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, 24 April 2017

Hot Courage

“Have reached black objective, in touch on right with
16th Bn. Am consolidating Black objective, awaiting
message from left.”-Maj. WJ Gander, O.C. ‘C’ Coy,
18th (Western Ontario) Battalion

By the time Major Gander had scratched the short note and sent it to Battalion H.Q., the three forward companies of the 18th (Western Ontario) Battalion (4th Canadian Infantry Brigade, 2nd Canadian Division) had held their portion of the Black Line for little more than half an hour.  The first main objective line in the battle for Vimy Ridge was mostly in Canadian hands, which would allow the advance to the subsequent reporting lines to continue as planned.  “At 6.05 a.m.,” the 18th Battalion War Diary records, “the Black Objective had been captured….The casualties up to this point had been very slight, considering the magnitude of the operations.”[1]  One of these casualties was Major Charles Gwyn, struck dead by machine gun fire just short of reaching the objective.  Major Gwyn had been the officer commanding the 18th Bn.’s attack, the vacancy now being filled by Major Gander.

Despite the loss of Major Gwyn, “one of the most…popular and efficient officers”[2] of the Battalion, the attack had maintained good order and momentum, taking the Black Line without loss of unit cohesion.  Most critically, for their part and for the battalions shortly to pass through them to assault the Red Line, they had gained their objective on time.

A battle on such a broad front incorporating a dynamic topography as Vimy Ridge was reliant on precise synchronicity, and time is an entirely fickle variable.  Attacking units were to advance behind a creeping barrage which had been arranged to the minute.  This fire plan could not be changed or adjusted on a whim.  Four Divisions had to reach each objective line nearly simultaneously or they would risk creating a gap of several hundred yards which a German counter-attack would be certain to exploit.

That the 18th Battalion was where they were; where they were supposed to be, when they were supposed to be there was owed entirely to one man and his quick response to the conditions encountered on the advance.

“Very little opposition was met with whilst capturing the first line of trenches.”[3]  Reports such as that from the 18th Battalion were fairly common.  The German Front Line had become untenable.  Pounded ceaselessly with high explosive and shrapnel, what was once a formidable obstacle had been ground down to a loose collection of shallow ditches which were passed by in the first few minutes of battle.  The troops were held up more by the fractured ground than by any hostile defenders.  “The ground was very broken up by shellfire and the going was very heavy owing to rain and snow.”[4] An
undesirable side effect of this, particularly in 2nd Division’s operational area was that all of the eight tanks seconded to the Division for the operation would ditch or be otherwise disabled before reaching the Black Line, due “to the extremely bad state of the ground.”[5]

While it seemed to be fortuitous for the assault to breeze through the forward lines, their vacancy was deliberate.  German tacticians had begun to realise the futility of a rigidly defended front line.  No matter how strong a position might be, a determined and consistent attack always had the potential of breaching it.  In addition, the pattern of softening up these trenches with overwhelming artillery fire prior to an attack did nothing for a heavy forward garrison than put men at risk for no conceivable gain.

No, the enemy was well disposed to let the attack “walk over” the now pulverised front line system.  The broken ground between the Canadian line and where the attack would be repulsed- the Main Line of Resistance; the Black Objective- would serve to slow progress and disperse tight formations as ways over or around shell damage were sought.  Plus, it was the ideal place to conceal machine gun teams with instructions to ravage the attack as much as possible before retiring to the MLR.  This tactic- colloquially known as “Elastic Defense”- had been created with the objective of draining strength and concentration from an attack so that when, much reduced and spent, it crashed against the main line it would be checked and then rolled up with units especially trained for counterattacks.  That was the ideal notion, anyway, and in early 1917 it was still a work in progress.

Nevertheless, three companies of the 18th Battalion, advancing abreast in platoon waves were through what little was left of the German front line in five minutes, and well on their way to crossing the support line in the same fashion.

‘C’ Company, Major Gander’s company, was the centre of the battalion’s advance, and just shy of the support line, where, among a knot of shallow trenches and communications lines, a solitary machine gun ripped into action, “doing considerable damage.”[6]  ‘C’ Company was checked, and if they were stalled for long, ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies on either side would have a hole between them and no way to fill it; precisely as this style of defense was designed to work.

Moments such as these; relatively small episodes of crisis, have the potential to overturn the outcome of the larger event of which they are part.  No amount of training can adequately prepare for these furious blinks of time, and none can predict how they might respond.  “Personality type,” says Professor Patrick Tissington, a psychologist who has studied such instances, “is not a good generic predictor of behaviour like courage.”  Rather, it is an intricate and unquantifiable combination of situational factors and both psychological and physiological responses. “What tends to happen,” Prof. Tissington has found, is that “a particular situation develops where an individual realises that someone has to do something (the individual) knows what that something is (and that they are) the only person who is able to do it.”[7]

I consulted with Professor Tissington because the individual in question on a muddy Monday morning a century ago, stalled with the rest of ‘C’ Company under the barking muzzle of a German machine gun was Lance Sergeant Ellis Wellwood Sifton, whose imprint on history up to this point had been unassuming in the least way.

L/Sgt Sifton, a twenty-five year old farmer from Wallacetown Ontario had sailed out with the 18th Bn. in April 1915, along with the troops who would form the 2nd Canadian Division.  “I am feeling fine,” is how he would close a collection of letters written to his sister, Ella, during the ocean crossing.  All evidence, particularly his service records, point Sifton out as being quite ordinary.  He accrued, in the eleven months between enlisting and arriving in France with his Battalion no mentions of merit, nor any charges; and had not even reported sick.  His promotions- to Corporal just prior to embarking for France and more recently (less than a month prior to Vimy) to Lance Sergeant give the impression of someone at least noticeable enough to be vested with the responsibilities of a Non-commissioned Officer.  Other than that, there is nothing which might lead to predicting what he might do in such a dilemma as faced him and his comrades in that hanging moment.

“Having located the gun, he charged it single-handed, killing all the crew.”[8]  The Battalion diary specifies that Sifton “attacked the Gun crew and bayonetted every man,” a feat, plainly speaking, of quickly stabbing five men to death.  Having gained the position, Sifton continued to hold out against a small enemy party advancing to the aid of the gunners.  He “held them off with bayonet and clubbed rifle until his comrades arrived to end the unequal fight.”[9]

With the German gun silenced, the advance to the Black Line continued unimpeded.  In the space of thirty-five minutes from Zero Hour, the 18th Battalion was on line, consolidating their gains and shoring up with flanking units, as Major Gander’s note stipulated.

Lance Sergeant Sifton was not with them.  One of his adversaries, in his dying throes managed to deliver a parting shot.  “In carrying out this gallant act he was killed, but his conspicuous valour undoubtedly saved many lives and contributed largely to the success of the operation.”[10]  His Victoria Cross would be awarded posthumously.

General Sir Henry Horne, General Officer Commanding First Army sent a congratulatory note to all units involved in the attack, specifically mentioning the Canadian capture of Vimy by saying: “To have carried this position with so little loss testifies to soundness of plan, thoroughness of preparation, dash and determination in execution and devotion to duty on the part of all concerned.”[11] In his last point, General Horne pays unnamed tribute to Lance Sergeant Sifton, and all the other unassuming Canadian boys possessed with hot courage.

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[1] 18th Battalion War Diary 09 April 1917
[2] 18th Battalion, ibid.
[3] ibid.
[4] 2nd Canadian Division War Diary, April 1917, Appendix 702
[5] 2nd Canadian Division, ibid.
[6] 18th Battalion War Diary 09 April 1917
[7] Quotes taken from correspondence between Author and Prof. Patrick Tissington April 2017
[8] Supplement to the London Gazette No. 30122, 08 June 1917, pg. 5704
[9] Nicholson GWL, Col “Canadian Expeditionary Force: Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War” Roger Duhomel, Queen’s Printer Ottawa, 1962 pg. 254
[10] Supplement to the London Gazette No. 30122, ibid.
[11] 2nd Canadian Division War Diary, April 1917, Appendix 704

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