Peterborough during the First World War 1914 - 1918.

Peterborough, Ontario during the First World War 1914 - 1918.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Gegenangriff zum Fresnoy – 8 May 1917

The genesis of the second Battle of Fresnoy began on 5 May 1917. Orders were received by the 5th Bavarian Division to prepare for a counterattack (Gegenangriff zum Fresnoy). Fresnoy and surrounding wooded area was an integral piece of the Oppy-Mericourt defence line. After the successful capture of the village, the British and Canadians were in possession of a minor salient that had the potential to breech the fortress that was the Hindenburg Line. The German High Command knew that in a worst case scenario, if the defence network was overcame, then the allies would have a opportunity to change the nature of the conflict from trenches to a war of rapid mobile warfare. Fresnoy had to be recaptured.
German Prisoners captured by Canadians in the Arras Sector, May 1917
Credit: Veterans Affairs Canada

The two prior attempts to re-take Fresnoy on May 3rd were repulsed with artillery and defensive fire; the attacks were hastily planned and were aimed to simply overwhelm the battle fatigued Canadians. The renewed attack by the 5th Bavarian Division was planned to be a more organized push, involving a heavy reliance on artillery and additional soldiers. The Germans planned to launch their assault only after weakening the lines with artillery, identifying defence strongpoints, and isolating routes where re-enforcements could be brought into the battle. Starting on May 6th the Germans began to shell the vicinity around the objective. In a span of two days, German artillery fired over 100,000 shells into British and Canadian sector. 

German Photograph of the Arras
Sector. Credit:, Paul Reed
To the north of the German objective was the 6th Canadian Infantry Brigade. They were stationed north of Fresnoy Wood and were scheduled to be relieved by the 4th Brigade on the night of May 7/8. The British 95th Brigade, 12th Battalion Gloucester Regiment occupied the shelled out remains of the town of Fresnoy. The British had constructed gun pits, dugouts, and 2 lines of trenches. The landscape of the village had changed drastically in the previous month. The town had been shelled on a  consistent basis since mid-April. Famous German author Ernst Junger was stationed in Fresnoy before it was turned into a rubble heap. Junger wrote: “As I entered the village at the end of one of these ordeals by fire - as that's what they were - I saw a basement flattened. All we could recover from the scorched space were the three bodies. Next to the entrance one man lay on his belly in a shredded uniform.” From the 6th of May to the 8th it was the Tommy's turn cower in the ruins of village.

On the rainy evening of 7 May reports were received and 2nd Canadian Division’s HQ at 7:20 pm that the German bombardment had intensified, with heavy calibre shells hitting positions between Acheville in the north and Oppy in the south. Around the same time, the German artillery began firing gas shells at suspected targets where Anglo-Canadian artillery guns were located. Gun crews were forced to wear gas masks to minimize the effects of the chlorine gas. The masks saved the lungs of the artillerymen, but it greatly reduced efficiency and ability to rapidly fire the guns.
Map of Canadian Corps Operations,
Fresnoy located on right. Credit: WFA

As the Canadian units were finishing their rotation to the front, all hell broke loose. At 3:45 am, the German attack began. German artillery launched a terrific final bombardment on the town, and then began gassing all nearby road junctions. The rain and mist that night made for very limited visibility for the British defenders. The German commanders picked the most opportune time to attack. They had launched their counter-attack when the weather favoured an assault with poor visibility. Many of the Canadian defenders that were at the front were unfamiliar with their new trenches. The Canucks were unacquainted with this new section of the line. To make matters worse, roughly 1/3 of all the Canadians that were in the trenches that night were fresh faced re-enforcements. They had just come over to France in the days after the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and now these green soldiers would face their first fight.

The Bavarian 7th, 19th, and 21st Regiments launched their attack primarily on the British lines and were able to infiltrate the British trenches on the north east section of the line. As the Germans approached the British lines, the rain soaked Lewis Gunner Sgt. Henry Civil went into action. He saw enemy running towards his line in mass formation and he opened fire. Sgt. Civil recalls hitting plenty of Germans that dark early morning, but his efforts could not stem the tide of the attack. The Germans poured down the trenches tossing grenades and firing upon opposition that they encountered. Civil soon realized he was alone, he had held up a platoons of enemy, but he was running low on ammunition and his gun had been damaged beyond repair. He withdrew to the sunken road, which lay to the west of the village (near Arleux).

Map of the German Attack. 8 May 1917
Credit: Google Earth
The Canadians on the left of the British line encountered the Germans at roughly 4:00 am. The enemy had snaked their way up through the British trenches, and were now starting to flank the Canadians. As the flares lit up the night sky, survivors of the battle recall hearing comrades shouting  “there they are!” The Canadians watched the Germans head westward (toward Arleux) in a bunched formation. Private Deward Barnes was Lewis Gun re-enforcement  that arrived in France after the battle of Vimy Ridge with the 19th Battalion. He was ordered to put the Lewis Gun on the parados (on top of the trench) and fire into the backs of the Germans. Eventually Pvt. Barnes was ordered to withdraw to a more defendable position, but after a while the enemy was on the cusp of over running their new line. The officer in-charge of the remains of Barnes' company said, “well boys, we are done, do your duty and fight to the finish.” The Germans entered the trench, and after fierce hand to hand combat and bayonetting, the surviving men were able to retreat further back to a position known as Winnipeg Road where they met up with other men and formed a more stable defence line.

Germans Marching British Prisoners.Survivors of
Fresnoy may be in marching in this group.
 Credit:, Paul Reed
By mid-day it was obvious that Fresnoy was lost. The 12th Battalion Gloucester Regiment lost 288 men, and the 19th Battalion (Central Ontario) lost 236 men, plus another 16 were taken as POWs.  In the aftermath of the battle, several theories were put forth as explanations for the loss of ground. In the 12th Gloucs Official Records, they list several factors such as: “Lack of artillery support of any kind, Lack of aeroplanes, bad weather. . . visibility being NIL, Attempting to hold an impossible salient as a defensive position.” In the Canadian Official History of First World War, the blame falls squarely in the lap of the British artillery. The British narrative assigns guilt to the poor quality of British re-enforcements, noting that the Canadians had men in better physical condition.

Ultimately, the blame for the poor defence should be attached to the commanders, from brigade up to the divisional level. The 2nd Division commander, Gen. Burstall, made the mistake of not launching an immediate counter attack. The wet and muddy conditions on May 8th were advantageous for a counter attack. In a post-battle report, the 5th Bavarian Division noted that almost all machine guns were inoperable due to mud clogging the barrels. Even greater than the mistake of not launching a rapid counter attack, was the pre-battle deployment of nearby units and poor coordination between neighbouring artillery batteries. The 2nd Division held several brigades and batteries behind the relative safety of Farbus Wood. Once the German attack on Fresnoy began, they shelled all routes leading to Fresnoy, cutting off the potential for any substantial reinforcement and counter battery fire. Without reinforcement, the under strength 19th Battalion (at the time of attack it had 687 men - at full strength it was supposed to have roughly 1,000 men) was forced to try and save Fresnoy, which was an near impossible task.



  1. Thanks for this, interesting background on the May 8 1917 Battle of Fresnoy. There is little to be found in the history books. My Great Uncle, Royal Canadian Artillery was gassed and died there on May 8, 18 yrs 1 week old. He is buried at La Targette and I have visited that area many times from Sudbury Ontario.

  2. Thank you for this information. My grandfather's war ended here as a result of wounds. He died in 1958 as a result of these wounds, and my grandmother received a war widow's pension for the rest of her life.