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Letters from the front. Being a record of the part played by officers of the Bank in the great war, 1914-1919 (Volume 2) online

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ever, brought bad weather conditions and a consequent slowing-up
of operations. On the Somme front the most notable event was
the advance of the left flank and the capture in November of Beau-
mont-Hamel. The Bank's staff was well represented in this protracted
fighting, as may be gathered from the fact that forty members were
killed in action on the Somme. Compared with previous actions,
however, the loss of life among the Allies was slight in proportion
to the magnitude of the fighting; there is little doubt that the
enemy's casualties were much greater, including as they did the
56,000 prisoners taken by the Allies from the beginning of the action
up to the end of September. On 24th October the French attacked
in front of Verdun, and by the middle of December had driven the
enemy line back to a maximum depth of four miles; the outer
forts were recovered and Verdun definitely saved.

The part played by the Canadian Corps in the Battle of the
Somme, though small in comparison with the total series of operations
in that theatre, was by no means insignificant. Reinforced by the
Fourth Division, which arrived in France in August, the Corps
began to move on 1st September from the Ypres salient into Picardy.



On 15th September, the day on which "tanks" first came into action,
troops of the Second and Third Divisions stormed and took Cour-
celette, with the assistance of "Creme de Menthe" and "Cupid,"
the two tanks on their front.* Mouquet Farm was taken on the
night of the 16-17th, and severe fighting continued throughout
September north of Courcelette. On 5th October the Fourth
Division arrived on the Somme, and during the following fortnight
relieved, in conjunction with Imperial units, the other three Divi-
sions. By the end of November, the Fourth had to its credit the
taking of two strongly held lines, Regina and Desire trenches, and
was moving northwards to join the Canadian Corps on the Arras-
Lens front.

The winter of 1916-17 was spent, on the British side, in con-
solidating the line and harassing the enemy, and on the German
side, in preparing for the evacuation of the now untenable salient
between the Ancre and the Scarpe. Raids were carried out on all
parts of the front against the enemy's trenches, the most suc-
cessful being those at Armentieres, Souchez, Givenchy, Loos, Lens,
Arras and Beaumont-Hamel. The Canadian raid on the Fosse
Calonne, near Lens, is particularly noted in "Letters from the
Front."t In February the British extended their hne southwards
to Roye, and now held a total length of one hundred and twenty
miles, or almost double the length held by them twelve months
before. An attack was launched on 17th February on both sides
of the Ancre, and by the end of the month the British were within
striking distance of Bapaume. Early in March, however, it became
evident that the German resistance was only a rearguard action
pending the complete withdrawal of their forces to the strongly-
fortified belt running in front of Drocourt, Cambrai, St. Quentin
and La Fere. The British entered Bapaume on 16th March and
P6ronne two days later, and at the beginning of April took up
their positions opposite the advanced posts of the Hindenburg Line.

The arrangements made by the Allies in November for a 1917
spring offensive in the West, as part of a gigantic assault on all
fronts, had to be adjusted to the new situation. Instead of a general
drive on the Scarpe-Ancre salient as it existed before the German
retreat, the British now projected two major operations which
might with success develop into flanking movements of prime
importance. The first operation was the turning of the Hinden-
burg Line on its right flank at Arras, the pivotal point of the enemy's
withdrawal. No time was to be lost; the enemy must be caught
before the completion of the reserve switch from Drocourt to
•Vol. I, p. 149. tVol. II, p. 48.



Qu^ant strengthened his defences in this area. The second and
later step to be taken was the turning in Flanders of the right
flank of the entire German Army. The plans of the French were
curtailed but not radically altered by the new situation; their
initial attack, however, did not synchronize with that of the British.
On the Italian front, operations did not seriously begin until a
month after the storm broke in the West.

On 9th April the battle of Arras began. The brilliant victory Arras-
of the Canadians at Vimy Ridge on the first day of the fighting ^'.^^
was one of the most notable individual successes of the war, and *
was due in large part to the use for the first time of intense counter-
battery fire immediately prior to the infantry assault. "Every-
thing," wrote a member of the Bank's staff who fought in the en-
gagement, "went like clock-work and beyond all expectations."*
By the afternoon of the 12th the Canadians were holding the entire
ridge, and on the 13th they captured the flanking position of
Givenchy-en-Gohelle. Twelve of our staff fell in the struggle
for the ridge. The long-coveted possession of Vimy not only
provided a jumping-off point for an advance eastwards, but contri-
buted in no small degree to the success of operations further south.
Here the enemy resistance centred at the heights of Monchy-le-
Preux and the critical Bullecourt-Queant sector, where the Drocourt
switch met the Hindenburg Line. Canadians must experience a
peculiar pride in the exploits of the Newfoundlanders at Monchjs
during both the original attack and the subsequent gallant defence
of the heights, as also in the achievement of the Australians in
making a breach in the "Line" at Bullecourt. So successful was
the action on the entire front involved, that by 15 th April the
enemy's positions had been penetrated to a depth of from two to
five miles between Lens and Croisilles.

The French offensive was launched on 16th April from
Soissons eastwards along the Aisne and the Suippes. The
immediate objective on the left was the ridge of the Chemin-des-
Dames, on the right that of Moronvilliers, but the intention of the
French Command was nothing less than the piercing of the enemy's
fine and the fighting of a decisive action. It was, in other words,
an offensive without a limited objective. After very heavy fighting
and against strong counter-attacks, the French won the centre
and the eastern end of the Chemin-des-Dames ridge and, by 20th
May, the whole of the Moronvilliers massif. Meanwhile, as a
means of relieving the pressure on the French front, the British
renewed their Arras offensive on 23rd April and again on 3rd May,
but the enemy had greatly increased in strength since the battle
*VoI. I, p 201.



opened and was ready to dispute every inch of the ground.
Desperate fighting took place throughout the sector, notably at
Lens, Oppy and Monchy, and south of the Arras-Cambrai
road. BuUecourt was the scene of thirteen counter-attacks between
the beginning of the offensive and 8th May.

In the fighting of late April and early May the Canadians
captured Arleux-en-Gohelle and Roeux, and obtained a temporary
footing in Fresnoy. On 3rd June they attacked La Coulotte near
Avion and, during the remaining three months that they spent in
the Lens sector, carried out many trench raids and surprise attacks,
partly as a demonstration to screen the movement of British
troops into action at Ypres and to the extreme left of the Allied
hne at Nieuport, now taken over from the French, partly as a
wearing-down process in connection with the investment of Lens.
On 15th August the Canadian Corps stormed and took Hill 70
and the western portion of Lens and held them against all counter-
attacks. During this fighting, thirteen of our staff gave up their
lives. In October the Corps moved northwards to join in the
great battle that was proceeding in front of Passchendaele.

Messines was to the prospective battle of Ypres what Vimy
was to the fighting on the Artois front, but its strategic importance
was enhanced by the fact that its present occupation by the enemy
threatened the British possession of Mount Kemmel, the highest
point of the range running east from Mont-des-Cats. On 7th
June, the British attacked on a front of ten miles, from
Zillebeke to Ploegsteert Wood. For months sappers, includmg
Canadian engineers retained for this purpose during 1916, had
been constructing mine-galleries on Hill 60 and at various
points along the Messines-Wytschaete ridge. Just before
the attack opened the mines were sprung, and the charges
rent the hillside and its defences as though they had been match-
wood. At the end of the first day Messines and Wytschaete were
taken, and by the 14th the entire ridge was in British hands.
The Air The successes at Vimy and Messines were in no small degree

emce j^^ ^^^ ^^^ superiority of the British air service over that of the
enemy. The struggle for supremacy in the air, as well as on land,
had been growing keener and keener, and by 1917 the balance of
power had passed into Allied hands. The value of this service and
the variety of its activities had increased by leaps and bounds,
as our letters from airmen at the front clearly show. On sectors
engaged in "peace-time" fighting, it was their business to harass the
enemy, to bomb his lines of communication and to locate hostile
batteries and formations of troops; in England to beat down



aerial raiders; at sea to attack U-boats; and later, far within the
enemy's country, to bomb his railway centres and his munition
plants. All this was in addition to individual engagements with
enemy airmen. In France the active co-operation of the air
service soon became essential to the success of any offensive. Aerial
reconnaissance and photography made possible the training of
storm-troops on a specially constructed facsimile of the battle-
ground, and imparted valuable information for even minor opera-
tions. During advances, in addition to increased scouting, fighting,
observation and bombing work, the service now took part in the
actual infantry assault, bombing at close range, signalling to the
men on the ground, supporting them by Lewis gun fire, and fre-
quently dropping small arms ammunition to advanced parties
when its delivery by any other means was impossible. The most
mobile arm of the service, with the greatest scope of activities and
field for operations, it is little wonder that the story of the air force
was regarded as one of the redeeming romances of the war. Among
the British airmen who lost their lives on active service were
twenty-one of the Bank's staff.

The series of engagements generally referred to as the Third Ypres III
Battle of Ypres opened on 31st July on a total front of fifteen miles.
The main assault in this first action extended from Boesinghe to
Zillebeke, with the crest of high ground east of Ypres as the limited
objective. The British, with the French co-operating on their left,
took Pilkem; further south the advance was slower on account of
the water-logged condition of the ground and the stiff resistance
offered by the enemy, particularly near the Menin road, and it
required a fresh attack on the 10th to take Glencorse Wood and the
Westhoek ridge. The concrete "pill-box" redoubts of the Germans,
first encountered in the Arras-Vimy fighting, had by this time been
developed into a system of defence calculated to minimize the
effects of artillery preparation, to hold up the most desperate
infantry assaults, and to solve the problem of defending a position
in depth with the best tactical use of machine-gun fire and the
greatest economy of men. The dogged persistence of the British,
costly though it was, and their adaptability to new fighting condi-
tions, proved the fallibility of the "pill-box" method of defence,
and it was later abandoned in many areas for the old trench system.
Its presence, however, in a wilderness of alternating bogs and
slimy knolls, amid tree-stumps and ruined farm-houses, and the
almost constant rain during every Allied advance, explain why,
despite the limited success of their offensive, the actual achieve-
ments of the British troops in this Flanders fighting were little
short of marvellous.



On 16th August the second phase of the battle, namely, the
attempt to turn the enemy's hill-defences from the north, opened
with an Allied attack from Inverness Copse on the Menin road
northwards to the area west of the Houthulst Forest flooded by
the Belgians in 1914. The French, on the left, seized the bridge-
head on the Yser Canal; the British took Langemarck but were
repulsed at Frezenburg. It was now decided to fight the battle on a
wider front, so as to break up the enemy's concentration, and in
the following week a considerable advance was made north and
east of St. Juhen. Meanwhile the bitter struggle for the ridges
east of Ypres continued, the Germans ofiFering stout resistance in
the vicinity of the Menin road. Bad weather now delayed all but
minor operations in the salient, but towards the end of September a
vigorous series of attacks in echelon began, with the Passchendaele
ridge as the objective. The season for open campaigning was
already far advanced, and if the enemy's right flank was to be
turned before winter and the way cleared for a movement towards
Roulers and Ghent, the taking of the ridge by early October was an
imperative necessity. The preliminary covering attack was deliv-
ered on 20th September on a wide front, from Langemarck to the
Ypres-Co mines Canal near Hollebeke; the second attack, that of
26th September, extended from St. JuHen to the Menin road; the
third attack, on 4th October, took place slightly north of this, with
severe fighting north of Langemarck. As a result of these engage-
ments the British, by their capture of Broodseinde, Polygon Wood
and the Tower Hamlets ridge, obtained a footing on the southern
half of the great broken range of high ground that ran from Passchen-
daele southwards across the Menin road, and by their capture of the
Gravenstafel Spur came within striking distance of Passchendaele
itself. The critical moment now arrived when a decision had to
be made as to the continuance, in the face of persistent ill-luck,
of an offensive costly in sacrifice and attended by only limited
success. As at the battle of Arras, the exigencies of the French
armies on the Aisne required the continuance of the British cam-
paign, and attacks were made on 9th and 12th October on a British
front of six miles and on a French front of three, with the object of
turning the enemy's flank at the Houthulst Forest. But it was now
clear that the strategic movement behind the campaign could not
at this late date be carried out. Tactical defence requirements,
however, demanded that the ridge should be in Allied hands
before winter.
Passchen- Such was the military situation when the Canadians entered

daele the Ypres salient in October, 1917. The last phase of the battle

opened on the 22nd with an Allied attack between the Houthulst



Forest and Passchendaele. On the 26th French and Belgian troops
advanced south and west of the forest and cleared the Merckem
peninsula of the enemy. The same day, protected by flank opera-
tions at Gheluvelt and north of Poelcappelle, the main British
attack was delivered against Passchendaele, and the Third and
Fourth Canadian Divisions, with Austrahans on their right and
Imperial troops on their left, made their way through the morass
of the Strombeek valley under heavy fire from the "pill-boxes"
that dotted the slope. By the end of the day the Bellevue Spur,
whence the most deadly fire had come, had been stormed and taken,
and on the 30th Meetcheele was captured and held against counter-
attacks. On 6th November, the First and Second Canadian
Divisions reached the crest of the ridge, taking Passchendaele and
the hamlets to the immediate north. The remaining high ground
was wrested from the enemy on the 10th, and the Corps was thus
able, on leaving this sector for the Lens front, to hand over to the
relieving Imperials one of the chief objectives of the autumn's
campaign. The heights had been taken and held at a price, and
every unit had felt the sacrifice. Among the many who fell on
Passchendaele slopes alone were fifteen of the Bank's staff.

The collapse of Russia and her defection from the Allies,
together with the serious reverse sustained towards the end of
October by the Italians on the Isonzo, had an important bearing
upon operations on the Western front during the remainder of
1917. British troops and guns had to be sent to Italy, and the
British position strengthened before the transfer of enemy rein-
forcements from Russia was complete. On the other hand, the
French had won a brilliant victory north of the Aisne at La
Malmaison and were later to renew with success the campaign at
Verdun. Thus every factor, good as well as evil, in the general
situation urged immediate action on the part of the British Com-
mand. The Passchendaele area was now out of the question as the
scene of a new offensive. The ground was well-nigh impassable
and a further advance of any moment would mean descending to
the mud of the Roulers plain; a successful attempt elsewhere in
the Ypres salient was handicapped by the enemy's powerful con-
centration in this area. It was decided therefore to renew the
strategy of the Battle of Arras and to attempt the penetration and
turning of the German line in the Queant sector, at the same time
puzzhng the enemy by a threat towards Cambrai. On 20th Cambrai
November a surprise attack, without preliminary bombardment,
was delivered south-west of Cambrai on a front of six miles, while
demonstrations were made over an extensive part of the line, with
actual attacks north of Bullecourt and near Epehy. It was a field



day for the "tanks," and they performed their work admirably,
destroying the wire and overcoming organized resistance in the
original lines. The assault was a complete tactical success and,
considering the severity of the village fighting, the subsequent
advance was rapid. At the end of the first day the Hindenburg
main and reserve lines were broken through on a front of ten miles
and to a depth at the furthest point of four and a half miles. The
Canadian Cavalry Brigade took part in the advance, and a squadron
of the Fort Garry Horse greatly distinguished itself by entering
Masnieres and capturing a German battery.

An acute salient had now been created in the vicinity of
Marcoing and Masnieres, and the insecure position of the British
across the Scheldt Canal called for a widening of the salient in a
northerly direction and, with a view to present defence as well as
to future offensive operations on the Sensee, the capture of the
important ridge on which stood Bourlon Wood. On the following
day progress was made in this direction and a frontal attack
delivered on Bourlon Wood, where severe fighting took place until
the 24th, and again on the 27th. The defensive position of the
British was now better than it had been after the first day's fighting
but, as compared with the original front, it was if anything weaker,
both by reason of the increased length of line without a correspond-
ing increase in garrison, and owing to the nature of the salient
itself, especially at its southern end, where the water-sheds of the
Scheldt valley interrupted the arc and left the way open for pene-
tration by an enemy attacking in any strength. It was, in fact,
here that the Germans broke through when they counter-attacked
on 30th November, whereas the centre and left in the main stood
firm, even under the attacks in mass formation at Moeuvres and
the intense gas-shelling at Bourlon Wood. Gouzeaucourt fell, but
was recaptured the same day after a gallant attack in which
the Guards took part. By a series of necessary tactical
retirements the British position was corrected and by 7th
December established in the Hindenburg reserve line captured on
the first day of the British offensive. Winter now set in, and
apart from minor operations here and at Lens and Passchendaele,
the British front was for the next few months ominously quiet.

The lull on the Western front that followed the double opera-
tions about Cambrai was accounted for, on the AlUed side, by an
assumption of defensive tactics pending the arrival of United
States reinforcements, and on the part of the enemy, by preparation
for the supreme triumph of German arms, the "Kaiser's Battle."
By the end of January, 1918, the British had taken over from the
French the St. Quentin front as far south as the Oise, an additional



twenty-eight miles, and this further charge, together with the
increase in frontage due to the salients created in 1917, not only
made a heavy drain upon available reserves of man-power but left
lightly garrisoned what proved to be the most vulnerable parts of
the line. On 21st March the long-expected and much-heralded German
enemy offensive began on a front of fifty-four miles, extending from Offensive
the Sensee to the Oise. In their method of attack, the Germans ^ *'*^ '
adopted the surprise tactics taught them by the British at Cambrai.
A concentrated counter-battery fire of gas and high explosive
put a large proportion of the British artillery out of action, and the
enemy, protected by thick fog and heavy barrage, swarmed through
the breaches made in the thinly-held line by the intense drum-fire
that prefaced the assault, and succeeded by a series of flank move-
ments in compelling a strategic retirement of the Allied line to
within forty miles of Paris and of Calais, and within ten of the
British railhead at Amiens. The heroic stand made by the hard-
pressed British troops on the first day of this battle is typified by
the "most conspicuous bravery" of Second Lieutenant Edmund
De Wind, late of the Edmonton staff of the Bank and an officer in
the Royal Irish Rifles, who was mortally wounded while defending
the Race Course Redoubt at Grougie,*two miles south of St.Quentin
on the east bank of the Crozat Canal, and was awarded the Victoria
Cross for the devotion which cost him his life. Seven other
members of the staff fell in action during these critical days in
March.

The primary object of the German campaign was to separate
the British and French Armies by penetrating the line at their
point of junction, and to drive home this blow by the capture of
Amiens and Abbeville; the British must then either choose to fight
a decisive battle with their backs to the sea, or withdraw south of
the Somme, leaving the Channel ports open to the enemy. The
main points of impact on 21st March were east of Peronne, north-
east of Bapaume and between St. Quentin and La Fere. By noon
the British line in these sectors had been penetrated to a depth of
from two to three miles, and on the following day the enemy
entered the third zone of British defences. With its right insecure
owing to the withdrawal west of La Fere, the Fifth Army was
forced to give up the Peronne bridgehead, and, under cover of a
well-fought rearguard action, took up its position on the west bank
of the Somme. French reinforcements, in the absence of mobile
British reserves, virtually saved the situation; on 24th March the
French reUeved the British of the line from St. Quentin to the Oise.
During the withdrawal, however, a gap had occurred south of St.
*This is the spelling in the official award; the French maps give "Grugies."



Quentin, which enabled the enemy to break through and take Ham,
while the British position in the north was penetrated near Croisilles.
On the following day a gap south of Bapaume afforded still another
opportunity for a thrust and the line had to be corrected by a with-
drawal behind Bapaume and, when Courcelette was captured, to
the upper Ancre. Thus in one day was lost Thiepval ridge,
and with it all the advantage gained in 1916 by the Battle of the
Somme. The hne now crossed the Somme at Bray, where the
British right had rested two years before. By an unfortunate
blunder, however, on the part of a local commander, a withdrawal
was ordered on the 26th to the confluence of the Ancre and the
Somme, and this was partially carried out. With its flank now in
the air, the British right was forced to uncover Albert; the French,
seriously affected by the capture of Nesle on the 26th, had likewise
to conform to the general movement and, in spite of desperate
fighting, lost two days later the important railhead of Montdidier.
The line was now becoming stabiUzed, and the last attempt made
by the enemy to extend the Montdidier salient towards Paris ended
in failure on 30th March. The German thrust in the southern