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Date: May 10th 1915
George Blackstock

From George Blackstock to his mother

May 10th, 1915

I will now try and give you a short account of what we have been through in the last two or three weeks. As it has been said in papers where we were, I can give you a few more details. The account by the Canadian Eye Witness was quite good, so I will not dwell on it very much.

We had taken over the position North West of Ypres (if you have the map printed in the Chronicle or some paper it is fairly accurate). You can see what an awful position it is and all the roads leading into the Town. Well, on the 19th, I went out towards the front to our advanced H.Q. to take over from Major C. I was out there for three days most of which was fairly quiet. We were shelled all around but nothing very much or very near. At noon on the 22nd the General came and told me that I could go back to the other side of Ypres to our H.Q. so I went in at about 4 P.M. At about 5.15 we were around our H.Q. when, they commenced to shell the woods, etc. behind, and in a few minutes horses with and without riders began to stream back along the roads, with shells bursting all around, and also some French Colonial troops were running back across the field, and also the Civilians came running through in an awful panic, and on the whole it was a great mix up. We joked about it and asked each other if we had our kits packed up, etc. thinking that it was a sudden panic and really meant nothing. Then word got around that gas had been used and that the French had been driven out by it. What had happened was this in part, the germans had "gassed" all along the line, starting from just in front of our left and had shelled the trenches pretty hard. The French had made a hurried retirement, leaving our flank exposed as follows:-

Before: French_______Road__3rd Brigade__________2nd Brigade

After: _________ 3rd (Road)_Brigade__________2nd Brigade

This was about 5.15. The germans, of course, came right through but our people stuck it and bent the little bit of line on the left of the road back to the road as

Road_3rd Brigade______2nd Brigade

They at once began to throw up a parapet on the other side of the trench and actually stayed there until about 10.30 P.M. with this flank literally hanging in the air and the germans away in on their left and behind them. Later on they beat their line back a bit so as to conform with the French line which ran as follows:-


In the meantime our batteries which had been about pt. X had seen the germans advancing in the open coming out of a wood in masses and had turned the guns on them when they were about 300 yds. and literally blew them to pieces, a thing that I believe has not happened since Le Cateau, in the retreat under cover of darkness, The Germans came on until they were within 200 yds. of some battalions and on three sides of them. One battalion turned 3 guns round backwards and fired in the opposite direction to their original line. This battery sent out two or three men on each side as scouts and also got about 20 Infantry to go up on the crest just in front to fire for all they were worth while the guns mercilessly fired at point blank range. Later on in the evening the 3rd Brigade Artillery (the one nearest the Germans) got out to a position along the St. Julian - Ypres Road. This road was under a very heavy rifle and shell fire and they had a pretty hard time getting back. The 2nd Brigade stayed up which was a bit more on the right. They were shelled very heavily and also caught the Germans coming out of the same wood next day in open view about 1200 yds. away. They stayed out till they had fired their last shot, then limbered up and galloped back.

Back at our H.Q. I had been sent with a message to the Ammunition Column and got back at about 9 P.M. Shortly after a convoy of amm. wagons came up and Major C. sent me to take them to a pt on the Canal back North of Ypres. We went down the road to the Canal at about 11 p.m. with a good many troops on it. It is a very narrow road, so I could not get the wagons past, and had to wait till they moved on. The Germans were shelling the road with their field shrapnel and high explosives or "Whiz Bangs" as they are called as they do not let you know they are coming like the big shells, but it just a "whiz-bang" the whiz being about 1/5 of a second before the explosion. They were only putting about one shell per minute but they were coming very close, and the shrapnel was bursting unpleasantly near, one horse being hit just beside me.

At about 3 a.m. on 23rd we got orders to get the men, horses, baggage, etc., away, which I did, and sent them well to the rear, the officers and orderlies staying. During the morning the first Inf. Bgde. came up where the French had been and attacked against enormous odds, and suffered pretty heavily. French and English were being rushed up, and came in all day. There was pretty heavy fighting all day and shelling also. On the 24th things were going pretty much the same, we gaining a bit here, and the Germans a bit there. In the afternoon I made a reconnaissance of the battery positions for the General. All the Civilians had pretty well moved out and the civil panic was over. They put a couple of small shells into the village to get the range, otherwise we were left alone pretty well. I lay down at about 12 p.m. to try and sleep as I had only had a few hours rest in the last 60 hours.

At about 1 a.m. on the 25th, the General said we were going out to the other side of Ypres to where the batteries had gone. We all got into a car and drove out through Ypres which had been very heavily shelled, but luckily the Germans must have been having a rest so we got out O.K. the roads being crowded with troops and transports and strewn with dead horses and broken wagons, etc. We got out to a place about ¾ of a mile beyond Ypres and the General sent me out to an Infantry General's H.Q. to get orders. I got about half way out and left the car as the roads were packed. I walked out stumbling over broken tins, wagons, dead horses, etc. I eventually arrived at the village where the General's H.Q. were. It was about the only house that had not been hit, practically all the rest of the village was a mass of glowing embers, where only a day or so before had stood a village where everything was nearly normal except for the soldiers in it, and now it was quite an uncanny sight to see troops filing through, their faces lit up by the glowing ruins. I got my orders and the position where his H.Q. would be during the fight and returned, picked up the car, and drove back to our temporary H.Q. The attack started at about day break, the artillery bombarding in the usual way. At about 7 a.m. the General said we would have to get a message up to the Infantry General, and asked me to take it. I got a bicycle and I was rather cold so I kept my British Warm on I had my revolver on etc. under it, and by the time I was half way I began to feel sorry I had not left my coat. I went along the road as hard as I could, bumping over the cobbles with shells bursting about. One burst in direct line with me, and how I was not hit I do not know. Anyway, I got up to the village, I had been into to get orders earlier, left my wheel against a tree, and started diagonally across the fields to a far [?] where his H.Q. were. It was a pretty hot spot. The first field I had to cross was being shelled from the North with big 8" shells 4 at a time mostly and was a mass of holes about 10 ft. across and 4 ft. deep. The big shells you can hear coming for a few seconds, and I found the best plan was to lie flat on your face as they usually have a very local effect as they go well into the earth before bursting and go straight up throwing mud and pieces of iron for a couple of 100 yds. all around. They are really far more terrifying than harmful unless you are within three yds. of them. They make a terrific din and throw black smoke up about 50 to 100 ft. They are the well known "Jack Johnsons", "Black Marias" etc., and have also been nicknamed "crumps", as they make a noise like a word cr-r-umps. You usually hear a loud whiz and them crumps-crumps-crumps (that is one shell, then about a seconds pause then another and then another pause and then two quick together they also sound like a big plank falling flat in a big empty hall, if you know the sound. But to get back to my tale. I started to run across the field throwing myself on the ground about every 100 ft. when I heard their whistle. By the time I got across the first field I was like an oven and felt as though I was carrying about 200 lbs. So I took to walking a bit. I walked about 200 ft and was then going up with some Infantry which were East in a skirmishing order. I was so dog tired and hot that I began not to care a bit what happened, however, I started to run again and was so going up diagonally along a ridge that ran North and south through the farmhouse. At this point I began to come under the fire of the shells coming from the east and also was getting up to the ping of the rifle bullets, the ridge before had formed a screen; they began to whiz past me and all I really remember was seeing shells bursting in the air on my right and hearing the ping of the bullets. I was quite beyond myself in a sort of other world, and did'nt really mind at all, it all seems more like a dream than anything else. It just seems, the hotter it got, the less I cared, and I think it must be that feeling that carries so many people through. As I can honestly say I did not relish the job when I started and I know that if I had had to stop anywhere along the line long enough to stop and take stock of things I would have been jolly scared. However, as it was, what with excitement, heat and fatigue I did'nt much care what happened. The feeling is very hard to describe and I think it must be a feeling given to one to carry you over. (Please do not think it was anything great that I did as it was really nothing compared with what thousands have done, but I am just describing my experience).

I got up all right and handed in my message, got my answer and started back through the same thing. By the time I got to my bicycle I was pretty well all in. However, I started back as hard as I could go and gradually got out of my "trance" and began to hope I would get back. The nearer I got to home, the "scarder" I got so to speak. At about 11 o'clock the General sent me out on to a ridge to act as a scout with an orderly to take back any information. We went out and stood behind trees in front of some of the guns which were getting an occasional shell. The fields in front and to our right were being shelled with the big J.J.'s. We would be standing up and hear a whiz-bang. Down we would flop on our chests behind a tree till the shell had "crumped" and the mud, stones, etc. had whizzed by and then we would have another look. We did this for about three hours. It was really quite a sight to see four of these big fellows burst in the next field, throwing up their black smoke as though an enormous gun with its muzzle just sticking out of the earth was firing. We went back at about 2 p.m. and shortly after the General decided to move to another house a few yards away, which we did. We got settled there and the General started around the Batteries taking me with him. We went up to a village about half a mile away on the road I had gone out on. Going out a big shell burst about fifty feet away but by the time it had burst I was flat on my chest. The General though I had been hit I did it so quickly. At about 5 p.m. we came back to the left of our H.Q. to a wood about 200 yds square with two chateaus in it. There were several very good dug-outs which had been made by the French and the General managed to get one of these, for our H.Q. which had been in the village just to the back of it, was getting its full share of "calling cards". The dug out was a place cut into a big mound of earth as [picture].

It was about 6 ft high 6 ft broad and 20 ft long. It had supports about every 5 ft on each side with a log running along the top of them and then across the top from side to side there were logs every 2 ft and then lengths ways there were about 4 layers of logs covered with earth. All the logs were quite 10 in. thick, and the whole was a very well made affair The only thing that could have hurt us was if a big shell had got a direct hit. I do not think the "whiz-bangs" or "little Willies" would have come through. Well, we got our telephones going to the Brigades which were with the batteries about 2 or 300 yards away. That night our kits came up and also our horses and mess waggon. I got my first decent sleep for 3 nights (about six hours) and felt better in the morning.

On the 27th, early in the morning the German aeroplanes came over directly the fire of the batteries which were locating ours and from then on for the next ten days they shelled us from three sides and I honestly can say that I think no gunners ever stood such a continually heavy bombardment with big shells day and night for ten days as they did.

The Germans had aeroplanes continually over us and were not shoot at batteries but at guns, and as I say we got shelled from three sides, and in the wood where our dug-out was I should say they put an average of 200 shells (big ones) a day into it, and each battery got about the same, and it was a sight to make you proud to see and hear these guns firing during an attack with these big shells falling four at a time right in the batteries. The ground all around there is just a mass of big holes. Words fail me to describe the wonderful work; and the men bring up ammunition under fire from the other side of Ypres through the town and right up to the batteries. It was really wonderful day and night, every single man worked like a hero without falter, and in fact it applies to the whole division and every Canadian ought to be proud to be a Canadian. I have heard Staff Officers of other divisions say that their division never would have stood it, and they say it was wonderful, and everyone has been awfully decent in the letters we have received, saying the wonderful stand and good work the artillery have done. It certain was terrific.

Well, to go back to my narrative. On the morning of the 27th we were shelled continually. At about 12 noon a staff officer of another division asked me to go up with a telephonist t a house from which you could see the fighting and observe the battle on that front as an attack was to take place shortly after. So off I went with the telephonist to the house and went upstairs to a convenient window and started to get points, such as houses near the trenches fixed on the map. The attack started shortly after I got up. The Germans were shelling everywhere, trenches, supports, houses and in fact everywhere. I had a good powerful periscope I am glad to say, and everything was very clear, except that we had a lot of trees, houses, etc., between me and the trenches so that I could not see the whole line. It was my first view of a battle and it looks as much like the picture you see and the general idea I had, as a boat looks like a field, I could see nothing of the Germans as they were well under the parapets and really all you could see is the troops coming up from one trench to another, with shells bursting all around. After being up there about two hours with shells bursting in the village I was in, and quite near the house, they began to shell a farm about 300 yards in front. They drove a few Indians and horses out of it and soon had the place razed. They began to creep up (the shells) about fifty yards at a time towards the house I was in. Pieces of the shells struck the house I was in. Pieces of the shells struck the house and then they put one through the house next, so I thought it was time little George sought the cellar, which I did, going up every few minutes to have another look an at about 4 p.m. I was told I could come back, which I did. There was not much doing for the rest of the day except the shelling we got that night. We were shelled again, and as someone said we were rocked to sleep by the force of the shells which were continually shaking the ground. One would light a few yards away from the dug-out and you would bounce up and down the way an elevator does if stopped quickly.

On the 28th, it was pretty much the same as the 27th except that a German aeroplane was brought down quite near us and the pilot and observer captured. All our horses were killed and the mess cart broken.

On the 29th, the French made an advance on our left, otherwise it was the usual shells bursting all around.

On the 30th, some Infantry in the woods we were, said the shelling we got was the worst they had experienced anywhere, and wanted to get back to the trenches, so you see we had it pretty bad. This shelling kept up almost constantly all the time we were there, so I wont mention it again.

On the 1st, one of the servants picked up some solid silver plat in the woods. That may have been some of the family plate belonging to the chateau, which had been dug up while building a dug out and had been evidently buried when the owners left.
On the 2nd, Sunday, I went back throu Ypres with the General in a car. We went to different head quarters and about 5 o'clock the Germans started an awful bombardment in our direction, and also shelled poor Ypres very heavily Up till this show started Ypres was getting back to normal, that is quite a lot of stores were open and quite a number of people were still there, although the town was rather battered up. However, we went back to the same H.Q. and there learned that the Germans had used gas, but the attack had failed. They were still heavily bombarding Ypres, etc. The General was anxious to get back to our H.Q. so we got in the car with another staff officer and started back. Well, I can tell you I did not relish one little bit the idea of going through Ypres. There are two ways of going, one by the north of the town and the other through the centre. The one through the north passes by the end of the Ypres canal which starts there and runs about like this; - [picture]. The point marked "X" is called "Suicide Corner" "Dead Man's Corner" etc., as it is a regular death trap, it being shelled from the north-west almost continually. The other way is right through the centre of the town, passing through the square by the famous Cloth Hall. The General left it to the other staff officer to decide which we would go and he said through the centre, so we headed that way. As you know, Ypres is quite a big place, and I should say it was a city more than a town. Any way at this time it was practically deserted, not a living thing in sight except a very occasional soldier coming back, and here and there a civilian, probably a spy or looting. I passed by Stan's billet, which, if I remember rightly was a rather small neat little house. It was absolutely demolished. The town looks as if there wasn't a house that had not been hit and also every window broken. It has not the appearance of the smaller villages, which are generally all destroyed and burnt, but just looked as though it was a big shabby toy, badly knocked about, with curtains, furnishings, etc. still in the houses. Well, we hit up a pretty good pace and just as we were coming into the square which is about 200 yards by 75 yards in size we saw a soldier with a civilian. The former had a bayonet and held up his hand to us. We though perhaps he wanted to tell us not to cross the square or some such thing so we pulled up.. He said the civilian he had was a spy and wanted to know if we spoke French. The General called over two soldiers, slightly wounded, who were coming back, and told them to help take the man back and off we started again. We just got going smoothly again and we were about opposite the Cloth Hall when a veritable hail of shells struck the square, some bursting in the air and others on the pavement. It looked like a picture of Hell, the whole square being a mass of flames and sparks from the pieces of shells hitting the stones and its black and white smoke.

We wheeled about at the point just in front of the Cloth Hall and went back to the entrance of the square. However, we decided to try again and make a dash for it, which we did quite safely. About 400 yards beyond the square there is a bridge called Menin Gates and as we came in sight of it we saw a mass of brick and earth practically across the road which looked as though it had blocked it completely. The Staff Officer suggested going back, but I said "no, let's take a try", which we did, and got across O.K. over the lowest part of it. It had been made by one of the 17 in. shells which had just hit on the side of the road. After that we got home without further adventure and learned that our artillery had practically won the day by catching the Germans between the trenches, as they were following up their gas, and had formed a wall of fire which they had been unable to penetrate. We had very little other experiences outside of being shelled continually till we came back, which we did a few days later. Our movements from then on I will not dwell on as they are of a more recent date, and as I have to censor my own letters to the effect that there is not military secrets in them, I am afraid I cannot conscientiously divulge.

The big 17 in. shells used to pass over our heads on the way to Ypres and Captain W. nicknamed them "Berlin-Ypres Express." They sounded just like a big heavy train going over a high bridge, with you in the valley below.

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