3 Officers. One Action. 3 Results.

 Charles Herbert Kerr had family ties in the Brussel, Ontario area and lived in Clinton until he eventually moved to Welland, Ontario. He enlisted with the C.E.F. and after being posted to the 36th Battalion in England was taken on strength with the 18th Battalion on December 14, 1915.

It was during a fateful operation at the St. Eloi Craters on April 11, 1916 that Lieutenant Kerr was wounded and the following news story relates the circumstances:

Charlie Kerr After Being Wounded Fought Until Collapsed

Desperate fighting on the St. Eloi salient, participation in by 3 Ontario battalions, the 21st Eastern, 19th Central, and 18th Western, occurred during the week April 11th to 15th. The Canadian representative at the front in his weekly communique tells of battles under unprecedentedly difficult circumstances in which the Canadians held their ground and in addition occupied a portion of an enemy trench. Many instances of individual heroism is [recognized] and one of the officers prominently mentioned in this report is Lieut. C. H. Kerr, formerly of Clinton who was reported wounded last week.

An excerpt of the communique follows;–

Bombed New Line

One night sections of the new German line were attacked and bombed by men of our 18th Western Ontario, 19th Central Ontario, and 21st Eastern Ontario battalions. On our left the bombing parties were under the command of Lieut. B.O. Hooper, of the 19th Battalion and Lieut. C.H. Kerr, of the 18th Battalion, and were accompanied by a working party under Lieut. Lawson of the 18th Battalion.

The night was misty and progress over the broken ground was very slow. Lieut. Kerr acted as guide, and eventually a position was reached close to the German lines. A slight lift of the fog revealed a number of the enemy, who at once hurled a shower of bombs in the direction of our men. Most of the bombs fell in to the crater, on the edge of which our party was lying. Our men retaliated vigorously. The mist soon thickened, and as there had been no opportunity adequately reconnoitering the ground it was decided to abandon any further offensive action.

Lieut. Kerr Wounded

During the fighting in the crater Lieut. Kerr was wounded in the face but until he collapsed [he] continued to assist Lieut. Hooper in controlling operations.

The first intimation of Lieut. Kerr’s injury to his parents was a cablegram from the Duchess of Westminster Hospital, at [Le Touquet], France with “Wound slight, don’t worry.” Next day a telegram from the Military Department at Ottawa told the story of his being wounded in the face and suffering from shell shock. Lieut. Kerr had a promotion three weeks before his wounding, to Battalion Grenade Officer. He has 100 specially trained men under him and has charge of the grenade section of the whole 18th line, and must keep in touch with all the enemy’s movements. The work puts him right in the front line of trenches and in charge of “no man’s land” with perils imminent every hour. If nothing unforeseen arises, or if the shell shock is not too severe he will doubtless soon be back to his dangerous post. His old friends in Clinton hope so and trust a guardian angel may watch over him as he does his duty for the Empire.

Source: The Clinton News Era. April 27, 1916. Pages 1 and 2.

The news article, “…tells of battles under unprecedentedly difficult circumstances in which the Canadians held their ground and in addition occupied a portion of an enemy trench.” But it cannot adequately portray the actual confusion of the battle, nor the impact to the other officer of the 18th, Battalion mentioned in the article, Lieutenant Frank Lawson.

The action around the craters was very confused as the 18th Battalion after action report relates:

“Two bombing parties of [3] officers and 22 O.R. each were supplied from the 18th and 20th Battalion, 2 Platoons from ‘A’ Co., 18th Battalion, under 2 officers, as a covering party and 100 pioneers as a working party. These parties all went forward, and as reported by the O.C. ‘A’ Co., reached a point about 15 yards in advance of the old ‘Q’ trenches, when they were [discovered] and 1 platoon occupied the ‘Q’ trench and the other platoons fell back in the old ‘R’ trenches, as they understood them, the old ‘Q’ trenches not being large enough to hold all the parties. The retirement was [forced] on account of the severe [bombardment]. Two officers [report] that —- workmen, and that the position —- maintained. The pioneers retired and helped the platoon which occupied the old ‘R’ trenches, until just before dawn, when they withdrew. These two platoons ‘A’ Company [held] the position until relieved by the 25th Canadian Battalion on the night of 11/12th April, who took over the exact position ‘A’ Company held.”[i]

This report clearly defines that the patrol was lead by two officers, Lieutenants Lawson and Kerr, with 22 soldiers from “A” Company and that it was a protective (covering) party for 100 soldiers designated as “pioneers”, most likely from the 20th Battalion under Lieutenant Hooper. The group of soldiers moved forward until there was contact with the Germans and retired to another set of trenches. This indicates some of the problems with the action at the craters at St. Eloi was the fact that 1.) the units had problems finding the correct area to operate in; 2.) there was not adequate consolidation of the forward trenches to afford appropriate protective cover to the soldiers engaged in operations. Though the report does not report the type of “bombardment” one could extrapolate from the news article it was the aggressive use of grenades by the Germans that contributed to the “A” Company’s withdrawal.

The news article and the report of operations are not congruent. Several facts from the news article appear to attribute a larger roll for Lieutenant Kerr than the operations report or the operational orders for this action. It is accurate about his facial wound and the shell shock he suffered.

Lieutenant Kerr was to be invalided home as part of his recuperation from his condition and he would go on to train soldiers in Canada and on his return to West Sandling, Shorncliffe Camp in the skills and techniques of bombing.

Lieutenant Lawson, concerned of the loss of a member of his platoon on the night of April 10/11 went out into no man’s land in search for him the next day (possible Lance-Corporal Arthur Sandro, reg. no. 54325) and died of wounds on April 12, 1916 as a direct result for the concern for one of his men.

Lieutenant Hooper, MC survived the war and his rise in the ranks was virtually meteoritic. From the date of this action he was promoted to captain and then to temporary Lieut-Colonel in October 15, 1916.

This news article relates aspects of an action in which the men of the battalions involved exercised their duty to the best of their abilities and the outcomes for the three men in the article it can be seen who the vagaries of war can play out and impact individual lives.

 

[i] Appendix 1. Report of Operations – Night of 10/11, April 1916. 18th Battalion War Diary. C.E.F.

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