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, 20 March 2017

Such a Bloody War

“During the fog on the morning of the 2nd, our
parties clearing NO MAN’S LAND went up close to the
 German wire on our front line without being molested.”-
4th Canadian Division War Diary,
March 1917, Appendix A-4

“The men went very well,” reads the final paragraph of the 4th Canadian Division’s report on the 1st March raid, “rallying more than once under their officers, under a very heavy fire from rifles and machine guns.”[1]  Admiration of spirit could be of little comfort to those who had faced, and been shattered by, that very heavy fire.  In all, it had been a costly affair of no tactical, and only marginal practical gain.  Lessons to be learned from the raid were to be found in its deficiencies rather than what little had been achieved.  A casualty rate of 42%[i] among the attacking troops was appalling, even by the standards of such a bloody war.

Objectively, the number of officers and men participating was roughly equal to the full strength of two battalions.  Which means that the vast majority of 4th Division’s fighting strength did not take part.  It can be reasonably deduced that the actions of 1st March 1917 created a loss for the Division as a whole of between 7-9%.  Such rational accounting, however, makes no difference at all to those who “without exception fought magnificently”[2] in an operation as ultimately purposeless as the raid turned out to be.

The majority of those casualties would be reconciled by reinforcements prior to the Corps’ operation against Vimy Ridge in April.  Available numbers is just one item, and certainly does nothing to relieve irreplaceable losses of intangible qualities- chief among these being experienced leadership.

Two hundred men had been killed, a further ninety-nine were missing, and the abortive nature of the raid necessitated leaving the majority of the bodies where they had fallen.  With all else which had gone wrong, the notion of the dead remaining on the field could not be borne.  “At night,” on the 2nd, “parties of scouts and volunteers brought in several bodies from No-Man’s Land.”[3]  This was dangerous work.  The men participating in such tasks along the raid’s frontage were at great risk of joining the comrades they were endeavouring to recover.

On the morning of 3rd March, the 87th (Canadian Grenadier Guards) Battalion, which had taken over the front line from the gutted 54th (Kootenay) Bn. spotted movement in No-man’s Land from the direction of the German trenches.  “About 8 A.M. a German Major, O.C. German front line, bearing a Red Cross flag, came over their trenches.”  Calling for his Canadian counterpart to come out and meet him, the German officer “offered an armistice for a few hours in order to give opportunity of collecting the bodies of those killed.”[4]

The German Major, who spoke impeccable English, passed on his sentiments that those who had died in such a heroic fashion “must not be left upon the field.”[5]  “His object in offering the armistice was that there might be fewer missing men and that those at home might gain some consolation from the fact of their relatives having a Christian burial.”[6]

With the armistice agreed to and in place until noon, German stretcher bearers carried the bodies to the mid-point of No-man’s Land, where Canadian troops took over to bring their mates the rest of the way.  A second armistice was set for the following day, but both sides couldn’t make agreement on terms or guarantees of safety in enough time, and thus was cancelled.  Things went back to whatever passed for normal between trench lines.

Under the 3rd March armistice, the 54th Bn. records recovering 43 bodies.  The following evening, after the failure to agree on a second respite, a party under Lieutenant Joseph T. Smeeton buried “several bodies in No-man’s Land under cover of darkness.”[7]  Similar armistices had been offered to the 75th (Mississauga) Battalion during which there were forty dead and eight wounded recovered.[8]

Despite all of these efforts, of the nearly three hundred killed in action among the 11th and 12th Brigades on 1st March, almost half-133- are listed on the Vimy Memorial for having no known grave.  Somewhere in this was Private John Christopher Bose.  Pte. Bose, a 26 year old rancher from Ashcroft, British Columbia had reported to the 54th Battalion just before Christmas 1916 with a “draft of 145 O.R.,” which had “arrived as reinforcements from the 172nd Battalion.”[9]  After a hard autumn at the Somme, Pte. Bose and his fellow replacements were sorely needed.  He found himself among familiar company, writing to his sister at Christmas that he had joined the same battalion as Harry Wikstrom, Pete Duncan, “Crazy Joe,” Pete Boyle and Sam & Pete MacDonald, all fellows known to Bose and his sister from back home.[10]

Pte. John Christopher Bose
Pte. Bose’s grand-nephew contacted me after reading my last post (A Splendid Example ofCourage).  His great-uncle, a soldier in the 4th Division had been killed on the 1st of March 1917.  Could it be, he asked, that his relative was part of this raid?  Since no casualties for this battalion on March 1st occurred beyond the extent of the raid and that Pte. Bose remains among the 49 men of the 54th Bn. listed on the Vimy Memorial, the answer is that he most certainly was.

As he is listed on the Memorial, Pte. Bose was either one who was not recovered in the days following, or that if he was, he was not able to be identified.  This is a terribly inconclusive, but yet all too common end for those who died in WWI.  It can be said of Pte. Bose, though, that when he met his end, he was with his mates, sharing in their danger- and there is scant praise higher than a soldier can have.

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[1] 4th Canadian Division, War Diary, March 1917 Appendix A
[2] 73rd Battalion War Diary, 1 March, 1917
[3] 54th Battalion War Diary, 2 March, 1917
[4] 87th Battalion War Diary, 3 March, 1917
[5] Personal letter written by Lt. D. McQuarie quoted in: “Names on a Cenotaph: Kootenay Lake Men in World War I” by Sylvia Crooks, 2014
[6] 87th Battalion War Diary, ibid.
[7] 54th Battalion War Diary, 3 March, 1917
[8] 75th Battalion War Diary 3 March, 1917
[9] 54th Battalion War Diary, 16 December, 1916
[10] Personal letter written by Pte. J.C. Bose, 25 December 1916- Provided by family

[i] Of 1,669 Officers and Other Ranks from the 54th, 75th, 72nd and 73rd Battalions, 200 were killed, 397 wounded and 99 counted as missing. Total casualties among attacking troops is therefore 696. (696/1669= .417)

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