‘A case of picking the right berry’ – Arras Memorials – Pages 201-202

Preparations for a recent trip to Ypres took me back to an event referred to briefly in “Arras Memorials”. It appeared there by virtue of the fact that one of the men involved, Private Howard Clifford ODLUM, happens to be commemorated on the Vimy Memorial. The event in question was a two-pronged raid carried out on the night of the 16th/17th November 1915 by the 7th Battalion and the 5th Battalion, Canadian Infantry. Although both raids took place simultaneously, they were carried out independently of each other and took place at different locations along the line, albeit in the same sector. The 5th Battalion party would pass through our own lines, just south of Seaforth Farm, before proceeding north-eastwards towards the German front line close to its intersection with the River Douve, which at that time of the year was about twelve feet wide and six feet deep. Raiders from the 7th Battalion would make their way from the area around Irish Farm, crossing the River Douve just west of the bridge carrying the road between Messines and Ploegsteert, and from there the party would make its way northwards, parallel and close to the road, before turning eastwards and entering the German lines just south of La Petite Douve Farm.

Unfortunately, an earlier reconnaissance by scouts of the 5th Battalion had failed to identify an obstacle close to and parallel to the enemy’s parapet. That obstacle was a ditch filled with water, which in itself was not such a problem, but the ditch also contained lots of barbed wire hidden below the surface of the water. This only became apparent once five of the raiding party had become entangled as they tried to cross the ditch. After extricating the men, the decision was taken not to attempt entry into the enemy’s trench system. Thankfully, the position already reached on the near side of the ditch was still within bombing range of the German front line. From there, at zero hour, which was set for 2.30 a.m., the raiders would simply hurl their bombs into the enemy’s trench and then retire. Now significantly modified, this revised version of the original plan amounted to little more than a demonstration, nevertheless, it would still provide a useful distraction in relation to the other raid. It would also last long enough to confuse the Germans as to the exact nature and scope of the raids and would still force them to ‘stand to’ across the entire sector. This would leave them vulnerable to our barrage, which at the conclusion of both raids would be brought back from the enemy’s support trenches to his front line, thereby causing him further casualties.

The raiders from the 7th Battalion were more successful, and from the point of view of the group with me this was the more interesting part of the story, not least because a number of them were former specialist firearms officers from my own former organisation, the Metropolitan Police Service. My reason for including this story for them was largely due to a marvellous piece of improvisation on the part of the raiders, namely the use of electric torches fixed to the rifle barrels of the bayonet men whose job it was to work in conventional fashion, traverse by traverse, alongside the bombers. The torches were fixed to the barrels in such a way that the bayonet men could switch them on and off without changing their grip. This, I believe, was the first time that torches were used operationally in this way. Of course, this type of equipment, along with later variations of it, would become a standard bit of kit for special forces units and specialist police firearms officers across the globe. Needless to say, my firearms officers were astonished to learn that equipment and skills they had used over the years had been put to the test operationally on the Western Front a hundred years ago.

This was just one aspect of the raid by the 7th Battalion that interested me. Leaving aside the setback encountered by the 5th Battalion, the whole affair was characterised by meticulous preparation and planning. Particular attention was paid to the question of command and control during the operation. The two parties that entered the enemy’s trenches were led by Captain Charles Telford Costigan and Lieutenant John Raymond McIllree; back at battalion HQ, and in overall command, was Captain Lionel John Thomas. From there Thomas was connected by telephone to Lieutenant Archibald H. Wrightman whose role was crucial to the entire operation. Having gone out with the two raiding parties, Wrightman positioned himself himself at the point of entry to the German trench. From there he would act as forward controller for the operation, securing the entry and exit point, relaying real-time information back to battalion HQ via the telephone, and finally providing the agreed signal for the raiders to withdraw. In order to assist him, he took with him five riflemen, a telephonist, a linesman and two stretcher bearers. Wrightman’s team would also be the last to leave, providing cover for the raiders as they withdrew and for the men whose job it was to retrieve the temporary bridges that had been used to cross the Douve. Such raids were always risky, but nothing was left to chance in this small but extremely well executed operation.

Another reason for my mentioning this story here relates to the men who took part in it. Several of the participants received gallantry awards; Private Howard Clifford Odlum, Corporal Ernest Babcock and Corporal Kenneth Weir all received the DCM. Their citations also refer to another man, a Lance-Corporal BERRY. In “Arras Memorials” I commented that I found it odd that Berry appeared to have received no recognition for his part in the raid, despite being referred to in the citations relating to those who were recognised. Of the 106 men who served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force under the name of ‘Berry’, only one was shown serving with the 7th Battalion, and that was Lance-Corporal Arthur Charles Berry. This prompted me to highlight him as ‘possibly’ the man referred to in the other men’s citations. However, Arthur Charles Berry’s record made no mention of a DCM, or any other award for that matter. Although I found this highly surprising, I also knew from experience that records sometimes contain important omissions, including sometimes gallantry awards. 

While doing some further reading, I came across two other men from the 7th Battalion, both of whom were also awarded the DCM for their part in the raid that night. They were Sergeant William Charles Meyerstein and Sergeant Herbert Ashby. Both men appear to have survived the war; in fact Ashby also won the MM. My research also revealed that the ‘BERRY’ referred to in the citations for Odlum, Babcock and Weir was a Private John BERRY and that he, like the others, also received the DCM for his exploits that night. However, and here’s the surprising thing, Canadian records show him serving not with the 7th Battalion but with the 30th Battalion, which I think explains why I never came across him during my original research for the book. It also probably accounts for the reason why his Canadian record makes no mention of his DCM, even though the gazette entry relating to the award clearly shows him serving with the 7th Battalion. His citation shows him serving as a private rather than a lance-corporal, but his army number is identical to the John BERRY shown serving with the 30th Battalion in Canadian records. So, there we have it, another mystery solved….. just a case of picking the right berry!

Another interesting feature of the raid concerns the wire cutting carried out by the 7th Battalion in the hours leading up to the raid. Led by Lieutenant William Dumbleton Holmes, Odlum, Babcock and the other wire cutters spent three hours snipping away creating two lanes  in the enemy’s wire (one account mentions a third lane), both of which were cut at a diagonal to the enemy’s front trench and only converged at the point of entry. Cutting on the diagonal would ensure that the path through the wire was less likely to be detected by any sentry who might happen to peer out over the parapet into no man’s land. The final phase of cutting would only be done once the two raiding parties were ready to carry out the assault. Those cutting the wire could only work once the moon had disappeared behind the clouds, otherwise they had to remain perfectly flat and  still to avoid detection. Believe it or not, hot cocoa was brought out to them at intervals in an effort to combat muscular and nervous fatigue as the men laboured away in the cold, damp conditions.

The raid by the 7th Battalion, which lasted twenty minutes, yielded a number of prisoners and was considered a success. Costigan was awarded the DSO for his exploits that night. He was also awarded the MC, gazetted in August 1916, again for conspicuous gallantry, after supporting the infantry for two days and three nights with what the citation refers to as ‘his trench guns’. Despite being partially buried by shell blasts, he carried on working one of the guns himself after the detachment he was with suffered heavy casualties. The citation concludes by noting that his gallantry had been brought to notice on several previous occasions. Costigan survived, but only until the 11th November 1917 when he was killed during the latter stages of the Third Battle of Ypres serving with the 10th Battalion, Canadian Infantry. His grave, which I have visited a couple of times over the years, can be found at Passchendaele New British Cemetery. He is also mentioned briefly in “Arras North” in connection with a namesake of his who is buried in Villers Station Cemetery. We’ll hear a little more about Costigan later.

The man who led the other party of bombers, Lieutenant John Raymond McIllree, was also awarded the DSO for his part in the raid. He had fought with the Canadians during the Second Battle of Ypres and at Festubert and had won his commission in the field. During the raid on the 16th/17th November it would appear that he had been the first of his party to enter the enemy’s trench. He is reported to have rugby tackled the first German he met bringing him to the floor, then felling another with his rifle. After that, he and his men fought and bombed the enemy as they emerged from their dug-outs, only withdrawing after twenty minutes when the signal was given to pull out. McIllree went on to become a captain in 1916 and appears to have survived the war.

The man responsible for the bridging parties and the wire cutting, Lieutenant William Dumbleton Holmes, (the gazette entry gives the incorrect spelling of ‘Dumbledon’) was also awarded the DSO for his part in the raid. His citation notes that he had been brought to notice earlier that year at Festubert. He was, but that understates the matter by some margin. On the 21st May 1915, soon after his battalion had begun its attack, he was left with only two other men from his party. A shell blast had wounded him in his side and blown him into a ditch filled with water. In spite of his wounds, he crossed the ditch using some planks and was soon joined there by the other two men. From there they were able to bring rapid rifle fire onto parties of Germans opposing the rest of the attack. When some reinforcements arrived without their officers, he took command of the group and led them in a charge, forcing some of the enemy to abandon their positions. As he led the charge he is reported to have rallied his men shouting: “Canada, Canada, Forward Canada”. Following this episode he was recommended for the VC, but instead had to settle for a mention in despatches. Sadly, he was killed in action on the 13th June 1916 during the fighting around Mount Sorrel. His grave can now be found in Railway Dugouts Cemetery, not too far from where this gallant officer fell.

A DSO also went to the 7th Battalion’s commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Victor Wentworth Odlum, who went on to win a bar to his award for gallantry in 1918. As far as I can tell, he is not related to Private Howard Clifford Odlum mentioned at the start of this piece. Colonel Odlum went on to command the 11th brigade, Canadian Infantry, and also survived the war. His citation relating to the November raid notes his conspicuous gallantry and energy in overseeing the raid. He was mentioned in despatches on seven occasions and was created a CMG in 1917, followed by a CB in 1919. He also held the Order of St. Danilo (3rd Class). He was a graduate of Toronto University and spent twenty-two years in the militia in Canada, including time during the South African War, earning him the Colonial Long Service Medal. He was also editor of the “Daily World” in Vancouver and a company director. His was yet another life lived to the full and his marriage produced three sons and a daughter.

For anyone interested, there is a brief mention of the November raid in the excellent book by Tony Spagnoly and Ted Smith entitled: “A Walk Round Plugstreet Wood”, but a much earlier and much more detailed account can be found in “Canada in Flanders, Volume II” by Lord Beaverbrook, which was published in 1917 by Hodder and Stoughton. The battalion war diaries for the 5th and 7th Battalions are also worth a look.

Costigan was in action again on the night of 2nd March 1916. As the British 3rd Division was busy making its last minute preparations to retake the Bluff, which had been captured by the Germans back in February, Costigan was set to carry out a simple demonstration of his own.   At one point the River Douve ran through no man’s land intersecting both Canadian and German front lines. For Costigan it was the geography of the sector that dictated his method of attack. His plan was to load a makeshift raft with explosives, float it down to the German lines, then explode it close to the enemy’s front line.

The Douve, however, was a narrow, meandering stream and was lined with small trees, many of which had low, overhanging branches. It was clear that the raft, once set adrift, couldn’t be relied upon to reach the enemy’s line unaided, so Costigan decided to pilot it as far as possible towards the German lines before lighting the fuse and making his way back.

Under cover of darkness Costigan and Private Witney carried the raft to the river where they loaded it. Costigan then set off alone, wading into the icy-cold stream to guide the raft along its way. Comfort aside, there were other dangers to consider. Should the Germans spot him and open fire, there was a very real risk that the explosives would be ignited, in which case Costigan would be caught in the resulting blast with very little chance of survival. This probably accounts for why Costigan chose to accompany the raft alone rather than risk the life of anyone else; after all, this  initiative had been his own idea and he alone would be accountable for it. Of course, if the operation proved successful, he and his battalion would receive the credit for it; on the other hand, if it went wrong he, and only he, would pay the price.

Costigan succeeded in steering his raft clear of all obstacles, particularly the overhanging branches along the banks, and eventually managed to get it to within thirty yards of the German front line. Here, the enemy had run a section of wire across the stream in order to prevent any encroachment via the river. Costigan remained there with the raft in the icy-cold water until the designated signal was given for the start of the infantry attack on the Bluff. He then lit the fuse and moved quickly away from the raft, leaving it to explode in spectacular fashion. The Germans responded immediately and opened up with machine-gun fire. The Canadians already knew that the enemy had machine-gun posts covering this part of the line, but they hadn’t yet been able to work out their precise positions. As the German machine gunners blazed away, Costigan’s unit was able to identify their locations accurately. Such information was always valuable in building up a picture of the enemy’s defensive positions.

Regardless of Costigan’s little initiative, the Bluff was successfully retaken. In material terms, his effort contributed nothing to it, it was merely a token gesture. And yet, like the raid of the 16th/17th November, and many similar forays, his demonstration sent a very strong message to the Germans that it was we, not they, who controlled no man’s land; in fact, since the Canadians had been operating in this sector, the enemy had rarely ventured out of his trenches and rarely patrolled no man’s land.