Malcolm & Dan Joe (WW1)

"Dan-Joe & Malcolm (WW1)" -- TOC

Ch. 9 - "The Somme (July to November, 1916)"

"The Somme is an unappealing river, marshy and meandering, but the countryside that surrounds it appears fondly familiar to an English eye, rising and falling in long, green swells and hollows reminiscent of Salisbury Plain or the Sussex Downs."34
At first, the French were of the view that they would not need much help from the the British (including Canadian troops) when it was determined to attack the German line to the west of Verdun at the Somme. (Map) It was more to act as a diversion to draw off German forces away from Verdun, where the French troops were continuing to have a tough time of it, and had since the beginning in February, 1916. The action at the Somme turned out, however, to be "a large-scale British army attack." It began, as planned, with an "eight-day preliminary bombardment," it being believed that, that "would completely destroy the German forward defences."35
"General Haig" used 750,000 men (27 divisions) against the German front-line (16 divisions). However, the bombardment failed to destroy either the barbed-wire or the concrete bunkers protecting the German soldiers. This meant that the Germans were able to exploit their good defensive positions on higher ground when the British and French troops attacked at 7.30 on the morning of the 1st July. The BEF suffered 58,000 casualties (a third of them killed), therefore making it the worse day in the history of the British Army."36
Woodcote Park, Epsom, Surrey

As for the boys in the 26th Battalion: Well, Dan-Joe did not get in on the first of the action at the Somme; he had been shot in the leg and was carried off the field in June. He was carried back for medical treatment, which, by the look of things, included being treated at a hospital on the outskirts of London. (It is to be remembered that there were "hospital ships" that were engaged in moving the seriously injured across the short stretch of the English channel.) From the records we can see that he healed well, and after rest and rehabilitation at "Woodcote Park." (See image, right.) As noted earlier, "Woodcote Park" was a stately home near Epsom, Surrey, England, which had been taken over by the British army and converted to a home for convalescing soldiers, with the view, it would appear, to get the wounded limbered-up so that they may be returned back to the field of battle in France. Dan-Joe was discharged from medical treatment and sent back to France on July 2nd, just one day after the Some offensive opened up; there to get back to the miserable life in the trenches.

Trench at the Somme

Operations of the 26th Battalion, through the months of July and August, can be seen from the abstract of The War Diary of The 26th Battalion. The men were moved back every ten days, or so, to the rear, to camps that had been set up. The camp mentioned was the "Alberta Camp." Both Malcolm and Dan-Joe with the rest of the battalion came back and forth: to the trenches, then to the camp, then to the trenches, then to the camp, back and forth - at regular ten day intervals.37 While at the camp the men had baths, were involved in "Routine Work": Physical Training, Bombing Courses, Stretcher Bearer Drill, Machine Gun Drills, Signalling, Bayonet Fighting, etc. Though in camp, on certain days the men were formed up into working parties to carry material to the front-line and to repair communication trenches. The weather was generally fine and the front line, at times, "quiet."

Woodcote Park, Epsom, Surrey

The camps the men occupied were not always the same.38 While in these camps, there were "clothing parades" and company and platoon inspections. On the 10th, we see where "All companies attended bathing parades at Second Divisional Baths." There were four companies to the battalion, each consisting of about 250 men (at full strength, which rarely would they ever be), identified as "A," "B," C," & "D". (Best I can figure Dan-Joe and Malcolm were in "C.") Route marches, as an exercise for an individual company, were carried out when the men were in camp. On Sunday, August 13th: "Divine Service, held on Battalion Parade 5th, Canadian Infantry Brn. Band being present to assist." On the 16th they "participated in Brigade Tactical Scheme in co-operation with aeroplane signalling ... signals from companies, such as, coloured umbrellas, discs, and signal flare lights, etc. At 6:30 pm companies moved at intervals to Left Sub Sector, St. Eloi [Elooi], trenches 24 to 28 inclusive, relieving the 28th. Weather showery." They were hardly allowed to just sit in the trenches; they were kept busy. August 17th through to 19th: "work carried on, completing Spoilbank39 dugouts also Front Line, Estaminet Lane. 2 Platoons of 87th Battalion attached for instruction. Artillery, both sides, very active on both flanks. Slight bombardment of our Front Line. Prompt retaliation by Trench Mortars, and Stokes Guns." On the 20th we see the entry: "Situation quiet, general work of upkeep of Front Line" "Scout Patrols" were sent out, and, at times, a patrol would meet a German Patrol in "No Man's Land." I image there was not much of an exchange between the competing patrols; both, there being no cover, would likely have hustled back to their respective trenches. On the 14th, the Battalion was relived and sent back to Ontario Camp, another near Reninghelst. (Map) On the 25th of August, there was a lot of activity in camp, a major move was coming up.

As we can see from a number of printed pages incorporated into the War Diary, the move that took place between the 26th to the 29th of August, 1916, was planned in a thorough military fashion. The whole thing was carefully planned with the battalions to be in proper marching order, with timing to each point set out for each battalion. Here is an example of the detail laid out by Headquarters: "Transport and Baggage wagons in rear of respective units"; "80 yards distance to be kept between all units"; "all stragglers are to be ordered to remain on left hand side of road well clear of the road, until picked up by Horse Ambulance or rear party. Stragglers will on no account fall in with other units but must stand fast until their rear party passes"; "Halts will be observed every fifty minutes, halting at ten minutes to the clock hour and moving at the clock hour. Units must not attempt to make up any lost distance during the halt periods or on the march, by forcing the pace; the pace is not to exceed 2 miles per hour. The column will halt at 9:30 A.M. until 10:00 A.M. during which period lost distance will be made up." From The War Diary, we see where the move came off pretty much as planned.

"26th August, 1916: On The March: Joined column of Route direction of St. Omer via Abeele. First day's march billet in vicinity Steenvoorde. Physical condition of all ranks found to be exceptional after long Trench Fighting, and morale of the troops excellent.
27th: Left Steenvoorde shortly after 6 am proceeded to column to billets vicinity Noordpeene on the Poperinghe - Cassel Road. (Map)
28th: On The March: Noordpeene to Eperlecques, N.W. St. Omer.
29th to 31st: At Eerlecques ... training area near Tilques ... returned to billets about 5pm" "Ross rifles were all returned to St. ___ [cannot make out] and issue short Lee Enfield rifles ... instructions carried on during the day with the Lee Enfield rifles, Rapid Loading, Adjustment of Sights, etc. (30th) Practice on Range near Houlle (31st)."

NEXT [Chapter 10, "The Canadians At Courcelette"]


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Peter Landry
2015 (2018)