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Slaughter At St-Éloi: Army, Part 55

Canadian soldiers enjoy coffee on the Western Front in 1916.
When the government of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany decided to change the balance of power in Europe by military action, it did so in the firm belief that the war would be won in less than a year. By the end of 1915, when the casualty toll was estimated at two million Russian, 2.1 million Austro-Hungarian, 1.3 million French, 0.6 million German and 0.3 million British, the war seemed to have become a permanent part of European life.

Germany’s grand strategy in 1915 was based on the army’s early victories against Czarist Russia and its partial success in the West, where a defensive war could be fought in Belgium and France until the Western Allies accepted Germany’s terms for ending the war. Despite terrible losses, the overwhelming majority of Germans supported the war and were prepared to see it through to a victor’s peace.

Public opinion in the West was equally committed to the defeat of an enemy who occupied Northern France and most of Belgium, while waging war without restraint. For Canadians, the gas attack at Ypres, Belgium, and the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania were reason enough to see the war as both just and necessary.

While there was agreement on the need to continue fighting, there was no consensus on how the war should be waged. Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, the British war minister, was among the first to recognize that the war might last for years and he proposed to raise a volunteer force of more than a million men. Canadians continued to volunteer in large numbers, providing recruits for the 3rd and 4th infantry divisions. There was no difficulty in finding potential soldiers, but it would take time to train and equip them. Producing the guns and shells for the artillery that everyone believed was necessary to break through the enemy defences was an equally challenging task.

Kitchener was reluctant to see his new army rushed into the battles of the Western Front, and he therefore accepted proposals to begin a campaign in the Eastern Mediterranean. The idea of coming to the aid of Russia by attacking Turkey, Germany’s principal eastern ally, may have made strategic sense, but how was it to be accomplished? When the Royal Navy failed to force a passage through the Dardanelles, British, French and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) forces landed on the Gallipoli peninsula. The Newfoundland Regiment, part of 29th British Division, participated in the final stages of this bitterly fought battle that ended when all Allied forces were withdrawn in early January 1916.

The Gallipoli campaign cost the Allies more than 20,000 casualties at a time when their armies on the Western Front were also suffering heavy losses. General J.J. Joffre, the French commander-in-chief, demanded British participation in yet another offensive, even though all the senior British field commanders were opposed to conducting operations in the selected area near the town of Loos. The enemy held the high ground with excellent observation for his artillery, while the ground over which an attack must be made was, according to British Gen. Sir Douglas Haig, “so swept by machine-gun and rifle fire that an advance in the open is impossible.”

Despite these objections, Joffre insisted on a major British offensive and Kitchener, who feared a breach between the two nations, informed Haig, who was to command the attack, that “we must act with all our energies and do our utmost to help the French even though by doing so we suffer very heavy losses.” British casualties at Loos were horrendous. By October 1915, the army had suffered 59,000 casualties, including 15,000 dead, more than double the German total. Since the French offensive at Vimy had also been a very costly failure, the year 1915 closed on a note of despair. How was the war to be won?

The fallout from the failures of 1915 included the resignation of Winston Churchill, who as First Lord of the Admiralty had planned the attempt to force the Dardanelles. By January 1916, he was in Belgium commanding a battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. Anxious to learn all he could about his new responsibilities, he arranged to visit Major-General Arthur Currie’s 1st Canadian Div., which was holding the line a few miles to the north. While at Sandhurst, Churchill had made friends with a classmate, Louis James Lipsett, a brilliant career officer who later served with the pre-war Canadian army. Maj.-Gen. Lipsett was commanding the 2nd Cdn. Infantry Brigade, which had virtually invented the large-scale trench raid, and he was more than willing to share his ideas with Churchill. Lipsett arranged a demonstration which Churchill described in a letter to his wife: “He made a realistic attack with his bombs on a section of our reserve trenches. The splinters flew all over the place. It was like a skirmish: but no one was hurt. Lucky! The Canadians grinned from ear to ear to see me. Wonderful fellows: like leopards. I was made to give a speech and produced a really good one on the spur of the moment.”

Churchill’s impromptu speech reminded the men of the reasons Britain had gone to war, but he could offer no advice on how to wage it. During his six months as a commanding officer, Churchill spent his energies trying to improve the battalion’s defences and prevent unnecessary casualties.

He was bitterly opposed to the renewal of offensive battles of the kind the British army was planning for 1916.

Canadian leaders were not yet involved in discussions about the political or military direction of the war, and in 1916 the Canadian Corps was at the disposal of Haig, who had replaced Sir John French in December 1915. Haig’s energies were focused on preparations for a major offensive in the Somme valley, planned for July 1916. However, the German attack at Verdun, designed to bleed the French army to death, began in late February and Haig was under great pressure to launch attacks that would force the Germans to divert resources from Verdun.

The first such attack began on March 2, 1916, when 5th British Corps fought a successful battle to recapture a position known as the Bluff, south of Ypres. A second assault to seize the formidable Hohenzollern Redoubt began the same day in the 12 Corps sector, where a series of mine tunnels filled with high explosives were set off under the German trenches, creating large craters up to 50 metres across. The battle for the craters wore on for more than two weeks, with heavy losses on both sides. The British brigade commander who ended the action by withdrawing his men to the original line reported that there was no point in holding the interior of a crater, as it was an obvious target for every kind of gun and mortar, and the liquid mass of chalk and mud in the crater made it impossible to dig adequate protective trenches.

Despite these warnings, Gen. Herbert Plumer decided to attack the German defences at St-Éloi, five kilometres south of Ypres, by tunnelling under the position and destroying the enemy’s forward lines.

British and Canadian tunnelling companies dug deep shafts well behind the lines and then constructed six tunnels, carefully concealing the sand spoil from enemy air observation. The disadvantage of creating new large craters in a sticky mud landscape already torn by shell holes and mine craters of all sizes was considered, but the planners insisted that the objective of the attack, the third German line well beyond the craters, could be seized and held. The 3rd British Div. was selected to make the attack but only one of its brigades was fully fit for action and Plumer decided to hand over the new line to the 2nd Cdn. Div. as soon as it was secured.

Lieutenant-General E.A.H. Alderson, commanding the Canadian Corps, objected to the idea of relieving another formation at precisely the time when enemy counterattacks could be expected and suggested that 2nd Cdn. Div. carry out the entire operation. This proposal was rejected because 3rd British Div. had rehearsed the advance over similar ground. Alderson was told the Canadians would not be asked to take over until the new line had been consolidated.

The British attack began on the morning of March 27, 1916 with the explosion of six mines. The blast could be heard on the coast of England, and the enemy front line, plus some of the support trenches were destroyed. For the next seven days, the battalions of 9th British Bde. struggled to gain control of their objective, but the most they could do was create a series of isolated positions, not a connected line of trenches.

With casualties approaching 1,000 men, the brigade was relieved by other British battalions that fought their way to the forward edge of the main craters where they established a new line on an exposed forward slope. The struggle to reach this dubious objective had exhausted the British troops, who required immediate relief. Alderson rejected the proposal that a Canadian brigade be used to take over the front under British direction, insisting that the untried 2nd Cdn. Div. could carry out an immediate unplanned relief.

The task of relieving the British was given to Brigadier H.D.B. Ketchen and his 6th Inf. Bde. They quickly discovered that the British troops were holding ground which was “more of a line on a map than an actual line of defence.” The existing trenches were from two to three feet deep in water, in full view of the enemy and exposed to artillery fire from the left flank as well as from the front.

The Canadians did their best to improve the positions, employing more than 600 men to dig a communication trench and pump out water. At dawn, with the work far from completed, an intense artillery barrage inflicted heavy casualties. Canadian War Museum historian Tim Cook, who has studied the battle closely, offered this description of the experience of the 31st Bn.: “The shelling was, as one soldier noted, “painfully accurate.” The war diary recorded the bombardment as “a most terrific concentrated enemy bombardment…(they are) using trench torpedoes and all shells of all kinds and sizes. Hundreds of shells must be bursting per minute. We must expect heavy losses….” Casualties began to flow back to the medical officer who recorded “cases of shattered nerves… (due to) some men being burned by shells” and “a number (of men)…coming in with chilled, sodden feet…(from) standing in water and mud for 48 hours (without relief).”

Yet the Canadians responded in kind. One major recorded that his platoon was cut off during the bombardment and attacked by about 150 Germans, but he and his platoon “opened up with rapid rifle fire under heavy bombardment and accounted for about 25 dead at close range.” The 31st may have been demoralized and battered, but it refused to break.

After 17 hours of continuous shelling, the enemy attacked, securing control of the four main craters. Ketchen ordered an immediate counterattack and the men of the 28th Bn. quickly “reported the capture of three of the lost craters.” They had in fact captured a group of much smaller craters 100 metres in front of the German positions. The battle of the St-Éloi craters was turning into one of those nightmare engagements which continues to shape our memory of the fighting on the Western Front.

The Canadian commander, Major-General Sir Richard Turner, proposed the obvious solution when he recommended withdrawing the troops and then shelling the craters just as the Germans were doing to the Canadians. Plumer rejected Turner’s recommendation, ordering the division to hold its position. Canadian losses at St-Éloi, close to 1,400 men, were a heavy price to pay for such an ill-conceived operation.

Shortly before the battle at St-Éloi, Maurice Pope, a young engineer officer who would later rise to the rank of lieutenant-general, reported that the morale of 2nd Div. was high despite “six months in the line, within rifle and artillery range 18 days out of 24…. Shovelling mud at midnight on a rainy night after a five-mile march on an empty stomach is hardly a joke, yet in some way (the men) keep cheerful and full of spirit.” After St-Éloi he admitted “our morale is not all it should be.”

After the battle, Turner and his divisional staff officers were severely criticized for their inability to resolve conflicting reports about who was where on a battlefield that resembled a water-saturated, lunar landscape. Since it is not at all clear what difference it would have made if the actual positions were known, the real issue was one of responsibility for continuing an operation which again demonstrated that you could not hold ground if the enemy concentrated a sufficient quantity of observed artillery fire upon it.

Plumer saw it differently, insisting that the operation had failed because of serious command problems in 2nd Cdn. Div. He ordered Alderson to take “severe disciplinary measures” and to fire both Turner and Ketchen. Alderson initially chose to make Ketchen the scapegoat, but when Turner refused to endorse an adverse report on his brigadier, Alderson asked Haig to remove both men for insubordination and incompetence.

Alderson soon found himself up against a formidable foe, Sir Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook, who was serving as Canada’s special representative, publicist and historian in France. Aitken had just published Canada in Flanders, his account of the actions of 1st Cdn. Div. in 1915, a best-selling book that portrayed the Canadians in heroic terms. Aitken, who was part of Winston Churchill’s circle as well as a friend of Canadian Defence Minister Sam Hughes, had no intention of allowing Canadians to be made scapegoats for British generals and he orchestrated a campaign to replace Alderson instead of the two Canadians.

Haig, who was planning to use the rapidly growing Canadian Corps in his great battle at the Somme, could not afford to allow a feud between British and Canadian generals to develop, and he refused to dismiss Turner or Ketchen. In discussions with Aitken, Haig even agreed to remove Alderson if the Canadians could find a position for him. Alderson was informed that he was to become Inspector-General of Canadian troops in England. A new corps commander, Lt.-Gen.Sir Julian Byng, arrived to lead the Canadians at the Somme and Vimy Ridge.


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