Unending Seige

The Terror of the Somme

Sergeant, Fort Garry Horse, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1916

Caption: Sergeant, Fort Garry Horse, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1916

The extremely costly attacks the British mounted on the Somme would extend from 1 July to the end of September 1916. The Allies would lose 350,000 dead and wounded and the Central Powers would suffer similar casualties. When the Canadians reached this sector, the offensive had been under way for several weeks. When the "bloodbath," as the Germans described this whole business, was over, the attackers would have conquered a few miserable square kilometres of terrain.

Up to this point in the war the Canadians had more or less done what was expected of them. On 4 September 1916 they took up position in front of the village of Courcelette, and for the next two weeks the mere occupation and defence of the front trenches cost them 2,600 men. Then, on the 15th, the British and Canadians resumed their offensive along the entire front. The objective of the Canadian troops was a sugar refinery in a Courcelette suburb that they took easily. Up to that time, the practice on both sides had been to stop when the objective was taken and strengthen the new forward positions. This time, however, the Canadians decided to keep going. Accordingly the 22nd Battalion from Quebec City and the 25th from Nova Scotia, followed by the 26th from New Brunswick, crossed through the village. When the next day dawned, over 1,000 prisoners had been taken, along with a considerable amount of equipment, and the Canadians had won distinction in this massive Allied troop movement. However, their momentum was soon lost and everyone went back to the old familiar war. Between 15 and 20 September the Canadians took 7,230 casualties in exchange for Flers-Courcelette, Fabeck Graben and Zollern Graben.

From 26 to 28 September the Canadians took part in the capture of Thiepval Ridge. The ensuing local German counterattacks were damaging. In mid-October three of the four Canadian divisions were sent back north, while the 4th suffered the bitter experience of the Somme in frequently unsuccessful attacks that were repeated from 21 October to 11 November 1916, until it finally seized a trench system called Regina. The 4th Division then rejoined the rest of the Canadian Corps to prepare for a battle that is still renowned today.

On the Somme the Canadians earned a reputation, which would endure to the end of the war, as the shock troops of the British Expeditionary Force. With their four divisions under the enlightened and painstaking command of the future governor-general of Canada, Julian Byng, the Canadians, despite their hardships, now seemed destined for greatness.