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, 27 February 2017

Then Bedlam Broke

The completed plans showed that the operation was
a minor attack rather than a retaliatory raid.”
- Capt. K. Beattie, 48th Highlanders of Canada pg. 206

With slow and deliberate movements, and using the shadows of a dark night to shroud them, the small raiding party wormed through the double apron of wire to a stone’s throw distance from the enemy trench.  Of course, it wasn’t stones they threw, but grenades, leaping down into the front line only moments after the synchronous detonation.  No one was here, so the raiders spread out, one group quickly encountering a burly sergeant trying to raise the alarm.  In a blink, the fellow was set upon, roughed up and clubbed senseless.  His mates had been quick to act, and the trench was now becoming a hot place to be.  Dragging their inert prize with them, the bold raiders slipped back into the murky night.

“Then occurred,” a historian would later write, “the incident which transformed all kind thoughts…into a deep desire for revenge….In a swift surprise raid about 4a.m. February 25th, Sgt. J.E. King of No. I Company was captured by the Germans.”[1]  King, only just twenty years of age, who had earned his stripes and an MM at the Somme would spend the remainder of the war as a “guest of the Kaiser.”  It may have been over for him, but his mates in the 15th (48th Highlanders) Battalion weren’t willing to let such audacity go unanswered.  Their front-line neighbours, the 14th (Royal Montreal Regiment) Bn. had been similarly visited, having two of their number made prisoner as well as a handful of other casualties.

Their Brigade was quick to issue a directive.  “The Germans have raided the front line of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade successfully no two occasions.  In order to retaliate for these, to inflict loss on the enemy and capture prisoners it has been decided to carry out the following raids-”[2]  Brigade had put forward the notion of three separate raids, undertaken on consecutive days, through circumstances would prevent all but the first from execution.

A major reason for this was the start of what was to be this sequence of raids by the 14th and 15th Battalions was delayed by a postponement of twenty-four hours due to an operation by the 4th Canadian Division scheduled for the morning of 1st March.  Much larger in scale and requiring support of resources which would then be unavailable to the 1st Division, 4 Can Div’s effort took precedence.  It was more of a probe of the enemy defences than a raid; it involved a gas attack prior to a strong assault on German front line trenches by infantry from the 11th and 12th Canadian Infantry Brigades advancing “on a front of about 2,000 yards, with a strength of about 1 man every 2 yards formed in a wave, followed by strong patrols with demolition materials.”[3]

Actions proposed by the 3rd Brigade were miniscule in comparison, but there certainly was more personal motivation than anything of tactical significance.  They had been taken off guard, “so plans were laid, ambitious ones this time, to even the score.”[4]  It was to be a front line smash only- a quick job of no more than fifteen minutes on site.  With the 4th Division’s task successfully out of the way, this pocket operation was then set for 2 a.m. the following morning, March 2nd.  Ample support had been laid on with artillery, trench mortars and heavy machine guns firing in concert to cover the advance.  On the left, the 14th’s raiding parties- three officers and 77 men- were able to get within forty yards of the barrage cracking down on the German line.  When it lifted to concentrate on support trenches there was only that distance to bound to gain entry.  Lt. Beagly and his No. 3 Party provided flank protection with a pair of Lewis guns laid perpendicular to the trench while Lt.’s McRae and Pitcher led their men in.[5]  Working in opposite directions from each other, Parties 1 & 2 had immediate contact with an enemy intent on repelling them. 

At the head of his squad, Corporal Price was shot dead, his assailant quickly captured by Lt. McRae.  Further ahead, “a stiff fight took place with bombs….A group of about seven was stationed here, four were left dead and the remainder escaped.”[6]  Another prisoner was taken at a dugout which was subsequently destroyed when the remaining occupants refused to surrender.  There were two more dugouts found.  One being more of a shallow scrape was treated with bombs.  The other, a substantial construction, yielded another prisoner.  Before any more Germans could be persuaded to give themselves up, the return signal- Strombos air horns blasting from the Canadian lines- was heard.  Lt. McRae ordered charges to be set to destroy this dugout before they left.

Lt. Pitcher and his men had several short scraps, taking four prisoners.  “Nothing further of the enemy was encountered,” as the men reached the extent of their advance, when, “two Germans were met, one of these a stretcher bearer, with a large red cross on his sleeve.  He pointed a revolver at our men and cried ‘hands up’ in English.  Both were disposed of by a bomb and rifle shot.”(Report)  It was here another dugout was discovered which was also destroyed by a mobile charge when entreaties to come up were rebuffed.  On the way out, “one other German was found skulking at the bottom of the trench…he was brought along.”[7]

On the right, the Highlanders weren’t able to keep as close to the barrage, and had a slightly greater
distance to cover on the artillery lift.  It was easily covered in a rush as “Hun lights were jumping up in frightened succession everywhere, the crash of our barrage added its fitful glare and at once there was no more use for caution.”[8] 

Trench raids, by nature of the close quarters had more in common with a street fight between rival gangs than a battle of armies.  The men of the 15th Bn. had outfitted themselves accordingly, “they had the usual raid equipment- rifles, Mills, wire-cutters, cog-wheels on entrenching tool handles to be used as persuaders, and various private inventions….These were anything from captured German fist-daggers to policemen’s billies.  They were a fearsome and determined crew.”[9]

Both officers leading parties, Lt.’s Neily and Reeves, were wounded during entry, Neily quite seriously.  However, both continued to direct their men, displaying courage and gallantry deserving of a Military Cross each.[10]  With only a quarter hour to press their revenge, “the two parties worked…blocked communications, and whether the enemy liked it or not were in complete charge of his front-line.”[11]  Dugouts encountered were subject to the same treatment doled out by the 14th Bn., “many trapped Germans were killed when they did not come up to submit to capture when ordered.”[12]

Time was up, the recall signal sent; and either it wasn’t heard, or it was ignored during the grim act of vengeance.  History is unclear, except that the Highlanders were several minutes behind schedule at their rally point, 3rd Brigade making note that the 15th Battalion “had a very stiff fight during the whole period it was raiding.”[13] What was telling in this was that both officers had been wounded, along with fourteen other ranks.  Three O.R.’s had been killed outright, two more would later die of their wounds.  Of the 14th, the sole casualty was the death of Cpl. Price, for a bag of nine prisoners.  The 15th took three.

Exhilarated by the experience, the returned men were mustered out of the front line, but not everyone was accounted for.  A party of stretcher bearers, carrying the bodies of two 15th men killed on the raid “lost their way and did not reach our lines until nearly 4 a.m.  They had placed the two bodies in a shell hole and repeated attempts were made later to locate them, but without success.”[14]  Both Cpl. D. MacDonald and Pte. H.R. Foden, 48th Highlanders of Canada, are named on the Vimy Monument to the Missing.

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

Now available from Amazon sites worldwide.

Some praise received for "Killing is a Sin":

“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] Beattie, Kim “48th Highlanders of Canada 1891-1928”, Toronto, 1932 pg. 204
[2] 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade Operations Order No. 130, 27 February 1917
[3] 4th Canadian Division “Report on Operations with Gas on Night of February 28th/March 1st” War Diary, March 1917 Appendix ‘A’
[4] Beattie, Kim, ibid. pg. 205
[5] 14th (Royal Montreal Regiment) Bn. “Report on Minor Operations March 1st-2nd 1917” War Diary, March 1917 Appendecies
[6] 14th (Royal Montreal Regiment) Bn. ibid.
[7] ibid.
[8] Beattie, Kim, ibid. pg. 206
[9] ibid.
[10] Supplement to the London Gazette, No. 30023, 17 April 1917 pg.3689
[11] Beattie, Kim, ibid. pg. 207
[12] ibid.
[13] 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade, War Diary, 2nd March 1917
[14] Beattie, Kim, ibid. pg. 208

Monday, 20 February 2017

Our Men Were Out to Kill

“A sharp fight ensued and a large number of
casualties were caused to the Bosche”-
Major R E Partridge, Bde. Major,
12th Canadian Infantry Brigade[1]  

Shortly after sunrise on the 19th of February, 1917, a small raiding party from the 78th (Winnipeg Grenadiers) Battalion stormed the enemy’s front line trench directly opposite the battalion’s position. 
Eighty men under four officers had been divided into four groups tasked to either block off and isolate the raid area or to seek out mine shafts and dugouts for destruction.  The enemy would be taken prisoner whenever possible.  Regardless of completion, the raid was not to spend more than ten minutes in the German line.  The war diary notes that many dugouts were bombed, one of which “apparently being a loaded mine shaft as resulting explosion was much greater than that would be caused by a mobile charge.”[2] This resulted in a crater eighty feet in diameter and twenty-five feet deep, the displaced earth burying Sergeant Lloyd beyond recovery.  Three prisoners were quickly hustled back to Canadian lines, the brief raid forming up to be a great success despite the loss of Sgt. Lloyd.

Upon the signal to withdraw, the party being led by Lieutenant Wilfred Derbyshire, exfiltrating via a sap leading to a feature known as “Kennedy Crater” “met stubborn resistance from a body of HUNS.”[3]  Lt. Derbyshire’s men had no choice but to fight their way through, most of the party becoming casualties in the scrap.  “In this engagement, the work of Lieut. Derbyshire, Pte. Fulton and Pte. H A Andrew was particularly meritorious.”[4]  All three returned to No man’s Land in an attempt to fetch back the wounded left on the field.  In this they succeeded- none who could be saved were left behind, although in the effort, Fulton himself was severely wounded and Andrew killed*.

This brief, but intense encounter at Kennedy Crater resulted in the majority of the casualties sustained by the entire raid, a total of nine killed and fifteen wounded.  It was sufficient to get the Grenadier’s blood up.  Such that, when the 38th (Ottawa) Battalion, in trenches to the right of the 78th, proposed a similar raid, the Winnipeg Grenadiers decided to have a go directly against Kennedy Crater.  The war diary conceals nothing of what this attempt was to be: “Arrangements being made to launch a second attack on KENNEDY CRATER and endeavor to avenge the losses of the previous raid and to obtain the bodies of the men who had fallen.”[5]

Orders called for the 38th “To enter (the enemy’s) trenches at dusk in five or six parties totalling about 90 officers and other ranks, clear his trenches and return after remaining for ten minutes.”[6]  In this, the Ottawa Battalion’s raid was decidedly similar to that of the 78th’s prior enterprise.  Smashing through the German front lines in such a way might prove distraction enough for the Winnipeg effort- a much smaller force, less than thirty men, whose sole purpose would be to cut off all access to the crater and the sap which led from it back to German trenches.  Ostensibly, the instructions indicated they were to “capture the sentry post,”[7] however, no such intention remained among men who had been so roughly handled by the same enemy troops in the days before:  “Our men were out to kill BOSCHE.”

Timing set for dusk with the advantage of a damp, misty day was expected to help conceal the approach to German lines.  Despite this, the men of the 38th “were quite visible to the enemy directly they emerged…all are of the opinion that the enemy was thoroughly prepared for the Raids.”[8]

No-man’s Land was heavily broken and churned; the difficult ground facing the 38th delaying their advance.  In the centre of the five parties, No.’s  2 and 3 “immediately encountered heavy fire from three Machine guns…and rifle fire from a party of between 25-30 Huns.”  Preliminary work by the artillery had not been effective here.  Lieutenant Ketcheson, O.C. No. 2 Party was slightly wounded but carried on forward.  Trying to move ahead, even at a crawl was proving difficult.  Lt. Ketcheson and his counterpart with No. 3 Party, Lt. Stott “decided to rush the objective.  Lieut. Ketcheson was again wounded, this time severely; several other casualties occurring.”  Parties 2 and 3 reached a point five yards from the enemy trench, where “an active bombing fight ensued, resulting in a considerable number of enemy casualties.”  During the exchange of grenades, Lt. Stott and some of his men gained lodgement in the enemy trench which “at point of entry was almost waist deep in mud and water.”[9]  Before much else could be done, time had lapsed and the men were required to withdraw.

The other parties of the 38th also met determined resistance, but all managed to breach the German line in hard fights punctuated by liberal use of grenades and mobile charges. Two men, Pte.’s Labelle and Lalonde of No.’s 4 and 5 Parties , respectively, would be decorated for picking up enemy bombs which had landed nearby and throwing them back- in both cases killing several Germans.

At the end of the ten minutes allotted, all involved returned to their rally points, having accounted for “thirty-three dead Huns…six dugouts were bombed, estimated that the enemy sustained at least forty other casualties,”[10] in exchange for four killed and 27 wounded.

Meanwhile, the retaliatory effort of the 78th Battalion against Kennedy Crater was in full swing.  The main body, Party ‘B’ of twenty men under Lt. Symonds, divided into three squads upon entering the front line trench.  “One squad, after considerable opposition, established a block,” at the point of entry, “another blocked FLT to the South,” the remaining squad, exactly as detailed beforehand, proceeded north along the trench towards the sap out to Kennedy Crater.  Here, again “a sharp fight ensued and a large number of casualties were caused to the Bosche.”[11]  Some enemy troops attempted to gain refuge in two dugouts.  Both were demolished with mobile charges.

Major Thornton and seven other men making up Party ‘A’ were holding the crater for Party ‘B’ to withdraw through.  They had also employed two mobile charges with great effect.  Everything had gone to tick, “the rear covering party were forced to bomb the F.L. Trench continuously to cover the withdrawal.”[12]  At the expense of eight men wounded “Not serious”[13] the Grenadiers had reaped a revenge of almost fifty enemy casualties.  Most importantly, “one of the bodies of the Battn’s casualties in the previous raid…was brought back.”[14]  It would remain, unfortunately that only three of the nine dead of the 19th February were recovered.  The remaining six are named on the Vimy Memorial to the Missing.[15]

The raid, for its violent purpose, “could not have gone better and a great number of the enemy were killed.”[16]

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

Now available from Amazon sites worldwide.

Some praise received for "Killing is a Sin":

“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] Partridge, RE, Maj. “Report on Raid Carried Out by 12 Canadian Infantry Brigade on 22 February” 4th Can. Div. War Diary Feb. 1917 App. “J”
[2] 78th (Winnipeg Grenadiers) Battalion War Diary, 19 February 1917
[3] 78th Battalion, ibid.
[4] ibid.
[5] 78th Battalion, War Diary, 21 February 1917
[6] 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade Operations Order No. 51
[7] 78th Battalion Operations Order No. 51
[8] Partridge, RE, Maj. “Report on Raid Carried Out by 12 Canadian Infantry Brigade on 22 February” 4th Can. Div. War Diary Feb. 1917 App. “J”
[9] All quotes from Partridge, RE, ibid.
[10] 38th (Ottawa) Battalion, War Diary, 22 February 1917
[11] All quotes from Partridge, RE, ibid.
[12]  ibid.
[13] 78th Battalion, War Diary, 22 February 1917
[14] Partridge, RE, ibid.
[15] CWGC.org
[16] Partridge, RE, ibid.

* Lt. Derbyshire would receive the Military Cross for his actions, Pte Fulton the Military Medal. Pte Andrew, not eligible for a posthumous decoration would be, instead, “Mentioned in Sir Douglas Haig’s Despatches of 9.4.17 for ‘Distinguished and Gallant Service and devotion to duty in the field.”(Supplement to the London Gazette No. 30107)

Monday, 13 February 2017

Hard Fighting Took Place

“No plan of operations extends with any certainty
 beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.”
-Field Marshall H.K.B. Graf von Moltke (1800-1891)
Chief of the German General Staff (1871-1888)[1]

It all nearly went to Hell in the first five minutes.  “Beyond enemy front line, Lieut. Swinton was killed, and Lieut.’s Henderson and Rix were wounded, together with several of the NCO’s in charge of sections.  This caused temporary disorganisation.”[2] A delay, even a faltering step, could easily become the loose thread which would unravel the entire raid.  It was a precisely timed operation with very little margin for error.

This complex scheme, the brainchild of Lt Col. Rhys Davies, O.C. 44th (New Brunswick) Battalion required the intricate cooperation of infantry from four separate battalions of the 4th Canadian Division’s 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade, engineers, the artillery and a handful of other supports.  Everything, from Colonel Davies’ proposal and orders to all the arrangement, organisation and execution had taken place within five days.  Therefore, the potential for error was a great deal larger than the thin margin allowed for.

Davies’ raid was more ambitious in scope an size than the Calonne Raid mounted by the 2nd Canadian Division the month before, while being carried out with much less time to prepare.  As a practical exercise, this raid had potential.  Involving companies of different battalions, integrating engineers and coordinating a complex artillery fire plan would provide valuable experience in developing and preparing large scale combined operations.   All of this would be contingent on the raid’s success.  A failure would only provide the example not to be followed.

“With reference to the Operation to be carried out by 10th Brigade,” wrote the brigade’s commander, Brigadier General Hilliam in a memorandum to brigade officers, “I ask you to acquaint all Officers, NCO’s and men of your Commands that this will be one of the biggest raids yet carried out….Do not allow the minutest detail to be neglected.”  Brigadier Hilliam encouraged his battalion commanders to think in more collective terms- appealing to them that any honour to be gained would be shared amongst all units of the brigade and that “all ranks must work for the success of the operation as a whole.”  The Brigadier was astutely laying the groundwork for inter-unit cooperation at a higher level which would be essential to the success of future operations. In closing, he enjoined his troops to “Kill, destroy and capture what you cannot kill.”[3]

This aggressive suggestion wasn’t proving too hard to fulfill, even as early on as the first ten minutes, right about the time that the company from the 50th Battalion lost half its officers in the blink of an eye.

Companies from the 50th and 44th Battalions were in the van of the raid, rushing through a gap blown in the wire by a special team of sappers and pioneers, bypassing the enemy front line trench while keeping pace with the artillery’s rolling barrage.  Follow-up companies, men of the 46th and 47th Battalions would secure the front line and provide flanking protection through successive trench line, allowing the leading companies to advance directly to the final objective- the Quarry nestled in the rear-most German trenches.  The raid’s intention overall was “for the purpose of destroying enemy works and emplacements in the trench system”[4] and it was believed the Quarry held a minenwerfer battery.  All four companies had attached sappers and pioneers with mobile charges to deal with any hard construction.  A generous amount of No. 27 Mk I white phosphorous grenades- “P” Bombs- had also been issued.
But here, on the raid’s left flank, with most of the 50th Battalion’s leadership gone at a stroke, the Quarry may not even be reached.  The artillery’s barrage was programmed to lift in stages during the advance; but it was also arranged to come back on itself to cover the withdrawal.  Timing was down to the minute and no adjustment was possible.  In the meantime, the party from the 46th Battalion providing cover for the 50th was “met with very heavy resistance…on extreme left of raid frontage, where a number of dugouts forming a small Strong Point were located.”[5]  Deep trenches-some as much as twelve feet- and crowded dugouts made for liberal use of the “P” Bombs; the blooming acrid smoke of phosphorous and resultant fires fueled by the trenches’ woodwork only added to the confusion.

“Great credit is due to Lieut. Murphy of 46th Battalion,” the after action report reveals, “who, seeing the situation pushed forward and rallied the 50th Battalion left parties in a most gallant manner, sending them forward.”[6] Lt. Murphy, a 23 year old former Royal Military College student from Nova Scotia would be given the Military Cross for his dash.  It no doubt saved the raid from potential collapse, though in the process of this courageous act, Murphy caught a piece of steel, badly fracturing his left arm, a wound which would end his short military career.  

Sufficiently checked, however, the 50th carried on, Lt. Morgan taking his party to the Quarry and with his attached sappers “several dugouts were located and mobile charges placed with good effect.”  In the meantime, the party from the 46th were holding a flank more heavily defended by the Germans than expected.  Their job was to keep the enemy pinned while the Quarry was being raided, and in so doing, keep the route of withdrawal open.  “Very few prisoners were taken here, all of the enemy offering stout resistance.”[7]

On the right flank, where the 44th and 47th Battalions mirrored the efforts of the 50th and 46th, the operation was going more smoothly. Lt. Tinkess, in charge of the 44th’s raiding party had been killed, but control was maintained by Lt. Baker, whose “great gallantry and initiative” took his men to “the extreme end of the task allotted.”[8]  As with Lt. Murphy, Lt. Baker was awarded the Military Cross.

No minenwefers were found during the raid, though Lt. Baker’s party of the 44th found six rounds for the weapon.  Of the 53 prisoners taken (all belonging to the 11th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment) some were found to be crewmen for minenwerfer.  It’s possible the weapons may have been destroyed by artillery; a large ammunition dump in the Quarry had been hit, or by the demolition of dugouts, some 41 in total throughout the raid area[9] where they may have been stored.

Notwithstanding, the raid which had been conceived and executed on such short notice, was considered a resounding success.  Canadian casualties amounted to 8 killed, 130 wounded and 15 missing.  These were understandable losses for what was gained.  “The German lines were penetrated to a depth of 700 yds., all parties returning in good order.”[10] An inflexible timetable had been kept, the artillery barrage considered “perfect.”[11]  Besides the dugouts wrecked and prisoners taken, sappers blew seven mine shafts and the raid accounted for nearly 200 German casualties.[12]

What’s more is that Lt Col. Davies’ quick-fire notion could be looked to as a positive example of a combined-unit task; but that it turned out so was entirely reliant on the will and courage of the men who carried on through potential disaster.

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

Now available from Amazon sites worldwide.

Some praise received for "Killing is a Sin":

“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] "On Strategy" (1871), as translated in Moltke on the Art of War: Selected Writings (1993) by Daniel J. Hughes and Harry Bell, p. 92
[2] 4th Canadian Division War Diary, February 1917 Appendix “E”
[3] Quotes from Hilliam, W., BGen “Message from G.O.C. 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade” 09 February 1917
[4] 10th Canadian Infantry Brigade “Operations Order No. 100” War Diary February 1917, Appendecies
[5] 4th Canadian Division War Diary, February 1917, Appendix “E”
[6] 4th Canadian Division War Diary, February 1917, Appendix “E1”
[7] 4th Canadian Division War Diary, February 1917, Appendix “E”
[8] Supplement to the London Gazette No. 30023 17 April 1917 pg. 3689
[9] 44th Battalion War Diary, 13 February 1917
[10] 44th Battalion War Diary, ibid.
[11] 47th Battalion War Diary, 13 February 1917
[12] 44th Battalion War Diary, 13 February 1917