German Trench Raid Action on March 13th, 1917

This map is from the 19th Battalion Appendix for March 1917. It show in good detail the orientation of the Zivy and Phillip Craters and indicates that that they were used as observation or listening posts.

This map is from the 19th Battalion Appendix for March 1917. It show in good detail the orientation of the Zivy and Phillip Craters and indicates that that they were used as observation or listening posts.

The beginning of February 1917 was a chance for the Battalion to rest and refit. From the 1st to the 11th of February the Battalion billeted in Auchel, France and trained and recreated until it moved with the 4th Brigade forward from Auchel towards Arras and the Vimy Sector of the Front. The Battalion moved into the Thelus Sector of the front which was effectively right of the center flank of the entire Canadian Corps disposition[i].

The beginning of March found the Battalion in support from the 1st to 2nd; in the front line from the 3rd to 5th; Divisional reserve from the 6th to 10th until they were brought back into the line 11th in the Zivy Cave area of the line.

The Zivy Cave area was adjacent to two features that were common on the Vimy front. There were mine craters to the front of the line and “subways” – tunnels fashioned out of the chalk rock – which were created to allow the free movement of men and supplies without being in observation of the Germans from the heights of Vimy. The lines held by the Canadian troop were continuous emplacement of trenches and there were a series of craters along the front which were prominent features and landmarks of the local battlefield. Some of the craters were singular and some, like Zivy, where in groups. For example, there are references to 3 craters in the Zivy sector[ii] while south of Zivy the Phillip Group has 4 closely grouped craters and the Vissec Group of craters is made up of 9 craters less compact in grouping. West, behind the lines and the craters, were the strategically important tunnels. The Zivy tunnel was considered vital to the support of the 4th Brigade and a special order was instituted on March 11th outlining the nature of defence for the tunnel entrance.[iii] This order may have been in response to the March 10th visit by a Captain Jennings and the Brigade Signal Officer to the front line and tunnels from Zivy Cave.[iv]

Thus, the position of the 18th Battalion in relation to the Zivy Subway and Zivy Cave – the cave acted as the exit point for this subway – and the front and observation lines near the Zivy Craters was of local strategic importance to the Thelus Sector and the 4th Brigade.

Overview of Thelus Sector via Google Maps showing modern day roads and place names.

Overview of Thelus Sector via Google Maps showing modern day roads and place names. The Vimy Memorial is to the North-east 1.9 kilometers.

Overview of Zivy Tunnel and Crater reference 45 April 1917 with position approximations

Approximation of the location of the action the morning of March 13, 1917. The Zivy Craters is the left flank of the 18th Battalion line with the Phillip Craters being the center and the Vissec crater being the right. The road probably was a demarcation point for the brigade sectors. The 5th Brigade was to the left (north) of the 18th Battalion.

On March 13, 1917 the 18th Battalion was in the line near the Zivy, Phillip and Vissec Craters. The local is approximately bounded by triangular sector with Nueville-Saint-Vaast to the west, approximately adjacent on the north to road D49, to the west Auto Route Des Anglais, and to the south approximately 500 metres. The red line in the map below gives an approximation of the location in reference to the geography in the area. Therefore, the left flank of the battalion was demarcated by Zivy Craters, the Phillip Group of craters was the center of their line; and the Vissec group was the right flank.

The Red Line

The vertical red line indicates the approximate length of the trench frontage the 18th Battalion was responsible for during the action.

The 4th Canadian Brigade and the 18th Battalion War Diaries before the 13th of March do not indicate any impending enemy action other than some artillery activity and an active gas alert. On the 13th the 18th recording “Enemy artillery active during morning on the rear of our line, but no material damage was done.” on the 12th and the 4 Brigade relaxed a gas alert at 7:10 p.m. that day there appeared to be no indication of a enemy attack or trench raid in their sector.

On the 13th the weather was cloudy with some rain and at 3:50 a.m there is some shelling in the rear areas and the Brigade records that the gas alert was off. But at 4:00 a.m. German flares indicate the start of a heavy artillery barrage.[v] The ensuing combat was described by the 18th’s War Diary as:

“Position as yesterday. 4:15 am Enemy attempted a raid on our outposts on the right flank of frontage due north of VISSEC group of craters. At 4 am red and green flares fired from German front line appeared to be the signal for the heavy bombardment which followed directed to our front and support lines. Our outposts consisting of six bombers and 3 Lewis gunners, 1 sgt. were in the act of withdrawing to front line. The raiders approached in two parties, about 30 men in all. Two bombers [Pte.] R. Walker[vi] and W.H. Webster[vii] who were covering the withdrawal of outpost #16 [spread] fire on the Huns and Pte. Walker claims three. One Hun managed [to] creep up to one of the Bombers and said in English “Come with me.” Pte. Webster managed to break away and continued to throw bombs with good effect. One Hun was afterwards found by LIEUT. TUCK who secured identification. Our casualties were 3 killed[viii] and 14 wounded by enemy shell fire.”

The raid prompted the 4th Brigade to send a message[ix] to the 2nd Canadian Division at 5:30 a.m.:

“Add to situation report. Enemy opened up heavy bombardment of front support and reserve lines at 4 am. Our Div. [divisional] Arty [artillery] and 6 inch hows [howitzers] retaliated heavily. Fire slackened at 530 am. Added CHATEAU repeated ARROW and CLEAN.[x]

The raid, being repelled, the “normal” routine of the trenches continues as the Battalion and Brigade staff communicated with each other in order to assess the nature of the raid and gain any lessons or intelligence from the raid. The 4th Brigade sent a message[xi] at 9:40 a.m. following up from information it received from the 18th Battalion at 9:00 a.m.:

“Enemy attempted raid our front at ZIVY crater nos. 1 and nos. 7 and 9 VISSEC group at 4 am. Both attempts driven off by Lewis guns and rifle fire. Enemy secured no identification but we received identity disc marked K BAYER RES JNF REGT 3 5 KOMP 516. Raid was [illegible] organized and supported by heavy T.M. [trench mortars] and arty. Our casualties[xii] 1 officer 14 O.R. Details follow. Added CHATEAU repeat ARROW and CLEAN.”

The Brigade Major left the Brigade Headquarters and visited the forward area and paid a visit to the 18th Battalion Headquarters. This was followed by a visit to the 18th Battalion Headquarters at 2:00 p.m. by the General Officer Commanding and another officer with the title S.C.I. (Staff Captain Intelligence).

The raid was of some concern to the Brigade and the Divisional commands as a further communication was directed to the 18th Battalion outlining a concern for further enemy action[xiii]:

“The 5th Bde[xiv] [brigade] suspect a raid on their right tonight and it is possible that the enemy may attempt another raid on your front. The G.O.C. suggests doubling the strength of the posts and warning all ranks to be especially alert. Brigades on both flanks have been warned also the artillery group. Keep in close touch with artillery liaison officer and have good watch kept for S.O.S. Repeated to 21st Bn for information.”

From this information it appears that the 18th Battalion instituted patrols on the 14th of March in order to detect any enemy raiding parties and noted enemy being nervous and firing many flares in an attempt to detect any Canadian patrols during the night until the Battalion was relieved from the front line on the 17th.

From the action reported in the Battalion’s and Brigade’s War Diaries the maturation of the Canadian Army as a fighting force is demonstrated. The active communication of battle intelligence shows the value of lessons learned from previous actions. The imparting and sharing of information in a timely manner between the different echelons of commands is an important aspect of the behaviors adapted by the Canadian Expeditionary in order to improve their combat effectiveness. From the instigation of the German trench raid at 4:00 a.m. until the last communication at 6:00 p.m. from Brigade warning of a possible raid on their left flank, protected by the 18th Battalion, demonstrates the proactive approach towards the execution of their duties on the front to which they were assigned. It is further clear, that the coordination with the artillery was of paramount importance as outlined to the need for the 18th Battalion to “Keep in close touch with artillery liaison officer…” in order to protect against another enemy raid.

The action on the 13th of March was a minor raid. The localized nature and size of the troops used by the German’s indicate that is was designed to probe the defences in that sector and obtain local intelligence of the unit they were facing. Note the importance of the notation in the communications by Brigade indicating that no Canadian identification items were collected by the Germans from their raid. This is further evidenced that the three 18th Battalion soldiers that were killed in action were buried after the action as their bodies were recovered after the raid.

Three soldiers of the 18th Battalion received Military Medals very shortly after the action on the 13th. On March 27th, 1917 the War Diary relates that: “ 164185 L/Cpl A.J. SHARPLES, 769686 Pte. R.H. WALKER,  769899 Pte. W.H. WEBSTER awarded Military Medal for conspicuous conduct during Enemy raid of 13th inst.” Of these 3 men only Lance-Corporal Sharples survived the war.

This action was a precursor to the soon to be realized victory at Vimy.

4th Brigade Report to 2nd Division:

[To] 2nd Canadian Division.

REPORT ON ATTEMPTED ENEMY RAID – 13TH MARCH.

With further reference to the attempted raid on to of our poste, as a reported in message “B.M.72” this morning.

About 4.00 a.m. the enemy opened up a heavy bombardment with Trench Mortars, field guns and heavy Artillery, on our observation line and firing line. Shortly afterwards a strong enemy patrol, estimated at 15 men, were discovered by one of our patrols to the Northeast of No. 3 ZIVY Crater. This patrol opened up rifle fire and drove our patrol in; they went out to fight again shortly after but could find not trace of the enemy patrol.

At the time 2 parties, one of which is estimated at 20 men and the other at 6 men, attempted to enter our lines through the VISSEC Group in the vicinity of Craters 7, 8, and 9. This party was repulsed by rifle and Lewis gun fire and bombs. It is believed that a number of casualties were caused to the enemy.

An identity disc and a notebook (both enclosed) were obtained from one body and a search will be made tonight for any other bodies that might be left out.

The enemy signal for opening up of bombardment was a rocket breaking into 2 green stars, and the bombardment ceased at once on the enemy putting up one green flare.

Our S.O.S. Rockets on the front of the Company where the raid was attempted were destroyed by a shell, and the green Very cartridges when fired only rose 5 or 10 ft. in the air. The S.O.S. was telephoned through the Battalion Headquarters, and our guns opened up promptly. The bombardment continued until 5.30 a.m.

The enemy secured no identification from us and our casualties amounted to one Officer slightly wounded, 4 O.R. killed, and 12 O.R. wounded.

Sketch showing showing points of attempted raid attached.

[Signed]

Major,
Brigade Major 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade,
for G.O.C. 4th C.I. Brigade.

13-3-17

[i] See 18th Battalion February War Diary Transcription for more information.

[ii] The map referenced for this article only shows 2 craters.

[iii] 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade, Orders Relating to the Defense of Zivy Subway, March 11, 1917

[iv] Sheet 6, The War Diary of the 4th Canadian Brigade, March 1917.

[v] The 18th Battalion War Diary indicates that red and green flares signalled the barrage while the 4th Cdn. Brigade War Diary records the signal as 2 green stars.

[vi] Private Reginal Henry Walker, reg. no. 769686.

[vii] Private William Webster, reg. no. 769899.

[viii] The CWGC site shows only 2 soldiers died that day. Private Thomas Clark, reg. no. 745257 and Sergeant William Edward Helps, reg. no. 654401. The reason for the discrepancy is unknown.

[ix] Message #12 from 4th Brigade to 2nd Canadian Division

[x] This last sentence may refer to code names for units and that the message was copied to these units.

[xi] Message #13 from 4th Brigade to 2nd Division

[xii] This refers only to soldiers wounded in the raid. The number killed in action was recorded as 3 members of the 18th Battalion perished during the raid of the night of March 13th, 1917.

[xiii] Message # 15 from 4th Brigade to 18th Bn

[xiv] The Canadian 5th Brigade was on the left flank of the 4th Canadian Brigade.

Images Relating to Post

Appendix 10 4th Brigade orders to 18th for moving into front lines.

4th Canadian Brigade order outlining 18th Battalion’s move to front lines before the March 13th action.

Close up of Zivy Group

Close up of detail of map from 18th Battalion appendix showing relative location of Zivy, Phillip, and Vissec group of craters. The front line of the Canadian trenches was to the west (left) and adjacent to the craters. The craters appear to be used as advanced listening posts.

Overview of Vimy Front. 18th Battalion in 4th Brigade area.

Overview of Vimy Front. 18th Battalion in 4th Brigade area.

Follow up message from 4 Bgde to 2nd Division reporting shelling

This and the two other samples below are examples of message and signals traffic between 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade with the 2nd Canadian Division and 18th Battalion.

Message from 4 Bgde to 2nd Division reporting shelling Message to 18th Bn regarding suspicion of another raid

Order to protect Zivy Cave/Subway.

Order to protect Zivy Cave/Subway.