Tuesday 2 June 2015

Mount Sorrel

The Canadian memorial at Hill 62 (Sanctuary Wood):
one of the six standard Canadian national memorials
on the Western Front.
The names of Passchendaele, the Somme, and Vimy Ridge are recognizable to most Canadians, if not some of the details, but it’s unlikely that the same can be said for Mount Sorrel, Sanctuary Wood and Hill 60.  While the former represent victories for the Canadian Corps, the latter, collectively referred to as the Battle of Mount Sorrel,  was a near crucial blow to the Canadian Corps in the early summer months of 1916.  

But after the battle had played out, Mount Sorrel demonstrated the strength of the Corp’s new leadership under Sir Julien Byng - an ability and resilience to counter a critical “withering blow” on the battlefield that, if it had not been quickly checked, could have collapsed what remained of the Salient. It also severely bloodied the  battalions of the Canadian Mounted Rifles - including a crippling attack on the 4th CMR, which suffered an 89% casualty rate.

The Canadian positions around Sanctuary
Wood, June 1916 - marked by the brown
line on the map and facing the German line
(dotted red line).
This southern portion of the Ypres Salient, from Hill 60 in the south, northwards towards Mount Sorrel, Hill 61 and Hill 62, and then to Sanctuary Wood and Hooge, was at the apex of the Salient in 1916; in the aftermath of the second battle of Ypres a year earlier it was just a two kilometre intrusion in the German line and the only high ground - a stretch of 3 kilometres, not controlled by the Germans. It was an area in which there was heavy fighting throughout the war and had been held at varying times by the British, the ANZACS and, in May and June 1916, by the newly formed 3rd Canadian Division. 

Today, standing at the Canadian memorial at Sanctuary Wood, its easy to appreciate the value it would offer to both sides. It’s possible, when not shrouded in cloud and rain, to have a clear view of the fields to the east, the German positions on the morning of June 2nd; and to see the spires of Ypres behind, to the northwest.

The German attack on the Canadian held positions around Mount Sorrel at the beginning of June was little more than a localized thrust to capture high ground and give the local German commander a tactical advantage. But with new weapons, the flame thrower, and the savagery of the German artillery barrage on the first day, it was a graphic example of the ferocious fighting that could occur in the Salient at any point in time and with little warning.

“For the last few days, shelling was more constant than usual but no prominence was given to this for the Ypres salient is at all times stormy and every battalion that takes up its abode in this stricken field usually returns to a more peaceful front very much attenuated in numbers. In these days it was a byword amongst the men that one was not a soldier unless he had served on the Ypres front.” Private Donald Fraser, 28th Battalion

On the night of the 31st of May the 8th Brigade, part of the 3rd Division, moved into the central part of the this high ground: the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles taking up position on the right, in the area of Mount Sorrel, the 1st CMR on the left, the 5th CMR in support in an area called Maple Copse, and the 2nd CMR in reserve at Belgian Chateau, a kilometre behind the front lines; the trenches in front of Sanctuary Wood, about 100 metres to the left of the 1st CMR, were held by a battalion of the 7th Brigade, the famed Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, the PPCLI.

From the perspective of the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles, Thursday June 1st was much like any other day in the Salient. The Germans had put over a few trench mortars into the right of the battalion in the morning, and had scored several direct hits on the communication trench when they’d shelled the position in the early afternoon - but it tapered off after 20 rounds had dropped and by evening they were able to report that the day had been generally quiet.

German pillboxes around Hill 60
But looking across the entire sector, the Brigade saw it differently; they reported a considerable amount of shelling throughout the day. In recent weeks there had been growing signs of an upcoming attack, although nothing imminent.  That the night of the 1st/2nd June  “passed exceptionally quietly” raised some concern, as it was often an indication of enemy activity in No Man’s Land - perhaps giving them a chance to cut gaps in their wire. But the guns started up again in the early hours of the morning and it allayed their suspicions; the Brigade reported that “the situation was quite normal.” 

Diary entry for the 4th CMR Battalion for the morning
of June 2nd - a day that started bright and clear.
The next morning, June 2nd “broke bright and clear with a slight Northwest wind”, beautiful and noticeably quiet. While the Germans began the day by firing 20 0r 30 trench mortars on the positions held by the 4th CMR at Mount Sorrel, it didn’t dissuade the Divisional Commander, Major-General Mercer, the Brigade Commander, Brigadier General Williams and members of their staff, from heading on to the front line to inspect the positions. But as they arrived at the front line trenches the Germans began a preliminary bombardment that shattered the morning calm. Shells of all calibre fell along the 8th Brigade positions with “unprecedented intensity” and General Williams and General Mercer were both wounded - the Divisional Commander, first deafened by the explosions, was killed later in the morning as he tried to make his way back to his headquarters, first hit in the leg by a chance bullet and then killed by shrapnel; General Williams was taken prisoner.  General Mercer remains the most senior Canadian officer ever to die in combat.

The pock-marked landscape of Hill 60 - almost 100 years
later it bears witness to the first days of June, 1916.
The shelling of the 8th Brigade front, as well as trenches held by the PPCLI in front of Sanctuary Wood, lasted for close to five hours - during this time there was virtually no communication between the battalions, as connecting trenches were smashed in and runners were unable to get through.  Two pigeons had been released from 4th Battalion H.Q. at Maple Copse early in the bombardment, numbers 1180 and 1136, with messages attached requesting artillery retaliation - the first was killed but the second got through.

The 1st and 4th CMR were the most heavily targeted.  “This sub-sector had now been subjected to an intense and most accurate bombardment for over four hours. The trenches and all defence works had been practically “flattened” out, all communication trenches were blown in and it was quite impossible to proceed along them. By this time the whole garrison of the front and support lines appear to have been killed or wounded and only isolated groups remained.” 8th Brigade Report on Operations

At some point that morning Rex (Reginald) Lawrence must have thought about the irony of his situation. Two years before, in April 1913, he had been lying in a hospital bed in Hamilton, lucky to be alive. The car he had been in had collided with another and he had been thrown out and had hit the pavement. When he and his brother Geoffrey had enlisted together in the winter of 1914, the doctors had not paid much attention to the fact that he was missing a piece of bone in his skull - they were assigned their regimental numbers, 109235 and 109236, and joined the 4th CMR. And here they were being blown to bits by German artillery. 

As the barrage lifted five hours later there was a momentary calm that was suddenly broken by a number of huge explosions along the front as the enemy detonated mines around Mount Sorrel and Sanctuary Wood. “The whole enemy position was a cloud of dust and dirt, into which timber, tree trunks, weapons and equipment were continuously hurled up, and occasionally human bodies". 

Bearing the testament of war - a landscape marked
by artillery shells and mines from later battles
in the war.
The debris from the mines settled and the German infantry, men of the 13th Württemberg Corps, attacked along the line. Their objective was to break through the line of the 1st and 4th battalions of the CMR that had been mauled for five hours and capture the high ground of Observatory Ridge behind Mount Sorrel. “In the centre of the sub-sector the enemy met with no resistance, The garrision had undoubtedly been completely destroyed and all machine guns buried.” 8th Brigade Report on Operations 

Around Sanctuary Wood, to the left of the 1st CMR, the PPCLI had been pushed off the front line, but they put up a sustained resistance that would last several hours; but the Germans had already captured their objective and created a massive gap in the Canadian lines that, if not contained, would threaten control of the Salient.  Back and forth fighting would continue for the next two weeks until June 13th when the Canadian Corps mounted a co-ordinated counter-attack that enabled them to recapture much of the ground lost from the June 2nd attack.

Headstone of Private G.B. Brake (4th CMR):
"Not Dead: Oh No! But bourne beyond the
shadows into the full clear light"
During the afternoon and evening of the 2nd about 45 men from 4th CMR reported at the 8th Brigade Headquarters from the front and support lines.  It was another day before the Battalion regrouped and when they mustered for parade on the morning of the 4th, only 73 men from the front line answered their name - only one officer and twenty four of the 680 men were unscathed. 
Sometime on the 2nd, during the bombardment, when the mines went up, or while the Germans were mopping up, 19 year old Geoffrey Brake was killed. That same day his brother Rex was struck on the head by a fragment of shrapnel; still breathing, he was taken from the field back to the Advanced Dressing Station around Asylum Cellars. From there he was put on a train and taken to the hospital near Boulogne, and then to Chichester, and finally to a hospital in Shorncliffe. He was fortunate that the shell hadn’t actually penetrated his head - he was suffering memory loss, recurring headaches, and a “slight flattening of the head” probably from the pre-war injury; but it was enough for the doctors to recommend his permanent discharge.

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