun 17

What had begun as a search to find information on one soldier unfolded to reveal a story forever connecting three individuals.

As a sample set, the three were, by most measurements, a representation of the average Canadian soldier on the Western Front.  None of the three had been born in Canada; which was certainly not unusual.  Kirby Bourson Hunt was from Bona Vista Newfoundland, then a Dominion separate from Canada; Thomas Culbert was Belfast born and George Holland came from Worsley, England.  They aged between twenty and twenty-seven years old and ranged in height from 5’3” to 5’11”- both in age and stature they were outstandingly average.  They were ordinary men, all three private soldiers who neither had conspicuous merit nor detraction applied to their service.  As best as can be told, the three men, Holland, Culbert and Hunt had never met or were known to one another, they had all served in different battalions and had been in France for different lengths of time.

Thomas Culbert was posted to the 38th Battalion on 6 December, 1916 and George Holland reported to the 78th Battalion two days before Christmas.  These two men came to 4th Canadian Division units to reinforce losses taken in the waning phase of the Somme campaign.  There was a great need to make up numbers from casualties taken, as the long training and organisational effort for the spring offensives-for Vimy Ridge- was about to begin.  Urgency to get men proficient in their trade is evident in Culbert’s posting to a Lewis Gun Course not two weeks after joining his unit.  Hunt, the last of these three to come to the front was taken on strength with the 47th Battalion in May of 1917, in his own turn a reinforcement for the casualties taken in the battle for which Holland and Culbert had been brought over for.

However, only Holland was present with his unit at Vimy, Culbert had been wounded in February; and it is at this point where I began.

Thomas Culbert
Thomas Culbert is a direct relative of a fellow I went to school with.  This friend had posted newspaper clippings regarding Culbert over Remembrance Week.  From the Toronto Star, it began “Pte. Thomas Culbert, who in February last was severely wounded in the right thigh is to-day reported to have died of his injuries.”[1]  He had died on the 24th of June, and was buried in France.  This struck me as out of the ordinary.  Worded in this way, the clipping made it appear as though his death in June was directly resulting from his wounding in February.  It seemed a terribly lengthy time to linger from a leg wound, and that Culbert was buried in France raised more questions.  Mainly, why hadn’t he been evacuated to England as was most usually the case for convalescence?  Circumstances as they seemed were not impossible, just incredibly unlikely.  It was not much more than a hunch which motivated me, and once I opened Culbert’s service records, my hunch was confirmed. 

He was indeed wounded in February.  His file states “GSW (Gun Shot Wound) Rt. Thigh, slight”[2] on his admission to hospital on 26 February.  The 38th Battalion War Diary provided the context: “At 5.30 pm a raid on German trenches was made by five officers and 85 other ranks….Results 38 Bn.: 1. Thirty-three dead Huns were counted.  2. Six dug-outs were bombed.  3. Estimated that the enemy sustained at least forty other casualties besides the above dead. 4. Enemy’s wire practically nil. Trenches in bad condition….Our casualties- 4 killed, 27 wounded.”[3]

Culbert recovered from this wound, returning to his unit on the 13th of April, just missing the opening phase of Vimy Ridge.  Discovering this only solved part of the mystery; in that he didn’t linger for four months.  His death, however, was listed as “died of wounds” which meant there was a period of time in which he suffered injuries before passing.  Consulting the Commonwealth War Graves Commission records and comparing those with reports from 12 Canadian Infantry Brigade (to which the 38th Battalion belonged) made the situation clearer.  Colonel Nicholson’s official history notes that this period, from the end of the first phase of the Battle of Messines was one in which Haig, planning for a resumed offensive had instructed his subordinate commands to “ ‘hold the enemy to his ground, and prevent his moving troops elsewhere’.”[4]

George Holland
The lines were being stabilised, and strengthened in preparation for the next forward move.  Artillery fire was intense on both sides. On the 18th of June, German artillery was “considerably above normal….Shortly before mdt. In response to flares sent up…approx. 175 shells were fired.”[5] The majority of these fell amongst the positions held by the 38th Battalion. Pte. George Holland, his 78th Battalion out of the line, was that evening part of a working party sent forward which got caught in this heavy fire. “Following casualties amongst party furnished by ‘D’ Coy; Killed 2, 874700 Pte. Holland, 625235 Pte. Miller, buried same time….4 wounded (slightly) all by HTMB (Heavy Trench Mortar Bomb).”[6]  12 Brigade’s diary records these casualties of the 78th, and two men wounded from the 38th.  All of the wounded would have been brought through the Regimental Aid Post, just behind the trench line, and thence to the Advance Dressing Station, which was just on the eastern periphery of Givenchy.  From the ADS men would either be treated and discharged, or transported to a Main Dressing Station or other hospital facilities further rearward.  In extreme cases, those men not expected to survive were made comfortable where they were rather than subject them to unnecessary movement.  Thomas Culbert, married father of two, never made it beyond the ADS, although death came a slow, terrible six days later.

Kirby B Hunt
On the 20th of June, 12 Brigade was replaced in line by 10 Canadian Infantry Brigade, whose battalions now took up the job of fixing the enemy in place.  It was a few days later, overnight between 25/26 June that the 47th Battalion conducted a minor operation against lightly held German trenches and a sweep of the village of La Coulotte.  “Patrols were pushed through the village of LA COULOTTE as far south to the LENS-ARRAS ROAD, and found the Southern part of the village still strongly occupied.”[7] The patrol from the 47th retired to friendly lines, but not before suffering casualties of two dead and fourteen wounded. One of those killed was Kirby Hunt.  He had been at the front just over five weeks.  His body was brought to the ADS, as were the bodies of Holland and Miller from their temporary grave along the support line.

Holland, Culbert and Hunt were interred in a group plot at a place called Sumach Cemetery.[8]  Group burials were not uncommon, and great effort was taken to ensure these burials were identifiable. Only later- mostly through a tremendous post-war program- would the men be exhumed and placed in single graves within established grounds and marked with proper headstones.

Except, in this case, Sumach Cemetery was destroyed in later fighting to such an extent that when La Chaudière Cemetery was being constructed after the war, those initially buried at Sumach could not be individually distinguished.  These men are commemorated at La Chaudière by a special memorial.  The three; Holland, Culbert and Hunt, men who didn’t know each other, ordinary average men, will now pass eternity together, with so many of their comrades, marked by a stone which offers the promise “Their Glory Shall Not Be Blotted Out.”

[1] Toronto Star, 05 July 1917
[2] MFW 54 “Casualty Form- Active Service” re. 775036, Pte. Culbert, Thomas
[3] War Diary Entry, 38th Battalion, 22 February 1917
[4] Nicholson, GW, Col. “Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War” Queen’s Printer, Ottawa 1962 pg. 282
[5] 12 Canadian Infantry Brigade War Diary, June 1917 Appendix 1 “Intelligence Summary No. 128”
[6] War Diary Entry, 78th Battalion, 18 June 1917
[7] War Diary Entry, 47th Battalion, 25 June 1917

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Men of Character and Courage

“I need gentlemen of character and courage to inspire these men to their duty as soldiers. I need smart men who can make the right decisions regardless of circumstance. Do I have one of these men standing before me, Lieutenant?”

-Lt. Col B.A. Sinclair, “Killing is a Sin” Ch. V

There would be nobody on their right flank; they were the end of the line.  This objective was the extreme right edge of the advance.  At the opposite end, the company from the 102nd Battalion was fortunate in that they would be moving forward to secure the left flank with positions already held.  Not so for the men of ‘B’ Company, 46th Battalion.  Their fate had placed them here- needing to take this stretch of Regina Trench at a point most likely to attract strong counter-attacks and hold it- orders were to hold at all cost[1]- while ‘D’ Company moved up and worked to extend the captured trench back to existing Canadian lines.

A staggering majority of ‘B’ Company’s compliment had never gone into battle before, and that included two of the three officers who had been selected to lead it.  The company’s other officers, some NCO’s and ordinary soldiers had been purposefully held back- “left out of battle” was the phrase- in order to preserve structure should the attack prove disastrously costly.  For the men going forward, they would have to have implicit trust, bordering on faith, in leadership that knew not much more than what they did about what to expect.  Lieutenants Lowe, Dewar and Copp were placed in a position of enormous responsibility.  They had to complete the task given to ‘B’ Company in such a way as to be worthy of their men’s blind trust with the knowledge that any failure would weigh heavier upon them than anyone else.  All of this was theirs to take upon, without any greater understanding of what to expect then had the men they were meant to lead.
The opening quote, taken from Chapter V of my novel “Killing is a Sin” describes in fiction the actual dilemma facing Battalion commanders such as Colonel Sinclair would face in reality.  Building an army from near nothing would be one accomplishment for Canada.  Finding “men of character and courage” to lead it would be another.  For our posterity, it is fortunate that such men- men such as Lowe, Dewar and Copp- were present to fill this need.

Each of the three officers with ‘B’ Company on the night of the attack had at least some pre-war experience.  Lowe and Copp with two and three years in the Active Militia respectively.  Dewar, a Scot by birth had been five years with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers.

Lt. Dewar had been with the CEF the longest.  He’d joined as a private soldier at the outset of war and shipped out with the First Contingent in October, 1914.  Illness, in particular a hernia, delayed his deployment to France.  He would remain in England, assigned to training depots and accelerating through non-commissioned appointments; becoming a Company Sergeant-Major a short while before being granted a commission and an assignment to active duty with the 46th Battalion prior to its embarkation to France in September 1916.  Although Lt. Dewar was the longest serving, his commission came later than Lt. Lowe’s, who would be placed in command of ‘B’ Company.  Perhaps this longevity in service was the consideration to place Dewar with the responsibility of establishing ‘B’ Company’s forward blocking post.

What ‘B’ Company had been asked to accomplish was quite daring.  It was a night attack, with the company spaced in four waves of a platoon each.  The men would have to cross no-man’s land undetected by the enemy and as close as possible to the covering barrage.  That they were able to accomplish this, a complex manoeuvre with precise coordination with artillery they could neither see nor communicate with directly with having made all preparations to do so within the seven hours between final orders and Zero-hour bears a good deal of reflection.  Even if things were to go without a hitch, such an endeavour’s chance of success was reliant completely on the officers leading the attack, the NCO’s marshalling the men and the level of proficiency attained by the rank and file in all the moments which had brought them all to this point.

As it was, not everything went without a hitch.  It is, in fact, when things don’t go to plan that real leadership is tested.  When the barrage lifted at nine minutes past Zero[2] “it was not concentrated over a sufficiently narrow area to allow of the attacking party of entering the objective.”[3]  Jumping off right then put the men to risk of falling under their own barrage; while waiting a further five minutes[4] gave the Germans defending Regina Trench that much time to recover and prepare to receive the attack.  Having the men wait was one thing; hesitating in making a decision in either case was another thing altogether.

“They therefore waited for the next lift,” it was later reported, and as expected this delay worked in favour of the defenders.  “Parties of the enemy put up a strong resistance.”[5]

Lt. Lowe’s presence was later praised by his C.O. Lt. Col Dawson as being instrumental to the success of this part of the attack.  Lowe “so animated his men,” Dawson would write, that the position captured “was quickly placed in a state of defence.”  Lowe’s constancy throughout the unfolding day “displayed a magnificent spirit of bravery and coolness under fire.”[6] Lt. Lowe would be awarded the Military Cross for his efforts.[7]

Lt. Dewar, the ex-Borderer quickly established his outpost as consolidation began, and prudently shifted it closer to the trench lines when it was apparent that artillery fire was dropping too short.  Dewar himself caught a piece of shrapnel and was shortly afterward evacuated.  He would not return to the front, remaining with a training unit in England after convalescing from his wound.  Lt. Lowe would also be taken out of the line the following month, due to chronic appendicitis. 

By year’s end, only Lt. Copp remained of the three ‘B’ Company officers who went forward on that night.  He would be wounded the following spring in the weeks after Vimy Ridge; but not before earning the Military Cross himself.  “In spite of heavy fire,” his citation reads, “he supervised the establishment of posts, and later seized advanced ground which he held with great determination.”[8]  Like Lt. Dewar, Copp would not return to action after recovering.

Lowe, however, would come back to the 46th Battalion, his appendix no longer a concern, sporting his MC and a deserving promotion to Captain in time to take part in operations at Vimy.  Captain Lowe continued to display the qualities which inspired those he led to follow him.  That August, “Captain Lowe and a bombing party raided an enemy M.G. emplacement…and succeeded in securing 14 prisoners.”[9]  His conspicuous leadership was, ironically, his undoing.  The Battalion’s War Diary concludes on 22 August 1917 with the entry “Captain Lowe was sniped during this raid.”

[1] 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade Operations Order No. 22 10 November 1916
[2] Operations Order No. 22
[3] 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade “Report on Operations 10/11 November” War Diary, November 1916 Appendix C1
[4] Operations Order No. 22
[5] “Report on Operations 10/11 November”
[6] Dawson, H.J. Lt. Col, “A No. 120 ‘Recommendations’” to OC 10 CIB 14 November 1916
[7] Supplement to the London Gazette No. 29898 9 January 1917 pg. 465
[8] Supplement to the London Gazette No. 30234, 14 August 1917 pg. 8392
[9] War Diary Entry, 46th Battalion, 22 August 1917

Monday, 7 November 2016

Attempt and Adjustment

“The splendid work of your Battalions is worthy of the highest praise, and will add greatly to the prestige and morale of our troops in further operations.”-Maj. Gen. D Watson, O.C.
4th Canadian Division, 11 November, 1916

Last week’s article was a good opportunity for an open dialogue on how well the Battle of the Somme fulfilled its purpose; notwithstanding differing views of what that purpose may have been or whether any purpose existed at all.  It was altogether the exact kind of dialogue I hope to create with my work- to encourage thoughtful discourse and allowing the lessons that the past can give us to be continually applied in the present. So, to all of you who participated in furthering that discussion, thank you.  I return this week with an example to support my thesis that the benefit of adapting technique to situation was certainly a positive outcome from the fighting on the Somme.

Regina Trench had become the proving ground for the 4th Canadian Division.  As October gave way to November, most of this line had been taken, consolidated and held.  Only its eastern-most edge remained out of reach.  The last attempt made at it on the 25th October by the 44th Battalion had been repulsed with heavy losses.  An inability to secure this portion left the extent of Regina Trench in Canadian hands vulnerable to a flanking attack.  Despite the losses and setback the 44th had suffered, this ground had to be taken for the risk of losing what had already been gained was too great.

“The operation,” on the 25th, “failed owing to insufficiency of artillery barrage.  The Battalion suffered heavily.”[1]  It was evident that better artillery preparation was required, and with that, better coordination between the artillery and infantry.  Also, it was re-assessed as to how best to deploy the infantry units in a subsequent assault.  Plans for the next attempt would include three battalions instead of one.  Trebling the number of battalions to attack the same width of frontage the 44th had attempted gave the attack a depth in waves- each battalion putting two companies in the advance, with each company attacking “on a platoon frontage in 4 waves.”[2]  It would be an incredibly dense attack.  Planning assigned specific tasks to these waves.  While the first wave was primarily responsible for gaining lodgement of Regina Trench, following platoons would act as a mopping up force, clearing any resistance while the leading platoons worked to make the ground defensible.  Other waves would pass through the taken ground to establish posts and blocking positions.  Once that had been achieved, an entire company which had been held back from the assault (‘D’ Company, 46th Battalion) would go forward and work to connect the right edge of Regina Trench to an existing Allied line.  Orders as to intent were clear- “All Posts and Blocks will be maintained and held at all costs.”[3]

The difficulty with artillery barrages at this stage of the war was that any increase in intensity would signal the enemy that an attack was imminent. This would prompt a counter barrage on jumping-off points and assembly trenches which sometimes was sufficient to halt an advance.  A conceivable option would be to forego a heavy covering barrage, though this was risky in itself.  Without the barrage to keep the enemy pinned, attacking waves would be at the mercy of enemy rifle and machine gun fire.

A prescient solution was attempted in the attack of 10/11 November 1916.  Zero-hour was midnight, and under cover of darkness, the attacking waves crept forward, 150 yards ahead of the front line trench.  By the time the initial barrage hit the German trenches, and the enemy had sent their SOS signal rockets up, replying artillery struck empty ground.  As it was “the enemy’s reply to the barrage was feeble in the extreme.”[4]  While the Canadian barrage pasted the German line, the attackers were to “get as close as possible to REGINA TRENCH where they will lie down and wait for the first life (upon which) the assault will be delivered.”[5]  It was a daring strategy, and at nine minutes after Zero, the barrage shifted, adding 150 yards to its range and the leading platoons fell upon the enemy trench.  Later reports, taken from prisoners’ statements was that the attack had “come as a surprise.”[6]

“This time, all went well,” says Nicholson in his Official History, “the Canadians were able to move well inside the enemy’s counter-barrage, and aided by a full moon and a clear sky quickly reached and stormed their objective.”[7]  Colonel Nicholson is being a bit generous, as the attack didn’t go without some difficulty.  The 19th Canadian Infantry Brigade recorded “On the right,” where the 46th Battalion was attacking, “when the barrage lifted it was not concentrated over a sufficiently narrow area to allow of the attacking party entering the objective. They therefore waited for the next lift.  The trench was then assaulted.  Parties of the enemy put up a strong resistance but were mopped up and many others who retired hurriedly towards PYS…were killed by rifle fire and by the barrage.”[8]

The 47th Battalion had come under enfilading machine gun fire and took quite a few casualties, including most of the officers who had gone forward. Counterattacks were few, mostly falling upon the 102nd Battalion, and were dispersed with little difficulty.  The 46th’s outpost positions fell under the protective barrage, causing them to be re-sited closer to the captured trenches, but not before some had been wounded by friendly shellfire.

Through a quick process of attempt and adjustment the Canadians had gained this long sought goal.
  Having been contested over the preceding months so much that the trenches were “found to be much damaged and was so bad that it was difficult to recognize.”[9] Overall, this new ground was a “disappointment as regards construction and dugouts.  It was knee deep in mud and the dugouts had only just been commenced.”[10] Efforts at consolidation meant having to almost start the trench anew.

Poorly maintained trenches was one indicator of how the campaign had succeeded.  The battle “had forced the Germans out of their strongly fortified first and second line of trenches, and out of much of their third line, inflicting enormous casualties upon them.”[11]  This pressure was beginning to tell in the degradation of fighting quality of the German defenders.  In September, the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions had been rebuffed by fresh regiments from Marine divisions.  These troops had defended stubbornly and counter-attacked efficiently.  By the time the 102nd, 47th and 46th Battalions of 4th Canadian Division gained possession of crumbling, shallow works, the Marines had long since been moved off the line, replaced by the 58th Division which had only been at the Somme a short while, having fought earlier in the year at Verdun, in the butcher’s yard of Fort Douaumont.  Their tenacity was considerably less.  Intelligence reports on prisoners stating “they one and all repeated what had almost become a formula ‘We are fed up and tired of the war.’”[12]

In the grinding, gradual fashion of an attritional fight, measurable progress was being made, although the process had taken far too long for this progress to be definitively exploited.

[1] War Diary Entry, 44th Battalion, 26th October, 1916
[2] 46th Battalion Operations Order No. 28, 10 November 1916
[3] 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade Operations Order No. 22, 10 November 1916
[4] 4th Canadian Division “Report on Operations on Night of 10/11 November 19916”
[5] 46th Battalion Operations Order No. 28, 10 November 1916
[6] 4th Canadian Division, ibid.
[7] Nicholson, GW, Col. “Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War” Queen’s Printer, Ottawa 1962 pg. 192
[8] 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade, “Report on Operations 10/11 November”
[9] 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade, ibid,
[10] 4th Canadian Division, ibid.
[11] Gilbert,  Martin, “The Battle of the Somme: The Heroism and Horror of War” McClelland & Stewart, 2006 pg. 257
[12] 4th Canadian Division, ibid.