Malcolm & Dan Joe (WW1)

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

Ch. 10 - "The Canadians At Courcelette"

Map of Courcelette

One can see from the orders and messages during the first couple weeks of September, 1916, that plans were afoot for a major offensive. Getting troops and supplies into position, was, is, as one can see from the orders, a major operation with many departments involved. The move involved both marching and a troop-train, south, for a total distance of fifty miles. Certain of the villages the Canadians trooped through, included: Domqueur, Domart en Ponthieu, St. Leger les Doomarts, Cramont, Valencourt, Albert and Bouzincourt. On the 10th we see, "Camp in wood, church parade marched to Brickfields."40 Between the 11th-14th certain of the troops were laying communication lines in the trenches. Then on September 14th, there came another order:

"On September 15th, in conjunction with the operations of the Fourth and French Armies, the Canadian Corps is attacking the German positions. The 2nd Canadian Division [which included the 26th Bn.] will capture and consolidate the German trench line from [several map coordinates were set forth] ... and will establish Posts generally along the front line in advance of the objective. ... The 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade (less the 24th Battalion) will be in Divisional Reserve ... At Zero hour [6:00 A.M.] ... the Infantry will advance and the intense shrapnel barrage will begin. [Timing is set forth, so that the barrage will be lifted just before the infantry will be at their objective, that is to say, Zero Hour plus 43 minutes.] The Barrage will lift at the rate of 50 yards per minute [One of the objectives set forth is "the North and east sides of Courcelette." When the barrage is lifted] the 6th Canadian Infantry Brigade will send forward three patrols each consisting of one officer, 30 men and Lewis Guns, into Courcelette, with the object of establishing three posts in the S.W. corner of the village on the general line ... The rate of advance is calculated at 100 yards in 3 minutes. ... Each man is to be provided with 2 bombs and 3 sandbags, in addition to regulation Fighting Equipment ... 2 days' rations in addition to the Iron Ration41, S.O.S. Rockets - 24 Red and 12 Blue. ... Battalion Dumps will be established ... 250 picks and 250 shovels. ... No. 7 Squadron R.F.C. [will] ... fly over the objective as soon after Zero Hour as the light permits [the planes will be marked, with streamers, etc.] ... Prisoners will be sent back to Brigade Headquarters ... All troops before going into the trenches on night Sept, 14th/15th will be provided with a hot meal, which should be issued as late as possible. Watches will be synchronised [A further note sets out that runners will be established between each unit and] "Advanced Brigade Headquarters ... from Zero hour onwards. ... the 5th Brigade advances and will cover our right flank. ... The 22nd, 25th and 26th Battalions will take the village and the 24th Battalion will be in Brigade Reserve. ..." The 22nd and the 25th will lead the attack and "the 26th Battalion will immediately follow the attacking Battalions and will act as a mopping up party and will clear the village. The division line between the 22nd and the 25th Battalions will be the main street ... running through the village square. ... Contact Aeroplane will go over the line at 7:00 P.M. and 7:30 P.M. and flares will be shown by advanced posts and front lines only.
[Signed by] "Malcolm McAvity, Major, Brigade Major, 5th Canadian Inf. Bds."42
From what we can see of it, our heroes were in the thick of it at the Village of Courcelette, through the middle of which the German line ran. The troops moved from shell hole to shell hole through the ruined village, along the "sunken Road from the cemetery to the Baupause Road." They suffered "heavily from the barrage thrown by the Germans along our line ... This attack met with considerable opposition and rifle and machine gun fire was very heavy." The reporting officer then listed the officers (men do not get the same treatment): 3 by "rifle bullets"; five others wounded. "Throughout the entire day the shelling continued very heavy."
"The dugouts and cellars of Courcelette had been full of enemy soldiers, some of whom were preparing or eating their evening meal [the attack came at 6:00 P.M.].The 26th took about 600 German prisoners ... A German dressing station was captured intact in the basement of the Red Chateau. It was taken over by the 22nd Bn. medical staff, minus their Medical Officer. Most of the wounded in the area, both friend and foe, were treated by the two German doctors, who rendered devoted and impartial service to all who were brought in from the battlefield for attention. ...
Due to casualties and the release of men as escorts for prisoners, the companies has been reduced to a force of fifty-five men ... Communication with Battalion Headquarters was difficult on account of the almost impenetrable enemy barrage laid down on the rear to prevent reinforcement of our front line. [And then on Courcelette itself thus to be reduce] to a mass of rubble."
An analysis of the dead and wounded, discloses that a large number of causalities occurred during these 3 days, the 15th through to the 17th. In the Battle for Courcelette three Canadian battalions were involved. Just for the 26th Battalion there were 5 officers and 59 men, killed; same dates, 6 officers and 148 men wounded. Our heroes, Dan-Joe and Malcolm were in the thick of it and got through it all in one piece.

Even in the midst of the fight which took place over a period of days, certain of the battling troops were pulled out and replaced with others who had been rested. "On relief the Brigade units will move to Brickfields, Albert." On the 18th of September, the 5th (containing the 26th Battalion) was relieved by the "4th Cdn. Inf. Battn of the 1st Division." "The battn. then marched to Tara Hill." It meant a march - rain "causing a great deal of discomfort to all ranks."44 To conclude the entry, 6 named officers are named for "special distinction"; then two NCOs and "about 25 other N.C.O.s and men." On the 21st of September a letter was sent from one C.O. (A.H. Macdonell) to the C.O. of the 26th (A.E. McKenzie): In part: "I wish to place on record my appreciation of the great part the Battalion under your command played in the advance on and taking the town of Courcelette. ... I deeply deplore the fact that many of your comrades have fallen in action ..." On the 24th of September: there came an Operation Order: "The 2nd Canadian Division is ordered to relieve the 1st ... in the line from the B Road ... to the N.E. corner of Courcelette." They (including the 26th) were to march a route - Contay, Warloy, thence mud road direct to Brickfields. On the 26th, a message, "Units will march tomorrow ... starting time will be 7:00 a.m. On the 30th, another Operation Order: Attack plans laid out including an attack on a trench held by the Germans."45

On the 26th of September, Dan-Joe and Malcolm's battalion (the 26th) was at Brickfields and had been there since having been relieved on the 18th from the fighting at Courcelette. There were large losses at Courcelette, but the eight days of being behind the line recovered them to a degree, and they had regrouped. They were then told to move to Courcelette, once again. They struggled up through the night of 27th-28th. Courcelette had been pretty much secured due the efforts back on September 15th to 18th, but there was still a German presence to the north-east of the village where there was a trench known as "Regina Trench." The battalion was ordered to take it. Scouts, before the advance was made, reported the trench was empty of enemy soldiers; so it looked like the battalion should have an easier time of it than they did days earlier when they took Courcelette. However, the scouts, as was determined later, got confused and looked in the wrong trench. The Regina Trench was well manned by Germans.

And so, we have painted out the scene leading up to a great trauma that overtook the Morrison family.

"At 0530 hours the battalion started to advance up the road, moving through the 31st Bn. front line at 0540hrs [September 28th, 1916]. It had gone only 600 yards and reached the crest of the first rise when dawn broke and the mist lifted suddenly, exposing the battalion to enemy view. Almost immediately three German machine guns opened fire on the battalion from the Regina area. Sweeping across the wide space of open ground they quickly inflicted forty casualties upon the 26th, and those of the battalion within range of these guns had to throw themselves on the ground and seek cover. ...
Because of our advancing patrols and as the trench was thought to be unoccupied, it had not been shelled and any concerted movement above ground, especially in the clear atmosphere which then prevailed, was met with heavy rifle and machine gun fire. These companies were pinned down in this exposed area for the rest of the day.
The advent of darkness had enabled the troops pinned down in the East Miraumonut Road area to extricate themselves and to regroup with the rest of the battalion."
Here are a few accounts of the Battle of the Somme from the soldier's perspective. First from a machine gunner, George Coppard, as set out in his book. This is how he described what he saw in respect to an earlier battle in July.
The next morning we gunners surveyed the dreadful scene in front of our trench. There was a pair of binoculars in the kit, and, under the brazen light of a hot mid-summer's day, everything revealed itself stark and clear. The terrain was rather like the Sussex downland, with gentle swelling hills, folds and valleys, making it difficult at first to pinpoint all the enemy trenches as they curled and twisted on the slopes.
It eventually became clear that the German line followed points of eminence, always giving a commanding view of No Man's Land. Immediately in front, and spreading left and right until hidden from view, was clear evidence that the attack had been brutally repulsed. Hundreds of dead, many of the 37th Brigade, were strung out like wreckage washed up to a high-water mark. Quite as many died on the enemy wire as on the ground, like fish caught in the net. They hung there in grotesque postures. Some looked as though they were praying; they had died on their knees and the wire had prevented their fall. From the way the dead were equally spread out, whether on the wire or lying in front of it, it was clear that there were no gaps in the wire at the time of the attack.
Concentrated machine gun fire from sufficient guns to command every inch of the wire, had done its terrible work. The Germans must have been reinforcing the wire for months. It was so dense that daylight could barely be seen through it. Through the glasses it looked a black mass. The German faith in massed wire had paid off.
How did our planners imagine that Tommies, having survived all other hazards - and there were plenty in crossing No Man's Land - would get through the German wire? Had they studied the black density of it through their powerful binoculars? Who told them that artillery fire would pound such wire to pieces, making it possible to get through? Any Tommy could have told them that shell fire lifts wire up and drops it down, often in a worse tangle than before."
And from a German machine-gunner at the Somme:
"The officers were in the front. I noticed one of them walking calmly carrying a walking stick. When we started firing we just had to load and reload. They went down in their hundreds. You didn't have to aim, we just fired into them."48
Here is another observation made by Harold Mellersh, a young platoon commander:
"Nothing happened at first. We advanced at a slow double. I noticed that it had begun to rain. Then the enemy machine-gunning started, first one gun, then many. They traversed, and every now and then there came the swish of bullets.
It's a bloody death trap, someone said. I told him to shut up. But was he right? We struggled on through the mud and the rain and the shelling. Then came a terrific crack above my head, a jolt in my left shoulder, and at the same time I was watching in an amazed, detached sort of way my right forearm twist upwards of its own volition and then hang limp. I realised that I had been hit.
I was suddenly filled with a surge of happiness. It was a physical feeling almost, consciousness of a reprieve from the shadow of death, no less. That I had just taken part in a failure, that I had really done nothing to help win the war, these things were forgotten - if ever indeed they had entered my consciousness."
And so, on the 28th of September, 1916, the Canadian 26th Battalion was exposed to devastating gun fire in the field between Courcelette and the Regina Trench. Turning to the official record for that date, we read the sad news of Malcolm: "While dressing a wounded comrade during an attack on Regina Trench, Courcelette, he was instantly killed by an enemy sniper's bullet." Did Dan-Joe witness this? Probably not - Who witnesses anything on a battle field? Malcolm's drained and still body was carted off, and, after things settled down, put into the ground together with a number of his fallen comrades. His grave is marked, yet today, in a French field as part of a larger military memorial known as the "Regina Trench Cemetery," just outside of Courcelette.50

We discover, from his medical records that on September 30th, that Dan-Joe was brought to hospital by C.F.A. (Canadian Field Ambulance)51 with "Shell Shock." On October 4th he returns to duty. Six days later he was on the march, with his battalion away from the dreadful scene and experience of the Somme, to carry on alone, without his younger brother.52

NEXT [Chapter 11, "Criticisms of The Battle of The Somme"]


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Peter Landry
2015 (2017)