When the Battle of Ancre Heights began at the beginning of October, lasting for over a month, it fell to the Canadians to capture Regina Trench. This trench was an incredibly important part of the strategic plan as it was planned to be the jumping off point for further attacks.
The battle itself was part of the wider First Battle of the Somme.
The Regina Trench was a difficult place for the artillery of the Allies to target as it sat on the highest point of a ridge and the Germans were well defended in the trench.
On Oct. 1 at 3:15 p.m. in the rain, the Canadian Corps attacked the Regina Trench, specifically the Second Canadian Division under Major General R.E.W. Turner and the Eighth Brigade under Brigadier General J.H. Elmsley.
The 18th Battalion diary states quote:
“Zero hour was 3:15 in the afternoon on Oct. 1, and as the Canadians waited in drizzling rain in their advancing positions, many were hit by our own shells falling short all along the line.”
Things got off to a bad start when the Allied shells fell short of the line, doing little damage. The Eighth Brigade attacked with the Fourth and Fifth Canadian Mounted Rifles, all of whom were met with heavy gun fire from the Germans.
As the Canadians approached the Germans, they found that the artillery had not cut the wire and one company was nearly eliminated trying to get through. Another company was also impeded by wires and only 15 men would survive. One company was able to reach Regina Trench but they were quickly overwhelmed.
The 18th Battalion relates quote:
“One company was practically wiped out in No Man’s Land. Part of another reached its objective, but was there overpowered and perished to the last man.”
The Left Forward Company of the Fifth Canadian Mounted Rifles was able to reach their objective, but they were driven away by constant German counter-attacks.
The Van Doos had a half mile advance to make, which they did with three waves of 80 men separated by five yard intervals. By the time they reached a quarter mile, the men were being hit with shells and machine gun fire, and they soon found that the German wire was still not cut. Less than 50 men would reach their objective and those survivors had to contend with close quarter fights with bayonets and grenades.
The 25th Battalion had 200 officers and men who advanced towards their objective, but only 30 made it past the enemy fire to reach the German wire. These men hid in shell holes and ditches before waiting for night so they could return to their front lines.
The Fourth Brigade advanced 400 yards and were hit by machine gun fire. As for the Sixth Brigade, they had entered the line with 1,717 officers and men. When they were relieved on Oct. 2 by the Fifth Brigade, they had only 773 men.
One of the first individuals killed was the son of Canon Scott, who was killed while leading an attack on Regina Trench. Due to the mud and the men behind him, when he fell, his body was buried in the mud of the Somme. His father would come to the area in December hoping to find his son’s body. The Windsor Star reported quote:
“Canon Scott’s duties took him into this front line and night after night, assisted by his faithful batman, he refused the help of officers who were overwhelmed with their own work under shell fire and dug among the hasty made graves searching for his son’s remains.”
He would find the body of his son and he would carry the body behind the lines where he buried him and erected a cross, while giving a prayer for his son.
The Star reported quote:
“Brave father and a brave son were united again for a brief moment.”
The Canadian Corps was ordered to continue the fight but they would be delayed for a week due to bad weather.
The war office would announce on Oct. 4, quote:
“During the night, there was considerable shelling of the enemy, south of the Ancre. Otherwise, there was no change. A heavy rain has fallen since morning.”
On Oct. 5, the 15th Battalion was ordered back to the front after a week’s rest following the Battle of Thiepval Ridge. At midnight, the unit relieved the 58th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in support positions at the ruins of the sugar refinery near Courcelette. Two companies in the battalion would move forward to the front line to take part in the second attack.
On Oct. 7, an official statement would be released stating quote:
“We hold the half-moon upland south of the Ancre and every height of importance and so have direct observation ground to the east and northeast. The enemy has fallen back upon a fourth line behind a low ridge.”
On Oct. 8 at 4:50 a.m., again in the rain, the First Brigade was joined by the Third, Ninth and Seventh Brigades of the Third Canadian Division, each with two battalions. The Fourth Battalion was joined by the Third Battalion. The Third Battalion was able to reach its objective, but the Fourth Brigade was held up by wire. The Canadian Scottish Brigade would be met by machine gun fire at the wires, and only 100 of them were able to reach Regina Trench. One reason the men were able to venture on was because of James Richardson. Richardson was the piper for the battalion and initially he was going to be left behind because his commander did not think a piper was needed for a night assault. Richardson begged to accompany the troops and he was allowed. As the battalion reached the wire that was not cut, and the Germans started to attack, Richardson began to play his bagpipes, marching in front of the men as machine gun fire was directed at him. Amazingly, he was not hit and he galvanized the men with him who ran forward. Later that day, when he realized he had left his bagpipes in No Man’s Land after setting them down to help evacuate the wounded, he went back to retrieve them. He was never seen again. He would be awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions.
It was believed that his bagpipes were lost forever but in 2002, nine decades after the battle, his bagpipes were found. It was believed they were lost in the mud of the Somme but they actually turned up at a prep school in Perthshire, Scotland. Major Edward Yeld Bate had found the bagpipes in 1917 and brought them home after the war. He was a teacher at the school and he put them on display. The bagpipes were unidentified for decades. It was thanks to the Pipe Major of the Canadian Scottish Regiment, Roger McGuire, who responded to an Internet posting and identified the bagpipes based on the tartan. With help from the Canadian Club, he went to Scotland and identified the bagpipes in person. An anonymous donor then bought the bagpipes on behalf of the citizens of Canada. On Nov. 8, 2006, the bagpipes were repatriated to Canada and placed in the British Columbia Legislature, where they are currently on display. As for Richardon’s Victoria Cross, that is on display at the Canadian War Museum.
The Ninth Brigade would attack with the 43rd and 58th Battalions, and finding the wire intact, but small groups were able to make their way to Regina Trench where they were soon overwhelmed by the Germans. In the brigade, 34 officers and 907 other ranks would die.
The Seventh Brigade had better luck, finding the wire cut and allowing two companies into the Regina Trench east of the junction with the Kenora Trench. They were able to take several prisoners but attempts to move west down the Regina Trench were met with Germans who attacked them with grenades and machine guns.
Despite the progress of the day in some areas, the Canadians were forced to retreat from various parts of the trench due to overwhelming German counter-attacks. By the time the sun went down, all the survivors of the First and Third Divisions had returned to their original starting positions, having suffered, 1,364 casualties during the day, double what they had suffered on Oct. 1.
On Oct. 17, the Canadian Corps left the Somme, but the Fourth Division, new to the trenches, would join the British formations and continue the fight for the Regina Trench.
On Oct. 21, the battle once again resumed. This time, the artillery was able to destroy portions of the Regina Trench and the German wire. This allowed the assaulting force to take some areas of the trench.
The battle was described as such, with some exaggeration, quote:
“The usual billowy cloud of shell smoke, vaporously extensive in the cold air, churned and whipped the length of the Regina Trench with the customary accuracy of these swathes of death and tempest and then the infantry was in full possession of the trench.”
The article continues, quote:
“The gunners are smiling at the stars tonight, which promise another fair day tomorrow. The cold weather has transformed the army into a winter chrysalis. The battalions are marching up the trenches all wearing their overcoats. The call is for more chocolate and more slices of bacon frizzling in pans of the dugouts.”
The Montreal Gazette reported quote:
“All this month, Regina Trench has been developing a sinister reputation. It joins the old first line fortifications in the neighbourhood of Thiepval, and anything in that region, with its comfortable dugouts, that Germans like to retain in order to prevent the active battle front from broadening.”
One British soldier would say quote:
“With winter coming on we feel the need of those deep snug dugouts the Germans spent so much time in building.”
For the next two weeks, the weather was terrible, preventing any further attempts to remove the remaining enemy positions and secure the entire trench.
Finally, at midnight on Nov. 10, the final assault began.
The artillery barrage was described as perfect.
The remaining enemy positions were secured and the month long battle of Ancre Heights came to an end.
The Winnipeg Free Press Prairie Farmer reported quote:
“Canadian dash and daring did the rest and once they gained the trench there was a rush of Germans to surrender. Seventeen officers were taken in one batch, an unusually large number to yield together.”
Two unarmed stretcher bearers would also capture 40 Germans themselves. They were looking for wounded and suddenly the Germans came out of a dugout with their hands above their heads. The incident was quoted in the newspapers as such, quote:
“With a fine spirit of bravado, however, one pointed to the dugout door and in tones more stentorian than polite, shouted Get back in there. Meekly, they obeyed and while one of the stretcher men kept guard, the other went for help and a haul of two score prisoners resulted.”
The Third Canadian Division, from Sept. 27 to Oct. 14, suffered 2,969 casualties, while the 18th Division suffered 3,344 casualties from Sept. 26 to Oct. 5.
The Montreal Gazette reported quote:
“Apparently the Germans were taken by surprise and they offered no serious resistance…The attack was carried out on a line extending five miles on both sides of the Ancre against positions which the Germans had held for two years and which they considered impregnable.”
One man killed in the battle was James Franklin. He was one of the first Black Canadians to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He was only a teenager and he would become the first Black Canadian, and Black North American, to be killed in the First World War.
By the time the Canadians were relieved from the Battle of the Somme, casualties were listed at 24,029, about 24 per cent of the entire force.
After the battle, reports stated that command of the Canadian Corps was impossible once the attack began. Recommendations of allowing attacking troops 24 hours to study the ground before attacking, followed by 24 hours in reserve to receive a detailed briefing. It was also suggested that first waves could not carry tools, but instead should have a light load of 120 rounds of ammunition, two hand grenades, two days rations and a ground sheet. Carrying hand grenades was especially recommended in order to destroy uncut wire.
Information from Government of Canada, 15th Battalion CEF, Canadian Soldiers, 18th Battalion CEF, Library and Archives Canada, National Defence, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Cumberland Islander, Edmonton Journal, Montreal Gazette,