“It was simply Hell!”: The Battle of Mount Sorrel, June 1916

A photo of a destroyed dugout near or at Mount Sorrel in the Ypres Salient.
“Mont Sorrel” [ASE Label]. A.S. English Fonds, Collections CCGW 2016.3.1.2-53.

On June 2nd, 1916, the Battle of Mount Sorrel began. Overshadowed by the larger battles of 1916, Mount Sorrel was nevertheless an important action for the still young Canadian Corps.The opening day was the 3rd Division’s “baptism by fire” and the fighting, particularly the Canadian counterattack on June 13th, taught valuable, but costly, lessons.

Located in the Ypres salient, Mount Sorrel and the nearby Hill 61 and Hill 62 offered a commanding view of their surroundings and were the last elevated positions held by the Allies in the region. Observatory Ridge, which ran on an East-West axis was also a significant position: if captured it would offer the Germans a vantage point from which to observe and fire on the Allied lines to the North and South. This would either force a withdrawal or would divert reserves away from the evident offensive preparations further south at the Somme to recapture it.

A map of the Battle of Mount Sorrel, fought between June 2nd and June 13th, 1916.
Maps based on “The Battle of Mount Sorrel, 2-13 June 1916” in G.W.L. Nicholson’s Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War. Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919. Initial German successes on June 2nd and 3rd were largely reversed by the Canadian counterattack on June 13th.

The Canadian 3rd Division held a roughly two kilometer front centred on these heights. The trench network they inherited left much to be desired, though an inconsistent effort was made to improve their positions by deepening trenches and constructing dugouts. This was partially due to the particularly wet weather of that spring which transformed the trenches into muddy quagmires that were difficult enough to maintain, let alone improve. The lack of labour units was another crucial factor: any construction would have fallen onto the infantry who already bore a heavy load and many officers were reluctant to add to this burden. The lack of coordination with the limited artillery in the area for defensive bombardments was another weakness of the position. These oversights – peculiar even in a relatively calm period at the front – are all the more inexplicable given clear warning signs of an impending German attack. Patrols revealed an increased activity by German engineers and the reports noted additional German artillery concentrating in the area. In an even more obvious tell, practice trenches resembling the Canadian lines were discovered to the rear of the German lines by aerial reconnaissance. While the first steps to correcting these inadequacies were being taken in June, the coming days would prove that they were too little, too late.

The German offensive began on the morning of June 2nd, 1916 with an intense four and a half hour bombardment along a roughly one kilometer stretch of the Canadian front. The shallow trenches offered little protection and entire positions and their occupants were said to simply ‘vanish’ under the weight of fire. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those remaining men offered stubborn resistance where they could but were ultimately compelled to withdraw, or, when cut off by the German advance, surrender. The losses of the frontline units facing the main thrust of attack are staggering. Of the 702 men of the 4th Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles (4th C.M.R.), only 76 would report for parade the next day, an 89% casualty rate [1].On their left, the 1st Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles (1st C.M.R.) fared only slightly better, losing 556 of 692 men for an 81% casualty rate [2]

When these numbers are examined more closely, one sees that the Battle of Mount Sorrel was a rare instance where Canadians were captured in large numbers. Of the 3842 Canadians captured during the war, 536 were taken prisoner during this battle, mostly on June 2nd and 3rd [3]. Among the Mount Sorrel prisoners was Brigadier-General Victor Williams, who had been inspecting the front lines along with Major-General Malcolm Mercer the morning of the attack. While Mercer was killed by the shelling, Williams was wounded and could not escape the German advance, becoming the highest-ranking Canadian prisoner of the war.  His rank would confer a certain degree of comfort in captivity which was not shared by the many captured enlisted men. Among them was Private Hazelton Moore of the 1st C.M.R., who was wounded and taken prisoner during the attack. He would spend the rest of the war in various German prisoner of war camps before being repatriated in January 1919.

A photo of the kitbag of Private Hazelton Clifford Moore of the 1st CMR. Faded writing on the bag indicate his initials (HCM) as well as his regimental number (106413) and his unit (1 CMR)
Kitbag, Private Hazelton Clifford Moore (104613), 1st Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles. Collections CCGW.

While the 1st and 4th CMR were hit the hardest, other units in the area did not escape heavy losses. The Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) were devastated by the bombardment and the fierce fighting which followed. Charles Douglas Richardson, a Private with the PPCLI, described the fighting in a letter home which he penned on June 4th while he was hospitalized from a wound received two days earlier:

“I hope I never have to go through it again. It was simply Hell! […] Our regiment was almost obliterated. About 40 of us came back out of the two companies that held the front line. No. 1 Company on our right were all either killed or taken prisoner, not a single man came back. No. 2 which is the company I was in were able to hold them off all day and all night until their artillery levelled all our trenches and left us with only 40 men, many of them wounded.” [4]

The resistance of the PPCLI on the flank, as well as the 5th Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles at the Maple Copse, was able to stem the German advance, buying time for reinforcements to arrive. The Germans, reluctant to press their attack in force, advanced their front by between 550 and 650 metres from their starting positions from that morning [5]. With the high ground in hand, they began entrenching their new line. 

Lieutenant-General Julian Byng, recently appointed the commander of the Canadian Corps, ordered an immediate counterattack to retake the lost ground. The attack, to be carried out by elements of the 1st and 3rd Divisions, was scheduled for 2:00 a.m that same night. However, delays in assembling the troops and in communications resulted in the attack being pushed back until past sunrise on June 3rd. Worse still, the Canadians lacked artillery and poorly coordinated with those guns that were available to them. The failure of the units to begin their assaults simultaneously was the final nail in the coffin. Most units did not even reach the German trenches and began digging in under withering fire after advancing as far as they dared. Private George Adkins of the 49th Battalion wrote of precisely such an experience in a June 5th letter to his mother:

“It has been simply awful[.] I cannot describe it in words but I know there has been nothing worse in this war. […] We had to make a charge in broad daylight but they were ready for us and opened up an awful fire on us[.] We took what cover we could get in old trenches and were there all day. […] I was hit on the head about four times but my steel helmet saved me. Then I had a bullet go right through a mess tin strapped on my back.” [6]

Many others did not share Adkins’ remarkable luck and were killed in this poorly organized attack. Among the dead was Sergeant Ernest King of the 14th Battalion. A salesman before the war, he had enlisted with the First Contingent at Valcartier in 1914 as a Private, and had climbed up the ranks until he was promoted to Sergeant in September 1915. Few men of the First Contingent had made it to 1916; far fewer would see the end of the war.

A photo of a Memorial Plaque for Sergeant Ernest William King of the 14th Battalion, CEF.
Memorial Plaque, Sergeant Ernest William King (26217), 14th Battalion. Collections CCGW. A Memorial Plaque (also known as a “Dead Man’s Penny”) was issued to the next of kin of British Empire personnel killed during the First World War.

Following this failure, preparations were made for a second counterattack. While these were underway, the Germans seized the nearby village of Hooge on June 6th, forcing back the Allied lines further. Prudently, the decision was made to concentrate efforts on retaking the high ground. A number of artillery batteries were diverted to the area bringing the total number of guns to 218 [7]. A heavy fire was brought against the German trenches and an effort was made to neutralize their artillery batteries; the former effort was largely successful, the latter only somewhat. When the renewed counterattack was launched in the early morning of June 13th, the Canadian forces advanced over the broken ground and recaptured much of the previously lost ground in an hour of fighting. German attempts to retake the heights were stopped relatively easily by small arms fire and artillery, though numerous casualties were taken as the Canadians endured a heavy bombardment in their new positions.  

It is easy to see the Battle of Mount Sorrel as another First World War debacle: the Canadian Corps incurred roughly 8700 casualties from fighting in which the front barely budged [8]. Certainly the fighting of June 2nd through June 4th fits this characterization of a futile battle to a tee. However, the June 13th counterattack stands in contrast to these failures and must be recognized as an important part of the Corps’ ‘learning curve’. More precisely, the success on the 13th was achieved by recognizing that the artillery needed to soften up the enemy lines, neutralize their artillery to the greatest extent possible, and be able to break up counterattacks as they developed. Coupled with the lessons learned at the Somme later in the year, Mount Sorrel was a significant stepping stone in developing the doctrine of close infantry-artillery cooperation and thorough artillery preparation which would guide the Canadian Corps to its successes in 1917 and 1918.


Notes:

[1] G.W.L. Nicholson, Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War. Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919 (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1962), 149.

[2] Figures from the 1st CMR’s War Diary entry for June 2nd, 1916. Accessed via Canadian Great War Project, War Diaries Viewer https://cgwp.uvic.ca/diaries/viewer.php

[3] Desmond Morton, When Your Number’s Up: The Canadian Soldier in the First World War (Random House of Canada, 1993), 207-208. Only the 2nd Battle of Ypres saw a larger number of Canadians captured (1410). Ypres and Mount Sorrel are the only two instances of large-scale Canadian surrender in the First World War.

[4] Letter. Charles Douglas Richardson,. June 4th, 1916. Accessed via the Canadian Letters and Images Project.

[5] Nicholson, CEF, 1914-1919, 150.

[6] Letter. George Adkins, June 5th, 1916. Accessed via the Canadian Letters and Images Project.

[7] Nicholson, CEF, 1914-1919, 151.

[8] Tim Cook, At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1914-1916, Volume One (Toronto: Penguin Canada, 2007), 375.


Zachary Mitchell is a graduate student in the first year of his MA in History at Concordia University. He began volunteering with the Canadian Centre for the Great War in February 2019 and has been the Centre’s Curatorial Assistant since September 2020.

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A photo of a destroyed dugout near or at Mount Sorrel in the Ypres Salient.

“It was simply Hell!”: The Battle of Mount Sorrel, June 1916

On June 2nd, 1916, the Battle of Mount Sorrel began. Overshadowed by the larger battles of 1916, Mount Sorrel was nevertheless an important action for the still young Canadian Corps.The opening day was the 3rd Division’s “baptism by fire” and the fighting, particularly the Canadian counterattack on June 13th, taught valuable, but costly, lessons.

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