From 24 October until 11 February 1917, the 43rd rotated with the 58th Battalion, first in the front lines, then in support trenches, then in reserve behind the lines. Within the 9th Brigade's lines, four long and winding communication trenches led to the front: Guillermot, Territorial, Claudot, and Sapper Avenues; they were specified as either "incoming" or "outgoing." The front lines lay approximately 1200 yards east of the ruins of Neuville St. Vaast, and were known as "The Crater Line" due to the numerous mines that had been blown by either side. These craters lay within No Man's Land and were guarded by sentry posts at night.
#700129 Pte. Joseph Albert
While on forward sentry duty with two others one night, one of the others passed around cigarettes and lit up. I refused to smoke mine there and headed back to a secure trench to enjoy my cigarette in relaxed safety. During that time there were a few forward explosions from German shells. When I returned to the sentry post I discovered where the shells had landed. The Germans had observed the cigarette glows in the darkness and zeroed in on them. Those two men had had their last cigarette. So had I.
With only a strength of 257 men, the line was not held in any strength. The Camerons were outnumbered and vulnerable to attack. There was continual trench mortar activity and the rain, which was almost every day or night, added to their misery. The men were soon exhausted; some killed rats with their bayonets in order to stay awake.
Eventually, the weather turned colder and reinforcements filled the gaps in the ranks. During that winter, the 43rd Battalion made several attempts to raid the enemy lines. The first was a total failure as the ammonal tube's wooden plugs could not be removed. The second attempt also failed when our artillery opened fire too soon and the fuse on the ammonal tube failed to light.
After Christmas, another raid was made, but this time no ammonal tubes were used to cut the German wire. Three groups of Camerons entered the enemy lines and began bombing dugouts. After a heavy exchange of bombs, the men returned with one wounded prisoner. There was another successful raid, prior to the capture of Vimy Ridge on 9 April 1917, but for most of their time at Vimy, the 43rd held the line.
On 14 October, the 43rd Battalion entrained at Tinques and headed for Ypres. By the 26th, the Camerons were lying in the muddy banks of the Ravebeck stream waiting for zero hour. At 5:40 AM, the barrage began and the regiment advanced up a slight slope toward Bellevue Spur. C and B Companies moved off first, followed by D and A Companies. Early on, most of the officers were wounded and the leading waves were commanded by Lieutenants. When dawn broke, observers from Battalion Headquarters at Waterloo Farm could see the 43rd men on the Spur. They had come up to a line of three concrete emplacements just below the crest. While C Company passed the first one, B Company was held up by the other two. Sgt. Mowat led his group of men and successfully captured these pillboxes. Behind these emplacements, the exhausted men rested for a short period in the shelter of a ruined trench.
By 7 AM, the 58th Battalion attack on the right had failed and all officers of C and B Companies had been wounded or killed. There was no news from Capt. Galt of D Company. Companies of the 52nd Battalion were ordered to reinforce the 58th and 43rd Battalions
Meanwhile, Lt. Smart and A Company were facing fierce rifle and machine gun fire from an enemy trench about 250 yards beyond the captured pillboxes. With the 52nd Battalion companies advancing all seemed well, but by 9:30 AM, these troops and remnants of the 43rd and 58th had retreated back to their jumping off lines. Lt. Smart and A Company had seen the 58th and 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles on the 43rd's flanks fall back. After holding his position, he reluctantly gave orders to retreat to save his men from being wounded or captured. The attack had appeared to fail completely.
At 10 AM, Lt. Shankland suddenly appeared at Battalion Headquarters. Although slightly wounded, he had returned to report following a section of ground between the Spur and Waterloo Farm which was not being shelled by the enemy. He reported that there were about 40 men holding the Spur, they had two machine guns, and one counter-attack had been repulsed. Headquarters could not have heard better news.
It was now known what had happened on the Spur. After advancing from the row of pillboxes, B Company encountered two partially complete strong points. After bitter hand-to-hand fighting, Sgt. Mowat and his men found themselves in a commanding position on Bellevue Spur. These 20 or so men, with one machine gun dug themselves in and awaited reinforcements.
D Company, advancing behind B, reached the three captured pillboxes just under the crest. Capt. Galt took 5 men and attempted to capture the Bellevue Farm strong point on the right, but this was protected by barbed wire. They were pinned down by snipers so that they could not move from their location. Finally, the D Company men under command of Lt. Shankland reached the Camerons who had captured the Spur. There were now about 40 men and two machine guns at the top of this hill. This small group used their rifles and machine guns so skillfully, the Germans did not realize how few there were. At one point they repulsed one counter-attack which was forming up about 500 yards ahead.
Shankland had noticed that reinforcements could be safely brought forward as the low left slope of the hill was not being shelled. It was this information that earned him the Victoria Cross. By 9:30 AM, he made his way back to Waterloo Farm to report.
Meanwhile, the Germans tried to enfilade the Spur. As small parties of the enemy advanced around the hill, they were unable to see each other after they passed a certain point. When they came into view, they were shot at by our men. A German officer, assuming his men to be in attacking position, came by with three other ranks. As they approached, one of the Germans was shot and the others became prisoners. When the officer realized that he had been captured by Canadian troops, he became very interested. Casually he lit up a cigarette. He spoke English fluently, knew Toronto well, and had done business with Eaton's!
Reinforcements were sent forward. Lt. Smart's party advanced to the right of Bellevue Spur to fill the gap between the 43rd and 58th. One company of the 52nd went forward on the low left slope of the hill to fill the gap between the Camerons and the 4th C.M.R. A second company soon followed and cleared the remaining strong points along the Cameron front. Six additional pillboxes were captured, along with 100 prisoners and 10 machine guns. By noon, Lt. Smart had captured the Bellevue Farm strong point and sent back 90 prisoners, including 3 officers.
When the Farm was captured, Capt. Galt managed to rejoin his men on the Spur. He had been forced to take cover from machine gun fire after losing two men and the Lewis machine gun had jammed. Capt. Galt then relieved Lt. Shankland and took over command of the Cameron position.
The 43rd continued to hold Bellvue Spur through the night. The next day was fairly quiet. At midnight, they were relieved and moved back to support. Casualties were as follows: Officers, 2 killed, 1 missing believed killed, and 10 wounded. Other Ranks: 36 killed, 66 missing, and 234 wounded. Of the attacking 497 Camerons, only 148 escaped unscathed.