Bivouac of the Dead: The 18th Battalion’s Experience at the Battle at Flers-Courcelette.

“On France’s eternal camping ground
Their silent tents are spread.
While glory guards with solemn round
The Bivouac of the Dead.”

Poem attached to Sergeant Chester P. Smiths Memorial Page. Adaptation of Bivouac of the Dead, Theodore O’Hara, 1851.

There is a succinct, enigmatic entry in the pages of the 18th Battalion’s War Diary for September 1916.

“NOT MUCH HELP TO A HISTORIAN”

A page inserted in the LACs image gallery of the 18th Battalion’s September 1916 War Diary.

We do not know who or when this was printed in such bold block letters. The author is not much wrong. The War Diary is bereft with detail, as if a collective amnesia was instituted the war diarist. It looks like it is transcribed by the same soldier as the war diary for August. Yet, it appears to be deliberately obtuse in its content. It speaks of the attack on Courcelette on the opening days of the 2nd Division’s involvement with at the Somme in these terms, “6:24 AM – Battalion attacked German front and second lines to depth of 1,200 yds. And held the position gained (both objectives gained).”

This entry is almost negligent. It does not describe the anguish and loss of the approximately 94 men killed in action that day. This action was so singularly intense that the Battalion was relieved from the front-line the very next day and did not see front-line service for 2-weeks, when it relieved its sister battalion, the 21st, on September 30th. It is as if the Divisional Commander expects such wastage from the units involved that they will be spent after 48-hours of action.

William F. Stewart’s ground-breaking book about the Canadian at the Somme, Canadians at the Somme: The Neglected Campaign, barely mentions the 18th Battalion’s involvement. Not due to any omission or error on his part, but due to the lack of official documents relating to the actions of the Battalion on that day, and, in fact, during its involvement at the Somme from September to December 1916. A veil passes over history and the 18th is lost in the currents of this conflict with no tales of valour or loss.

That is not the case now…

The area of battle. From Campbell, David “A Forgotten Victory: Courcelette, 15 September 1916.” Canadian Military History 16, 2 (2007)

PREMONITION

Appendix No. 36 of the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade contains a communication from the commander of the Reserve Army that stated:

“2nd. Canadian Division

In all operations undertaken by the Canadian Corps, not more than 20 officers per Battalion, including Headquarters, will accompany Battalions in the attack.

The Officers left behind will include a due proportion of all ranks.

At least 15% of senior N.C.Os and specialists will also remain behind.”

These men, left out of battle, indicated the level of casualties expected in the upcoming battle.

The basic movements of the units involved in the action. Gunpit Trench can be seen just past the first objective (Candy Trench). Campbell, David “A Forgotten Victory: Courcelette, 15 September 1916.” Canadian Military History 16, 2 (2007)

THE OFFICIAL RECORD

Messages: The 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade[i]

The voices of the men of the 18th are not mute. They are there, hiding in plain sight. The 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade holds records of the messages passed via messengers using pad, paper, and pencil. The 18th Battalion was code-named YORK and four messages were relayed to and from the 18th to the 4th Brigade, code-named ENGLAND.

The first message, at 7:30 AM, barely an hour after the 6:20 AM jumping off time, relates, “Scout corporals [sic] Dougall[x] reports our advance successful for over 700 yards at 7 a. There were a large number of dead and wounded Germans lying about the intervening land.”

At 8:45, 2-hours after the Battalion jumped off, a message from an unknown officer relates, “Our objective gained. Support line being dug in appointed place. Battalion H.Q. going forward.”

Clearly the attack is going well for the 18th Battalion.

Not quite an hour later, at 9:41 AM, Lieutenant J.J. Richardson reports to his commanding officer the following, “Am building second line connecting shell holes 50 yards in rear of front line. Mr. Lloyd with B. Co. is looking after this. I myself have parts of A, C & D companies in front line. Have one Machine Gun (Boche) but don’t know how to work it. M.G. organization not very good, otherwise everything alright. Have good connection with H.L.I. on right and 20th Bn. on left.”

The Battalion is consolidating its front in expectation of a German counterattack, which never came. Lieutenant Richardson wishes to adapt a German machine gun to his use in order to bolster his defences but, admits, he does not know how to make it function.

And, finally, at 11:10 AM the 18th Battalion reports to the Brigade that, “Bn H.Q. now a junction of PEG TRENCH and have formed a first line. Attached from Coy.”

This is the final message from the 18th Battalion of a series of communications between the eight involved units in the Brigade. It shows the beginning of the battle it sheds some light on the activities and organization of the battle. The 18th Battalion advances well, begins its consolidation of its lines and then, once the lines have stabilized, the Headquarters unit moves forward to get in more direct contact with its troops.

Though the information is scant, naturally given the nature of messages in battle, generally short and concise, it is not at all inconsistent with the number of messages the 20th and 21st Battalions created during the battle.

OPERATIONS of the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade at the SOMME SEPTEMBER 10th to 17th, 1916.

This document is comprehensive in relation to the Brigade’s involvement in the battle for Flers-Courcelette. It relates the preparations for the attack, with well-deserved praise for the 19th Battalion which dug jumping-off trenches and communication trenches prior to the attack. It was subjected to active German artillery bombardment and the Operations document relates, “The enemy shelling was very severe, and unfortunately many casualties resulted. The great value of these forward trenches, which were dug by the men of the 19th Battalion, was however, clearly shown by subsequent events and too much credit cannot be given to those responsible for the carrying out of the work, which was done under an irritating and destructive fire during several days and nights.”

This work was emblematic of the lessons learned from the many engagements prior to the Somme. Preparation, thorough preparation along all lines of military resources was necessary for success. Water, food, ammunition, and other supplies were amassed and stored in appropriately marked depots close to the front-line.

The plan of attack had the 18th Battalion on the right, commanded by its relatively new commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel H.L. Milligan. The 20th Battalion took responsibility for the centre of the line, with the 21st Battalion being responsible for the left-flank. The 19th Battalion, having worked hard in digging trenches was held in reserve. The battalions would attack with a three-platoon frontage, with each successive company maintaining the same platoon frontage, making a total of four waves. A fifth wave was to follow which would be assigned “Special Missions.”

The intent was to have all four waves in the jumping off trenches with plenty of time to be well rested for zero hour. The intention was to have the attacking battalions to press forward at all costs, ignoring any areas or points or resistance, which would be “mopped up” by elements of the 19th Battalion across the entire 3 battalion frontage. The summary relates that the preparations went well, with “perfect silence” being maintained.

At 3:00 AM, 3 hours and 45 minutes before the attack was to begin, a spoiling attack by the Germans occurred, which, if unchecked, could lead to casualties and demoralization of the attacking forces. It is noted that that captured enemy documents indicated an attack at this specific point, alluding to the Germans having taken the activities along this front as preparations for an attack. One suspects they thought the attack was only going of brigade size, as it appears this was the only activity along the front that morning.

A vigorous rifle fire and grenade bombardment began, and the actions of Lieutenant H.H. Sykes is specifically noted for he, “…promptly organized his Bombing defences and effectually maintained his position on the Right. The enemy was unable to gain access to our trenches on the flank.” From this description, Lieutenant Sykes was on the extreme right of the Brigade line and if the Germans turned that flank inward, to its right, the position of the 18th Battalion would have been untenable, and could have disrupted to 18th’s, if not the 4th Brigade’s attack. For these actions he would earn the Military Cross with his actions on that day:

“For conspicuous gallantry in action. He held a section of trench and repelled an enemy bombing attack with great courage and determination. Later he gallantly led his platoon forward, and captured an enemy trench. He was severely wounded.” [ii]

Barrage map showing the lifts the artillery would follow. The objective for the soldiers was to keep tight to the barrage, as close as safely possible, so that when they arrived at an objective the enemy would have no time to react and prepare a defense. It appears that this tactic was very effective during this battle.

2-hours and 40-minutes would transpire before the artillery would signal the beginning of the attack. It fired for 4-minutes on the German front lines and then lifted, and the infantry began its assault. The 18th Battalion War Diary records it stepping off 4-minutes after the official start time. As the artillery lifted every 4-minutes advancing approximately 100-yards at a time the men of the 18th Battalion pressed forward. They had newly issued Lee-Enfield Mk. III SMLEs and the new Lewis Gun to bolster their firepower. In addition, at 6:30 AM the innovation that would shape this and the next World War lumbered into history. The first employment of tanks in combat began as part of the order of battle fo the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade.

The advance was going very well. The first German trench was captured 5-minutes after Zero Hour. But this success would come at a cost.

At 6:34 AM the second German trench was captured. This event coincided with the death of Captain S.M. Loghrin.

“During the advance on the right, towards this trench, the 18th Battalion moving forward steadily, noticed a party of the enemy apparently ready to surrender.  Captain S. M. Loghrin went forward to accept their surrender, and when doing so, was killed by a bomb³ thrown by one of the enemy party. This foul act of treachery was observed by the men of his Company, with the result that none of the occupants of the trench were allowed to escape alive.”

With the death of their Company Commander, the men carried out a vicious act of retribution that would be indelibly etched on the minds of the survivors. Sadly, this would not be the only loss for this family, as Captain Loghrin’s half-brother, Private Donald Montieth Jeffery, was killed in action the same day. There is a very good chance they both served in the same Company together. Both men’s bodies would never be identified.

Major Loghrin with his half-brother, Private Jeffery. Circa 1915-16.

This event does not affect the momentum of the attack as the 18th Battalion “…steadily proceeded, following closely in the rear of our terrible Artillery barrage.” Trenches were captured and any surviving German soldiers captured and sent to the rear for processing.

The 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade narratives shifts to the intense combat of the 21st Battalion at the Sugar Factory, an important objective as it served as redoubt for the German lines with its myriad of tunnels and defensive works. The combat was so intense that all the officers of the attacking company, “B”, were put out of action and Company Sergeant Major Deane took over until the objective was consolidated.

At 7:30 AM the Brigade receives the message indicating the 18th Battalion had advanced 700-yards by 7:00 AM. At the same time, the newly introduced tanks are passing the Sugar Factory on the right and begin a circle to the North and East as they root out German opposition.

In the centre, the 20th Battalion was heavily engaged and meeting with comparable success as its sister battalions to the left (21st) and the right (18th). It reached Gun Pit Road that lay 900 yards beyond the Brigade’s objective. It worked consolidate this objective and had opposition from hidden German positions. The toll on the Germans must have been high, as it was reported that the 20th Battalion only captured 2 prisoners, meaning that many German soldiers would die in the deep dug-outs the 20th found at this objectives.

At 9:20 AM it is reported that parties for all three battalions had taken Gun Pit Road with little opposition. It was reported that 50 German prisoners were captured by the 20th Battalion “alone” indicating the prisoner count was much greater if the other battalions were included in this.

Twenty-one minutes later, Lieutenant J.J. Richardson is able to report his efforts to consolidate the lines at Gun Pit Road. These efforts are important as the Battalion can expect a German counterattack in response to the successes made that day. It was during this action that Lieutenant Richardson, a soldier that rose through the ranks to become an officer, and now thrust into the role of a Company Commander would earn his Distinguished Service Order:

“Lt. John James Richardson, Inf.

For conspicuous gallantry in action. When his senior officers had become casualties, he led his men with great courage and determination to the final objective, and consolidated the position. Later, he captured many prisoners.

Source: London Gazette issue 29824 page 11044 dated November 14, 1916.”

Perhaps the brevity of the citation indicates the intensity of the combat experienced by the 18th and its sister battalions? Other officers were so engaged and so few survived that the narrative is sparse and would not represent the total amount of work and tactical direction this officer experienced during that day.

The 18th Battalion, in the right-flank, makes contact with the unit on the Brigade boundary, resulting in the integrity of the front-line being intact and lessening the chance of being out-flanked by a German counterattack.

At this time of the narrative there are no more references specifically relating to the actions of the 18th Battalion or its men.

At 11:10 AM Battalion Headquarters arrives at and establishes a command post at Gun Pit Road and reports same to the 4th Brigade.

From the narrative some of the events the 18th Battalion would have experienced though the rest of the day can be extrapolated.

The 21st Battalion was heavily shelled at the Sugar Factory and withdrew due to this shelling. Gun Pit Road was heavily shelled in response to the consolidation of that line by the units of the 4th Brigade. The narrative relates that the “splendid work” of the units involved was “an outstanding feature” of “that memorable day.” Ironically stated, in the case of the 18th Battalion’s War Diary for that day.

The pressure on Gun Pit Road needed to be relieved and it was subject to, not only artillery fire, but continued sniping and machine gun fire from the town of Courcelette. The 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade was tasked with attacking this objective in the early evening of the 15th and passed through the lines of 4th Brigade. The 20th Battalion gave support with machine guns please near the intersection of the Albert-Bapaume Road and Gun Pit Road.

With nightfall, the work of consolidation was not over. The intensity of the day’s combat was followed by the back-breaking work of digging and improving trenches destroyed by shellfire and reversing the orientation of the trenches as they now needed to face in the opposite direction. Fire steps, funk holes, and other trench features needed to be created to prepare the trenches for defense and to be lived in.

At 6:00 PM the expected counterattack occurred, falling on the left flank of the Brigade. The attack appears to have coincided with a group of 150 German prisoners, some transporting Canadian wounded, arriving at the new front line, an artillery barrage coinciding with the counterattack began. The 21st Battalion, already battle-weary and depleted of men and material, took the brunt of this attack and with the leadership of two non-commissioned officers held off the attack with “a withering rapid fire from their whole line and at the same time the machine guns of the 20th Battalion on the right came into action. The ranks of the enemy melted away.”

With that, the Brigade is relieved over the next two days from the positions it had won in such hard fighting to recover.

The cost had been high.

On that day 94 men of the 18th Battalion were killed in action. Of these, 77 men (82%) are memorialized at the Vimy Memorial.

With the intensity of the combat, the loss, in dead, of approximately 1/6th of the men who participated in the action it is no wonder that there appears to be a collective gap in memory of the Battalion. This gap will never be explained. In contrast, the 21st Battalion’s War Diary comprises 25 paragraphs of descriptive text for that day. In addition, it has an appendix with orders of battle, directives, and reports from various specialist units. The 21st Battalion’s War Diary was one of the best kept of the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade and one wonders why the discrepancies between this War Diary and that of the 18th? The 18th’s War Diary was not as well kept as its sister battalion’s but during its service at the Somme it quality degraded to the point of generating a comment by a researcher.

With the addition of looking at the narrative of the battle by the 4th Brigade some of the gaps are filled.

VALOUR AS NARRITIVE

The actions of the men of the Battalion on that day and through its experience at the Somme engendered at least 22 military awards. 1 Distinguished Service Cross (DSO), 5 Military Crosses (MC), 3 Distinguished Conduct Medals (DCM), and 11 Military Medals (MM).

Lieutenant J.J. Richardson’s DSO and Lieutenant H.H Sykes MC citations show that these medals were earned during the 15th of September 1916 and add to that day’s narrative.

What about the other medals?

Military Cross

LIEUT. R.G. ELLIOTT: This officer’s citation does not specifically mention the action in which he earned this award, but it can be deduced by the details of the brief citation may refer to the nights of September 15 and 16.

“For conspicuous gallantry in action. He maintained communication under very heavy fire. He worked ceaselessly for two days and nights with great courage and determination.

 Source: The London Gazette. No. 29824. Page 11077. November 14, 1916.”

LIEUT. W.K. FRASER: This citation refers to his successful efforts repelling an enemy bombing attack, probably in reference to the same action as Lieutenant Sykes’ earned his MC.

“For conspicuous gallantry in action. He repelled with great gallantry an enemy bombing attack. He subsequently led his platoon forward and captured the enemy trenches, displaying unusual coolness throughout.

Source: London Gazette issue 29824 page 39 of 72 (11077).”

LIEUT. E.R. LLOYD: This citation gives some idea of the loss of leadership during the battle. A company (approximately 160 – 250 soldiers) was typically commanded by a major with a captain as an executive officer. The platoons would be commanded by a captain or an experienced lieutenant. Thus, as the Llyod’s company hierarchy was wounded or killed the number of officers able to lead devolved onto him. He may have not been the only officer left alive, but seniority or opportunity resulted in him taking command over the company. This was not at all unusual during the war.

“For conspicuous gallantry in action. When his company officers become casualties, he led his company with great courage and determination. He set a fine example of initiative and coolness.

Source:  London Gazette no. 29824. November 14, 1916. Page 11079.”

LIEUT. W.S. McCLINTON: This officer, who tragically drowned after the war, is credited with actions that helped in the success of the Battalion that day. As it specifically states a “bombing [grenade] attack” it is possible he was tasked with leading a squad of bombing specialist towards defeating a specific objective.

“For conspicuous gallantry in action. He led a bombing attack on an enemy trench with great courage and determination. He displayed great courage and determination throughout and set a splendid example.

Source: London Gazette. No. 29824. 14/11/16. Page 11079.”

LIEUT. H.H. SYKES: This officer’s action would lead to his wounding. He was instrumental in defeating the German spoiling attack on the early morning of the 15th before zero hour. He survived this action, only to be wounded later that day.

““For conspicuous gallantry in action. He held a section of trench and repelled an enemy bombing attack with great courage and determination. Later he gallantly led his platoon forward, and captured an enemy trench. He was severely wounded.

Source: London Gazette. November 14, 1916. Supplement: 29824. Page: 11081.

Distinguished Conduct Medal

53610 L/Sgt. C.E. Routley: In the case of this non-commissioned officer, his entire officer cadre was killed or wounded, and command devolved onto him. At the time of the action, he had been appointed a Lance-Sergeant in the field on June 22, 1916. He was wounded that day with a GSW to the right-arm and evacuated to No. 4 Canadian Field Ambulance on September 15, 1916.

“For conspicuous gallantry and ability in action. After all his officers and senior N.C.O.’s had been killed or wounded Lance-Sergeant Routley took command of the company, organized the work of consolidating a captured position, and by his courage and example greatly inspired all with him in the performance of their duty.

Source: London Gazette. No. 29824. Page 11108. November 14, 1916.”

53659 Pte. R.H. Burgess: This soldier was awarded this medal posthumously. He did not survive the battle and his body was never identified. He was, like Lance-Sergeant Routley, an original member of the 18th Battalion when it formed. His service file is unremarkable, save for the fact he was gigged for being drunk while on duty, not all that uncommon. He did, however, leave a rather remarkable will that indicates he was a man of some means, for this time, and very sure as to his wishes. It is an expression of patriotism as it begins, “If it so happens that I am allowed to die for my country, I wish that Alice Mary West take the few dollars and real estate that I own in this country & in Canada vis:…”

The citation is succinct and express the essential elements of the action that Private Burgess was involved in. It must have been exceptional as his actions left an impression on one or more officers, and, as one can deduce from the battle, not many were left to give witness to the actions of the rank and file of the Battalion.

““For conspicuous gallantry and resource during operations. When, owing to casualties, the crews of some machine guns found themselves without escort, Private Burgess, although wounded, organized escorts of bombers, and assumed command until he was wounded seriously a second time.”

Source: The London Gazette. November 14, 1916. Supplement: 29824. Page: 11106.

53947 Pte. J. Nelson: This soldier survived the war and rose in rank showing his competence to lead men. His actions, with his DCM, would give him an ironclad integrity with the men he led. In his case, not only did his section lose its officer, but it also lost its non-commissioned officer. Private Nelson stepped forward into the abyss of leadership and took control of his Lewis Gun sections, an important new component to the tactics of the CEF introduced shortly before the battle. Such covering fire from these machine guns would have been indispensable to the support of the Battalion.

“For conspicuous gallantry in action. When his officer and N.C.O. had been killed, Pte. Nelson took charge of his Lewis gun sections, and skillfully placed the guns in position in advance of the captured line. He displayed great coolness and courage throughout the operations.”

Source: The London Gazette. November 14, 1916. Supplement: 29824. 2nd Supplement Page: 70.

MILITARY MEDAL

53072 Coy. S.M. J.C. Frith: As with many Military Medal (MM) awards, this soldier’s is listed as part of a 2-page list of Canadian Contingent MM recipients. As such, without access to an individual soldier’s medal card, one cannot determine the citation associated with the award.[iii]

There is a reference to this soldier’s military acumen in a letter by Sergeant Fred Young who wrote, as related in an article from the London (Ontario) Advertiser published December 12, 1916,

“Another pleasant feature of the week was our meeting with Sergt. Or, to be correct, Sergt.-Major Joe Firth of the Fighting 18th. We draw no salary as press agent for anyone, but we confess to a thrill of pride in again shaking hands with an old pal, whose main characteristics on the battlefield, utter fearlessness, and the welfare of the men of his platoon[iv], had one him well-deserved promotion. And it was not until we had parted from him that we learned that he had won the Military Medal and had been recommended for a commission in his majesty’s forces. Bon sante and bon chance old pal.”

This endorsement from one veteran to another in a letter that Young was pretty sure to be published (for he was a prolific writer of letters to papers in London, Windsor, and other Ontario towns) for public consumption speaks well of the abilities of this man. The common adage applied to MM citations – “For bravery in the Field” – hardly represents the bravery of this and the subsequent men listed.

As Young relates, Frith would be temporarily commissioned a lieutenant and sent back to Canada for instructional duties. He held, during the Flers-Courcelette action, the rank of Company-Sergeant Major, being promoted on July 18, 1916. He enlisted as a private and was a sergeant by the time the Battalion arrived in England in 1915, and had prior military experience with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, the 7th Fusiliers, and in Canada, the Royal Canadian Regiment,

Source: The London Gazette. December 8, 1916. Supplement: 29854. Page:12056.

53164 Corp. G. Thomas: This soldier, as above, has no specific citation in the London Gazette. He is identified in a photograph in the London Advertiser (August 4, 1915) as a scout. This soldier’s service record indicates he was awarded his MM for bravery in the Field. He was duly recognized for his leadership skills as he was promoted to temporary lieutenant in January 1917, and through a series of courses, a sniper and rifle course, earned the designation “Distinguished” and returned to the 18th Battalion June, 21, 1918, and would later earn a Military Cross (MC).

Source: The London Gazette. December 8, 1916. Supplement: 29854. Page:12057.

53661 Corp. W.S. Caldwell: This soldier may have been part of a Lewis Gun crew as a news clipping from The Clinton News Record (December 14, 1916) relates the awarding of his MM and that he was “a member of the machine gun section.” With his distinguished service he was also slated for promotion. Returning to England for cadet training he would return to the Battalion as a lieutenant and served from June to November 1917, where he would be gassed at Passchendaele. This wound would require his return to Canada for further treatment.

Source: The London Gazette. December 8, 1916. Supplement: 29854. Page:12056.

53178 Pte. H. Worsfold: This soldier, who would serve the entire war with the 18th Battalion, from inception to was disbanded, earned his MM as a stretcher-bearer. He was a member of the Battalion band, a drummer, and tasked to serve as a stretcher-bearer during the battle. Private Frederick Hodson (MM) would relate during a newspaper interview:

“It was on September 15th and 16th last year,” he said, “during the fighting on the Somme that I and a comrade of mine, (Drummer Worsfold) obtained a Military Medal apiece for good work as stretcher bearers, and for remaining in the trenches until all the battalion was out. The Colonel told us we could go out if we chose, as the battalion was being relieved that night, but we elected to remain, and stayed there until our battalion had moved back.[v] At that time the Germans were giving us hell, their artillery dropping shells into us thick and fast.”[vi]

Good work! Indeed.

The selflessness of the stretcher-bearers is an oft told story that should continue to be told. They would work in the most untenable conditions. In this case, to go against the direct orders of the commanding officer. With this information we can connect these two brave men to the actions of that day. Worsfold would earn his medal and a bit of leave, only one, in September 1918.

Source: The London Gazette. December 8, 1916. Supplement: 29854. Page:12058.

53622 Sgt. H. Tripp: This soldier has no current information indicating why he earned his MM. Chances are that he took the role of a fallen officer or officers during the battle and actively commanded the soldiers of his unit.

Source: The London Gazette. December 21, 1916. Supplement: 29873. Page: 12448.

53631 Sgt. G.H. Williams: The actions of this soldier are lost to history, but as he was serving as sergeant during the battle it can be surmised that his MM was earned during the battle under duress and fire by taking command of a body of men normally under the command of an officer. On September 18, 1915, he was promoted to the rank of Company Sergeant Major (CSM) as CSM Spearing was invalided to England with a GSW to his head and shell shock. This sergeant, like several others recognized with the MM would rise in rank to that of a lieutenant. He also earned the DCM later in the war showing that his level of service and commitment to his men and unit was steadfast.

Source: The London Gazette. December 21, 1916. Supplement: 29873. Page: 12448.

54274 Pte. F.E. Manby: “For bravery in the Field” does not sum up the efforts of this soldier, unknow to history. He did earn a bar to his MM later in the war and was wounded several times during his service. He was very active and mentioned in the War Diary several times and would eventually be promoted lieutenant. He may have been a scout during the action.

Source: The London Gazette. December 8, 1916. Supplement: 29854. Page:12057.

54154 Pte. D. Egan: This soldier did not have an auspicious start with the Battalion when it first went across the Channel for service in Belgium. It is noted in his service file on December 20, 1915, that he was assigned 20-days of Field Punishment No. 1 for being “…absent 123 hours 15/12/15. Forfeits 6 days’ pay under R.W.” And then on April 17, 1916 he was “Sentenced to 14 days F.P. No. 1 for ‘Drunk while on active service.’”

He obviously could be counted on when the Germans attacked that early morning:

“In the interlude between the two stages of the barrage, the Germans attempted a spoiling attach on the positions of the 18th and 20th Battalions. A few of them managed to reach the jumping off trench before Lieutenant Hugh Sykes and some of the 18th Battalion men with help from Lieutenant Gidley and some bombers of the 19th, in support of the two forward battalions, drove them off. In one case, Private David Egan picked up a Lewis gun and moved out of the trench during the September 15, 1916 attack at the Somme to a position from which he could enfilade the attacking Germans, causing many casualties among them and forcing the survivors to withdraw.”[vii]

His actions were instrumental in protecting the flank of this company as it waited to mount the attack later in the morning. It remained intact and battle ready.

He was wounded in the action in the chest and was invalided to England on September 25, 1916.

Source: The London Gazette. December 8, 1916. Supplement: 29854. Page:12056.

53166 Pte. W.F. Tope: It looks like the events of September 15th motivated this soldier to make out his military will, as it is dated September 17, 1916. Private Tope was a sniper and it is unknown what role he played in the action as it is noted that the medal was issued “…for bravery in the Field.”

Source: The London Gazette. December 8, 1916. Supplement: 29854. Page:12057.

Private Hodson

53986 Pte. F. Hodson: Private Hodson is a special case as he was interviewed several times for his local newspaper from his hometown in England. His interviews bare testimony to the conditions experienced by the men that day.

This man had, prior to this action, demonstrated behaviour that exemplified the work and ethos of stretcher bearers – he had volunteered to go out in No Man’s land to affect the recovery of a comrade who was dead.

The Rushden Echo relates:

‘We are pleased to report that Pte. Frederick William Hodson, of the Canadian Contingent, son of Mr. and Mrs. C. S. Hodson of 14, Crabb-street, Rushden, has been recommended for the Military Medal for exceptionally brave work on the battlefield as stretcher bearer.  Five of his comrades were also recommended at the same time, and it appears, according to his letter, that whilst they were carrying out their good work under heavy shell fire the Colonel was watching them the whole of the time, and subsequently Pte. Hodson and his comrades were paraded before the battalion and personally commended by the C.O. in front of the men.  To use Pte. Hodson’s own words “It was hell for 48 hours.”’

Source: Rushden Echo. October 27, 1916, originally transcribed by Gill Hollis.

Later on, in the article Hodson relates “…that he was speechless when his name was called out,” when it was announced that he would be a recipient of the MM.

The experiences of Private Hodson illuminates that he, with five other men acted as stretcher bearers that day. He names Private Worsfold in another article, and like this soldier, was a bandsman with the Battalion.

Source: The London Gazette. December 8, 1916. Supplement: 29854. Page:12057.

53663 L/Cpl. C. Cook: This soldier would earn his MM and his ability to fight, and lead would lead to his promotion to lieutenant and then return the day of the attack on Vimy Ridge, as an officer. He would earn a MC later in the war.

Source: The London Gazette. December 21, 1916. Supplement: 29873. Page: 12447.

53280 Pte. R.H. Ribton: This soldier, who would later die of wounds sustained by the same shell that wounded the author’s grandfather (July 9, 1917) in their billet, service record does not give much information to determine his role during the battle. He was appointed Lance-Corporal in place of Lance-Corporal Rayner, who was promoted to Corporal.

Source: The London Gazette. December 21, 1916. Supplement: 29873. Page: 12448.

141018 Pte. H. Leary: This soldier has the distinction of not being one of the soldiers of the original draft of the 18th Battalion. All the other soldiers that earned medals were original members of the Battalion when it was formed in South-western Ontario from October 1914 to April 1915.

This soldier enlisted under an assumed name and joined the 18th Battalion in the field on July 30, 1916. He had one short month to get acclimated to his new unit and to active service. Whatever the case, he not only earned a MM but was promoted Sergeant a day after the action. From private to sergeant indicates a confidence in this man to lead, but he also had to have the credibility within his unit to lead. He was a new man, after all. It appears that combat tested him, and he was not found wanting.

He was killed at Vimy Ridge, April 9, 1917.

Source: The London Gazette. December 21, 1916. Supplement: 29873. Page: 12448.

53504 Pte. R.C. Sheridan: This soldier was awarded a bar to his MM. He had earned the MM 0n September 21, 1916, and then the bar to that medal. No description of the valour displayed exists to add credence to the credit he earned in combat. He, however, was slated for more responsibility as he was promoted Sergeant in the field on the day of the battle and would later become a lieutenant, returning to fight with the 18th almost 2-years later.

Source: The London Gazette. December 21, 1916. Supplement: 29873. Page: 12449.

The citations give one an idea of the intensity of the action. It appears that some of the training that occurred preparatory to this action with its focus on how the chain of command would function as officers became casualties paid off. The attack was a success, and these citations reflect the actions, especially to non-commissioned officers to step in and lead effectively. The citations give us a sense of the circumstances of the acts of valour and emphasize the high casualty rate of the officers of the Battalion.

Without men of this caliber the outcomes of the battle would have been much different. The losses would create a vacuum of leadership that would be addressed by replacement officers as the men identified for promotion would have to go to England to train as officer cadets before they could lead troops.

Regrettably, the lack of information for those soldiers who earned Military Medals is problematic and shows the care taken to record the information about these awards compared to medals of a higher grade.

THE DEAD

When a solider is killed, dies of wounds, accident, or illness, a Circumstances of Death Card is issued. This card can detail the circumstance of the death of a soldier in some detail. Most of them are succinct in their descriptions of the causes of death and many, too many, simply state “Killed in Action”.

With the large number of casualties that day, and with so many commemorated at the Vimy Memorial the Death Cards do not offer much insight into the way these men perished. Their fates are known unto their God(s) and any witnesses, long dead. This obliteration of memory leaves a gap as some would like to know what happened to their loved ones. Did they die alone? Did they suffer? In some regard, this simple statement is a blessing, and will have to suffice. Each death was an individual tragedy that reverberated forward in time. Sons, brothers, fathers, cousins, uncles died. For some families their named stopped at this generation.

At the same time some of these deaths illustrate the poignancy of death and how it can evoker memories of loss now. Below are examples of the very few cases where these cards and other supplemental information help one understand the toll that day.

Lieutenant Bernard John Bates: at 17-years old he was probably the youngest soldier to die that day.

‘“Previously reported Missing, now reported Killed in Action.” From information available, this officer was killed by enemy shell fire while leading his men over the parapet in an attack.’

Sergeant Daniel Chapman, reg. no. 53212: Wounded on the 15th he could not be saved, dying of his wounds on September 24, 1915.

‘“Died of Wounds” (Gunshot Wounds Face, Right Shoulder and Septic Pneumonia) at No. 24 General Hospital, Etaples.’

Private Adam McKee Crookshanks, reg. no. 53095: A sniper, he is memorialized at the Vimy Memorial. His comrade-in-arms, Corporal Siddle wrote his mother:

“October, France [1916]

Dear Mrs. and Mr. Crookshanks,

I have very sad news to tell you. Your son was killed in action on the 14th of September and all the snipers send their deepest sympathy to you. You son died a soldier of the Cross and a man and he was well loved in the Battalion. Your son and I were snipers together ever since we landed in France and I miss him more than anybody else in the Battalion.

They couldn’t fetch your son’s body out as the gun fire was too heavy so they buried him where he was killed. We took off his ring and some of his personal effects to send you. I hope you receive them safely.

I hope this dreadful war will soon be over. I again send you my deepest sympathy.

Corporal R.N. Siddle

18th Battalion”

Major William Stewart McKeough: Athlete. Medical student. He rose from lieutenant to major.

‘“Killed in Action” He was killed by a shell near Courcelette, and placed in a shell hole to await removal by carrying party. The carrying party could find not trace of him and it is presumed he was buried bay another shell.’

Lieutenant William Hartley Willard: Killed in action at 21-years old, this officer has no known grave.

“He was first appointed to the 35th Battalion, from which he transferred to the 84rd before going overseas in September 1915. He joined the 18th Battalion at the front in 1916, and was wounded in July. At Courcelette he was in charge of parties carrying ammunition to the front line. The battalion had taken its objective, and he had come up to the forward position when he was instantly killed by a shell, the enemy having the range of the trenches.”

This morbid accounting is not complete. The Circumstances of Death Cards on file at the Library and Archives Canada are incomplete ending with the surname of Sims. These men have no witness to their deaths. All too many say ‘“KILLED IN ACTION” He was killed while taking part in the attack and capture of Courcelette. No further information about the actual circumstances of death is available.’

THE COST

The cost to the Battalion on the short-term was that of the losses in men from the Battle. It was removed from the front for refitting and would begin to make up its losses with replacements. It would return to fight at the Somme through October and December and the tone of the War Diary is muted and is not an illuminating document.

One can surmise the cost. Many men dead. Almost 1 in 6 died. But the core of the Battalion, with its surviving officers and men would coalesce, change and grow with new replacements, and continue fighting on.

FINAL THOUGTHS

With the preparations of the 2nd Division in late August for the coming action at the Somme, the men of the 18th Battalion must have be trepidatious about being placed into the crucible of the Somme. The battle, beginning in July 1916 was a meat-grinder. The prospect of having to be involved in operations there must have been daunting. Compared to the relative stability of their service at Ypres, save for the disasater at the craters at St. Eloi, the men of the 18th would not only have concerns of the changed tactical situation, but their lack of success at St. Eloi would be concern if similar circumstances prevailed.

What transpired covered a period of 48-hours with intense operations occuring from 3:00 AM on the 15th with the spoiling attack by the Germans on the 18th Battalion’s flank until it was relieved in the morning by the Gordon Highlanders, BEF. This action would be lost to history if the 18th Battalion’s War Diary was the sole source.

Now, with the help of the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade’s Appendix we get a broad sense of the action and the participation of individual soldiers. The bias it toward the participation of the officers as they were the men responsible for communicating outcomes and actions, but these officers would be killed and wounded and their loss would give opportunity to the sergeants, corporals, and privates to step in the role of leader. They appear to have enough tactical knowledge and training to coordinate their units within the scope of a fluid tactical environment. There Germans responded with artillery and a counter attack a full 12-hours after the battle began.

Depleted of manpower and physical and mental energy the Battalion rose to the challenge and held off the attack.

The valour represented by the medals issued shows officers and men as “cool” and able to work “ceaselessly for two days and nights with great courage and determination.” Yet for some, the wounds to their psyche may have been etched impermably on their minds. Lieutenant McClinton, later a doctor, would disappear under mysterious circumstances on day’s fishing trip, possibly an accident or a suicide.

Many of the non-commissioned officers would gain a reputation for their martial abilities with the result they would earn commissions and continue to lead men into battle. Ironically, they would become more exposed in combat and more likely to be killed or wounded, small compensation for being an excellent soldier.

As to the dead…

Every November 11th Canada and other nations gather collectively to recognize the sacrifices of the men and women who served and serve. The Circumstances of Death Cards and other relevant memories about the casualties of this action are muted by the sheer numbers of men whe essentially disapeared. No line of descriptive text can express this loss or the implication to these men’s families.

Lieutenant Bates marching to war. Windsor, Ontario May 1916.

But if one looks at the dazzling smile of 17-year old Lieutenant Bates and think of his passing so far from home in the mud of the Somme that day one can get a sense of the chasm of loss all these families suffered from the grim results of that day.


[i] Read the entire messages from all units transcribed at the link.

[ii] The London Gazette. Publication date: 14 November 1916. Supplement: 29824. Page: 11081.

[iii] See this link to access these records from Library and Archive Canada. There currently is no online catalogue of these cards.

[iv] Emphasis by author.

[v] Emphasis by author.

[vi] Blog post.

[vii] Antal, S., & Shackleton, K. (2006). Courcelette: Taking a Turn On the Somme. Duty Nobly Done: The official history of the Essex and Kent Scottish Regiment (1st ed., p. 211). Windsor, ON: Walkerville Pub.

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