The Story of the 28th Battalion - 1914 - 1917

by G. E. Hewitt

The First Big Test

THE CRATER FIGHTING-ST. ELOI

The really momentous history of the 28th may be said to have begun with the fighting for the craters of St. Eloi. April 3, 1916, marked the long-drawn-out struggle against an enemy already in possession of every possible advantage-in men, in artillery, in machine guns, and in reconnoitering facilities. Aeroplanes could hardly be said to have come into their own, and they played no conspicuous part in the operations.

Little need be said here of the events which flung the westerners into one of the most obscure engagements in the history of the present war.

The craters lay between the opposing front lines at St. Eloi, and were the result of a series of mines exploded by the British on March 27. From that day, when English troops of the 3rd Division made a long-delayed attack upon the enemy, until the arrival of the Canadians on the scene a week later, the situation was never cleared up. Reconnaissance was carried out in face of unprecedented difficulties, and with little success. Both sides of artillery kept up a continuous fire during all the intervening days, and attempts to gain definite in-formation usually ended disastrously. It is almost certain that no British troops had taken over trenches with such bewildering " facts " in their possession before.

The brunt of the ordeal fell upon the 6th Brigade which undertook the relief of British regiments on the night of April 3-4, with the 27th and 81st Battalions in the front line, the 29th in support, and the 28th in reserve at. Dickebusch.

The night of the relief was one of inky gloom, and raw with a damp, clammy cold, which pierced to the marrow. Moreover, the roads to the front line were extremely bad, and the reserve and support trenches were choked with mud.

The most terse description I have heard of the conditions which confronted the 6th Brigade at St. Eloi was that of a Canadian Staff Officer, an eye-witness, who reported to Divisional Headquarters that "our front line is no line at all. The men are unprotected and in mud and. filth, and have to be relieved every twenty-four hours." To make things worse, many wounded still lay on the battlefield, and it fell to the lot of Canadian stretcher-bearers to remove as many as possible to the nearest dressing stations, usually overland, and through a storm of high explosive and shrapnel that never let up.

GERMANS ATTACK-28th AT VOORMEZEELE.

The enemy's first attack upon the positions of the Canadians began in the early morning of April 6, after a colossal concentration of artillery on a front of considerably less than a thousand yards. The 27th, 29th, and 31st Battalions were the sufferers, though isolated companies of each of these units fought the Germans with great heroism, heavily handicapped as they were. Meanwhile, the 28th had moved up from brigade reserve to the centre of the support line, the shell-wrecked village of Voormezeele, where they were subjected to as severe a shelling as any experienced in the forward trenches.

In the evening of the 6th many heroic attempts were made to reconnoitre the area of the craters and the German front line, and in this work, officers and men of the 28th assisted gallantly-the efforts of Captain Styles of "B" Company, Captain L. M. Bidwell of "D" Company, and Lieuts. McIntosh and Rowlandson were particularly courageous if not productive of good. Several bombing parties were organised and ventured out into the " Unknown " in vain endeavours to reach parties of the 31st Battalion which were holding on with wonderful endurance in face of tremendous odds. In the van of these attacking parties went Lieut. Gerald D. Murphy, a young Saskatchewan bank clerk, who displayed grit of the highest orders throughout the fighting. Time and again Murphy and his band of bombers reached the craters and eventually succeeded in establishing posts in three of them. Another hero of that memorable night of the 6th was Captain Styles, a well-known figure in Saskatchewan football circles, who continually exposed himself, with a total disregard of his own skin, in an attempt to consolidate scattered units of the 28th and 31st.

Official reports of the doings of the battalion in the early morning of the 7th were brief and tragic. They serve only to emphasise the hopelessness of the situation that Colonel Embury and his men were up against. For instance, this one by the colonel himself :-" I told Captain Styles he was to come around north of the craters. He started off at 11.30 and left part of his men with Major Daly (31st Battalion). It was dark and raining hard, and we had never seen the ground before. The craters looked just like the ordinary ground (a morass). Styles went up and found Lieut. Murphy at 4 o'clock, but had no time to fix up for an attack. The men were all in; they had only had three hours' sleep in forty-eight."

Valorous conduct characterised every endeavour by the 28th men to carry out quickly changing orders during two most critical nights, and though the casual-ties of the battalion were the least in the Brigade, the men from Saskatchewan played a big role.

The toll of the Brigade in killed, wounded and missing during this brief tour at St. Eloi was exceedingly high - 617 officers and men.

FINAL LOSS OF CRATERS.

After the relief of the 28th and the other units of the 6th Brigade was completed on April 8, fighting for the craters continued to be waged desperately and with varying success to Canadian arms. Battalions of the 4th and 5th Canadian Brigades each made brave attempts to oust the Germans from their positions, and ultimately succeeded in establishing themselves in two of the ill-fated craters. Their success, however, was short-lived. The end came-one might say suddenly-during the 6th Brigade's second tour. April 19 was the date, and the 29th (Vancouver) Battalion was most directly concerned. The enemy, smarting under the resolute and spirited methods of the Canadians, mustered all his available forces in men and guns for his greatest attack.

Two parties of the 29th held on to their positions in the craters until the last possible moment. Then the survivors of the garrison seemed to melt away under the shelling of the massed German artillery and the murderous fire of many machine guns. The final assault of the blue-grey masses of infantry was delivered only upon a sadly depleted band of survivors, most of whom were taken prisoners. One or two lived through to get back to their own lines and tell a wonderful epic of their comrades' gallant stand, of how they clung in desperation to the filthy mire of the craters and struggled to work the few remaining rifles which were not buried or smashed by shell fire.


28th (North-west) Battalion Headquarters is © Copyright 2001 Robert Lindsay. All Rights Reserved