The Second Battle Of Ypres - Gravenstafel Ridge
( Originally Published 1919 )
ON the afternoon of Thursday, April 22nd, 1915, two battalions of the 2nd Canadian Brigade facing north-easterly were holding the Gravenstafel Ridge. Two companies of the 5th Battalion were on the right. At that time known as Tuxford's Dandies, the 5th were a blending of hard-riding contingents from the mounted regiments of the Canadian West. In this war they had to fight dismounted, being thereby condemned to a measure of immobility which they chiefly exhibited to the regret of the Germans. On this occasion the 5th were blocking the important high-way which runs from Roulers through St. Jean and Fortuin direct to Ypres. Continuing their right flank in trenches curving southerly were the 28th (Imperial) Division.
Two miles easterly and in easy view lay Passchendaele, which was not in that year of the war a name to quicken Canadian pulses; in fact was of no more significance than a hundred other village names. There is much likeness amongst villages in Flanders and it is not often given to the soldiers who pass through or billet in them to foresee their celebrity. St. Julien lay a couple of miles to the right rear, and all the 5th might have noted would be the squat-built, shell-mauled church spire which the apparently more favoured Highlanders in the village itself could view, as they had viewed a dozen others in as many other villages, from the windows of an estaminet. Yes ! they are much alike, these villages, with their churches, estaminets, and solid houses with inevitable and in-sanitary courtyards, and yet some of their names will have a permanent place in Canadian history. On the left of the 5th the 8th Battalion joined up with the 15th Battalion of the 3rd Brigade ; and on that pleas-ant, sunny afternoon there were few in either battalion that suspected what it might cost to prevent their being put asunder.
At this stage of the war the Canadian division had been but lightly blooded. They had heard from comparative safety the then unprecedented gunnery of Neuve Chapelle and Hill 60. But not in their own persons had the " Originals " experienced that hurly-burly of devastation which was to become not the exception but the regular grammar of this war. The malice of nations was but beginning to exploit their mechanical resources. A certain amount of explosive hardware was understood to go with the army, but reliance was placed on enduring bodies inhabited by stout hearts. Moreover, there were believed to be rules of civilized warfare and forbidden as well as permissible weapons and deeds. Humanity had not yet learned that the Sermon on the Mount had been re-placed in German thought by Clausewitz' great book on war ; or realized what it means to have a whole nation repeating to itself day by day and year in and year out the pet maxims of Clausewitz : " War is an act of violence pushed to its utmost bounds," and, " In war the errors which proceed from a spirit of benevolence are the worst." At any rate, not till that April day did the world learn that a Kaiser of the Germans had robbed Caesar of the Borgias of his toxic laurels.
In those days our soldiers reconciled themselves with difficulty to the idea of a congested warfare where a brigade will perforce content itself with a quarter of a mile front and dig in several fathoms below the surface and make for itself a labyrinth of crooked trenches with a multitude of lethal devices. The experience of South Africa with its wide extensions and the habit of taking the rifle seriously had developed a contempt for shoulder to shoulder formations. Every man felt that he himself could block a wide lane and he had the ancestral confidence of the archer who vaunted that he carried twelve men's lives in his quiver.
So it was with no trepidation that the 5th and the 8th Battalions held the gate on a front of twenty-five hundred yards, in trenches which, compared with the massive field fortifications of a later period, were fragile and precarious. When word was sent back by Lipsett, its commander, that " the 8th Battalion can hold its bit," it was a boast that the men made good. But it was modestly meant. For neither he nor his men could have dreamed of taking delivery in such quantities from both shell-founder and chemist. Besides, had not the brigadier the 7th and 10th Battalions ready to support them? So nobody doubted they would keep Gravenstafel Ridge. Thus the afternoon wore on until 5 o'clock with the usual comfortless routine of the trench and with the men crouching in alert confidence.
It all began in a moment. " So are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them."
Now it had become a sort of unwritten etiquette at the front not to display unnecessary valour or make unauthorized demonstrations. It was considered the badge of the new-comer to cause an outburst of fire or, as the saying was, " get the wind up." Officers and men guilty of such laxity of discipline did not endue themselves with heroism because of their exposure to shrapnel and whiz-bang, but felt like mischievous boys caught robbing an orchard. So when the dogs of war were let loose on that Thursday afternoon every group of Canadians had the conceit that they were riveting to themselves the attention of the German High Command. Thus the officers of the 5th accused themselves on the mere strength of their frisking about the open fields near Colonel Tuxford's headquarters, playing a briskly contested game of polo. But it was soon perceived that what was coming over was not a desultory favouritism to any group; there was enough for every-body.
First came a flight of shells numerous as the migrating swallows. This proved no passing shower, but, reinforced by the normal heavy batteries (corresponding to our 6-inch guns) and then by the monstrous " Jack Johnsons," a continuous and terrific downpour, not only in front, but from both left and right. Our men then learned for the first time how slender and inadequate the trench preparations that they had taken over and strengthened were to meet the real hurricane of modern artillery.
In the training of infantry as conducted up to the outbreak of the Great War, it would be incorrect to say that no attention had been given to the art of field fortification. For in the Infantry Training, 1914, which consists of some 265 pages, nearly half a page is devoted to training in what for some millions of men for a space of over four years became their chief industry, narrow livelihood, and broad road to destruction, namely : " Field engineering and duties in billets, camps, and bivouacs."
There was also a Manual of Field Engineering, which took pains to prohibit any idolatry of field fortification by printing in capitals the words : " IT MUST ALWAYS BE REGARDED AS A MEANS TO AN END, AND NOT AN END IN ITSELF."
Practically the militia out of which the 1st Canadian Division were recruited had some training in how to scoop out a row of riflemen's shelters, with a general notion of how to deepen and enlarge them into connected trenches. They had never got so far as the paragraph which relates to communication trenches. It was fortunate for our men on this April occasion that they had previously occupied trenches built under the supervision of British engineers; otherwise they might have accepted as sufficient without amendment the flimsy erections that had lately been taken over from the French. They at least knew that these were not sufficient. But on the whole the idea still prevailed that field fortification was a grudging and temporary concession. If they thought at all about the difficulty of bringing reserves into the support trenches and sup-ports into the front line, they were more reconciled to the danger of running the gauntlet than to the labour of building communication trenches.
The shell storm of this battle brought the sorrow of increased knowledge. Trenches grew ragged and lost shape and seemed bit by bit to melt into the surface of the ridge. All the previous casualties of the campaign began to be re-enacted for these battalions every half-hour. There was no better security in support or reserve than in the front line. Night, which in former calculations was relied on for movements of reserves, brought no relief, but rather a complexity of danger. Companies sent to reinforce, when crossing the open ground, which was lighted by the flares and towards morning by the moon, sometimes lost more than companies holding the ground.
Now the Germans chose the points of their attack not merely with a view to their strategical objective, which was Ypres and the roads to the Channel, or to tactical considerations, which also would lead them to covet the Gravenstafel Ridge. They had given thought to what modern writers are pleased to term the " psychology of war " and what a century ago Napoleon had termed the " moral " as opposed to the " physical." A favourite device of Napoleon, who was the predecessor of the German General Staff in dealing on a large scale with allied enemies, was to drive a wedge with suddenness and vim at the point where the allied armies joined one another. An opening once made, he could rely on the gap enlarging as the natural jealousy latent between men of different nationalities and with different interests grew into furious contempt and active suspicion of treachery.'
On this occasion the Germans drove their first wedge on the afternoon of April 22nd between the French Colonials and the Canadian division. Proceeding further on the same psychological path, they found a junction between the Canadians, whom they despised under the general designation of " Colonials," and the 28th (Imperial) Division. Here at about 1.30 Friday morning the German infantry assaulted twice from the north-east and from the east near Broods-elude. The cement was too strong. Rifle-fire assuaged the force of these assaults.
The 8th Battalion, as shown on the accompanying sketch, were posted in a very irregular formation following the undulations of the valley of the Stroombeek, which at that season of the year was practically dry. There was a gap of three hundred yards between the right of D Company and the end of the 5th Battalion, which lay to the right rear. This gap was defended by a detached post and by Sergeant McElrich and two machine guns situated between Nos. 14 and 15 Platoons, from which point he could rake the front to left or right. Two more machine guns under Lance-Corporal Munro, posted near the left of A Company, covered the front in that quarter.
D Company headquarters was in rear of its No. 13 Platoon and was used as a convenient distributing point for orders, as about five hundred yards in its rear lay the battalion headquarters of Colonel Lipsett. C Company lay in reserve in some shallow trenches somewhat to the right of the line from battalion head-quarters to the front.
Calamity began to threaten the 8th Battalion. Whiffs of tear gas had been coming across for some time and exasperating the already angry troops by making them show symptoms of a pity they did not feel. The first intimation of the horrible atrocity in-tended to involve themselves was when a few Highlanders blundered into the left of the trenches and died horribly in the agonies of asphyxiation. Then their own share was delivered.
It was some time between 3 and 4 a. m. of the Friday morning when a corporal who had just brought in a listening patrol and was watching from the parapet saw a heavy mist break out of the German line about a quarter of a mile to the left. Then immediately it belched out all along the line and there came rolling slowly with the wind what a German professor in an ecstasy of ghoulish glee called the " mysterious terror of this uncanny greenish wall." It moved up to the parapet and monstrously heaved itself over into the trench, where it caught the men just as they were " standing to." In a moment they were coughing, gasping, strangling, nearly blind, their faces contorted, and their bodies wilting in agony.
The remedy came from the Germans. Confident in their ability to tread flat the victims of their poison, the enemy swarmed over their parapet and began to rush across the intervening two hundred yards. But a last flicker of the fighting spirit made the least stricken of the Canadians spring upon their own parapet and thus lifted them above the worst of the vapour. Through the now thinning mist the crackle of rapid fire welcomed the assault and abashed the assailants. Not for the first time in war, legitimate weapons in skilled hands proved more deadly than illegitimate and, while they saw the lines broken to their left and the enemy pouring through, the 8th " held their bit."
The men of the 8th were not of a type that one would ordinarily select to bully or brush aside. Composed of the most vigorous elements of the population of Manitoba, they represented the frontier-seeking Old-Countryman and his first-born in Canada. Taking their badge and designation from their preponderant unit, the 90th Regiment of Winnipeg, they became known as the L. B. D.'s, or Little Black Devils, and in this fight they lived up to the name. Under the maddening influence of the gas, they struck to kill, and the Germans had little occasion to twit them with " errors proceeding out of the spirit of benevolence."
Time and again the Germans jumped upon their own parapet, yelling ferociously, and thrice more did they attempt to pass over. Their warlike shouts carried no panic across to the Canadian line. Twice in their rage the 8th disengaged themselves by going over the top with the bayonet, not only clearing their own parapet, but chasing the broken assailants past their own line. Numerous bodies in No Man's Land testified that the way was barred by the low-flying bullets of men whom Bernhardi had despised as militia. " They can be completely ignored," he wrote in 1911, " so far as concerns any European theatre of war." Ignored they might be; outflanked and liable to be enfiladed they appeared to be ; and gassed they were. But they could not be brushed off Gravenstafel Ridge.
The reinforcements the men were expecting did not come. Not only did they lack the thundering strokes of the 7th and 10th Battalions; but of the two reserve companies of the 5th, one was diverted to the left, the other, C Company, reached the reserve trenches of the 8th, all that could come up, about twenty-five men under Lieutenant Fitzpatrick, who, after exhausting all possible versatility in the means of de-fence, fell operating a machine gun. The rest of the company bore witness that in that salient it was some-times more fatal to be in reserve than in the front.
The edge of the gas cloud passed to the north of No. 16 Platoon and involved No. 13 Platoon slightly, and B and A Companies with increased density of the poison. McGregor's company of the 15th were wiped out the few that could get away breaking in the direction of the 8th Battalion's headquarters. It was now evident to Colonel Lipsett that the Highland salient to his left was crumbling down and that it was for him to choose whether to retire his battalion or make a new left front, or, as it used to be called, " re-fuse his flank." He chose to hold his original line and add to it the line of McGregor's trench now occupied by the exultant Boches.
To accomplish this, C Company, under Captain Bertram, left the reserve trench and went across to reinforce A Company, by this time badly enfiladed and much depleted by casualties. Lieutenant McLeod, with a platoon of the Reserve Company, accompanied by that devoted remnant from the 5th Battalion, inclined to the left and at the point of the bayonet cleared the nearest trench of the 15th Battalion and held it.
But other and large groups of Germans, who had burst through further up the line, turned to their left and began to work in rear of the trenches towards Lipsett's headquarters. To check these, the survivors now reduced to thirteen of that 5th Battalion contingent dug themselves in in a detached trench facing left. The German flanking parties hit this like a sunken reef and recoiled and dug themselves in parallel to it, thus investing it with earthworks. These 5th men remained in post until the evening of the Saturday, when in the darkness they quietly slipped out.
Thus the commander of the 8th Battalion ventured to make good a precarious position and the men, by their steady intrepidity, justified his hazardous decision. This was the first step in the rise to fame of a commander who later on as a major-general in command of the 3rd Division enjoyed a reputation second to none in the Canadian Corps.
England has not always been happy in the men sent to represent her in her Dominions and Colonies; but in lending Lipsett to Canada she made a selection that redounds to the sagacity of her Army management. His firmness was concealed under exquisite approachableness. His great personal activity was combined with the sort of courage that made him want to see things without the medium of the buzzer and the dug-out roof. When this curiosity of the first-hand general ultimately led him to the inevitable sniper's bullet, it is no empty saying that no officer lost by Canada in the whole war was more regretted by the men he led.
Saturday was a bitter day for casualties, and there was no respite. About two o'clock Colonel Lipsett sent a message half order to withdraw and half appeal to stay to prepare to withdraw to the ridge by headquarters, but could they hold on until dark? He knew his officers. D Company officers and McLeod of C Company and Captain Morley of B reported they could. They did.
Before daylight on Sunday morning the 8th were relieved by the 8th Durhams but not all of them. D Company remained in their trenches, and with them some ammunition carriers from the 10th and 7th and, of course, some stragglers from the insatiable 5th. Sunday forenoon was undisturbed except for a German assault on A Company's sector, now held by the Durhams. The Durhams were equal to this. In the afternoon D Company of the 8th came in for trouble from all quarters. On their right the Germans had dug a sap trench from their front line, pointed for the long gap between the 8th and 5th. Along this they tried to swarm around D Company's flank. McElrich's machine guns sent them scurrying home. About 4 p. m. other swarms of Germans appeared to the left front of No. 13 Platoon in a patch of what our men called " mustard," but which was really second-growth turnips. This attack was intended to co-operate with a formidable bombing attack that was proceeding from the left rear. But our rifles and machine guns spoke first and cleared the " mustard " patch.
The bombing attack was, however, too successful. The bombing parties, starting with the trench formerly retaken by McLeod, cleared the trenches of the Durhams bit by bit until the left flank of No. 13 Platoon of the 8th was exposed. Whereupon Captain North-wood, the company commander, ordered the platoon commander, Lieutenant Owen, to take his platoon out. Owen led his men out, saw them on the path to safety, and then returned to share the fortunes of his company commander. Eventually the remnants of this adhesive company were taken prisoners. Captain Northwood, Lieutenants Owen and Bell, with the whole formidable array of Nos. 14, 15, and 16 Platoons --about thirty men in all.
At the time when Lipsett's battalion were relieved the 5th were also ordered to be relieved. But the immobile 5th were precisians in the matter of retirements and required a written message delivered by the less disabled of two badly wounded officers before they would withdraw.
Thus on other troops than Canadians devolved the discretion or rather necessity of leaving the nearly obliterated site of the Canadian trenches on Gravenstafel Ridge and of flattening the too-salient line. In this operation the Imperials were so hard pressed and the issue seemed so dubious that on request Brigadier
Currie put in again the relics of his brigade to share the brunt. When on being relieved a second time he drew out his force, he might well have said of it, as did the Spanish general when asked of a certain regiment, " Expended ! " later owing to the intensity of barrages. Major Robson, in command of that part of A Company to the left of the main road, conformed to his movement. The greater part of A Company, together with the company commander, Major Tenaille, were on the right of the road. On receipt of the message Tenaille acted very deliberately and concerted measures with the British troops on his right so as not to expose their flank; and his own withdrawal co-ordinated with the operation of the 28th Division.