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Charles Leslie Lionel Payne
(1892-1975)
Chapter 7: Autumn 1916 - The Blood Baths of the Somme


Journey to the Somme

On 20th August the 6th Brigade C.M.G. Company began an erratic journey to the Somme sector, a move of which the officers had been informed ten days earlier.  Their first stop was at Bollezeele, to the west of Reningelst, where they were trained in gas defence, rifle drill with their newly issued Lee Enfield rifles, instruction in the use of (presumably Mills) bombs, and numerous inspections and parades.  After a week they proceeded to a new camp at Eperlecque with the remainder of the Brigade, where they continued to receive instruction on indirect fire, and practice in revolver, rifle and machine-gun fire on the ranges, and belt filling.  On 3rd September, the four sections were attached respectively to the four infantry battalions (No. 1 with the 27th, No. 2 the 28th, No. 3 the 29th and No. 4 with the 31st Battalion) on brigade manoeuvres.  On the following day they commenced the final leg of their move, by marching south to St. Omer, where they boarded a train in the late afternoon.

The train took all night to get to Candas. They disembarked at 4 a.m. and over the next three days marched with the rest of the 6th Brigade via La Vicogne and Vadencourt to an area known as "The Brickfields" just north of the town of Albert.

"Outside of Albert at the Brickfields, on the east side of the road, the Brigade bivouacked, crowded into small, sloping oblong tents ... Our bivouack tonight was extremely cold and very few slept.  Many more nights of this and our usefulness will be on the ebb ... the camping ground was windswept and towards evening bitterly cold." (from Donald Fraser's Diary)
There the men cleaned and checked their equipment and had daily inspections while the officers familiarized themselves with the layout of the area.  On the 8th September, the entire Canadian Corps were issued with cloth patches to sew onto the upper sleeves of their tunics, and which identified them as belonging to the Second Division.  Then on the 10th September, the entire Brigade moved up closer to the front lines in the region of Bailiff Wood - rather a misnomer, because there weren't many trees left - west of the ruins of the village of Contalmaison.  In the words of Donald Fraser of the 31st Infantry Battalion, who went through the village that day:
"Further on near the remains of a wood lay the ruins of Contalmaison, levelled to the ground, the nearest buildings showing up skeleton-like from our point of view."
Here they readied themselves for the attack planned for 15th September on the "slaughter grounds of the Somme or, as the Germans have expressed it, the blood baths of the Somme."  The ground over which they moved had been won at great cost from the Germans by the British III Corps and the 1st Australian Division in early July, and was littered with an elaborate system of trenches, deep dug-outs and machine-gun emplacements.  Over the next few days the machine-gun crews relieved the 1st Brigade CMG Company in the support lines - Section No. 3 moved to the Chalk Pit area - and commenced a programme of indirect firing on the German front, support and rear lines.  Retaliation took the form of bombardment by the Germans with "whiz bangs", H.E. and considerable aerial activity.

Battle of Courcelette

By the eve of the attack, the 27th and 28th Infantry Battalions had taken over from the 29th and 31st in the front line, north of the village of Pozieres, while No. 2 Machine-Gun Section had relieved No. 4 Section in the support lines.  Two of their gun crews under Lieutenant Cumming were attached to the 28th Battalion on the left of the front, while two gun crews under Lieutenant Robison accompanied the 27th Battalion on the right.  Numbers 3 and 4 Sections under Lieutenants Galbraith and McLelan were attached to the 1st Motor Machine Gun Brigade; they would be firing a barrage on the rear of the enemy lines.  No. 1 Section remained in reserve at Copse Alley.

At 6.20 a.m. an artillery barrage commenced and the infantry of the 27th and 28th Battalions, with the 31st in close support, went over the parapets, advancing on the German front lines.  The four gun crews of No. 2 Section had established their positions in the front line trenches at the jumping off positions, waiting to support the attack.  For an account of the battle, the following excerpts from Donald Fraser's Diary provide a good outline of the Canadian soldier's experience:

"The morning was opening out into a typical autumn one, sharp and slightly cloudy.  No Man's Land badly furrowed and scarred afforded fairly firm footing but the innumerable shell holes and general unevenness of the surface foretold difficulties in crossing.  Right on the second the barrage opened with a roar that seemed to split the heavans.  Looking along the right, about forty yards away, I caught the first glimpse of a kahki-clad figure climbing over the parapet.  It was the start of the first wave, the 27th Battalion.  More Winnipeg men followed ... In a hurry to overtake them and carry the line as even as possible, I was up and over in a trice, running into shell holes, down and up for about twenty yards, until I found that if I continued this procedure and tactic, loaded up as I was, I would be exhausted before I could get to grips with Fritz."

"It was at this juncture that instinct told me to avoid the shell holes and move along the edges.  I raised my head for the first time and looked at the Hun trench, and to my astonishment, saw Heiny after Heiny ranging along the line, up on the firing step, blazing wildly into us, to all appearances unmolested ... The air was seething with shells.  Immediately above, the atmosphere was cracking with a myriad of machine-gun bullets, startling and disconcerting in the extreme ... As I pressed forward with eyes strained, to the extent of being half closed, I expected and almost felt being shot in the stomach.  All around our men were falling, their rifles loosening from their grasp ... Halfway across the first wave seemed to melt and we were in front, heading for Fritz, who was firing wildly and frantically, and scared beyond measure as we bore down upon him ... Their trench was full and firing strong and as the remnants of us were nearing bombing reach, we almost, as one man, dropped into shell holes ... Further progress and it is more than likely we would have stepped into a volley of grenades."

"The moment after dropping into shell holes we started sniping. The target was so easy it was impossible to miss.  The Huns, not many yards ahead, were up on the firing step, blazing in panic at the advancing men behind us, seemingly with only one thought, namely to stop those moving, and in their fright and fear, forgot our little band lying close at hand.  Heiny after Heiny fell back in a heap as we closed upon the triggers."

"On my left at the edge of the shell hole, a few inches from my shoulder a little ground flew up, and at once I saw I was observed and that a Fritz had just missed me.  Pulling in my rifle I lay quiet.  Looking back not a man was moving, the attack was stopped ... As the attack subsided and not a soul moved in No Man's Land save the wounded twisting and moaning in their agony, it dawned upon me that he assault was a failure and now we were at the mercy of the enemy.  It was suicide to venture back and our only hope lay in waiting until darkness set in and then trying to win our way back ... The situation seemed critical ..."

"... a strange and curious sight appeared.  Away to my left rear, a huge gray object reared itself into view, and slowly, very slowly, it crawled along like a gigantic toad, feeling its way across the shell-stricken field.  It was a tank ... I watched it coming towards our direction.  How painfully slow it travelled.  Down and up the shell holes it clambered, a weird, ungainly monster, moving relentlessly forward.  Suddenly the men from the ground looked up, rose as if from the dead, and running from the flanks to behind it, followed in the rear as if to be in on the kill ... it gave new life and vigour to our men ... Instinctively I jumped up and quickly, though warily, ran to where I could see into Fritz's trench, with bayonet pointing and finger on the trigger ... I expected opposition and was ready for danger, but a swift glance, and to my amazement, not a German was staring at me, far less being defiant.  Down the trench about a hundred yards, several Huns, minus rifles and equipment, got out of their trench and were beating it back over the open, terrified at the approach of the tank."

This tank was one of five Mark Is to support the 6th Brigade attack, on the occasion of the first ever use of tanks in battle.  One of these broke down before reaching the front line; another two, on the left front, became stuck after crossing McDonnell Trench.  The two remaining tanks reached the Sugar Factory, but this was already in Canadian hands, a deep dugout there having been cleared by the 21st and 20th Battalions (4th Brigade), so they returned to Pozieres.
"When I jumped into the trench, the sight I beheld, for sheer bloodiness and murder, baffles description.  Apparently our artillery had sent over a last minute shrapnel barrage, for the Huns were terribly mangled about the head and shoulders, which coupled with our sniping, completely wiped out every Heiny in the bays in front of us.  Every one of them was either dead or dying and the trench literally was running blood.  As each bay contained three to five men, it required no imagination to picture the carnage."

"The survivors of the 27th and 28th Battalions, with odds and ends of the 31st, jumped over Fritz's front line, and continued their way to the objective.  The last I saw of them, they were on the skyline, going over the ridge, their numbers pretty well thinned out.  A few patrols of the 31st penetrated to the outskirts of Courcelette."

"The Hun command apparently realized the extent of our attack for shortly afterwards the hostile artillery opened up on his [former] front line, right away back to our communications and belaboured these parts for a considerable period, sending us back for the second time and compelling us to seek safety in the snuggest portions of the trench."

The 6th Brigade reached their objectives by 7.30 a.m.  The 27th took Sugar Trench, while the 28th, after overcoming a strongpoint on the Ovillers-Courcellette Track, advanced part way up McDonnell Trench.  At 3.30 p.m., after a request from the 27th Battalion, two further gun crews from No. 1 Section under Lieutenant Douglas were sent up to the front lines.  Battalions of the 5th Brigade (22nd and 25th Battalions) came up in the afternoon and, supported by the 7th, they attacked Courcelette in the early evening.  The village was taken without much difficulty, and the action was over by 7 p.m.  On the following morning, No. 1 and No. 2 Sections were eventually relieved, and returned to the dugouts in Bailiff Wood by 11 a.m.  A couple of gun crews remained to subject the German positions to some considerable indirect fire, while No. 4 Section "stood to" awaiting further instructions.  By the morning of the 17th, however, most of the machine-gun company had returned to the camp at The Brickfields.  The last crews eventually arrived there with Captain Taylor at 12.45 a.m. on the 18th September.

Thus ended the Battle of Courcelette.  Casulaites suffered by the 6th Brigade had been considerable: the 31st Battalion had a total of 247 casualties, while the 28th had 302.  The machine-gunners, however, got through it relatively unharmed.  While the battle continued, they spent the next week cleaning and checking equipment, enduring daily inspections, and marching around the countryside in the rear area.  They stayed in billets and camps in Warloy-Baillon, Val-de-Maison (where some of the men spent the night in the loft of a barn), Montrelet and Contay-Vadencourt.  On the morning of the 24th, after a parade at 8.15 a.m., the transport and headquarters details of the company marched back to the Brickfields camp, north of Albert, and then in the afternoon on to the Sausage Valley-Chalk Pit area.  Donald Fraser, having just transferred to the machine-gun company from the 31st Battalion, found his first day in the outfit particularly stressful:

"At 9:00 a.m. our trek begins.  We go through Warloy-Baillon and halt for a couple of hours on the right side of the road on this side of Albert.  Proceeding, we march through Albert and pass a very tired out, strurdy-looking German peasant soldier who is being led back a captive.  The day is very hot, my pack heavy, and as I developed a strained ankle, between pain and heat, perspiration poyred out of me.  For years afterwards, [Bud] Willox, who was marching behind me, reminded me of that sweltering day, saying that each individual hair of my head stood straight out with a blob of sweat at the end, dropping down in tiny cascades.  We enter the ruins of la Boiselle, and turning to the south, take up our quarters in scattered surface dugouts in Sausage Valley, a few hundred yards from an enormous crater created by the explosion of a mine at the commencement of the Somme attack."
The remainder of the company escaped the heat by being bused directly back to Sausage Valley on the afternoon of the 24th September.

Battle of Thiepval Ridge

On the evening of Sunday 24th September, No. 3 Section relieved the 1st Brigade C.M.G. Company, and the remaining crews went into the line the following morning.  The infantry of the brigade had moved into trenches previously occupied by the 1st Canadian Division on the north and east of the village of Courcelette.  To the right of the Canadians, between Courcelette and Flers, the Battle of Morval commenced on Monday morning, and a retaliatory German barrage on the adjacent British III Corps in the afternoon spilled over on to the trenches occupied by the 28th and 31st Battalions, causing some casualties.  Then the Germans attacked the front trenches near the Courcelette cemetery, occupied by the 28th, but were driven back.  That evening preparations were made for the initial attack in the Battle of Thiepval Ridge.  The infantry moved forward to their jumping off positions, taking some considerable time because of the continuing enemy artillery and machine-gun bombardment.  The machine-guns from the company proceeded to their indirect firing positions, except four crews from No. 4 Section and two from No. 3, who were attached to the 28th (on the right front), 29th (left front) and 31st Battalion for their advance.

Just after midday on Tuesday 26th, the infantry attacked under the protection of "a terrific bombardment" of shrapnel from artillery and machine-guns, with two tanks in support.  According to Fraser, "the range was inaccurate and the enemy replied with a fierce [counter] barrage".  Also the tanks were largely ineffective: one of them became ditched, while the other was put out of action by a direct hit from a shell.  The 29th Battalion, who were attacking with the 28th along "Gun Pit Alley" (later called "Death Valley") in the direction of the "Practice Trenches" north-east of Courcellette, managed to capture their first objective, the German front lines, very quickly and without too much difficulty.  The 28th, however, were unable to leave the safety of their trenches due to the intensity of the barrage.  The 31st, who had been ordered to advance from the vicinity of Courcelette village, failed initially to make much progress due to the concentrated fire directed upon them, and were then caught by enemy fire when they unexpectedly encountered barbed wire, and enemy still occupying a portion of the trench that had not been touched by the artullery barrage.  One platoon with a Lewis-gun section managed to reach their objective on their extreme left, adjacent to the trenches captured by the 29th Battalion, but much damage was inflicted by the enemy machine-guns.  During the night, the Germans mounted two counter-attacks, but these were driven off successfully.

Early on the morning of Wednesday 27th, after a night of very heavy bombardment, patrols sent out into No-Man's Land by the 28th and 29th Battalions discovered that the Germans were pulling back to the Regina Trench.  Together they managed to occupy the Practice Trenches, while the 31st reached the previous day's objective.  Later in the day, they were reinforced along the Brigade front by the 27th Battalion.  On the morning of the 28th it appeared that the Germans had indeed retired for a short distance along the entire front.  Cavalry patrols sent out at dawn to the right of the 28th, along the Albert-Bapaume road, came under machine-gun fire from Destremont Farm; they reported enemy in some force on the Le Sars Line and in Regina Trench in the vicinity of its intersection with the Pys Road.  At 7 a.m. the 19th and 26th Battalions advanced for short distances over the 6th Brigade, but met with considerable machine-gun fire from the direction of Regina Trench.  A further two unsuccessful attempts were made in the afternoon, after which the entire 6th Brigade we relieved by the 4th.  The machine-gun sections all moved back to Sausage Valley as soon as the relief had taken place.

Fraser reported that the 31st and 29th Battalions had lost 375 and over 400 men respectively in the advance, while the 28th Battalion (from Robert Lindsay's excellent History of the 28th (Northwest) Battalion web site) suffered 142 casualties.  According to Fraser,

"Quite a lot of fatalities were inflicted on the enemy but our fighting strength had nearly disappeared ... As was to be expected, the latest drafts felt the shock of the fight.  They were unnerved by the roar of the artillery and noise of bursting shells and the thought of facing death was too much strain on them and they failed to grasp the situation and understand that they had to go forward and tangle with the enemy.  It was the first and last experience for many."
while, Lindsay reports on the following encounter and exchange taking place shortly after the battle:
"Captain D.E. Macintyre meets the [28th] Battalion's acting commander, Major Alex Ross with a column of about a company of men near Canaples. When asked where the rest of the battalion was, Major Ross replied, 'This is all of the battalion, Mac, We lost a lot of men.'"
Two men from the 6th Brigade CMG Company were killed, Privates William Hilton Cairns (422209) and Gifford Campbell Hubert (445355), while another two, including Lieutenant Joseph McCombie Cumming, were shell-shocked.

The artillery remained very active over the next few days, while the company remained in camp, cleaning and checking their equipment, filling belts and resting.  Fraser described his experiences and feelings about the recent action:

"Our guns are still moving up and Fritz is falling back.  To me the advance seemed a costly bit of business, but if Fritz is hit hard and pushed back I guess it satisfies the Higher Command despite tremendous casualties.  The expenditure of shells is tremendous and damage to the enemy must be terrific."
The complete company returned with transport to the dug-outs in Bailiff Wood on the evening of Sunday 1st October.  No. 1 Section went back into the line, attached to the 27th and 28th Battalions in the vicinity of where they had been the previous week, probably near Kenora and Hessian Trenches.  Some ground had been gained by the 4th and 5th Brigades that day which helped to straighten up the line.  Nos. 2 and 3 Sections set up indirect firing positions near Sugar Trench, while No. 4 Section remained in reserve near Company headquarters.  They continued with indirect fire on the enemy rear lines and likely avenues of approach, but there were no further major actions before their relief on the night of the 3rd/4th October.  The objective of the infamous Regina Trench had not been reached, but the 6th Brigade would not return to this part of the line again.  The honour of finally taking the Regina Trench would go to 11th Canadian Brigade (Fourth Division) almost three weeks later.

The morning of the Wednesday 4th was cold and showery.  After a company parade at 11.20 a.m. they marched off to Albert, where they joined the remainder of the Brigade and proceeded via Bouzincourt to reserve in a tented camp at Warloy-Baillon.  There they were issued with new clothing, cleaned the rest of their equipment, and were permitted to rest for a few days.  On the second night they even moved into more comfortable billets in the village.  On Saturday 7th October, they had a route march four miles to the north to near the village of Varennes.  There was a brief flurry of activity at midday on Sunday, when orders were received that the company was being taken out of reserve, and that they were to proceed to La Vicogne.  Arriving there at 6 p.m. that evening, to their relief, they found that the movement order had been cancelled, which gave them another day of rest.

Move to the Arras Front

After a parade at 9.30 a.m. on 10th October they commenced the long march north to the Arras front much of which would be with the entire Canadian Sixth Brigade.  They passed through Beauval, Doullens, Bretel (night of 10th), Hem, Risquetout, Barly (11th), Neuvillette, Bouquemaison, Arbres, Rebreuviette, Estree-Wamin, Magnicourt, Gouy-en-Ternois (12th), Maizieres, Penin, Tincques, Chelers, Magnicourt-en-Compte, Houvelin and La Comte (13th), where they stayed two nights.  On the 15th October they were on the march once again, through a more prosperous coal mining district, and travelling through the villages of Beugin, Houdain, Maisnil-les-Ruitz to the town of Barlin (west of Lens).  It was a long day: having started at 8.30 a.m. they only reached their destination at 11.33 that night, and the welcome they received was, as Donald Fraser recounts, a "most unusual experience":

"It was so novel we could hardly believe our eyes.  Fancy being ushered into an occupied brick house with doors and windows intact and no gaping holes in the roof or gables.  True the room we entered contained not a particle of furniture, but the floor was 'as clean as a whistle'.  We grinned as we slung our equipment off after several days' continuous hiking and laid down to rest.  Furthermore, there was no crushing, only seven to the room - a gun crew.  The women of the house lit a fire and made us very comfortable, giving us, into the bargain, a cup of coffee and later in the day, a bowl of soup.  This was the best billet we had before or after.  But our stay was of short duration and we could not tarry, much to our regret."
Lieutenant Hardiman and the Company Sergeant Major negotiated the planned relief with the 63rd (Imperial) M.G. Coy the following day, and they proceeded to their new company headquarters at Aix Noulette, south-east of Barlin, on the morning of Monday 16th October.
"We are treading the road again on the way to a new front.  Hersin Coupigny soon looms ahead and we realize we are in the midst of a coal area; slag heaps become a prominent picture in the landscape.  Hersin is a brick town on fair dimensions and more prosperous looking than the towns and villages of the farming districts.  Further on we halted at Sains-en-Gohelle where the sections split up and pursue their respective ways to the line.  Here the countryside becomes more hilly and patches of woodland dot the slopes and hollows. Next we pass the tiny village of Boyeffles in a picturesque setting ..."
By 4.30 that afternoon they were in their new positions and the relief was complete.  Fraser was in No. 4 Section - they took a rather circuitous route around the hills to the front line at the northern end of Vimy Ridge, which was to play such an important role in their lives the following spring. For the moment, however, the front was relatively quiet.  Fraser's crew occupied a deep and rather cramped dug-out in Spur Alley Trench, overlooking the village of Souchez, and "The Pimple", at that time occupied by the enemy.  The area which they had moved into had been the object of some fierce fighting between the French and German forces in May 1915.  So while the countryside was very pretty, there was much evidence of the previous activity, as well as current preparations by the enemy.  The following were noted by Fraser:
"... and then a right angled turn takes us to an outstanding landmark - the Church of Ablain St. Nazaire.  Around here are scattered the ruins of quite a number of houses while the church itself is a mere shell ... From our position a great view is obtained. Down below in the middle of the valley is the Sugar Refinery around which a tremendous battle took place ... When out roaming in the vicinity of the trench, I came across French and German skeletons with rotten clothing and equipment hanging on them ... Coming back over the Lorette Plateau we passed a finely kept French cemetery containing about eight hundred graves ... A couple of miles nearer Boyeffles was another French cemetery where about two hundred soldiers are buried.  The trek back through a varied stretch of woodland was quite enjoyable ... [I] went over the ridge to explore our surroundings.  I cam across a dead Frenchman half buried ... Close by lay another dead soldier clothed in a brownish uniform.  He appeared to be a French Colonial, a Moroccan ... On the way out of the line we passed what we thought was only a boot, but, on closer inspection, found a leg bone in it."
This part of the front was now very quiet, which permitted Fraser, and presumably the other members of the company, to relax a little.  He makes numerous comments regarding their way of life:
"Since we arrived it has been very quiet and if this continues we should have quite a home here.  Artillery does not appear to be much in evidence, but on the other hand, a fair amount of trench mortar work is carried on, the resultant explosions having a tendency to create a bad attack of nerves ... It is a wet, disagreeable day.  We received our pay in the trenches, which is something unusual.  Things being quiet proves that we have been sent to this front for a rest-up ... The trenches around here are infested with rats, principally black ones.  Food not in cans has to be hung up in the dug-outs to avoid being spoiled.  The rats are a perfect nuisance, running in and out of the dug-outs, along the trenches and up and down the parapet in their hundreds ... We are having a pretty fine time of it doing our own cooking and no fatigues.  Every fourth day finds one of us officially cooking and going for rations, the other three days being blank except two hours guard per day and night ... At Herson we had our photos taken at a place [which] we found out later, was of ill repute."
N.B. CLLP's pay sheets show that he was paid on the 20th October.

On 8th December 1916, CLLP was granted 10 days leave in England, just before the unit was due to return to the line.  By this time, he had accumulated almost $90 in his pay account; he withdrew over half of it, and was paid $48.67 at or by "CPM" (Central Pay Master?) on 10th December.  He presumably departed for his leave shortly thereafter, because on 22nd December he returned from leave "in the field".
 

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