WWI trench

  • WWI-trench
  • WWI-trench-view
  • WWI-trench-view2

26th Battalion (New Brunswick) CEF

Shortly after the First Contingent of the CEF left for England, the government of Canada authorized the recruiting of a second contingent of volunteers. Fifteen new battalions were recruited, trained and mobilized during the winter of 1914-1915. New Brunswick raised a battalion known as the “Fighting 26th”.

The 26th (New Brunswick) Battalion was an infantry battalion composed of volunteers from the province of New Brunswick for the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) during the First World War.  The 26th was formed at St. John on 2 November 1914 as part of the Second Contingent of the CEF.  The 26th was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel J. L. McAviry.  At full strength the battalion had a complement of 35 officers and 996 other ranks.

In the spring and early summer of 1915, the Second Contingent sailed for England.  Where the First Contingent had sailed as a convoy the Second Contingent battalions left in separate transports.  The 26th sailed from St. John on 13 June 1915 aboard the transport S. S. Caledonia.

When the 26th arrived in England, they and the rest of the Second Contingent spent the summer of 1915 training at Shorncliffe on the coast of Kent.  From the Contingent a new Canadian Division was formed – the 2nd.  Like the 1st Canadian Division, the 2nd had three brigades of four battalions each.

The 26th New Brunswick battalion became part of the 5th Infantry Brigade, 2nd Canadian Division.  The 2nd Division was commanded by Major-General Henry E. Burstall, a 47 year old artillery officer from Quebec City.  The Fifth Brigade was commanded by Brigadier-General J. M. Ross.  In addition to the 26th, the Fifth Brigade contained the 22nd French Canadian Battalion, the 24th Victoria Rifles of Canada Battalion, the 25th Nova Scotia Rifles Battalion, and the 5th Trench Mortar Battery.

It disembarked in France on 16 September, where it fought as part of the 5th Infantry Brigade, 2nd Canadian Division in France and Flanders until the end of the war. The battalion participated in all of the major battles in which the Canadian Corps was involved.

Author Allan Crabtree wrote about the experiences of soldiers of the 26th, and extracts from his writings are included here.

When the German army invaded Belgium on 3 August 1914, Britain rushed troops to stop them.  The British were able to hold the strategic town of Ypres and stopped the German advance into France.  Ypres was a center of textile weaving, and was noted for its magnificent architecture from medieval times including the Ypres Cathedral and the 1214 Cloth Hall.

While the British were able to stop the German advance, they were not able to move much further north from Ypres.  The Germans were able to stop any Allied advance north to drive the Germans from the Belgian coast and capture their submarine bases at the ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge.   Both sides dug in, and a bulge in the front lines, or salient, developed.

The British launched the First Battle of Ypres in October 1914 in an attempt to break through the German lines. Fighting continued throughout October and November with huge losses of life and no significant changes in the salient.

The Second Battle of Ypres followed the next spring, during April and May 1915. The Germans used chlorine gas for the first time in warfare and succeeded in driving the British back to the town of Ypres. They were not able to push the British further, however, and the stalemate continued for the next two years.

In July, the British commander Sir Douglas Haig launched his disastrous drive in Flanders designed to break through the front and capture the German submarine bases on the Belgian coast. This Third Battle of Ypres is universally known as the Battle of Passchendaele. The offensive had had a successful prelude at Messines in June, but this local success was followed by weeks of delay.

Within a few days, the heaviest rains for 30 years had turned the soil into a quagmire, producing thick mud that clogged up rifles and immobilized tanks. It eventually became so deep that men and horses drowned in it. As the British soldiers struggled in the morass, the Germans inflicted frightful casualties from lines fortified with machine guns placed in concrete pill boxes.

In the next four months at Ypres only negligible advances were made. Early in October, although the main objectives were still in German hands and the British forces were reaching the point of exhaustion, Haig determined on one more drive. The Canadian Corps was ordered to relieve the decimated Anzac forces in the Ypres sector and prepare for the capture of Passchendaele and the German occupied ridge that ran east and south to Ypres (the shaded area on the map).

Canadian Corps Commander General Currie inspected the muddy battlefield and protested that the operation was impossible without heavy cost. He was overruled and so began careful and painstaking preparations for the assault. In a series of attacks beginning on October 26, 20,000 men under heavy fire inched their way from shell-hole to shell-hole. The Canadians seized Passchendaele on November 6, but at a terrible cost.

In little over three months the Battle of Passchendaele cost over half a million lives. The Germans lost about 250,000 lives and the Allies 300,000 of whom 15,654 were Canadian. 90,000 Allied bodies were never identified, and more than 54,000 were never recovered and their graves are not known.

War on the Western Front in World War I was horrible enough, with the miseries of life in the trenches and infantry charges “over the top” against emplaced machine guns, barbed wire, and massed artillery. The Battle of Passchendaele, however, was probably the worst of the Western Front struggles.

Many of these missing and unknown from the battle had been blown to bits by artillery or had drowned in the dreadful mud that was the Ypres – Passchendaele battlefield. Many of the drowned were exhausted or wounded men who had slipped or fallen off the duckboards and were unable to escape the filthy, foul-smelling glutinous mud. They sunk deeper to their deaths as they struggled. Passchendaele became infamous because the huge number of casualties and the mud.

Before war came the fields of Flanders were gently rolling pasturelands. The Flemish had reclaimed a vast marsh stretching for miles with an elaborate drainage system into a bucolic landscape. All the towns and roads were located on high ground as much as possible, and sheep and cattle grazed on the pastures.

When Ypres became a major battlefield in the war, the continual artillery barrages from both sides destroyed the drainage system and any vegetation, and the land began to revert to marsh. The soils were a heavy clay, and with water added became a clinging, pervasive, impossible mud.

Before the rains came, the troops were able to dig trenches like the one shown in this photo. With sumps and wooden duckboards they could be kept fairly dry. When the fall rains began, as they always do in Belgium, the trenches filled with water and the soldiers had to stand for hours in water to their knees. The battlefield became an endless sea of mud deep enough to drown horses and men who were unlucky enough to fall into it.

The rains in the fall of 1917 were unusually heavy and the entire battlefield was transformed into a sea of mud. The soldiers slept in the mud, crawled in the mud, fought in the mud, and drowned in the mud. The mud also clogged rifles, ruined food, and rendered artillery useless.

The Battle of Passchendaele opened with an artillery barrage of the enemy lines that lasted two weeks, with 4.5 million shells fired from 3,000 guns. When the wind came from the continent, artillery fire at Ypres could be heard as far away as in London!

For the British, Passchendaele amounted to the horror of warfare in a morass, in a surreal world where men and animals simply vanished in pools of mud. Just getting to the front was a horrendous experience: horses and men slipped off roads and disappeared before they could be rescued. The dead were put to use as stepping stones, only to slip out of sight.

The 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions were ordered to the Ypres front on October 13, 1917. They were moved by rail to Ypres and then marched by battalion to the front lines, arriving in early November. At 4:00 a.m. on Tuesday, November 6, 1917 they were in position to charge the German positions at Passchendaele village, about 2,000 yards away.

The weather had improved for several days preceding the attack, with no rain falling. Towards morning the overcast sky cleared and stars were visible. A bright full moon shown down on Passchendaele. There was a brisk wind, and it was cold.

Zero hour was 06:00 a.m., and for two minutes every Canadian gun fired on the enemy defenses. The artillery barrage began to creep forward at a rate of 50 yards every four minutes. Following closely behind the barrage the infantry went over the top and slogged their way towards their objectives through the mud. The 1st Division was on the left of the advancing line, and the 2nd Division under Major-General Henry Burstall was on the right of the line. He had deployed the 28th Northwest Battalion, the 31st Alberta Battalion, the 27th Winnipeg Battalion, and the 26th New Brunswick Battalion. The “Fighting 26th” was on the far right of the battle line.

The German artillery began firing at the Canadian troops advancing towards the German lines. The noise was deafening. The mud and water was in places knee-deep and sometimes waist-deep, but the infantry continued advancing through the heavy enemy artillery and machine gun fire.

The 26th moved steadily towards their objective, but with heavy losses. For example, the 26th’s A Company started with 130 men and finished with only 30 at the end of the push. Most of the casualties were from shell fire, and very little from German machine gun fire. More than one in three soldiers in the 26th Battalion were wounded, killed, or missing.

The “Fighting 26th” was successful in their advance. At 07:35 a.m., barely an hour and a half after zero hour, they reached the high ground immediately south of Passchendaele. They fired three white flares to signal that they had reached their “green line” objective.

The other three battalions in the Division also reached their objectives, and by 07:40 a.m. the entire village of Passchendaele was in Canadian hands. Although the high ground on which the village was located was only 165 feet above sea level, the Canadians were able to see the entire Ypres battleground. The high ground had given the Germans a clear advantage.

The rains started during the afternoon. It was only a drizzle at first but became progressively heavier as the day wore on. The Canadians held on during the night through heavy German shelling, with only shell-holes to seek shelter in from the jagged metal that filled the air. They braced for counter-attacks from the Germans, but the attacks never came. When they were relieved the next day, the casualties were staggering.

On that one day, 6 November 1917, the 26th Battalion suffered 300 casualties as they took Passchendaele.  All of the company commanders were casualties, either dead or wounded or missing in action.  The battalion’s casualties were more than 1/3 of their soldiers fighting that day.  The other Canadian battalions suffered similar losses.  In one day of battle the Canadians suffered a total of 2,238 casualties, including 734 dead.  In the three months of the battle for Passchendaele the Canadian contingent lost 15,654 soldiers.

The names of more than 54,000 Allied officers and men whose graves are not known, including 6,940 Canadian soldiers, are carved into the Ypres Menin Gate Memorial.  The Gate is one of four memorials to the missing of Ypres, and is located on the eastern side of the town of Ypres on the road to Menin and Courtrai.  The site of the Menin Gate was chosen because of the hundreds of thousands of men who passed through it on their way to the battlefields.  Each night at 8:00 p.m. the traffic is stopped at the Menin Gate while members of the local Fire Brigade sound the Last Post under the Memorial’s arches.[1]

The battalion which had almost 6,000 officers and men pass through its roster, was disbanded on 30 August 1920.[2]

The 26th battalion had six Officers Commanding:

 

Lt.-Col. J.L. McAvity, 15 June 1915 – 29 May 1916

Lt.-Col. A.E.G. McKenzie, DSO, 29 May 1916 – 2 July 1917

Lt.-Col. W.R. Brown, DSO, 2 July 1917 – 4 October 1917

Lt.-Col. A.E.G. McKenzie, DSO, 4 October 1917 – 29 September 1918

Maj. C.G. Porter, DSO, 28 August 1918 – 5 September 1918

Lt.-Col. W.R. Brown, DSO, 5 September 1918-Demobilization

 

The 26th Battalion was awarded the following battle honours:

 

MOUNT SORREL

SOMME, 1916, ’18

Flers-Courcelette

Thiepval

Ancre Heights

ARRAS, 1917, ’18

Vimy, 1917

Arleux

Scarpe, 1917, ’18

HILL 70

Ypres 1917

Passchendaele

AMIENS

HINDENBURG LINE

Canal du Nord

Cambrai, 1918

PURSUIT TO MONS

FRANCE AND FLANDERS, 1915-18.[3]

 

The 26th Battalion (New Brunswick), CEF, is perpetuated by The Royal New Brunswick Regiment.

Canadian Expeditionary Force

The Canadian Expeditionary Force was the overseas force created by the Canadian government in 1914 and sent to Europe as Canada’s contribution to the defence of the Empire in the First World War. The First Contingent was assembled at Valcartier shortly after the outbreak of war in August, sent to England to train, and went into the trenches in 1915. The Contingent fought at Second Ypres in Apr 1915, known as the Canadian Division, and when a second division arrived in France were re-designated 1st Canadian Division. Eventually, four divisions were employed in France, and grouped under a corps headquarters. Collectively, they became known as the Canadian Corps. A 5th Division served in the UK and was eventually broken up for reinforcements.

The Canadian Corps and the Canadian Expeditionary Force are not synonymous terms. The CEF included soldiers in the UK and even a small number in Canada. The Canadian Corps was a combatant formation of the British Expeditionary Force.

The mobilization of the CEF was a haphazard and highly politicized affair. Defence Minister Sir Sam Hughes oversaw the mobilization personally, which was notable for the lack of attention it paid to prewar plans. The dozens of named infantry regiments of the Canadian Militia were ignored in favour of creating numbered battalions, often from more than one regiment.

While new battalions of the CEF continued to be created, the pre-war infantry Regiments retained their part-time status, and continued their existence in Canada under their previous designations.

The CEF eventually came to number 260 separate numbered infantry battalions, 13 regiments of mounted rifles, and many units of the supporting arms including 13 railway troop battalions, 5 pioneer battalions, field and heavy artillery, field ambulance, medical, dental, forestry, labour, tunnelling, cyclist, and service units. By war’s end, a Canadian Machine Gun Corps had been formed, and many soldiers had experience flying with the British Royal Flying Corps before it became a separate service known as the Royal Air Force.

The Canadian Expeditionary Force suffered 60,661 dead during the war, or 9.28% of the 619,636 who enlisted.

The CEF was disbanded in 1919. When the entire Canadian Militia was reorganized in 1920, a system of perpetuations was created whereby the new regiments of the Militia were permitted to carry on the traditions, and eventually inherit the Battle Honours, of the wartime battalions.[4]

 

 

[1] Allen Crabtree, http://www.crabcoll.com/journal/harry.html.

[2] Canadian Forces Publication A-DH-267-003 Insignia and Lineages of the Canadian Forces. Volume 3: Combat Arms Regiments.

[3] Meek, John F. Over the Top! The Canadian Infantry in the First World War. Orangeville, Ont.: The Author, 1971

[4] http://www.canadiansoldiers.com/organization/canadianexpeditionaryforce.htm.