St. Eloi and Mount Sorrel
Grim Baptism in the Salient
Typical Scene in the Ypres Salient
In the spring of 1916 Canadian forces fought a series of confused, bloody fights in the heart of the Ypres Salient. In the first group actions, the Second Division of the CEF was initiated in the attritional warfare of the Western Front near the village of St. Eloi. The action was actually begun on 27 March 1916 by the depleted 3rd British Division. At 4:15 am on that day, six mines were blown under German lines. The Tommies advanced in areas where the German defending units had been annihilated. However, with the landscape altered beyond recognition and with enemy machine-gun fire holding them back, the advance soon bogged down.
On the night of April 3-4 the citizen soldiers of Canada's new Second Division were sent to replace the exhausted British troops. They were then simply pounded for three days as men scrambled to dig even shallow depressions in the mud for cover. Some trenches were completely obliterated by exploding shells, leaving the men defenseless. On 6 April the German Army counter attacked, regaining much of the ground they had lost to the British earlier. After a further sequence of attack -- counterattack, all the land gained earlier had been retaken. The Second Division which suffered 1,373 casualties in these operations had met with frustration and failure. It was a bitter pill.
In June the new Third Division would have a similar baptism, but at a even very higher price. North of St. Eloi the Third held a barren piece of higher ground aptly called "Observatory Ridge," located between Sanctuary Wood and Mount Sorrel. On June 2nd the enemy launched an assault on this position starting with an utterly ferocious artillery barrage. With division commander MG Malcolm Mercer killed early in the assault and one of his brigadiers captured, the troops were almost leaderless. Then the Germans exploded four mines of their own. In the chaos, they easily captured Mount Sorrel and other key points. New Canadian Corps Commander Julian Byng issued orders for an immediate counterattack which recaptured about 1,000 yards of depth and closed a 600-yard gap on the Ridge. But the German Army now held a much improved position.
Canadian Corps Over the Top, 1916
For several days there were attacks and counterattacks by both sides, but a new Canadian assault by the First Division was planned, under the direction of General Arthur Currie of Ypres fame. Beginning on 12 June, the reinforced artillery blasted the German positions for a solid 12 hours. Then the Canadians attacked behind a smoke screen. This time the attack was a success. The Canadian Corps showed what it could accomplish when properly supplied and supported. By the end of June, though, the Corps had absorbed 8,000 casualties in this series of actions in the Salient. And the Battle of the Somme was about to begin.
For more information on the battles in the Salient visit:
Ypres In Flanders Fields Museum