It is November 1916, and the chaos and carnage of the First World War rage in Europe on the Western Front. Among the many nationalities fighting in this global conflict is a Canadian, Captain Thain MacDowell. It’s the Battle of the Somme, and he leads his men in an assault on a strongly defended German trench. Three machine gun posts spit a deadly hail of lead at the attackers. Things look dire for the Canadians.
We’ll come back to that Canadian battalion pinned down by German machine gun fire, and we’ll find out what happened to them. But first let’s learn some more about MacDowell and how this Canadian national ended up in France with hostile Germans trying to kill him. After all, it was a long way from the tranquil beauty of Canada to the killing fields of Europe.
Thain Wendell MacDowell was born in September 1890 in Lachute, a town of lumber yards and paper mills in the Canadian province of Quebec. His father was a Methodist minister, who died in 1894 while MacDowell was still an infant. His mother remarried, and he and his three brothers and one sister moved to the hamlet of Maitland, Ontario in 1900.
MacDowell’s step-father was a cheesewright and was said to have been a good father to his children. The youngster attended Maitland Public School and from there went on to Brockville Collegiate Institute for his high-school education. Next he studied at the University of Toronto, where he was an accomplished athlete. He then graduated with a bachelor’s arts degree in 1914.
During his time at college, MacDowell showed an enthusiasm for the military by joining the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada as an officer cadet. He spent four months training with this outfit. MacDowell graduated in 1914 and enlisted with the 41st Regiment (Brockville Rifles). Shortly afterwards, he moved to the 38th Canadian Infantry Battalion, where he gained his commission as an officer.
In August 1915 MacDowell embarked on his first overseas posting, travelling from Montreal to Bermuda. This Caribbean island might seem an unlikely destination for a Canadian soldier during WWI. But Bermuda was part of the British Empire, as was Canada, albeit a self-governing territory. MacDowell and the 38th Battalion were sent to the island as part of its garrison.
It’s worth explaining that although Canada was self-governing in 1914 when the First World War broke out, the country’s foreign policy was still controlled by the government in London. This meant that when the British and their empire declared war on Germany, Canada was automatically also at war with the Germans.
You might think that garrison duty in Bermuda would be an enviable posting. But MacDowell can hardly have enjoyed his stay there since he caught dengue fever. The 38th spent some 10 months on the island until May 30, 2016 when the unit finally crossed the Atlantic. The battalion set sail for England aboard the Grampian, arriving at its destination on June 9.
The Grampian carried 35 officers including MacDowell plus 1,001 other ranks, across the Atlantic. Their stay in England proved brief, and then they traveled the short hop across the English Channel from Southampton to the French port of Le Havre on August 13. They were now packed into trains and dispatched to Belgium, arriving there a few days later.
MacDowell and the 38th’s first duties were in the Ypres region of the Western front. There they stayed until the fall when they were on the move again, heading south towards the Somme on September 23. The men stopped at the village of Epileque, where they took the opportunity to engage in some last-minute training before they were thrust into the front line.
MacDowell and his men spent the following few weeks with work details and spells in the front line. Then on November 17 1916 they took over a section of the line for a planned attack on a German position called Desire Trench. The very next day, the assault was launched. The 38th Battalion left the safety of their trench and headed for the German lines.
This November attack by MacDowell and the 38th was part of the Battle of the Somme, which had raged since the beginning of July on both banks of France’s River Somme. It was the largest single campaign on the Western front during the First World War, involving some three million men and resulting in one million casualties.
The Somme was an affair of trench warfare. MacDowell, as we’ve seen, had the task of attacking the German trench called Desire, near the village of Petit Miraumont, on November 18. He led his company across no-man’s land, but three strategically positioned machine gun nests halted their advance.
MacDowell and B Company quickly found themselves in ferocious hand-to-hand fighting as they tried to overwhelm their German opponents. MacDowell managed to get close enough to the three German machine gun nests to knock them out by hurling hand grenades into their positions. This allowed him to advance on the German trench.
Once at the trench, MacDowell now succeeded in the extraordinary feat of single-handedly taking 50 German enlisted men and three of their officers prisoner. The 38th could now take possession of their target, the Desire Trench. But MacDowell did not escape unscathed. A grenade exploded, wounding him in the hand.
The date of the 38th Battalion’s successful attack was indeed a significant one since historians generally consider November 18 the final day of the Battle of the Somme. And although MacDowell and his men had achieved their goal, the wider Somme conflict had failed to bring the end of the war as had been hoped at its outset. Two more year of bitter fighting lay ahead.
MacDowell’s wounded hand meant that he was now evacuated from the front line and taken back to England. There he was treated at the 2nd Western General Hospital in the city of Manchester. But his outstanding courage in battle had not gone unnoticed. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, a British medal recognizing outstanding bravery in combat.
MacDowell had made a full recovery by late December and returned to active duty in France in January 1917. Rejoining the 38th Battalion, he was now promoted to the rank of acting major. The battalion’s next major objective was an important strategic feature that was occupied by the Germans called Vimy Ridge.
In fact, the Germans had stubbornly held on to the ridge for the past two years. During that time, five German regiments had thoroughly entrenched themselves on Vimy, an escarpment 475 feet at its highest point, and turned it into a veritable fortress. The Germans had repelled multiple assaults by British and French forces at the expense of heavy casualties for the attackers.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge was part of a wider Allied assault, the Battle of Arras. The overall objective of the Arras assault was to roll back the Germans and, it was hoped, inflict final defeat on them. Vimy Ridge was one of the key targets of the Arras campaign, and an attack on the ridge started the battle in April 9, 1917.
In early April, MacDowell and the 38th, part of a force of four Canadian divisions, were in position for the attack. The major spent the days before the attack methodically studying aerial photographs of the enemy position and digesting intelligence reports, the better to be prepared for the fight to come. MacDowell had even earmarked the actual German bunker he planned to use as his own H.Q.
In fact, preparation for this attack had been meticulous. A scale model of the German position had been created for the officers to study. And the men were trained by practicing the attack to come on terrain similar to that of Vimy Ridge. Before the infantry assault, Allied artillery would rain shells down on the German stronghold for a full fortnight.
The Canadian attack was planned for early on the morning of April 9th while it was still dark. Just as the men left their trenches to attack, one last and exceptionally furious artillery barrage would be launched. No fewer than 983 guns would fire their deadly shells into the German positions in a blazing bombardment.
In darkness the men started to advance in waves at 5:30 a.m. in the chill of that April morning. Conditions for the attack were horrible. Snow and freezing rain fell on the troops. MacDowell and the men of the 38th had their objective the highest point of Vimy Ridge, known as Hill 145.
In the chaos and darkness of the march across no-man’s land towards the enemy position, MacDowell became separated from most of his men. By the time he had reached the German trenches, it was not long before sunrise. He found himself accompanied by just two men. MacDowell now found himself in a position about 50 yards from the very German bunker that he wanted for his command post.
MacDowell had not the time to try and muster the rest of his battalion since he was faced now by two German machine gun positions, which required rapid action. Just as he had done the previous year in the attack on Desire Trench, MacDowell silenced one of the machine gun posts with skillfully thrown hand grenades.
Clearly fearing for their lives, the occupants of the second machine gun nest now fled, darting down into the bunker MacDowell wanted to capture. With his two men, he pursued the Germans as they ran. Close up, the bunker was much larger and deeper than he had imagined. How many hostile Germans it concealed inside was anybody’s guess.
MacDowell now hollered down into this labyrinthine abyss. He ordered the Germans to come out and surrender. However, they met his suggestion with nothing but silence. There was no way of knowing how many Germans MacDowell was up against. So it was with some apprehension that he began to clamber down the steps into the bunker.
By the time he got to the bottom of the bunker, MacDowell had counted 52 steps, confirming its astonishing depth. As he turned a corner, before him was a large group – 77 strong as it was to turn out – of Germans before him. MacDowell had some quick thinking to do.
Fortunately, he was equal to the task. Some convincing play-acting was now called for, indeed essential. Shouting back up the steps, MacDowell made it sound as if he was issuing orders to a large group of his comrades stationed above the bunker. Of course, the truth was that his entire force at this point numbered two.
But the Germans swallowed his trickery hook, line and sinker and raising their hands surrendered to him with cries of “Kamerad.” However, MacDowell wasn’t out of the hole yet, literally as well as figuratively. Once the Germans got out of the bunker and saw that they had surrendered to just three Canadians, it would be the work of a moment for them to overpower their captors.
MacDowell solved this problem by dividing his prisoners into groups of 12 and sending each group back up the stairs separately. Even so, when the first group of Germans emerged on to Vimy Ridge to find just a couple of Canadians there, they were unhappy with the situation to say the least.
One German decided to resist. Seizing a rifle lying on the ground, he made to fire at one of MacDowell’s men. But the Canadian was quicker off the mark and shot the German dead. That put an end to any ideas of resistance or escape on the part of the other German prisoners.
Eventually, around 15 of men of the 38th Battalion found their commander atop Vimy Ridge with his 77 captured Germans. Astonishingly, MacDowell had now captured 130 Germans, although admittedly the two men with him on Vimy had given him some help. But back at the Somme, he had been entirely on his own when he captured 53.
The Vimy Ridge prisoners were now escorted to the rear of the British lines. Although he had been wounded in the hand, MacDowell began to explore the enormous bunker. And what he found didn’t exactly make him relax in what he had hoped would be his new headquarters. Concealed in the bunker there was a cache of five tons of explosives. Thankfully, the Germans had not had time to detonate the wired explosives.
MacDowell described his adventure in a dispatch he sent at 2:45 p.m. that day. “This post was amachine gun post and held by a Machine Gun Coy. I believe they were Prussian Guards. All big strong men who came in last night. They had plenty of rations but we had a great time taking them prisoners. It is a great story.” A great story indeed.
Later, back in England a report in the June 8 edition of the The London Gazette was rather more straight-faced. “Although wounded in the hand,” the report ran, “he [MacDowell] continued for five days to hold the position gained, in spite of heavy shell fire, until eventually relieved by his battalion.”
MacDowell didn’t win another Distinguished Service Order medal for this second act of outstanding heroism. This time he won a Victoria Cross, the very highest award for gallantry offered to British – and at the time Canadian – military personnel. But the major’s efforts that day on Vimy Ridge had taken their toll.
Unsurprisingly, MacDowell had a bad case of shell shock and also suffered from the condition called trench fever. This unpleasant malady, borne by body lice, was common in the appalling conditions of the WWI trenches. MacDowell was now sent back to Canada. It was the end of his active service during WWI.
However it was by no means a full stop to his career in the army. He got back to England in March 1918, now serving with the Overseas Military Forces of Canada at its headquarters on London’s Regent Street. MacDowell rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel and later had a successful civilian career in mining and chemicals. He died at the age of 69 in 1960.