Thursday, April 28, 2011

The 1st. Battalion And The Battle Of Givenchy 1915

Here I am back at it with my research of the 1st. Battalion.

The Battle of Givenchy was a smaller engagement sandwiched between Festubert in May, and Loos the following September. Originally the attack on June 15th. was to be made by the British 7th. and 51st. Divisions with the Canadian 1st. Division in support. As the plan was developed the Canadians were delegated to take two German strongpoints known as the Duck’s Bill and H3. Supposedly, lessons had been learned at Festubert, and plans were made to address the issues of barbed wire and machine gun nests. Three artillery pieces were secretly moved, and camouflaged, closer to the front line to eliminate machine gun nests. A tunnel dug under the German trenches was packed with explosives in the hope that it would eliminate a large section of the German front line trenches. Lastly an artillery bombardment using high explosive shells was intended to destroy barbed wire.

The Duck's Bill crater in 1919, Library and Archives Canada.
The four companies of the 1st. Battalion were to lead the attack. Two weeks prior their Ross rifles were replaced by Lee-Enfields. By mid afternoon of  July 15th. the Battalion was in place.

Pte. Maurice Henry Brown wrote to his friend Art Wheatley of London on June 19th. (1)

“London may be well proud of her sons; they did everything that could be done in this struggle.

Our beloved Col. Becher (2) lost his life leading them. No one was loved so well as he, but this war seems to be taking our best men.
We knew an attack was to be made, and the 1st. Battalion was honoured with the job. We marched into the trenches at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, and waited till 6. Four four days a terrible bombardment of the enemy’s trenches had taken place. At 5:30 a fierce concentration fire from our guns was turned on them. At one minute to 6 we blew a mine up. This was a signal for the attack. The mine was too near to our trench, and its violence shook our trench all to pieces, killing a number of our men, and the earth which it threw up, coming down, smashed some of our men’s heads beyond recognition. Being a signaller I was kept in the trench.(3)

Well, the boys from Chatham, I believe, started the attack, followed quickly by the London boys. The din was terrific, the struggle terrible. We dared not put our heads over the parapet to see our boys advancing, but it was a brilliant sight. Nearly everybody over at the same time. They soon had the first line cleared of Germans, and then off to the second line, and they had just about reached them when I got mine.

A big shell struck the trench above us. Four were killed and four of us completely buried by six to eight feet of earth. I continued shouting to let them know where I was, but soon went off for lack of fresh air. The next thing I know they had dug me out. I didn’t know what had happened, but my memory returned after a while. I had given myself to my Maker. I did not expect to see any more of this world, but God in His providence had heard your prayers.

I am now in hospital again, just two weeks after my return to the regiment. It was the worst experience I ever had.”

The problem was that two important positions were not taken by the British so that German machine guns were able to play havoc with the attacking Canadians while a counter attack was organized. It was during the German counter attack that Lieutenant Frederick William Campbell earned his posthumous Victoria Cross.

Casulties during the Great War are never exact. According to Sir Max Aitkens Givenchy cost the 1st. Battalion somewhere around 366 killed, wounded, and missing. (4) Included in this total were twenty out of twenty three officers. I suspect that that figure is low. I did a count from the Ministry of Militia's "Official List Of Casulties" from June 13th. to June 30. (5) The organization of these lists is confusing as to dates - so the hell with it - I counted the last two weeks of June to see how it squares with other figures that I have seen.

The breakdown is a follows:
Killed in action and Died of Wounds  107
Wounded 461
Suffering from Shock 32
Ill 8
Gas 1
Missing 5

If the Battalion was at full strength before June 15th. (which is unlikely) that is a casulty rate of well over 50%. Since the Battalion went into a rest area after the 17th. the majority of the casulties would have occured on June 15th. and 16th.

(1) “The London Free Press”, July 6, 1915.

Canadian Virtual War Memorial
Major Henry Campbell Becher (Jan. 20, 1874-June 15, 1915) was a member of a prominent London family. His father Henry Becher had been mayor of London for one term. At the start of the war he was Lt. Colonel of the 7th. Fusiliers which was London's militia infantry regiment. He was second in command of the 1st. Battalion.

Library and Archives Canada
(3) The British engineers found that water encountered under no man’s land prevented them from tunnelling under their objective. So they got the brilliant idea that increasing the charge would do the job. It resulted in killing some of the Battalion, and exploding the bomb reserves in the Canadian front line. Resulting in a shortage of grenades.

(4) Sir Max Aitkens, "Canada In Flanders: The Story Of The Canadian Expeditionary Force", vol. 1, 1916.
(5) Ministry of Militia, " Official List of Casulties to Members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force: compiled to June 30, 1915". Ottawa, 1915.

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