Today, I continue my journey through the battles of the First World War involving Canadians and once again we come to a battle that inflicted terrible losses on Canadian troops, all for barely any gain in ground. Today, I look at the Actions at St. Eloi Craters.
By this point, we were one year into the war and about a year removed from the Battles of Festubert and Kitchener’s Wood, when Canadian saw their first real taste of fighting in the First World War.
By this point in the war, both armies were starting to use mining as part of trench warfare. This meant that advancing troops not only had to deal with cratered land full of mud and grime, machine guns and barbed wire, but now mines beneath their feet. Sappers would often dig under the ground and put explosives under enemy positions and then retreat and blow them up. This caused the fields near the Belgian village of St. Eloi to be covered in craters.
In the spring of 1916, the Second Canadian Division was sent in to the front line at St. Eloi to fight the Germans. Once again, the Canadians were not prepared for the battle and given no time to prepare. This has been a common thread so far in the war if you remember from our last couple episodes.
The plan was that the veteran British troops would go and strike and the Canadians would take over and hold the line.
On March 27, at 4:15 a.m., six British mines were set off one after the other, filling the sky with smoke and debris. It is said that the explosion could be heard in England and with those explosions, the German trenches collapsed.
In the History of the 20th Canadian Battalion, the explosion is described as such,
“We were al lump standing to, waiting. It was a fine morning with not a breath of wind. The stillness was almost unbearable. At the appointed hour the first sound to break the silence was the zoom of a long-range shell, then came a muffled roar. Yellow flame belched from the St. Eloi mound and the earth trembled as the mines exploded. The air was rent with shrieking shells from our guns. The noise was terrifying. It was still too dark to see anything but we tried to follow the advance by the light cast from thousands of flares fired by the Germans. We could see only the flashes from rifles and the explosions of bombs.”
Lord Beaverbrook, relating the battle in Canada in Flanders, would state the following the explosion.
“The explosion of the great mine had leapt to heaven in a colossal shower of yellow smoke and debris. It could be seen from miles away and shook the earth like the sudden outburst of a volcano. The effects of the eruption on a narrow space of 600 yards were tremendous. Trenches on both sides collapsed like packs of cards under the shock. Old landmarks were blotted out and right in the centre of the arc of the bow stretched a line of huge debris.”
The craters would be where the battle would take place. Three craters were quickly captured by the British, and a third was captured in the German line. The British continued to advance in hand-to-hand combat with the Germans for several days until April 3.
The mines reshaped the entire landscape of the area, and four mines blew up so close together they formed a lake 15 metres deep and 55 metres across, making it completely impassable. The British troops were forced to fight in the craters, in the mud often up to their waist, unable to sit down. With high winds and sleet, this made the battle a nightmare for the British’s troops.
At 3 a.m. on April 4, the Second Canadian Division came in to relieve the British.
The fact that the British were exhausted meant that the front line had not been consolidated and was still unsettled.
The Canadians were excited to get a taste of action and arrived at St. Eloi but soon found they were short of steel helmets, machine guns and defensive positions. They also were only given a vague idea of where they were, and where the Germans were.
Nonetheless, they got down to work and the Second Canadian Division improved on its defences and attempted to drain the trenches of water. While working to improve the positions, the troops dealt with constant shelling on April 4 and 5 and hundreds of soldiers were killed.
Private Donald Fraser, a clerk from Calgary, related what he saw there.
“When day broke, the sights that met our gaze were so horrible and ghastly that they beggar description. Heads, arms and legs were protruding from the mud at every heard and dear knows how many bodies the earth swallowed. Thirty corpses were at least showing in the crater and beneath its clayey waters other victims must be lying killed or drowned. A young, tall, slim English lieutenant lay stretched in death with a pleasant, peaceful look on his boyish face. Some mother’s son, gone to glory.”
Frank Maheux, in a letter to his wife, wrote, “We were walking on dead soldiers”
The 31st Battalion would be swarmed by 150 Germans but, according to one major in the platoon, the Canadians “opened up with rapid fire under heavy bombardment and accounted for about 25 dead at close range.” Despite the swarm of Germans, the Canadians hold in that area did not break. The 27th Battalion took over in front of the craters with parties from the 31st Battalion in craters 5, 6 and 7 up to the canal, taking three Germans prisoner.
Lord Beaverbrook would relate, “As one wounded man was seen to fall, Private Smith dashed out to render first aid under the shower of high explosives. He was himself struck down at once. Private Bowden went in his turn to the two men, dressed their wounds and remained with them until they both died, with no cover against the rain of shell except a shovel over his head.”
By April 6, some men had been standing in cold water and mud for 48 hours.
Major General Sir Richard Turner recommended that the troops be withdrawn and a shelling of the craters be conducted, which the Germans were currently doing, inflicting heavy losses on the Canadians. Unfortunately, Brigadier General HDB Ketchen rejected this recommendation.
At 3:30 a.m. of that day, two German battalions descended upon the main road and the Canadians lost communication with each other and were pushed back. By the time the sun rose, the Germans had retaken all the land they had lost since the start of the battle.
By this point, the ground was a patchwork of 17 craters, making the land nearly unrecognizable from just a few weeks previous. For the troops in those craters, if they put their heads out of the crater in daylight, snipers killed them, which made it impossible to get an orientation of the land.
Undeterred, the Canadians fought back with bombs but heavy rain prevented much of an advance. Many troops became stuck in the mud and were shot where they stood. Some of the Canadians captured Craters 6 and 7 again, but believed they were Craters 4 and 5. In this confusion, they were cut off from the rest of the troops and left open to be gunned down by the Germans.
By the night of April 8, the Canadians attacked gain but were once again driven back by the German guns. Constant rain had turned the entire battlefield into porridge of mud. Germans then attacked on April 9 but were driven back by the Canadians.
The Canadians could not relay messages as they were pinned down so leadership did not know what was happening at the craters.
In the book, Stretcher-Bearers At The Double – The History of the Fifth Canadian Field Ambulance, the Action at St. Eloi is described as such.
“The whole St. Eloi scrap was fought on a front of not more than one thousand yards, on ground that had been blasted beyond description by mines and high-explosive shells and churned by continuous rains into a deep morass of stinking, brown, muddy batter. High ground was flattened out and valleys blown high, until the territory bore no resemblance to its former condition. All was mud, corruption and debris. Every shell hole was a fetid pool. Prevailing mists and rain hid landmarks from view or revealed them distorted, location identification was nigh impossible.”
One soldier in the Field Ambulance, identified as Aitken states,
“The story of the craters is like that of most of the St. Eloi battle. One of misfortune for the Second Division. But it s not one of blame. The successive regiments who held the posts were, from the very onset, at a great disadvantage, compared with their enemies. They were not, and could not be, properly supported by their gunners, while the enemy’s artillery was pounding them to pieces.”
For more than a week, in the terrible and miserable conditions of the craters, the two sides shot at each other.
One soldier to die in this battle was Charles Pope, a member of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity at McGill University. In the book on the history of the members in the war, it is stated, “Poor Charlie was killed, without a doubt he was one of the finest chaps and one of the most popular in the battalion. He was struck by a fragment of a rifle grenade, death coming almost at once.”
Stu Allen, another fraternity members, was injured in the forehead but was able to rejoin his unit afterwards. Jumbo Morrow was not so lucky, having been killed instantly by a German shell while out on a night reconnaissance.
Private B.S. Anderson would send a letter home, speaking of his action on April 12 at the craters.
“Swan and I were up on the front line when Fritz made a very heavy and determined counter-attack and we must have been surrounded with horseshoes to have escaped okay. We were both hit several times by splinters but only got little cuts and bruises. At 3 a.m., Fritz began his bombardment prior to the attach on his lost trenches and of course all our communication was cut off in the front line before five minutes, so we had to rely on rockets as a means of communication with the Brigade.”
The letter goes on after an SOS signal was given by the pinned down troops.
“Of course, as soon as the brigade saw the SOS every gun in the vicinity opened up with rapid fire and it was a sight to be remembered to see the veritable hail of shrapnel and heavy shells pouring into Fritz’s lines. Of course, we weren’t alone in that line either and our front line was a miniature hell. That is the only word for it. I think what saved us was the fact that Fritz was using more percussion high explosives than shrapnel. Two lit fair in front of us on the parapet and buried us in sandbags and earth. I couldn’t hear decently for two days with concussion. It’s funny to diagnose one’s feelings during a fight. You forget everything except what’s going on at the time; you don’t feel any fear at all. Of course, there is a certain amount of reaction not he nerves, after its all over, but that soon passes off.”
On April 16, aerial photos showed that the Canadians were in a terrible position and commanders ordered the battle stopped.
On April 17, the Germans attacked again with tear gas and the Canadians once again fought them off. By the end of the night, half of the remaining men in the craters surrendered to the Germans, while have crawled away.
By the end of the battle, the Germans controlled exactly what they controlled weeks earlier but 1,3780 Canadians were dead or wounded.
Following the battle, Lt. General E.A.H. Alderson, who was in charge of the Canadian Corps, was replaced with Sir Julian Byng, a respected British general.
As for the craters left by the battle, the four mines that exploded together to form that large lake would eventually become a fishing spot for tourists with a recreational cabin on the site.
Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, Legion Magazine, Canada War Museum, Wikipedia, History Of The 20th Canadian Battalion, Stretcher Bearers – At The Double, Our Heroes In The Great World War, Five Strenuous Years: The McGill Chapter of Alpha Delta Phi During the Great War,