Thursday, 2 June 2016

Sanctuary Wood June 2nd, 1916

On May 31st we relieved the 49th Battalion at Maple Copse. Our Company (number 4) was in support. The first day of June was a beautiful day. Like many, Lowell’s poem, “Oh, what is so rare as a day in June” popped up into my head. We spent the day de-lousing, looking at the fritzy balloon engaged in making observations, and admired the scenery. Maple Copse was very beautiful, and not a tree had been touched with a shell. We reflected, however, that the battle of Bellewaerde Ridge had been fought a year ago not far from this spot, just above Bellewaerde Lake. We went on a working party on the evening of June 1st, and came back dog tired. Hackett and I found ourselves a nice machine-gun emplacement well above the level of the trenches. I cannot remember who the others were, but many of our old company (1st University) were there or near there.
P.H. Ferguson
Letter from PPCLI Museum and Archives

Men of the 1st University Company, PPCLI
Courtesy of PPCLI Museum and Archives
At the end of May, 1916, the Regiment, now composed mainly of reinforcements and men from the University Companies, marched inevitably toward their fate as the Originals had a year before. From the Brigade Reserve they advanced 9 miles through the cold night to Sanctuary Wood where they took their positions in the trenches on June 1st. About 300 metres south of the Menin Road, the Patrica’s were defending a portion of the line of equal strategic importance in the spring of 1916 as Bellewaerde Ridge had been in the spring of 1915. The enemy were so close the Patricia’s could hear them working vigorously on their own defences. 

For weeks, German High Command had been planning an attack in the Ypres sector. Historians still speculate on the underlying motivation for the attack but there is little doubt about their immediate objective. Three small hills including Mount Sorrel and the critical “Observatory Ridge” rose at the southern end of Sanctuary Wood. They were the only high features held by the Canadian 3rd Division in their position along the eastern edge of the Ypres Salient. The Germans held the advantage over the rest of the line. If the German army could secure the remaining high ground, they would dominate the entire front in this sector within easy reach of Ypres. The Patricia’s marched into a position in Sanctuary Wood which blocked the advance on these features. 

In preparation for their planned assault, the enemy steadily escalated the intensity of bombardments and by the end of May the Canadians were being relentlessly harassed by heavy artillery fire. From their positions overlooking the Canadians, German gunners were able to target virtually every battery position, and all the support and reserve trenches along the front lines. A particularly lethal strongpoint, dubbed the "Bird-cage”, a fort in the grounds of Stirling Castle, allowed them to volley shells across the entire span of the front. 

Canadian gunners had a difficult time matching the strength of the enemy artillery. Surplus Allied guns had been moved south in preparation for the coming Somme offensive, weakening their defensive capabilities in the Salient. Conversely, German command had stepped up their fire power in this sector by covertly moving in a menacing array of heavy guns and trench mortars, including the Big Berthas. The only superior weapon the men had to use against the Germans were the Lewis guns that had been issued to Canadian Infantry battalions in May. They were so lethal, an enemy soldier yelled out across No Man's Land : "Where in hell did you get all the machine guns?”. 

As the Regiment moved back into the line, so did the German 121st, 125th and 157th Regiments, trained, rested and ready for the assault. With the flurry of activity in opposing trenches it was clear an attack was looming but the Patricia’s did not realize it was imminent. 

PPCLI positions at Sanctuary Wood, June 2, 1916.
Click to enlarge.
The Regiment manned a section of trench about a kilometre long, from a position named, “the Appendix” to a junction at a main communications trench called, “Warrington Avenue”. The Appendix ran along a swampy wood known as “the Gap”. Warrington Avenue was a well defended trench and a continuation of the R. Line. If it were to fall into enemy hands it was generally thought the rest of the front would quickly collapse. To the north of the Gap, on their left flank, were the Royal Canadian Regiment between Hooge and the Hooge Chateau. On their right flank were the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles. 

In the morning hours of June 2nd, the light shelling was quite routine. By 9:00 am the artillery raining down on Canadian positions had intensified dramatically. By 10:00 it was evident they were under full scale attack. 

PPCLI War Diaries 
2-6-16  At 8:30 a.m. the enemy began shelling our front line and supports. This gradually increased to an intense bombardment from H.E. shells and trench mortars. The bombardment lasted for five hours when it was lifted and an infantry attack followed. The enemy succeeded in capturing the front line of our right company No 1. The garrison having been almost annihilated. Our left company No 2 succeeded in holding their trench and stopped an enemy bombing attack. Our Supports held, on the right, the greater part of Warrington avenue and Lovers Lane to Border lane, and on the left, the “R” series of trenches. Our casualties were heavy. In the evening the enemy evidently suspected a counter attack as they opened up rapid machine gun and rifle fire and an intense barrage in our rear. Water and food supply low. 

Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry
The Defence of Sanctuary Wood
Painted by Capt. Kenneth Forbes, ca. 1917