Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Canada in Flanders
Chapter IV - Ypres

Canadians glory—A civilian force—Ypres salient—Poelcappelle road—Disposition of troops—Gas attack on French— Plight of the 3rd Brigade—Filling the gap—General Turner’s move—Loss of British guns—Canadian valour—St. Julien—Attack on the wood—Terrible fire—Officer casualties—Reinforcements—Geddes detachment—Second Canadian Brigade bent back—Desperate position—Terrible casualties—Col. Birchall’s death—Magnificent artillery work—Canadian left saved—Canadians relieved— Story of 3rd Brigade—Gas attack on Canadians—Canadian recovery — Major Norsworthy killed—Major McCuaig’s stand—Disaster averted—Col. Hart-McHarg killed — Major Odium — General Alderson’s efforts — British reinforce Canadians—3rd Brigade withdraws— General Currie stands fast—Trenches wiped out—Fresh gas attack—Germans take St. Julien—British cheer Canadians— Canadians relieved—Heroism of men — Col. Watson’s dangerous mission—The Ghurkas dead— Record of all units—Our graveyard in Flanders.

“If my neighbour fails, more devolves upon me.”

"Gloucester, ’tis true that we are in great danger;
The greater therefore should our courage be.”

The fighting in April, in which the Canadians played so glorious a part, cannot, of course, be described with precision of military detail until time has made possible the co-ordination of all the relevant diaries, and the piecing together in a narrative both lucid and exact of much which is confused and blurred.

The battle which raged for so many days in the neighbourhood of Ypres was bloody, even as men appraise battles in this callous and life-engulfing war. But as long as brave deeds retain the power to fire the blood of Anglo-Saxons, the stand made by the Canadians in those desperate days will be told by fathers to their sons; for in the military records of Canada this defence will shine as brightly as, in the records of the British Army, the stubborn valour with which Sir James Macdonnel and the Guards beat back from Hougoumont the Division of Foy and the Army Corps of Reille.

The Canadians wrested from the trenches, over the bodies of the dead and maimed, the right to stand side by side with the superb troops who, in the first battle of Ypres, broke and drove before them the flower of the Prussian Guards.

Looked at from any point, the performance would be remarkable. It is amazing to soldiers, when the genesis and composition of the Canadian Division are considered. It contained, no doubt, a sprinkling of South African veterans, but it consisted in the main of men who were admirable raw material, but who at the outbreak of war were neither disciplined nor trained, as men count discipline and training in these days of scientific warfare.

It was, it is true, commanded by a distinguished English general. Its staff was supplemented, without being replaced, by some brilliant British staff.

Canadians owe a debt of gratitude to Lt.-Colonel Lamb for the extreme care and detailed accuracy with which he has compiled the maps and diaries of the ist Canadian Division officers. But in its higher and regimental commands were to be found lawyers, college professors, business men, and real estate agents, ready with cool self-confidence to do battle against an organisation in which the study of military science is the exclusive pursuit of laborious lives. With what devotion, with a valour how desperate, with resourcefulness how cool and how fruitful, the amateur soldiers of Canada confronted overwhelming odds may, perhaps, be made clear even by a narrative so incomplete as this.

The salient of Ypres has become familiar to all students of the campaign in Flanders. Like all salients, it was, and was known to be, a source of weakness to the forces holding it; but the reasons which have led to its retention are apparent, and need not be explained.

On April 22nd the Canadian Division held a line of, roughly, five thousand yards, extending in a north-westerly direction from the Ypres-Roulers railway to the Ypres-Poelcappelle road, and connecting at its terminus with the French troops.1 The Division consisted of three infantry brigades, in addition to the artillery brigades. Of the infantry brigades the first was in reserve, the second was on the right, and the third established contact with the Allies at the point indicated above.

The day was a peaceful one, warm and sunny, and except that the previous day had witnessed a further bombardment of the stricken town of Ypres,1 everything seemed quiet in front of the Canadian line. At five o’clock in the afternoon a plan, carefully prepared, was put into execution against our French allies on the left. Asphyxiating gas of great intensity was projected into their trenches, probably by means of force pumps and pipes laid out under the parapets.

[The 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigades took over the line from the French nth Division on April 17th. It was perhaps true that the French had not developed at this part of the^ line the elaborate system of support trenches which had been a model to the British troops in the south. The Canadians had planned several supporting points which were in a half-finished state when the gas attack developed.]

The fumes, aided by a favourable wind, floated backwards, poisoning and disabling over an extended area those who fell under their effects. The result was that the French were compelled to give ground for a considerable distance. The glory which the French Army has won in this war would make it impertinent to labour the compelling nature of the poisonous discharges under which the trenches were lost.

The great bombardment of Ypres began on April 20th, when the first 42 centimetre shell fell into the Grand Place of the little Flemish city. The only military purpose which the wanton destruction of Ypres could serve was the blocking of our supply trains, and on the first day alone 15 children were killed as they were playing in the streets, while many other civilians perished in the ruined houses.

The French troops, largely made up of Turcos and Zouaves, surged wildly back over the canal and through the village of Vlamertinghe just at dark. The Canadian reserve battalions (of the 1st Brigade) were amazed at the anguished faces of many of the French soldiers, twisted and distorted by pain, who were gasping for breath and vainly trying to gain relief by vomiting. Traffic in the main streets of the village was demoralised, and gun-carriages and ammunition wagons added to the confusion.

The chaos in the main streets of the village was such that any coherent movement of troops was, for the moment, impossible; gun-carriages and ammunition wagons were inextricably mixed, while galloping gun-teams without their guns were careering wildly in all directions. When order had been to some extent restored, Staff Officers learned from fugitives who were in a condition to speak that the Algerians had left thousands of their comrades dead and dying along the four-mile gap in our Ally’s lines through which the Germans were pouring behind their gas.

The French did, as everyone knew they would, all that stout soldiers could, and the Canadian Division, officers and men, look forward to many occasions in the future in which they will stand side by side with the brave armies of France.

The immediate consequences of this enforced withdrawal were, of course, extremely grave. The 3rd Brigade of the Canadian Division was without any left, or, in other words, its left was “in the air” The following rough diagrams may make the position clear.

Contrast this with the diagram on the following page.

It became imperatively necessary greatly to extend the Canadian lines to the left rear. It was not, of course, practicable to move the ist Brigade from reserve at a moment’s notice, and the line, extended from 5,000 to 9,000 yards, was naturally not the line that had been held by the Allies at five o’clock, and a gap still existed on its left. The new line, of which our recent point of contact with the French formed the apex, ran, quite roughly, as follows:—

As shown above, it became necessary for Brigadier-General Turner (now Major-General), commanding the 3rd Brigade, to throw back his left flank southward, to protect his rear. In the course of the confusion which followed on the readjustment of the position, the enemy, who had advanced rapidly after his initial successes, took four British 4.7 guns, lent by the 2nd London Division to support the French, in a small wood to the west of the village of St. Julien, two miles in the rear of the original French trenches.

The story of the second battle of Ypres is the story of how the Canadian Division, enormously outnumbered—for they had in front of them at least four divisions, supported by immensely heavy artillery—with a gap still existing, though reduced, in their lines, and with dispositions made hurriedly under the stimulus of critical danger, fought through the day and through the night, and then through another day and night; fought under their officers until, as happened to so many, these perished gloriously, and then fought from the impulsion of sheer valour because they came from fighting stock.

The enemy, of course, was aware—whether fully or not may perhaps be doubted—of the advantage his breach in the line had given him, and immediately began to push a formidable series of attacks on the whole of the newly-formed Canadian salient. If it is possible to distinguish, when the attack was everywhere so fierce, it developed with particular intensity at this moment on the apex of the newly-formed line running in the direction of St. Julien.

It has already been stated that four British guns were taken in a wood comparatively early in the evening of April 22nd. The General Officer Commanding the Canadian Division had no intention of allowing the enemy to retain possession of either the wood or the guns without a desperate struggle, and he ordered a counter-attack towards the wood to be made by the 3rd Infantry Brigade under General Turner. This Brigade was then reinforced by the 2nd Battalion under Lieut.-Colonel (now Brigadier-General) Watson and the 3rd (Toronto) Battalion under Lieut.-Colonel Rennie (now also a Brigadier-General), both of the ist Brigade. The 7th Battalion (British Columbia Regiment), from the 2nd Brigade, had by this time occupied entrenchments in support of the 3rd Brigade. The 10th Battalion of the 2nd Brigade, intercepted on its way up as a working party, was also placed in support of the 3rd Brigade.

The assault upon the wood was launched shortly after midnight of April 22nd-23rd by the 10th Battalion and 16th (Canadian Scottish) Battalion, respectively commanded by Lieut.-Colonel Boyle and Lieut.-Colonel (now Brigadier-General) R. G. E. Leckie. The advance was made under the heaviest machine gun and rifle fire, the wood was reached, and, after a desperate struggle by the light of a misty moon, they took the position at the point of the bayonet*

An officer who took part in the attack describes how the men about him fell under the fire of the machine guns, which, in his phrase, played upon them “ like a watering pot.” He added quite simply, “ I wrote my own life off.” But the line never wavered.

When one man fell another took his place, and, with a final shout, the survivors of the two Battalions flung themselves into the wood. The German garrison was completely demoralised, and the impetuous advance of the Canadians did not cease until they reached the far side of the wood and entrenched themselves there in the position so dearly gained. They had, however, the disappointment of finding that the guns had been destroyed by the enemy, and later in the same night, a most formidable concentration of artillery fire, sweeping the wood as a tropical storm sweeps the leaves from the trees of a forest, made it impossible for them to hold the position for which they had sacrificed so much.

Within a few hours of this attack, the 10th Canadian Battalion was again ordered to advance by Lieut.-Colonel Boyle, late a rancher in the neighbourhood of Calgary. The assault was made upon a German trench which was being hastily constructed within two hundred yards of the Battalion’s right front. Machine gun and rifle fire opened upon the Battalion at the moment the charge was begun, and Colonel Boyle fell almost instantly with his left thigh pierced in five places. Major MacLaren, his second in command, was also wounded at this time. Battalion stretcher-bearers dressed the Colonel’s wounds and carried him back to the Battalion first aid station. From there he was moved to Vlamertinghe Field Hospital, and from there again to Poperinghe. He was unconscious when he reached the hospital, and died shortly afterwards without regaining consciousness.

Major MacLaren, already wounded, was killed by a shell while on his way to the hospital. The command of the 10th Battalion passed to Major D. M. Ormond, who was wounded. Major Guthrie, a lawyer from Fredericton, New Brunswick, a member of the local Parliament and a very resolute soldier, then took command of the Battalion.

The fighting continued without intermission all through tiie night of April 22nd-23rd, and to those who observed the indications that the attack was being pushed with ever-growing strength, it hardly seemed possible that the Canadians, fighting in positions so difficult to defend and so little the subject of deliberate choice, could maintain their resistance for any long period.

Reinforcements of British troops, commanded by Colonel Geddes, of the Buffs, began to arrive in the gap early on Friday morning. These reinforcements, consisting of three and a half battalions of the 28th Division—drawn from the Buffs, King’s Own Royal Leinsters, Middlesex, and York and Lancasters— and other units which joined them from time to time, became known as Geddes’ Detachment. The grenadier company of a battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers, numbering two officers and 120 men, who were on their way to rejoin their division after eight days of trench-fighting at Hill 60, encountered Colonel Geddes’ force and joined it.1

At 6 a.m. on Friday, the 2nd Canadian Brigade was still intact, but the 3rd Canadian Brigade, on the left, was bent back upon St. Julien. It became apparent that the left was becoming more and more involved, and a powerful German attempt to outflank it developed rapidly. The consequences, if it had been broken or outflanked, need not be insisted upon. They would not have been merely local.

It was therefore decided, formidable as the attempt undoubtedly was, to try to give relief by a counter-attack upon the first line of German trenches, now far, far advanced from those originally occupied by the French. The attack was carried out at 6.30 a.m. by the ist (Ontario) Battalion and the 4th Battalion of the ist Brigade, under Brigadier-General Mercer, acting with Geddes’ Detachment. The 4th Battalion was in advance and the ist in support, under the covering fire of the ist Canadian Artillery Brigade.

It is safe to say that the youngest private in the ranks, as he set his teeth for the advance, knew the task in front of him, and the youngest subaltern knew all that rested on its success. It did not seem that any human being could live in the shower of shot and shell which began to play upon the advancing troops.

They suffered terrible casualties. For a short time every other man seemed to fall, but the attack was pressed ever closer and closer. The 4th Canadian Battalion at one moment came under a particularly withering fire. For a moment—not more—it wavered. Its most gallant Commanding Officer, Lieut.-Colonel Birchall, carrying, after an old fashion, a light cane, coolly and cheerfully rallied his men, and at the very moment when his example had infected them, fell dead at the head of his Battalion. With a hoarse cry of anger they sprang forward (for, indeed, they loved him) as if to avenge his death.

[Colonel Geddes was killed on the morning of April 28th in tragic circumstances. He had done magnificent work with his composite force, and after five days’ terrific fighting received orders to retire. He was just leaving his dug-out, after handing over his command, when a shell ended his career.]

The astonishing attack which followed, pushed home in the face of direct frontal fire, made in broad daylight by battalions whose names should live for ever in the memories of soldiers, was carried to the first line of the German trenches. After a hand-to-hand struggle, the last German who resisted was bayoneted, and the trench was won.

The measure of our success may be taken when it is pointed out that this trench represented, in the German advance, the apex in the breach which the enemy had made in the original line of the Allies, and that it was two and a half miles south of that line. This charge, made by men who looked death indifferently in the face—for no man who took part in it could think that he was likely to live—saved, and that was much, the Canadian left. But it did more.

Up to the point where the assailants conquered, or died, it secured and maintained during the most critical moment of all, the integrity of the Allied line. For the trench was not only taken—it was held thereafter against all comers, and in the teeth of every conceivable projectile, until the night of Sunday, April 25th, when all that remained of the war-broken but victorious battalions was relieved by fresh troops.

In this attack, the work of the ist Artillery Brigade was extremely efficient. Under the direction of Lieut.-Colonel Morrison, whose services have gained him the command of the artillery of the 2nd Division with the rank of Brigadier-General, the battery of four 18-pounders was strengthened, in the afternoon, with two heavier guns.

Captain T. E. Powers, of the Signal Company attached to General Mercer’s command, maintained communication throughout with the advanced line of the attack under a heavy shell fire that cut the signal wires continually. The work of the Company was admirable, and was rendered at the price of many casualties.

It is necessary now to return to the fortunes of the 3rd Brigade, commanded by General Turner, which, as we have seen, at five o’clock on Thursday was holding the Canadian left, and after their first attack assumed the defence of the new Canadian salient, at the same time sparing all the men it could to form an extemporised line between the wood and St. Julien. This Brigade was also at the first moment of the German offensive made the object of an attack by a discharge of poisonous gas. The discharge was followed by two enemy assaults.

Although the fumes were extremely poisonous, they were not, perhaps, having regard to the wind, so disabling as on the French lines (which ran almost east to west), and the Brigade, though affected by the fumes, stoutly beat back the two German assaults. Encouraged by this success, it rose to the supreme effort required by the assault on the wood, which has already been described. At 4 a.m. on the morning of Friday, the 23rd, a fresh emission of gas was made both on the 2nd Brigade, which held the line running north-east, and on the 3rd Brigade, which, as has been fully explained, had continued the line up to the pivotal point as defined above, and had there spread down in a south-easterly direction.

It is, perhaps, worth mentioning that two privates of the 48th Highlanders, who found their way into the trenches commanded by Lieut.-Colonel (now Brig.-General) Lipsett (90th Winnipeg Rifles), 8th Battalion, perished in the fumes, and it was noticed that their faces became blue immediately after dissolution. The Royal Highlanders ,of Montreal, 13th Battalion, and the 48th Highlanders, 15th Battalion, were more especially affected by the discharge. The Royal Highlanders, though considerably shaken, remained immovable on their ground. The 48th Highlanders, who no doubt received a more poisonous discharge, were for the moment dismayed, and, indeed, their trench, according to the testimony of very hardened soldiers, became intolerable.

The Battalion retired from the trench, but for a very short distance and for a very short time. In a few moments they were again their own men. They poison in the lungs. The Canadians quickly realised that it was best to face the cloud, and hold on in the hope that the blindness would be temporary, and the cutting pain would pass away. They advanced on and reoccupied the trenches which they had momentarily abandoned.

In the course of the same night, the 3rd Brigade, which had already displayed a resource, a gallantry, and a tenacity for which no eulogy could be excessive, was exposed (and with it the whole Allied cause) to a peril still more formidable. It has been explained, and, indeed, the fundamental situation made the peril clear, that several German divisions were attempting to crush or drive back this devoted Brigade, and in any event to use their enormous numerical superiority to sweep around and over* whelm its left wing. At some point in the line which cannot be precisely determined, the last attempt partially succeeded, and, in the course of this critical struggle, German troops in considerable, though not in overwhelming numbers, swung past the unsupported left of the Brigade, and, slipping in between the wood and St. Julien, added to the torturing anxieties of the long-drawn struggle by the appearance, and indeed for the moment the reality, of isolation from the Brigade base.

In the exertions made by the 3rd Brigade during this supreme crisis it is almost impossible to single out one battalion without injustice to others, but though the efforts of the Royal Highlanders of Montreal, 13th Battalion, were only equal to those of the other battalions who did such heroic service, it so happened, by chance, that the fate of some of its officers attracted special attention.

Major Norsworthy was in the reserve trenches, half a mile in the rear of the firing line, when he was killed in his attempt to reach Major McCuaig with reinforcements; and Captain .Guy Drummond fell in attempting to rally French troops. This was on the afternoon of the 22nd, and the whole responsibility for coping with the crisis then fell upon the shoulders of Major McCuaig until he was relieved early on the morning of the 23rd.

All through the afternoon and evening of the 22nd, and all through the night which followed, McCuaig had to meet and grapple with difficulties which might have borne down a far more experienced officer. His communications had been cut by shell fire, and he was, therefore, left to decide for himself whether he should retire or whether he should hold on. He decided to hold on, although he knew that he was without artillery support and could not hope for any until, at the earliest, the morning of the 23rd.

The decision was a very bold one. By all the rules of war McCuaig was a beaten man. But the very fact that he remained appears to have deceived the Germans. They might have overwhelmed him, but they feared the supports, which did not in reality exist. It was not in the enemy’s psychology to understand that the sheer and unaided valour of McCuaig and his little force would hold the position.

But with a small and dwindling force he did hold it, until daylight revealed to the enemy the naked deception of the defence.

In case the necessity for retreat developed, the wounded had been moved to the trenches on the right; and, under the cover of machine gun fire, Major McCuaig withdrew his men just as Major Buchanan came up with reinforcements.

The sorely tried Battalion held on for a time in dug-outs, and, under cover of darkness, retired again to a new line being formed by reinforcements. The rearguard was under Lieut, (now Captain) Green-shields. But Major McCuaig remained to see that the wounded were removed. It was then, after having escaped a thousand deaths through the long battle of the night, that he was shot down and made a prisoner.

The story of the officers of the 7th Battalion (British Columbia Regiment) is not less glorious. This Battalion was attached to the 3rd Brigade on Thursday night, and on Friday occupied a position on the forward crest of a ridge, with its left flank near St. Julien. This position was severely shelled during the day. In the course of the afternoon the Battalion received an order to make its position secure that night. At half-past four Colonel Hart-McHarg, a lawyer from Vancouver, Major Odium (who is now Lieut.-Colonel commanding the Battalion), and Lieut. Mathewson, of the Canadian Engineers, went out to reconnoitre the ground and decide upon the position of the new trenches to be dug under cover of darkness. The exact location of the German troops immediately opposed to their position was not known to them. The reconnoitring party moved down the slope to the wrecked houses and shattered walls of the village of Keerselaere—a distance of about 300 yards—in broad daylight without drawing a shot; but, when they looked through a window in the rear wall of one of the ruins, they saw masses of Germans lining hedges not 100 yards away, and watching them intently. As the three Canadian officers were now much nearer the German line than their own, they turned and began to retire at the double. They were followed by a burst of rapid fire the moment they cleared the shelter of the ruins. They instantly threw themselves flat on the ground. Colonel Hart-McHarg and Major Odium rolled into a shell-hole near by, and Lieut. Mathew-son took cover in a ditch close at hand. It was then that Major Odium learned that his Commanding Officer was seriously wounded. Major Odium raced up the hill under fire in search of surgical aid, leaving Lieut. Mathewson with the wounded officer. He found Captain George Gibson, medical officer of the 7th Battalion, who, accompanied by Sergt. J. Dryden, went down to the shell-hole immediately. Captain Gibson and the sergeant reached the cramped shelter in safety in the face of a heavy fire. They moved Colonel Hart-McHarg into the ditch where Mathewson had first taken shelter, and there dressed his wound. They remained with him until after dark, when the stretcher-bearers arrived and carried him back to Battalion Headquarters; but the devotion and heroism of his friends could not save his life. The day after he passed away in a hospital at Poperinghe.1 But his regiment endured, and, indeed, throughout the second battle of Ypres fought greatly and suffered greatly. Major Odium succeeded Colonel Hart McHarg. At one time the Battalion was flanked, both right and left, by the enemy, through no fault of its own; and it fell back when it had been reduced to about 100 men still able to bear arms. On the following day, strengthened by the remnants of the 10th Battalion, the 7th was again sent in to hold a gap in our line, which duty it performed until, again surrounded by the enemy, it withdrew under cover of a dense mist.

[Col. Hart-McHarg and Col. Boyle—who fell on the same day that Col. Hart-McHarg was wounded—lie in the same burial ground, the new cemetery at Poperinghe.]

Every effort was made by General Alderson from first to last, to reinforce the Canadian Division with the greatest possible speed, and on Friday afternoon the left of the Canadian line was strengthened by the 2nd King’s Own Scottish Borderers and the ist Royal West Kents, of the 13th Infantry Brigade. From this time forward the Division also received further assistance on the left from a series of French counter-attacks pushed in a north-easterly direction from the canal bank.

But the artillery fire of the enemy continually grew in intensity, and it became more and more evident that the Canadian salient could no longer be maintained against the overwhelming superiority of numbers by which it was assailed. Slowly, stubbornly, and contesting every yard, the defenders gave ground until the salient gradually receded from the apex, near the point where it had originally aligned with the French, and fell back upon St. Julien. Soon it became evident that even St. Julien, exposed to fire from right and left, was no longer tenable.

[The losses of the 7th Battalion were heavy even for this time of heavy losses. Within a period of less than three days its colonel was killed and 600 of its officers and men were either killed or wounded, including every company commander. Some companies lost every officer.]

[Lieut. E. D. Bellew, machine-gun officer of the Battalion, hoisted a loaf stuck on the point of his bayonet, in defiance of the enemy, which drew upon him a perfect fury of fire; he fought his gun till it was smashed to atoms, and then continued to use relays of loaded rifles instead, until he was wounded and taken prisoner.]

The 3rd Brigade was therefore ordered to retreat further south, selling every yard of ground as dearly as it had done since five o’clock on Thursday. But it was found impossible, without hazarding far larger forces, to disentangle detachments of the Royal Highlanders of Montreal, 13th Battalion, and of the Royal Montreal Regiment, 14th Battalion. The Brigade was ordered, and not a moment too soon, to move back.

The retirement left these units with heavy hearts. The German tide rolled, indeed, over the deserted village; but for several hours after the enemy had become master of the village, the sullen and persistent rifle fire which survived, showed that they were not yet master of the Canadian rearguard. If they died, they died worthily of Canada.

The enforced retirement of the 3rd Brigade (and to have stayed longer would have been madness) reproduced for the 2nd Brigade, commanded by Brigadier-General Currie (now Major-General), in a singularly exact fashion, the position of the 3rd Brigade itself at the moment of the withdrawal of the French. The 2nd Brigade, it must be remembered, had retained the whole line of trenches, roughly 2,500 yards, which it was holding at five o’clock on Thursday afternoon, supported by the incomparable exertions of the 3rd Brigade, and by the highly hazardous deployment in which necessity had involved that Brigade.

The 2nd Brigade had maintained its lines. It now devolved on General Currie, commanding this Brigade, to repeat the tactical manoeuvres with which, earlier in the fight, the 3rd Brigade had adapted itself to the flank movement of overwhelming numerical superiority. He flung his left flank round south; and his record is that, in the very crisis of this immense struggle, he held his line of trenches from Thursday at five o’clock till Sunday afternoon. And on Sunday afternoon he had not abandoned his trenches. There were none left. They had been obliterated by artillery.

He withdrew his undefeated troops from the fragments of his field fortifications, and the hearts of his men were as completely unbroken as the parapets of his trenches were completely broken. In such a Brigade it is invidious to single out any battalion for special praise, but it is perhaps necessary to the story to point out that Lieut.-Colonel Lipsett, commanding the 8th Battalion (90th Winnipeg Rifles) of the 2nd Brigade, held the extreme left of the Brigade position at the most critical moment.

The Battalion was expelled from the trenches early on Friday morning by an emission of poisonous gas; but, recovering, in three-quarters of an hour it counter-attacked, retook the trenches it had abandoned, and bayoneted the enemy. And after the 3rd Brigade had been forced to retire, Lieut.-Colonel Lipsett held his position, though his left was in the air, until two British regiments, 8th Durham Light Infantry and ist Hampshires, filled up the gap on Saturday night.

At daybreak on Sunday, April 25th, two companies of the 8th Battalion (90th Winnipeg Rifles), holding the left of our line, were relieved by the Durhams, and retired to reserve trenches. The Durhams suffered severely, and at 5 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, a Company of the 8th Canadian Battalion took their place on our extreme left. The Germans entrenched in the rear of this Company, and German batteries on the left flank enfiladed it. The position became untenable, and the Company was ordered to evacuate it, two platoons to retire and two platoons to cover the retirement. The retiring platoons were guided back, under terrific fire, by Sergeant (now Captain) Knobel, with a loss of about 45 per cent, of their strength. They joined the Battalion Reserve. Of the platoons which covered this retirement, every officer and man was either killed or taken prisoner. All the officers of the Company who were in action at the time the retirement was ordered, remained with the covering platoons.

The individual fortunes of the 2nd and 3rd Brigades have brought us to the events of Sunday afternoon, but it is necessary, to make the story complete, to recur for a moment to the events of the morning. After a very formidable attack the enemy succeeded in capturing the village of St. Julien, which has so often been referred to in describing the fortunes of the Canadian left. This success opened up a new and very menacing line of advance, but by this time further reinforcements had arrived.

Here, again, it became evident that the tactical necessities of the situation dictated an offensive movement as the surest method of arresting further progress. General Alderson, who was also in command of the reinforcements, accordingly directed that an advance should be made by two British brigades (the 10th Brigade under Brigadier-General Hull, and the Northumberland Brigade), which had been brought up in support. The attack was thrust through the Canadian left and centre; and as the troops making it swept on, many of them going to certain death, they paused an instant, and, with ringing cheers for Canada, gave the first indication to the Division of the warm admiration which their exertions had excited in the British Army.

The advance was indeed costly, but it was made with a devotion which could not be denied. The story is one of which the Brigades may be proud, but it does not belong to the special account of the fortunes of the Canadian contingent. It is sufficient for our purpose to notice that the attack succeeded in its object, and the German advance along the line, momentarily threatened, was arrested.

We had reached, in describing the events of the afternoon, the points at which the trenches of the 2nd Brigade had been completely destroyed. This Brigade, the 3rd Brigade, and the considerable reinforcements which by this time filled the gap between the two Brigades, were gradually driven, fighting every yard, upon a line running roughly from Fortuin, south of St. Julien, in a north-easterly direction towards Passchendaele. Here the two Brigades were relieved by two British brigades, after exertions as glorious, as fruitful, and, alas ! as costly, as soldiers have ever been called upon to make.

[Brig-.-General Hull rendered distinguished services throughout this trying time. In addition to his own Brigade—the ioth— General Hull commanded for a considerable period the York and Durham Brigade, the 2nd King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, the 9th Queen Victoria Rifles, the ist Suffolk Regiment, the 12th London Regiment, and the 4th Canadian Battalion.]

[The particular objective of the attack was the village of St. Julien, the wood near by, and the enemy’s trenches between these two points. Arrangements had been made with the Canadian Artillery for a preparatory bombardment of the wood, and the St. Julien trenches, but at the last moment the order to fire on St. Julien had to be cancelled as it was found that some of the Canadians were still holding on in the village although completely surrounded.]

Monday morning broke bright and clear and found the Canadians behind the firing line. But this day, too, was to bring its anxieties. The attack was still pressed, and it became necessary to ask Brigadier-General Currie whether he could once more call on his shrunken Brigade.

“The men are tired,” this indomitable soldier replied, “but they are ready and glad to go again to the trenches.” And so, once more, a hero leading heroes, the General marched back the men of the 2nd Brigade, reduced to a quarter of its strength, to the very apex of the line as it existed at that moment. The Brigade held this position throughout Monday; on Tuesday it occupied reserve trenches, and on Wednesday it was relieved and retired to billets in the rear.

[On the morning of April 26th Lt.-Col. Kemis-Betty, Brigade Major, and Major Mersereau, Staff Captain, were wounded by a shell. Colonel Kemis-Betty, though his wound was serious, discharged his duty all day. Major Mersereau, however, who was grievously injured, was carried into General Currie’s dug-out; and there, as no ambulance was available, he lay till late that night. Lt.-Col. Mitchell, of the Canadian Divisional Headquarters Staff, while on a general reconnaissance, heard of the plight of the wounded officers, who were badly in need of medical aid, and he determined to carry them to safety in his own car. With very great difficulty, for the road was being heavily shelled, Colonel Mitchell got his motor as far as Fortuin. The rest of the way had to be covered on foot, and* when General Currie’s dug-out was reached it Was found that only Colonel Kemis-Betty could be moved. Major Mersereau’s injuries were such that he had to be left in the dug-out until it was practicable to bring up an ambulance. Finally, he was removed, and is now in Canada slowly recovering from his wounds.]

It is a fitting climax to the story of the Canadians at Ypres that the last blows were struck by one who had borne himself throughout gallantly and resourcefully. Lieut.-Colonel Watson, on the evening of Wednesday, April 28th, was ordered to advance with his Battalion and dig a line of trenches which were to link up the French on the left and a battalion of the Rifle Brigade on the right. It was both a difficult and a dangerous task, and Lieut.-Colonel Watson could only employ two companies to dig, while two companies acted as cover.

They started out at 7 o’clock in the evening from the field in which they had bivouacked all day west of Brielen, and made north, towards St. Julien. And, even as they started, there was such a hail of shrapnel, intended either for the farm which served as the Battalion’s Headquarters, or for the road junction which they would have to cross, that they were compelled to stand fast.

At 8 o’clock, however, Colonel Watson was able to move on again; and, as the men marched north, terrible scenes en route showed the fury of the artillery duel which had been in progress since the Battalion had moved out of the firing line on the morning of the 26th.

At the bridge crossing Ypres Canal, guides met the Regiment, and the extraordinary precautions which were taken to hide its movements indicated the seriousness of its errand.

The Battalion had suffered heavy losses at this very spot only a few days before, and a draft of five officers and 112 men from England had reinforced it only that morning. And the officers and men of this draft received an awful baptism of fire within practically a few hours of their arrival at the front. High explosives were bursting and thundering; there were shells searching hedgerows and the avenue of trees between which the Battalion marched, and falling in dozens into every scrap of shelter where the enemy imagined horses or wagons might be hidden. Slowly and cautiously, the march continued until the Battalion arrived behind the first line trench held by a battalion of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. Through this line Colonel Watson and his men had to pass, and on every side were strewn the bodies of scores of Ghurkas, the gallant little soldiers who had that morning perished while attempting the almost impossible task of advancing to the assault over nearly 700 yards of open ground.

When the Battalion reached the place where the trenches were to be dug, two companies were led out by Colonel Watson himself, to act as cover to the other two companies, which then began digging along the line marked by the Engineers. And if ever men worked with nervous energy, these men did that night. From enemy rifles on the ridge came the ping of bullets, which mercifully passed overhead, although, judging from the persistency and multitude of their flares, the enemy must have known that work was being done.

It was two o’clock in the morning before the work was finished, and the Battalion turned its back upon about as bad a situation as men have ever worked in.

The return to the billets at Vlamertinghe was distressing in the extreme. Officers and men, alike worn out, slept on the march oblivious of route and destination.

During the night of May 3rd 1 and the morning of the 4th, the ist Canadian Infantry Brigade withdrew to billets at Bailleul. On the night of May 4th Lieut.-General Alderson handed over the command of this section of front to the General Officer Commanding the 4th Division, and removed his headquarters to Nieppe, withdrawing the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade on the night of the 4th, and the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade on the 5th of May.

[At 5 o’clock on the afternoon of May 2nd the ist Canadian Infantry Brigade moved up in support of the 10th and 12th Infantry Brigades (British) on account of a gas attack along our whole front. The gas enveloped all our trenches except at our extreme right. The 10th Infantry Brigade held fast, but the 12th Infantry Brigade was compelled to fall back, for the attack was so heavy that men were dazed and reeling, and utterly incapable of any further fighting. The ist Canadian Brigade was not called upon to resist the enemy, but the movements of the troops show the effects of the gas, and how the men who had to contend with it contrived to baffle the Germans. At 5.40 p.m. the Reserve Battalion of the 12th Infantry Brigade was thrown into the battle. In the meantime the General Officer commanding the 10th Infantry Brigade, observing the troops on his left retreating, very judiciously sent up the 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to occupy the vacated trenches, and arranged with the 3rd Cavalry Brigade to assist them. These two units arrived in time to catch the enemy advancing in the open, and inflicted severe losses on him. The manner in which they went through the gas was worthy of great praise. Each Company of the 2nd Essex Regiment of the 12th Brigade had one platoon in support about 150 yards in the rear of the first line. This platoon waited until the gas had passed the front line trenches, and then, advancing straight through the gas, occupied the front line trenches in time to bring heavy fire to bear on the advancing Germans. Some of the French infantry closed to the right, thus strengthening the Essex line, while the French artillery gave an intense and excellently directed fire, which raked the German lines. General Alderson says, “I subsequently wrote to General Joppe thanking him for this help, and I received a grateful acknowledgment of my letter.”]

Such, in the most general outline, is the story of a great and glorious feat of arms. A story told so soon after the event, while rendering bare justice to units whose doings fell under the eyes of particular observers, must do less than justice to others who played their part—and all did—as gloriously as those whose special activities it is possible, even at this stage, to describe. But the friends of men who fought in other battalions may be content in the knowledge that they too will learn, when the historian has achieved the complete correlation of diaries of all units, the exact part which each played in these unforgettable days. It is rather accident than special distinction which has made it possible to select individual battalions for mention.

It would not be right to close even this account without a word of tribute to the auxiliary services. The signallers were always cool and resourceful. The telegraph and telephone wires were being constantly cut, and many belonging to this service rendered up their lives in the discharge of their duty, carrying out repairs with the most complete calmness in exposed positions. The despatch carriers, as usual, behaved with the greatest bravery. Theirs is a lonely life, and very often a lonely death. One cycle messenger lay on the ground badly wounded. He stopped a passing officer and delivered his message, with some verbal instructions. These were coherently given, but he swooned almost before the words were out of his mouth.

The Artillery never flagged in the sleepless struggle in which so much depended upon its exertions. Not a Canadian gun was lost in the long battle of retreat. And the nature of the position renders such a record very remarkable. One battery of four guns found itself in such a situation that it was compelled to turn two of its guns directly about and fire on the enemy in positions almost diametrically opposite.

The members of the Canadian Engineers, and of the Canadian Army Medical Corps, rivalled in coolness, endurance and valour the men of the battalions who were their comrades. On more than one occasion during that long battle of many desperate engagements, our Engineers held positions, working with the infantry. Lieut.-Colonel (now Brigadier-General) Armstrong commanded our Engineers throughout the battle. A fighting force, a constructive force, and a destructive force in the battle of Ypres, the Canadian Engineers plied their rifles, entrenched, and mined bridges across the canal (the approaches to which they held) in case of final necessity.

No attempt has been made in this description to explain the recent operations except in so far as they spring from—or are connected with—the fortunes of the Canadian Division. The exertions of the troops who reinforced, and later relieved, the Canadians, were not less glorious, but the long-drawn-out struggle is a lesson to the whole Empire— “Arise, O Israel!” The Empire is engaged in a struggle, without quarter and without compromise, against an enemy still superbly organised, still immensely powerful, still confident that its strength is the mate of its necessities. To arms, then, and still to arms! In Great Britain, in Canada, in Australia, there is need, and there is need now, of a community organised alike in military and industrial co-operation.

The graveyard of Canada in Flanders is large. It is very large. Those who lie there have left their mortal remains on alien soil. To Canada they have bequeathed their memories and their glory.

"On Fame’s eternal camping ground
Their silent tents are spread,
And Glory guards with solemn round
The bivouac of the dead.”

Return to our Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus