'Land of mine'

In 1915 two new Canadian divisions were developed and the Canadian Corps was established. A fourth and final combat division followed in 1916. In early 1916 the Canadian Corps moved into positions to the south of Ypres. Once again the Canadians were to be sorely tried.
St Eloi Craters Kemmel in the background 1919 BAC LAC O 4681 © BAC LAC O 4681
St Eloi Craters. Kemmel in the background, 1919.

St. Eloi

At St. Eloi, to the south of Ypres, stands The Mound, a spoil heap left behind by a brickworks. The hillock was in German hands and a thorn in the side of the British high command. On 27 March 1916, six deep mines reduced The Mound to a series of craters.

After a week of bloody fighting, the craters were in British hands. In early April the brand new 2nd Canadian Division relieved the British troops. It would see action for the first time.

The positions were rudimentary, the trenches shallow and flooded. The dead and wounded lay everywhere, as it was too dangerous to evacuate them. The deep mire obstructed every attempt to relocate equipment and anyone who fell into a shell hole disappeared into the stinking mud. Snipers and artillery spotters punished every move.

On 6 April the Germans launched a counteroffensive. In shelling that lasted for several hours, they cleared the Canadians out of the craters. The terrain gained was lost once more. All those deaths, mutilations and wounds had been in vain.

Robert Myles Elliott
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Robert Myles Elliott

Robert Myles Elliott

After the battle at The Mound, the Canadians stayed in the area. On 23 May 1916 the 28th Battalion (Northwest) left for the front line. One of the nervous young men to take his place with them was Robert Myles Elliot. Suddenly a shot rang out. Robert fell to the ground. A German bullet had hit him in the knee. The young man went into shock and succumbed to loss of blood within ten minutes. Aged twenty-six, he had emigrated from Scotland to Canada in his early twenties. Within five years he was dead in the mud at St. Eloi. Robert was buried at the front.

‘Place of death’
  • Canadian troops in the front line trenches at Ploegsteert March 1916 IWM Q 446© IWM Q 446
    Canadian troops, wearing steel helmets, in the trenches at Ploegsteert, March 1916.
  • Helm© CWM 20000112 010
    Helmets, first used at the battle of St. Eloi in Spring 1916, were introduced to help reduce the number of head wounds due to shrapnel and shell fragments. A helmet generally could not stop a bullet fired directly at its wearer. The red rectangle on the front of this helmet indicates its owner served in the 2nd Infantry Battalion.
Lunch time in the trenches, June 1916.© BAC-LAC O 88

Mount Sorrel

In late May 1916 the inexperienced 3rd Canadian Division was defending the surroundings of Mount Sorrel, one of the few bits of high ground near Ypres that was in Allied hands. In the morning of 2 June 1916 the Canadian positions were demolished by shelling and in the afternoon the Germans exploded four mines.

Opposite the Canadians were troops of the Kingdom of Württemberg. The Württembergers overran the high ground and on 6 June they once again detonated four mines. Hooge, less than an hour’s walk from the Menin Gate, was taken without significant resistance.

At British HQ alarm bells rang. Ypres was on the point of falling. Additional artillery was sent to Flanders with great haste and suddenly the roles were reversed. After heavy shelling, the Canadians recaptured the strategically important high ground.

Norman Southorn
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Norman Southorn

Norman Southorn

Immediately after the German attack, the order was given to mount a counterattack. Reinforcements were brought up with all speed. The men marched through the night. The operation was hastily knocked together and at the starting positions there was confusion, but the battalions hesitantly mounted the attack.

By now it was full daylight. Only small groups managed to reach German lines in the face of heavy fire. The 14th Battalion (Royal Montreal Regiment) suffered badly; after barely three hundred metres, two thirds of the battalion was out of action.

Norman Southorn was only nineteen when he decided to join up. He was determined to do so, and his parents were unable to change his mind. In the hope of protecting his son, Norman’s father Edward also volunteered for service, but father and son were separated. Norman was sent to the front, whereas his father, twenty years older, was deployed further back. In late 1915 Norman joined the 14th Battalion. Six months after that he was mortally wounded during the counterattack on Mount Sorrel. He was buried at Railway Dugouts Burial Grounds, but his grave was lost. In 1919 Edward returned home alone.

‘Place of death’
N 185 T 1 Nr 55© Landesarchiv Baden-Württemberg, Abt. Staatsarchiv Sigmaringen, N 1/85 T 1 Nr. 55
Württembergers in the front line, 1916.

Conclusion

By the end the situation was more or less the same as before 2 June 1916, except that 1.100 Canadians had been killed, 2.000 were missing, and thousands of others had been wounded or traumatized. On the Württembergers’ side, 1.300 had been killed and 3,982 wounded, while 560 men were missing.

  • Royal Highlanders of Canada June 1916 BAC LAC O 106© BAC LAC O 106
    Royal Highlanders of Canada, June 1916.
  • Line of lorries ready to take ammunition to the Front June 1916 BAC LAC O 23© BAC LAC O 23
    Line of lorries ready to take ammunition to the Front, June 1916.
Passchendaele

Discover the Canadian missing on the online portal.

The First World War left its mark on Flanders in many ways. Monuments, cemeteries and bunkers are scattered all over the landscape. The online portal seeks out the silent witnesses of the war in an attempt to give missing Canadians a place in the landscape. Want to know their stories?