It was along a ridge between Hooge and Zwarteleen that Canadian troops would come to Mount Sorrel, a small hill that rose 98 feet into the air, but provided a clear vantage point over the surrounding area. The force that occupied this spot would have excellent observation opportunities over Ypres and the approaching routes.
Held by the Allies, it was the only part of the Ypres ridge that remained in their hands.
Looking at the Canadian positions, Lt. General Julian Byng, the commander of the Canadian Corp, saw that Canadian troops were overlooked by German positions and under danger of enemy fire. To remedy this, he assigned Major-General Malcolm Mercer to draw up a plan to overrun the German positions in a localized attack.
While the Canadians began to put together their preparations to launch an attack on the Germans, the Germans were planning their own attack on Mount Sorrel, with the objective of taking control of the observation positions east of Ypres, and keeping the British pinned down there to avoid them transferring to the Somme. For six weeks, the Germans constructed trenches to resemble the Canadian trenches and trained their attack.
In mid-May, aerial photos showed that the German forces were getting read for an attack.
Bombardments began from the Germans but suddenly ceased on the night of June 1 and 2. The Canadians did not know why, but little did the troops know but the Germans were in No Man’s Land clearing paths through barbed wire and did not want the artillery interfering with the work.
On June 2, the German Eighth Corp began a bombardment of the Canadian positions again. In this initial attack, 90 per cent of the Canadian forward reconnaissance battalion became casualties. The Fourth Canadian Mounted Rifles would be nearly wiped out. Major General Malcolm Mercer and Eighth Canadian Brigade commander Brigadier-General Arthur Williams were doing an inspection on the front line when the attack began. Mercer would be hit three times and die the next day, while Williams would be wounded in the face and taken prisoner. Of the 702 soldiers in the regiment who were attacked, 76 were unhurt.
In the history of the Fourth Canadian Mounted Rifles, the morning is described as such,
“It was a calm, beautiful and noticeably quiet morning. Suddenly, without warning, from a heavenly, peaceful sky broke a deafening detonation and cloud of steel which had no precedent for weight and violence. Every conceivable type of gun, howitzer and trench-Marat around Ypres poured everything it had upon the Third Divisional Front. The most extravagant imagination cannot picture such a downpour of destruction. Even those who had tasted the bitterness of modern warfare were staggered by the violence of this onslaught.”
An NCO with the 42nd Battalion of the Royal Highlanders of Canada, would write home stating the following, “It seemed as though that part of the line had been transformed into an active volcano so continuous were the flashing of bursting shells.”
At 1 p.m. that same day, the Germans would detonate four mines near the Canadian trenches.
The history of the Fourth Canadian Mounted Rifles goes on,
“At 1 o’clock, the bombardment ceased but only as a signal for the preparation for further violence. The ground quivered and gently heaved and then came the volcanic roar of a mine. It hurled into the air a large part of the front line and its defenders. Sandbags, wire, machine guns, bits of corrugated iron and bits of men were slung skyward. After this final eruption, all was quiet, even our own guns.”
The Germans then attacked with six battalions, with another five battalions in support and six more in reserve. In the detonation of the mines, the Royal Regina Rifles would lose 168 men. By the end of the entire battle, the Royal Regina Rifles would lose over 300 men, including three officers being taken prisoner.
Resistance on positions held by the Eighth Canadian Brigade were minimal and for hours both the Eighth and the Third Canadian Brigades were without a leader to help coordinate their defence.
German forces were able to take Mount Sorrel and Hill 61, advancing 1,100 metres.
In describing the attack, one soldier would say the following.
“In bright sunlight, the grey-coated figures advanced in four waves spaced about 75 yards apart. Afterwards, Canadian survivors spoke of the assured air and the almost leisurely pace of the attackers, who appeared confident that their artillery had blotted out all resistance.”
A German historian would praise the bravery of the Canadians after the war, stating,
“It is fitting to stress that here too the Canadians did not surrender, but at their guns defended themselves with revolvers to the last man.”
Another German officer, writing in his diary would say of the battle. “The attack was completely successful. We are in possession of the important double hill. One is proud of the victories which German and Austrians, Bulgarians and Turks, win on all sides. Our enemies after their continual failures must soon recognize their helplessness and make an end of it.”
One trench, called the R Line, was described in one report as the following, “Everything was shot to pieces and the line is just one shell hole after another with beams sticking up in the air, dugouts completely fallen in and parts of the trench buried.”
This attack would be the only time that Canadians guns would fall into the hands of the Germans.
Byng then began working on a quickly organized counterattack on June 3. Two brigades of the First Canadian Division were placed under the control of Brigadier-General Hoare Nairn, who had assumed command of the Third Canadian Division. The counter attack would happen at 2 a.m. of June 3, 1916. Due to issues with the distance to travel, and difficulties with communications, the attack was moved to 7 a.m.
The signal of the attack would be six green rockets. Unfortunately, some of the rockets did not burst, resulting in an uneven assault with each unit leaving at a different time from their start line.
Advancing over open ground in broad daylight towards the Germans, the attacking battalions suffered heavy casualties, failed to regain any lost territory but they did manage to close a 550 metre gap in the line and advance the Canadian front 910 metres from the positions it had retreated to after the German attack.
In the book Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry 1914-1919, it is stated that on the counterattack, the PPCLI would lose Lt. Col. Butler and five officers, Major Gault and another 12 officers including two prisoners of war, and 388 casualties in other ranks.
General Douglas Haig and General Herbert Plumer of the British Expeditionary Force both wanted to expel the Germans from their positions. Not wanting to divert troops from the Battle of The Somme preparations, it was decided to push the Germans out using artillery and the troops available. Artillery began to bombard the German position but the Germans suddenly exploded four large mines under the trenches of the Second Canadian Division, wiping out the Canadian 28th Battalion. The Canadians still managed to hold their position and prevented the Germans from reaching the support line.
Major-General Arthur Currie was then ordered organize a careful attack. Due to the casualties from previous attacks, Currie organized troops into two brigades. Four 30 minute bombardments were carried between June 9 and 12 to make the Germans believe an attack was coming. For 10 hours on June 12, shells fell on German positions constantly. The next morning, 45 minutes of shelling would occur on the Germans and assaulting troops would advance through the smoke screen. The Germans were taken by surprise with this tactic and offered little in resistance. The Canadians were able to take 200 prisoners as a result.
With that the battle was over.
Let’s look at some of the men who took part in the battle.
Roderick Ogle Bell-Irving was a clerk born in Vancouver, the third son of Henry and Maria Ogle. Enlisting at the start of the First World War, he would find himself at the Battle of Mount Sorrel, where he was held up with his company by machine gun fire. With his revolver plugged with mud, he bayoneted three machine-gunners and was struggling with the fourth when help arrived. He would push on with his men, taking command of both attacking companies of the 16th before the battle ended. For his action in the battle, he would be awarded the Military Cross and he would be promoted to command becoming a temporary major on June 10 and an acting major on July 1. He would be confirmed as major on Nov. 15, 1916. Sadly, he would not make it out of the war, dying at Canal du Nord in September of 1918.
Hersey Southworth Smith served with the 25th Battalion and would fight with his battalion at the Battle of Mount Sorrel, losing his life on June 10.
Dennis Colburn Draper enlisted on Jan. 6, 1915 in Quebec and served with the Fifth Regiment Canadian Mounted Rifles. He would receive a field promotion to Lt. Col. At the Third Battle of Ypres after Lt. Col. George Harold Baker was killed. He would later reach the rank of brigadier general and be put in command of the Eighth Canadian Infantry Brigade. He would receive a Distinguished Service Order for his gallantry at the Battle of Mount Sorrel, and would receive a bar on the medal for his work at Passchendaele. His men spoke highly of him, stating, “He was a man who went among his men on the days when ill winds blew.” His men also called him a hard boiled egg but also said, “Neve ra more kindly and sentimental man ever lived.” He would survive the war.
Private A.Y. Jackson of the 60th Battalion would be wounded on June 3, going over the top of the trench. He would later return to the front and become an official Canadian war artist and would paint the haunting canvasses of the blasted landscapes of the Western Front. A member of the Group of Seven, he would become one of Canada’s most celebrated artists.
Captain Percival Molson, the son of John Molson of the Montreal brewing family, and a former Stanley Cup winner, was wounded in the face at the battle on June 2 by shrapnel but refused to leave his troops. In dispatches, it was stated, “Although wounded in the head by shrapnel, Capt. Molson refused to leave the line and remained with his company throughout the action.” He would later return to the front, before being killed by a direct hit by a shell on July 1917. He was awarded the Military Cross before his death.
For John Maxwell of Orkney, Saskatchewan, he had joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force on Sept. 22, 1915 and found himself serving with the Canadian Mounted Rifles during the battle, where he would be wounded on June 2, 1916. While in hospital in England, he would meet Ethel Trower and they would eventually marry and move to Regina.
Sergeant R. McIntyre would be wounded twice in the battle but would also continue fighting and be mentioned in dispatches for his “excellent work” and for “setting a splendid example”
For literally no advancement, except preventing the Germans from pushing farther into the Allied area, the Canadian Corps would see 8,430 Canadian soldiers killed, wounded or missing.
The British Official History of the war would state the following of the battle.
“The first Canadian deliberately planned attack in any force had resulted in an unqualified success.”
Information for this piece comes from Wikipedia, The Canadian Encyclopedia, Great War Album, Canadian Soldiers.com, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry 1914-1919, the Story of the Royal Regina Rifles, Orkney Stories, Fourth Canadian Mounted Rifles 1914-1919, The Royal Highlanders of Canada,