My original plan was to have an episode about the war effort and propaganda, but I realized that coming off the war effort at home, there would be a lot of similarities, so I decided to push that episode down a little, and instead focus on something I had not talked about for a month, a battle.
Today, I’m looking at the Actions of 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.
Both armies were also 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.
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 all up 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.”
Over a decade later on April 9, 1928, a General Anderson related what he saw after the explosion to the Ottawa Citizen, stating quote:
“What was left of the St. Eloi Mound stood out like the abomination of desolation, on which there did not seem to be a living soul. Where the mound had been was mud and rubbish. The explosion had thrown the wet clay about in huge lumps, mingled with wrecked houses, shattered wagons, torn uniforms and shattered equipment, such as a medley of debris as, for some people made it impossible to reach the base of the mound on foot.”
Lord Beaverbrook, speaking of the battle in Canada in Flanders, would state the following the explosion.
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 craters of water. While working to improve the positions, the troops dealt with constant shelling on April 4 and 5.
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 Canadian 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.
A Major Kitson would report home to the Vancouver Province his experience in a crater.
“The worst of the fighting is when you are on the slopes inside and fighting towards the rim…I can tell you that my own dugout at St. Eloi was only 15 feet away from a German officer’s. We bombed each other repeatedly but could not get results. At last, I got a strong piece of twine and carefully measured it, so that it would just reach my German friend’s dugout. Then I got a 4.7 and tied it to the string and threw it, keeping hold of the string. The bomb dangled over the German’s door and then exploded. He was not home but when he came back there was no dugout and that was the last, I saw of him.”
Lt. Laurie Howard would write home about the battle, stating quote:
Howard would leave the crater on April 13, having only eight hours of sleep in six days. He was sent to England after standing in water for days, mostly losing the use of his knees at the time after a previous injury and his return to the front too soon before recovery. He would return home to Canada soon after.
A member of the Canadian trench mortar battery would write to his brother, which was printed in the Ottawa Citizen. He would say quote:
“I was down in a mine crater this morning. An hour or two previously there had been a heavy rain of shrapnel over it, and small fragments of shell were lying all around. Most of us wear steel helmets in the trenches. In this dugout lay a helmet, crumpled together as though it had been cardboard and in the centre of the crown was a jagged hole about an inch square. On a board nearby was a dark stain. These told the story.”
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 again 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. 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 is 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. It also produced some odd circumstances. One officer related to the Calgary Herald on April 13, how part of his battalion chased a German bombing section around the outside of a crater four times, with neither side retreating. Thankfully, a Canadian contingent of men arrived, bringing a small victory to the battalion at that one crater.
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 attack 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 flares 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 1,378 Canadians were dead or wounded.
Corporal R.N. Siddle would write for Maclean’s on Dec. 1, 1917, quote:
Following the battle, Lt. General E.A.H. Alderson, who was in charge of the Canadian Corps, was replaced with Sir Julian Byng. Byng had extensive military experience and served as a Lt. Col. In the command of the South African Light Horse during the Second Boer War, serving on the front lines and being mentioned in dispatches twice. By the time the First World War came along, Byng was a Major General. He would serve with distinction at the Battle of Ypres in 1914, and Gallipoli in 1916. Field Marshal Douglas Haig would write to King George V after the dismissal of Alderson, writing quote:
“I propose to recommend General Byng for the appointment. I think he will do it well and is sure to be most popular.”
Byng, was shocked to receive command of the Canadian Corps, stating quote:
“Why am I sent to the Canadians? I don’t know a Canadian.”
Byng’s reforms and leadership, including using flexible tactics, played a major part in the victory at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Byng would become extremely popular in Canada and Canadian troops called themselves the Byng Boys.
It could be argued that the appointment of Byng would mark a major turning point in the war for the Canadians.
After the war, Byng would go on to serve as the Governor General of Canada from 1921 to 1926.
As with the battles I cover, I want to look at some of the soldiers who were wounded and killed in this terrible battle.
Lt. Jack Clarke was wounded in the battle when a machine gun bullet hit him just below the left cheek bone, coming out the centre of his right cheek and tearing away the roof of his mouth and injuring his nasal organs. He would spend several months recovering before returning home to Canada. Clarke had been rescued by Corporal Alfred Jones, who died in the battle and was awarded the Military Medal for his efforts. Clarke was the son of A.H. Clarke, a former member of parliament.
Private Keith Suttie would disappear in the battle and was reported as missing presumed dead. Later, Corporal G.D. Drew, who would lose his arm and be taken prisoner by the Germans, only to be exchanged a few weeks later, would report that Suttie had been killed by shrapnel to the head.
Lt. W.C. Bradburn would spend five weeks in hospital in England after shrapnel hit him in the thigh. He was also hit four times by other pieces of shrapnel that had gone through his clothes but only caused slight injuries to his body. When he returned home to Edmonton, he carried a slight limp.
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 Martin Brennan of North Bay Ontario was 23 when he was killed at St. Eloi on April 8. He would die of wounds he received, listed as a compound fracture of his right femur.
Lance Corporal John Campbell of Winnipeg was killed at the age of 21 on April 10, 1916, when he was severely wounded and taken to the No. 10 Casualty Clearing Station, where he would die of his wounds.
Lance Corporal Rex Capreol, the son of a Branch Manager the Imperial Bank in Toronto, was killed at the age of 23 in the battle. He was serving with the grenade company when he was killed.
Private Allen Duncan Day was only 23 when he enlisted with the Canadian Infantry Saskatchewan Regiment in the 28th Battalion. He was hit by shrapnel at St. Eloi and stretcher bearers brought him out of the trenches where he was immediately hit again. He would die before he reached a dressing station.
Sgt. James Fleming had graduated from the School of Practical Science and was working near Winnipeg when he enlisted to fight in the war. He had only reached France in March 1916 but during that time he rendered valuable service by helping extricate a large number of men from a dangerous position. On April 11, 1916, while directing a party of men to repair damages to a parapet, he was shot in the head and died instantly.
Private Thomas Coram was killed in the early days of the battle when he was shot in the back and in the left arm. He would make it to the No. 2 Casualty Clearing Station before he succumbed to his wounds.
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.
Maclean’s would tour the area in 1932, and would write quote:
“Going up the slight grade and following a winding road over the crest, one is soon near St. Eloi. Two water-filled craters are on the right and the ground has sunken where a third was filled when the military made a road there.”
Born on July 6, 1884, William Milne would begin his career as a police officer when he served with the Aberdeen Constabulary in Scotland, serving with Scotland Yard before he came to Canada in 1910.
In 1912, he would join the New Westminster force, after he had spent some time serving as a police officer with the Canadian Pacific Railway police force.
When the First World War broke out, he would enlist and was sent overseas.
On Oct. 13, 1916, Milne was injured in France and admitted to the General Hospital to recover. This was the second time he had been injured in France and he had only recently returned to the front lines after being discharged.
Following the war, he would return home and begin to serve with the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers.
During the Second World War, he became active in the Civilian Defense, and he organized an auxiliary police force of 200 men.
On Feb. 27, 1943, he was named as the new police chief for New Westminster. He would serve until July 11, 1944, when he retired from the force. Upon his retirement, New Westminster mayor W.M. Mott commended him for his efficient work during his short term in office.
He would pass away in July 1969. His funeral was held one day before his son, Dennis, won the Liberal nomination for the Royal City riding. He would not win in the August 27 provincial election of that year.
I will close out this episode with part of a poem written by Lance Corporal W.D. Milne to his mother, about the St. Eloi.
“The silence broke with a terrible shock
The storm came fast and thick
Torpedoes and shells in thousands fell
But men to their posts did stick
For there they were placed and there they stood
And there they fought and fell
There too they suffered, bled and died
For the land they loved so well”
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, Maclean’s, Vancouver Province, Ottawa Citizen, Vancouver Daily World, Edmonton Journal,