14 February – 13 June 1916: actions in the Spring of 1916. Localised operations seeking tactical advantage. They include fighting when the Germans first used Phosgene gas, a major German attack at Vimy Ridge, and the loss and recapture of high ground east of Ypres in the Battle of Mount Sorrel.
Changes in British command
There was a change at the highest levels of British command on the Western Front on 19 December 1915 when General Sir Douglas Haig succeeded Field Marshal Sir John French as Commander-in-Chief of the British Armies in France. A few days later, General Sir William Robertson succeeded Lieut.-General Sir Archibald Murray as Chief of the Imperial General Staff in Whitehall. General Sir Charles Monro was appointed to replace Haig in command of First Army. A stunning blow was dealt to the British high command on 5 June 1916 when Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener died when HMS Hampshire, en route to Russia, was sunk.
Strategic situation in France
The meeting of the 2nd Inter-Allied Military Conference that had taken place in December 1915 had proposed a simultaneous attack in maximum force by all of the Allies in 1916, in addition to continued vigorous local action to wear down the enemy. The British War Cabinet – all too conscious of the immaturity of much of the BEF in France and the still inadequate supply of equipment, guns and ammunition – wasn’t so sure. On 13 January 1916 it was only prepared to commit to “offensive operations next Spring in the main theatre in close co-operation with the Allied Armies and in the greatest possible strength, although it must not be assumed that such offensive operations are finally decided upon” (War Cabinet Minutes). As late as 31 March, Robertson was still pressing for a decision on whether the BEF should be involved in an offensive, or not. He received an affirmative answer on 7 April 1916, after which the BEF prepared for the Somme. Meanwhile for the British there were some sharp actions on the Western Front while the French endured heavy german attack at Verdun from 21 February.
British force in France
Between November 1915 and June 1916 another nineteen Divisions (including formations recently withdrawn from Gallipoli) joined the BEF and the line was extended another 10 miles, making the British-held front 85 miles long. This enabled the release of French Tenth Army to reinforce the very hard-pressed Verdun sector. The Indian Corps left France for Mesopotamia in November 1915.
The First German Phosgene Attack: 19 December 1915
Second Army (Plumer)
VI Corps (Keir)
49th (West Riding) Division
It was very fortunate that the units holding the line of the Ypres Salient between Frezenburg and Boesinghe were on the alert for a gas attack, when at 5am on 19 December 1915 a single parachute light was fired by the enemy, heralding the release of cloud chlorine gas from cylinders in their front line. Prisoners had indicated that a gas attack was imminent and the wind was in the direction for it, so standing orders for gas alert were in place, putting not only front-line troops but the British artillery on stand-by. When the cloud gas was detected, all the bells, gongs and klaxons in the front line were sounded and immediate rifle and machine gun fire opened. In addition, the Field Artillery opened a shrapnel barrage on predetermined night lines. A pre-arranged defensive scheme was also carried out, with both 6th Division and 49th Division moving their reserve Brigades into support. 14th (Light) Division, in VI Corps reserve at Poperinghe, was brought to stand-to.
Only a few parties of German infantry made an attack, most being hit by British fire as they crossed no man’s land, but some did get into the front trenches where they were then dealt with. However a strong shrapnel bombardment fell on 71st Brigade of 6th Division near Wieltje and a heavy HE bombardment was also aimed on the British second lines, artillery batteries and on the roads and tracks from Ypres.
The green area of the map shows the area covered by the combined chlorine and phosgene gas released by the Germans.
At 6.15am a second phase opened, when the German bombardment switched to gas shell, which deluged the British front. This was novel, and many British troops were caught unawares as the shells fell and discharged near them. These shells contained a gas new to warfare: phosgene. It was also fortunate that the wind was rather strong, carrying the gas through the forward positions quickly, within half an hour – for the British gas masks were not designed to combat high concentrations of phosgene. This also had the effect of spreading the white cloud, 50 feet high, over a very wide area behind the lines. In the area between St Eloi and Messines, it also flowed over the German front line trenches.
The British front line stood firm, although casualties were serious. In addition to men lost to shellfire, just over 1,000 men were incapacitated by the gas of whom 120 died soon afterwards. At 2.15pm the enemy commenced a heavy bombardment which lasted until the evening of 21 December.
The terrible effects of phosgene: on inhaling, hydrochloric acid is produced in the alveoli (the air-containing cells of the lungs), which reacts with the capillary wall of the lung and produces an Oedemal fluid. This eventually floods the lungs and causes suffocation. After initial exposure, phosgene in which produces coughing, nausea, vomiting and headache, the effects often seem to disappear. But after a period of perhaps 24 hours, the condition is worsened by exertion. In other words, the affected person is killed by drowning in their own body fluid, which worsens as their body tries to fight its effects.
For the Germans, this attack came as something of a disappointment. Their objective had been to damage the British by losses and the destruction of the trench system; their hopes had been to create widespread panic and chaos through which their infantry could have advanced – but the British defence was sufficient to show that a breakthrough would not be achieved by using gas discharge. For the British, it demonstrated that the enemy was prepared to escalate chemical warfare and that new mask defences would be needed.
Enemy diversionary attacks around the Ypres Salient: the Bluff, 14 February – 2 March 1916
Second Army (Plumer)
172nd Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers
V Corps (Fanshawe)
17th (Northern) Division
The Ypres-Comines canal, running south east from the town, cut through the front lines about 3 miles from the Cloth Hall. This was the position at the end of the First Battle of Ypres and it was much the same by 1916, the Second Battle having not altered things. Facing the British, the village of Hollebeke; on the left was the hotly-contested ground of Hill 60 and Zwarteleen, and on the right the hotspot at St Eloi. On the northern embankment of the canal, a curious mound – a spoil-heap, created when the canal was excavated – gave the British front an unusual observation advantage over the enemy. If the enemy held it, the view across the rear areas of the Salient to Hill 60, towards Ypres and down to Voormezele would have made the Salient very difficult to hold. The position just had to be held.
The German front line fire trench lay some 200 yards ahead of this feature, which the British called the Bluff, and the germans the Grosse, or Kanal, Bastion. British trenches ran around the forward base of the Bluff, snaking around the front of the lips of a number of mine craters that had been blown here in October and November 1915 and in January 1916. Communication trenches ran back over the Bluff itself. The canal cutting was steep sided, and over 100 yards wide. The trenches continued on the other side, with only a single plank bridge connecting the two banks.
17th (Northern) Division had moved to relieve 3rd Division in the canal sector between 5 and 8 February 1916, and placed 51st Brigade on a 1300 yard front at the Bluff position. It was also responsible for the south bank and had 52nd Brigade there. Enemy shellfire began to fall on both brigade fronts in the morning of 14 February, intensifying on the Bluff from mid afternoon. (The enemy was also shelling 24th Division at Hooge at this time). British artillery began to retaliate and the infantry at the Bluff stood by to meet an anticipated attack. All telephone wires were cut by the shelling, which severely affected the ability of units in the front line to call for support. German tunnellers blew three small mines at 5.45pm, one under the Bluff (which buried a platoon of the 10/Lancashire Fusiliers sheltering in an old tunnel) and two slightly further north, under the 10/Sherwood Foresters. Shortly afterwards, German infantry attacked between the canal bank and the Ravine. They entered and captured the front line trenches but were driven out of the support lines behind the front. Small local efforts to counter attack over the next two days failed. The all-important Bluff position had been lost, and it would take more than localised efforts to regain it.
The operations in the area of the Bluff from the start of the enemy attack to noon on 17 February cost the British 1,294 casualties.
Lieutenant-General H. Fanshawe, officer commanding V Corps, ordered 17th Division to not only recapture the Bluff but improve the position by capturing the German trench position called The Bean. He placed 76th Brigade of 3rd Division, as well as an additional RFA Brigade and an RE Field Company, under the Division for the operation. 76th and 51st Brigades began an intensive exercise in training to prepare for a frontal assault, planned to take place at dusk on 29 February 1916. All troops were equipped with the new steel helmets. 52nd Brigade held the line and carried out much preparation work, digging new communication and assembly trenches, burying telephone cables, and bringing up stocks of ammunition. This work was not helped by snowfalls, which showed up the new works to enemy observers, whose artillery promptly destroyed them. The severe weather and cold also forced a change of plan, to minimise the time that the assault troops would need to be in the front line before the attack went in. Even the date could be not be agreed: it would have to be “the second morning after the first day fine enough for artillery registration”.
The bombardment eventually opened on 1 March, fired by 17th Divisional artillery plus 35 larger guns and howitzers of Second Army and Canadian Corps heavies. At 2.15am on 2 March, Brigadier-General Ernest Pratt, officer commanding 76th Brigade, advised Divisional HQ that he would not require a planned extra 20 minute intensive bombardment. The leading infantry (right to left, the 2/Suffolk, 8/King’s Own and 1/Gordon Highlanders) began to move at 4.15am and the assault was launched fifteen minutes later. British barrage fire began two minutes after that. The attack achieved complete surprise, although a machine gun on the left caused heavy casualties to the Gordons. A party of 172nd Tunnelling Company RE also suffered from a machine-gun burst when, having destroyed a tunnel in no man’s land that led to the Bluff, every man was shot down. By 5.10am, the infantry had captured all objectives, finding many enemy without equipment. 5 German officers and 248 men were sent back as prisoners. German artillery was curiously slow to react and only opened fire at 9.30am, intensifying at 11am, which caused problems for reinforcement and supply as the infantry consolidated the ground won. Some sporadic attempts to counter attack were made by the enemy, but British bombs were for once in plentiful supply and these attacks were beaten off.
British casualties incurred in recapturing the position amounted to 1,622 officers and men.
“Ypres, 1 March 1916: In a few minutes the battle for the recapture of the Bluff will begin, and I am now going over to take command of the battery. I have had one gun pit hit this morning, and expect we shall have a bad time at this afternoon. 10 pm. There has been a terrific bombardment – almost worse than Loos, whilst it lasted. At 5pm we started off. As the attack is not on the front of our Division, we only demonstrated, i.e. kept up a moderate fire on the Hun trenches. We must have had a tremendous collection of big guns on our right, as the roar was absolutely continuous. Things have quietened down, but we start again at 4am tomorrow.
Ypres, 2nd March 1916: I got up at 4am and went over to the battery. It was pitch dark and I nearly broke my neck crossing the little trestle bridge over the moat. At half-past, to a second, then bombardment began with an appalling crash, hundreds and probably thousands of guns from 18 pounders up to “Grandmama”, the great 15 inch howitzer, let fly it together. For the next hour the noise was simply indescribable. It was almost impossible to distinguish the report of one gun from that of another; the only thing it can be compared to is the roll of a drum. We have the ramparts of the town near us, and the noise was intensified by the continuous echo. It was quite impossible to make oneself heard, even by yelling in a person’s ear. After an hour, it began to die down and by the time I came over to breakfast at 8 o’clock it was fairly quiet. The Hun, to my surprise, took it lying down – at least, as far as our area was concerned, he did not fire at all. As soon as the bombardment began, we saw the German SOS signals going up all along the zone that was threatened. There were red rockets bursting into red stars. Soon after, rockets of all colours went up – white, green, red, golden rain, and even red golden rain. I imagine these were meant to confuse us.
About 9 o’clock the wounded began to stream down the road. All those who could walk took himself to the field hospitals. Only the bad cases can be taken in the motor ambulances; these went by in streams also. Most of the men were very cheerful at the prospect of a slight wound that would take them home for a bit. They were principally men who would been hit through the arm or leg by rifle bullets. They told us they had got back our lost trenches and also has some of the old German trenches. They said they had been wonderfully supported by the artillery, whose fire had kept just in front of them as they charged. In spite of the bombardment, the German trenches were full of men, and they had to charge under very heavy rifle and machine-gun fire. The Suffolks and the Gordon Highlanders seem to have lost most. Some men of the former regiment said their battalion was wiped out; but men always say they are the sole survivors. A little later, convoys of German prisoners came through and escorts with fixed bayonets – I should think between 200 and 300 in all, no officers. They were quite a good lot of men, in the prime of life. All wore the flat round cap – no helmets. They have been trying to get into Ypres for 18 months, and now they have succeeded!”
An extract from “The war diary of the Master of Belhaven”, first published by John Murray in 1924 and reprinted in 1990 by Wharncliffe Publishing Limited. The Hon. Ralph Gerard Alexander Hamilton, Master of Belhaven, was officer commanding C Battery, 108th Brigade RFA, in 24th Division at this time.
An interesting tactic was tried by Brigadier-General H. Uniacke, officer commanding V Corps artillery. A 60-pounder battery was ordered to fire a salvo on the Bluff, with a second salvo after two minutes, at irregular periods through day and night before the operation. Sure enough, when the same battery fired a salvo at the commencement of the attack, the 2/Suffolks advanced and found the enemy garrison sheltering in dugouts in the western face of one of the mine craters – waiting for the second salvo.
Enemy diversionary attacks around the Ypres Salient: the action of St Eloi craters, 27 March – 16 April 1916
Second Army (Plumer)
172nd Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers
V Corps (Fanshawe)
Canadian Corps (Alderson)
2nd Canadian Division
St Eloi lies on the road running south from Ypres in the direction of Messines. Here, an awkward trench salient poked into British positions with the enemy on slightly higher ground – including an artificial earth bank called “The Mound” – that gave the Germans excellent observation over British trenches and roads. This had been the scene of almost continuous mine warfare during 1915, with both sides actively engaged. In all some 33 surface mines had been exploded within a small area, of which the Germans had fired the majority. British activity had been more on the defensive, with many camouflet charges being blown in an effort to destroy the enemy’s mine works. However, in summer 1915 three much deeper (60 feet) shafts had been started by the 172nd Tunnelling Company RE, which by now extended to six mines. The central four reached under the German trenches, the two on the outside were terminated under no man’s land, the idea being to create craters that would provide useful cover. Above ground, the churning by mine explosions and shellfire had created a very difficult terrain for infantry assault – added to which it was still waterlogged from the winter.
This map dates from Spring 1917 and shows German trenches (red) at that time. The numerous mine craters south of the village are clear enough. The craters formed by mine explosions on 27 March 1916 are those in the German front line.
Second Army commander Herbert Plumer decided that he must strike a retaliatory blow following the loss of the Bluff on 14 February 1916. Even while preparations were underway for an organised counter attack to recover the Bluff positions, orders were given to prepare too for action at St Eloi.
V Corps put 3rd Division on warning that it must undertake an operation to take place as soon as possible after 10 March, the mines being ready by that date. 9th Brigade was chosen although it was the only one available, the other two having been moved up to support the operations at the Bluff. The staff believed, based on experience to date, that a mine crater could not be held by infantry, partly due to the fact that the enemy had better trench fighting equipment. The objective would therefore be to advance beyond the craters to the third German trench line. There would be no preparatory bombardment as it was necessary to maintain the surprise that would be gained by the explosion of the mines. Instead, the artillery would open at exactly the time when the fall of their first shells would coincide with the mines going up. The infantry would go in 30 seconds later and for best concealment this would take place before dawn. To avoid the devastated ground around the craters, the assaulting battalions – the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers and 4th Royal Fusiliers having been chosen – would move in from either side, and meet up on the far side. No new assembly trenches or other signs of a prepared attack would be made. V Corps heavy artillery, Canadian Corps artillery and No 6 Squadron RFC were attached to 3rd Division for the operation. The assault troops moved up in the late hours of 26 March, and took whatever cover the could on a freezing night, in snow and sleet. By just after 4am on 27th, lanes had been silently cut in the British wire, and the front trenches facing the mine positions evacuated.
At 4.15am the mines blew within a few seconds of each other and the artillery barrage joined in. The infantry barely waited the planned 30 seconds to get going. On the right the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers reached the German wire with the loss of only a single soldier; the 4th Royal Fusiliers were however hit by machine gun fire as they went over the top. German artillery responded very quickly: less than a minute after the last of the Northumberlands left the front line, shellfire began to fall on the British trenches, no man’s land and the new craters. As the depleted Royal Fusiliers advanced into the inferno, they quickly became disorientated as the ground had changed so much – and visibility also so poor – that they simply could not tell whether they were in a crater or an old German trench. Although it was reported that the objective had been captured, they had in fact not advanced to the main line of new craters, but only just beyond the shorter distance to the left-hand mine. Crucially, Crater No 5 remained in enemy hands, although the Mound itself had gone, destroyed in the blast. The support battalions of the brigade – 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers and 12th West Yorkshire – suffered losses from shellfire as they approached through the communication trenches, intending to move forward and consolidate the ground won. To make matters worse, it began to rain heavily, adding to water already rising in trenches, craters and shell holes following the underground destruction of a drainage system that the Germans had created.
Ground conditions were such that the Companies holding the new front had to be relieved after short periods, and battalions of the tired 8th and 76th Brigades, recently come out of the Bluff area, had to be used for this purpose, as was the 18th Canadian Battalion.
At 2am on 3 April, 8/King’s Own of 76th Brigade made a successful attempt to capture Crater No 5, after an hours bombardment. Following this, arrangements for the relief of 3rd Division were commenced and 2nd Canadian Division completed relief of 76th Brigade in the early hours of 4 April. Over the next days, V Corps, desperately tired after actions at St Eloi and the Bluff, was relieved by Canadian Corps – the first time such a large-scale change-over had taken place.
“Imagine my surprise and horror when I saw a whole crowd of armed Boches! I stood there for a moment feeling a bit sort of shy, and then I levelled my revolver at the nearest Boche and shouted ‘Hands up, all the lot of you!’ A few went up at once, then a few more and then the lot; and I felt the proudest fellow in the world as I cursed them”.
A note by then Captain Billy Congreve, Brigade-Major of 76th Brigade, who captured 5 officers and 77 men at Crater No 5 on 3 April 1916. Billy was awarded the DSO for this brave act. Later in the year, he was awarded the Victoria Cross while on the Somme. He died of wounds on 20 July 1916 and is buried in Corbie Communal Cemetery.
The quote is from “Armageddon Road: a VCs diary 1914-16 “, edited by Terry Norman and published by William Kimber in 1982.
27th Battalion CEF was in process of being relieved by 29th Battalion in the flooded crater field, when at 11pm on 5 April the German artillery opened a three hour bombardment. At 3.30am next day, German infantry began to attack the by-now wrecked British positions, wire defences and badly-mauled front line troops. British guns responded, but too late to halt the German infantry which quickly captured craters 2,3, 4 and 5. 31st Battalion CEF held off the attack at Crater 6. Once secured, German artillery laid down a barrage around the position to stop any counter attack by the Canadians. Much confusion reigned, and in doubt as to which troops were in the craters British artillery did not fire on them. Local counter attacks using grenades failed to make headway. By 15 April, after a fortnight of heavy shellfire by both sides, it was clear that the four large craters in the centre of the original attack were now consolidated into the German front and the Canadian Corps took steps to consolidate in the front line that it held – back where things started, and still overlooked by the enemy.
The German attack at Vimy Ridge, 21 May 1916
Third Army (Allenby)
V Corps (Wilson)
47th (2nd London) Division
XVII Corps (Byng)
The British front was extended by 20 miles in March 1916 to relieve the French Tenth Army for operations at Verdun. The new line – consisting, as the incoming units quickly found, of poorly dug and maintained, filthy trenches with few strongpoints or dugouts, containing many unburied bodies – ran from Loos down to Ransart, including Vimy Ridge. Even if the trenches had been in good condition, the Vimy Ridge sector was a difficult one for the defenders, as the enemy looked westwards down a long unbroken gentle slope from the summit of the ridge over the front lines and across the approach routes and artillery positions. British observers were unable to see the enemy artillery and supply routes on the far side of the summit, as the slope drops steeply towards Douai. But it had not mattered unduly, for this had been a quiet sector since the awful fighting of September and October 1915 had died down. Here the French and Germans had since both operated a ‘live and let live’ approach.
On taking over the French lines, the British immediately began the job of clearing away the immense amount of debris and rubbish left behind and removing bodies where they could. They also quickly ended the ‘live and let live’ era, commencing a policy of disruptive artillery fire and trench raiding. Soon enough it was discovered that the enemy had been taking advantage of the French lack of hostility to push on with deep mining of the area. It would, from a military viewpoint, have made sense to withdraw some 3-4000 yards to create a stronger defensive line, and this was indeed considered by Third Army commander Sir Edmund Allenby and Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig. To do so was however politically impossible, the French having lost many thousands of men in crawling up the slope in 1915.
Third Army deployed a number of Royal Engineers Tunnelling Companies to combat the German mining nuisance. This underground clash developed into a desperate struggle, with both sides blowing mines to destroy enemy infantry positions and camouflet charges to destroy the opposition’s mining activity. There was much above-ground fighting as a result, as each side tried to gain control of the resultant craters. Gradually, the British miners gained the upper hand, causing the enemy to consider a large scale attack with the intention of capturing the mine shafts.
In early May, German artillery and trench mortar fire -a natural response to British aggression – began to intensify. Front line trenches were very badly damaged, and communication trenches also became targets. All the signs were that an infantry attack could be expected. But aerial observation revealed nothing of significance. Five British divisions were ordered to move from First, Second and Third Armies to add to the build up of strength under Fourth Army, for the forthcoming Somme offensive. This meant some shuffling of Divisions and some adjustment of the areas under command of Armies and Corps. On the night 19-20 May 1916, this added up to a considerable change in the area of Berthonval (south of Souchez, facing Vimy Ridge). It passed from the command of Third Army to First, and from XVII Corps (Julian Byng) to IV Corps (Henry Wilson).
IV Corps had two Divisions holding their sector of the front, 47th (London) and 23rd, with 2nd Division in Corps Reserve near Bruay. The London Division held the Carency and Berthonval sectors with 141 and 140 Brigades, with 142 Brigade in Divisional Reserve. Also under temporary orders of the Division was 7th Brigade, of 25th Division.
At 5am on 21 May, the enemy bombardment on the Berthonval sector intensified. It continued unbroken to 11am, when there was a pause which lasted until 3pm. At this time, a very heavy shell and mortar fire fell on the small front – already heavily cratered – occupied by 1/7 and 1/8 Londons (140th Brigade), 1/20 Londons (141st) and 10/Cheshire (7th). This bombardment was deep, falling not only on the front trenches but back to the Divisional artillery positions too, as far as some 8 miles from the trenches. The shellfire included some tear gas. It was without doubt the heaviest concentrated shelling of the war so far: the enemy had arrayed 80 batteries on an 1800 yard front, all out of sight on the reverse slope of the Ridge. 70,000 shells fell in 4 hours, flattening trenches and cutting all communications; in the dry conditions dust also obscured all vision. British artillery replied but it had little effect on slowing the shellfire.
At 7.45pm, the blowing of a German mine and the lifting of the barrage onto the British support lines signalled the infantry attack. The crossed the smashed 140th Brigade front line almost unhindered and only stopped when they approached their own barrage. Many men of the 1/7 and 1/8 Londons were captured, still in their dugouts. Reinforcements were hurriedly organised in Zouave Valley, including the RE Field Companies of the 47th (London) Division. To each side, success was more limited as the 1/20 Londons and 10/Cheshire organised flank defences. Here, only the outpost line and the important Broadmarsh Crater were lost. 99th Brigade of 2nd Division was ordered up from Corps Reserve, and small local counter attacks were made by nearer units, but to no effect. The enemy advance, having captured their objectives of the British mine craters, halted, and under continued bombardment, the German infantry dug in. A small counter attack by units of 140th and 141st Brigades took place at 2am on 22nd May, but did not manage to change the situation except on the right, where the original support lines of 7th Brigade were recaptured by 8/Loyal North Lancashires.
Although Henry Wilson was all for mounting small local counter attacks while the enemy was still consolidating, Haig ruled that full preparations were to be made and a defensible line should be gained and re-established. The counter attack, to follow a short bombardment from hurriedly reinforced artillery, was to be made by 7th Brigade, 99th Brigade and 142nd Brigade. But it seemed the enemy was on the alert, for at 8pm on 23rd May (25 minutes before the British infantry attack was due, and after the bombardment had begun) they opened heavy shellfire. It fell on the assembly positions, particularly of 99th Brigade; the 1/Royal Berkshire lost 100 men before the assault should have begun. To make matters worse, German machine guns opened exactly on time, too. Confusion reigned in 99th Brigade. The Berkshires signalled to the 22/Royal Fusiliers that they could not attack, and the latter sent runners to halt their own Companies. This message did not get to B Company, which advanced on its own and was wiped out, along with the attached section of 226 Field Company RE. Elsewhere, 3/Worcesters of 7th Brigade recaptured their old support positions; on the left, 1/24 and 1/12 Londons got to their objective, only to be fought out of them again. 2nd Division relieved 47th (London) Division on the night of 25-26 May 1916.
The enemy remained on the defensive and after some debate it was decided by the British high command that the artillery that would be required to support a major effort to regain the former position would be better deployed on the Somme.
The losses to the British forces amounted to almost 2,500 between 21 and 24 May in this sector. 47th (London) Division lost 1,571 men; 7th Brigade of 25th Division 637 and 2nd Division 267. The German losses were reported to be 1,344.
The lesson that had begun over a year ago at Neuve Chapelle was being reinforced. It was quite possible to break into the enemy’s positions, given sufficient artillery and good observation, but enemy counter attacks could be expected, within a few days. It applied just as much to German attacks as to British or French ones. The reputation of Sir Henry Wilson suffered a reverse as a result of his handling of IV Corps. He remained in command of the Corps, on the now quiet again Vimy front, while others less senior were in the ascendant on the Somme.
The Battle of Mount Sorrel, 2-13 June 1916
Second Army (Plumer)
XIV Corps (the Earl of Cavan)
20th (Light) Division
Canadian Corps (Byng)
1st Canadian Division
2nd Canadian Division
3rd Canadian Division
The action described as the Battle of Mount Sorrel took place between Hill 60 at Zwarteleen and Hooge. Much of the ground was wooded, as it is again today. The eastern edges of Armagh Wood and Sanctuary Wood lay on a crest line, topped by the heights of Mount Sorrel and Tor Top. The latter was alternatively named Hill 62, as it rose to 62 metres above sea level, some 25-30 metres higher than the shallow ground at Zillebeke and on towards Ypres. Once on the crest line, an occupying force enjoyed excellent observation over the Ypres salient, the town itself, and the approach roads, railways and tracks. This important tactical location was the target for the next German attack.
The German XIII (Wurttemburg) Corps prepares to attack
Six weeks of planning and careful preparations for the capture and retention of the Tor Top ridge were made by the XIII (Wurttemburg) Corps, before they launched their attack on 2nd June 1916. Their objective was simply to grab the last dominating observation position in front of Ypres and keep as many British units as possible pinned down in the area, to avoid them assisting the obvious build up on the Somme or relieving more French units to go to the defence of Verdun. Although no fresh infantry Divisions were brought in, much heavy artillery was assembled, as was a mass of trench mortars. New advanced outpost positions were dug, along with many new dugouts for sheltering the assault troops. On 31st May and 1st June 1916, the three Canadian Divisions holding the line all reported much increased enemy artillery and airborne activity, but apart from that there was no obvious cause for alarm. News of the naval battle of Jutland (or Skagerrak) was filtering through, and while both sides claimed victory it did not seem that the Royal Navy had scored the expected knockout blow.
Canadian senior officers caught in front line as bombardment starts
At 6am on 2 June, Major-General Malcolm Mercer, GOC 3rd Canadian Division, went on a personal reconnaissance of the Mount Sorrel and Tor Top front, accompanied by Brigadier-General V.A.S. Williams, GOC 8th Canadian Brigade. They were under instruction by new Canadian Corps commander Lieutenant-General Hon. Sir Julian Byng to plan a local attack to improve their position. Just over two hours later, the German bombardment – on the front lines and half a mile behind them – intensified. The shellfire continued and intensified yet again at 12:30pm, as the British front line – trenches, wire defences, dugouts – were destroyed. Many wounded were taken to the only seemingly safe place, an underground work called “The Tunnel” on the reverse slope of Mount Sorrel which was also the HQ of the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles, of 8th Brigade. The British artillery replied, but gradually it became less effective as telephone lines were cut by shellfire, and all of the forward observation officers in the front lines became casualties.
Death of Major-General Mercer
Brigadier-General V.A.S. Williams was wounded in the head soon after the German bombardment began; he was taken prisoner when the enemy infantry attacked. Major-General M. S. Mercer, stunned and deafened by the shell burst, found his way to an aid post but insisted on leaving to rejoin his HQ. He was hit and his leg broken. As he lay in the open, he was struck by shrapnel and killed. The loss of two key commanders in the very centre of the operations was a critical blow. Much later in the day, when it became clear the officers had been lost, Byng hurriedly appointed Brigadier-General E. S. Hoare Nairne, the commander of the 3rd Division’s artillery, to command of the Division.
Blowing of mines heralds German infantry attack
At just after 1pm, the German pioneers blew a small number of mines just short of the now-obliterated British fire trench at Mount Sorrel. Five battalions of the 25th and 26th Wurttemburg Divisions, with another eleven behind them, moved to the advance. The main strength fell against 4th and 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles, of 8th Brigade, and the right-most Company of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. There was little fire from the British positions here, although machine guns on both flanks did good work, to halt the enemy advance. However, the fight for the shell holes of the old front line was dogged, with much hand to hand combat. At Sanctuary Wood, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry held off the attack at a high cost in casualties. Elsewhere the Germans overran the British line, capturing the heights at Mount Sorrel and Tor Top and advancing some way down the slope to take a number of strong points. As the defenders recovered and the enemy came into view on the downward slope, fire intensified and the Germans halted, consolidating their gains.
British reserves arrive and prepare to counter attack
By an hour after the enemy infantry attack had begun, reserve units were arriving in the area: 2nd and 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles of 8th Brigade and 42nd Battalion of 7th Brigade. It was clear that this was too small a force to mount a successful counter attack, so orders were given for these units to form a defensive line, using the best communication trenches and other features they could find. More units were moving up too, including 7th Battalion of 1st Canadian Division and the Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade.
Julian Byng issued an order at 4.25pm for a counter attack to take place, directing that one Brigade of 1st Canadian Division should attack to the south, and one of 3rd Canadian Division to the north. The latter part was abandoned after discussion with 3rd Division about the state of their troops. 1st Division decided that Brigadier-General Louis Lipsett’s 2nd Brigade should make an attack against Mount Sorrel, with Brigadier-General George Tuxford’s 3rd Brigade against Tor Top. The two Brigadiers met at Railway Dugouts to plan the attack in detail. 7th Brigade was added to the plan, to attack between Tor Top and the Appendix. But the fresh units, still moving up from as far away as Poperinge, were not fully in position when the agreed time for the assault came, at 2am on 3rd June. Many were caught in German barrages falling on the roads and tracks as they trudged towards the inferno.
The first counter attack fails, with heavy losses
It was not until the broad daylight of 7.10am on 3rd June that the Canadian units were ready to make the planned counter attack. Uncertainty arose when fourteen signal rockets were fired before six – the chosen start signal – had been successfully ignited. A terrible consequence was that the three attacks began at different times, and the enemy was able to concentrate their fire. Small parties penetrated into the German front lines and fearsome close fighting took place but the Canadians were too few in number to capture the trenches and hold on. Between noon and 1pm they fell back to their start positions. But at least the gaps in the British line had been filled, and the general position established some 1500 yards from the German line, closer than it had initially been after the German attack.
Haig insists on the recapture of the ridge line, reinforces the sector
With the enemy now having unhindered observation across the salient, Ypres and the rear areas, it was imperative to wrest the heights back from the Germans. Sir Douglas Haig, desperate to avoid diluting the build-up of forces on the Somme any further, had little choice but to reinforce Second Army if they were to achieve this. 89th Siege Battery, 51st Howitzer Battery and two South African Howitzer Batteries (the latter new to France) were ordered into the area, as was the artillery and 9th Infantry Brigade of 3rd Division which was out at rest. 9th Brigade moved into the St Eloi sector and relieved 5th Canadian Brigade, that moved north to Ypres. For some days, the weather deteriorated, making the work of consolidating the new position and making it ready for an assault very much more difficult.
British counter-attack plans are disrupted by another German effort
German infantry attacked at Hooge and Hill 60 after a three-hour bombardment and the blowing of four mines at the former place at 3pm on 6th June 1916. They met the 6th Canadian Brigade, which had just arrived in the area. For a while the enemy entered the Canadian trenches and were only ejected in places after a stiff fight. They were beaten off at Hill 60. Julian Byng, tempted to regain the Hooge trenches, considered an effort to do so but decided to leave the old British front line in enemy hands while concentrating forces on the regaining of Mount Sorrel and Tor Top. Douglas Haig approved Byng’s plan, but deployed the 2nd Cavalry Brigade of 2nd Cavalry Division, dismounted, as a reserve for the Canadian Corps, just in case this latest German effort was a forerunner of further attacks. The proposed recapture of the ridge was further delayed when the weather closed in, and air reconnaissance became impossible.
Final preparations are made
Despite the rain, British artillery shelled the German lines on Mount Sorrel and Tor Top for four hours each day from 9th June. Unable to be spotted from the air, the effects were uncertain. Final orders for the attack were issued on 11th June, and zero hour was fixed for 1.30am on 13th. The depleted Canadian battalions were formed up into two composite Brigades for the attack. On the left, 2nd, 4th, 13th and 16th Battalions under George Tuxford would go for Tor Top. On the right, Louis Lipsett would have 1st, 3rd, 8th for the effort at Mount Sorrel, with 7th holding Hill 60. 5th, 10th, 14th and 15th Battalions were held as close reserve under Brigadier-General Garnet Hughes. The bombardment was lengthened and intensified on 12th June, and the attacking units moved into position without incident. Smoke screens were laid down by the artillery and Stokes mortars (indeed, 20th (Light) Division, on the left of the Canadians across the Menin Road near Railway Wood, also used smoke, under cover of which they mounted four successful trench raids as the bigger effort opened to their right). The leading waves moved out into no man’s land under cover of the barrage and the smoke, and waited for zero in driving rain.
The second counter attack goes in
The assault began on time at 1.30am, and the Canadian infantry quickly took the German front lines. More than 190 prisoners were taken in the first minutes. A heavy German bombardment opened on the newly captured positions, which combined with the mud (after days of rain) and the already churned-up nature of the ground made the spade work of consolidation of the position very difficult. It was simply impossible to be sure where the original front lines had been, so numerous were the water-filled shell holes and mine craters. As it turned out, the new posts that were dug – it was not possible to make a continuous line – were in places a hundred yards behind the original position, but it did not matter. The Germans had been pushed off the Mount Sorrel and Tor Top ridge, and the Canadians had most successfully executed their first deliberately planned attack on the Western Front. A combination of excellent staff work and planning, brilliantly executed artillery work in poor weather and the formidable courage of the Canadian infantry, had saved the day.
Charles Harington (right) – always known as Tim – was Brigadier-General, General Staff of the Canadian Corps during the Mount Sorrel fighting. In his biography of the redoubtable Herbert Plumer, commander of Second Army, he wrote: “It was between 3rd and 13th June that General Byng said to me ‘You have got to go to the Second Army as Major-General, General Staff’. Knowing his sense of humour I never took it seriously. I had known that Brigadier-General Bruce Williams was vacating the appointment in order to take up a command, but I had never given a thought to any idea that I should be even considered for such an appointment. When, however, General Plumer visited our HQ next day, I thanked him for his kindness in selecting me. Whereupon, he remarked in a moment, ‘I won’t have you unless you get Mount Sorrel back’“.
Between 2 June and 14 June 1916, the Canadian Corps lost a total of 73 officers and 1053 other ranks killed; 257 officers and 5010 other ranks wounded; 57 officers and 1980 other ranks missing, a total of 8430. German losses recorded were 32 officers and 1191 other ranks killed; 71 officers and 3911 other ranks wounded; 6 officers and 554 other ranks missing, a total of 5765. It is generally believed that German methods of reporting wounded differed and that losses were about the same on both sides. The British losses included teh following senior officers:
|Lieutenant-Colonel Herbert Buller DSO, 34, OC Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and formerly of the Rifle Brigade, killed in action at Sanctuary Wood, 2 June 1916. Buried in Voormezele Enclosure No. 3.|
|Major-General Malcolm Mercer CB, 56, GOC 3rd Canadian Division, killed in action at Mount Sorrel, 2 June 1916. Buried in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery.|
|Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Shaw, 34, OC 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles, a resident of Calgary, killed in action at Mount Sorrel, 2 June 1916. Has no known grave, and is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing, Ypres.|
|Lieutenant-Colonel George Baker, 38, OC 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles (Quebec Regiment), a Member of the Canadian House of Commons, died of wounds, 2 June 1916. Buried in Poperinghe New Military Cemetery.|
|Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Creighton, 41, OC 1st Canadian Battalion (Western Ontario Regiment), originally from Nova Scotia but a resident of Winnipeg, died of wounds incurred during the relief of his unit on 13 June, on 19 June 1916. Buried in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery.|
Next time you are in Ypres, visit the Canadian Memorial at Hill 62, signposted and accessible from the Menin Road. You are on Tor Top, right in the middle of the Mount Sorrel battlefield, and the views across to Ypres will explain why this position was so important to hold.