For two and a half months, the terrible Battle of the Somme had been fought on the Western Front but at this point, beyond the Newfoundlanders, there had been no Canadian troops taking part in the overarching battle, which would last from July 1 to Nov. 18, 1916. That would change beginning on Sept. 15 when the Canadian Corps took part in the Battle of Courcellete.
After an entire summer, commanders had been desperate for reinforcements because of the heavy casualties in the Somme offensive. In the first day of the battle alone, 57,000 British soldiers and 700 Newfoundlanders had died.
Those reinforcements would come from several Commonwealth countries, including New Zealand and Canada.
On Sept. 15, three divisions of the Canadian Corps would launch an attack on the German lines in order to capture the small village of Courcelette.
This battle would mark the first time that tanks were used in warfare. Six tanks, with one in reserve, The tanks were slow and difficult to move but they had a terrible effect on the morale of the Germans, who saw them as giant killing machines. Only one of the tanks would reach its objective in the battle, with the rest failing because of getting stuck on obstacles, being disabled by shells or failing because of a mechanical problem. Even with those problems, tanks could roll over barbed wire and fire artillery and machine guns. Many Germans surrendered as soon as they saw the tank approach.
The first glimpse of the tanks by several Canadian troops was relayed in the history of the 42nd Battalion, the Royal Highlanders of Canada.
“Tanks were first used on Sept. 15 and the glimpse which officers of the 42nd had of them the evening before was the first any member of the Battalion had actually seen through strange tales of a new and fearful weapon had been whispered about for some time before. Those who saw the tanks that night will not soon forget the spectacle. Two of the 42nd officers horses were stampeded as were many others along the road and morale of all the troops was high at the prospect of what was in store for the unfortunate enemy on the morrow.”
Fred McKenzie would write in his book, Through The Hindenburg Line, the following about the tanks:
“I do not wonder that some of the wounded at Courcelette, half delirious with pain but yet able to move, crept up towards the tanks as they lumbered slowly back on that day, and stroked them and babbled over them and spoke to them endearingly as if they were living things. They realized that mechanical genius had come to their aid, to save som of the fearful slaughter which advanced in the past had too often meant.”
Another important innovation at this battle would become a Canadian staple in battles, and one that would help turn the tide for many Allied troops in the coming years. It was the creeping barrage, which allowed troops to move forward as artillery fell in front of them, obscuring their approach and forcing the Germans to take cover. Often the shells would fall only 91 metres in front of the first line of troops.
At 6:20 a.m. on Sept. 15, the second and third Canadian divisions began to attack the German lines, accompanied by a tank, for the first time in the war, while a creeping artillery barrage moved in front of them. Unfortunately, the barrage malfunctioned and lifted 100 metres before the German line, leaving the Canadian troops open to German machine gun fire.
With the barrage, despite the failure, and tank, the Canadians were able to overtake the German trenches and a sugar refinery by 8 a.m. At the sugar factory, Canadian troops were able to take 125 Germans prisoners.
In the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry War Diary, the following is written for that day.
“Battle of Courcelette. Second Division attacked at 6 a.m. and captured sugar factory. PPCLI moved up to Usna Hill at 9:30 a.m. and took part in surprise attack at 6:15 p.m.”
The Second Canadian Division attacked astride the Albert-Bapaume Road with the objective of taking the trenches in front of village, while the Third Division attacked on the left to provide flank protection. General Byng then decided that he could either halt the attack or continue with the second attack to take the village. He decided that he would take the village.
At 6 p.m., the French Canadian 22nd Battalion and the Nova Scotia Rifles attacked and captured the village with the help of two tanks and hand-to-hand fighting. The decision by Byng meant the troops attacked the village while medics were still removing men from the battlefield. They also attacked in full daylight with very little in the way of artillery. The troops advanced two kilometres to the outskirts of the village, sustaining heavy casualties. Over the next three days and three nights, the Germans would launch counterattacks, all of which the Canadians were able to push back. The Canadians were low on food, water and ammunition and had to use salvaged ammunition from German weapons that had been left behind. On Sept. 17, the men received their first meal in three days after getting a supply of water and food. They were then ordered to attack the German trench on the outskirts of the city. On Sept. 18, the First Canadian Division under Major General Arthur Currie would relieve the Fifth Brigade on the front line and would continue to fight off German counter-attacks on the village.
Robinson Perry would write a book, the Turning Point: Battle of the Somme, and he would write the following about the Sept. 15 battle.
“Our attack was delivered at six o’clock in the morning on a front of about six miles, the thrust being delivered generally northwards on a line pivoting on the left of the Bapaume Road. At one narrow point on the front we were held up by a strong redoubt throughout the day. At one point, in High Wood, we were delayed and had hard fighting for some hours. Everywhere else in the whole front we swept all before us, shattering the German third main line of defence and making an advance of from one to two miles. By the end of the day we had taken 4,000 and three new villages. It was a victory on a thrilling scale.”
The victory was a rare one for the Allies during the Battle of the Somme but it came at an incredibly high cost. Over 7,000 of the Canadian troops were casualties, over half would occur within the first 30 hours of the battle.
Lt. Colonel R.P. Campbell, who was called by his men “the dear little colonel” was killed by a piece of shrapnel hitting his chest. He would live for 20 minutes before passing away.
Among the medics at the front, there was a dressing station nearby that was in full operation with 12 surgeons working day and night, 12 in each shift, at 12 different tables. In relating about the pressures of the medical officers, it was stated “At the height of the action the officer in command worked for 72 hours without sleep, with the steadfast Yorkshire courage that made him the admiration of men. After three days and three nights, he lay down upon a stretcher amid the debris.
In the French-Canadian Battalion, 800 men took part in the assault and only 118 would remain after three days of fighting. The Fourth Canadian Rifles, which played a major role in helping to take the village, would see two officers and 32 men killed, and four officers and 52 wounded. The 21st Battalion Eastern Ontario Regiment would see 27 officers killed or wounded, along with many soldiers. The 31st Battalion would suffer 63 dead, 131 wounded and 53 missing.
In talking about the battle Lt. Col. Thomas-Louis Tremblay of the French-Canadian Battalion would say, “If hell is as bad as what I have seen at Courcelette, I would not want my worst enemy to go there.”
While this was the first Canadian battle in the Somme, it would not be the last. By the time the battle ended in November, Canadian casualties would number more than 24,000, representing 24 per cent of the total Canadian fighting force at the time.
I’m going to look at some of the fallen from the battle now.
Captain Jimmy Bertram was the president of the McGill Chapter when war broke out and he went to France to serve with the 20th Battalion, joined by his friend Captain Frisco Morkill, who was the machine gun operator. Bertram was serving as the staff captain of the First Infantry Brigade when on Sept. 22, after the attack was done, he was killed while out on reconnaissance by a shell. His friend, Captain Morkill, was killed on Sept. 15 when he went over the top after the signal had been given. He was shot in the head while assisting another office. Prior to his death, Morkill asked that if he were to die, he wanted the following printed on his grave.
“I believe that I am only one of countless thousands that have died content that England live.”
William Souter was a young man from Saskatchewan who had served with the North West Mounted Police when he enlisted to fight oversees and joined the 53rd Battalion. In the battle, he would be severely wounded in the side and had to spend the next year of his life in the hospital. He would return home and work as a fireman for the CNR until 1934.
Lt. Alan Routledge was part of the advance and would be severely wounded in the attack but took time to write about his experience, before sadly dying from his wounds five days later.
“Just in line to let you know that I am down here near the base, in hospital, and am getting on quite well. My wounds though not serious are very painful and I have to keep very quiet. There is some metal still left in me, which they will dig out one of these days I suppose. They also discovered a shrapnel wound in my back that I was not aware of, it does not amount to much though. I have not seen the latest casualty lists, but before they took me out I gathered we had about six officers wounded and of those, three company commanders. I hope that is not the case. The Battalion did wonderfully well as I was sure they would. The men went across as if they were on parade. We certainly had rotten luck with the bombers. I had one NCO and two men hit before we left the assembly point.”
He continues in his letter.
“I cannot speak too highly Sir of the courage my bombers displayed. They were splendid and I could not have wished for better men…They are going to send me to Blighty after my operation I believe so I am afraid it will be a month or so before I can get back to the Battalion. I hope that when I am well enough to come back that you will ask for me as I should not enjoy going to any other unit after being with the 42nd.”
The fact he believed he would return to the front, but would in reality die only days after the letter, is truly tragic.
Some of the major medals awarded to Canadian soldiers during the Battle of Courcelette include:
Captain Joseph Henry Chapelle of the 22nd Battalion was awarded the Military Cross for the capture and defence of the village against 13 counter attacks. He was wounded in the defence and continued to fight. He would later be promoted to Lt. Col. And before being diagnosed with shell shock in 1917 and allowed to leave the army.
Corporal Arthur Fleming of the 26th Battalion would lead a party that captured the enemy strong point in the village. By the end of the battle four days later, only Fleming and one other man remained alive.
A Victoria Cross, the highest medal, was awarded to Private John Chipman Kerr, who took 62 prisoners by himself, as well as over 200 yards of trench, with only a rifle during the second day of fighting. He would lose the fingers on one hand in the process, but would survive the war and return to his home in the Peace River area of Alberta.
I want to close out this episode with the story that shows that even those on the other side of the war were humans just fighting for their country. In the book The Battles of the Somme, William Heinemann says of two Germans who were captured in the battle.
“Two German doctors helped to dress our wounded and worked bravely and steadily under shell fire for many hours. One of them objected to having a sentry put near his dug out. “I am not a fighting man,” he said. “I did not help to make this war. My work is for humanity and your wounded are the same to me as ours, poor, suffering men, needing my help, which I am glad to give.”
Information comes from Wikipedia, the Canadian Encyclopedia, WarMuseum.ca, Canada.ca, VimyFoundation.ca, Five Strenuous Years, Prairie Reflections, The Medical Services, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Roll Of Honour, Governor General’s Foot Guards, Alberta Past and Present,