SANCTUARY WOOD—A BATTLE REPORT
June 2nd, 3rd and 4th, 1916
49th Canadian Battalion (Edmonton Regiment), June 8th, 1916.
To: H.Q. 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade.
I have the honour to submit this my report on the operations of the force placed under my command by your Operation Order No. 24 of the 2nd inst.
Ref.—Trench map, Zillebeke, 110000.
The 49th Battalion reached the ramparts at Ypres at 8.30 p.m. on the 2nd inst. The C.O. 52nd Battalion reported at your H.Q. at 9.30 p.m. The C.O. 60th Battalion was to have conferred with me at that hour but did not do so then, nor until 12.55 p.m. on the 3rd inst. At 11.00 p.m. on the 2nd inst. I conferred with Major Weaver, commanding the 49th Bn., Lieut.-Col. Hay commanding 52nd Bn. and explained your Operation, [sic.] Order to them. I desired them to move so as to reach their positions of attack at 2 a.m. on the 3rd inst., to attack at 2.00 a.m. and gave them time to explain the order to their own officers.
At approximately 12 midnight on the 2nd inst. both battalions moved. I directed both these comanders [sic.] to deploy for the attack well back of the “R” line, so as to reach and pass the “R” line in attack formation. I set out for the front line myself by way of Half-Way House and reached that point at 12.49 a.m. on the 2nd/3rd inst. I reported my arrival there to yourself. I further informed you that tear shells were falling and that I thought it would take three hours for the troops to get in position.
At 12.55 a.m. I received a message from you stating that the 3rd Division had ordered an attack at 2 a.m. in any event. I moved on down the China Wall and entered the “R” line at 71R. at 1.45 a.m. I found the China Wall blown in in many places, and many dead and wounded men were lying about and made progress forward with difficulty. On entering R.71 I found these trenches filled with men, some of the R.C.R., some of the 42nd, some of the P.P.C.L.I. There were many dead and wounded, and the trenches were badly battered in making progress very difficult.
As I reached R.66 I observed about 60 men of the P.P.C.L.I. coming in from the Appendix which they had held since the 1st attack upon them. I gathered from them (there was no officer with them) that they considered it advisable to retire before daylight as otherwise they might not be able to retire at all. This establishes the fact, however, that the Appendix and Trenches 65 and 66 were up to that time in our possession, and it does not appear that the enemy occupied these trenches for some hours afterwards.
I had made inquiries throughout my move forward for the 52nd Bn. but could find no trace of them.
At about 2.00 a.m. I observed a heavy rifle fire from Vigo Street, Cumberland Dugouts, with many flares which I subsequently learned was directed upon the right flank of the 49th Bn., as that Bn. moved through a heavy artillery barrage with its right on Border Lane to its attack station, this fire conveyed to all ranks the impression that the enemy had got around to our right rear. The 49th Bn., however, moved steadily forward and was not deflected from its objective, either by this rifle fire or by the enemy’s barrage.
I then decided to move to the right to ascertain the whereabouts of the 49th Bn. I reached Lover’s Walk near Gourack Avenue at about 2.10 a.m. or thereabouts and found that the 49th Bn. had just reached its attacking station and was ready for the attack. I hastily appreciated the situation. I knew that the 52nd Bn. were not available for an attack on the left, and I was informed that the enemy were in possession of Maple Copse. I thereupon ordered the 49th Bn. not to attack until I could bring up the 52nd Bn. I ordered reconnoitreing patrols to enter Maple Copse (whose report was, that the enemy was not at Maple Copse), a combat patrol to go through Consort Dugouts, and another combat patrol to proceed up Hill Street. I also ordered the 49th Bn. to establish bombing contact with the enemy.
At 3.30 a.m. I received a message from the C.O. 52nd Bn. to the effect that he had established his H.Q. at Gordon House, and at the same time I received a message from the O.C. 60th Bn. that he was in the support line at the head of Bond Street and that the Battalion was on its way from Regent Street. As it was practically impossible for me to go back by the “R” line, I went overland by way of S.P. 16 Yeomanry Post to Regent Street to organize either the 52nd or 60th Bn. for the attack. I found officers and men of both these regiments strung from 67R. by way of Oxford Street and Regent Street to Halfway House but I was unable to locate the C.O. or any officer who could take orders in either Battalion.
At about 4.00 a.m. I directed a message to O.C. 52nd Bn. ordering him to take up his attacking position at once and advise me when he was ready to attack. I have subsequently learned that this officer, leaving his Battalion at Gordon House came into “R” line and was there shell shocked and ceased to command, and that his second in command was subsequently killed.
At about 6.00 a.m. I received a message from you that a general attack was being made about 7.00 a.m. which would be notified by six green rockets. I thereupon ordered the 49th Bn. to attack at 7.00 a.m. and notified that Battalion that my H.Q. would be at Yeomanry Post.
At 7.00 a.m. the 3rd inst. this battalion (49th) did attack in accordance with Operation Orders, with its left on Gourack Road and its right on Warrington Avenue and succeeded in getting up Warrington Avenue within 60 yards of the German’s front line, our old line. The attack moved forward everywhere about 200 yards across the open. It was broken down by the enemy rifle, machine gun and artillery fire. Enemy’s machine gun and rifle fire was opened from our old front line, from Vigo Street and from the Bird Cage and from the enemy’s former front line. Blocks were therefore made in Gourack Road and Warrington and Bydand Avenues and up Hill Street within 100 yards of Vigo Street and holding S.P. 15. The attack along the trenches Warrington, Bydand and Gourack Avenues was held up by reason of shortage of bombs.
The 49th Bn. attack was well planned and carried out in a very gallant manner. Officers, pistol in hand, everywhere leading their men, and I desire to draw your attention to the fact that Capt. P. McNaughton and Lieut. F. W. Scott fell in front of their men at the high tide of the attack with “B” Coy. During the day this Bn. had five officers killed and eight wounded.
At 7.30 a.m. I sent a circular to all commanders advising them that I had established my H.Q. at Yeomanry Post and I advised them that a general attack would be made on our right.
I had at this hour not yet been able to locate the Commanding Officers of the 52nd and 60th Battalions, so at 8.40 a.m. I sent a message to the O.C. 52nd Bn., addressed to Gordon House, ordering him to get his Bn. into “R” trenches. Subsequently I located three companies of the 60th Bn. in support trenches in Regent Street and neighborhood and I thereupon decided to make the 60th Bn. the attacking battalion and the 52nd Bn. the support battalion and I visited such company commanders and other officers of two battalions who had become somewhat mixed up, and explained that to them.
At 12.52 a.m. the officer commanding the 60th Bn. called upon me and I gave him a written order to attack from trenches R.63 to R.66 with his right on Gourack Road and his left on the Appendix. I pointed out to him that the 49th Bn. was pressing its attack and that the attack by his battalion would relieve the situation on the right. He stated that he was one company short, and I thereupon told him that he might draw on the 42nd or 52nd battalions for a company to complete his strength. He then stated that he could not get ready for the attack for two hours. I thereupon ordered him verbally to attack at 3.00 p.m. and I handed him written orders accordingly. At 1.23 p.m. I advised you of that arrangement by a despatch.
I arranged for a supply of bombs to be taken from Yeomanry Post by a fatigue party of the 52nd Bn. to the 49th Bn. on the right, and at 1.56 p.m. I advised officer commanding that battalion of the fact.
At 2.33 p.m. I forwarded to you another despatch dealing with the situation.
At 2.33 I sent you a despatch pointing out the possibility of the enemy charging our mine behind trench 63 with explosives, and at 2.47 p.m. I advised front line troops to the same effect.
At 3.55 p.m. I received your message advising that the enemy were evacuating Sanctuary Wood and that our old trenches 55 and 60 had been retaken and ordering me to push as hard as I could. At 3.55 p.m. I advised all troops under my command of this fact, and ordered them to push hard.
At 4.14 p.m. I received a despatch from the O.C. 60th Bn. stating that he could not make the attack at 3.00 p.m. as his Lewis gun discs were not ready, and that by reason of casualties among his officers, it was taking time to explain matters to N.C.O’s. He asked that the attack might be postponed till 4.00 p.m. As I had not received the message until 4.15 p.m. and he had already received a message from me ordering him to push as hard as he could, I did not reply to him.
At 5.55 p.m. I received a message from the O.C. 60th Bn. stating that his fourth company had not yet arrived and that he had no bombers. At 5.55 p.m. I received a further message from this officer stating that the artillery preparation for the 3 o’clock attack had given away to the enemy the impending attack that he had difficulty in getting his men across broken down trenches, and he was being badly shelled by the enemy, also that enemy snipers were active, that he was unable to attack at 4.00 p.m. He asked me to set a later hour in the evening. At 6.10 p.m. I sent you a message setting out these statements and expressing the opinion that it was not advisable that the Battalion should attempt to attack. At 6.10 p.m. I sent a message to the O.C. 60th Bn. advising him that I was referring the matter to you.
At 7.43 p.m. I received a message from the O.C. P.P.C.L.I. advising against further attack on the part of the 49th, pointing out the casualties that had occurred, the condition of the trenches and the large number of wounded who were lying about.
At about 8.00 p.m. I received a message advising that the 49th and the P.P.C.L.I. would be relieved by the 42nd Bn. and that Lieut-Col. Cantlie, 42nd Bn. would assume command of the troops under my command.
At 10.30 p.m. I left Major Adamson of the P.P.C.L.I. to hand over to Colonel Cantlie. I proceeded by way of Halfway House to Brigade H.Q. at the Ramparts, Ypres to make my report to you in person.
All wires were cut, the nearest wire being at Halfway House and all communications from my H.Q. to Halfway House and to other units was carried on by runner. Communication was held with the utmost difficulty, and some events were two hours old before I was advised of them. Messages were normally an hour on the way from any point.
The necessity of some permanent means of communication is urgent. Well buried cable leads should be available throughout our positions. I cannot conceive how higher command can influence the defense of positions without some better means of communications than now exists. As the matter now stands an attack might engulf the whole of the front line troops, and the fugitives [sic.] arrival at Brigade H.Q. might be the first intimation of the fact.
The enemy appeared to be using exclusively the 5.9 Howitzer. They fired heavily throughout the day and with great accuracy. I would estimate that there was from 8 to 12 of these guns to each enemy battalion, and I think that I may point out with propriety that these guns are controlled by front line troops by means of signals. They wrecked trenches and killed and wounded in a wholesale fashion and the moral effect was very great.
The 18 pounder is much too light a gun to answer the 5.9. The method of control by F.O.O., who may or may not be able to observe and who are not in touch with the front line troops, is quite unsatisfactory. Our heavy guns fired frequently but appeared to be firing in rear of the enemy’s front line. At all events there was no direct connection between front line troops and our heavy guns, and the advantage is entirely with the enemy in this respect.
The enemy wrecked any strong point which he thought might interfere with him. The matter seemed to be entirely in his hands.
A lesson to be learned from this engagement is, that there ought to be a series of trenches in rear of every position held by us with deep communication trenches leading in every direction. These trenches should be dug in, and not built up where the drainage will permit.
Such support trenches from [sic.] points of assembly for support and counter attack troops. In the situation under discussion, there was really no place for the assembly, deployment, and organization of attack troops except the “R” line which was filled with dead and wounded and badly crumped in.
If strong points are considered desirable or necessary they might better be concealed in a trench system, and would thereby escape observation.
The 49th Bn. desisted from the attack by reason of the shortage of bombs, yet I believe that bombs were available at no great distance away. I would therefore suggest that stores of bombs, rations, ammunition, wire, shovels and stakes be made at available points, and printed cards issued stating where these stores are and what they contain, that every officer and N.C.O. be given a card upon entering the trench. Its quite true that this information is given over on relief, but it seldom becomes known to many officers and to no other ranks, and troops entering strange trenches are absolutely without such information.
It was very apparent to me that had there been a battery of four Stokes guns with a plentiful supply of ammunition in the neighborhood of R.63, Gourack Road and Warrington Avenue the enemy could have been kept out of our trenches in front of these points. At all events these guns would have been of the utmost value in supporting the counter attack made by the 49th Bn. These guns would also have met to some extent the point raised above by giving the front line troops the immediate control of artillery which could have been directed immediately upon points requiring immediate attention. No Stokes guns or trench mortars of any kind were available.
Lewis guns were effective and discharged there [sic.] functions properly.
No mortars were in use on my frontage during this action.
It was not possible to evacuate the wounded during the action except in the case of those who could walk. Many walking patients got away.
During the day I attached to myself Major Adamson of the P.P.C.L.I., Capt. Cock, 7th Can. Inf. Bde., M.G. Officer; Lieut. W. L. Taylor of the 49th Bn.
I desire to bring to your notice Major Adamson who was of great service to me, tendering sound advice and advising upon many points of difficulty.
Capt. Cock reconnoitred Maple Copse, assisted by four O.R’s; he guided the 49th Bn. in to the attack station and he showed courage and resourcefulness on several occasions.
Lieut. W. L. Taylor was extremely useful and energetic throughout the day in carrying orders, and with courage and resourcefulness rendered me a great assistance.
I attach hereto:
1. Copy of your Operation Order No. 24.
2. Incoming messages.
3. Outgoing messages.
I have the honour to be, Sir,
Your obedient servant,
W. A. GRIESBACH,
Lieut.-Col. 49th Can. Bn (Edmonton Regiment)