With Canadians entering into the Battle of the Somme in September at the Battle of Courcelette, they would be thrown back into the fray after several German victories at various locations along the front. This led to the need for Thiepval to be captured so the Germans could be moved off the ridge. It would be the Reserve Army that would take on this task, of which the Canadian Corp was part of.
The Germans had an excellent position on the ridge, which allowed them to see the Allied rear areas on the southern slopes that led to Albert. The front, which extended from Thiepval to Courcelette was split in two with the goal of taking the Thiepval Ridge. The Second British Corp would take the left ridge, while the Canadian Corp would take the right ridge.
The First Canadian Division was given the task of taking trench lines as these trenches linked with the redoubts that the British Second Corp was going after. The Canadians would need to clear Zollern Graben, Hessian Trench and Regina Trench.
Preparations for the attack began three days before the assault with a constant artillery barrage harassing German positions. Tear gas was used to silence mortars on Sept. 24 and the reserve army prepared to attack on Sept. 26 at 12:35 p.m. At one minute before the attack, the machine guns of the British Second Corp and the Canadian Corps began to conduct overhead fire. At Zero Hour, a barrage from 800 guns and howitzers began to help protect the advancing troops. The men would be advancing in full daylight towards a German position that had a clear line of sight on them.
The Canadian troops of the Second Division began to move forward in two waves, followed by a mopping up party, and then two more waves. The Sixth Brigade was immediately successful, with the 29th Battalion taking the enemy front line trenches northeast of Courcellete within 10 minutes. The 31st Battalion would encounter machine gun fire from the Germans and managed limited gains of land. The 28th Battalion was ordered to make another attack on the Bapaume Road with their two remaining tanks. Unfortunately, one broke down before ever making it to the starting line, while the other was destroyed by the Germans after they saw it stop outside battalion headquarters.
The Third Brigade then sent the 14th and 15th Battalions, with both meeting heavy resistance from the Germans. Despite this, the 14th made good progress towards Sudbury Trench and was able to take 40 prisoners and by 1 p.m. the battalion was moving towards the eastern part of Kenora Trench to take its final objective.
In the history of the 14th Battalion, the taking of the objective was described as such.
“It seems that the machine gun barrage gave warning to the enemy of what to expect. Certainly the attack was not an entire surprise, for when the second wave climbed the parapet the enemy had lined his trenches and was firing heavily. In spite of this lashing rifle and machine gun fire, the attack swept into the German line, proof that the battalion had established contact with the enemy being furnished five minutes after zero when 45 prisoners were bundled back to the Canadian trenches. Little desire to fight was shown by the enemy at this stage, the number of dead bodies strewn about indicating that the preliminary bombardment had inflicted heavy losses.”
Unfortunately for the 15th Battalion, they were meeting unexpected resistance from the Germans, while the 31st Battalion was also held up on the left flank of the 14th. This resulted in the 14th being exposed on both of its flanks and the Germans started a heavy counter-attack. Kenora Trench would see a great deal of combat, with Germans sending in bombing parties, and machine gun fire erupting over the next two days. By Sept. 27, the trench will have changed hands twice and by 14th battalion was forced to fall back towards Sudbury Trench.
The fighting in the Kenora Trench is described as such.
“The men of the Royal Montreal Regiment were experiencing a severe test of their courage and endurance. Both flanks remained in the hands of the enemy, as the 31st battalion on the right had been checked short of its final objective, as had the 15th on the left. Three German counter attacks were launched during the afternoon, but these were beaten off and left a number of prisoners in Canadian hands.”
By 3 p.m. of the 27th, with two-thirds of the trench fallen, the only officer alive and unfounded, Lt. Holliday, retired into a reserve trench where he saw to the evacuation of the wounded and issued the order to withdraw.
The 16th battalion would arrive to reinforce him and his men. Holliday then collected 17 men and with these men, went back to take the trench.
The attack with this small force was described as such.
“Amongst his men he distributed seven tins of water, a shortage of which had caused some inconvenience the previous day. What the Germans in Kenora Trench thought when the spectacle of an attack by 17 men presented itself, no one will ever know. Perhaps they imaged that the water tins contained Canadian frightfulness. Be that as it may, the majority fled, some half dozen surrender with little more than a show of resistance.”
The diary of the 16th Battalion, the soldiers came upon a German trench and saw a grizzly scene before them. They relate, “The trench, about 80 yards long, was a gruesome spectacle. The Germans had manned it in force but instead of standing on the fire step to fire over the parapet, they had come out and lain on the slope in front. The shrapnel of the supporting artillery had found the range of this ground to a nicety. A few of the enemy had been killed where they lay, others had struggled to get down into the he trench again, but had been caught by the artillery in the act and they were found by the 16th hanging over the parapet head downward, dead. On the bottom of the trench lay many dead and dying, including a machine gun crew rushing their gun into action who were killed to a man.”
The Second Brigade was required to advance over the highest part of the ridge, with the fifth and eighth battalions attacking on the right and left, and the 10th battalion reinforcing each with a company of troops. Machine gun fire was heavy and rained down on the Canadian troops from Zollern Redoubt and Stuff Redoubt, but the Canadians were able to make it through and they began to take Zollern Trench and Hessian Trench.
By the night of Sept. 26 and morning of Sept. 27, the operation was considered to be a success so far and the British had managed to secure all of Thiepval except for a small corner of the village, as well as the western half of Zollern. Unfortunately, the Germans still occupied the high ground on the Thiepval Ridge.
With that ridge still in the hands of the Germans, the Second Canadian Division was ordered to secure the front line north-east of Courcellete with the First Division was to attack Regina Trench to link up with the British.
It was the hope of General Byng that the Canadian Corp would have Kenora and Regina Trench completely in their hands before the First Canadian Division relieved the Second Canadian Division. Unfortunately, Kenora Trench was lost on the morning of the 27th to the Germans for a second time. The 14th Battalion was sent in to make a final attack at 2 a.m. on Sept. 28. Only 75 men were available after two days of fighting and the attack was hampered by German flares, mud and rain. The assault was called off within half an hour. This one battalion was hit hard by the battle, losing 10 officers and 360 other troops over the course of the entire battle. The 15th battalion would suffer as well, losing two officers and 115 soldiers. Another 10 officers and 213 soldiers had been wounded, one man was gassed and two men were taken prisoner. The 31st battalion would see 60 men killed, 209 wounded and 113 missing.
Kenora Trench would remain in the hands of the Germans for five more days, while the Regina Trench would stay with the Germans until Oct. 21.
A renewed attack on Stuff Redoubt was conducted at noon Sept. 29 with the Third Canadian Division and this would result in heavy hand-to-hand combat and 300 yards of trench gain. By the next day, the Germans had regained 200 yards of the trench.
By the end of the battle, the First Canadian Division had suffered heavy losses, with the total losses in the battle including the British being 12,000.
Lt. Charles Edwards Reynolds took part in the battle and would receive the Distinguished Service Order for an attack on German positions that were firing on the 29th battalions position. Along with Sgt. W.A. Tenant, Reynolds led the attack, killed two German officers and the strong point was taken. Tenant and Reynolds were the only two men to survive from the party.
On Sept. 28, 1916, Clifford Wells would write home to his family in Canada the following description of the battle.
“There was a heavy bombardment on at the time and the sight was so wonderful that I halted my party for a quarter of an hour to watch the show. All around us gun flashes were lighting up the sky, the sound of the guns merging into one uninterrupted roar. Overhead a couple of searchlights were searching the clouds for hostile aircraft. In the distance we could see shells bursting over the trenches, the shrapnel shells bursting in the air with a red flash, the high explosives bursting on the ground with a whiter light. Flares by the score were being shot into the air all along the line, some of them white, some red, some green. It was a sight which no words can adequately describe.”
Lt. James McNeill, who had been the mayor of Vegreville, Alberta, would write home to his wife about the battle stating that the ground was quivering and throbbing and that he was in the midst of the wildest bombardment the world had ever seen. He would sadly lose his life a short time later.
Lance Corporal W.J. Carey, a sniper, would advance with Lt. J.C. Andrews, and begin firing on the German troops until his rifle barrel was red hot. He would be awarded the Military Medal for his work in the battle.
Information comes from CanadianSoldiers.com, Vimy Foundation, Mental Floss, 15th BattalionCEF.ca, Alberta: Past and Present, History of Greater Vegreville, The Story of the Royal Regina Rifles, History Of the 16th Battalion, Royal Montreal Regiment