No two phrases in military history are as misunderstood as ‘minor operations’ and ‘small unit action.’ The defense of Little Round Top at the battle of Gettysburg, possibly the linchpin moment of the entire conflict? That was a small unit action. The primary form of soldier injury in our era, roadside explosives, is primarily targeted at the minor operations of patrol and convoy. So these terms should not be considered subtle suggestions to dismiss their significance as topics of military history. On the contrary, these phrases cover some of the most consequential missions ever conducted on the battlefield.
Seen above, Lieutenant-Colonel Victor Odlum is a native of Vancouver and a volunteer with Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry who has risen quickly to command of the 7th Battalion. Keenly aware that the monotony and boredom of trench warfare during a period without ‘major operations‘ are sapping the morale of his men, Odlum has determined to organize a raid on the German position at Petit Douve Farm in Flanders. More than any other nationality, Canadians are responsible for developing the tactics of trench raiding this year in response to the deadlocked conditions of the Western Front, where barbed wire and no man’s land have created a unique topology. Operations like the one today are becoming increasingly common as Canadian commanders seek to keep their troops sharp and the enemy’s off-balance.
Compared to the grand strategic visions of breakthrough by technical or tactical means which drive the general headquarters of every combatant, these raids represent a bottom-up trend made possible by the independence of the Canadian units. Now assembled into a Canadian Corps, the Canadian divisions are free to develop their own doctrine and training methods independent of London’s top-down approach. Whereas European armies are structured to fight in broad flanking formations, Canadian officers and sergeants are encouraged to act independently, on their own initiative.
Today’s operation has been meticulously planned using the best available intelligence, including aerial photography. Odlum selected the officers who would lead the operation, then let them choose their teams. For ten solid days, the 170 volunteers and alternates trained using a detailed mock-up of the battlefield. From the unit records:
A field was found where the natural configuration lent itself easily to adaptation to resemble the enemy tranches; a ditch served for the DOUVE River; a path for the MESSINES road; another ditch for the enemy wire trench; and a succession of stacks for the PETITE DOUVE fort. Other trenches were turned up to make the plan complete. Over this area the parties worked day and night. Bridges were put down; the attacking groups led forward; the trenches were bombed; and the retirement was carried out as laid down. When the battalion went into the trenches, this system was continued. All continued together, living in IRISH FARM, keeping fit, and going over the minor details of preparation.
1. The fitting up of a room with heating apparatus, so that the men, on returning from the attack, could be warmed and dried.
2. The provision of spare socks and underclothing.
3. The sacking of bombs in bundles of 20.
4. The removal of all marks of identification.
5. The provision of face masks.
6. The testing and strengthening of bridging ladders.
7. Practice with traversor wire mats.
8. Fastening specifically purchased electric torches to the bayonets of bayonet men. (These torches enabled the men to flash their lights without removing their hands from the rifle, and blinded those in whose eyes they were flashed).
9. Sacking, marking and stowing all spare kit.
10. Preparing spools of wire entanglements to be used in blocking captured trenches.
11. Providing revolvers and wire cutters for those who needed them.
Rifle fire kept the Germans’ heads down all afternoon, and towards evening, artillery fire targeted the German wire and trenches while mortar fire concentrated on the machine gun emplacements at Petite Douve Farm. Real-time observation allowed the raiders to know exactly which wire was successfully smashed and which was still in place.
Chosen for experience in nighttime patrols of no man’s land, and then stripped of every insignia opr dogtag or paybook which might provide the Germans useful information about a mysterious corpse, Odlum’s crack company went over the top a half-hour before midnight wearing black ‘veiling masks.’ The teams are armed with Lewis machine guns — part of a new generation of automatic firearms that are light enough to use in the attack — and an abundance of grenades. One squad occupies a listening post and overwatch position on the north bank of the Douve river where it crosses the German line, another covers the improvised bridges for the assault party, and a senior lieutenant leads a platoon into the objective; behind them, a reserve party waits to exploit success or cover retreat.
Wire cutters finish the work the artillery started. Emerging in the German line at midnight, the Canadians achieve complete surprise, quickly overrunning a rectangle of trenches and setting up their own barbed wire to cut off any immediate counterstroke. Twelve German prisoners are quickly hustled back across no man’s land for interrogation; the rest are either killed or forced to retreat. Working quickly, the raiding party makes a survey of the entire trench system in their temporary control, makes off with everything of military value that can be carried away, and departs promptly when the commanding lieutenant’s whistle blows twenty minutes after the assault began. As they disappear into the darkness, the artillery guns rain hell on any Germans massing for a counterattack. Just one Canadian has been killed, another wounded; the operation is a near-flawless success.
This spectacular victory is not small. Odlum has struck a well-defended position hard at minimal cost, and his officers survive to transmit their knowledge to the rest of the Canadian Corps in the form of an after action review. The masterpiece captures the attention of the French, who also train hard in trench warfare tactics, and an exchange program is soon improving both armies in the new year. The British expeditionary Force also takes note of this and other successes like it, deciding to adopt raiding tactics across their entire front in their usual top-down manner.
Moreover, today’s triumph solidifies the Canadians’ reputation for aggressive, fearless action. By the end of 1915, they will be the Western Front’s acknowledged experts in trench raiding — ‘storm troopers,’ in the whispered words of watchful German sentries — and the acknowledged masters of offensive action on the Western Front.