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Tuesday, March 4, 2014


The 3rd Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force and the Battle of Mount Sorrel, June 2 – 14, 1916

The Battle of Mount Sorrel, in the grand scale of War World One was a relatively insignificant albeit bloody and vicious battle. In the short period of twelve days, over 9,600 Canadian soldiers were killed, captured or wounded, the newly arrived 3rd Canadian Division was demolished,  Divisional Commander and former 2nd Regiment Queen’s Own Rifle militia man Major-General Malcolm S. Mercer was killed, a Brigadier General was captured and 5 of the 12 Battalion commanders was killed or captured.  However for the 3rd (Toronto Regiment) Battalion, as we will see, the battle was a success in cementing the comradeship and fighting spirits of over 1000 individuals into a single, dangerous and efficient fighting unit. According to British Official History of the War, the Battle of Mount Sorrel was “the first Canadian deliberately-planned attack in any force resulted in an unqualified success” and the 3rd Battalion played an integral part.
Company Sargeant Major Francis G. Nagle
#63672 Loyola College KIA 13/06/1916

Private Frederick Davis #9311
Sanctuary Wood Cemetery
and Menin Gate Memorial

The Battle of Mount Sorrel (sometimes also called the Battle of Hill 62) was a localized conflict of World War One between three divisions of the British Second Army and three divisions of the German Fourth Army in the Ypres Salient, near Ypres, Belgium, from June 2 to June 14, 1916. It started as a result of the German Army wanting to divert British troops from an obvious observed buildup in the Somme. The XIII (Royal) Wurttemberg) Corps and the 117th Infantry Division attacked an arc of high ground positions defended by the Canadian Corps. The German forces initially captured the heights at Mount Sorrel and Tor Top after an intense artillery barrage before entrenching on the far side of the ridge. In the following days a number of attacks and counterattacks by two divisions of the Canadian Corps, supported by British artillery recaptured most of their former positions at great cost.
After the initial German attack on the 3rd Canadian Division June 2, the failed Canadian counterattack of June 3 and a second German attack June 8 involving exploding four large mines under trenches of the 2nd Canadian Division, a whole scale attack was ordered by the Commander of the Canadian Corps, Sir Julian Byng. Major-General Arthur Currie, as Commander of the 1st Canadian Division, including our 3rd Battalion and the 1st Brigade was ordered to plan a careful attack involving infantry, artillery, deception and specialized forces in composite units, on Mount Sorrel and Tor Top. Brigadier-General Lipsett in turn was ordered to attack with the 1st, 3rd and 8th Battalions from his 1st Brigade, on Mount Sorrel. The 3rd Battalion was chosen to conduct the actual assault with the other Battalions attacking other high ground along the front to with the goal to retake the original front lines.
Private Ovila Dion #416490
Sanctuary Wood Cemetery
With Lt.-Col. W.D. Allan in command of the 3rd Battalion and Major D.H.C. Mason second in command, late on June 12 the artillery concentration stopped and “B” and “D” Companies moved up to their jumping-off trench. By 10:00pm “B” and “D” were in position, with “D” Company on the right, “A” Company in the centre, and “C” Company on the left. “B” Company was in reserve to the right of “D”. Smoke diversions were launched from the left flank made more effective by heavy rainfall. The attack was launched 1:30 am June 13 after the lifting of the artillery barrage through knee-deep mud, putrid shell holes, tree stumps, and remnants of enemy wire with patches of tangled undergrowth all through pitch black of night.
Very little opposition was encountered by “D” company on the right, who were soon in the German trenches using bayonets liberally. “C” and “A” Companies however were met by heavy opposition by rifle and machine-gun fire. Substantial hand-to-hand fighting took place with the enemy finally driven out of his trenches. By 2:00 am red victory flares could be seen above Mount Sorrel and the target 3rd Battalion trenches. “B” Company followed along minutes later under heavy counter fire to consolidate the captured German front line. As they continued on down the far slope the trench disappeared and the forward motion was halted with numerous casualties taken. Reinforcements and supplies were requested and given by a company from the 1st Battalion and a squad of Pioneers. At the same time the attacking Toronto Battalions continued on from the original positions to the second enemy positions taking out threatening enemy machine nests. Lt. H. Gordon led his platoon taking the enemy position being killed immediately afterwards. The crest of Mount Sorrel was taken by bayoneting and hand-to-hand combat. Close to 70 German prisoners were taken. Once the final positions were taken, consolidation was begun immediately with great difficulty. The combination of shell holes, heavy rain and the darkness meant that the new front line was actually built some distance inside the old German position. A continuous trench was impossible so bombing posts were installed at intervals in shell holes.
L/Cpl D'All #63260
40 years old, Married
Menin Gate Memorial
From 2:30 am on the 13th, the Germans commenced an intense bombardment on the new Canadian line with the heaviest concentration on Mount Sorrel and the original Canadian front line. Substantial casualties resulted from shrapnel and high-explosives. Digging, patrols, and wiring were the norm all night while the regimental band acting as stretcher bearers removed the wounded. By morning small but valiant group of 3rd Battalion survivors remained on the summit of Mount Sorrel.  German counter-attacks were stopped at 6:45 and 9:00 am with well placed artillery replies. With bombs, grenades and small arms ammunition running low, urgent details from Battalion Headquarters were required. A reinforcement company from the 1st Battalion was sent out to help “A” Company deal with the harassing Germans soon to be followed by two more 1st Battalion Companies who helped consolidate and hold the position on Mount Sorrel. When Major Mason had been wounded for the third time, command reverted to Captain Van der Smissen. Lt.-Col. F.A. Crieghton, 1st Battalion, then took over operations on Mount Sorrel. The German artillery assault on the heights continued into the afternoon with Captain McNamara, Lieutenants Grasett and Weston being killed. Casualties continued until finally at 11:00 pm that evening, the 3rd Battalion was relieved on Mount Sorrel by the 8th Battalion. During the transfer Captain Van der Smissen was killed, Lt.-Col. Creighton mortally wounded and Lt.-Col Harold Matthews, 8th Battalion seriously wounded all by the same shell. By midnight all the survivors of the 3rd Battalion had been evacuated from Mount Sorrel. 
Trenches of Mount Sorrel, 1916
 The attacks by the Canadian Corps all along the line on June 13 and 14 had been extremely successful. The 16th 13th and 58th Battalions had all enjoyed success in securing their objectives, however at heavy cost. 1st Division casualties for the assaults stood at 1214. The cost to the 3rd Battalion had been high. Casualties totalled 16 officers and 399 other ranks of whom five officers and 132 other ranks either killed or missing. Like 2nd Ypres, the vast majority of the killed and missing were never to be found and identified. Most have their names inscribed on the Menin Gate Memorial. A handful of men were identified some time after the conflict and reburied in Sanctuary Woods Cemetery while still having their names on the Menin Gate Memorial. Brave men all!

Photos courtesy of Timothy McTague, Battle Royal, Veterans Affairs Canada, and Library and Achives Canada
Bob Richardson     (416) 434-7784

1 comment:

Gerald said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.