Holding The Salient, 1916 – The Battle At The Knoll Of Hooge

The position was holding, and the Corps Commander, far from being discouraged, was planning an even greater counter-attack. But the German Command, also, was not idle, and on the night of June 6th the enemy again launched a violent attack, shifting still northward, this time at Hooge, the little village on the Menin road which the Germans regarded as a vital position that kept them from breaking into the salient which barred their way to Ypres. They already held Mount Sorrel and the craters, though their capture had cost them heavily.

The 6th Brigade was again in the line. The enemy used fresh Würtemberger regiments, and they came through in broad daylight in masses, fully equipped with packs, as if they, this time, intended to stay. They were preceded by flammenwerfers, which sprayed liquid fire into what Canadian defences had withstood the bombardment. There were fierce hand-to-hand encounters in the ruined stables of Hooge Château, which held out until high noon, the rubble of bricks changing hands more than a dozen times. The 28th (Regina) occupied the front trench, with the 31st (Alberta) in close support; and the 27th (Winnipeg) and 29th (Vancouver) were in reserve. Intense and devastating as had been the earlier bombardments at St. Eloi and Sanctuary Wood, it is a question if any single one of them equalled that which the Germans delivered on the Hooge positions at seven o’clock on the morning of June 6th. They had brought heavy railway howitzers from various parts of their front to help out their other massed guns. For seven hours the guns roared continuously and the shells crashed into the crumbling trenches of the 28th Battalion. Long before two o’clock, the hour when the attack took place, the intentions of the enemy to drive the Canadians from Hooge and thus straighten out their line became patent. At precisely two o’clock four large. mines were exploded under the Canadian trenches. The losses of the 28th were appalling.

Then the guns slowed down and the German infantry advanced over their parapets, confident that few men could be living to resist them. Their optimism, as far as the front line was concerned, was justified, and they walked fully equipped into the demolished lines, bringing with them parties of pioneers, unchallenged. That, however, was the limit of their success; and further along the line, at Bellewaarde Farm, which had for the most part escaped the bombardment, they were treated with scant consideration by the 16th (Imperial) Brigade. They also found a hornets’ nest in a batch of the 28th Battalion’s machine guns, which had posts oh both sides of the Ypres-Menin road. This bunch of Canadians caught the enemy coming in massed formation along the highway, and waited until they were about two hundred yards away, when they literally sprayed them with death. Five times the German infantry returned to the attack against the reserve line held by the 28th and the 31st west of Hooge, only to be resolutely checked and driven back by the Westerners ; and despairing of smashing the left of the brigade support line, now representing the Canadian front line, they attacked the copse-encumbered strong points in Zouave Wood. Again the attempt to break through failed, although some of the posts fell into the enemy’s hands.

About five o’clock in the afternoon, the rubble heap of Hooge was again in possession of the Germans ; but again the stout defences of the Canadians’ support lines had frustrated any ulterior motives the enemy might have had regarding Ypres. The 6th Brigade had fought another great uphill action; had added more laurels to their record by their courage and de-termination; but the toll in lives was heavy. The Hooge battle marked the beginning of the end of the brigade’s activities around Ypres, and during its farewell months in the salient it enhanced its reputation by several successful raids. On August 14th the Sing visited the battalions and watched a fresh bombardment of the craters by the Canadian artillery; on August 18th General Sir Sam Hughes inspected the men in camp; and before the end of the month they were well on their way to further adventures on the Somme.

About June 7th the weather cleared and the preparations for the great Canadian counter-attack, interrupted by the German onslaught at Hooge, were continued. On June 11th there was the largest concentration of artillery the British had ever had on their front. Guns were borrowed from armies on either side, from Dixmude to Arras, even from the Belgians. Lloyd George’s great munition campaign was making itself felt at the front, and there was now no lack of ammunition. The Stokes gun was coming over in large quantities, an ideal weapon to use in close war-fare. The Germans had not discovered the secret of it, and thought the tremendous explosions its high-angle shells made were from aeroplane bombs. They used to fire their anti-aircraft guns wildly through the night in order to drive off the imaginary planes with noiseless engines. The early morning of June 12th was very squally. Zero hour was timed for 1.30 a. m. For some days the 1st Division had been back resting in billets, preparing for the post of honour in the at-tack. Most of the 2nd Division was holding the line. The front approximately was as follows : The 6th Brigade (2nd Division) was at Hooge; 9th Brigade (3rd Division) from Zouave Wood, through the Appendix, to Maple Copse; 5th Brigade (2nd Division), Hill 60 to the Ypres-Comines canal. Brigadier-General G. S. Tuxford and Brigadier-General L. J. Lip-sett were given command of the main attack, it being felt that their knowledge of the ground would be of advantage. In a general mélange of the battalions Lipsett took command of the 1st (Western Ontario), 3rd (Central Ontario), 7th (British Columbia), and 8th (Little Black Devils, Winnipeg). Tuxford, on the left, had the 2nd (Eastern Ontario), 4th (Central Ontario), 13th (Royal Highlanders, Quebec), and 16th (Canadian Scottish).

For several days the artillery had been practising concentration shoots at various parts of the German system, and each time the Huns had manned their trenches ready for an attack. It got on their nerves, and when the assault did finally come off it caught the enemy just as he was carrying out a relief. Careful Staff work by both the 1st and 2nd Divisions had prepared the way for the attack, and both General Currie and General Turner spent much time in forward posts, getting first-hand observation. Flare signals were arranged so that headquarters would know when objectives were gained. There was a special distress rocket to be fired if things went wrong but it was never used. The attack was carried out with consummate skill and secrecy in spite of the handicap of the rain, which came down in torrents. The new barbed-wire defences we had built were removed with-out the Germans even suspecting. The three-quarters of an hour bombardment did all that was expected of it. According to the estimate of Major-General H. E. Burstall, who commanded the Canadian artillery, Mount Sorrel and Hill 62 trenches were shelled on a front of two thousand yards and a depth of one thousand yards. Altogether ten thousand yards of German line was raked several times in that concentrated bombardment. Watching the effect of the bursting shells, Burstall turned to a Corps Staff officer who was with him and said gleefully, ” Now they can go over with their rifles slung if they want to.” It was not quite as easy as that, and casualties were not light; but there was no question of our having turned the artillery trick on the enemy.

The 3rd, 16th, and 13th Battalions jumped off in the order named from right to left. With their colonel in command the 3rd filed through the dense undergrowth, in most places waist high, of Armagh Wood. So rapid was their advance that they got ahead of the German barrage and reached the enemy’s line with few casualties. The heaviest fighting was around an old Canadian strong point in which the enemy had two machine guns. The place had been captured on June 6th and had been much strengthened. This was finally stormed and the whole garrison bayonetted. Only forty minutes from zero hour the 3rd Battalion sent up flares showing that they had gained their objective. Part of their right attacking party was held up for a short time, but the 1st Battalion came to the rescue and the victory was complete.

The attack, then, had begun like clock-work. By 3 a. m. large parties of bewildered German prisoners were being passed through the British lines to the collecting cages. The great number of wounded they brought with them was confirmation of the efficacy of the work of the guns.

The 16th Battalion did not have such an easy time. Scouts reported to the commander, Lieut.-Colonel J. E. Leckie, that there was an old trench some fifty yards ahead of their position which was not marked on the map and which was unoccupied. Colonel Leckie decided to take a chance and put his men there and thus escape the German barrage when it opened. It was a dangerous thing to do, but luck was with them. If a German patrol had succeeded in reporting the movement, the whole element of surprise in the attack would have been lost. Keen scouts actually did find a German patrol, but it was surrounded, all the time unsuspecting, and was gathered in when the assault took place. The 16th gained its final objective with a great deal of opposition from German machine guns, and consolidated. But the 13th were held up by a trench which the artillery had missed; and it was not until supports had been sent to their help that it was again possible to advance and secure the objective. The casualties during these operations were heavy; it was desperate work and the men fought desperately; but the losses sustained were offset by the value of the result of the attack. The brigade lost altogether slightly over two thousand, killed, wounded, and missing.

Two machine-gun posts behind the German line caused much trouble after the objective had been achieved. A Vancouver captain grabbed a rifle and scouted around to the rear of one of these, where he picked off all but two of the crew, who fled as he charged them with the bayonet. The other gun was rushed by a bombing party and its crew killed or taken prisoners.

The 13th Battalion was not so lucky in escaping the German barrage ; but it pushed its way through and after heavy bombing encounters got to the north of Hill 62 and linked up with the 16th. It was found that the rain and our shells had practically wiped out the German line; and pioneers and engineers were rushed up after the fighting had been going on about two hours, when the main action had been won. These men worked heroically in a terrific downpour of rain; and by daylight the Germans found themselves facing an almost impregnable line where had been their battered trenches. There were one or two concentrations which looked like preparations for counter-attacks, but our artillery disposed of them. The victory was well won. We were once more masters of the heights that commanded Ypres.

Captain Talbot Papineau, a brilliant, noble officer attached to the Corps Staff, who was afterwards killed, wrote his impressions of this battle-field, which were afterwards published in Canada in Flanders.

Looking north from the works which we still maintain on Hill 60, . . . the first impression was one of blight — as though a devastating plague had suddenly descended on these woods and fields and hills, had blotted out the natural green of Nature, and churned up the earth into sordid masses of mud. The blaze of sunshine and the blue sky flecked with slow-moving clouds could not wipe out the ugliness of the prospect. Man had defaced Nature until the charm of Nature had vanished.

” Gaunt and grey and menacing, the prospect of the low hills swept out from the feet of the observers. Below were the shattered remains of Square Wood and Armagh Wood. Observatory Ridge, lost and recaptured, stood in front, its coppices full of the memories of hidden machine guns. Behind there peeped out the higher grounds of Hills 61 and 62, to which the remains of Sanctuary Wood still climbed upwards. On the right rose Mount Sorrel, where the grim earth and shattered trunks still met the clear sky. Behind, in contrast, the green fields of high grass stretching towards Ypres ringed this land of death. The uncut crops, grown wild, had attained an unwonted luxuriance. Here and there a bunch of scarlet poppies might have drawn their intense colour from the gallant blood which had soaked the earth beneath. The unkempt hedgerows, no longer tall and neat, ran back to the city behind, and the beheaded and scarred poplars remained as mute witnesses to the strife of man. Yet Nature was attempting to assert herself, and through this summer’s growth of verdure to cover the riot of battle.

” Scattered beneath this innocent mantle of green are innumerable shell holes, old crumbling trenches full of the memories and odours of death, graves and graveyards marked by the crosses commemorating the long-forgotten captains once well loved by their regiments, and of humble privates perhaps still re-membered. The torn and trampled equipment, the empty ammunition boxes, the remains here and there of shattered bodies, which human care and energy had been unable to bury, all await the healing tide of Nature which will cover them in its due time. On the roads behind lie the bodies of dead horses, with the flies thick on their congealed sides, killed in the effort to bring up to the assaulting battalions the necessities of war and livelihood. Yet of these, too, the poet has written that their cups are the calm pools and the winding rivers, and that care never breaks their healthy slumbers. Even over all that quiet countryside has come the continued spray of bursting shells, week after week and month after month, and if you look closely into every tree and field and ruined house, every yard of that wide landscape will show its wounds. We shall remember when the time of reckoning comes. … Against the sky-line the new Canadian trenches ran, marked by the new outlines of red earth.”‘