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, 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.

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