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.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Bluffing with an Open Hand

Just to the south of the village of Avion there is
a colliery called Fosse 4, with…a large and ugly slag
heap…a veritable nest of machine guns and trench mortars.”
-Capt. E.P.S. Allen, Adjutant, 116th (Ontario County) Bn[1].

Early in the morning of the 23rd of July 1917, two outposts, each of platoon size (35-40 men) were hastily consolidating ground beyond the German front line positions which had been wrested from the enemy in a bitter and close-quarters fight.  The outposts were the remnants of the battalion sized raid that had smashed through the defensive garrison, destroyed dug-outs and heavy weapons emplacements, captured more than fifty prisoners, including an officer and senior NCO and then withdrawn back to Canadian lines.  Primarily, these remaining men were to provide a rear guard for the main body of the raid, and had been placed on either flank of the raid’s operational boundary.  Ideally, consolidating parties starting from Canadian trenches were to reach the outposts via freshly dug communications lines, thus incorporating the posts into the existing defensive network.

This, the leaving of small units behind on raided ground, was a potentially dangerous idea. It was seemingly borne from a directive which had come down from the Commander-in-Chief himself.  To keep pressure on the enemy, Haig had ordered that “all ground must be held, by rifle and bayonet alone if no assistance is available from other arms.”[2]

“Pressuring the enemy” was of prime concern to Haig, particularly as it applied to the planning of the major offensive which would become known as the Third Battle of Ypres, set to begin at month’s end.  Part of the difficulty in gathering forces and materiel for a large battle in trench warfare was concealing any build up from enemy observation.  To that extent, it became necessary to mount diversionary efforts.

Their purpose was two-fold.  First was to keep the enemy uncertain as to whether or not any attack was part of the main effort, the second was to place these diversions against objectives which the enemy would be compelled to re-take, thus keeping units local to a feint attack tied down and thereby incapable of being moved to support the areas under which the principle offensive would fall.  Underscoring this was the desire to reduce German capability writ large by inflicting as many casualties as possible; the element of attrition which accompanied any offensive strategy in the war.

These men here, the two platoons, one each from ‘B’ and ‘C’ Companies, 116th (Ontario County) Battalion, were in actual fact the tail end of a minor operation that was a diversion of a diversion.  As part of Haig’s plan to obstruct the Germans in their ability to determine time and place of the main offensive, First Army had ordered the Canadian Corps to take the town of Lens.  Lens was perhaps more of a prestigious objective than a tactical one.  The liberation of an occupied French town would certainly be a boon to public opinion and could be a demonstration that real, measurable progress was being made.

There were, however, a number of valid concerns about this.  Lens was particularly low-lying and flanked, north and south by two hills which had excellent fields of observation.  The plan of attack, which would have manifested as a frontal assault on the town with no contingency to reduce German positions on the surrounding high ground.  Between Canadian trenches and the town, the terrain was vastly unsuitable to the quick movement of artillery guns forward in support of the infantry holding their objectives.  Moreover, any point where the artillery could be positioned would leave the guns and their crews overwhelmingly exposed on open ground.

Fortunately, a decision and the highest levels of the Canadian war effort had recently placed an astute, if not militarily professional, officer in command of the Canadian Corps.  The Corps’ first commander, the well regarded General Julian Byng, had been promoted and into his place stepped Arthur Currie.  Currie’s appointment in itself was innovative, as it was based upon merit rather than strict adherence to seniority or political connections.  It was also preferable that the Corps had a Canadian born commander, even if his staff would still mostly be British professionals.

Lieutenant General Currie, foremost, brought a level of discerning exactitude to his command.  “I’m not clever enough to guess at this game,” he would admit, “I have to set everything down and figure it out.  It’s harder work than being brilliant—but safer.”[3]

In the question of the proposed diversionary attack on Lens, Currie revealed his calculated prudence at a first Army conference on 10th July.  He was able to persuade his superiors of the folly in this attack and that the Corps’ objective should be to take the high feature to the north of the town, “a treeless expanse of chalk downland…which…dominated Lens and gave a commanding view of the Douai plain beyond.”[4]

It was known, simply, at “Hill 70.”  “Possession of the hill, giving observation far into the German lines, would be so intolerable to the enemy that he would be compelled to attempt to retake it.”[5]  Of real concern was that Hill 70 was an obvious target and recent operations in the area further indicated that it was being considered as an immediate objective.

Currie proposed his attack begin on 30 July, one day prior to the start of the Ypres campaign.  Weather would intervene and force the delay of the Canadian attack to mid-August.

This placed the Corps in the position of having to obfuscate the enemy of their intentions of an operation which was in itself meant to be an obfuscation.  With that to mind, the 116th Battalion had been given the task of raiding enemy positions around Fosse 4, the colliery on the outskirts of Avion, well south of Lens and Hill 70.

The nature of the outposts remaining in captured German lines as a rearguard and, ostensibly, part of a deepened line met the criteria of Haig’s directive to hold taken ground.  Had the raid been mandated the usual “smash and grab”, the positions raided would have been re-occupied by the enemy and an opportunity to both make the Germans believe that Fosse 4 was an objective of a larger attack and reduce enemy strength by repulsing counter-attacks would have been lost.  Sensibly, orders indicated that the outposts “be held in the event of (the enemy) not endeavouring to re-occupy his trenches in force.”[6]  Should a large counter-attack develop, the posts were instructed to engage in a fighting withdrawal towards friendly lines. 

A large counter-attack was all but certain.  The German defensive doctrine was that “Immediate
counterattacks would be mounted against any lost position.  Should these fail, a deliberate counterattack (der Gegenangriff) using the designated counterattack units would be mounted.”[7]  This was to be as well organised and prepared as the situation allowed, and be carried out as an offensive operation with the use of preparatory artillery and a dedicated advance on lost ground by large numbers of fresh troops.

Dangerously, the two platoon-sized outposts were positioned on the flanks in such a way to better observe enemy movement, but were spaced too far apart to be mutually supportive.  Further, they were sited on what had been the raid’s final objective, a railway embankment “about 300 yards behind the German front line and running parallel to it,” which was “scarcely less than 24 feet in height.”[8]  These outposts were, then, exposed, extended and isolated.  With conditions such as these, disaster loomed.

From the beginning, before the raid had even set off, a thread of possible catastrophe ran through the operation.  The night prior, as the men of ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ Companies shook out into assembly positions, the Germans commenced a gas attack. 

Both sides had been making liberal use of gas, most of the Canadian chemical weapons being directed at Lens.  Fortunately for the 116th, this gas was lachrymatory (tear gas) rather than poisonous.  Tear gas is still terrifically unpleasant, but not deadly, at least.  Initially, the gas seemed to be taking the desired effect as the troops assembling were thrown into confusion, some platoons becoming lost or separated from each other in the fog.  “For about 30 minutes, the situation was critical, and fraught with the greatest difficulties.”[9]   Succinctly, if the men did not advance at the appointed time (Z-Hour was 1.00 a.m. 23 July) they would be left to the mercy of the German counter barrage which the scheduled artillery fire meant to provide cover for the attack would certainly instigate.   

“Providentially, the gas became gradually dissipated, the Battalion rallied and the Officers and men moved into their assembly positions….All the details had been carefully planned and were carried out according to orders.”[10]  The men had trained and rehearsed for this raid in the days prior to coming into the line.  One such practice had been reviewed by brigade and divisional staff who were reportedly satisfied with the level of preparedness demonstrated.  This would prove to be a deciding factor in the overall success of the raid.

“At ZERO hour the barrage opened and ‘A’ Company took their first objective on schedule time, without much opposition.”[11]  The objective was the German front line—code named “METAL Trench.”  This the prefacing bombardment had roughly handled.  German casualties were numerous, and those left unscathed were more prone to give themselves up than offer resistance.  With Metal Trench taken and held by ‘A’ Company, ‘B’ and ‘C’ Companies passed through, moving on to the final objective; the Railway Embankment.

Resistance along this line was more determined and the position “was only carried after vigorous and sustained hand-to-hand fighting.”[12]  As planned, the raid destroyed several dugouts with mobile charges and set the outposts on the flanks, the main body then withdrawing.  
It was twenty-five minutes to two.

For three hours, the situation remained strangely quiet, and it was just before daybreak that two platoons from ‘D’ Company were sent forward to relieve the men at the outposts.  Perhaps that was what the Germans had been waiting for as “the enemy counter-attacked in force at 4.45 a.m.”[13]  The counter attack had been preceded by an intense artillery barrage which managed to make fatal casualties of all four officers, Lieutenants Lennox, Neil, Weber and Lick, in charge of the outpost positions and their reliefs.

“Our outposts put up the ‘S.O.S.’ and the artillery promptly responded, but the enemy had got inside of our barrage and attacked in large numbers on both flanks.”[14]  With the outposts imperilled and without any officers remaining, Captain Ritchie, O.C. ‘D’ Company in reserve along the Canadian front line sent a party under Sgt. Houston to gain contact with the outposts and to provide assistance in the fighting withdrawal.  It was a critical and tense handful of minutes while these men of the 116th fought—at very close quarters—to remove themselves from the area, under a constant threat of being cut-off.

Sergeant Fraser Charles Alfred Houston was the right man for the job, as it happens.  He had trained, while a student in Toronto, with his school’s Officer Cadet Corps.  Houston must have been keen to get into it, for he enlisted as a private soldier and went overseas before he could sit his exams for a commission.  He had just turned twenty years of age in April.

Houston’s force made their way as far as Metal trench, dead ground in every sense of the word. An attacking body of Germans came at them by skirting around the slag heap, hoping to be the last measure of encirclement, from which point they could reduce or capture the Canadians trapped within. The losses on either side would have been a “push” in that case- fairly even. The 116th Battalion would have been hobbled, with the loss of four platoons plus what men Sgt Houston had with him. More than half of those would have been from ‘D’ Company alone. Sgt Houston led his men not forward to the outposts, who were then fighting backwards, foot by bloody foot, but instead to rush the attack coming from the slag heap. 

The citation for Sgt Houston’s Distinguished Conduct Medal credits him with killing the crew of a
machine gun being placed in position to fire upon his men, and taking another German prisoner.[15] It was masterfully intuitive.  The German attack facing Houston was stalled from closing the net long enough for the two retiring outposts to link up, putting the numbers in favour of the Canadians.  The fight didn’t end there, and it developed into a skirmish from shell holes throughout No-man’s Land.  Despite a wound to the face, Sgt Houston remained in charge until he could get the wound dressed, after which he immediately returned to his post until his Company was relieved[16].  Canadian Casualties were twelve killed, forty-five wounded, seventeen missing.  Most of those missing had been killed outright in the German bombardment.

Later in the war, Sgt Houston would be wounded in the right knee, which rendered him unfit for further service.  Sadly, he would die of heart disease in 1935- at thirty-eight years old.

Going forward, I will be posting every other week, in order to give myself time to work on the follow-up to my first novel- expect it mid 2018. In the meantime, have you read my breakout book "Killing is a Sin"? If not, why not? 

Seriously, thanks everyone for all the support! Back in two weeks!

[1] Capt. E.P.S. Allen as ‘Adjutant’, “The 116th Battalion in France,” Hunter Ross Co. Ltd. 1921 pp. 31-2
[2] Nicholson, GWL, Col. “Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919: Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War” Queen’s Printer 1962 pg. 285
[3] Sir Arthur Currie Quoted in Cook, Tim “Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918” Penguin Canada 2008 pg. 260
[4] Nicholson, ibid. pg.286
[5] Nicholson, ibid. pg. 285
[6] 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade War Diary, July 1917 App. 16 “Operations Order No. 106.”
[7] Lupfer, Timothy T. “The Dynamics of Doctrine: The changes in German tactical doctrine during the First World War.” Combat Studies Institute, U.S. Army July 1981
[8] Capt. E.P.S. Allen as ‘Adjutant’, “The 116th Battalion in France,” pg. 31
[9] 116th (Ontario County) Battalion War Diary 23rd July 1917
[10] 116th Battalion, ibid
[11] Lt Col. S.S. Sharpe Memorandum From: O.C. 116th (Ontario County) Cdn. Inf. Bn. To: 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade 23rd July 1917  
[12] 3rd Canadian Division War Diary, July 1917, App. 823 “Intelligence Summary 23 July 1917.”
[13] Lt Col. S.S. Sharpe Memorandum
[14] Lt Col. S.S. Sharpe Memorandum
[15] Supplement to the London Gazette No. 30495 pp. 1392-3 26 January 1918
[16] 116th (Ontario County) Battalion War Diary 23rd July 1917