The Second Battle Of Ypres - How The 2nd Battalion Got Other Messages Besides Their Mail
( Originally Published 1919 )
If the good people at home who make up packages of things that soldiers like could see their parcels being distributed and the pleasure their far-brought kindness carries with it when the bugle sounds
" Letter from lazy Mary, Letter for lousy Lou,"
they would never doubt that the socks, cigarettes, cakes, maple sugar, and sundry other tokens of practical remembrance make glad the heart of the boy overseas.
There have been difficulties in the organizing of the mail service to the Canadian battalions. Railways were congested, the Canadian division had been trek-king from place to place, and most of the Imperial and French authorities had very vague and negligent ideas as to the existence of a Canadian contingent. Add to this that in the early days of the war there was great carelessness and considerable knavery in the handling of letters and packages on their way to the front. These matters were afterwards set right, so that in the later years of campaigning delivery became, if not prompt and regular, at least tolerably certain. Indeed, in nothing has the progressive growth of a spirit of comradeship been more marked than in the gradual increase in the degree of respect paid a soldier's property in transit to the front, and in the veneration with which all ranks have learned to treat the personal effects of the fallen.
Now there are some of the 2nd Battalion who remember April 22nd with outstanding clearness be-cause that was the first day since they had landed in France when they received parcels from home that were intact. There were also some other matters not easily forgotten.
The battalion were, along with the rest of the 1st Brigade, in army reserve and were stationed a little north of Vlamertinghe. Near this spot was a cemetery, giving that notification of our mortality which is so impressive and effectual to the elderly and infirm. The battalion of course were playing football. Presently the bugle blew the " Post Office Call " and distribution of the letters and parcels began. There was not much discipline about the handing out of letters in those days. The younger soldiers forsook whatever they were at, and their long-repressed homesickness made them scurry at the double towards the battalion post office. The more philosophic kept their allegiance undivided and, repressing their merely human emotions, continued to play football. Gradually the deserters began to trickle back and resume the serious pursuit of the pigskin. While this struggle between the associations of home and Association football was still pending, there was a more serious interruption threatening the game.
Towards 5 o'clock whiffs and whirls of strange mephitic vapour came from across the canal, and the roads and fields presented a strange spectacle. The soldiers were as quick to perceive a remedy as a danger. The players in possession dribbled their footballs for the higher ground. Some men climbed trees, others sheds or the cemetery wall. From these points of vantage they watched the spectacle — the civilian population mixed with soldiers, some in French blue and others in those impossibly bright uniforms that were still being worn by some Zouaves and Turcos. The civilians were hastily snatching up things portable and leaving their cattle behind. Our soldiers wondered. It argues confusion to carry a frying-pan and a bird-cage and hope to move with little children on foot faster than one can drive cows — even deliberate French cows, which move serenely and are pastured in clover with a rope and a peg so that they eat econominally in a circle. It was a panic our men were studying.
The bugle cut short their speculations and this time it was the " Fall in." Reduced to immediate control, they were dismissed to fall in again at 7.30. About 8 they moved into Vlamertinghe, turned north and crossed the canal.
Ordinarily a night march is not so much an anxiety to the rank and file of infantry as a tedium. The nerve-strain is on the officer. His maps may be accurate, but that is doubtful. His guides may mislead. He may be a bit night-blind himself. His imagination can picture that, during the march, conditions at the rendezvous may have changed,— he may be leading in where his command will get cut off. The soldier plods along at the rate of about two miles an hour, halts when those in front halt, resumes when they resume, and is sulky because he cannot sing or smoke. But he is not excited, merely tired, and, if the roads are bad, disgusted. But this march in the night of April 22nd-23rd was a nerve-racker to the most seasoned old grumbler in the ranks. To the younger soldiers it was something that would blot out all previous memories of nightmares. The march was broken and indirect. Having crossed the bridge they took up a position in a half-circle about three-quarters of a mile from the canal. Then they moved in zigzag fashion to a gun that seemed to mark the right of line. It was apparently the only gun firing on our behalf; while shells of all sorts were whizzing overhead and cracking ominously as they passed. The loneliness of one gun appals more than would its silence. For a while, if your guns are all silent, you can dream of them being kept in reserve; the silence may conceal strength on your side and surprises for the enemy. One gun is pitiful, like a candidate who is hopelessly outballoted and has lost his deposit. Add to this that from below the new horror of the gas reached up and grasped the throats of a number of men, strangling them as with the noose of a thug.
The battalion moved up in the first place as sup-ports for the 16th and 10th in their operations against St. Julien Wood. Less than a mile to the south and a little west of the wood lay the frame buildings where were the headquarters of the 3rd Brigade, the farm it-self being then marked Vlamertinghe Farm and afterwards better known and avoided as Shell-trap Farm. The farm to the north of this was marked Candit Fraere Farm. In the rear of this farmhouse was a dressing station; and in front was Sergeant J. K. Young of the 2nd Battalion with a small machine-gun section, which he employed so well in beating down hostile forward movements from the wood and after-wards disengaged so cleverly when the remains of the battalion were withdrawn that he was recommended for mention in despatches. These farms were some-what protected, or at least covered by hedges with gaps cut in them at intervals.
South from the wood was No. 4 Company, under Major Bolster, in the field that was called the Mustard Patch. Should you meet a man of the original 2nd Battalion he will be interested in you if you mention the Mustard Patch. Further to the right lay two farmhouses, one within dangerous range of the wood and behind which was posted a dressing station so precarious before it was demolished that to go there meant receiving surgical aid without much increasing your chances of survivorship. The other farmhouse, near the St. Julien road, was used as a battalion headquarters.
The line of the 2nd Battalion was continued by Nos. 3 and 2 Companies, deployed at first about fifty yards in rear of trenches held by the remains of the 10th Battalion and much subjected to a pestiferous enfilading from a German trench in the right rear and from a house that got the name of Machine-Gun House.
As the 10th were badly exhausted, the 2nd undertook the shifting of these neighbours, and with success. Lieutenant Doxsee possessed himself of Machine-Gun House, where he was subsequently killed. His duties were taken over by Captain Richardson. On the right of the 2nd were two companies of the 3rd, of whom mention has been made in another place.
The vicissitudes of the 2nd were the normal lot of companies holding the line, and their stubbornness in holding was quite equal to that of the other Canadians. It was well on to four o'clock on Saturday afternoon when the last details were withdrawn; and from their dilatoriness in accepting or not accepting the first order to retire, they were afterwards sometimes known as the " Safety Seconds."
It is impossible to get a full and coherent story of all the companies of any of these battalions. Company narratives at best are narrow and view the happenings of other companies as through a glass darkly and of other battalions no better than would a horse with blinkers. So we may fairly give up trying to accompany the whole 2nd Battalion and pin ourselves to a single company. The luck of the others was much the same, and we can judge the sack by the sample.
No. 1 or A Company,' then, of the 2nd moved northerly during the night of the 22nd from the vicinity of the one gun that spoke, up to and a little beyond the farm building which we have identified as Candit Fraere and behind which, as we have said, was situated a dressing station and in the front of which were Young and his machine gun. They had an objective. They were detailed for an attack.
When St. Julien Wood became untenable towards morning on the 23rd, the 16th had retired and split in retiring, some of them going rather to the west and others taking up a position in the Mustard Patch. Westerly from the wood and running towards another farmhouse was a German sap trench about one hundred and fifty yards long, roughly occupying a semi-circle, — what old-time workers on fortifications would have laid out into a beautiful geometrical figure with three or five measured sides, and, having found it good, would have called it a Blunted Redan or a Lunette. And it would have been approached with decorum and defended with dignity and gone down into history as the defence of the Lunette or the attack on the Redan. But the ceremonial mystery of fortification has vanished like astrology, — and common infantrymen dig trenches somehow and defend them murderously, and the beauty of the work is its crude irregularity. Well ! This hideous lunette is what A Company of the 2nd Battalion were ordered to take.
The attack was preceded by an unfortunate reconnaissance. Many times in this war we have made the mistake of sending raiding parties or patrols that were too weak numerically for a striking force and too large for scouting purposes. The party in this case was composed of a sergeant and eighteen volunteers. What they saw they never reported; because they never returned. What they did was to make the garrison alert. Two scouts would have been sufficient for information ; the whole company none too many for striking a blow. Remember, however, that when the reconnoitring party moved off it was dark — the night illumined only by flares, gun-flashes, and intermittent moonbeams. They might have succeeded in getting and holding a bit of the trench.
Undiscouraged by the non-return of the reconnoitring party, the rest of the company crept up in the darkness and took up a position about 150 yards from the sap trench. Then shortly before dawn they opened with the rifle, and when it seemed they had established that " superiority of fire " which was the Apostles' Creed of our tacticians of that day, the company sprang to their feet, the officers leading, and made furiously for the trenches. Major Bennett in advance jumped upon the parapet and was bayonetted. Every other officer of the company went down. The attack was foiled by bursts from rifles and machine guns.
A circumstance then arose which leads us to pause and inquire if a certain amount of cold-bloodedness towards wounded comrades is not a necessity of discipline and an ultimate kindness to others. Our British rules of service had encouraged the grouping together of men from the same vicinity on the sound instinct that it made for comradeship to have beside you boys from the same village. They were not only your " pals " or your " chums," they were your " townies."
This was peculiarly the case with the Canadian battalions recruited from a large number of militia regiments, and in none more so than with the 2nd Battalion, which was a composite force from many localities in Eastern Ontario. From the colonel down it was an article of faith as soon as a man was wounded to try to carry him off. This doctrine or instinct is not good war. Casualties on this occasion were much increased by the unhurt shouting loudly for stretcher-bearers and attempting themselves to carry off the wounded. This benevolent tumult directed and pro-longed the fire of the German rifles and machine guns. Later on our soldiers learned to accept their losses with silent voices and still bodies. But much may be forgiven to that closer-than-brotherhood that had grown up during a dismal winter passed in the bleak camps on Salisbury Plain.
The mobile survivors, having lost all formation, had at length to retire. A number of men led by the company sergeant-major took post in a shallow ditch behind a hedge. The remainder emerged from their confusion and rallied at the dressing station; where the sergeant-major, going back, found them, and as soon as light served brought them up and lined the hedge. Here they kept up a brisk fire, and in this position they maintained themselves until the night of the 25th. The battalion commander, Lieut.-Colonel Watson, finding them here, demanded why they had not taken the trench. The reasons being convincing and nothing in the nature of a forward movement being feasible, he devoted himself to cheering them by his presence and evacuating their wounded — himself acting as a stretcher-bearer.