If Ye Break Faith

This blog is dedicated to the promotion of educating about the Canadian experience of World War One. To discover who we are as a nation in the 21st Century, we must understand our past.

Monday, 16 January 2017

A Most Successful Enterprise

“The 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade will raid the enemy system
of trenches….To effect casualties, make prisoners, and wreck
all dugouts…in the area attacked”- Operations Order No. 85
4 Cdn. Inf. Bde., 10 January 1917

Shortly before five o’clock in the morning of 17 January 1917, telephones rattled in the headquarters of the 20th and 21st Battalions, the canned voice on the other end at Brigade HQ breathing just two words: “Lloyd George.”  The message had nothing to do with the British PM, except that use of his name was the go-code for the largest trench raid yet to be mounted by Canadian troops.

Two companies, No’s 1 and 2 from the 20th (Central Ontario) Battalion and three, ‘B’, ‘C’, and ‘D’ companies of the 21st (Eastern Ontario) Battalion now moved from rest positions at Bully-Grenay to their jumping-off points opposite their objectives.  In three hours from the call, just after full light, the artillery barrage would commence and nearly 900 officers and men would advance along an 800 yard front in three waves.  They were to hit the enemy front line, hold it, penetrate the secondary line, fulfill their objectives and then withdraw, all within sixty minutes of Zero Hour.  Throughout, the raid would be protected by a barrage of medium and heavy artillery precisely timed to adjust fire as the operation proceeded.

What would become known as the “Calonne Raid” “constituted a record up to that time for a raid of its magnitude and result.”[1]  Nothing could be left to chance with such an ambitious raid.  Both the planning and preparation had to be meticulous.  Raids were not only to deal a quick shocking strike against the enemy, they had become a means to gain practical experience which would benefit future operations. 

Prior to the raid, constant patrolling and aerial observation had made a thorough survey of the target area.  These patrols had discovered that “the enemy frontage for a depth of 300 yards is held during the day by sentries and detached posts.  The garrison of this area being in deep dugouts and cellars.”[2]   Also determined were the locations of machine gun emplacements.  It was clear that the Germans didn’t need a heavily occupied front line.  Machine guns were mounted at the apices of a portion of Front Line Trench which bowed inward.  Structured this way, the trench presented a concave line to the attacker; designed to draw assaulting troops in and across an expanse which could be covered by enfilading fire from the two ends.  Essentially, the two machine guns would be sufficient to stall an attack while the garrison, situated in the second line could be made ready to go in for a counterattack.  Here was a perfect example of “Elastic Defence” in action.  In order to overcome this, the raid would have to hit quick, hard and with absolute precision.

Once assigned to the raid, the five participating companies “had been relieved of all duties for ten days and in that time built practice trenches of the Enemy lines to an exact scale.”[3]  Troops spent their time becoming intimately with the layout as they would specifically encounter on the raid, and “for the last few days practised the assault with every detail as set out in orders.”  Such intense rehearsal was becoming more usual than exceptional, and in the case of the Calonne Raid “these companies advanced…under cover of an excellent smoke and artillery barrage (and) entered the enemy front line with a rush that carried before it all opposition.”[4]

Major G.S.S. Bowerbank DSO MC
In fact, the Germans showed “A noticeable tendency to ingratiate against little show of opposition.  Except in cases of dugouts when bombs were thrown out until overcome.”[5]  This was the personal experience of Major George Scott Stanton Bowerbank, O.C. ‘B; Company, 21st Battalion who was present at the epicentre of the raid.  Major Bowerbank would be awarded the Military Cross for his leadership during this operation.[6]  He was no professional soldier; a slight and slender myopic accountant, Major Bowerbank epitomised the typical Canadian officer.  Born of Essex, England, he had his professional credentials, but very little military experience besides Militia service before the war where he had been the accountant for the Sarnia, Ontario branch of the Canadian Bank of Commerce.  When put to the test in battle, however- and like so many of his colleagues- he excelled.

‘B’ Company had a little difficulty from the get-go in passing through their own wire.  “Gaps were not frequent which caused a tendency to bear to the left.”  Initially, this prevented his men from remaining in touch with those of ‘D’ Company on their right (under the command of Captain Brokelbank, also an accountant), but once through the wire the “waves kept well apart and advanced under cover of our barrage in well-appointed formation.”[7]  The enemy wire, on the other hand was “completely smashed and offering no obstacle whatever,” allowing the first wave to gain the Front Line Trench rapidly.  “A small amount of opposition was met but quickly overcome, the second wave going on as arranged towards the final objective.”[8]

It hadn’t been a clean rush, though.  Despite little resistance from enemy infantry, the raid suffered quite a number of casualties from artillery fire.  It is undetermined whether this artillery which concentrated on the enemy Front Line Trench was German retaliatory fire or shelling from Canadian guns which had failed to lift their fire an adequate distance.

“My company,” Major Bowerbank would later report “suffered casualties by a burst amongst a Lewis gun grew, wounding three and completely smashing the gun.”  The Major’s officer in command of ‘D’ Company’s second wave, Captain Goudy was struck down by a shot  to the chest, but the men knew their task so well they were able to carry on after Goudy had been moved back for treatment (he would survive this wound and later return to the front).

‘D’ Company alone captured “not less than thirty” prisoners, a machine gun and also “a considerable volume of letters, booklets, etc.”[9] Major Bowerbank could also report that the trenches were in good condition, generally ten feet deep with sloping sides with dry ground at the base, indication of careful workmanship and efficient drainage.  “Several dugouts were effectively smashed, especially in one case by the use of a prepared Stokes shell, killing all the occupants.”

It was all in the bag by nine o’clock.  The Calonne Raid “did serious damage to the enemy works and exploded an ammunition dump.”  Approximately twelve dugouts were destroyed, and it was estimated one hundred Germans had been killed.[10]  Additionally “during operation this morning we captured 1 Officer, 75 Other Ranks unwounded and 5 O.R. wounded, 2 Machine Guns, and 1 Trench Mortar.”[11] 

The cost had been 46 killed and 125 wounded, or twenty percent casualties.  However, Major Bowerbank whose company lost twenty-five percent of its strength was confident that those wounded were “chiefly of a slight nature.”[12]  Despite the loss, it was a resounding triumph, securing valuable intelligence, dealing a softening blow to the enemy and providing crucial experience and opportunities to absorb lessons and improve technique.  “All plans and arrangements for this operation carried through so well that all ranks concerned feel that it was a brilliant success.”[13]   

The rush of raids, the tension of late night patrols, a great Canadian battle and men on the razor's edge between life and death are all part of my acclaimed premier novel “Killing is a Sin” 
Now available from Amazon sites worldwide.

Some praise received for "Killing is a Sin":

“Really enjoyed the book, well done.”

“Damn, I think I spilled chili on a rare first edition; I'm enjoying it, couldn't stop reading during dinner.”

“I was fortunate enough to see this in manuscript. Good stuff. If you're interested in WWI Fiction give it a look.”


[1] Canadian Bank of Commerce, “Letters from the Front: Being a record of the Part Played by Officers of the Bank in the Great War 1914-1919”
[2] Operations Order No. 73, 21st (Eastern Ontario) Battalion, CEF
[3] Barber, Percy L., Lieut. “21st Cdn. Battalion Report on Operations of 17 January 1917”
[4] Lt. P.L. Barber, ibid.
[5] Bowerbank, G.S.S., Major, “Narrative of Raid 7-1-17”
[6] Supplement to the London Gazette No. 29981, pg. 2480 12 March 1917
[7] Maj. G.S.S. Bowerbank DSO MC ibid.
[8] ibid.
[9] ibid.
[10] Lt. P.L. Barber, ibid.
[11] 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade, War Diary Entry 17 January 1917
[12] Maj. G.S.S. Bowerbank DSO MC ibid.
[13] Lt. P.L. Barber, ibid.

Monday, 9 January 2017

The Rest of the Night Passed Quietly

“At about 6.25 p.m. a party of 25 to 30 Germans
were observed at a point about 30 yds. From head
of Sap B.5”- Intelligence Summary No. 14, 12 Canadian Infantry Brigade, 
08 January, 1917

It was the first full moon of the New Year.  Corporal Worthington and his Lewis gun crew were standing sentry at ‘King Street’; a portion of front line trench currently the responsibility of ‘D’ Company, 73rd (Royal Highlanders of Canada) Battalion.  From this point, they had a good view of ‘Surprise Crater”, which lay halfway between friendly and enemy lines, and Sap ‘B.5’, a shallow ditch meandering from the Canadian front line trench to the crater.  Currently, no one was posted at ‘Surprise Crater’- which would have been an ideal spot to get eyes on the enemy works.  Worthington’s section were then the furthest forward elements in their Battalion’s patch.

Damp cold and fatigue were more present adversaries than the Germans.  Long, dark winter nights, coupled with the strain of daily efforts at surviving and nowhere near enough sleep could play funny with the mind.  This was why the fleeting figures out in No-man’s Land required a second glance to assure their existence.  No mirage, this- it was indeed a large body of enemy troops making for Canadian lines; not more than two dozen yards distant- a raid!

Worthington tapped his gunner, pointed out the grey ghosts.  “Open up!”

The past few days had been dull, heavy with showery clouds limiting visibility along the front.  This close weather had earlier on scrubbed the only grand plans for the day along 4th Canadian Division’s front; which was now the North-west edge of the Canadian Corps position opposite Vimy Ridge.  “It was proposed,” for January 07, “to have a bombardment of the enemy trench system….subject to proper weather conditions, but had to be postponed owing to the mist which prevailed during most of the morning.”[1]

As it was, the day passed for what could be called “normal”.  Overall, there was the usual exchange of artillery and trench mortar fire, much more harassing than deliberately destructive as would have been the cancelled bombardment.

The opening months of 1917, according to Canada’s Official History of the war, “was for the Canadian Corps a period free from major operations- a time to be used in recuperation, training and strengthening defences….A pattern of limited hostilities that was to continue in general throughout the winter was soon established…a periodic exchange of mortar fire, extensive patrolling, and occasional trench raids.”[2]  About the only item of note during this time was that the Germans were using a larger than usual number of flares at night.

From this quiet night, the rip of fire from Worthington’s Lewis at King Street put the front line on high alert.  On of ‘D’ Company’s subalterns, Lieutenant Joseph Griffiths “who was near hurried to the spot and took charge of the situation.”[3]  Griffiths had farmed before the war, not yet thirty he had settled in Canada from his home in Wales.  In this pacific life he’d led, he’d not had any prior experience in the military.  Griffiths had volunteered as a private soldier in December 1914, within the war’s first few months.  The young man seemed to gel quite well with the army, accelerating through the ranks and finally being granted a commission before being sent to join the 73rd Battalion in the field in September, 1916.

Corporal Worthington’s quick action had scattered the German raid back to their lines.  Shortly after, though, they had re-formed and a second attempt “approached nearer and threw bombs in Sap B.5 but was again driven back leaving several wounded or dead.”[4]  A third approach was likewise scattered “and a fourth time a few come out and attempted to gather up their casualties.  They were, however, fired upon and had to retire.”[5]

Determined though the enemy was, the handful of men under Lt Griffiths and Cpl Worthington were enough to prevent the German raiders from making their objective.  The only casualty was Lt Griffiths, and his wound was slight enough for him to remain forward.

Their work wasn’t quite done.  Once it became apparent that the Germans had given up the idea of coming over, Lt Griffiths organised a small patrol- himself and two privates, Webb and Greenhalgh- to move out from Sap B.5 into the dead ground in an attempt to secure identification from the bodies left behind.  The patrol moved cautiously, as the evening shower of flares had begun, being constantly sent aloft from the German lines.  From the extent that Webb and Greenhalgh managed to reach they spotted at least two German bodies some 15 yards distant, being watched by a sentry from the cover of a shell-hole.  “They think,” records the day’s Intelligence Summary, “they recognised the sound of shovels being used behind sentry.”[6] 

Two days later, the 4th Division Diary relates that the “news was confirmed by the 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade that the enemy had apparently succeeded in getting his wounded, left out as a result of his attempted raid on evening January 7th.  The nature of the ground prevented our parties from the 12th seeing anything of the wounded….it is presumed the enemy were able to sap out and reach their wounded.”[7]

Both Cpl Worthington and Lt Griffiths were singled out by their Battalion CO for their conduct.  They had “displayed greatest coolness and bravery and it was entirely due to the acts of this Officer and NCO that the raid was not a success.”[8]

“The remainder of the night passed quietly.”[9]

In the hundred days between New Year’s and the start of the Spring Offensives, the Canadian Corps did just as the Official History describes.  They trained and prepared, each unit becoming intimately familiar with the ground to their front- as it was destined to be the same ground they would cover in the coming attack.  This work built up to a crescendo on the 1st of March when the entire 4th Division made a large scale raid of the German lines.

“Promptly at 5.40,” that morning, “our barrage opened up and our attacking parties got over the parapet and went forward.”[10] Overall results were promising.  “A large enemy bomb dump was blown up and part of his F.L.T. was systematically destroyed.  Several Machine Guns were destroyed and approximately 22 dugouts were bombed….A large number of the enemy were killed.”[11]

“Officers and men without exception fought magnificently.”[12] During the raid, Lt Griffiths, who was leading a patrol consisting of a platoon from ‘D’ Company was taken from the field, dangerously wounded.  He was passed back through the lines to Casualty Clearing Station No. 6 where early the next day he succumbed to his injuries.  “Word was received that Lieut. Griffiths had died of his wounds, and arrangements were made for representatives of the Battalion to attend his funeral on the 3rd.”

Coincidentally, also on the third of March, as Lt Griffiths was being laid down, that day’s Supplement to the London Gazette contained the following citation:

Which announced his awarding of the Military Cross for his brave work in January; an award he didn’t live long enough to receive.  His medals and Memorial Cross were forwarded to his parents, Mr. & Mrs. W’m Griffiths in Wrexham, North Wales.

Some praise I’ve received for my premier novel 
“Killing is a Sin” which is set in the winter/spring of 1917:

“Really enjoyed the book, well done.” 

“Damn, I think I spilled chili on a rare first edition; I'm enjoying it, couldn't stop reading during dinner.”

“I was fortunate enough to see this in manuscript. Good stuff. If you're interested in WWI Fiction give it a look.”


[1] 4th Canadian Division War Diary, 07 January 1917
[2] Nicholson, GW, Col. “Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War” Queen’s Printer, Ottawa 1962 pg. 233
[3] 73rd (RHC) Battalion, War Diary 07 January 1917
[4] 73rd (RHC) Battalion, War Diary, ibid.
[5] ibid.
[6] 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade Intelligence Summary No. 14, 08 January 1917
[7] 4th Canadian Division War Diary, 09 January 1917
[8] 73rd (RHC) Battalion, War Diary 07 January 1917
[9] 73rd (RHC) Battalion, War Diary, ibid.
[10] 73rd (RHC) Battalion, War Diary 01 March 1917
[11] 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade War Diary 01 March 1917
[12] 73rd (RHC) Battalion, War Diary, ibid.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

1917- What Will Tomorrow Bring?

2017 opens with a great deal of uncertainty.  The fortunes and events of the previous year will continue to play out for better or worse while even the brightest among us are powerless to predict the outcome.  Much the same can be said, presumably, at the start of any year; but the beginning of the new year a century ago must have seemed especially so.

Two and a half years of bloody war had already taken place, with no appreciable advantage to victory for either side.  Monumental campaigns of the year now ending- at Verdun and the Somme on the Western Front- had failed to deliver a killing blow; the stagnant lines of entrenchment and fortification had shifted, wavered, but had not been stove in.  Armies facing each other across these lines were in, more or less, the same places they had been a year ago.  It had cost rather a lot in lives and the efforts of those still alive to wind up this way.  Such a sense of futility as accompanies the First World War is come by quite honestly when viewed from this perspective. 

None taking consideration of the year’s closing one hundred years ago could possess knowledge of what 1917 might deliver.  These people, or at least those given to introspection, could only hope for something better, for something to bring about change, and at the base of human conceit, that they would remain alive through it.  No one, then, could have any inkling or indication that the year about to unfold was destined to deliver astounding, momentous events which would not only effect the conduct and even the outcome of the war but would also set the tone of the remainder of the Twentieth Century and would shape the fate of the world for generations still uncounted.

In the present, 2017 will mark the centennial of these tremendous events which would unfold in 1917- America would join the war; French Armies would mutiny en masse, Russia would revolt.  Canada in its own way would come of age on the battlefields of Vimy and Passchendaele and at home politically through the divisive legislation of conscription which would see women’s suffrage at the federal level for the first time in a calculated move to keep the Liberals in power and thus ensure the passage of the Military Service Act.

I’m inclined to wonder what relevance those epic events would have on the lives of ordinary people- those who might spare a thought to the grand scheme of things in the world when not pressed with more immediate concerns in the small part they might play within the times they were born to.  As I feel far more adequately defined as a storyteller than a historian, there is very little I might be able to add in the analysis of the critical events of 1917.

No, what I can do- what I’ve found suits me best to do- is to continue to bring to the fore the types of stories I have been telling; that of ordinary folk participating in the most extraordinary of events.  Telling these stories at the level of their perspective to understand the humanity within history is what I intend, leaving the larger notions of act and consequence on posterity of world events to more practised hands.

As far as other efforts of storytelling are concerned, I’m still selling self-published copies of my premier novel “Killing is a Sin” which is set in the trenches of the Western Front in 1917.  While I am pursuing publication through an established house, I am also working on a follow-up book “A Century of Twenty-Four Hours” and will be arranging consignment sales and personal appearances at Chapters and Indigo retail locations in Ontario starting in Burlington this April.

Some praise I’ve received for “Killing is a Sin”:

“Really enjoyed the book, well done.” 

“Damn, I think I spilled chili on a rare first edition; I'm enjoying it, couldn't stop reading during dinner.”

“I was fortunate enough to see this in manuscript. Good stuff. If you're interested in WWI Fiction give it a look.”


Monday, 19 December 2016

There Will Be No Football

“The following from Canadian Corps:- ‘The Corps Commander wishes to congratulate Commanding Officer and all other ranks of 25th Battalion on their very successful raid last night.’”

-Telegram rec’d from 5 Canadian Infantry Brigade 25 Dec. 1916

The group of one hundred men moving, cautiously deliberate across the waste of No-man’s Land not quite three hours into Christmas Day 1916 were certainly not part of any goodwill tour.  “Friendly international football matches were now so much as reaching mythical.  Having happened, two years ago, time had gone to see the final exit of many who shook hands in the ’14 truce as to push it into being beyond living memory.”[1]

In command of this raid was Captain William Archibald Cameron, who seemed keen to the enterprise.  “Bill Cameron was aching to get a go at him (the enemy),” Lieutenant R. Lewis would later write in his informal history of the 25th (Nova Scotia Rifles) Battalion, “so he picked 80 men (Lewis has this wrong, it was 100) and four officers….The time appointed was Xmas morning.”[2]

With artillery instructed to lay down a “box barrage”- a shellfire enclosure of the immediate area- captain Cameron’s men, divided into four groups were to enter the German Front Line across a 350 yard frontage.  Their mandate was typical: “To destroy or capture all Machine Guns and documents possible, and to kill or capture all occupants of the trench.”[3]

The Canadians were going to be here in this area for the foreseeable future.  It was, then, of critical importance to upcoming operations to know precisely who was occupying the line opposite; and what their potential fighting quality was.  Only a few days prior, along 1st Canadian Division’s front, a chance encounter between opposing patrols with the 15th (48th Highlander) Battalion and the Germans had netted a single prisoner.  The man taken “was head of patrol and lost his sense of direction and was rounded up by our chaps.” His unit’s morale was assessed as “very, very good,” and he is recorded as having heard rumours “that the Kaiser has offered peace because neither side can break through and there’s little use going on with useless slaughter.”[4] Perhaps the only real complaint this Soldat had was about the food he and his comrades had in the trenches.  Though, being dissatisfied with rations is hardly out of the ordinary for any soldier, in any army, past or present.

Much like the raid of the 58th Battalion ten days before (see Improvise andOvercome) Captain
Cameron had Bangalore torpedoes at the disposal of his entry teams to clear the wire.  Christmas Eve day had been overcast, with showers[5]but this had cleared overnight and the raiding party was faced with the full brightness of a new moon.  “When they went to put the torpedoes underneath the wire,” Lt. Lewis continues, “they found it impossible as it was too bright.”[6]  Captain Cameron consulted with his officers and the decision was reached to storm the wire at the same moment the box barrage commenced.  When it did, “the four parties simultaneously charged the enemy trenches.  Little difficulty was experienced in getting through the wire except by the right centre party, who managed to force their way through a quantity of loose and tangled wire.”[7]

It was all over very quickly.  The parties on the right entered trenches in poor condition, and unoccupied.  On the left, “the trenches were much better, revetted and boarded.  Seven prisoners were taken here and brought back to our lines.”[8]  In all, Captain Cameron’s men spent five minutes in the German trenches, rounding up prisoners and bombing any dugouts they found; “they were able to completely clear the objective of the enemy.  Half an hour after zero hour, everything was normal again.”  A great part of the raid’s success was due to the efficiency and precision of the artillery’s barrage.  The shelling worked perfectly in isolating the raid’s target area.  German retaliation to the barrage was weak- with some medium calibre counter fire, trench mortars, rifle grenades and machine guns.  None of this was effective and mostly short-lived.  “Both Rifle Grenades and Machine Guns ceased firing a few minutes after the operation started, being apparently put out of action by our artillery fire.”[9]

Estimates calculated the raid had caused the enemy twenty casualties, aside from the prisoners taken; for a return of seven raiders slightly wounded and one, Sergeant G.B. Ingham, killed.  George Ingham leaves a lot unanswered in his death.  Specifically that up to the 12th of November, around the time of his promotion to Sergeant, he had been serving under an assumed name.  Stranger still is that he had at first enlisted under his legal name, George Bernard Ingham and subsequently enlisted again under the false name of Nelson Page.  The Ingham’s are a family of minor prominence in upstate New York; Sgt. Ingham’s father would become mayor of Briarcliff Manor in the late 1930’s.  There also exists a bizarre literary connection as a writer named John Hall Ingham and another named Nelson Page- Sgt. Ingham’s alias- were contemporaries in American literature in the late 19th Century.  I have not been able to deduce the reasons for Sergeant Ingham’s subterfuge beyond speculation, but I hope to uncover the mystery. 

Despite the losses, the raid was a triumph.  Taking seven prisoners and making detailed observations on the condition and equipping of German trenches elicited praise from both the General Officers Commanding the Canadian Corps and First Army, to which the Corps was attached.  Captain Cameron would be awarded the Military Cross “For conspicuous gallantry in action.  He led a raid against the enemy with marked gallantry, inflicting many casualties and capturing seven prisoners.”[10]

For those on the front during the second Christmas of the war, it was just another day of business as usual.

Want to help make Christmas “merry and bright” for an aspiring writer?  You could do worse, I imagine, than to order a copy of my novel, set in the Canadian trenches at Vimy Ridge. 
 “Killing is a Sin” is available through Amazon and by request through book retailers world wide.

Merry Christmas to you all, and all the best for the New Year.
Regular Posts of “If Ye Break Faith” will resume January 2 2017

[1] Harvie, Christopher J. “Killing is a Sin: A Novel of the First World War” Independent, 2016, pg. 221
[2] Lewis, R., Lt. “Over the Top With the 25th” HH Marshal, Limited, 1918, pg. 49
[3] Operations Order No. 27, 25th (Nova Scotia Rifles) Battalion, December 21, 1916
[4] “Examination of Prisoner belonging to 16th Bav. R.I.R.” Made by 3 Canadian Infantry Brigade HQ, 17 December 1916
[5] War Diary entry, 2 Canadian Division, 24 December 1916
[6] Lewis, R., Lt., ibid.
[7] Walker, A.L., Capt., “Report on Raid Carried out by the 25th Canadian Battalion on the night of 24th/25th December 1916”
[8] Walker, A.L., Capt., ibid.
[9] Walker, A.L., Capt., ibid.
[10] Supplement to the London Gazette No. 29940, 13 February 1917, pg. 1545