1st CMMGB: Pte RW Mercer - Letters from the Great War
Post Card 37:
Motor Machine Gun Brigade
Pte. Richard William Mercer
Personal Letters from the Great
War: 1915 - 1919
Pte. Richard Mercer to William and Georgina Mercer
- March 31, 1918
Field Service Post Card
Theodore, Sask., Canada
I am quite well.
Letter follows at first opportunity.
I have received no letter from you lately.
Signed R.W. Mercer
 This is a simple "PC" post
card or "Quick-Firer" that was common during the war, especially with volunteers
who were less literate. QUICK FIRER Field Service Post Card (Army Form
A2042). The card consisted of a number of pre-printed sentences which could
be deleted as appropriate. Nothing, except the address of the recipient,
was to be written on the post card in order to alleviate the problems of
censorship. The untold story behind this postcard is one of combat
experience in the extreme. The Borden [C] Battery was annihilated
on 24 March 1918 as it stood in the path of several thousand German shock
troops. Who could write a letter at this time. This PC
was a simple means to let his parents know he was alive as of that
The following edited selection from the Alex Lynch , "The Glory of Their
Times - March 1918’ serves to outline the type of combat Pte. Mercer has
just experienced: “On this same day [24 March], the other batteries
of the brigade, 'B' and 'C' [Borden] , like the rest of the Canadian brigade,
were also in action. Their contribution was to prove the most costly
of all. Like 'D' and 'E' Batteries, the men of 'B' and 'C' Batteries
were sent to a point in the line where a breach had occurred. The
XVIII Corps was flanked on its north by Gough's VII Corps. 'B' and
'C' Batteries had, in fact, been the first of the Canadian group to be
sent into the battle. This group was a combination of four armoured cars
and four trucks plus motorcycles. They carried a total of' eight
Vickers machine?guns and comprised about 100 men. The 'C' Battery was under
the command of Capt. 'Billy Nick' Nicholson . At Maricourt the Canadians
got instructions to go ahead a few miles south down the road to the Somme
River to a town called Clery?sur?Somme. It was about 8:00 a.m. on
Sunday March 24th, when the batteries reached a point on the road at the
junction of the Maricourt?Clery and Hem?Clery roads. They had had
practically no sleep since they had left Vimy over 24 hours previously.
There was a hill in front of them that overlooked Clery. Capts. Holland
and Nicholson directed that 'C' Battery was to man the line and the armoured
cars of 'B' Battery were to hold the roads. Almost immediately
the Germans opened up with a tremendous barrage which lasted for about
half an hour. Behind the smoke clouds the enemy infantry prepared
to attack. Two guns in Clery fired point blank at the onrushing enemy.
They were in a shallow trench. There was a heavy bolt of barbed wire
behind them, but they preferred to setup the guns in front of it to get
a better field of vision. With the few British troops they could
rally, they had about 100 men holding a 500 yard stretch of land.
A small force, but their 15 Vickers guns manned by well?trained crews,
plus their commanding position made them a powerful obstacle for the Germans.
Firing constantly for about four or five hours, the Canadians kept
the Germans at bay and piled up heavy German casualties. However,
by mid?afternoon they had lost about four of their guns to enemy shellfire.
The Canadian’s position, while affording a good view, was also vulnerable.
Gradually, the German troops crept closer to the Canadian guns. By
the afternoon Capt. Nicholson, now the only officer left, ordered the Canadians
back to the trench in the rear. The men managed to get back by crawling
through a small hole that had been made in the barbed wire. Only
four machine?guns were in action. However, the trench offered better
protection and ammunition was brought up from the dump the Canadians had
established near the Maricourt road.” Alex Lynch, "The Glory
of Their Times - March 1918’, p. 45, 2001, Lawrence Publications, Kingston.
Pte. Mercer, as a result of the very heavy fighting on this day, would
be one of the 4-5 survivors of the 56-man Borden Battery. The survivors,
including Pte. Mercer and Pte. Finlayson were temporarily removed
from fighting and sent to re-group at Maricourt between 25 and 30 March
1918. On 30 March 1918 the Borden Battery received 29 new replacements
and on 31 March 1918 the under-strength Borden Battery with the inexperienced
recruits was placed back into combat. Pte. Finlayson is awarded the
Military Medal before being discharged with shell-shock.
“When the attack started, the British infantry withdrew, covered by
the Canadians. One gun was put out of action and the other, fired
by Pte. Finlayson, fired at the Germans until they were less than 150 feet
away. Nicholson was hit by a barrage that blew his arm off.
Battery Sergeant?Major Frechette took charge and with the wounded Nicholson
and a handful of men, he scrambled out of the trench toward Maricourt where
the wounded were sent to a nearby field dressing station. The few
men that survived spent the night at Maricourt about three miles from the
front line. Thus ended the first day of battle for the Motors.
Since fanning out from their HQ at Villers?Bretonneux the night before,
they had rallied and supported British troops from six separate divisions
spread through three of Gough's four corps: Battersby with 'A' Battery
and the 8th Division XIX Corps; 'B' and 'C' Batteries under Capt. Nicholson
all but annihilated in their stand at Clery supporting the 21st Division
VII Corps; Capt. Meurling with 'D' and 'E' Batteries with parts of the
20th, 35th, 61st and 30th Divisions of the XVIII Corps; and Lieut. Campbell
of Meurling's group with the 24th Division XIX Corps. And yet in
Gen. Gough's book, The Fifth Army, which gives a detailed, if somewhat
biased, account of this action, not one reference is made to the Motors'
contribution on March 24, 1918”. Alex Lynch pp 45-51
The machine gun became the model defensive weapon against attacking troops.
Cheap, light, easily manned, and able to fire as many as 450 rounds per
minute, the machine gun was able to repel almost any attack. The Canadian
army, which was at the forefront of developing machine gun technology and
tactics, sent infantry battalions overseas with more machineguns than British
battalions. Local supporters often provided these weapons. In August 1914,
Sam Hughes accepted the offer of various interested businessmen and authorized
the formation of machine gun batteries. Among these batteries was what
was effectively an armoured car unit, the 1st Canadian Automobile Machine
Gun Brigade. The "Motors," conceived and commanded by a French immigrant,
Raymond Brutinel, were initially underemployed but quickly became the basis
for a machinegun training cadre for all Canadian machine gunners. The Motors
also have a legitimate claim to being the British Commonwealth's first
armoured unit. In the subsequent years, Canadians would maximize the tactical
potential of the machine gun on the battlefield in both defensive and offensive
operations. Brutinel proved that machineguns could be used for indirect
fire barrages just like artillery. By 1916, machine guns were commonly
used for harassing fire and during pre-attack fire plans (detailed plans
outlining the targets and timing of the operations). The Motors were used
to their full mobile potential to stop German offensives in 1916 and particularly
during the1918 Spring Offensive where they plugged holes in the collapsed
British line. http://www.lermuseum.org/ler/mh/wwi/trenchwarfare.html
The Borden Battery War Diary would later note on 3 April 1918: "Battery
in the line, One Gun Crew doing out post duty on front of the Front line
was knocked out by shell fire slightly wounding Sergt. C.D. Salkeld and
Pte. R.W. Mercer. Orders received to withdraw Battery and return to HEBECOURT,
arriving early in the morning of the 4th inst." Pte. Mercer ,
with a gunshot wound to the head, would be out of action until 26 April
1918 when he would again return to the Front with the Borden Battery.
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G. Mercer All Rights Reserved