History

Wars & Campaigns

Boer War
First World War

►►Western Front

►►►Trench Warfare: 1914-1916

►►Allied Offensive: 1916

►►►Allied Offensives: 1917

►►►German Offensive: 1918

►►►Advance to Victory: 1918

►►Siberia
Second World War
►►War Against Japan

►►Italian Campaign

►►►Sicily

►►►Southern Italy

►►►The Sangro and Moro

►►►Battles of the FSSF

►►►Cassino

►►►Liri Valley

►►►Advance to Florence

►►►Gothic Line

►►►Winter Lines
►►North-West Europe

►►►Normandy
►►►Southern France
►►►Channel Ports

►►►Scheldt
►►►Nijmegen Salient

►►►Rhineland

►►►Final Phase
Korean War
Cold War
Gulf War

Operations 

GAUNTLET Aug 1941

(Spitsbergen)

HUSKY Jul 1943

 (Sicily)

COTTAGE Aug 1943

 (Kiska)

TIMBERWOLF Oct 1943

(Italy)

OVERLORD Jun 1944

(Normandy)

MARKET-GARDEN Sep 44

(Arnhem)

BERLIN Nov 1944

(Nijmegen)

VERITABLE Feb 1945

(Rhineland)

Battle Honours

Boer War

►Paardeberg

18 Feb 00

First World War
Western Front
Trench Warfare: 1914-1916

Ypres, 1915

22 Apr-25 May 15

Gravenstafel

22-23 Apr 15

St. Julien

24 Apr-4 May 15

Frezenberg

8-13 May 15

Bellewaarde

24-25 May 15

Festubert, 1915

15-25 May 15

Mount Sorrel

2-13 Jun 16

Allied Offensive: 1916

►Somme, 1916

1 Jul-18 Nov 16

►Albert

.1-13 Jul 16

►Bazentin

.14-17 Jul 16

►Pozieres

.23 Jul-3 Sep 16

►Guillemont

.3-6 Sep 16

►Ginchy

.9 Sep 16

Flers-Courcelette

15-22 Sep 16

Thiepval

26-29 Sep 16

►Le Transloy

. 1-18 Oct 16

Ancre Heights

1 Oct-11 Nov 16

Ancre, 1916

13-18 Nov 16

Allied Offensives: 1917

►Arras 1917

8 Apr-4 May 17

Vimy, 1917

.9-14 Apr 17

Arleux

28-29 Apr 17

►Scarpe, 1917

.3-4 May17

►Hill 70

.15-25 Aug 17

►Messines, 1917

.7-14 Jun 17

►Ypres, 1917

..31 Jul-10 Nov 17

►Pilckem

31 Jul-2 Aug 17

►Langemarck, 1917

.16-18 Aug 17

►Menin Road

.20-25 Sep 17

►Polygon Wood

26 Sep-3 Oct 17

►Broodseinde

.4 Oct 17

►Poelcapelle

.9 Oct 17

►Passchendaele

.12 Oct 17

►Cambrai, 1917

20 Nov-3 Dec 17

German Offensive: 1918

►Somme, 1918

.21 Mar-5 Apr 18

►St. Quentin

.21-23 Mar 18

►Bapaume, 1918

.24-25 Mar 18

►Rosieres

.26-27 Mar 18

►Avre

.4 Apr 18

►Lys

.9-29 Apr 18

►Estaires

.9-11 Apr 18

►Messines, 1918

.10-11 Apr 18

►Bailleul

.13-15 Apr 18

►Kemmel

.17-19 Apr 18

Advance to Victory: 1918

Amiens

8-11 Aug 18

►Arras, 1918

.26 Aug-3 Sep 18

►Scarpe, 1918

26-30 Aug 18.

►Drocourt-Queant

.2-3 Sep 18

►Hindenburg Line

.12 Sep-9 Oct 18

►Canal du Nord

.27 Sep-2 Oct 18

►St. Quentin Canal .29 Sep-2 Oct 18
►Epehy

3-5 Oct 18

►Cambrai, 1918

.8-9 Oct 18

►Valenciennes

.1-2 Nov 18

►Sambre

.4 Nov 18

►Pursuit to Mons .28 Sep-11Nov

Second World War

War Against Japan

South-East Asia

Hong Kong

 8-25 Dec 41

Italian Campaign

Battle of Sicily

Landing in Sicily 

   9-12 Jul 43

Grammichele 

15 Jul 43

Piazza Armerina

16-17 Jul 43

Valguarnera

17-19 Jul 43

Assoro 

  20-22 Jul 43

Leonforte

 21-22 Jul 43

Agira

24-28 Jul 43

Adrano 

29 Jul-7 Aug 43

Catenanuova

29-30 Jul 43

Regalbuto

29 Jul-3 Aug 43

Centuripe

  31 Jul-3 Aug 43

Troina Valley

 2-6 Aug 43

Pursuit to Messina

 2-17 Aug 43

 Southern Italy

Landing at Reggio

 3 Sep 43

Potenza 19-20 Sep 43
Motta Montecorvino 1-3 Oct 43
Termoli 3-6 Oct 43
Monte San Marco 6-7 Oct 43
Gambatesa 7-8 Oct 43
Campobasso 11-14 Oct 43
Baranello 17-18 Oct 43
Colle d'Anchise 22-24 Oct 43
Torella 24-27 Oct 43

The Sangro and Moro

The Sangro

19 Nov-3 Dec 43

Castel di Sangro

.23-24 Nov 43

The Moro

5-7 Dec 43

San Leonardo

8-9 Dec 43

The Gully

..10-19 Dec 43

Casa Berardi

 ..14-15 Dec 43

Ortona

20-28 Dec 43

San Nicola-San

.31 Dec 43

Tommaso

.
Point 59/ 29 Dec 43-

Torre Mucchia

4 Jan 44

Battles of the FSSF
Monte Camino

.5 Nov-9 Dec 43

Monte la Difensa-

2-8 Dec 43

 Monte la Remetanea

.
Hill 720

25 Dec 43

Monte Majo

3-8 Jan 44.

Radicosa

4 Jan 44

Monte Vischiataro

8 Jan 44

Anzio

22 Jan-22 May 44

Rome

.22 May-4 Jun 44

Advance

.22 May-22 Jun 44

to the Tiber

.
►Monte Arrestino

25 May 44

►Rocca Massima

27 May 44

►Colle Ferro

2 Jun 44

Cassino
►Cassino II

11-18 May 44

►Gustav Line

11-18 May 44

►Sant' Angelo in

13 May 44

Teodice

.
►Pignataro

14-15 May 44

Liri Valley
Liri Valley

18-30 May 44

►Hitler Line

18-24 May 44

►Aquino

18-24 May 44

►Melfa Crossing

24-25 May 44

►Ceprano

26-27 May 44

►Torrice Crossroads

30 May 44

Advance to Florence
Advance

17 Jul-10 Aug 44

to Florence

.
Trasimene Line

20-30 Jun 44

Sanfatucchio

20-21 Jun 44

Arezzo

4-17 Jul 44

Cerrone

25 - 31 Aug 44

Gothic Line
►Gothic Line

25 Aug-22 Sep 44

►Monteciccardo

27-28 Aug 44

►Montecchio

30-31 Aug 44

►Point 204 (Pozzo Alto)

31 Aug 44

►Monte Luro

1 Sep 44

►Borgo Santa Maria

1 Sep 44

►Tomba di Pesaro

1-2 Sep 44

►Coriano

3-15 Sep 44

►Lamone Crossing

2-13 Sep 44

Winter Lines
►Rimini Line

14-21 Sep 44

►San Martino-

14-18 Sep 44

San Lorenzo

.
►San Fortunato

18-20 Sep 44

►Casale

23-25 Sep 44

►Sant' Angelo

11-15 Sep 44

 in Salute

.
►Bulgaria Village

13-14 Sep 44

►Cesena

15-20 Sep 44

►Pisciatello

16-19 Sep 44

►Savio Bridgehead

20-23 Sep 44

►Monte La Pieve

13-19 Oct 44

►Monte Spaduro

19-24 Oct 44

►Monte San Bartolo

11-14 Nov 44

►Capture of Ravenna

3-4 Dec 44

►Naviglio Canal

12-15 Dec 44

►Fosso Vecchio

16-18 Dec 44

►Fosso Munio

19-21 Dec 44

►Conventello-

2-6 Jan 45

Comacchio

.
►Granarolo

3-5 Jan 44

Northwest Europe
Dieppe

19 Aug 42

Battle of Normandy
Normandy Landing

6 Jun 44

Authie

7 Jun 44

Putot-en-Bessin

8 Jun 44

Bretteville

8-9 Jun 44

       -l'Orgueilleuse .
Le Mesnil-Patry

11 Jun 44

Carpiquet

4-5 Jul 44

Caen

4-18 Jul 44

The Orne (Buron)

8-9 Jul 44

Bourguébus Ridge

18-23 Jul 44

Faubourg-de-

18-19 Jul 44

       Vaucelles .
St. André-sur-Orne

19-23 Jul 44

Maltôt

22-23 Jul 44

Verrières Ridge-Tilly--

25 Jul 44

         la-Campagne .
Falaise

7-22 Aug 44

►Falaise Road

7-9 Aug 44

►Quesnay Road

10-11 Aug 44

Clair Tizon

11-13 Aug 44

►The Laison

14-17 Aug 44

►Chambois

18-22 Aug 44

►St. Lambert-sur-

19-22 Aug 44

       Dives

.

Dives Crossing

17-20 Aug 44

Forêt de la Londe

27-29 Aug 44

The Seine, 1944

25-28 Aug 44

Southern France
Southern France

15-28 Aug 44

Channel Ports
Dunkirk, 1944

8-15 Sep 44

Le Havre

1-12 Sep 44

Moerbrugge

8-10 Sep 44

Moerkerke

13-14 Sep 44

Boulogne, 1944

17-22 Sep 44

Calais, 1944

25 Sep-1 Oct 44

Wyneghem

21-22 Sep 44

Antwerp-Turnhout

   24-29 Sep 44

Canal

.

The Scheldt

The Scheldt

1 Oct-8 Nov 44

Leopold Canal

6-16 Oct-44

►Woensdrecht

1-27 Oct 44

Savojaards Platt

9-10 Oct 44

Breskens Pocket

11 Oct -3 Nov 44

►The Lower Maas

20 Oct -7 Nov 44

►South Beveland

 24-31 Oct 44

Walcheren

31 Oct -4 Nov 44

Causeway

.

Nijmegen Salient
Ardennes

Dec 44-Jan 45

Kapelsche Veer

31 Dec 44-

.

21Jan 45

The Roer

16-31 Jan 45

Rhineland
The Rhineland

8 Feb-10 Mar 45

►The Reichswald

8-13 Feb 45

►Waal Flats

8-15 Feb 45

►Moyland Wood

14-21 Feb 45

►Goch-Calcar Road

19-21 Feb 45

►The Hochwald

26 Feb-

.

4 Mar 45

►Veen

6-10 Mar 45

►Xanten

8-9 Mar 45

Final Phase
The Rhine

23 Mar-1 Apr 45

►Emmerich-Hoch

28 Mar-1 Apr 45

Elten

.
►Twente Canal

2-4 Apr 45

Zutphen

6-8 Apr 45

Deventer

8-11 Apr 45

Arnhem, 1945

12-14 Apr 45

Apeldoorn

11-17 Apr 45

Groningen

13-16 Apr 45

Friesoythe

14 Apr 45

►Ijselmeer

15-18 Apr 45

Küsten Canal

17-24 Apr 45

Wagenborgen

21-23 Apr 45

Delfzijl Pocket

23 Apr-2 May 45

Leer

28-29 Apr 45

Bad Zwischenahn

23 Apr-4 May 45

Oldenburg

27 Apr-5 May 45

Korean War
Kapyong

21-25 Apr 51

Domestic Missions

FLQ Crisis

International Missions

ICCS            Vietnam 1973

MFO                 Sinai 1986-

Peacekeeping

UNMOGIP

India 1948-1979

UNTSO

 Israel 1948-    ....

UNEF

Egypt 1956-1967

UNOGIL

Lebanon 1958    ....

ONUC

 Congo 1960-1964

UNYOM

Yemen 1963-1964

UNTEA

W. N. Guinea 1963-1964

UNIFCYP

 Cyprus 1964-    ....

DOMREP

D. Republic 1965-1966

UNIPOM

Kashmir 1965-1966

UNEFME

Egypt 1973-1979

UNDOF

Golan 1974-    ....

UNIFIL

 Lebanon 1978    ....

UNGOMAP

Afghanistan 1988-90

UNIIMOG

Iran-Iraq 1988-1991

UNTAG

Namibia 1989-1990

ONUCA

C. America 1989-1992

UNIKOM

Kuwait 1991    ....

MINURSO

W. Sahara 1991    ....

ONUSAL

El Salvador 1991    ....

UNAMIC

Cambodia 1991-1992

UNAVEM II

Angola 1991-1997

UNPROFOR

Yugosla. 1992-1995

UNTAC

Cambodia 1992-1993

UNOSOM

Somalia 1992-1993

ONUMOZ

Mozambiq. 1993-1994

UNOMUR

 Rwanda 1993    ....

UNAMIR

Rwanda 1993-1996

UNMIH

Haiti 1993-1996

UNMIBH

Bosnia/Herz.1993-1996

UNMOP

Prevlaka 1996-2001

UNSMIH

Haiti 1996-1997

MINUGUA

Guatemala 1994-1997

UNTMIH

Haiti 1997    ....

MIPONUH

 Haiti 1997    ....

MINURCA

C.Afr.Rep. 1998-1999

INTERFET

E. Timor 1999-2000

UNAMSIL

Sie. Leone 1999-2005

UNTAET

E. Timor 1999-2000

Exercises

 

Trench Warfare: The C.E.F. 1914-1916
 

The story of the lead-up to war in Europe in 1914 is complex. Political Assassination in the Balkans set off a cascade of military mobilizations throughout the Continent, drawing Britain into the fray. The web of alliances and diplomacy is too complicated to describe here.1 Of relevance is the fact that Canada's political relationship to Britain was such that once the latter declared war on Germany - which it did on 4 August 1914 - Canada too was at war.

The British Expeditionary Force, comprised in large part of soldiers from the small, but well-trained pre-war professional (i.e. volunteer, full-time) army, went hurriedly to the Continent where German troops violated Belgian neutrality in order to sweep down on Paris. French and British troops stopped them, and the "Race to the Sea" began, as each side sought to outflank the other, each maneuver bringing the armies a little farther north until a battle line stretched 700 kilometres, from Switzerland to the North Sea.

Valcartier

In the meantime, Canadian volunteers were raised. Mobilization plans were scrapped. None of Canada's regiments were to be sent overseas and instead, a new field force - the Canadian Expeditionary Force (C.E.F.) was to be raised from scratch, at the whim of the Minister of Militia, Colonel Sam Hughes. Camp Valcartier was thrown together in Quebec, and C.E.F. units created at the stroke of his pen.2

Western Front

Trench Warfare: 1914-1916
Allied Offensive: 1916
Allied Offensives: 1917
German Offensive: 1918
Advance to Victory: 1918


Thirty-thousand men crowded into the new camp, and the main combat units of the new C.E.F. - sixteen provisional infantry battalions - were formed from the contingents of men sent from dozens of Militia regiments from across Canada. The origins of the battalions are shown below. A glaring omission was the inclusion of a francophone unit. French-Canadians were included in the 12th and 14th Battalions while a separate French-speaking battalion would not be authorized until later, becoming the famous 22nd Battalion (Vingt-Dieux in French, the genesis of the famous Royal 22e Regiment, or "VanDoos").3

1st Battalion Western Ontario, including Windsor, London, Parry Sound, Sarnia, Stratford and Galt
2nd Battalion Eastern Ontario, including Ottawa, Toronto, Whitby, Perth, and Peterborough
3rd Battalion Toronto
4th Battalion Central Ontario, including Aurora, Barrie, Brampton, Brantford, Hamilton, Milton and Niagara Falls
5th Battalion Western Cavalry - dismounted cavalry from B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba
6th Battalion Fort Garry Horse from Winnipeg
7th Battalion British Columbia, including Vancouver, Victoria, New Westminster, Kamloops, Kootenay
8th Battalion primarily 90th Winnipeg Rifles
9th Battalion 101st Edmonton Fusiliers
10th Battalion 103rd Calgary Rifles and 106th Winnipeg Light Infantry
11th Battalion Saskatchewan and Manitoba
12th Battalion Quebec and the Maritimes
13th Battalion 5th Royal Highlanders of Canada (Montreal)
14th Battalion Montreal
15th Battalion 48th Highlanders of Canada (Toronto)
16th Battalion Four Highland regiments: 50th Gordon Highlanders (Victoria), 72nd Seaforth Highlanders of Canada (Vancouver), 79th Cameron Highlanders of Canada (Winnipeg), 91st Canadian Highlanders (Hamilton)

 

The first convoy began embarking at Quebec on 25 September. It was the largest trans-Atlantic convoy to date, and over 7,500 horses and 30,000 soldiers made the crossing to the United Kingdom, the first contingent of many. What was known initially as the Canadian Division (later, 1st Canadian Division) spent long weeks training in southern England in an unusually rainy winter. A second division was raised, but the British remained cool to the idea until late October, agreeing to accept Canada's offer. That division arrived in the U.K. in April 1915, by which time the 1st Division had seen its baptism of fire at Ypres.4

Diversity

The sluggish response by the Minister of Militia to the need for francophone battalions had repercussions in French Canada.5 Other groups also found themselves under-represented. The majority of soldiers in the initial C.E.F. battalions - just over 50% - had actually been born in the British Isles. Black Canadians met with racism, fostered by attitudes from the highest ranks. The Chief of the General Staff, Canada's senior soldier, felt as late as April 1916 that blacks were not the equals of whites. Pressure nonetheless mounted to recruit, and an all-black construction battalion was formed in July - with white officers. Sixteen black soldiers served in the 106th Battalion, a unit broken up for reinforcements, and one of them served with distinction as a replacement in the Royal Canadian Regiment. Native Canadians were accepted more readily, and a number served as snipers.6 Later in the war, Japanese-Canadians were given a mixed reception, rejected by some and more openly in other C.E.F. units. In 1917 the 10th Battalion accepted several dozen Japanese-Canadians, their comrades finding that the newcomers habitually polished their buttons and brass even in the trenches, and convincing the commanding officer that if they did so, so would everyone else. Complaints by the C.O. that experience with 11 men proved them to be "more work" than other reinforcements were ignored. At least two went on to be decorated for valour with the Military Medal.7

To France

The 1st Division crossed to France in a storm, landing at St. Nazaire and travelling by rail in "40 and 8" boxcars (unheated railcars with labels advertising their capacity of either 40 men or 8 horses, they would become familiar sights to the soldiers over the next four years). The trip to Hazebrouck was circuitous and took 43 hours, but by late February, Canadian units were at last at the front. Each Canadian battalion manned trenches for a week near Armentières paired with experienced British units, and in early March the division was given its own sector. There were no real trenches to speak of due to soggy conditions. Entrenchments went half a metre down and sandbag walls and earth parapets were built up above ground. Broken bricks were used to shore up sandbags and duckboards were used in vain to firm up trench flooring. The division spent 21 days in this area, 5,000 metres south of Armentières, near Fleurbaix, experiencing some scattered shelling, and providing small arms fire as a diversion when neighbouring British units put in an attack at Neuve Chapelle. The British suffered 12,000 casualties for the gain of a few thousand square yards. The Canadians, manning a quiet sector, lost 68 killed and 210 wounded.8

Experiences

The Canadians were learning quickly that political patronage had left them ill-equipped. Enthusiasm for the war had been high, and a belief that the war would be over quickly was wide-spread. The reality of service life was different, and apart from the cruel realization that the Germans would not be defeated before Christmas 1914 came the knowledge that Canadian industry was not yet up to the task of equipping a large field army. Boots disintegrated under field conditions, tunics with colourful pre-war coloured shoulder straps were too finely tailored for field use, and the leather Oliver pattern field gear was unsuitable as well.9 Worst of all was the Ross rifle which armed the contingent, a fine sporting weapon but unsuited for the rigours of combat.10

Routine in the trenches established itself. Enemy attacks seemed to come at dawn or dusk, as light conditions were optimal at that time, and thus units "stood to" while the sun rose and set. Every man assembled in the trench and stood at the parapet with his weapon ready. During the day, men slept. "Funk holes" were carved into the sides of the trenches to provide overhead cover from shell splinters. Work was done at night under cover of darkness. Carrying parties to bring up rations, water, ammunition or other supplies ("stores", as the army called them) were relatively safe. More dangerous were trips into No Man's Land, the strip of ground between friendly and enemy-held trenches. There, patrols went out to do reconnaissance or raid enemy trenches, and wiring parties laid belts of barbed wire. Repairs were done on their own trenches at night, as snipers were active during the day, and the "daily hate" came at dawn - German shelling. The majority of casualties on the Western Front were inflicted by high explosives fired by large calibre guns.11


Situation in the Ypres Salient 21 April 1915

Ypres
See also main article: Ypres 1915

The Canadians moved to the Ypres Salient in April. The Salient - a large bulge in the line which placed Allied soldiers at the mercy of German forces who surrounded them on three sides - had been created after what was later known as the First Battle of Ypres in the opening weeks of the war. A series of low ridges gave the Germans excellent observation points over the generally flat country. Between 14 and 17 April the Canadian Division took over 4,000 yards of trench between the British 28th Division and two French divisions. They moved into weak French positions made up of shallow and unconnected trenches and sandbag parapets, thinly wired and "paved with dead Germans" in the words of one Canadian officer. Unfortunately for the Canadians, a major German attack commenced on the afternoon of 22 April, including one of the first uses of poison gas on the Western Front. Panicked French troops streamed back in the face of chlorine gas toward St. Julien while the Canadian Division attempted to seal a two-mile gap in the line.12

See main articles: St. Julien and Gravenstafel

Two Canadian battalions hurried up out of reserve to counter-attack German troops at Kitcheners' Wood just before midnight on the 22nd, an act later referred to by the French Supreme Commander Marshal Foch as the "finest act in the war".13 There was no time to reconnoiter and the attack was costly, mounted over open ground and into the face of massed machine guns.

Its execution can be questioned, its military merits debated, but there can be no doubt that the assault by the 10th and 16th battalions, the first major offensive operation conducted by Canadian troops in the Great War, was a success, although all of the objectives could not be held. Moreover, it proved to be the only successful attack by Allied forces during the Second Battle of Ypres, which was a tribute to the training, discipline, and esprit de corps of these inexperienced young Canadians...14

If there was an absence of success elsewhere, there was no shortage of bravery. Lance Corporal Frederick Fisher of the 13th Battalion went forward with a machine gun detachment near St. Julien, and exposed himself to enemy fire while driving off German attacks. He was eventually killed in action and later awarded the Victoria Cross, the first Canadian VC of the war. The 13th Battalion had been the left-flank unit of the entire Canadian Division, and much fighting had concentrated there during the early hours of the battle. The original front-line trenches of the division still held firm on 23 April, and a new line had been stretched out to protect the left flank, where soldiers attempted to improve positions. British reinforcements attempted to counter-attack and improve the situation.

The Germans renewed their bombardment at 0300 on 24 April, and attacked the Canadian line behind another gas cloud. It was during this action that Company Sergeant Major Frederick Hall of the 8th Battalion was killed attempting to rescue a wounded man, for which he was also posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. The 15th Battalion suffered 647 casualties, the highest number ever suffered by a single Canadian unit in one action during the course of the war. The Canadian line now buckled, and ad hoc groups were thrown in to shore up the defences. The apex of the Ypres Salient fell to the Germans, but nowhere was more than 1,000 yards of territory yielded. German attacks continued to mount, however. Lieutenant Edward Bellew, Machine Gun Officer of the 7th Battalion, manned a machine gun until it ran out of ammunition, disabled his weapon and fought on with pistol and bayonet until overwhelmed and captured. Taken prisoner, he too received the Victoria Cross, credited for having stopped a German attack on the 7th Battalion. Canadian determination - and the timely arrival of British reinforcements - had saved Ypres. On 25 April, British troops attempted to retake St. Julien and lost 2,400 men attacking well-entrenched Germans. Fighting continued in the Salient throughout May, but for the Canadians, it was mostly over by the end of 25 April. The division had suffered 60% casualties.15

Frezenberg and the PPCLI
See main articles: Frezenberg and Bellewaarde

The first Canadian unit in the field had been the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, the last privately raised infantry regiment in the British Empire. Created from a cadre of veterans and assembled at Ottawa in August 1914, PPCLI joined the British 80th Brigade and served in the St. Eloi sector of the Western Front from 7 January to 23 March 1915. They arrived in the Ypres sector on 9 April and remained there until the end of May.16 A gallant stand at Frezenberg on 8 May remains an important part of regimental lore. As German attempts to reduce the Ypres Salient continued after the departure of the Canadians, the Patricias found themselves subjected on 8 May to a fierce bombardment and the sight of a flank left wide open as German attacks pierced the British lines. Desperate counter-attacks by the Patricias and renewed assaults by the Germans raged for hours and 329 men were killed, wounded or went missing during the day's action.

It is easy to claim, after the fact, that the PPCLI saved the Ypres Salient by holding fast on the lower slope of Bellewaerde Ridge on 8 May, and that Ypres might have fallen otherwise. But no one can ever know what the outcome might have been, despite all the words of praise written about the Patricias by higher commanders after the battle. What did happen, however, was remarkable enough. A battalion that had never seen a general action, made up of older veterans shored up by younger reservists, a battalion virtually worn out, and worn down by long periods under fire, threw back a major German attack on its own front. Outflanked, out-numbered, outgunned, the Patricias did not break; they did not allow the enemy to pass.17

The Patricias, depleted to just 150 survivors, were merged with the 4th King's Royal Rifles and saw further action at Bellewaarde Ridge.18

Festubert
See main article: Festubert

In the spring of 1915, Allied leadership still believed a successful offensive and large breakthrough could force a German strategic retreat. While the strength of field fortifications was acknowledged by leaders in the field, "the generals were firmly of the opinion that persistence would win out, particularly if massive artillery bombardments preceded the infantry assault so that the enemy was 'gradually and relentlessly worn down' beforehand."19

The French hoped to prove this theory correct with a major offensive in the south in early May 1915, just south of where their armies met the British Expeditionary Force. The B.E.F. was to engage in a two-division diverion at Aubers Ridge. Both elements were to begin on 9 May, but disastrous results by the British forces ended their involvement within twelve hours. Obliged to continue the fight to support French offensive actions, the British senior commander, Sir Douglas Haig, concentrated his forces on a narrow front at Neuve Chapelle and Festubert. Attacks began on 15-16 May following a 60-hour bombardment. The war on the Western Front had become a battle of attrition.

The deductions made by the Allies as a result of their attempts on the German front in the Spring and early Summer of 1915 had convinced them that the key to success lay in quantity. The larger the number of men and guns that there were available the greater the chances of a breakthrough. It was the principle of the sledgehammer; the greater the weight of metal that could be flung at the German defences the more likely they were to crumble.20

The 1st Canadian Division was drawn into the fighting, called on to make five separate attacks over the course of eight days over flat, open and water-logged ground, with attacks planned on inaccurate maps. Futile attacks had cost the Canadians 2,468 casualties by the time they left on 31 May for the Givenchy sector, many of the dead left to rot in No Man's Land as there was no way to retrieve them. A thousand square yards of ground had been the reward for their sacrifice. Lessons in tactics would be learned, but better weapons and tactics were still a long time in coming. For the Canadians in the summer of 1915, "(t)he German defences - the combined effect of reinforced strong points, machine guns in large numbers, thick barbed-wire barricades and plentiful artillery - had simply become too strong to be carried by men armed with rifles and bayonets."21

Givenchy

The 1st Canadian Division took over just 1,000 yards of front-line trench at Givenchy, which required just one of the division's three brigades to man front-line positions at any one time. Early June brought fine weather, the replacement of the hated Ross with the British Lee-Enfield rifle, and dry ground, meaning good, solid, deep trenches when in the line. On 15 June, the 1st Brigade was ordered to mount an attack on the German lines. The attack would be rehearsed in advance, to give every man an idea of what was expected. There would be a 60-hour preliminary artillery bombardment, including from three guns with armoured gunshields wheeled right up into the front lines, so as to be able to fire over open-sights at any German machine guns who still resisted the advance through No Man's Land. And British engineers, tunnelling under No Man's Land, were to set off a mine near the objective, a German strongpoint marked "H.2" on the Canadian trench maps.

Everything went wrong. The blast from the mine also killed a number of assaulting troops waiting in the tunnel, and German reaction was swift, raining down artillery into the Canadian forward positions. Two of the Canadian guns were knocked out and a number of troops of the 1st Battalion were hit without ever leaving their own trench. Nonetheless, two companies of the 1st Battalion managed to get into the German positions, and then by "leaning on the barrage" - advancing immediately behind the curtain of friendly shells - penetrated to their second line. As their "bombers" cleared out enemy trenches, German counter-attacks began in earnest. The third and fourth companies crossed over to reinforce, taking casualties from German machine guns now back in action. It was at this point that Lieutenant Edward Campbell took two machine guns and stopped and enemy counterattack, earning a Victoria Cross. Only one other man of his detachment survived; Private H. Vincent was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The 1st Battalion was forced to retire, out of ammunition and with no chance of reinforcement by the 2nd or 3rd Battalions.

On 24 June, the Division moved once more, to Ploegsteert (in fashion typical to English speaking soldiers on the Western Front, it was mangled to become "Plugstreet" by the Canadians), and on the 27th the Division went into 4,000 yards of trenches, there to remain for nine months. The sector expanded later as other Canadian divisions joined them, and the C.E.F. expanded to become a corps.22

Settling In

It was obvious by now that trench warfare was to be the modus operandi of the armies on the Western Front.

In every theatre of war the attack was, at some time or other, faced with the problem of an attack on an entrenched enemy. Nowhere was this more apparent than on the Western Front, where for four years both sides were permanently involved in finding a satisfactory solution to this phenomenon. The techniques of trench fighting originated for the most part, on the Western Front; if they were used elsewhere to start with it was only in order to prove them for use on the Western Front.23

The 1st Canadian Division, still under its first commander, Lieutenant-General Alderson, a British officer, spent a quiet summer improving their positions. "Live and let live" became the order of the day, with only occasional shelling, sniper activity, and night-time patrolling. However, Alderson was determined to construct defensive works throughout the divisional area, and thus there was much work conducted, primarily at night. Forward trenches were deepened to permit movement while upright without exposing troops to direct observation. Parapets were reinforced with sandbags, and firesteps were added to permit troops to observe and fire over top of the higher parapets. Trench sections were carved out into zig-zags, creating bays for groups of four or five soldiers, minimizing the effects a single shell burst might have and eliminating the possibility of an enemy unit firing along the length of an entire trench ("enfilade").

"No Man's Land" was made more difficult to traverse by the addition of thicker barbed wire entanglements ahead of the Canadian trenches, and concealed listening posts were added forward of the trenches as well. "Hoochies" dug into the rear wall of forward trenches let men sleep and eat under cover, and deep, narrow "safety" trenches provided temporary cover during bombardment when the front came under direct shelling. A Support Line - a second set of trenches parallel to the front line - was constructed in tandem with the main line of defence about 50 yards back, and several hundred yards behind that were strongpoints into which heavy machine guns of the Motor Machine Gun Brigade were deployed. The latter arrived from England in June. Communication trenches - narrow walkways just wide and deep enough to accommodate a crouching soldier - connected all these fortifications. "(A)s similar fortifications were built by both sides, the probability of assaulting infantry ever breaking through them became increasingly remote. The stage was being set for the horrible battles of attrition that would dominate warfare on the Western Front for the next two years."24

The Canadian Corps

Even after the bloodshed at Ypres, support for the war remained high in Canada, and the 2nd Canadian Division was formed in Canada and moved to England during the spring of 1915.25 The division moved to France in mid-September 1915, and plans were already in the works to create a Canadian Corps. This meant not just a corps headquarters to oversee the activities of the two divisions, but additional "corps troops" including artillery, engineers, medical and logistics units as well as additional battalions that later went on to help populate the 3rd Canadian Division, including PPCLI (released from duty under British command) and the Royal Canadian Regiment (Canada's only regular army infantry unit, freshly arrived from nearly a year of garrison duty in Bermuda). The Canadian Corps headquarters activated on 13 September 1915, extending the front of the 1st Division by 5,000 yards to permit the 2nd Canadian Division to enter the line, and numbering 1,354 officers and 36,522 men under command. It would increase in size the very next month and by war's end number four divisions of robust size and reputation.25

Winter 1915-1916

Most of the Western Front had settled into a stalemate at the time the Canadian Corps was formed, and weather suitable for conducting offensive actions was coming to an end. His Majesty King George V visited the Corps on 27 October 1915, and the next day, winter rains began, falling for much of the next four months. Some men would be lucky enough to receive waist-length rubber trench waders, while the rest would have to endure.

Men at the front had to spend days on end in thigh-deep water...(t)here was simply no shelter to go to: the dug-outs that had been so carefully prepared during the dry weather were either flooded or had collapsed.

The intensity of the rain let up somewhat in late November, and hand-operated pumps were able to keep down the level of the water in the forward trenches. But ankle-deep, slimy mud was everywhere and on everything. The men had only one uniform, and usually only two pairs of socks, so there was no possibility of drying out clothing or boots. And, as there was no way to keep clean in these appalling conditions, everyone soon had a healthy crop of lice. As the temperature fell to near freezing for much of the next two months, it was sustained, bleak misery. the only brief respite from being cold, wet and dirty came once every ten days or so when units were marched through the divisional baths. Here, besides a luxuriously hot shower, the men got  a clean pair of underwear, while their shirts and uniform were disinfected to kill the lice. The daily issue of service rum, supposedly to ward off the cold, was just about the only pleasure the men had to look forward to.27

A notable feature of the period was the trench raid, as General Alderson insisted the the "offensive spirit" needed to be maintained to keep up morale.28 "Trench raids were not, contrary to popular belief, a Canadian invention, but the Canadians became acknowledged experts in these violent excursions into enemy-held territory."29

Expansion of the Canadian Corps

The U.K.'s War Committee had decided in December 1915 that France would be the main theatre of war for the British Empire, where all military emphasis would be placed. Nine divisions were withdrawn from Egypt and Territorial Force and "New Army" forces crossed the English Channel to bolster the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front. Between Christmas 1915 and 1 July 1916 the B.E.F. under Sir Douglas Haig grew from three armies of 38 infantry divisions and five cavalry divisions to four armies (and a reserve army) of 49 infantry divisions and five cavalry divisions. The reserve army became the 5th Army in October 1916. In June 1915, the British War Office formally asked Canada for additional formations beyond its commitment to 5,000 reinforcements monthly to the existing divisions in the field. Initial resistance to forming a third Canadian division was met by comments by General Alderson (the British commander of the Canadian Corps) who noted that standard policy in the B.E.F. was to have three divisions per corps, two in the line and one in reserve. A 3rd Division was authorized, and when the British asked for twelve battalions for Egypt as well, they counter-offered with a fourth division for the Western Front. By September 1915, Canadian officials were confident of their ability to maintain four divisions in the field.

The 3rd Division was created in December 1915 under Major-General M.S. Mercer, a veteran of the 1st Brigade and Commander of Headquarters Corps Troops. He was a Canadian as were all three brigade commanders and many of his staff officers. By the end of 1916, only three major appointments would be held by Britons (G.S.O. I, G.S.O. II and Brigade Major Artillery). A number of staff officers and unit commanders had combat experience but few soldiers or sub-unit leaders had been in the field.

The 4th Division was accepted by the War Office on the proviso that 18 reserve battalions be created in England as a source of reinforcements for the 36 battalions of the three divisions extant in the Canadian Corps. The 4th Division was therefore created from units already overseas, or imminently arriving, on 26 April 1916. Selection was tentatively made by representatives from both the Canadian Training Depot and the War Office. The division concentrated and took preliminary divisional training at Bramshott, in Aldershot Command. The first commander, Major-General David Watson, had led the 5th Brigade (of the 2nd Canadian Division) in France. The 4th Division did not have its own artillery, a situation it shared with the 2nd and 3rd, and it was not until June 1917 that the 4th Divisional Artillery was formed. The division moved to France in August 1916 after shuffling its slate of proposed infantry battalions.

The demands created by the organization of the two new overseas divisions and the necessity of maintaining in the United Kingdom an adequate number of reinforcement battalions (one for every two battalions in France) were met by an increasing flow of infantry units across the Atlantic. Although in the first two months of 1916 a shortage of accommodation in England restricted troop movements from Canada, by the end of June forty-two infantry battalions had sailed. Meanwhile the total establishment of the armed forces had been doubled.30


Major-General M.S. Mercer
(LAC photo)

Canadian Operations January-March 1916

In early 1916, the 1st and 2nd Divisions moved to the Ypres Salient. "By then, the land had been levelled and rendered desolate. Only grey, shrapnel-shredded trunks remained of green woods, and the natural drainage of the land had been destroyed so that streams flowed into the trenches. shell holes and churned mud made bringing up supplies and other movement hazardous."31 The Canadian Corps, now consisting of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd 2nd Canadian Divisions, held positions from Ploegsteert to just north of Kemmel during the early winter months of 1916, and cold, damp weather caused great misery well into March 1916. Heavy rain caused flooded trenches, and cold biting wind added to the discomfort. Despite no periods of major action, in January, February and March 1916, 546 Canadians were killed and 1,543 were wounded, mostly by German shellfire.32 Additionally, three had been gassed and one Canadian taken prisoner, while there had been 667 accidental and other non-battle casualties, 20 of which had been fatal. " In spite of weather and living conditions the health of the troops was good; though there were cases of influenza, paratyphoid, and trench feet."33

Morale, however, remained remarkably high despite the relative inactivity, the constant discomfort and the steady losses. Some escape was occasionally possible, as the troops were now permitted short periods of leave in the towns in the rear area where they could drink plentiful quantities of rough vin rouge. But one of the new amenities most welcomed by the troops were the improvised laundry facilities now being set up alongside the Divisional baths. When they did get the rare luxury of having a shower, the men no longer had to put on damp and filthy uniforms.34

The Corps formed part of the British 2nd Army, its front immediately south of the Ypres Salient. The 3rd Division rotated brigades and battalions into the line in relief of the 1st and 2nd Divisions to gain experience, but due to the length of the front they were required to hold, tours of duty were frequent for all units and time out of the trenches was short. A battalion might typically serve six days in front line trenches, then six days in support trenches, then finally six in reserve where billets, baths and for some even films and entertainments awaited, such as the 3rd Division's "Dumbells" concert party which was formed in March 1916.35


3rd Division "Dumbells" (LAC photo)

The Canadians were ordered to comply with a general policy of "wearing down" the Germans by sniping, trench raids and surprise artillery shoots.36 Canadian snipers, like their British counterparts, were initially hamstrung by a lack of proper equipment. Sniper rifles were in short supply and actually considered "trench stores" - in other words, they were not issued to individuals, but to units, and left in the trenches to be turned over when a battalion relieved another for its tour of duty in the front line.37 There had also been no standardized pattern of telescopic sight at the outbreak of war and a variety of equipment was used, from both Canadian and British sources. Some of Canada's leading snipers used no telescopic sights at all, relying only on the standard aperture sight of the service rifle.

On 2 January 1916 the 25th Battalion (of the 2nd Division) used hand-held wire-cutters during a raid on enemy trenches. The cutters were a recent introduction into the collection of trench warfare equipment, and as a counter-measure, the Germans began using tempered steel in the construction of wire for use in obstacles, making the cutting of wire by hand much more slow and difficult. Picked men of the 28th and 29th Battalions launched a raid early on 31 January in the centre of the Canadian sector, and 30 men from each battalion cross No Man's Land to shower the enemy trenches with bombs, taking three prisoners for a loss of two killed and ten wounded. More significantly, three German regiments were positively identified. In Sir Douglas Haig's first official Despatch on 19 May 1916, 95 units and formations were mentioned by name for "good work in carrying out or repelling local attack and raid" and six were Canadian, including the 28th and 29th Battalions, as well as the 7th Battalion who had raided across the Douve in November 1915.

The two Canadian raids illustrated the phases through which patrolling in trench warfare had progressed. The casual encounters of hostile parties in the dark, which marked the first stage, had given way to the organized trench raid by night, the pattern of which the Canadians had set. The summer of 1916 was to see the third and final stage - the daylight raid.38

As the Germans prepared for their offensive against the French at Verdun, they launched a series of diversionary attacks in other areas of the front between 8 February and 19 February. One of these occurred at "The Bluff" which was a tree covered mound on the north bank of the Ypres-Comines Canal. The British 5th Corps lost the low heights in bitter fighting on 14 February, but 17 days later a well-executed British counter-attack took it back. Canadian participation was restricted to artillery support, as well as extending the line of the Canadian Corps 700 yards towards the outskirts of St. Eloi by relieving 5th Corps units, beginning on 17 February. The first Military Medal, created in March 1916, to be issued to a Canadian went to Corporal R. Millar of the 1st Battalion for bravery under fire on 18 March 1916.39

St. Eloi Craters

Mine warfare had also progressed during 1915, and by the start of 1916 commanders on both sides of No Man's Land recognized the practice of tunnelling and mining as important factors in the siege operations characterizing military activities on the Western Front. Mining had been prominent in the fighting for The Bluff, and the work of British sappers would lead to a costly and frustrating operation for 2nd Canadian Division.


Captioned on the LAC website as "Crater on the Bluff looking toward St. Eloi." (click to enlarge).
Ammunition boxes and what looks like a German helmet can be seen in the middle ground.
The desolation of the terrain is apparent; by mid-1916, No Man's Land on the Canadian front had been shattered to a
treeless morass. LAC photo

German sappers generally operated 10-30 feet underground, exploding mines under British trenches or using lightly charged camouflets to destroy installations without creating craters. British countermining was done at the same depths initially, and also aimed at destroying German galleries. In time they found the Germans lacked the skill to operate at greater depth and so the British began their own mines farther back, and at depths of 50-90 feet. By December 1915 more than 20 tunnelling companies had been created in the B.E.F., with a system of training and supervision to coordinate their activities put into place that culminated in the creation in the first mining school in June 1916.

Before the British counter-attack and recapture of The Bluff on 2 March 1916, the 5th Corps was ordered to cut off the enemy held salient created at St. Eloi, a mile south-west of the Ypres-Comines Canal. The salient was 600 yards wide and penetrated about 100 yards north into British lines

Part of the salient here was elevated 10 to 20 feet above the surrounding water-logged area. At the western end of this rise was "The Mound"-a clay bank coveringhalf an acre which had been formed by the overburden from a brickfield nearby. Its original height of thirty or more feet had been reduced by much shelling and mining, but as an observation post overlooking the adjacent trenches it was still an important objective for either side. The Mound had unpleasant memories for the P.P.C.L.I., who had had the task of holding it in January 1915, when it was still in British hands. Within this area miners on both sides had waged an almost continuous battle throughout 1915, laboriously driving their sheeted galleries through the shifting quicksands below no man's land and the opponent's trenches. Altogether 33 mines and 31 camouflets had been blown in a space of ten acres.

To offset the enemy's aggressive activity near the surface, British tunnellers had in August 1915 begun sinking three shafts 50 to 60 feet deep, running galleries forward well below the sand. So quietly did they work and so skilfully did they conceal the spoil from the tunnels that the enemy's suspicions were not aroused. Early in March they were under the German positions. On a front of 600 yards six mines (numbered consecutively from west to east), with charges ranging from 600 to 31,000 pounds of ammonal, were in readiness to initiate the British attack by blowing up The Mound and the enemy's front-line trenches. Staffs were confident that the outcome of the mining would ensure the success of the operation, even if the approaching spring weather should fail to improve the deplorable conditions of sticky mud and water-filled shell-holes and craters through which the infantry must assault. Capture of the objectives would reverse the salient by securing a new line which would thrust south into the German position to as much as 300 yards from the existing British trenches.40

Rejecting plans for the British 3rd Division to carry out an assault at St. Eloi (when first planned, they had been fresh but by mid-March were much depleted and of doubtful use) and so General Alderson proposed accelerating a planned relief of the 5th Corps by the Canadian Corps and using the fresh 2nd Canadian Division. The British troops had rehearsed on a course simulating the actual terrain and time constraints left no ability for the Canadians to do the same: each day of delay meant risk of discovery and/or counter-mining by the Germans. A compromise was struck in which the 3rd Division provided the assault troops, but the Canadians relieved them as soon as the objectives were taken.

At 4:15 a.m. on 27 March 1916 a barrage of 41 guns and howitzers opened the battle, and the six mines were fired in sequence, blotting out landmarks and collapsing trenches on both sides of the line. Two companies of the 18th Reserve Jäger Battalion disappeared as Mines 2, 3, 4 and 5 went up and with it the remains of The Mound collapsed into Mine 3. Mines 1 and 6 failed to reach the German line and remained in No Man's Land.41 Crater 3, the largest of the new landmarks created by the mine explosions, was 15 yards deep and over 55 yards across at its widest point. Craters 2, 4 and 5 were smaller, but only slightly. The lip on each crater rose as high as six yards above the surrounding ground, and the debris blocked lines of sight from the former British front line.42 The British 9th Brigade assaulted with two battalions, capturing Craters 1, 2 and 3 and their objective of the German third line 200 yards beyond. On the British left, only Crater 6 and a smaller hole from earlier fighting (later referred to as Crater 7) were taken. The devastation wrought by the mines resulted in mass confusion and troops on the left thought that they secured Craters 4 and 5 when in fact, neither British nor German troops were in possession of the holes. The 3rd Division remained oblivious to the fact the Germans had moved up troops to Crater 5, though on 30 March they did establish a machine gun post in Crater 4.

Nearly a week of fighting followed until the last uncommitted battalion of the 3rd Division took back Crater 5 on 3 April, with only Point 85 remaining to be taken. Point 85 was a machine gun emplacement at a trench intersection 150 yards to the south-west which had become a key location through which German counter-attacks were mounted. German losses in the first three days of fighting had been 921 by enemy accounts, with about 300 men being killed or buried by the mine explosions - and would have been higher if not for careless security by British sappers and soldiers who gave away the operation with poor field telephone discipline, loose talk in civilian establishments, and permitting tell-tale underground noises to escape.

Every battalion of the 3rd Division had required to rotate through the craters, to withstand shellfire, long duty either standing or crouching in water-filled holes, some waist deep, with no prospect of rest. On 1 April the relief of 5th Corps was accelerated due to the exhausted nature of the division, and on the night of 3-4 April the Canadian Corps exchanged places with the 5th Corps, moving from a sector of line to the south, the Canadians assuming command at 12:00 pm on 4 April. As there was an unwillingness to register new artillery during ongoing operations, the British 3rd Divisional Artillery remained in place, along with mortars, a battery of Vickers machine guns and 24 Lewis guns. The occasion marked the first time an entire corps had relieved another, and on an active battle front. Because of the Canadian government's wishes to keep its divisions together as a national contingent, the practice became the rule rather than an exception to standard practice for the Canadians. The Canadian Corps would move as one.43

Another first occurred on 4 April when the 6th Canadian Brigade took over a section of line from the British 76th Brigade wearing steel helmets for the first time. Like telescopic rifles had been when first issued, these were considered "trench stores" and were issued to units rather than individuals.44 The first issues were done on a scale of just 50 per company.45

The 27th Battalion went into the line next to the corps right boundary, occupying 1,000 yards of front running east opposite Craters 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5. The line was badly damaged and amounted to little more than a ditch, proving hard to identify. The 250 yards opposite Craters 4 and 5 were supposed to hold 12 Lewis gun posts, but only four could be found. The 27th Battalion defended this area with bombing posts linked by patrols. Their sector was also an ideal target for German shell fire and enemy observers on Wytschaete Ridge, with the sun to their backs for the majority of the day, could observe Canadian movements them at will while British observers had no commanding positions and could see only the lips of the craters on the sky-line, meaning that only when the sun was low could individual craters be seen by their shadows with the front line lying in the dead ground beyond.46

On the east side of the salient single companies of the 31st relieved three entire exhausted British battalions: "A" Company took the right sub-section over from the 12th Yorks, "B" Company the centre from the 4th East Yorks, and "C" Company the left from the 7th King's Own Shropshire Light Infantry. Their relief was effected under heavy shellfire and they also occupied trenches that offered little protection, with obliterated communications trenches and dugouts.47 The craters themselves had not been occupied by the 3rd Division, being considered too dangerous since German guns and mortars could easily target them. Since they were on higher ground they had the advantage of being relatively dry and the Canadian brigade commander, Brigadier-General Ketchen, planned to fortify them.48


One of the craters at St. Eloi, likely taken long after the battle.
 Horses and men can be seen on the road on the far side. (click to enlarge).
LAC photo

The original front line that the 3rd Division had attacked from was now the 2nd Division reserve line, but it had been obliterated for a distance of 1,000 yards, beaten down and drenched, every shell hole turned into a pond and some trenches with as much as three feet of standing water. Communication between the captured German line and the rear was non-existent save for what existed around the flanks of the system of craters. The four centre craters had been created in such proximity that they were an impassable obstacle, the largest being 50 feet deep and 180 feet across.

In spite of these disadvantages General Turner felt that, given time, "we could make a pretty good line of the position selected, but that a very great amount of work would be required". The advice of the commander of the outgoing division, based on some experience in crater-fighting, was "to make good the [new] front line and wire it ... dig a support line in front of the craters and wire it ... provide communication trenches between old and new front lines ... make tunnelled dugouts in the rear exterior slopes of the craters as soon as the earth had consolidated sufficiently ... make and maintain dummy trenches round the lips of the craters to induce the enemy to waste ammunition by shelling them. Brig.-Gen. Ketchen was not in agreement with this proposed scheme of developing field works. The 3rd British Division, handicapped by the impossible ground and weather and the enemy's harassing fire, had made little progress on such a programme. Although two communication trenches had been dug, only one was still recognizable by the time of the hand-over. Ketchen was concerned over the extreme vulnerability of the new trench line and wanted instead to occupy and fortify the craters as the main defensive position - which is exactly what the Germans later did. But there was no time to change policy or to arrange for the men and materials required for such a task. The work of consolidation was attacked with energy. During the first two nights the 2nd Canadian Pioneer Battalion, under engineer direction and assisted by large parties drawn from the 4th and 5th Brigades, toiled vigorously to improve the defences. Firing positions in the captured German trenches which formed the front line were reversed, pumping slightly reduced the water level, British wounded were evacuated and the bodies of British and German dead were removed. A support trench running eastward was started south of the line of craters. Throughout 4 and 5 April the whole of the Canadian front line came under almost continual bombardment. The intensity of the German fire was described by a British artillery officer who had been in the Ypres Salient for the past year as far greater than any he had hitherto experienced.49

The sectors of both the 27th and 31st Battalions were punished by the German fire, 200 yards of trenches in the 27th Battalion's area were completely blown in.50 The history of the 31st Battalion described the shell fire as "intermittent" and "less severe than the bombardment of the previous night" but recorded that "it was sufficient to keep the men on edge, and prevent sleep" then noted that a violent bombardment resumed at 07:00 a.m. on 5 April. During the day 26 casualties were suffered by the battalion.51

When shellfire destroyed the sandbag parapet in front of a 31st Battalion trench, they were enfiladed by German machine guns at Point 85 and exposed to sniper fire from German positions only 150 yards distant. By this point, troops had managed to dig individual slit trenches in the mud but casualties had mounted in the 27th Battalion to the point they were were forced to thin their front line to cover it, and contact couldn't be maintained between the two battalions. On the evening of 5 April sniper and observation parties of the 28th Battalion moved into the large craters to attempt to hold them until they could be fortified, but there remains confusion as to which ground they actually occupied. On the night of 5-6 April, the 29th Battalion began to relieve the 27th Battalion.52 Plans to relieve the 31st Battalion were abandoned when it was found to be impossible to do so.53

During the relief, which was carried out over a single communication trench already in use by pioneers and carrying parties, two battalions of Germans made an assault on the craters at 3:30 a.m. on 6 April. Following an intense barrage, the Germans were able to move into positions not yet occupied by relief troops of the 5th Brigade. Attacking astride the road from St. Eloi to Warneton, they moved right between Crater 3 and Crater 4, wiping out machine gun posts. Their eastern wing was temporarily stopped by machine guns of the 31st Battalion, who beat back attacks on Crater 6 and Crater 7, but artillery fire failed to stop the Germans from splitting into small groups and securing Craters 2, 3, 4 and 5. In just under three hours the enemy had regained all the terrain they had lost between 27 March and 3 April.

Counter-attacks went poorly. Bombers of the 27th and 29th Battalions were shot down before they could get within grenade range of Craters 2 and 3. The 31st Battalion was reinforced by the 28th and attacked Craters 4 and 5. Losing direction in the featureless morass, they occupied Craters 6 and 7 and assumed they had taken their objectives. They were then cut off by German shellfire, where no reconnoitring officer could link up in daylight with them. Reconnaissance aircraft were similarly grounded due to weather and no aerial photographs were produced between 8 and 16 April. Troops could see the high edge of Crater 5, thinking it to be Crater 3. An attack on the night of 6-7 April by 75 bombers of the 28th Battalion was held up by German shells and heavy rain. They lost their way in the dark, captured some German patrols, and failed to identify the objective while nonetheless occupying a group of craters north of Crater 4. The 4th Brigade meanwhile relieved the 6th which had lost 617 men in four days of fighting.

On 8 April, Major-General Turner, commanding the 2nd Division, suggested that the Germans be given the same treatment they had meted out and urged a general evacuation from the craters in order to heavily bombard them, or alternately to attack along a wider front in order to present a wider objective for return fire from German artillery. A surprise attack would have been impossible in the small sector and resources were required for the coming Somme offensive. General Alderson, the corps commander, discussed the matter with General Plumers, the Army Commander, who though that only Craters 2 and 3 had been retaken and the Canadians were ordered to hold in place and retake the craters. Work continued on Canadian fortifications by the 4th Brigade and reserve troops while another attack, this time by the 21st Battalion, went in on Craters 2 and 3 on the night of 8-9 April, to be thrown back by small arms fire. Three Canadian battalions tried again the next night, but the 18th, 20th and 21st Battalions once again made no headway.


Another of the craters at St. Eloi. In the distance is Kemmel. (click to enlarge).
LAC photo

On 10-11 April the Germans tried twice to enlarge the salient, but were stopped by Canadian bombers. On 12-13 April, the 5th Brigade relieved the 4th Brigade and efforts turned to improving the front line.54 On 13 April, the divisional commander called off further attacks. It was finally realized that Craters 2, 3, 4, and 5 were in possession of the enemy (it wouldn't be until 16 April that aerial photography finally confirmed it). Nine days of confusion had yielded little gain, and 1,373 casualties.

The sodden condition of the ground, together with the difficulty in determining locations caused by the greatly altered lay of the terrain, were among the reasons for the failure to dislodge the Germans...Blame, of course, had to be placed somewhere. The Army Commander and General Alderson wanted to remove both Generals Turner (the divisional commander) and Ketchen (commander of the 6th Brigade) but in the end - in the interest of not offending Canadian sensibilities - it was General Alderson who would go. On 28 May, he was relieved on orders from Ottawa, supposedly because the government lacked confidence in his ability to hold the Canadian divisions together. There is no doubt he was badly treated. His competence in the field, first as Division and then as Corps Commander, could not be questioned, and it is to him that credit is due for building Canada's field army from a mob of rank amateurs to one that was skilled and well-trained. The new Corps Commander, fortunately, was perhaps even more competent, and grew to be greatly respected by all Canadians.55

Lieutenant-General Julian Byng, who had commanded corps at Gallipoli and in France, arrived to take command of the Canadian Corps on 29 May. He would lead the corps into its most famous battle a year later. Author Tim Cook had a different assessment of the battle. He notes that the G.O.C. of the British 3rd Division was "negligent in handing over inadequately fortified lines to the relieving Canadians" but concedes that "under the terrible German bombardment and vicious trench fighting there was little his troops could have done." He continues:

Ultimately, however, Turner must be held accountable for his neglect of the situation throughout the battle. The 2nd Canadian Division was far from being the shock troops of 1918, and although it was to develop into one of the finest divisions on the Western Front, at St. Eloi it was ill-prepared and ill-led...

...Turner was certainly out of his depth as a Divisional commander, yet his incompetence was overlooked for fear of removing one of Canada's few heroic generals. After the St. Eloi battle the British command, although sacrificing Alderson for political reasons, realized that Turner was unfit to command front-line troops and cleared the way for Sir Arthur Currie to take command of the Canadian Corps.

...St. Eloi was a squalid affair in which the Canadians were trounced by both German commanders and troops. But it was not simply, as one historian has observed, a battle in which "the 2nd Division lost the ground a British division had painfully captured." There were many factors, especially the incompetence of both Canadian and British commanders, which deprived the inexperienced soldiers of the 2nd Canadian Division of a fair chance to defend its position. But just as the 1st Division's troops had a bloody inauguration into the Western Front, so those of the 2nd Division at St. Eloi displayed in defeat the determination and bravery that in time marked the Canadian Corps as one of the finest fighting forces on the Western Front.56

Return to Static Warfare

St. Eloi was actively bombarded by both sides for two more weeks. The 2nd Canadian Divisional Artillery relieved the British 3rd Division's gun on 12-13 April. With preparations for the Somme offensive underway, ammunition for British heavy artillery was restricted and Canadian positions suffered more heavily than the Germans. Craters 6 and 7 were captured by the Germans on 19 April, but the enemy did not occupy them.

Thereafter both sides reverted to static warfare, glad to end fighting under conditions so indescribably miserable. Enemy records give the German losses in the recapture of the craters and the subsequent fighting as 483; between 4 and 16 April the Canadian casualties numbered 1373.

...The struggle for the craters left an important tactical question unsolved. The operations demonstrated that it was possible in trench warfare, given proper preparations and the help of surprise, to seize a limited objective. But they also proved the impossibility of holding out against the volume of observed artillery fire which such a narrow front invited. Future planners still had to decide the best width of front to attack-"small enough to ensure success but large enough to prevent the enemy's artillery making it impossible to hold the captured ground".

St. Eloi was the 2nd Division's first fight, and from it the troops emerged with a sense of frustration. Fortunately this was only temporary, for the Battles of the Somme were approaching, and in September the Division was to prove its prowess and re-establish its reputation by its sterling performance at Courcelette.57

During the fighting at St. Eloi, the remainder of the Canadian Corps occupied positions to their left, with the 1st Division in the centre of the Corps front and the 3rd Division farther north. The Corps sector extended from half a mile south-east of St. Eloi to a point 500 yards north-west of Hooge, on the Menin road. Activity in the 1st and 3rd Division sectors had been mainly shelling, patrolling and sniping on both sides, with attempts to improve positions. Two German mines were exploded on the 1st Division front on the night of 26-27 April, and an attack on the 1st and 2nd Divisions driven off.

While the month of May produced no great battles for any of the divisions in the Canadian Corps, there were nonetheless 2,000 casualties, again mostly due to continual artillery fire. The Germans continued to have the advantage as the British built up their guns for the coming Somme offensive leaving few surplus weapons for the rest of the front. During May 1915 Canadian troops first used wireless to control artillery fire. The "experiment ... was awkward and confused and nearly ended in tragedy, but it marked the beginning of a new system of control which gave more rapid and accurate fire."58

Mount Sorrel
See main article: Mount Sorrel

During this quiet period, the Germans were preparing an attack aimed at the sector held by the 3rd Canadian Division, the high ground between Mount Sorrel and Hill 61 known as Observatory Ridge, jutting into the Ypres Salient for some 500 yards. While Allied intelligence had spotted warning signs of a possible assault, the presence of additional German troops had not been detected and no precautions were in place when on the morning of 2 June 1916 a heavy bombardment was brought down. Major-General Mercer, commanding the 3rd Division, was inspecting the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles with Brigadier-General Williams of the 8th Brigade and was killed by shrapnel while Williams was seriously wounded. Of 702 officers and men, just 76 of the 4th CMR survived. German infantry swarmed forward following the detonation of four mines at 1:00 p.m. and met little Canadian resistance. Mount Sorrel and HIlls 61 and 62 fell quickly, while PPCLI and 5th CMR were able to put up a stand in Sanctuary Wood and Maple Copse, respectively.

The new corps commander set out to recapture every bit of lost ground, and the 2nd Army agreed to provide all the guns in the Ypres Salient for support - 218 artillery pieces. General Currie's 1st Division prepared to smash the Germans with heavy gunfire first, then counter-attack. Planning was thorough, with detailed reconnaissance, aerial photographs, and artillery registered on targets. Units rehearsed their role in the upcoming attack.

On 12 June the entire German line was bombarded, and shells crashed down between Sanctuary Wood and Hill 60 for ten hours. For 45 minutes before Zero Hour, 1:30 a.m. on 13 June, a final barrage fell and the attack went in under a smoke screen in heavy rain. Light resistance was unable to stop the Canadians from regaining almost all of the original, battered front line. The cost of the fighting in June, including the initial German attack as well as the successful counter-attack, was 8,000 casualties.59

Notes

  1. Interested readers may find Barbara Tuchman's The Guns of August useful. The work received the Pulitzer Prize in 1963 for general non-fiction.

  2. Lotz, Jim Canadians at War (Bison Books Ltd., London, UK, 1990) ISBN 0-86124-641-1 pp.24-25

  3. Dancocks, Daniel G. Welcome to Flanders Fields: The First Canadian Battle of the Great War: Ypres, 1915 (McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, ON, 1988) ISBN 0-7710-2545-9 pp.36-37

  4. Ibid, pp.60-66

  5. Ibid, p.37

  6. Lotz, Ibid, p.31

  7. Dancocks, Daniel G. Gallant Canadians: The Story of the 10th Canadian Infantry Battalion 1914-1919 (The Calgary Highlanders Regimental Funds Foundation, Calgary, AB, 1990) ISBN 0-9694616-0-7 pp.102-132

  8. Marteinson, John (editor) We Stand on Guard: An Illustrated History of the Canadian Army (Ovale Publications, Montreal, PQ, 1992) ISBN 2894290438 pp.103-104

  9. Lotz, Ibid, p.25

  10. For a full account see Duguid, A.F. A Question of Confidence: The Ross Rifle in the Trenches (Service Publications, Ottawa, ON) ISBN 1-894581-00-8

  11. Lotz, Ibid, pp.28-29

  12. Marteinson, Ibid, pp.105-106

  13. Dancocks, Welcome to Flanders Fields, Ibid, p.134

  14. Ibid, pp.133-134

  15. Marteinson, Ibid, pp.105-116

  16. Ibid, p.116

  17. Bercuson, David J. The Patricias: The Proud History of a Fighting Regiment (Stoddart Publishing Co. Ltd., Toronto, ON, 2001) ISBN 0-7737-3298-5 p.66

  18. Nicholson, Gerald W.L. Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War: Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919 (Queen's Printer Ottawa, ON, 1964) p.79. The figure of 150 survivors comes from page 116 of Marteinson, Ibid.

  19. Marteinson, Ibid, p.118

  20. Messenger, Charles Trench Fighting (Ballantine Books Inc., New York, NY, 1972), ISBN 345-02456-7 p.52

  21. Marteinson, Ibid, pp.118-121

  22. Ibid, pp.122-125

  23. Messenger, Ibid, p.9

  24. Marteinson, Ibid, pp.126-127

  25. Chartrand, René The Canadian Corps in World War I (Osprey Publishing Ltd., Botley, Oxford, UK, 2007) ISBN 978-184603-186-1 p.11

  26. Marteinson, Ibid, p.128

  27. Ibid, p.129

  28. Ibid

  29. Dancocks, Ibid, p.65

  30. Nicholson, Ibid, p.117

  31. Lotz, Ibid, p.35

  32. Marteinson, Ibid, p.133

  33. Ibid

  34. Nicholson, Ibid, p.121

  35. Nicholson, Ibid, p.119

  36. Pegler, Martin Sniping in the Great War (Pen & Sword Books Ltd, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK, 2008) ISBN 978-1-84415-755-6 p.147

  37. Law, Clive M. Without Warning: Canadian Sniper Equipment in the 20th Century (Service Publications, Ottawa, ON, 2004) ISBN 1-894581-16-4 pp.16-22

  38. Nicholson, Ibid, p.120

  39. Ibid

  40. Ibid, pp.121-122

  41. Ibid

  42. Marteinson, Ibid, pp.135-136

  43. Ibid, pp.121-123

  44. Lucy, Roger V. Tin Lids: Canadian Combat Helmets (2nd Ed) (Service Publications, Ottawa, ON, 2008) ISBN 0-9699845-3-7 p.5

  45. Nicholson, Ibid, p.123

  46. Ibid

  47. Singer, Horace C. (Edited by Carrell Knight) History of the 31st Canadian Infantry Battalion C.E.F.  (Detselig Enterprises Ltd., Calgary, AB, 2006) ISBN 978-1-55059-316-7 p.94

  48. Nicholson, Ibid

  49. Ibid

  50. Ibid

  51. Singer, Ibid, pp.98-99

  52. Nicholson, Ibid

  53. Singer, Ibid, p.99

  54. Nicholson, Ibid, p.127

  55. Marteinson, Ibid, p.136

  56. Cook, Tim "The Blind Leading the Blind: The Battle of the St. Eloi Craters," Canadian Military History, Vol. 5, Iss 2 accessed online at http://scholars.wlu.ca/cmh/vol5/iss2/4 The historian that Cook refers to is Desmond Morton, quoting his book When Your Number's Up.

  57. Nicholson, Ibid, p.128

  58. Ibid, p.129

  59. Marteinson, Ibid, pp.137-138


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