Wednesday 1 June 2016

July 1st, 1916 - Canadians in the Somme

I wanted to write and post this one month before the actual centenary because on July 1st Canadians will be celebrating Canada Day.  But of the leading countries in the Commonwealth, including Great Britain, India, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, it's quite possible that Canada will be one of the few Commonwealth countries whose top news story on July 1st will not be the 100th anniversary of the single bloodiest day in a war in which bloody days were commonplace. And added to this list of countries will be France, Ireland and Germany, all of whom were major combatants in the Somme.

By the time the Somme offensive had petered out four months later, in mid November, four hundred thousand Commonwealth soldiers were missing, wounded or dead. And of those casualties, approximately 125,000 were dead - one third the number of commonwealth combatants killed in the six years of the Second World War.  

But it is possible that not all Canadians will be recognizing Canada Day as the top story.  Newfoundlanders may be charting a different course. At 8:45 on July 1st, 1916 the men of the Newfoundland Regiment climbed the parapet at Beaumont Hamel to attack German trenches 600 yards to their front.  And within minutes, 680 were casualties - the hardest hit battalion of any on that day - they had advanced 300 yards (see: The Royal Newfoundland Regiment: July 1, 1916).

One of these men was Charles Taylor who showed up at the CLB Armoury, named for the Church Lads’ Brigade, on Tuesday September 1st, 1914, ten days after the enlistment of recruits had started for the newly formed Newfoundland Regiment. Already 597 men had signed up, although by the time he actually declared on October 2nd, enough had failed to get accepted that he would be counted within the “First Five Hundred”. Like others in the regiment he wore the blue puttees that, in the absence of khaki material, had been scrounged from blue broadcloth and would give the First Five Hundred their other nick name.

Taylor sailed to England with the Regiment at the beginning of October and spent the next ten months training. Like many of the lads he got in to his share of trouble, often skipping tatoo and leaving rank without permission, for which he was frequently confined to quarters and required to forfeit pay.

The Newfoundlanders finally shipped out to Gallipoli in August, arriving in September, a month after the major  campaign had ended. But as with others in his Regiment, Taylor still suffered. On the day they landed at Suvla Bay he was admitted to hospital suffering from dysentry. He would spend much of the next five months there, not rejoining the Regiment until it passed through Suez in March 1916 on its return journey to France.  It was to join British and other Commonwealth forces who were preparing for a summer offensive that was designed, in part, to relieve French trench struggling to hold the Front 250 kilometres southeast, in Verdun.

Unlike the Newfoundlanders, not yet a part of Confederation, the Canadian Division would not join the battle until the Fall when they moved from the Ypres Salient to provide "fresh blood" for the depleted British, Australian and New Zealand troops.

So different from the claustrophobic Ypres salient
When they arrived in late August the region still featured wide open spaces and gentle sweeping hills, but it had been devastated by the two month campaign and resembled a lunar landscape. In the Somme the British rarely expended less than a million shells a week on German lines that included dugouts so deep they were impervious to British artillery. Towns like Pozieres, that had been levelled by artillery, were little more than white scars. Canadian accounts of their arrival in the area all share a similar description of a ravaged landscape.

The rolling fields of the Somme looking towards
Regina Trench from Pozieres
“The countryside in the battle area was completely devastated. We did nearly all our fighting north of the Albert-Bapaume road and in this section two and a half months of the offensive had advanced the line less than four miles. The fighting had been accompanied by intense and continuous shelling by both sides, and scarcely a square foot of soil remained that had not been turned over again and again. Pozieres, a village captured by the Australians near the end of July, had simply ceased to exist. A small pile of pulverized brick marked the spot where the church had stood; there was nothing more. A like fate befell La Boiselle, Contalmaison and all the other villages and hamlets in the battle zone. Not an undamaged tree was left standing: there were no leaves, little grass. The colour green had practically disappeared, all was drab and dirty; fifty square miles of utter desolation.” Charles Henry Savage, 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles, 1936

The modern day town of Courcelette
Pozieres is the high point on the Albert-Bapaume road and was the scene of intense fighting between the Germans and the Australians through the summer of 1916. Today, the Australian monument in Pozieres, a short distance from the quaint crossroads village, is an ideal vantage point to take in the panorama of the Thiepval and Pozieres Ridge and what was the Canadian battlefield in the Somme in the fall of 1916: a short distance to the east and north east of the monument, crossing the Albert-Bapaume road, is Sugar Trench and Candy Trench, named for the German held refinery that the Canadians captured in the first hours of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette on September 15th; a little further on is the town of Courcelette itself, that the Canadian 2nd and 3rd divisions captured in brutal back-and-forth fighting with the Germans; directly in front of the monument was the heavily defended Moo Cow (Mouquet) Farm, a key objective for the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles on the 15th, and one that the Australians had been unable to capture despite repeated efforts through the late summer; and two kilometres in the distance, directly in front of the monument, running the length of the ridge, was the longest German trench on the Western Front, and the ultimate objective for the Canadians that would take them two months to achieve.

The battles in which the Canadians fought in the Somme, the battle of Flers-Courcelette and their repeated attempts through October and November to capture Regina Trench, were as bad as those they would encounter twelve months later at Passchendaele. And they were compounded by unseasonably heavy rains and constant artillery bombardments that resulted in similar conditions to what they would find at Passchendaele.

“Huge shell holes, half-filled with water, pitted the fields in every direction. . .  Far beyond Courcelette I saw the German flare-lights and the bursting of shells. It was a scene of vast desolation, weird beyond description. . . When I got in to Regina Trench I found it was impossible to pass along it, as one sank so deeplyinto the heavy mud” Canon Frederick Scott, 1st Canadian Division, 1924

Despite the battles to come, Vimy and Passchendaele, it was their two month campaign in the Somme that resulted in the costliest number of  casualties for the Canadians - more than 24,000 men were killed, wounded or missing. When called upon a year later to close the deal at Passchendaele, General Arthur Currie had one fundamental condition above all others before he would accept: that it would be with Plumer’s second army and not with Gough’s fourth, so poorly was his reputation with the Canadians after their experience in the Somme.

Many of those killed in this fighting, men such as James Richardson, recipient of the Victoria Cross, are buried at Adanac Cemetery or Regina Trench Cemetery, both just a few kilometres north of Courcelette.  But of the 8,000 men killed around Courcelette, 6,000 have no known grave.

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