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, 6 March 2017

A Splendid Example of Courage

“First discharge of gas apparently had
no effect on the enemy”
-54th (Kootenay) Bn. War Diary
Vimy Ridge, 1 March 1917

"Beckett- Trench Raid" by MK Barrett (matthewkbarrett.com) used with permission
A quarter hour before six in the morning on the first day of March, 1917, the largest trench raid yet attempted began its final approach on enemy lines from forward positions in No-man’s Land which had been reached under the cover of a protective artillery barrage.  When the shelling lifted to fall upon German supports, 1,660 officers and men of the 4th Canadian Division in a succession of waves along a 2,000 yard frontage took the last leap forward to breach the enemy’s front line trenches.

The raiders had been assured that preparations, which included a voluminous release of poison gas and extensive counter-battery fire would have left the German front a vacant, gaping wound offering little resistance.  In reality, the Canadians found themselves moving towards defences still largely intact and fully manned by an alert garrison determined to repulse this attack.  “Severe casualties were inflicted upon our troops by enemy bombs, rifle and M.G. fire, particularly on the right of our battalion frontage,”[1] the 75th (Mississauga) Battalion would later report.

Barely one quarter of objective lines were reached, most of those on the left edge of the advance; while in many places, no lodgement was gained at all.  Throughout, losses were horrendous, some 41% of attacking troops being killed, wounded or counted as missing.  In a remarkable level of clinical detachment, 4th Canadian Division’s assessment of the operation states that “the results gained were favourable.”[2]

The 4th Division had much to gain by taking such a risk.  Being the last Canadian division to take the field, it lacked much in practical experience, particularly regarding large-scale operations.  This goes a great length to explain that 4 Can. Div. mounted more and larger raids along their front in February than the rest of the Corps combined.  A thorough appraisal of German defensive capabilities was essential to dedicated planning for the upcoming operations to take and hold the Ridge.  Considering that the strongly fortified positions along Hill 145 would be one of the 4th Division’s objectives in that attack, a committed probe against these lines was tactically prudent.

This probe was to take place after two consecutive releases of gas.  A larger one at first was expected to clear enemy trenches; the second was timed in order to catch the Germans as they stood down from the first alert.  Using the surprise this was intended to cause, the infantry would advance rapidly to their objectives behind a swift and abridged artillery barrage.

Such a plan, in some estimations, was woefully lacking.  The 11th Canadian Infantry Brigade had earmarked two of its battalions, the 54th (Kootenay) and 75th (Mississauga) to provide the right wing of the attack; the other half made up of 12 Can. Inf. Bde.’s 72nd and 73rd Bn.’s.  With the attack imminent, the commanders of the 54th and 75th made informal objections to Brigadier General Victor Odlum, G.O.C. 11 Bde.  Regardless that choosing to address the deficits of the operation would put their careers at great risk, Lt. Colonels A.H.G. Kemball, CB, DSO and SG Beckett both petitioned General Odlum for a postponement.

Colonel Kemball had an impressive resume.  A career soldier with three decades of service with the British Indian Army for which he was made a Companion to the Order of Bath (CB), he’d been only a few years into retirement, living in British Columbia, when the Great War began.  His Distinguished Service Order had been awarded for actions at the Somme the previous autumn, personally commanding his battalion in action, setting “a splendid example of courage and leadership throughout.”[3] 

In this instance, however, Kemball “objected strenuously,” to Odlum, “arguing that because of the unpredictable wind, the raid should be postponed and more artillery fire brought to bear on German lines.”[4]

While Colonel Beckett couldn’t boast of such a background as his colleague, Kemball, he was a long serving officer with the pre-war Militia and a highly regarded Toronto architect.  He was “no less concerned….not only was the surprise attack no longer a secret,”[5] he also considered his men not sufficiently trained for the operation as planned.

General Odlum took these misgivings as serious as they were and put these objections in writing and in person to 4th Canadian Division HQ.  They were noted, and dismissed.  The raid would go as scheduled[6]; but it certainly wouldn’t go as planned.

As the men of 11 and 12 Brigades moved to their start points early on 1st March, “the first gas wave was released at 3 a.m.”[7]  Enemy retaliation was “desultory”- machine gun and rifle fire of little effect and shelling of areas to the rear of the assembly points.  11 Brigade didn’t release the second gas wave, owing to a change in wind direction, while 12 Brigade went ahead with their release, regardless.  This mostly came back on friendly lines, creating confusion, if not a few casualties and as such was entirely ineffective against the enemy who had been alerted to an impending attack from the time of the first gas burst.  The preparatory artillery bombardment commenced at 5.40, and it was extremely lacking, as Col. Kemball had predicted.

Assumptions that the gas would clear the enemy garrison and the need to maintain surprise by moving as quickly as was safe to follow after the gas called for a mere seven minute barrage on German front line trenches.  Observers noted that the “barrage was not sufficiently concentrated + caused no slackening of the enemy’s fire.”[8]

Precisely at 5.47, the first waves stepped off.  Along 12 Brigade’s front, the “73rd and 72nd Battalions reached their objectives in most parts,”[9] destroying a number of mineshafts and dugouts as well as inflicting a large amount of casualties and taking 36 prisoners.  Things did not go anywhere near as well for 11 Brigade.

The 54th Battalion’s assault- the far right edge of the Division- went forward in the face of very heavy fire and became stalled by strong wire entanglements the short barrage had done nothing to clear and against which no headway could be made.

Right there with his men, sharing the danger of the exact conditions he had made his protest in regards to, was Col. Kemball.  “He was in the lead of the Company right up to the German wire and had some difficulty in trying to find a gap.  As he was getting through the wire several bombs were thrown in his direction, besides heavy rifle fire and one bomb was seen to hit him on his right side, knocking him into the wire and presumably killing him at once.”[10]

Nothing less could have been expected of Colonel Kemball.  Before his retirement to what was to be a quiet life in British Columbia, Col. Kemball had held command of a regiment of Ghurkhas, the Nepalese tribesmen esteemed then, as now for being fierce, determined and dedicated warriors.  It would have been unthinkable to him, personally, than to be anywhere other than where he was- particularly if the thought the operation was dangerously flawed.

The 75th Battalion fared little better.  Almost immediately as the advance had begun, the officer commanding the raid, Major James Langstaff, who was also the battalion’s deputy C.O. was killed.  “Considerable opposition was offered, particularly in the right of the battalion frontage,” where the enemy were able to prevent lodgement with “heavy fire of all kinds.”  Losses were severe, “and the survivors, having lost all their officers, commenced to withdraw.”  While the battalion’s left made a deep, and costly penetration of German lines, the situation on the right was exactly what Colonel Beckett, now observing from forward lines, had voiced his concerns about.  With loss of leadership and cohesion threatening the collapse of the assault, Col. Beckett “at once mounted the parapet, which was swept with heavy fire, and advancing boldly, endeavoured by his example and command to check the retirement.”  He was killed, instantly, not more than forty yards from Canadian lines.[11]

The sticking points raised by Col.’s Kemball and Beckett would prove to be the very items listed in post assessments as factors contributing to the areas of least success.  It is a sad matter of historical kismet that these exact items- the ineffectiveness of gas and lack of surprise[12]- were directly involved in the deaths of both these officers, and the shattering losses to their battalions.

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

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[1] 75th (Mississauga) Battalion, War Diary, 1 March 1917
[2] 4th Canadian Division, War Diary, March 1917, Appendix “A”
[3] Supplement to the London Gazette No. 29898, 10 January 1917 pg. 454
[4] Cook, Tim, “Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918”, Penguin Canada 2008 pp 64-5
[5] Cook, Tim, ibid. pg. 65
[6] ibid.
[7] 75th Battalion War Diary “Summary of Events and Information” 1 March 1917
[8] 54th (Kootenay) Battalion, War Diary, 1 March 1917
[9] 4th Canadian Division, War Diary, March 1917, Appendix “A”
[10] Quotation from Official Report Re. Death of Lt Col. AHG Kemball taken from “Names on a Cenotaph: Kootenay Lake Men in World War I” by Sylvia Crooks, 2014
[11] 75th Battalion War Diary, “Circumstances of Death- Lieut. Cl. SG Beckett” 1 March 1917
[12] 4th Canadian Division, War Diary, March 1917, Appendix “A”

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