A century ago today the men of the Canadian Corps made an assault on the village of Courcelette as part of the Battle of the Somme. This was a battle of firsts for Canada: it was the first time the Canadian Corps had led an attack, it was the first time anyone had gone into battle with tanks, it was the first time Canadian troops had liberated French soil and a French village, and symbolically it was the first time the French-Canadian 22nd Battalion Canadian Infantry had gone into battle, to help liberate that village. The village was captured with the assistance of those tanks, especially in the area of the Sugar Factory. And while Courcelette was taken on this day, the Canadian Corps would remain here for the next two months battling for positions like Zollern Graben, the North and South Practice trenches and finally Regina Trench and Desire Trench. By the time Canadian units pulled out in November 1916, more than 24,000 Canadians had become casualties: more than 8,500 of them killed and of them, over 6,000 missing – half of the names on the Vimy Memorial commemorate men who died at Courcelette.
Sugar Factory, Courcelette
But for Canada, Courcelette is a forgotten battle. Despite its symbolic position in the history of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, despite the huge scale of the missing, few Canadians visit the village and the three cemeteries that surround it: Courcelette British Cemetery, Regina Trench Cemetery and ADANAC Cemetery… ADANAC is Canada spelt backwards. Canadian education groups and Canadian battlefield tours come to the Somme every year but they always visit the Newfoundland Park at the expense of Courcelette: which while the park is now run and maintained by Veterans Affairs Canada, it has no connection to the story of Canada in WW1 as the Newfoundland Regiment was part of the British Army, and Newfoundland itself was not part of Canada until after WW2. Even the local tourist authorities on the Somme invariably describe the Newfoundland Park as a “Canadian Battlefield”. Meanwhile the fields around Courcelette remain silent.
Courcelette aerial photo 1916
Today a handful of people will remember Courcelette, in the village and the cemeteries. There will be no big official ceremony, and possibly no official Canadian representation. A century on, Canada’s knowledge of the Great War is still over-dominated by Vimy Ridge and Canada’s sacrifice on the Somme in 1916 sadly appears to be a footnote in that war when it should be so much more.
Courcelette British Cemetery is one of three Great War Cemeteries in the village of Courcelette, a location captured by the Canadians on 15th September 1916. Many of their dead from this period are buried here, along with Australians from Mouquet Farm and Pozières who fell in August-September 1916. The British dead in Plot 1 are the original burials made when Courcelette was just behind the British front line at the end of the Battle of the Somme.
Today marks the centenary of the first attacks on High Wood, or Bois des Fourcaux to the French. The wood sits on a high point which commands a large area of ground where the Battle of the Somme was fought between July and September 1916. On this day in 1916 the wood was attacked by cavalry, a mixed force of British Dragoons and Indian Lancers. This attack, over open ground largely untouched by bombardments, took the Germans by surprise. One Indian Cavalry account recalled:
” As each squadron cleared the defile it formed line and advanced at a gallop in the direction taken by the advanced guard, which lay through a broad belt of standing corn, in which small parties of the enemy lay concealed. Individual Germans now commenced popping up on all sides, throwing up their arms and shouting ” Kamerad,” and not a few, evidently under the impression that no quarter would be given, flung their arms around the horses’ necks and begged for mercy — all of which impeded the advance. It was about this time that one of our aeroplanes came over, flying very low and firing tracer bullets to show the positions of hostile machine-guns and also that of a German trench which ran from High Wood to Delville Wood and which, owing to the corn, was invisible. When the advanced guard reached its objective, a German trench to the north of Delville Wood, occupied by infantry, could be seen clearly and German artillery (located by the flash of the guns) opened fire… During the whole period of the advance the regiment had been exposed to flanking machine-gun fire from Delville Wood.”
But the advance could not and was not exploited, and two months of fighting for the wood raged thereafter: costly infantry assaults, bombardments from everything from shrapnel to incendiary, gas attacks, flame throwers, mining, attacks from the air. In the end it fell to troops of the 47th (London) Division with the assistance of tanks on 15th September 1916.
High Wood 1916, aerial image (IWM Q 55727)
By the end of the Battle of the Somme it was estimated that at least 8,000 British soldiers had perished in the fighting for High Wood; and it’s dominance on the ground even today, a century later, makes it both an impressive and foreboding place to visit.
The Battle of the Somme and visiting the Somme battlefields continues to fascinate us and for Somme100 Pen & Sword books have published a number of new battlefield guidebooks, or reprints of classic editions.
A Visitors Guide: The First Day of the Somme by Jon Cooksey & Jerry Murland
(Pen & Sword 2016, ISBN 9781473827998, 233pp, illustrated, softback, £14.99)
Cooksey and Murland have produced a whole series of excellent battlefield guide books covering some lesser known locations but here they focus on the Blackest Day of the British Army – 1st July 1916, the First Day of the Battle of the Somme. The book looks in detail at the whole battlefield from Gommecourt to Maricourt, and the authors provide battlefield trails that can be followed in a car, on foot or by bike. The directions and maps are good, the text very well researched and backed up with excellent modern photos and some useful contemporary ones. This is a really superb Somme guidebook which should be in the knapsack of everyone going to Somme100 and who wants to explore the 1st July battlefields in depth.
Major & Mrs Holt’s Somme 100th Anniversary Definitive Battlefield Guide by Toni & Valmai Holt
(Pen & Sword Books 2016, ISBN 9781473887534, 368pp, illustrated plus separate map, hardback, £25.00)
The Holts have been publishing battlefield guidebooks for decades and this Somme100 edition of their popular Somme guide comes in a limited edition hardback format. The guidebook has been greatly explained with new photos, and extra information and locations, and also some battlefield walks, which is a good addition. This is a really high quality book with excellent images, and nicely presented, and the supporting map makes it the complete package for the first time visitor to the Somme battlefields. It is good to see the Holts being recognised for their work and this new edition is a welcome guidebook for all those going to Picardy this year.
The Middlebrook Guide to the Somme Battlefields by Martin and Mary Middlebrook
(Pen & Sword 2016, ISBN 9781473879072, 383pp, illustrated, softback, £14.99)
This classic Somme guidebook first came out in the 1990s. Martin Middlebrook was renowed for his book on the First Day of the Somme and he uses that knowledge, and knowledge of the ground here to produce a fantastically detailed book. This book has depth which many guidebooks do not, and the supporting text and maps are excellent. This edition includes a few updates but its only criticism is that some of the information is out of date now. But this is a guidebook worth owning.
The Somme centenary is resulting in a profusion of books about the Battle of the Somme. These are the latest Somme offerings from Pen & Sword books.
Slaughter On The Somme 1st July 1916 by Martin Mace & John Grehan
(Pen & Sword 2016, ISBN 9781473892699, 514 pp, illustrated, softback, £16.99)
This amazing book is an incredible resource of all the War Diaries of every single unit that went into action on 1st July 1916: the First Day of the Battle of the Somme. The book examines the battlefield from Gommecourt in the North to Montauban in the South, so covering the whole Somme front. For each unit there are some notes and then an exact reproduction of the diary. Many units lost so many officers and men that in some cases the information is sparse but others have long and fascinating accounts. Maps in the book help to make sense of where units were, and there are some good illustrations. An absolutely invaluable resource for family historians and battlefield visitors who want to have the detail of events a century ago in one handy volume. Highly recommended.
Ancestor’s Footsteps: The Somme 1916 by Andrew Rawson
(Pen & Sword 2016, ISBN 9781473864207, 240pp, illustrated/maps, softback, £12.99)
At first sight most people would wonder what this book is as it appears to be a list of divisions with maps. But actually it is one of the most useful Great War books I have come across in some time. Using the book you can look up the details of a unit, perhaps your grandfather’s battalion, and it then takes you to the relevant pages where you can see with text and via maps where they fought. This means you can quickly and simply put together a framework of where a man was on the Somme, which normally would take some time. Superb companion for those visiting the battlefields for Somme100 and those wanting to research where their ancestor fought. Highly recommended!
The 1916 Battle of the Somme Reconsidered by Peter Liddle
(Pen & Sword Books 2016, ISBN 9781783400515, 180pp, illustrated, hardback, £19.99)
This is a reprint of an older book Peter Liddle did in the 1980s. Liddle was then working on forming an archive of WW1 material which is today with the University of Leeds. The book gives a good overview of the battle and includes material which was part of the archives, so many rare and previously unseen accounts and photographs. The ‘reconsidered’ part of the book is as Liddle examines the battle and considers it a victory, which in the 1980s was not a popular view – although he concedes it was certainly a costly victory. A good book and it is good to see it back in print.