Bloody June

This is the blog post I wish I didn’t have to write. The 58th had been in some skirmishes and had already suffered losses and spilled blood. The first week of June changed all that. The scale of war was about to grow considerably. I turn to Wikipedia;


Located in the Ypres Salient, 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) east of Ypres, Belgium and 1,100 m (1,200 yd) from Hill 60, the Battle of Mount Sorrel and The Battle of Sanctuary Wood took place along a ridge between Hooge and Zwarteleen. The crest of Mount Sorrel, nearby Tor Top (Hill 62) and Hill 61 rose approximately 30 metres (98 ft) higher than the shallow ground at Zillebeke, affording the occupying force excellent observation over the salient, the town of Ypres and approach routes.[2] The peaks were the only portion of the crest of the Ypres ridge which remained in Allied hands.[3]

In northern France, men and resources were being marshalled in preparation for the large British-French Somme Offensive. The build-up in the Somme did not go unnoticed by the German Supreme Army Command. The German 2nd Army, which was holding the sector north of the Somme, had observed preparations for an offensive since the end of February 1916.[4] Short of resources due to the Battle of Verdun, the Germans could only mount local operations to divert British resources from the Somme.[5]

On 28 May 1916, in an abrupt change of command, Lieutenant-General Edwin Alderson was appointed to the largely ceremonial post of Inspector General of Canadian Forces in England and was succeeded by Lieutenant-General Julian Byng as commander of the Canadian Corps.[6]

German offensive

Byng inspected the Canadian Corps positions and noted that the Canadian troops were overlooked by German positions and under constant danger of enemy fire.[7] He assigned 3rd Canadian Division commander, Major-General Malcolm Mercer to draw up a plan to overrun the more dangerous German positions in a local attack.[8]

As the Canadians began preparations for an assault, the Germans were in the process of executing an assault plan of their own. The XIII (Royal Württemberg) Corps spent six weeks planning and carefully preparing their attack on the Mount Sorrel, Sanctuary Wood, Tor Top (Hill 62) and Hill 61 peaks. Their objective was to take control of the observation positions east of Ypres and keep as many British units as possible pinned down in the area, to avoid them transferring to the Somme front and assisting with the observed build-up in that area.[2] The Germans constructed practice trenches resembling the Canadian positions near Tor Top to rehearse the assault, well behind their own lines.[2]

Destroyed dugouts and shelters; prior to the war, most of the terrain here was heavily wooded.

In mid-May, aerial reconnaissance near Mont Sorrel and Sanctuary Wood indicated that German forces were preparing an attack. Royal Flying Corps (RFC) observers had noted the existence of works curiously resembling the Canadian positions, well behind the German lines.[2] The Germans were also observed digging new sap trenches which implied that an assault was intended.[2] The Canadian Corps had just begun developing plans to overrun the more dangerous German positions, when the Germans executed an assault of their own.

On the morning of 2 June, the German XIII Corps began a massive heavy artillery bombardment against the Canadian positions. Nine-tenths of the Canadian forward reconnaissance battalion became casualties during the bombardment.[9] 3rd Canadian Division commander Major-General Malcolm Mercer and 8th Canadian Brigade commander Brigadier-General Arthur Victor Seymour Williams had been conducting an inspection of the front line, when the shelling began.[2] Mercer was wounded three times and died early on 3 June; Williams was wounded in the face and head and taken prisoner.[9]

At 1:00pm, German pioneers detonated four mines near the Canadian forward trenches, before the Germans attacked with six battalions, five more battalions in support and an additional six in reserve.[10] When the German forces attacked, mainly against positions held by the 8th Canadian Brigade, resistance at the front lines was “minimal”.[11] For several critical hours both the 3rd Canadian Division and the 8th Canadian Brigade were leaderless and their level of defence suffered accordingly. Brigadier-General Edward Spencer Hoare Nairne of the Lahore Divisional Artillery, eventually assumed temporary command of the 3rd Canadian Division.[2] German forces were still able to capture Mont Sorrel, Sanctuary Wood and Hill 61. After advancing up to 1,100 metres (1,200 yd), the XIII Corps troops dug in.[12][13] Although the road to Ypres was open and undefended, no German officer took the initiative to exceed instructions and capitalize on the success experienced by the German forces.[2]

Sanctuary Wood
Sanctuary Wood

Failed counterattack

Lieutenant-General Byng assembled a hastily organized counterattack in the early hours of 3 June. Owing to the casualties in the 3rd Canadian Division, two brigades of the 1st Canadian Division were temporarily placed under the control of Brigadier-General Hoare Nairne, who had assumed command of 3rd Canadian Division.[14][15] The counterattack was scheduled for 2:00 am on 3 June 1916.[14] Due to the distances that had to be covered by incoming units, the difficulties in communications and ever present enemy fire, the time allowed for assembly proved inadequate and the attack was postponed until 7:00 am.[16] The signal to attack was to be six simultaneous green rockets. Some rockets misfired and did not burst, resulting in an uneven assault whereby each unit moved from their start lines at different times.[9] The four attacking battalions suffered many casualties as they advanced over open ground in broad daylight.[16] The attackers failed to regain any lost territory but managed to close a 550 metres (600 yd) gap in the line and advance the Canadian front about 910 metres (1,000 yd) from the positions it had retreated to after the German assault.[16]

Attachment-1Sanctuary Forward guns
Sanctuary Wood

British reinforcements and second German attack

British Expeditionary Force commander General Douglas Haig and Second Army commander General Herbert Plumer both believed it necessary to expel the Germans from the captured positions.[16] In view of the preparations for the Somme offensive, Haig did not wish to divert more forces than were necessary. Support was limited to a number of additional artillery units and an infantry brigade from the 20th (Light) Division.[15] It was suggested that the next counter-attack be carried out with the infantry available, with an emphasis on the use of large amounts of artillery.

The additional artillery units immediately went to work hampering German consolidation, by shelling their front and support lines and seeking out hostile batteries.[17] The Germans sprung a surprise on the Canadians by exploding four large mines under trenches of the 2nd Canadian Division covering the spur at the eastern outskirts of the ruins of Hooge and a company of the Canadian 28th (North West) Battalion was wiped out in the explosions.[18] The Canadians managed to hold their position and prevent the Germans from reaching their support line but Byng ultimately decided to leave the Hooge trenches in German hands and to concentrate on regaining Mount Sorrel, Sanctuary Wood and Tor Top.[19] To dissuade the Germans from more attacks on the left flank of the Canadian Corps, the dismounted British 2nd Cavalry Brigade came on loan to the Canadian Corps as a counter-attack force.[19]

Sanctuary Wood
Sanctuary Wood

Return to original lines

German trenches demolished by artillery

Byng ordered 1st Canadian Division commander Major-General Arthur Currie to organize a careful attack against the German positions at Mont Sorrel, Sanctuary Wood and Tor Top.[20] Due to the casualties suffered during the unsuccessful counterattack of 3 June, Currie regrouped his stronger battalions into two composite brigades.[19] Four intense bombardments of thirty minutes each were carried out between 9 and 12 June in an effort to deceive the Germans into expecting immediate attacks, which did not transpire.[19] For ten hours on 12 June all the German positions between Hill 60 and Sanctuary Wood were shelled unremittingly.[19] Particular attention was given to the Canadian Corps flanks, from which enfilade machine-gun fire might be expected.[19] The following morning, the Germans were subjected to an additional 45 minutes of heavy artillery bombardment, before the assaulting troops advanced behind a generated smoke screen.[19][20] The Germans are believed to have been taken largely by surprise as they offered little resistance and the Canadians were able to take approximately 200 prisoners.[19] With the exception of the trenches at Hooge, the Germans fell back to their original lines and in a little over an hour the assault was over.[18] On 14 June, the Germans launched two counterattacks which were repulsed, after which they advanced their trench to within 150 metres (490 ft) of the Canadians but made no further assaults.

Trench map of Sanctuary Wood


When the dust settled and the sun rose on the morning of June 13th, my Uncle, Pte. Farquhar McLennan 451889, B Company was gone. Killed by a trench mortar bomb while advancing up the German trenches on a bombing raid.




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