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.

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[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

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