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.
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.
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).
Prior to a trench raid taking place, an even smaller party of men would be tasked with the reconnaissance and gathering of intelligence on the opposing trench, wire networks, and pathways. Conducted in the dark of night, often in a party of only two or three scouts, raid reconnaissance could be a very lonely and nerve-racking experience as they crawled through the wire up to the enemy’s outposts and trenches. Indeed, there was no comforting “strength in numbers” enjoyed by the trench raiding parties.
Captain George B. McKean, VC, MC, MM was one such reconnaissance scout, of the 14th Battalion (Royal Montreal Regiment). His memoir, Scouting Thrills, provides stunning insight into the physical and emotional strain experienced by the scouts while they daily went “over the bags”. The following provides just one example of what it was like to be part of a small reconnaissance party, while stationed in the Lens Sector in the spring of 1917:
“We were making good progress…when someone caught his foot in some old wire. The sound was unmistakable – so also was the Huns’ reply to it… The volley of bombs that fell… told us that our coming was neither unexpected nor unprepared for… his S.O.S. lights went up – beautifully coloured… His artillery replied with amazing and disconcerting promptitude, and soon we were in the midst of screaming, bursting shells. We began to withdraw… when the battalion on our right… sent up a call for our artillery, and our artillery were no slackers. They promptly came down with a bang.
Imagine how happy we were! Shells in front of us, shells behind us, shells all around us! A screaming, deafening din and noise! We crawled into a shell-hole and waited. We splendidly illustrated Bairnsfather’s picture: ‘If you can find a better ‘ole, go to it!’ The sky was a blaze of light; S.O.S.’s were going up along the whole front. We could see them spreading to the right as far as Vimy, and to the left as far as Loos. On the whole length of this front both our own and the Boche artillery blazed away, and all because a scout had caught his foot in some wire!” (George B. McKean, VC, MC, MM, Scouting Thrills, p. 44-45).
Today we continue our series on Trench Raids. (See last week’s post here).
In this brutal environment, a number of factors led to the development of improvised weaponry for use in trench raiding. Economically, the wartime industry was already overwhelmed with maintaining pace in weapon and munitions production. The thought of adding to that workload was simply inconceivable. Additionally, the nature of trench raids required the ability for stealth, but also sheer viciousness once engaged in close quarters combat. Consequently, long, unwieldy and loud rifles simply were not practical.
In response, raiding parties had battalion carpenters and armourers begin fashioning improvised weaponry that suited their needs. Many of these crude weapons drew frightening inspiration from medieval warfare. The trench club was one such example – variously fitted with nails, cogwheels or iron studs. The French Nail was a stabbing weapon fabricated from its namesake, an iron nail, bent round into a handle with its point sharpened. Other knives and push daggers were fashioned from discarded bayonets.
The first trench raid made by Canadian troops is believed to have taken place on 28 February 1915, by Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 88). At the time, trench raids were still small but efficient strikes by groups numbering from a couple dozen to one hundred men. In a war faltered to a standstill, trench raids provided the opportunity for those willing, to get at the enemy in daring operations. Consequently, raiding parties were regarded with an air of both extreme danger and boldness.
The men who made up raiding parties came from all walks of life – many would have volunteered for the job, but undoubtedly others were coerced by their comrades to tag along. Simply put, trench raiders needed to be both brutally vicious and exceptionally restrained and self-reliant. Crawling through no man’s land, beneath and over barbed wire, ready to fight at a moment’s notice was not for the faint of heart. Brutal, dirty trickery was also a necessity in order to survive. While the Germans were known to booby-trap potential souvenirs and corpses with explosives, Lieutenant Louis Keene of a Canadian Machine Gun Company reveals the Canadians were just as nasty.
When his men learned the Germans actually liked the cans of bully beef fed to Commonwealth troops, they began to throw cans of it over into the German lines:
“Throw one over… sounds like shuffling and getting out of the way are heard in the enemy trench. Fritz thinks it’s going to go off [as a grenade]. Pause, and throw another. Fritz not so suspicious this time. Keep on throwing until happy voices from enemy trenches shout, ‘More! Give us more!’ Then lob over as many hand grenades as you can pile into that part of the trench and tell them to share those too.” (Cook, Shock Troops – Canadians Fighting The Great War 1917-1918, p. 56).
In a series of posts, we will be discussing more of the diversionary raids undertaken by Canadians during May – June of 1917 south of the Souchez River. Therefore it is fitting to first provide a brief overview of the Canadians’ development of raiding techniques.
Trench raids initially began as an offshoot of aggressive patrolling. In groups of two or three, patrols would crawl out into no man’s land during the dark of night, gathering intelligence on the enemy wire, finding gaps and identifying strong points. These patrols would then pass their intelligence on to an officer who was forming up a raiding party. Numbering anywhere from a handful to a couple dozen men, the first raids were quick, brutal and efficient smash and grab operations. Meant to provide a simple means to attack the enemy, gather intelligence and hopefully a prisoner, raids allowed Canadians to experiment with tactics and gain fighting experience.