The Fight At Givenchy
( Originally Published 1919 )
SINCE landing in France the 1st Division had taken part in the three important battles fought by the British in the spring of 1915. At Neuve Chapelle it had been subjected to heavy fire, but had played a minor part, merely keeping a large German force along its front occupied, thus preventing substantial reinforcements being rushed from this quarter to assist the main body of the enemy in resisting the British attack ; at the Second Battle of Ypres two brigades had borne the force of the concentrated assault on the British lines, and a third had nobly advanced into the centre of the storm of battle to help check the forward rush of the exulting enemy; at Festubert it had taken the offensive and in a skilfully fought action had aided the British in driving the Hun from strongly fortified positions and winning back a considerable strip of territory. These engagements had occasioned heavy casualties ; by June 4th the division had had 1,119 killed, 4,683 wounded, and 1,525 missing — practically one-third of its strength. Meanwhile the ranks had been brought up to strength by recent drafts from the battalions in training on Salisbury Plain.
Many of the men were already war-weary and the division needed a rest; and on May 31st, shortly after the Battle of Festubert, the whole force was withdrawn. from the fighting line and sent to reserve billets around the outskirts of Bethune, the chief town in the French Department of Pas-de-Calais. In this town, a centre of trade, business was being carried on much as usual when the Canadians arrived. But it was near enough to the German lines to make the inhabitants realize that they were in the midst of war. It was within range of the German guns and was daily subjected to shelling by light pieces, which were said to have been mounted on an armoured train. The Hun was methodical and between six and seven each evening sent over a few shells. The people of Bethune had grown accustomed to this state of affairs and when the first shell arrived rushed to their cellars and sat tight till the bombardment ceased. Little damage was done by these ruthless attacks on a place of little military importance; a few civilians were killed, but during the entire sojourn of the Canadians at Bethune only one soldier lost his life by this shell-fire.
During the rest in billets military training was carried on with vigour and the division was not without its war excitement. A few days after their arrival a party of soldiers while bathing were spotted by German aeroplanes, and their location was signalled to the ever-ready guns. Soon shrapnel was spraying the water about them and there was a hurried rush to safety. Helter-skelter over bridges, across railway tracks and through fields naked figures were to be seen running in all directions with their clothes in their arms — a scene that would have defied the pencil of a Bairnsfather.
How much this period of rest was needed can be gathered from the following incident. During the first week in June Colonel William McBain met what was left of the 5th Battalion on the march to rest billets. The battalion had taken the field with a strength of 1,068 men ; it was then reduced to 408. For nearly two weeks it had been in the trenches day and night under heavy and almost continuous shell-fire. On this day a burning sun was shining from a clear sky and the men, covered with grime from the trenches and with perspiration pouring down their faces, had more the appearance of coal-heavers than of soldiers. But they were marching along the dusty road with a swinging stride, making the welkin ring with their favourite song, " It's a Long Way to Tipperary."
The Germans had for a time ceased their offensive on the British front. In this " war of positions " they had secured all the main points of vantage from the sea to Arras and their superiority in artillery and machine guns enabled them to hold back their foes with greatly diminished forces. The Eastern front demanded their attention; after Russia had been thoroughly crushed they would attend to the West. Calais and Paris could wait until Hindenburg and Mackensen had finished their work in East Prussia, Galicia, and Poland. Smashing blows on wide fronts were struck against the Russian forces. In quick order Galicia was won back and Hungary made safe from the hordes that had been hammering at its gates. For May alone the Germans and their allies officially reported the capture of 863 Russian officers and 268,869 men. The slaughter had been appalling, whole Russian divisions being wiped out. The Russians were rapidly driven out of East Prussia; much of Poland was overrun; Warsaw was threatened; and the fall of Riga seemed inevitable.
Russia appealed for help to the Western Allies, who seemed to be sitting secure in their trenches and behind their fortifications while the armies of their Eastern Ally were being decimated. The Russian press was bitter in its denunciations of the seeming passivity of France and Great Britain at this critical time in the war. But the Allies in the West were powerless to conduct a major action against the German front. Much depended on Great Britain. But for the present a waiting game had to be played. Before an effective offensive could be made the armed forces on the West opposing the Germans had to be enormously increased. The supply of munitions and guns had to be multiplied one hundredfold, and much work necessary for a successful attack on a wide front had to be done behind the lines. The man-power of Great Britain and Belgium and France had been multiplied more than five-fold since the days of Mons and the Marne. From Ypres to Arras there were concentrated along the front about 440,000 British soldiers and behind the lines were some 120,000 more. There was in this region a numerical superiority of men over the Germans; but superiority in guns gave the enemy the advantage. The production of munitions and guns had been speeded up till the main business of Great Britain was the manufacture of weapons of war. But in this regard an enormous burden was laid upon the shoulders of the British authorities. They had to supply not only their forces immediately across the Channel, but the Russian forces, who without aid in this respect would be powerless to make a stand against the German invaders; and continually through Archangel a stream of munitions and other supplies flowed from the British factories to the armies of the Czar. Then the needs of the expeditionary forces to the Dardanelles had to be attended to. The South African armies and those operating in Mesopotamia had to be supplied. And added to all this were the needs of the Navy.
Under the circumstances the Allies were forced in the West to play a waiting game, a thing that was not unwelcome to the German High Command. Germany's colonial possessions were rapidly vanishing; her commerce had been destroyed; the few warships she had at sea at the outbreak of hostilities had been sunk. Her main fleet was pent up in her harbours; but after Ypres, with her submarines and with her well-organized and well-equipped land forces, she felt confident of being able to bring the Allies to their knees. When this was achieved the lost colonies would be restored and her enemies would be forced to pay the cost of the war. A war of attrition in the West Germany welcomed; she could, she thought, stand it better than France or Great Britain ; and so, after Festubert, the struggle went on, the fighting having degenerated into raids. A trench was captured here, a blockhouse there; today a few acres of land were won by the Allies ; to-morrow they were once more in the possession of the enemy.
In June the British Command considered that it had sufficient strength on the Ypres-Arras front to attempt a series of operations which if taken as a whole would be somewhat of the nature of a major operation; and so an attack was planned on strong enemy points over a wide front extending from Dixmude, north of Ypres, as far south as La Bassée Canal. When this action began the Canadians were holding a difficult position immediately east of Givenchy, and it fell to the lot of the 1st Brigade to bear the brunt of the fighting. This fight, so far as the Great War was concerned, could not be called a major action, but in any previous war it would have been given place as a battle. In speaking of it in his official report Sir John French dismisses it in a sentence : "By an attack delivered on the evening of June 15th, after a prolonged bombardment, the 1st Canadian Brigade obtained possession of the German front-line trenches north-east of Givenchy, but were unable to retain them owing to their flanks being too much exposed." And yet more men fell in the Canadian brigade in this two days' fight than were lost by the British at Queenston Heights ; and if the work of the British divisions operating simultaneously on the right and left flanks be taken into consideration, more men were lost in this June battle than fell in the great fight on the Plains of Abraham which won Canada for the British.
The rest at Bethune was not a prolonged one. About the end of the first week in June orders were received by the Canadian division to take over from the Guards the section of the trenches lying east of Givenchy. This section stretched from La Bassée Canal on the south to a point about six hundred yards north, where the Germans had a strong fortin bristling with machine guns. This fortin had been christened Stony Mountain by the Canadians. The division was now part of the Third Army Corps (Pulteney's), the strongest corps in the whole British force on the Western front. While the general plans for the fight at Givenchy which is about to be described were laid down by the corps commander, the details, so far as the Canadian force was concerned, were left to General Mercer of the 1st Canadian Brigade.
When the time arrived to take over the trenches from the Guards the Canadians marched along La Bassée Canal ; and, in a drizzling rain which carried their thoughts back to their experiences in the Ypres salient, they entered the reserve trenches opposite the ruined distillery situated on the canal. These trenches were located in a mound of artificial origin which had been thrown up when the canal was dug and which gave a commanding view of the surrounding country. Here the Canadians remained for one night and then moved forward to the front trenches, two battalions going into the firing line and two remaining in support trenches. The right of the brigade now rested on the canal and was unable to go further forward at this point on account of a soggy marsh that was in its immediate front; the left, opposite a point just south of Stony Mountain, joined up with the 7th (Imperial) Division. About the centre of the line there was an awkward salient which from its peculiar formation had been named the Duck's Bill. In the German line just north-east of this point there was another strong fortin, known to the Canadians as Dorchester. All along the enemy trenches machine guns were stationed and snipers' posts abounded.
From the 7th to the 15th, the day of the opening of the Givenchy action, the battalions holding the trenches were subjected to a continuous bombardment from grenades, bombs, shrapnel, minenwerfers, and machine guns; but the veterans of the force had learned their lessons at Ypres and Festubert and knew the value of cover; the recent arrivals were quick to follow their lead; and casualties were few. But life was far from pleasant. Not for a moment could the men in the trenches relax their vigilance, and all supplies — bombs, ammunition, food — had to be brought to them by the support companies through long and twisting communication trenches. It was with a sense of relief that they learned that an attempt was to be made to capture the German system of trenches in their front. Should it be successful the awkward salient would be straightened out, and if fortune favoured them a footing might be gained on Aubers Ridge.
The Germans were confident of being able to repulse any attack that might be made against their lines. They were not at the moment strong enough in men on the Western front to take the offensive, but they still had the initiative — and indeed along the whole Western front were to hold it for two years longer — and were in no fear of disaster.
Preparations for the attack were made with the greatest care and secrecy. For months a mine had been under construction just north-east of the Duck's Bill, and by June 13th was about completed. But the engineers struck water and could not carry the mine as far forward as they hoped, and to make it effective decided to use an unusual amount of explosives. By noon on the 15th the mine was ready, and the explosives were rushed forward from near the distillery. The force carrying the white boxes containing the explosives had to cross the canal by a ruined bridge named Pont-Fixe. This point was under direct observation and the working party were soon under shell-fire. Several of them were wounded, and there was danger of panic ; but the officer in charge steadied his men and all of the explosives reached the mine in safety.
From experience the Canadians had learned that it was suicidal to attempt an assault on troops in an entrenched position until the wire entanglements protecting it had been destroyed. To do this work effectively an ingenious plan had been hit upon. Under orders from Brigadier-General Burstall, in command of the artillery, epaulements for two 18-pounder guns were prepared immediately in rear of the front trench in such a position that the wire extending from Stony Mountain to Dorchester could be swept at point-blank range. Along this section the British and German trenches were separated by distances varying from fifty to two hundred yards. Major George Ralston of the 4th Battalion, Canadian Field Artillery, was instructed to move his guns forward and to have them in position by the morning of the 15th. On the night of the 14th the two guns went forward, one in charge of Lieutenant C. S. Craig and the other in charge of Lieutenant L. S. Kelly. When they reached the village of Givenchy the horses were unyoked, the wheels muffled, and the guns man-handled into the front line, where they were effectively concealed from the watchful eyes of the enemy. The shells for the guns were likewise brought forward by hand on small armoured wagons. The Germans knew that an attack was imminent, — indeed they knew the exact moment when it was to take place, and it was therefore necessary to spring some kind of surprise on them. In the battles in Nelson's and Welling-ton's days there was often " the fatal five minutes between victory and defeat "; in the Great War the fate of armies frequently hung on five seconds. The work of these guns might give the attacking force the advantage of these seconds. But it was a hazardous enterprise, and the commanders of these guns and their crews knew that they were a forlorn hope — the moment they opened fire they would become the object of a deluge of shells from the German batteries.
The mine was ready to be sprung; the guns to cut the wire and level the trenches in the immediate front were in position. It was now left for the commander to arrange his battalions for the assault.
The 2nd Battalion, under Lieut.-Colonel David Watson, had been in the Canadian front trenches since June 7th, subjected to almost continuous grenade attacks during the day and at night fixing wire and repairing parapets. It was now decided to withdraw them, and their place in the firing line was taken by the 1st Battalion, under Lieut.-Colonel F. W. Hill. The attacking battalion went into the jumping-off trenches at 3 p. m. and the 2nd moved to the right.
The attack had been planned for 6 p. m., and for three hours the men of the 1st Battalion awaited the signal to go over the top, spending the time in joke and song. They knew what was before them; in a daylight raid such as this the casualties must be heavy, and for many of them it would be their last fight. But they were eager for battle. They were anxious to give the Germans a drubbing; to get some of their own back for the gas attack at Ypres, and to avenge the recent ruthless sinking of the Lusitania and the murderous Zeppelin raid on the women and children of London which had taken place only two weeks before. The stretch of trench they were to enter was less than two hundred yards in length; and the real purpose of their movement was to protect the flank of the 7th (Imperial) Division, which was to go forward simultaneously on their left.
For three days the British guns had been pounding the German line, and early in the afternoon of the 15th the fire had died down; but when the 1st Battalion entered the firing trench the guns once more began to bombard the enemy. The attack had been so well advertised that the Germans had their artillery ready for it and had, moreover, sent forward powerful reinforcements. To the fire of the British guns their artillery responded and deluged the Canadian front and rear with high-explosive and shrapnel shells. The 3rd Battalion was crowded in the communication trench as supports, and both they and the 1st suffered heavy casualties. In one instance an officer and six men were buried by a high-explosive shell and were only dug out at the cost of the lives of several of their rescuers. At the critical moment when the assault was about to begin, the battalion sustained a severe loss in the death of Lieut.-Colonel Beecher, its second in command, who was killed by a shell splinter.
At fifteen minutes to six the parapet in front of the two Canadian 18-pounders was broken down. The guns were unmasked and at point-blank range instantly began to hurl shells against the German position. Great paths were torn through the enemy wire; six machine guns were destroyed and the sand-bags of the parapets were blown from their places. The Germans, although taken by surprise, quickly recovered ; the guns were immediately spotted and became the mark of the enemy's artillery. The men lining the front trenches and the fortins is put up a valiant response to this 18-pounder attack, and a hail of rifle and machine-gun bullets stormed against the guns. So fierce was this fire that the shields of quarter-inch armour plate were rent and torn as if they had been made of paper. Shrapnel shells and high explosives were rained upon them, and in a few minutes Lieutenant Kelly's gun and crew were put out of action. Lieutenant Craig fought his weapon fast and furiously, and in a brief space put over about one hundred shells. Just as his work was finished and a clear path, seventy-five yards wide, through the enemy's wire was opened up for the infantry, he was seriously wounded and his gun put out of action by a direct hit.
Meanwhile the infantry in the Duck's Bill salient had been withdrawn. The mine was about to be exploded, and it was feared, on account of the heavy charge employed, that it might back-fire and destroy a part of the Canadian firing trench. At 5.58 the engineer in charge touched off the mine and the earth shook and rocked under the force of the explosion. The air was filled with smoke and debris and an immense crater was formed in No Man's Land. The mine had done its work well and the German parapets crumbled under its force, and in the enemy trench the casualties were extremely heavy. The force of the explosion was so great that it smashed a part of the Canadian line ; and despite the precautions taken several men were killed and a number buried in the ruin of the trench. But the greatest loss at this moment was the destruction of a bomb depot. The battle about to open up was to be largely a bombers' battle and every available bomb was needed. To make matters worse, the shell-fire of the enemy destroyed a second bomb depot; so that the bombers had to depend almost entirely on those they carried with them, for on account of the intense bar-rage the Germans had placed behind the lines it was impossible to bring any up from the rear.
The explosion of the mine was the signal for the advance. The confusion caused by it for the moment checked the assault; but in the dust and smoke occasioned by the explosion the troops went over the top and dashed forward for the enemy's front-line trench.
As has been stated, the 1st Battalion was detailed for the attack on the German trench system between Dorchester and Stony Mountain. The first company, under Major C. J. L. Smith, went forward with irresistible dash. It was accompanied by bombing squads on the right and left and a blocking party of eight sappers. At the jumping-off moment Lieutenant C. A. James, of the right bombing party, was killed by the explosion of the mine; but his men advanced under their own initiative. As the company charged across No Man's Land it was met by a furious fusilade, particularly from machine guns stationed in Stony Mountain. The casualties were heavy ; but their objective was quickly won. However, when they reached the German front trench they were subjected to a disastrous enfilade fire. On their left the bombers who had advanced in the darkness to Stony Mountain, under the command of Lieutenant G. N. Gordon, encountered such vigorous opposition that only a remnant of them succeeded in getting into the trench. These bravely endeavoured to bomb their way towards the left, in the hope of destroying the machine-gun nest situated in that quarter.
Meanwhile the second company, under Captain G. L. Wilkinson, had followed swiftly after Smith's men. The first line was now in part consolidated and an impetuous rush made for the enemy's second line. Here some courageous Germans put up a stiff resistance ; but for the most part the defenders hurried away to safety through the tall grass in the rear. In the hand-to-hand battle in the second trench many of the enemy were bayonetted and a few were captured. A number of the latter were killed by the fire of their own machine guns and rifles while being escorted to the rear.
As Wilkinson's company advanced into the fight it was followed by Captain F. W. Campbell with two machine guns. While crossing No Man's Land the machine-gun section had to face a hail of bullets, and one gun and crew were quickly put out of action; but Campbell reached the front trench with the other gun, the entire crew of which, with the exception of Private Vincent and himself, had become casualties.
The third company to go over the top had met with a serious mishap at the moment of the mine explosion, a shell having killed both the captain, F. W. Robinson, and the senior lieutenant, P. W. Pick. It was forced to go into action under the leadership of the junior officer, Lieutenant T. C. Sims. This company likewise suffered heavy casualties as it crossed the open space between the lines. With greatly reduced numbers it succeeded in reaching the enemy's front trench, where it aided in the work of consolidation, reversing the sand-bags and turning the trench facing the enemy's rear position.
Reinforcements were sadly needed, and the fourth company was sent over. The captain, T. G. Delamere, had been severely wounded, and the command devolved on Lieutenant J. C. L. Young. This officer became a casualty as he went over the parapet ; and Lieutenant J. L. Tranter took over, but had scarcely entered the fire-swept zone before he received a mortal wound. Sergeant-Major C. Owen thereupon took charge of the company and carried on till the end of the fight with admirable judgment and a courage that was an inspiration to his followers.
The whole four companies were now in the enemy's position, holding the greater part of the front and second line trenches, some even having gone as far as the German third line; but their success was of little avail. Only a thin wedge of less than two hundred yards had been driven into the German line; and the attacking force was under a terrific fire, particularly from the left. Every effort was made to beat down this fire, but owing to the scarcity of bombs and machine guns little success was achieved. The crowning calamity was in the conditions on the left. Here the East Yorks of the 7th (Imperial) Division had gone forward at the appointed time, but without proper artillery preparation. The wire in front of the trench they were attacking in the vicinity of Stony Mountain was intact, and they were brought to a dead halt, their ranks swept by rifle and machine-gun bullets. The shattered remnant of this fine regiment tried to hold their ground lying in the tall grass. Concealing them-selves as best they could they kept up a continuous fire against the enemy; but this fire merely drew on them destructive fusilades from impregnable positions.
In the meantime the battle in the trenches raged furiously. The Canadians established barricades in the front trench north of Dorchester and south of Stony Mountain ; and the bombers continued to hurl their missiles against the enemy's machine-gun nests. But the sappers had all become casualties. One of them, — the only one left capable of action, — though wounded, be-came a bomber and did effective work. But the supply. of bombs was rapidly diminishing, and four volunteers who risked trips to the rear to get a fresh supply paid for their temerity with their lives. At length several non-coms. succeeded in bringing forward a quantity of bombs; but these lasted only a short time. On the left Gordon and his squad had been keeping up a game battle; but they were soon put out of action. Gordon was himself wounded, and later, while lying in the trench with two of his men, all that were left, was killed by a bomb.
As the bombers who had been operating in the direction of Stony Mountain had exhausted their supply, Campbell and Vincent, in the front trench, tried what they could do with their machine gun to beat down the enfilade fire. There was no convenient spot to station the tripod, and Vincent, getting down on his hands and knees, supported the gun on his back while Camp-bell fired a thousand rounds at the enemy, who were preparing for a counter-attack. This heroic officer was seriously wounded. In the gathering darkness he succeeded in crawling from the trench, when he was picked up by Sergeant-Major Owen and carried to safety, only to die later from his wound. The gallant Vincent was loth to see his gun fall into the hands of the enemy. It was too hot to handle, but he cut away the cartridge belt and dragged the barrel into his own lines. For their work on this day Campbell was awarded the V. C., and Vincent and Owen D. C. M.'s.
For over three hours this hopeless fight went on, the attacking force rapidly diminishing in strength. On account of the barrage the Germans had put over, there was little hope of strong supports coming up. Shortly after nine o'clock the enemy counter-attacked with bombs and gas shells and were massing troops for an assault. The position of the 1st Battalion in the enemy territory was rapidly becoming untenable, and between 9.30 and 10 p. m. this little force, which had done so much effective work and suffered so heavily, was withdrawn.
The 2nd Battalion now took over the front trenches and crater, and during the night and throughout the following day were under a continuous bombardment from artillery, machine guns, and bombs. For a time it looked as if the Canadian trenches were to be utterly destroyed. The attack of the 15th had been disastrous, but the British still hoped to win their way through, and as a preliminary to another attempt to destroy the enemy position it was resolved to once more turn on the guns. The Canadians in the front line were so close to the enemy's trenches that they were in danger of coming under the shell-fire, and so were temporarily withdrawn from the crater and the Duck's Bill salient. The artillery preparation continued until early in the afternoon. It was then decided to try the tactics of the preceding day — the 7th Division to attack north of Stony Mountain and the Canadians to go over between Stony Mountain and Dorchester. The 2nd Battalion was withdrawn and the 3rd took its place as assaulting troops. The Imperials on the left suffered heavy casualties and were unable to make any progress for-ward ; and the Canadians, after two platoons had gone over the top, were wisely withdrawn. Had the same tactics been used on the previous day when the 1st Battalion was left isolated in enemy territory, many valuable lives would have been saved. The attempt to oust the Germans from their strongly held position at Givenchy for the time being ended.
The fight at Givenchy must be put down as a British reverse. The fault lay in the inadequate artillery preparation. The Canadians had carried out their part in the adventure admirably and done all and more than was expected of them ; but the cost had been heavy. The total casualties in the 1st Brigade in this affair were over two thousand. Of twenty-three officers who went over the top on the 15th, only three escaped death or wounding. Neuve Chapelle, Festubert, and Givenchy had all taught the same lesson, a lesson the British corps commander seemed slow to learn,— that daylight raids without powerful and effective artillery preparation were suicidal. But though this attack failed, it brought no small measure of glory to the Canadians. Officers and men had acted with astounding heroism, as the numerous decorations bestowed for courage and skill in this affair show.
The much battered 1st Brigade was withdrawn on the morning of the 17th, and as it marched westward to rest billets at Bethune it exchanged greetings with the 2nd Brigade, which was to take its place in the Duck's Bill salient. For several days the 2nd endured a heavy bombardment, and was then sent to join the remainder of the division; and the whole force, after a brief rest, marched northward to other scenes and equally thrilling adventures.