“The Spirit of the Troops is Wonderful”: The Legacy of the Battle of Courcelette

Canadians returning victorious from battle of Courcelette.
Canadians returning victorious from battle of Courcelette. [Battles of the Somme] September, 1916. Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada.
Major Agar Adamson of the PPCLI wrote the quote above to his wife Mabel on 16 September 1916, the day after the Canadian Corps had taken the village of Courcelette. He went on to say that casualties had been significant but “We have them now back to their last line and I firmly believe on the run” (220). 

Courcelette was the Canadian Corps first real victory since their arrival in France; the narrative until that point was a series of heroic, but disastrous stands at Ypres, Mount Sorrel, Sanctuary Wood, and St Eloi. The attack made use of the creeping barrage, which was relatively new to the Somme battlefield and was perfected by the Canadian Corps at Vimy Ridge seven months later; though not perfect, the barrage helped significantly, suppressing enemy fire and allowing the attacking troops a window of time to reach their objectives.

The second attack on the village itself, performed by the 22nd and 25th battalions in full daylight with no jumping-off trenches, was the stuff of legend. The Allied commander Hubert Gough commented that it was “without parallel in the history of the present campaign” (Campbell, 45), and in his history of the 22nd Battalion , Major Joseph Chaballe noted that Courcelette “tient une place prééminente parmi les brillants faits d’armes des Canadiens durant la guerre”(130).

The tone in Canada at the time, however, was one of mourning; The Calgary Daily Herald ran “Frightful Carnage of Alberta Troops in the Big Drive” as its headline on 18 September 1916 issue, and indeed, loses were extremely heavy. Chaballe counted 7 officers left out of 26 for the 22nd Battalion at the end of their four-day siege in the village, and losses for the first wave battalions, like the PPCLI, were also high. The Somme, already costly, continued to build its reputation as an eater of men.

At the time, Courcelette was a source of significant praise for the Canadian troops; 2nd Division commander Major-General Turner used it to rehabilitate his reputation, and that of the division, which had suffered badly after their poor showing at St Eloi in June. Unfortunately, the victory at Courcelette was soon overshadowed by the difficulties the Corps faced at Theipval and Regina Trench in the following months.

Both very difficult objectives, Theipval and Regina Trench were plagued by the same problems that the battalions holding the village had faced on 15 September; lack of reinforcements against repeated German counter attacks that sapped their forward energy and stalled the attacks to long-drawn-out stalemates. By 1917, Courcelette, despite the pride felt by the units who had fought in it, was now under the shadow of Vimy Ridge, where it remains to this day 100 years later.

Looking back at it now, Courcelette was a harbinger of the things that would make the Canadian Corps so successful at Vimy, Hill 70, and the Hundred Days. The creeping barrage, when used properly, was a formidable tool against fortified enemy positions, and with the further development of counter-battery work would become the way to solve the problem of getting soldiers across No Mans Land underneath enemy guns. Smaller, loosely formed groups would also become the norm in 1917, allowing for freer movement against the enemy, and better decision making at the platoon level.

Even though it is not Canada’s best known battle, Courcelette deserves its place in Chaballe’s “brilliant faits d’armes”. A century later, here is our chance to make sure it stays there — remembered and appreciated.

*The two sources used in this piece are:

Campbell, David (2007) “A Forgotten Victory: Courcelette, 15 September 1916,” Canadian Military History: Vol. 16: Iss. 2, Article 4. Available at: http://scholars.wlu.ca/cmh/vol16/iss2/4

Chaballe, Joseph, Histoire du 22e Bataillon canadien-français 1914-1919, Montreal : Les éditions Chantecler Ltée, 1952.

 

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