4th Canadian Mounted Rifles - War Diaries - 1916
The following presents an overview of the 4th CMR's history, with details principally being taken from the regimental War Diaries and then cross-referenced with S. G. Bennett's extensive 4th CMR Regimental History (1926). You are encouraged to read these documents (links below) for fuller details on the abridged activities and actions shared here.
1st - 31st January 1916
In Corps Reserve, the Battalion commenced infantry drilling under the hand of the 7th Brigade throughout the month, along with kit inspections, heavy order route marches, visits to Bailleul for concerts, and bath parades. Although it is recorded in the Bennett 4th CMR History (written in 1926) that H.R.H. the Prince of Wales made a visit on January 27th, there is no note of any preparations or the actual event in the Battalion's War Diary (written at the time).
1st - 29th February 1916
The 8th Brigade relieves the 3rd Brigade, the Battalion moved to Kortepyp Huts on the 2nd and then moved on into the front line, taking over 5th CMR trenches 136 to 141 on the 7th. Sgt. James Bull was killed in Bay 2, Trench 138, during the morning of the 8th. A draft of 300 men was received and held in Battalion reserve. The attitude of the enemy was one of shelling and sniping as the Battalion spent time revetting and draining trenches in trying conditions on the Wulverghem-Messines road. On the 13th the Battalion was relieved by the 5th CMR and move back to Red Lodge in Brigade reserve. From there working parties were supplied in the camp for building dugouts and 400 men are out at night on working parties supplying the Brigade's front line area. On the 19th the Battalion goes back into the front line, relieving the 5th CMR again at trenches 136 to 141. Night patrols were out in the front area and periods of enemy night aircraft movements are noted. On the 21st the 14th Battalion relieved the 4th CMR, who went back to camp at Kortepyp Huts and then on the 22nd they went back to the old billets on the Bailleul - Meteren road amidst a very heavy snow storm. On the 24th 350 men are gathered to witness a demonstration of the German Flammenwerfer (flamethrower). The 27th sees the new Chaplain, Capt. Hepburn take Divine Service. The month closes with parades, squad drill, bayonet fighting practice and attendance at entertainment put on in Bailleul.
1st - 31st March 1916
With training and drill continuing until the 18th, the Battalion moves out on the 18th, north to "B" Camp, 5km east of Poperinge. On the 10th the Battalion entrained and proceeded to the Asylum, Ypres, from where it marched to huts at Zillebeke, relieving the 9th Battalion, East Surreys. On the 20th the Battalion moved on to Sanctuary Wood, where it relieved the right Battalion of the 72nd Brigade. The Battalion snipers kept the enemy snipers engaged to the point of shutting them down completely. After spending four days in the line, during which time four men were killed and five wounded, the Regiment is relieved by the 5th CMR on the 25th and moved out to Belgian Chateau in Brigade Reserve until the 28th. They provided working parties during that time and then went back into the front line, relieving the 5th CMR again at Sanctuary Wood, on the 28th. Enemy aircraft were active over the line and on the 31st the enemy heavily shelled Sanctuary Wood.
1st - 15th April 1916
The Battalion is relieved by the 5th CMR on the 1st and goes back to billets at Belgian Chateau. During a working party on the night of the 2nd, six men were wounded by shrapnel. Working parties continued through to the 6th, when, relieved by the R.C.R's (Royal Canadian Regiment), the Battalion moved back to the Asylum at Ypres, where they entrained and were taken on to Camp B (near Poperinge). The routine settled in with parades, baths, working parties and wiring instructions, until, on the 13th, the Battalion was moved back to the front line, taking one casualty during the relief of the 52nd Battalion by Maple Copse. Activity focussed on drainage work in and around Maple Copse, sending out patrols, erecting knife rests (barbed wire supports) and repairing damaged parapets, a few casualties were incurred, including two wounded by a prematurely exploding rifle grenade, on the 15th.
16th - 21st April 1916
With enemy aircraft active all day, work carried on with repairing Vigo Street, Border Dugouts and the finishing of a machine gun pit on the 16th, whilst two enemy shell attacks were directed onto regiment's rear line areas. 50 or so 18 pounders were sent back into enemy lines in retaliation. A patrol was sent out to scout the area at 10:30pm, which subsequenrtly reported finding only light defences. Enemy machine guns raked the front line through the night, obviously providing cover for their own activities. Companies swap duties in the front line onthe 17th, with the enemy demeanour described as light but alert. A small electric tramway was observed being operated by the enemy and duly fired upon on the 18th. On the 19th drainage work was carried out in Maple Copse with fairly active opposition shelling. Further repair work and barbed wire laying occupied the remainder of the 19th, whilst on the 20th, amidst sporadic but inaffective enemy shelling, repair work was carried out on Durham Avenue and Border Lane, in the region of trenches 52 to 56. Enemy shelling was very active through the 21st, with direct hits on the dugouts and parapets, with no serious damage or injury.
22nd - 30th April 1916
The Battalion was relieved by the 5th CMR into the early hours of the 22nd, but remained in the immediate vicinity in support and reserve. Whilst providing working parties and rotating Companies, for the next 12 days, the enemy made an attack on the 1st Division to the Battalion's right, exploding a mine at 6:30pm on the 27th and launching an attack. At 7pm the 4th CMR was ordered to Stand-to. "A" and "C" Companies occupied Hedge Street and "B" and "D" Companies were sent forward to Zillebeke. The Battalion did not engage the enemy during this time, and the 1st Division did not require any further help in repulsing the attack. On the 29th the P.P.C.L.I. relieved the Battalion, who moved back to B Camp near Poperinge. The relief was complete by 5am on the 30th. The Battalion's rest was unsettled at 9pm that night, when the gongs and horns sounded a gas attack, which was on-going towards Kemmel (to their south-east).
1st - 26th May 1916
A week's rest split by Companies between Belgian Chateux and Zillebeke Huts, is focussed on Company parades, before returning to the front to relieve the 58th BN Canadian Infantry in the Sanctuary Wood and Zillebeke Dugouts area on the 7th. In the early hours of the 11th enemy shelling was concentrated on the front line, support and communication trenches, with every semblence of an impending attack, but dwindled out, leaving a total of seven men dead across 'A', 'B' and 'C' Companies. Shelling and sniping, work parties and Company reliefs continued until the Battalion was relieved by the 5th CMR at Camp B [Poperinge] on the 16th and moved back to Camp F. Working parties, drill and bombing practice continued before and after the Battalion relieved the P.P.C.L.I. on the 22nd.
27th - 30th May 1916
On the 27th there was a bathing parade all day at Poperinge. Large working parties continued (240 men or so) followed by a combined Church parade with the 5th CMR on the 28th. On the 30th 41 other ranks joined the Regiment and were posted into the various Companies, and the Commanding Officer went forward to inspect the front line trenches to be taken over on June 1st. The move back to the front began on the 31st, relieving the 52nd BN, trenches 53 down to 47 in front of Armagh Wood. The 1st CMR were on Battalion's left [towards Sanctuary Wood], holding trenches 60 down to 54, and the 5th BN Canadian Infantry, were to the right [towards Hill 60], holding trenches 46 to 38. The relief was complete without casualties at 1.45am on the 1st.
1st June 1916
On the 1st the Battalion settled in with "C" Company on the left, "D" Company in the centre, "A" Company on the right and "B" Company in local reserve [Maple Copse, with the 5CMR]. "A" Company suffered two casualties from trench mortars sent into the right sector of the Battalion's line. In the early afternoon a large group of enemy soldiers digging wide shelter trenches in front of "C" Company in trenches 51 & 52, which was dispersed with Lewis & Stokes machine guns. The enemy was reported as very quiet on the night of the 1st/2nd, and so a large working party was out working on a sap and new trench in front of "C's" trench 51 during the night.
2nd June 1916
Divisional Commander, Major General. Mercer, with A.D.C. Captain L. E. Gooderham, Brigadier General Williams and Brigade Orderly Officer, Capt. Fraser, were making a visit to the front line, with Lt.Col. Ussher. Around 8am the enemy commenced a very heavy and unprecedented bombardment. A shell landed opposite the visiting party, deafening General Mercer and Lt. Gooderham, and slightly wounding Brig Gen. Williams. The intense bombardment kept up for 5 hours without cessation, with three mines being sprung about 1pm on the Battalion front. Major General. Mercer was further injured and died in the subsequent evacuation, whilst Brig Gen. Williams and Lt.Col. Ussher were taken prisoner. The trenches were tilled flat by the rain of steel and high losses, some 71 wounded made it back, 91 killed in total in addition to the final figure of 350 taken POW (13 of whom subsequently died after being taken captive), meant there was little (albeit ferocious) resistance against the advancing Wüttemberg troops. The enemy had gained some 300 to 700 yards (275 to 640 metres) along a varied front, but subsequently failed to consolidate their gains.
The specific details of the wider picture on what turned into a much longer engagement (some 14 days in all) will be added here in due course.
Official histories and reports state that only 73 men answered to their name on June 3rd, putting the losses for the 4th CMR on June 2nd at 89% casualties. Subsequent analysis of the figures for June 2nd confirm that indeed this was a bad day for the 4th CMR (and the 1st & 5th CMRs and the P.P.C.L.I.). Given that some 1,160 men of the 4th CMR were listed as being in active service with the regiment immediately prior to June 2nd (a large, significant number would have been transferred, though their struck off strength dates were not captured correctly, or they would have been away on courses, off active service being wounded or sick, or attached to or training with other units), it is believed that around 700 were in front-line service at the time (my own demographic research on the regiment has so far identified 632 of them). The confirmed loss of around 612 men (191 killed, 350 taken POW, plus 71 or so wounded and able to make it back to safety), corroborates that certainly around 87% of the regiment was lost that day. Whatever the specific figures, this was indeed a black day for the regiment.
Taken from the S. G. Bennett 4th CMR Regimental History of 1928, this was said of that day:
On June 2nd, which at sunrise promised to be as other days, everyone was about early preparing for a visit from the Divisional Commander, Major-General Mercer. About 6 o clock, Lieut.-Colonel Ussher went around the front line, making a preparatory inspection and had returned down the communication trench to Battalion Headquarters to meet General Mercer and his A.D.C., Captain L. E. Gooderham, who were accompanied by Brigadier-General Williams, and the Brigade Orderly Officer, Captain Fraser. All left Brigade Headquarters shortly after dawn and arrived at Battalion Headquarters about 8 o'clock. Lieut.-Colonel Ussher met them there and escorted them at once towards the front line.
It was a calm, beautiful and noticeably quiet morning. Suddenly, without warning, from a heavenly, peaceful sky broke a deafening detonation and cloud of steel which had no precedent for weight and violence. Every conceivable type of gun, howitzer and trench-mortar around Ypres poured everything it had upon the Third Divisional front. The most extravagant imagination cannot picture such a downpour of destruction. Even those who had tasted the bitterest in modern warfare were staggered by the violence of this onslaught.
Nothing like it had been experienced heretofore and it is doubtful if its fierceness was exceeded by any later bombardment. It continued in fullest intensity for four and a half hours. The greatest concentration was directed against the 8th Brigade, but even the trenches which were shelled the least became mere jagged scars, unfit for defence. That anyone lived through it is a miracle. Trenches were soon demolished, shelters caved in, the ground over which tall weeds and long grass had grown was ploughed, beaten and pock-marked by shells. Sanctuary Wood, Armagh Wood and Maple Copse, which a few hours before were verdant woods, were transformed into charred, jagged stumps.
At 1 o'clock the bombardment ceased, but only as a signal for the preparation of further violence. The ground quivered and gently heaved and then came the volcanic roar of a mine. It hurled into the air a large part of the front line and its defenders. Sandbags, wire, machine guns, bits of corrugated iron and bits of men were slung skyward. After this final eruption all was quiet, even our own guns. Immediately the German infantrymen appeared in full equipment, with long spades slung over their backs. They advanced in large numbers with an air of assurance and confidence that all resistance had been removed by their artillery.
As soon as the bombardment commenced, all realized that this was an affair of prime importance. The men manned the fire-bays until blown out or buried under the debris; some searched for cover to save their lives for the attack they knew would follow. A few went to the "Tunnel", only to be buried or taken prisoner in the defenceless trap. A very few survived to tell what happened on that terrible morning. Space will not permit of a detailed account of what happened to those who survived or perished, nor can the many acts of individual heroism and self-sacrifice be narrated in this short historical outline. Of the tactics and changing dispositions of the various units of the Division in its defence of this sacred ground, much has been written. For the 4th C. M. R. it was a day of obliteration. Only three officers out of twenty-two came back from the trenches. Seventy-three men out of 680 answered to their names on June 4th.
General Mercer's body was afterwards found in Armagh Wood and buried at Poperinghe. Brig.-General Victor Williams, who was very seriously wounded, and Lieut.-Colonel Ussher were trapped in the "Tunnel" and fell into the enemy's hands. The 1st C. M. R. on the left had an equally bad time and their casualties were almost as heavy. The 5th C. M. R. which so nobly supported the Brigade in Maple Copse, was also cut up. Both of these Battalions lost their commanding officers. Lieut.-Colonel A. E. Shaw of the 1st C. M. R., and Lieut.-Colonel G. H. Baker of the 5th C. M. R. fell in action.
The Germans penetrated the front line and some of the support trenches of the Brigade, but considering their preparatory bombardment and weight of numbers, their advance was small when one remembers that they had seven hours of daylight in which to fight. Major-General L. J. Lipsett, C.M.G., after succeeding General Mercer in command of the Third Division, wrote to the 8th Brigade in very complimentary words:
"Though on the 2nd June the Division was unfortunate enough to lose some of its Front Line Trenches I think the Battalions which held them and checked the German advance immediately behind fought in a way that Canada has every reason to be proud. The Army Commander in his address testified to this, and I think it well that the facts of the case should be thoroughly realized. The 1st and 4th C. M. R. Battalions had the brunt of the bombardment and an analysis of their losses speaks for itself."
3rd - 31st June 1916
The Second-in-Command and 64 survivors move back to Camp "B" and the Regiment, such as it was, was ordered to move on to the rest area at Steenvoorde on June 5th. A draft of twenty Other Ranks arrived from the 12th Reserve Battalion on the 6th, and Major Lockhart Gordon arrived to take command of the Battalion on the 7th. A draft of 498 O.R. arrived from the 33rd, 81st and 83rd Reserve Battalions on the 9th. By degrees the Regiment reformed, trained and drilled back to a fighting force. On the 22nd, Gen. Sir Julian Byng, Army Corps Commander visited in the morning and all officers were addressed in the afternoon by Gen. Sir Julian Byng, Gen. Sir Herbert Plumer G.O.C. 2nd Army, Gen. Lipsett G.O.C. 3rd Canadian Division, and Col. Elinsley G.O.C. 8th Brigade. Working parties continue and on the 27th, groups of officers and men were assigned to front line instruction under command of the P.P.C.L.I. and 49th Battalion respectively. The remainder of the Battalion proceeds to billets at Steenvoorde on the 28th and 29th. Demonstrations on the use of defensive gas and bathing parades close the Battalion's blackest month.
1st - 23rd July 1916
Training continues from the 1st, with focus on tactics at the practice trenches, bomb throwing, trench digging, musketry and baths parades until the Battalion moves to Cavalry Barracks, Ypres, on the 14th, by which time it has been joined by 100 other ranks to increase its numbers. Working parties of up to 500 men are detailed for night work, including out in no man's land. One man is killed and three are wounded on the 16th. Working parties increase to 620 men by the 17th, when one further man was wounded. Moving to Zillebeke Bund [lake], on the 18th, working parties are now 475 men. 6 casualties, all stray bullet and minor wounds are incurred before the Battalion moves forward on the 23rd and relieves the 5th CMR in the front line trenches that held such disaster for them in front of Armagh Wood on June 2nd.
24th - 30th July 1916
Casualties were incurred on the 24th, with the loss of one officer, and wounds to another officer and one other rank. The enemy was quite active throughout the remainder of Battalion's tour on the front, with specific focuses of shelling by the enemy around Maple Copse, Observatory Ridge and Sanctuary Wood, making those who had survived June 2nd nervy at best. Snipers were very active on both sides and the Battalion experienced losses and casualties as a result. Relief by the 58th Battalion was complete on the 28th, with the Battalion moved back to Erie Camp, near Poperinge. Taking bath parades on the 28th and 29th, with the usual working parties being supplied, the Battalion shared divine Service with the 1st CMR on the 30th and then left for billets at Steenvoorde on the 31st.
1st Aug - 6th Sept 1916
Prior to moving to Camp Winnipeg on the 8th, the Battalion was occupied by a great deal of training and supplied men to all manner of working parties. They relieved the 14th Battalion at Swan Chateaux on 9th, and with a few intervening casualties subsequently went into the front line to relieve the 5th CMR on the 16th at "The Bluff", a southerly position near the Ypres-Comines canal. Relieved by the 2nd Essex Battalion on the 22nd, the Battalion moved to "D" Camp, and then transferred to billets in North Steenvoorde on the 23rd, where they stayed until September 6th.
7th - 26th Sept 1916
The Battalion moved out from the Ypres sector and after an overnight train journey, arrived at billets in Franqueville, on the Somme on the 8th. After a day and a half here they were moved on and after a circuitous couple of days, arrived by busses at Albert on the 11th, where they moved by platoons to the brick-fields north of the town. Surprisingly they were moved into the front line at Mouquet Farm, Pozières, the same evening, being bombarded with gas shells as they relieved the 5th Battalion. There for two days, the Battalion was relieved by the 5th CMR on the night of 13th/14th. The general attack on Courcelette was launched on the 15th, seeing the new "Tank" make its debut whilst five divisions of Cavalry waited to seize any opportunities afforded by a breakthrough. The 4th CMR was sent in to help push the advantage at 5pm as pivot troops for the larger flanking movement. Whilst "C" Company suffered platoon losses under withering machine gun fire, by 11pm the situation was under control with the 4th CMR in front of the infamous Zollern Redoubt. With 50 German prisoners and two captured machine guns to their credit, to the loss of 34 men and 52 wounded, they were relieved by the Lancashire Fusiliers on the evening of the 16th. They returned to Albert and rested until the 19th, when they were marched to Warloy. On the 20th they headed back towards the front at Bouzincourt, where they spent the following week.
27th - 30th Sept 1916
The regiment headed back to Albert and on through to Tara Hill, behind Pozières, where they relieved the 8th and 10th BNs in support of the 1st & 2nd CMRs, who were occupying the front line. They spent three days in support before relieving the 2nd CMR at 7pm on the 30th.
1st - 10th Oct 1916
Now 1,000 yards in front of the ground they had helped take in mid-September, they were sent in to help take Regina Trench. This proved very costly as Regina Trench was not fully captured and held. Viscious, close, bomb for bomb, hand to hand fighting saw advances into Regina Trench won and lost, as shell and sniper fire withered the attack to a halt as worn and very tired men and dwindling munitions made for a very long and very costly day. Some 70 men of the 4th CMR were lost as a result of that one day alone. Relieved by the 49th BN on the night of the 2nd/3rd, the Battalion went back to Albert for five days before returning on the 8th, at Tara Hill, near the Sunken Road, for three days of intense and often costly, dangerous work in the support trenches, and providing working parties in the front area.
11th - 31st Oct 1916
Being relieved on the 11th, and marching for Albert for one day's rest, the 4th CMR went back into the front line, relieving the 1st CMR on the 13th. The area was quiet and it was reported in the War Dairy on the 14th that "We did not try to stir up trouble". On the 15th they moved out to Warloy, via Bouzincourt and Senlis, and thence on to "very good" billets at Atheux on the 16th. They moved on to Barly on the 20th, and Berlencourt on the 21st. Staying on the move now they reached Maroeuil (a Divisional Reserve area for the Vimy front) on the 22nd, where they received orders to relieve the 2/24 London Regiment in Brigade Reserve near Anzin on the 24th, taking up life in the communications trenches in front of Ecurie. This was a peaceful sector by comparison to the hell they had recently endured, and here they stayed, provided working parties until relieving the 2nd CMR in the front line at Etrun on the 31st.
November & December 1916
Maintaining a routine of four days in the front line, four days in relief, at Etrun, the Battalion saw November and December through with just a few losses and plenty of continued training in musketry, bombing, sniping and route-marching.
17th Dec 1916 - 15th Jan 1917
A fake attack by the 4th CMR on the 17th, to cover actions of the 1st CMR to their left, proved so convincing that the enemy concentrated a heavy retaliation bombardment on the 4th CMR's front, inflicting so many casualties that the fake attack had to be abandoned. On the 23rd they returned to Etrun, going in to Divisional Reserve, where they spent their second Christmas; noting that few with the Battalion now were in it on the previous Christmas. The Battalion continued activity in the front line on January 1st, doing turn-about reliefs with the 2nd and 5th CMRs.