FROM THE ST. LAWRENCE TO THE YSER
FROM THE ST. LAWRENCE TO THE YSER
WITH THE 1st CANADIAN BRIGADE
FREDERIC C. CURRY
LATE CAPTAIN 2ND EASTERN ONTARIO REGIMENT
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS AND MAPS
McCLELLAND, GOODCHILD & STEWART,
PUBLISHERS ... TORONTO.
Printed in Great Britain.
LIEUT.-GENERAL SIR SAM HUGHES,
K.C.B., M.P., MINISTER OF MILITIA,
TO WHOSE EFFORTS
THE EFFICIENCY OF THE CANADIAN CONTINGENTS
IS LARGELY DUE.
In presenting this little work to the public the writer wishes to thank those of his fellow-officers and others who brought to his notice incidents that did not come under his personal observation.
Valuable assistance has been gained from the official accounts of Sir Max Aitken, and from the historical writings of Mr. John Buchan with regard to the parts played by other brigades and divisions with which we were co-operating.
In spite of these attempts to broaden its outlook, the book stands in the main a personal account of the actions of the 1st Brigade, Canadian Infantry.
As such, however, the writer hopes it will be accepted, and not as a detailed history of the events chronicled, though every attempt has been made to check the accuracy of the facts stated.
One fictitious character has been introduced, that of Begbie Lyte, in order to make the tale impersonal.
In all other cases the true names of persons mentioned, or initials, have been used.
To Dr. Shipley, Master of Christ's College, Cambridge, the writer owes much for his kindly criticisms and encouragement in this work.
I. ANTE-BELLUM 1
II. PETEWAWA 11
III. MOBILISATION 24
IV. VAL CARTIER 31
V. THE CONVOY 37
VI. IN ENGLAND 44
VII. INTERIM 49
VIII. YPRES, 1915 54
IX. WITH THE DRAFT 63
X. THE BREAKING IN 72
XI. RESERVE BILLETS 80
XII. BAILLEUL 88
XIII. THE TREK SOUTH 95
XIV. FESTUBERT, 1915 103
XV. CARPE DIEM 110
XVI. GIVENCHY, 1915 117
XVII. NORTHWARD AGAIN 126
XVIII. NIGHTS OF GLADNESS! 132
XIX. IN FRONT OF MESSINES 140
XX. MINE WARFARE 145
XXI. MYTHS, FAIRIES, ETC. 152
XXII. THE WINTER MONTHS 160
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
LIEUTS. KLOTZ, STRATHY AND CURRY AT AMESBURY Frontispiece
SAILING DOWN THE ST. LAWRENCE, NEAR BIC 38
CHURCH PARADE 40
EASTERN ONTARIO REGIMENT, NEAR STONEHENGE 44
MANOEUVRES ON SALISBURY PLAIN 48
FIELD KITCHEN IN RESERVE BILLETS 82
AMATEUR THEATRICALS BACK OF THE LINE 100
THE DISTILLERY AT GIVENCHY 118
OUR SUPPORT TRENCHES AT GIVENCHY 120
AFTER GIVENCHY 122
ENTRANCE TO PLUGSTREET WOOD 130
OUR TRENCHES, PLUGSTREET WOOD 134
OUR TRENCHES AT PLUGSTREET 136
THE START OF THE SMOKE CLOUDS 142
THE CACTUS TREEN 157
AFTER A FEW SHELLS AND A WEEK'S RAIN 160
FROM THE ST. LAWRENCE TO THE YSER
Before the war the Canadian Militia consisted of about 75,000 of all ranks and all grades of efficiency. To a neutral eye it must have appeared to be in a highly disorganised condition, for battalions and corps had sprung up here and there throughout the country with no proportion existing between them and the other arms of the service. And yet within a short two months after the outbreak of hostilities a complete division, armed and equipped, landed in England, and in a bare six months were in the field holding their own line of trenches.
To appreciate the difficulties, however, that attended this transformation we must look back to those happy days prior to August, 1914, and witness the Canadian Militia in its own home.
This consisted of the "Drill-hall," or "Armouries," a long, low building equipped more or less with barred windows and castellated turrets at one or more corners. This building is one of the sights of the city, and is pointed out by the cabby or taxi-driver to the English gentlemen and other tourists who come out with the laudable intention of writing books.
If the castellated towers are missing, and the building is constructed on strictly utilitarian lines, one is safe in referring to it as the "Drill-hall"; but if a couple of old cannon, vintage 1800, guard its portals, and barred windows and frowning turrets add to its martial splendour, then you have an "Armouries." By observing this simple rule one can discriminate between the two as easily as telling a church from a cathedral.
The existence of such a building is largely due to the efforts of the local member of Parliament, and the style of architecture varies directly with the square of his popularity with the party in power. Thus a flourishing full-strength battalion may be housed in a dingy, drab wooden structure, and in the next town a very ornate and modern building may be tenanted by a corps that is only struggling for existence, or perhaps not even struggling. It is well, however, to refrain from too much criticism of these buildings, pretentious and hideous as they may be, for in them are taught the ideals and principles which so many of our youth have died to uphold in the rain-sodden fields of Flanders.
Considering the shortness of what is locally known as the "drill season," the results obtained are good. General French, in his report of a few years ago, described our horses as "half-broken and our men but little more," but that is only to be expected in a country where a man is considered to be wasting his time if he devotes even the little that he can ill afford to the military profession.
However, even if the half-broken men and horses do kick over the traces once in a while, they eventually "get there," and that, after all, is the Canadian doctrine.
For the purposes of training the Militia is divided into two classes—the "city" and the "rural" corps. There is also the permanent force, our Canadian regulars, who exist as a school for "the Militia," as they refer to the non-professional army.
The city corps consist chiefly of infantry, heavy artillery, and engineer corps, the last being generally in university towns and either affiliated with or being actually the cadet corps of the college. One might think the cadet corps would be affiliated with the Militia, but this is a case where the boy is father to the man.
City corps do fourteen nominal days' training a year in the drill-hall, and, of late years, a voluntary camp of five days. For each of these days two night drills of two hours each count as a day; the militiaman receives the sum of four shillings, with a slight increase according to his musketry ability.
The drill season commences in the middle of March, and from then on till Inspection Day—a boiling hot day in June—the voice of the drill-sergeant is heard in the land. This individual is obtained on indent from the permanent force; but more of him anon.
For two nights a week, then, at the season when a young man's fancies are supposed to turn lightly to other things, the would-be Wellington dons a suit of rifle green, or scarlet, or even the heathen kilt, according to his taste, and, disguising it with a civilian great coat (regulation coats being issued to 50 per cent. of the establishment), slinks more or less bashfully down the back way to the drill-hall. There he will learn to shift a rifle (weight nine pounds five and a few odd ounces) from one position to another in response to quite unintelligible commands that echo most absurdly from the roof. He will also learn to move around the floor in something like the formations laid down in the little red manual, practising especially those for whom our prayers are desired, the favourites of the General Officer Commanding his district.
For, though regulations wax and wane, the G.O.C. changeth not; neither does he bow down and worship the little tin gods the Army Council set up. But instead, as one by one the formations he used to know are culled from the manual, he watches the new formations with a passive eye and reserves his choleric criticisms for the old reliables' "Echelon to the right" and that maximum of military perfection the "March Past."
In rural corps, however, the season consists of fourteen actual days spent in the broiling sun in camp. Lucky indeed is the company commander who can bring a full company every year to camp, for many who come one year come not again, and such are the conditions that no man sayeth him nay lest recruiting be stopped altogether in that district. One sighs for the press gang of Merrie England and subscribes for such incendiary journals as those of the various National Service Leagues, for one has a limited area to secure the recruits from, and must recruit at least 60 per cent. each year at a season when farm labour is at a premium.
Having secured your recruits, you must assemble them at some central point where you have a large quantity of arms and equipment stored, generally at your own expense—though "Sam" Hughes is remedying this—and issue these, stave off complaints that the fit is not exactly up to West End standards, and, if you are an old "stager," give them an hour or two of drill while enthusiasm is at its maximum.
Then on the required date you marshal your little force at the railway station, shepherd them into the cars, and detrain them a few hours later, under even more trying circumstances, a few miles from camp. Then, with a mixture of patience, perspiration, and profanity, you finally march into your line of tents. Here you are met with great glee by the colonel and the adjutant, who inquire blithely as to how many men you have; this may seem useless, but as the men are strung out for at least half a mile along the route it is reassuring to learn how many there should be in the little procession.
We will take it that the colonel is pleased with your reply, in which case he will tell you that his white horse has arrived, so if you will drop around ... prohibition rules in our training camps, but a good O.C. has always something under the mat.
What follows in the remaining days of the fortnight must be endured to be appreciated. At the end of that time the shepherding begins again, and for the next month the company commander scours his district, this time locating uniforms which in defiance of his last orders, and prayers, have not been turned in. Very often the man has gone West and the uniform as well. So remote are the chances of seeing either again that the expression "Gone West" has almost the same meaning as the modern soldier's "Nah pooh!"
During the winter months classes of instruction are held in all the training centres, the instructors being the non-commissioned officers of the permanent Militia. The amount of good done depends largely on the ability and personal effort of the commanders of the local corps. During these months such officers as can spare the time or have not already done so become, by various long and tedious processes, involving much correspondence, attached to the various barracks for instruction.
This arrangement is a very popular one for all concerned, providing as it does—
1. Frequent leave for junior officers of the permanent force;
2. An opportunity to drill men who know, by years of experience, what movements one wishes to perform, and who will (D.V.) perform them with machinelike precision despite wrong commands;
3. A pleasant change in the ordinary drill for the above-mentioned men owing to the aforesaid wrong commands.
In the evenings lectures are given by senior officers who are not young, married, or talented in other ways. These lectures comprise the hundred and one things an officer is expected to know, from "Military Law" to "Protection when at Rest." This last subject will require revision after the present campaign, it being the writer's opinion that soldiers never rest—not when there is a foot of Allied soil unturned by a shovel, at any rate.
Eventually one passes an examination of sorts and becomes a qualified officer of Militia. The questions set are not hard—they would doubtless raise a smile if handed to a first year Sandhurst man—but they present real difficulties to officers whose opportunities are limited and whose spare time is largely taken up in the hard and thankless task of recruiting.
Officers of the permanent force are, in the main, graduates of the Royal Military College, Kingston, an institution second to none in the Empire. Field officers of Militia can also take a training course at the college, but the numbers who can avail themselves of this opportunity are limited.
Our staffs are assisted by very able officers loaned from the Imperial Army in exchange for officers of the same rank attached to Imperial battalions.
But the bulk of the instructional work is done, and exceedingly well done too, by the staff-sergeant—the Sergeant What's-'is-Name of Kipling's song.
He is very carefully selected and trained, and becomes in time a walking encyclopaedia of military affairs. He must be a marvel of tact and diplomacy as well, for not only will he meet the officer who knows nothing and appreciates that fact, but also that other type—not uncommon in civil life as well—the man who knows nothing yet thinks he knows all.
Petewawa is the training ground of the Canadian Field Artillery and the Permanent Force. Until very recently it was strictly reserved for them, and was regarded, by those who had not been there, as a sort of seventh heaven for soldiers. Later, when the city corps were taken there for five days one June—or was it July?—we changed our minds and decided that, geographically speaking, it was part of one of Dante's seven circles. At present it is the internment camp for enemy aliens, and if they endure it for the duration of the war the Kaiser should present them, one and all, with iron crosses.
Fifty square miles of sandy hills, covered here and there with second growth scrub, it is an ideal ground for the purpose. The temperature rises to 98 deg. Fahrenheit most of the days in summer. What it is like in winter the writer does not know—probably 40 deg. below zero, as our climate does nothing by halves.
The name, curiously enough, means "a sound (or music) as of water falling in the distance." Anyone who has toiled through its sands in a July sun can appreciate the subtle humour of the red man who named it. Other attractions are sand fleas, mosquitoes, and black flies, so that after passing through a fortnight in Petewawa one is versed in all modern methods of warfare, including the subterranean and the aerial.
Here the artillery do all their training—heavy and fortress artillery excepted. The latter, however, send quotas each year, though performing their actual drill in their armouries. There are other artillery camps, but none of the importance of Petewawa, for it is essentially an active service camp. Jackets are strapped to the limbers, shirt sleeves rolled to the elbows, and straw hats, locally known as "cow-breakfasts," take the place of the more military cap. The gunner reverts to his original state and becomes a farmer again. And he is none the less a good gunner for so doing. Men who can understand the mechanism of a modern combined reaper and binder have no trouble learning the recoil apparatus of an eighteen-pounder gun, and for drivers one cannot find a better man than the farmer, for the man enlisting as such brings his own team with him and naturally will not neglect them.
So one sees the batteries drawn up behind cover, firing slowly and deliberately as they do now on a "quiet" day along the Western front.
A sharp report, a glint of flame and of the gun recoiling between the two men sitting on either side of the trail, and another shell is whirring on its way to the target. Almost before the recoil is finished the breech is opened and another round thrust in, and the breech closes with a clitch-clatch of its own. A few seconds later corrections come over the telephone and another shell goes speeding overhead.
With the infantry, however, Petewawa is a different matter. To them it means manoeuvres; and every soldier knows what manoeuvres mean. There is a popular idea that these tactical exercises are enjoyed by the officers. Perhaps they are, if perchance one is on the staff, a dizzy height the writer has not yet attained.
Let us follow the fortunes of a typical Militia battalion during the several days covered by this mysterious term "manoeuvres."
The General Idea has been received the night before and duly discussed at the "pow-wow" or conference that always follows the reception of this document. Much time and whisky has been consumed, and the sum of the evening's discussion is that the General Idea is exactly the same as last year's, with the exception that the Blue Force is fighting the Grey Force this year. "Last year we had the Red Army to contend with, and the fact that they no longer oppose us is due to the annihilation they suffered"—so says the colonel. "The invasion is coming from the north—presumably the Esquimaux are up in arms against us."
Dawn brings with it reveille and brigade orders. This is a magnificent bluff on the part of the brigade staff to give the impression that they have sat up all night devising new and wondrous schemes for departing from the beaten path of military science. This is quite unnecessary, as sufficient departures will occur naturally in the course of the day, and nothing on earth will convince the infantry officer that the staff ever work.
The colonel, however, reads the orders to the little group around him. First there is the General Idea, laboriously copied from orders of the night before. Then comes the "Special Idea." This, too, bears a time-worn similarity to its predecessors, but passes without special comment. The next heading is "Dispositions": "The advanced guard will consist of one troop of the Missinabee Horse and one company of the Umpteenth Battalion." "Thank God for that!" murmurs the colonel, realising that the one company of his battalion will be spared the arduous duty of trying to replace cavalry, and that the other three will be in the first of the fray and consequently the first out of ammunition and free from the danger always incidental to the use of blank ammunition at close ranges. Moreover, advanced guards have always been his hobby, so he proceeds to issue his orders—verbally of course, though he will write them out later for the sake of curious generals who make collections of such things. While he is waiting for the cavalry to report he engages in very earnest conversation with Begbie Lyte, the signalling officer. Lyte is the serious-faced young man standing arguing with his little knot of flag-waggers. He has just realised that one mistake has already been made in the campaign, for, in the enthusiasm of youth, he brought bicycles to Petewawa. He realises, too, that next year he will either bring no bicycles or no men, for the latter having pushed their machines through three miles of sand from the detraining platform are already expressing their opinion, with true Canadian freedom, as to their usefulness.
This difficulty is tactfully overcome by leaving the cycles in the tents, and the "plot," as he calls the instructions he has just received, is unfolded to them.
Meanwhile the cavalry come up, and the officer-in-charge, knowing somebody who knows Lyte, spends a few seconds in the exchange of pleasantries. His name being Horace Smith, it has been quite conveniently shortened to "Horsey." Smith is one of those geniuses who knows everybody whom anyone knows; consequently he is always able to borrow money. Presently he trots off with his troop, and we know we shall see no more of him until nightfall. In our turn we move off as well, and the main body, already commencing to munch the haversack lunches they are carrying, cherish similar opinions as to our fate.
Eventually the whole column is moving down the dusty road and presently turns northward, following some wheel tracks that eventually merge into the sand. Then for a long time nothing happens. The cavalry have long since disappeared; the vanguard of one company shows up occasionally on a hill top ahead of us and proves that we are at least moving in the same general direction.
At one time two men detached themselves from the rest of the vanguard and proceeded to divest themselves calmly of their accoutrements. Then followed the feverish wagging of a flag in a manner that suggested news of greatest importance. The colonel becomes impatient as he waits for the message to come through, and suggests mildly that there seems to be a falling off from the standard rate.
Lyte, however, is equal to the occasion, and calls to the reading signallers "Tell the fool to semaphore!" "He carn't," gasps the sergeant in a horrified whisper; "He's young, an' he don't know nothink but Morse." Lyte groans. This young lad was pressed into service a few days previously, on the strength of his boy scout record, to fill a gap caused by another youth who had suddenly felt the call of the wild and gone river boating.
Eventually the message is received and the flags on the hill top disappear as the signallers hasten to catch up with their party. It is the type of message embraced under the heading "Negative Information" and stated to be of importance. "Scouts report no enemy in sight as yet, 10.15 a.m.—J. HORACE SMITH (Lieut.)."
There is a feeling that we have been deceived, and we trudge on, kicking up angry little swirls of dust. Sympathy is already beginning to be expressed for the children of Israel in their wanderings. The music of water falling in the distance would be music indeed, for most of the water bottles are by now empty, and great beads of sweat are standing out on the men's foreheads as a result. Men will not learn that drinking large quantities of water when marching only increases their discomfort.
However, other things soon occur to divert our minds; one or two false alarms that the enemy has been sighted are satisfactorily straightened out, with more flag-wagging, and finally the plop-plop of blank cartridge is heard in the distance.
The advance guard now extends in long skirmishing lines with a view to brushing aside any slight resistance offered by the enemy. Presently we come on the horses of our mounted brethren in little groups of four in rear of a hill, and as we climb the hill itself we see the backs of Smith's gallant troopers as they fire from behind bushes that would certainly prove their death warrants on active service. The enemy are hidden in the edge of a large and straggly wood that only two days before was the scene of a roaring bush fire. Occasionally a man can be seen moving against the background of the charred trunks, but they, too, are making the best of what cover there is. Smith, leaving us to clear the wood, withdraws his men and reports to the colonel, and then moves around to a flank, hoping to cut off the party inside the wood.
Meanwhile the main guard have reinforced the first thin lines of skirmishers, and the enemy are already falling back through the wood. We follow at a more leisurely pace, as the whole place is a mass of charred tree trunks, burnt underbush and ashes. A voice from the rear bids us "Lie down" in no uncertain tones, so, reflecting that after all the Government knows best, we do so, and from then on the khaki begins to blend with its surroundings in a way that the inventor of this variety of cloth never dreamed of.
The wood turns out to be pear-shaped, and we, having by chance struck the small end of the pear, emerge considerably before the other battalions, who, having come up on our right, are biting into the largest part of the pear. Sounds of heavy conflict arise, and having still some five rounds each of blank we re-enter the wood and the combat. From then on, as Lyte expressed it afterwards, "Things began to occur just as they happened, like all great battles, the strategy being worked out later."
Twice we engage friendly battalions until stopped by an irate umpire, and once we surround and capture three sections of the enemy's horses. These are found in a little coulee running off a dried stream bed. Altogether it is a glorious affair, and is just settling down to the stage when personal combat begins when a bugle blares out the "Cease fire." This is followed by the "assembly," and we straggle to the edge of the wood to find most of our battalion there. The brigade is again formed up and we sit down for lunch. The cavalry, our enemies of the morning, trot back to camp, where a hot meal awaits them, and we know we shall not see them again. As we have our blankets following we wonder what is in the wind. We soon learn, however—the rest of the day is to be spent in a route march to Chalk River, a stream about ten miles further north, and bivouac will be made there. Blankets are to be worn "en banderole."
The whole brigade busies itself in drawing the blankets from the waggons and rolling them into long cylinders, which with a spare boot-lace are made into an exaggerated sort of horse-collar. The luckless owner then thrusts a head and one arm through the roll and he is ready to move on. A hotter method of carrying a blanket could scarcely be devised, but it is much preferable to the antique leather equipment that hangs year in and year out on the armoury walls.
Presently the column moves off along the dusty road, a mere trail winding through the brush, which, pleasant and green at first, soon is as drab and sordid as the weltering men along the road. Now and again a halt is ordered, and we throw ourselves on the roadside while another battalion passes through to take its turn at the head of the column. Some artillery waggons pass at the trot, raising clouds of dust and profanity along the line, and then the piping of a whistle starts the whole column moving again.
Chalk River is eventually reached and the bivouac formed; then the joyful shout of "Tea up" is heard. Several buglers at the same time play the "Men's Mess Call" with variations, and for a while contentment reigns.
The officers stroll around to the Y.M.C.A. tent and write postcards home, telling blithely how they are enjoying the lovely weather—not a cloud in the sky! They mention nothing of the blistered necks and sunburned noses from which the skin is already peeling. Begbie Lyte, with a shameless disregard for the truth, buys a postcard of a typical bunch of troops passing up that very same road, and selecting a figure well concealed by dust, marks an X over it, and inscribing "This is me" on the reverse side addresses it to the colonel's daughter.
The cool of the evening soon drives the noisy bathers from the river, and the camp settles down around the inevitable camp fires until the warning notes of "Last Post" and "Lights Out" sound.
The moon comes out and shines on long rows of blanketted forms and stacked rifles, and the only sound is the uneasy stir of the horses and tossing of an occasional man where the sand flea is already at work.
Such is a typical day at Petewawa.
It required the outbreak of the war to bring home the inevitable weakness of such a system, and when the Canadian Parliament announced the intention of sending a contingent of thirty thousand men, even the most enthusiastic shrugged their shoulders and said "Impossible."
But the feat not only was accomplished, but nearly trebled in the accomplishment, and if there is one man who can claim to have arisen as a Moses from among the people and achieved this miracle it is Major-General Sir Sam Hughes, at that time known generally as Sam Hughes, the Minister of Militia.
Sam Hughes did not arise in a single hour—neither was Rome built in a day. He had been rising for several years, and it had taken the combined efforts of both the Liberal and the Conservative parties to hold him down.
Looking backward one cannot help thinking what a pity it was he had not been given a free hand. He supported the Ross rifle, and raised it from the status of a political weapon to that of a military one, and whatever opponents to this weapon may claim they must remember that it was the weapon that held the line at Ypres in those last few days of April, 1915, and had it not been available the Canadian Division would have probably been in England patiently drilling with dummy rifles, and the glory of having saved the situation would have fallen upon other troops.
However, the actual declaration of war drew people's attention to the Militia, and they demanded action.
Some commanding officers made stirring speeches by platform or Press, offering the services of their battalions as complete units—an impossibility to accomplish owing to the terms of enlistment; others with more modesty sent in their applications, without any flourish of trumpets, for service in any capacity.
But along the border, wherever there were canals, bridges, and other public works that might easily be damaged by fanatic sympathisers from the United States, volunteers were called for to supply the necessary guards.
Subsequent events justified these precautions, but for some time the men on duty were the object of much attention from the small boy and that type of young man who still roams the streets and declares that the Allies are a long time winning the war!
Spy fever was rampant, and such experts as Begbie Lyte were constantly in demand to investigate lights that flickered in any manner that a vivid imagination might possibly take for signalling.
At other points practical jokes were played, such as driving a calf at night in the direction of the sentry. The soldier receiving no answer to his challenge would fire in the direction of the noise, and a loud laugh would greet him. Once or twice, however, the sentry waited for the laugh and fired in that direction, so that this variety of joke soon lost its popularity.
Once, however, mobilisation had been ordered the militiamen were replaced by men who had volunteered for active service. The armouries began to hum with activity. In the West it was hard to find accommodation for the men who came from isolated homesteads and lonely ranches, some even from the Arctic Circle, to enlist. The West still continues to supply the bulk of our recruits, due largely to the fact that the majority are, if not British born, at least the sons of British fathers, and consequently felt the call more personally than the sons of families four or five generations in the country. Quebec, from which province one would expect the most owing to the ties of race and language with our Allies, has been frankly disappointing, although certain exclusively French-Canadian battalions have done, and are continuing to do, as good work as any on the Western front.
A week or two dragged on before the actual order to depart for the big concentration camps came, and various conjectures were made as to their location. Petewawa was suggested as one, but given up as too isolated. Niagara, Barriefield, Three Rivers, and other "annual" sites were other favourites, but each had some objection, for no concentration such as thirty thousand men had been held in the history of Canada.
Eventually, however, we learned that one large camp was to be formed at Val Cartier. Except that Val Cartier was in Quebec, no one knew anything of this little hamlet.
Orders came thick and fast ordering this equipment to be worn and that to be left behind. Some days rifles were to be taken and greatcoats left in stores, and next day the rifles were to be left and greatcoats were to be taken. The result was that some of the telegrams went astray, and commanding officers at the last minute ordered what equipment they thought most suitable to be worn.
The Umpteenth Battalion took down the leather harness that had adorned its armoury walls for many a year and spent an anxious day fitting it together, Begbie Lyte and the other officers who had volunteered for the front flitting from one group of contestants to another.
At last every man had a working knowledge of the fifty odd buckles and a hazy idea as to where the straps were supposed to cross his chest and where not. The colonel looked with pride on this difficulty overcome and said, "Thank Heaven! we will probably get a more modern outfit as soon as we strike camp." Alas! We buckled and unbuckled those straps and rolled and unrolled our greatcoats for half a year before the new kit was handed out.
This was only one of the many steps that led up to that final day when, with the band playing such cheerful airs as "The Girl I left behind me" and "Will ye no come back again," the active service volunteers of the Umpteenth Battalion left their native town.
The way to the station is but dimly remembered as a haze of faces, spasmodic attempts at cheering, and the waving of many handkerchiefs. Much handshaking and the sudden thrusting of presents into arms already full prefaced the actual pulling out of the train.
The officers gathered on the back of the last car and watched the white faces of the crowd dwindle to pin points, and then a curve hid town and people alike from view.
It was less lonely inside the car, where were officers of another battalion whose men were in the fore part of the train. The elder men talked in low, serious tones as befitted those who knew something of what lay before them.
To Lyte and the younger subalterns it seemed as though they were on the threshold of life's Great Adventure, as indeed they were.
But they were not facing a war of chivalrous deeds such as they imagined.
Alas for our ideals! war now appears in its true light, as the game of commerce played on a larger scale with human lives as pawns in the place of dollars and cents!
And as for chivalry, how can it live in the midst of machine-guns, asphyxiating gases, and liquid flames?
A more picturesque site for a camp than Val Cartier could hardly be imagined, situated as it was among the foothills of the Laurentian mountains along the banks of the Jacques Cartier River.
A gentle slope, dry sandy soil, and plenty of water made it ideal from a sanitary standpoint, and with the ample manoeuvre grounds available, the shower sprays, and running water piped throughout the camp, Val Cartier was the peer of any camp the Canadians have yet seen.
But when we tumbled out of the train in the early morning there was nothing to show the existence of a military camp except one lonely bell-tent guarding the railway platform and a pair of wheel-tracks disappearing in the clumps of second-growth cedars.
Following these tracks we came upon an opening on either side of the road in which men laboured at clearing away the underbrush. The vivid colours of the jerseys in which they were clad told the world that those on the one side were students from McGill, while those on the other clad in blue and white represented 'Varsity (Toronto). Further along the red, yellow, and blue of Queen's University showed where their University Field Company was at work. The same spirit of competition that existed on the football field now kept the three units working at top speed.
A patch of land that one day was covered with cedars would next day be bare of all but stumps, the brushwood blazing merrily in huge fires. Next day the stumps in turn would be gone and by evening the new area would be covered with tents.
Already some hundreds of tents had been erected on each side of what was to be the main street of the camp. A ditching machine pantingly laboured on one side of the road and dug as much in a day as fifty men. In the ditch already made on the other side pipes had been laid and running water was available.
Showers had been erected for each company, and, most welcome of all, the advance party greeted us with a flourish of dirty aprons and ladles and the joyful cry of "skillet."
During the afternoon greatcoats were received, and very necessary they were, for when we rose next morning ice had formed in our pails, and the trees on the mountain side were beginning to turn red.
Long before we left the mountain sides were a wild revel of colour, reds, yellows, and browns predominating, where the frost had touched the leaves. Particularly brilliant were the shot-scarred trees that stood on the slopes forming the stop-butts of the rifle-ranges.
These ranges are worthy of special mention, comprising as they did targets for fifteen hundred men.
The method of construction was simplicity itself. A deep ditch had been dug and the earth thrown up like an ordinary trench to protect the marker. Strong posts had been erected about six feet apart to carry the targets, which took the form of squares of pulpboard mounted on a lever pivoted to the upright. The weight of the target held it behind the butt, and it was brought into view by pulling a short piece of rope attached to the free end of the lever.
Crude as this arrangement was, it served the purpose admirably, and daily we trudged out toward the mountain, around the foot of which this trench wound much as the German line does around the foot of Messines Hill, and fired ragged volleys into the re-echoing hill sides.
In only two ways could the training have been improved, and neither of these two was practicable under the circumstances. Better checking of the target registers and fire control would have necessitated officers trained better in musketry, and such officers were not available, and had the latest pattern ammunition in clips been obtainable instead of the old square-toed bullet wrapped in paper packages, more practice in rapid fire—the English Army's Mad Minute—could have been had.
But Sam Hughes had to work with the material at hand, and from an army of men who had, in the majority, never fired a service rifle in their lives, he formed an army that he described as being "the finest shooting army in the world."
Drill was not by any means neglected, and there were few idle hours in camp, even moonlight nights being eagerly seized upon by battalion commanders for extra work.
Daily fresh drafts from battalions arrived and were formed into new composite battalions, and daily the proportion of men in old civilian clothing grew less.
Two reviews were held, after one of which the Honourable Sam had many things to say to the officers. He told them that every officer, no matter what political gender, would have an equal chance in the great struggle for a place on the contingent, for instead of the one thousand officers asked for some fifteen hundred officers were actually in camp.
Sam spake yet other homilies to the officers, and his address, delivered from a mound on which he and his staff were drawn up, was irreverently referred to around camp as the "Sermon on the Mount." A story is also told that one of his aides suggested that all could not hear him. "That's all right," he is credited with replying; "they can all see me!"
However, his words had a beneficial effect on all who heard them, and when two weeks later another review was held and His Royal Highness the Duke of Connaught inspected the contingent it was announced that the First Canadian Division was ready to proceed over seas.
Begbie Lyte and other signalling officers were summoned over to headquarters one day and received mysterious instructions from an officer in naval uniform.
Two days later, on the 22nd of September, the —— Battalion embarked on a troopship, and after a wild evening's pleasure at the Chateau Frontenac the writer, Begbie Lyte, and some others sought the narrow confines of the ship. The rhythmic throb of the propeller woke them some hours later as the ship moved out to anchor in mid stream.
For two days we lay at anchor opposite the Citadel of Quebec and bemoaned the fate that separated us from the twinkling lights of the Chateau Frontenac and the Dufferin Terrace. Then one evening the throb of the propeller drew the crowd from the saloons to the decks and we watched the lights fade away in the night. From the forts long fingers of light followed us down stream, and blinking lights here and there sent us farewell greetings. Up on the bridge we could hear the clatter of the signal lamps, and the sooty odour of petroleum smoke hung in the calm air around us. Begbie Lyte was on the job and became an important unit in our little company. Through him alone would we get news of the outside world for some weeks to come.
Nearing Father Point, below Quebec, where normally the pilot is dropped or taken on when one is leaving or proceeding to Canada, the ship's officers pointed out a small twinkling light that marked the grave of the ill-fated Empress of Ireland. We had seen the collier Storstadt that sent her to her doom while at anchor off the Citadel, and were much impressed.
As night wore on the groups on the deck became smaller until the ship's officers alone remained, and with darkened port-holes we slipped on through the night. A distinct freshness in the wind spoke of a change around us. We were nearing salt water. Next day we anchored in Gaspe Basin. Already some six or eight ships lay there.
There we lay for some days watching the jellyfish and the gulls while one by one our number was increased to thirty-two.
At this point a diversion occurred in the form of the last visit by the Minister of Militia in a noisy tugboat. More important than the printed copies of his farewell speech that were handed us was the news that now was our last chance to mail letters. In childish simplicity we handed down our mail, thinking the "hame folk" would receive these in a few short days. The sacks were collected and taken to one of the other ships and journeyed across the Atlantic with us. So our departure was kept secret from all but a few, for, with a shrewd knowledge of the "habitant" mind, Captain Gee, the gallant commander of "E" Company, tied up a few letters in a handkerchief, weighted it with sundry pieces of silver, and dropped the package into a fishing boat that had come alongside with a load of fresh meat. The very amount enclosed spoke of secrecy, and the "habitant" sailor used all due precautions in forwarding the missives.
By Sunday noon the ground swell had driven some of the officers to deck chairs, while the others marshalled the troops on the rear deck for Divine service. Service over, we watched the celebrated Perce Rock fading in the distance and knew that Canada now lay far behind us. A day later and Newfoundland too lay in the distance, and the magic circle of the horizon closed around us.
Interest now began to be taken in things nautical. The sextant, compass, and log were the cause of much discussion, and the usual bets were made on the daily run, the stakes being held by the chaplain.
Three days out and the ship's library was taken by assault, and the sevenpenny novels that formed it disappeared into the cabins. In vain an officer was appointed librarian with powers to search and to seize, but conditions were not bettered.
Lectures, physical drill, and other mild duties relieved a little of the monotony, for the journey was a slow one, a condition made necessary by the horse transports, one of which rolled in line ahead of us. Occasionally a stir would be noticed on her decks and a horse that had succumbed to mal-de-mer would be unceremoniously dumped overboard. Such occasions were marked by a fusillade of pistol shots from each ship as the carcase drifted past, for, contrary to traditions, most of us carried revolvers for the first time in our lives and were anxious to display our prowess.
Nearly a fortnight was thus passed gazing in singular apathy at the most remarkable demonstration of the command of the seas that military history of any age affords.
In three long lines, roughly a mile apart, the transports formed an armada such as Philip of Spain never dreamed of.
But about two days out from England a black column of smoke was seen to port, and presently the contour of a heavy battleship could be determined bearing down on us. There was wild excitement till the Cross of St. George could be distinguished at her masthead. It was the ill-fated Queen Mary, our latest and finest battle-cruiser. At an almost incredible speed she overtook us and passed up our lines with her crew manning the decks and her band playing "The Maple Leaf."
From then on we always could see the smoke of heavier battleships in the offing, and knew we were getting close to somewhere.
We passed the Scilly Islands about 4 o'clock in the morning, but as cards had continued till late the preceding night few but the ship's officers saw the pin-point of light marking the westward sentinel of the Old World.
Then on October 14th fishing smacks again appeared and the grey coast of Cornwall hove in sight, and by noon we could distinguish buildings along the cliffs.
Passing the Eddystone our course was altered and all hopes of landing at Southampton vanished. Captain H——r was much excited. After nineteen years he was returning to his native town—Plymouth. To a running fire of his explanations we passed up the Sound to the Hamoaze. A tugboat, looking ridiculously small against the gigantic liner ahead, now took us in tow, and the throbbing of the ship's screw stopped. The cessation of this pulse added a sombre touch to our voices; we were nearing the end of the voyage, and in another day would know the ship no more.
Thus we glided slowly past the old wooden cruisers now used as training ships, and from their crowded riggings came shrill treble cheers. To the piping of the young cadets' voices was added the screaming of sirens and the tooting of many whistles. Halyards on all sides of us broke out into brilliant bunting and semaphores wagged with a madness that even Lyte could not translate.
The clarion notes of the mess bugle called us from the decks to other duties, and there between the soup and the fish we heard the hoarse rattle of the anchor chain as we found our moorings.
Captain H——r, seizing the opportunity, rose, and in the capacity of an old Plymothian gave us greeting.
Such was our welcome to England.
In the morning we looked out and saw rows and rows of chimney pots, impressive in their similarity.
Then later we read an editorial in The Times describing us as pioneers and backwoodsmen. This provoked much comment, but the writer for one was not greatly distressed, for he had been born within sound of the shrill of a sawmill, and the perfume of cedar is still sweeter to his nostrils than the costly unguents of Araby.
Our stay in England was marred by the heaviest rainfall of many years, and Salisbury Plain, where we were quartered all winter, had the reputation of being the muddiest spot in the world until we struck Flanders; and even now there are patriots who maintain that the "Plain" holds the championship.
But these were not our first impressions of the Downs. It is hard yet to reconcile the mud in which we lived for months with the velvety swards that first greeted our eyes.
We had detrained at Amesbury, bleary eyed and sleepless after a tedious night trip from Plymouth. This had followed a seemingly interminable march through Plymouth, during which our progress had been seriously delayed by women who broke into the ranks and kissed and wept over our dear boys. Officers escaped with mere handshakes, but still found the ordeal rather trying.
However, a few minutes of standing around the platform munching sandwiches while the necessary mistakes were made and corrected wakened us thoroughly, and then to the crunch of our own footsteps we swung smartly down the village street.
Here we found we were in a new world, a world we had read of in books. The thatched cottages, the neatly-clipped hedges, the churchyard with its headstones and tumbling wall, all seemed to fit in with what we expected. When we passed a public-house with its wooden sign emblazoned with "The Three Feathers," or some such emblem, the picture was complete—it was the England of Jeffery Farnol!
Later we swung across the ample Downs, passing on our way Stonehenge. After having said "I don't know" to a few hundred questions from the men nearest you, it was a relief to be able to answer a few for a change. What memory failed to supply imagination furnished; but this is every guide's privilege. A momentary halt here—to give the men a rest—afforded a chance for cameras to click, and then we left the road and marched across the grassy Downs to the Bustard Inn. Here the rows of tents that were to be our homes for the next few months had already been pitched.
Other brigades went to Lark Hill, to Pond Farm, to Sling Plantation, and to West Down, North and West Down, South ... one could lose a whole army in this vast training ground.
Gone was the long main street of Val Cartier camp with its cinema shows and booths of tempting merchandise. Gone, too, was the little river with its gravelly shores for bathing.
But we were one step nearer our goal, and that was the one thought that consoled us during those trying winter months that followed.
From then on we saw little but our own brigade—the 1st Brigade—and the Princess Patricia's Light Infantry—who were also at Bustard Camp.
The latter held themselves rather aloof from the Canadian Division, counting themselves as superior troops—as indeed they were, being mostly veterans of one or two campaigns—and as they were not brigaded with us we saw little of them.
Early in November the King, accompanied by Lords Roberts and Kitchener, reviewed the Division. His Majesty took special interest in the Patricias, so we were not surprised when in the early days of December the "Pats" left the Plain to join the 27th Division. Of their subsequent doings another book might be written, for no regular battalion of the British Army has proved itself steadier on the field than this magnificent corps—the gift to the Empire of a very gallant gentleman who has since succumbed to wounds received while serving with it in the field.
Christmas brought with it leave and relaxation from the monotony of drilling, but with the New Year we started brigade and divisional manoeuvres, and we knew our stay on the Plain was drawing to a close.
We were again reviewed—in a drizzling rain this time—by the King on February 4th, 1915, and on the following day—just six months after the declaration of war—the First Canadian Division, complete in every detail (horse, foot, and guns) entrained for France.
So secret had the departure been kept that people in the neighbouring town of Salisbury knew nothing of the review or the entraining of the troops till they were well on the high seas.
[Footnote 1: Major Hamilton Gault, referred to above, did not die of wounds as first reported, but suffered the loss of a leg by amputation.]
After a very rough passage from Avonmouth the Division landed at St. Nazaire in the Bay of Biscay, the last transport arriving some time in the second week of February.
From there they were taken in box cars to that mysterious region known as "the front," travelling forty men or eight horses to a car, a state of affairs that one man complained "showed undue regard for horses."
But five whole battalions and a number of surplus officers who had managed to get over to England supernumerary to their battalions were left behind on the Plain as a base depot.
Amongst the latter were the writer and Begbie Lyte, and when they rejoined a month or two later their battalion had been cut to pieces and some twenty-five of the officers with whom they had trained were casualties.
It is hard to imagine anything sadder than rejoining a battalion after fighting such as that unless it is the saying of good-bye.
For a time there was little news from the Canadians at the front, for they were not immediately placed in the trenches. Trench warfare was then still a novelty; its exact principles had not been developed, and all the training done on the Plain had been the ordinary open style of fighting—quite useless against the strongly entrenched positions the Germans had taken up.
So while lying in reserve behind the lines the First Division dug and manned trenches and practised themselves in the new warfare. Selected officers from each company spent days in the front line with other battalions and returned to their men bristling with information.
A little later selected platoons and companies took their turn in the front line, and before the end of February the Canadian Division was holding its own sector of the British line.
Casualties began to drift back to the Canadian base, which had now become centred at Shorncliffe, and letters began to arrive with details of the new methods of fighting. There was other news, too, of a more cheerful sort that showed brighter glimpses of life that occurred when enjoying brief rests from the firing line.
"Don't sympathise with us too much," wrote one officer; "we would sooner be here than on the Plain. Last night we gave an oyster and champagne supper at —— to three Ottawa ladies who are running a soup and coffee waggon for our battalion. We had a great time. D—— Dang and the Cat (another subaltern) were in fine fettle."
But more serious work was in view.
On March 10th the British commenced an offensive at Neuve Chapelle which, had it proved successful, would have involved the Canadians in the projected advance upon the Aubers Ridge, which formed the key to Lille.
But Neuve Chapelle, although a victory in one sense of the word, was a very costly lesson, but a lesson that showed that our artillery must be enormously increased if any further effort to break through the German line was to be made.
For, having taken their objective, the British troops found not only a second but a third line of trenches protected by entanglements of a most formidable nature, and so situated as to render the ground recently won at such heavy cost almost untenable. To carry these lines would require another bombardment more intense even than that which had preceded the attack. Our line had advanced one mile and there it stayed.
So ended the first attempt on our part to renew the offensive after the stagnation of a winter of trench warfare. For years we had been taught that an army that relinquishes the offensive acknowledges itself as beaten. It now began to look as though military science had undergone a complete revolution and that trench warfare and the policy of attrition were to be the normal methods of the future.
But Neuve Chapelle showed something else—it showed that the indomitable spirit of our men had not been quenched by the misery and suffering of the winter months and that the British bayonet was as much to be feared as ever.
"We were kept pretty busy," wrote a friend, "doing rapid fire, and lost quite a few from shell fire. But our artillery had the time of their lives, and fired pretty steadily the whole three days of the show."
Later he wrote that they were moving northward—probably to Hill 60—and we could expect there would be something doing shortly.
It was not to Hill 60 that the Canadian Division went, but further northward in the Ypres salient to the left of the 27th Division, where the "Princess Pats" were winning immortality at St. Eloi.
So the days wore on, the surplus officers chafing at the monotony of drill on a barrack square, relieved as it was by "Thes Dansants" at the Metropole and promenades along the Leas at Folkestone.
Then one day a medical officer dropped a sure tip. He had been warned to prepare beds for a thousand casualties—the Canadians were in something big at last!
Just how big it was we realised a week later when the newspapers broke forth into flamboyant headlines, "CANADIANS SAVED SITUATION," "FOUR GUNS RECAPTURED," and other startling sentences that danced before the eyes.
Lyte and the writer were returning from some light festivities, when the hoarse cry "All about the Canadians" arrested their attention. Papers were hurriedly bought, and the brief vague lines of the official communique eagerly scanned. "By Jove!" was Lyte's exclamation; "but isn't that great!" The writer, however, hardly heard him; he was thinking of the many good friends who had taken part and the price they had to pay, and his answer was the monosyllabic "Huh!" of the aborigine.
That evening we packed our kits.
The Second Battle for Ypres, as the fighting at Langemarck and St. Julien is officially designated, was largely a regimental and company officers' battle. This does not, however, reflect adversely on the brigade and other staffs, who did all that was humanly possible with the information that was at hand. Even at this date there are questions about the action that cannot be cleared up until it will be permissible to reproduce the whole of the war diaries of the various units that took part.
On the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Brigades fell the brunt of the fighting in which the Canadians took part, as the 1st Brigade was in rest billets in reserve.
But, without detracting from their work, it must be admitted that the account by the official "Eye Witness" does not give the 1st Brigade the credit it deserves. This, however, is inevitable. In a modern battle one sees nothing but what happens in the immediate vicinity of the observer, and we must therefore depend largely on the accounts furnished by others of what occurred in other parts of the field.
It will do no harm, however, to quote from the description by an officer, since killed, of the action of one of the battalions of this brigade, which from respect for the censor must remain nameless.
It would, however, serve no purpose to conceal the true names of those officers and men whom he thought fit to mention, for the majority of them have also laid down their lives in the field.
"During the latter part of the evening of April 22nd French and Algerian troops in large numbers began retreating through Vlamertinghe in the utmost confusion, throwing away their arms and crying 'Asphyxie! Asphyxie!!' Empty limbers and gun teams without their guns dashed down the road, already thick with refugees and fugitive soldiers. Captain Culling therefore ordered the company to stand to arms and be ready to move off as soon as orders were received.
"Orders came about 9 p.m., and we moved off to the battalion rendezvous at the junction of the Brielen road, where we found the rest of the battalion formed up. From here we continued north easterly up the Brielen road, across the canal toward St. Julien.
"A short distance past the canal the battalion deployed from the road, No. 3 Company being on our (No. 2 Company's) left and continued to advance.
"Moving forward in this formation was very difficult owing to the thick darkness and the ground being so cut up by hedges, but Captain Culling got in touch with the battalion on our left, which turned out to be the Canadian Scottish under Lieutenant-Colonel Leckie, at about the farmhouse that afterwards became our dressing station. The advance continued slightly more to the north, and a few minutes later the company lay deployed about fifty yards in rear of a trench (A B) occupied by the 10th Canadian Battalion. They were enfiladed from a German trench to their right rear (C) and an adjoining farmhouse (M G).
"Wounded men, including their commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Boyle, lay everywhere about the trench and parados, but they were too weak to attack this short piece of trench, although it was rendering their position quite untenable.
"One of our platoons successfully attacked this trench, while another under Mr. Doxsee attacked the neighbouring house and succeeded in driving the enemy from it with a loss of only two men killed and another wounded.
"Steps were then taken to improve the position by reversing the parapet of the captured trench (C) and extending the original trench to the right. The house (M G), too, was prepared for defence, and thus the night was passed and no man slept.
"At dawn of the 23rd the enemy commenced shelling the house and trench, but the losses inflicted were slight owing to the two parallel hedges, which made both ranging and observing difficult. They then commenced an attack on the house supported by machine-gun fire, which proved a far more serious affair, as in the house itself we lost two men killed and some wounded, while in the trench we lost two valuable men, Platoon-Sergeant Abelarde and Lance-Corporal McGurk. The former had crawled out along the hedge to a dangerous and commanding knoll, and from there put eighteen of the enemy out of action before a sniper's bullet found him. The dead lay exposed where they fell, and could readily be counted from the house.
"About 9 o'clock, while Captain Culling was organising a counter-attack on a small portion of the German trench (D E), two companies of the Toronto Battalion under a major arrived as reinforcements, and took cover behind our parados as there was no room in the trench. Captain Culling asked that they take on the attack, and Mr. Doxsee volunteered to lead it. The response was feeble, and the attack petered out to nothing, Bugler Hunt and a man of the Toronto Battalion being killed by the side of Doxsee, who, finding himself alone, returned to the trench unharmed.
"The Toronto men now tried a flanking movement on our immediate right, but lost eight men and had to abandon the attempt. However, coupled with our fire from the second story of the house, the effect was sufficient to cause the enemy to retire from this point, and the remainder of the day passed quietly, though the enemy's artillery continued to shell our position and a machine-gun played on the house at every sign of movement. By evening we had some seventeen casualties, a remarkedly small number considering the shelling.
"As soon as darkness set in, under cover of a few skirmishers, two platoons continued our original trench (A B) along a line (B B 1) about fifteen feet in rear of the forward hedge surrounding the house and linked this trench to the position in our right rear with a communication trench, the majority of this work being done with the small entrenching tool.
"This enabled us to get the whole company under cover, and with a machine-gun of the 10th Battalion in the house we felt fairly secure. Captain Hooper held a house immediately in front of our lines called Hooper House, and our original trench was held by a mixture of our own men and the Canadian Scottish under Mr. Hugill.
"Dawn on Saturday found our positions unaltered, but about 7 o'clock orders came from Lieutenant-Colonel Rodgers, our second in command, to take over all of the original trench and relieve the Scottish.
"Simultaneously Mr. Doxsee called for reinforcements to repel a direct frontal attack on our forward trench and machine-gun house.
"Reinforcements hurried up along the new communication trench, but were anticipated by Mr. Scott and a score or so of men, who dashed across the open and repelled the attack, Mr. Doxsee being unfortunately killed at this point.
"Captain Richardson now took over machine-gun house, and his company (No. 2) relieved us along our original trench. The two Toronto companies had entrenched to our right, forming a narrow and very dangerous salient (C F).
"All day this house was the target of the enemy's artillery and machine-guns, the latter sweeping the building so effectively that the garrison was forced to lie flat on the floors.
"Six attacks were made by their infantry and repulsed before they could get closer than two hundred yards, in spite of the fact that our only machine-gun jammed incessantly owing to the rapidity of its firing. About 2 p.m. one of our own guns came up, and from then on both guns remained in action.
"About this time troops in French uniforms were seen moving down a road on our right toward St. Julien. At first no notice was taken of them, but presently it became apparent that these were Germans, who had adopted this ruse to get behind our flank.
"Fire was immediately opened on them with what rifles could be spared from our front line, and one machine-gun was hastily posted in a barn (G), from which it did excellent work.
"At 3.30 orders were received to retire in the direction of battalion headquarters. (These orders had originally been sent out at 2 o'clock, and when Lieutenant-Colonel Watson received no response he sent them again and again until he finally saw the last company passing the shattered house that had served alike as dressing station and battalion headquarters, and not till then did he leave the field himself.)
"The retirement took place across open ground swept by both shrapnel and machine-guns, and the men just seemed to melt away.
"Men straggled in for hours, and when the battalion finally assembled at brigade headquarters at St. Jean the company had lost one hundred and thirty-nine of all ranks, of which four were officers."
It was a black situation. No one knew how other parts of the field had fared or how much ground had been lost. British troops were being rushed up to relieve the 2nd and 3rd Brigades, who in some incredible manner still held on in spite of two attacks with the gas. But they had paid a terrible price. Of the former brigade there were scarcely a thousand men and of the latter not many more.
If this, then, is the account of what one battalion—nay, what one or two companies—accomplished, what must be the stories, as yet untold, of those other battalions of the First Canadian Division that filled the gap that led to Calais?
WITH THE DRAFT
On returning to our barracks we found notices that "the following officers will hold themselves in readiness to proceed to their respective units with the next draft." Eagerly we scanned the list to make sure our names had not been omitted, and then transferred ourselves from the crowd that gathered in the ante-room to those who waited their turn outside the telephone cabinet. Letters and telegrams were being feverishly written in all parts of the building, and a hurly-burly of voices in the mess-room proclaimed the general opinion that we had been pretty badly cut up. A tailor's agent had somehow made his way into that sanctuary, and voices were demanding "Who can lend me a blank cheque?" in a wild endeavour to get him out again.
Telegrams were also arriving, one or two from the front. A subaltern spread the sheet of flimsy in his hand to find his cousin had been killed in action. There was a sudden hush in the turmoil as he turned and walked slowly to the window; men at such times are mute and trust to the simple pressure of the hand to tell that sympathy which the tongue cannot frame.
A colonel whose hair had grown grey in the service passed from one group to another, giving a word of advice here and receiving a word of sympathy there, for his age had debarred any further activities in the field. "But I have one son over there now," he proudly told you, "and my other is coming with the next contingent!"
The orderly room clerk entered and pinned up the daily orders. These were at once surrounded, and would have perished in the melee had the colonel not taken the situation in hand and read them out in his sternest parade voice with appropriate comments of his own.
"All officers and men warned for draft will parade to the ranges at 5 o'clock tomorrow morning—that will teach you to sit up all night playing cards!
"Markers and other details—that includes you, Lyte—will be at the butts and all targets ready for firing at a quarter before the hour, &c., &c.
"Light marching order will be worn by all ranks, including one hundred and fifty rounds per man. Haversack rations to be carried.
"Officers' valises—maximum weight thirty-five pounds—to be rolled ready for transport by 2 p.m., &c., &c."
This last caused an immediate thinning of the crowd, and till late that night we struggled over our kits, rolling and unrolling them to try and bring their weight down to something like the regulation amount.
At 4 o'clock next morning we fell in to march to the ranges, Lyte and his ill-fated companions having left half an hour before, and from then on till the afternoon we toiled in the hot sun. Returning about 3 that afternoon, we found the draft ordered to be ready to proceed at 6 o'clock, barely time for the men to get their tea; and tea in the Army is a meagre meal at the best of times.
Then after some hours waiting on the barrack square the draft moved off down the Cheriton road and through the streets of Folkestone to where the transports lay awaiting us.
Here the British Navy took hold of us again, and there were no further delays. The men were led below decks and packed as close as they could stand to one another, the officers having the privilege of being able to sit on their valises, which were piled unceremoniously on the deck.
Then when all were accounted for the mooring ropes were cast off, and with no more ceremony than the tinkle of the ship's telegraph we slid out of the harbour under cover of the scudding clouds.
But we were not alone. A long, lithe shape, strangely suggestive of a greyhound, crept out of the darkness around us and came up alongside, and a brief conversation, ending in "All right, full speed," was held.
The telegraph tinkled again and our ship bounded forward, leaving a long trail of phosphorescent foam in her wake.
The sighing of the rigging in the wind, the slap-slap of the Channel breakers at our sides, and the lashing "hish" of the spray across the decks blended with, but did not break, our thoughts.
And the dark shapes of the destroyers and the other transports momentarily revealed by gaps in the scudding clouds, the gleaming wake of the ship, and the faint white of the life-belts, that showed dimly where little groups of two or three stood or sat together, made a fitting scene for such an orchestral accompaniment.
Thus we reached France.
There followed a long march through the darkened streets of Boulogne to a camp on the Plains of St. Martin, not far from the tall column that marks where Napoleon gathered his great army and waited for the time that never came, when he would be master of that little strip of water we had just crossed.
A drizzling rain had started, and the men had now been nearly eight hours without food and practically a whole day without a proper meal. We were able to draw bully beef and biscuit at once from the stores, but the situation was really saved by the ladies at the Y.M.C.A. tent, who supplied hot cocoa and cake to all who cared to apply. A nominal charge of one penny was made to those who wished to pay, but no man was refused because of his inability to find this sum, small as it was.
Only a small thing, you may think, but it is only the smallest part of what this wonderful organisation is doing for the soldier at the front.
And a smile and a cup of coffee at 5 o'clock in the morning "look pretty good to me," as one recipient expressed it.
We were held in camp all the following day and then, carrying two days' rations, we entrained for the north. For a while we made vain attempts to find our destination from the French railway staff, but concluded they either did not understand our variation of their beautiful language or were sullen brutes knowing nothing.
As we continued northward the throbbing of distant gunfire became plainer, and a strange flickering could be seen in the morning sky. This strange light, caused by the flash of the guns and the flares or illuminating fuzees shot up by the infantry, resembled nothing so much as our own Aurora Borealis, and we were not surprised to find, a little later, that our men had already nicknamed them the "Northern Lights."
Dawn brought us to a halt by some little town where the engine-driver proceeded leisurely to fill his boiler. We availed ourselves of the chance to exercise our French on some Algerian troops who were lying wounded all over the platform. A rough tent had been made with waggon tarpaulins, and under this lay the worst cases—ghastly wrecks of men with blood-soaked bandages and blood-encrusted clothing, face muscles twitching convulsively as masses of flies settled on them. One French medical orderly with a strip of silver on his sleeves and an assistant seemed to be the whole staff of the place.
One tall chap with a handsome beard showed us how a bullet had torn through his cap and grazed his head, while a rude sling and a crutch spoke of a more serious injury of which he said nothing. His white teeth and smiling face turned to a horrible scowl as he continued talking, and thinking we were over-exciting him, we moved away. Had we only known, he was trying to describe to us the terrible effect of the asphyxiating gas on his comrades who were less educated than he!
A few miles further on we detrained at Poperinghe and were soon marching along a beautiful avenue of poplars—now perhaps the most famous highway in Flanders, the Vlamertinghe road.
Refugees passed us with all their worldly effects piled on a waggon, the women and little children clattering along behind in their wooden sabots. It seemed so unnecessary. The guns that had been pounding away all night were now strangely silent, and the fields on either side seemed peaceful enough. There was even a farmer plowing stoically in one.
A little further on we saw a horse that had been hurriedly cut out from a gun or waggon team. It needed but one glance to tell us that shrapnel had done its deadly work there, and we wondered vaguely what had become of its rider, for the saddlery and harness were still on it.
On entering Vlamertinghe we saw signs of shelling on most of the buildings, particularly around the church and the square, the steeple of the former forming, of course, the aiming mark for the German guns. Here, too, the body of a woman lay half in and half out of a doorway. The place seemed absolutely deserted. An aeroplane droned overhead, but whether our own or the enemy's we could not ascertain. However, we took no chances and marched on, hugging the shelter of the walls on either side of the street.
In this formation we were met by the gaunt figure of old Joey ——, our quarter-master. He fell in beside Major V—— and guided us to our transport lines, a farm a little on the Ypres side of the town. Here we lay for half an hour munching biscuits and bully beef and watching an anti-aircraft gun shelling the aeroplane we had noticed before, which was now low enough to distinguish the sinister black crosses painted on its wings.
This was the reason for the extraordinary silence on the part of the guns, so skilfully hidden all around us.
The "Archibalds," as the anti-aircraft guns are popularly known, seemed to be making extraordinarily bad practice as the fleecy puffs of shrapnel burst all around the plane without apparent effect, and the machine, having spotted something, dropped a signal that burst into brilliant sparkles and turned for the enemy lines.
At this moment Joey returned from the outhouse concealing the telephonists with instructions that we were to proceed to the field, where the battalion was dug in at once.
THE BREAKING IN
"We take the old road we have taken for years; For you cannot cut corners in war, it appears."
The truth of this old maxim was impressed on us by the roundabout route we took to reach the field only a few hundred yards away where the remainder of the battalion lay.
Actually about two companies strong, they looked a mere handful as they lay huddled close to the hedges in the shallowest of shelter pits scratched in the soil with the field entrenching tool.
The draft was immediately ordered to "dig in," as the plane we had been watching a few minutes before had dropped its signal directly over this position.
We lost no time in digging more of these shallow pits, that reminded one rather gruesomely of graves, and had barely scraped them deep enough to roll into before a hail of small high-explosive shell fell all around us.
For half an hour the whoop and crash of falling and bursting shells kept us alternately ducking our heads and raising them again to see "where that one went," for curiosity is many times a stronger impulse than fear.
Curious things happened. A tree was cut in half by a shell, and the plumed top, falling clear of the stump, planted itself like a dart in the ground a few feet away.
A pack horse suddenly bolted across the open field with a slight cut on one flank, and half a dozen men made wild grasp at its bridle before one succeeded in recapturing the brute. And here and there groups of men finding their corner of the field a bit too "hot" for comfort would just as suddenly bolt across to another part and start feverishly digging in anew.
The shelling ended with as little warning as it had begun. There came a pause, and we thought naturally, "Well, thank God that's over!"—and said so. "Just a minute," said my companion; "there are the Three Sisters to come yet!"
Before one could say "Here they are!" the rush of much larger projectiles was heard, and in quick succession three heavy shells crashed into the foot of the field, throwing up black columns of smoke. "Those are coal-boxes," continued my tutor; "they used to have four guns in that battery, but they are only using three now."
The chuckle with which he added this last showed that he, at any rate, had no doubt as to the fate of the fourth gun.
This was evidently the end of the shelling, the enemy having, theoretically, made the field untenable. The actual casualties were, however, very slight, and the field entrenching tool, until now regarded as a toy, became a valued possession. We were already beginning to learn that the British infantry equipment is the finest in the world.
The shelling over, the draft was divided up amongst the remnants of the four companies, and Lyte and the writer had the good fortune to be placed with the same one.
Our company commander had been a lieutenant till a few days before, and was now a temporary captain. His senior subaltern was wearing a "British warm," the skirt of which had been riddled by machine-gun bullets, and a sergeant was to come out in orders that evening as an officer to take the remaining platoon.
A machine-gun duel in mid-air between one of our planes and an enemy machine that was eventually driven off and the dropping of some large shells into Ypres were the only other events of the day. Most of us slept, as there was work for us to do that night, until the joyful sound of "Tea up!" and the smell of hot "Maconachie" rations told us that supper was ready.
At 7 o'clock the battalion fell in to move up to the front line and dig some trenches. Hardly were we formed up when another violent shelling started, and we hurried back to the cover of our funk-holes.
Again the shelling was singularly ineffective, due, probably, to the fact that the enemy was using high explosive and not shrapnel. One shell by an unfortunate chance caught an artillery limber full of ammunition on the roadway, and it blew up with a sickening roar. The double report of this explosion evidently satisfied the German gunners, for a few minutes later the bombardment ceased and we again fell in.
The greatest secrecy was observed, and nobody but the guides knew our destination, and we followed them in silence up the shell-pitted road and across the pontoon bridge that spanned the Yser Canal. Various dark forms hobbled past, their baggy trousers showing them to be Algerians. A French outpost challenged us, and a party of Ghurkas passed us leading pack horses with the bodies of their fallen officers lashed across the saddles. The Ghurkas never leave an officer's body on the field, so the sergeant in rear of the platoon ahead informed us.
On either side of the road was a ruined trench, and even in the weird half-light of the flares we could see what a shambles they had become. The road was well called "Suicide Alley!"
Then suddenly we left the road and took to the open fields on the left, passing a trench occupied by some Imperial troops—it was our own first line trench. Then we knew what our work was to be; we were to dig an advance trench to link up with the French on our left and the English on our right. The advance continued up a gentle slope across which—nearly a thousand yards of bare bullet-swept field—the Ghurkas had a day or so previously tried to charge. The bodies still lay there in rows just as they had fallen under the bursts of fire that mowed them down—pitiful huddled figures in the grass staring ahead into the great void. Few of the faces showed signs of suffering—such is the mercy of the rifle bullet; and so great was the resemblance to sleep that later, when we came to retire, the writer and others shook the bodies mistaking them for our own men.
In the midst of this ghastly scene, lit up by fitful glances of moonlight as clouds scudded over the sky, two companies moved forward, a long line of shadowy forms, to act as a covering party while the remaining half-battalion dug the new trench.
As we moved forward and lay down we could hear the thudding of the picks as they were driven into the ground, and from somewhere in the darkness ahead the plick-plock of the sniper began. Captain H——, our new company commander, passed down the line to warn us to count our men and see that all bayonets were fixed and magazines loaded.
The sniping increased, and a farmhouse ahead of us that had been smouldering for some time burst into flame. Two colts that were evidently confined near the blaze started to whinny and neigh, and a man who had been hit began to curse vilely.
From somewhere in rear a battery of French "seventy-fives" opened up with their ear-splitting reports, and we could see the outlines of the ruined farm ahead of us silhouetted against the crimson flashes of their bursting shrapnel. But of the enemy there was no sign—nothing but the arching trail of the flares that shot up and the steady plick-plock of the snipers. It was most trying.
It was nearly 2 o'clock before the trench was completed and we wakened our shivering men to retire, for so exhausted were they that, despite the cold and danger, many had dozed there on the body-strewn field with one hand firmly grasping the rifle.
By this time traces of dawn began to show themselves in the eastern sky, and the moon seemed to flood the whole country with light.
Platoon by platoon in Indian file we drew off the field, carefully checking the count of our men as they passed until all were accounted for. Then the march back to billets began. And such a march! Worn out by the week's hard fighting, the older men staggered all over the road, all but dropping out from sheer exhaustion. Nor were the new men in better condition. Unaccustomed as yet to the weight of their packs, shaken by shell fire, and in some cases still weak from the sickness of the rough Channel passage, it was only sheer pride and the cruel taunts of the older men that kept them in the ranks. And thus we straggled on past the French outposts and over the Yser again, and on, on past the field we had lain in all day, on through Brielen to Vlamertinghe, back to billets. But the draft was broken in.
It was only the prospect of several days of comparative rest that held us together at all as we floundered over the slippery cobble stones into Vlamertinghe. At the cross-roads that formed the battalion rendezvous in case of alarm, we got into some kind of military formation, for we spied the gaunt figure of the colonel there sitting his horse like a centaur. A grim man he was, who never spared his horses, himself or his men, and his only comment as we hobbled past was, "Dress up those fours!"—and tired as we were, the fours dressed up. When, however, Captain H——, who had gone to the rear of the company to chase up stragglers, came by, his greeting was a little more personal. "All well, H——?" he asked, and our gallant skipper answered, "All present, sir." It showed rather plainly the difference in feeling that existed for some time between those who had been through the Second Battle of Ypres and those who had not—a difference that it took much hard fighting to outweigh.
At last the company ahead turned down a side street, and we marched into our billet alone. It was a deserted warehouse with plenty of straw and quite comfortable, and, having got our men safely stowed away, the officers walked across the road to an empty house that formed our billets.
On the way H—— pointed out the coffee waggon of which mention has been made. A sad-looking wreck it was, too, as a result of a stray shell. The ladies who had been in charge of it had been swooped down upon and gathered in by an irate provost-marshal some days before the shelling, and were, I am told, sent back to England for venturing so near the front line. The loss to the battalion was, however, immeasurable, as the ladies had been most devoted, and no matter at what hour the troops came in there was always a cup of coffee or soup awaiting them, and a smile—a smile that means so much to men whose hearts are lonely. Truly Raemaekers struck a key-note when, in his address in London, he asked England to "keep on smiling."
Arriving at the house, we found coffee ready and breakfast in the process of preparation. Bacon, an omelette, toast and marmalade (plum jam being out of season), it was a feast for the gods, any minor deficiencies being overcome by the keenness of our appetites. Then, having satisfied the inner man, we climbed the crooked little stairs to the bedrooms, where we found our bedding rolls stretched out on some mattresses the owners had left in their haste, and in three minutes we were asleep. Never did any bed seem more welcome.
We did not stay long in this billet, however, as we shifted the following day to a farm on the Brielen road. It was well we did so, for the enemy bombarded the town again and dropped one shell in our old billet a few hours after we left.
The farm we moved into is worthy of a little description, as it was typical of any farm in Flanders. The three buildings that constituted the house, barn, and cowbyre were arranged in a hollow square around a brick courtyard, the centre of which was graced by a large pile of manure in an advanced stage of decomposition. Outside the square of buildings was a moat full of green slime and mosquito larvae. Here the men washed, and here, too, our buckets were filled each morning for the "lick and a promise" that served as a substitute for a bath.
Yet in spite of its unsanitary surroundings the house itself was beautifully clean inside, and no one could be healthier than the two buxom girls who formed part of the family that lived within. An exact census of the family was never obtained, as they poured out from nooks and crannies into the living-room occupied by us as sleeping quarters, generally at such awkward moments as when we were dressing or undressing. This was a matter of constant annoyance to Lyte, as the people persisted in announcing themselves with a "Bon jour, monsieur," no matter what state of nudity they had caught you in.