The First Division In France - At The Front
( Originally Published 1919 )
Now that the war zone has been reached, it will not be amiss to sketch what had so far happened in Flanders since the outbreak of hostilities ; for with that theatre of operations, for many weary, tragic months were to be linked up the fortunes of the gallant 1st Canadian Division. Little did the brave men from the West then dream that they were to remain there longer than a few months. Their cheery optimism saw only victory and an early termination of the war. A few weeks, however, were to bring a sterner look to every eye, a firmer determination to every lip, and a soberer view of the situation.
During the war of 1870 the Germans in attacking France had observed international treaties and the frontiers of Belgium had been preserved inviolate. As long as Belgium's neutrality was observed Great Britain had no ground to intervene in a quarrel between France and Germany. The result was that in 1870 the invasion of France was confined to the narrow zone between Luxemburg and the Alps. The German armies concentrated there in such vast numbers and with such speed that they were able to break through immediately on the declaration of war. Once through, they spread out fan-like — north, south, and west — overrunning France. A turning movement of the armies toward the north locked up the bulk of the French forces at Sedan and Metz, compelling them to surrender. It was all a matter of a few weeks until Paris was taken and the war ended. With the dread of a repetition of this manoeuvre constantly before them, the French had fortified the eastern frontier with great fortresses and earthworks. So strong had they made their borders exposed to German attack that to attempt an invasion such as that of 1870 would prove costly, if not fatal.
Of recent years the leading German writers on military strategy, the principal being von Bernhardi, had urged the necessity of an invasion of Belgium in case of a war with France. Strange to say, none of these writers appeared to have had any idea that Belgium would fight in defence of her neutrality, or that Great Britain would live up to her treaty obligations and intervene if that neutrality were interfered with. The Government of the day in Great Britain was friendly to Germany; and it was fondly imagined in Berlin that the desire for peace and the prospects of increased commerce from the war would tempt Great Britain to forget her plighted word. The Germans held their own given word so lightly that they could not conceive of any other nation keeping faith when it might be convenient to act otherwise.
Belgium, with its seaports of Antwerp, Zeebrugge, and Ostend once in German hands, would provide a bridgehead which later on, after the forces of France and Russia had been destroyed, could be used against Great Britain.
For many years before the war, Germany and Anstria had been arming for the coming conflict, both on land and on sea. This policy offered a constant threat against France, Russia, and Great Britain. Not only were the Central Powers piling up vast military stores and increasing their armies; but by their naval pro-gramme they were evidently aiming at ousting Great Britain from her time-honoured place as the first Sea Power. France was quiescent, content to follow some distance behind in this armament game; whilst Great Britain utterly neglected her army and almost seemed willing even to forego her historical naval supremacy. Russia, fully aroused to the danger of her western front, at last took a hand in the game of " Beggar my Neighbour," and adopted a military programme which, in about four years, would give her such military preponderance that for the Central Powers to attack her would be madness. It was apparently to anticipate the fulfilment of the Russian military programme that Germany declared war, taking as an excuse the murder of the Austrian heir apparent. France, when hostilities threatened, so as not to provide any " frontier incident " as an excuse for a declaration of war, had removed all her troops ten kilometers back from the Franco-German frontier. But the Germans, casting aside all treaty obligations as " scraps of paper," declared war and began the invasion of Belgium. What followed belongs now to European history and need not be referred to here.
After their advance forces had for a time been halted at Liège, the Germans passed their main army over the Belgian frontier and rapidly overran that country. They met the British army at Mons, where their advance was checked by the magnificent musketry of the British soldiers ; but the British general, Sir John French, owing to the retreat ordered by the French general on his right, had to break off the fight and retire. The German army drove the British and French back through Belgium and down east of Paris to the Marne, where a stand was made by the Franco-British army and an important battle was fought, which ended in the retreat of the Germans to the Aisne. The Germans then began to consolidate their hold on Belgium. The city of Antwerp fell after a brief siege, and the German forces swept along the coast, capturing Zeebrugge and Ostend; but they were halted at Nieuport. Then a thrust was made further south for the Channel ports of Calais and Boulogne; and the conquering hosts swept over Ypres and west to within a few miles of St. Omer, a day's march from Calais. Hazebrouck and all the territory in which the Canadian division was first billeted had been overrun by the Germans. After the Battle of the Marne the British army had been transferred back to Northern France and reorganized. A wide circling movement of the Franco-British drove the Germans out of French Flanders with severe losses. Suffering from the sting of the previous retreat, the British army drove the enemy back east of the Ypres Canal, capturing Ypres, Hazebrouck, Bailleul, Merriville, Poperinghe, Messines, Bethune, and all of Northern French Flanders and a strip of Belgium. When winter set in, both armies established themselves in trenches, and for over three years trench, or rather fortress warfare was waged along the Western front. The battle-line chosen by the Germans ran along what at one time constituted the western boundary of the old Roman-German Empire of the 12th Century. It would appear as if the Germans intended to hold this territory by setting up the visionary claim that all the lands within these lines had at one time belonged to the Germanic Empire.
The Western front, when the Canadians arrived in France, began at Nieuport, at the mouth of the Ypres Canal, a short distance east of Dunkirk, and ran south along the canal to Bixschoote, four miles north of the city of Ypres, which had been won back from the Germans; then it swept east in a curve, with a radius of about four miles, with Ypres as a centre; thence south to the city of Armentières, on the frontier of France and Belgium. The line twisted slightly east to La Bassée, a name that will ever remain in British annals associated with gruesome and bloody memories ; thence west of Lens, which the Germans, on account of the rich coal-fields, were to hold tenaciously for four years. From Lens the line ran south-west to Vimy Ridge, and then swung easterly. At Arras it formed a salient, and ran south past Amiens to Noyon, the point of the battle-line nearest to Paris, distant about fifty miles. At Noyon the Germans were to remain for nearly three years. From Noyon the trenches turned east, north of the city of Rheims, following the high chalk ridges on the banks of the Aisne, and continuing on to the famous fortress of Verdun; then on to Pont-à-Mousson, where they turned south to the Swiss frontier. At one point, between Colmar and Basle, the French held a portion of the territory of Alsace, which had been wrested from them in 1870, and which offered some consolation for the loss of the coal-mines and factory towns of the northeast.
A battered remnant of the heroic little Belgian army held the trenches from the coast to Dixmude. From Dixmude to Zonnebeke, due east of Ypres, a section of the trenches was held by the French army, and from Zonnebeke to La Bassée, some forty-five miles, by the British. The remainder of the line to the Alps, over three hundred miles, was guarded by the French.
It should always be kept in mind that, in the alliance made between France, Russia, and Britain, Russia and France were to carry on the war on land, and that Britain's part was to hold the sea. A small expeditionary force of some eighty thousand men was to be sent to the assistance of France. Such a " Contemptible Little Army," as it was characterized by the German Emperor, was not supposed to be able to make much headway against the German hordes. The " Little Army," however, had grown to some nine divisions when the Canadians arrived in France. A contingent had also arrived from India, consisting of Sikhs and Gurkhas; and the Canadians were subsequently to bear witness to the valour of these men from the Indian Empire, with whom on more than one occasion they fought side by side.
The Canadians were in Old Flanders, and the Flemings, with few exceptions, welcomed them with open arms. This people offered a strong racial contrast to the Bretons. The latter are a grey-eyed, broad-set, red-cheeked, sturdy race, very much like the Welsh and Hebridian Highlanders ; while the Flemings are flaxen-haired, fair, and blessed with the proverbial long Flemish noses. Old Flanders, or the " Low Country," as it is known in history, has fittingly been called the " Cockpit " of Europe. From the dawn of history this territory has been the scene of wars, battles, and blood-shed. All the great generals of Europe have fought in Flanders — Caesar, Charlemagne, William of Orange, Turenne, Condé, Luxemburg, Prince Eugene of Savoy, Villars, Marlborough, Jourdan, Napoleon, and Wellington.
No part of Europe is more fertile than Flanders. It consists of a vast alluvial plain. The soil is red clay loam, rich and strong. Near the North Sea the land rises but little above the sea-level, and in places it has to be protected by dykes. The rivers, so-called, are only small streams, but they provide in many places a system of underground irrigation. The level of the plain is broken near the centre by a string of sand-hills. These cone-shaped hills begin at Cassel, some thirty miles south of Dunkirk. Forming a crescent-shaped barrier, they pass through Bailleul, south past Ypres, and north-east to Roulers. The highest point is at Cassel, about a thousand feet above the level of the plains. It is as if some giant hand had dropped huge heaps of sand across the clay plains, forming Mont Kemmel, Mont de Cats, Messines Ridge, and the series of heights south and east of Ypres, such as Hill Sixty, Klein Zillebeke, Gravenstafel, and the Passchendaele Ridges, names that were later on to be associated with the glorious deeds of the Canadians.
Like the Bretons, the Flemings are bilinguists. They speak, with few exceptions, both Flemish and French. Both languages are official, and are taught in the Belgian schools. In France only French is recognized ; but the Flemish language still lingers in French Flanders and, south of a line drawn from Brussels to Calais, is the jargon of the fireside; whilst Walloon, an early French patois, is heard north of this line. French; Flemish, and Walloon are spoken in Belgium. Flemish is a Germanic language, whilst Walloon is of Latin origin. All the Belgian officers are obliged to speak Flemish as well as French.
One of the things which most interested the Canadians on their arrival in this region was the windmills, which were to be found at almost every cross-road. Many of these mills are of very ancient origin, but they still spread their sails to every breeze and ground the fine white wheat of the country into the flour which makes the " French loaf," soon to become a favourite article of diet with the Canadians. The advent of the German gunner in the neighbourhood, however, quickly spelled disaster to the windmills.
When an army is fighting in the field it may live in camp — either tents or huts, such as the Canadians had at Valcartier or on Salisbury Plain; in billets — which means that the soldiers are quartered in the houses and barns among the civil population; or in bivouacs, the men sleeping on the open ground with the sky as a canopy. This was sometimes varied under shell-fire by each man digging himself a " dig in " or shallow trench. When a battalion is " dug in " in bivouac or in shelter trenches, a shell must register a direct hit to injure anyone. The men of the Canadian division were to begin their experience in the war zone in billets.
Flanders, where the Canadian division was now established, both French and Belgian, is thickly populated. Roads intersect the country in all directions, the crossings being about a kilometre — about five-eighths of a mile — apart. At each crossing there is a hamlet or village, generally named after some patron saint. In the intervals between the villages are the farms, the majority of which are owned by the occupants. The farm buildings are nearly all modelled on the same general plan. Some of the houses are of extreme antiquity, and the walls still show the slots from which the cross-bowmen used to command the roadways. The Canadians, as a general thing, were quartered at these farms, and were soon on excellent terms with the inhabitants. The young men were all on military service, and only the old men were left to cultivate the fields with the assistance of the women and children. Many of these men were veterans of the Franco-Prussian wars ; they hated the Germans with a deadly hatred, and took pride in showing to the Canadians their wounds received in battle with the Hun. The women, patient, grave, and of extreme courage, did most of the work on the farms. One woman, at the farmhouse where the writer was quartered, asked if we thought the war would last another year. When told we thought it might last two years, for we did not believe that the Allies would quit until they had driven the Hun out of Belgium and France, and dictated terms to him in Berlin, she said with some show of emotion, " My boy Louis will have to go," pointing to a handsome lad of about seventeen. " Are you not sorry that he may have to go? " she was questioned sympathetically. " No! " she said, her face lighting up with patriotic fervour. " Ever since I first saw him in his cradle, I have hoped and prayed that he would live to fight for France." Such was the spirit of the French women !
The soil of Flanders, while fertile, is a sticky clay, and difficult to travel across in the winter season. At Waterloo, the rain that fell on the night preceding that fateful battle prevented Napoleon from bringing his troops into action till well on towards noon. While his infantry could plough through the mud, he was unable to manoeuvre his guns, and this contributed more than anything else to his defeat. In former wars fought over this country by " William the Silent " of Orange, Luxemburg, and Marlborough, the troops went into intrenched camps in the winter. In the Great World War, owing to the enormous numbers of troops engaged, the whole front became an intrenched camp in the winter of 1914-15.
Through this country flow many streams which according to the maps are rivers, but which in Canada or the United States would have no loftier title than creeks. Most of them could be negotiated by a leap. During the winter snow seldom stays on the ground for more than a couple of days ; but there is abundance of rain, followed by bright, warm sunshine. As a result, the fields are flooded with water, and at this season had more the appearance of ponds than of cultivated areas. Big ditches were to be seen everywhere — along the roads, in the fields, and along the hedges that divide the farms into plots of five or ten acres. These ditches are for the purpose of subirrigation. The rain-water finds its way into them, and thence back into the soil by an underground system of tile drains, about ten or fifteen feet apart and about eighteen inches below the surface.
The main roads between the principal cities are elevated about four feet above the surrounding country, the soil for the grading being taken from the deep ditches along the roadside. These main roadways, of which the country can be justly proud, are paved with blocks of stone, about eight by sixteen inches, set on edge. There is a saying that the Flemings repair their roads about once in a hundred years by turning a fresh edge of these stones to the surface. The lesser roads are well paved with macadam. There are no dirt roads. The lines of the roads are generally marked with rows of tall poplar and elm trees. The elms, poplars, and willows are kept neatly trimmed by the thrifty farmers, who collect the branches, bind them into faggots, and burn them for the production of charcoal.
The farmhouses are built close to the roads, and all the farm buildings form a compound about a courtyard. Each farmhouse is surrounded by a deep ditch or moat from sixteen to twenty feet wide and of varying depth. There is an entrance from the roadway into the inner courtyard, and at the rear an exit from the barn to the fields. When the front gateway is closed and the barn-door is barred, no one can get into the buildings. These farm buildings then become, like Hougoumont at Waterloo, small fortresses. Such was their purpose in earlier days, when brigands roamed about pillaging the countryside or demanding ransom. A tile or brick sidewalk extends round the courtyard close to the buildings.
The master of the farm and his family occupy the structures on the front of the square. These quarters consist of a sitting-room or living-room, two or three bedrooms, with a stairway leading to the upper rooms for servants, and a dining-room for the servants. The barn proper occupies the rear face of the enclosure. On one side are the cow byres and horse stables ; on the other, buildings provided for the pigs, chickens, and dogs. At one corner, next the road, is a building used as a dairy and laundry. Outside the wall of the dairy is an upright wheel, about sixteen feet in diameter. When the Canadians first saw these wheels as they left the train, they fancied they were used to pump water; but they soon discovered that these odd structures played a prominent part in the economy of the farms. Each farm boasts one or two dogs of the Flemish breed. These dogs resemble small mastiffs ; in colour they are black with brown and sable points ; and they have pointed ears and muzzles. They are a vicious lot; and no wonder, for Flanders is no paradise for dogs. Each morning a farmerette takes a dog out to the wheel, and that dog has to keep on trotting all morning. At noon he is taken out, fed and tied up, and his companion in labour is put in the wheel. In the meantime, the wheel has turned the churn and the washing apparatus, and mixed the bread. No one in Flanders can tell you who invented these dog wheels, from so remote a time do they date. In this region wine was manufactured and there were farms with hedges and enclosures, and no doubt dog wheels, in the time of Caesar, two thousand years ago.
In the centre of the farm enclosure or courtyard there is a pit walled with brick, about thirty feet square, and ten or twelve feet deep, into which is thrown the manure and refuse of the stables and house. In one corner of this pit or midden there is a well with a pump. The midden drains into the well, and the contents are pumped into huge puncheons and used to sprinkle over the fields of sugar-beet, beans, and potatoes. This is a fruitful source of bacteria, both in the soil and the air; and the man or animal that is wounded or cut is in grave danger of being afflicted with tetanus or lockjaw, or, what is far worse, gas gangrene. Lock-jaw early in the war succumbed to a serum injected into either man or beast that happened to be wounded ; but gangrene took a terrible toll, and the slightest wound, unless thoroughly disinfected at once and kept clean, might mean a lingering horrible death, following operation after operation.
The horses on the Flemish farms were of the Belgian breed; heavy, intelligent animals, not unlike the French draft horse, but shorter and flatter in the bone. Most of the horses in the territory where the Canadians were billeted were carried off by the Germans. Some cavalry horses that were wounded were left behind by the invaders. They were a queer lot, small and weedy, with crested manes sticking up like the spikes of a porcupine ; and were not unlike the wild horses that used to roam the Canadian prairies, or the horses shown on ancient marbles. These horses were used by the German light cavalry. A Uhlan mounted on one of these " crocks " would not stand much chance in a running fight with a trooper of such a regiment as the Scots Greys. A troop of the British heavy cavalry would ride down a whole regiment of them.
The Flemish women tilled the farms, drove the horses, milked the cows, ploughed and sowed the land under the fire of the German guns. Women tilling the land within half a mile of the German line was a common sight. In one section occupied by the Canadians a young Flemish girl harrowed and planted a field, while the German gunners for two days persistently and deliberately fired shells at her— so much for boasted chivalry and kultur.
With all this splendid farm land and stock, the Flemish farmer still makes his own implements. Home-made carts and wooden iron-shod ploughs and wooden harrows are the rule. The implement manufacturers are not encouraged. The Flemish farmers figure out that there are days when they are not busy on the land when they can occupy themselves manufacturing their own farm implements.
In such a region and among such a people, on the evening of February 17th the 1st Canadian Division of the Expeditionary Force, after disembarking at Hazebrouck, went into billets, with the village of Caestre as the centre of their area. As they marched along the roads the farmers stopped ploughing and the children ran out from the houses to gaze with astonishment and admiration at the Canadians. This billeting area was immediately west of the Ypres salient, where the Canadians were to experience so much fierce fighting and where they were to acquit themselves so nobly. Already the ominous name of " Bloody Wipers " had found its way across to England; and it is a name that forever and a day will be written red in the annals of Canada.
The division was reviewed on the 20th by Generals Sir John French and Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, who expressed themselves as well pleased with this addition to their forces.
The Canadians were in excellent spirits and all were eager for action. They were indeed a formidable force. The machine-like precision of the troops in their drill and exercises impressed the inspecting officers. They no doubt were prepared to witness a motley mob of civilians — " raw necks "; instead of which they saw battalions of men above the ordinary stature, of magnificent physique and bearing, well drilled and disciplined. The foundation of this excellence in drill and discipline had been laid at Valcartier, and the tradition was carried on and improved at Salisbury Plain. When the 1st Division reached France, a number of senior Imperial officers who saw it on its arrival told the writer that, in their opinion, it was superior to any Imperial troops then in the field. The first Imperial contingent had been killed off and depleted; and the ranks were filled with drafts of raw recruits that had not undergone anything like the training of the Canadians, who, it must be remembered, had now been over six months in arms.
All kinds of lies and slanders had been circulated in Canada and England about the 1st Division. That was part of the German propaganda. Ninety-five per cent. of the division was composed of sane, sober, God-fearing young men. As a rule they tried to live exemplary lives while surrounded by every form of temptation. Their discipline was self-imposed — the kind that tells when the odds are against a man. When the supreme test came these men were to show that it is the man who leads a clean and godly life that makes the best soldier. Their deeds have forever silenced the voices of their slanderers.
The territory in the neighbourhood of Caestre and Hazebrouck still showed signs of the German invasion of 1914. Here and there crosses, white and black, in corners of the fields told their tragic story ; and in the vicinity of farmhouses trenches and barbed-wire en-tanglements were to be seen. In the first sweep for the Channel ports the German advance guards had reached almost as far west as St. Omer; but the First British Army had been reorganized and moved up to the coast, and, as we have seen, together with the French had driven the invaders back across the Belgian frontier, and east of Ypres, which was the only city of Belgium left in the possession of the Allies.
After the British High Command had inspected the 1st Canadian Division and it looked good to them, they decided that the sooner it got into the trenches the better. Orders came that the march to the battle front should begin on the 23rd, the objective being the city of Armentières. The division moved off promptly. Very few of the men fell out, although they were wearing heavy English miners' boots and the stone-paved roads were hard going. Armentières, a French factory town, was reached in the afternoon about four o'clock. The citizens gave the Canadians an enthusiastic welcome, turning out en masse to see them make their entry. Billets were provided in the town and the men soon settled down comfortably.
The boundary line between Belgium and France runs south from the sea coast to Armentières, which is located on the river Lys, a small stream which flows north-easterly to Ghent, where it joins the Schelde. The Lys forms the boundary from Armentières to Menin. All the territory in the vicinity of Armentières was swampy, the height of the river Lys, which was then in flood, determining in a measure the military operations. The city of Lille is about ten miles east of Armentières, and the line of trenches at that time ran through Houplines, a suburban village two miles east of Armentières.
The town of Armentières, when the Canadians arrived there, was a comparatively quiet spot, the Germans, for the time being, dropping only an occasional shell into it. But there was hardly a block but showed doors, windows, and walls peppered with shrapnel. In Armentières the Canadians first saw evidence of the brutality of the Germans. In the city were several small children whose hands had been chopped off by the enemy's soldiery, whilst hardly a young or old woman had escaped the brutal attentions of the invaders. The factories, many of which were owned by Germans, were all idle. It was said that the German-owned factories were marked red on the German gunners' maps, and were never shelled.
It was at Houplines that the Canadians first entered the Flemish trenches, and learned trench warfare. In this sector they were liaisoned with British troops ; that is to say, they took the place of a certain number of British troops and were taught the routine of trench life.
The system of defensive works immediately behind the front line were in many instances most complicated, and, on the arrival of the division at the front, company officers and non-commissioned officers were the first to be sent into the trenches. This was for the purpose of enabling them to study communication trenches, barbed-wire entanglements, etc., so that they might be able to lead their platoons into any position of the defensive system to which they were assigned.
One of the most exciting moments in the lives of the soldiers of the Canadian division in the Great War was when they entered the famous front line trenches of Flanders for the first time. If the writer were asked to give the most exciting moments for him in the Great War, he would place these incidents in the following ascending order: the moment when he first witnessed the front line trenches, at night with the troops in action; the first time he heard the weird whine of the Hun shell, which preceded an explosion in his immediate vicinity; the strenuous moment when the men of his command charged magazines and fixed bayonets to repel an assault of the enemy, whose shock troops were seen emerging from their trenches with bayonets fixed. It certainly took some nerve to witness without emotion the enemy as' they advanced in dense masses across No Man's Land, brandishing their arms menacingly by alternately raising and lowering their bayonets as they broke into the charging pace. " Steady ! aim low ! shoot your man first and bayonet him afterwards." These muttered edutions of the Canadian company officers will ring in the ears forever, along with the acrid tang of the burnt cordite powder, the deafening rattle of the rifles and machine guns, and the hoarse shouts of the combatants. Yes ! the first thrilling moments in a modern battle, when the combat reaches the hand-to-hand stage, for real excitement takes precedence over everything else in a man's life.
The Canadians had now to take their regular turn in the trenches. They were sent in at ration time — that is, between eight and nine o'clock at night. Every evening about that time a detail from the trenches met the company quartermaster's detachment at a convenient spot in the rear and took over the food, wood, sand-bags, and other supplies. The men marched across the fields in Indian file — on one side dodging a shell hole, on the other a ditch — through hedges and up sunken communication trenches to the front line. Then each man was quietly allotted a place along the parapet.
The trenches were quite unlike what had been expected. The picture shows in England and the " Notes from the Front " led the men to expect a gash cut in the earth in zig-zag fashion, the earth thrown up on one side to form a parapet or breastwork. In the Low Country the trenches took the form of a double row of breastworks, each about the height of a man. Deep trenches were out of the question, as water was found plentifully about a foot below the surface. Two lines of these breastworks or trenches, varying from fifty to three hundred yards apart, ran sinuously from the sea down to the Alps, one manned by the Germans and the other by the Allies.
It was a dull, hazy night when the Canadians first found themselves engaged with the enemy. Overhead was a constant humming, as if a flock of swallows or other swift-flying birds were in migrating flight. This was the voice of bullets. In the air, as far as the eyes could see, north and south, great flares were rising from the German side. These flares, or rockets, threw a very brilliant light, more so than the magnesium in the rockets used for holiday celebrations at home. They threw objects into startling relief and shone with the brilliancy of the electric headlight of a locomotive. The occupants of the opposing trenches were able to read by the light of one of these flares. At intervals of about one hundred feet they were shot into the air, forming great festoons of light, turning the night into day. The British were sending up few flares in return, and those sent up were of poor quality. Nothing so impressed the Canadians as the scientific preparedness of the enemy disclosed by these lights. The first night in the trenches made them feel that the war was not likely to end before they got right into it. That first night taught most of them that they were in for a long hard struggle, and that the sooner the people at home woke up to the plight of the army in Flanders and the general position of the Allies, the better. The rattle of the musketry along the trenches was incessant. It sounded almost as if a general engagement were taking place. The incessant whistling noises overhead were from bullets aimed not so much at the front line trenches as at the rear, in the hope of finding a billet among working parties or reliefs. At intervals of about one hundred yards along the enemy's trenches were placed machine guns that every few minutes broke loose, with a sound like rivetting hammers, sending showers of bullets across, ripping the sand-bags on the top of the parapets, and making the wary occupants of the trenches duck their heads as the bullets ricochetted in the air about them.
German machine guns played a most important part in the war from the commencement. They were all of the Maxim pattern and were made to stand rough usage. The " clank, clank " of the automatic action could be plainly heard across No Man's Land. The Germans had about sixteen of these guns for every battalion of eight hundred men. From three to four per battalion were all the British were at first allowed. The German machine guns were mounted on a carriage shaped like a Canadian hand-sleigh. On this mount they could be dragged across the fields through the mud.
The trench system in the battle area was developed in the following manner. The troops fighting back and forward across the country would be ordered to halt at some line and dig themselves in. Every soldier in the field carries, besides his rifle and ammunition, an intrenching tool. The Germans carried a small shovel. The disadvantages of a shovel are that the user must stand up or kneel to use it, and while he is digging himself in he is exposed to fire. It took the Germans twice as long to dig in as the British, and they at-tempted such work rarely except at night. The British soldier carried a " grubber " slung across his back. When he was ordered to " dig in," he lay down, pulled the handle of his grubber out of its scabbard alongside of his bayonet, and inserted it in the grubber, forming an instrument not unlike a heavy hoe with a small pick opposite the cutting blade. Lying in the prone position, he used his grubber to pick and shovel the earth until he made a hole in the ground large enough to insert his body. He then enlarged his " dig in," till he had a hole about eighteen inches deep, two feet wide, and six feet long. The earth was piled up at the head of this hole with a thickness at the top of from a yard to five feet, according to the nature of the soil, to serve as cover from machine-gun and rifle bullets. When a man was trained to dig in, he could get out of sight and into safety in about fifteen minutes. These intrenchments are called " field," " hasty," or " shelter " trenches. With a bundle of rye straw from a neighbouring roof, the " dig in " is comparatively warm and comfortable. In it the occupant is safe from rifle or machine-gun bullets, and from shell-fire unless a shell registers a direct hit.
After a battalion has dug itself in, if the fight peters out, orders are sent forward to " consolidate " the position; in other words, to build a line of deliberate intrenchments. The line of " dig ins " is generally located so as to give a clear field of fire in front. There is therefore not much trouble in laying out deliberate intrenchments either in front or in rear. The deliberate line is laid out in zig-zags or bays, each bay to accommodate from four to eight men. Between the bays there is a crook in the trench line. This crook provides a wall or traverse, as it is called, which stops splinters of a shell from killing or wounding any but the men in the " bay " where it falls. When the line is fixed hurdles of willow provided by the engineers are fitted up and fastened to stakes driven into the ground. These hurdles assist in forming a revetment or wall against which the men can stand as they fire. Earth to the width of about six feet is piled up from the enemy's side against these hurdles. Sometimes hurdles are laid horizontally in this mud wall to pre-vent it from being destroyed by shell-fire. Where the earth is burrowed on the enemy's side there is generally formed a ditch, which fills with water and adds to the difficulties of the attackers. The mud bank is raised to about four feet, and then a double or triple row of sand-bags on top finishes the job. Between the sand-bags, at intervals along the line, are inserted steel plates with holes in them to snipe through. Generally port-holes were provided in pairs in a recess in the wall: one hole was for observation, the other for firing. Behind the port-holes blankets were frequently hung so as to render their detection by the enemy a difficult matter. Machine guns were provided with similar positions. At night the machine guns were fired through old blankets, to prevent the flash of their operation being seen by the enemy. At intervals of about fifty or sixty feet in the parapets, small redoubts were constructed, and in these redoubts were built dug-outs," as they were called, for the accommodation of the men. In these they were supposed to rest in the day-time. Trench routine required that the men should work at night, and rest and keep hidden from observation during the day. Some of the men found it difficult to sleep out of their accustomed time, and lack of proper rest helped to bring on that nervous condition known as " shell-shock."
When deliberate intrenchments had been established at the front line, a second or reserve line was built at from two to five hundred yards in the rear. The re-serve trenches were generally more deliberate in out-line, and provided much better sleeping accommodation. About half a mile back of the front trenches a line of large redoubts were provided. Each line of fortification was strongly protected by barbed-wire entanglements. When the Canadians went into the trenches, the front line was the line of defence, and in it most of the troops were placed. As time wore on the French used only machine guns in the front line, the second line being made the chief line of resistance. Subsequently, this was changed, so that the first and second lines were lightly held and were supposed to face back on the third line. This system proved disastrous at the Aisne and the second or French system was adopted as the best.
While in the trenches a battalion occupied about eight hundred yards of the front line. It generally had three companies in the front line trenches and one company in reserve breastworks. Only two of the battalions constituting a brigade were placed in the front line at a time. The other two battalions were kept in reserve — one in brigade reserve about a mile behind the line, the other in divisional reserve further back. The battalions relieved each other in the front line about every four days.
The signalling system had reached some degree of perfection early in the war, and the chief instrument used was the portable field telephone. Each company carried a phone and had to keep in touch with battalion headquarters. Battalion headquarters had a staff of signallers that had to keep in touch with brigade head-quarters, and the brigades had to tie up to general headquarters. The wires in the trenches were constantly being cut by shell-fire, and the duty of repairing these -wires night and day was very arduous. The signallers were also message runners, and during a battle a messenger had to run great risks. Conditions at the battle front did not permit of ordinary signal-ling. Soldiers fought through months of war without ever seeing a flag used to telegraph a message. Under the fighting conditions on the Western front, the telephone, the star-shell, and the despatch runner took the place of " wig-wagging," in which the forces had been so thoroughly instructed before going overseas.
After the Canadians had spent a few days with the British in the trenches at Houplines, just east of Armentières, the commanding officers of battalions and their staffs were ordered one morning to rendezvous at the south-west suburb of the town. When they reached the rendezvous their horses were sent back and they took their seats in a " flock " of London buses that were placed at their disposal, and were soon speeding along the great highway that led south towards Bethune. On their arrival at Sailly they made their way on foot to the headquarters of the famous 7th or Guards Division, whose trenches they were to take over. This was on St. David's day, March 1st. The trenches the Guards were holding extended from Fleurbaix to the road that ran east to Fromelles, a kilometre north of the Rue D'Enfer, which, later on, at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, was to prove a death-trap for many brave Guardsmen. The section of trenches which the Canadians took over here was for many months to be a land of calm. Three years later this region was to feel the full blast of war : it was at this spot in 1918 that the Germans broke through the Portuguese lines and succeeded in capturing Mont Kemmel. La Cardonière farm, where the Germans struck first in 1918, was the billet which the 48th Highlanders (15th Battalion) of Toronto took over from the Scots Guards in 1915.
On March 2nd the division marched out of Armentières and in the afternoon halted for the night at Sailly and Bac St. Maur.
It was while the Canadians held the line from Fleurbaix to Fromelles that the Battle of Neuve Chapelle took place. Several Guards officers remained here with the Canadians to initiate them into trench routine ; and here began that friendship between the 1st Canadian Division and the 7th British Guards Division that was to exist throughout the war. On many a hard fought field these two corps insisted on fighting together. When the complete history of the war is written it will be known how valorously these two corps sustained the honour and glory of British arms. It was at this place also that the British and Germans fraternized on Christmas Day, 1914.
The Canadians found, occupying the trenches opposite to them, Saxons, men of a somewhat higher type than the average German. The companies in the trenches were relieved every three days. The relief and the rationing were carried on between eight and nine o'clock in the evening. At this hour the Saxons also relieved and peace fell upon the trenches. The Saxons proved themselves good sports, and when they were being withdrawn they notified the Canadians. " Look out to-morrow night. The Prussians are coming in ! Give them Hell ! " they shouted across the Devil Strip. The Saxons later learned that the Canadians followed their advice to the letter.
It was while in this locality that the Canadians first inaugurated a system of patrolling No Man's Land which was ultimately to develop into trench raiding, a form of war sport which furnished many exciting incidents for the remainder of the war.
The sojourn of the Canadians in this position was no sinecure. The trenches they held were separated from the German system at distances varying from sixty-five yards to four hundred. For about six weeks the Canadians held about seven thousand yards of front. They were constantly under rifle, machine-gun, and shell fire in this hot corner. At night patrols went out into No Man's Land and occasionally had sharp hand-to-hand encounters with German patrols. During the day the enemy bombardment ripped holes in the wire entanglement, and at night these gaps had to be repaired. No light task! Machine guns were trained on the broken areas, and search-lights, star-shells, and Verey lights exposed the workers to the German sharp-shooters. The conditions of the country and the frequent shell-fire had made the approach to the trenches a desolate area. Communication trenches were obliterated and reliefs and fatigue parties had to work their way across country. At times the men were in imminent danger of losing their way in the darkness. They often made the journey to the trenches, across land infested with dangerous ditches and communication trenches full of water, solely by the light of the German flares and star-shells. The men were becoming experts at taking cover, but under the circumstances casualties could not be entirely avoided, and by March 10th the division, although having taken part in no engagement, had suffered a loss of six officers and 164 of other ranks.