1916 - Prelude to the Somme

The Battle of the Somme took place in 1916. But, before the Canadians joined in that ill-fated operation they were engaged in local offensives in the southern part of the Ypres Salient, intended to keep the Germans occupied. At the Battle of St. Eloi the 2nd Division received its "baptism of fire" in a battlefield of water-filled mine craters and shell holes. The Canadians, wearing the new steel helmets which had just been introduced, suffered 1,373 casualties in thirteen days of confused attacks and counter-attacks over possession of six water-logged craters and the dominating land on which they sat.

Mine crater

For the 3rd Division, the initiation to battle was even more devastating. This time the Germans mounted an attack to dislodge the Allies from their positions at Mount Sorrel just south of the Ypres-Menin Road. In the fiercest bombardment yet experienced by Canadian troops, whole sections of trench were obliterated and the defending garrisons devastated. Human bodies and even the trees of Sanctuary Wood were hurled into the air by the explosions. As men were literally blown from their positions, the 3rd Division fought desperately until overwhelmed by enemy infantry. By evening the enemy advance was checked, but the important vantage points of Mount Sorrel and Hills 61 and 62 were lost. A counter-attack by the Canadians the next morning failed; and on June 6, after exploding four mines on the Canadian front, the Germans assaulted again and captured Hooge on the Menin Road.

The newly appointed Commander of the Canadian Corps, Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, was determined to win back Mount Sorrel and Hill 62. He gave orders for a carefully planned attack, well supported by artillery, to be carried out by the 1st Canadian Division under the command of Major-General Currie. Preceded by a vicious bombardment, the Canadian infantry attacked on June 13 at 1:30 a.m. in the darkness, wind and rain. Careful planning paid off, and the heights lost on June 2 were re-taken. The cost was high. At Mount Sorrel Canadian troops suffered 8,430 casualties, including General Mercer, who was killed by shrapnel while visiting the front line at the opening of the German assault.

The Somme

Still, both sides could see only one way to snap the taut chain of trenches—brutal frontal assaults to break the enemy defences; and, indeed, there was little other option. The Allied plan for 1916 was to launch simultaneous offensives on the Western, Eastern and Italian Fronts. In the West the region of the Somme was chosen for a joint French and British assault about mid-year.

But in February the Allied scheme was upset when the German Chief of the General Staff, General Erich von Falkenhayn, seized the initiative. For his battlefield he chose the fortress-ringed city of Verdun, a position, he correctly believed, so essential to the French that France would fight to the last man to hold it. He hoped to lure French forces into the narrow, dangerous salient, slaughter them with artillery fire, and thus "bleed France to death." He was the first commander to state clearly that the aim of an offensive was attrition—though he did not tell his field Army commander, the Crown Prince, this. On February 21, the German barrage began and for the next ten months both sides threw soldiers and shells at each other in a nightmare of death. The German Army bled as well. As Verdun was a symbol of life for France, its fall became a moral necessity for the prestige of the German Army. By Christmas, when the battle finally ended, casualties for both sides totalled 680,000, of whom some quarter of a million were killed.

During this holocaust of fighting, the French sent frantic appeals to Sir Douglas Haig, the new British commander, to hasten the Somme offensive and take the pressure off Verdun. With French forces being so thoroughly decimated at Verdun, the British now had to assume a far greater burden of the attack, so what was planned as a French dominated offensive in terms of manpower became a British dominated one.

Battalion going over the top

The campaign was planned well in advance with a massive build-up of men and munitions. By the end of June all was ready for the "Big Push," and Haig was quietly confident that his planned assault would destroy the enemy lines and open the way for the cavalry to ride into open countryside and attack the German rear areas, battery positions, headquarters and communications. Meanwhile, the German Army, long forewarned of the attack, had engaged in a massive restructuring of their defences, most especially in the northern area of the British attack. They were firmly entrenched along the ridges and the villages of the northern Somme countryside.

On July 1, at 7.30 a.m, at a time dictated by the French to allow their artillery observers clear views, thousands of British and French troops began their advance across No Man's Land on a front of over 40 kilometres toward the German positions The result was slaughter—57,500 British soldiers killed, wounded or missing in one day— the heaviest day's combat losses ever suffered by the British Army. At the end of the day the French had gained nearly all of their objectives as had the British divisions to the south; but for two thirds of the British sector almost nothing at all had been gained.

At Beaumont-Hamel, the 1st Battalion of the Newfoundland Regiment, part of the 29th British Division, lost two-thirds of its entire strength in about an hour's exposure to German artillery and machine guns. July 1 in Newfoundland is still a day of commemoration and mourning.

Canadians on the Somme

The Battle of the Somme was not a one day affair and the fighting continued, notably with a largely successful dawn attack by the British on July 14, through the summer months. In late August 1916, the "Byng Boys" moved from the muddy fields of Flanders to the Somme, where they took over a section of the front line west of the village of Courcelette. They ran into heavy fighting and suffered some 2,600 casualties before the full-scale offensive even got underway.

In the major offensive which began at dawn on September 15 the Canadian Corps, on the extreme left of the attack, assaulted on a 2,000 metre sector west of the village of Courcelette. Advancing behind a creeping barrage (a tactic which had recently been introduced by the British, a consequence of adequately trained gunners, more and better guns and more reliable ammunition), the infantry was aided by the "new engine of war," the armoured tank. There were only a few of these and they were extremely unreliable and very vulnerable to artillery fire. However, at this early stage of the war their sheer presence often threw the enemy into confusion. The attack went well. By 8 a.m., the main objective, a defence bastion known as the Sugar Factory, was taken, and the Canadians pushed ahead to Courcelette. Numerous German counter-attacks were successfully repulsed and by the next day the position was consolidated. The enemy then brought up reinforcements, the fighting intensified, and gains became microscopic.

In the weeks that followed the three Canadian divisions again and again attacked a series of German entrenchments. The final Canadian objective was that "ditch of evil memory," Regina Trench. It repeatedly defied capture, and when the first three divisions were relieved in the middle of October, Regina Trench was closer, but still not taken.

When the newly arrived 4th Division took its place in the line it faced an almost unbelievable ordeal of knee-deep mud and violent, tenacious, enemy resistance. However, despite the almost impenetrable curtain of fire, on November 11 the Division captured Regina Trench—to find it reduced to a mere depression in the chalk. A week later, in the final attack of the Somme, the Canadians advanced to Desire Trench—a remarkable feat of courage and endurance. The 4th Division then rejoined the Corps opposite Vimy Ridge.

There were no further advances that year. The autumn rains turned the battlefield into a bog and the offensive staggered to a halt. The line had been moved forward only ten kilometres, though ground of itself was not particularly important except in terms of morale. The Allies had suffered some 650,000 casualties, and both sides had about 200,000 killed. The Germans refer to the Battle of the Somme as das Blutbad—the blood bath. One German officer described the Somme as "the muddy graveyard of the German Army," for the British it turned an army of eager, inexperienced recruits into a fighting machine on a par with those of France and Germany, but at a terrible cost in human life.

The Somme had cost Canada 24,029 casualties, but it was here that the Canadians confirmed their reputation as hard-hitting shock troops. "The Canadians," wrote Lloyd George, "played a part of such distinction that thenceforward they were marked out as storm troops; for the remainder of the war they were brought along to head the assault in one great battle after another. Whenever the Germans found the Canadian Corps coming into the line they prepared for the worst."

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