Holding The Salient, 1916 – The Battle Of Sanctuary Wood

Again the trend of the fighting moved slightly north. Directly south of Hooge is Zouave Wood, and ahead of that, towards the enemy’s line, joined to it by a narrow neck of splintered trees, is Sanctuary Wood. It stretches southward to the slopes of Observatory Ridge, at this time almost all in German possession. The ridge divides it from Armagh Wood and Mount Sorrel. Just north of Sanctuary Wood, slightly to the left, is Maple Copse, another wood which will remain famous in Canadian history. To call them woods or copses was to give them courtesy titles ; for they were practically nothing but blasted stumps, like some New Ontario forest which has been fire-swept. In the early days of the war the trees had been so thick that the British Guards Division had found them a gift from the gods, and sheltering in them had turned back the Germans in their first attempt to get Ypres. One remarkable feature of these plantations was the quick way in which the undergrowth recovered and struggled back to life despite the poison from bursting shells. In many places it made excellent cover for crawling patrols and snipers.

Gradually during May the Canadian Corps took over these positions. It is possible that the Imperial High. Command had obtained information that there was to be another attempt to take Ypres from the south. The high ground at the northern end of Sanctuary Wood near the Menin road, Hills 61 and 62, and Mount Sorrel, all vantage-points which made the rim of what might be called the last defences of Ypres, were still in our possession. From these eminences, all of them less than two hundred feet high, one could scan the green, watery plains of Flanders, part bog, part awry with cultivated fields grown wild. The Germans, on their side, were not lacking in good observation posts, but in spite of this we managed to get in a valuable amount of construction. All through the woods the Canadians built little forts of cement and sand-bags, and in addition they dug a V-shaped support line, called the Appendix, which came to an apex in Maple Copse.

On May 28th Major-General Sir Julian Byng, who had distinguished himself in command of the 3rd British Cavalry Division, succeeded Major-General Alder-son, the latter returning to a home command in England. General Byng at once caught the fancy of the troops from the Dominion, and it was not long before they came to be known as ” The Byng Boys,” from the title of a popular sketch then running in London. The new commander of the Canadian Corps was born in 1862 and was a direct descendant of Admiral John Byng, who was unjustly executed in 1757 on account of his conduct during the operations for the relief of Minorca. At the age of twenty-one he joined the 10th Hussars, and with it saw service in the Soudan in 1884. He first won distinction in the South African War, taking part in the relief of Ladysmith, the Battle of Colenzo, the operations on the Upper Tugela, the advance through Natal, the advance to Middleburg and Komati Poort, and in the drive that ended in the capture of De Wet. He was for a time chief of the 2nd Cavalry Brigade at Canterbury and of the 1st at Aldershot. For several years before the outbreak of the Great World War General Byng was commander-in-chief of the British Army of Occupation in Egypt. He had been recalled to superintend cavalry training at Salisbury Plain, but he was there for only a short time. In the second week of November, 1914, he did valiant work with the 3rd Cavalry Division during the First Battle of Ypres. In the critical days of Gallipoli he was sent to that theatre of war, and was recommended for promotion for his services there. General Byng had thus a wide experience in the art of war and was recognized as a ” master of tactics.” In every way he was admirably suited for the command of the Canadian Corps.

The coming of June found the dispositions of the corps roughly as follows. The 3rd Division was on the left, represented by the 7th Brigade. This brigade was at first commanded by Brigadier-General F. O. W. Loomis, but on June 6th Brigadier-General A. C. Mac-Donell, recovered from his wound, returned and took charge. The 7th had already seen some service in this section. The 8th Brigade (Brigadier-General V. A. S. Williams), composed of Mounted Rifles acting as infantry, was in the centre; and the right was held by the 2nd Brigade of the 1st Division, reaching down as far as Hill 60, which was disputed territory, sometimes held by us, sometimes by the Germans. The 4th Mounted Rifles held the fringes of Armagh Wood. The 1st Mounted Rifles garrisoned Hills 61 and 62 and the front line as far south as Sanctuary Wood.

There had been ominous quiet on the part of the Germans. The Canadian Intelligence Staff had wind of fresh enemy troops and guns arriving, and it was thought that an attack was more than possible. Early on June 2nd the assault came. The enemy’s concentrated fire at St. Eloi had been regarded as terrible, but it was as a passing shower to a winter’s gale compared with what was let loose on the whole area. The trenches at St. Eloi had been heaps of mud scraped together; here the lines were fairly dry and well constructed; but they crumbled away before the terrific blast. Most of the shelters in the woods were blown to fragments or were caved in. Sand-bags, tree stumps, and cement blocks cumbered the earth. The bombardment was the heaviest that had been experienced on the Western front up to that time.

The attack was not unexpected, and on this eventful morning Major-General Mercer, commander of the 3rd Division, accompanied by his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Lyman Gooderham, had gone forward to inspect the positions of the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles near Mount Sorrel, where the Germans had constructed some mysterious ” T ” saps, evidently intending to use them as jumping-off places. On his way to the front General Mercer called for Brigadier-General Williams of the 8th Brigade. About 8.30 a. m., as the generals went forward, they were subjected to a bombardment from trench mortars; but the party passed through this without casualties, and reached Lieut.-Colonel J. F. H. Ussher’s headquarters, situated close to the front line. Led by Colonel Ussher, they at once proceeded on their tour of inspection. Everything was found satisfactory. The trenches were in good shape and strongly held and the men eager for fight. About nine o’clock, while the inspecting officers were standing in the front line near the communication trench known as O’Grady Avenue, without a moment’s warning a deluge of shells came over. It was learned afterwards that the Germans through their admirable spy system were aware of the very hour at which the Divisional Commander was to inspect this section. They had a vast assemblage of guns from Pilkem Ridge to Wytschaete. They had planned to bombard the Canadian position later in the day, but due to the information received they began their bombardment while the inspection was in progress. All their guns were now concentrated on the small sector held by the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles. Immediately the bombardment opened Mercer sent Ussher to his head-quarters to bring into action in retaliation the entire artillery of the 3rd Division ; but the barrage put over by the Germans had destroyed all the wires. Ussher thereupon sent two pairs of runners with messages to the guns.

While this work was in progress a shell struck the edge of the trench where the Canadian generals and Lieutenant Gooderham were standing. Williams was seriously wounded and both Mercer and Gooderham were thrown down and, for the moment, stunned. When they recovered from the shock they succeeded in having Williams carried into a sheltered trench known as the ” Tube.” General Mercer then made his way to Ussher’s headquarters; but there was little security here. Hour after hour the bombardment continued ; dug-outs were crumpled in ; trenches were obliterated; and the casualties were enormous. After a time the fire slackened and Mercer, who had miraculously escaped injury, determined to push his way back to his headquarters to organize resistance to the attack that the enemy would inevitably put over. He was still feeling the effect of the shock he had received, and as he went towards the rear, just before one o’clock, he had to be supported by Gooderham. The communication trenches had all been obliterated, and in this trip, made overland, there was but little shelter to be gained. Just as they reached Armagh Wood a chance shot hit Mercer in the leg, breaking a bone. His aide dragged him into a near-by ditch and did everything in his power to ease his suffering. Shortly after this event the bombardment lifted over Armagh Wood, and the Huns swarmed through the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles. During the night eight attempts were made to recover the lost ground. While the fourth attack was on a British shell burst close to Mercer and a piece of shrapnel pierced his heart. Gooderham, who had gallantly stood by him until this moment, remained alone in No Man’s Land until the morning of June 4th, when he was found by the Germans and taken prisoner. In the meantime Brigadier-General Williams, who was lying during the bombardment in a tunnel used as an advanced dressing station, had fallen into the hands of the enemy, and with many other gallant officers and men was carried off to a German prison. Some days later the body of General Mercer was found in Armagh Wood. His remains were carried back to divisional headquarters and buried in the Canadian cemetery at Poperinghe. Thus passed one of Canada’s most promising and brilliant leaders. His name had already been mentioned as a possible corps commander when the time came for Canada to command her own troops.

Later in the afternoon Major-General Hoare Nairne, an Imperial Staff officer attached to the Canadians, took command of the 3rd Division, and Lieut.-Colonel J. C. L. Bott, of the 2nd Mounted Rifles, took over the 8th Brigade, which was temporarily carrying on under Brigade-Major Stevens. The loss of Generals Mercer and Williams caused some confusion in the early part of the battle.

Early in the afternoon the Germans followed their bombardment by advancing in dense masses. The Imperial defenders, who held part of Hill 60, could see the grey lines moving forward in heavy blocks, but could afford little help by enfilading fire. Companies of German flammenwerfers preceded the main attack, throwing liquid fire on Canadians who were holding out in the posts ahead of our main line. The Germans, though badly punished by our guns, overwhelmed the plucky men of the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles, driving what survivors there were through their support lines and fortified posts, which had crumbled under the bombardment. Only thirty or forty men escaped, managing to gain shelter with the battalion on the right, which had not suffered so badly from the shelling and whose trenches were in fairly good shape. That day the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles suffered six hundred casualties in that first stubborn defence.

The experiences of the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles to the north made the same dismal story. With their front line demolished and their support line badly battered, outnumbered three to one, they had to fight off the advancing hordes by combining in isolated groups where there was a semblance of shelter left. Companies of the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles had been rushed into the fight from reserve, but even then the increasing tide of German infantry could not be stemmed. A splendid fight was put up from a fortified post in the Appendix system which had escaped serious attention by the German guns, and the men of this garrison, the 1st Mounted Rifles, repelled more than a dozen bombing attacks by Prussian Guard Reserves. Although at many times surrounded they held out until the next day, when the reserve line was stabilized and they were relieved. It was the fight that these men put up right in the centre of the attack which kept the whole line from being overwhelmed.

When the German wave swept through the Mounted Rifles it left open the right flank of the Princess Patricia’s, which battalion had two companies in the front line, part of which was in what was known as the Loop and the rest in a reserve communication trench. Here stood the men of this gallant regiment ready to fight to the death. While they waited and fought an appalling explosion shook the earth and rent the air and the Loop went up like the cap of a volcano. When the dust settled the company stationed there was found to be practically annihilated. But the survivors, re-treating to the communication trenches, joined the sup-port company and continued their heroic resistance. Driven back by the hard shelling and the mine, one company found itself in the rear of the Germans who had got through the Mounted Rifles, and they poured in such a terrific fire that for a time the attack wavered. The other company held grimly to their front trench through all the shelling, and resisted repeated attacks for eighteen hours after the bombardment opened.

A party of about fifty Germans entered a place called Border Trench, and here again they were bayonetted out by the ” Pat’s,” which famous regiment was putting up a tremendous fight with all its old dash and bravery. The Princess Patricia’s colours, which were in the front line, were sent back to brigade headquarters under a young lieutenant, who had to fight his way through, but arrived safely with his precious bur-den after a very perilous journey. Lieut.-Colonel H. C. Buller, the commander of the battalion, who had moved up to a trench called Warrington Avenue with all his available men in an endeavour to stem the German advance, was killed while leading his men. The news spread rapidly and his soldiers fought with reckless bravery to revenge him. The Canadians succeeded in blocking the trenches called Warrington Avenue and Gourock Road, and, bombing away all comers, sometimes making sorties with the bayonet, — held on. Another party of the Princess Pat’s found themselves in the Appendix system and the communication trench leading towards Hooge, and they, too, stuck to their posts, although their losses were heavy.

The position to the right was serious, for here practically no support line existed, and the Huns now held our old front line and looked down into the Canadian trenches. It was imperative to keep them from the reserve line which was in the rear, and in the afternoon a company of the Royal Canadian Regiment manned this position. During the afternoon an urgent call from the 8th Canadian Brigade came for help in their sector and two companies of the 42nd (Montreal) Battalion went forward to Maple Copse to reinforce this brigade, which was being hard pressed in a renewed attack from Sanctuary Wood. These two companies arrived at an opportune time and turned the fighting in this locality in our favour.

Companies of the 49th (Alberta) Battalion, who had been in reserve, were brought up and helped man the reserve trench, which some determined Germans had reached; while other battalions from the 9th Brigade and several companies of British infantry, which made an astounding trip from the ramparts at Ypres, were also placed in this system, which had to be held at all costs. The Germans were blocked at every place late that afternoon, and the worst part of the attack was regarded as over. They had been outfought in hand-to-hand conflicts and they showed no disposition to try to force a conclusion. But the fact that they were held was not sufficient, and a midnight counter-attack was planned. The 49th charged forward from Gourock Road Trench; and although caught by a heavy barrage, their attack was not deflected by it. It was such a thrilling sight in the flares that some of the Princess Patricia’s stood up on their parapets and cheered the men from the Western province. They suffered heavy casualties, but the attack was successful, and they eased the pressure that might have threatened our reserve line. Next night the 7th Brigade was relieved, and had a long rest in billets until June 22nd, when it came back into the Hooge sector. The Canadian Corps after this fight received a congratulatory telegram from Sir Douglas Haig, complimenting them on the defence they had put up.

During this battle two sacrifice 18-pounders of the 1st Divisional Artillery had been placed in Sanctuary Wood under Lieutenant C. P. Cotton. They had been carefully camouflaged and escaped the attention of the Germans until spotted by a German aeroplane late in the morning. They did excellent work all through the attack, their fire being directed by runners who came back from the infantry with the ranges. When the line was broken it was impossible to get them away. One had been put out of action by a direct hit about noon; but the gallant Cotton, wounded in several places, — one eye-witness told me he could hardly see for the blood streaming down his face, — and a wounded corporal were firing the remaining gun point-blank at the enemy coming over the top of Observatory Ridge. German machine guns finally killed the game pair, but not before they had put many of the foe out of action.

Late in the afternoon the Germans, temporarily checked by the new line that held on each. side of the Appendix, ferociously attacked the original line further to the left, by Hooge, and were driven off with great loss, every Hun that got inside our parapet being bayonetted by men of the 25th Battalion.

The situation was obscure to the Divisional Commander, but he knew it was precarious, and head-quarters questioned whether the present line could be held against another such onslaught. Then the Germans themselves relieved our anxiety. They hesitated, and the density of the bombardment faded just as complete victory seemed in their grasp.

Further south the 1st Division, which had had only the fringe of the assault to beat off, maintained their line practically intact, only giving way where they had to fall back and link up with the hard-pressed troops to the north. The 2nd. Brigade drove out a strong German detachment, which had gained Armagh House, a shattered remnant in the wood of that name, and finally established complete touch with the 8th Brigade on the fringes of Armagh Wood. After a conference between the divisions it was decided that it was time for the Canadians to take the initiative and at-tempt to gain back some, at least, of the lost territory. If only partly successful the attempt would relieve the situation.

Nine battalions were to be brought into the vicinity of the line after dark. Movement was impossible by day. The 7th and 10th Battalions of the 2nd Brigade, all of the 3rd Brigade, and the 49th, 52nd, and 60th of the 9th Brigade were chosen. The hour of the at-tack was fixed for dawn on June 3rd, and it was resolved to spread the attack over as large a front as possible and clear the enemy from Observatory Ridge and Mount Sorrel. But roads were hopelessly blocked and many of the battalions were late in arriving at their jumping-off positions. It was raining heavily, and the wet packs of the men grew to be such a burden that the officers allowed them to throw them away. Communications were difficult and part of the artillery were not told that 2 a. m. was the hour to start the barrage. It must be remembered that this was in the days before the Canadian scheme of building light railways to relieve congestion on the roads had matured.

Although it was a dangerous thing to do, plans were altered at the last minute and the zero hour was changed to 7 a. m., it being hoped that battalions would get to their appointed places by that time. The barrage was not as successful as it might have been, and instead of wiping the Germans out by surprise, gave them a chance to get ready for the attack. The 7th and 10th Battalions struggled through terrific machine-gun fire, cleared most of Armagh Wood, and a few men managed to reach the German line at the fringes of Mount Sorrel, where they got to grips with the German reserves. Then, badly enfiladed from those machine-gun posts which had not suffered from our guns, they had to yield ground that had been won at heavy cost.

The brunt of the attack was carried out by the 3rd Brigade, which formed the centre. This was composed of three famous Highland battalions, the 13th (Royal Highlanders of Montreal), 15th (48th Highlanders of Toronto), and 16th (Vancouver 72nd Seaforth Highlanders, 50th Victoria Highlanders, and 79th Cameron Highlanders of Winnipeg). All these battalions wore the Seaforth kilt. Another splendid regiment in the brigade was the 14th (Royal Montreal Regiment). The brigade had made an illustrious name for itself at St. Julien, at the Orchard of Festubert, and in front of Kemmel. They had had a fairly quiet experience since the beginning of 1916, although they had been in several lively raids. Lord Kitchener had inspected them in February and had praised them as one of the smartest Highland brigades on the front. The brigade had been brought up from its rendezvous at a place called Belgian Château to Zillebeke Switch Trench, and been heavily shelled all the way; but in spite of casualties and the drenching rain the men were in good spirits. It was with them also a race against time to get to Rudkin House in Maple Copse, which was to be their jumping-off place. But they were there at the appointed hour; and with pipes skirling, the 14th and 15th jumped into the attack, the former being on the left and the latter on the right, and charged for Hills 61 and 62, their first objectives, at 7.10 a. m., after the artillery bombardment. The advancing troops came under a withering artillery fire immediately they left their jumping-off trench; but they advanced along the ridge with the coolness of the veterans they had proved themselves to be, in spite of heavy losses. The 14th, under its second-in-command, ran into concentrated fire of almost incredible weight of metal. Practically half the strength of the battalion went down, but the line re-formed automatically and for nearly three hundred yards they continued towards the German trenches, one lieutenant and about a dozen men actually entering the Hun line. But these isolated parties never returned, being either killed or taken prisoners.

The main lines of the two battalions reached a line in advance of Rudkin House, but in face of the intense enemy fire on the open ridge could advance no further, and were compelled to drop back slightly to the south-east of the line Maple Copse-Rudkin House, which they maintained after digging in, again having heavy losses while doing so. This trench was later in the day greatly improved and became the Canadian’s front line.

The 14th suffered most in this advance. At the time it began to dig in its strength was reduced to one-third of the original complement, and the major in command, although wounded, kept charge of the firing line until the position was established, when he handed over to a young lieutenant. This officer, although twice blown up by exploding shells and once rendered unconscious for a short time, maintained the command until the battalion was relieved. Another young lieutenant from Montreal fought a little battle of his own, when, with his party, he advanced on the left, only to find that they were cut off and under enfilade fire. They halted, lined up, kept sentries posted and patrols out, and were in touch with the enemy all day. When night came the Germans concentrated a fire from trench mortars and other guns on this small force and their position became untenable. One sergeant from Montreal showed magnificent courage. Time and again he left the trench and brought in wounded men from the patrol and dressed their injuries. Just as the party were retiring to the main trench he was killed by a bomb from a trench mortar. Another sergeant commanded an isolated party to the right of the main trench all day and also brought the remnant of his men back. For this exploit he won his commission on the field. Lewis machine-gun teams, which kept up with the first attack, reached positions on the forward slope of Observatory Ridge facing Mount Sorrel. Two of the teams were annihilated, with the exception of one private, who recovered his gun, re-paired it, carried it forward, set it up, and, having secured a stock of ammunition, lone-handed, kept it going throughout the day. At night he brought it out intact and reported casually to his officer in the line. It was an outstanding feat in a day of heroic deeds.

At eight o’clock in the evening the enemy started their counter-attack opposite Observatory Ridge. A company of the 16th Battalion, which had been in sup-port, were ordered into closer touch with the front line. A company of the 13th went with them. The 16th were then ordered to attack if the enemy re-gained a footing on the ridge. Heavy barrages were directed against the ridge, but the enemy changed his mind and no serious attack occurred, although several times the Germans started from their positions.

The next day, June 4th, the situation along the front was generally quiet, and the Canadians went on with their preparations for another attack, after proper artillery preparation, on June 6th. Sanctuary Wood, Maple Copse, and Observatory Ridge were heavily shelled for the two days intervening, and on June 5th a heavy bombing attack was made on the Sanctuary Wood end of the line. But the Highlanders were on the alert and gave the enemy such a reception that it fizzled out before our trench was reached. Practically during all this time there was a heavy downpour of rain; and it was decided to abandon further immediate operations owing to the fact that through lack of aeroplane observation the artillery could not register close enough. By this time, too, the men were physically exhausted, though they were quite prepared to resume the offensive if required. It had been a week of extreme hardships, the men having to lie exposed in ditches and behind hedges in rain and mud, with never a dry day. Most of the time there were no trenches available, only the narrow ditches the men had dug for themselves. The advance of the 14th and 16th, which had borne the brunt of the fighting, had resulted in what would have been a fine feat for the best troops in the world. These men had come to unknown ground on an unknown task, through miles of country under heavy shelling, without showing the least trace of loss of morale. They had advanced through some of the most severe barrages that had been launched against the Allied troops up to that time, and had established a line where a menacing gap in our defences existed. They had reclaimed what had been written off as lost by General Headquarters, and had established a line which was now dangerous to the enemy as a possible jumping-off place for a fresh attack by us.

Northward, around the Appendix, there had been slighter gains. The 49th and 60th Battalions charged desperately through the isolated posts of the Princess Patricia’s and won back some of the strong points on the edge of Sanctuary Wood. The counter-attack here, as further south, never gained its objectives, but it showed conclusively that the Canadians retained their spirit and were by no means the broken, despondent troops the Germans hoped to make them. Casualties in this Sanctuary Wood fighting were heavy. The whole 8th Brigade estimated theirs at three thousand, and the 7th at a thousand; but they stuck to the line they had gained and improved the trenches with the help of two newly formed pioneer battalions, which were, for the time, under heavy fire.