Battle of the Somme

    The Battle of the Somme began on July 1, 1916. The Somme Offensive was not planned in order to gain any territorial objectives: rather, its purpose was to relieve pressure from the French armies at Verdun, and to keep German troops tied down on the Western Front.1 For the Dominion of Newfoundland, the first day of fighting will forever be associated with both the great displays of valour and the tremendous loss suffered at Beaumont Hamel. Of the approximately 800 members of the Newfoundland Regiment who began the first day of the battle - part of the larger Somme Offensive - 732 would suffer casualties in the first thirty minutes of action, including 324 killed.

    The Canadians would not enter the fight until the end of August of 1916. General Sir Douglas Haig had requested that the Canadian troops should have a chance to settle in before taking part in the offensive2. As September began, the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Divisions prepared for battle while the 1st Division held three thousand yards of trench on the front line. At the end of this front was a German strong point which had held out against six Australian attacks. On September 3 the Australians once again attacked the German position with help from the 13th Battalion of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade. The attack failed to achieve its objective and the Canadians suffered 322 casualties. For the following three days, the Canadian troops held their position against numerous counter-attacks and heavy enemy fire. On September 9, the 2nd Canadian Battalion was able to successfully establish a position south of the Cambrai road.3

    The assault launched by Sir Douglas Haig on September 15 was known as The Battle of Flers-Courcelette.. Two innovations were expected to give a considerable advantage to the attacking troops- the artillery’s recently adopted strategy known as the ‘creeping barrage’, and the tank.4 The first tanks were shipped to France in August 1916, and a small training centre was established in early September. Following the failures of the summer, the attack on September 15 was planned in a series of ‘leaps’ to predetermined objectives rather than a continuous advance to a final line. Official doctrine had not yet accepted the idea of advancing in small detachments rather than waves. Through to the end of the Somme battles, commanders were governed by the orders given to them in May: “ many instances experience has shown that to capture a hostile trench a single line of men has usually failed, two lines have generally failed but sometimes succeeded, three lines has have generally succeeded but sometimes failed, and four or more lines of men has generally succeeded.”5

    The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division was to engage the defences in front of Courcelette. These defences included positions along Candy and Sugar Trenches as well as the ruins of an abandoned sugar factory. The 3rd Canadian Division was to provide flank protection. Seven tanks were allotted to the Canadian commander for the assault. Zero hour was at 6:20am on September 15. Despite sturdy resistance, the attack went well. The sight of the tanks encouraged many Germans to surrender. However, all six tanks fighting with the Canadians were put out of action before the end of the battle either through mechanical problems or getting stuck in the mud.6 In a report on the action, General Turner hinted at greater possibilities for the machines: “A portion of the tanks should be sent through to the final objective with the object of increasing the enemy's demoralization and keeping him on the run...had we adopted some such policy on September 15th...Courcelette might well have been in our hands by 10:00am.”7

    To push home the advantage gained on the morning of September 15, less than an hour after the 2nd Division reached its objectives another Canadian assault was scheduled for 6:00pm that evening.8 Clearing Courcelette of the remaining German troops took two days. Lt.-Col. T. L. Tremblay, commanding the 22nd Battalion, wrote: “if hell is as bad as what I have seen at Courcelette I would not wish my worst enemy to go there.”9 Between the 15 and 18 of September the Germans lost an estimated 1040 men as prisoners of war. The regimental history of the 45th Reserve Division commends the fierce fighting qualities of the Canadian soldiers. The 3rd Division experienced difficult opposition.10 “Zollern Graben”, a German trench, was given to the 3rd Division for a surprise attack on the evening of September 16. Later that night the Canadians were relieved by British troops.11 Bad weather and a shortage of ammunition for the French artillery postponed any further action until September 25. The next stage of the offensive for the Canadians was an assault on Thiepval Ridge. A number of the Canadian objectives would remain in German hands at the close of the assault on September 28.12

On the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, we are honouring six local young men that made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. All six have no known grave and all are commemorated on the Vimy Memorial in France.

Gnr. William A. Bishop

Lt. Ernest L. Ferris

Pte. George H. Grindley

Pte. Frank L. Kerr

Sgt. Bernie Lang

Pte. Clarence R. Porter

  1. G.W.L Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919: Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War (Kingston, Ontario: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1962), 160.

  2. Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, 165.

  3. Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, 166.

  4. Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, 167.

  5. Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, 168.

  6. Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, 169.

  7. Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, 170.

  8. Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, 170.

  9. Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, 171.

  10. Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, 171.

  11. Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, 172.

  12. Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, 173.