With Spring comes the budding out of blossoms, and bright hues to succeed the drabness of a long Ottawa winter. At the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum, the German First World War Fokker DVII biplane is wearing a new motley coat of distinctive camouflage.
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.
Sometimes you go about as far as you can researching something, and you still don’t have the answers you crave. This happens surprisingly often with museum artifacts, as the chain of provenance and the wealth of detail that might have accompanied the artifact breaks down, and what you are left with is partial documentation, rumour, enigma, and frustration! Such is the case for me when I consider the German Ubts naval gun, 8.8cm, 30 caliber, serial no. 1972, produced in 1916 by Krupp, in their Essen works. Today this piece is on display in LeBreton Gallery, at the Canadian War Museum. This is a breech-loading, quick-firing gun that used a vertical sliding breech block. It was likely an adaptation of a design for torpedo boats and other small craft, and could stand long periods of immersion in salt water. I have now researched this streamlined submarine deck gun 2 times professionally and now lately, because it has become a grudge match. This gun is unique, and important, simply by its rarity. There are no others in Canada like it, and indeed, there is not even what you would expect would be more common, a deck gun from a Second World War U-boat.* There are very few of these in existence, and most were recovered from wrecks. It may be the only WW1 Krupp gun of its exact type in near perfect condition. The submarine campaign featured periods of restricted and unrestricted submarine warfare, where the imperial German navy tried to cut the supply lifelines to Great Britain and hamper the Allied war effort in Europe. Deck guns were used for shelling ships when the sub was on the surface, to save torpedos, or to allow the crews to evacuate. This gun might have sunk merchant ships and killed their crew members.
There are two origin myths connected with this gun: One note in the file gave some fairly recent information that it had been linked to U-91. In the First World War, there were German subs named U-91, UB-91 (a smaller coastal boat) and UC-91 (a mine-laying boat). UB-91s gun has actually survived and is on display in Chestow, England. It is the larger 10.5 cm deck gun. UC-91 was sunk in the North Sea after the war. That leaves U-91, which is described in January 1918 as having been armed with the more potent mix of both a 10.5cm and an 8.8 cm gun.** The second potential provenance is more strange, and features an army unit capturing (or at least laying claim to) the naval gun. In an inventory of war trophy artillery in Ottawa in the interwar era, this Krupp is clearly IDed, but is listed as having been claimed by the 72nd Infantry Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force (a Vancouver unit, today perpetuated by the Seaforth highlanders of Canada). This unit’s involvement with the gun is a key mystery. There are several possibilities, but they all seem a bit unlikely. Could the 72nd have picked it up somehow after the war from one of the boats being scrapped along the French coast or in England? Could both these provenance details be linked? For example, did the 72nd organize to have the gun brought back to Canada from where U-91 was being disassembled on the French coast? The search continues.
*The closest thing to another submarine deck gun is a 76mm Japanese gun captured during the Kiska landings in the Second World War and today on display in Vernon, BC. This gun was of the right type to have been used on a sub, but was in fact part of a coastal battery when it was found.
**Michael Lowrey, from Uboat.net, contributed many helpful details about this gun, KTB u-boat war diaries, German First World war submarine armament generally, similar survivors, and possible provenance.
This Australian War Memorial image of an Albrecht likely depicts the larger (35 or 45 cm bore) type of this odd weapon. (AWM E 02902)
Though they would seem to be the product of a deranged cooper, not a highly industrialized nation that produced Krupp super guns and mortars on mass scale, these were terrifying weapons in the trenches. They lobbed a massive explosive tin dubbed a “coal scuttle” by allied troops. It was a very simple cylindrical tin packed with explosives and iron bits. The weapon normally had a maximum range of about 600m. These came in 25cm, 35cm, and 45cm barrel sizes. The bottom photo shows an erdmorser (buried trench mortar), which was usually buried in the ground with the rails propped against an embankment or trench wall to roughly aim it at an enemy trench. The other photos are Albrecht mortars, whose barrels are constructed of wooden staves and reinforced by wire wound round them.
Trench mortars offered artillery support to troops near the front lines, and they were sited close to the firing line, making rapid communication and fire tasking possible (unlike fixed artillery located in the rear). At the outbreak of war, the Germans could draw on many more well-designed mortars than Allied powers, which scrambled to adapt and improvise close-support weapons. Still, the Germans felt the need to produce these unusual wooden mortars. In Canada today at least two of these rare and strange mortars exist: The Canadian War Museum had a nice example, and the Brome County Historical Society has an un-mounted barrel in the corner of its displays. Both these are the 25cm varieties.