tour just ended has been characterised by considerable Enemy artillery activity”
War Diary 12 Canadian Infantry Brigade19 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.
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 47thBattalion 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.
Holland was present with his unit at Vimy, Culbert had been wounded in
February; and it is at this point where I began.
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.” 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
He was indeed
wounded in February. His file states “GSW
(Gun Shot Wound) Rt. Thigh, slight”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.”
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’.”
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
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).” 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.”
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.
and Hunt were interred in a group plot at a place called Sumach Cemetery. 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.”
“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-
while ‘D’ Company moved up and worked to extend the captured trench back to
existing Canadian lines.
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.
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
“it was not concentrated over a sufficiently narrow area to allow of the
attacking party of entering the objective.” Jumping off right then put the men to risk of
falling under their own barrage; while waiting a further five minutes
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
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.”
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.”
Lt. Lowe would be awarded the Military Cross for his efforts.
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.” Like Lt. Dewar, Copp would not return to
action after recovering.
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.” 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
10th Canadian Infantry Brigade Operations
Order No. 22 10 November 1916
“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.
Canadian Division, 11 November, 1916
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.
on the 25th, “failed owing to insufficiency of artillery
barrage. The Battalion suffered
heavily.” 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.” 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.”
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.
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.” 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.” 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.”
“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.” 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.”
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
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.”
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.”
Efforts at consolidation meant having to almost start the trench anew.
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.” 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 4thCanadian 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.’”
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