The Battle of Mount Sorrel was fought as part of a series of battles to the southeast of Ypres in June 1916. It was a German attempt to capture the high ground around Ypres. This part of Belgium is generally flat so any higher ground was considered a strategic bonus. Mount Sorrel, along with Hill 60 and Hill 62, were all attacked by the Germans and had they succeeded in consolidating their forces on this higher ground, it would have given them a great advantage in terms of accurate artillery fire on Ypres itself as the city could be seen directly from these hills as it was less than two miles away. Mount Sorrel was only 30 metres high – but in the area this was a good height advantage.
Ironically the Canadian Corps was also in the process of developing a plan to consolidate its positions to the east of Ypres, which meant an all-out attack on German positions. However, the Germans started their attack first.
On June 2nd, 1916, the Germans launched a massive artillery barrage on Canadian positions in this part of the Ypres Salient. It is thought that Canadian casualties in their front lines was as great as 90% such was the accuracy of German artillery. Senior Canadian officers inspecting their troops were among the casualties – Major-General M S Mercer was killed while Brigadier V Williams was wounded and taken prisoner.
At 13.00, the Germans exploded a number of mines that had been dug below Canadian lines. This was followed by an attack by the infantry who swiftly managed to advance over 1000 metres. The artillery and mine attacks had so disoriented the Canadian defenders that the Germans quickly captured Mount Sorrel and Hill 61.
The Canadians launched a counter-attack on June 3rd. It was meant to have started at 02.00 but because of the difficulties in bringing up reserves, it did not start until 07.00 in daylight. Also because of a breakdown in communication, some Canadian units attacked at 07.00 while others did not. They suffered heavy casualties and failed to recapture Mount Sorrel or Hill 61. However, despite their losses, the Canadians did advance 900 metres to positions they had held the previous day.
The Allied commander in Ypres, Herbert Plumer, could not tolerate the Germans holding the higher ground around Ypres and therefore threatening the city itself – the heart of Allied command in the Ypres Salient. However, in view of the preparations for the Somme Offensive further west, Haig would not release troops from this sector to support Plumer, as they were needed for the ‘Big Push’. Therefore, Plumer had to use the infantry resources that he had in the area. A brigade of men from the 20th Light Division was moved to the front along with more artillery.
The new artillery units were soon put to good use. Their accurate fire greatly hindered German attempts to dig in. However, unexpectedly, the German exploded four large mines dug beneath Canadian positions near the destroyed village of Hooge. There were many Canadian casualties and to ensure that this area of the Allied front line did not become even more vulnerable, the 2nd British Cavalry Brigade was moved up the line.
On June 13th,the Canadians and British attacked. Aided by a smokescreen, they got to the German front line with relative ease.
In the four previous days (June 9th to June 12th) the Germans had been subjected to a heavy artillery barrage. Invariably, once a barrage had finished, the Germans would have expected an infantry attack – this had become a common procedure on the Western Front. However, no attack came. It is possible that the Germans believed that no infantry attack would come after the artillery attack on June 13th. However, it did and the Germans seem to have been unprepared for it. Within one hour of the attack starting, the Germans had pulled back to their original positions pre-June 2nd.
The Germans launched two unsuccessful counter-attacks but they did get to within 150 metres of the Canadian lines.
However, the line had been held and it was only lost during the German Spring Offensive of 1918. When this petered out, the Allies once again got control of this area to the southeast of Ypres.