One hundred years ago, during the summer and fall of 1916, the epic Battle of The Somme raged in northern France. By the time the battle was over, the losses to the British and Allied forces exceeded one million men. To many, The Somme has become an iconic symbol of the incomprehensible horrors, bloodshed and general futility of much of the First World War.
The Battle of The Somme commenced on July 1st, 1916. However, Canadian troops were not generally involved in the fighting until September. The losses by then were so staggering that the Canadian Corps were badly needed as reinforcements.
The first Canadian assaults commenced on Sept. 15th near the village of Courcelette.
They resulted in one of the best successes of the Somme offensive. However, the front still only moved only by a few hundred metres. Moreover, it is estimated that the Canadians lost more than 7,200 men in the first week of fighting.
A large number of young men from Red Deer and area took part in the fierce fighting. Some had been part of the First Contingent, who had rushed to enlist when the War first broke out in August 1914. Ironically, they had worried that they might miss “the action” before the War was over.
The First Contingent had already suffered heavy losses in the spring of 1915 at the Battle of St. Julien when the Canadians not only faced a ‘baptism of fire’ but also experienced the first use of chlorine gas as a weapon of war.
Many of the Central Albertans fighting at Courcelette had enlisted in the winter of 1914-1915 with the 12 Canadian Mounted Rifles.
Their expectation, when they joined up, was that they would be part of highly mobile cavalry-like units. Instead, they went into battle as infantry in the horrific muddy trenches.
In mid-September 1916, the newspapers were soon filled with notices of the local men who were dead or wounded. One of the first reported killed was Lieut. Lawrence Carrick. He was a successful rancher and store owner at Pine Lake. He had also built the Sandy Cove Hotel. He had enlisted with the First Contingent just after the War was declared. He had survived St. Julien.
In the early morning of Sept. 15, 1916, Lieut. Carrick was leading his platoon into battle. He was shot through the head by a German sniper and killed instantly. He was initially buried by his men in a nearby shell-hole.
Major Harold L. Gaetz had been a prominent businessman in Red Deer, an officer in the militia and the first mayor of the Village of Rocky Mountain House. He had been a member of the First Contingent and then became second-in-command with the 12 C.M.R.
On Sept. 26th, 1916, he was badly wounded while leading his men in an attack on the German trenches at Thiepval near Courcelette.
He then suffered a direct hit by a shell. Consequently, he has no known grave. In a letter which his wife received shortly after his death, he had written that he had a premonition that he would not survive the upcoming fighting.
George Rothnie was the first Chief of Police in Red Deer. He had served in the Boer War with Lord Baden Powell and subsequently established Alberta’s first Boy Scout troop in Red Deer. On Oct. 21st, 1916, he was leading his men in an assault at Regina Trench. He was hit with a barrage of shells and killed instantly. Like Major Gaetz, he has no known grave.
Rev. Webster Fanning Harris was the Anglican minister first at Stettler and then at St. Luke’s Church in Red Deer.
In 1916, he enlisted to become an overseas chaplain. On Sept. 26th, 1916, while conducting a funeral service on the front lines at The Somme, he was hit in the back by shrapnel and left totally paralyzed. After several agonizing months in hospital, he finally passed away on May 4th, 1917. He was the first Canadian overseas chaplain to be killed while on active service.
By mid-November, the onset of winter finally brought an end to the Battle of The Somme. During that terrible fall, 50 young men from Red Deer and area lost their lives and roughly three times that number were wounded. It was a devastating blow to the community.