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.


Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Bluffing with an Open Hand





Just to the south of the village of Avion there is
a colliery called Fosse 4, with…a large and ugly slag
heap…a veritable nest of machine guns and trench mortars.”
-Capt. E.P.S. Allen, Adjutant, 116th (Ontario County) Bn[1].

Early in the morning of the 23rd of July 1917, two outposts, each of platoon size (35-40 men) were hastily consolidating ground beyond the German front line positions which had been wrested from the enemy in a bitter and close-quarters fight.  The outposts were the remnants of the battalion sized raid that had smashed through the defensive garrison, destroyed dug-outs and heavy weapons emplacements, captured more than fifty prisoners, including an officer and senior NCO and then withdrawn back to Canadian lines.  Primarily, these remaining men were to provide a rear guard for the main body of the raid, and had been placed on either flank of the raid’s operational boundary.  Ideally, consolidating parties starting from Canadian trenches were to reach the outposts via freshly dug communications lines, thus incorporating the posts into the existing defensive network.

This, the leaving of small units behind on raided ground, was a potentially dangerous idea. It was seemingly borne from a directive which had come down from the Commander-in-Chief himself.  To keep pressure on the enemy, Haig had ordered that “all ground must be held, by rifle and bayonet alone if no assistance is available from other arms.”[2]

“Pressuring the enemy” was of prime concern to Haig, particularly as it applied to the planning of the major offensive which would become known as the Third Battle of Ypres, set to begin at month’s end.  Part of the difficulty in gathering forces and materiel for a large battle in trench warfare was concealing any build up from enemy observation.  To that extent, it became necessary to mount diversionary efforts.

Their purpose was two-fold.  First was to keep the enemy uncertain as to whether or not any attack was part of the main effort, the second was to place these diversions against objectives which the enemy would be compelled to re-take, thus keeping units local to a feint attack tied down and thereby incapable of being moved to support the areas under which the principle offensive would fall.  Underscoring this was the desire to reduce German capability writ large by inflicting as many casualties as possible; the element of attrition which accompanied any offensive strategy in the war.

These men here, the two platoons, one each from ‘B’ and ‘C’ Companies, 116th (Ontario County) Battalion, were in actual fact the tail end of a minor operation that was a diversion of a diversion.  As part of Haig’s plan to obstruct the Germans in their ability to determine time and place of the main offensive, First Army had ordered the Canadian Corps to take the town of Lens.  Lens was perhaps more of a prestigious objective than a tactical one.  The liberation of an occupied French town would certainly be a boon to public opinion and could be a demonstration that real, measurable progress was being made.

There were, however, a number of valid concerns about this.  Lens was particularly low-lying and flanked, north and south by two hills which had excellent fields of observation.  The plan of attack, which would have manifested as a frontal assault on the town with no contingency to reduce German positions on the surrounding high ground.  Between Canadian trenches and the town, the terrain was vastly unsuitable to the quick movement of artillery guns forward in support of the infantry holding their objectives.  Moreover, any point where the artillery could be positioned would leave the guns and their crews overwhelmingly exposed on open ground.

Fortunately, a decision and the highest levels of the Canadian war effort had recently placed an astute, if not militarily professional, officer in command of the Canadian Corps.  The Corps’ first commander, the well regarded General Julian Byng, had been promoted and into his place stepped Arthur Currie.  Currie’s appointment in itself was innovative, as it was based upon merit rather than strict adherence to seniority or political connections.  It was also preferable that the Corps had a Canadian born commander, even if his staff would still mostly be British professionals.

Lieutenant General Currie, foremost, brought a level of discerning exactitude to his command.  “I’m not clever enough to guess at this game,” he would admit, “I have to set everything down and figure it out.  It’s harder work than being brilliant—but safer.”[3]

In the question of the proposed diversionary attack on Lens, Currie revealed his calculated prudence at a first Army conference on 10th July.  He was able to persuade his superiors of the folly in this attack and that the Corps’ objective should be to take the high feature to the north of the town, “a treeless expanse of chalk downland…which…dominated Lens and gave a commanding view of the Douai plain beyond.”[4]

It was known, simply, at “Hill 70.”  “Possession of the hill, giving observation far into the German lines, would be so intolerable to the enemy that he would be compelled to attempt to retake it.”[5]  Of real concern was that Hill 70 was an obvious target and recent operations in the area further indicated that it was being considered as an immediate objective.

Currie proposed his attack begin on 30 July, one day prior to the start of the Ypres campaign.  Weather would intervene and force the delay of the Canadian attack to mid-August.

This placed the Corps in the position of having to obfuscate the enemy of their intentions of an operation which was in itself meant to be an obfuscation.  With that to mind, the 116th Battalion had been given the task of raiding enemy positions around Fosse 4, the colliery on the outskirts of Avion, well south of Lens and Hill 70.

The nature of the outposts remaining in captured German lines as a rearguard and, ostensibly, part of a deepened line met the criteria of Haig’s directive to hold taken ground.  Had the raid been mandated the usual “smash and grab”, the positions raided would have been re-occupied by the enemy and an opportunity to both make the Germans believe that Fosse 4 was an objective of a larger attack and reduce enemy strength by repulsing counter-attacks would have been lost.  Sensibly, orders indicated that the outposts “be held in the event of (the enemy) not endeavouring to re-occupy his trenches in force.”[6]  Should a large counter-attack develop, the posts were instructed to engage in a fighting withdrawal towards friendly lines. 

A large counter-attack was all but certain.  The German defensive doctrine was that “Immediate
counterattacks would be mounted against any lost position.  Should these fail, a deliberate counterattack (der Gegenangriff) using the designated counterattack units would be mounted.”[7]  This was to be as well organised and prepared as the situation allowed, and be carried out as an offensive operation with the use of preparatory artillery and a dedicated advance on lost ground by large numbers of fresh troops.

Dangerously, the two platoon-sized outposts were positioned on the flanks in such a way to better observe enemy movement, but were spaced too far apart to be mutually supportive.  Further, they were sited on what had been the raid’s final objective, a railway embankment “about 300 yards behind the German front line and running parallel to it,” which was “scarcely less than 24 feet in height.”[8]  These outposts were, then, exposed, extended and isolated.  With conditions such as these, disaster loomed.

From the beginning, before the raid had even set off, a thread of possible catastrophe ran through the operation.  The night prior, as the men of ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ Companies shook out into assembly positions, the Germans commenced a gas attack. 

Both sides had been making liberal use of gas, most of the Canadian chemical weapons being directed at Lens.  Fortunately for the 116th, this gas was lachrymatory (tear gas) rather than poisonous.  Tear gas is still terrifically unpleasant, but not deadly, at least.  Initially, the gas seemed to be taking the desired effect as the troops assembling were thrown into confusion, some platoons becoming lost or separated from each other in the fog.  “For about 30 minutes, the situation was critical, and fraught with the greatest difficulties.”[9]   Succinctly, if the men did not advance at the appointed time (Z-Hour was 1.00 a.m. 23 July) they would be left to the mercy of the German counter barrage which the scheduled artillery fire meant to provide cover for the attack would certainly instigate.   

“Providentially, the gas became gradually dissipated, the Battalion rallied and the Officers and men moved into their assembly positions….All the details had been carefully planned and were carried out according to orders.”[10]  The men had trained and rehearsed for this raid in the days prior to coming into the line.  One such practice had been reviewed by brigade and divisional staff who were reportedly satisfied with the level of preparedness demonstrated.  This would prove to be a deciding factor in the overall success of the raid.

“At ZERO hour the barrage opened and ‘A’ Company took their first objective on schedule time, without much opposition.”[11]  The objective was the German front line—code named “METAL Trench.”  This the prefacing bombardment had roughly handled.  German casualties were numerous, and those left unscathed were more prone to give themselves up than offer resistance.  With Metal Trench taken and held by ‘A’ Company, ‘B’ and ‘C’ Companies passed through, moving on to the final objective; the Railway Embankment.

Resistance along this line was more determined and the position “was only carried after vigorous and sustained hand-to-hand fighting.”[12]  As planned, the raid destroyed several dugouts with mobile charges and set the outposts on the flanks, the main body then withdrawing.  
It was twenty-five minutes to two.

For three hours, the situation remained strangely quiet, and it was just before daybreak that two platoons from ‘D’ Company were sent forward to relieve the men at the outposts.  Perhaps that was what the Germans had been waiting for as “the enemy counter-attacked in force at 4.45 a.m.”[13]  The counter attack had been preceded by an intense artillery barrage which managed to make fatal casualties of all four officers, Lieutenants Lennox, Neil, Weber and Lick, in charge of the outpost positions and their reliefs.

“Our outposts put up the ‘S.O.S.’ and the artillery promptly responded, but the enemy had got inside of our barrage and attacked in large numbers on both flanks.”[14]  With the outposts imperilled and without any officers remaining, Captain Ritchie, O.C. ‘D’ Company in reserve along the Canadian front line sent a party under Sgt. Houston to gain contact with the outposts and to provide assistance in the fighting withdrawal.  It was a critical and tense handful of minutes while these men of the 116th fought—at very close quarters—to remove themselves from the area, under a constant threat of being cut-off.

Sergeant Fraser Charles Alfred Houston was the right man for the job, as it happens.  He had trained, while a student in Toronto, with his school’s Officer Cadet Corps.  Houston must have been keen to get into it, for he enlisted as a private soldier and went overseas before he could sit his exams for a commission.  He had just turned twenty years of age in April.

Houston’s force made their way as far as Metal trench, dead ground in every sense of the word. An attacking body of Germans came at them by skirting around the slag heap, hoping to be the last measure of encirclement, from which point they could reduce or capture the Canadians trapped within. The losses on either side would have been a “push” in that case- fairly even. The 116th Battalion would have been hobbled, with the loss of four platoons plus what men Sgt Houston had with him. More than half of those would have been from ‘D’ Company alone. Sgt Houston led his men not forward to the outposts, who were then fighting backwards, foot by bloody foot, but instead to rush the attack coming from the slag heap. 

The citation for Sgt Houston’s Distinguished Conduct Medal credits him with killing the crew of a
machine gun being placed in position to fire upon his men, and taking another German prisoner.[15] It was masterfully intuitive.  The German attack facing Houston was stalled from closing the net long enough for the two retiring outposts to link up, putting the numbers in favour of the Canadians.  The fight didn’t end there, and it developed into a skirmish from shell holes throughout No-man’s Land.  Despite a wound to the face, Sgt Houston remained in charge until he could get the wound dressed, after which he immediately returned to his post until his Company was relieved[16].  Canadian Casualties were twelve killed, forty-five wounded, seventeen missing.  Most of those missing had been killed outright in the German bombardment.

Later in the war, Sgt Houston would be wounded in the right knee, which rendered him unfit for further service.  Sadly, he would die of heart disease in 1935- at thirty-eight years old.

Going forward, I will be posting every other week, in order to give myself time to work on the follow-up to my first novel- expect it mid 2018. In the meantime, have you read my breakout book "Killing is a Sin"? If not, why not? 

Seriously, thanks everyone for all the support! Back in two weeks!





[1] Capt. E.P.S. Allen as ‘Adjutant’, “The 116th Battalion in France,” Hunter Ross Co. Ltd. 1921 pp. 31-2
[2] Nicholson, GWL, Col. “Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919: Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War” Queen’s Printer 1962 pg. 285
[3] Sir Arthur Currie Quoted in Cook, Tim “Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918” Penguin Canada 2008 pg. 260
[4] Nicholson, ibid. pg.286
[5] Nicholson, ibid. pg. 285
[6] 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade War Diary, July 1917 App. 16 “Operations Order No. 106.”
[7] Lupfer, Timothy T. “The Dynamics of Doctrine: The changes in German tactical doctrine during the First World War.” Combat Studies Institute, U.S. Army July 1981
[8] Capt. E.P.S. Allen as ‘Adjutant’, “The 116th Battalion in France,” pg. 31
[9] 116th (Ontario County) Battalion War Diary 23rd July 1917
[10] 116th Battalion, ibid
[11] Lt Col. S.S. Sharpe Memorandum From: O.C. 116th (Ontario County) Cdn. Inf. Bn. To: 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade 23rd July 1917  
[12] 3rd Canadian Division War Diary, July 1917, App. 823 “Intelligence Summary 23 July 1917.”
[13] Lt Col. S.S. Sharpe Memorandum
[14] Lt Col. S.S. Sharpe Memorandum
[15] Supplement to the London Gazette No. 30495 pp. 1392-3 26 January 1918
[16] 116th (Ontario County) Battalion War Diary 23rd July 1917

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Minor Operation no. 7:

The Concrete Machine Gun Position at M.30.d.2.3


“It was decided that it was necessary to again
re-gain control and hold the enemy strong point North
of the RIVER.”- Maj. WH Collum MC, Bde Major
11th Canadian Infantry Brigade


12 June 1917


It wasn’t déjà vu, Lieutenant CS Griffin, ‘A’ Company, 102nd (North British Columbians) Battalion had been here before.  “The main objective was the enemy strong point at M.30.d.2.3, ‘TRIANGLE.’”[1]  Griffin, and many of the men in the platoon he was leading into this attack had been by this way only two days ago.  Surprise had an elemental role in that effort, where a prepared and numerous garrison kept the Canadians from gaining the position.  No preliminary bombardment had been lain on for the sake of surprise and the Germans held this line in force.


The Triangle was a jumbled mass of trenches, rifle pits made from shell-holes, well sited strong-points and a concrete blockhouse fielding two machine guns, the lot of which was behind a bumper crop of barbed wire.  This patch of land, a mere handful of square yards, had been the focus of attention for nearly a week of constant attacks and repulses.  Besides Lt. Griffin’s go at it day before last, Lt. Lowrie of ‘B’ Company had led the way in attacks twice here himself, on the 7th and 8th of June.  The task on the 7th was to clear the wire with ammonal tubes and then “raiding and destroying, if possible,enemy                                                                                                concrete machine gun position at M.30.d.2.3.”[2]


This was rebuffed even before the tubes were in position to be blown.  “The enemy immediately opened with heavy machine gun fire necessitating the withdrawal of the attacking troops.”[3]Mr. Lowrie was able to accomplish this without any casualties.  The very next day, Lt. Lowrie and his platoon had gone up in a prepared attack; in conjunction with a trench-clearing operation put in by the 5th Battalion, the Royal Leicestershire Regiment.


It was a splendid assault, the men having trained specifically for this task leading up to this trench tour.  All objectives were held within forty minutes.  “The operation resulted in the capture of twelve prisoners…thirty enemy dead were counted in the trenches and dugouts.” Lt. Lowrie didn’t live long enough to see it accomplished.  He had been shot dead within moments of the attack’s beginning.


All of that had been after Lt. Dimsdale had two quick attempts at it on the 5th.  It was determined that “the enemy was holding his trenches in force and apparently had no intention of evacuating.”[4] Dimsdale’s work was that of opportunity.  Upon taking over the trenches during the relief of 4/5 June, Lt. Dimsdale’s Company Commander, Major Scharschmidt had pushed his outposts forward to determine the whereabouts of the enemy.  Making contact had shaped into a hasty attack, with ‘D’ Company managing to capture the Electric Generating Station, and installation south of where the Souchez River passes by the town of Fosse.  It was an unexpected success, to say the least, but it left that mess of nastiness which was the Triangle between the Station and the Souchez’ southern embankment under German control.


Planning had looked to capturing the line intact with the combined operations aside the 5/Leicesters on the 8th.  Maj. Scharschmidt’s bold move had created a more urgent case.  So long as they held the Electric Generating Station, the hard point at M.30.d.2.3 had to go.  ‘D’ Company’s work on the 5th had done a lot of good, as it “placed the major portion of CALLOUS and CANCEL trenches in our hands and there remained only the consolidation of the balance of these trenches to bring them into our defensive system.” [5]


The organised attack set for the eighth would work out the kinks.  It had to.  Further operations were based upon having that area secure by no later than the twelfth.  With two men killed in the attempt and five more wounded besides, M.30.d.2.3 had been taken, and was handed over, as per orders to the 5/Leicesters.  They were unable to hold the position, and once again, the bastard thing was doing German business under the new/old management. 


Accordingly, on the tenth, Lt. Charles Stuart Griffin, a 26 year old clerk born in Hollister, California but living in Sidney, British Columbia before the war, and Sgt. Archibald Law, a Calgarian teamster by way of Glasgow sortied towards the Triangle in two concurrent raids. This was the affair put on without benefit of artillery preparation or shielding barrage on account of the idea of keeping the operation a surprise.  Primary objective (Griffin) was to gain CANADA trench, a line meant to be arcing north to south from the embankment and representing the eastern edge of the Triangle.  Secondary objective (Law) was the reducing and capture of the enemy strongpoint.


Both were no stranger to this sort of enterprise.  Lt. Griffin had seen a fair deal of action serving as an NCO with the 7th Battalion, being afield with them from August 1915.  Twice wounded in 1916, he would become the second highest ranking effective man in his company, cleaved in half to a meagre 60 men at Vimy.  Under Lt. L.J. Bertrand, who had been a junior subaltern until the events of the morning placed him in command, No. 4 Company, 7th (1st British Columbians) Bn. held their objective despite their heavy losses.  Griffin was promoted to Sergeant, awarded the Military Medal and then given a commission and transferred to the 102nd.  Lt. Lancelot Joseph Bertrand, born in Grenada, British West Indies, making him one of the very few Caribbean Canadian officers to serve overseas, received the Military Cross.  He would be subsequently killed in action at Hill 70 in August of 1917.


Sgt. Law, his nearly two years overseas with the 102nd punctuated with an MM at Vimy, saw his effort come awry with the detonation of a small enemy mine which either had alerted or had been instigated by a prepared and numerous garrison who “opened fire with bombs and machine guns….the men could not reach the Hun with hand grenades, but covered their own retirement by rifle fire and rifle grenades and our Stokes guns threw 20 rounds into the enemy, causing heavy casualties.[6]


Lt. Griffin had a similar rebuff.  His men had succeeded in gaining the first line of trenches and putting in place one of the blocks they had been tasked with, “but then found that CANADA trench south was a series of shell holes; this exposed area was swept by enemy machine-gun fire and whizz-bangs; moreover, much of the trench as was left was heavily manned by the enemy.”[7]  Both raids returned to their starting points having achieved little at the expense of three men killed and eight wounded.


Never mind.  Lt. Griffin’s platoon had been selected for the attack on the twelfth to take the trenches beyond that irksome concrete box.  The platoon would just have to pick it up on their way, so.


“Preparations,” the 102nd War Diary closes the entry for 11 June 1917, “were complete for attack on the following morning.” Lt. Griffin and his men, many of whom had made the prior attempt, went over at 7 a.m.  In the days between attacks, more artillery had become available.  Canadian Corps Heavy Artillery walloped the area on the 11th with 350 immense shells.  Australian and British field guns on loan to the Corps provided covering and creeping barrages in direct support of infantry operations.  The objective was taken in ten minutes with little opposition.  Most Germans who could broke for the rear.  Sixteen were taken prisoner, along with two machine guns.  Artillery fire had killed 14, wounded 10, not including what prisoners stated were the five killed and ten wounded since midnight who had already been evacuated by German medical services.


This wasn’t the end for Lt. Griffin’s platoon.  While they set up blocks and repaired the line, supporting troops hurriedly dug saps out to link the old line with the new.  Within the first quarter hour of Canadian possession, the first counterattack was made.  “An unorganised attack was launched by…about 100 men in mass formation…followed by an officer with a revolver who appeared to be driving them on.”[8]  This was utterly shattered by Lewis gun fire and requested artillery.  Germans came on again, 150 strong at 10 o’clock.  A more organised and disciplined effort, it was likewise put on its heels.  Lt. Griffin’s sparse line had been bolstered by two bombing sections from ‘B’ Company, and work to consolidate the ground continued.


Another counterattack was checked at 3.30 “by bombs and rifle grenades which inflicted heavy casualties on the Hun.” Once again, the Germans tried, at ten that evening “under a very heavy barrage.”  Arriving in force, this attack “was dispersed by our Lewis gun, rifle and grenade firing.  It was also dealt with by our artillery barrage.”[9]



Six men were dead, twenty-eight wounded, including Lt. Griffin.  Shrapnel had broken his right arm and lacerated his left hand.  The concrete machine gun emplacement and the Triangle it guarded lasted out in Canadian hands, the hard fought men of the 102nd relieved that evening by the 85th Battalion.


“In nine days the Battalion, or some substantial part of it, had "gone over the top" six times; in the face of desperate resistance it had eventually carried out all the tasks assigned to it, and in addition to immeasurably strengthening the Canadian positions in the area it had inflicted incredible casualties on the enemy. But our own losses were found to be very heavy.”[10]


Charles Griffin was awarded the Military Cross for holding throughout the counterattacks on the twelfth, though his wounds would prevent his return to the front.  Sgt. Law was given a bar to his MM.  He would die of pneumonia in 1918.

      




[1] 102nd Battalion War Diary 12 June 1917
[2] Maj. WH Collum MC, “Report on Minor Operations” 11th Canadian Infantry Brigade War Diary, June 1917
[3] Maj. WH Collum MC, ibid.
[4] ibid.
[5] ibid.
[6] 102nd Battalion War Diary 10 June 1917
[7] 102nd Battalion, ibid.
[8] Maj. WH Collum MC, “Report on Minor Operations” 11th Canadian Infantry Brigade War Diary, June 1917
[9] Quotes From 102nd Battalion War Diary 12 June 1917
[10] Sgt Leonard McLeod Gould “The Story of the 102nd Canadian Infantry Battalion From BC to Baisieux “ Chapter V (102ndbattalioncef.ca)

Monday, 29 May 2017

When the Battle’s O’er


“With the forces at my disposal, even combined with
what the French proposed to undertake in co-operation,
I did not consider that any great strategic results would be
gained by following up a success on the front about Arras.”
-Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig
Despatches, pg. 82


By late spring of 1917, it had become evident that the results promised by the French Commander-in-Chief, General Robert Nivelle for his grand offensive were not to be realised.  In actual fact, the French Army was very near collapse: Nivelle ousted in disgrace and a growing unrest among its soldiers coming to a quick boil of outright mutiny; many details of which are still kept secret.[1]

Without the decisive breakthrough Nivelle had sought, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Armies, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, was now permitted as had been an agreed contingency to dedicate his resources to his preferred operational area of Flanders.  British troops were already in preparation for this new effort which would begin in June with the taking of Messines Ridge.; the overall objective was to secure the Belgian coast.

As a “necessary part of the preparations” for this attack in Flanders, Haig ordered his forces on the Arras front- which included the Canadian Corps- to continue limited and diversionary operations “sufficient to keep the enemy in doubt as to whether our offensive there would be proceeded with.”[2]

Very little of any of this would be known, beyond the abstract, to those most intimately involved in the implementation of these grand schemes; the ordinary front line infantryman, one of whom is caught in his own contemplations.

* * * * *

It were just after lunch when Sergeant Douglas came by.  I hadn’t noticed as I were set against a tree, looking up through branches no’ yet in full leaf, trying tae catch a gander at the ‘planes o'erhead.  Suppose it’s why I dinnae hear him an’ aw, the sky quite busy with the chop of their engines coming and going, but never really fading, while here and there, quite distant, thank goodness, the rumbling thunder of big shells bursting.  It gets so I dinnae really notice it ony mair, no’ when it’s that far off, and thair’s even times when I have to concentrate to hear it at aw.

Has a knack for doing this, does auld Douglas; a’ways finding ye for giving bad news after ye’ve had a good feed.  Mind, a tin of bully et cauld frae the tin isn’t a grand notion of a good feed; though it’s better than nothing at aw, and thair’s been plenty times of that.  Bad news is a’ways easier to take when thair’s at least something in yer gut.  It stops that sinking feeling what comes alang wi’ it.  Well, no’ stops it sae much as makin’ it no’ as bad.

            “Alright, Catscratch?” he asked as he drew up to the tree I were leaning against.

            “Suppose so, Sarge,” I says.  ‘Catscratch’ is what the older chaps in the platoon ken me as, coming frae ma first name being Felix and that no’ one in ten realising ma second name, Strachan, is no’ pronounced as it’s spelt.
           
            “Good.  Best get your men sorted.  We’re moving up to the line.”  There it was, then.  I’d some notion of it, as the reason why ma lunch was tinned beef was that the company kitchens had started packing up after breakfast.  Ye cannae spend aw this time abroad and no’ pick up a sense for these things.

            “Awright,” which wasn’t sae much ma agreement, but just the thing one says to make it seem like it was the thing tae be done as if choice played a part, “when do we go?”

            “Form up in Companies at eight, stepping off at eight-thirty,” he checked his watch.  “Gives us about seven hours.  Make sure your Section’s area is tidied up, nothing left behind.  Small packs are to be given over to Battalion Transport.”

            “Onything going on?”

Douglas shrugged.  “Routine; though it is a new part of the line for us.  Bert went up with the scouts and guides yesterday.  Talk to him is you want to know more about where we’re going.”  He made to leave, paused.  “Oh, and Catscratch, mind the new fellahs.  Be certain they know what to do.”

With that, he was aff, moving through the wooded glade what had been oor hame near tae a fortnight while oor Brigade had been in support.  What this meant was we were tae be ready tae gae intae a counter attack should the Hun put force against oor line. As that may no’ happen, oor day-tae-day was providing parties of men tae carry aw manner of supplies tae the front, or be given o’er tae the Royal Engineers as brute labour in fixing roads and laying rail.  This, after a fashion, had been another clue that we were tae be on the move.  Why else would I have had a spare moment tae sit against a tree and count aeroplanes?

We were that far back frae where oor front lines were now that we would be going o’er the ground we had that big scrap for last month.  That was a weird sensation, right enough.  Since the New Year, when the Division had been brought up, aw of us had been faced with that high ridge, with only oor imaginations tae fill minds with the battle tae come.  Now that had been and gone, we tramped aw o’er it with nae bother at aw, liked we owned it- which I suppose we did.

We’d certainly paid for it.  Frae what I heard, it were eleven thousand casualties in those four days of fighting, and that’s no’ considering the trickle of blood in the months afore while we set out patrols and raids in the getting ready for it.  That trickle was never fully staunched, and after that tough go at Easter, it kept up, a drip, drip, drip of small haunfulls of men day tae day tae day.  It’s that bloodletting as tae why Sergeant Douglas had charge of Six Platoon.  Oor officer, Mister Thorncliffe was awa’ tae England tae see about getting iron pepper oot his arm and face for having been too close tae a Hun bomb.  Hopefully he’d be back in due course, preferably afore the platoon picked up a new officer.  Seeing as how poorly it had gone for aw involved the last time that happened, best tae avoid a possible repeat of a bad show↟.

Mair important tae ma state of affairs was that this flow of life and blood these past five months tae get us where we were now is reason that I found maself with the ‘new fellahs’ Douglas had telt me tae mind. With nae work the day, the kitchens hitching up and these three lads put tae me just this morning it were a cinch we’d be moving tae the line.  Aw Douglas had tae give me was what I didnae ken- which was exactly when that move would be.  Now, besides squaring awa’ ma neck of the woods (no’ meaning a joke, there) I’d have tae do what I could tae give these lads enough of a lesson tae no’ do anything daft.  Solve that, and maybe they’d last lang enough tae learn something of substance.

With that thought rolling around ma coconut, I stood up tae walk o’er tae Two Section’s area and follow the Sarge’s advice in having a chat wi’ Bert Ellins, for what he might tell me of the road ahead; but no’ afore I put ma ain section on warning tae move.

            “Pretty rough up there,” he says, and lets me in on what he saw.  We’re holding trenches what used tae be well intae Fritz’s rear areas.  Meaning that what was his support lines were now oor front lines.  As support trenches, being further back aren’t usually dug as deep or fixed up as well as fighting trenches, and the whole lot has been under oor artillery for the best part of this year, Bert says tae me that they were pretty mean.  Just deep enough to be head high in most places, nae dugouts, very little in the way of revetting.  That’s no’ at aw comforting, especially with those what haven’t been up front afore.  New fellahs are awfy prone to sticking their heads oot tae have a look aroon’.

            “It’s been pretty brisk business for sniping on both sides,” Bert added, “everyone’s been working like mad to get the trenches in decent shape.  Wiring parties and patrols are going out every night.  Looks as though we’re fixing to stay a while.”

I trust Bert’s opinion.  No’ that he’s got ony mair information than the rest of us, but he’s that bright tae put what little we do ken intae the right picture.  After a moment when neither of us had much else tae say, he added, “Pretty dry, though.”

            “Well,” I says tae him, “at least there’s that.”

What he said which most concerned me was that we were, of course, holding ground which had been Fritz’s backyard.  I already ken that, but what Bert reminded me of was that aw roads, cuttings and approaches leading to oor lines were well ken tae the Hun, and his guns were dropping aw manner of guff here and there along these routes.  Bert had a few close calls himself the night afore.  Lucky for us, it were meant tae rain a wee bit tonight, which was nae guarantee, but at least a safe bet that Fritz wouldnae send o’er ony gas shells, which he’d been doing quite frequently of late.

Another thing struck me then as well.  If Bert were right, aw this work intae getting these trenches in shape meaning that we weren’t pushing ahead again ony time soon.  Well, just wha’ the Hell happened tae “This push will be the big one, boys,” aw the hoi polloi in their Chateau headquarters promising us that aw we’d been doing was gonnae knock the pegs oot of the Hun onyhow?  It set me thinking.

Near six months in the making tae have a go at that bloody Ridge, and near two months by that and we can still see it frae where oor front line is now.  I have nae idea how far it is from here to Germany, but it seems tae me at the rate we go, nane of us here now will see it.

It’s ma birthday in two months.  I’ll be nineteen, if I live.

* * * * * 

The monologue above is a work of imagination; but it closely portrays the realities of a Canadian soldier in late May, 1917.  The Battle of Vimy Ridge had been won, but an end to the war was nowhere in sight.  Situational specifics were drawn from unit War Diaries and their Appendices contemporary to 27-29 May 1917. 

The characters of Corporal Felix Strachan, Sergeant Basil Douglas and Corporal Bert Ellins feature in my ground breaking, realistically tense WWI novel, “Killing is a Sin” available in print and e-book from Amazon sites and by request at book retailers & libraries world-wide.  
   




[1] Meyer, G.J. “A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914 to 1918” Delta Books, 2006 pg. 540
[2] Boraston, JH, Lt Col. (ed.) “Sir Douglas Haig’s Despatches: December 1915-April 1919” JM Dent & Sons, 1919 pg. 101
Here, Felix hints at the plot of "Killing is a Sin"-the events of which he has, in this monologue, just recently come through.