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, 30 January 2017

No Resistance of Any Account

“After several nights spent in reconnaissance it was
finally established that a mine-head and work of an
important nature was being carried on by the enemy”
-Report on Raid Carried out by the 46th Battalion
29 January, 1917

The enemy was up to something.  From as early on as the fifth of January, nightly patrols were returning with reports of heavy work and daylight observation had spotted the Germans emptying sandbags over their parapet; notably several containing chalky soil.

10th Canadian Infantry Brigade HQ was rightly concerned about these goings-on.  If the Germans were pushing a mine, the results could be disastrous. The Brigade’s positions were the extreme left edge of the entire Canadian Corps.  A large enough mine vaporising front line trenches would allow a follow-up infantry assault to hook into and “roll up” an exposed flank from the top end of the Corps all the way down.  It would be, if nothing could be done, a catastrophe of the highest order. Whatever was happening needed to be found out and dealt with.

Weather interfered.  Several days mid-month of accumulating snow fall made patrolling at night substantially more risky.  The sound of boots crunching in fresh powder were to blame for at least one patrol getting “bumped.”  War Diaries and Intelligence Reports  throughout the middle days of January repeat the same lament- that owing to the snow, patrols were unable to advance very far into No-man’s Land.

All the while, what reports 10 Brigade was getting from its battalions in the line were of timber being thumped, heavy items being dragged on tramways and sharp beats of metal on metal; steel being hammered or otherwise manipulated.

At last, on 24 January, a patrol from the 50th (Calgary) Battalion pinpointed the location of the mine-head.  “Work has apparently been going on for some time as well-worn trail visible.”[1]  With a solid map reference to hand, a direct strike could be made.  Planning became the responsibility of the 46th (South Saskatchewan) Battalion, who took over front line positions from the 50th the same day.[2]

It just may have been fortuitous.  The Officer Commanding was the extensively experienced Lt Colonel HJ Dawson; who before the war had been an Associate Professor at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario.  To lead this operation, he had at his disposal Lieutenant Reginald Percy Cattell, arguably one of the most veteran junior officers of the 4th Canadian Division..  It was he who had led one of the Division’s first patrols in enemy territory when it had become active the previous summer.  Between that point and this, Lt. Cattell had continually made proof of his ability, particularly in the scraps at Regina Trench.

This raid would be a small affair, very much unlike the multiple-company Calonne Raid of two weeks prior.  A definite target-the suspected mine shaft- required only enough men to penetrate and hold the German line for a quarter hour in order to “blow up (the) Shaft and to obtain identification.”[3]  Lt. Cattell had just five days to work his 34 man raid into shape, and to incorporate the two Sappers from 10 Field Company, Canadian Engineers who would be coming along to assess the enemy mine and set the demolition charge.  Artillery was laid on to supress the German front line at Zero Hour, shifting after three minutes to a “box barrage”, heavily shelling the periphery of the raid’s area to cut it off from the rest of the local trench network.

Lt. Cattell took the lead, precisely at two minutes past eight on the evening of the 29th, advancing into No-man’s Land while the artillery was still blasting the German lines.  Hoping to close the distance as much as possible before the guns lifted, the raid would spring into the trench before the enemy could recover.  “Slight wire obstacles were encountered,” in front of the entry point, “but were surmounted with little trouble.  The German front line was reached at 8.06 p.m.”[4]

Organised beforehand into three sections, one the trench was reached, they split off.  No. II Party went left, to proceed forty yards and establish a block, No. III Party cut to the right with the same intention, with No. I following behind.  “At the junction where the German front line follows the edge of Craters, and another leads to the rear, the parties separated.”[5]

No. III Party advanced “a considerable distance…no enemy being encountered and further advance rendered impossible by the barrage.”[6]  They found the trench in poor condition, not being well built and in place just a screen of sandbags four feet high with no parados behind, often without the protective pattern of traverse. These “trenches” would not be easy ground for the enemy to hold, the sub-standard construction pointing towards an illusion of a front-line rather than a stalwart defensive position.

The other blocking party, No. II, found the same shocking lapse in German workmanship.  “The party felt they could have penetrated the line for a considerable distance without difficulty.”[7] They hadn’t gone too far, less than ten yards from where they had entered before they came across the first German dugout.  “Standing on the stairs with his rifle pointed in our direction a German was encountered.  Before he had time to fire, a Mills bomb was thrown at him, and he fell back into his dugout.  Several more bombs were thrown into the same and the party moved on.”[8]  Two more dugouts were similarly dealt with as No. II Party moved further down the trench.

With their flanks held by Parties No. II and III, Lt. Cattell’s main body could get to work.  “The party taking the mine shaft met opposition about 10 yards past (the) junction.”  Three Germans had come across the party.  Shocked at being overwhelmingly outnumbered they “threw bombs at our men, then ran for all they were worth” in the opposite direction.  “Proceeding on, the men ran across the suspected mine shaft.  This had about 40 steps leading directly down.”  A candle was alight about halfway down, and the raiders could see movement and hear voices from below. A Mills bomb was quickly tossed in, its explosion extinguishing the candle and eliciting cries and groans.[9]

Just as quickly, the two attached Sappers went to work, laying out twenty-five pounds of guncotton- a potent explosive made up of cotton fibres which had been exposed to sulphuric and nitric acid.  Also known as nitrocellulose, it was used as a blasting agent and a propellant for artillery and other munitions.  Twenty-five pounds of the stuff was more than sufficient to collapse this shaft.  

With the fuse set, Lt. Cattell gave two long blasts on his whistle, the signal to retire, and all three parties scarpered for friendly lines.

The sortie was a mixed success.  No identifications were obtained despite there being German bodies in the open; but the main goal of destroying the shaft had been accomplished with the addition of three enemy dugouts destroyed, causing a presumed large number of enemy casualties for the cost of five men wounded, all but one being slight.  

Scout Sergeant Samuel Deane had taken a slug through his abdomen, creating a wound described as the size of a shilling (nearly 1” in diameter).  Despite this, Sgt. Deane stayed upright and on mission.  “His example of bravery inspired his party to carry out their task,”[10] Col. Dawson would later write, citing the sergeant for a Military Medal.  Deane was awarded his medal while recovering in England.  Nine months would pass before he would be fit to return to the Battalion in France.

Lt Col. Dawson would also single out Lt. Cattell for his “Example of fearlessness and fine leadership” for which the Lieutenant would receive the Military Cross.

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[1] 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade, Intelligence Report, 24 January 1917
[2] 46th Canadian Infantry Battalion War Diary, 24 January 1917
[3] Dawson, HJ, Lt Col. “Operations Order No. 43” 46 Bn. War Diary Appendix X, 29 January 1917
[4] Cattell, RP, Lt. “Intelligence re Raiding Party” 46 Bn. War Diary Appendix XII, 29 January 1917
[5] Cattell, RP, Lt. ibid.
[6] Reid, R. Capt. (Brigade Major) “Report on Raid Carried Out by the 46th Battalion” 10th CIB War Diary, Appendices, 29 January 1917
[7] Reid, R. Capt. Ibid.
[8] Cattell, RP, Lt. ibid.
[9] Quotes from: Cattell, RP, Lt. “Intelligence re Raiding Party” 46 Bn. War Diary Appendix XII, 29 January 1917
[10] Dawson, HJ, Lt Col. “Memorandum to O.C. 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade” 46 B. War Diary Appendix XIII, 30 January 1917

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