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Prelude to the Somme

Normandy, France
Canada and the Great War
 
Before the Canadians joined in that ill-fated operation they were engaged in local offensives, in the southern part of the Ypres Salient, intended to keep the Germans occupied.
 
Battles leading up to the Somme
St Eloi Craters, Mar. 27-Apr. 16
Mount Sorrel, June 2-13
 
At the battle of St. Eloi the 2nd Division received its "baptism of fire" in a battlefield of water-filled mine craters and shell holes. The Canadians, wearing the new steel helmets which had just been introduced, suffered 1,373 casualties in thirteen days of confused attacks and counter-attacks over possession of six water-logged craters and the dominating land on which they sat.
 
For the 3rd Division, the initiation to battle was even more devastating. This time the Germans mounted an attack to dislodge the Allies from their positions at Mount Sorrel just south of the Ypres-Menin Road. In the fiercest bombardment yet experienced by Canadian troops, whole sections of trench were obliterated and the defending garrisons devastated. Human bodies and even the trees of Sanctuary Wood were hurled into the air by the explosions. As men were literally blown from their positions, the 3rd Division fought desperately until overwhelmed by enemy infantry. By evening the enemy advance was checked, but the important vantage points of Mount Sorrel and Hills 61 and 62 were lost. A counter-attack by the Canadians the next morning failed; and on June 6, after exploding four mines on the Canadian front, the Germans assaulted again and captured Hooge on the Menin Road.

The newly appointed Commander of the Canadian Corps, Lieutenant-General Sir Julian Byng, was determined to win back Mount Sorrel and Hill 62. He gave orders for a carefully planned attack, well supported by artillery, to be carried out by the 1st Canadian Division under the C command of Major-General Currie. Preceded by a vicious bombardment, the Canadian infantry attacked on June 13 at 1:30 a.m. in the darkness, wind and rain. Careful planning paid off, and the heights lost of on June 2 were retaken. The cost was high. At Mount Sorrel Canadian troops suffered 8,430 casualties, including General Mercer, who was killed by shrapnel while visiting the front line at the opening of the German assault.

The Cost
  • 1,373 casualties in thirteen days at St Eloi
  • 8,430 casualties at Mount Sorrel

Photo Gallery

German trenches demolished by artillery (Battle of Mount Sorrel, Belgium), showing German dead. June, 1916.
Distant view of St. Eloi Ridge and Craters. July, 1916.
 
Sources: CBC Archives, Veterans Affairs Canada, Regiments.org, Library and Archives Canada

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