The First Division In France - In The Ypres Salient
( Originally Published 1919 )
After the Battle of Neuve Chapelle the Canadians were marched to Estaires, where they spent some time in rest billets. Here they were trained daily in trench fighting, with the expectation that they would again go into action about Neuve Chapelle. While they were at Estaires they had their first sight of a Zeppelin observation balloon, from which German observers were spying out the country in the vicinity of La Bassée.
On April 7th the Canadian Division moved north to Cassel, with the intention of taking over some of the front held by the French army in the vicinity of Ypres. They paraded early, and during the day marched about twenty-five miles in full marching order; and very few of the men fell out. The trench life and the daily drills while in rest billets were beginning to make veterans out of these boys — many of whom were still in their teens.
On the 10th of April the division was reviewed by General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, the commander of the Second Army. After the inspection the general gathered the officers and sergeants about him, and expressed his pleasure in having such a fine body of men as the Canadians in his army. He particularly commended the artillery and engineers, who even in this early stage of their war career had proved themselves most efficient soldiers.
On the 15th of the month the troops were again on the road. On this day they first set foot in Belgium, where so many of them were to find nameless graves and where they were a few days later to perform deeds of valour that brought undying fame to Canada. They crossed into Belgium at Abeele, where some thirty-eight London motor buses carried them part of the way along the famous highway from Poperinghe to Ypres.
The 1st Brigade, under Brigadier-General Mercer, ent into billets at Brielen, a village west of the Yperlee Canal. General Alderson here located his head-quarters in the Chateau des trois Tours. The 2nd Brigade, under Brigadier-General Currie, was billeted in the villages of St. Jean and Wieltje, north-east of Ypres ; while the 3rd Brigade, under Brigadier-General Turner, V. C., was billeted in the north section of Ypres.
In the preceding autumn the Germans had marched into and through the ill-fated city, and for a time held possession of it, while on their rush for the coast. But the British and French had driven them out ; and the First Battle of Ypres had been fought some three or four miles east of the city. A handful of British and French had hung on there in face of terrible odds. But Fortune had smiled on their efforts, and when the Canadians arrived on the scene the fighting had sub-sided to dull trench routine.
It will ever remain one of the mysteries of the war why the Germans had allowed themselves to be stopped at this point by such a small force of the Allies. In the First Battle of Ypres there was no opportunity for brilliant generalship : it was pure pluck and luck — a soldiers' battle — that had given the Allies the victory. Had the Germans at any time chosen to bring into play their preponderance in men and guns they could have swept the small forces opposed to them into the sea. Bull-dog courage and bluff alone had given the Allies the initiative and enabled them to win what was virtually a victory. The saying of Napoleon that the Lord fights with the biggest battalions, on this occasion and many others during the Great World War, proved untrue.
Ypres, or, in the Flemish dialect, Yperen, was formerly the capital of West Flanders. At one time it was the centre of the cloth trade, and its inhabitants numbered about 200,000. It boasted four thousand looms, and was at once the wealthiest and most powerful city in Flanders. Its cloth-making industry dates back to the 10th Century, and reached its highest point about 1347. But a plague swept the community; and the war with Ghent in 1383 proved fatal to the woollen industry. The place was devastated by the French soldiers of Alva and Alexander Farnese in 1584, and the population reduced to five thousand, while all the industries were practically destroyed. During the 17th Century Ypres was the centre of the wars of the Low Countries; it was besieged and captured in 1649, 1658, and 1678, and was finally held by the French till 1715. When the Canadians marched into the city it had only a shadow of its former greatness. The population of 16,000 souls, which were in it when the war broke out, had dwindled to fewer than 10,000. Here and there the walls of the buildings showed signs of rifle and shrapnel bullets. The great memorials of the Golden Days had already partly crumbled away under the destructive power of the German cannon. Ypres had suffered more from the devastating influence of the war than any other city in Flanders, and for over two years longer it was to be a battle storm centre.
When the Canadians took up their quarters in Ypres, the German gunners, partly in revenge for having been driven out of the place, partly to destroy it as a base, renewed their bombardment — this time with an intensity that began to work havoc, particularly among the public buildings ; and soon of the ancient and famous Cloth Hall only the walls and towers were left standing. This building, begun by Count Bald-win of Flanders in 1200, was completed about 1304; and it had been beautified and renovated from time to time down to 1843-62. The main façade of the building was 435 feet long, in the style which is known as early Gothic architecture. In the centre there was a massive square belfry; and it had turrets at the angles. The building proper was three storeys high and well lighted. At each window in the upper storey was a niche, and in these niches were statues of the counts and countesses of Flanders.
Another impressive building which was to suffer from the storm of war was the Church of St. Martin, built in the 13th Century. The small flat stone in front of the altar marked the grave of Cornelius Jansen, Bishop of Ypres, who died in 1638, after founding the sect named after him the Jansenists, sometimes called Old Catholics, the redoubtable opponents of the Jesuits. This church possessed one of the most beautiful rose windows of any church in Europe.
The Belgians had evidently hoped that the German advance was permanently checked, and were busily repairing the injury to their houses done by the previous bombardments. Bricklayers were putting new bricks in the holes in the walls where German shells had entered. In the fields surrounding the city west of the canal, the Flemish farmers were at work filling up the shell holes and the trenches that had been dug through their farms. The streets were fairly lively with well-dressed men and women. Business, despite the occasional bombardment, was being carried on as usual. Little did these unfortunate people, who had clung to their homes in the midst of war, think that a few days later they would be driven out of their beautiful city by the German shells, and that over three years would elapse before they could return in safety to their ruined homes and shell-ploughed fields.
Almost simultaneously with the arrival of the Canadian division in the Ypres salient, great activity was observed behind the German lines; and the bombardment of the trenches in front of the city and the lines of communication in the rear increased in intensity. Battle was in the air, and, as it proved, in a few days the greatest battle so far fought in the war was to materialize — a battle that was to startle the world, stirring the breasts of men with horror and enthusiasm; horror at the vile means used by the Huns to achieve victory, and enthusiasm for the heroic conduct of the citizen soldiers from Canada, who held their section of the front line under conditions that would have strained the courage and discipline of veterans.