War Diary Summary: April 1917

detail-of-the-18th-battalion-sector-thelus

Detail of the 1st and 2nd Canadian Division areas of responsibilty at Vimy Ridge. The 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade is second from the top, opposite Les Tilleuls and Thelus. The Black Line (first objective) is clearly delinated in this graphich with the follow up Red Line and Blue Lines. 

The beginning of April 1917 found the battalion in the rear areas north-west of Arras practising the largest field problem the Canadian Corps was to engage in up to that time in the war: Vimy Ridge. The Battalion practices a Brigade sized exercise on April 2 and then prepared its equipment for the coming attack.

April 1 found the Battalion in Bois-des-Alleux area marching to Estree Cauchie to practice over an “exact replica of enemy frontage to be attacked” was laid out. This was followed on April 2 by a Brigade exercise over the same taped area. The soldiers wore full battle gear to further increase the realism of the exercise.

Two of “D” Company’s Platoons were released to duty in the front lines to dig “jumping-off trenches” to facilitate stealth and surprise when the attack started. These platoons moved into the line on the 4th and worked there until the day of the attack, April 9.

In the rear, the balance of the Battalion finished it training and two officers, Lieutenant Rooney and Fisher with some other soldiers, made a detailed reconnaissance of the front-line on April 6.

The battalion rested on April 7 and on the evening of April 8 moved into battle position near the Zivy Cave area. They suffered heavy shelling from the Germans but the War Diary noted that no casualties were incurred. Thus, approximately 600 men were assembled in expectation of the attack. It is interesting to note that a full strength C.E.F. battalion had a complement of 1,150[i]. The battalion was, now, only at 52% strength and had approximately 36 soldiers assigned to other duties.

showing-craters-at-vimy-esp-phillip-and-pulpit-craters

This map from the 19th Battalion War Diary shows the approximate are of the battalions of the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade. The 18th Battalion would be located in the Zivy Group of craters before the attack on April 9, 1917.

Zero Hour on April 9, 1917 was designated as 5:30 a.m. and the 18th Battalion engaged in its role and assigned tasks for the battle:

At Zero hour, vis 5.30 a.m., the advance was made. Simultaneously with the opening of the Artillery Barrage the Battalion left the “Jumping-off” trenches and attacked the German front lines. Very little opposition was met with whilst capturing the first line system of trenches. The enemy barraged “No-man’s-land” for about 15 minutes, after which his Artillery fire became very indiscriminate. The support line was captured without any difficulty and the Battalion Objective (black), a line of trench from A.11.1.70.31/2. To A.11.45.75., finally reached. At 6.05 a.m. a message was received at Bn. H.Q. saying that the Black Objective had been captured and was in the act of being consolidated.

The casualties up to this point had been very slight, considering the magnitude of the operations. Major C.C. Gwyn, on of the most popular and efficient of Officers was killed by a M.G. bullet, about 100 yards from the objective and Lieut. W.J. McLean was also killed while leading his men across “No-man’s-land”. After the death of Major Gwyn, Lieut. P. Jerdan[ii] assumed Command of “B” Company, and did splendid work in consolidation and reorganization, as also did Lieut. D.A.G. Parsons[iii] who Commanded “A” Company.

An act of conspicuous gallantry[iv] performed by Sergt. E.E. Sifton of “C” Company. A M.G. was holding up his Company and doing considerable damage. Sergt. Sifton, single-handed, attacked the Gun crew and bayoneted every man, but was unhappily shot by a dying Boche.

At 10.50 a.m. a message was received from Major W.J. Gander, now senior Officer of the line reporting that the consolidation of the objective and reorganization of the Battalion was complete. Telephone communication from the Report Center, which was established in the PELSENKELLER WEG, to Bn. H.Q. and Brigade, was successfully maintained throughout. A tunnel with a 4’ gallery was dug beforehand, with an exit in the PHILIP CRATER, within 20 yards of the German front line, and telephone lines laid to this point before Zero [hour].

Lieut’s W.H. Lewis and V.M. Eastwood secured much valuable information, and established an advanced Bn. H.Q.’s at A.10.b.85.35.

Major K.H. McCrimmon finally established Bn. H.Q.;s at A.11.d.1.8. and performed most efficient work in handling all information and superintending the process of reorganization.

Several large straw-stacks were discovered just ahead of the Black Objective and were found to have been the means of hiding concrete M.G. emplacements. The night of 9/10th being spent in the Black Objective and funk-holes being the only shelter, the straw was a great help to the men in making their shelters comfortable. The approximate casualties for the whole operation were:- 2 Offices killed (already mentioned). Lieuts. W.G. Worth, S.C. Kirkland, C.E. Tuck, W.K. Rooney (Wounded). 40 O.R.’s killed and 120 wounded.[v]

grave-marker

Lance-Sergeant Sifton’s grave and grave maker. In the backgound appears to be a straw stack which may have contained a German machine gun.

With that the work of re-organizing and consolidating the positions won by the Battalion began. The hard, back-breaking work of digging front-line trenches, funk holes, gun-pits, communications trenches fell to the 476 officers and men of the battalion. Their numbers depleted to below 50% of strength there must have been some tension as the Canadians awaited a German counter-attack.

The tactical preparations of the Canadian Corps were so effective that no credible German action occurred locally to the 18th Battalion from April 9 to the 13th, when it was relieved by the 24th Canadian Battalion.

The balance of the month had the Battalion in Brigade and Divisional reserve where it rested, refit, and gathered replacements, but not enough replacements to make up for the losses during the Battle.

The ultimate cost to the Battalion in dead is recorded in that month as 63 men. Others, wounded during that month, were sure to die later. 37 of those men died on April 9 alone. The overall casualties were lower than the Battle of Flers-Courcelette in September 1916 at the Somme by almost half, but this would be small compensation to the family and friends of the fallen.

At the same time, the effectiveness, organization, professionalism, and planning of the Canadian Corps overall led to a great success with a much smaller proportion of casualties than other battles before. The Canadian Corps, along with the 18th Battalion, was now a fighting unit to be concerned about if an enemy was to have to face it.

[i] War Establishment of an Infantry Battalion for Overseas Service 1915-16.

[ii] Lt. Jerdan was to earn the Military Cross for this action: For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He assumed command of the company, and led them with great coolness and initiative. He single-handed bombed a rifle grenade battery which was holding up one of the platoons, and forced them to surrender. Source: Supplement to the Edinburgh Gazette, July 1917, page 1429.

[iii] Lt. D.A.G. Parsons was to earn the Military Cross for this action: For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He led it company with great courage and success. His splendid example in the face of stubborn resistance largely assisted in the capture of the objective. The London Gazette Publication date:17 July 1917 Supplement: 30188 Page: 7258.

[iv] Lance-Sergeant Sifton was to earn the Victory Cross for this action.

[v] Thus 42 men of the battalion are estimated to be K.I.A. that day with 124 wounded. The casualty rate was 28% for April 9, 1917.

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