Thiepval/Courcelette: Sep 1916

July and August 1916 were among the quietest months in the history of the 10th Battalion, while the British Army bled in order to relieve the French. The 1st of July had been the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army, suffering close to 60,000 casualties as they opened a new offensive on the Somme to relieve pressure on their allies. The 10th, meanwhile, enjoyed a long spell as brigade and divisional reserve battalion, and spent only four days between 5 July 1916 and 27 August in front line trenches. The rotation system was established when it became clear that the war was going to be a prolonged effort. Battalions served tours of two weeks or so in the front lines, followed by shorter tours in brigade, divisional, or corps reserve, either manning trenches further behind the front, providing work parties, or if far back enough, living in billets and carrying on training and recreation/sports.

As the fighting on the Somme dragged on into September 1916, the 10th Battalion found itself in the trenches once again near Albert, their commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Rattray – who had organized the battalion at Valcartier and taken over in June 1915 – was now promoted out and handed over to Dan Ormond, who would command until May 1918 when he, too, was promoted to Brigadier General.

The Canadians – fresh troops, now numbering three divisions in the line with a 4th on the way – joined what became the third and last major offensive by British forces on the Somme. The offensive encompassed several battles, including both Courcelette and Thiepval. Collectively, the offensive became known as the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, and lasted for a week from 15 to 22 September 1916. Historically, the battle is remembered as the first use of the tank in warfare. The 10th Battalion played no part in the early battles at Courcelette, and the 1st Division was not tasked with major offensive operations. However, on 10 September 1916, the 10th Battalion had been welcomed to their first day in front line trenches by no less than four concerted German attacks, for which they received the battle honour “Ancre Heights.”

The cruel lessons of the 1st of July were already beginning to pay dividends; while the 10th Battalion had sat out the Courcelette fighting, new lessons learned had been applied – including the first use of a “creeping barrage” – artillery fire timed to advance at a walking pace, so that infantry could be guaranteed of winning the race to the parapet. Using the barrage, the Canadian 2nd and 3rd Divisions had captured the village of Courcelette. It had been the battle debut of the Canadian Corps, and the British commander-in-chief, General Haig, was so pleased that he ordered further attacks all up and down the line. The 4th Army initiated an attack later dubbed by historians the Battle of Morval, while the Battle of Thiepval Ridge was to be the first large offensive mounted by the British Reserve Army under Lieutenant General Hubert Gough, timed to start exactly 24 hours after 4th Army’s attack.

The long, low Thiepval Ridge ran between the villages of Thiepval and Courcelette, and it was the turn of the 1st Canadian Division to attack the three lines of German trenches, code named ZOLLERN Trench, HESSIAN Trench and REGINA Trench. The 10th Battalion now numbered 20 officers and 691 men.

It began just after half-past noon on September 26th, following a three-day bombardment. Once again, the shelling failed to cut the barbed wire or kill enough Germans. The 10th was split up for the assault, with a company assigned to each of the 5th and 8th Battalions who led the 2nd Brigade attack. They swarmed over ZOLLERN and into HESSIAN Trench, but could go no farther. Sub-units of the 10th Battalion were fed forward during the course of the afternoon as elements of three Canadian battalions held on in the face of withering fire, including from an exposed flank due to a failure by neighbouring units to secure high ground. The fighting raged into the next day, and part of HESSIAN Trench was recaptured by a determined enemy, only to be captured again by an equally determined 7th Battalion. Any hope of securing REGINA Trench was lost. The 10th never fought as a unit that day, with platoons and companies scattered among their 2nd Brigade companions. They were finally relieved after 36 hours by two other Canadian battalions, and a casualty count revealed the battalion to be 241 men fewer, including the third company commander to be lost in as many days.

All three offensives on the Somme (the Battle of Albert begun on 1 July, the Battle of Bazentin Ridge, begun on 14 July, and the Battle of Flers-Courcelette) had failed to achieve the desired strategic breakthrough of German defences, though local successes such as those enjoyed by the Canadians had occurred. The onset of autumn rains brought the Somme fighting crawling to a halt. Additional Canadian attacks on Thiepval Ridge by the 2nd and 3rd Divisions in October floundered in the deep mud, hindered by the artillery’s inability to cut German wire and renewed attacks by the 1st and 3rd Division still failed to secure REGINA Trench, though the 10th Battalion was not called on to make any further offensive actions. The Canadian Corps left the Somme for good on October 17th, though the 4th Division, newly arrived in France, stayed on another month. The next major offensive would not take place until April of the next year, at Vimy Ridge.


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