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, 12 December 2016

Improvise and Overcome

“I regret to report that Lieut. Shortt, one Sergeant and one private are missing.”-
Maj. G.H. Cassels, A/OC 58th Battalion, 
11 Dec. 1916

"Trench Raid" oil on wood, by Todd Sullivan 2013
In the early evening of 10 December 1916, a raiding party of forty men, under Lieutenant Allen Shortt “successfully formed up in ‘NO MAN’S LAND’ without the attention of the enemy being attracted.”[1]  These men, selected from the four companies of the 58th (Central Ontario) Battalion had spent the prior three days intensely rehearsing for this scheme.  Organised into six Parties- ‘E’ through ‘J’- the raid was to move under cover of night, and effect entry of the German Front Line Trench at two points.  Their task was brutally simple:

“From information received, there is an enemy bombing and sentry post at the junction of the Front Line and enemy communication trench…and a large enemy dugout at or near the junction which is known to be occupied….A party from the 58th Canadian Infantry Battalion will raid portions of the Front Line Trench…for the purpose of capturing prisoners, obtaining identification and inflicting casualties upon the enemy.”[2]  These orders made it explicit that the known dugout was to be destroyed.  The plan called for Parties ‘E’ through ‘H’ to enter through an existing gap in the wire on the left edge of the raid area, while ‘I’ and ‘J’ would get in via a hole in the wire they were to blow by using a device called an “ammonal tube.”  The ingenious thing about these tubes was that they could be fastened together to create charges of substantial length and had a narrow diameter.  They were just the thing for threading under barbed wire, the high explosives directed upward could clear out
any tangle.  They were sometimes known; and would become more widely known as “BangaloreTorpedoes.”  Dividing the raiding parties into two groups in this way would enable them to take the front line from two directions simultaneously.

At exactly 6.35 pm, the tube was detonated, chewing through the German wire and clearing a path which allowed Parties ‘I’ and ‘J’ to “pass through the wire with freedom.”[3] The explosion also acted as a signal to the other parties to storm the trench, while prearranged artillery and trench mortar fire was dropped onto the German support trenches, isolating the raid area.  Parties ‘E’, ‘G’ and ‘J’ were to move along the trenches to establish blocking positions, ‘F’ would hold the left point of entry- which would also be the sole exit point- while ‘H’ and ‘I’ were to get on with the task at hand; the destruction of the bombing post and dugouts.

As it was- as so often happens in war- things didn’t go to plan.  On the left, there was little trouble and the bulk of the raid stormed the German trench and took up their positions.  An enemy sentry was
shot dead, and a grenade exploding caused some confusion, but the men from ‘E’ through ‘H’ were little phased and went about their task just as it had been rehearsed.  Parties ‘I’ and ‘J’, in the meantime, had indeed cleared out the wire with the ammonal tube, but found the trench they took to be a “blind.”  In this sense, it’s the same as a blind alley; a dead end, not connected to anything.  Worse, the gap between this trench and the line proper was heavily wired.  Going overland to meet the rest of the raid would be tricky.  Even that option was rendered moot as the blind trench was immediately taken under fire by machine guns to the left and right. 

In the actual trench, the raid’s commander, Lt. Shortt, had noted the absence of Parties ‘I’ and ‘J’ which left his right flank exposed.  Lance Corporal Simms, in charge of Party ‘E’- assigned to move and set up a blocking post  on the left edge would later state “At the point of entry we saw three Germans, one of whom I shot.  Mr. Shortt appeared to follow the other two, who went to the right along the front line.”

“I was rear man of L/Cpl Simms’ party,” Private Keel would corroborate, “as I dropped down into the trench, I saw Lieut. Shortt a few yards to the right.  He appeared to be covering our party as he had his revolver drawn and pointing to the right.”  Lt. Shortt, a former student from New York City, married and only just twenty years old, was not seen after that.

“I’m inclined to think,” Major Cassels, in temporary command of the 58th Battalion would write in his report to his superiors at 9 Canadian Infantry Brigade, “that when the right parties did not appear…Lieut. Shortt and possibly the Sergeant moved along the front line to the south with a view to protecting the parties up the communication trenches, and must have been put out of action in that part of the front.”  The sergeant mentioned was Thomas Brazier.  He’d only had his third stripe for a month, a promotion gained from having voluntarily reduced to the ranks in order to transfer from the 19th Battalion to serve with his elder brother George in the 58th.  Both Lt. Shortt and Sgt. Brazier would later be reported as ‘found dead’ through diplomatic channels in January, and their names are listed on the Vimy Memorial as their gravesites are unknown.

Despite the setbacks and the loss of the only officer present, the men carried on with their tasks, or, as with Parties ‘I’ and ‘J’, improvised from the situation as it had developed.  Acting Sergeant Fitton, the ranking man in the blind trench held his men in position and had them bomb the enemy front line from where they were, despite exposure to the machine gun fire.  These bombs managed to effectively silence the MG to their left, and it’s believed a trench mortar struck the emplacement to the right.  Sgt. Fitton withdrew his men after twenty minutes and not having any bombs remaining.

Once the absence of the men of Party ‘I’ was noted, Sergeant Lamb of party ‘H’ took on the job of the absent party as well as that of his own.  He took his men down a sap running off the communication trench.  “This sap was found to slope upwards so that at its end, where a machine gun emplacement was found, its bottom was level with the parapets of the front line.  On entering the sap one of the enemy fired two shots with a revolver at the party and was immediately hit in the face with a Mills Grenade which knocked him down the entrance to a deep dugout.  A five pound package of guncotton was thrown down after him and duly exploded…no doubt wrecking the dugout and causing casualties.” [4]

These incidences were proof that empowering Non-Commissioned men with greater responsibility and more latitude was a wise investment. Both Sergeant Lamb and A/Sgt. Fitton would be awarded the Military Medal for their prescience during the raid.  Sgt. Lamb would be elevated to the rank of Captain, further recognised for gallantry with the Military Cross in August 1918. A/Sgt Fitton, unfortunately would die of wounds in April, 1917.

Also singled out for praise during the night by Major Cassels was Major Dougall Carmichael, who had command of a covering party on the left periphery of the raid.  Not only did he personally take a supply of bombs right over to the enemy Front Line Trench, but after the raiders had returned, he, with L/Cpl Webster “went over to the enemy’s front line and endeavoured to carry out a mortally wounded man…but was unable to lift him out of the trench.  This was a most gallant and fearless act.”  Major Carmichael and L/Cpl Webster had attempted to rescue the third man reported missing, Private Patrick Nigh. He had been struck by the grenade which had been thrown at the raid as they made entry. Shrapnel had hit him in the face and legs, and in the ensuing action he was mistaken for dead and left behind as the raid retired. It was initially believed that his wounds were fatal.  Later patrols to attempt to locate the missing men found no trace of the three.

After some initial confusion, it would be reported that despite the loss of an eye and a seriously wounded right leg, Pte. Nigh was alive: a prisoner in a German military hospital.  He would later be repatriated with other wounded prisoners to England in the spring of 1918.

By December of 1916, the entire Canadian corps was now all together at a little stretch of land in France they would be calling home for the next five months.  Facing them was the grandest topographical feature in the vicinity, occupied by the Germans, intricately fortified over a period of years and denied any attempt at eviction.  Come spring, it would be the Corps' job to do what had, so far, proved well on impossible.  "They were going to go up there, that bloody ridge in the middle distance.  It grew lazily upward from its surrounding until it crested above the landscape; intimidatingly darker than the night sky framing it like a bas relief." It is within these months leading up to and including the famed Canadian capture of Vimy Ridge in which my novel "Killing is a Sin" is set. The book is available through Amazon and by request at major book retailers worldwide.

[1] Cassels, George H., Major, “Report” from 58th Battalion to 9 Canadian Infantry Brigade, 11 December 1916
[2] 58th Canadian Infantry Battalion Operations Order No. 34
[3] Cassels, George H., Major, ibid.
[4] Cassels, George H., Major, ibid.

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