A Centennial Action
The Battle of Fresnoy – May 3, 1917
During the Battle of Fresnoy, Lieutenant Robert Grierson Combe led his company of the 27th Battalion (City of Winnipeg) in attacking the left flank of the Fresnoy Switch. Passing through a heavy barrage that stopped much of his company 500 yards short of the objective, Lt. Combe reached the enemy trench with only five men. Disregarding their inferior numbers, Lt. Combe immediately led his little band bombing through the German positions. When their own supply of grenades ran out, they made use of the many German stick grenades lying about. Capturing 250 yards of trench and approximately 100 prisoners, Lt. Combe’s five-man battle group single-handedly linked up with the 1st Battalion’s (Western Ontario) left flank. As reinforcements finally caught up, Lt. Combe continued to lead his men forward with bomb and bayonet, before he was killed by a sniper. For his leadership and courage that day, Lt. Robert Grierson Combe was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
Lt. Combe, VC was buried in a field cemetery at Acheville, France, but that cemetery was destroyed in subsequent fighting and Combe’s grave lost. He is consequently commemorated on the Vimy Memorial.
A Centennial Action
The Battle of Fresnoy – 3-8 May 1917
The village of Fresnoy-en-Gohelle was the next objective of the Canadian Corps after their victory at Arleux in April. Fresnoy was the retreating point for the German forces from the village of Arleux-en-Gohelle, and an important part of the Oppy-Méricourt Line, one of Haig’s objectives for what was known to the British as the Third Battle of the Scarpe, or the Battle of Bullecourt.
Like Arleux, Fresnoy was heavily fortified, and the area for manoeuvring very small. Haig decided that all operations along the line would take place at night, which worked to the advantage of the Canadians since they had a very small advance area. The plan of attack at Fresnoy was very similar to Arleux, with practice runs beforehand and extended slit trenches dug into No Mans Land to allow for a quicker advance into the village. The 1st and 6th Brigades went over the top on 3 May at 3:45 AM under cover of darkness.
Fresnoy was taken within several hours, but the Canadian brigades were now in the typical problem facing armies on the Western Front – holding their position. Counter attacks began almost immediately and the village was shelled for the next seven days, absorbing some 100 000 German artillery and gas shells. For the soldiers of the 1st and 6th Brigades in the village, the time between 3 May and the final German counter-attack on 8 May must have seemed endless.
Beginning at 4:00 AM, the Germans advanced into the village, even reaching Canadian trenches before they were fought off. The day ended with a German retreat and the Canadians were relieved the next day; however, disaster struck during the relief in the form of another German attack against the British troops relieving the village. Fresnoy was lost on 9 May, 1917. Canadian losses for the battle were 1 259 casualties, 1 080 of which were from the 1st Brigade, Canadian Corps.
In addition to the use of preparatory practice attacks and slit trenches, Fresnoy was initially fought in the dark. The Canadian Corps would frequently use night attacks, one of the most famous being the Canal-du-Nord in 1918, and if successful they could be extremely effective. For the initial attack, Currie was also lucky enough to have the use of artillery from three of the four Canadian Division, in addition to British units, allowing for a very heavy concentration of fire in such a small area.
Signaller Wilfred Kerr: A student at the University of Toronto, Kerr enlisted in 1916 with the Canadian Field Artillery. His memoir of 1917, Shrieks and Crashes was published for the first time in 1929. Kerr survived Fresnoy and the war, returning to university where he received his PhD. He worked at the University of Buffalo and died in Kenmore, New York in 1950.
Lieutenant Ernst Junger: Junger is now known as the author of the German war memoir Storm of Steel, but in 1917 at Fresnoy he was a company leader with one of the regiments stationed at Fresnoy. Of the battle, Junger wrote Fresnoy was one towering fountain of the earth after another. […] Eyes and ears were utterly compelled by this devastation. After his demobilisation, Junger became an entomologist and a prominent public critic of the Weimar Republic; he had a complicated relationship with the Nazi Party and was never a member, though he served with the army in Paris before being dismissed in 1944 after being implicated in an assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler.