The Canadian Corps had taken part in a number of operations beginning in mid-September, pushing slowly forward in the area of Courcelette, advancing north towards Regina Trench. Two major attacks in October were unsuccessful, and the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions, having suffered heavily in the fighting, were relieved. On 10 October, however, the 4th Canadian Division, newly arrived in France, went into the line and continued operations aimed at capturing Regina Trench as part of the 2nd British Corps. The artillery of the other three Canadian divisions also remained on the Somme under command of the 2nd British Corps.
The plans for a converging advance on both sides of the Ancre River were discarded on 17 October, with separate attacks by both the 4th Army and the Reserve Army planned instead. The next day, a disappointing attack by 4th Army early in the morning caused further reassessments, and alternating coordinated attacks by both armies were planned. The Reserve Army was called on to capture Regina Trench on 21 October, preparing the way for an attack astride the Ancre on 25 October. On 23 October the 4th Army in conjunction with the French 6th Army would being attacks toward Le Transloy, with the main assault there to come on 26 October. All operations were deemed dependent on the weather, and as such, only the first action on Regina Trench materialized.
The 4th Division at the Somme
The Ancre Heights had been the last battle the Canadian Corps fought on the Somme, and on 17 October, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Divisions moved north to a new sector of the front near Arras. For the 4th Canadian Division, however, the Battle of the Somme was only beginning. The division landed in France in mid-August, and began its front-line service on 25 August 1916. It remained in the north while the other three divisions moved to the Somme, and joined a temporary formation called "Frank's Force" on 3 September 1916 along with British, Belgian, and Australian artillery and miscellaneous units. This formation, named after the 2nd Army's artillery commander, held a 4.5 mile front that extended from a point west of Messines to the Ypres-Comines Canal. They were opposed by the German 26th Division along with elements of the 4th Replacement Division.
Following a series of reliefs in the wake of the Canadian Corps' departure, the 4th Canadian Division was situated as the right wing of the 2nd Corps, holding 2,000 yards of front between the East Miraumont Road to Below Trench. The weather remained fine for a few days and then turned to steady rain which dissolved the front line trenches, also hard-hit by enemy shelling and eventually reduced in places to little more than ditches knee-deep with water. Lack of dugouts caused troops to attempt to burrow under the parapets for overhead protection, which caused the danger of cave-ins. When the skies cleared again temporarily, spirits lifted as the troops anticipated their first action. Patrols reported that enemy wire was being flattened by artillery in front of Regina Trench, and though the Germans persisted in stopping up the gaps each night with fresh rolls of concertina, they were unable to keep up with the progress of the Allied artillery.
Battle of the Ancre
Battle for the Ancre Heights was resumed on 21 October when the 2nd Corps renewed its assault on Regina Trench on a cold and clear day, the first of three operations outlined by the British Expeditionary Force's Commander-in-Chief three days previously. In the trenches opposite, the Marine Brigade had been relieved in mid-October by the 5th Replacement Division. A general advance on a 5,000 yard front was called for with the 11th Canadian Brigade on the right of the line, a brigade of the 18th Division to their left, two brigades of the 25th Division to their left, and a brigade of the 39th Division on the far left. The operation was supported by the field artilleries of seven divisions (including the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions) supplemented by 200 heavy guns and howitzers.
Regina Trench: 21 and 25 October
The 11th Brigade was aimed at a 600-yard stretch of Regina Trench on 21 October, just east of the Courcelette Trench. The 87th and 102nd Battalions attacked just after noon and in fewer than 15 minutes both units had arrived at the objective, pleased to find the German wire had been shattered by a systematic bombardment. They made effective use of the barrage, which also had killed many Germans in their front line positions. Survivors had little fight remaining and were eager to surrender. By 1:00 p.m. 160 Germans were taken prisoner and two hours later the 87th Battalion, attacking on the right of the line, had established a block 200 yards east of the Courcelette-Pys road. The 200 Canadian casualties had mostly resulted from German shellfire after the objective had been reached.
Enemy counter-attacks on the 102nd Battalion during the afternoon were broken up by artillery, and a howitzer barrage firing throughout the night blocked the still untaken portion of Regina Trench off to the right flank. Success had been had on the Corps left and centre as well, with Stuff Trench and most of Regina falling to other British brigades, and in all the 2nd Corps took more than 1,000 prisoners. However, the remainder of Regina Trench continued to stubbornly resist, and would deny one more assault by the Canadians.
The 4th Division took over 400 yards of the 4th Army's left front in anticipation of a renewed assault on the last hold-outs in Regina Trench on 24 October, extending the line of their parent 2nd Corps east to the Le Sars-Pys road. The ease of the action on 21 October may have led to a decision to employ a single battalion of the 10th Brigade in the renewed attack. The objective was to be a re-entrant 700 yards of Regina Trench that had originally been the objective of the 3rd Brigade during the disastrous operation of 8 October.
The failure of the barrage was apparently attributed later by the infantry brigade commander to statements by artillery officers that a move of their guns into new positions had given them insufficient time to register before the commencement of the attack. The task tables for the operation also, according to the artillery's official historian, reveal that despite the narrow frontage, little attention was paid to the flanks by those who planned the barrage, while "not a single shell appears to have been fired at the enemy's menacing Quadrilateral position."4
Weather in the next ten days delayed any further operations and in fact it rained for 16 of the first 21 days the 4th Division spent in the front line. The condition of front line trenches was poor, and it was not until 8 November, and the arrival of cold weather, that it was dry long enough for further offensive action. The Reserve Army, having been renamed the 5th Army, continued its task of offensive operations. As a prelude for a new offensive, the 4th Canadian Division was tasked to attack once again the Regina Trench.
The Capture of Regina and Desire Trenches
For the new assault, heavy howitzers were required to have two successful days of bombarding enemy trenches and wire as a prerequisite. This occurred on 9 and 10 November 1916, and the assault was launched at midnight on 10-11 November by battalions of the 10th and 11th Canadian Brigades. The 11th Brigade had the full divisional artillery of the 1st Canadian Division in support, and the 10th Brigade that of the 3rd Canadian Division, in each case for field artillery brigades.
The attack went well. On the right, the 46th and 47th Battalions went forward with the 102nd Battalion on the left. There were no complaints about artillery support, and the start line was moved to a point 150 yards forward of the Canadian trenches, allowing the infantry to stay inside the range of German counter-barrage work. A full moon in a clear sky provided ample light to the troops and the enemy was taken by surprise. Two counter-attacks were driven back by the 102nd Battalion, and consolidation of newly captured territory was completed by 2:20 a.m. German dead were numbered at 50, with 90 prisoners of the 58th and 1st Guard Reserve Divisions taken. Remarkably, only the 47th Battalion had encountered German machine gun fire during the attack, and casualties were light. The divisional General Officer Commanding, Major-General Watson, wrote a letter after the battle to the artillery to thank them for the "very splendid way that your arm of the service co-operated with us."5
The Battle of the Ancre Heights was finally over, and except for a spur west of Pys, high ground looking over Grandcourt and Miraumount from the south was now in Allied hands and Regina Trench was no longer a position of strength, having been blasted in repeated bombardments, either pounded flat in places, or blown as far as twenty feet wide in others, filled with debris and corpses.
The 5th Army's front line encircled the valley of the Ancre on the west and south on 13 November when the Battle of the Ancre opened. In positions that had not changed since the beginning of July, the 13th and 5th Corps faced east toward Serre and Beaumont Hamel. The line ran east where it was held by the 2nd Corps along the northern edge of the Thiepval Ridge as far as the boundary with the 4th Army at the Quadrilateral northwest of Le Sars. The 5th Army now turned its attention to the salient at Beaumont Hamel, attacking with four divisions of the 5th Corps while the 13th Corps sent a division to Serre and the 2nd Corps assaulted north in the valley toward Schwaben Redoubt and Stuff Trench with two divisions. The artillery support was to include the divisional artillery of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions. The 48-hour bombardment was the heaviest artillery support of the war to date, with shells falling on all German-held villages, trenches and approaches to the battle area.
A 30,000 pound mine started the attack at Zero Hour, exploding at the head of the German salient as an enormous barrage crashed down across the front of the 5th Army. The 2nd and 5th Corps managed gains of 1,200 to 1,500 yards, capturing St. Pierre Divon and Beaumont Hamel and trapping large numbers of Germans in converging attacks in the valley of the Ancre.
The night of 17-18 November brought the winter's first snowfall, and the operations began just after 6:00 a.m. on 18 November in a driving sleet that changed to driving rain as the morning progressed. The 4th Division, having taken over positions from the 18th Division's right-hand brigade on 16 November, attacked on a frontage of 2,200 yards. The infantry was forced to plod through freezing mud, the snow masking objectives and causing units to lose direction. Artillery observers couldn't spot targets and could only fire their pre-arranged programmes.
The 11th Brigade, on the left, represented the main effort. Reinforced by a battalion of the 12th Brigade, four battalions attacked astride both Miraumont roads (from right to left, 75th, 54th, 87th and 38th) while the 10th Brigade assaulted with the 46th Battalion on the right and 50th on the left, east of the Courcelette-Pys road. Artillery support was again heavy, with four divisional artilleries (1st Canadian, 2nd Canadian, 3rd Canadian and 11th British), 2nd Corps Heavy Artillery and the Yukon Motor Machine Gun Battery all firing in support. No. 2 Special Company Royal Engineers screened the advance with a smoke screen across the front and right flank.
Suffering heavy casualties, both corps were no longer in a condition to continue the offensive. The 56th Division's relief of the 58th during the day indicated a strong likelihood of new counter-attacks against the right wing of the 2nd Corps, and Major-General Watson decided as early as 12:30 p.m. to pull his patrols from Grandcourt Trench in order to shell as preparation for a full-scale assault. At 7:50 p.m., the situation across the Army front caused the cancellation of all further advance orders by the British 18th and 4th Canadian Divisions. The positions in Grandcourt Trench were most likely untenable in any event, but the gains of the day had been considerable - a half mile advance on a 2,000 yard front, for the loss of 1,250 casualties while inflicting heavy losses in killed, wounded and prisoners. In any event, heavy rain on 19 November prevented any further attacks regardless of the ability of the British corps to continue, and the 4th Canadian Division had at last fought its final battle on the Somme.
The 4th and 5th Army was faced with the task of preparing for winter. Fresh divisions had to be found for the front, where communications and front line trenches had to be repaired and strengthened. The 4th Army extended its front over four miles of French front, moving the boundary from Le Transloy to within four miles of Peronne, freeing three French corps for the spring offensive the French were preparing. The 4th Canadian Division remained in place, having spent seven weeks continuously in the front line before handing over to the 51st (Highland) Division between 26 and 28 November. The division rejoined the rest of the Canadian Corps on the Lens-Arras front.
Canadian battle casualties at the Somme had totalled 24,029.
The Battle Honour "Ancre, 1916" was awarded to units for participation in these actions.