The Battle of Kitcheners’ Wood

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Just over one month after Canada had its first taste of battle with the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, the soldiers in the Canadian divisions had gone through minor skirmishes, including at St. Eloi on March 14-15, just after the Battle of Neuve Chapelle.

As of yet, most of these skirmishes had seen small numbers of casualties. At Neuve Chapelle, the Canadians had 300 casualties but that was far less than the Indian and British divisions suffered, with the dead numbering in the thousands.

For Canadians, that reprieve from the slaughter of the First World War would not last.

One month after they first saw a large scale battle, the Canadians would be thrust completely into the fray, making their first major offensive operation of the war at a place called Kitchener’s Wood.

First, it can be logical to assume that Kitcheners’ Wood was named for Lord Kitchener, a near legendary figure during the First World War for Britain and Canada. After all, as we learned in the Anti-German hysteria episode, Berlin, Ontario changed its name to Kitchener. The truth is that the wood was where French troops housed their field kitchens, and that gave the grove its name among British troops.

On April 22, 1915, the first poison gas attack of the war would be launched by the Germans on two French divisions. The French divisions quickly broke, unable to cope with the chlorine gas, and this left a gap of five kilometres in the line.

The First Canadian Division was soon pulled out of reserve, where it had been for the past few weeks, and sent in to seal this gap, specifically at a spot called Kitcherners’ Wood.

The 10th Battalion of the Canadian Second Brigade was ordered to counter-attack, and they would form up on the line at 11 p.m. on April 22. The Canadian Scottish 16th Battalion of the Third Canadian Brigade soon arrived on the line and were ordered to support the advance.

Together, the two battalions amounted to 800 men. The 10th Battalion would be Lt. Col. Russell Boyle, a Boer War veteran who challenged anyone who complained about his methods, and had a strict discipline about him. The 16th Battalion was commanded by Lt. Col. Robert Leckie, a Boer War veteran and a graduate of the Royal Military College. Considered one of the most outstanding militia officers in western Canada. He ensured that his battalion, made up of various Canadian divisions, was a cohesive unit with a common khaki kilt. He also earned the respect of his soldiers and ensured they had an extra emergency ration and two additional bandoliers of small arms ammunition before they moved out.

The 10th Battalion was organized in lines that were 30 yards apart, creating four waves of attackers who would move forward shoulder-to-shoulder. Boyle used the formation that was a relic from the War of 1812, and terribly inefficient for the new modern warfare of the First World War. One officer suggested that the men be detached from the main advance in order to eliminated a German position at a nearby farm, which could have fired directly on the waves of advancing men, but Boyle denied this suggestion.

Another issue was that there was no artillery support. The only support would be one 18-pounder gun, which was being repaired. It was moved forward and it could only fire 60 rounds and had no way of being accurate, and simply fired at the edge of the wood.

At 11:46 p.m., the order to advance was given and the 10th battalion covered half the distance from the start line to the wood

According to the war diary of the 10th Battalion, the only sound was the quiet tramp of feet and the knock of bayonet sheaths against thighs.

They soon discovered that their path was impeded by a hedge interlaced with wire.

It was at this point they discovered that no reconnaissance had been done prior to their attack.

Now standing only 200 yards from the German machine guns, the Canadians were forced to break through the wire with their rifle butts.

Once they broke through, the troops ran the last 200 yards towards the woods and attacked the Germans.

Private W.J. McKenna would write about the battle.

“We were told that our efforts were regarded as practically hopeless and that our work was to be in the nature of a sacrifice charge. At midnight, without bombs, machine guns or artillery support, we started to advance…Presently a bullet whistled past, then another and, before you could close an eye, enemy machine guns opened about as hot a fire as you could imagine. Men fell in hundreds, but some of us got there and, when they were facing our bayonets, the Germans were soon beaten and those that weren’t killed escaped as fast as they could.”

According to the war diary of the 16th battalion, it was said about confronting the Germans.

“Many were bayoneted, others surrendered…men were cautioned about dealing harshly with prisoners.”

While they were successful in the attack, the battalions would suffer a staggering 75 per cent casualty rate with 259 men killed, 406 wounded and 129 missing.

The fighting was not done by this point and over the next few days small attacks by the German would be conducted, but they would not take any land as the Canadians and French held firm.

Sgt. H. Hall would say, “An hour after we had dug in there was a terrible concentration of shells sweeping the wood, it was just like a tropical storm sweeps a forest. It was impossible for us to hold the position but instead of retiring, we tried our tactics of advancing and attacking the Germans again. They were digging themselves in two hundred yards in front. We got in a forward position and stayed there until the early hours of the morning. Our colonel was killed and we only had two officers left, we were still losing men from the German artillery fire and our ranks were now so thin that we couldn’t stay out in the exposed position.”

The troops retreated back to the trench line, and prepared for an attack to come through the woods from the Germans.

Private McKenna would add, “Our roll call while we were in our trench was about 360, which means out battalion alone lost about 740 men, all in ten minutes, and we suffered more casualties before we got away.”

It was not for nothing though, at least in the eyes of Hall.

“Our objective had been achieved and the Germans were demoralized. Our first Brigade appeared on the scene and the line was strengthened.”

The First Canadian Division would suffer, as a whole, 60 per cent casualties in the battle and the 10th and 16th Battalions only had 20 per cent of their men make it through without injury or death. One death was particularly notable. Lt. Colonel Russell Lambert Boyle was hit by machine gun fire in the opening attack. The commanding officer of the 10th Battalion, he would die from his wounds days later.

The historian of the 48th Highlanders of Canada, who participated in the battle, would state that the battle was, quote:

“an inferno more terrible than Dante’s. It was a nightmare so awful it seems in memory a phantasy of terror and misery…Above the old town the sky was a livid void, ablaze from the red glow that rose and fell and rose and fell incessantly. The road to the west was shocked with mad traffic, over-run with terror. It was the river of fear and while it flowed on, dying Ypres, behind, would shake to mighty concessions, would glow suddenly and stand with the fallen walls stained against her own blood-red shroud and the vault of flame over St. Julien.”

Colonel Garnet Hughes was criticized heavily for his ill-planned attack and what many in Canada saw as poor leadership.

As I want to do with battle episodes, I want to look at the men who died serving their country. Of course, with so many dead I can’t cover all, but I want to look at a few.

Private George Barker had been originally listed as wounded, and then reported as missing in a cable sent to his mother in Galt, Ontario. It was later changed to wounded and missing. His body was never found and his date of death was listed as April 22, 1915. He had turned 19 in January.

Private William Lester Babcock was only 24 when he was killed fighting in France. He had previously been assumed to be missing and presumed dead but a comrade was able to state that they were captured by the Germans during the attack and Babcock was wounded in the left knee and unable to walk. The comrade then stated that he was bayoneted to death.

Private James Forbes of Revelstoke, British Columbia would conduct a brave act before he died. Forbes had worked for the Imperial Bank before he enlisted, and in the battle it was reported that he, quote:

“saw a comrade fall about 40 yards from his trench. Private Forbes, along with another, got out of the trench and carried the wounded Canadian, whose leg was broken, into the trench and helped in rendering first aid. After the severe fighting, the Canadians were relieved and while a party was in the trench, Private Forbes was struck by a piece of shrapnel in the head and died instantly.”

Private Walter Balfour was taking part in the charge at Kitcheners’ Wood when he was killed. No details were provided for the actual circumstances of the death. At the time of his death, he was only 24 years old.

Sidney Atwill was employed at the Calgary Herald and had previously worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company before he enlisted to fight. When he was killed, he was only 20 years old.

Lt. Guy Drummond of Quebec had enlisted at Valcartier on Sept. 22, 1914 and was sent overseas with the rest of the Canadian contingent. Killed by a bullet during the fight, Colonel John Currie would state of him, quote:

“When he fell Canada lost a valuable and useful citizen. His training, education and charm of manner, coupled with his intense patriotism, marked him for a great career. Major Norsworthy, his friend and comrade, fell by his side.”

Drummond died only two days after Captain Trumbull Warren, his brother-in-law.

Private Christopher Pope was part of the first Canadian contingent and served with the 10th Battalion when he was shot in both his legs as he stormed into the wood. The wounds would prove fatal and he would die in France. He had enlisted in Calgary shortly after war was declared.

Lt. Arthur Lodge Lindsay of London, Ontario had left with the first contingent to the front and after the battle, it was reported that he had been killed. Back home, an impressive memorial service was held for him. A few weeks later, it was stated that he had only been wounded, but his injuries were fatal and he had died. For the people back home who loved him, it was a back and forth of emotions. Prior to enlisting, he had worked as a civil engineer.

James Nasmyth had enlisted with the 46th Durham Regiment in 1900 and spent time in the military as a lieutenant. He would go overseas and fight in the battle with the 10th Battalion where he would lose his life while serving as the captain of the regiment. His wife received the news of his death the same day that her brother-in-law was also reported as wounded.

Private John Morris Williams of Sarnia had been employed at the Spanish River Lumber Yards when he enlisted. Unmarried and 27-years-old, he had been sent to the front and would lose his life at Kitchener’s Wood. No details of his death were given.

Ross Binkley was the head coach of the Toronto Argonauts in 1913 and served as the team captain from 1910 to 1913. While serving in France, he was in command of a machine gun during the attack. The circumstances of his death are related as such, quote:

“They laughed and joked under as terrible a storm of bullets and shells as ever soldiers faced. They never faltered or hesitated a moment. We started to move up in the trenches from four miles back and the last half mile were under fire. It was then that Ross Binkley of the machine gun section was killed by the bursting of a big shell.”

Back in Canada, as can be expected, news of the battle was spoken of highly by the press. The Ottawa Citizen would write, quote:

“Heroic Canadians Saved Day”

The war office would report, quote:

“The Canadians had many casualties but their gallantry and determination undoubtedly saved the situation. Their conduct has been magnificent throughout.”

On April 26, the Ottawa Citizen would announce in a large headline, quote:

“London rings with praise for Canadian valor under murderous German attack.”

It would go on to state in its article, quote:

“Their charge and advance did more than regain one position and recover lost guns. It enabled cohesion of the whole allied front to be re-established. The issue of the battle is not yet complete, there are still German outposts few and weak…but the allied counter-attacks are regaining lost ground under the Canadian left.”

The Windsor Star would state, quote:

“Efficiency of Canadian gunners brings great praise from General French, still hammering away, cold steel used effectively in gaining new positions in Belgium.”

The Duke of Connaught, the Governor General of Canada, would write to Sam Hughes, quote:

“Canada has every reason to be proud of the gallantry of her sons who have nobly done their part in this great struggle for the liberties and the honor of our empire against the tyranny and injustice of German. As an English officer, I am proud of our Canadian comrades and feel that they have brought honor to the British army as well as to themselves.”

Sam Hughes, who was the Minister of the Militia, would state quote:

“They have done what was expected of them. What we all knew they could do and that was their duty. Yes, this dispatch makes us prouder than ever of them. I am sorry that the dispatch says there were so many casualties but we must prepare for these.

Sir Robert Borden, speaking for the government, would announce in a statement, quote:

“The magnificent pluck, gallantry and resourcefulness of the Canadian troops at the front saved a difficult situation as the highest authority has publicly declared. They have proved themselves the equal of any troops in the world and in so doing have brought distinction and renown to the Dominion. My colleagues and I deeply lament the long the of casualties and send our profound sympathy to ever home which is plunged into sadness and sorrow by the tidings that reach us from hour to hour.”

Both the 10th and 16th Battalions would take a great deal of time to rebuild due to their devastating losses.

It was announced in several newspapers that there would be an immediate effort to recruit new troops from across Canada.

Newspapers also began to print the lists of those who had died, which often took up an entire column depending on the newspaper and the location.

Roughly 60 per cent of the men in the 10th Battalion came from Calgary, and at the old city hall a plaque was put up to honour the men who gave their lives in the battle. The Calgary Highlanders also honour the battle every year on April 22, including a dinner, a freedom of the city parade and a church service.

When the war was over, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Allied Supreme Commander, would state that the assault on Kitcheners’ Wood by the Canadians was the greatest act of the war.

Sgt. Charles Herbert Peck

For today’s profile of a soldier from the First World War, I am looking at Sgt. Charles Herbert Peck, who came from Bear River, Nova Scotia to fight in the war.

Peck had originally served with the 69th Annapolis Regiment, before he joined the 17th Battalion in September of 1914.

By December, he had been promoted from Corporal to Sergeant and was encamped at Salisbury Plain. At the time, there were rumours that the battalion would be heading to Egypt.

He would join the 16th Battalion prior to the Battle of Kitchener’s Wood. His diary would serve as an important glimpse into that battle.

He would write of his transfer, quote:

“I am separated from Garnet now. I am in the 16th Battalion. Wall is too damn bad the way they used the poor 17th practically all smashed up. Sam Hughes the old son of a bitch swore that it never would go to the front and he had kept his word.”

At the start of the Kitcheners’ Wood battle, Peck describes the fighting.

“The hardest thing that I have saw is a young fellow from Annapolis Valley. I took a liking to him in Valcartier and keep him with me up to the last. We was attacking in a Woods when the poor fellow was shot through the neck. He could not speak but put out a hand for me to shake it, certainly did get my nerves unstrung for a bit.”

It is not known who the young fellow as Peck never states.

Peck would also speak about the Germans he faced. He would say, “they either run or get down on their knees and beg for mercy and believe me, they get a lot of mercy. The first fellow I stabbed know was in the night and I shut my eyes but I caught him in the neck.”

On May 29, 1915, it would be reported in the Vancouver Province that Charles Peck had been wounded. He would write in his diary, quote:

“That night we got all mixed up lost all our officers we was a week getting back those what came. A large piece of shrapnel struck my pack and took it right clear of my back and god knows where it went to.”

Peck would survive the war, and return to Nova Scotia. In 1920, he would marry and on March 24, 1945, he would die at the age of 63 from a cerebral hemorrhage.

Information comes from Wikipedia, The Path of Duty, The History of Perth County, History of Indian Head, The Story of the Royal Regina Rifles, Legion Magazine, Military and Family History Blog, Ottawa Citizen, Virtual War Memorial,

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