The Battle of Mount Sorrel and Hill 62 (2 - 14 June 1916)
During the first 3 months of the war, the Germans were eager to occupy as much of the hills in the fields of Flanders as possible. The military advantage from the possession of even a modest hill of 45 m. amidst the lower fields is obvious: a better observation of the enemy, a better position for fortifications, and a better position for defence actions. The possession of a hill in Flanders fields offered any occupying force an excellent advantage for control over the lower grounds.
The Battle of Mount Sorrel took place along a ridge between Hooge in the north and Hill 60 at Zwarteleen in the south. During the battle the opponents focused their attacks on the hills of Hooge (45 m.), Hill 62 named after its height, in 1916 also called “Torr Top” or “Tor Top”, and nearby Mount Sorrel (60 m.).
The Opponents - XIII (Royal Württemberg) Army Corps
In this front sector three divisions were deployed of the German Fourth Army under Albrecht Herzog von Württemberg: the 117. Infanterie Division (117th Infantry Division), and the 26. (1. Königlich Württembergische) Division and 27. (2. Königlich Württembergische) Division of the XIII. (Königlich Württembergisches) Armee-Korps (XIII (Royal Württemberg) Army Corps) under Generalleutnant Theodor von Watter . Six weeks before the battle the staff of Generalleutnant Theodor von Watter’s XIII. Armee-Korps planned and prepared carefully an attack on the Canadian lines west of Hooge, Hill 62 and Mount Sorrel. The objective was to take definite control of these hills.
From May there were four divisions of the British Second Army under General Sir Herbert Plumer stationed in this front sector: the three Canadian Divisions of the Canadian Corps under Lieutenant-General the Honourable Sir Julian Byng. Later during the battle, the Canadians were reinforced by an Infantry Brigade from the 20th Light Division.
Mid May - Aerial Reconnaissance
During the second half of May, observers of the Royal Flying Corps detected behind the German lines near Mount Sorrel the existence of trench networks resembling the Canadian positions. The Württemberg soldiers dug these copied trenches for field training of their troops among others to improve their orientation for the coming attack. The aerial reconnaissance detected also that the Germans were digging new sap trenches towards the Canadian lines, in June 1916 - a known sign of a future attack.
From 29 May 1916 Lieutenant-General Byng inspected the positions of the Canadian Corps. Byng observed that the Germans on their higher positions overlooked the Canadian troops. The positions of the Canadian Corps were under constant danger of fire.
Byng assigned Major-General Malcolm Mercer of the 3rd Canadian Division to design an attack plan to overrun the German positions. While the Canadian Major-General Mercer began preparations for an attack, the German Generalleutnant Theodor von Watter deployed his own plan of attack and released his three Divisions.
German Preliminary Artillery Bombardment
On 2 June 1916 at 6.00 AM, the artillery of the XIII Army Corps opened a bombardment on the Canadian positions. When the bombardment began, Major-General Mercer and Brigadier-General Arthur Williams of 8th Canadian Brigade were inspecting the front line. Stunned and deafened by a shell burst Major-General Mercer still found his way to an aid post. He insisted immediately on leaving to rejoin his Headquarters. Mercer was hit next and his leg was broken. Next he was struck again, this time by shrapnel, and killed. Brigadier-General Williams was wounded in the head and taken prisoner during the later following infantry attack. Of course, the loss of two key commanders at the onset of the operations was a critical setback. The bombardment wounded and killed 90 percent of the Canadian forward troops.
Detonation Mines Mount Sorrel - Infantry Attack
At 1:00 PM, German pioneers detonated four mines near the Canadian forward trenches of Mount Sorrel, followed immediately by an infantry attack.
With six battalions the Württemberg 26th and 27th Infantry Divisions attacked the positions held by the 8th Canadian Brigade. At Sanctuary Wood the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry held off the attack sustaining high casualties.
The main force of the Württembergs attacked the 1st and 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles and a Company of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. The Germans captured Hill 62 and Mount Sorrel. After advancing up to 1,100 metres the Württemberg soldiers dug in to consolidate their new positions.
3 June - Failed Counterattack
In the night of 3 June Lieutenant-General Byng hastily organized a counterattack. Brigadier-General Hoare Nairne of the Lahore Divisional Artillery, took temporarily command of the 3rd Canadian Division. Because of the high casualty numbers in the 3rd Division, two brigades of the 1st Canadian Division were temporarily attached to the command of Brigadier-General Hoare Nairne. Mount Sorrel was the objective for Brigadier-General Lipsett’s 2nd Brigade. Brigadier-General Tuxford’s 3rd Brigade would attack Torr Top or Hill 62. In the southern attack sector the 7th Brigade would attack Hill 60.
Owing to heavy German artillery fire on troops on their way to the jump-off lines, the Canadian counterattack, scheduled to begin on 3 June 1916 at 2:00 AM, was postponed until 7:00 AM. From the beginning the attack started with general confusion, when the chosen start signal of six simultaneous launched green rockets failed. Some rockets misfired and did not burst. As a consequence the three attacks did not start simultaneously but began at different times enabling the Germans to concentrate their fire.
As the troops had to advance in broad daylight and over open ground, the Canadians suffered heavy losses. Some small parties managed to penetrate parts of the German front line trenches. But the Canadians were not able to capture or hold the trenches. At about 1.00 PM they had to retreat to their jump-off positions. The attack failed to regain any lost territory. But on some locations the Canadians managed to advance the front line about 900 – 1,500 metres from the positions they were forced to retreat to on 2 June.
British Reinforcements and Second German Attack
General Plumer sent reinforcements to Byng: an infantry brigade from the 20th Light Division and a number of additional artillery units; two South African Howitzer Batteries, 89th Siege Battery, 51st Howitzer Battery and the artillery of the 9th Infantry Brigade of 3rd Division. The artillery batteries immediately started shelling the German batteries, the forward trenches, support trenches and reserve trenches.
6 June – 4 Mine Explosions at Hooge
The Germans were not impressed. On 6 June at 3.00 PM they surprised the Canadians by exploding four large mines under the forward trenches of the 2nd Canadian Division at the outskirts of the ruins of Hooge.
A company of the Canadian 28th (North West) Battalion was wiped out by the explosions. In despite of these mines and the follow-up of an infantry attack the Canadians managed to hold their positions for a while.
But ultimately Byng decided to leave the Hooge trenches to the Germans. From then on Byng focused on the capture of Mount Sorrel and Hill 62.
Byng ordered Major-General Arthur Currie of the 1st Canadian Division to plan an attack on the German positions at Mount Sorrel and Hill 62. Owing to the casualties of the unsuccessful counterattack of 3 June, Currie was forced to re-organize his battalions into two composite brigades.
From 4 June the already bad weather deteriorated. Air reconnaissance became impossible. Both parties postponed larger actions. Until 8 June the Württembergs gained some terrain westward up to Maple Copse (dark brown line Canadian Trench Map).
9-12 - June Preliminary Bombardments
Between 9 and 12 June Currie’s artillery launched four intense bombardments of thirty minutes each in an effort to deceive the Germans into expecting immediate attacks, which did not take place.
On 12 June the artillery shelled for ten hours all the German positions between Sanctuary Wood, south of Hooge, and Hill 60 at Zwarteleen.
13 June – Canadian Success at Hill 62 and Mount Sorrel
On 13 June the Germans suffered an additional 45 minutes of a heavy artillery bombardment. After this preliminary bombardment at 1.30 PM, the Canadian troops advanced behind a smoke screen. On the left Brigadier-General Tuxford’s 2nd, 4th, 13th, 15th and 16th Battalions attacked Hill 62. On the right Brigadier-General Lipsett’s 1st, 3rd, and 8th Battalions attacked Mount Sorrel. In the south the 7th Brigade attacked Hill 60.
Notice in the map detail above the Canadian names of the trenches.
This time the infantry attack completely surprised the Württembergs. The Germans offered little resistance. The Canadians were able to take some 200 prisoners. With exception of the trenches at Hooge, the Germans fell back to their original jump-off trenches. In less than an hour the attack was over.
The Aftermath - Casualties
On 14 June the Germans launched two counterattacks to no avail. On the other hand, they managed to advance their trenches to a distance within 150 metres of the Canadian lines, but they made no further attempts to attack.
Although the battle ended in a Canadian victory, securing Mount Sorrel and Hill 62, the Canadian casualty numbers were much higher than the German numbers, in particular the significant numbers of men wounded or Missing In Action.
Between 2 June and 14 June 1916, the Canadian Corps lost a total of 73 officers and 1,053 soldiers killed; 257 officers and 5,010 men wounded; 57 officers and 1,980 men missing, a total of 8,430.
German losses were 32 officers and 1,191 soldiers killed; 71 officers and 3,911 men wounded; 6 officers and 554 men missing, a total of 5,765.
The Canadian Corps would stay in the Ypres Salient until the beginning of September, when the corps was transferred to the Somme.
Detail trench map below: The British front line after the battle on 31 August 1916