March 1916 - Establishment & Preparation of the Company
The 6th Brigade Machine Gun Company had originally been formed in January 1916. Much of February had been spent training new arrivals, as well as men from machine-gun sections of the 6th Brigade infantry battalions, in the area between Ypres, Poperinghe and Bailleul, under the guise of the Brigade Machine Gun School. The first 6th Brigade M.G. section (No. 1) under Lieutenant Eastham, initially equipped with four Colt machine-guns, and each manned by a sergeant and five other ranks, was ready for attachment to its designated infantry battalion (in this case the 28th ) by mid-February. New officers, who had arrived at the beginning of February, were also being sent to the infantry battalions in the front line trenches and second line supports and strong points, for instruction. This was in preparation for the formation of the other M.G. sections, and they started returning to the Machine Gun Company in early March, while it was based in rest billets at Mont des Cats, west of Berthen.
When Leslie Payne arrived on 3rd March 1916, it was during a brief respite in what had been some unpleasant weather, although it was still pretty cold. There had been rain and hail the previous afternoon, and snow during much of February, so the men had been pleased to be housed in billets rather than in the trenches. On the following day, it "snowed fairly heavily" again, which made the day's route march miserable. Lieutenants Basevi and McLelan, who were to become the Officers Commanding two of the new sections (No. 2 & No. 4) returned from their infantry battalion attachments - 31st and 29th Battalions, respectively - over the next couple of days. In the mean time, the men were being kept "in shape" with physical drill, further route marches, and even a boxing competition, while some lucky ones were sent on a Gas Course.
On 10th March the entire company moved back to their old camp near Loker, although the journey was an uncomfortable one since there was heavy snow and the roads were very slippery. The men spent much of the next day cleaning up the camp, which had been left in poor condition by the previous occupants, the P.P.C.L.I. More drafts of new men were still arriving - for example 27 O.R. on afternoon of the 15th, 27 men on the 19th, and a further 33 on the 24th March - and the Brigade Machine Gun School resumed instruction of infantry machine-gun sections. By the 22nd March there were sufficient soldiers to re-organize the men into two sections, No. 1 and 2. Both sections spent short periods in the second line support positions held by the infantry familiarizing themselves with the terrain and digging gun emplacements. Six of the guns saw their first action early in the morning of the 27th March, when they fired indirectly from their positions in support of a British attack on the German positions at St. Eloi.
Towards the end of the month, the M.G. School was closed down, and the company prepared to move into reserve at a camp near Meteren (west of Bailleul) after a late morning parade on the 30th March. It was a long march, and the last soldiers arrived in the camp, very weary at 10.30 pm. At least this time the camp was in a reasonable state, having been cleaned up by an advance fatigue party who had been sent across the previous day. They were hard at it early the next morning: "Physical drill before breakfast. Parade 10 A.M. Rifle and kit inspected. Route march 2 P.M. to 4 P.M. Gun crews overhauling guns and ammunition. New draft examined in machine gun practice." The next day was taken up by a similar new routine, although the men were indulged with a "Football match in afternoon, Old men v. New Draft" (6th Bde CMG Coy War Diary). However, their spell in reserve was to be interrupted; that evening word came in that the company was on the move again, two days earlier than previously intended. Indeed the following day they were off, and joined the entire Brigade at Camp E near Reningelst, where they were billeted with the 28th Battalion. On the following day, after receiving some more equipment to complete the full establishment of sixteen guns in four sections, they paraded with the 28th for inspection by Lieutenant-General Alderson, Commander of the Canadian Corps. Eventually they moved off with the transport at 5 p.m. and made their way towards the front lines near Voormezele.
Battle of St. Eloi Craters
On the 27th March, the Imperial forces had detonated a series of very large mines beneath German positions on a tactically important, elevated piece of ground known as "The Mound", situated just to the south-east of St. Eloi. The subsequent attacks by the British 9th Brigade, and the heavy artillery bombardment and counter-attacks by the Germans, resulted in much to-ing and fro-ing backwards and forwards across the four craters created by the explosions. By the time the Second Canadian Division were brought in to reinforce the Imperials in early April, the troops were in some disarray, and there had been considerable loss of life. According to the Veterans Affairs Canada on-line commemmoration of the Hill 62 (Sanctuary Wood) Memorial:
"At the battle of St. Eloi the Canadian Corps' 2nd Division received its 'baptism of fire' in a battlefield of water-filled craters and shell holes. The Canadians, wearing the new steel helmets that had just been introduced, suffered 1,375 casualties in 13 days of confused attacks and counter-attacks over six water-logged mine craters."Tim Cook has written an excellent summary of the disastrous Battle of St Eloi (The Blind Leading the Blind), together with extensive references. By the time the 6th Brigade was finally relieved by the 4th Brigade between the 7th and 9th April, they had experienced a total 617 casualties. This had been the Brigade's - and Division's - "baptism of fire." However, the machine gunners, having been entrenched in emplacements in the front lines, and firing in support of the 27th and 31st Battalion infantry attacks, had a slightly easier time than most. This was the first time that the company had gone to the front with an almost full establishment of all four sections - No. 4 Section had only two machine-gun crews, making a total of 14.
The first company casualty occurred on the 4th April, when Private F.C. Crouse of No. 3 Section, under Lieutenant Hill on the extreme left of the Brigade frontage, was wounded by shrapnel. Captain Thomas Taylor was also wounded by shrapnel at the headquarters near Voormezele two days later, and his deputy Lt. Alfred Eastham took over charge of the company. The company was relieved by the 4th Brigade CMG Coy on the night of the 8th/9th, and eventually reached the camp in Reningelst at 3 a.m., exhausted.
On the 17th April, after a rest of nine days, the 6th Brigade went back into the line at Voormezele-St. Eloi, relieving the 5th Brigade. In an intense artillery bombardment of "minnenwerfers and H.E. (high explosive)" on the afternoon of the 19th, the M.G. Company suffered some casualties: (from the War Diaries):
"Five men of our No 7 Gun Crew S.P.8 wounded by shrapnel."Another soldier was also wounded in Voormezele. Then later that evening, on the night of the 19th/20th, and in driving rain, the 29th Battalion lost control of the last of the craters at St Eloi in a German attack. Lieutenant C.R. Myers of the 29th wrote (in "The Blind Leading the Blind" by Tim Cook):
"Half of the men surrendered, while the other half crawled away through 'machine gun fire' to escape. Of the one hundred or so men defending Crater 6, only eleven returned to the rear and only one was uninjured."It was probably during this attack that the first member of the 6th Brigade Canadian Machine Gun Company was killed - Private Robert Johnstone 414588, originally of Glasgow, Scotland. The following is an extract from the War Diary for 20th April 1916:
"One man killed and three wounded on our No 14 Gun Crew in U 28 at about 1 A.M."On the following day the enemy shelling, with both shrapnel and H.E., resulted in two direct hits on the 6th Bde CMG Coy Headquarters in Voormezele, with a further four men being wounded. The following day was quiet, the German "commanders [having] wisely surveyed the situation, unlike the Canadian commanders during the last two weeks, and pulled back from the untenable position" and vacated the St Eloi craters. And that was the end of the "fiasco at St Eloi".
April-May: In and Out of the Line
The 6th Brigade was relieved on the evening of the 22nd April, returning to J Detail Camp at Reningelst, although periodically over the next few days gun crews were sent back into line to support the 4th Bde CMG Coy. They moved to a new camp on the 26th. Then, on the morning of Sunday 30th April, news came that there had been a gas attack on the Kemmel Front, and the men were ordered to prepare to move, with gas helmets at the ready. However, the all clear came at 10 a.m. and the men were "stood down". There were a further two gas alerts the following day, which rather disrupted the parades and inspections, and then on the Tuesday morning they moved camp for a third time, finally completing the erection of the tents by 4.30 p.m. They only had two days in this new location before they went back into line at Voormezele, but this time the front was relatively quiet. After just under a week, the company - apart from six gun crews left supporting the 5th Brigade - went back to Reningelst for an extended rest and recuperation period on 9th May. The weather over the next two weeks was fine, allowing the men to clean and test their weapons, equipment and ammunition, attend inspections and parades, go on route marches, and even play some baseball and cricket in the afternoons. A few officers and men even managed to get away on leave. By the time the call came for the company to go back into line on the 22nd May, the men were well rested, and had enjoyed some good weather for a change.
They returned to the trenches near Voormezele alongside the 31st Battalion on the evening of 23rd May, where they relieved the 5th Bde CMG Coy. While there was intermittent enemy shelling, machine gun indirect fire and aerial activity, the front was relatively quiet, and there were only two soldiers wounded over the next week. The company was once again relieved by the 5th on the night of 31st May/1st June, after which they returned to Reningelst.
Battle of Mount Sorrel
In early June, there was some considerable activity from the Germans (the Wurttemburg Division), including artillery and aerial bombardments, machine gun fire, the simultaneous detonation of several subterranean mines, and two major infantry attacks in the Ypres area. The first attack, on the 2nd June, devastated the trenches occupied by the infantry of the Third Canadian Division; they fought desperately until they were overwhelmed.
The Second Division were quickly brought back to the front after an interrupted rest period, just in time to meet the second attack on the morining of the 6th June. The machine guns were being used in support of the 6th Canadian Infantry Brigade, comprising the 27th (City of Winnipeg), 28th (Northwest), 29th (British Columbia) and 31st (Calgary) Battalions. The 28th Battalion bore the brunt of the initial explosions, "who in the front line were wallowing in death", with almost a whole company being wiped out. Before they had time to recover, the remaining 'B' Company "despite a most gallant and heroic resistance ... were were finally surrounded, overcome, and taken prisoners." (from "The Story of the 28th Battalion 1914 - 1917" by G. E. Hewitt.) The advance was at last checked by the 31st Battalion in Zouave Wood and the remaining two companies of the 27th in the support trenches. (See Map on Robert Lidsay's 28th Northwest Battalion Headquarters web site, and the article "Prelude to the Somme" on the Veterans Affairs Canada web site.)
The 6th Brigade CMGC War Diary has the following entry for 6th June:
"Weather fine. Heavy bombardment by enemy, who also blew four mines and attacked. Three of our guns inflicted very heavy casualties on the enemy, firing in all 4000 rounds. These guns greatly contributed to holding up the German attack. We had the following casualties: 2 O.R. killed, 1 O.R. died of wounds, 2 O.R. wounded."There had been casualties on most days, and eight members of the company had been killed within a single week during what is generally referred to as the Battle for Mount Sorrel. According to Donald Fraser in his "The Journal of Private Fraser" (publ. 1998 by CEF Books)
"A whole gun grew, No. 14, of the 6th Machine-Gun Coy. was wiped out."No wonder they needed reinforcements! The loss of Hooge, which had been so steadfastly defended by the British for so long, was a severe blow to the pride of the Canadians. Lieutenant-General Julian Byng, commander of the Canadian Corps, decided to send in the infantry of the Canadian First Division. After an intense artillery bombardment, and despite the pouring rain, they attacked the recently lost positions at 1.30 a.m. early in the morning of 13th June, determined to win them back. Support was once again provided by the 6th Brigade machine-guns (from War Diary entry for that day):
"Very wet and cold. Intense bombardment by our artillery in early morning Smoke demonstration and M.G. fire by our front line. Indirect fire carried on in conjunction with artillery and smoke demonstration. Attack made by our troops on our right. Casualties 1 O.R. wounded."The positions were retaken and, according to the British official history, "The first Canadian deliberately planned attack in any force had resulted in an unqualified success." However, this had only been achieved at some considerable cost : the Canadians had suffered a total of 8,340 casualties (from the Veterans Affairs Canada commemmoration of the Hill 62 (Sanctuary Wood) Memorial). The Imperial 3rd Division re-took Hooge a few days later, after the 6th Bde CMG Coy had been relieved and had returned to Reningelst.
Donald Fraser in his published diary (ed. R.H. Roy and publ. 1998 by C.E.F. Books) has quoted the following poem, reportedly composed on 12th June 1916 by a member of the 7th Battalion, Walter T.H. Cripps, "on account of the strong defence put up by the 6th Brigade at the engagements of St. Eloi and Ypres, which earned it the name of 'The Iron Sixth'."
The Iron Sixth
June & July - In and Out of the Line AgainCanada's 'Golden Gateway' sent forth her gallant sons,
Who proudly march with smile and song to face the German guns.
Where their duty called them 'twas there they won their fame,
And on the scroll of honour is the 27th name.
Yet farter west, and still her sons is Canada sending out.
The 28th Battalion fights with never a fear of doubt.
From the head of Lake Superior and the Province of 'Golden Wheat',
The boys are marching 'gainst the foe with never faltering feet.
B.C. has sent her quota and the 29th is there
Broad chested, stalward manhood, but just to do and dare,
Vancouver's boys are marching with steady step and true,
Determined all to 'Play the game' and see the whole thing through.
A breath from Calgary's City, flung where the fight is worst,
Still more of Canada's manhood is the gallant thirty-first.
From prairie land and city, they've answered to the call
And bravely shouldered rifle lest their Empire's honour fall.
From Winnipeg's Golden Gateway to Vancouver's rainy shore
Come Canada's men to keep the flag of the Empire to the fore,
From Kemmel down to Ypres, go when and where you will,
The 'Iron Sixth' have paid their toll, and are bravely paying still.
The company rested for four days in the base camp where they had the usual, laborious cleaning of equipment to do, as well as regular inspections, and even a short route march. However, it was a welcome relief after a gruelling, more or less continuous, three and a half weeks in the front line trenches near Voormezeele and Hooge, and gave them a chance to recover a little.
After their brief rest the company, along with the rest of the Second Division, was sent back into line in the St. Eloi Sector, to relieve the 8th Brigade (Imperial) Machine Gun Coy. The next first few days were fairy quiet, and weather during the day was "fine" to "fair", although it was necessary to be careful at night due to the heavy German machine-gun and rifle fire. According to Fraser:
"A plan taken from a dead Hun officer revealed the fact that they had seventeen machine-guns in No Man's Land."The tension must have been high, with every expectation of another German counter-attack. For several days the Canadian artillery and trench mortars then pounded the German front lines during the day, and at night the machine gun crews took over with indirect fire. The bombardment appears to have had the desired effect, and enemy infantry remained in their trenches. The weary Canadians were able to keep their heads down and avoided any serious casualties. On the night of the 28th/29th, the entire 6th Brigade - including the infantry battalions - was at last relieved by the 5th, and returned to Reningelst.
After a very welcome bath, the company spent a week familiarizing themselves with the new Vickers machine-gun, which replaced the older Colt Machine Guns. The latter were turned over to the machine-gun units of the infantry battalions. They were also required to undergo the usual camp routine of parades, kit inspections, cleaning equipment, and re-filling machine-gun belts.
On the night of the 5th/6th July the company, now up to full strength with sixteen of the new Vickers machine-guns, went back into line at "The Bluff", to the east of St Eloi village. For the next 18 days they spent much of their time in the trenches, although the sections took turns to undergo further machine-gun training at Reningelst. During this period, Captain Taylor returned from England, after recovering from his wounds, to take charge of the company, while Lieutenant Eastham was admitted to hospital in Reningelst after sustaining injuries from a fall from his horse. By 24th July, all the gun crews were back in Reningelst. They then spent another week receiving instruction on the new Vickers machine-guns, map reading and indirect fire, as well as the usual routine inspections of guns and equipment, and a route marche with the rest of the Brigade.
On the evening of 31st July they returned, once again, with the rest of the Brigade, to the trenches near St Eloi, and commenced a routine of indirect fire on targets behind the German lines, particularly roads and pathways. In addition, several minor raids of varying success were carried out on the German trenches by the infantry - the 27th, 31st, 28th and 27th Battalions on the 4th, 7th, 11th and 14th August, respectively), which were supported by indirect machine-gun fire. Fortunately, the casulaties experienced by the machine-gunners was minor. On the night of 16th August, they were relieved by the 5th Brigade, and returned to Camp Huron at Reningelst.
On the following day, after a morning parade
during which "all gas helmets [were] inspected", the men were indulged
with an afternoon of sports. On the afternoon of Friday 18th the
entire 6th Brigade was inspected by Major General Sir Sam Hughes, Canadian
Minister of Militia and Defence, in a field between Reningelst and Ouderdom.
Donald Fraser of the 31st Battalion had the following to say in his Diary:
"As usual with inspections our command was all worked up. I never saw so much excitement and hullabloo as took place several days previous to the review. We were continually being pulled out of our billets to go through all sorts of parade drill as if this was the chief mission of our lives and war of secondary importance. Officers [and the] R.S.M. and C.S.M.s, were jumping about and Orderly Room giving out confusing instructions; one day it was pack dress, another day it was skeleton order, ultimately it became drill order. We were subjected to no end of button polishing and inspections, twice daily, until we were heartily sick of the whole affair, and felt disgusted that so much attention was being bestowed on things of little account when a plethora of real work was to be done in the firing line ..."In his 1936 letter to Leslie, Ed Pye recalls making,
"We marched on to the review ground, a huge field on the north-west side of the Reningelst-Ouderdon Road and quickly fell into our respective positions. The General, when passing my section, enquired who the men were on our left front. When informed that they were the machine-gunners - 'Worth their weight in gold' was the reply. On being told to close up, with officers in front, he addressed the assembly, turning first to all the officer[s] at his side and enquired what Brigade this was, to the merriment of those in front, who overheard him."
"The address was very disappointing. He seemed to lack all knowledge of the brigade's activities and achievements and when he concluded, Major Daly of "D" Company broke into cheers with so much exuberance that when General Hughes stepped down, he went straight over to him and shook his hand first."
7: The Somme
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