OFF TO THE SOMME.
While peace and quiet had reigned at Ypres in those latter months of Canadian occupation, history was being made on another part of the far-flung British line. Dominion Day, 1916, witnessed the smashing prelude to that prolonged series of hard-fought engagements known as the battle of the Somme. Two months later, almost to the day, the Canadian Corps entered the new arena of conflict.
Departure from the depressing atmosphere and filthy mud of Flanders gave rise to no regrets among the rank and file of the 6th Brigade, who marched away for a short period of rest and training near to the pretty French town of St. Omer, on the closing days of August, 1916. All were delighted with thoughts of new experiences ahead. The Somme was to provide them with their first opportunity of coming to close grips with the Germans on fair terms.
Few of the 28th men who survived the battle will forget the feverish days of early September, when so much had to be learned in a minimum space of time, when so much was crowded into the few days of so-called indulgence, when the men seized eagerly every opportunity of acquainting themselves with the many details of a big offensive. It was a new feature to explain minutely the exact meaning of plans and objectives to every man-jack of the regiment. It was a newer feature to inform the humblest private that in the heat of battle he may be called upon to fill the place of some fallen senior, to command his section, to rally his platoon or even to lead his company. Yet initiative is the Canadian soldier's strong suit, and the new order of things, as emphasised in person by the Corps Commander, Lieut.-Gen. Sir Julian Byng, came as second nature.
Within a few days of arriving in the Somme valley, the 2nd Canadian Division was called upon to move up to the battle-front to the relief of the senior division of the Corps. A new and greater British attack was impending. The Canadians were to take part, and the Canadians this time meant principally the 2nd Canadian Division. British troops were to co-operate on the flanks.
The main objective of the Canadian infantry was to be the village of Courcelette, a heap of ruins, but a dominant factor in the German defence line and the key to the strong hostile positions beyond it. The capture of the village was to be accomplished in two swift, bold strokes. The first of these embraced the heavily manned approaches to Courcelette - a task allotted to the 6th Brigade-and the Sugar-Factory, south of the village, believed to harbour numerous nests of Boche machine gunners. The latter stroke was assigned to the 4th Canadian Brigade, commanded by Brigadier-Gen. Rennie. Upon the decisive carrying out of this dual operation depended the success of the battalions of the 5th Canadian Brigade, which were to storm Courcelette.
The date selected for the attack was September 15th - the first anniversary of the 2nd Division's arrival in France.
Preparations for the advance were very thorough, and the 28th went into the fight with light hearts, confident, cool as seasoned veterans. On the night of September 14th they left their bivouac in the " Brickfields " of Albert for their assembly trenches, dug under heavy shell fire by their comrades of the 29th Vancouver Battalion.
By 4:20 in the morning of the 15th the attacking units of the 6th Brigade, 27th on the right, 28th on the left, were ready for action and straining at the leash. Zero, or the signal for the advance, was timed for 6:20 a.m. There were two hours to linger in suspense, but never were troops more cheery than these westerners about to go "over the top " for the first time. On the left of them were the 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles, attacking on the 3rd Division front. On both flanks again, Canadian units linked up with British regiments co-operating in the offensive.
THE BARRAGE-WEATHER CONDITIONS.
The bombardment which paved the way for the assaulting waves of Canadians was a triumph for the British artillery. Every detail had been planned to perfection. Every " heavy " had its special objective and its, own time table, working hand-in-hand with the infantry, concentrating on the enemy's trenches and strong points, barraging his lines of communication, co-operating with our aeroplanes to reach out to distant targets. All barked out on schedule time, 6:20; then the 28th and their companion units commenced to move forward. The very conditions overhead-a clear sky, and bright-augured well. The successive waves advanced towards the Germans with inspired confidence. Not quite as if on parade, but nearly so, they covered that shell-pocked "No Man's Land," which they had never seen before, in the face of a hail of bullets which came from skillfully concealed batteries of the Germans. Here and there inevitable gaps appeared, but the men pushed on towards their goal.
By 7:40 a.m., every objective had been gained-and gained beyond all doubt-and the 28th, with their Winnipeg neighbours, the 27th, were established in the main line of the enemy before Courcelette. Casualties were not heavy on the whole, but rather severe in some companies which encountered outlaw enemy machine gun posts in a sunken road-one of many in these parts. From these positions the German fire was especially deadly, and the success of the operation looked in jeopardy for a time. Two platoons of " C " Company of the 28th were directly concerned, and only the splendid initiative and resource of their commander, Captain Bredin, and two non-commissioned officers, saved the whole from annihilation. Methodically and with great coolness a party of bombers was organised to rush to the rear of the German hive-a very formidable strong point-and surprise the defiant gunners. The scheme worked magnificently, and a deadly shower of bullets poured from Canadian rifles into the nest of Boches. Their commander, a Prussian, was killed outright, and, in a trice, the entire party threw up their hands in abject surrender.
From this juncture no further reverses ensued, and the battalion proceeded to consolidate their gains.
Advanced posts were pushed out towards, and even into, the village of Courcelette, and the enemy's reserve strength was gauged by skilful and daring reconnaissance by battalion and company scouts. Meanwhile, the 4th Infantry Brigade, on the right, had also gained their objectives with comparative ease, overrunning the Sugar Refinery south-west of Courcelette and establishing a strong line of outposts on the fringe of the village. Twelve hours later - in the early evening of the 15th-the whole of Courcelette was brilliantly stormed by battalions of the 5th Canadian Brigade, whose task was made easy by the success of the 4th and 6th.
Fierce engagements between Canadian bombers and isolated bands of Germans continued throughout the afternoon and evening of the 15th with invariable success to the Canadian infantrymen.
The 28th thus shared substantially in one of the greatest Canadian victories-a splendid triumph for General Turner's fine division. The battalion may well be proud of their achievement, though grieving at the loss of some of their best-loved officers and men. Captain F. W. Oliver and Lieuts. Heath, McGibbon and Oldershaw all fell during the action, while the wounded included Lieuts. A. B. Smith, Walsh, and McConnell.
The battalion was relieved on the night of the 15th, and marched towards Albert and rest billets for a period of recuperation.
Early in October, however, they were back in the line and taking an active part in the operations of the 2nd Division in the maze of trenches north and north-east of Courcelette with conspicuous success. On being finally relieved they started a long journey in search of new fields to conquer.