Trench Raids

AS we have seen, one of the features of the fighting in which the Canadians took part in 191 was the development of the trench raid, in-vented and perfected by the men from the Dominion, adopted by the Imperials as a regular part of trench warfare, and even copied with a varied amount of success by the Germans themselves. The raids gradually grew in magnitude until sometimes they appeared to be serious frontal attacks. One successful raid later in the year was carried out by two whole brigades. It was never the intention of the raiders to hold the works ” cut out,” but merely to destroy as much trench and as many dug-outs as they could in the allotted time, kill as many Germans as possible, and gather in prisoners or anything that would help identify the enemy and disclose his plans.

By the beginning of 1916 the Canadians had become enthusiastic raiders and each operation was watched with great interest. There was intense rivalry between the battalions and scores of variations were carried out. On January 30th, 1916, when south-east of Kemmel, the great hill of Flanders, the 6th Brigade elaborated on the original scheme carried out at Petite Douve Farm,’ and again the Canadians were successful. It was a larger affair than that of November and was conceived and carried out by men in Brigadier-General Ketchen’s command. Parties of thirty men were selected from the 28th (Regina) and 29th (British Columbia) Battalions and carefully trained at the brigade’s bombing school. The two parties entered the German trenches at the same moment, at places over a thousand yards distant from each other, the wire having been cut earlier in the night by scouts. Each party contained a number of bombers, as it was decided to rely on the bomb rather than the bayonet, which was cumbersome in a trench. Camouflage helped the raiders to terrify their startled enemy. The men blackened their faces with burnt cork and dressed in snipers’ coats which rivalled Joseph’s of many colours. Four minutes after the attackers went over, the watchers in the Canadian trenches heard their bombs exploding. In five minutes the Vancouver men had cleaned up the trench and were returning. The Saskatchewan party stayed the limit of eight minutes and met with more resistance. Three prisoners were brought in by men of the 29th, and it is estimated that twenty Germans were killed and wounded, while the Canadian casualties were but two wounded. The 28th found that a German relief was in progress where they jumped in, and they finished off their supply of bombs with terrible effect. Unlike their co-raiders, they failed to return scot-free, losing three men be-fore the signal to clear out was given. The prisoners included an officer of the Prussian Guard and men from three different regiments, all of which the British Intelligence Branch had been searching for up and down the front.

In April the Germans began to imitate the Canadian raids, which was just what we expected and were prepared for. Near Hooge, on the night of April 3rd, the enemy tried three times to enter the trenches held by the 7th Brigade. The first was at ten o’clock, and was beaten off by our bombers with no loss to our-selves, while the enemy left five dead. At four in the morning our patrols spotted twelve men sneaking into an old sap leading to the Canadian line. The Canadians quietly took a machine gun into the other end of the sap and opened fire. Unfortunately the curve of the trench protected the raiders and only one was killed, the rest, some wounded, getting back to their lines, only thirty-five yards away. The third raid came off as day was breaking, when ten Germans and an officer entered the Canadian trench where the parapet was low and made their way along a ditch which ran alongside the Menin road. This raid was more of a surprise than the previous two. Immediately the Germans entered the trench, they seized a Canadian lance-corporal and four men who were occupying a post. The German officer was ahead with a revolver and shot two of our men who attempted a rescue. The enemy started for their trenches with their prisoners while German machine guns, leaving a gap for them to return, played along the top of our parapets: Our return fire killed three of the Germans, and the remainder scattered, releasing their prisoners. Three of the Canadians were hit while attempting to get back to our line. The German officer was killed as he reached his own wire, and when daylight dawned he was seen straddled on the barbed strands. Only two of the Germans reached their trench alive.

Just before the Canadians trekked southward for the Somme, on August 17th, the Royal Canadian Rifles staged a raid in which were many thrilling incidents. In the early morning a sergeant and three men placed a long ammonal tube under the enemy wire close to where a sap entered our lines. A raiding party of sixteen under Lieutenant Bole attempted to rush the enemy trench through the gap as it was exploded. The enemy were ” standing-to,” waiting for the at-tack, and every person in the party became a casualty. Three men reached the German trench and threw their bombs, doing much damage, and started back through the enemy’s machine-gun fire. The support party of the Canadians then came up, and our batteries, which had been signalled the failure of the raid, opened fire on the German front line. Under cover of this fire all the casualties were rescued, and the gap in the wire was filled in ready for the German counter effort. But none materialized. The raid was an example of the precautions taken in case of failure : the affair was so conducted that, even if the enemy’s trench should not be temporarily captured, the enemy would be unable to take advantage of the Canadians’ discomfiture.

August saw all the Canadian divisions, with the exception of the 4th, which reached France by brigades only on the 11th, 14th and 15th of that month, on their way to new battle-fields of the Somme. Mouquet Farm, Courcelette, and the Zollern Trench are other names that figure in Canada’s military history. But the fighting at the craters and at Hooge, from the hard-ships endured and the casualties sustained, takes rank among the most desperate in which the Canadians were engaged during the Great War.