The Other Side Of The Battle Of Courcelette : The 19Th Battalion
On 15 September 1916 at 6:20 in the morning, the deafening roar of Allied artillery reached its thundering crescendo on the French village of Courcelette. This was a historic moment for the Canadian Corps, their grand entrance to the Battle of the Somme. The Canadian soldiers desperately wanted to provide the empire and Canada with a victory. The Boche had already pummelled the Canadians at Ypres, Mount Sorrel, and St. Eloi. Now, it was time for the men of the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions to extract their revenge against the Hun.
The 4th and 6th Brigades of the 2nd Division were to travel along Albert-Bapaume road to attack the outskirts and the village of Courcelette. The 7th and 8th Brigades of the 3rd Division were to attack from the left flank. The assault plan called for an artillery bombardment, followed by a rolling barrage over the German trenches. The infantry would leave their trenches at 6:20 under the cover of the barrage. The Canadian soldiers would be supported by a new invention, tanks. The 28 tonne ‘caterpillars’ were to travel over land and help the Canadians capture all objectives. German prisoners that were captured after the Canadian victory reported that the tanks were a very effective weapon. One German machine gun officer described the use of tanks as butchery against his men. One Canadian veteran recalled witnessing the first tank attack of the war:
“Away to my left, a huge grey object reared itself into view, and slowly, very slowly, it crawled along like a gigantic toad, feeling its way across the shell-stricken field. It was a tank, the ‘Crème de Menthe,’ the latest invention of destruction and the first of its kind to be employed in the Great War. I watched it coming towards our direction. How painfully slow it travelled. Down and up the shell holes it clambered, a weird, ungainly monster, moving relentlessly forward.”
The tank ‘Crème de Menthe’ rolled beyond the Sugar Factory, and travelled parallel to a stubbornly defended German trench that was holding up the Canadian advance. The rumbling steel fortress used enfilading fire from a Vickers machine gun to neutralize the enemy trench.
Dr. Carl Pepin has noted in his article on the 22nd Battalion that the victory at Courcelette was neither easy or without a high cost for the Canadians. The 19th Battalion (Central Ontario) was unit in the 4th Brigade in the 2nd Canadian Division. The 19th Battalion was based out of the Southern Ontario area. Unlike the 22nd Battalion, the 19th was not involved in directly attacking the village of Courcelette. They were assigned the role of defending the adjacent trenches to the village of Courcelette prior to the attack.
According the 19th Battalion war diary, The battalion reached the town Albert on 9 September 1916 with 976 officers and men. On the second night in their new trenches, “enemy shelled our communications and support trenches continuously all night with 5.9, 4.1, and wizzbangs.” In total, the battalion received 52 casualties from enemy raids and shelling just in the first two days. The unit from Ontario would continue to lose men to enemy shelling leading up to the attack on Courcelette. By the 15 September, the battalion had lost 173 men from the enemy sniping and artillery bombardments. They would lose a further 250 men during the actual battle of Courcelette when they were deployed to help mop up isolated German positions.
In comparison to the 22nd Battalion, the 19th Battalion’s task at Courcelette was rather mundane. They were expected to hold the line, and eliminate any remaining enemy positions after the initial wave of the assault had been completed. Yet, even in a supporting role at the Battle of Courcelette, battalions like the 19th Battalion could lose almost half of its strength supporting assaulting units like the 22nd Battalion.