The 49th at Courcelette, September 15th, 1916
Of the many engagements in which the 49th Battalion took part, none was more successful than the operation at Courcelette in September, 1916. We think it most fortunate that the story of this battle, in so far at [sic.] the 49th's part in it is concerned, can be here presented to the surviving members of the battalion in the form of a reproduction of the actual report of the engagement as submitted to brigade by the then Commanding Officer, Lieut-Col. W. A. Griesbach. While this report will be of greater interest to the men who were actually in that "show", it is also of very decided general interest. We question if there is any other Commanding Officer of the Canadian Army who has as complete records of the reports and orders relating to his various Commands as are to be found in General Griesbach's records.
Hqrs. 49th Battalion,
The General Officer Commanding,
7th CANADIAN INFANTRY BRIGADE.
Map Reference-Trench Map, Sheet 57 D., S.E.
I have the honour to submit this my Report on the operations of the Battalion under my Command, between the 15th and 18th September, 1916.
At the outset I regret to state that owing to an unfortunate accident to myself, all my papers, maps, orders, etc. were destroyed at about 4-30 a.m., the 16th inst., and I shall not be able to give the detailed information that I otherwise should give, or events which occurred up to that time and until such time as I sufficiently recovered myself to carry on, which was about 12 mid-day the 16th inst.
The Narrative - Septr. 15th.
On the 15th inst. I attended two Conferences, presided over by yourself, and the scheme was fully explained by you and quite well understood by myself. I returned to my Battalion and explained the scheme to my officers and it was quite well understood by them. They, in turn, explained the scheme to other ranks.
At about twenty minutes to three p.m. on the 15th inst. I received a despatch from you, ordering me to move this Battalion from the TARA HILL CAMP, to the CHALK PIT in X.10.c.
At 3 p.m. the Battalion fell in and moved off. In accordance with your orders, I had with me four officers per Company and four officers on Headquarters staff, a total of 20 officers and 665 other ranks, a total of 685 all ranks.
The Battalion arrived at the Chalk Pit at about 4 p.m., and there I received your Operation Order No. . . . (Since destroyed) ordering the attack at 6-15 p.m. I was ordered to draw Bombs and Tools at the R. E. Dump there, but owing to the shortness of time at my disposal, I was only able to draw one bomb per man, instead of two, as ordered. For the same reason I was unable to secure Contact Flares for aeroplane observation.
I provided every fourth man with a tool, picks and shovels equal in number. Guides were to have been provided for my use, but did not report. I thereupon detailed my Intelligence Section to follow the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, who had preceded me, for the purpose of maintaining touch with them.
At about 5 p.m. I moved the Battalion after the Princess Patricia's and at about 5-45 p.m. arrived at the point X.5.d.5.5. At that hour the enemy had placed a heavy barrage about the line X.5.c.8.8. to R.34.c.5.5. I therefore decided to deploy the Battalion and move forward in attack formation. I detailed "C" and "D" Companies to the attack, (firing line and supports), "A" and "B" Companies in reserve, with Colt Machine Guns with them.
The attacking Companies went forward independently in line of section columns in file, wheeling first to the left and then to the right. Passing the old British Trench with the windmill, on their right, "C' Company on the right, "D" Company on the left. When these Companies had gained 300 yards I moved forward with the Battalion Staff by the same route and was followed at 300 yards by the Reserve Companies, "A" Company on the right, "B" Company on the left, followed by Colt Machine Guns.
The ground over which the Battalion moved was absolutely churned up with heavy shell-holes. Not a square foot of the ground was undisturbed; the debris of a battlefield still remained. I observed two, or perhaps three, land-ships in the area, incapacitated. The air was filled with smoke and darkness was coming on, but notwithstanding this the Battalion passed the old British Trench and reached the SUGAR Trench in good order and proper formation. This trench was found to be occupied by elements of the Royal Canadian Regiment and the 2nd Division. The Battalion pushed on to the sunken road, which runs from Courcelette to R.34.Central. Here I found one Company of the 42nd Battalion on my left and other elements of the 42nd Battalion could be seen on the sky-line, moving towards the second objective in your Operation Order mentioned.
In this sunken road, two officers and 11 other ranks of the enemy were captured and enemy dugouts were bombed and in a German dugout at this place, about R.29.d.O.6, I established my Headquarters. Major G. W. Macleod was acting as second in command and he brought up the Reserve Companies. In the advance through the barrage, my Adjutant, Lieutenant T. B. Malone, was wounded and left on the ground, and my Bombing Officer, Lieutenant H. E. Floen was also wounded and left on the ground.
The Battalion was to attack at 8-30 p.m., and make good the third objective, passing through the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry and the 42nd Battalions.
At 8-15 p.m. the Battalion was assembled in the sunken road in the enemy trenches and ready for the attack. At about this time I received a message from Major Stewart, Princess Patricia's, informing me that a portion of that Regiment had been hung up in its attack by an enemy position which appeared as though it would come in the centre of my "C" Company when it attacked. I thereupon decided not to put my four Companies in the attack, as I had intended to do, but to retain my "A" Company as a Rererve, with my 4 Colt Guns, and put "B", "C", and "D" Companies in the attack.
At 8-30 p.m. these three Companies went forward. "B" and "D" Companies on the left, were able to make good the objective given to them, which was the crest of the rising ground, approximately North of the Chalk Mound in R.29.a.Central. In the advance, these Companies became intermingled and reinforced each other and Lieut. D. F. J. Toole (all senior officers having become casualties) assumed command of the combined Companies and reorganized them.
On the right, "C" Company, under Captain (temporary Major) J. B. Harstone, struck the obstacle which I had anticipated and at first reinforced the Princess Patricia's, but subsequently edged off to the left and made a redisposition of the Company, so as to connect with the Princess Patricia's on the right, and join up on the left with "B" and "D" Companies.
At about 12 midnight, Major G. W. Macleod, who had with great gallantry and coolness, gone forward to superintend the selection and consolidation of the ground gained, returned to my then Headquarters in the sunken road, and, although severely wounded, reported clearly and definitely on the above situation, and further, that "C" Company had reversed the German trench occupied by that Company, running South of and parallel to the Railway from R.29.a.10.5, and that "B" and "D" Companies were digging themselves in, in what, in his opinion, was the right place. I then wrote you a despatch, setting out these facts, and subsequently sent you a copy of the same, to ensure receipt; and thereafter Major Macleod, although severely wounded, proceeded alone and over open ground, under heavy fire, to give you in person his appreciation of the situation.
Captain (temporary Major) Harstone, now found himself senior officer in his immediate neighbourhood. He assumed command of all troops about him and organized Bombing and Blocking parties, who proceeded up an enemy communication trench running from R.29.b.4.5, to R.29.b.4.7½, establishing a block nearly to the Railway. He also drove the enemy out of the main trench and established blocks in Communication Trench R.29.b.6.6, and R.29.o.8.8, desisting from the attack only because of shortage of bombs.
Septr. 16th-5 a.m.
At about 5 a.m., my Headquarters having been wrecked by a shell and my staff being nearly all casualties, I made a new staff from "A" Company and moved my Headquarters to German dugouts in the sunken road, R.29.c.8½.8, which I also established as a Dressing Station and refuge for the wounded.
At about 6 a.m., I ordered "A" Company, in reserve, to move up to that place, and left my Colt Guns in the first objective, where they had a good field of fire. In the meantime, the enemy's artillery fire was heavy, as was also his Machine Gun and Rifle Fire, and my casualties were mounting up, particularly among the officers.
At 4-30 p.m. eight of my reserve officers were sent to me, including Major R. H. Palmer, my Second in Command and Lieut W. L. Taylor, my Adjutant.
Septr. 17th-12-30 a.m.
My "C" Company had captured an enemy Trench Mortar, which they endeavoured to use against the enemy. Although they could fire the projectile, they could not burst it, and you sent me some Trench Mortar Officers and other ranks, to make use of the gun, which they did. There was, however, no counter-attack on the part of the enemy which was at all serious, and so the situation remained until 12-30 a.m. on the 17th inst., when I received an order from you to the effect that the Brigade would be relieved by the 9th Brigade. So far as this Battalion was concerned, it was not found possible to effect the relief of more than "A" and "C" Companies, who were relieved before daylight on the morning of the 17th inst.
On the night of the 17th-18th inst. "B" and "D" Companies and Colt Machine Guns, were relieved, and all returned to Tara Camp before daylight on the morning of the 18th.
I desire to bring to your notice the following officers:
Major G. W. Macleod, referred to in the foregoing.
Captain and Temporary Major J. B. Harstone, whose conduct throughout was cool, energetic, and tactically sound. He was full of the aggressive spirit, tempered with proper caution.
Major R. H. Palmer, upon arrival, took hold of matters and rendered excellent service.
Honorary Captain and Quartermaster Oliver Travers, came across open ground and through heavy artillery fire, to discuss and arrange with me the supply of rations, water, ammunition, bombs, in the event of the Battalion not being relieved.
Lieut. D. J. F. Toole assumed command of "B" and "D" Companies and handled them with vigour and good judgment.
Lieut. S. J. Davies, who led several Bombing attacks with great energy and courage.
In due course, I will submit for your consideration recommendations for these officers and other ranks.
The Battalion suffered the following casualties:
Officers Killed . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Officers Wounded . . . . . . . . 12
O. R., Killed . . . . . . . . . . . . . 38
O. R., Wounded . . . . . . . . . . 179
O. R., Missing . . . . . . . . . . . . 19
As previously stated, I carried one tool to four men, equally divided between picks and shovels, I am of opinion that after this experience every man should carry a tool and all ranks would be willing to do so.
The proportion of picks to shovels should be determined by such information as may exist as to the nature of the ground.
Every man should carry at least two bombs and more if possible. In any event, carrying parties from other Units should be following closely behind with ample stores of these projectiles.
Enemy's artillery fired frequently and vigorously, but without concentration and apparently without observation. No great difficulty was experienced in getting through the barrage. So far as could be observed, the guns used were 5.9 howitzers and 77 mm.
Our artillery fired heavily and concentrated on selected targets. The fire was as good as it could be. We suffered to some extent from our own artillery firing into our trenches. This could not be helped, so far as I could see.
Enemy Machine Guns
Enemy machine guns were well placed and well served.
Our Machine Guns
My Colt Machine Guns did not fire.
My Lewis Guns were everywhere extremely serviceable. This gun cannot be beaten for its weight and portability.
Stretchers and Medical Service
My Stretcher Bearers rendered magnificent service throughout the day, but we suffered dreadfully from the lack of stretchers. This is the second action in which this Battalion has been seriously inconvenienced by the lack of stretchers and I have the honour to suggest that inquiry be set on foot and vigorous measures taken to ensure a supply of stretchers at least to Battalion Headquarters and further forward, if possible.
The objects sought are:
- Removal of the wounded to give greater facility to fighting men in the trenches.
- Removal of the wounded to prevent the morale of the men being affected by the cries of the wounded.
- Removal of the wounded with a view to speedy medical attention to prevent wastage.
Stretchers ought to be sent up with all empty-handed men coming up and should be under the charge of an officer or good N.C.O. with definite instructions to take them to a definite place, and failure to comply with such orders should be severely dealt with. Stretcher Bearers ought to be found by a Unit other than the Units involved in the fighting. If I may be permitted to suggest it, a fifth Battalion might be added to a Brigade in an attack, as stretcher bearers, working parties and carrying parties.
No enemy aircraft were seen.
Our aircraft were numerous, bold and efficient beyond my powers of description. On several occasions, our aircraft passed over our and the enemy trenches at a height of 300 feet; observers leaned out of their cars and waved their hands to our men, who in turn, waved their helmets to them. On one accasion [sic.], when our artillery were firing short, one of our airmen, apparently perceiving it, flew above the trench in an eccentric fashion, which apparently was a signal to the gunners and the artillery lengthened the range. I should like to say that all ranks have the utmost admiration for the air service.
While accurate and reliable figures are difficult to obtain, I would estimate the number of prisoners captured by this Battalion at about 150.
Spirit and Morale
The spirit and morale of all ranks was of the highest. When prisoners were taken and such small loot as helmets, cigars, and things of such nature had been gathered in by the men, there was the utmost gaiety, with the highest possible spirit. All ranks were ready to do anything that might be asked of them.
Spirit and Morale of the Enemy
The enemy were of all shapes and sizes. Their clothing was from the very newest to the very oldest, and in spirit they ranged from breaking down on being captured, to sour truculence. Our men feel that the enemy infantry are "all in". Two batches of the enemy, one of 50 and another of 34, were taken quite unhurt. One of my very youthful and diminutive runners took eight by himself; why they surrendered I did not know. Under similar circumstances our men would have continued to fight or would have got away to fight another day.
In this dry country some especial effort must be put forth to carry up water. The sufferings of the wounded were very greatly intensified by the lack of water. My "B" and "D" Companies had only the water in their water-bottles from the afternoon of the 15th to the early morning of the 18th and would shortly have become inefficient by reason of lack of water.
Men can get along without food better than without water and although the men were hungry when they came out, their condition was not serious.
I am of opinion that every man going into an attack should carry a bit of candle. When positions have been gained, these candles should be lighted and used in officers' dugouts for writing and reading messages at night or in the dark, and for the dressing of wounded. I collected several candles in the Battalion and had scarcely sufficient to keep the Dressing Station going. At my Battalion Headquarters we sat in darkness and only lit the candle when necessity arose.
The German dugouts faced the wrong way for our purposes and no dugout should be occupied for any length of time without digging a second entrance to permit of the escape of the occupants if the front entrance be blown in by a shell.
In an operation only one map should be used, so that reference to any point on the map authorized would be clear and distinct and refer only to the map used. This, of course, is an elementary point, but the map in use between Brigade and myself was not the map in use between my officers and myself and it was sometimes difficult to transpose terms and information.
Great difficulty is experienced in reading a map on ground where every land-mark has been obliterated. I would suggest a system of posts planted in the ground and standing out about six feet, painted with three coloured rings. These posts to be set up in ground which is undoubtedly ours or might be planted at night still further out. The record of these post positions could be had at Brigade and the Battalion Commander might be able to say that he was at a point 700 yards North-West of the blue and white post, or the red, white and yellow post, as the case might be.
I have the honour to be,
Your Obedient Servant,