The history of German 15cm Howitzer no.813, captured 100 years ago this morning, during the great advance.
On this centenary of the first day of the Amiens Offensive (8-12 August 1918), I focus on 15 cm Howitzer no. 813, captured by the 43rd Canadian Infantry Battalion (Cameron Highlanders of Canada) a hundred years ago this morning. Canadian units made astonishing gains this day, and captured thousands of enemy prisoners and a whole range of German weapons.
Early on the morning of the 8th, the 43rd Battalion, 9th Infantry Brigade, was making progress south-eastwards having just cleared out Dodo Wood, along the Amiens – Roye Road, south of Demuin. “C” Company was tasked with taking Hollan Wood on the right. Mk V heavy tanks of “A” Company, 5th Battalion, Tank Corps (British), lumbered alongside Canadians, providing support and attacking fortified defences.
At 07:30 “D” Company pushed on over open ground towards Vignette Wood, with a major objective being the elimination of a battery of guns that were known to be sited there.
On the southern boundary of the wood, four “5.9s” (15cm howitzers) and another nearby battery of “Whiz-bangs” (77mm field guns) opened up on the advancing units. In short order the guns knocked out the British tanks. “D” company, led by Capt. J.D. Verner, M.C., managed to advance along a cut in the road, and brought the battery under accurate enfilading fire, with the gun crews promptly surrendering and the guns captured intact. The Battalion rested in Vignette Wood as the 7th Battalion came up and continued the advance.
A century ago, soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) were into their second day holding newly-won positions on Hill 70, near Lens, France. Counter-attacks by German units, desperate to regain this strategic position, were increasing. At 4:25 AM the previous morning, on August 15th, 1917, they had left their jumping-off positions to advance on this important high-point near the industrial city of Lens, France. The intent of the operation was to force German military planners to divert forces away from the Passchendaele operations, by mounting an attack on Lens. Sir Arthur Currie, recently promoted to command the Canadian Corps, reconnoitered the positions and crafted a plan to seize the heights to the North of city, after first convincing his superiors to modify the main objectives. Lens was to be attacked next.
Meticulous planning built on recent successes, such as the Vimy Ridge operations. A massive preparatory bombardment presaged the attack. Special batteries of artillery under the command of A.G.L. McNaughton were employed in counter-battery fire, and managed to silence many German guns before the infantry went in.
Initially, the attack was a success, with rapid advances. Clearing up entrenched defenders in the Chalk Pit, and in the ruins of Lens’ suburbs, was no easy task, and positions changed hands several times. The operation dragged on for 10 days, and beleaguered and exhausted troops had to drive off relentless enemy counter-attacks. Accurate and prompt artillery support was instrumental in breaking up German concentrations of troops and keeping the Canadians from a general withdrawal. From 15 August until the 25th, Roughly 8,700 CEF soldiers became casualties with almost two-thousand killed, while estimates of German losses run much higher. The planned operation to capture Lens was eventually called off.
Somewhat surprisingly, until the recent opening of the new Battle of Hill 70 Memorial Park in France, the only memorial that focused on commemorating Hill 70 was located in Mountain Ontario, a small community South of Ottawa. This memorial was originally built during the height of memorial construction in the 1920s.
For the 2011 work on the memorial, local groups struggled with what to do with the rusted machine gun, that had been a feature of the original 1920s layout. Some wanted to scrap it. A recent Globe and Mail article explores the various proposals. A local resident who was heavily involved in the rehabilitation project, Mr. Johnston, is quoted as saying “I struggled with the gun. Why would we want a German machine gun that was used to kill these boys?” This sentiment has been expressed many times over the years about trophies, and ties in with evolving public memory on the meaning of the First World War. In the 1930s and Second World War-era many pieces were indeed destroyed because of similar community sentiments. For the purposes of this project I am relieved to say that the gun remains a focal point of the memorial.
According to War Trophy Commission records at Library and Archives Canada, two captured German guns were shipped to Mountain in September 1920 via Canadian Pacific Railways. The captured German machine gun now at the memorial is most likely MG08 no. 2946b (the serial numbers have substantial corrosion), seized by the 22nd Battalion at Catapult Trench, Hill 70, 15 August 1917. This gun would have been used against Canadian soldiers in the initial assault.
The 22nd Battalion’s War Diary “Report on Operations” notes that 4 similar guns were captured. Particular mention is given to the capture of one by Lt. Henri de Varennes (who was killed early in the morning on 16 August) and Sgt. Eugene Keller, who would later receive the Distinguished Conduct Medal for this action (The First World War service files of Keller and de Varennes are available digitized from LAC). Interestingly, recent talks with local residents have indicated they are convinced this is indeed a gun captured by the 22nd Battalion at Hill 70.
For many reasons, Hill 70 has not been accorded the same attention as other CEF operations that Canadians are familiar with. In contrast to the range of captured relics that remain from the Vimy operations (which I recently posted on) this gun, and a 75mm Trench Mortar in the collection of the Brome County Historical Society in Knowlton, Quebec, may be the only monuments that remain of this important Canadian operation.
A wave of Vimy Centennial commemorative activities brings interpretations, reinterpretations, myth building and myth-busting to understandings of the Battle of Vimy Ridge (9-12 April 1917). A hundred years since the beginning of the assault on the fortified German positions around Vimy, I focus on the remaining artifacts, and, in particular, large war trophies captured by advancing Canadian units. Vimy was a victory for the First British Army, and especially its Canadian Corps, commanded by Lt. General Sir Julian Byng. It was a bright example in the larger Battle of Second Arras, and a small counterpoint to events of the disastrous Chemin des Dames Offensive.
It was also the first time since the stalemated trench war began that an advance had captured a whole range of enemy armaments, from rifles to siege howitzers. On the morning of 9 April, the advancing infantry battalions had rolled over the German front positions, continued through defensive lines, and surged over German artillery batteries, whose personnel fled or were captured. Canadian Expeditionary Force battalions captured machine guns, trench mortars, field guns, and a range of howitzers. An element of the intensive training leading up to 9 April prepared infantry to make use of captured guns and stores of ammunition, and several pieces were repositioned to fire on the retreating Germans.
The symbolic and public relations potential of these captured items was quickly appreciated by the Allied command. Large trophies wound up prominently displayed in Paris and London. They were conspicuous evidence that, with the right preparations, logistical support, aerial reconnaissance, innovative tactics, and a paralyzing bombardment, crack German troops could be pushed off formidable defensive positions. The human cost of Vimy was considerable, with more than three-and-a-half thousand fatal casualties to Canadian units, and many more wounded.
In the early 1920s, the War Trophies Commission shipped at least 90 of these guns and mortars, noted as having been captured during the Vimy operations, across Canada. Many wound up on display beside newly-constructed cenotaphs, bearing the names of local men who had perished at Vimy and elsewhere. I am familiar with about 15 cannon and mortars, and a few machine guns (that could be the subject of another post). What follows is a brief survey of a few of these.
A large trench mortar captured by the 31st (Alberta) Canadian Infantry Battalion is at the Imperial War Museum. This is representative of the many Canadian trophies that may have wound up elsewhere:
The 15cm sFH02 heavy howitzer West of the overlook on Ave. Ontario, Plains of Abraham, Quebec City, was captured by the 60th Canadian Infantry Battalion at Bois de Folie, 13 April, and according to the War Diary of the 60th, used against the enemy.
The 10.5cm leFH howitzer at the Mi’kmaq community at Lennox Island, PEI, was captured at Farbus, Vimy, by the 27th Canadian Infantry Battalion, and used by the 21st Howitzer Battery for months after the Battle firing thousands of captured rounds back. This gun was captured when “A” Company rushed the battery, and appears in the relevant War Diary list of captures. It was originally sent to the nearby community of Grand River in September 1920.
The Brome County Historical Society museum in Knowlton, QC, today has a light minenwerfer captured by the 54th Canadian Infantry Battalion at Vimy. There is also a very large 25cm schwerer minenwerfer barrel, blown apart and pitted with schrapnel. This powerful artfact was captured by the 102nd Canadian Infantry Battalion. It tells the story of the devastating preparatory bombardment.
Tavistock, ON also has a 25cm heavy minenwerfer, with the same 102nd Infantry Battalion provenance. This is in front of Royal Canadian Legion Branch 518. This mortar is much more intact.
Kingston, ON has an unusual 7.7cm FK 96 field gun, that was captured by the 21st Infantry Battalion at the Les Tilleuls crossroads. The barrel assembly was later repurposed by the British and installed on a pedestal mount.
These are just some of the examples, and I have published many posts before about these and other Vimy trophies, such as the Victory Loan gun at Hopewell Cape, NB, which has received attention. Others, like the rare infantry gun at Esquimalt, I have yet to post about.
Vimy was important in part because of these hard-won trophies. The Canadian Corps gained valuable territory: a prominent geographic feature. The German withdrawal was no orderly evacuation. Here, they gave up strategic, elevated, and heavily fortified positions, and evidence of their rout includes their abandonment of batteries of artillery. The events of April 1917 might seem long ago and far away to many, but artifacts of this victory have been with us for a very long time.