The Second Battle Of Ypres - A Gate Four Miles Wide
( Originally Published 1919 )
But however stubbornly the two Highland battalions might hold their impossible salient and however skilfully and steadily the 13th and the Buffs might effect the re-formation of the line and extend towards St. Julien, there remained a four-mile gap to the Yser Canal. This was not the case of a line bent or cracked or even broken ; it was like a section of mountain rail-way carried off by the floods — a veritable washout. It was like a postern leading into the heart of a fortress and the gate blown away. It was necessary to improvise a gate four miles wide.
The higher commanders of the available forces be stirred themselves. General Turner of the 3rd Brigade, being nearest to the danger, had to make the dispositions, and, along with his brigade-major, Hughes, was much in evidence. During the darkness all the infantry of the Canadian division were put in action and supplemented by a loan of odd Imperial battalions brigaded and known as Geddes' Detachment. Behind these, and sometimes not even covered by infantry, were the Canadian guns, and back of them the road to Calais. The enemy were playing with loaded dice and before morning we put our last coin on the table.
The Germans had swept the remnants of French op-position, as with Van Tromp's broom, clean through St. Julien Wood and had exultingly entrenched, awaiting the signal for a new advance. Incidentally the guns of the British 4.7 battery had fallen to them as spoils. Much has been made of the recovery of these guns by the Canadians ; with considerable speculation as to their disablement and probable ultimate fate. The Wellingtonian superstition of the leader who never lost a British gun dies hard in the civilian fancy. The modern soldier regards guns as so much very necessary hardware to be squandered if need be as freely as the shells that fit them, and hints that the general who has never lost a gun has never used one. The Canadians had other business at St. Julien Wood.
Did the triumphant enemy once suspect how few battalions — and these with scarcely a possible reserve stood between them and all the highways into Ypres, then the battle was over and the fate of the Canadian division was sealed. It was necessary to give the roaring bullies such sudden and sharp strokes as would forestall their next rush and make their leaders peer anxiously into the " fog of war " to see what new and formidable adversary had arrived. So the 10th Battalion, which had been going up as a working party, were diverted from their destination and the 16th were brought up from their billets near Ypres, and in the darkness these far-brought sons of the Empire formed for attack, facing the wood.
Our Saxon ancestors, with grim appreciation of the dubious give-and-take of battle, called it the Weapon-Barter. In this form of barter as in others the Scot is a difficult dealer. The two Canadian Highland battalions who even now, as we have seen, were holding the peak of the new salient, could be depended on to stay at their market-stalls and do some dry bargaining for the commodities of gas and shell-shreds that the Hun was sending. So too their Canadian-Scottish comrades of the 16th, who took the left half of this midnight negotiation, could be trusted to deal in a Scotch spirit with the German lease of St. Julien Wood.
The 10th, being from the North-West and chiefly from Alberta, were, like the typical Western man, always in a hurry, and went at the wood as if angered by delay at a way-station between Calgary and Edmonton. They did not quite put it behind them, but the Germans knew something extraordinary had struck their line. The approach to the wood was managed with what precaution and stealth the nature of the ground permitted. The forming up and take-off for the final rush is told by a survivor of the 16th.
" Arriving at the long ridge we saw a wood two miles away and were told that this was our objective. The Germans must be driven out before daylight. It was arranged that the attack should be made at mid-night. We moved forward and got into a hollow out of sight of the enemy in a wood about three hundred yards away.
Everything was quiet and a beautiful night. Hearing no sound we began to think there were no Germans in the wood. We gave orders to fix bayonets and take off overcoats. The battalion then lined up in long lines, the 10th in front and each company divided into halves, one half thirty yards behind the other half. At midnight we moved forward quietly until the ridge was reached. The moon shone out and I was thinking what a picture the flashing bayonets made in the moonlight when the Germans suddenly opened fire on us with machine guns and rifles. It was a hideous din. We were now about two hundred yards from the wood and were ordered to give the charge. When we had gone about fifty yards the rank in front of me seemed to melt away. We rushed at the wood."
The Germans had neglected none of the instructions given in their manuals relating to temporary field-fortification and the defence of a wood. Every yard of the clear ground had to be crossed under a most malignant fusilade from rifles and machine guns. The casualties in both battalions were staggering. In the words of another survivor : " It was a ghastly sight. The front of the wood was beyond description. Our dead and wounded were lying in heaps."
But the men crashed through this resistance, and, passing those disputed 4.7's, bustled the relics of the German garrison out through the far side of the wood. It will never be possible to get the full story of this night's work. Bush-fighting of any sort, even in day-light, is a grim performance. As forces enter the woods they lose the stateliness of ordered formations; ten thousand years of civilization catch like a loose cloak in the first branches ; and men fight singly or in small groups with all the brute ferocity of savages, but more noisily and blunderingly and unredeemed by their woodcraft. Let us not then conjure up at length, as in a nightmare, the glimpses given that night by the intermittent light of flares and of the moonbeams which appeared at intervals among the trees, — here an officer pistoling a machine gunner ; there a giant Highlander goring and ripping with his bayonet; the writhing bodies of the wounded and then the still forms of combatants who had made their separate peace. It is unlovely stuff, this midnight bush-fighting.
The counter-stroke had succeeded and its terrific momentum created in the enemy's mind the necessary delusion of British reserves. This was all the success that could be hoped. No criticism can be offered that the Canadians did not retain the wood, or even that they tried to keep it too long. Our troops in the British forces, as shown both here and at Festubert and elsewhere, were not in those days sufficiently respectful of the German artillery. For that methodical ordnance, when undisturbed by hostile shells, could search a position like a prospector screening the loose earth for some precious metal. The old academic discussions as to whether defence trenches should be on the " lisière " (front fringe) of the woods or in the centre or in the rear of the woods were solved in this case by the discovery that there was no refuge or safety in either one or the other.
The attempt to hold the rather bold salient line reached in the wood, while it strengthened the impression of a counter-attack that was being pushed home, exposed the Canadians to further heavy casualties. These proceeded not only from the incessant German cannonade, which owing to the loss of the French guns could not be mitigated, but also from galling enter-prises with rifle and bomb from German trenches enfilading ours on both flanks. It was in striking out to the right front against one of these pestilential neighbours that the 10th lost both its commander and second-in-command. On the whole it was a splendid 1 Lieut.-Col. R. L. Boyle, who died of his wounds, had served in the Light Horse in the South African War. He was at the relief of Mafeking, and after the work in Rhodesia he was employed in the operations in the Transvaal east and west of Pretoria. Recovering from wounds, he took part in the engagements in the Orange River Colony. Of gigantic frame and of a courage more than equal to his physique, he was an out-standing figure in the Canadian division. His second-in-command, Major Joseph MacLaren, was a Dundee Scotchman transplanted to Brandon, Manitoba.
The succession to the 10th devolved on Major Ormond, who got enterprise, that counter-attack on St. Julien Wood, even if it did not make the vulgar error of breaking off too soon.
One of the sketch-maps of the period shows one company of the 14th at one part of the line, three at another, and still another at a third.' As there are only four companies in a battalion it would seem that the sketch is wrong. But it is not so much an error of the map-maker as an illustration of the difficulty of keeping a chronological record of the movements of the various companies and detachments into which the battalions were split up.
The 14th Battalion had an even greater variety of movements and of heart-breaks than most of the others. Outside of the small detachment that was helping to keep St. Julien, of which mention is made elsewhere, the 14th were put in and taken out and generally moved about more than any other unit.
Unfortunately from their composition they were not adapted to manoeuvres that involved complexity. The men were drawn chiefly from the English-speaking 1st and 3rd Regiments of Montreal. But there were over a company of French-speaking men from the 65th Regiment. Now, whatever are the merits of bilingualism in an individual and whatever the arguments for it in a nation, it is an uncommonly awkward feature in a battalion. Movements have to be made in a bad light and yet silently. Orders have to be communicated in a few words, spoken perhaps in a mere whisper, and it does not facilitate soldiering to promptly wounded, and then on Major Guthrie, well (and pleasantly) known in the politics of New Brunswick. Remarkable to say, the latter did not get into the casualty list until Festubert, a month later.
Colonel Leckie of the 16th had better luck in withdrawing his men from this advanced position than did the 10th, his position in trenches at the edge of the wood, although not precisely enviable, being a little less wickedly enfiladed than Colonel Boyle's. The 16th, however, lost heavily both in officers and men during the bicker in the wood, among the dead being Captains Fleming, Feddes, Merritt, and Macgregor.
As an illustration of what difficulties a lack of English led into, we may recall the case of " Thrice Identified Barré," — Major Hercules Barré of the 14th, — who, going up in the dark to visit his company, was twice arrested as a spy by zealous English-speaking persons and paraded for identification to a headquarters ; and on the third attempt to go up was wounded and afterwards found by the same officer who had previously identified him.
The 14th were first put in the line at a point west of where the 16th and 10th had started out to make their counter-attack on the wood — their right flank being left of the place where No. 1 Company of the 2nd afterwards came to grief. They are entitled, how-ever,- to be still shown on the sketches of the period as being in this part of the line, as half of No. 1 Company of them remained here. The luxury of this half-company was not excessive. Following the training of that day, they first scooped out individual shelters with their entrenching tools, and then enlarged and connected them into a trench. The night was lively with incessant shelling, but that does not keep one warm ; and they were without their greatcoats. So some of them searched the neighbouring farmhouses for garments and got some relief from the chill. The quartermaster had forgotten them. Thus from the night of the 21st-22nd April they lived on their " iron rations " until the night of the 25th, when they got half a biscuit apiece and a drop of rum.
A portion of the battalion appear on the St. Julien-Poelcapelle road during the night of the 22nd-23rd and seem to have been withdrawn during the night through St. Julien. The battalion was also in the vicinity to the left of St. Julien at about ten o'clock on the morning of the 23rd, attempting to make an attack towards the wood in order to take the pressure off the remnants of the 16th.
Here the luxury of bilingualism weighed heavy on their tactical efficiency. No. 4 Company, composed of French Canadians, completely mistook their objective and turned in a wrong direction. The result was that they were badly confused, and were cut up and rendered useless for the rest of the battle.
Afterwards we find the second-in-command, Colonel Burland, with part of the battalion, taking an active share in the skirmishing fight that took place all the way down from the support trenches occupied by Major Marshall's details. For, as the salient crumbled, various elements of the 13th, 15th, 7th, 10th, and 5th, chased by the " crumps " over the ridge, collected themselves in the lower ground and began to organize a new resistance. Among these Burland and his men were conspicuous.
The ill-luck of the battalion pursued them even when relieved. As they were crossing the canal the transport animals got into a panic at the bridge and blocked the way for a longer time than was pleasant to tarry. In fact the other battalions held this against the 14th, but sympathized with their other misfortunes.
When the 3rd Brigade were finally withdrawn the 14th were the last to go, and retired sullenly with an unsatisfied feeling, like an athlete that hears time called for the close of the game before he has properly worked himself out.
An interesting romance or perhaps a philosophy of British soldiering could be built up out of the cases in the war where the intervention of hasty and fortuitous detachments was indispensable to saving the day. Thus, in March, 1918, after the débâcle of Gough's army, the counter-stroke of the nondescripts and all-sorts gathered by a suddenly discovered general and thrown into the gap was the one bright spot in the lurid and disastrous spectacle of the fight near Amiens.' So also in the Second Battle of Ypres, the broken French line could not have been patched but for a detachment so oddly assembled that no two historians up to date have agreed in naming the same battalions. We know that a battalion of Buffs were there, because Geddes was their colonel, and that a detached company of them fought up near the apex. We also know that some of the Middlesex were there. For the survivors of the " Mad Fourth " said " the Middies were on our right." Some day it may be that there will be many applicants eager to claim the high distinction of having had a place with Geddes, and then we shall be able to sort out the numbers present of Yorks and Lancasters, Royal Lancasters, Cornwalls, Royal Scots, Shropshires, Northumberland Fusiliers, and other participants, with their successive hours of arrival. At any rate on the morning of the 22nd Geddes acknowledged the presence of about 1,500 men in his line connecting St. Jean with the left of the Canadian 3rd Brigade ; and however made up, they were as necessary to holding the line as money is to an election. Taken out of rest camps when they had just begun to relax from the bruises of recent battles, these fragments of unrelated battalions were hurried into action, and the first news we heard of Geddes on the morning of the 23rd was that he was going to attack.
Geddes' own death by gun-shot, on the morning of the 28th just as he was being relieved, comes as one of those senseless breakings-off that we complain of in history. For we should all have liked to read of his further deeds and words and those of any men that for the time being were Geddes' men.
In a letter Victor Odium, then major in command of the 7th, wrote :
" On the afternoon of the 23rd Colonel McHarg was shot by my side and the command devolved on me. On the 24th our battalion was badly cut up ; reduced from 24 officers and 900 men on the ground to 6 officers and 325 men. On the 25th it was again surrounded and lost still further. And on the 26th and 27th it continued to suffer. From that time till May 5th it lay under shell-fire. On May 5th it was brought out."
Letters written just after an engagement are prone to exaggerate difficulties and losses. But this letter does not sin in its statement of either difficulties or losses. Among all the casualty lists of the hard-bitten Canadian battalions that of the 7th stands highest at this period of the war. For which there was a reason.
The defence of St. Julien was improvised and scanty. On the right front of the village lay the reserve company of the 15th on one side of the Poelcapelle road and two platoons of the 14th on the other. Far away to the north was the " refused " flank of the 13th Battalion. This had been extended towards the village with the timely assistance of Tomlinson's company of the Buffs. Between St. Julien and the left of the 13th the ground lay open and unwooded, inviting the Germans to possession of the village of Keerselaer and the Poelcapelle road.
The Germans were already beginning to feel their way in behind the troops stationed to left and right of this gap, and it was necessary to make the ground appear more occupied and hazardous. So the 7th, which had been billeted near Fortuin, were hastily advanced to bar the way. When the companies of the 7th arrived in their approximate position, they took up a line on the crest of a small hill. Their situation from the first was most disquieting. The only certainty was that to the west of their position were moving masses of the enemy in unknown numbers. What lay on their right, whether friend or foe, could only be ascertained by reconnaissance, as the position of the 13th or Buffs was not visible from the position of the 7th.
It was while personally attending to this duty of fixing his right flank and of either locating the enemy or making liaison with the nearest friendly unit that Colonel Hart-McHarg 1 fell mortally wounded. This was the first of the misfortunes that persistently came to the battalion from their flanks. For several days they were as a strong link in a breaking chain.
At best it is not easy to keep connection with flanking units. By use of 'phone and buzzer and by passing the word along co-terminous trenches, it can generally be managed. But where there has been no time to lay wires to a new position and where what wires there were, have been severed, and when the flanks of the nearest units are not within hail of our own flanks, the tension of expectancy becomes appalling. Ordinary fears are with good soldiers relieved by a brisk assault by the enemy. It is like the sting of a shower-bath to a warm-blooded athlete. But this sense of a lateral vacuum that may at any moment be succeeded by the horrors of enfilade fire affects a man as a blow below the ribs. Only the staunchest military bodies can stand firm.
At 3.30 on Saturday morning the big assault came unmistakable in its violence, but uncertain in its direction. From front, shells and bullets from rifle and machine gun; from rear at first shells and gas. Gradually the sibilant whisper of the bullets crept further and further past the right flank and by noon it came from the rear. The 7th were being surrounded. The troops that had been holding the impossible salient to the north had flattened the line, and without warning' had left the right flank of the 7th jutting out into the German Empire.
Were it a tactical study in staff training, we might linger and moralize over this lack of mannerly notice, this breach of ceremonious etiquette. But these were very much soldiers' battles. The relics of the Highlanders and of a lone company of the 5th 2 were coming back almost as if every man were fighting for his own hand. Most of the officers and non-corns. were down ; the platoons had been shot into mere sections ; and it was unlikely that the elements nearest the 7th knew who or if anybody was on that flank. It is sufficient that they went by fighting as they went.
There was nothing left but for those in the 7th who could, to fight their way out. A little over a third of the battalion broke through. The battalion cohesion, however, was not lost. That night this gallant residue, added to the remnants of the 10th, were thrown in to relieve the pressure on the left flank of the 8th, which had been " refused " to conform to the flattening of the Highlanders' line and required to be continued towards the west. The operation was successful; but further unannounced withdrawals on their flanks both right and left caused these much-tried battalions to be nearly surrounded and cut off. To save the situation there was only one course to follow, to fight their way out again.
When the now skeleton 7th finally drew out on May 5th to refit and await a draft, the survivors were less disheartened than disgusted. Like most of the Canadian battalions, they did not quite realize what a good piece of work they had done, but had that unsatisfied longing for close work with the bayonet which a British soldier loses long after he has lost all his other illusions of soldier-life and most of his hair and teeth.