It is always interesting to ask a volunteer why he enlisted. Probably the only answer that you will not get is that he did it out of patriotism. One seldom hears a soldier use that word.
King and country, the Old Flag, the mighty British Empire are phrases that slip so readily from some people's lips that one is inclined to think that they come from no great depth - certainly not from as far down as the heart. The average man may feel deeply about these matters but he does not like to hear them shouted from the housetop. Generally he despises the shouters: he is embarrassed for them: they make him slightly sick.
Some enlisted for adventure, or because they were fed up and wanted a change; while the fear of being thought afraid probably consciously or unconsciously influenced many. I think, however, that the great majority of us enlisted because we felt that - whether we liked it or not - we were committed to a great war, and that other men were being killed doing a job that was as much our duty as theirs. It is all very well to be protected by a regular army, but no able-bodied red-blooded man can sit contentedly at home while his neighbour goes out to do his fighting for him.
And so we "joined the army".
Few of us had had any army experience and we were all eager to do things in what we thought, or hoped, was true soldier fashion. The general attitude was that you must "treat ï¿½em rough" if you were to make good soldiers out of recruits, and we endured uncomplainingly - at least for a while - all sorts of unnecessary inconveniences and hardships, not because we liked them but because we thought them part of the correct army life.
The early months of 1915 slipped by and we gradually adjusted ourselves or were adjusted - not always painlessly - to the new scheme of things. We had joined a regiment but for us it soon became The Regiment as the feeling of intense loyalty to our unit grew - a feeling common to all Canadian soldiers and probably to all soldiers everywhere.
This strong determination not to let his unit down, that every man had, was one of the greatest driving forces of the war. Skepticism, disbelief, and disillusionment came to all of us but this loyalty never wavered. It was the sole guiding and restraining force for hundreds of thousands of men.
As soon as the weather was suitable the regiment was moved to Valcartier, one of the finest army camp sites in the world. Few who were there will forget the healthy life we lived under canvas in that camp. We slept on hard ground - that felt soft in those days - and we were a bit crowded perhaps, but certainly no one seemed to mind that. We were in that happy in-between state when we had been long enough in the army to recognize the difference between a General and a Regimental Sergeant-Major in his peace-time uniform, but not long enough for our shield of adventure to have become tarnished.
Drill there was in plenty but there was also plenty of time for recreation and for the never-ending discussions that the very mixed nature of our personal life made inevitable, and intensely interesting. In my tent a divinity student, a farmer, a deserter from the American army, a bell-boy from a city hotel, a Jew originally from London, a schoolmaster, and a lumberman, each supplied his bit; and the variety of the topics was as great as the vehemence with which each one put forward his own views.
Then of course there was the story teller. Anyone who could tell a good story - with a liberal interpretation of the word "good" - was sure of a respectful hearing. As a matter of fact, a good story teller was almost as popular in the army as a man who could play the mouth organ.
There was one Padre I knew in France who always rushed around to each Company Headquarters, no matter in how bad a place it was, to tell any new or near-new story that he had heard. It was this man who told the famous "Brock" story so often that we threatened to kill him. However, he met his just reward.
One day, having business that took him into the far reaches of "behind the lines", he announced that he was going to tell the story to a certain General. We told him that at the very least he would be court-martialed and shot - and with justice - but he went gaily on his way. He came back to us a complete wreck. He had two black eyes, his nose and most of his face was skinned, his clothes were torn and dirty and he had a broken finger or two.
We heard the details later.
He had cornered the General in the presence of a large group of tastefully decorated staff-officers and had told his story. The General "was not amused", and fixing a cold court-martialish eye on the Padre said "Just so!" Since the General was not amused, the members of his staff were likewise unresponsive. The Padre looked around, first with surprise, and then with consternation tinged with anger - but only slightly tinged, he affirmed, for he was a Padre. Seizing his crop, and forgetting to salute, he rushed out of the house and made a wild charge at his horse.
Now this horse knew the Padre - and besides he had become accustomed to the assaults of infantry officers - but he had never been attacked like this before. The Padre got one foot too far through a stirrup and was making a frenzied attempt to pull himself into the saddle when the horse bolted and dragged him a good hundred yards.
We never heard the "Brock" story again.
As the time for our departure for England came nearer, more and more men - since they could not get regular leave - went absent without leave so that they might bid their people good-bye. A week before we struck camp the situation was really serious and everyone was worried for fear that the absentee would not be back in time for embarkation, and that the regiment would be disgraced.
The morning that we left to go onboard the Hesperian for England not a single man was missing.
Old is the mildest of the many names the Hesperian was called. I suppose we should speak sweetly of the departed - she was sunk on her next trip - but after more than twenty years my main recollections of her are that she was slow and dirty and that the food was exceedingly bad. Had we been returning to Canada on the same boat and under like conditions four years later, we should probably have thought her a regular luxury cruiser. We had not yet even begun to learn what the word "bad" could really mean.
There was the larger part of a Brigade on board, as well as many more or less detached army groups and a fair sprinkling of civilians. I don't know who was in charge of the troops on the boat but whoever it was must have been reading too many spy stories, for we had suspected spies locked up here there and everywhere all over the boat, with a particularly prize specimen in solitary confinement in one of the deck houses.
Having been unlucky enough to be drawn for guard duty, it was my job to take his meals to this man for a twelve hour stretch. He looked mild enough but he was allowed only a spoon with which to eat and my orders were to lock the door after giving him his food and to keep a close watch on him while he ate. I did the latter enviously for he was getting much better food than I was, but his difficulty in eating everything with a spoon provided sufficient diversion to take my thoughts off my stomach, if not to raise them to higher things.
Having taken his dishes away for the last time on my shift, I turned the key in the lock and it broke off short. The situation was reported through the many channels necessary before any action could be taken and an industrious search for another key was instituted. None could be found and it looked as if the unfortunate prisoner might spend the rest of the war being ferried back and forth between Canada and England, eating with his trusty spoon the food poked in to him through the bars of the door.
At last a steward came forward with a key that would unlock the door. There was general rejoicing and the steward who supplied the key was placed under close arrest as an accomplice of the suspected spy!
Guard duty on board was indeed an adventure, the number of guards comparing very favourably with the number of suspected spies! The daily muster was something like a hundred and fifty men and since the Hesperian was a small boat it was very difficult to find posts for the fifty who were on duty at one time. Some were so well hidden that the Corporal of the guard never could find them after they had been placed, and so they remained on the same post all night. The Corporal started out hopefully with fifty men at each relief but always returned with from five to ten of them because he couldn't locate all the posts.
The ship was too small and crowded to allow of any real drill so we were free to devote most of our time to the usual games of chance. The old soldiers in the regiment had long ago introduced us to Crown and Anchor and we were still innocent enough to hope for the best when we bet on the old Mud Hook. Of course all gambling games were forbidden in the army, and equally of course every known gambling game was played.
Nearing England we had our first glimpse of the destroyers that came out to protect the ships as they approached the British Isles. We nearly all came from inland homes and to us these boats seemed exceedingly small and the ocean very large indeed. During rough weather life on the small destroyers must have been hell, and never - even when things were at their worst in the trenches - did I have any desire to change places with anyone on duty in one of these boats.
The submarines were being particularly active just then, and our destroyer escort had been with us only a short time when it was called to the assistance of a nearby boat that had just been torpedoed.
We wore life-belts while going through the submarine zone and at night each man slept close to the lifeboat to which he had been assigned. My boat was on the top deck so I slept there the last night before reaching England. It was a clear night with brilliant moonlight and we amused ourselves by picking a star and watching it change from one side to the other of the boat as we zig-zagged at full speed toward Plymouth.
Plymouth: what a perfect place at which to land for the first time in England. Our story-book England came alive when we caught our first glimpse of its red-tiled roofs and chimney pots. Red roofs and chimney pots: they provided a picture few will forget.
It was only when I set foot in England that the fact that there was a war - and that I was in it - really impressed itself upon me. From that time I entered into a part of my life that was as cut off from what it had been, and now is, as if it had been lived on another planet. Plymouth in 1915 started it and it was only in March 1919, on a Canadian Pacific Railway dining car between Halifax and Montreal, that I realized fully that the war was over.
We knew nothing of war. To most of us it was still a great and thrilling adventure, and we looked forward eagerly to new places and new experiences. Even the engines and cars of the trains that took us from Plymouth were strange, and the hedged-in fields and tiled or thatched roofs that we saw from the car windows were parts taken from story-books that we had read.
At Exeter we got our first taste of English hospitality. Each soldier received a box of food and in the box was a card from the "Mayoress of Exeter and Committee" wishing us good luck. We were not always on our best behaviour in England, yet I have no recollection of receiving anything but the kindest treatment from civilian Englishmen and Englishwomen.
Our train ran through the outskirts of London and then southeast through Kent. Finally we arrived somewhere in the vicinity of Shorncliffe and after what seemed an endless march - mostly uphill - we found ourselves on Dibgate Plain and once more in tents.
That is, we were more or less in tents. When we left Valcartier we had full cavalry equipment. Some bright soul had us issued with an Oliver equipment while on the Hesperian - an Oliver equipment being an antiquated infantry layout. At Dibgate we became the unwilling possessors of modern infantry web equipment. Apparently we were to be prepared for anything for all three outfits were left with us! Then of course we had rifles, blankets, and all sorts of other things necessary and unnecessary. We were supposed to sleep ten men in a bell tent. Ten men might have been possible but ten men and thirty equipments just wasn't. We put the equipment in the tent and slept outside. In good weather this was fine, except for the occasional wandering drunk, but when it rained - as it quite often did - it was not so good. Still, we seemed to thrive on it.
I suppose that there were intermediate weather conditions but in retrospect two extremes always present themselves to me. Either it was raining and streams of water were flowing everywhere through the camp - and incidentally through and over our superabundant equipment - or it was bright and dry and the wind was blowing the sand into our eyes and clothes, but more particularly into our food. Each tent drew its rations from the cook-house and ate them where they fell. I gained ten pounds in weight while at Dibgate and I'm sure it must all have been in sand.
Dibgate was an exceedingly poor camp then with no bathing, eating, or recreational facilities. Our training was a hodge-podge, for we were still supposed to be mounted troops and did our drill accordingly. Rumors flew almost as thick as the sand and at various times they had us on the point of being sent to Egypt, Mesopotamia, and half a dozen other places where there seemed a chance for mounted troops. Our horses had long since disappeared but we still clung to our spurs. They proved very useful when mounting crowded buses, particularly when competing with bare-kneed Highlanders.
Getting a bath at Dibgate was an experience, there being three possible procedures - one compulsory and two optional. Needless to say, the compulsory one was the least popular, although under other conditions it might have been very pleasant. The English Channel was only a little way from camp, but unfortunately that particular edge of it was thickly populated - and bathing suits were about the only thing with which we had not been issued. But the troops must be washed! So bathing parade took place two or three times a week, and was before sunrise, for modesty's sake. As a rule fog and a nice cold breeze "ushered in the dawn". Also that always seemed to be the hour at which the tide was farthest out. Did you ever walk barefooted over a quarter mile of nice round stones about the size of your fist? Try it sometime, with a cold foggy wind holding you back and a Sergeant-Major - with his clothes on, blast him! - urging you on. Everyone was pushed over the sea wall and obliged to undress, and to stay undressed until the whistle blew. You weren't compelled to go into the water but going in was decidedly the lesser of two evils.
The second official method of taking a bath presented a picture strongly suggestive of a cannibal feast in the South Seas. Alone in the center of a particularly open and windswept part of the Plain, stood a huge black kettle. If you wanted a bath you took it by numbers:
One: you carried water about half a mile to fill the kettle
Two: you carried wood an equal distance for the fire
Three: you lit the fire
Four: you waited for the water to heat
Five: you dumped the water into an old tub
Six: you took off your clothes
Seven: You decided that it was an altogether too cold and exposed spot for bathing and put on your clothes again
Eight: You borrowed a shilling and went to the public baths in Folkestone
The beautiful seaside town of Hythe was near camp and it was to the Hythe ranges that we went for most of our musketry practice. In good weather there was nothing more pleasant than a day on the ranges, providing of course that you were firing, not on duty in the butts. Butt duty was the height of monotony as well as being most irritating. If you signaled too many good shots the officer at the firing point suspected your honesty and if you signaled a miss the person firing was sure that his shot had gone through an old hole in the bull's eye.
Regular range duty was unpopular with nearly everyone. Once in 1917 while waiting at Bramshott to return to France, I was sent to one of the rifle ranges near Aldershot for duty. I had only been there a few days when I received a telegram from one of my brothers, saying that he had been wounded and was in hospital at Norwich. I went to the adjutant of the camp with this message and asked him what the chances were for leave to go up to Norwich. He looked at me in a peculiar way and said that I had better see the Camp Commandant. I did so, and was told in no uncertain terms that I was the third officer in three weeks who had had a brother wounded --- and that he, the Camp Commandant, was getting damned suspicious. He was a very decent sort, however, and after blowing off a bit he cooled down and told me that I might go. As I was leaving he said: "By the way Savage, I have no brothers but I don't mind telling you that a week from next Friday I expect a favourite nephew of mine to be wounded."
We had a great number of thunderstorms during the early part of the summer at Dibgate and one of them lead to a rather unusual occurrence. Lightning struck one of the tents and apparently killed two brothers who happened to be together inside. They were covered up with blankets and left in the tent while arrangements were being made to take them away. After about half an hour one of them suddenly came to and seeing someone, as he thought, asleep under a blanket at the other side of the tent, reached over and pulled the blanket away. His brother was really dead and the man never fully recovered from this double shock.
While at Dibgate I had one short leave to London. Three of us went together and within an hour of our arrival in the city we were pounced upon for not saluting some dim distant general. We were still innocent enough to allow this to rather cloud our enjoyment of the rest of our leave. When we got back to the battalion we found that we had been reported and the entire regiment had been given three days extra saluting drill. Fortunately we were not publicly announced as the culprits, and you may be sure we did no confessing.
Folkestone, Hythe, and all the neighbouring towns were in bounds and we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly visiting them. I believe that we were more surprised to see women drinking in pubs and to find that smoking was allowed in nearly all the theatres than by anything else. The Leas and the Pier at Folkestone were our favourite haunts and it was in front of the Metropole and Grand Hotels that we first saw the "Waacs" drilling. The "Waacs" took their name from the first letters of the name of their organization, the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps.
At Dibgate one could quite often hear the sound of the guns from The Front in France, and it was here that we experienced our first air raid. Fortunately for us no damage was done to our particular camp. I was in an air raid in London in 1917 and in Paris in 1918 but they both seemed to me to possess that characteristic - highly desirable as far as air raids are concerned - of being impersonal. Besides, I had six floors of a hotel over me in London and in Paris I didn't know about the raid until I read an account of it in the paper the next morning. But at the Front it was different: for particularly in 1918 one could expect to be bombed at least four or five nights a week and quite often twice in the same night. And the bombing was distinctly personal. They weren't out to hit the House of Parliament or Charing Cross Station, they were after that particular group of huts in which you were. And it wasn't the huts that they were trying to destroy, it was you.
Drill at Dibgate wasn't bad and route marches through the English countryside were really enjoyable - even though the last mile home was always uphill. But the ceremonial inspections to which we were frequently subjected were decidedly unpopular and the fact that they always seemed to take place in a downpour of rain didn't exactly help things. Of course Dibgate was Heaven when compared with the mud and filth of the front, but we didn't know that yet.
In September, and during a spell of particularly rainy weather, we were transferred from Dibgate Plain to Caesar's Camp, near Folkestone. Here we got our first taste of what mud could really be.
The day of the move I was made a Lance-Corporal. This was hard on the other men in my section for I was a little shy about asserting my new authority and whenever I was told to "take two men and do this", or "take three men and do that", I always took them from my own tent.
The rank of Lance-Corporal was probably the most uncomfortable one to hold in all the army. Senior NCOs would have nothing to do with you and the men looked upon you with suspicion. Also, whenever two or more men met together to shirk any work, there had to be a Lance-Corporal to get Hell if the work wasn't done properly. I have heard it said that the Lance-Corporals were the foundation of the army, and that there was nothing lower!
We wallowed in mud at Caesar's Camp for weeks, expecting each day to leave for France. We had orders always to have our kits in such condition that we could leave camp in ten minutes.
At three o'clock one dark and rainy morning we got orders to fall in for France!
It was a false alarm------. This happened three times and always at night and in the rain. Finally we got so wise that when the real order came we thought it another fake and put only half our stuff in our packs. We were uncomfortably surprised when we arrived at Folkestone and boarded a Channel boat. The march from camp was done at night, and of course in the rain. All regimental badges were taken off or concealed and we went through the city and boarded the boat as quietly as possible. Even the Sergeant-Major reduced his voice to a roar.
During the next three and a half years I crossed the Channel a dozen times but this was the roughest and most uncomfortable of all my crossings. Every square inch on the boat was occupied and we were so crowded that it was impossible even to sit down. Perhaps this was just as well for it would hardly have been safe to do so. There was no such thing as rushing to the rail, or anywhere else, to be sick, and practically everyone was sick.
It was still dark when we arrived at Boulogne and as usual the camp to which we went was on the top of the highest hill in the vicinity, or at least so it seemed. We got into camp just as it was getting light and a more bedraggled lot never existed. It was still raining, we had all been seasick, and the camp we had cursed in England was dry and comfortable compared with the one in which we now found ourselves. But an event was about to happen that was to change our outlook completely. At eight AM there was a general and generous issue of rum! It was our first. We were in France. All was well.
A day or two in the camp near Boulogne was more than enough and we were glad to entrain for what we vaguely referred to as "the front". We in the ranks had no idea to what part of the line we were going, but we were satisfied to be on our way. The French box cars were marked "40 hommes - 8 chevaux", but as far as men were concerned the forty was merely a pious gesture. However, for long trips these box cars were very much more comfortable than the ordinary passenger carriages. When one got to know the trick of it, it was possible to travel in luxury in them, since there were combined in one car all the facilities provided by diner, sleeper and observation car on an ordinary train.
Finally we detrained near a little town called Meteren and were told that we were to go into the line on the Bailleul sector. The Bailleul sector had this peculiarity, that generally the troops while in billets were in France, but when in the line were in Belgium. Armentieres was on the right flank within the British lines, while Messines was behind the German line in about the center of the sector. The First Canadian Division held the Ploegsteert (plug street) area to a little north of Wulverghem, where they joined up with the Second Canadian Division, which had just taken over the line as far as St Eloi from the Twenty-eighth British Division.
Near Meteren we had our first experience with billets. Generally a company, or in our case then, a squadron, would be given two or three neighbouring farms for billets, the officers taking whatever rooms the occupants of the houses could spare and the men sleeping in the various barns. Since it was late in the fall, and both cold and rainy, this was most satisfactory and a big improvement over the tents in which we had been living recently. Tents were all right in good weather but in a prolonged rainy season life in them was miserable. We were to experience living in town billets later and in the Ypres area we were nearly always housed in army huts, but during the time that we were on the Messines front we were generally billeted in farms.
Farm billets of course differed, but nearly all had one feature in common, the huge manure pit around which the family's living quarters and the out-building and barns were grouped. The house did not face the road, as one might have expected, but the front door opened on the stone-paved walk that surrounded the pit. It was on or near this paved walk that most of the events that went to make up the daily farm life were enacted. At first this all seemed, and smelt, strange to us, but it was really a most convenient arrangement, and in a short time we settled down very comfortably to the communal life about the pit. The pigs even got to know the mess call and sometimes beat us to the kettles of stew the cooks placed on the cobbles for us.
As sleeping quarters we found the barns most comfortable, the only drawback being the thousands of field mice that were attracted by the unthreshed wheat with which many of the barns were partly filled. They were very friendly mice, quite unafraid, and on cold nights they liked nothing better than to crawl under the same blanket with a soldier. I don't remember ever seeing anyone kill one of them.
The question of getting decent drinking water was always a serious one. The farm pump was generally located beside the manure pit and the water from it was liquid poison. The civilians of course never drank water, preferring their weak home-brewed beer or the common white or red wines, but we could never get along without it. The solution to the problem was found in the regimental water wagon, which visited each billet daily and from which we filled our water bottles and the cooks took the water for cooking. The water in the wagon was chlorinated and was safe, if not pleasant to drink. Whoever chlorinated the water apparently went on the theory that if twenty chlorine tablets made it safe, then fifty would make it even safer. At that time we were getting a great deal of lemon marmalade and by putting some of this in our canteens with the chlorinated water we partly disguised the bad taste. Tea made from chlorinated water was only slightly worse than the usual variety so we managed to endure that.
Our rations were not good at first but within five or six months they improved greatly. At first we got bread only once in two or three days and then not much of it, while vegetables were almost an unknown thing. There was however plenty of hard tack, bully beef, cheese, and in our particular unit, apricot jam: four articles that became so hard to get towards the end of the war that they were considered delicacies. I don't know where all the cheese came from, but literally tons of it were wasted. We had more and larger slices of cheese than of bread, and a common and very tasty snack before turning in at night often consisted of a large slice of cheese thickly spread with apricot jam. Cases of bully beef and hard tack were everywhere and often were used to make a dry floor for a dugout or for some other non-dietetic purpose. We all eked out our rations with eggs and chips, which could be bought along with excellent whole wheat bread at any farmhouse. At first one could get two eggs and a plateful of chips with bread for a franc, but as the demand increased the price mounted and finally eggs cost as much as a franc apiece.
While at Meteren we became part of General Seely's dismounted cavalry division, composed of the Royal Canadian Dragoons, the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, Lord Strathcona's Horse, the Second King Edward Horse and six regiments of Canadian Mounted Rifles.
Our first trip in the trenches was a short one for instructional purposes. It was with one of the First Division battalions and although they unquestionably considered us little better than conscripts, they treated us very decently. Although late in October, there had not been a great deal of rain as yet and the front line and communication trenches were in almost perfect condition when compared with those we took over after the rains had begun.
Trenches in this sector were very difficult indeed. The water was so close to the surface that the "trench" really consisted of a built up fortification. To build up a trench of that sort you must have sand in bags, and to get sand into bags requires much labour with a shovel. We only called it sand because it went into sand bags. Actually it was the stickiest of clay in most places. As the rains came on, these built-up trenches were constantly collapsing and having to be rebuilt. The communication trenches became in most places not only useless but positively dangerous. There were always tales going round of men being drowned in the mud and water of these trenches, although I never heard of an actual case. The Messines front in the winter of 1915-16 was literally a mud hole.
As we approached the line we saw for the first time in most of our lives the effects of shell fire. Not that the Ploegsteert country was badly shot up, far from that, for civilians carried on in some cases right up to the ends of the communication trenches. But there were houses that had been struck by shells, and abandoned chateaux that had been pretty well wrecked.
These walled-in farms and chateaux with fish swimming about in the moats were something entirely new to us and we felt ourselves back almost in the middle ages.
Our first stop was in the "Dog Kennels" on the slope of Hill Sixty-three. They were open sheds about four feet high, built against the side of the hill and not at all bad when it was warm. Unfortunately it wasn't warm just then, or at any other time when we occupied them.
Hill Sixty-three got its name from the fact that its highest contour line marked on the military maps was sixty-three. This was quite a common way of referring to hills, the famous Hill Sixty and Hill Seventy got their names in that way.
Nothing of interest occurred while we were in the "kennels" except that a few shells fell nearby and being our first gave us quite a thrill, and there was a near riot in my section, occasioned by the fact that an old-boy of Trinity College School, an officer whom I happened to meet, addressed me as "Sir". I had at one time been a master at that school.
It was possible to get into the front line quite easily by daylight and as we were going up a few at a time for instruction, and not making a general relief, we were able to make our first trip late one afternoon. Probably the Germans had noticed the unusual movement of troops in the communication trenches for shortly after we arrived they put on a mild "straff". We all stuck up our heads to see what was happening and then and there got our first lesson in trench-craft. Our hosts advised us to keep our heads down or we would get them "damned well blown off". We did so in some embarrassment and were then told that the shelling was due to the unnecessary amount of commotion that we had made coming into the trenches. Having thus quickly and efficiently reduced us to the condition of humility most suitable for beginners who would learn, they then proceeded to teach us. Each man was detailed to work with some men or group of the other battalion and a similar arrangement was made for the NCOs.
As a lance-corporal, I was first of all sent out with a ration party. There was nothing particularly exciting about this, although some of my most harrowing experiences later in the war were with such parties. The rations were the responsibility of the Quartermaster. This officer remained at the battalion horse-lines during the day and at night brought the rations by horse transport to some place, as near the line as possible where they could be turned over to the various ration parties. The roads up to the line were well shelled on and off during the night and likely spots for ration dumps were given special attention by the German artillery. Neither transport nor ration parties had any desire to linger, and a ration dump was one place behind the line where everyone was perfectly willing to hurry.
The shelling during this trip was only very casual but later in the war harrying ration parties became a regular science. One very efficient procedure that the Germans developed was often followed when they had located a dump. If six guns were being used, two would be loaded with shrapnel, two with high explosive and two with gas; then all six would fire at the same time on the ration dump. This might be repeated five or six times during the night at irregular intervals, and could be most annoying.
In our outfit, and I think this was quite general throughout the army, those whose duty it was to bring up the rations were exceedingly efficient. Only twice, once in 1916 and again in 1918, do I remember the rations failing to appear. With the rations came the mail, so it was quite usual to get your regular letters and parcels from home even during a big engagement.
After the ration party came instruction on listening post. A listening post detail generally consisted of six men and a corporal or lance-corporal. Two men were stationed either in a hole or at some protected spot in No Man's Land beyond our wire, two more were on duty at the place inside the trenches nearest the listening post, and two more would be resting. Duty started as soon as it became dusk and lasted until "stand to" just before dawn. Generally a sequence of two hours on post, two hours in the trench and two hours resting would be followed, but this depended largely on the weather: in the summer the same men might stay out four hours, while in the winter it was often necessary to change every hour. Generally the post in No Man's Land was connected with the men on duty in the trench by a wire or cord and messages were sent back and forth by a prearranged code. The signals our section generally used were: one pull from inside the trench meant "Are you all right?" and a single pull in reply meant "Yes"; two pulls from inside, "Someone is coming out to your post from our trench", two pulls from outside, "Send up a flare", which of course meant that they had heard some suspicious noise. Three or more pulls from outside was a call for help. Any other messages had to be taken out by the corporal, who, as a matter of act, spent a good deal of his time at the post or going back and forth between the trench and the post.
My first visit to a listening post may have been exciting to me, but it was quite apparently just part of the night's work for my instructor. We pulled ourselves up over the parapet and he walked calmly off into the dark and towards the German trenches. How I admired his nonchalance, and how close I stuck to him! Just outside our wire we were challenged in a low voice and the corporal gave the password, which was, if I remember correctly, "mounted". I was never quite sure whether this password was given in honour of our first trip into the line or because they thought that even such greenhorns as we would be able to remember that word. After we had been on the post, which was a hole in the ground, for a few minutes, the corporal knelt down in the hole and lit a cigarette, half of which he allowed me to smoke. Even such a novice as I recognized this as a wide departure from "standard practice".
After we came in from the listening post I was told that I might turn in for a while if I could find a place. This was not easy as the trench was, of course, crowded. I finally decided to try the broken-down dugout where we had stored our rations earlier in the night. The night had already lasted about forty-eight hours and a few hours sleep would go very well. I had failed however to take into consideration two very important factors, namely, the cheese in our rations and the rats in the trenches. When I came, the rats left, but as soon as I lay down they appeared again and swarmed over me on their way to the cheese. I wrapped myself, head and all, in a thick blanket, leaving only my right arm out. Then taking an entrenching tool handled I smacked every rat that mistook me for a bag of rations. I got some rest, but needless to say, no sleep.
Our instructional trip was soon over and we were back in billets getting ready to go into the line on our own. Ordinary billet routine was resumed with a special drill to impress on us the lessons learned in the line.
Shaving might be more or less optional in the line, but not so when in billets. It was quite possible to get three days Field Punishment No. 1 for appearing not properly shaved on morning parade. As winter came on it was sometimes necessary to break the ice on a pool of water or brook in order to get shaving water, and of course there was no chance to warm it. If you think that that was fun, just try shaving with ice water and an army razor some winter morning, and if you want to get the real feel of it, leave the bathroom window wide open.
Field Punishment No. 1 was quite common in those days. It was a most degrading punishment and was seldom carried out fully after 1916, but in 1915 one "got the works". The prisoner, whose offence was not necessarily a serious one, was tied up twice a day for about half an hour in an exposed position. This was generally a fence or a wagon wheel, and he was tied with his arms in a stretched-out position. His ankles were also tied to the wheel. This was a particularly crude revival, or survival, of the pillory. During the rest of the day the prisoner was obliged to do all the dirtiest work around the camp and was supposed to be shackled loosely at the ankles. At night he was tied at the ankles and wrists and was also supposed to be tied to a ring in the floor or a stake in the ground. Some commanding officers showed little sense in the way they handed out this punishment, but as a general rule it was unpopular both with junior officers and men and was seldom carried out to the exact letter of the law. I speak only of the three or four units in the Canadian army with which I was associated. Conditions elsewhere may have been quite different.
Pleasures and hardships are of course merely a matter of conditions and comparison. In the trenches it was a pleasure to look forward to billets, which, when compared with our civilian standards, would have been considered almost unbearable. After a week of cold wet feet, to change to warm dry socks was as satisfying a pleasure as one could hope to experience. Simply to be allowed to sleep for twelve unbroken hours, a parcel from home, pay day, eggs and chips, all small things, and all to us real pleasures. And so it went: since the extremely bad was always possible, the moderately bad became good, and the passably good, perfection.
That was probably why we were seldom downhearted for any length of time; in fact, I'm sure that the average soldier then was much more cheerful than the average civilian is now. This is no brief for war. Great questions in the past may have been, and were, settled by war, but in the modern world it is the most hideously idiotic and futile procedure possible. And if any man was the better for having gone through what I have heard referred to, by speakers who had never been there, as the "refining fires of battle", then his improvement was bought at too great a price to others. But of one thing I am certain, it was not the soldier who suffered most in the war, it was those who waited anxiously at home for news they were afraid to receive.
I had in my section one man who was a fine shot, excellent in drill and a good man up the line. But he had one failing: he was over-fond of cognac, and the closer it approached pure alcohol the better he liked it. He used to sleep beside me and when he came in the worse for wear there was always trouble. One night he was particularly violent, his stomach muscles would become rigid, and then he would suddenly strike out and try to kill anyone near him. He knew me and kept saying that he wouldn't hit me if I would only hang onto him. I did for a while and then decided that he was going to die and that we had better get the Medical Officer. This was at about 2:00 AM and the MO's billet was over a mile from us; it was probably raining too, although I don't remember that. The MO arrived all out of breath and half-dressed, examined the man, said to me "You damn fool, he's got the DTs", and went back to his billet in high dudgeon. Oh well, live and learn!
We had now been in France for over a month and were still waiting for our first official bath. There were no public baths in the little villages nearby and the very efficient Divisional Baths, where your clothes were "deloused" while you waited, or rather while you bathed, had not yet come into existence. It was decided that we should all go to the insane asylum at Bailleul, for a bath of course. I can't imagine why, but in the asylum was a fine indoor swimming pool, and it was here that we were to take our bath. Each of us had provided himself with a cake of soap, and so had the thousand or so other soldiers who had been through the pool ahead of us that day! I don't know how often they changed the water, probably whenever the scum became too thick to break through with anything short of a high dive.
It was a few days later, also at Bailleul, that we heard the Concert Party that had recently been organized by the First Canadian Division. It was excellent and eventually each Canadian division had its own concert party.
Typhoid inoculations were another treat that we received while out the first time. They must have been particularly potent for by noon of the day after taking them, most of us were feeling very bad indeed. Sick as we were, we could tell by the row going on up the line that something was up; and sure enough at about 6:00 PM we got orders to stand to, ready to march. A cold rain, half sleet, was falling and nearly all of us had high fevers when we started out at about 10:00 o'clock. We finally reached what I believe was called battle reserve position, or some such thing. Everyone dropped down in the mud and the generally expressed opinion was that the quicker we died the better. The trouble up front was apparently not serious, for we were marched back to billets at daybreak. The prolonged cold bath of the night must have been just what we needed, for by noon we were all feeling fine again.
It was at this billet that one of our officers very nearly got into serious trouble. He was a marvelous revolver shot and one day when he was feeling a bit merry some one suggested that he couldn't knock the head off a duck on a nearby pond. Such an idea! He promptly knocked the heads off two ducks. It was all a merry joke until they discovered that the owner of the ducks didn't like Canadian troops and wouldn't take any number of francs for his ducks, but insisted on reporting the episode to the civil authorities. The matter suddenly became serious for it came under the head of willfully destroying the property of an ally. Eventually the affair was settled, but only after the officer concerned had put in several very uncomfortable days. Certainly the perils of war are of many kinds.
Rainy and cold weather was now general and before going into the line for the first time on our own we were all issued with leather jerkins and larrigans. Larrigans were a sort of moccasin boot and were more or less waterproof - mostly less. They were a great improvement over the very poor shoes that we had been wearing, but unfortunately I was issued with a pair three sizes too large for me. The shoemaker sergeant, who was an old soldier, told me that I could take them or walk in my bare feet, so I took them. As a result, my feet for the next two months were in terrible shape, my socks always being soaked with blood after each march. It goes to show how completely innocent we still were of army procedure that it never occurred to me to protest to anyone about this treatment. Later when I had a platoon of my own, I reminded the shoemaker sergeant of this little episode. What was my loss was my platoon's gain.
This, and subsequent trips into this part of the line until we were brought up to infantry battalion strength, were nightmares of constant duty and work. A Mounted Rifle Regiment consisted of about half as many men as a battalion of infantry and since one of our regiments regularly relieved one battalion of infantry, each man had almost double duty to do. When ration parties, work parties, and half a dozen other kinds of parties had been provided for at night, the men left to do sentry duty in the front lines were so few that they needed to be signalers in order to communicate with each other.
My company was first stationed in support trenches in the vicinity of what was then known as Stink Farm, not at all an unusual name for an abandoned farm close to the line. Since I had had listening post instruction I was sent up to the front trenches with my section to do a listening post for A Squadron.
Once you got used to the idea of being in No Man's Land, a Listening Post was probably as safe, or safer, than any other place in or near the front line. Of course there was the chance of being bombed by a German patrol or hit by a stray bullet, but the chances of being hit by a shell, rifle grenade, or trench mortar in the front line were much greater. As a matter of fact, No Man's Land as such scarcely existed on the Canadian front; generally speaking we controlled it right up to the German wire. There were, however, certain circumstances that could complicate this work and we got a taste of them on this our first trial.
The battalion on our right had decided to pull off one of those trench raids that were becoming so popular late in 1915. Due to a bend in the trenches the part of the German line that they were to raid was immediately in front of our listening post. For some reason or other the raid was not successful and was broken up at the German wire. For the next hour the members of the raiding party were crawling back to their own line across our front and through my listening post. Under such circumstances it was always an open question whether the noise one heard was being made by a friend trying to get back to our line or by a German patrol with offensive designs. Ordinarily two pulls on the signal wire would have been answered by a flare and a chance to see what was happening but under the circumstances a flare was out of the question and we had to rely on a low challenge. The moment after challenging was always a ticklish one, for you never knew whether the answer would be the password or a bomb. Much the same sort of situation, only to a lesser extent, occurred whenever one of your own or a neighbouring battalion's patrols was known to be out between the lines. Eventually listening posts were pretty generally abandoned in our Brigade in favour of offensive or scouting patrols.
The day after the raid the Germans retaliated on us with shell fire and trench mortars, and as there were no deep dugouts it was quite impossible to get any sleep during the day. We had never seen a trench mortar before and when the first one came through the air like a clumsy coal-oil can and landed in the bay next to us, we were all curiosity to know what it was. We soon found out! I doubt if anything is more terrifying than the explosion of a large trench mortar shell. Later at Ypres we were to have plenty of practice in dodging both trench mortars and rifle grenades but as yet they were comparatively rare.
During the second night one of my section was killed while on post outside the trench. I was standing beside the signal wire in the trench when it gave a sudden jerk and then began to go back and forth rapidly. I got out to the post as quickly as I could and found that one of the men had been shot through the head and killed instantly. The boy who was with him didn't say anything and I didn't pay any particular attention to him. I went in and got one of the other men to help me bring K---- in, but when we lifted him out of the hole there was so much blood flowing that my helper became violently sick and had to go back to the trench. This was the first casualty that he had seen. Eventually we started in with the body. The path through the wire to a listening post was narrow and deliberately crooked, and to carry a heavy man with full equipment and a dragging great coat along it in the dark was almost impossible. It must have taken us a good half hour to get him to the parapet of the trench.
As we approached there was some unnecessarily loud talk in the trench. I crawled up on the parapet and sticking my head over told whoever it was to keep his ----- -------- mouth shut. That was a great mistake, for the talker happened to be the only senior officer in the Regiment without a sense of humour. He told me to come into the trench, and when I waited until a flare which was up had gone out, he gave me a terrific bawling out. He never forgave me for what he considered a piece of insubordination.
When I took another man out for listening post, we found that the man who had been there with K---- was out of his head. He was only a boy, about fifteen years old, and apparently was quite unfit for this sort of thing. After we got him into the trench he became quite violent and I was lying beside him trying to quiet him when he suddenly stopped breathing. I didn't know what had happened, but after about half a minute I gave him a slap on the side of the head and said "Breathe"! Each time I did this he would breathe and if I didn't do it he wouldn't breathe. The medical sergeant didn't know what to do, but we got hold of a third year medical student who was temporarily camouflaged as a sniper, and he did the trick. He looked over the Medical Sergeant's supplies and said "I'll give him a hell of a shot of this, probably it'll kill him." But it didn't. K---- was the first man killed in my company and the second in the Regiment. I have seen hundreds of men killed and dead bodies lying so thick in places that it was almost impossible not to step on them, but this single casualty is the one that stands out most clearly in my memory after twenty years.
I had now been two days and two nights without sleep and was beginning to feel that there might be more in this war business than I had thought. They were still lobbing the odd shell and trench mortar into our part of the line and I was just considering the prospect of another twelve hours without sleep when word came for me to report at once at Company Headquarters.
At Company Headquarters they said that an anti-gas school was being started at Fletre, near Bailleul, and that those having had special training in Chemistry at college were to attend. I began to appreciate right then the advantages of what is, often doubtless in a jocular way, referred to as higher education.
My platoon commander, one of the finest officers I ever knew, was on duty at Company Headquarters when I arrived. He said that he understood that we had been having quite an exciting time up front without much chance for sleep, and after giving me a large ration of rum and an apple, he told me that I hadn't to report to Battalion Headquarters for another four hours and that I had better turn into his bunk for a sleep. His was the top one of two bunks and the rum was exceedingly potent. The last that I remember was trying to crawl into the bunk and ending up with both my feet in the face of the Second in Command of the Company, who was asleep in the lower bunk. Four hours later when someone wakened me, I felt as fresh as a daisy.
I'm not sure, but I have an idea that the anti-gas school at Fletre was the first one of its kind in France; certainly it was the first with which we had anything to do. There was an Engineer Officer in charge but the real direction of the work was in the hands of a 5th CMR man, Sergeant Qua, who had been professor of Chemistry at Bishop's University before enlisting. He was most capable, and eventually became a major or colonel or some such exalted person in the gas services section of the army.
The Canadians attending the course were nearly all from various Eastern colleges and many of them had played with or against each other on football or hockey teams. As a billet we had a very comfortable barn on the outskirts of the little village of Fletre, and best of all we had a super-excellent cook. I seem to recollect also that the local estaminets were unusually good.
I arrived the afternoon before work was to begin and as I had come straight from the trenches and needed a shave, I decided to try the local barber. After some trouble I found a man who looked like a butcher but claimed to be a barber. I sat on an ordinary chair in front of his house and after filling my ears and eyes with soap, he started to operate on me with the most villainous looking razor that I have ever seen. Presently I noticed that I was alone. After waiting a bit I went to the pump and washed the soap out of my eyes: then I looked around for the Lord High Executioner. He was in the kitchen drinking coffee, probably as a pick-me-up after his strenuous work. Nearly all the local people wore whiskers.
The discipline at the school was not what you would call strict, but we certainly got a lot of work done. One of our jobs was to build a gas-protected dugout for the school. It had to be called "gas-protected", not "gas-proof"; that was important. Since it would keep gas out, it would also keep it in, so it was used as a gas chamber for testing helmets and for other experiments. And we were the guinea pigs used for the experiments. Later on tear gas was used for nearly all testing purposes, but no such thing existed then and so everything was tried out with good old chlorine, full strength.
The gas helmets we used consisted of several layers of flannelette in the form of a bag to go on over the head, with a sort of window in the front of the helmet - it you happened to get it on that way. This was, I think, soaked in hypo and washing soda and was good protection against chlorine. Later these helmets were greatly improved, phenol and hexamine were added as a protection against phosgene, and better eye pieces and an efficient exhale valve were developed. Glycerin was also added to preserve the chemicals and keep the helmet moist, but didn't make the wearing any more pleasant. We were all thoroughly glad when gas helmets were replaced in 1917 by the more efficient and much more comfortable Small Box Respirators.
Our gas dugout would hold about six men sitting on a bench against the wall. A cylinder of chlorine was attached to a pipe running through one wall and was turned on and off from outside the dugout. And finally there was a glass window through which the happenings inside could be more or less seen - if the chlorine wasn't too thick. Six of us went in at a time with our helmets on and sat down: the door was closed and bolted from outside, then the chlorine was turned on. Someone watched through the window, and I suppose would have dragged out anyone whose helmet proved defective. The book says, "One part of chlorine to 2000 parts of air will cause sudden death and is the ideal concentration on the enemy's line." The concentration in that dugout must have been as high as one in five hundred at times, so I doubt if dragging out would have done much good.
Another pleasant little game they had us play was to put our on our helmets and see how many times we could run around the parade ground before collapsing. Try it some time with two or three layers of wet flannel wrapped around your head, it's great sport. There was only one objection to this game, like some jokes it could only be played once on the same people. The first time we actually galloped around the field like a flock of silly goats until we collapsed: the next day we all collapsed as soon as we started!
These were all little things; actually we enjoyed ourselves tremendously and returned to our units full of all the latest information on the subject of gas protection. This was the first of many schools that I attended at odd moments during the next three years. Having been a school master, I expect that this was simply poetic justice.
The line to which I returned from the gas school had gone from bad to decidedly worse. Not only were the communication trenches impassible, but in many places the front line was nearly as bad. Practically all communication had to be across the open; parts of the front line were always collapsing, and of course casualties mounted. The Germans were apparently in just as bad shape as we were and snipers on both sides made heavy scores. Most snipers were born liars; if ours had killed as many Germans as they claimed, there would have been no need of artillery or machine guns. I suppose that since our job was to kill Germans it was silly to be fussy about the way it was done, but few men, even when they were sufficiently good marksmen, cared to be snipers. Of course a sniper's job was also an extremely dangerous one, so perhaps that had more to do with it than any fastidiousness regarding methods of killing. I never had the chance to kill a German except in the excitement of a scrap, so I really don't know what my reactions would have been to a chance to shoot one "sitting".
It was impossible to keep our feet dry, and the combination of wet and cold often brought on a condition known as "trench feet". Apparently there were only two remedies, or preventatives, for this: dry socks and boots, which was practically impossible, or whale oil. This whale oil was supposed to be rubbed on the feet once every twenty-four hours, two or three men at a time being allowed to take off their shoes for this purpose. Ordinarily no one was allowed to have his shoes off at any time in the front line or in the close supports, so it was no unusual thing to go ten or twelve days without having one's shoes off. Eventually it was made a crime to have "trench feet" and quite a serious punishment was imposed on those who allowed their feet to get into that condition. This I am sure had far more effect than the whale oil, which in spite of all orders was used almost exclusively as a fuel.
Except for cooked meat which was sent up to us, unwrapped, in sand bags, we did all our own cooking when in the front line during the winter of 1915-16. Of course a fire without smoke was highly desirable and a wick floating in a tin of whale oil provided this. The hot food was good for the circulation so the whale oil indirectly fulfilled its intended mission.
In the line we used to eat whenever there was time, and we had anything left to eat. Each man carried a cigarette tin of bacon grease, begged from the cook in billets, and everything that could be was cooked or re-heated in bacon fat. Bread, or hard-tack fried in bacon fat, with a mess tin of scalding tea to go with it, was delicious at any time and particularly so after two or three hours on listening post. The friend who had such a feed waiting for you when you came off post was a friend indeed. Another favourite dish was oatmeal cooked with condensed milk and water. Tea was the regular drink but parcels from home often provided us with Oxo and occasionally coffee. Parcels were always shared out with the section and were one of the brightest spots in our lives. Decorations should have been handed out to the steady parcel senders.
This front was really very quiet and when we came out of the line shortly before Christmas we had had surprisingly few casualties. Both Germans and Canadians were so busy fighting the common enemy mud that they had very little time to devote to each other.
Shortly before Christmas it was decided to organize a Third Canadian Division. This was to be formed partly from troops that were already in France and partly from those in England. The first step was to turn the six regiments of Mounted Rifles in General Seeley's Cavalry Division into four Mounted Rifle Battalions at full battalion strength. This was done by merging the Third CMRs with the First and Second, and the Sixth with the Fourth and Fifth, these four Battalions becoming the Eighth Canadian Infantry Brigade. The Seventh Brigade was then formed from the Princess Patricia's Light Infantry (the first Canadian regiment to reach France), the Royal Canadian Regiment, the Forty-second Royal Highlanders of Canada, and the Forty-ninth (Edmonton) Canadian Battalion. These last troops had been for some time acting as Canadian Corps Troops. Until February 1916 when the Ninth Brigade arrived from England, the Third Division consisted only of these two brigades.
This meant a complete reorganization from a regiment of three squadrons, comprising five or six hundred men to a four-company battalion having a full strength of about a thousand. It was also necessary for us to change all our formations and to learn infantry drill. For me this meant more school, and just before Christmas I found myself aboard a London bus headed for the Second Army's Non-Commissioned Officers School at Zuytpeene, near Cassel. If you really want to see France do it from the top of a London bus, it beats any other way that I have ever tried.
Cassel was by far the most picturesque of the towns through which we passed and I can still see the long winding road which lead up the hill on top of which this ancient town was built. Later when I visited it on foot I was told that it dated back to the time of Julius Caesar and that the remnants of fortifications that still existed were Roman. The hill was about five hundred feet high, and along the road that went up one side and down the other there must have been a dozen or more windmills. The town itself was of the perfect storybook type, with narrow cobblestone streets hemmed in on both sides by a continuous front of houses. There was no space between the houses and the roadway, but behind every house was its own garden. Everything was clean; to us who had come directly from the line, almost unbelievably clean; and when we came to the inevitable "Place" it looked so much like the setting for a light opera that no one would have been surprised if the brigandish looking individual standing in front of one of the estaminets had suddenly started to sing a passionate love song in a fine tenor voice.
As a matter of fact, he wouldn't have been heard, for it is the nature of soldiers when in a crowd to sing, and I can still hear "Tipperary" echo through old Cassel as the fifteen London buses loaded with British NCOs roared through the town.
The flat Flanders plain spread out on all sides from Cassel and on clear days it was possible to see over one hundred towns and villages from the top of the hill. It was occasionally possible to see the chalk cliffs of Dover, although I never managed to do so.
Zuytpeene was only a few miles from Cassel and I got my first lesson in infantry drill as soon as we "fell in" after getting out of the buses. Although "falling in, two deep" was news to me, I managed to follow the others and get into line. Unfortunately I happened to be in the front rank and when in numbering I snapped my head sharply to the left in true mounted rifle style (but quite apparently not in infantry style) I discovered that Sergeant Major Instructors existed in other places as well as in Punch. There were over three hundred of us and everything was held up while the Sergeant Major came over and, standing in front of me, made the remarks that he considered fitting to the occasion. To those who know infantry drill I need only add that I was an even number and didn't move when the order to "form fours" was given; and when once this little difficulty had been ironed out, I waited to hear the word "turn" after the command "right". That the SM didn't expire on the spot was a wonder to everybody. I had certainly made an auspicious entry into the school and it looked as if I might have a very pleasant stay there!
For the next two days I provided three hundred British NCOs with more amusement than they had had for weeks and almost caused the death by apoplexy of at least three drill sergeants, not to mention my old friend the SM. Finally I went to him and explained humbly that I was only a poor mounted rifleman who had seen the error of his ways and wished to join the ranks of the infantry: that what had doubtless seemed to him either deliberate obtuseness or plain stupidity was due to early training and was not really my fault. From that day he took me over as his special pupil, so to speak, and in twelve days I learned more infantry drill than I would normally have acquired in two months.
I was the only "colonial" in the school and doubtless seemed a strange sort of fish to my companions, who, I think, went a bit out of their way to be particularly decent to me. Those attending the school were for the most part corporals and sergeants and must have represented practically every regiment in the British army. What struck me particularly was the readiness with which each man recited the tales and traditions of his regiment, whether it was Scottish, Irish, English or Welsh. The men I got to know at Zuytpeene were a splendid lot and the good opinion I formed then of the British NCOs was strengthened by every subsequent contact with them.
I was lucky enough to spend Christmas at the school and since five or six Christmas parcels had been sent on to me I was able to introduce my section to such unusual things as maple sugar and salted peanuts. The maple sugar was a great success but they all insisted that "monkey nuts" were meant for monkeys not men and would have nothing to do with the peanuts.
I spent four Christmases in the army, two as an NCO and two as an officer, and in one respect they were all the same: the holiday was the excuse for a glorious "bust" by all ranks. This of course did not apply to those in the line or on duty, but it was an unwritten law that everyone else who wanted to get drunk should be allowed to do so. It was also a time when rank was put aside and if the colonel by 9:00 PM felt like kissing the sergeant major he did so, if the SM hadn't already passed out. As one whose stomach didn't allow him to become more than moderately "lit", I have perhaps a clearer recollection of these four army Christmases than most of those who participated in them.
At Zuytpeene the Sergeant Instructors undertook to serve us our Christmas dinner, but so many of them were "well away" by that time, that more dinner went on the floor than on the table. Most of us however were by then in a most tolerant mood and really didn't mind where the food went. As the afternoon wore on the visibility became poorer and poorer and just at dusk there was a hazy scene on the parade ground where the Regimental Sergeant Major and the Camp Commandant fell all over each other trying to do a dance together.
The next morning everything was super-regulation and went on as if such a day as the previous one had never existed. New Year's was just another day in that part of the army, and four Jock sergeants, who probably forgot that they were not playing under "local rules", were reduced to the ranks and sent back to their units for celebrating the day properly.
In the meantime my regiment was being made over into an infantry battalion and when I returned to it the second week in January I found many changes. "C" Squadron had become "C" Company and my troop had become Number Nine Platoon; also the men were no longer "troopers" but had become "privates" and our trumpeters were now buglers. Many of our officers, who were cavalrymen, had been transferred to other units and we had lost a very excellent squadron commander in the shuffle. A week or so after returning from Zuytpeene I was made a sergeant and posted to my own platoon, Number Nine.
After Christmas we resumed regular trips into a line that had become a nightmare of mud and collapsing trenches and where both trench mortars and artillery seemed to us to be unnecessarily active. Casualties became commoner and there was little else to break the monotony of the usual round of duties. Every night in the line was the same: ration parties, working parties, sentry duty, listening post, casual patrols, the evacuation of the dead and wounded, more working parties, mud, and more working parties.
Half an hour before dawn came "stand to" when everyone had to be at his battle position in the trench and ready for anything. This was the favourite moment for attack, since at that hour there was sufficient light to see where one was walking but not enough to be seen at a distance of thirty or forty yards. Later in the war, as artillery preparation became more and more efficient, attacks were made at any time and very seldom at dawn, unless an early morning fog made that hour particularly suitable.
"Stand to" lasted until it was full daylight and then the order went along the trench to "stand down" and clean rifles. After the rifles had been cleaned and inspected came the one bright spot in the day's performance, the rum issue. Before the issue the men stood around, cold, wet and so tired that their one thought was to crawl into some hole and sleep. As the officer and sergeant issuing the rum went down the trench a transformation took place: voices began to buzz, someone laughed, little fires were kindled in a dozen places and the smell of frying bacon made men forget that they were tired and remember that they were hungry. A really generous rum ration would make even the worst groucher in the Battalion a tolerant philosopher for a little while. The result of all this was that when we did crawl off to sleep it was with moderately full bellies and our blood circulating actively again. It must have been good medicine, for few of our men ever reported sick in the trenches.
On this front a sort of gentlemen's agreement seemed to exist about the breakfast hour, and it was the one time in the day that was always quiet. As the morning wore on the odd shell or trench mortar would begin to come over and sleeping was not so easy. There were no deep dugouts and the intermittent here-and-there shelling that the Germans commonly indulged in was most wearing on the nerves. The dugouts were for the most part simply shelters built into or behind the parados of the trench and covered with two or three layers of sandbags. They kept out the rain and would generally stop shrapnel but were no protection against high explosive shells or trench mortars. Often when such dugouts were flooded or blown in there was nowhere to sleep except sitting on the fire step of the trench. I have seen a man wake up, after two or three hours asleep in such a position, to find that as the night got colder his great coat had frozen solidly to the wet sand bags of the parapet. And yet you could sleep thus without any very great discomfort - when you got used to it. Heavy underwear, heavy clothes, feet and legs encased in mud covered sand bags, a balaclava cap: precious little of the body's warmth escaped.
In each Company area there was generally one fairly large dugout that was used for company headquarters but all the other shelters were small, each holding from two to six men. Inside, corrugated iron formed the roof and if you were lucky you had a wooden floor; otherwise it was dirt or mud. The dugout was about three or four feet high and in the center was a post to support the roof and to give you something against which to bang your head when crawling in or out in the dark.
I have never seen it, but surely some artist must have painted a picture of life in one of these dugouts. The four or five figures seen by the dull glow of a brazier or the light of candles set in the wall, some sleeping, one eating, one reading or perhaps writing a letter. Again all five are asleep and each one wrapped in his army blanket resembles one of the bundles that we carry out so regularly to the cemetery behind the line. Or perhaps some one has just received a parcel from home and a celebration is under way with everything merry and bright. Or all five, after or before a particularly rotten working party, just lie there and curse the war and everything connected with it.
There were day as well as night working parties and any spare time was generally used to get a little extra sleep; to eat, if there was anything left to eat; or to improve one's own dugout and bit of trench.
Life in the support line was little different from that in the front trenches; the tension was not so great but generally the shelling was worse and working parties even more frequent. Brigade reserve was little better than being in support. Division reserve was considerably better; while Corps reserve was heaven, and we seldom found ourselves in it.
Twelve weeks in and out of this mud hole and we were glad to move, even if it was to the notorious Ypres sector. During the third week in March we moved north and prepared to take over part of the front line just south of Hooge. This was the beginning of a four months' stay in the Ypres Salient that was to cost my battalion almost a thousand men and the Canadian Army Corps many of its best and most experienced soldiers.
The average Canadian soldier, if called upon to epitomize war in a single word, would probably say "Ypres"; for within five miles of that city took place some of the deadliest fighting in which the Canadians were engaged, and more of our men were killed and wounded in this sector than in any other part of the line.
At Langemark and St Julien, five miles north-east of Ypres, the First Canadian Division early in 1915 paid dearly for the honour of laying the foundation stone of the battle reputation of the Canadian Corps. Undoubtedly the example set by this Division helped immensely in establishing the strong offensive morale that characterized the Canadian troops.
Early in April 1916 the Second Canadian Division began a series of engagements two and one-quarter miles south of Ypres, at St Eloi, that were to last for three bloody weeks and to be remembered by all who participated in them as the nightmare of the craters. No troops ever stuck more tenaciously to a task, that those on the spot recognized as impossible, than did the Second Division.
Two miles south-east of Ypres, at Sanctuary Wood, Maple Copse and Mount Sorrel, the Seventh and Eighth Brigades of the Third Canadian Division were almost wiped out by the worst bombardment that British troops had yet experienced. This happened on June second and third, 1916; and when by June sixteenth the trenches lost in the early part of the battle had been regained, all three Canadian Divisions had been drawn into the fighting and had suffered very severe casualties.
And finally in 1917 the Ypres sector came to the climax of its story in that tragedy of blood, mud and futility, the Passchendaele offensive.
Through Ypres lay the road to the channel ports of Calais and Dunkirk, and with the exception of the Passchendaele offensive, the troops in this sector were always on the defensive.
The British in October and November 1914 had stopped repeated German attacks here and had established along the low chain of hills east of the city a line which developed into the Ypres Salient, or as it came to be generally called "The Salient". How deadly the fighting had been in 1914 may be inferred from the fact that in three weeks the Seventh British Division, which took a prominent and gallant part in the engagement, lost three hundred and fifty-six officers, and nine thousand six hundred other ranks out of a strength of twelve thousand.
The position was distinctly a defensive one, for the Germans had little to fear from a British drive in this direction. On the other hand the holders of the Salient were under a constant strain since they blocked the way to one of the Germans' most desired prizes, the Channel ports.
Even in March 1916, with much of its evil history yet to be enacted, this sector bore an exceedingly bad reputation: and we felt as we entered it that here we would get our first real test.
The Third Division was the first to be moved from the Messines' front, and early in March we found ourselves in camp a few miles from Poperinghe. Our stay there was short and within twenty-four hours we were on our way to relieve one of the British battalions in the front line.
Straight down the paved and tree-lined road from "Pop" we went, through Vlamertinghe, and on towards Ypres. Just short of the city we turned aside and rested in a tree-screened field on the right of the road, waiting for it to become dark. Apparently the Germans received information of our position, but luckily their artillery must have been given a wrong map location. While we rested comfortably in a field on the right side of the road, they carefully dropped about twenty or so shells on a field on the left. It was a warm, though misplaced, welcome and a foretaste of what "The Salient" could provide by way of entertainment for its occupants.
As it became dark the whole country around us seemed to come to life. Ypres was the hub of the half wheel of the Salient and practically all approach to the line was through the city. Traffic entered principally on the Poperinghe road and dividing in the city took its dangerous way out through the Menin and Lille Gates.
The road now became crowded with transport and troops, all going into Ypres and all in a hurry. The shelling was constant and uncomfortably accurate. We felt lost after the comparatively quiet Messines front. A GS wagon, horses, men and all, was blown into the ditch just in front of us. We passed over some railroad tracks, and before we knew it were in Ypres.
No man could enter Ypres for the first time without emotion. Impressive at all times, it was probably most spectacular in 1916 when many of its largest buildings had walls, towers, and in some cases parts of roofs, still intact. By the Armistice practically all of these had been reduced to little more than heaps of stone and brick. The only part of the city that stood up to the very end under the terrible shelling was The Ramparts, huge fortifications of stone, earth and brick built into and forming part of the ancient city walls.
There was a full moon shining as we entered the city and as we came to the first square there was a sudden lull in the artillery fire. Except for the sound of marching men and hurrying transport the city was dead. These lines from "The Deathless Army" always bring back poignantly to me our first march through Ypres:
"Twas deep still night in the city square,
Hush'd were the drums and the trumpets' blare,
But a phantom host was marching there,
In the steps of the brave old army."
We were remarkably lucky, for we crossed the city to the Menin gate and after following the Menin road for a short distance got into the first communication trench without a single casualty. It was pure luck, for shells fell in front of us, behind us, and on both sides of the road, but none just where we were.
Once in the communication trench the main trouble was to keep contact. This was particularly important since we were all strange to this front and the only person who knew his way about was the guide, who came from the battalion which we were to relieve. This guide was with the Company Commander at the front of the line of men. The company was strung out in single file behind him, with my platoon, of which I was temporarily in charge since it had no officer, bringing up the rear. To keep close to the man in front of you sounds easy, but on a pitch-black night in a communication trench crowded with traffic going in two directions it is really very difficult. What happened was that someone half way down the third platoon lost sight of the man in front of him; rushed on as fast as he could; but failed to make contact before he came to a place where the trench branched. Not knowing which trench to take, he stopped and passed word down the line that he was out of touch with the rest of the Company. After crowding my way up the trench I arrived at the front of what was left of the Company and found myself in command of forty or fifty men. This was a sudden promotion and not at all pleasing. All I knew was that we were supposed to relieve a certain Battalion in the front line, but what part of the line they held or how one was to get there were complete secrets as far as I was concerned.
It is the nature of soldiers to expect the person in charge to lead them to the right place and not to be too long about it. I had been long enough in the game to know the comments made when a guide or officer managed to lose himself and the men with him, in fact I had frequently made such comments myself. Now I was apparently cast for both victim and culprit in such an episode.
There was no use hesitating. I took a chance, and we started up the left hand trench. We arrived at the front line without any trouble in about half an hour, but it was the wrong part of the line! We tried again, and again were wrong. By a process of elimination and the greatest of good luck we finally joined the rest of the Company in our proper position just before daylight. They had been in the line for about two hours and were beginning to wonder whether we were ever going to show up.
The Ypres trenches at that time were in remarkably fine shape, thanks to the hard work the Fifth British Corps had put in on them and the fact that this part of the Salient was comparatively dry country. That they were dry was the first thing that impressed us, for as a matter of fact we had hardly seen a dry trench in the six months that we had been in France. After a few days in the line we appreciated even more another feature of these trenches: they were dug down into the ground to a far greater extent than had been possible on the wet Messines front. This gave much better protection from shell fire and, what perhaps appealed to us even more, meant fewer sand bags to be filled.
The trenches that we had taken over were in Sanctuary Wood on a small plateau at the top of a gently sloping hill, with the greater part of the wood behind us. They were probably the most interesting trenches that we ever held; interesting and exciting, for there was something doing all the time. On our left was a gap of about a hundred yards which was overlooked by the German position. This gap was not held in the daytime but at night we kept contact with our neighbours in Hooge by means of patrols. The Gap was a nasty spot and a great producer of casualties. The remainder of the line ran across the front of the Wood to a dip in the hill where there was another gap. For half of the front the distance between our trenches and the Germans' averaged about a hundred and fifty yards, then it narrowed rapidly until opposite the Bird Cage it was probably less than one hundred feet.
The Bird Cage was a well-known feature of this front. It was a concrete and steel turret reaching to just above the level of the ground and apparently having room in it for one or two snipers; a forerunner of those "pill boxes" so extensively and effectively used later in the war by the Germans. The approach was by a concealed gap, or perhaps a tunnel, and it was so close to our line that it was possible to lob a bomb onto it. This we often did, but more for fun than with any hope of doing damage. It was within easy conversational distance and the reply to a bomb was often a loud laugh and a profanely impolite invitation to try again. This post was often occupied by a sniper who spoke English fluently and said that he came from Milwaukee in the United States; and was going back there as soon as he had finished knocking Hell out of us. Occasionally he would invite us to show something above the parapet and then would put a hole through the middle of the target. Casualties from the sniper in the Bird Cage were frequent and the artillery often put on shoots to try to break up the cage. Light shells, however, seemed to do little damage and it was too close to our line for the heavies to take a crack at it.
This was the most active front that I was on at any time during the war. No Man's Land was so narrow that raids and gas were a constant threat, while the shelling by the artillery and trench mortars never seemed to let up. We gave back as good or better than we received, with the result that there was a general uproar all the time; which at a distance must have sounded like the beginning of a battle. The Third Divisional Artillery had not yet come out from England and for the time being we were supported by the Lahore Division Artillery. Never did we have better support than we got from them: they were willing to fire at anything, anytime. We had a regular schedule for retaliation; for every shell or trench mortar the Germans sent over, our people sent back three. When we were being shelled it was most comforting to hear our artillery open up and to see the German line getting a good pounding, but when our artillery started the game it was not so good, for we knew that the Germans would retaliate at once and that we would be the "goats".
At night this part of the line must have looked like a fireworks display, for there was hardly a minute without four or five flares in the air. These flares, or Verey lights, were really rockets fired from a special kind of gun called a flare pistol. They were used extensively for signaling as well as for lighting up No Man's Land, so there was sometimes considerable variety in the display. When the rocket burst, the ordinary sort of flare set free a burning tube of magnesium attached to a small parachute. As this floated to the ground it gave a brilliant white light in which anything moving could be distinguished easily. The rule in No Man's Land was for everyone to stand perfectly still while a flare was up; but it was very difficult to impress this on new men, whose first impulse was, of course, to duck into the nearest shell hole. When a flare went up you could be certain that riflemen and machine gunners in the opposite trenches were peering over the parapet eagerly searching for a target, and the smallest movement was the signal for bursts of rifle and machine gun fire in the direction of that movement. Of course, if you were with only one or two men it was possible for all to get into a hole quickly and be quite safe, but with wiring and working parties, one nervous or inexperienced man might mean the loss of half the party or more.
The signal flares were generally of two kinds, those that gave out a large spray of some brilliantly coloured fire and those that produced balls of fire suspended from a parachute, like a lantern hanging in the air. Sometimes these had one ball of fire, sometimes two, and occasionally three, and the different balls were generally of different colours. You remember Bairnsfather's famous cartoon, in which one man peering over the line says, "What's that mean, two greens and a red:" and his fed-up friend, just back from leave, replies, "Two absinthes and a cherry brandy."
A flare pistol was an excellent offensive weapon and I often carried one when going out to visit posts in No Man's Land. I can't imagine anything more terrifying than having one of these flares shot point blank at one, and I was always hoping for a nice safe chance to shoot one into a German patrol. I never had the opportunity but I wager it would have been a most successful innovation.
Our first day in the Sanctuary Wood trenches started auspiciously. We had been very lucky making the relief and had lost only a few men, the trenches were try and comfortable, the weather was good, and the woods and fields were showing the effect of the fine spring weather. We had a comfortable breakfast, and after posting the day sentries, crawled away into our shelters, misnamed dugouts, for a bit of sleep.
At about ten o'clock, I was wakened by a terrific explosion and part of my dugout fell in, Before I could get into the trench there were four or five more explosions, but fortunately for me, not so near. We were being shelled by trench mortars and there would be no further sleep until the shelling let up. We divided into small groups of four or five and took up positions in the trench with as great a distance as possible between groups. Then each group posted a "sky sentry" whose duty it was to watch for trench mortar shells and to tell his group in which direction to run to avoid them. This was fairly easy unless the Germans sent over three or four shells at once and then it required considerable judgment to decide whether to run right or left, or to stand still. It was no unusual thing for a sentry to shout "right" and then almost immediately to change his mind and call "left". The result of such a double command was generally five or six soldiers piled on top of each other at approximately the spot from which they had started. Although we posted "sky sentries" we all acquired stiff necks from constant watching.
It was impossible to keep men awake all the time ready to dodge trench mortars and consequently the first few that came over generally caught the men asleep in their shelters; and if the shells were accurately placed there were always serious casualties. I believe that this was why the average soldier hated trench mortars more than any other kind of shell, although to a man awake and on the watch they were the least dangerous of all. In falling they came down almost straight and a hit on top of one of our "surface" dugouts meant almost certain death for everyone inside. They were ideal for harassing and wearing down the resistance of front and support line troops.
And yet the answer to trench mortars and to most of such harassing fire was comparatively simple: the deep dugout. The Germans had them everywhere, even on the wet Messines front, and as a result their casualties when on the defensive were considerably less than half of ours under similar conditions. The deep dugout provided a place where men could eat and sleep in safety and also find shelter during the greater part of the bombardment that generally preceded an attack. That in raiding we occasionally caught the Germans in these dugouts and either killed them like rats or took them prisoners meant nothing. Such casualties formed an infinitesimal part of the huge total suffered by either side. But on the British front there were no deep dugouts; and our first experience with them was when we began to live in those we captured from the Germans at the Somme.
Writers have endeavoured to fix the responsibility for this or that costly mistake in offensive or defensive action, but I have yet to hear the person or persons named who were responsible for denying to the British soldier the sensible protection of the deep dugout. This one piece of official stupidity was responsible for more casualties amongst the British troops than any single justified or unjustified offensive; and there was less excuse for it. It was said that certain members of the General Staff claimed that if men were allowed to live in the safety of deep dugouts it would be impossible to get them to come up into the trenches when an attack developed. It seems strange that men who were always claiming the superiority of their troops over the Germans should have thought that in this one respect they would be so inferior. At least they might have tried the idea on a small section of the front; and it is hard to see how their argument could apply to the conditions in the support lines and reserve positions.
Our scheme of retaliation had not yet been worked out with the supporting artillery and it was almost an hour before our guns made it so hot for the trench mortar crew that they stopped firing.
We had had some nasty casualties and, after attending to these and fixing up the trench as best we could by daylight, few of us felt like going back into our dugouts to try to sleep. The sun was bright and warm so we stretched out on fire steps and trench mats and talked and dozed the rest of the morning.
Early in the afternoon we heard the whine of fairly large shells going over our heads. They proved to be 5.9s, the most effective heavy shells the Germans had, and they were falling about five hundred yards behind us, around and on Battalion headquarters. Soldiers are queer animals; we did not wish our friends at Battalion Headquarters any hard luck but it made us laugh heartily to see them getting a good taste of what we had had earlier in the day. The sight of a Brigade or Divisional Headquarters being shelled was considered even a better joke and was sure to raise the spirits of any front line troops in the vicinity. And yet we were willing to admit at once that the executive officers of Battalion, Brigade or Division should be in as protected a position as possible; and we all knew that amongst them were some of the bravest officers and men in the whole army. Was this a peculiar reaction in soldiers; or was it just plain human nature, that does not object to seeing the more or less privileged class suffer? From where we were at the top of the hill we could actually see the shells going over the trenches about a hundred yards to our right and pitching down into the woods. This was the only time that I ever succeeded in seeing shells in the air. I have seldom heard others mention such an experience so I suppose it must have been rather unusual.
As soon as it became dark we were very much surprised at the rifle and machine gun fire that broke out from the German line. At Messines we had been accustomed to a fairly broad No Man's Land where listening posts and small patrols were the regularly accepted method of protection from sudden attack. But here no such thing was possible, and so both sides depended largely on their wire, flares, and constant sweeping of No Man's Land with machine gun fire. The result was a lively party, and stray bullets were snapping and ricochets whining everywhere. It was strange, but with the exception of wiring or working parties caught by a sudden burst of machine gun fire in No Man's Land, there was seldom a casualty from all this. It is doubtful if one out of a hundred thousand bullets fired at night actually touched a man on either side.
All this firing served a double purpose: it made things uncomfortable for anyone in No Man's Land, and also helped to keep awake those on duty in the trenches. What we did was to fire at rifle or machine gun flashes. Having spotted a flash, someone fired at it; three or four Germans replied; half a dozen of our rifles fired at these new flashes, and a regular "party" was on. Sometimes as many as thirty or forty men and two or three machine guns would become involved in the game. Then a runner would come rushing up from Battalion Headquarters to see if we were being attacked! All good clean fun. Of course, someone was killed occasionally, but after all, that was what we were there for.
Anyone who was on day duty was allowed to sleep at night, even in the front line. All this noise had no effect on such men, but a rifle shot in the daytime was so unusual that it would wake up half the soldiers asleep in a trench.
Our second day in these trenches brought more trench mortars and a little surprise in the nature of rifle grenades. The first one to come over actually made a direct hit on a man, a most unusual occurrence. We fired a few back, but the exchange only lasted for a few minutes. Rifle grenades were not particularly popular offensive weapons, for quite often they exploded at the moment of firing instead of waiting in a well-behaved way until they reached the German line.
The third night of this tour in the front line gave us our first experience in putting up barbed wire in such a narrow No Man's Land. Working with barbed wire was a nasty job under any circumstances, but when you were handling it in the dark and within a hundred yards of rifles and machine guns that would shoot at the least sound, you were doing one of the most nerve-wracking bits of work that could possibly be imagined. If a flare went up you had to stop work and stand perfectly still, even if a bit of wire happened to be pressing into some particularly sensitive part of your anatomy; the slightest move might mean death for half your party. When a machine gun swept your way it meant getting down fast and flat, and getting flat amongst barbed wire was both painful and difficult. Quite a common practice on both sides was to send up a couple of flares, and while they were burning to rake No Man's Land with machine guns. If there was a working party out, some member of it was almost certain to duck and give away their position; or the guns might be lucky enough to get right on the party, and then everyone had to duck, flare or no flare. There was nothing neat or parade ground about the wire that we put out on this front. It was put up under difficulties, and it looked it.
Where No Man's Land was narrow it was always possible to tell by the wire whether the line had been prepared beforehand and one side or the other had retired to it, or whether it had simply become stabilized during fighting. In the latter case the wire was put out in every imaginable form, and generally there was not very much of it; while in front of a carefully prepared position the wire was a regular engineering job. The Hindenburg Front Line and its support were prepared months before there was any fighting in their vicinity, and were probably the most elaborate and perfect wire defences ever erected. Along this line it was not unusual to find wire a hundred or more yards deep, and of such permanency that it took years to clear it up after the war. This is hard to believe, and yet it is, if anything, an understatement. At Moeuvres on the Canal du Nord near Bourlon, the Hindenburg Front and Support Lines came fairly close together, and between them they provided a practically continuous depth of barbed wire of just under a thousand yards. This was the line to which the Germans retired in 1918. One can wonder at the terrible losses the Allies suffered in breaking through such a defence.
By the end of our first tour in this front line we were quite willing to admit that the Salient was even worse than we had been led to expect.
The support position to which we went from the Sanctuary Wood front line was in Zouave Wood, and there we got our fill of sitting under a few inches of sandbags during the heavy shelling that was prevalent. A week of working parties from Zouave Wood and we went farther back into Brigade Reserve at Zillebeke Dugouts.
Zillebeke and its surroundings were most interesting. The village itself was located at a crossroads about two miles southeast of Ypres, and at a distance of perhaps three quarters of a mile from the front line in Sanctuary Wood. The houses had been pretty well knocked to pieces, and as nearly all the rations for the middle part of the Salient were brought along one or the other of the roads that crossed in the village, these roads were subjected to almost constant shelling every night. It was too bad that some of the eminent politicians who visited the Salient, and did so much talking about it afterwards, weren't "sent up with the rations" instead of being carefully smuggled in during particularly quiet parts of the day. If they had come down the road from "Pop" to Ypres in a ration limber; had gone through the city and out by way of Hell Fire Corner to Zillebeke; if they had waited around there while rations were being distributed, and had then had the whole return trip to do on roads ranged to a foot by the German guns and under constant shell fire, they might have had something worthwhile to talk about - if they had ever recovered sufficiently to talk again. One supposes that they would have called attention to the fact that what they had done was only what those who handled the rations did every night in the year as part of their ordinary work.
Behind Zillebeke was a small artificial lake about seven or eight hundred yards long, with an excellent communication trench following its shores and leading to the Zillebeke dugouts. These dugouts were built in and against the high artificial bank that formed the western end of the lake, and were about the safest and most comfortable in the area. They were much larger than the ordinary line shelters, each one holding twenty or more men. Strong supports and many layers of sandbags made them practically proof against anything smaller than a six-inch shell, while their position apparently made them difficult targets. The Ypres-Comines railway ran by the dugouts at a distance of a few hundred yards and in its embankments another series of shelters, known as the Railroad Dugouts, had been built.
How you felt in these dugouts depended entirely on the direction in which your relief was traveling. If you had come from Division or Corps reserve and your next step was into close supports or the front line, arriving here meant a tightening up of tension: each move for the next two weeks would be into more uncomfortable and dangerous territory. On the other hand, if your front line tour had been finished and you were headed out, these dugouts seemed a carefree and pleasant spot.
Well, let us say comparatively carefree, for the eternal working party was very much part of the life at Zillebeke dugouts. The morning was generally devoted to sleep. Then came dinner and a general clean-up; after which there was a period of lying around in the sun - if there was sun - of sleeping again, of reading, writing, playing cards, delousing, grousing, or any other soldierly relaxations. At about three o'clock, the Orderly Sergeant could be counted on to appear with his bad news for the night, the list of those who were for duty on working parties. Twenty-four men and a sergeant for here, twenty-four men and a sergeant for there, fifty men, a sergeant and an officer for somewhere else.
Fall in your men about half an hour before dark and away you go up the communication trench to Zillebeke crossroads or to some engineer dump, or other unsuitable place for a rendezvous. A sapper will pick you up there to act as guide and to show you the work that is to be done. And be sure that you hang onto this sapper as if he were your long-awaited leave warrant, for he is certain to take you to some place to which you have never been before; and if things get nasty, no one can disappear more quickly than your sapper guide.
Our first party was to work in the vicinity of Hill Sixty, well to the right of that part of the line with which we were familiar. Our sapper lost his way, and after wandering around a bit we found ourselves in the front line of another division, a place we had neither business nor desire to be.
The fighting at St Eloi was practically continuous at that time, and the bombardment often extended well beyond the limits of the actual fighting. On this particular night the shelling was so severe that it looked as if the Germans might be intending to attack on the front where we were unwilling and unwelcome visitors. Our sapper guide apparently discovered the way home, but he left without telling us. Nothing could be more unpopular than a stray party from another division cluttering up the trenches just when an attack is expected; and to ask for a guide under such circumstances!
We finally found a Sergeant-Major with a heart of gold and were given a guide - not a sapper - to put us on the right road, or rather, into the right trench.
Guides had to put up with a great deal from some of the people they guided, so doubtless there were two sides to the question. An officer who stopped his guide every five minutes and asked him if he was sure that he knew his way may have been well-meaning, but certainly was most annoying.
A week of working parties from Zillebeke and we took another step backward - this time to regular army huts in a large camp near Poperinghe. The huts were within range of only the very heaviest guns and were seldom shelled, but they made an excellent target for airplane bombing, as we were soon to know.
Life in such camps was pleasant enough, if not luxurious. There was the usual amount of drill and other training, but there was plenty of spare time in which we played baseball and football; while the talented members of the Battalion could generally be depended on to get up some sort of concert or minstrel show. There were dry canteens where one could buy tobacco, chocolate, et cetera, and wet canteens where one could obtain what the name suggests. The YMCA ran excellent canteens and recreation rooms in most of the camps as well as small depots closer to the line. I have heard this organization severely criticized, but in my experience it performed an excellent service to the army, and one which was often carried out under very trying and dangerous conditions. We were often most grateful for the free chocolate and hot tea they provided for us from advance stations close to a line where severe fighting was going on.
The huts in this camp were of the usual style and quite comfortable. They were about thirty or so feet long with a six-foot alley down the center. The floor on both sides of the runway was raised about eighteen inches, and it was on this raised part that we slept. Sometimes there was a stove in the hut, and sometimes there was fuel for it. Each man was issued with two extra blankets as soon as he came out of the lines. With three blankets, one under and two over, one could be quite comfortable - then. Muddy shoes were taken off and left in the alley way. Each man had a candle and at night before "lights out" a hut with twenty or thirty men in it had quite a cozy feel after three weeks "up the line". The smell might be high and the language low, but since we each contributed about equally to both there were no complaints.
The first day in camp was devoted to sleeping and cleaning up; the extent of both depending on whether we had come from one of the support positions such as Zillebeke, or directly from the front line. Of course some unfortunates had to take over guard duty at once, but such misfortune seldom fell twice in the same place. It was one of the hardships that had to be endured, if not silently, then at least with resignation. No matter at what hour of the night we arrived in camp, there was soon a hot meal ready for us. With the tension of the line relaxed, in comparatively safe and comfortable billets, and with a good meal under our belts, we slept as men sleep only under such conditions. When we woke up and had had a shave and another meal, we were new men.
About the third day out, there was a grand sergeants' banquet, with the Colonel and Adjutant as our guests of honour. The countryside and the quartermaster-sergeant's private cache had been raked for special delicacies, and the wet canteens had furnished all the usual aids to gaiety. An uninvited guest, in the form of a German plane that dropped a large bomb close to the mess hall, provided part of the entertainment, and the rest was furnished by strictly local talent.
One trip in the line was much the same as another and on a warm day in May I stretched out on the fire-step of a front line trench near Hill Sixty-Two for a snooze. Before going to sleep, I told one of the other sergeants to wake me as soon as my leave came through. This was a standard joke and meant that I hoped for a good long sleep. About half an hour later I was wakened by a terrific kick on the part of me that projected over the side of the fire-step. This was my sergeant friend, who had not yet been on leave, back to tell me that my leave warrant was at Company Headquarters, and that I was to go at once. At Company Headquarters the company commander - my former platoon officer - told me that there were indications of some sort of show coming off at any time, and advised me to get out as fast as I could. This seemed very sound advice. So many men had been killed just as they were ready for leave, or after they had actually got their leave warrants, that anyone who was about to go was in a blue funk as long as he was within reach of the guns.
By the time I left the front line the shelling had increased to such an extent that, burdened by the leave hoodoo, I felt certain that I'd never get through the communication trenches alive. Zillebeke and Railway Dugouts were being well shelled so I gave them a wide berth and headed across country for Ypres. My main fear now was that I would meet some super-conscientious or officious - how does one tell the difference? - young staff officer, who would feel that the beginning of what looked like a show was not the proper time for me to go on leave. My Company Commander had said, "Get out as fast as you can", my fellow sergeants had said, "Beat it, you lucky ------", but I wasn't taking any chances on what a junior staff officer might say.
Had I been one of those to whom colonels and generals referred when they announced "The men are eager to go back into the line", I would, of course, have refused my leave. Well, I wasn't; we had plenty of good sergeants; and London beckoned. Troops were unquestionably eager to get into the front line the first few times up, but when it came to being eager to go back again and again, that was another matter. Of course they went, and cheerfully too, but not what one could call eagerly. Some could probably have been prevailed upon to stay out! Such statements were seldom made by anyone below the rank of general.
I hopped a GS (general service) wagon in Ypres and was treated to a wild ride down the road towards Poperinghe. The road was, of course, the usual cobblestone, and the noise of the wagon on the stones and of the horses galloping made it impossible to hear shells. This, along with the rapid motion, prevented the usual thoughts as to where the next one was going to land, and made the ride quite exhilarating for me - it was probably old stuff to the driver. A hurried call at the paymasters, a leave train from near Poperinghe, a leave boat at Etaples, a leave train from Folkestone, Charing Cross Station, London.
I had come straight from the front line without a chance to get any new clothes, or even to clean up properly, and must have looked tough. The first thing that I looked for in London was liquid, but not a drink; it was a bath. A real one in which one could stay about half a day and get rid of the accumulated grime of months; a hot bath in which one could stretch at full length and soak. Three common things the war taught me to appreciate - a good bed, a hot bath, and cold water drunk from a glass.
The one thing that I had learned from my previous twenty-four hour leave in London was that Generals, no matter how distant, must be saluted. I wondered if I could stand the strain for ten days!
My first errand was to one of the Canadian banks in London of which my uncle-in-law-to-be was the manager. A gray-haired and kind-hearted cashier allowed me to overdraw my account - and not for the last time - and my future uncle insisted that I go with him to the Royal Automobile Club for lunch.
The Royal Automobile Club had not then been turned into an officers' club, but one look around when I entered convinced me that it should have been name "The Staff Officers' Retreat". It was crowded with officers, all covered with red tabs, and none, that I could see, below the rank of Brigadier-General. There was I, a tough-looking Sergeant, in none too clean clothes, feeling exactly as if I had come uninvited to an informal meeting of the General Staff. Only a soldier could appreciate the humour of the situation. I saw more staff officers there in three-quarters of an hour than I saw in France in three years.
The lunch was enjoyable and my appetite excellent in spite of the exalted atmosphere. The day was completed later by an aunt who insisted on introducing me to General So-and-So, who had until recently been in command of an army in France; she said that I would find him very interesting! The only person I ever knew who could equal this was an old friend of mine, a Padre, who wanted me to come and use his billet for two or three days while he was away: he said that he was sure the Adjutant with whom he bunked would be glad to have me!
The remainder of my leave was spent in less exalted company, but most enjoyably. The theatres in London seemed to me marvelous. The war-time crowds were most responsive audiences, and the actors and actresses seemed inspired. The spirit of reaction from the dirt and danger of war found its best expression in the theatre: there reality could be forgotten for a little while. It was difficult sometimes to tell which were getting the most enjoyment from the show, the actors or the audience. They liked each other, and what fun they had!
The depression and complete fed-upness that always marked the return from leave was almost sufficiently bad and general to be called a disease. Perhaps it might have been called "return-from-leave-it is". It was pretty bad. The past leave was gone, finished; the next leave was too far away even to be thought of.
Each trip up the line in the Salient became a little worse than the previous one; more shelling, more working parties, more casualties. It was apparent that something dirty was brewing. We watched and suffered while more and more guns registered on our flimsy defences, and our profane and often-expressed hope was that we might not be anywhere near the line when the show started. But we were.
The second of June, 1916 was a beautiful clear day, and from the Fortified Post just to the rear of Maple Copse the prospect was very pleasant. The trees in the Copse were in full leaf, and since the day's shelling had not yet begun, we could distinctly hear the birds calling and singing in the woods. Sanctuary Wood on our left front, somewhat more broken up than Maple Copse, was still a pleasant, shady looking spot; although we well knew from past experience that it was capable of being a very perfect Hell Hole.
Fortified Posts, or Strong Points, as they were sometimes called - and not facetiously, either - were excellent examples of the failure of the official mind to change with changing conditions of warfare. High explosive shells apparently meant nothing to them, and so we continued to build and occupy such places as these Fortified Posts. Deep dugouts and high explosives weren't "in the book" and the only thing to do was to ignore them! These posts might have served well on the Northwest Frontier; they probably were standard practice during the South African War and in the Soudan; but once the delayed action high explosive shell had come into common use they became nothing but death traps. And well those who occupied them knew it! They were generally constructed in the form of a circle so that any shell that landed could do the maximum amount of damage; and being built-up fortifications, and many of them in the open, they were most conspicuous. All they lacked was a flag-pole!
On June second my Company was occupying four of these fortified posts, each of the four platoons being on its own. We in Number 9 Platoon were well out in the open, about eight hundred yards behind the front line, and completely isolated from the rest of the Company and from Battalion Headquarters in Maple Copse. There were thirty-seven of us, and since we had no platoon officer, I was in charge. In the same post there was a machine gun and crew from the Brigade Machine Gun Company, but these men did not come under my authority. The happy day when each platoon had its own Lewis gun, or perhaps two, had not yet come; machine guns were still very much the job of the specialist.
I had taken off my equipment and tunic preparatory to breaking up and distributing the day's rations when the show started. There was no warning, no gradual working up to a crescendo of fire; one moment it was a beautiful, quiet June morning, the next it was a Hell of exploding shells. The shock of the sudden noise alone was almost overpowering; in unexpectedness and intensity it was comparable to an explosion in a powder plant. This was at eight-thirty AM and by ten o'clock half the men in the platoon had been either wounded or killed. The first shell landed amongst the rations, and when I picked myself up and dug the dirt out of my eyes, I found that the three men with whom I had been talking had been killed, and that the rations, my tunic and my equipment had disappeared. The rest of the day was Hell. At first each shell that struck the post caused casualties, but as our numbers decreased it became possible for several shells to land directly on the post without anyone being struck.
At about noon a direct hit on the machine gun smashed it up and knocked out half of the gun crew.
Our first aid man was an early casualty, so I had taken over his bag and filled in odd moments with amateur medical work.
Somewhere around one o'clock we caught glimpses of what appeared to be Germans on our left front in the upper part of Sanctuary Wood, and at odd times during the afternoon we could make out hard fighting going on there. It was very difficult to see just what was happening, for none of us had binoculars and the action was going on in what remained of a thick woods about seven or eight hundred yards from us. Later we heard of the terrific fight the Princess Pats had made there.
As the day wore on, more and more of the post was smashed in and there was no let-up in the shelling. We wondered what had become of the rest of the Company and of Battalion Headquarters, for it was apparent that they were being as badly shelled in Maple Copse as we were in the Strong Point. As a matter of fact, all the Company officers had been knocked out early in the day, and the other platoons were having much the same sort of time that we were: the Company was practically wiped out in the first seven or eight hours of shelling.
At about eight PM there was a sudden increase in the firing; apparently the Germans thought that a counter-attack was coming. The bombardment became more intense than at any previous time during the day. Shell after shell crashed into the post, and for more than half an hour all that we could do was to crouch in the bottom of what was left of the trench and wait for our finish. Gradually the fire diminished; the smoke and dust cleared away. There were still about twelve feet of unbroken trench, and in it, ten unwounded men, seven from Number 9 Platoon and three from the Machine Gun crew.
Sometime early in the night we had a visitor. It was an officer of the Brigade Machine Gun Company, who was making a check-up of the guns and crews that had been placed on our front. He seemed quite unperturbed by all the noise and shelling, and his presence quite bucked us up. He had been pretty well all over the immediate front and was still alive, so he had probably decided that his number hadn't yet been put on a shell. Anyway, he was quite cool and cheerful, which helped a lot. He was more welcome than his news. He said that our Colonel had been killed at about eight-thirty in the evening, and that as far as he had been able to make out, Battalion Headquarters had been wiped out. In the latter he was wrong; for the second-in-command of the Battalion, Major Draper, although badly shaken up by the shell that killed the Colonel, was not wounded; and handled the supporting companies of the Battalion superbly during the rest of the night and the next day.
After giving us the news, the machine gun officer took his three men and what was left of the machine gun, and set out for parts unknown. Before leaving, however, he advised us to join forces with a machine gun post in a trench about a hundred yards to our right rear. We succeeded in getting out all our wounded during the next hour and then five of us who were still unwounded joined the Machine Gun Post.
At about midnight we noticed considerable activity on our left and went over to see what was going on. It was part of the Forty-Ninth Battalion on their way up to make a counter attack. A little later I got into conversation with an officer who had a machine gun and some ammunition that he wanted to get to the Princess Pats in Sanctuary Wood. I told him that I had four men in a nearby post and that I thought we could find our way to The Pat's trench. So we loaded up gun and ammunition and started in what we hoped was the right direction. We were lucky, for we walked right into the Pats' trench and delivered our gun without any difficulty. How lucky we were we only knew days afterwards when we learned that the line was wide open in dozens of places, and that we might quite easily have walked through and delivered the gun to the Germans instead of to the Pats.
We had just left the Pats' trench when the Forty-Ninth Battalion came forward to be ready for the counter attack which was supposed to take place at about two AM. It was a stirring sight to see them come up. It was pitch black night, but bursting shells continually lit up the scene like lightning flashes, and each flash showed line after line of men advancing in extended order.
After nearly twenty years, the remembrance of that night that stands out most prominently, is not of shells and casualties but of cool, collected officers and men. No one knew just what had happened or what was about to happen; there was every reason for worry and confusion; and yet amongst the battalions with which I came in contact there was no confusion, and if worry existed, it was well concealed.
On the morning of June fourth we heard that what was left of our Battalion had been relieved the previous day, so we set out at once to rejoin them. I arrived just in time to rescue from the mail several of my letters which had been marked, "Missing, believed killed."
As far as my platoon was concerned, it was a hopelessly rotten show. Thirty-two out of thirty-seven men were killed or wounded without ever having a chance to hit back in any way.
My company had been practically wiped out; there were about twenty NCOs and men left, and some of these were in none too good shape. The rest of the battalion had suffered almost as heavily but had had the satisfaction of doing some very fine fighting. The Eighth Brigade, of which we formed part, had suffered over two thousand casualties in less than twelve hours, and this from an original strength of somewhere about three thousand.
Of what happened after June fourth, I knew only by report, for we were out of the line and in billets waiting for reinforcements. Hooge was lost on June sixth after severe fighting, and the Germans thus gained control of the whole rim of the Salient. Whether they would have been content simply to hold this very commanding position, or whether this attack was the preparation for a deeper thrust, was never demonstrated, for on June thirteenth the First Canadian Division, in a cleverly planned and brilliantly executed attack, recovered all the ground that the Germans had captured.
It is peculiar that people should marvel at the quickness with which animals recover from shock. Man recovers quite as rapidly. It is no more wonderful to see an antelope contentedly cropping grass - or whatever it is they crop - five minutes after having escaped from a lion, than to see a man calmly preparing and enjoying his breakfast ten minutes after his partner on post has been killed by a bullet or shell. Some might have called this plain hard-heartedness or lack of feeling, but it seems more probable that it was a protective reaction supplied by nature. The great majority of men were thus kindly protected, and those who were not soon cracked under the strain of war conditions.
One might have expected our billets to be gloomy holes after what we had gone through, but such was not the case. Certainly we drank a bit more than usual, and our frayed nerves occasionally asserted themselves, but on the whole conditions were surprisingly normal. Fortunately for us, our regular Company Commander, Captain Gill, had been on leave during the show, and so we now had his sympathetic and steadying influence to help us along. The finest "skipper" a company could have, we probably owed him more for the way he handled us during those first two weeks after this show than for any of his many splendid actions.
A few of those who had come through safely were at once promoted to fill some of the numerous vacancies amongst the non-commissioned officers, and others could look forward to promotion in the near future. This was always the case after any severe action, for in the army those promoted almost always stepped into dead or wounded men's shoes. In writing, this sounds gruesome, but in practice nothing was ever thought of this side of the matter. It was simply normal procedure.
Reinforcements soon began to arrive and we were kept busy giving them the instruction necessary before taking them into the line. It was good to have platoons at full strength again, particularly as the men were full of enthusiasm and anxious to "get at ï¿½em". We also got a draft of new officers, since it had not as yet become general practice to give commissions to competent and experienced NCOs and men.
It is difficult to understand, or rather to see any sense in, the way replacements in the commissioned ranks were made. The First Division and the Princess Patricias had been in the field for months before the Second Division and the troops that eventually formed the Seventh and the Eighth Brigades of the Third Division went into action. In the ranks of the Pats and of the First Division were hundreds of non-commissioned officers and men who were perfectly qualified to be officers. The logical procedure would have been to use such men to replace officer casualties in any battalion until that battalion had been in action long enough to supply experienced men for itself. If this had been done, not only would the efficiency of the corps have been increased - and its casualties decreased - but much of the petty jealousy of the early years of the war would have been avoided. Certainly, once the Fourth Division was in the field, no further commissions should have been given to anyone who had not had at least six months experience in France with a unit similar to the one to which he was to be commissioned. Ours was, on the whole, a volunteer army and there was almost limitless officer material in the ranks. It is true that eventually there were many promotions from the ranks, but right up to the very last days of the war we continued to receive inexperienced officers from home.
Some of these eventually did very well, but it is impossible to forget that experience under such conditions generally came at the expense of men's lives. It is difficult to understand the psychology of some of these men who, inexperienced and almost completely untrained, needlessly and heedlessly took the responsibility for leading men in war. It was not that they lacked courage, for many of them not only were brave but also had all the necessary qualities for leadership; it was simply the fact that there were available for commissions hundreds of NCOs and men who not only possessed all these qualities but also had a background of priceless experience. It was like a lifeguard accepting his position and expecting to learn to swim on the job.
With the arrival of ample reinforcements, life in billets again became normal. It was at this time that the game of softball was introduced and this, along with football, gave us plenty of athletic activity. We had long hours of ordinary drill as well as special practice at bombing, night patrol work and musketry.
The new men came on rapidly. Amongst them were some of the best that we had ever received; but there were, as usual, a number of misfits. There was one man in my platoon who was fifty-eight years old and all of whose teeth were false. One wonders who gave him his physical examination. We didn't find out about the teeth until he appeared on parade one day with his face fallen in and looking very unhappy. He then told us that in trying to chew some particularly hard food he had broken both his plates, and now wasn't able to chew at all. He said that he had never expected to get to France as the recruiting officer had assured him that he would be discharged in England as unfit!
Those in the Company who had survived the second of June show took great pleasure in filling up the new men with all the harrowing details of the fight, and you may be sure that the actual events didn't lose any of their gruesomeness in the telling. On the majority of the men these tales had very little effect, but a few were so impressed by them that they had lost their nerve before they saw the front line, and eventually we had considerable trouble with them.
Since we had well over five hundred new officers and men in the battalion, it was decided to give them a taste of the front before actually taking over a sector of the line again. For this purpose, all the new arrivals, and as many old officers and NCOs as were necessary to run things, were sent up to Ypres to live in the city and to do ten days of working parties in the Salient.
We were quartered in the old Cavalry Barracks, which sounds much better than it was. Actually there was very little of the Barracks left, and what was still standing looked as if a good strong wind could have blown it over. Part of the roof of the drill hall was still on, but this was more a danger than a blessing, for the supporting walls were high and shaky. A direct hit from a decent-sized shell would have brought the whole thing down on our heads, but no direct hit was made while we were there.
The first working party was to dig a trench about a hundred yards from the fortified post that my platoon had occupied on the second of June. After the work was well started I obtained permission to take a couple of men to try to dig out the kit bag I had lost on the Second. No attempt had been made to repair the post - the powers that be apparently having at last recognized the futility of such defences - so things were very much as we had left them. After about an hour's work we recovered not only the kit bag but also my tunic, neither one being much the worse for a three weeks' burial. Revisiting this deserted and battered post, and poking about in it by the uncertain light of a cloud-obscured moon, was one of the strangest and eeriest experiences that I ever had.
I doubt if taking the new men up for working parties under conditions as they were then did them as much good as harm. In most of the places where we worked there were still many unburied bodies, and in repairing old trenches we were continually digging out those who had been killed and buried by shell fire. This was bad for those whose nerves had already been upset by the tales told them by the old men, and it is hard to see what good it could have done the others. They learned to get down quickly under machine gun fire, but as they hadn't sufficient time to learn the difference between the sound of our own guns and that of the Germans, they were continually bobbing up and down needlessly. As for ducking when a shell came over, that required no learning. Probably it would have done just as well to have gone straight into the line.
Maple Copse was horrible. It had been impossible as yet to make even a start at cleaning it up. All work of this sort had to be done at night and under severe machine gun and shell fire, but even had this not been the case, Maple Copse still would have presented an almost impossible task. What had once been a thick woods was now a tumbled mass of blasted trees and upturned earth, and amongst this debris were the bodies of hundreds of Canadians and Germans. The ground had been fought over almost continuously for twelve days during hot and rainy weather, and the stench from it was sickening. A poor place to give men their first taste of war. Certainly it was no psychologist who ordered these working parties. As a matter of fact, it was probably someone who had not even seen Maple Copse or the front area of the Salient since the fighting in June.
Once, early in 1918, we received large reinforcements, and partly with the idea of "blooding" these men, a raid was pulled off. We captured or killed a large number of Germans, and although our casualties were heavy, the raid was a great success. In contrasting the attitude of the new men after the 1918 raid with that of those who were on the 1916 working parties, the value of a first experience which definitely gave a sense of superiority was very apparent.
At the end of the trip a special party of sergeants and old NCOs was organized to go into Maple Copse and identify and bury as many of our men as possible. This was a fitting end to a gloomy ten days.
Back in billets once more, we were able to shake off part of our dejection. But always there was something ominous about the Salient, a feeling that one was at a disadvantage, always on the defensive, and that the enemy might start something unpleasant at any time. It must have been the local history, a kind of tradition of the Salient, that was so disturbing. Never were the Canadians more truly on the defensive than when in front of Vimy in 1918, and yet the spirit of the troops was never better. But at Vimy we were holding ground that we had taken from the Germans in a brilliant attack, and the entire history of the sector, as far as we were concerned, was one of successful attack rather than of defence.
Too much credit cannot be given to General Plumer and the staff of the Second Army who were responsible for holding the Ypres Salient during most of its existence. Theirs must indeed have been a nerve-wracking experience.
The best way to begin a tour of duty was to go straight from billets into the front line, like diving into cold water instead of wading in. It was our good luck to start our first regular trip with the new men this way, but even then we had plenty of excitement.
We drew the Mount Sorrel trenches as our part of the front line, and my company held the top of the ridge. Mount Sorrel was not a real mountain; in fact, it could hardly be called a good-sized hill. But in this part of the country such hills passed as mountains, and streams across which one could jump were called rivers.
The trenches were no worse than those in other parts of the Salient, and no better. They and their garrison had been blown to pieces on the second of June when they were captured by the Germans, and again on the thirteenth, when our First Division recaptured them. Between those dates, and since the thirteenth, they had been subjected to almost constant shelling of a less intense but nevertheless severe nature. They were not as bad as Maple Copse, but that was about the best that could be said for them.
The trip up was uneventful, but within fifteen minutes of our arrival there was trouble, due largely to the inexperience of the new men. When a trench is being shelled by artillery, the proper procedure is to keep low and hug the parapet, but when it is trench-mortars, one must be up and watching every second, and ready to run either to the right or left. The new men had been told this often enough, but nothing but experience could tell them the difference between artillery and trench-mortar shells. The first two trench-mortars made direct hits on the trench and killed or buried a whole section. And while we were digging these out two more shells knocked out half of the digging party. The shelling continued for half an hour, and between digging the buried ones out and giving personal instruction in trench-mortar dodging to over a hundred men in a long, crooked, and exceedingly dark trench, we had quite a busy time.
In the midst of the excitement one of the corporals, who happened to be French, came and told me that something awful was the matter with two of his new men. Even before reaching his part of the trench we could hear these two men distinctly: they were praying loudly and fervently to be delivered from the Philistines and the powers of darkness! Now, prayer may have been good for an individual, but its effect on his companions was generally bad. Probably they thought that things must be very bad indeed to call forth such an unusual action. We broke up the prayer meeting, and these two men, along with some of those who had been badly shaken up by the trench-mortars, were sent back to a dugout in the communication trench to recuperate. Eventually jobs were secured for them behind the lines; they were not good front-line material, although they easily ranked first in the battalion at extemporary prayer.
A good poker face was one of the finest assets that an officer or NCO could have, and a few lusty curses delivered when things looked bad would often have a steadying effect. A book of instructions on "how not to look as frightened as you are" should have been written and given to all officers and NCOs.
It was no unusual occurrence when walking along these trenches to see someone stretched out flat with his ear close to the bottom of the trench, listening attentively. And if you had followed the prone one's example. you would have heard the regular tap-tap of picks or drills. In some places these sounds came from directly under the trenches, while in other places they seemed to come from beneath No Man's Land or even from behind our own line. No one liked these sounds, for they meant that mining was going on underneath, and mined trenches are about as comfortable to occupy as the top floor of a burning powder plant.
Just to the left of our sector of the front line there was a chain of huge holes or craters that had been made when the Germans exploded a series of mines on the second of June, and before we came into our present trenches we were told that extensive mining was going on beneath them. We sergeants were therefore not particularly surprised when we were called to Company Headquarters the afternoon of our second day and told that the Germans were expected to blow the top off Mount Sorrel during the night. It appeared that our own people were driving counter mines, and that there was a bare chance that they might succeed in blowing in the German tunnel before anything happened. However, it had been decided to withdraw the troops from Mount Sorrel, and our company was to go back to support trenches a few hundred yards behind the line as soon as it was dark enough to move without being seen.
As night approached you could see that everyone was wondering whether dusk or dawn was the more likely time for mines to be blown up, and hoping that "Germans preferred dawn". The tension during the last few minutes before the company withdrew must have been terrific, but I didn't feel it particularly for I was staying in the line with two volunteers from my platoon to form what was called, we hoped not prophetically, a skeleton garrison. Our job was to give the alarm in the unlikely event of the Germans happening to choose this night for the less elevating purpose of a raid.
As the company was leaving, our platoon officer came and said a very fervent good-bye. This was his first trip in the line, and he apparently considered us already as good as dead. He was a fine chap, but he hadn't learned yet that one did not say good-bye in the army. On the other hand, the Second-in-Command of the company came around and said that if I would blow my whistle once when we were going up, and twice as we started down, he'd come up and see what could be done about it!
The men with me were A-1. One of them, Le Page, a French-Canadian, was an original member of the Battalion and a first-class man in the line. The other, Charlie Rutherford, was one of the new men who had done very well during the working parties in Ypres. That he volunteered for this job was an indication of his future conduct. Eventually he got the Military Medal, was given a commission, and then went on to win a Military Cross, and finally the Victoria Cross.
As soon as the company had left the trench we looked over the situation and picked as our quarters - we hoped for the whole night - the bay that seemed to give the widest outlook. We also discovered that the day's ration of bacon for the company had been left behind. As I had a water bottle quarter full of rum, any old soldier will recognize that we were "sitting pretty".
A rum ration seemed indicated, so we had one. Then, for the first time since we had joined the army, we ate all the bacon we wanted. This was an auspicious beginning, and for several hours afterwards we were able to amuse ourselves by shooting at flashes from the German trenches. We did this from different parts of the line, and also sent up occasional flares so that our trench would appear normally occupied.
At about three AM, I had just finished remarking that if something didn't happen pretty soon, nothing would happen, when the ground under us began to shake. We couldn't see each other's faces but we must have been a scared-looking lot. It looked as if we had guessed wrong. There was an explosion a few yards in front of us, and then all became quiet. We at once had a good, generous issue of rum! We never knew what happened, but presumably our people had blown in the German tunnel, for we heard no more work underneath us, and while we were in the line there were no further rumours of mines being blown up.
The company, of course, could not return to the trench until the next night, so we had nothing to do all day but take turns at sentry go, sleeping, and eating bacon. We finished both bacon and rum before the company got back and were very much surprised when they told us that they had somehow managed to mislay their bacon in the previous night's rush. It was a peculiar thing, but quite typical of the war, that bacon rather than mines seemed to have become the most important consideration.
The remainder of the week was comparatively tame, and the new men obtained the rest of their first-trip experience in better proportioned and more easily digested portions.
Experience was a soldier's best friend, for the longer a man succeeded in keeping alive in the trenches, the better were his chances of continuing in that more or less fortunate condition. New men could be told what to do under certain circumstances, but the trouble was that they didn't recognize the circumstances until it was too late to profit by their instruction. If they were still alive they added that much to their experience, and incidentally, to their chances of living. To be a good player in any game, nearly all the physical movements, and many of the mental ones, must have become such firmly fixed habits that the correct reaction takes place without thought. One can arrive at such a condition only by practice, by experience. Now, war was in many ways a game, and the experienced soldier had acquired many of those habits that made the difference between winning and losing, between living and dying. If he was killed it was bad luck, not bad management. What he feared more than anything else was his own nerves. Every time he saw one of his old companions crack and go to pieces under the strain, the terrifying question arose, "Shall I be the next one?" His main worry was not that he might be hit by a bullet or shell, but that he wouldn't be able to hang on until he did get hit.
Early in August the Division took over part of the line on the right flank of the Salient. We had been for four months in the centre sector, and the change was like a tonic to us. The trenches that my battalion now occupied were at the Bluff on the Ypres-Comines canal, about a mile east and slightly north of St Eloi, and close to Hill Sixty. There had been hard fighting here early in the year, but since the Canadians had taken over there had been no attacks. The occupants of these trenches had held grandstand seats for the Sanctuary Wood and St Eloi battles, which had taken place on either flank within a mile of their position. Rather uneasy seats, one may imagine, for bombardments had a nasty habit of extending well out on the flanks, and a comparatively short length of front between two heavy attacks must have been at best an uncertain abiding place.
The position got its name from the long, high bank that bordered the Ypres-Comines Canal where it went through our front line. This bank was partly artificial and partly an extension of the chain of hills that formed the rim of the saucer of the Salient, Mount Sorrel and Hill Sixty forming part of the same chain. There were several tunnels in the bank, and we appreciated the safety that they offered, although we could very well have done without the sand fleas, which considered us invaders and acted accordingly. In fact, they were so bad that we finally moved the sergeants' mess out into the open, preferring the occasional and impersonal shell to the frequent and very personal flea. Compared with the flea, the louse, who was always with us, was a gentleman.
A communication trench ran along the top of the hill and ended in what was then the largest mine crater on the Western Front. It was about three hundred feet long, sixty to a hundred feet wide, and probably fifty or sixty feet deep, with a trench running along the bottom of it and an observation post on the front lip. The crater garrison consisted of an officer, two sergeants and a platoon of men, the remainder of the company occupying shelters along the communication trench on top of the hill and relieving those in the crater every twenty-four hours.
The battalion that we relieved said that it was a wonderful front and that they hadn't had a casualty in the past two weeks. This was not particularly good news, for things worked in a topsy-turvy way in war and it was my experience that such quiet seldom lasted longer than a few weeks and that the end of such a period was a bad time to take over. Something generally started almost at once. On the other hand, we often relieved battalions that had been having a very bad time for weeks, and found ourselves left in comparative peace and quiet for our entire tour.
The Crater must have made an inviting target for the German artillery and trench-mortars, for a shell could be dropped into it with very little difficulty, and there was always the possibility of a lucky whizz-bang hitting the observation post. The front slope of the crater was ideal for dugouts but none had been made there; while the trench itself, for some unknown reason, had been built against the rear slope of the crater instead of in the protection of the front. Probably the Germans would have shelled much more actively if they could have believed that our disposition was so ridiculously bad.
As a matter of fact, there was no reason for having a garrison in the crater. The ground on our side was much higher than on the other, and had the Germans been fools enough to try to occupy the crater, they would have suffered a lot of needless casualties. Probably someone ordered it garrisoned without even having seen it, and each relieving battalion simply followed the first foolish arrangement, a typical army procedure.
The position was quite a show place and the first few days we were there we had visits from all sorts of staff officers and others, who apparently wanted to see "the largest crater on the Western Front". We also played host to a party of Canadian politicians and, I think, newspapermen. Civilian clothes in the trenches looked most incongruous.
Too many visitors sticking their silly heads up to have a look, so that they could talk about it afterwards, must have convinced the Germans that we were up to something, for they began to give us large and regular doses of shelling. We had no more visitors.
The sergeants of my company had, on the whole, been very fortunate during the fighting in June; but luck deserted us here, and before the end of the week one sergeant had been killed, three had been wounded, and the remaining four of us were doing double crater duty, one day in, one day out. The Fourth Division had just come in on our right for its first trip in the line, and when friends came to visit us from these new battalions we found it hard to agree with them that it was "a swell war".
A friend of mine in A Company started on a series of peculiar coincidences when in this part of the line. He had always said that he would be shot through the head; and while doing sentry duty the second night he got what he expected. The bullet made a nice dimple in his right cheek, knocked out a handful of teeth, cut his tongue almost in two and made a much larger hole in his other cheek. Our medical officer dressed his wounds and sent him down the line.
When he came up for medical board at the base he found himself in front of the same MO who had treated him at the front. The doctor said, "Well, this is a coincidence: how would you like to go to England?" and sent him there. Several months later S---- was again for medical board, this time at Shoreham, in England, and again he was examined by the same medical officer. Had S--- really wanted it, I believe the MO would have sent him back to Canada, but all he chose was a few weeks leave.
One morning I was sitting enjoying the sunshine in the support line, when it occurred to me that if I borrowed a pair of binoculars and climbed a nearby tree I might get a view of the ground around St Eloi. There was no shelling going on, and as the tree was a very leafy one and there seemed no danger of being seen, I proceeded to carry out my plan. I had been looking over the line for about ten minutes when I got one of the biggest thrills of my life. The Germans suddenly raided the part of the line that I was looking at. It was probably three-quarters of a mile away and the action was exactly like a silent moving-picture. I don't believe that I breathed for the next few minutes; it certainly was a wonder that I didn't fall out of the tree.
The whole thing lasted about three or four minutes, and took place on a front of not more than a hundred or so yards. Four or five salvos of whizz-bangs, followed by a few light trench-mortar shells, started the show. Before the last trench-mortar had landed, about fifty or sixty Germans jumped out of holes in front of their line and rushed towards the British trenches. They were well on their way before the sound of the first exploding shells reached me, so quickly did it all take place. They got almost to the trench before anything happened and then they simply toppled over like rows of lead soldiers: a few seconds later I heard the rat-tat-tat of our machine guns. None got into our trenches, or back to their own.
Why should such a raid be made? God knows! Perhaps some officer was anxious to win an Iron Cross; or perhaps Headquarters wanted to get a prisoner in order to identify the troops in opposition. Probably they thought that they would catch our people asleep - daylight raids had not as yet become common and were often successful. The raid was on the front of a different Army Corps from ours, and we never heard anything about it.
Life behind the line in the Salient was very little different from life in isolated barracks anywhere. The nature of the Salient placed most of the towns within easy shelling distance of some part of the semi-circle that formed the line, with the result that civilian life, when it existed at all, was what one might call furtive. We were pretty well dependent upon ourselves for any amusement that we got. Behind the Messines front there had been the city of Bailleul and several small towns, in which it was possible to have a bit of fun, although the civilians never seemed to be particularly friendly. It was in the Lens-Vimy area that the Canadians really found a home. The people in the mining towns were most kind, and many a Canadian made firm friends there; in fact, not a few brought wives back to Canada from that district. When billeted in private houses on the Ypres or Messines fronts, we were tolerated - barely - by the inmates, but in the Lens area one became part of the family almost at once.
While the Battalion was resting in billets before starting for the Somme I was sent to the Divisional Gas School to act as one of the instructors. Life at the school was easy. The hours for giving instruction were not too long and we "ate well and slept soft".
Chlorine was still the principal gas used for testing and instructing, and although we put thousands of men through gas trenches and gas dugouts there was seldom a casualty. Occasionally an instructor would get careless, but never twice. Instruction and helmets had both improved greatly since the gas school in 1915 at Fletre, and now every man in the army in France had to take gas helmet drill as part of his regular training. Whenever possible, each man was also put through a trench or dugout filled with chlorine, to give him confidence in his helmet.
The training of men in anti-gas measures had originated in France and was still (August 1916) carried on largely there, very little time being allowed for gas drill during the ordinary training in England. This was quite satisfactory under normal conditions, but it was found that in a big rush, when men made practically no stop at the Base, large numbers were reaching the front line without having had any training in anti-gas measures. The casualties that resulted from this state of affairs caused the authorities to introduce anti-gas instruction as part of the regular syllabus of training of all battalions and reserves in England. Area gas schools were set up in England where gas NCOs could be trained and where all the officers and men of the battalions in the area could be passed through gas. Those who were specially qualified for this work were sent to Command Anti-Gas Schools for finishing courses.
In 1917, while convalescing in England from a wound received at the Somme, I was sent to the Eastern Command Anti-Gas School at Halton Camp, Wendover, Bucks. The course there was very thorough and only those who had already had extensive experience with gas were allowed to attend the classes. We were attentive pupils for all the deadliest gases were used and inattention was apt to bring its own punishment. There was one feature about life at this school that was particularly attractive: every morning at reveille an orderly brought me a cup of good hot tea. This proved to be standard practice and was as pleasant as surprising. The school was run by the Imperials and I was the only Canadian attending this particular course. There is no doubt that the British custom of a cup of tea as soon as you wake up is a very sound one. But who gets the cup of tea for the person who gets the cup of tea for the personï¿½..
The Gas Services branch of the Army grew rapidly, and in 1917 it boasted in England a Chemical Adviser to the Home Forces and in France a Director of Gas Services. This Director was responsible for both defensive and offensive work, the latter being carried out through special Brigades and Companies of the Royal Engineers.
There were three ways in which gas attacks might be made: by cloud gas, by shells, and by gas projectors. For a cloud gas attack, the gas was liquefied under pressure and taken to the front line in strong steel cylinders. Each cylinder weighed about sixty pounds and contained about sixty pounds of the liquid. The cylinders were buried under the fire steps, and were generally in groups of four connected to a central pipe or tube. The shelters resembled rabbit hutches, and were made with frames of wood and expanded metal, and protected with sand bags and earth. They were permanent structures and could be made and used at any time. To be effective, the gases used had to be really poisonous in light concentrations, heavier than air but not too heavy, capable of liquefaction under a moderate pressure, stable at ordinary temperatures, and easily manufactured and supplied. Not many gases satisfied these requirements, and nearly all cloud gas attacks were made with chlorine or a mixture of chlorine and phosgene (COCL2). The latter, however, liquefies at about 46 F, and was therefore suitable for use as cloud gas only in the summer. Sulphur dioxide was used once or twice in cloud attacks against the Russians, but to the best of my knowledge, never appeared on the Western Front. Both chlorine and phosgene were asphyxiants, having an intense irritant action on the respiratory organs, while phosgene had, as well, a dangerous delayed action on the heart.
The first cloud gas attacks were made on the French colonial troops and the Canadians, late in April 1915. The gas used was chlorine, and our men had no way of protecting themselves from it. The casualties were very heavy. A few days later, two French battalions, when attacking, were met by a gas cloud and compelled to retire. This is the only case, to my knowledge, where cloud gas was apparently used as a defensive weapon. It is quite possible, however, that the two attacks simply happened to coincide, and that the gas was not deliberately used to stop the French advance. Cloud gas attacks by the Germans continued during 1915, and late in the year the use of phosgene mixed with chlorine became common.
The first cloud gas attack by the British was made at Loos on the twenty-fifth of September, 1915, exactly five months after the Germans had introduced this type of warfare. From this time on the British outdid the Germans at their own game. Nature assisted in this, for the prevailing winds during the warm weather, when it was possible to use phosgene most successfully in cloud attacks, were almost always in favour of the British.
During 1915 gas shells, principally lachrymatory (tear shells), had been used to a limited extent, but it remained for the French to first realize the possibilities of employing a deadly gas such as phosgene in a shell. These shells had only sufficient explosive in them to burst the shell and liberate the gas, and sounded almost exactly like "duds" when they landed. With them the French took the Germans completely by surprise in the spring of 1916, and inflicted heavy casualties. The Germans quickly copies these French shells, however, and by the fall they also were using them in large numbers.
1917 saw British, French and Germans all using shell gas extensively to neutralize enemy batteries, to interfere with the movement of troops and supplies and for general harassing purposes. In July the Germans introduced a new gas, called by the British, Mustard Gas, and by the Germans, Reiz Gas. It was dichlorethyl sulphide (CH2ClCH2)2S, to give it its full name. This gas was the most effective used in chemical warfare and was responsible for the majority of gas casualties. It was an extreme irritant, and even when in low concentration, had a particularly bad effect on the eyes and lungs. It had practically no smell, and since it produced no immediate discomfort a man might be, and often was, gassed before he knew that he was in any danger. It liquefied readily at ordinary temperature, and when the liquid touched the skin it produced blisters and burns which were very slow in healing. Where bombardment by mustard gas shells had taken place the ground became permeated with the liquid, and dangerous emanations of gas resulted whenever the temperature was sufficiently high, while serious burns were suffered by anyone who came in contact with the contaminated ground. Patrols at night in No Man's Land were particularly liable to become mustard gas casualties since they were continually crawling through shell holes and over ground that had been subjected to gas shelling.
When gas was used solely to inflict casualties it was desirable to produce suddenly a very high local concentration. This was somewhat difficult when using the ordinary artillery gas shell, and in March 1917, a new weapon appeared, the gas projector. A projector was a form of trench-mortar which threw a bomb containing thirty or forty pounds of phosgene, or some other gas in the liquid form, and just sufficient explosive to break open the bomb and liberate the gas. Large numbers of these projectors could be set up in batteries and fired simultaneously at the same target. The element of surprise, so necessary for the successful use of gas, was always present in a projector attack, for the only warning was the explosion when the mortars were fired, and the long brilliant flash that accompanied the discharge. Very little noise was made by the shell when it burst.
Previously the most effective use of gas shells had been to neutralize artillery and hinder movement behind the lines, but with the advent of projectors gas again became a serious threat to the men in the trenches, and the projector became one of the deadliest of the instruments of trench warfare.
After the first surprise in 1915, when our men had no protection whatever against the clouds of chlorine sent over them, the defences against gas improved rapidly. The first issue was of pads of cotton waste dipped in Hypo and washing soda; while in some cases, individuals had obtained a slight measure of protection by tying socks soaked in urine over their noses and mouths. Wire shields were next provided to hold the pads in place, and in some cases nose clips were used. The first serious official issue, however, was the Veil respirator, which was soaked in Hypo, washing soda and glycerine, the latter being added to keep the other chemicals moist. The smoke helmet, which covered the head completely and was tucked into the collar of the tunic, next appeared. It was made of a single thickness of flannel and had one mica window. There was, however, no exhale valve; the mica cracked easily, and the Hypo and washing soda in which it was soaked were not effective against the new gas, phosgene. Caustic soda was added to neutralize the phosgene, but was found to rot the flannel. The next issue, the P helmet, was a big improvement, for it was supplied with two glass windows and an efficient exhale valve. Flannelette was used instead of flannel, since it was not so much affected by the caustic soda. Caustic soda, however, was apt to cause painful burns on the forehead when the helmet was worn for any length of time rolled up on top of the head at the "alert" position. To avoid this, a new helmet, the P H helmet, in which hexamine was used to neutralize phosgene, was issued. This was the last and the best of the helmets, and remained in general use until it was replaced by the Small Box Respirator. In fact, it was used right up to the end of the war to protect seriously wounded men who could not use the respirator. It was far from comfortable, but it was foolproof.
The greatest advance in gas protection came with the issue of the Small Box Respirator. This consisted of a metal box containing chemically treated charcoal through which the air to be breathed was drawn. A flexible tube extended from the box to a rubberized face piece which was airtight when properly adjusted to the head. A cleverly designed mouthpiece and exhale valve made wearing the mask for hours at a time quite bearable, although the clip which prevented breathing through the nose was far from comfortable.
Box and face piece were carried in a reinforced canvas satchel which was worn over the shoulder like a haversack when more than two miles from the front line, and flat on the chest about five inches below the chin when within two miles.
The gas alarm was, of course, a very important part in the scheme of protection. Horns (Strombos horns), blown by compressed air, were located at regular intervals in the front line and supports, while huge sirens that could be heard for miles were placed in reserve areas. In placing the Strombos horns the lap system was used; each horn could be heard by three others, which were supposed to take up the alarm and pass it on. Once the alarm had started, however, there was no way of stopping it and troops fifteen or twenty miles away from an attack might be hustled into their helmets and kept there for hours with no gas anywhere near them.
Strombos horns were really to give warning of cloud gas attacks, which might extend over several miles of country and so required a general alarm. Attacks by shell gas and by projectors were comparatively local affairs and rattles were supplied to be used as alarms for these. These rattles certainly made a din but the noise did not carry as far as that from the horns.
Once the helmet or respirator had been adjusted, the next serious matter to be decided was when it might safely be taken off. Many of the gases were invisible, had little or no odour, and were dangerous even in light concentrations. It was a very nice question whether the gas was still there or not, and a question that someone had to answer! With gas alarms extending miles beyond the actual attack, it was always possible that putting on the helmet had been entirely unnecessary - but it was never certain. Someone had to be the first to take off his helmet and take a chance. If nothing happened to him, all was well and the rest of the helmets came off.
Cloud gas was never very successful after the surprise early in 1915 and comparatively few Canadians were ever exposed to such attacks. The threat, however, was always there. Constant vigilance and careful training were always necessary, for to fail in either might have meant sudden disaster. Shell gas was used primarily to harass and to impede movement rather than to kill men, and the great proportion of casualties from it were not fatal. To the projector fell the "honour" of being the most deadly of the gas weapons, and it accounted for a large proportion of the fatal gas casualties. Actually these casualties were not as great or the percentage of fatalities as high as most people have generally thought. During the last year of the war only sixteen percent of the British casualties were due to gas and surprisingly few of this number were fatalities.
The Flamethrower (German Flammenwerfer) was not really part of gas warfare but a limited amount of instruction about it was given at some of the anti-gas schools and it was generally associated in peoples' minds with the use of gas. The British General Staff showed a strong disinclination to make use of this weapon but it was very generally used by both French and Germans, and with considerable success.
The Germans had Flammenwerfers in the experimental stage at the outbreak of war and used them as early as 1914 against the French. The latter soon developed an efficient machine of their own and used it successfully throughout the rest of the war. The British also took steps to provide themselves with similar weapons, but they were used only once or twice at the Somme and during the naval attack on Zeebrugge in 1918.
Essentially all flamethrowers were the same and consisted of three parts: a container filled with a mixture of heavy and light oils, a strong-walled vessel containing air or some other gas under high pressure, and a discharge tube having a long nozzle which generally contained some ignition device. When the gas in the pressure chamber entered the fuel tank a long jet of oil was expelled from the nozzle of the discharge tube. This, when ignited, became "liquid fire".
There were two varieties of Flammenwerfer developed, the heavy, and the light or portable. The heavy type was designed exclusively for defence and would have been most effective had its installation and use on a large scale been feasible. However, its great weight and the tremendous volume of oil its effective use would have required made any consideration of its value academic rather than practical.
The light or portable type, however, was developed into a very efficient offensive weapon. Of such a weight that it could easily be carried on a man's back, it was a truly demoralizing weapon to face, for it was capable of throwing a flame having a range of only slightly under a hundred feet and against which nothing could stand. At first this jet of burning oil was continuous but later models were fitted with trigger valves which allowed for a succession of spurts of flame, generally eight to twelve shots to a container.
The main objection to the portable flammenwerfer was that it was effective only at close range, and since the man carrying it was very conspicuous he could generally be put out of action before he had an opportunity of using the machine. Their use was really very restricted and few Canadian soldiers ever saw one in action. As a matter of fact, after 1915 we seldom even thought of them.
Moving to the Somme with Divisional Headquarters was most unpleasant. The collection of batmen, stenographers, and clerks with which I was supposed to march straggled along the road like nothing that I had ever seen in the army, or out of it. The only way in which they resembled real soldiers was in their grousing, but even that was done in an unsoldierly manner.
Matters came to a head one night when two of the batmen insisted on keeping everyone else in the billet awake by their silly half-drunken wrangling. I yanked them out into the open, made them get their rifles and bayonets, and told them that they would have to settle their quarrel at once with these weapons.
The rest of the march to the Somme was quite pleasant, for I managed each morning to outdistance the "mob" within a few minutes of starting - no very difficult job - and didn't see them again until we reached our billets for the night. An officer from one of our battalions, who was temporarily attached to the Division and who apparently enjoyed it about as much as I did, picked me up each day and we did the march together. With no one to bother us it was much like hiking and we were able to enjoy the change in scenery and people that gradually took place as we left Flanders and made our way into Picardy. The change in people was perhaps most noticeable. The French Canadians in our battalion always said that the people of Picardy were more like the French in Canada than any others that they met in France. Certainly they were most hospitable and treated us very well.
One evening in billets I was surprised by a visit from an old college friend. He was with the British artillery, and hearing that some Canadians were in the vicinity had come over to see if there was anyone he knew amongst them. I went back with him to his billet and we spent a very pleasant evening together. He was killed a week later but I didn't know that until after the war. Coming back late at night from visiting him, I had just reached the door of a huge barn that was serving as our billet when the cry of "Fire" was raised inside. My bunk was near the door and I just barely had time to rush in and get my belongings out before the barn was a mass of flames.
This barn was used only for billeting troops and along each of the four walls and down the centre of the building, bunks were arranged in tiers five deep. Each bunk had a bottom of chicken wire covered with straw or hay: a perfectly laid fire. There was plenty of ventilation in such places and when someone overturned his candle in one of the lower bunks it was only a matter of minutes, and precious few of them, before the entire barn was ablaze. There were about seventy men inside and only those who happened to be awake and dressed when the fire started were able to save anything. The majority got out with nothing but that part of their clothes in which they were sleeping, and it was a hot night. There was plenty of ammunition in the barn, for very few succeeded in saving their equipments and ammunition pouches, and the explosion that accompanied the fire produced a regular First of July effect.
It was very difficult to get new clothes quickly when on the move and the spectacle presented when we fell in to march away next morning was weird and wonderful. It seemed as if all the extra pants that could be found were very small and that all the largest men had been the ones to lose their trousers. Practically no one had puttees. A few of the men had caps, while the rest were bare-headed or wore balaclava caps. Some had tunics and some hadn't. Only a bare half dozen had saved their equipments and rifles. Their appearance and marching ability now matched perfectly!
Shortly after the fire I was fortunate enough to receive orders to return to my battalion.
When in mud and filth "up to our necks" we were always wishing for a nice "cushy" job behind the lines or in England, but after a short time away the average soldier began to forget about the disadvantages of the front and longed to be back in his own unit with his friends. Of course, when he got back and lay out in muddy trenches with "beaucoup" shelling going on, he cursed himself for a dithering fool, but he came back. Life in reserve battalions and convalescent depots was not attractive. Too much drill, too much "eye wash", too many instructors: few of us were sorry to rejoin our units up the line.
The first attack in which my battalion took part at the Somme was on September fifteenth, and although the attack was no more important than many others, it was notable as being the first in which tanks were used.
The Somme offensive, which had been started with most ambitious hopes on July first, had practically run down. Casualties had been far in excess of even the most pessimistic forecasts and the extent of the ground gained had not come up to expectations. However, the original object of the offensive, to relieve the pressure on the French at Verdun, had been achieved, for by September the initiative in that sector had passed from the Germans to the French and all idea of further attack had been given up by the enemy. The Somme attack might then have been abandoned in September, since its tactical objective had been achieved. But the will-o'-the-wisp of a breakthrough beckoned, and promised a spectacular final victory to justify the staggering losses so far sustained. It was therefore decided to revive the offensive by bringing in large numbers of fresh troops and by making use of a new and, to the Germans, unknown weapon of war - the tank.
The story of the development of the tank, British, French or German, is one of a long and exasperating fight against inherent conservatism, lack of imagination, and disinclination to learn, of officialdom. With the British and French the fight was a success; with the Germans, a failure. How vitally serious a failure may be inferred from the panic at German General Headquarters caused by the success of the British and French tanks in the allied offensive of 1918, and from the fact that for months after the Armistice the tank was referred to as "Deutschland's Tod" (The Death of Germany).
To the British, but not to the British army, goes the honour of inventing the modern war tank. Only one acting soldier was concerned with the original scheme, and such encouragement as the project at first received came from the Naval authorities! The apathy, skepticism and opposition of the Army chiefs resulted in twenty-three months elapsing between the first tank plans being put forward and the appearance of a tank on the battlefield. Then for fourteen months those in command in France misused the tanks tactically. It was only in November 1917, at Cambrai, that this branch of the army was able to follow the tactics in attack that those who were responsible for the tanks had always urged. The result was a tremendous success, and the subsequent failure to hold what the offensive had gained was in no way the fault of the Tank Corps. Even then high military authorities were at best lukewarm and the use made of these machines for the next nine months showed that those responsible for the decision to use them must generally have been ignorant either of the limitations of such machines or of the conditions under which they were ordering them to operate. Only after the overwhelming victories of August 1918, in which the tanks played such an all-important part, were these weapons accepted wholeheartedly by the army chiefs both in England and France.
Once trench warfare had become general, barbed wire and the machine gun gave such an advantage to the defensive that a deadlock resulted on the western front. Gas, more and heavier shells, trench mortars, mines, tremendous concentrations of attacking troops - all these were tried in an attempt to gain a definite superiority for the offensive, and all failed. Before an attack, wire and machine guns had to be destroyed by an intense and costly bombardment. The preparation for and carrying out of such a bombardment completely eliminated any possibility of surprise in the attack and made anything more than a purely local success almost impossible. The tank was a better wire and machine gun destroyer than the artillery and since it made it possible to attack without preliminary bombardment it reintroduced into the offensive the exceedingly important element of surprise. It was the tank that definitely regained the advantage for the offensive.
The tanks were used at the Somme in direct opposition to the wishes of those who had originated and were responsible for this branch of the forces. It was a premature disclosure of an important secret, for neither was there a sufficient number of tanks on hand to make the action decisive, nor had the available tanks been sufficiently tried out and mechanically improved to make their operation fairly certain. Besides this, the ground over which they were to operate was most unsuitable for tanks, nearly every square foot of it having been plowed up again and again by shell fire. In spite of the trial being under conditions that made failure most probable, the tanks did not do too badly. Forty-nine machines were detailed for the attack and of these thirty-two reached the front line. Fourteen were very quickly "ditched" or otherwise put out of action, but the remaining eighteen were of considerable assistance in the attack. Their number was too small for them to materially influence the decision of the battle, but they proved their worth as machine gun and wire destroyers and saved many lives for the infantry.
The men who did the fighting approved of the tanks from the first, even though their superiors at a safer distance behind the line remained skeptical for almost two years more. The first trial demonstrated that the Germans simply could not stand up against the new weapon, and the few times that the Germans used tanks showed that neither could the British or French. I can conceive of nothing more terrifying than being attacked by a tank. Had some of the incredulous generals been placed in a trench and told to defend it against an attacking tank, they would more quickly have appreciated the tremendous offensive value of such a machine. For one thing we should be supremely thankful: the German authorities in this respect showed even less initiative and common sense than our own Army heads, and only fifteen German tanks were constructed during the war. These, along with a few captured machines, formed what was called the Sturmpanzerkraftwagenabteilung (Tank Section) and were all that the Germans had to use against the allies. As a result German tank attacks were almost unknown. We may well be thankful for that!
Although the Somme had shown the value of the tank, only sixty machines were ready for the battle of Arras in April 1917. These sixty were used principally for mopping up work and really took little part in the battle.
Seventy-six heavy and twelve supply tanks were used, or rather misused, in June 1917 during the Battle of Messines; and it was only on November twentieth of the same year that the tanks were given a fair chance to demonstrate their worth when properly used tactically. This was in the Battle of Cambrai, and the plan followed was almost exactly that submitted to GHQ of twenty-two months previously by Colonel Swinton, head of the Tank Corps.
The plan called for the largest possible concentration of tanks, to be used in a surprise attack without any preparatory bombardment; and insisted that the ground to be covered should be suitable for tanks, that is, fairly dry and not churned up by previous shelling. Three hundred and seventy-eight fighting tanks and ninety-eight auxiliary or administrative machines were used. The attack was such an overwhelming success that it led to a very severe reverse. GHQ, having no great faith in the tank, had not made preparations for consolidating the extensive gains that the Tank Corps had promised, and this resulted in one of the worst disasters that British arms suffered on the Western front. Strange to say, this reverse, which certainly had nothing to do with the tanks, was used by both Germans and British to discount the value of these machines.
Reverse followed so quickly on the heels of victory that few people even now appreciate the magnitude of the success achieved by the tanks in this engagement and it is only by comparing this attack with others carried out under what one might call standard tactics, that one can get a true perception of what this new engine of war was capable of. At the battle of Cambrai the tanks started on a front of seven and a half miles and in twelve hours at a cost of about four thousand casualties enabled the enemy positions to be taken to a depth of over six miles. Eight thousand prisoners and a hundred guns were captured. At the third battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) three months were required to penetrate to a like depth into the enemy's territory and the casualties were so horrible that the authorities dared not publish the number.
The preparatory bombardment at Ypres was estimated to have cost $110,000,000 and tore up the ground so badly that the advance of the infantry was seriously impeded. There was no preliminary bombardment at Cambrai.
And still headquarters treated the tank like an unwanted step-child. During the German offensive of 1918 they were used defensively in small groups dispersed over a wide area and although their services were useful they were doing work at which there was little chance of their showing to advantage.
However, in spite of opposition the Tank Corps persisted in its preparations and on July fourth, 1918, they cooperated with the Australians at Hamel in a tank attack modeled after the successful Cambrai affair. Again their efforts met with immediate and overwhelming success; and as there was no disastrous contretemps following this attack, it was impossible to deny them their due credit. After this demonstration even the most conservative or ignorant accepted the cooperation of the tanks as essential in all offensive operations.
The greatest British tank action was in connection with the drive started by the Allies in front of Amiens on August eighth, 1918. Four hundred and twenty fighting machines and a hundred and sixty auxiliaries were employed and the tremendous success of this offensive was in large part due to the work of the tanks.
During the last three months of the war, one thousand nine hundred and ninety-three tanks were engaged on the British front and in this time fifty-nine British divisions were able to defeat ninety-nine German divisions. This reversal of the proportions generally considered necessary for successful offensive action was due in large part to the proper use of tanks. The offensive had once more gained the advantage.
The history of the development of the French tank was surprisingly similar to that of the British, in so far as opposition and disappointment were concerned. Eventually, also, its success was equally great. No American tanks were used in the war, but several American units operated in French and British machines. No tanks were used in Italy, although Italian manufacturers had several ready to take the field at the time of the Armistice. A few machines were used in Palestine against the Turks and a few were sent out to Salonika by the French. The Germans had built only fifteen machines by the end of the war.
During the last few months of the war the Allies and Germans alike recognized the supreme importance of the tank and laid down huge building programmes for the next year. The Combined French and British plans called for more than ten thousand tanks in the field for 1919, and had war continued and the Germans used their usual ingenuity and perseverance in construction, 1919 might have seen the first great battle between fleets of tanks. Actually, the forerunner of such an engagement took place at Villers-Bretonneux in 1918 when the first duel between tanks was fought. This fight was between individual tanks: it is almost impossible to imagine what would happen in an engagement in which each side threw into the battle, let us say conservatively, a thousand tanks.
The casualties in the September fifteenth attack were particularly heavy amongst our officers and C Company found itself with only one junior officer remaining after the show. Captain Gill, our company commander for so long, was wounded, but Division lent us a worthy successor.
Our new OC had come over in the ranks of the infantry and had received his commission in the field. He joined us in September 1916 as a Lieutenant and left us in about a year's time to take command of another battalion as Lieutenant-Colonel. He won the MC, DSO, VC, and several foreign decorations, and had time in-between to be wounded six or seven times!
He was the perfect fighter. Our job was to kill Germans, and he saw to it that it was done whenever a chance offered. If the opportunity didn't come of itself, he made it. Quiet, never excited, he gave us the greatest feeling of confidence and proved to be quite as good on the defensive as in an attack. Either he had no nerves or else they were superbly under control.
He was never vindictive. Like most soldiers, he left the hating of the enemy to non-combatants. Of course we cursed the Germans and called them all manner of foul names; but we did the same to our friends, and much worse to those whom we disliked on our own side. Most of those whom we killed we didn't hate: in fact we often had a decided feeling of respect for them.
If in peace time a man does me great wrong and I kill him, I am a murderer; and the state takes my life in punishment. In war I kill a man whom I do not hate, in fact whom I may respect, a man who has probably never harmed me in any way; I am a hero, the state pays me for doing it.
This does not sound right: let us start again. Germany violated the neutrality of Belgium; therefore she must be punished; therefore I must proceed to kill as many Germans as I possibly can. Most of these Germans knew nothing of any violated neutrality, or were convinced that necessity justified the action. I am acting as accuser, jury, judge and executioner, or my country is. This hardly seems right. If I suspected a man of murder I should hardly go out and shoot him. I should turn him over to the officers of justice. They might be obliged to kill him but it would be done legally.
But there was then no international body strong enough to punish nations. Internationally we had lagged far behind domestic law enforcement. We do not all carry arms so that we may be ready to resist robber or murderer if he appears: we trust to a system of nation-wide law enforcement which will make punishment so inevitably the sequel to wrong doing that few criminally inclined will dare to challenge it. If we are attacked it is our privilege to resist, but his privilege can be of little use or satisfaction individually or internationally to any but the powerful. Nationally there must be such a strong sentiment against the criminal, and such a certainty of his receiving punishment, that he will not dare to break laws; internationally the same must apply to aggressor nations. If we do not progress in this direction, we progress not at all. And soon we shall find ourselves once more engaged in killing our fellow men; and all because we have failed to find any other way - not of settling our disputes, for it seldom does that - but of carrying on our disputes once they have reached a certain point.
We ordinary people may not be able to understand the whys and wherefores of wars but we know that there is something wrong in a system that makes us kill those whom as individuals we do not hate and who individually do not hate or even dislike us. We are not pacifists. If our country becomes involved in war, we will fight, and fight hard, but we shall do it much more willingly if we know that our rulers and leaders have done everything in their power to bring about a state where war is impossible. We can't say how this is to be done, but we are entitled to ask our leaders, our statesmen, "What are you doing about this business of war? What plans have you for advancing the world, even a little way, on the road to peace?"
With most of us such thoughts were put aside until after the war. Once in it there was but one safe philosophy, and we said to ourselves, "Right or wrong we are now in a fight for our very existence; we must think of one thing only, winning. Each encounter is a game with the high stake of life or death. We do not hate our opponents but the game is to kill, and kill we will. As we kill so we expect to be killed: c'est la guerre!" Did you ever hear of a dying soldier blaming the man who gave him his death wound?
Once again out of the line, we speculated as to where we should make our next attack and how long it would be before we made it. Our first attempt had been quite successful and, as attacks at the Somme went, not too expensive. We hoped that our luck would hold for the next one.
The countryside in the battle area was completely devastated. We did nearly all our fighting north of the Albert-Bapaume road and in this section two and a half months of the offensive had advanced the line less than four miles. The fighting had been accompanied by intense and continuous shelling by both sides, and scarcely a square foot of soil remained that had not been turned over again and again. Pozieres, a village captured by the Australians near the end of July, had simply ceased to exist. A small pile of pulverized brick marked the spot where the church had stood; there was nothing more. A like fate befell La Boiselle, Contalmaison and all the other villages and hamlets in the battle zone. Not an undamaged tree was left standing: there were no leaves, little grass. The colour green had practically disappeared, all was drab and dirty; fifty square miles of utter desolation. A desolation full of death, and yet teeming with life; for this area could boast of a population of hundreds of thousands of living men and more dead than all its past centuries had seen.
By September this stricken and tortured belt of land extended from Courcelette in our new front line, almost to Albert. Seven miles in depth; fighting or resting we were never out of it, never away from the tremendous activity that accompanied a big offensive. The roads, even in the daytime, were crowded with transport, ambulances, and moving men and artillery. Our air force had complete ascendancy over the Germans and it was seldom that we saw an enemy plane. Consequently daylight movement a mile or so behind our line was much more common than usual.
The guns of the artillery were everywhere, and in most cases quite uncamouflaged. We had never seen such a concentration. The noise was continuous. Even when not shooting for an attack, the fire continued, more slowly but never-ending. When we were traveling at night a battery might suddenly blaze out behind, beside, or in front of us; and many were the headlong dives we made into roadside ditches for no better reason. Near Contalmaison we saw our first French seventy-fives and were amazed at the speed with which they were fired. Had the Germans not been so well provided with deep dugouts, their casualties would have been unbearable.
Not that the shelling was on one side only: far from it. We were occupying the former dugouts and trenches of the Germans and the range of every one of these positions was known to their artillery. The harassing fire was both heavy and accurate and only the excellent protection that the captured dugouts gave us prevented our casualties from being excessive. As it was, the losses suffered by the transport and by troops on the move were very heavy. The German 5.9s were particularly bothersome and accounted for a large part of the casualties that we suffered outside actual attacks.
The Germans had plenty of notice of all attacks and the pounding that their artillery gave our crowded assault trenches and supports was terrific. Whole platoons, crowded together while waiting to go over the top, were put out of action by two or three shells. It was generally a relief when the zero hour arrived and we could get away for a while from this nerve and body shattering rain of high explosive.
The German dugouts that we occupied were exceedingly well made and most comfortable. It was our first experience of the safety and luxury of such shelters and we appreciated them to the utmost. We also wondered why we had never had any of our own. Some dugouts that had been used by the Germans as Divisional or Corps Headquarters were elaborate suites of rooms with wooden floors and with ceilings and walls carefully papered or painted. There were bedrooms, dining rooms, living rooms, offices, kitchens, pantries, etc; in fact they were regular underground houses. Some of them even had electric lights and bathrooms. Of course, such palatial lodgings were for the Staff; but our accommodations, though not so luxurious, were equally safe, and we certainly had no complaints to make about them. There was one little inconvenience: having been built so that their entrances were away from our fire, they now faced into that of the Germans. A hit directly into an entrance was not at all likely, however, and our only fear was that when occupying a one-entrance dugout we might be trapped by having the only exit blown in and blocked. This applied only to small dugouts; all the large ones had two or three stairways, and sometimes as many as four or five.
A battle area had a most extraordinary appearance, since on both sides men and supplies seemed to sink into the ground when they reached a certain point. The result was that the middle of such an area appeared to be tenantless.
Had a panorama of the world been spread out before one, what an extraordinary sight would have met the eye. Busy factories everywhere humming night and day with feverish activity in the fabrication of war material; the production of every natural resource speeded up almost unbelievably; great ships, crowded with men or heavily laden with munitions and supplies, rushing towards the scenes of hostility; all the knowledge, all the energy of the world directed towards war.
And the ultimate achievement of all this preparation? A tired mud-stained man in a trench, waiting for the zero hour to arrive when he will rush across a few hundred yards of shell-churned soil and try to kill another tired mud-stained man in another trench. Let us hope that each one had a good large shot of rum to help him see the glamour and appreciate the glory in what he was doing!
As we started up the line once more it became apparent that we were to go in on the same sector as before. Thiepval had at last been taken and the Zollern, Schwaben and Stuff redoubts had fallen after fierce fighting. The line had been pushed forward almost to Regina Trench and the indications were that that would be the objective of the next attack.
The country around Ovillers and Pozieres had been pretty well cleaned up but as we got into the area where the fighting had been continuous during the past week there was ample evidence of the deadly work that had been going on there.
It was possible to read the story of attack and defence by the grouping of the dead. Here was the assault trench, broken by shell holes, each one with its circle of mangled and half-buried bodies: the German counter-barrage had been accurate. Immediately in front of the assault trench the ground was clear - it had been crossed before the enemy had had time to bring his machine guns and rifles into action. Then for fifty yards the rich harvest reaped by machine guns playing on massed men lay thick on the ground. But at one spot there were few dead: our artillery had made at least a dozen direct hits on about fifty yards of German trench. There had been no one left to resist: our men were in. But what of that circle of huddled bodies on the left? About what deadly centre had this line been drawn? A machine gun superbly handled stopped everything there. It was never reached from in front: the gunners were shot or bayoneted by our men coming in from the flanks. They died on their gun. And those men half kneeling, half lying in grotesque attitudes? The wire had not been cut in front of them: that is what is holding them up. They died on the wire, the worst fate a soldier could suffer.
And thus it went. The story to which we were soon to add another paragraph, lay written for anyone to read, and so we cursed and joked and took very good care not to read it.
Our front line and the part of Regina Trench facing my battalion lay on opposite sides of a slight rise and as a result it was impossible in many places to see one trench from the other. Behind our line the land sloped gently and our support line, about four hundred yards in the rear, was in plain view of the Germans. C and D Companies moved into the supports on the night of October first while A and B Companies took over part of the front line from which the attack was to be made. Early the next day one platoon from my company (C Company) was sent up to fill in on the right flank of the attack.
I must have been suffering from indigestion or some other depressing ailment, for I had a presentiment, amounting to certainty, that I should be killed during this attack. This was the first, and fortunately, the only time that I had such a feeling. I wrote the letters generally considered appropriate for such feelings and sent them to a friend at Battalion Headquarters, to be posted, or not, according to what fate had in store for me during the next twenty-four hours. I had known quite a few who at various times had had such presentiments and I also knew that they were as often wrong as right; but statistics are poor consolation when you feel that way. The average infantryman was sure that he would be killed sometime, but generally he looked upon that sometime as later rather than sooner; not today or tomorrow, but in the indefinite future. After all, he had only carried over into the war the ordinary human being's attitude towards death: something inevitable but not immediate.
My platoon was in the support line and since there were good dugouts we were almost sure to miss the counter-barrage that would fall on our trenches as soon as our own barrage began. That was all to the good, but still my presentiment was with me. There was too little to do in the support line, too much time for speculation.
But that state of affairs was soon changed. The attack was to be at four PM and at about three-thirty a rush order came to get my platoon into position in the front line in time to go over with the attack. From that moment my presentiment disappeared and I heard no more of it until I remembered it with surprise two weeks later in England.
The platoon on the left flank had been almost wiped out by two or three direct hits on the trench and we were to take its place; or rather to come in on the left, since it could no longer cover the ground allotted. The only officer in the company, other than the Company Commander, had already gone up with the platoon for the right flank, so I was once more in charge of my platoon, and once more there was every sign of dirty work ahead.
The Company Sergeant-Major saw to loading up the platoon with all the extras in the form of bombs, ammunition, food, shovels, etc, that men must encumber themselves with when making an attack. While he was doing this, the Company Commander showed me a trench map of the part of the line where we were to attack. He also gave me some information that he said had better not be passed on to the men: the wire in front of that part of the German line had not been cut! The attack, however, would have to be made so as not to let down the battalions on our flanks. Our part in the show was to be a real sacrifice part: it was a wonder that my presentiment didn't come back!
We had to go about a half mile to get into our positions. The communication trench connecting the supports with the front line was only a hastily dug ditch, not more than three feet deep, and there was a ninety foot unprotected gap in the front line that had to be crossed somehow. We were due to be in position ready to go over the top in twenty minutes, so there was no time to waste. The shelling on both sides was gradually working up to the usual hell that preceded and accompanied an attack, so there was a fair chance that few Germans would be on the lookout. We simply walked down the CT with our heads and shoulders in full sight. And nothing happened.
When we came to the gap in the front line more care was necessary. We went across two at a time, with one starting when the other was almost across. The nearer each man got to the other side the faster he ran, until finally he gave a wild dive into the protection of the trench. If we had to be targets we were determined to be difficult ones and in spite of the odd sixty pounds or so of impediments that each of us carried, we made record time across that thirty yards. Each runner was cheered profanely by those waiting to go across and given a ribald welcome by those who had preceded him.
Nothing could have happened better. We arrived at our attack stations only a few minutes before the zero hour and still laughing at the antics of some of the runners: no time to worry.
There was only one thing wrong: C Company had had no rum to send up with us, A Company had none to spare. We had to go over without the usual shot. This was a real hardship, but not as bad as it would have been had we been waiting there all day for the zero hour.
Two minutes to go! The shelling on both sides was at its maximum. Our barrage had been going for about three minutes and the German counter-barrage for a minute or less. It was impossible to hear anyone speak; the air was full of dust, dirt and smoke; whole sections of our trench, crowded with men, went up into the air as salvos of 5.9s made direct hits on our position. No use to worry where the next one was going to land: they were landing everywhere. Ten seconds to go: thank God we'll soon be out of this! How many of the platoon are left? What luck! Hardly a man has been hit yet. Have I a cartridge in the chamber? Is the safety catch off? Time! Over we go!
As far as one could see along the trench men were climbing up over the parapet and starting across no man's land at a half run, half walk. At first nothing happened, for our barrage had just lifted from the German front line and their machine guns and men were not yet up from their deep dugouts. Also in many places the rise in the ground still hid us from their sight. Thirty yards, forty yards, and then a machine gun opened up; then another, and another. I noticed in a detached way that most of the men who went down didn't move after falling, and that the report about the wire was correct, it hadn't been cut. We eased off slightly to the left, where there appeared to be a hole in the wire, and when just outside the wire got into shell holes while we took a look around - from the cover of the shell holes, of course. The trench, about sixty or seventy feet in front of us, was full of Germans, but there were apparently no machine guns there, and for some unknown reason they were trying to reach us with potato masher bombs instead of using their rifles. There were five of us in that particular shell hole and we had marvelous target practice: it was like knocking over the figures in a shooting gallery. I remember giving one of the five with me the devil for shooting so near my ear that he deafened me. He said he was sorry!
We finally decided that it might be possible to get through the wire at a place almost directly in front of us and that the thing to do was to direct as many as possible to that spot. We got out of our shell hole ready to go forward and then and there got one of the greatest surprises of our lives: we were the only ones in sight. A quick survey of the neighboring shell holes showed nothing but dead and wounded men. Even then we though that someone must have ordered a retreat. We were all keyed up to fighting pitch by now and cursed those who, as we thought, had let us down. We were mad clean through, so mad that we forgot to be afraid and simply walked back to our trench, refusing to run. Still crazy, I walked along the parapet of our trench looking for the person who had ordered the retreat. Before I had covered half the distance I began to come to my senses and appreciate what had happened. There had been no retreat ordered: practically all the men were still out there, dead or wounded.
A rapid survey showed that there were twenty-five unwounded men left of the half battalion that had made the attack. There were no officers and I was the senior and almost the only NCO. Fortunately there was a first-aid corporal still with us, so it was possible to fix up all those who could travel on their own and send them on their way. Some didn't even wait to be bandaged: anyone with a nice "blighty" and even one good leg could generally manage to get away with surprising speed. All that we could do with the badly wounded was to fix them up as well as possible and put them in the best-protected parts of the trench to wait for stretcher-bearers to come up from the rear. Two wounded officers who were able to walk out, left water bottles full of run with me, so in that respect we were well fortified. Otherwise we were not so fortunate.
The attack had apparently been a failure all along the line and there was every possibility of the Germans making a counterattack at any time. To meet this we had twenty-five tired and badly shaken men, no machine guns and practically no bombs. The shelling was still very heavy and it was rapidly becoming dark.
We divided the men into groups of four or five and posted them in the undamaged parts of the trench along our front. In spite of the heavy shelling they were placed in small groups rather than stretched out along the line, since company at such a time is the best medicine. Rutherford, who had been made a corporal, had been with me all day, so he and I and the stretcher-bearer formed a little headquarters of our own in the center of the line.
Dead men lying around are not pleasant company under the best of circumstances, but when they are from your own battalion it is much worse. We managed to get them all out of the trench and piled up on the parados or parapets. One man's head flopped over as I was helping to throw him out and his sharp front teeth cut the back of my hand.
The shelling, although much less intense, persisted in its most nerve-wracking form: that is, one or two good-sized shells every three or four minutes. Plenty of time in-between to wonder when and where the next one would fall. We had a few casualties from these shells but not many: there was plenty of room in our line for shells to land without hitting anyone. Each time one fell near a group we got to them as soon as possible and gave each man a good issue of rum: nothing like rum to take the edge off nerves. Our own bit of trench was blown in and a wounded man whom we had placed near us was terribly mangled. We tied him together as best we could and tried to give him some morphia tablets, but he couldn't swallow them. There was nothing more that we could do for him. He lasted three hours: I have never heard a man die so hard.
Early in the night Rutherford went across no man's land well to our right to find out whether by any chance the battalion on that front had managed to get into Regina Trench. After getting close enough to be fired on by the Germans and thus to be sure of the information he was after, he came back and asked me what he should do next. I suggested that he go to the other end of our line to see how the men there were getting on. After he left, one of the men came and told me that Rutherford had been shot through the arm while on this scouting trip. He hadn't said a word about it to me. When I told him to go out to the dressing station he was most reluctant to go and I had finally to order him out.
With Rutherford gone things were not so bright but at about midnight a D Company sergeant arrived with a platoon to reinforce us. He also brought up some food, and since his men were comparatively fresh the affair began to take on a cheerier aspect. We redistributed the men along the trench and settled down to make the best of a none too pleasant situation. Still, some of us had seen worse, and in all probability we would be relieved before morning.
At about two AM there was a great bustle along the trench and our OC appeared with a platoon of the First CMR that he had "borrowed". His plan was to get into Regina Trench at some point and make a bombing attack down the trench, with the idea of finding out just what was going on along the line. He had heard that we had discovered a hole in the wire during the attack and was anxious to know whether I could guide a platoon through it in the dark. I can't say that I felt very enthusiastic about the plan but I was fairly certain that I could find the break in the wire again, so we started across no man's land.
We were organized as a bombing party. The OC undertook to do the bombing - at which he was an expert - and, at his suggestion, I was to be his first bayonet man. Not a job that I felt any great longing to have at the time, but there seemed no particular reason why I shouldn't do it, so that was that.
There was a regular formation for bombing parties. In front came the first bayonet man, then the first bomb thrower, then a bomb carrier, and this order was duplicated in the ranks following. The bomber tossed a bomb or two over the traverse of a trench and as soon as the bomb exploded the first bayonet man rushed around the corner and finished off - or was finished off by - anyone who still showed signs of resisting. If a member of the first team was put out of action the corresponding man in each team moved up one. This was the theory, but like most theories it worked best when being practiced behind the line and by daylight. At night and in a strange and badly smashed up trench anything was apt to happen - and generally did. It was difficult to keep in contact either with the enemy or with one's own men and the only thing that prevented the majority of such attacks from failing was that they were surprises and the Germans became even more disorganized than the attacking force. A well-planned raid was of course a different matter, not at all like the sort of dog-fight bombing attacks that occurred again and again during big attacks.
Attacks such as this, on a dark night, in strange trenches, were deadly affairs. Unlike a raid, it was not desirable to take prisoners, nor was it practicable. Wounded men were often killed, for who could tell whether the dim figure moving in front was wounded and trying to surrender or was about to poke a bayonet into you?
There was one consoling thought that I took with me as bayonet man: the OC was a fine revolver shot and I knew that when I went around a corner he would be so close behind me that if there were not more than two to deal with I'd have an even chance. As a matter of fact, he shot by my head so many times that one of my ears was almost completely deaf for three days afterwards.
We had no trouble finding the lane in the wire: a shower of bombs cleared the trench in front of us, and we were in before the Germans knew what was happening. Then began the job of bombing up the trench. A bayonet man seldom used the bayonet: a bullet at close range was much more effective, since it was very difficult to withdraw a bayonet once it had been well stuck into a man. That night for the first and only time in the war, I used the bayonet, but only once. I didn't like the noise he made.
After bombing along a few bays the trench seemed deserted, so we climbed up on the parapet and followed it until we met more resistance. Then we jumped into the trench and started the bombing game again. All the bombing wasn't on our side: a German bomb went off close enough so that I could feel the heat on my face and was almost knocked over by the concussion, but by a miracle I wasn't hurt. The German bombs were nowhere near as good as our Mills number 5s.
The game of "in and out" went on for some time and our ranks were gradually being thinned out. Once more I slid into the trench but this time I felt a sudden sharp pain in my right leg and fell on my side on the bottom of the trench. I could see nothing but I reached down and found that a bayonet was sticking into my right thigh near the hip. Some German had either been killed or in the excitement of the attack had left his rifle, with fixed bayonet, leaning against the parapet; and in the dark I had most obligingly impaled myself upon it!
A bit of an anti-climax perhaps, but nonetheless uncomfortable for that. Apparently no one had noticed me, which was not to be wondered at in the excitement and dark.
The bayonet came out without much trouble or pain. Fortunately it had hit the bone, or I should have been properly skewered. My leg seemed quite all right to stand on and after poking around with my finger I decided that I wasn't bleeding very badly.
There was no sound or sign of the bombing party and it seemed a good idea to get out of the trench before the Germans decided to come back. It also seemed the appropriate moment for a good rum issue. I took it in the form of a toast, " Here's to Blighty: the sooner I get there the better I'll like it."
I decided that the first port of call would be my old headquarters in the front line, where there was a stretcher-bearer who could bandage my leg. Also from that point I would know the way out to Battalion Headquarters. But finding the way back was not so easy. The night had become unusually quiet; shell holes and scraps of wire forced one to be continually changing direction, and after fifteen minutes of wandering around I knew that I had either become confused in my direction or had walked through a gap in our own front line. The latter seemed the more likely explanation so I turned about and headed for where I thought the front line might be. The area behind the line was a regular wilderness in which one might wander around for hours without meeting anyone, and with a leg rapidly growing stiff I had no desire to do that.
Finally I stumbled into a trench and found some of my battalion there. They were D Company men whom I didn't know, so I simply asked them to show me where Sergeant Savage's headquarters was.
My stretcher-bearer corporal was surprised to see me: someone who had come back wounded from Regina Trench had told him that I had been killed. He bandaged up my leg as well as he could in the dark and I set out to find the advanced dressing station. I took no chances on getting lost this time and carefully followed first the front line and then the communication trench.
It was now getting on towards morning and the shelling had become spasmodic. The guns on both sides rumbled and growled sullenly as if they were exhausted and almost ready to mutiny against their masters.
The last hour before dawn, bad enough under normal conditions, was infinitely worse during an engagement. For then one either planned to attack or expected to be attacked: neither possibility a particularly pleasant one under conditions at the Somme.
If an attack was to be launched at daybreak, the hour before dawn was full of rush and bustle for those who had the responsibility of making all the last minute preparations. They were the lucky one, for to those who had nothing to do but wait, the time was interminable and the suspense nerve-wracking. There was nothing to do but think. Did the Germans expect an attack? Would the barrage clamp down on us before we got out of the crowded trenches? Had the artillery been successful in cutting the wire in front of us? When would my next leave come? I'd be lucky if I ever got it. How could they expect a man to fight when he had bombs, extra ammunition, extra food, a greatcoat, a shovel, and half a dozen other extra things hung on him like a Christmas tree! A nice clean one through the arms would be fine. No such luck, probably get it fair in the belly. That last leave to London was grand. Oh well, to hell with everything! I wonder when they'll bring around the rum!
As I went up the shallow communication trench the light gradually became stronger. Short bursts of fire from Lewis and machine guns could be heard as the crews "let off a few" to see if their guns were working properly. But there was no increase in the artillery fire - apparently there was to be neither attack nor counterattack that morning. Everything was grey and dead; the sun gradually breaking through the mist and clouds only showed up more clearly the utter and dreadful desolation that stretched as far as one could see. I came into the first support line and thankfully eased myself down the stairs into the deep dugout that served as an advanced dressing station.
The Medical Officer looked me over and decided that I was a stretcher case. I had no objection. After carrying things all my life in the army I was quite willing to experience the novelty of being carried myself: it seemed a thoroughly good idea.
There was plenty of action in the dugout. The Medical Officer had a sergeant and two others to help him and they were all kept busy. The duty of the advanced dressing station staff was to stop bleeding and to patch up the wounded so that, if possible, they wouldn't die while being taken to some place farther back, where less hurried and more elaborate attention could be given to them.
The majority of the wounded came into the station on their own or aided by some more lightly wounded friend. A man was quickly examined and if not a stretcher case, was given what first aid was necessary and hustled on his way back to where the ambulances could pick him up. If he were declared a stretcher case he had to wait his turn with the teams of stretcher-bearers who were working between this station and the ambulances.
Traffic in and out of the dugout was constant, although there had been no big action since four PM of the previous day. As new cases came in others were carried away on stretchers or walked out on their own. Some were so terribly wounded that they simply could not be moved. Every now and then one was carried up and put on the parados of the trench: he would never travel further.
And yet the dugout seemed a nice cozy spot, a good place in which to make up a little of the sleep lost during the past forty-eight hours. There was one thing, however, that I noticed with a certain amount of apprehension: there was only one entrance to the dugout, and since it had once been German it faced towards the German line. This was not so good. I had hardly more than made the discovery when a 5.9 landed so close to the entrance that a regular avalanche of dirt and stones came down the stairs. Within ten minutes three more shells had fallen as close to the doorway as the first one. Then and there I made an interesting discovery. I was not a stretcher case after all: the Medical Officer was wrong, I was quite able to walk. In fact I was eager to walk! And I did.
Battalion Headquarters was my next stopping place. During the early part of the night I had sent back repeated requests for more bombs. None had arrived. Doubtless, in fact certainly, there was some good and sufficient reason for their non-arrival; but with each shot of rum that I had on my way back, this matter assumed greater and greater importance in my mind, and I began to feel that I had a real grievance against BHQ and everyone in it. The adjutant kindly gave me a double issue of rum and took me in to give the Colonel the latest news. I talked of very little but bombs, or rather the absence of bombs. The adjutant, with a pained expression, led me out of the presence and, supplying me with two German prisoners to help me walk, suggested that I be on my way.
My leg was getting pretty stiff from my wound and my head exceedingly light from rum, but I had relieved my mind and was feeling much better. Rum is a true internationalizer: I gave each of the Germans a good shot, had another myself, and with my arms around their necks started out once more in the general direction of Albert and, I hoped, "Blighty".
Half an hour's walk brought us to the collecting point for the ambulances; as far as there was any collecting point, for they picked them up wherever they found them. There was an ambulance waiting with room for one walking case, so I continued to consider myself as coming under that category. As a matter of fact I had become so stiff that I couldn't have walked a hundred yards on my own, but a "walking" case in an ambulance simply meant riding sitting instead of lying on a stretcher.
My German "crutches" spoke French quite well and we had had quite an interesting talk on our way out. Now they were most concerned at losing me and wanted to know what they were to do. My advice was to keep on going and to get as far away from the shells as possible. The last I saw of them they were trudging down the road to Albert with no one paying any attention to them.
The ambulance landed us in Albert where I was given a shot of anti-tetanus serum and declared a stretcher case once more. My boots were taken away by an orderly who said that they always did that with stretcher cases. As the boots were a particularly good pair that I had just received from home, I was more than slightly skeptical of the truth of his statement.
I must have slept most of the next twenty-four hours, for when I came to in a tent hospital well behind the line, a day had elapsed of which I had only the foggiest recollection. I remembered a very uncomfortable ride on a stretcher in an ambulance, and that was all.
I was feeling fine; much too fine, I thought, for any chance to get to Blighty, or even to the Base. Well, I'd have a few weeks out anyway, that would be something. In the meantime I was hungry, decidedly hungry. The orderly, when appealed to, brought me a tin of Maconochie ration. This consisted of a mixture of meat, vegetables, and gravy, and when hot was not too bad. But this was cold. Besides, why be a wounded hero and still eat Maconochie! I mentioned the matter to the orderly, but he wasn't exactly sympathetic. He said "Eat Maconochie or don't eat." That was plain enough. I knew I was wounded but I began to wonder about the hero part!
I pulled out my greatcoat, which was serving as a pillow, and went through the pockets hunting for some tobacco. I found none so decided to try for a little more sleep. In putting my coat back I noticed casually that my water bottle had been under it, apparently tucked in there in case I needed a drink in the ambulance. I tried for about ten minutes to get to sleep but my subconscious self seemed to be trying to get a message through, and sleep was out of the question. I kept thinking about that water bottle. And then I knew! It was my rumconscious not my subconscious self that was agitating. The last time I had seen my water bottle it was half full of rum! A quick investigation showed that this was the same bottle and that it was still half full.
I called the orderly again and said, "What kind of a meal could you get me in exchange for half a water bottle of rum?"
"A damned good one, but where's the rum?" he replied. I let him have a whiff of the bottle and that convinced him. He was all for taking the bottle at once but I assured him that I had been wounded in the leg not the head and that when I got the meal he got the rum. I ate hearty, as some of the boys used to say.
The next move was by hospital train to Rouen. This was more comfortable than an ambulance but the only item on the menu was still Maconochie! Mine was a lower bunk and I was particularly interested in the lad in the opposite berth. He had lost his arm at the shoulder but seemed to think as little of his loss as if it had been a finger. He was as chipper as could be and refused to stay lying down. Sitting on the side of my bunk he told me his story. He had been walking along with parapet of one of our trenches during an attack when a mortar had been fired from the trench. The shell had carried off his arm just above the elbow but had not exploded. There had been a first-aid man nearby and the bleeding had been stopped before he had lost much blood. At the first hospital they had taken off at the shoulder what was left of his arm and here he was on the way to the base and then home. And he wouldn't have to come back! That was his story. I don't vouch for its truthfulness but I believed it. He was the most cheerful man on the train.
Unless a wound was very bad few soldiers worried much about it. What did worry them was just how far "back" the wound would take them. This was a regular lottery. If a big show was on with a great number of casualties coming through, many with quite slight wounds would be rushed straight to England to make room for new casualties. On the other hand quite severe cases would be kept in France if the hospitals were not crowded. Very bad cases, of course, had to stay there for some time anyway. Other things being equal, whether one went to Blighty or not depended largely on how long one had been in France and how easy the examining MO was.
Base hospitals were numbered and I either never knew the number of mine at Rouen or I forgot it. This led to a little embarrassment a year later at our base at Le Havre. I was at a dance (having received my commission) and one of the nurses there asked me what hospital I had been in at Rouen. It seemed silly not to know so I just mentioned a number at random. She seemed to become somewhat less friendly and when I commented on this later to someone I found the reason. The number that I had mentioned was of a hospital which at that time was reserved for those suffering from venereal diseases! Such hospitals have no alumni societies.
A day and a night at Rouen, and the nurse told us that the MO would decide at once whether we were to go to England or not. As he came down the line of cots it was easy to see just how nervous and anxious we all were. After he had examined a man he would make some sort of cabalistic marks on the chart which hung at the head of each cot. As soon as the MO was a bed or so away you could see each man surreptitiously examining his chart, but apparently without results.
I had heard him asking each of the three men before me how he felt. It seemed to me that the answer to such a question required careful thought. If you appeared cheerful and bright he would certainly be inclined to think your wound not very serious; but on the other hand to appear the opposite and then to have him find on examination that there was apparently little reason for your lugubriousness might be equally bad.
Finally he reached my bed.
"Ah, a Canadian," there were no others in the ward. "How are you feeling this morning?"
"Not so bad, Sir," and I endeavored to give the appearance of being bright and cheerful although suffering.
"A bayonet wound in the back of the thigh: most unusual, couldn't you run fast enough?" being very facetious.
"Oh no Sir! I didn't get it that way", I said, trying to look embarrassed and as if I hadn't understood the joke and was a bit hurt by his suggestion.
"Well, well, I expect it doesn't feel any too good. How long have you been in France?"
"A little over a year, Sir."
"Just so, just so." And he took my card and scribbled something on it, after giving a very casual look at my leg. Then he went on to the next bed.
I knew that I couldn't translate his signs so I didn't try, but I was worried. Had I overdone the cheerfulness? Should I have seen his joke? Did his casualness in examining my leg mean that it was quite apparently serious or quite apparently not serious?
As soon as the MO had gone I called the nurse over to my bed. "For heaven's sake Nurse, tell me what it means", I begged.
She looked at it and smiled. "You're for England on the next boat."
The trip down the river from Rouen was pleasant enough, but the crossing to Southampton was terrible. The decks had been closed in with steel plates to make hospital wards, and I was on the outside edge of the upper deck. Thus I got a nice long ride over and back every time the boat rolled. And how she rolled! One of the doctors told me that she was the worst boat in the world and that in rough weather she had seven distinct and different movements that she went through at each roll.
I fully expected to be seasick but there was so much excitement watching doctors, nurses and orderlies trying to get up and down a nearby stairs, that I quite forgot my intention. When we arrived at Southampton, after thirty hours, the staff on the boat said that it was the worst crossing that they had ever had.
We were carried off the boat on stretchers and lined up in a large warehouse. Then someone came along and asked if there were any part of England to which we would like to be sent. Naturally, those who lived in England chose the hospitals nearest their homes, but since I had no particular preference, I decided on London.
The hospital train was very comfortable and most efficiently run. In spite of the fact that the Somme was the first very large-scale operation in which the British army had participated, the Medical Service seemed to be functioning adequately and to have everything well in hand.
Arriving at Victoria Station we were transferred to ambulances, and much to my surprise, I found my one-armed friend of the hospital train in the same car with me. A member of some volunteer organization was in charge of the car and as soon as we were loaded in he asked if we had any friends we wished notified of our arrival. My one-armed friend asked what hospital we were bound for and when he learned that it was the Metropolitan on Enfield Road he was more than pleased. His wife and family lived just around the corner from the hospital. Our conductor wrote down the name and address and gave the piece of paper to a Boy Scout on a bicycle. Five minutes after we had been settled in our ward in the hospital, my friend's wife and child were there to see him.
I doubt if anything in the war was more outstanding than the work of the many voluntary organizations. Most of them, in fact all with which I came in contact, were efficiently run, but what appealed to the soldiers more than anything else was the sympathy, understanding and friendship that their members so willingly gave us. They all had troubles of their own, but they concealed them well. "Always merry and bright" was apparently their motto when dealing with us. The words "Hullo Canada" still give me a pleasant glow whenever I remember them.
I was in the surgical ward, where those with leg and arm wounds and those who had had legs or arms amputated were placed. My only troubles there were directly due to errors of omission on the record card which hung at the head of my bed. Due to the fact that my day nurse failed to make certain notations on it, I was given a constantly increasing dose of Cascara every night for four nights. On the fifth night I rebelled, which almost caused an earthquake in that exceedingly well-regulated institution. It was during the same four days that another omission on my card caused me more pain, although less inconvenience. Each day the doctor probed and poked around in my leg. Finally one day one of the nurses remarked to me that they were completely mystified as to where the bullet had gone after entering my thigh: there was a hole going in but none coming out. My record card hadn't specified bayonet wound.
It was much more pleasant to be in a surgical ward than in a Medical one. You were seldom "just plain miserable" in such a place; for either your wound was doing well and you were feeling good, or it had "gone bad" and you were about to die.
There were no very bad cases near my bed and I was able to spend two or three weeks in the Metropolitan with considerable pleasure, and, I believe, much profit. By a peculiar chance I had apparently got in with a stream of English casualties, and from the time I boarded the hospital train in France, until I eventually went to a Canadian convalescent hospital, I didn't see a single Canadian. This gave me an opportunity to get to know a good many soldiers from the British Isles and I enjoyed my long talks with them immensely - when we could understand each other. This was sometimes more difficult than one would imagine.
My first close experience with the variations in the English language as spoken in England, Scotland and Canada came within a few minutes of my entering the hospital. As soon as I was comfortably settled, the man occupying the bed on my right asked me if I were badly wounded. He was a real Yorkshireman and I didn't understand a word he said. He tried again and all that I could do was look friendly and again say, "What?" The man in the bed on my other side saw my predicament and repeated the question - in the broadest Scotch! It was two or three days before we could carry on a conversation with any degree of ease but eventually we did very well. They all complained that I spoke so rapidly that they missed about half of what I said.
At the end of a week I was able to hobble around and make myself useful. The nurses were always glad enough to have assistance when they were doing some of the more difficult dressings and as I had a pair of steady hands and a strong stomach I soon became a regular helper. Some of the gangrene cases were terrible and the newer nurses and VADs were occasionally quite ill after finishing the dressing of these cases.
One of my regular jobs was to take temperatures and one day I was sent into another ward to help out at that work. The first one that I took sent me hobbling in great haste to find a nurse: it was a hundred and six! The nurse didn't seem particularly excited and explained to me that this was the malaria ward and a temperature of a hundred and six was no unusual thing.
Another adjoining ward was called the Bunny Ward by the men because, they said, they never had anything to eat but rabbit. There was a boy - about sixteen or seventeen I should say - in this ward who held the hospital record for broken bones. A bag of Mills bombs had gone off near him in the trench and his arms, legs, collar bone and "beaucoup" ribs had been broken. Besides this he was filled with shrapnel and all sorts of hardware. He showed me a three-inch nail that was imbedded in the muscle of his arm. You could make out the outline of it quite distinctly but the wound was well healed and there seemed no immediate need of taking the nail out. Each day the Doctor picked out a piece or so of shrapnel that had worked its way close to the skin and gave it to him to add to the collection which he kept in a bag tied to the head of his bed. At that time he had a hundred and five pieces in the bag, had been in hospital six months, was just barely able to wiggle his arms and legs, and was one of the most cheerful lads in the building.
It was really remarkable, the cheerfulness of everyone in the three or four wards that I used to visit. Part of it of course was sheer relief at being for a while at least out of it: then again there were no shell shock or nerve cases in these wards. But generally speaking it was typical of nearly all soldiers; ready to grouse but seldom depressed, they had the only real cheerfulness, that of fatalists. Here today and gone tomorrow, so why worry! Too bad few of us were able to carry that philosophy over into civil life.
In spite of vermin, mud, blood, and sudden death, many a man spent the happiest days of his life in the army. If there had been no one to worry about the fighters, no fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, to anxiously scan the casualty lists; if only the fighters had suffered, then half the hell of war would have been eliminated. Any man would prefer the deadliest war to unemployment for himself with resultant poverty and suffering for his family.
We had few visitors but the days always passed fast enough even if nights were sometimes long. Smoking was allowed and at night the semi-darkness of the ward was punctuated by little bursts of light as cigarettes were lit by those who found it hard to sleep. At almost any hour of the night the pulsating glow of two or three cigarettes could be seen.
It was quite apparent that my wound was healing rapidly and that there were going to be no complications. Each time the MO came around I expected to be marked for convalescent hospital. One morning the nurse said that they were expecting a big batch of new cases and that everyone who could be got rid of would go that day.
By noon I was at a central distributing station and night found me in a Canadian convalescent hospital about twenty-five miles from London. We had heard all sorts of tales of the luxurious living in some of these hospitals, where fine country estates had been turned over to the authorities, but we were doomed to disappointment. This hospital was part of an estate, all right, but the building was for the staff and we were housed in army huts nearby. Of course we were quite comfortable, although disappointed.
Here we came under discipline - of a sort - again. It was, however, the nagging irritating sort without any real controlling effect, and we did very much as we pleased. Buses ran to London regularly and we went there whenever we wanted to - and had the money. Roll call at night was at nine o'clock but we paid no attention to that and came back at any hour we liked. At first the Corporal who called the roll reported several absentees but after we had interviewed him he became more sensible: he was a pacific soul. If there were ten men in the hut to answer for the thirty supposed to be there he carefully shut his eyes and took the roll call by ear only. Sometimes we stayed away for two or three days, and generally got away with it.
The Canadian organizations for caring for convalescents were going through great changes at this time. Due to the fact that my wound had healed rapidly, I was in the van of the Canadian casualties from the Somme and was able to see the phenomenal growth that took place in these establishments between late October and Christmas 1916.
This particular convalescent hospital filled and overflowed within two weeks of my entry but the staff was not increased proportionately. As a very small hospital the discipline had been practically all in the hands of a blustering unpleasant Sergeant Major of the Medical Corps, who had never been in France. As the job got more difficult and he less able to handle it, his bluster became worse. By a peculiar chance there were almost as many sergeants in the hospital as there were other ranks. One day the SM was being particularly offensive, walking up and down in front of a parade and declaring that he was tough and that if we didn't do this or that he would show us what war really was. He happened to notice that the sergeants, who fell in in single rank behind the parade, formed a longer line than the regular ranks. This was meat for him.
"Now you guys, you sergeants, fall in line with the other ranks. You're no damn better than they are and I'm the baby who can show you so." No one moved. "Come on, move! I'm tough and I'll make you wish you'd never been born." Still no move. Then he really let himself go. Every sergeant looked perfectly straight to the front and to all appearance they were quite unaware of the fact that anyone was talking to them. He dismissed the parade and we continued to fall in in the usual manner. That night four sergeants had a little interview with the Sergeant Major. They told him that between them they had a good many Germans to their credit: that they liked him considerably less than they did the Germans, and that something unpleasant would happen to him if he were not careful. Of course none of them would have thought of talking like this to a real Sergeant Major, but they knew that this man was only a big four-flusher. He never troubled the sergeants again.
The Matron of the hospital, or whatever they called her, was of the same type, but she was handicapped by her sex. However, as far as possible she made things unpleasant for us and I was heartily glad to find at the end of two weeks that I was well enough to leave the place.
We just happened to be unfortunate in the hospital to which we were sent, for nearly all of them were pleasant enough places in which to recuperate. Of course there is another side to the story, for convalescent soldiers were undoubtedly the most difficult people in the world to handle, and the staffs in the various hospitals had much to put up with.
I was given my papers and transportation and told to report at the Casualty Clearing Depot at Shoreham. As no mention was made of when I was to report, and as I had some money, I first spent three days in London.
I arrived at Shoreham at about eight o'clock of a dark night and set out to find the CCD. As this unit was a very small one when compared with the thirty or forty thousand English troops that were in the camp, it was not easy to find: the English military policemen whom I consulted had never heard of it. Thirty or forty thousand troops in tents made a fair sized city and after an hour and a half of wandering I accepted an invitation to spend the night with some English sergeants into whose mess I had gone to inquire my way. They were very hospitable and marvelous beer drinkers - which I was not. This may have accounted for my reluctance to take up the search the next day.
It was one of these sergeants who put me wise to the best way of finding the Canadians. He said, "Go to the White Horse Inn, it's the best pub in town. If there are any Canadians in this camp you'll find them there." He was right.
At the CCD I was examined, much to my surprise, by a former MO of my battalion. He told me that if I had any friends living in England with whom I could stay, I might have two months leave. I had a friend who had come to live in England recently, but unfortunately I wasn't aware of the fact, so I elected to stay at the CCD.
Life here was very humdrum and we were all glad to hear that the CCD was to be moved to Hastings and St Leonards on the Kentish coast. I was sent there in charge of a party of twenty NCOs and men to take over the new billets and to get things ready for the rest of the unit.
St Leonards had had at some time or other a tremendous boom as a seaside resort. This popularity had, however, quickly passed, with the result that there were now several very large hotels and any number of houses that had been vacant for years. These were to be our billets.
No Canadians had been stationed in this neighborhood before, and our billeting party was received with the greatest kindness. It was our first experience in an unspoiled area and we enjoyed it immensely. We were invited out to tea, supper, dinner - in fact, everything but breakfast. By Christmas our numbers had increased to about twelve or fifteen thousand and our reputation had decreased in about the same proportions.
The first medical board before which I appeared gave me ten weeks of physical drill for the benefit of my leg. I didn't care for this so I became a sort of permanent orderly sergeant of my company of the Depot. This was all right at first but our numbers increased so rapidly that I soon found myself doing more running around as orderly sergeant than I should have had to do in the prescribed physical jerks.
About this time a request came through for a quartermaster sergeant. It looked like a good job so I put my name in for it and the next thing I knew I was QMS of the company. I at once got myself a "staff". This consisted of a Corporal who understood all about what work should be done - and two men to do the work. Then I settled down to enjoy life. No more parades, no getting up or turning in early, no real work to do. A regular old soldier's heaven.
I had always wondered why Quartermaster Sergeants were such a tight lot: to get anything out of one was like drawing a pint of his life blood. So I started out to be what had never been heard of before - a generous quartermaster sergeant! Anyone from my regiment could get a new outfit for his old one, whether he belonged to my company of the CCD or not. As for members of that Company, they became the Beau Brumels of the Depot.
Our Company continued to grow and soon numbered a thousand men and a hundred or so sergeants. This being the case, it was decided to form a sergeants' mess. I stayed away from the organization meeting for fear of being elected caterer-sergeant, but this proved poor policy for I was elected anyway and wasn't there to refuse.
The caterer-sergeant's job was a tough one, particularly when starting a new mess. He was really a manager of a club, restaurant, and bar. My first job was to find a house large enough for such an establishment. Then there was a cook stove to be acquired, chairs, tables, dishes; in fact everything to fit out a club. A search had to be made through the personnel of the Company to find a cook and two assistants, three or four waiters and a good bartender, as well as other odd help. Permission had to be obtained from Headquarters to operate a mess and to have a bank account. Once all this had been attended to, came the real business of feeding a hundred or so sergeants three times a day and of keeping a well-stocked bar in operation. Uncooked rations were drawn each day from the regular army source and the profits from the bar paid for many of the extras that appeared on the table; any further expense was met by mess dues paid by the sergeants and collected by the caterer-sergeant.
Here we dealt in real money and all books were supposed to be carefully kept and audited by the authorities. No least irregularity was tolerated and many were the caterer-sergeants who found themselves in serious trouble over carelessly kept or inaccurate accounts. In fact it was a poor job to have wished upon one.
One of the most interesting men whom I met in the army ran the bar for me. He was a very quiet chap, a sergeant whom I had got to know quite well since coming to the CCD. He had once mentioned casually that he had been a bartender in the King Edward Hotel in Toronto, and as a favour he agreed to start the mess bar and run it for me until I could get someone else for the job. He knew all the tricks of the trade - and there were many. I certainly learned about bars from him.
He was not much of a talker, in fact quite the opposite, but little by little I got his history out of him. I don't vouch for its truthfulness but I believed it.
He had at one time been a member of a famous Highland Regiment and had seen ordinary service in India, and special service in Afghanistan. At that time the Russian threat from that source was particularly grave and he said that his orders there had been to shoot on sight any white man not in a British uniform. Having served his time in the Army he started out to see the rest of the world. And he saw it. Tea plantations in Ceylon, teak in Burma, exciting adventure amongst the South Sea Islands: pockets full one week, on the beach the next.
Finally he joined another ex-soldier and a former ship radio operator in a scheme to smuggle Chinese into the United States. The radio man was the only one of the three who knew anything about ships, but that did not worry them. They acquired a very old and condemned sailing ship, and arranged for a cargo of a hundred Chinese, who were to be in boats off a certain point at midnight. The port had refused to give them clearance papers for their old wreck, so they left surreptitiously without them. Then they picked up their human freight and headed hopefully for America. They had a good large target, for their ambition was simply to hit the western coast of the United States or Mexico, and where they hit they didn't care, providing it was a fairly private section.
Each of the Chinese was supposed to bring his own food, so that didn't worry them, but after two months their own supplies began to run very low. Since their navigation consisted only in keeping the boat headed in the general direction of North America, they had no idea where they were. They hoped that they were near the American coast but were well aware that they were just as likely to be somewhere in the middle of the Pacific.
Finally they sighted land - and a tug came out to bargain for a tow. They were so relieved to think that their journey was over that in turning down the tug's offer they excelled themselves in invective and humour. Then an offshore gale came up and in half an hour they were out of sight of land again! And they stayed out of sight for four weeks.
Both they and the Chinese were half starved when they sighted land again, and to make everything pleasant the Chinese had served notice on them a few days previously that unless they reached land within a week, they would draw lots to see which one of them should have his throat cut and be thrown overboard.
By this time the three adventurers' one ambition was to get on dry land once more, and whether they made any money out of the Chinese was by now an entirely secondary matter. An opening that promised good harbourage appeared in front of them, so without any hesitation they sailed through it - and found themselves in San Francisco harbour! And so were the hundred smuggled, or near smuggled, Chinese.
This was a time for quick action. They dropped anchor, got into the only boat they had and rowed to a quiet looking part of the beach. Then they started for Canada!
When war broke out in 1914 he was still in Canada. He returned to England, rejoined his regiment and was amongst the first British troops to be engaged in the fighting in France. Wounded in 1914, he returned to England, was discharged as medically unfit and once more went out to Canada. There he recovered completely from his wounds. He then joined one of the units of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and was sent to France as part of a draft for one of the regiments in the line. In those days the original members of a battalion considered anyone who came out on a draft as little better than a conscript. Sergeant R told me that he got a great kick out of being called a recruit and a draftee by these people. He was soon made a sergeant. Then he was wounded at the Somme and eventually turned up at St Leonards, where he told me this story. I can finish it, though not in detail. He returned to France, won the DCM and was made Regimental Sergeant Major, and was killed in action.
Convalescent hospitals, Casualty Clearing Depots, Reserve Battalions, were all alike in one respect - one soon got fed up in them and wanted to move on. Life in such places could be very demoralizing, since it lacked the definite objective of the training given before first going to France and had none of the stimulation of danger experienced in the line.
Having decided that I had had enough of the CCD, I got myself marked fit for duty and joined the Twenty-Second Reserve Battalion at Shoreham. This was at that time the reserve from which my regiment was supplied with men and I was overjoyed to fall in once more with many of my old friends.
Here I found Bob Ryder, my fellow sergeant of Number Nine Platoon, and Captain Gill, my former platoon commander, who had been wounded on September fifteenth at the Somme. Several other Fifth CMR men were there and we had a regular reunion. It was like coming home after a long absence, to see all those familiar faces and to get news of the regiment.
Those who did not serve in the war can with difficulty understand the intense loyalty the average soldier had for his regiment. To liken it to the feeling inside a home circle was particularly apt, for although we quarreled frequently and fiercely amongst ourselves, we were always united against the outsider.
Reserve battalions were as uninteresting to live in as to read about. Fortunately I was sent almost at once to the Northern Command Gas School at Halton Camp. This was a "finishing" school for gas experts and the work was intensely interesting. I was the only Canadian there, so I again had an excellent chance to get to know more of the English soldier. The more I saw of him the better I liked him.
When I returned to the Reserve, a most agreeable surprise was awaiting me in the form of a letter from a very close friend of my college days [Herb Edge, later to be his son David's godfather]. I had last seen him in 1911 in a parish near Vancouver where he had gone to do missionary work after leaving the university. Having been refused for the Canadian Army, he had come over to England in the hope of having better luck there. Unfortunately his luck was out, but he remained in England and accepted the rectorship of a living in Suffolk that was in the gift of his family. Not knowing in what unit of the army I was, he had written to me at my Canadian home address. The letter had been forwarded to me in France, but arrived after I had been wounded. For some unknown reason it was returned to Canada. Remailed from there, it followed me - but always a lap behind - through hospital and CCD, and only caught up with me at the Twenty-Second Reserve. It was a much traveled letter.
I put in for leave at once and within two days was on my way to visit him. All my leaves for the remainder of the war were spent with him and I look back upon them as interludes of peace, comfort, and happy companionship between periods of hectic action or boredom.
After this leave came a month of routine work with the Reserve, principally giving gas instruction and drill, and then I was sent to the Canadian Military School at Bexhill for a two month course, preparatory to receiving a commission.
The school at Bexhill was unique in its way. It had been established only two months and had already made a splendid reputation for drill and smartness: it also was well known for the strenuousness of the training it gave and for a decided leaning towards "eye wash" and "side".
In my time the School was made up of six companies of about a hundred men each. The first three companies were composed of officers who had come from Canada with battalions that had been broken up for drafts after reaching England, and they themselves were waiting to go to France. The other three companies contained NCOs and men who had seen service in France and who had been recommended for commissions by their regiments.
If one could stand the gaff of hard work and "eye wash", the life at Bexhill was very pleasant. The first week or so was hell for many of us who had come from the softening life of Casualty Depots and Reserve Battalions, but we soon became hardened. As for the "eye wash", we took that as a game which really could be quite amusing at times. Some of its exponents might have been surprised if they had known how much amusement they gave us, although I am sure that nearly all of them performed with their tongues in their cheeks.
Our drill was so well done that it was actually exhilarating - although some people may find that hard to believe. This drill and bayonet fighting were the showpieces of the school and we always had good audiences. This applied particularly to the bayonet drill which was done on a course running parallel with the promenade - Bexhill was a seaside resort. Strange as it may seem, there was a vocal accompaniment to bayonet drill which was considered very important and was insisted upon by the instructors. Not only was it necessary to drive your bayonet into bag or dummy as if you really meant it, but you must at the same time look ferocious and grunt, growl or snarl like a wild animal. This, when done properly, was supposed to exemplify the "spirit of the bayonet", a state of mind that we were urged to carry with us into France.
That the urging was done very largely by instructors who had never been in France may have had something to do with our considering this insistence as a bit of a joke. It was typical of soldiers that they refused to be emotional and treated with suspicion or ridicule any attempt to appeal to that side of their nature. Even the famous "Backs to the wall" general order in 1918 was treated with levity by the troops, who parodied and added to it with more humour than respect. As a bit of stirring English prose or as something by which future history text book writers might add dignity to the dull pages of their books, it was doubtless fine stuff, but it was quite lost on troops whose literary appreciation was, at least temporarily, in abeyance, and who were too busy making history to care how the making sounded when translated into words.
Bayonet fighting at Bexhill was far bloodier than any I ever saw in France! We were using the Ross rifle with its sharp-edged rear sight and a good vigorous jab into a bag always raked the back of one's hand over this sight. If our hands were not bleeding after one trip over the course, the instructor knew that we were not putting our hearts, or our backs, into the work.
Can it be wondered that people flocked to the promenade to watch us? It must have been either very stirring or very ridiculous, to see all these young men rushing at prone dummies and with growl and grimace plunging bayonets into them: in! out! on guard! in! out! butt end to head! Slash across throat! Knee to his groin! Kick him in the testicles! Gr-a-a-ah! What a war!
The day's routine was strenuous in the extreme, with the only physical pause coming from eleven-fifteen to twelve each morning when we were herded into the glass-roofed Kursal on the promenade and given a lecture. The pause was often mental as well as physical, for after four or five hours of strenuous exercise in the open it was almost impossible to keep awake when seated in the hot atmosphere of the hall.
Instructors walked up and down the aisles during the lecture and tapped with their sticks any cadet who seemed to be nodding. The officers sat in the front of the hall and the lecturer himself generally checked them up when they fell asleep. One of the senior lecturers was particularly vitriolic in such reprimands and always made the delinquent officer stand up before he made his very pointed remarks. One day he spotted near the front of the hall a large and somewhat fat Major who not only was sleeping but was actually doing it in a wholehearted and audible way. "Stand up, that officer in the third row. Stand up, I say! Someone wake up that fat officer in the third row." The Major apparently woke up just in time to hear himself referred to as a "fat officer". He rose slowly in his place and everyone expected to hear the lecturer excel himself. However, we were due for a surprise - and so was the acid-tongued lecturer. Before he could commence, the Major in a loud voice said, "You go to hell", and walked out of the hall. We heard that he was sent back to Canada. Perhaps he had acquired too much of the "spirit of the bayonet".
We played a great deal of tennis and baseball and I unfortunately broke my thumb while playing the latter game. As it was impossible to handle a rifle under such conditions, I reported to one of the several Medical Officers, expecting to be excused carrying a rifle for a few days. The MO looked at my thumb and said, "You broke your thumb playing baseball didn't you?"
"Well, if you could play baseball with a broken thumb, you can do rifle exercises with one."
"But Sir, I didn't play baseball after I broke my thumb."
"That'll do! That'll do!" and he marked me fit for regular duty. This nearly resulted in my being sent back to my unit.
I explained to the instructor of my company that my thumb was broken and that I couldn't do rifle drill. He refused to even look at my thumb and told me to be on parade with my rifle, or there would be hell to pay. I went on parade all right, and with my rifle, but there was hell to pay just the same. When I tried to slope arms my rifle fell with a great clatter on the paved street where we had fallen in. The instructor did quite well in the way of extemporary exhortations, but when the same thing happened again with his next order, he called me out of the ranks and became grossly personal and most insulting in his remarks. I had just decided that it would be worth losing my commission, and probably my sergeant's stripes, for the pleasure that I should get out of giving him one good poke on the chin, when our Company Commander strolled out from behind some neighboring bushes where he had been talking to one of the other officers. He had apparently heard everything, for he gave the instructor a terrific bawling out, ending up by telling him that if he ever heard him address a cadet in that way again he would see that he lost his job and was sent to France, where the cadets had come from and where the instructor had never been. This last was what was commonly known as "a dirty crack". The instructor blamed me for everything.
From that day he "rode" me as much as he dared, particularly when the OC was not present, and finally reported me as having failed on a map reading test that we had written and which any twelve year old schoolboy could have passed with ease. My OC, who was a prince, said that he was sorry but he supposed I'd have to be sent back to my unit. He consented to a few days delay and I started to do some detective work. I found that my paper had never even been corrected - I had simply been marked down as "failed". By a little judicious bribery I got the paper and the same night paid the instructor a very private call.
The next morning the Company Commander called me to one side and said that I'd be glad to know that it had been discovered that a mistake had been made in registering my marks and that instead of failing I had turned in a perfect paper!
I doubt if many of us were ever before, or have ever since been, in such perfect physical condition as we were at Bexhill. The food was good, the sea air healthful, and the work interesting. Although some of the instructors were far from popular, they were all very proficient and one can forgive a man almost anything if he knows and does his job well. The camp commandant, Colonel Critchley, was the most soldierly looking soldier that I ever saw and from all accounts his actions were as good as his appearance. Certainly had built up a remarkably fine military school in a surprisingly short time.
I spent the two busiest and most enjoyable months of my army service at Bexhill and have always looked back upon them with pleasure.
While we were at school the Twenty-Second Reserve had been merged with the Twenty-Third, and when we returned to Shoreham, as very new looking and slightly self-conscious junior officers, it was to the latter Battalion that we went. We were distributed amongst the various companies and settled down to routine work until such time as our turn to go back to France should come.
Everything went well until the middle of the second month when suddenly, on orders from the General in command of the Canadians in that area, a dozen or more of us were put under arrest to await a General Court Martial. This was a surprise!
We were paraded and the charge read to us: "conduct unworthy of an officer and a gentleman, in that on such and such a date we had cashed cheques on the Bank of Montreal when we had no accounts in the bank."
All Canadian officers were paid through the London Branch of the Bank of Montreal, their pay being deposited directly to their credit in that bank. We had been told to wait one month after receiving our commissions and that then it would be in order to issue cheques on our accounts. This we had done. Further investigation showed that through some clerical error in the pay office - where such errors were not unknown - our twelve names had been left off the list sent to the Bank of Montreal and that as a result the charge was quite true. But the blame was hardly ours.
The CO of the Twenty-Third Reserve raised the very devil about our being placed under arrest and went to the area commander with the full explanation, but he might as well have saved his effort. The latter would listen to no explanations: we had cashed cheques where we had no accounts and he was determined to make examples of us.
Our belts were taken away from us - we had no swords - and we were supposed to be confined to our quarters. All the privileges of the officers' mess were supposed to be denied to us and we ate in our rooms. However, the regimental authorities were entirely on our side and enforced only such parts of the regulations as they were compelled to do for appearance sake. It was easy enough to borrow a belt and after dark no questions were asked. Brighton was only a few miles distant.
Still, it wasn't pleasant, and had there been only one or two of us instead of a dozen, it would have been decidedly worse. As it was, we would have been badly worried if we hadn't had the backing of the executive of the Reserve.
The most important evidence against us had to be taken from the books of the bank in Waterloo Place, London. Someone who knew how such proceedings went, told us we would be asked to waive our rights to be present when this evidence was taken. He advised us to refuse to do so and thus force them to give us a free trip to London.
This we did with most successful results. I think there was some sort of a distinction between being under open or close arrest, or some such thing, but anyway they were obliged to give us back our belts and simply order us to report at the bank in London at such and such a time. The time was four PM and so we had the better part of a free day in London.
The stage was set at the bank for the next act of the farce, and we came on in a long row of taxis sharp at four o'clock. All the staff of the bank, mostly girls, had waited to see the "criminals", so we had quite a reception. Then one at a time we sat on a stool beside the officer who had been detailed to take this part of the evidence, while he copied about five figures from the bank's books. That was expensive evidence.
The bank manager, as good a friend as any Canadian officer ever had, then took us into his office and over whiskey and cigarettes explained that the bank had had nothing to do with having us arrested. The fact that we had cashed cheques without having accounts had been reported purely as a matter of routine. In choice and well-spiced periods he told us what he thought of our being arrested under such circumstances, then he showed us a letter that he had written to Canadian Headquarters saying much the same thing but in a slightly more restrained way. Just to make sure that we didn't think the letter a bluff on his part, he had one of us go out and drop it in a nearby mailbox.
After a highly successful evening in London we took the latest train for Brighton, and found when we got there that there was no connection for Shoreham. Since we were traveling at the expense of the prosecution, it seemed a good idea to go the rest of the way in taxis, one for each pair of criminals: it was only twelve miles to Shoreham!
The Comedy of the Cheques dragged on for weeks with several new members being added to the cast in the persons of irate Battalion Commanders from France, who, happening to be on leave, found that some of the promising NCOs whom they had sent over for commissions were languishing - more or less - under arrest. No matter what we had done, we belonged to them, and that made it a family affair.
The final act was quite up to the standard of the rest of the play. We were all paraded to Area Headquarters, and since our belts were brought along by a batman, it seemed likely that we were to be released. However, we were not sure.
As bad luck would have it, I was the first to be paraded in. "You have committed a very serious offense, Mr. Savage." This didn't sound so good. If the charge was to be dismissed, I was perfectly willing to say "Yes Sir" and let it go at that, but supposing we had been wrong in our surmise and the case wasn't to be dismissed - not so good.
I said, "I don't know of any offense that I have committed, Sir."
"Your conduct has been disgraceful. You have cashed a cheque without having money in the bank. Nothing can excuse such conduct."
"Under the circumstances Sir, I feel that I was in no way to blame and so committed no offense."
By the time he had finished I felt that I would be lucky if I didn't get six months in jail as well as lose my commission. However, I was wrong, for when he had finished me, and with me, he turned to the officer who had paraded me in and said, "You will take this officer out and restore his belt to him and tell him that the charge against him has been dismissed." Too bad I hadn't said "Yes Sir" at the beginning.
Before the next victim was taken in, the parading officer said, "The charge against you is going to be dismissed. Now you say "Yes Sir" even if he tells you that you've committed murder!" Not a bad ending to a comedy.
One of my best friends, a fellow officer of the Twenty-Third Reserve, had married a delightful English girl and was living in a nearby village. Life in the Reserve was rendered more endurable by the fact that I was welcome to visit them at any time. I'm sure that with anyone less kind I should have worn my welcome threadbare, for most of my spare hours were spent there.
Many Canadian soldiers lived for years, in France and England, a life confined to camp or institution and with their home instincts meagerly nourished by the letters from home. To be taken into the real life of a family was the greatest good fortune we could look for. Some of us were lucky - but many were not. However, we did have one advantage over the English soldier: since we had no homes to which to come on leave, we had none to bid good-bye to when leave was finished. Those who knew Charing Cross Station with the leave trains pulling out for Folkestone and Dover will understand what I mean.
About this time the Canadians were moved from Shoreham to Bramshot camp. We were no sooner there than someone in authority suddenly decided that the officers waiting to return to France were having much too easy a time. So a programme of drill and work was instituted that would keep us busy from six-thirty AM until late in the afternoon. We were treated exactly as if we were raw recruits, and kept at foot-slogging drill that was as useless and unnecessary as it was unpleasant. At least we were supposed to be kept at it. As a matter of fact, we found that no roll call was taken, so after a day or two none except a few conscientious souls ever turned up for these parades.
This went on for several weeks until one morning some staff officers turned out to see us do our early morning PT. On that particular morning there were three on parade!
We were lined up that afternoon and told the usual story about what rotten soldiers we were. Then we were put through an hour's bayonet drill with gas helmets on. It was all very childish. Someone having both authority and common sense must have interfered, for after a day or two the whole programme was cancelled and we were detailed to more useful training at gas, bombing, revolver, and machine gun schools.
Naturally we were all anxious to get away from the Reserve and were glad enough to find our names on the next draft for France. We had the usual two or three days leave, but instead of going to France at the end of that time I was called to the Orderly Room and told that on instructions from Canadian Headquarters at London my name had been struck off the draft list. I was certain that there must have been a mistake but I saw the instruction and they were most explicit and clear. Apparently nothing could be done about it and so I saw nearly all my friends clear out for France, leaving me behind. The explanation when it came was simple enough: my name had been confused with another Savage who was about to receive some sort of appointment from Headquarters. By the time the error was found, it was too late: my draft had gone.
Life continued drably at the Reserve. I was sent to one of the rifle ranges near Aldershot for a short tour of relief duty and found it worse there than at Bramshot. A trip to Norwich to see my younger brother, who had just arrived from France and was in hospital partly broke the monotony.
I was acting as Second in Command of B Company and it began to look as if I should never get back to France. However, I managed it.
The Company Commander was ill for some time and it devolved on me to take Company Orderly Room each morning. This gave me my chance. Men who were away from the reserve were often arrested and sent back accompanied by a charge sheet signed by an Assistant Provost Marshall (APM). When their cases came up, it was customary to give them a few days CB even if the offense was very slight. This was done to save the trouble of having to explain to an irate APM why his charge had been dismissed. A Company Commander wasn't expected to dismiss any such cases anyway, but was supposed either to give a light punishment or send them up to Battalion Orderly Room.
I began systematically to dismiss all such cases that came before me. It was a great satisfaction to write across a charge sheet which had been signed by a Lieutenant-Colonel,
C.H. Savage, Lieutenant
Six or more of these were returned to various APMs by the clerical force at Battalion Headquarters without noticing the unusual way in which they had been handled. There was hell to pay and most of it was passed on to me. I waited a week and then dismissed another case and again it got by the Reserve Office without anybody's attention being called to it. The explosion this time was sufficient to dislodge me from the Reserve and I at last got my name on a draft list.
Once more I went on draft leave but this time there was no disappointment awaiting me when I returned: I was off for France.
It was hard to understand one's feelings under such circumstances. It was not so much a matter of being glad to go back to France, as a feeling of relief at getting out of England: any move to get away from the drab monotony of the reserve battalions! Since the alternative was France, to France we went. Every month in England made France more attractive, and every week in France convinced one more firmly of the folly of having left England!
In France one said, "Hell, take a chance; perhaps I'll get a nice "blighty" and get over to England: might as well be dead as to stick around here forever." In England, "By God I'm fed up with this place; I'm going back to France where there isn't so damned much "eye wash", and things happen once in a while."
Then there was the recurrence of the feeling that had originally made many of us enlist. Other men were in France fighting, and particularly my friends in the Battalion; I'm perfectly fit, why shouldn't I be there too? It's as much my job as theirs.
It was certainly a mixed lot of motives that brought us back to France, much more complicated than the simple desire to live a little longer that made us want to return to England.
"You've had a good time in England."
"Fairly good, Sir."
"We've been doing a lot of fighting while you were away."
"You got a sort of self-inflicted wound at the Somme didn't you?" (A man could be court-martialed and shot for a self-inflicted wound.)
"I'd hardly call it that, Sir."
"No? You're to go to D Company."
"I suppose you'd prefer to go to C Company."
"Yes, Sir. Nice lot of chaps in D Company, but C is my old Company."
"Well, you're going to D Company."
"Do you know this front?"
"No, Sir, I've never been on it before."
"You'll take out a patrol of twenty men and a machine gun tonight."
"Thank you, Sir."
This was my first day back and it was quite apparent that my popularly at BHQ hadn't changed during my absence.
At D Company headquarters I got a reception that evened things up. This company was composed of men who had been transferred to us from the Sixth Canadian Mounted Rifles, in December 1915, when the Mounted Rifles were made into infantry battalions. They were grand fighters and good companions. Amongst the officers were several former sergeants who had been with me at Bexhill and Bramshot, so I felt quite at home. Their profane comments on my being detailed for a patrol my first night back were encouraging: I had failed to get back into C Company but I had found another home.
We were in support trenches about half a mile behind the front line, so I decided to make use of the remaining hours of daylight to visit the front line trenches and get as much information as I could, both visual and vocal, about the No Man's Land in which I was to make my first appearance. To tell the truth, taking out on a strange front a patrol composed of strange men didn't strike me as a particularly happy idea. Still, I knew that there were ways in which it could be managed.
The orders were to take the patrol out at such and such a point, patrol a certain distance along the front, and to come in an hour before daybreak.
Now there were all sorts of things that might happen to a large patrol, and nearly all of them were unpleasant. If, while you were on the move, you ran into a German patrol that had planted itself in shell holes and was waiting for you, there was a very fair chance of being badly chewed up. If you patrolled too far in either direction you might get mixed up with a patrol from some other battalion, with equally unfortunate results, or you might be fired at from the other battalion's front line or listening post. And there were no sign posts to tell you when you had reached the limits of your own front!
On a broad front, such as that at Mericourt where we were, it was quite possible to get lost in No Man's Land unless you were carrying a properly set compass. One or two men wounded by stray bullets or shell fire could make a difficult situation, particularly when near the German trench. In fact, anything could happen, and if the officer taking out the patrol didn't know his men and also didn't know the front on which they were patrolling, whatever happened was apt to have serious results. Unless you knew the NCOs and men with you and also had a pretty good knowledge of the topography of No Man's Land, these large patrols were the very devil. As a matter of fact, they were seldom ordered out under such a combination of adverse conditions.
It is doubtful if large patrols were the most efficient way of doing the work. Patrols were, generally speaking, sent out either to fight or to get information. For the latter purpose the large patrol was a complete washout; while for fighting, a patrol of ten men could do better work than one of twenty and was comparatively easy to handle. For reconnaissance a patrol of three men was idea. Those who had to handle patrols in No Man's Land were always anxious to take out fewer men, but were seldom allowed to do so.
No one got much enjoyment out of taking out twenty men and a machine gun, but to be on your own in No Man's Land with two or three picked and experienced NCOs or men was as exhilarating work as anyone could desire. It was man against man with no outside interference, and came as close to being a fair game as anything could in war.
I had no intention of taking any unnecessary chances with my first patrol. We went out through a lane in the wire near our right flank, moved down the line slowly until we had covered half our front and then took up a circular defense position in shell holes about four hundred yards in front of our wire. No Man's Land here was half a mile wide - the broadest I ever saw - so we were about in the middle of it: a good position for waylaying any German patrol that came on our front.
Our Lewis gun was on the part of the circle facing the German line: although an enemy patrol was quite as likely to appear at any other point. As a matter of fact, these guns were just an infernal nuisance on patrols, for when things happened they happened fast, and unless the German patrol walked right up in front of the Lewis gun it was quite useless. And it was hard to drag such guns around No Man's Land, particularly when the patrol was crawling. However, orders were to take them out, so take them out we did.
Once the patrol was comfortably settled, I left the Sergeant in charge and went off with an experienced scout to look over the front, in anticipation of future patrols to be taken out. This was the only proper way to find out things, and besides, it was much more fun than shivering in a shell hole for the rest of the night. There was only one objection to it - rejoining the patrol. If you had a few nervous men in the circle one of them might take a pot shot at you when you came crawling back. Still there was little danger involved, for he would almost certainly miss.
We crawled or walked to where we figured our front ended, then we came back almost to our starting point. From there we cut straight across to the German wire and spent half an hour or so there, crawling around, trying to locate any listening posts that the Germans might have in or in front of their wire. Their belt of wire must have been fairly narrow for we were able to get close enough to hear them talking in the trenches. This was the widest and least torn up No Man's Land that I had ever seen and seemed an ideal one in which to do patrols.
Our own wire on this front was sixty or more feet deep and it was quite impossible to take patrols out or bring them in except by the lanes that had been provided for that purpose. In the pitch dark it was not always easy to strike one of these lanes after having traveled along a front of perhaps half a mile. Until I became thoroughly used to this front it sometimes took me half an hour to find the infernal hole in the wire, when it was time to come in.
On this occasion, however, there was no difficulty and daybreak found us all safely back in D Company's dugouts having a very good and much needed breakfast.
Much to everybody's surprise I was detailed by name from BHQ to take out a working party during the day. This was doubly unusual. In the first place the detail normally should have called for an officer and so many men, leaving the Company Commander to choose the officer whose turn it was for such duty, and in the second place it was not customary, except in emergencies, to detail an officer for working party when he had been out all night on patrol.
On returning from the working party I found myself again detailed for patrol duty and the next morning I was for working party again. This was too much, and my Company Commander started for BHQ all steaming hot and breathing words about them getting someone else to run the damned Company if they didn't think him capable of looking after the detailing of his own officers.
They explained to him that it was "just a clerical error" - which was as good an excuse as any.
By the end of the month I knew this bit of No Man's Land as well as I did our own trenches but in spite of that I went astray one night with almost disastrous results - for me. We had been well over on the German side and were hurrying to get in before the light gave us away. It was a dark night and I must have gone off a bit too much to the right, for suddenly I recognized that the wire at which we had arrived was nowhere near as thick as that in front of our trenches. I consulted with the Sergeant and we decided that we must have got onto the front of the Battalion holding the line to our left. There was no time before daylight to get back on our own reservation, so we decided to go in where we were.
Word was always passed to flanking battalions telling them what patrols were out and it was no unusual thing for a patrol to come in on another front, but in spite of this it was always a risky bit of work.
I followed the procedure usual under such circumstances. The patrol was put in a defensive position in shell holes and the patrol commander started through the wire for the front line. There was only one way to approach your own line and that was standing up, for to crawl was to invite trouble.
I went through two lots of wire and hailed the front line - "Hello the -----th." There was no answer. The awful thought crossed my mind that perhaps I had become confused and had lead the patrol in a circle and back to the German wire. Not a nice thought when you are standing in the wire in front of a strange trench. My belly pressed against my backbone and I could feel the machine gun bullets rip through it. But I had looked at my compass only a minute or two before and it had shown us going in the right direction: this must be our line.
I went through a little more wire and shouted again, "Hello the ----th." "Come in you damn fool," said a voice from the trench. And I came in. "My God, Sir, I almost shot you up," said the Machine Gun Corporal, "We didn't know anyone was out."
There was just time to get the patrol in before daylight.
It turned out that this machine gun crew had taken over only about a half hour before, and those whom they relieved, thinking that we must have come in by that time, had not bothered to pass on the word about our patrol.
While in reserve on this front we lived in huts and trenches in the vicinity of what had been Neuville St Vaast. This had been German territory before its capture on April ninth of the previous year by the Canadians and the old tunnels and dugouts constructed by the enemy were still in fairly good shape. Although we did not use them, we inspected them all, particularly the tunnels, and marveled at the amount of work that must have gone into their construction.
This was a great front for activity in the air and it was seldom that a day went by without our being spectators either of a good aerial fight or of a "sausage hunt".
At this time both sides were making extensive use of captive balloons for artillery observation purposes and these balloons took their name from the German variety which somewhat resembled a fat sausage. Each balloon was attached by a steel cable to a specially designed motor truck and worked at heights of, I suppose, from fifteen hundred to three or four thousand feet. The balloons were filled with hydrogen gas which was extremely inflammable, and the observer was provided with a parachute for emergencies.
Any clear day at Neuville St Vaast we could see from five to eight of our balloons strung in a long line along the ridge from Arras to Loos, and one morning shortly after breakfast we were treated to a demonstration of balloon hunting that must have created a record score for one plane.
The first point was made near Arras and we were casually watching the flaming balloon fall, when the next one in line - and nearer us - also burst into flame and we could see the observer make his wild leap. This was becoming interesting and we got our machine guns and rifles out, so that we could join in the game if Heine decided to make a try for the number four balloon, which was quite close to us. By this time he was pip-pipping away at number three and we could see the observer standing on the side of the basket and trying to see whether his balloon had been hit by one of the incendiary bullets that the German was firing. A puff of smoke appeared near the top of the bag, and the observer jumped. He had to jump well out from the balloon or the burning bag when falling might trap him. Heine was now well into our area and every gun and machine gun was blazing away at him for dear life. It was a miracle that he wasn't badly hit for he was flying quite low and probably at least two thousand rifles and thirty or forty machine guns as well as several "archies" (anti-aircraft) were keeping up a constant fire. He finished off number four balloon almost under our noses and continuing on to Souchez brought down another there. Five was a perfect score, as there were no more balloons in sight.
Balloon hunting was not always as successful as this and occasionally the rifle and machine gun fire ground brought down one of the hunters. Our own planes served the Germans in the same way but the latter were inclined to lower their balloons hastily when danger threatened.
It was on this front that we had regular visits in, or rather over, the front line from a German flyer whom we called "the Mad Major". I don't know whether he was a Major or not but I'm willing to agree that he was "mad".
At that time we were having a great deal of fog early each morning and the Mad Major came with the fog. There would be a terrific roar and out of the fog would appear a German plane flying at not more than fifty or sixty feet above the trench. With his machine gun spitting he went the length of our trench and disappeared again into the fog. After the first surprise we loaded the drums of our Lewis guns with armour piercing bullets and were ready for him but we never seemed to do him any harm. That made the score even, for he never hit any of us. I hope that he got as much fun out of it as we did: he deserved more for the extra risk he took.
It was decided that we should pull off a very large raid while on this front. All the officers volunteered and seven or eight lucky ones were picked for the job. These officers, with over a hundred men, were sent out to billets behind the line to practice on trenches built to resemble those that were to be raided. This made a lot of extra duty for the rest of us and often meant "three hours on, three hours off" for several days at a time.
As luck would have it, there was an American officer attached to my Company for instruction at this time. He was a fine chap but so eager to learn that he wanted to talk all the time, which made him an infernal bother to people who were trying to get their sleep in odd lots of about two hours each. He was particularly interested in gas and had been sent to our company so that he could get his information from me.
He got some rather exciting experience as well as the information he was after.
Company Headquarters was in a deep dugout about fifty yards behind the front line and on our left flank. Just after "stand down" one morning the OC and I, being off duty, were sitting down to breakfast with our American guest, when there was a sudden burst of artillery fire from the Germans. It sounded like the sort of short barrage that preceded a raid, and with that in mind we were up and over the top to the front line in less time than it takes to write it. The shelling was with "whiz-bangs" and trench mortars and fortunately was not accurate enough to do us much damage, but it certainly did make a grand noise. This had been going on for about three or four minutes when we got a real surprise. A whole flock of what looked like huge trench mortar shells came sailing over from the German line. At first it looked as if they would land on the left section of our company but by the time they were halfway across we could see that they would just about miss us. We got everyone ready at once, for these were bombs from gas projectors.
We had no gas casualties and very few from shelling, but the Battalion on our left was not so fortunate. Many of the gas bombs made direct hits on their front and support lines and their casualties were heavy.
The whole affair lasted not more than fifteen minutes and then we experienced one of those contrasts so common under the circumstances, but so difficult to visualize. There was not a sound of gun or rifle from either side, the sun was shining brilliantly, even a few birds could be heard singing. It was a beautiful soft spring morning and all was peace.
But down the communication trenches the stretcher bearers were carrying those for whom that fifteen minutes meant more than a little excitement before breakfast, and in our dugout our guest was jumping around and saying, "By God, it's great to be in a battle! Did I look scared? By God, it's great to be in a battle! I must write home at once." I hope his enthusiasm lasted, and that he wasn't too surprised when he got into a real "show".
The day before the big raid was to come off, we were in reserve dugouts about a mile behind the line. Shortly after noon I was called to Battalion Headquarters on the rush. The Colonel said, "Mr. ----, who had been out practicing with the raiding party, had been taken sick. You are to take his place."
I was pleased as Punch to be in on the raid after all, but not particularly enthusiastic about the part I was to take. This was to be in charge of the stretcher party and to be responsible for getting our wounded or dead out of the German trenches. Amongst other things it meant going over the raided area carefully, after the signal of recall, to make sure that no one was left behind. It also meant being the last out of the German trenches and the last back to our own, and there was bound to be a fine German barrage going by that time.
The Colonel added that I could fix it up with the Medical Officer as to where the advance dressing station in the front line was to be. He also told me to pick my own stretcher bearers.
We located a suitable dugout near the right flank of the battalion front and the Doctor set about making all the necessary preparations. I made a mental note of the wire that would have to be cut in order to get in and out of the trench, and then returned to Company headquarters.
Here the Company Commander had waiting for me a Sergeant, Corporal, and thirty men, all of whom had volunteered to form the stretcher bearer party. This provided for fifteen stretcher cases, if none of the bearers themselves were hit, and seemed ample. Certainly we would be unlucky if we had more casualties than that.
We divided the men into teams and then decided how we should do the work. The Sergeant and twenty-four men were to remain just outside the German front line, while the Corporal and I, with six men, were to work in the raided area and bring the casualties out to the Sergeant's party. As soon as a team had delivered their case at the dressing station they were to go back to Company Headquarters on their own and report to the Company Commander.
As there was nothing more to do until it became dark enough to cut the wire in No Man's Land in front of this dressing station, I had something to eat and turned in for three hours sleep.
At about half-part nine in the evening, I took with me a man experienced in wire cutting and started working on the inner row of wire. Before leaving the trench I had shown the Sergeant where the men were to assemble and had told him to have them there at three-thirty AM. The raid was to start at four and we were to be the last party to leave our line.
We worked steadily at the wire and by two AM had finished all except a single row of two or three strands, which was about thirty or forty yards in front of the main lot of wire. We went out to that and soon cut through it. As we still had plenty of time I thought that I'd go out a little further to see if there were any single strands that I might have missed in my necessarily hurried daylight survey.
We had gone perhaps fifty or sixty feet when there was a sudden commotion almost under our noses. Three or four rifles blazed out and several bombs exploded. We thought at first that it was somebody after us and we went to ground "pronto" in a shell hole. This was the last thing that we had expected when working on our own wire: my assistant's only weapon was a pair of wire cutters and his bayonet, while I had my revolver.
There was no more shooting and after a moment we heard Canadian voices expostulating profanely at their owners' being kicked by ----- Germans. Heinie had captured a small patrol - about two or three men it seemed - from the battalion on our right. The voices gradually died away and we crawled out of our hole and hurried back towards our wire.
But we didn't hit it. We tried again, and again missed it. One more try and we were hopelessly confused. I had left my compass behind at CH because I wouldn't need it on the raid!
Ordinarily machine gun fire or flares could be depended upon as guides. We stopped, looked and listened, but not a flare went up nor a machine gun spoke. I looked at my watch: in forty minutes I was due to meet my party in the trench! There was only one thing to do, walk, and walk fast - and hope that we weren't going parallel with the front lines.
We stumbled through shell holes, making no attempt at concealment, and finally found ourselves up against wire. But whose? There was a way to find out: bang the wire with the clippers, and duck. A German machine gun burst into an indignant chatter. That was that.
On the way back to our trench we ran into three different sections of the raiding party, who were making their way across No Man's Land to their raid positions. In each case we were nearly bayoneted before we could make ourselves known. Finally we reached the part of the trench where I was to meet the party. There they were. I looked at my watch: three-thirty AM!
I had time to make one good resolution: in future I would carry my compass with me, even if I were going no farther than the latrine.
Making raids had become a real science and large ones such as this were very carefully planned. Besides having officers and men out for weeks practicing on dummy trenches, every precaution was taken to avoid confusion in No Man's Land. Each party had a different time for leaving our trench and the way to the assembly point outside the German wire was marked by tapes earlier in the night. All a party had to do was to follow to the end of its tape and it would be at the exact spot allotted to it in the raid.
Ours was the last party to leave the trenches and, as I lay just outside the German wire with my teeth chattering with cold and excitement, I was glad that I hadn't been in one of the first sections to come out. They had been lying there for the better part of an hour, and it was cold.
The signal for the show to start was to be a ball of red fire on top of Vimy Ridge. The artillery would shoot for three minutes on the front line and then box in the raid area with barrages on the sides and back. While this was going on a general demonstration was to be made by the troops along the Canadian front in order to mask the location of the real attack.
A hundred and fifty of us lay there in front of the wire and each one was gazing back to where the Ridge showed as a blacker shadow in the disappearing night. It was deathly quiet. And then the red signal flare shot quickly into the air and hung over Vimy.
The whole Canadian front broke into an uproar of shells, trench mortars, rifle and machine gun fire, and fake gas attacks. But over us the real barrage was being shot, and it was a beauty, the best and most accurate that I have ever seen.
The eighteen pounder shrapnel shells were bursting directly over our heads and throwing their deadly load forward and down into the front line. A solid belt of yellow flame about twenty or thirty feet above us: it was magnificent!
The moment the barrage started our men threw torpedoes into the wire and began placing the linoleum and getting everything ready for the rush into the front line.
As suddenly as it had started the barrage over our heads stopped and with a yell we were scrambling through the wire and into Fritz's trench. Nearly all the Germans in the front line were dead or wounded and there was practically no resistance. A few were killed, and then each party went to that part of the area that had been allotted to it for cleaning up.
The spectacle in the raided area might well have served as an illustration for a new Inferno. Shells were falling amongst us and the upheavals from these, joined to the smoke and dust from the box barrage, made the trenches look in the breaking daylight like a scene on the threshing floors of Hell. The ground rocked under us as huge torpedoes were thrown down the entrances of deep dugouts and exploded thirty or forty feet beneath us. And the noise was terrific and incessant.
Within three minutes of entering the German trenches we were in communication by telephone with our own front line. I saw a signaler talking over the phone as unconcerned as if he were in a headquarters dugout. A shell fell nearby, blowing him across the trench and half burying him: he scrambled out of the debris and went on with his message.
The German fire increased and our casualties mounted. The roar of the barrage was punctuated by the shriek and almost instantaneous explosion of shells landing amongst us. Already over half our stretchers had been used. Bearers rushed to where the Major in charge of the raid lay: he was dead.
Our last stretcher had just been sent away when the signal to withdraw came. Smoke bombs were exploded to make a screen and the different parties left the raided trenches and started across the seven or eight hundred yards of No Man's Land that separated them from our own line.
It was now necessary to go through the raided area to see that none of our wounded or dead had been left behind. It would have been a lonesome job, but Lieutenant Gifford - we had been Sergeants together in C Company - sent his party home alone and offered to go along with me. Fortunately we found no one. But by the time we were ready to start across No Man's Land, the smoke screen had definitely given away the position of the raid and all the German guns within reach were dropping everything they had on that area.
The smoke was so thick that it was impossible to find the lanes that had been cut in our wire and it seemed to me as we scrambled and scratched through row after row of it that the whiz-bangs were coming so thick and close that the wind from them almost turned our ears forward.
Once in the front line, we crawled into a hole to wait for fairer weather before going on to our respective Company Headquarters.
Almost as suddenly as it started it was over. The shelling stopped, it was once more a peaceful spring morning. And a wounded stretcher bearer came along the trench hunting for me, to report that he and his mate had both been wounded and that the Major's body was in No Man's Land where they had been obliged to drop it.
Gifford and I went out and brought him in and then set out for home. I walked into Company Headquarters dugout just in time to hear one of my party report that he had seen me killed by a shell in the German trench - and to hear my batman in the background say, "Another good job gone to Hell."
The hammer blows of repeated German offensives were now falling with full force on the Allies' lines in France. The Canadian Corps, already occupying an abnormally long front, had practically all its men in the front line or in support positions. Reserves were so scanty that one or two battalions might find themselves doing the reserve duty that had formerly called for a Division. Orders were that there were to be no retirements under any circumstances, that every position was to be defended to the last man. The artillery enclosed their gun positions with barbed wire and were issued with rifles and machine guns with which to defend themselves.
The British line from Arras south was being steadily pushed back. On the La Bassee-Armentieres sector an attack was expected at any time. Vimy and the positions in front of it were rapidly being made into a very exposed salient. Each night the star shells on our flanks appeared farther behind us.
Would Vimy Ridge be abandoned? Or would we be ordered to stay and fight it out? Could the Ridge be held if the Germans surrounded it? All sorts of wild rumours were in circulation. Things certainly looked bad.
And yet the Canadian troops were never in better spirits. We were on a front with every inch of which we were thoroughly familiar. The history of Vimy as far as we were concerned was one of success. The position was naturally an exceedingly strong one and that fact also gave us confidence. But what probably really explained our light-heartedness, in a time of somewhat general depression, was the fact that we had not been pounded day after day, week after week, as had the troops that faced the German drives.
Probably because of its natural strength, the Germans in 1918 never made a direct attack on the position held by the Canadians. An inspection of a map of the British front before and after the German offensive of 1918 shows the line forced back everywhere except on the Hill Seventy-Vimy sector.
In a few days time we were to see and work with men who had gone through attack after attack. They had been literally blown out of their positions, had fought wherever they could find any possible cover, and when their numbers became so few that they ceased to be an organization, they were joined to other shattered battalions and once more thrown into the fight. Forty-eight hours with these men convinced us of our utter good luck in occupying the Ridge.
We had now been between thirty or forty days in the front line and close supports and the orders to go out to Neuville St Vaast for baths and a rest were received with general rejoicing.
However, badly as we needed our baths they had to be postponed, for by the time we reached Neuville St Vaast the terrific row going on in the direction of Arras notified us of the resumption of the German drive in that area.
Since we were in reserve, we "stood to", ready to leave for any point at any moment.
Late in the afternoon our orders came. We were to go into the front line - if there was one - somewhere near Arras, while the British troops pulled off a relief. We were to take no part in the relief but were simply to be on hand in case the Germans resumed their attack while the relief was being made.
We started at once, and were not even allowed to eat our suppers, although they were ready and waiting for us in the cook wagons.
It was a cold rainy night and as there seemed considerable doubt as to the location of the battalions we were to assist - or, as a matter of fact, whether any such battalions still existed - we were both literally and figuratively starting off in the dark.
And yet our main worry was not what awaited us in front of Arras but rather whether the cook wagons would be able to follow us with our nice steaming supper.
Our first stopping place was to be the army huts near Roclincourt, about three miles from Neuville St Vaast and quite near Arras. On the way there we passed through some artillery positions that had just been treated to a dozen or so rounds of fourteen or fifteen inch shells. Such big stuff was seldom used close to the line in such profusion, and the sight of the huge shell craters was not very comforting to troops who were quite apparently headed for dirty work.
Some of our sixty pounders were blazing away on the left and I wondered whether it was my brother's battery. I hoped not, for they seemed to be in a particularly exposed position. I had never noticed what a sheet of flame accompanied the discharge of one of these guns: it must have been comparatively easy for the Germans to spot their positions.
Perhaps my information about what we were to do was wrong or perhaps our orders were altered - junior officers weren't let into the confidence of those at Headquarters - but we suddenly found ourselves ordered to take up defensive positions northeast of Roclincourt.
This was new work for troops that had been fighting for years in more or less permanent trenches. It was like going to Military School again to have to think of fields of fire, flank protection, and all that sort of thing.
We had just got well settled in our positions when we were hurried out of them and marched into Roclincourt Camp.
The camp had received its quota of big shells, along with other positions in the vicinity, and was deserted. The sight of huge and very recently made shell holes did not encourage us to linger, but when our steaming cook wagons suddenly appeared everything took on a brighter colour. It was still raining, it was very dark, and we had no idea why or where we were going, but unquestionably things were not nearly as bad as we had been thinking a few minutes previously!
Half an hour in Roclincourt, concerned mostly with hot stew, hot tea, and bread, made new men of us. Only one shell landed there during our stay but that one fell in a group of men and did plenty of damage.
We left Roclincourt in formations reminiscent of our mounted days. As nearly as I could make out we were to go forward in a certain direction until we either found such and such British battalions or came in contact with the Germans. And the betting was that we wouldn't find the British troops.
However, we were wrong there, for we did eventually stumble onto their positions - such as they were.
There were precious few men left and they were in bad shape indeed. To them it seemed as if they had been fighting forever and that there was nothing to do but go on fighting until they were finished off.
To say that they were glad to see us would be putting it very mildly. We gave them food, rum and tobacco and absorbed them for the time being into our organization.
Then we sat down in the trenches to wait for daylight, to see what we had drawn in the way of a defensive position. We were hopeful, but not optimistic, for it seemed to us that we were on the forward slope of a hill.
Morning proved that our surmise was correct: there we were, perched on the forward slope of a fairly steep hill, a perfect target for anyone to shoot at. And of course there was no lack of people to shoot at us.
The hill in front sloped down to a level plain, probably about a mile and a half distant from us, and in the early part of the morning we were able to watch from our grandstand seats some very special manoeuvres that were being put on for our benefit.
For all the world as if they were on the parade ground, two batteries of German light artillery swung across the plain and took up position facing the hill. Ammunition limbers followed and soon each gun had a neat pile of shells beside it.
Then they let us have "the works".
We rushed around trying to find an artillery observer or some way of getting in touch with the guns behind us - we were already in touch with those in front! The artillery had probably been as badly mauled as the infantry, for the German guns continued to fire unmolested and the only observer we could find said that they weren't on his front, and wouldn't ask his guns to fire on them! He never knew how close he came to being shot.
Forty-eight hours later we were back at Neuville St Vaast having our postponed baths, but the rest we had been promised didn't materialize, for we were immediately sent back into the trenches, this time in the Arleux Loop sector.
April ninth was the first anniversary of our capture of Vimy Ridge, but it was the Germans who put on the fireworks to celebrate. They blew our front line and close supports practically out of existence. For hours it rained high explosive, shrapnel and gas shells. It was quite impossible to recognize any part of our front line afterwards.
And we had one man slightly wounded!
The British line at this spot had been drawn back about a week before we came into the sector and the trenches that we were occupying as a front line on the morning of the ninth were what had previously been the supports. As a result the German front line and ours were connected by several very good communication trenches.
My company was holding the front line with three platoons in the trenches and one counter-attacking platoon in a deep dugout about a hundred feet in the rear. The different platoons took turns at occupying the deep dugout, and after a night on duty in the front trenches I had just got my platoon into the dugout when the show started.
For weeks there had been a heavy fog every morning, a perfect condition for an attack, and this morning the fog was heavier than ever. It looked as if something might be about to happen. As a matter of fact, it was the beginning of the German push at Armentieres, but of course we didn't know that.
The dugout we were occupying was a particularly good one, about thirty or forty feet below the surface and, with three stairways and exits, it was ideal for our purpose. Counting Company Headquarters, there were probably fifty or sixty men in it and it was not even slightly crowded.
We arranged the men in the order in which they would rush up and out as soon as the shelling stopped and then there was nothing to do but sit and wait.
The shelling grew heavier and heavier. We were forty feet below ground, but at least once every four or five minutes a big shell landing on top of us extinguished all the candles in the dugout. It seemed as if the walls and ceilings must collapse. But when after four or five shocks they were still intact, we gave up thinking about that and became interested in counting the number of times the candles were put out.
At the end of two hours the bombardment was as heavy as ever. The signalers had gone out three times and miraculously escaped death while repairing broken telephone wires, and finally the Company Commander had forbidden their going out again, since no wire stayed in much longer than it took them to get back to the dugout.
After being out of communication with Battalion Headquarters for six hours we decided that there would never be a better chance to try out the carrier pigeons that we had been carting around with us - not without profanity - for months.
It looked like rough sailing for any pigeon, so we tossed a coin to see which of the pair should go. Jill, the lucky lady, won; so we prepared Jack for his trip.
It was our understanding that these birds returned to either Brigade or Divisional Headquarters, so we wrote out something for purely local consumption. In fact, since there was nothing in particular to say except that we were alive, we made it more or less of a parody upon some of the rather high sounding general orders that occasionally came out from Corps and Army Headquarters. We put in a bit about "the morale of the troops being high" and a few other touches that anyone at Brigade or Division would be sure to recognize.
Then one of the signalers took the unfortunate bird upstairs. Just as he released him a shell exploded near the entrance and the signaler was blown back downstairs with a nice little hole in his arm.
And the fool bird? After wandering around for a day and a night he turned up at Army Headquarters. And they loved our message and published it in Army Orders!
The shelling stopped as suddenly as it had begun and we rushed up the stairs and out into the Communication Trench. It was completely blown to pieces, so we went overland towards what had been the front line. Of course we expected that our three unfortunate platoons had been wiped out, and we were surprised as we followed farther and farther along the shattered trench to find no one in it, either dead or alive.
Finally we came to the Communication Trench connecting our line with the Germans and just as we arrived there some of our men came strolling down it. As soon as the bombardment had started the officers in the front line had taken their platoons along this communication trench almost to the German line, and there they had spent the morning quite comfortably, thank you.
The only casualty that the Company had was the signaler who had been wounded releasing the pigeon!
We hoped for a little rest at the end of this tour but such was not to be the case. We marched from the trenches to Mont St Eloy and were there loaded onto a narrow gage railway that carried us almost into the supports behind Loos, on the Hill Seventy side of Lens. Here we took over from an English regiment in the support line.
The trip from the Arleux trenches to Hill Seventy gave us a pleasant surprise. We had been so long in the shell-torn front area where grass and trees existed, if at all, under great difficulties, that we had failed to notice that winter had turned to spring and spring almost to summer. As our train passed through the back area, the green fields and trees were a most refreshing sight and one that we fully appreciated.
It was D Company's turn to be in support and after eight hectic days in the front line we settled into comfortable deep dugouts, with every intention of taking things easy for a few days.
I had just turned into my bunk for a sleep when a runner from Battalion Headquarters arrived with a message - I was to report at once to C Company in the Chalk Pit, to take out patrols for the eight days that they were to hold that position.
So my visions of comfort and sleep vanished. My batman packed up my stuff and we started for the Chalk Pit.
The Hill Seventy front at that time was unusual enough to warrant a short description. Late in 1917 the British (including the Canadians) had put on an attack here which had forced the Germans back. As a result what had formerly been the two opposing front lines now formed part of our support line. These trenches were referred to as OG One and OB One, meaning the old German front line and the old British front line. Similarly there were other trenches known as OG Two and OB Two.
From the old German front line a well-made tunnel lead to a large excavation which formed part of our new front line and which was called the Chalk Pit.
The Chalk Pit was one of those happy spots known as "sacrifice positions". In case of an attack the tunnel leading to it was to be blown up - it was heavily mined and a sentry was always on duty ready to fire it - and the garrison was then to fight on until exterminated or relieved.
Trenches were built on the outside edge of the excavation, and since the Pit was near the bottom of a hill the trenches at the back were considerably higher than those in front. Large dugouts had been built into the back of the pit but unfortunately they faced towards the German line.
Besides holding the Chalk Pit, C Company also was responsible for about two hundred yards of trench on the right flank and for patrolling a wide gap on the left where no trenches had as yet been dug.
The distance between the opposing trenches on this front was small, not more than a hundred or a hundred and fifty yards and all parts of No Man's Land were visible from either trench. It was somewhat surprising to find, then, that Battalion Headquarters had ordered out a patrol of twenty men and a Lewis gun.
The Battalion Scout officer and the Company Commander both protested strenuously that to send a large patrol out on this front on such a bright night was asking for trouble. The result was that not only did I have to take out the full-sized patrol, but I was wrathfully told that if I lost the Lewis gun I'd be court-martialed!
So out we went.
When we had covered about two-thirds of the length of the front, Fritz, who had probably been watching us all the time, put a nice little trench-mortar barrage between us and our trench. We took up positions in shell holes and waited to see what would come next. It seemed logical to expect the Germans to send out a big patrol to finish us off, but apparently they decided on a safer method. Their barrage was gradually shortened and it was apparent that in a few minutes it would be concentrated on us.
We divided the men into pairs and told them to spread out in a long line and get through the barrage at what seemed the best spots, and all to meet again in the front line.
The check up in the front line was not so good - we were short two men and the Lewis gun! A quarter of an hour later I located the two men in a shell hole into which they had ducked when about halfway back to our line. The Lewis gun was with them, so all was well.
For the remainder of the eight day tour we had orders for the same size patrol each night, but I never took out more than two or three men. The remainder stayed in the far end of the trench with the Sergeant. We had a messenger ready to warn us if anyone from Battalion Headquarters was coming, and the Sergeant's orders, in that event, were to get his men out into No Man's Land and to lie "doggo" until the friendly danger had passed. This worked very well and we had no more patrol troubles.
About the third night in, we were shot up by our own light artillery. I was standing in the raised part of the trench behind the Chalk Pit when the first shell came over and I'll swear that it didn't miss my head by more than a couple of feet. It landed in the trench on the front lip of the Chalk Pit, and before we could get word back three more had followed it. We had some nasty casualties and since the artillery behind us did not belong to the Canadians there were some very acrimonious debates about what battery was responsible for the short shooting. The artillery always used the same argument: it must have been German shells, since they had had no guns shooting on that particular front at the time we reported the shorts!
It all lead, however, to a comic incident that restored good feeling on both sides.
For some time there had been rumours of German spies dressed as British officers coming through gaps in the front line. We had one of these gaps on our left and our patrols had particular instructions to keep a very sharp lookout.
I had just started my tour of duty as trench officer late one night when I heard excited voices from a group approaching me. "Keep your damned hands up or I'll poke you one," came in unmistakably Canadian tones, accompanied by expostulations in a very English voice.
"But I say, but I say-----". And in front of me appeared one of our men with his bayonet uncomfortably close to the back of an English officer.
"I've got one of ï¿½em, Sir. He was trying to get through the gap and he doesn't know the password."
It looked as if we might really have caught a spy, for anyone wanting to visit our Company would naturally have come through the tunnel, and besides, there were no English troops in this part of the line.
So we took him down to Company Headquarters dugout and questioned him. He said that he was from the artillery that had been blamed for shooting us up and that he had come up to see just where the shells had landed, etc, etc. He hadn't bothered to stop at Battalion Headquarters on the way up, didn't know that there was a tunnel, and hadn't thought about a password being necessary in the front line until he had been asked for it. He had come cross-country and, unluckily, had hit our line at the gap.
His story sounded fairly convincing but we kept him very much on tenterhooks for the half hour it took to get into communication with his battery and verify his statement. Then we brought out the scotch and called the episode officially closed.
He wasn't the only one to suffer from the men's zeal, for a few nights later a staff officer, who had also forgotten to get the password, was treated in a like manner.
Orders called for the maximum activity on this front, and raids, gas attacks, and heavy artillery fire were the result. Naturally the Germans retaliated and within a few days of our arrival what had apparently been a nice quiet front had been turned into a regular hellhole.
Our gas attacks caused us the most inconvenience. American Gas Companies had batteries of gas projectors planted in several places behind us and in eight days they made three attacks.
Since there was a chance of a projector shell falling short and in our own front line, we had to evacuate our trenches before each attack. Then, in case the Germans had seized the opportunity to occupy our positions in our absence, we had to arrange ourselves in bombing squads and go back into our line as if we were attacking it. This was a great bother, although a wise precaution.
The towns behind this part of the line provided friendly billeting places and we looked forward with pleasure to two or three weeks rest in them as soon as this tour in the line should end - if it ever did.
I was due for a disappointment however. About the second day out of the line I was ordered to go to Divisional Headquarters with my platoon to form part of a composite company which was to put on some sort of demonstration of new and improved methods of attack in open warfare.
There were also two other platoons from the Third Division, each with an officer in charge. We went to one of the Aides to see what arrangements had been made for feeding our men and found that nothing had been done. I bought food for two days to feed my platoon until rations began to come through, and also sent back to the Battalion to get cooking pots and pans in which to prepare the food.
The same aide told me that of course it was impossible for us three officers to eat at the Divisional Mess, and when he was asked where in hell he thought we could eat if not there, he said that he was sure he didn't know, but perhaps we could organize a mess of our own! Finally we were allowed to eat in the Junior Mess.
It was there that for the first time I saw mess members mark and initial the level of the whiskey in their bottles after each drink. I thought at first that this was to prevent the mess servants from stealing the whiskey, but after two weeks I was not so sure.
It was a great relief at the end of two or three weeks to get back to the Battalion and the comfortable friendly atmosphere of a Company Mess.
Once in a great while the various companies when at rest in billets were close enough to each other so that all the officers of the Battalion were able to eat together, but as a rule each Company had its own officers' mess, presided over by the Company Commander. And in the line this was always the case.
It was surprising how little discord there was in these intimate groups - in fact I can't remember there ever being any trouble at all. Perhaps I was lucky in the Company Commanders under whom I served and in the other officers with whom I lived and worked - in fact I know I was - but I am inclined to believe that a happy Company Mess was the general rule and that real friendship and loyal and self-sacrificing cooperation almost invariably existed between the members of these little groups.
Two days after my return from Divisional Headquarters the battalion was once more on the move. The German drive at Armentieres had been successful and the British line had been pushed back almost to St Venant. My battalion was sent into that area to take up positions near the canal, behind St Venant, and to be ready to counterattack anywhere on that front.
The large town of St Venant was a most unusual sight. We were quite accustomed to seeing cities and towns that had been smashed to pieces by shellfire and abandoned by the civilian population, but St Venant was quite different. Not only was it undamaged but it was empty. The other towns and cities close to the line - Arras, Albert, Ypres - had been devoid of civilians but had contained any number of soldiers: although they were in ruins they still seemed alive. St Venant, on the other hand, appeared untouched, but dead.
No soldiers appeared at cellar entrances, the long cobbled streets were deserted, not even a cat was to be seen. In some houses the tables were still set for meals, beds had been made but not slept in, clothes still hung in the closets.
The line held by the Portuguese had been broken in this sector and their retirement had been rapid, to put it mildly. The German thrust had been unexpected and deep and St Venant in a matter of hours changed from a quiet town well beyond the danger zone into one almost in the front line. There had been no careful evacuation of the civilian population - they had fled.
And amongst other things that they left behind were cellars and estaminets well stocked with every possible kind of drink - except soft. It was necessary to put St Venant out of bounds for all troops, and even then the odd soldier would sneak in after dark and bring out a sand bag full of bottles.
The village behind the canal, where we were living, also held an English Machine Gun Battalion and a great many Portuguese. The English and Canadian soldiers did not get along at all well with these Portuguese whom they always referred to as the "--- ---- Pork and Beans". A general order once came out that "Our gallant allies the Portuguese must not be referred to as the "--- ---- Pork and Beans".
They were very handy with their knives and eventually one of the men of the Machine Gun Battalion was seriously stabbed in a quarrel. The Machine Gun Battalion at once placed guns on every street corner and for twelve hours no Portuguese dared stick his nose outside his billet.
One night I had turned in early after a hard day and had just got to sleep when I was awakened by the clatter of a falling rifle on the stone floor of the adjoining room. On investigation it proved to be my batman, who was decidedly "tight". He had got his rifle and was just about to go out again when I called him back.
"What the hell do you mean by waking me up like this. And what are you doing with that rifle at this time of night?"
He said, "Dam' Portygee inshulted me. I'm going out to shoot me a Portygee."
As a counterattacking battalion we had to be ready to go to any part of this sector, and each day groups of officers and NCOs visited the various parts of the line so that they would know the different areas if called upon to fight in them.
We also practised assiduously at counterattacking and sometimes in making these attacks we went rather far afield. The work was impromptu, as was right, and one day after resting in a little grove of trees we were suddenly told to attack what appeared to be an empty trench about three hundred yards in front of the woods.
In the most approved counterattacking style we assaulted the trench, much to the surprise of the English troops who were holding it as part of the front line!
The railway ran close behind the town, and every day a long-range naval gun mounted on a railway truck did a little shooting over our heads. The engine, working slowly and quietly, would place the truck over a prepared concrete gun position, onto which the gun settled down like some giant turtle. Then it would swing round and slowly the muzzle would rise; a moment's pause and then away went the first shell. Each day they fired four or five rounds and then stole quietly away before anything began to come back!
Every day the Germans fired a few of their own from a "rubber gun" - as we called their long range ones - apparently searching for this gun. They knocked off one end of the house in which we had our officers' mess and killed and wounded several civilians but did no great damage.
Wounded or killed civilians seemed to have a most depressing effect on the troops. Men, on whom the sight of dead and wounded fellow soldiers apparently had little or no effect, appeared quite shocked when the victims were civilians. Violent death and wounds were somehow dignified by a uniform but when they came to those in ordinary clothes they seemed incongruous and almost horrible. The sight of a child wounded or killed by shell fire would sink a whole battalion in the depths of depression.
The Germans made no more attacks in this area and we were soon moved to other and quite different work. We spent the better part of the month of June in the Bomy area - the First Army Special Manoeuvre Region - practicing attack and defence in open warfare.
This was June 1918 and the enemy still held the initiative on the Western Front. During this month and the first half of July the Germans made several attacks, any one of which might have broken the line sufficiently to bring about the state of open warfare that they were striving for. It was only on July eighteenth at Soissons that the initiative passed into the hands of the Allies - and then apparently rather to their surprise.
I have always wondered whether our training in open warfare was ordered by someone sufficiently far-seeing to envisage the Amiens, Arras and Cambrai offensives and the fighting on the road to Mons, or whether we were being prepared to meet the Germans after they had triumphantly broken the Allies' line.
It was the proper training for either contingency so whoever ordered it was betting on a sure thing.
And did we train? Day and night battles all over the place: tanks, airplanes, cavalry, artillery: they were all there. And when we weren't busy looking after platoons in manoeuvres of our own we were acting as umpires in someone else's battle.
It was exactly what we needed to shake us out of the habits acquired by years in the trenches; and there seems no reason to doubt but that some small part at least of our success in the fighting during the last three months of the war was due to our training in the Bomy area.
We were well away from the front line and out of reach even of the long range guns but like every other place behind the lines in 1918 this area was subjected to bombing attacks practically every night.
We were billeted in private houses, and since all the able-bodied Frenchmen were in factories or the army, our billets in country places such as Bomy were filled with women and children. They worried terribly about the bombing, particularly the women with children, and would inquire again and again during the day whether we thought that the Bosche would come over that night.
The sound of an airplane overhead would wake them at any time of the night and since there were several of our own airdromes in the vicinity the nights were pretty terrible for them.
In my billet there were two women and three children and they seemed to think that a man awake in the house was a protection. Of course it wasn't that, but simply that they wanted to be near someone who at least appeared not to be afraid, and I had by then become quite adept at such simulation.
As soon as a plane was heard overhead they would rap on my door until I woke up. "Les avions, monsieur, les Bosches" they would say through the door. This was the cue for me to get up and go down with them to the kitchen. There we sat around the stove and drank the inevitable coffee until the noise of planes passed.
The first night that this happened I assured them, with the air of an expert, that the sounds they heard were being made by British planes - and I happened to be right. The next night I had scarcely got the same assurance out of my mouth when a big bomb fell very close to the house. After that I simply put on a few clothes and went downstairs whenever they called me. As a matter of fact I had no objection myself to a little human companionship when Heine began "laying his eggs" promiscuously in the vicinity!
On the whole, Bomy was a very pleasant interlude, the last real relaxation that we were to have until the end of the war.
Late in June we were sent to the Neuville Vitasse-Mercatel front to relieve the Second Canadian Division. They had been for some time in this area, serving in the Sixth British Army Corps, and when we took their place we automatically left the Canadian Corps for the time being. Such a shift was no unusual thing and, as a matter of fact, junior officers and the NCOs and men seldom knew or cared about anything further removed than Brigade.
One of my brothers [Anson] was in the Twenty-Fourth Battalion of the Second Division and I hoped that we might be lucky enough to run into each other during the relief. We were luckier than either one of us expected. He was sent out as one of the guides to take us in and was allotted to my company! I had last seen him in 1911 near Winnipeg, so the five or six hours that we had together was most welcome.
Before the Battle of Arras in the spring of 1917 the town of Mercatel had been just inside the German line, but after the battle the Germans had retired and a British camp had been built on the outskirts of the village. The German offensive of 1918 had brought the line back, but not quite to its former position and the new front lines ran through the old camp. As a result No Man's Land, which was fairly wide, now contained many Nissen huts, a YMCA hut and a Cinema building: all of course in a very dilapidated condition.
Such a No Man's Land meant exciting patrol work and dangerous too, until one got to know something about the front.
My Company being in support I drew the first patrol, and spent most of the afternoon seeing as much as I could of the land through a periscope and by quick - very quick - glances over the parapet. At the best, one could get very little information this way. However, I picked out a likely spot for "planting" my patrol and decided on the exploring work that might possibly be done from that center.
At this time a general cleanout was being made in England of Canadian officers above the rank of Lieutenant. Many of them reverted to a lower rank and came out to France. Lieutenant-Colonels became Majors, Majors became Captains, etc, much to the disgust of junior officers who saw their own chances of promotion vanish.
The regular Commander of the Company in the front line was on leave and it was to one of these new arrivals, who was acting as Company Commander, that I reported before taking out the first patrol. He had never been in the line before and, of course, had never taken out a patrol.
When I came into his dugout he pulled out a trench map and started giving me instruction. "I feel sure that there's a machine gun in this building", indicating a spot on the map almost in the German line. "The first thing for you to do is to go over and capture that gun. Then you had better go through the three huts just to the right of the machine gun and make sure that there are no German posts established in them."
"And what shall I do after that?" I inquired innocently.
"Well, you might go up and down the line a few times on the chance of capturing a German patrol or two, and after that just use your own judgment as to what you do for the rest of the night."
It reminded me of a song The Dumbells - the Third Division's concert party - used to sing, in which after enumerating a long list of daily tasks each verse finished with,
"And the rest of the day's your own
To do with as you please."
Before I left the dugout he said, "I'll inspect your compass and equipment now to see if they're correct and then you can line the men up in front of my dugout and I'll look them over too." I did so, and enjoyed watching the expressions on their faces.
I reversed the order of his instructions and started by "using my own judgment for the rest of the night". He was greatly disappointed when we came in at daybreak without a machine gun and thirty or forty Germans to turn over to him.
Two days later he was wounded in the leg while showing an experienced Sergeant and some men how to string wire under machine gun fire. We never saw him again.
No Man's Land was littered with tin cans, pieces of corrugated iron and all sorts of rubbish. As a result it was very difficult to be quiet when crawling around on patrol and we were always having to duck into holes to escape the machine gun fire that the noise brought down on us.
One night as three of us were working through some wire near the German trenches - it existed in all sorts of unexpected places in this No Man's Land - one of us stepped heavily on a piece of corrugated iron. A machine gun opened up - but not quite on us. Fortunately the wire was fairly high and we were all able to get flat on the ground before the gun swung in our direction. Then we saw fireworks, for the bullets swept back and forth through the wire only a few inches above us and the sparks flew each time a bullet hit a strand of wire.
It was surprising how close one could get to the ground under such circumstances. But try as one would there was one part of the body that always seemed to its owner to be sticking up into the air - that was the last bone in the spinal column, commonly called the tail bone.
There had been a good bit of shelling with mustard gas on this front and our hurried and frequent dives into shell holes eventually brought many of us severe burns. Mine stayed with me on and off for three or four years after the war.
It was on this front that we first held the line according to a system that had been devised to meet attacks preceded by very heavy shell fire. The front line was simply a series of posts, and very lightly held. There were no deep dugouts there, but very close behind the line were more trenches and deep dugouts containing a small supporting force. Front line and supports were in the nature of sacrifice positions and were expected to delay the enemy, not to stop him. At a considerable distance behind this, and well beyond the area where the most intense part of a preparatory bombardment would fall, were well made trenches and many deep dugouts. These held the real defending force, who were able to remain in their dugouts until the worse of the bombardment was over and then had plenty of time to come up into the trenches before the Germans could reach them.
This was an admirable scheme and everyone heartily approved of it. It gave us great self-confidence, for we felt that now we were equal to anything that the Germans could start. And besides, it eliminated the crowded front line trench, the abomination of all soldiers.
A platoon, divided into four or five groups, now held a front line that under the old system would have had a garrison of two or three companies. Front line work became more an adventure and less a tiresome duty. If a TM insisted on pounding one part of the line, we simply moved to another part: there was plenty of room.
Of course, when occupying the front line we were sacrifice troops, but we always felt that we'd be lucky and would be comfortably in reserve when an attack came off. Soldiers were real optimists.
A brook ran through our front line and its banks were the favourite haunt of thousands of rats. We spent hours each day potting away at them with our revolvers, but I must admit that the rat casualties were not very heavy.
The Welsh Guards were on our right flank and we had a scheme arranged for mutual assistance in case either of us was raided. The plan was to allow the Germans to go through our line without any resistance on our part. Then at a given signal we were all to close in behind them and cut them off from their own line. It was a good scheme but we never had a chance to try it out.
The Welsh were a fine lot and I always spent a little while with them each time I visited my right flank post.
One night they pulled off a raid but the results were very disappointing. After carefully working their way through the wire they rushed the German trench only to find no one in it. Probably the Germans were holding their front line in the same way that we were, with posts two or three hundred yards apart. Anyway, the Welsh were most disgusted and expressed themselves accordingly!
This was a very easy front, and although we didn't know it, it was while we were here that the events which marked the turning point of the war were taking place near Soissons.
When we came out of these trenches we started a series of night marches, train and lorry trips, and days spent concealed in woods or billets, that completely mystified us. This was all part of the scheme for secrecy that marked the concentration of troops for the big Allied offensive which was to take place early in August in front of Amiens.
It was a beautifully planned show. No only was the concentration of troops carried out without the knowledge of the Germans but steps were taken to make the enemy believe that the attack was coming at a quite different point.
The Canadians had not figured in any hard fighting for some time and our people felt certain that the Germans would expect an attack wherever they found the Canadian Corps.
The plan then was to have the Germans locate the Canadians where they weren't.
To this end a few units were sent north into Flanders in as conspicuous a manner as possible, while the remainder of the Corps was moved secretly into the Amiens area.
The units sent north were the Twenty-Seventh Battalion, two Casualty Clearing Stations, the Wireless and Power Buzzer sections and the Fourth Canadian Armed Rifles. It was from the latter, who were in the same Brigade with us, that we heard the story of their wanderings.
The first intimation they had of anything out of the ordinary was when they were suddenly ordered on July twenty-ninth to move to Acq and entrain "for a destination not yet notified". They were further mystified after entraining to find that they were on what was called a "Strategic Train", a kind of train that certainly none of them had ever before heard of.
It was a fast train - which was another novelty - and they passed rapidly through St Pol, Aire and Hazebrouke and arrived at Arneke, five miles northwest of Cassel about seven hours after leaving Acq.
After a good deal of trouble they found shelter of a sort and rested until noon of the next day. Then they marched through Cassel and Steenvoorde to a tented area at St Eloi, near Abeele.
On August first they took over part of the line on the La Clytte sector from the Fifteenth Hampshires. The line was nothing more than a series of outposts established during the last German offensive on the Lys, and continuous rain did not improve conditions. One of their most popular Company Commanders was killed by a shell and, all in all, they had a fairly miserable time.
On the fourth they moved from the line to Poperinghe and by lorries from there to Nieurlet, near St Omer. There they were loaded into boxcars and passing through Boulogne and Abbeville finally arrived in the Amiens area on August sixth. On the seventh they rejoined their Brigade ready to take part in the great engagement scheduled to start the morning of the eighth.
That Headquarters' plans worked out perfectly was proved during the engagement, for from secret German papers captured during the fighting we learned that the Canadian Corps had been moved to the Flanders front and that an attack was expected there at any time!
It was seldom that soldiers entered into a scheme as completely and wholeheartedly as they did into this one for secrecy. The following notice was pasted in all men's paybooks and officers' service record books:
KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT!
The success of any operation we carry out depends chiefly on surprise.
DO NOT TALK. When you know that your Unit is making preparations for an attack, don't talk about them to men in other Units or to strangers, and keep your mouth shut, especially in public places.
Do not be inquisitive about what other Units are doing; if you hear or see anything, keep it to yourself.
If you hear anyone else talking about operations, stop him at once.
The success of the operations and the lives of your comrades depend upon your SILENCE.
If you ever should have the misfortune to be taken prisoner, don't give the enemy any information beyond your rank and name. In answer to all other questions, you need only say, "I cannot answer."
He cannot compel you to give any other information. He may use threats. He will respect you if your courage, patriotism, and self-control do not fail. Every word you say may cause the death of one of your comrades.
Either after or before you are openly examined, Germans, disguised as British officers or men, will be sent among you or will await you in the cages or quarters or hospital to which you are taken.
Germans will be placed where they can overhear what you say without being seen by you.
DO NOT BE TAKEN IN BY ANY OF THESE TRICKS.
And this advice was followed so thoroughly that officers or men separated from their units had considerable difficulty in finding them again. To ask anyone on the road where such and such a battalion was, would generally bring the reply "keep your mouth shut".
The night before the show I was waiting at a crossroads, near our assembly position, for one of our lorries which was bringing up an extra machine gun from the transport lines. There were thousands and thousands of troops in the immediate neighborhood and I was decidedly surprised when a figure appeared out of the dark and said, "Are you Captain Montizambert?" As Eric Montizambert was by way of being my future brother-in-law and as I had never succeeded in running across him in France, this seemed quite a coincidence. I said, "No, do you expect him here?" But all I got back as the figure disappeared into the dark was "Keep your mouth shut."
The push was to start at four-twenty AM on August eighth, and many thousands of troops, over a hundred tanks, batteries of light artillery, details of engineers, and all the transport necessary to keep this huge force in supplies once the show began, had to be assembled during the hours of darkness immediately preceding the attack.
It was a miracle of staff work. To a casual observer everything would have appeared in hopeless confusion, but such was not the case. Each unit in this huge plan of attack knew exactly where it was to go and what it was to do, and when the zero hour arrived they were all in place and ready.
Airplanes hummed overhead to drown the noise of tanks getting into position. Long lines of infantry crawled in single file along the crowded road and finally swung off to right or left to occupy their battle assembly positions. The light artillery took up positions almost in the front line. The roads for ten miles behind the line were solid with troops and transport.
When at four-thirty AM the show was started by a hurricane bombardment, each unit in the machine began moving, and this movement forward continued slowly but steadily for eight days.
The attack was a complete surprise and large numbers of prisoners and huge quantities of war material were captured. But it must not be supposed that such overwhelming success was achieved without paying the price: the Canadian casualties were 11,725 all ranks.
Had we suffered these casualties while on the defensive the effect on the morale of the Corps would probably have been very depressing, but since we were attacking and winning, no one thought anything of them. For a time at least it had been open warfare and that type of fighting suited our men exactly. They were in high spirits.
For the first time in the experience of many of us we were attacked by machine guns from airplanes. The Germans had done this regularly in their big attacks earlier in the year, and many an isolated British post, desperately defending itself from enemies on the ground, had been wiped out from the air. Now they used the same methods in defence. It was most disconcerting when advancing across the open to have these planes roar down, sometimes not more than ten feet above our heads, and rake our ranks with machine gun fire.
The tanks played a very prominent part in this engagement and were of tremendous assistance to the infantry. At first our men used to follow them rather closely but we soon found that the immediately vicinity of a tank was a far from healthy place to occupy and that it was much better to keep at a respectful distance from them.
When the tanks first made their appearance in France, the men in the infantry were eager to volunteer for service in them. It seemed to us that easy transportation and safety were combined in these new engines of war, and both of those attributes appealed to us. After the Amiens show, however, the common desire to join the tanks vanished.
There was very good reason for this. A direct hit by an anti-tank gun or a light shell would often set on fire the gasoline supply in a tank. The burst of flame was so sudden that few of the crew ever escaped, and the death they met inside the tank was too horrible to describe. A burning tank was a ghastly sight and we saw too many such during that week ever again to envy the men of the Tanks Corps. To my mind it required more pure undiluted guts to serve in the Tanks than in any other part of the army - bar none.
The Roye road was our right flank during the entire time of the attack, with the Thirty-First French Corps operating on the other side of the road. At one time during the advance the forces on opposite sides of the road had not met with equal resistance and as a result we got considerably in advance of the French. A small town on the French front was held by the Germans, who were able from there to enfilade our advance. One of our platoons and a tank crossed the road and drove the Germans helter-skelter from the town. They had just finished doing this when a runner arrived from Headquarters. He had come in great haste and his orders were verbal, "Get to hell out of the town, the French are just about to attack it." The platoon and tank got out as fast as they could and from their own side of the road watched the French first shell the town heavily and then with great ï¿½clat assault and capture it.
It was near here that the Cavalry rode through the infantry and made a magnificent but somewhat futile attack. One machine gun could put a whole troop out of action in no time at all, and did. Our part in the attack consisted in burying horses for the next few days, and enduring those that weren't buried. We were quite content to be Mounted Rifles on foot.
A battalion's position in the strategic scheme often changed with surprising speed. At eight AM the battalion might be fighting to capture a position from the Germans. Another battalion would then leap frog, and without moving we became close supports. By noon, still in the same position, we had become reserve troops and by night our cook kitchens were on the spot and we were sleeping in pyjamas in our sleeping bags.
As this show gradually came to an end conditions had become so favourable that leave lists, which had been closed since April, were once more opened, and I was told that I might have leave anywhere in France.
As this was my first leave to any place but England, the choice of a destination required some thought. My fellow officers in the Company were full of good advice and suggestions and finally we decided that since Biarritz was the most distant point in France, it would be a fine place to visit.
Having chosen my destination, I next secured my leave warrant, a very official looking document which gave me the right to buy - and pay for -a first class ticket to Biarritz or any intermediate point. This warrant was a regular magic carpet for it transported me over half of France without my spending a single cent. As I said before, the document had a most official look - there was actually a seal and a very imposing signature on it - and I found that all I had to do was to wave it in front of any official, say "En permission", and get on and off trains wherever I liked.
The attack just finished had made it possible to open up the Amiens-Paris railway again and I had the experience of riding on the first train to leave Amiens for Paris. It was an honour that I shared with a great many others - our carriage, built to accommodate six people, held eighteen!
There were two other Canadian officers in the same carriage and we were all much indebted to a colonel of the British Medical Corps for a tip that he gave us. He said, "When you get to Paris go to the British Embassy and ask for cards of introduction to the Cercle Interallie. It's an allied officers' club located in Baron Rothschild's town house. The food is the best in Paris and the surroundings are magnificent."
We arrived at the Gare du Nord and were simple enough to ask a taxi driver to take us to a good hotel. One look at the place to which he brought us was enough, and we made our next inquiries of a gendarme. He recommended the Hotel du Gare du Nord and advised us not to place too much faith in taxi drivers. He was right. The only other time that we listened to one it resulted in a sightseeing trip to the Crystal Palace. Had Mark Twain given a few more details in his Innocents Abroad it would have saved us an experience that was instructive and expensive but not elevating.
Our hotel was very comfortable, once we became accustomed to femmes de chambre who were apt to barge in at any time, and to the fact that due to fuel restrictions hot baths could be had only at certain inconvenient hours of the day. There was an excellent restaurant in the Hotel and we generally ate our breakfasts there. A waiter who had worked for five years on Canadian Pacific Railway dining cars took us under his wing with excellent results.
At that time the people of Paris were just beginning to realize that the terrible German offensives were at an end, and that the Allies now definitely had the upper hand. It was almost too good to be true. They had had their hopes shattered so often, however, that they were hesitant about believing that the end of the war might be in sight. The possibility was not yet even mentioned: to have had such hopes raised and then proved false might have been more than they could have endured.
The morale of the German nation was breaking, but the French themselves had been close to the edge and they knew the dangers of extremes of emotion. Safety lay in a stolid endurance, with no great hope, but without despair.
Our first visit to the Cercle Interallie bore out everything that our English friend had promised. The house was on the Rue du Faubourg St Honore, and although it was in the center of the city its grounds were such that one might easily have thought it was in the country.
Two huge glass enclosed wings thrust out from the back of the house, and on pleasant nights dinner was served on the beautiful terrace that extended from between these two wings into the park.
The setting was magnificent, but the appearance of the actors was even more striking. At least a dozen nations were represented by the officers there and with the exception of the British, Americans, and Japanese, all were in dress uniform. One has only to recall the gorgeous uniforms of crack French and Italian regiments to recognize how colorful a scene it was.
Each of the wings as well as the terrace was used as a dining room, and the club also had for its use a most imposing reception room on the ground floor. It might easily have been a state room in some palace, and the dignified warriors of another century looking down from the walls must have felt sympathy and understanding for the young American officers who were "rolling the bones" on the floor in one corner of the room. They probably thought when they saw the dice, "How little young officers have changed since our day", but one suspects that they were somewhat mystified when they heard, "O Lady Luck, marries you Mr Two and Miss Four I gets me a fambly of little greenback chillens."
Day followed pleasant day in Paris and when I took train once more it was not for Biarritz but to return to my regiment.
We made the usual inquiries of the Railway Transport Officer as to where our units were but he didn't even know where the Canadian Corps was, let alone any particular battalion. The best plan seemed to be to go back where we had come from and take up the trail from there, so we repaired to the Gare du Nord and inquired about trains for Amiens.
It appeared that there were no regular trains running as yet but we were told that if we took an express that was leaving in about fifteen minutes, and got off at such and such a place, we should probably be able to pick up a troop or supply train that would take us to the required destination.
The directions seemed a bit hazy but there was no alternative, so we waved our leave warrants at the official at the barrier and went in search of the express.
There were only first class carriages on the train and every seat bore a cardboard sign marked reserved. We considered the matter for a few minutes and then climbed into a compartment, removed the signs from three seats, tore the cardboard into small bits and dropped the pieces out the farther window. Then we settled into our seats to see what would happen.
There were six seats in the carriage. Three French officers arrived and took possession of the three that we were not occupying. With two minutes to go, it looked as if we were going to be left in undisputed possession of what we had seized, but just then there was a great bustle of porters on the platform and a fine big Belgian general arrived on the scene.
He looked into the compartment, glanced at a list of names pasted on the window - which we had not noticed - and then suggested very politely that the gentleman in the seat nearest the window had doubtless made a mistake in the number of the seat that he had reserved.
My friend endeavoured to look surprised, inquired the number of the seat and then got out of the carriage with apologies. He entered the first compartment that had an unoccupied seat and again carefully disposed of the reserved sign. This time he was lucky for the train started almost at once.
Our Belgian general soon noticed that we were Canadians and became quite genial. We explained the episode of the seats and he was quite concerned to know that our friend really hadn't a seat reserved at all. The first time the train stopped, he insisted on getting out and looking through the other compartments to make sure that J---- had been able to find a place.
We went to sleep sometime before reaching our junction and woke up about three hours after we had passed it! A few inquiries brought the information that the train was bound for Calais - I think - so we decided to get off at Etaples and make a new start from there.
At daybreak we wakened again and at the first stop asked someone on the platform the name of the town. When he replied our General said - in French of course - "My God, you've missed again, we're almost at Calais." But he must have misunderstood the name, for half an hour later we arrived at Etaples.
Etaples at the best of times was a cheerless hole, and five AM is a bad time to arrive anywhere. We dragged ourselves over to the officers' mess, with thoughts of snoozing away the time until breakfast could be had, but found that the building wouldn't be open until eight o'clock. So we sat on the steps for three hours.
At Etables they advised us to look for our units in the Arras area, so we started hopefully in that direction. I found the Fifth in front of Arras and learned that they had been through another hard engagement while I was in Paris. Monchy had been added to their battle honours, and Rutherford, in charge of number nine platoon in my absence, had won a VC - the second to come to C Company in less than a year. I was away each time a VC was won, probably one good reason why I'm alive today.
A few days in billets to receive reinforcements and do the reorganizing necessary after any big engagement, and we once more headed for the line. This time however there was to be no attack. For a change we were to do a plain holding trip in the line.
This was our first trip of this sort since the one at Mercatel in July. In the six weeks that had elapsed since then we had been engaged in two major offensives and the whole aspect of the war had changed. The German line had been pushed back, or had been withdrawn, along all this front and the positions that we were to occupy this trip were almost fifteen miles inside what had been German territory six weeks previously.
We went into reserve positions north of the Arras-Cambrai road near Dury. There were huge dugouts in this area, located in old mines, but we preferred to live in the open unless the shelling was very bad.
The Germans when evacuating trenches, dugouts, and billets, often arranged "booby traps" for the edification of the next occupants. These traps took the form of buried mines or concealed bombs which were detonated when one opened a door, or stepped on a dugout stair, or tripped over a wire concealed in the grass. These were only a few of the ingenious ways in which these traps were set. Special sections of the Engineers were detailed to inspect all dugouts and houses for traps before anyone was supposed to occupy them. Generally, however, we could not wait and so did our own inspecting.
While we were in this reserve position an observation balloon section nearby did a little trap setting of its own. They had had several balloons brought down by a particularly daring German flyer, so they filled the basked of a new balloon with a dummy observer and a large quantity of high explosive and arranged it so that it could be detonated from the ground. Then they sent the balloon up and hopefully waited for Fritz.
The first day nothing happened and at night they were obliged to bring the balloon down. This meant sleeping right next door to a lot of vulnerable HE and was not so good, particularly as there was plenty of shelling going on. This happened for three days in succession but finally Fritz appeared. He dove straight at the bag and when he was directly over it and as close as he appeared likely to come, someone fired the aerial mine. There was a terrific explosion and the plane was blown a good hundred feet straight up. It started to fall, turned over two or three times, and then suddenly flattened out and started for home! A great disappointment, but still it probably cured him of a liking for balloon hunting.
It was while in supports on this front that we saw four British planes force a German down without firing a shot. We had been watching them fighting for some time, when it became apparent that the German had exhausted his ammunition. The British flyers stopped firing, but each time Fritz tried to level off and start for home one of our planes was in a position to shoot him to pieces if he didn't do some ducking and looping. Each time this happened he lost altitude until finally there was nothing for him to do but land.
Major General Lipsett came to bid us goodbye while we were in this position. He had come to us from the British Army and had been in command of the Third Division for over two years. Why he was transferred back to the Imperials at this time none of us knew. He was most popular, and everyone in the Division had complete faith in him. I never knew of any other officer of high rank who was more universally liked and respected. We felt that it was a personal loss when he left and he must have felt somewhat the same, for he said, "I cannot express to you the great disappointment I feel on being forced to leave the Third Canadian Division ------."
One month after leaving us, he was killed.
I had seen one of my brothers at Mercatel six weeks previously and now another, who was in the sixty pounders [George], turned up while we were still in reserve. His battery was just south of the Arras Road, only a mile or two from us. He had been a boy of thirteen when I left Canada and now he was an old soldier with fifteen months of service in France to his credit. It seemed impossible.
It was much better not to know where one's brothers were. As long as we were on this front I used to worry my head off each time the Germans started shelling the area where I knew he was. I can't imagine anything more nerve-wracking than having a brother in the same unit.
When eventually we moved into the front line near Sauchy-Cauchy (delightful name!), we found it very much to our liking. For the first time in our experience we held front positions in which there was not a single trench.
The Canal du Nord was the dividing line between the German and British positions, although the Germans were still holding a woods on our side, a little to the right. The ground on the British side of the canal was low and swampy but rose to low hills quite quickly on the other side. As a result the Germans were able to overlook the canal - which was dry - and use it as a means of passing along the front. As nearly as we could make out, however, they kept no permanent posts in it, probably thinking it too good a mark for our artillery.
Groves with fairly thick underbrush, hedges, and deep ditches, provided plenty of positions for troops. We were completely on our own and since it was unlikely that Headquarters would venture a visit, we were able to make our disposition to suit ourselves.
Placing posts in open warfare always reminded me of playing a game of bridge. If I play this card and my opponent has such and such a card, just what will happen? If I place a post here and the Germans do such and such a thing, just what will happen? The two situations called for exactly the same type of reasoning. All military schools should encourage bridge!
Once a post had been placed it was impossible to get in or out of it during daylight, so all activity on this front was confined to the night. At least all ordinary activity was thus limited, but there was such a thing as unusual activities and the battalion that we relieved had had some very costly experiences of that sort.
They had placed one post almost on the canal bank, which was built up about twenty or so feet above the level of the ground on our side, and since it was in a rather exposed position they had put fifteen or twenty men in it. (A poor reason for a large garrison, but that's aside from the story.)
The Germans apparently located this post, no very difficult job on a still night, and made a very good plan for putting it out of action. They assembled forty or fifty men with ladders in the canal and at about two PM of a hot day they all appeared suddenly on our edge of the canal. Each one threw three or four bombs into the unfortunate post. Then they jumped back into the canal. And that was that.
For some unknown reason another lot of men were placed in the same post that night, and naturally the same thing happened again the next day. The Germans must have thought it pretty soft pickings. When we relieved the two platoons that were holding this bit of front, they had had fifty percent casualties and were feeling very glum.
Since it had worked for two days there seemed no reason to believe that Fritz couldn't be persuaded to try it again, so we made our plans accordingly. We very noisily placed another lot of men in the same place - and just before daylight withdrew them to a hedge about a hundred and fifty yards from the canal. Then we set two machine guns in a hedge from which they could sweep the bank of the canal where the Germans were expected to appear. The guns were trained on the exact spot and someone lay with his finger on the trigger from the minute daylight appeared. At one PM, like so many Jacks in the Box, the Germans bobbed up out of the canal and commenced hurling bombs into the place where the post should have been. Our guns caught them beautifully: it was like figures falling in a shooting gallery.
Although we were shelled moderately by the Germans and intensively by our own people, we had only one casualty on this front, and that from a sniper. The first post that I visited our second night in, reported that one of their men had been "nicked" in the neck but didn't seem very badly hurt. I asked him how he felt and he said, "Not bad sir, but I seem to have quite a sore throat." When we came out of the line I asked the Medical Officer how badly L----- was hurt. The Doctor said, "I'd say that it was impossible to shoot any man right through the center of the neck and not kill him, but that's exactly what happened to L-----." No wonder he had a sore throat!
The day after the bombing machine gun party Fritz started in to wipe out our posts along the hedges. He put on a magnificent shoot, but it was all on the woods to our right where his own troops were. It was one of those hurricane shoots - every gun within range firing as fast as it could for three or four minutes - and the show was all over before they discovered their mistake. As soon as it was dark that night we went down to the canal and listened to them carrying their casualties out of the woods. There must have been between forty and fifty of them, so all in all, the last two days had not been too prosperous for Fritz.
I am quite sure that no one will believe what I am about to tell and yet it happens to be the truth. For the second time during the war I climbed a tree to have a look around, and for the second time under such circumstances I saw the Germans raid our line. The first time that this happened was at The Bluffs in the Salient and the Germans were unsuccessful. This time the result was reversed.
For about five or six hundred yards on our right there was a fairly thick copse, part of which was held by the Germans. To the right of that again was what remained of the village of Sauchy-Cauchy. The ruins of this town were almost on the canal bank and were occupied by Canadian troops, who apparently had quite a large post in what was called the Brick Pile.
The fact that the Germans could pop out of the canal suddenly at any point was the reason for their success on this raid.
From my vantage point in the tree I could see quite plainly the ruins of Sauchy-Cauchy and I had just got my binoculars nicely focused when the raid began. First a few trench mortar shells exploded in the Brick Pile, then three machine guns appeared on the canal bank to the left and three more to the right, leaving about two or three hundred yards of canal bank between them. These guns opened up at once and every part of the Brick Pile was subjected to a regular rain of bullets. Then in the space between the guns appeared about fifty Germans, who at once started for the Brick Pile. The machine guns being on the flanks were able to fire right up to the moment the raiding party reached its objective, and the garrison had very little chance to resist. There were a few bombs exploded, and then out of the pile came the Germans, driving what was left of the garrison before them. When they reached the bank of the canal I noticed that several of the Germans were not able to resist the temptation to give their prisoners good swift kicks in the pants as they disappeared over the edge of the canal.
My impression was that the garrison of the Brick Pile had been caught napping, and in spite of the fact that it was daylight, Campbell and I crawled around to all our posts to make sure that their sentries were alert. They were alert all right: they didn't expect to see us in the daytime and we barely escaped with our lives!
At the distance from which I saw this raid, sound and action of course did not synchronize, with the result that the sounds registered during the action but did not mean anything until later when the scene was reconstructed. The puppet way in which figures bobbed in and out of the canal, apparently without noise, gave a sense of unreality to the whole action.
We had thought of a little raid of our own on a post that we had discovered in some woods to the left of our position, but after a little careful investigation we decided to abandon the idea - the post belonged to the battalion on our left!
The Sauchy-Cauchy trip was followed by a few days rest near Arras and once more we headed for the line, this time in the direction of Cambrai.
Our destination was some area in the vicinity of Bullecourt and we began our journey by train on the main line between Arras and Albert. When halfway there an accident obliged us to detrain and march across country to another line, on which we were carried to Croiselles, or somewhere in that vicinity. A further march in a dark and foggy night brought us to our area, which proved to be some old abandoned trenches and ammunition pits.
Having helped to stow away my platoon in the ruined dugouts and shelters along the trench, I began a search for a likely place to dispose my own weary bones. While looking around, I stumbled onto a tarpaulin stretched over a hole in the ground, and from the comments that my stumble called forth I judged that the hole was habitable and inhabited.
The tarp yielded to a little pulling and the light from my flash disclosed three officers curled up in the hole. The first one to sit up to see who was breaking in on his rest was Alan Montizambert, another brother-in-law to be. He was in the Fourth Division and I hadn't seen him since we had lived together at Bexhill, the Canadian Military School. This was such a surprise that when I woke up next morning to find Alan, tarp and all, gone, I hardly believed that it had happened.
The Cambrai offensive started auspiciously.
On September twenty-seventh the First and Fourth Divisions attacked most successfully, smashing through the Hindenburg front and support lines and eventually reaching Fontaine and Haynecourt, five miles from their starting points.
From here on the defence tightened and the next twelve days saw some of the most deadly fighting that the Canadians ever took part in. The resistance was desperate and the casualties terrible.
The Marcoing line was the last of the carefully prepared and fortified positions that the Germans had. Beyond this were the suburbs of Cambrai, which could be and were defended, but once Cambrai fell the fighting would be entirely in the open. If the British could be stopped in front of Cambrai the weather might once more come to the aid of the Germans, the war be prolonged into the winter, and time secured to build and fortify a second Hindenburg line. It was the death struggle and both sides fought desperately.
Since the Third Division was in reserve during the first day of the attack, we took no part in storming the Hindenburg line at the Canal du Nord or in capturing Bourlon Wood and Fontaine. Nevertheless our position was never a comfortable one. For the first six days we followed almost on the heels of the attacking troops, and for the next seven days we held positions on or near the canal banks, waiting for the wings to come up so that the final assault on the canal could be made.
Following close behind an attack was bad business. Our casualties, of course, were not heavy, although we came in for plenty of shelling and bombing, but the ground over which we moved was thickly dotted with the dead of the battalions that had preceded us. I had many friends and relations in these battalions and it was impossible to pass by a body without a glance at the face to see if by any bad luck it was of one of these. The alternations of fear and relief that this caused were far from pleasant.
For five days we occupied positions from which it was possible to see distinctly much of the deadly fighting that took place about Rallencourt, the Marcoing Line trenches, and the suburbs of Cambrai.
It seemed to us that the Staff had completely forgotten the strategy of Amiens and was reverting to the old methods of the Somme. Men were thrown almost in massed formation against positions defended by hundreds of machine guns. The results were bloody in the extreme. Now we know that the Allies were making a desperate, and as it proved, a successful attempt at ending the war before winter set in and that almost nothing counted but time. A perfect explanation, but cold comfort to the pawns in the game.
Our last reserve position, before we took over part of the front, was in a sunken road immediately behind the Marcoing Line and about fifteen hundred yards from the suburb of St Olle. There seemed to be considerable uncertainty in the rear as to what was happening up front and we saw one battalion march up the road in fours, ready to take over a position in St Olle before St Olle had been captured! The forward sections of the battalion were massacred.
There was little time or place for humour in a desperate struggle such as this, but our cook wagon put on a display that got more applause than any skit the Dumbells ever acted.
For anything on wheels to reach us in the sunken road, it was necessary for it to go straight up the main road towards Cambrai and then turn down a side road that led back to our position. As a rule nothing traveled on this road during the daytime, so you can imagine our surprise when about noon one day we saw a cook wagon appear out of Bourlon Wood and start with apparent unconcern up the road towards Cambrai.
Smoke was coming out of the chimney, and the Germans, who from Cambrai could see every inch of this ground, must have wondered what sort of an infernal machine it was. Anyway, they apparently decided to break it up, whatever it was. The first shell fell about a hundred feet behind the wagon, and driver and cook came very much to life. They stopped the horses and were apparently debating whether to go back or on, when the next shell landed, still behind them but much closer. This decided the question. The driver whipped up the horses and with a tail of smoke like a comet they galloped down the road towards Cambrai. Shell followed shell but nothing hit them.
As they came closer our interest became very personal for we could see that it was our cook wagon. The whole company was standing on the sides of the sunken road cheering and shouting advice, although the wagon was still a good half mile away.
When they came to the place to turn off the main road, the driver went around the acute angle turn without slowing up, and we groaned as we saw one of our dixies of food bound out of the stove and roll into the ditch.
Still on the gallop, they came down our road and into the comparative safety of the cut where we were waiting.
Here the curtain fell for fifteen minutes intermission for refreshments.
The last act of the play was even better than the first.
About five hundred yards to our right a railway with a high embankment cut across our road and provided a short cut to Bourlon Wood. Like one of Ben Hur's chariots, the cook wagon thundered out of the sunken road and across the four or five hundred yards of open road to the railway. Men, horses, and wagon went up the embankment in a cloud of dust, coal and smoke, and bounding like a rubber ball disappeared down the railroad track into Bourlon Wood.
Since we were in reserve it was necessary to keep in touch with the battalions doing the fighting. This was done by sending small parties up to the front to find out just where each battalion was and what it was doing. Then if we were called suddenly to the assistance of any of these units there would be someone amongst us who would know exactly where to go and how to get there.
It was a good plan but its execution entailed certain difficulties. In the first place, there was no such thing as a continuous front line, and so it was quite possible to walk almost into the hands of the Germans without seeing any of our own people. We did this work in the daytime and not knowing local conditions were continually coming under the fire of German posts of whose existence we were unaware until they opened up on us. And finally, when we did manage to locate a Battalion Headquarters, we had to deal with Adjutants and Colonels who were exceedingly busy directing their men in actual fighting. It was only natural that under such conditions they were not particularly hospitable nor inclined to sit down and explain to us what it was all about.
As a rule a party consisted of an officer, two NCOs and two or three runners, and the casualties each trip were about fifty per cent. Still we saw life!
My second trip, and what almost proved my last, followed a night during which I had thought myself dying of ptomaine poisoning. I could just barely drag myself along - except when a shell fell nearby! - and by the time we had connected up with a company holding positions near the canal docks I really didn't care whether I stopped one or not.
However, the battalion holding Neuville St Remy, which was about a thousand yards to the left across the open, had to be visited, so we inquired of the people on the spot the best way of getting there. They said that BHQ was in a windmill at the top of the hill that sloped up for about five hundred yards from where we were, and that it was quite safe to go up the hill in the open.
They were wrong on both counts: BHQ was not in the windmill, and it was not safe to go up the hill in the open.
The Germans allowed us to get well out into the open, about half way up the hill, and then opened up with two machine guns. There was nothing to do but run, and nothing that I felt less like doing! About half way to the windmill was a telephone post - rather a small one - and when I reached it I decided that I must have a rest, machine gun bullets or no machine gun bullets. I stuck out on both sides of the pole, but most of my vulnerable parts seemed to be protected so I made myself as small as possible and did a little deep breathing to get back my wind.
I had been there perhaps a minute when two bullets hit the post and a splinter knocked my steel helmet almost off. I looked up and discovered that both bullets had come right through the post! This was not so good: if I were to be drilled, I preferred to have it done by bullets that hadn't had their dispositions soured by coming through eight inches of telephone post. So I finished the hundred mile run to the windmill.
We were one man short and couldn't see him anywhere. There was only one place in which he could possibly be concealed - some shell holes about a hundred yards from the windmill and a bit to the left of the course we had followed. Perhaps he had been wounded and crawled into them, poor fellow.
He was in the shell hole all right, and he was the only man whom I kicked in the army, and that wasn't exactly where I kicked him either! I booted him out of the hole and halfway to the windmill before he out-distanced me. He had noticed two dead Germans in these shell holes and had stopped to go through them for souvenirs!
Four or five days of this sort of work and we were glad to go into the front line. Actually, of course, there was no line and we simply occupied houses in the suburbs of Cambrai on the west side of the canal.
We were lucky in Number Nine Platoon, for we drew the job of holding what was left of the railway bridge across the canal. With the exception of a party under Lieutenant Logie, which was responsible for another bridgehead about five hundred yards from ours, we were alone in all our glory. The roads behind us were constantly swept by artillery and machine gun fire, which was all to the good, since it meant that we would have few visitors except from our own Company.
Our first job was to put out posts in the railway yard and at the end of the bridge. Cambrai had been very little knocked about by shelling and this was pretty well our first experience in fighting in such a town. The railway yard looked quite natural. It seemed almost theatrical and rather ludicrous to be lying flat between the rails while machine guns sprayed the surroundings and ripped holes in the familiar looking boxcars. All this was so different from the trenches to which we had become accustomed.
Different, and a great improvement. Instead of a lousy dugout in the mud we now had about thirty or forty very decent houses from which to choose a shelter, and as soon as we had finished placing our posts we turned to the job of making a selection.
What we were looking for was a nice dry cellar with at least three stories of house above it. That seems simple enough: all we had to do was to go and look over the likely houses.
But there were such things as booby traps, and houses were ideal places for setting them. Nearly all of us had seen the unpleasant results of setting off one of these traps and we had the greatest respect for them. Therefore visiting and inspecting houses for the first time was not the casual affair one might think.
We knew enough never to push or pull a door without first having a look at the other side of it and when such a look couldn't be obtained from a window or other opening we left the door closed. That was simple but inspecting stairs was the real difficulty.
The simplest type of trap, and the most effective since it was difficult to detect, was made by loosening a stair step so that when one's weight came on it it dropped an inch or so and detonated a bomb.
It was fairly easy to spot these traps from inside the cellar but often, in fact almost always, the only way to get inside was by way of the stairs. We were dependent on flashlights or candles for our light, and looking at a set of steps from above and by such light it was practically impossible to see anything suspicious.
But we had to inspect the cellars, so the platoon sergeant and I took turns on the stairs. First we would both look each step over as carefully as we could, then one of us would feel gently of the first step to see if it seemed loose, then a little weight on the step, then the full weight. If nothing happened, the procedure would be repeated with the next step.
That was the theory! Actually we looked over the stairs very carefully from the top and then everyone got out of the way while one of us walked down into the cellar. The chances of being killed by a booby trap were very small indeed when compared with those of being hit by a bullet or shell, so why go to so much trouble? It was almost a tradition that the careful soldier was always the one to get killed.
We finally found a cellar to our liking and moved in. A search through other houses resulted in the discovery of several mattresses which added much to the luxury of our living. A stove from an upstairs kitchen was moved into the cellar and a French-Canadian, a former woods cook, installed as chef.
In rummaging through the various houses we came upon what appeared to be the kit of a German officers' mess. Amongst other things in it was a huge piece of fat salt pork, and when our French-Canadian cook saw it his creative instincts were at once aroused. Said he, "Donne-moi des legumes et je t'f''rai une bonne soupe."
Three men at once volunteered to go out hunting vegetables. It was then October and the civilian population had been occupying these houses until quite recently, so it seemed logical to believe that many of the houses would have vegetable gardens. This proved true, and from what civilian and German had left behind we got a cabbage here, a turnip there, Brussels spouts somewhere else, and so on until our packs were full.
The thrilling night raids on apple orchards and berry patches in which many of us had specialized in our not so far off boyhoods were wonderful training for patrol work, and equally valuable whether we were searching for Germans or cabbages.
The cook was as good as his word. The men kept up a constant supply of vegetables - although after the first day we had to range far and wide for them - and for five days we had most delicious soup three times or more a day. On the sixth day, when we were about to attack, the cook and his friends ate the salt pork. They said it still had plenty of flavour!
We were well protected here and in spite of constant machine gun fire and frequent shelling by the artillery and trench mortars, the platoon's casualties were very light. All our posts were well protected and our sleeping quarters were practically shell proof.
The British were known to have reached the canal bank at the locks about a mile and a half south west of our position, but the land between them and us was unknown territory and open for exploration. Some reports said that the Germans still held positions on our side of the canal, while others said that they had withdrawn entirely to the other side.
This helped to make patrolling along the canal interesting. Logie, who was an A-1 patrol leader as well as a most pleasant companion, joined with me in the patrolling and since there were no orders to the contrary, we took out the size patrols we liked. Sometimes we had two or three men with us, but more often we were alone.
Logie was a perfect patrol mate and we really enjoyed ourselves. We were also able to give Headquarters a complete description of the conditions on the front where we were to attack and the location of a great many of the machine gun posts on the German side of the canal, whose fire we had been able to draw and observe from excellent shelter. This information must have been quite valuable for two Intelligence Officers got MCs for it.
Close to Logie's bridgehead was one of our trench mortars with a very willing crew. Since we were in an isolated position and running more or less of a private war, we called this trench mortar our "artillery" and put on regular shoots whenever we definitely located a machine gun on the other side of the canal.
The procedure was simple. First we would go to some place on the canal bank which we had previously located on the map, and after getting behind a bank or in some other well protected spot, would entice the Germans into firing at us from the opposite bank. Having located the gun fairly well we would rush back to the trench mortar and given them the map location. The trench mortar crew would give us time to get back to our observation point and would then throw over nine or ten shells as fast as they were able. We could generally tell whether any effective hits were made.
The trench mortar crew had to work fast for there was a German Whiz Bang gun which apparently had been detailed to look after our trench mortar and we were lucky to get away as many as ten shells before the Whiz Bangs began to come over. In fact they caught us nicely one day before the third trench mortar shell had been fired, and we nearly broke our necks trying to get down the cellar stairs all at the same time. They were real nasty that day, for first they drove us into the cellar with the Whiz Bangs and then they drove us back up with gas.
The final assault on the canal was to be early on the morning of October ninth and all sorts of weird devices and plans were made for getting across the water. Pontoons, tubular trestle bridges, ladders, planks, cork floats, extension bridges, and a dozen other devices were to be used.
Some of us had been at the canal bank for a week and so knew the large number of machine gun posts on the opposite side. We concluded - and kept our conclusions to ourselves - that the battalion would be lucky if they got a hundred men across the canal alive. The idea of being drowned was at least a novel one and I don't suppose that any of us had ever considered that as a possible end. The indications were, however, that at least half of us would pass out that way, and I remember hearing one man say that anyone who rode one of "them there cork horses" across should get a naval decoration and be transferred to the cavalry.
As the night progressed there appeared to be considerable activity in Cambrai. Several new fires broke out in different parts of the city and terrific explosions indicated that the Germans were blowing houses into the streets to block the way. We could no longer draw fire from the machine gun posts across the canal and finally someone, Logie I think, got a patrol across the canal on the timbers of a demolished bridge and found that the opposite banks were abandoned.
The battalion occupied the opposite side of the canal without a casualty! The most marvelous piece of luck that we had in all the war.
As I knew the ground on our right, the Colonel sent me to tell the British there what had happened and to urge them to come on at once so that he could withdraw a defensive right flank that he had thrown out between the city and the suburb of St Supulcre.
On my way I passed close by the old city Drill Grounds and was surprised to see there an English eighteen pounder firing away for all that it was worth into the upper part of the city. It was what I believe was called sniping gun and I asked the officer in charge what he was shooting at. He said, "Wonderful target! Just look at all those men in the upper square: I've been giving them hell for the last five minutes."
He was pleased as Punch and I really felt quite sorry at being obliged to tell him, "That's the Fourth Canadian Mounted Rifles you're shooting up. You'd better get your gun to hell out of here before they find out who's doing it."
If casualties are a measure of the importance of engagements, this was the last great battle for the Canadians. Action and fighting there was in plenty on the road to Mons but no more mass attacks with wholesale slaughter.
Shortly after Cambrai my English leave came through and I set out on foot for Arras, the nearest point from which leave trains were dispatched.
With two other Third Division officers I was plugging along the cobbles when what appeared to be an empty Corps staff car overtook us. The drivers of such cars could generally be persuaded to give one a lift - at a price - so we stopped this one with the idea of bribing ourselves a ride to Arras.
It was a shock to us, when the car stopped, to see red tabs and gold braid in the back seat. We were on the point of offering humble, if not sincere, apologies, when the door opened and a voice said, "Get in boys, there's lots of room."
It was Canon Almond of Montreal. He was a Colonel, and Chaplain General of the Canadian Corps, and we were in luck. Since he was a distinguished alumnus of the university of which I was a recent and humble graduate [Bishop's], it seemed the part of wisdom to make myself known. Not only did he take us to Arras, but he also sent us all the way to Boulogne in a staff car the next morning. The Chaplain Service was a fine institution.
The overwhelming victories of the last two months had been given full prominence in English news, but to me the attitude of the people seemed far from joyful. England had had its lessons in premature rejoicing. It knew all too well that a price had to be paid, and was waiting. The credit side of the ledger for the recent successful attacks had been filled in - thousands of prisoners taken, guns and material captured or destroyed, many square miles of territory recaptured - but the debit entries had not been made in full, and they would be written in red.
That black scourge, influenza, was also sweeping the country and it was God's truth that one was safer with the army in France than at home in England.
Ten days later I rejoined my Company at Crispin, the last town that was captured before we crossed the line into Belgium.
Early on the morning of November eleventh, as I was studying the map and operation orders for an attack we were to make beyond Mons, my batman came into the room, and quite as if he were telling me that breakfast was ready, said, "The war is finished."