The Relatively Unknown But Gruesome Battle of St. Eloi Craters

(Photo Credit: George Metcalf Archival Collection/ War Museum Canada)

Military historians have often overlooked the First World War battle of St. Eloi Craters. Perhaps this lack of interest is because it was a Canadian offensive, or maybe it is because it was an insignificant battle in the grand scheme of the First World War. Nonetheless, the Battle of St. Eloi Craters is notable because of its complete failure in leadership, resulting in a devastating blow for the Canadian army.

How did St. Eloi get these craters?

Aerial photograph of St Eloi
Aerial photograph of St. Eloi near Ypres, March 27, 1916. The mine craters look like four hills in a line up. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain)

The Battle of St. Eloi Craters was fought from March 27 to April 16, 1916. By the latter half of 1915, both Allied armies and the Central Powers used extensive mining as part of trench warfare.

The town of St. Eloi was located about three miles (5km) south of Ypres. Both the Allies and the Germans spent the majority of 1915 mining and countermining at St. Eloi. By early 1916, a total of 30 British and German mines were in the small confines of the area.

On March 27, 1916, British forces detonated six of these mines, signaling the start of the Battle. This explosion was heard all the way to England, and it collapsed German trenches. This explosion wiped out any existing landmarks on the battlefield.

Four of the six mines blew up so close to each other that an impassible lake was formed. This crater was 45 feet deep and 165 feet across.

Fighting from within the craters

Action at St. Eloi Craters
Actions of the St.Eloi Craters. Three Privates of the Northumberland Fusiliers, 3rd Division, after the attack on St.Eloi, 27th March 1916. (Photo Credit: Imperial War Museum)

British soldiers were forced to fight within the craters for the first week of the Battle. The explosion had completely disrupted the landscape in no man’s land, causing British troops to become confused. This allowed the opposing Germans to reoccupy portions of the line.

For one week, British soldiers fought in nightmarish conditions. The weather was horrific, and soldiers dealt with high winds, rain, and sleet. Soldiers stood or crouched in waist-deep water, unable to sit because of how much water had accumulated. British troops often had to fight hand-to-hand combat with the Germans within these craters.

Initially, the Canadian troops were supposed to replace the British on the night of April 6. The decision was made to have the Canadian’s relieve the exhausted British troops earlier on the night of April 3.

Enter the inexperienced Canadians

St. Eloi Crater
St. Eloi Crater after the Battle, 1916. (Photo Credit: George Metcalf Archival Collection/ War Museum Canada)

The 2nd Canadian Division had first been rushed to the Western Front in September 1915 to join the 1st Division. The two divisions formed the Canadian Corps and were stationed near the Ypres sector.

The Canadian Corps was under the command of General Edwin Alderson. The 2nd Canadian Division had yet to see any action and was excited to get their first taste of battle.

Because they were rushed into battle, the Canadian Corps had very little time to prepare. The Canadians, who had no battle experience, only had a very vague idea where they were relative to the enemy.

Chaos ensues

Machine gun regiment at St. Eloi's craters
A machine gun regiment of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers (aka ‘The Fighting Fifth’) after the World War I Battle of St Eloi, just south of Ypres, April 1916. (Photo Credit: Paul Thompson/ FPG/ Getty Images)

The horrific state of the trenches had an impact on the Canadian Corps. Private Fraser said this on his experience: “When day broke, the sights that met our gaze were so horrible and ghastly that they beggar description. Heads, arms, and legs were protruding from the mud at every yard and dear knows how many bodies the earth swallowed.”

The Canadian Corps found themselves standing in two ti three feet of water in the trenches, as all the natural drainage in the area had been destroyed by shell fire. The continuous defensive trench had been destroyed by German shells, meaning that Canadian soldiers were forced to inhabit shell craters.

Throughout April 4th and 5th, the entire Canadian front was intensely bombarded, resulting in many casualties. As a result of these mass casualties, the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel I.R. Snider, was forced to thin out his front line to avoid any more deaths However, this made the Canadians more vulnerable to a German infantry assault.

General Edwin Alderson
General Edwin Alderson who was in command of the CEF during the first half of World War I.

The weather kept any aerial reconnaissance to a minimum. This, combined with the German artillery barrages, meant that the Canadian Division was not really sure what was happening. There was hardly any communication between the front and rear lines.

On April 6, two German battalions attacked the ruins of the main road. The already confused Canadian troops lost communication and were pushed back by the German forces. By the night of April 8, the Canadian leadership had essentially lost control of the situation and no longer knew what craters they held onto and what craters the German’s controlled.

For another two weeks, the Canadians and Germans continued to fire and shell each other. On the night of April 17, the Canadians attempted to fight off another German raid. The pouring rain caused the Canadian’s guns to stop firing. Half of the men were stuck in the craters surrounded by Germans while the other half tried to crawl away, defenseless.

The Battle of St. Eloi’s craters ended with the German’s in control of the battlefield. More than 1,370 Canadians were killed or wounded, along with about 480 Germans.

Totally incompetent leaders

Battle of St Eloi Craters
Drawing that depicts the Battle of St. Eloi’s Craters. (Photo Credit: Print Collector/ Getty Images)

The main breakdown with the Canadian Corps at St. Eloi was a lack of communication between the front and the rear. This was a persistent theme throughout the First World War and was not just isolated to the Battle of St. Eloi’s Craters. At St. Eloi, the constant bombardment made it difficult for the Canadian’s to keep telephone wires from being cut and made it nearly impossible to lay new lines.

Similarly, many of these Canadians didn’t have any battle experience, so they were hesitant to stand above the trenches to wave flags back to headquarters, indicating that they were still alive.

The Canadians could not use aerial photography to get a sense of the battlefield because of the weather. This meant that those in command did not have accurate battlefield intelligence. However, military leaders failed to act on the information they did have. Trusted officers could have been sent to the front to figure out what was happening, and information that was received was not analyzed. Those in charge made no attempt to understand the situation better, and the inexperienced Canadian troops were sent to the front line effectively blind.

Mine Crater from St Eloi today
Mine crater from St. Eloi today. (Photo Credit: Miguel Tremblay/ Wikimedia Commons/ Public Domain via CC0)

More significantly, those in charge must be blamed for inserting a new Canadian Division into the lines at St. Eloi. The German’s had the advantage when the Canadian’s relieved the British and continued to press the inexperienced troops. The Canadians were ill-prepared and ill-advised by their commanding officers and this resulted in a devastating blow for the Allies at St. Eloi’s Craters.

Douglas Haig blamed General Edwin Alderson for the crushing blow. Julian Byng would replace Alderson as commander of the Canadian Corps. Today, the craters at St. Eloi are used as an recreational fishing hole.