9 June2017, marks the 100th anniversary of Sir Arthur Currie‘s appointment to command of the Canadian Corps. On 6 June 1917, Sir Arthur Currie was summoned to Canadian Corps Headquarters and notified of his promotion as Lieut.-General Sir Julian Byng was vacating the position by taking over the British Third Army. However, without consulting the Canadian government, Currie‘s command had not received official approval. A burst of messages passed back and forth across the ocean between Prime Minister Borden and Canadian Overseas Minister Sir George Perley. Quickly reaching a consensus that they desired a Canadian in command, Currie‘s promotion was made effective from 9June 1917 (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 283-284).
It would the first time a Canadian took command of the entire Canadian Corps, but it was not without controversy. Next week we will look at a scandal that nearly brought down Currie’s command.
Download our poster commemorating the 100th anniversary of Sir Arthur Currie’s appointment here.
In early June 1917, Canadian troops carried out massive raids involving multiple battalions to divert the enemy’s attention from Messines Ridge. On the night of June 8-9, six Battalions struck out on a two-mile front, from the southern railway embankment leading into Avion to the north side of the Souchez River. The Royal Canadian Regiment, 42nd (Royal Highlanders), 49th (Edmonton), 87th (Canadian Grenadier Guards), 75th (Mississauga) and 102nd (Northern British Columbia) Battalions left approximately 1,000 enemy casualties in their wake. The effectiveness of the raid was not lost on General Plumer, commander of the Second Army which had launched its attack on Messines Ridge just the day before. In a message to the Canadians, General Plumer stated: “Hope you will let the troops concerned know how much I appreciate their efforts. Your raids last night must have been splendid.”
As the war dissolved even further into static warfare over the long winter months, trench raids became increasingly appealing to higher command. Moreover, the successes achieved by the Canadian Corps ensured that the high command desired larger and more elaborate raids with each new plan. The advances in trench raiding tactics culminated into one of the most successful raids of the war on January 17, 1917 (Cook, Shock Troops, p. 57).
Three miles east of Lens, in the area of the Lens-Bethune railway, the 2nd Division’s 4th Brigade was slotted in for a raid, with 860 troops attacking along an 850-yard front. The men were hand-picked from the 20th (Central Ontario) and 21st (Eastern Ontario) Battalions, with support from engineer and machine gun units, and all specially trained for the job at hand.
With such a large undertaking, the planning was meticulous – five storming parties were formed around riflemen, bombers and wire-cutters, followed by Lewis gunners for mopping up and support. Canvas-covered boards were carried by each party, to be laid down as a mat over barbed wire. Attached to each party were engineers, armed with “bunker bombs”, (often a “phosphorous grenade attached to a gallon of gasoline and rigged with 10 kilograms of ammonal”), tagging along to collapse dugouts and destroy emplacements (Cook, Shock Troops, p. 57-58). The most surprising element of the planning came from its timing – scheduled to take place at 7:45 AM in the daylight.
Once the raiders rushed across the snow-covered No Man’s Land, the raid became the typical smash-and-grab operation. Infantry cleared out trenches dugouts, taking prisoner those who would surrender, while Lewis gunners fired into any of the enemies who tried to get away over land. The engineers followed up with their “bunker bombs”, tossing the mobile charges down dugout steps if the enemy below refused to come up. “You come to a dugout – light the fuse – drop the charge in – run like hell – look over your shoulder and see the dugout come out the door” (Cook, Shock Troops, p. 58).
After forty-five minutes had elapsed, green rockets fired from Canadian lines signalled the retreat and the men stole back the way they came, taking any and all booty and prisoners they had managed to corral in the melee. “One engineer blasted the chains of a heavy German MG-08 machine gun… and dragged it across No Man’s Land under enemy fire” (Cook, Shock Troops, p. 59).
The raid was an overwhelming success; in less than an hour, the Canadians “blew up more than 40 dug-outs, exploded three ammunition dumps, captured two machine-guns and two trench mortars and destroyed several others, taking 100 prisoners” (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 234). The expenditure of thousands of artillery shells and 327,000 small arms rounds for just an hour-long operation earned the raid the nickname of the “Million-Dollar Scrap”, as this was the price tag rumoured throughout the Canadian Corps (Cook, Shock Troops, p. 59). In human life, the cost was less jovially remarked, with forty killed and 135 wounded. But the precedent had been set – command would continue to push the Canadians for larger and increasingly frequent, set-piece trench raids.
Today marks the 73rd Anniversary of the Normandy landings, made during the Second World War in 1944. In the early minutes of June 6, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion jumped from their aircraft, the first Canadians to set foot in France that monumental day. The paratroopers succeeded in securing the Drop Zone, before heading off and destroying numerous bridges on approaches to the beachhead. By midday, the Canadian paratroopers had achieved all their objectives.
Meanwhile, at 07:49 in the morning, Canadian infantrymen stormed ashore at Juno Beach. Fighting through beach obstacles, machine gun and artillery fire, the Canadians routed the defenders and by noon Juno Beach was clear, with the fight carrying inland. By nightfall of 6 June 1944, the Canadians had advanced the furthest inland of all invading forces that day.
The Vimy Foundation commemorates the sacrifices made 73 years ago today. For more information on the Normandy landings, we suggest visiting the Juno Beach Centre, either in-person or online!
On 3 June 1917, Victoria Cross recipient John George Pattison of the 50th (Calgary) Battalion, was killed in action during 10th Brigade’s large raid on the night of 2-3 June 1917.
For its part, Pattison’s 50th (Calgary) Battalion was charged with attacking the electric generating station just south of the Souchez River. On the heels of a gas bombardment from over 600 projectors, the 50th fought through to the power station and held on throughout the following day under accurate enemy shelling that was assisted by aerial observers. The 50th withdrew by nightfall on 3 June. At some point during the bite-and-hold operation, Pattison was reported missing and later confirmed killed in action. The husband and father of four was 41 years old.
Pattison had received the Victoria Cross for his actions during the Battle of Vimy Ridge. On 10 April 1917, he had single-handedly bombed and charged a machine gun emplacement, wiping out the crew with fixed bayonet and saving his platoon from destruction.
Private John George Pattison, VC, is buried in La Chaudière Military Cemetery, Vimy, France.
Starting in 1918, while occupying defensive lines around Vimy, the Canadian Corps carried out perhaps the most unaggressive, yet official, military order on the Western Front – farming.
Faced with ever increasing challenges of maintaining food supplies, the British Government ordered that the “English Armies undertake the growing of certain foodstuffs in the way of green vegetables and potatoes” using the land they currently occupied as a fighting force (NAC RG 9, Vol.4044, Radnor, “Statement of the policy to be adopted by Army, Corps, Area and Divisional Officers under the Directorate of Agricultural Production,” 7 February 1918).
Surprisingly, many of the Canadian Battalions took great interest in the project and its positive effects were two-fold; alleviating the strain on food supplies and providing an outlet for the burdened men. Farmers-turned-soldiers proved their worth providing expertise in planting and harvesting. As one unit rotated back into the frontline, those being relieved were expected to take over the farming plot. By the summer of 1918, the farming scheme was such a success that the addition of pig farms was considered, albeit briefly.
On the night of 28-29 April 1918, while a Lieutenant with the 14th (Royal Montreal Regiment) Battalion, George B. McKean, took part in just one of many raids he experienced as a Scout. The following chaotic account, drawn from McKean’s memoirs and the official citation, is typical of the sudden and vicious brutality encountered on trench raids.
“Turning to the boys behind, I called: “Fire your rifle grenades!” They did… Pete and I sprang up together. We saw them lined up waiting for us as we stumbled forward entangled in the wire. Suddenly there were several blinding explosions at our very feet and the wicked rasping noise of the machine gun in front of us.”
Their way forward obstructed by a wire block, Lt. McKean desperately sought a way out of the gunfire.
“I braced myself up, ran forward and took a flying leap over the wire. I just cleared it, staggered forward a few steps, and then hurled myself head first on top of a Hun who was just levelling his rifle at me.”
They crashed to the bottom of the trench, seven feet deep. Whilst lying there, he was attacked by another with fixed bayonet. Dispatching both enemies with his revolver, Lt. McKean was getting to his feet when a third man rushed him with the bayonet:
“I let go with my revolver; he gave a howl of pain, turned around and ran. Being a great believer in the demoralizing effect of noise I ran yelling after him. There were quite a few Huns in that trench, and soon the bombs began to fly about.”
Throwing all the grenades he possessed, Lt. McKean took on the German position alone until one of his men caught up. Taking the man’s grenades, McKean sent him back for more as he tossed them over and charged with his revolver. Capturing four more Germans, McKean caught sight of the machine gun crew disappearing into a dug-out. Calling for a mobile charge, “a man came staggering along with one – pulled the pin and threw it down the dug-out. A few seconds later the air was filled with flying debris.”
“Some weeks later the C.O. sent for me, “McKean,” he said, “I wish to congratulate you heartily on being awarded the Victoria Cross.” I felt rather staggered and bewildered – “Thank you, sir,” I replied – and that was all I could say.” (Quoted from George B. McKean, VC, MC, MM, Scouting Thrills – The Memoir of a Scout Officer In The Great War, p. 96-97).
May 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s inception. In honour of this occasion, we will be starting a new series exploring the creation of both the CWGC and the many memorials and cemeteries it now cares for in perpetuity.
At the onset of war, former schoolmaster, Director of Education in the Transvaal, Morning Post editor and mining director, Fabian Ware found himself too old to serve in the British Expeditionary Force. With a wealth of worldly experience and determined to still do his bit at the age of 45, Ware managed to obtain command of a mobile ambulance unit with the British Red Cross.
Once overseas, Ware became troubled by the absence of an official process for the marking and recording of the fallen. Under his own initiative and direction, Ware’s ambulance unit began recording and caring for all graves they came across. Ware’s efforts quickly drew the attention of his superiors and his unit was transferred from the British Red Cross to the British Army. The War Office followed suit by providing Ware’s unit official recognition as the Graves Registration Commission in 1915. By October of the same year, Ware’s unit had 31,000 graves registered.
While the memories and images of wastage often prevail when considering the use of animals in the First World War, it should be noted that many of the men were deeply impacted by their suffering. In his memoirs, Sniper Frank S. Iriam relates the following account of a Clydesdale horse with affection:
“We had an old roman-nosed Clydesdale in the transport that was a veteran and had been with the battalion through many battles. He had been wounded, shell-shocked and gassed. Now when he was taken to a bad place that was under fire, he knew what to expect. He would shiver, tremble all over, and break out in a sweat and whinny softly for sympathy. That old Clyde had real courage for he never baulked or refused to go… It seemed to get your goat worse than seeing men cut up. The men have an idea what it is all about but the horses have to take it as it comes and say nothing.”
(Glenn R. Iriam, In The Trenches – 1914-1918, p. 189)
My Boy Jack was written by Rudyard Kipling in 1915. Emotionally distraught by the death of his son John at the Battle of Loos, Kipling was likely expressing his grief and loss while writing; however, most agree today that his son was not the subject of the poem. Published as a prelude to Sea Warfare, Kipling’s book on Royal Navy actions, My Boy Jack makes use of nautical imagery and likely refers to a “Jack Tar” – the naval equivalent to the British “Tommy” of the infantry.
My By Jack
“Have you news of my boy Jack?” Not this tide.
“When d’you think that he’ll come back?” Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
“Has any one else had word of him?” Not this tide. For what is sunk will hardly swim, Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.
“Oh, dear, what comfort can I find?” None this tide, Nor any tide, Except he did not shame his kind — Not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.
Then hold your head up all the more, This tide, And every tide; Because he was the son you bore, And gave to that wind blowing and that tide!