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, 9 January 2017

The Rest of the Night Passed Quietly

“At about 6.25 p.m. a party of 25 to 30 Germans
were observed at a point about 30 yds. From head
of Sap B.5”- Intelligence Summary No. 14, 12 Canadian Infantry Brigade, 
08 January, 1917

It was the first full moon of the New Year.  Corporal Worthington and his Lewis gun crew were standing sentry at ‘King Street’; a portion of front line trench currently the responsibility of ‘D’ Company, 73rd (Royal Highlanders of Canada) Battalion.  From this point, they had a good view of ‘Surprise Crater”, which lay halfway between friendly and enemy lines, and Sap ‘B.5’, a shallow ditch meandering from the Canadian front line trench to the crater.  Currently, no one was posted at ‘Surprise Crater’- which would have been an ideal spot to get eyes on the enemy works.  Worthington’s section were then the furthest forward elements in their Battalion’s patch.

Damp cold and fatigue were more present adversaries than the Germans.  Long, dark winter nights, coupled with the strain of daily efforts at surviving and nowhere near enough sleep could play funny with the mind.  This was why the fleeting figures out in No-man’s Land required a second glance to assure their existence.  No mirage, this- it was indeed a large body of enemy troops making for Canadian lines; not more than two dozen yards distant- a raid!

Worthington tapped his gunner, pointed out the grey ghosts.  “Open up!”

The past few days had been dull, heavy with showery clouds limiting visibility along the front.  This close weather had earlier on scrubbed the only grand plans for the day along 4th Canadian Division’s front; which was now the North-west edge of the Canadian Corps position opposite Vimy Ridge.  “It was proposed,” for January 07, “to have a bombardment of the enemy trench system….subject to proper weather conditions, but had to be postponed owing to the mist which prevailed during most of the morning.”[1]

As it was, the day passed for what could be called “normal”.  Overall, there was the usual exchange of artillery and trench mortar fire, much more harassing than deliberately destructive as would have been the cancelled bombardment.

The opening months of 1917, according to Canada’s Official History of the war, “was for the Canadian Corps a period free from major operations- a time to be used in recuperation, training and strengthening defences….A pattern of limited hostilities that was to continue in general throughout the winter was soon established…a periodic exchange of mortar fire, extensive patrolling, and occasional trench raids.”[2]  About the only item of note during this time was that the Germans were using a larger than usual number of flares at night.

From this quiet night, the rip of fire from Worthington’s Lewis at King Street put the front line on high alert.  On of ‘D’ Company’s subalterns, Lieutenant Joseph Griffiths “who was near hurried to the spot and took charge of the situation.”[3]  Griffiths had farmed before the war, not yet thirty he had settled in Canada from his home in Wales.  In this pacific life he’d led, he’d not had any prior experience in the military.  Griffiths had volunteered as a private soldier in December 1914, within the war’s first few months.  The young man seemed to gel quite well with the army, accelerating through the ranks and finally being granted a commission before being sent to join the 73rd Battalion in the field in September, 1916.

Corporal Worthington’s quick action had scattered the German raid back to their lines.  Shortly after, though, they had re-formed and a second attempt “approached nearer and threw bombs in Sap B.5 but was again driven back leaving several wounded or dead.”[4]  A third approach was likewise scattered “and a fourth time a few come out and attempted to gather up their casualties.  They were, however, fired upon and had to retire.”[5]

Determined though the enemy was, the handful of men under Lt Griffiths and Cpl Worthington were enough to prevent the German raiders from making their objective.  The only casualty was Lt Griffiths, and his wound was slight enough for him to remain forward.

Their work wasn’t quite done.  Once it became apparent that the Germans had given up the idea of coming over, Lt Griffiths organised a small patrol- himself and two privates, Webb and Greenhalgh- to move out from Sap B.5 into the dead ground in an attempt to secure identification from the bodies left behind.  The patrol moved cautiously, as the evening shower of flares had begun, being constantly sent aloft from the German lines.  From the extent that Webb and Greenhalgh managed to reach they spotted at least two German bodies some 15 yards distant, being watched by a sentry from the cover of a shell-hole.  “They think,” records the day’s Intelligence Summary, “they recognised the sound of shovels being used behind sentry.”[6] 

Two days later, the 4th Division Diary relates that the “news was confirmed by the 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade that the enemy had apparently succeeded in getting his wounded, left out as a result of his attempted raid on evening January 7th.  The nature of the ground prevented our parties from the 12th seeing anything of the wounded….it is presumed the enemy were able to sap out and reach their wounded.”[7]

Both Cpl Worthington and Lt Griffiths were singled out by their Battalion CO for their conduct.  They had “displayed greatest coolness and bravery and it was entirely due to the acts of this Officer and NCO that the raid was not a success.”[8]

“The remainder of the night passed quietly.”[9]

In the hundred days between New Year’s and the start of the Spring Offensives, the Canadian Corps did just as the Official History describes.  They trained and prepared, each unit becoming intimately familiar with the ground to their front- as it was destined to be the same ground they would cover in the coming attack.  This work built up to a crescendo on the 1st of March when the entire 4th Division made a large scale raid of the German lines.

“Promptly at 5.40,” that morning, “our barrage opened up and our attacking parties got over the parapet and went forward.”[10] Overall results were promising.  “A large enemy bomb dump was blown up and part of his F.L.T. was systematically destroyed.  Several Machine Guns were destroyed and approximately 22 dugouts were bombed….A large number of the enemy were killed.”[11]

“Officers and men without exception fought magnificently.”[12] During the raid, Lt Griffiths, who was leading a patrol consisting of a platoon from ‘D’ Company was taken from the field, dangerously wounded.  He was passed back through the lines to Casualty Clearing Station No. 6 where early the next day he succumbed to his injuries.  “Word was received that Lieut. Griffiths had died of his wounds, and arrangements were made for representatives of the Battalion to attend his funeral on the 3rd.”

Coincidentally, also on the third of March, as Lt Griffiths was being laid down, that day’s Supplement to the London Gazette contained the following citation:

Which announced his awarding of the Military Cross for his brave work in January; an award he didn’t live long enough to receive.  His medals and Memorial Cross were forwarded to his parents, Mr. & Mrs. W’m Griffiths in Wrexham, North Wales.

Some praise I’ve received for my premier novel 
“Killing is a Sin” which is set in the winter/spring of 1917:

“Really enjoyed the book, well done.” 

“Damn, I think I spilled chili on a rare first edition; I'm enjoying it, couldn't stop reading during dinner.”

“I was fortunate enough to see this in manuscript. Good stuff. If you're interested in WWI Fiction give it a look.”


[1] 4th Canadian Division War Diary, 07 January 1917
[2] Nicholson, GW, Col. “Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War” Queen’s Printer, Ottawa 1962 pg. 233
[3] 73rd (RHC) Battalion, War Diary 07 January 1917
[4] 73rd (RHC) Battalion, War Diary, ibid.
[5] ibid.
[6] 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade Intelligence Summary No. 14, 08 January 1917
[7] 4th Canadian Division War Diary, 09 January 1917
[8] 73rd (RHC) Battalion, War Diary 07 January 1917
[9] 73rd (RHC) Battalion, War Diary, ibid.
[10] 73rd (RHC) Battalion, War Diary 01 March 1917
[11] 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade War Diary 01 March 1917
[12] 73rd (RHC) Battalion, War Diary, ibid.

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