Life

HISTORY: Street name enough of a tribute?

By Tom Villemaire, Special to Postmedia Network

Members of the Victoria Regiment pose with "Creme de Menthe", one of the first tanks to be used in battle, after the Battle of the Somme in the fall of 1916. George Copeland, of Innisfil, fought in the battle with the Victoria Regiment.

Members of the Victoria Regiment pose with "Creme de Menthe", one of the first tanks to be used in battle, after the Battle of the Somme in the fall of 1916. George Copeland, of Innisfil, fought in the battle with the Victoria Regiment.

In what used to be part of the north end of Innisfil Township (today, the Town of Innisfil), is a short road called Copeman Crescent.

It's named not after a single person, but two.

Copeman is a combination of Copeland and Coleman; the name is a tribute to two young men who died within two days of each other at the Battle of the Somme in the First World War. Both were born and raised in Innisfil.

The battle they took part in saw a number of firsts, including the first use of the tank, the first engagement in the Somme by both the Canadian Corps and the New Zealand Division, the first time the German Jagdstaffel 2 specialist fighter squadron was used in combat -- challenging British air superiority -- and some of the bloodiest fighting of the war.

In one day, 120 men from the Victoria Regiment, including George Copeland, died. Copeland, of Cookstown, had enlisted with the 76th Battalion in Barrie in the fall of 1915 and had shipped out for Europe the following spring. On arrival in France, he'd been shifted to the Victoria Regiment.

He essentially fought in the trenches steadily from the day he arrived in France to the day he died. The Victoria Regiment, which called Montreal home, was involved in almost every major battle, beginning for Copeland with the Second Battle of Ypres, which spanned April and May of 1915 and saw the first successful use of gas by the German army. Canadian troops were responsible for saving the front from a major collapse in the face of this new terror weapon. And it was a Canadian, Francis Scrimger, who earned a Victoria Cross for telling soldiers to save themselves from the effects of the chlorine gas by urinating on their handkerchiefs and covering their mouths and noses with it. In fact, of the 10 Victoria Crosses handed out to Commonwealth troops at this battle, four were to Canadians. Canadian troops suffered almost 6,000 casualties, of which 1,000 were deaths. Commonwealth and French forces saw almost 80,000 casualties in total compared with 35,000 for the Germans.

Next for Copeland and his regiment was the Battle of Festubert later in May 1915. There were more than 16,000 killed and wounded Commonwealth forces -- 2,200 of whom were Canadian -- in the span of 48 hours.

That was still in what was called the Ypres salient. But a "local action" was next on the menu. The Victoria Regiment was among the Canadian units that occupied a stretch of high ground. German forces trained to capture it. The Royal Air Force reported the Germans had built a series of trenches, far behind enemy lines, that looked suspiciously like the Canadian positions. This information was passed on to the Canadians shortly before the attack by the Germans took place.

The Battle of Mont Sorrel began with a heavy bombardment of Canadian positions. A forward reconnaissance battalion suffered 90% casualties and was essentially wiped out. Two Canadian generals were badly wounded in the same bombardment.

A major assault by the Germans with overwhelming reinforcements pushed the Canadians back temporarily, but counter-attacks restored the positions in Canadian hands, although with more than 8,400 casualties.

Copeland survived this battle, meaning he was involved in the next -- the Battle of Flers-Courcelette -- which started Sept. 15, 1916, part of the Battle of the Somme.

The Germans called in a specialized fighter squadron, used for the first time, to chase the British Royal Air Corps from the sky over the field, with varying results.

But the Germans were shocked at the ferocity of the attack by the British, who debuted the use of armoured tanks in this battle. One or two tanks were assigned to each division, but even in these small numbers, they were terrifying for the Germans: Magnus MacIntyre Hood of the Victoria Regiment served in a carrying party bringing up ammunition to the 21st Battalion, and he witnessed the arrival of the single tank remaining in active support of the 4th Brigade. According to MacIntyre Hood, "As we reached them (the 21st Battalion) we saw a Landship (what they were calling tanks at the time), named the L.S. Crème de Menthe, pass ahead and go right up to the walls of the (sugar) refinery, its guns blazing. It seemed to lean against one of the walls which collapsed and the monster tore into the fort, while we could see the Germans streaming out behind it offering an excellent target to the riflemen in the shell holes."

The jauntily named Crème de Menthe was what was called a "male tank," which featured two six-pounder cannons. The "female tanks" were equipped with machine guns.

The Canadians had been in defensive positions for months and subjected to heavy bombardment by German artillery and the detonation of four large mines under their positions. During the First World War, both sides spent weeks and months tunnelling from their forward positions, under No Man's Land, to a key point under the enemy's trenches. An underground storeroom would be filled with explosives and then ignited, obliterating the enemy position. Canadian units had suffered heavy losses from these mines. Canadian forces, including the Victoria Regiment, had also been subjected to the first use of gas warfare.

So, when the opportunity came to attack, the Canadian troops were highly motivated. In order to slow the attack, the Germans called in heavy artillery on the Canadians, sometimes wiping out whole units. It was likely in one of these attacks Copeland lost his life. There are no details, as most of the unit was killed -- his lieutenant, sergeant and corporal all died the same day.

Will Coleman had died two days earlier, Sept. 15, the first day of the same battle. Coleman had moved to Rosetown, Sask., before the war and enlisted in the fall of 1914. He'd been in the Canadian militia, so he had prior military experience. He served in the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles, or Saskatchewan Regiment. While it was originally a unit mounted on horses, the mud and trenches of northern Europe were not ideal for horses, and 1st Canadian Mounted dismounted and became infantry.

Will fought in many of the same battles George did, including Mont Sorrel. According to his sergeant, he was an excellent shot, and by the time the Somme battle came along, he'd already been through a dozen baptisms of fire and seen "considerable hard fighting."

His sergeant wrote to his family to let them know how he had died. It was reprinted in the Barrie Examiner and Saturday Morning on Nov. 30, 1916.

"It was morning of the 15th we went out on a party toward's (sic) the enemy's lines and had quite a scrap in which Will was doing good work with his rifle. He was always cool and collected in the face of fire and has been through a great deal of it on previous occasions. As you know, we are all fatalists more or less and believe that when a man's time arrives he will be there regardless of what he does to prevent it. Will was hit by a sniper and did not suffer a great amount of pain. I am in the same platoon and was quite close at the time and saw all that happened and I can assure you that he left us as he had lived, a good man and a fearless soldier."

While the Battle of Flers-Courcelette was not an overall success, the significant German losses (more than 130,000 killed and wounded) and the loss of key villages (Courcellete, Martinpuich and Flers) made it a tactical victory. The toll on the allies was less but still heavy, with almost 30,000 killed and wounded. In this one battle.

Coleman and Copeland were only two of those who deserve tribute and, for now, it's a street combining both of their names. In 2001, the City of Barrie dedicated a street to commemorate Coleman in the city's northwest, between Edgehill Drive and Dunlop Street.

Tom Villemaire is a former editor of papers in Simcoe County, including the Orillia Packet & Times, Midland Free Press, Barrie Examiner, Innisfil Examiner and Enterprise-Bulletin, and is the author of two history books. He now runs historylab.ca, podcasts and can be reached at tom@historylab.ca.