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, 16 January 2017

A Most Successful Enterprise



“The 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade will raid the enemy system
of trenches….To effect casualties, make prisoners, and wreck
all dugouts…in the area attacked”- Operations Order No. 85
4 Cdn. Inf. Bde., 10 January 1917

Shortly before five o’clock in the morning of 17 January 1917, telephones rattled in the headquarters of the 20th and 21st Battalions, the canned voice on the other end at Brigade HQ breathing just two words: “Lloyd George.”  The message had nothing to do with the British PM, except that use of his name was the go-code for the largest trench raid yet to be mounted by Canadian troops.














Two companies, No’s 1 and 2 from the 20th (Central Ontario) Battalion and three, ‘B’, ‘C’, and ‘D’ companies of the 21st (Eastern Ontario) Battalion now moved from rest positions at Bully-Grenay to their jumping-off points opposite their objectives.  In three hours from the call, just after full light, the artillery barrage would commence and nearly 900 officers and men would advance along an 800 yard front in three waves.  They were to hit the enemy front line, hold it, penetrate the secondary line, fulfill their objectives and then withdraw, all within sixty minutes of Zero Hour.  Throughout, the raid would be protected by a barrage of medium and heavy artillery precisely timed to adjust fire as the operation proceeded.

What would become known as the “Calonne Raid” “constituted a record up to that time for a raid of its magnitude and result.”[1]  Nothing could be left to chance with such an ambitious raid.  Both the planning and preparation had to be meticulous.  Raids were not only to deal a quick shocking strike against the enemy, they had become a means to gain practical experience which would benefit future operations. 

Prior to the raid, constant patrolling and aerial observation had made a thorough survey of the target area.  These patrols had discovered that “the enemy frontage for a depth of 300 yards is held during the day by sentries and detached posts.  The garrison of this area being in deep dugouts and cellars.”[2]   Also determined were the locations of machine gun emplacements.  It was clear that the Germans didn’t need a heavily occupied front line.  Machine guns were mounted at the apices of a portion of Front Line Trench which bowed inward.  Structured this way, the trench presented a concave line to the attacker; designed to draw assaulting troops in and across an expanse which could be covered by enfilading fire from the two ends.  Essentially, the two machine guns would be sufficient to stall an attack while the garrison, situated in the second line could be made ready to go in for a counterattack.  Here was a perfect example of “Elastic Defence” in action.  In order to overcome this, the raid would have to hit quick, hard and with absolute precision.

Once assigned to the raid, the five participating companies “had been relieved of all duties for ten days and in that time built practice trenches of the Enemy lines to an exact scale.”[3]  Troops spent their time becoming intimately with the layout as they would specifically encounter on the raid, and “for the last few days practised the assault with every detail as set out in orders.”  Such intense rehearsal was becoming more usual than exceptional, and in the case of the Calonne Raid “these companies advanced…under cover of an excellent smoke and artillery barrage (and) entered the enemy front line with a rush that carried before it all opposition.”[4]

Major G.S.S. Bowerbank DSO MC
In fact, the Germans showed “A noticeable tendency to ingratiate against little show of opposition.  Except in cases of dugouts when bombs were thrown out until overcome.”[5]  This was the personal experience of Major George Scott Stanton Bowerbank, O.C. ‘B; Company, 21st Battalion who was present at the epicentre of the raid.  Major Bowerbank would be awarded the Military Cross for his leadership during this operation.[6]  He was no professional soldier; a slight and slender myopic accountant, Major Bowerbank epitomised the typical Canadian officer.  Born of Essex, England, he had his professional credentials, but very little military experience besides Militia service before the war where he had been the accountant for the Sarnia, Ontario branch of the Canadian Bank of Commerce.  When put to the test in battle, however- and like so many of his colleagues- he excelled.

‘B’ Company had a little difficulty from the get-go in passing through their own wire.  “Gaps were not frequent which caused a tendency to bear to the left.”  Initially, this prevented his men from remaining in touch with those of ‘D’ Company on their right (under the command of Captain Brokelbank, also an accountant), but once through the wire the “waves kept well apart and advanced under cover of our barrage in well-appointed formation.”[7]  The enemy wire, on the other hand was “completely smashed and offering no obstacle whatever,” allowing the first wave to gain the Front Line Trench rapidly.  “A small amount of opposition was met but quickly overcome, the second wave going on as arranged towards the final objective.”[8]

It hadn’t been a clean rush, though.  Despite little resistance from enemy infantry, the raid suffered quite a number of casualties from artillery fire.  It is undetermined whether this artillery which concentrated on the enemy Front Line Trench was German retaliatory fire or shelling from Canadian guns which had failed to lift their fire an adequate distance.

“My company,” Major Bowerbank would later report “suffered casualties by a burst amongst a Lewis gun grew, wounding three and completely smashing the gun.”  The Major’s officer in command of ‘D’ Company’s second wave, Captain Goudy was struck down by a shot  to the chest, but the men knew their task so well they were able to carry on after Goudy had been moved back for treatment (he would survive this wound and later return to the front).

‘D’ Company alone captured “not less than thirty” prisoners, a machine gun and also “a considerable volume of letters, booklets, etc.”[9] Major Bowerbank could also report that the trenches were in good condition, generally ten feet deep with sloping sides with dry ground at the base, indication of careful workmanship and efficient drainage.  “Several dugouts were effectively smashed, especially in one case by the use of a prepared Stokes shell, killing all the occupants.”

It was all in the bag by nine o’clock.  The Calonne Raid “did serious damage to the enemy works and exploded an ammunition dump.”  Approximately twelve dugouts were destroyed, and it was estimated one hundred Germans had been killed.[10]  Additionally “during operation this morning we captured 1 Officer, 75 Other Ranks unwounded and 5 O.R. wounded, 2 Machine Guns, and 1 Trench Mortar.”[11] 

The cost had been 46 killed and 125 wounded, or twenty percent casualties.  However, Major Bowerbank whose company lost twenty-five percent of its strength was confident that those wounded were “chiefly of a slight nature.”[12]  Despite the loss, it was a resounding triumph, securing valuable intelligence, dealing a softening blow to the enemy and providing crucial experience and opportunities to absorb lessons and improve technique.  “All plans and arrangements for this operation carried through so well that all ranks concerned feel that it was a brilliant success.”[13]   


The rush of raids, the tension of late night patrols, a great Canadian battle and men on the razor's edge between life and death are all part of my acclaimed premier novel “Killing is a Sin” 
Now available from Amazon sites worldwide.

Some praise received for "Killing is a Sin":

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[1] Canadian Bank of Commerce, “Letters from the Front: Being a record of the Part Played by Officers of the Bank in the Great War 1914-1919”
[2] Operations Order No. 73, 21st (Eastern Ontario) Battalion, CEF
[3] Barber, Percy L., Lieut. “21st Cdn. Battalion Report on Operations of 17 January 1917”
[4] Lt. P.L. Barber, ibid.
[5] Bowerbank, G.S.S., Major, “Narrative of Raid 7-1-17”
[6] Supplement to the London Gazette No. 29981, pg. 2480 12 March 1917
[7] Maj. G.S.S. Bowerbank DSO MC ibid.
[8] ibid.
[9] ibid.
[10] Lt. P.L. Barber, ibid.
[11] 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade, War Diary Entry 17 January 1917
[12] Maj. G.S.S. Bowerbank DSO MC ibid.
[13] Lt. P.L. Barber, ibid.

3 comments:

  1. Well done article. Thanks so much for sharing and taking the time to reflect on our Canadian military history.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Eric. And again thanks to you for perpetuating my work through re-tweets, etc. Lets me know I'm putting out good content.

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  2. My grandfather was wounded at this event.

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