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, 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.

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[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

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