Canadians take Fresnoy

May 1, 2019 by Sharon Adams

Canadian troops march through a French town in May 1917.
DND/LAC PA-001365
After taking Vimy Ridge in early April 1917, Canadian Corps’ success in France continued with an attack on the Arleux Loop on April 28-29 that drove the Germans to Fresnoy-en-Gohelle.

General Sir Douglas Haig then had two objectives: to secure a more defensible position and draw German attention away from the Aisne sector, where the French Army was fighting to capture a strategic ridge with the hope of an advance to Laon.

Haig planned a new attack by three armies across a 22-kilometre front, aiming to consolidate a good defensive line by mid-May. Fresnoy was the Canadian target.

The attack began under cover of darkness at 3:45 a.m., May 3, 1917. But the Germans were expecting it, and began shelling the Canadians, including Lieutenant Robert Grierson Combe and the 27th Infantry Battalion (City of Winnipeg), as they advanced over the open plain.

Most of the battalion fell 450 metres short of the objective, but Combe won through with five men. Using enemy grenades as their own ran out, they inflicted heavy casualties, took more than 80 prisoners and captured 230 metres of trench. Reinforcements arrived and Combe continued to charge, driving back the enemy.

Combe was 36 years old and had been in France only two weeks. He was killed by a sniper, one of the 27th Battalion’s 267 casualties that day.

“His conduct inspired all ranks, and it was entirely due to his magnificent courage that the position was carried, secured and held,” says the citation for his posthumous Victoria Cross.

The Canadians captured Fresnoy, which immediately came under counter attack. The Germans fired some 100,000 artillery and gas shells into the village over the next week, then stormed it. The Canadians fought them off, and were relieved by British troops. The Germans attacked again the next day, and the village was lost.

In the Battle of Fresnoy, the Canadian Corps suffered 1,259 casualties. Records show that at Fresnoy, the Germans suffered their deepest losses on the first day of the battle.

Combe was buried in a field cemetery at Acheville, France, but his grave was lost when the cemetery was destroyed in subsequent fighting. He is commemorated on the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, from which, on a clear day, the battlefield on which he died can be seen.

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