On a cool sunny afternoon in April near the village of Courcelette in the Somme river valley I parked my car along a single track dirt lane and walked 200 meters across a freshly plowed farmer’s field to visit Regina Trench war cemetery. The cemetery contains the graves of 2,279 allied soldiers who were killed while capturing this area during the Great War. The cemetery also includes the grave of John Angus, the last man from North Bay to die fighting during the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
John Angus joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force on May 11, 1915 three months after the Canadian First Division arrived in Belgium and received their baptism of fire in the bloody actions at the 2nd Battle of Ypres in April 1915. Angus left Canada for England and continued his training with the 38th battalion for nearly a year before crossing the channel to France in August 1916. After serving just three months in the field he was killed in action on November 18, 1916 while fighting to secure a German fortified section of the front line known as Desire Trench. The daily war diary of the battalion states that the attack that morning started at 6:10 am as a light snow fell and later turned to rain. The men of the battalion advanced against strong German resistance but by the end of the day Desire Trench had been captured claiming the life of Angus and 118 other soldiers of his battalion. Originally reported as missing in action his remains were later recovered and he was identified and buried.
In 1916 allied troops along the Western Front were under the command of British Field Marshal Douglas Haig who approved a plan to conduct an offensive against German positions in the Somme area. The plan was designed to lure the Germans away from their offensive against the besieged French defenders at Verdun. The Somme offensive was hoped by Haig to deliver a final blow against the Germans and bring about an end to the war with an allied victory.
Despite the massive buildup of supplies and men the offensive was doomed from the beginning. The Germans had been in this area reinforcing their underground shelters for nearly two years building fortified redoubts with hundreds of well protected machine gun positions that covered every area along the front. After a preliminary seven days of artillery bombardment along a 30 kilometer front Haig was confident that when the infantry attack began there would be nothing left of the German defenders.
On July 1st, 1916 at 7:30 am 100,000 British and French soldiers attacked the German lines in the Somme region in France. On the first day of this battle nearly sixty thousand British soldiers became causalities including 800 soldiers from the Newfoundland Regiment who were part of the British 29th Division. The gains that day were supposed to be several kilometers but rather by nightfall only a few meters of territory had been captured. Two and a half months later as the battle dragged on and all British, French as well as Australian and New Zealand forces had been exhausted the Canadians were called upon to join the fight. Four Canadian Divisions now in France were committed to the battle on September 15, 1916 in an attack on the town of Courcelette. This was also the day the new secret weapon, “tank” that the British had been developing were committed to the battle. Before the Somme offensive was over in November the allies had lost over 650,000 soldiers including 24,000 Canadians. The Germans had been blooded as well with a loss of nearly 400,000 men but they managed to prevent an allied victory that year in the area. The war would drag on in a battle of attrition between the two sides for another two years before the armistice was signed on November 11th 1918.
Between July 1st and November 18th, 2016 the Somme region will mark the 100th Anniversary of the Battle of the Somme and it will be a time of remembrance for all soldiers who died in one of the most disastrous and costly campaigns of the Great War.
In September I will be leading a group of travellers to the area and two people in particular on the tour have a special connection to the battle. Chris Woodland of Barrie, Ontario will be visiting the grave of his Great Uncle Albert Blake who was a machine gunner with the 7th battalion and killed in action on September 27th 1916 at the age of 20. Also Robert Ross from Oshawa will be paying his respects at the grave of his Uncle Edward Glossop who served with the 38th battalion and was killed on November 21st 1916 at the age of 18.
John Hetherington is a retired history teacher from North Bay. He regularly designs and leads Battlefield Tours of Europe. He can be contacted at:
firstname.lastname@example.org or 705 492 6975