Peterborough during the First World War 1914 - 1918.

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

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Major Bennett, Peterborough's first war casualty

Credit: Major Bennett Bus,, VB5215

The white and green buses operated by Peterborough Transit are on nearly every major arterial road in the city. The Major Bennett #12 bus is a familiar sight on Aylmer Street and near the newly renovated Lansdowne Place Mall. The commuters that use the Major Bennett route likely haven’t considered the origin of the name. Major Bennett Drive was named after Peterborough’s first casualty of the First World War, Major George Bennett.

Photograph of Major G.W. Bennett,
Credit: Peterborough Examiner, 1915

George Bennett was a prominent resident of the small city of 18,000 people. He was born in 1864 in North Monaghan Township and worked a civil servant for the Government of Ontario. He rose to the prestigious rank of Superintendent of the Department of Public Works overseeing provincial roads in Northern Ontario.  The tall dark haired 49 year old bachelor had served with the local Peterborough militia for over 25 years. After many nights at the Peterborough Armouries on George Street, Bennett received his officer’s commission with the 57th "Peterborough Rangers" Regiment.
Picture of troops in Ypres in June 1915 with bayonets.
Note how the Belgian countryside still had
 trees - not yet mud and siege warfare.
Credit: Wikipedia Commons

When Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, 115 soldiers from Peterborough’s 57th Regiment rushed to volunteer for overseas service. The eager Peterborough volunteers that were selected for service were to be led by Peterborough’s own Major Bennett. The first batch of Peterborough recruits were assigned to the 1 Company, 2nd Battalion (Eastern Ontario) in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. After months of training in Quebec, and in England, they took their place in the front line against the Germans.

Route of 2nd Battalion on 22 April 1915
Credit: The History of the 2nd Canadian Battalion
(Eastern Ontario Regiment), C.E.F., 1947
At 7pm on 22 April 1915, the Bennett’s battalion witnessed the first use of chlorine gas in warfare. Click here to read about the attack. Bennett and his men were stationed in reserve in rest billets (huts) in the town of Vlameringhe, Belgium. Witnesses from the 2nd Battalion recall watching French troops stagger past the Canadian lines in full retreat; some soldiers “dropping into ditches in convulsions of vomiting.” By 8:30pm, the commander of 3rd Brigade, war hero and holder of the Victoria Cross, Richard Turner was in a complete panic. He ordered immediate assistance to help launch an attack that would get the Germans out of Kitcheners’ Wood. It would take several hours of marching on Belgian roads, stopping intermittently to let ambulances with wounded soldiers pass, before the 2nd Battalion arrived at the designated rendezvous point.

Photograph of the remains of
 Kitcheners' Wood, taken in 1918.
Credit: Great War Forum
Photograph of Kitcheners' Wood,
 June 1917.
At roughly 10 pm, the first two Canadian units attempted to retake Kitcheners’ Wood. Attacking from southerly direction, the 16th Battalion and 10th Battalions made a 200 yard running charge over open ground, facing fire from the chattering German machine guns as they entered into the woods. Within minutes the attack had stalled, the commander of the 10th Battalion lay bleeding to death after receiving 5 bullets to the groin. His men were now engaged in hand-to-hand fighting with Germans in the east, west and in the interior of the wooded area. By the time roll call came next morning, the 16th Battalion only had 193 men out of 813. The 10th Battalion’s casualties were much worse, in a report made three days after the battle; an officer wrote that the unit only has “a small party of men” left.

Location of Kitcheners' Wood and
 Canadian Monument.
Credit: Google Maps
By 1:30am on the morning of 23 April 1915, the 2nd Battalion reported for duty at Mouse Trap Farm. After a quick debriefing of the situation in the woods, it was decided that 2nd Battalion would link up with the units that were already in Kitcheners’ Wood and revive the faltering attack. Three of the four companies of the 2nd Battalion were assigned roles in the attack. No. 3 Company to take the left flank, and No. 2 Company was to swing to the north east (on the right) and link with the men already in the forest and help defend the line.  Following in support was Major Bennett’s No. 1 Company. Bennett’s unit was assigned the task of following the other units (down the middle) of the battalion and act as fire support.
Map of 2nd Battalion Advance. Includes location of No. 1 Coy
attack. Credit: Google Maps

As Major Bennett and his men felt their way forward in the dark, they could see and hear the muzzle flashes and sound of gun fire on their left flank. They knew that their comrades in No. 3 Company needed assistance. After reaching cover of a hill, Bennett ordered a scout to report on the developing situation. After examining the terrain and referencing his position on a map, Major Bennett crawled back to his men. The battalion’s commander, Lt. Col. Watson, approached Bennett’s lagging troops.  Watson bellowed to his subordinate that an attack must be carried out before morning. Major Bennett lay on his stomach on the side of a hill with his men awaiting orders, he may have thought of the irony of being in a farm field similar to his own, only thousands of miles away from North Monaghan. Bennett was told to attack, and as a good soldier he would follow that order.

 As dawn began to break the night sky over Langemarck, Major Bennett prepared to meet his destiny. Bennett put his whistle to his lips, grabbed his service revolver out of the holster, and ordered his men to fix bayonets. After the 15 inch steel blades snapped onto the rifles, the Major stood up and ordered the men to get up. He inhaled.  Waving his arm forward he blew his whistle and charged over the hill.

The German troops in Kitcheners’ Wood saw the soldiers from Peterborough as they descended down the sloping hill. Within seconds, the Germans unleashed a storm of bullets against the Canadians as they ran directly at the German line. As a leader of infantry charge, Major Bennett was one of the first men to be hit. Survivors of the failed attack on Kitcheners’ Wood wrote back to family in Peterborough that Major Bennett was killed instantly when he was hit in the head and stomach with a burst of machine gun fire. Private James Bills of Sherbrooke Street, who was wounded in the charge, wrote back home: “The Canadians did grandly the past few weeks, but our company lost every officer in one day. . . He [Bennett] was loved by all men in the company, and, believe me, they would follow him anywhere.”

             Photograph of George Bennett and No. 1 Company, 2nd Canadian Infantry Battalion.
         The picture taken 3 days before the attack, 19 - 20th April 1915 in Belgium. Major
               Bennett is identified by his crouched stance in the front-centre of the photo.                    
Credit: Personal Collection published in Examiner, May 1915
The 2nd Battalion attack on Kitcheners’ Wood failed. Almost all of the soldiers No. 1 Company were killed or wounded in the charge.  After two days of fighting, the battalion had 494 soldiers at roll call; 540 of the 1,034 men in the unit had died, been wounded or captured. On April 25th 1914, the first news of the battle arrived in Peterborough. Initially, the news reported that the Canadians had succeeded; eventually word came to prepare for large numbers of causalities. On April 28th came the news of Bennett’s death. Letters of condolence poured in from the premier, Prime Minister, and city councillors. In early May a large Anglican memorial service was held in Bennett’s honour. The service included a solemn prayer for all the families in Peterborough that were in mourning or waiting to hear information of their relatives in Ypres. His death represented the war coming to Peterborough. For residents of the city, the Great War was no longer a European side show that they read about in the paper. 

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