The Second Battle Of Ypres - The Capture Of St. Julien
( Originally Published 1919 )
The actual taking of St. Julien has been as obscure as the name of the village has been famous. In the village itself, up to about 5 p. m. on Thursday, April 22nd, were the battalion headquarters of Lieut.-Colonel Loomis of the 13th and of Lieut.-Colonel Currie of the 15th on opposite sides of the Poelcapelle road; and one company each of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Battalions. In addition to this was a very large shell-hole on the road just south of the bridge over Hännebeek brook. In this shell-hole Major King kept his limbers; his battery, the 10th, being north-easterly of the village in a position where, as events turned out, he was gloriously and audaciously exposed.
The first intimation of anything unusual was the peculiar greenish colour of the dust and vapour from a shell that smote the village. At first it was taken to be some new explosive that the Germans were trying out.
Presently a sergeant of the 15th came and reported in his officers' dug-out that the village was " full of French niggers." Evidently something was wrong. Up to this time there had been merely the normal troubles. Infantry on being relieved are expected to leave their quarters in a state of amazing tidiness. Even trenches that are in point of safety like the house of a certain person mentioned in Proverbs, " the way to hell, going down to the chambers of death," are garnished preparatory to moving. All paper and litter are collected and burned or buried. Sanitary conveniences, however crude in construction, are left clean, albeit with an aroma of chloride of lime. This strictness is part of the pride as well as the good sense of the British Army and has paid for itself in the wonderful health of the troops. So it is a serious reflection against a unit if it should be reported by the relieving force as having left its quarters in an unclean condition. The 3rd Brigade had taken over from the French Colonial Division — very African troops — and they had not understood such matters. And then every unit taking part in the firing zone is expected to busy itself with working parties, constructing new defences and deepening or, as it had to be in Flanders, heightening and thickening the existing works. In this case the brigade had ordered that new dug-outs should be built. Also, by one of those contradictions which are normal in brigade orders, it was positively enjoined that no man was to show himself in St. Julien by daylight. Which of course led to the normal note from the company officer to the staff-captain asking if the company was expected to tunnel and if so with what implements and material. All of which, of course, did not prevent the work proceeding.
The 15th, No. 2 Company, under Major Alexander, had a slender trench already prepared in front of the last houses in the village and running from the easterly side of the Poelcapelle road in a curve south-easterly and flanked on the right by a few dug-outs. A little distance to the rear of this position was a hedge. Their orders were, on an alarm, to occupy this trench, and they did. Two platoons of the 14th came up under Captain Brotherhood and Lieutenant Stairs and carried the line of trench from the westerly side of the road towards the Hannebeek brook. Captain Cory, second-in-command of Major Alexander's company of the 15th, having some facility in French conversation, rounded up about two hundred of the French blacks and induced a diminutive French officer to post them to the left of the 14th and continue the line westerly in the direction of the 3rd Brigade headquarters. These were the cobweb defences of the village.
Returning to his own front, Cory viewed with admiration the gleeful proceedings of Major King, who had his battery in action in front of the 15th's trench and in rear of a hedge. The major, who seemed in a particularly happy state of mind, first pointed to a house scarcely further than one hundred yards away: " That house is full of Boches," he said. Watch me blow them out at point blank." Which he did with his first shell. Having satisfied his playful instinct, King requisitioned a covering party, of which Lieutenant Stairs took charge, and a carrying party to connect with the limbers in the shell-hole.
King fought his guns in this foremost position until about midnight. During the night he assisted effectively in the affair at St. Julien Wood by pulling two of his guns out and reversing over towards the wood. His situation becoming at length too precarious, he directed his drivers to get out " any way you can get out." They justified his confidence by riding through to Ypres.
In the village of St. Julien itself the control centres in Colonel Loomis of the 13th. As soon as the heavy bombardment on Thursday broke out, Colonel Currie of the 15th exclaimed, " Damn it, I am going up to see where my boys are "; put on his equipment and two revolvers ; and journeyed up to the right of Alexander 's company, from where he subsequently proceeded to his advanced headquarters. Shortly after he left the village the wall of the house where he had been fell in, and Colonel Loomis came over and ordered the details to transfer to his own headquarters and the dressing station in rear of it. This became a warm spot, as the Germans were firing from the west into the backyard of the premises ; and, for protection, the adjutant of the 13th organized a working party and made a shelter with sand-bags.
During the night a fine company of the Buffs under Captain Tomlinson passed through the village and was guided along the usual route of the ration parties to make connection with the left of the 13th.
About daybreak a portion of the 7th, preceded by the brigade-major, Lieut.-Colonel Kemis-Betty, passed through the 15th trench and proceeded to occupy a line starting from the hedge behind which King's battery had been firing and inclining in the direction of the advanced headquarters.
Friday was an anxious day and literal compliance with the brigade order that no man should show himself by daylight in St. Julien was general. The enemy proceeded to systematically dismantle the village with shell-fire. Their infantry methodically started to dig trenches near a farmhouse in the vicinity of Keerselaer. The little attention our artillery could spare them did not halt this work, which in view of their numbers and of the cobweb trenches of our defences was rather to be encouraged. For here, as in several other places, a resolute German advance must have succeeded.
An inspection of the left of our line found the two platoons of the 14th still very much in position. The Turcos, however, had executed one of those unannounced withdrawals that are the despair of tacticians. The left flank was in the air.
Loomis did what he could to connect the village on the right by getting Major Alexander of the 15th to dig a communication trench up to the left of the 7th's line. On the left of the village he had to trust to the energies of the 3rd Brigade staff to fill the gap.
During the Friday night Captain Cory had the supervision of the parties that supplied not only with rations, but with ammunition and water, the other three companies of the 15th, the whole of the 13th, and the sacrifice company of the Buffs. Taking a winding path that lay between the Mill road and the St. Julien-Poelcapelle road, he made several trips during the night, and found a new line had been established by the 13th swinging back at right angles to their former position.
About 4 a. m. on the Saturday the defenders of the village saw beautiful but menacing red rockets drop from a German sausage-balloon. Immediately there-after the memory of what the previous day our men had thought a real bombardment became faint like the far-off moaning of the sea. This one was real and was terribly intended to end the defence of St. Julien.
It was necessary to find out what was doing on the left, and Cory made his way to where the French had been. Then he saw, about a thousand yards to the west, the end of a line that he recognized as occupied by the 3rd Battalion from seeing Lieutenant " Bill " Jarvis among them. And from this position, turning to his right, he got a staggering picture of what was bearing down on the doomed village. First the gas rolling in greenish clouds over the hill on his right, and then the German infantry, without concealment or pretence of taking cover, deploying from the trench they had dug the day before and sweeping in waves toward St. Julien. Reaching the trench of the two 14th platoons, he found Brotherhood and Stairs already killed and Captain Williamson, the machine-gun officer, firing " into the brown " of the stolidly advancing German masses. He watched for a while the signal execution done by Williamson, who was killed while talking to him. Then about 7 o'clock Cory ran the gauntlet of the Poelcapelle road and reached his own line.
Here the defenders were watching another strange picture. Over the high ground to the right were racing along some relics — mere chips and crumbs — of the front companies; and the Hun artillery were not shelling resisting formations, but remorselessly crumping small groups of fugitives. Of these but two stragglers reached the trench, one of the 15th and one of the 13th,' and both were incoherent with shell-shock.
1 The 13th man related circumstantially how he had seen Captain Clark-Kennedy's head completely blown off. As a matter of fact,
About 10 o'clock a small detachment of the 3rd under Captain Len Morrison and Lieutenant Walter Curry, having previously reported to Colonel Loomis and worked their way around the village, reported to Captain Cory. The latter, having in mind the brigade orders as to holding the line, felt that his own unit was elected to stay until relieved or ordered to retire. But he realized also, from the violence of the hurricane of munitions that was passing overhead and lashing the village and the exposed trench of the 14th, that to accept new men now was simply to put more eggs in a broken basket. So he gave them the pleasant advice :
There is nothing to be done here; you had better beat it." The 7th were still holding their bit, and Latta, their machine-gun officer, was conspicuously busy on their rear flank. But at 11.10 they got orders to retire. And here again the inadequacy of the trench work of that period produced disaster. They started to retire clown Alexander's little communication trench and choked it and the 15th trench so that numbers of them took a chance of crossing the open fields and got fright-fully cut up. One company of them appeared to be having better success by making off through some dead ground. After about twenty minutes of this confusion Major Byng-Hall of the 7th arrived on their heels and re-formed about seventy-five of his men in the 15th trench.
The defence of this part of the line was continued in the knowledge that there was no longer a holding line where the 7th had been and in an uncertainty equally as to where the new line on the right might rest and as to what was happening to Loomis and the village in the rear. It was obvious also that unless heavily rein-forced two platoons, even of such stuff as those 14th
Clark-Kennedy lived to keep his head on a number of difficult occasions, and finally to come out of the war as a lieutenant-colonel, V. C., O.M.G., D. S. O. platoons had shown themselves, could not hold their exposed position on the left.
At 12.45 it ended suddenly, as such things do. There was a hedge on the south side of the cross-road that runs from St. Julien easterly. Captain Cory ordered some men to retire and line this hedge. Robert Tilley, a signaller, and six others darted across and reached it in safety. This was the last flicker. Those who were too slow were made prisoners. The Germans had started pouring through the houses of the village and through the hedge in rear of the 15th trench and now they came over in front. Now up the Poelcapelle road as prisoners of war marched the survivors of the garrison, Byng-Hall and his 75 men of the 7th, Cory and his 39 of the 15th, 4 of the 16th, 2 of the 3rd, and 2 of the 13th. St. Julien had fallen, " a little city and few men within it."
Thus the Germans took St. Julien in the time they should have taken Ypres and been roaring down into Calais. Secrecy and rapidity are twin elements of military success. They succeeded in keeping secret their gas preparations and on that memorable Thursday won a victory which they could not use. For they had lost the fruits of surprise by their dilatory methodicism. There is a time in war to proceed deliberately; to collect, organize, and consolidate. But there is also a time to bore in and rush the enemy off his feet. The German tacticians of April, 1915, did not know how to fight to a finish. They wanted to make everything sure in a game where nothing is sure ; and they marked time and stepped short, though the greatly victorious in war have always stepped out and doubled. They were slow.
There were others of like character. There was a British general and a brigade of Imperials who had been listening for hours to the crackle of musketry and the rat-tat-tat of the machine guns in St. Julien. They were organizing a strong counter-attack on the village —when it should have fallen. The continued resistance did not suggest any acceleration in their methodical, deliberate, and unsuccessful preparations. It was of course not good tactics to operate by driblets. But the instinct that makes a soldier want " to march to the sound of the guns " is good comradeship; and good comradeship runs parallel for most of the way to good generalship ; and too cold-blooded a philosophy in war has generally overreached. But in this instance the attack was not made until Sunday and St. Julien remained German until a later campaign.