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The British Front

( Originally Published 1924 )



I MOTORED to St. Omer, G.H.Q., on May 25th, and immediately on arrival reported myself to the Provost Marshal General (General Bunbury). He was a genial gentleman and promised me passes to any point I thought desirable to reach. I also called on the Director General of the Army Medical Services (Major-General Sir Thomas Slogett) and found some of my old South African comrades on his staff.

I visited No. 1 Casualty Clearing Station, at Fort Gassion, commanded by Colonel Ford, who is now the popular A.D.M.S. at Toronto. Fort Gassion is a relic of the times of Marlborough's wars in the low countries and embedded in the wall there is still one of his cannon balls where it struck 250 years ago. The Fort has been used as a prison and was in a filthy state when Ford took it over, but he soon transformed it into a sanitary hospital building and did great work with the numerous casualties which flowed into his wards.

The next day I went to Hinges and met General Alderson, commanding the Canadian Division. I also visited Nos. 1, 2 and 3 Canadian Field Ambulances, and had interviews with Colonels Foster, A.D.M.S., Watt, Ross, and MacPherson of the Canadian Army Medical Corps.

These officers and their ambulances had been through the awful days of St. Julien and Ypres and were pretty well tired out, having worked twenty-four hours at a stretch with little sleep and food. Thousands of wounded passed through their hands.

The following day I witnessed a unique spectacle, the review of the 7th British Division by Generals J ()fire and French. The review took place in some fields near Lillens. What a magnificent body of men marched past the saluting base! Guards, Highlanders and others! They looked what they were, seasoned veteran soldiers. Joffre was a man of medium height, very stout and sturdy, with a rosy complexion and bright blue eyes. He did not look at all like a Frenchman. He resembled Ex-President Taft more than any one I know. French was the smaller man of the two, but looked bright and alert.

In the hedges about the field were placed numerous anti-aircraft guns, while several airplanes flew overhead to ward off attacks from the air. What a scoop it would have been to have blown up the two heads of the Allied armies! For once the German spy system was at fault.

The British Red Cross had an advanced depot in St. Omer, which was managed by Mr. Duveen, a partner in the great art firm of Duveen Brothers. He used his own and several cars belonging to friends and the ambulances were greatly indebted to him for prompt aid. The Red Cross was playing a great part in the war. Supplementary aid is essential in war, for no Government provides sufficient stores for great emergencies. The Red Cross is the avenue through which flows the practical sympathy of the friends at home. Without it they could do nothing, for with the best intentions nothing can be accomplished without organization and a recognized channel of communication.

From St. Omer I went to Dunkirk to inspect a number of small private hospitals, but found on arrival that they had all been evacuated on account of the bombardment. On our way there we passed through Berque, an ancient fortified village, which was badly knocked about by shell fire. In Dunkirk we found the general hospital badly damaged, the theatre and many buildings in ruins. The Hotel de l'Arcade, where we stayed, had escaped, but its inhabitants had had some bad frights. The objective of the long range shell fire was the harbor, in which numerous store ships lay, while the freight sheds were full of supplies; but as the shells fell short the town suffered. After the war this gun was located twenty-three miles from the town, but its situation was unknown during the war in spite of the efforts of the aviators to find it.

On this trip I took with me my nephew, Captain Beverley Crowther, who had a few days' leave. It was the last time that I saw him as he had to return to his regiment and was killed later. On our way back we stopped at La Panne and visited the Hospital de l'Ocean of which Dr. Le Page was chief surgeon. His wife had been in the United States collecting money for this hospital and was returning when she went down in the Lusitania. it was a large hospital and was nursed chiefly by American and Canadian nurses. When in La Panne, I called on Prince Alexander of Teck, the British Military representative at what remained of the Belgian Court, The Queen resided in a villa on the sand dunes.

On the 30th I went to Ypres, as related elsewhere, and on the 31st to Calais, stopping on the way at Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland's hospital, which was under canvas at a small village.

On June 2nd I went to Fournes, but I found the place practically deserted and I spent the following day with the 3rd Battalion at Bethune. The battalion was sadly depleted, but the survivors were in good spirits.

I went to Armentieres on the 4th and found the place full of wounded. It had not, at that time, been heavily shelled and the town was alive with refugees. I visited several hospitals and saw some interesting cases. On the way back we were worried by a Taupe which flew nearly overhead and which was being shelled by our guns. These German planes had an unpleasant way of dropping bundles of steel arrows on moving vehicles which they saw on the roads and as several men had been pierced through and through by them, the idea of being transfixed was not a cheerful one.

On my return to St. Omer I found that General Steele, Brig.-General Carson, Colonel Carrick and Colonel Garnet Hughes had arrived there and I had interviews with them regarding the future aetivities of our society.

I left for Paris on the 5th and continued my round of visits to hospitals, canteens and convalescent camps.

On the 10th I went to Rouen and visited the Canadian convalescent camp, which was well managed, and an enormous British general hospital (No. 6), and had considerable conversation with Colonel Sir Edward Worthington. He is a graduate of Trinity Medical College and had entered the R.A.M.C, some years before. He came to Canada with H. R. H. the Duke of Connaught as a medical officer and served with distinction during the war. He is now (1924) holding an important position in the War Office in London.

Having been invited by M. Gabriel Hanotaux to accompany him and Madame Hanotaux for a tour of inspection of the battlefields of the Aisne and the Marne, I left Paris on the 12th of June in his automobile. This distinguished statesman and litterateur had a summer villa in the Falaise de l'Aisne and it was there that our tour ended. The cliffs of the Aisne are remarkable as having been the homes of the troglodyte people in the dawn of history. The caves in which they lived not only exist, but are still used as stables and storehouses. On the heights above them were posted long-range guns and between them and the German lines lay entrenchments. I have avoided descriptions of military movements and entrenchments in this book because they have been done so often and so well by others.

It was most remarkable that the fields en route showed little signs of war having passed that way. Here and there an unroofed house or church, a few shattered trees and a broken waggon or two, that was all. The industrious French peasant women, with the help of boys and old men, were at work in the fields amidst growing crops.

I even passed along the roads through acres of roses, grown for the perfume manufacturers. The recuperative power of France is wonderful. What is lacking is population, which is largely clue to the excessively thrifty habits of the people. Nothing is wasted in a French home. We Canadians throw away as much food in a month as would feed a French family for two months.

I had very little opportunity to inspect French hospitals; they were very chary of permits; but I was not favorably impressed with what H did see. Their standard of asepsis and of food differs materially from ours, but the patients seem to thrive nevertheless. I will be ever greatly indebted to M. Hanotaux for his kind consideration and have endeavored to repay the debt by service to France.

On my return to Paris I visited a hospital at Compiegne organized by Dr. Alexis Carrel, of New York, in which he was using a new treatment for infected wounds with great success. Later I visited a hospital at Troyes established by the Scottish Women's Suffrage Society. It was run by women very successfully.

Having concluded my extensive tour of observation and inspection I determined to return home and report the results of my observations, hence I left Paris on June 24th, for Bordeaux. At that time the risk of being torpedoed was much less in a French than in an English liner, for the Germans from motives of policy were not destroying French ships as they expected to use them themselves after the war. I embarked with my daughter on the L'Espagne, but had to wait two days in the Roadstead at the mouth of the river for stokers, who were transferred to us from a warship. We arrived in New York without misadventure on July 6th.

Having now made a very careful examination of the hospitals and of Red Cross work, I arrived at the following conclusions:

1. That never in history have the sick and wounded in war been so well, so quickly and so efficiently cared for.

2. That the elements which have contributed to these results are:

(a) The efficiency, esprit de corps and scientific training of the medical officers.

(b) The introduction of motor ambulances into the service.

(c) The increasing power of the medical officers in directing transportation and supply.

(d) The liberal and even lavish character of the hospitals and equipment supplied by the Imperial, Indian and Colonial Governments.

(e) The ever-ready and ever-present co-operation of the Red Cross Society through its various agencies and representatives. Primarily these improvements arose from the representations of Henri Dunant, founder of the World's Red Cross Societies, and hence one of the world's greatest benefactors, and secondarily through the experience gained in the conduct of medical affairs in the South African War, 1899-1902.

On May 30th, 1915, 1 wrote to my son, I have today seen the most tragic scene of modern times. I have been in Ypres.

In all the world there is nothing like it, nor has there been since the destruction of Pompeii. Man has vied with nature in destroying by fire and shell one of the most beautiful and historic cities in the world. Nowhere is the brutal malignity of the Hun more completely portrayed than at Ypres. For six months the enemy has tried, without success, to take it. Having failed, he has destroyed it from a distance, with colossal guns and giant shells. For months they have rained on the fated city a constant deluge of shells, both incendiary and high explosive, with the result that there remains hardly a house uninjured. Gaunt, gaping, open-windowed, as eyes in terror, they stare at you, the very picture of despair and inarticulate misery. Blackened, smoke-stained, roofless, here one sees the strange caprices of shell fire, the front of a house gone, pictures and mirrors still in place, a floor fallen in; resting on two beams a lady's dressing table and its apurtenances. Deserted by its human occupants, a stray black cat issues from the ruins of a home. A dozen pigeons perch on the blackened roof-tree. Quaint, bizarre, silent as death, the city inspires one with a sort of horror, for you know that death is there. Under the ruins lie many of Ypres' best, most prosperous and industrious citizens. No pen can describe its awfulness and the while the guns boom, the whining of the great shells is heard. Sometimes the sharp bark of a field gun breaks upon the ear with startling suddenness. What is it? Where is it? You clutch your neighbor and look with strained eyes. You see nothing. You breathe again. It is a British gun replying. You cannot see it, for it is hidden somewhere in the ruins. It is smokeless and its winged messenger of death flies to the German lines, perhaps to make another widow. How the women suffer in this war! The men who have been through the hell of Ypres and live, are proud of it. They have been through the gates of hell and beyond and have returned. They have felt the madness, the exhilaration of deadly strife. But the women/ They whose loved ones have been blown to atoms. How they suffer! The victim felt nothing. Not only did they lose their man, but all their precious household goods are scattered to the four winds of heaven, destroyed, buried; the accumulations of generations, the souvenirs, so treasured, so loved, all gone. What a senseless vengeance is the destruction of Ypres. Because the defenders resisted the will of the All Highest, the Over Lord of Germany, he willed that the homes of the great, the rich, and the poor, the collections of art and science, the historic monuments of the past, should be destroyed ; that the poor innocent women and children should be put to death by violence, should be torn limb from limb, and that the savings of generations should be wiped out and the people reduced to misery and penury, because they resisted his will. He who had no right to impose his will upon an alien, a peaceful and an unoffending people. The monstrous iniquity of it! We did not stay long in Ypres. We penetrated the great square and having seen the ruins of the Hotel de Ville, the great Cloth Hall and the Cathedral, we felt it was time to go. Everywhere was the scent of death, smouldering wood, or a fresh fire and dense smoke. We saw the most stupendous evil wrought by the hand of man in modern times. The impression of horror is burned deep into my mind, and will never fade while I live."

My eldest son, George Crowther Ryerson, who was born October 21st, 1882, early took an interest in military affairs, for he joined the Cadet Corps at Upper Canada College, where he was being educated, and while still at school, and having completed his eighteenth year, joined the Royal Grenadiers as a provisional lieutenant. By 1912 he had risen to be captain of a company. When the war was declared he came to me, as related in a former chapter, and asked permission to volunteer. He joined the 3rd Battalion, C.E.F., as a captain and went. overseas with that unit. After passing through the discomforts and miseries of Salisbury Plain camp, he accompanied his battalion to France and landed at St. Nazairre. The Canadian Contingent, now the First Canadian Division, was soon shifted to the Ypres front and underwent its baptism of fire and the discomfort of the trenches. On April 23rd, 1915, the Germans made their grand attack, using gas for the first time. The Canadians stood fast and saved the day when the Algerian and other Colonial French troops broke and left the road to Calais open. Early on the morning of the 23rd, George was instantly killed while leading his company at St. Julien. George, who shortly before his death had been appointed an acting major, was very popular with the officers and men of his battalion, as the following letter and statement will testify. "France, May 14th, 1915.

"We, the remainder of the Grenadiers, have the honor most respectfully to offer you our deepest sympathy concerning your son, Captain George Ryerson, killed in action at Ypres. He is mourned by every one of us, for we all loved him and would have followed him anywhere as cheerfully as he would have led, and he always did lead us. Amongst ourselves we always called him `Happy.' In the thick of things, in the greatest discomforts, he was ever ready by his own splendid example to encourage and help us.

"Feeling as we feel, Sir, we realize a little of what you must feel. Our hope is, that some day we may be able to, at least in part, avenge his death and uphold the honor of the regiment of which he was so proud, and with part of which he perished.

"We have the honor to be, Sir,

" Your obedient servants

(signed by) Charles E. Cooper, Co'y S.M. F. Curlew, Sgt.

D. Forgee, Cpl.

R. Vincent, Cpl.

and twenty-nine privates."

Statement of Private H. R. Boat,

"D" Company,

3rd Battalion, 1st Infantry Brigade,

1st Canadian Division.

Made at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, on Friday, May 14th, 1915.

"I was in the company commanded by Capt. George Ryerson. Previous to the war I had been, for about six years, a private in the 10th Royal Grenadiers.

"On the evening of April 22nd we were in billet at VIarnartine. Shortly after 7 o'clock the Turcos began to pass through the village in disorderly retreat. We at once fell in and started towards the position which the Turcos had evacuated, which I judge to have been about four miles away. Most of the way we were under very heavy fire. When we had proceeded about three miles we got the order to dig in. This was a long job, as we had nothing but our small entrenching tools. We dug individual trenches and joined them up afterwards. I judge that it was after midnight before we were under cover.

"Capt. Ryerson was with us all the timer encouraging the men, and telling them what to do. Between five and six in the morning of the 23rd we received the order to advance. Capt. Ryerson was out of the trenches giving the men directions. I was on the other side of the road from him. The firing was very heavy, and I saw the Captain fall. I crawled across the road to him, took his hand, and spoke to him, he gave a gasp, and I saw that he had gone.

"He appeared to have been struck by a bullet in the side, about the kidneys, and he lived but a few moments. I crawled back and told the men.

"Some of them cried.

"Captain Ryerson was a splendid officer, quite fearless, and all the men loved him. He took good care of them and was very just.

"Soon after I was wounded in the right thigh and right arm."

My third son, Eric Egerton, was, like the others, educated at the Model School, Toronto, and Upper Canada College and he passed into the School of Practical Science of the University of Toronto where he was very active in athletics. He left the school before graduation and went into mining, returning after some years and joining his brother George in business.

He joined the 123rd Battalion as a captain, in February, 1915. After preliminary training he went overseas with this battalion, where it was broken up and converted into Engineer units, his being the 8th Battalion. With it he went to France in command of a company and was engaged in making roads and light railways. While thus engaged he was shell-shocked and gassed and invalided to England. On his recovery he rejoined his unit and served in the battles of Hill 70, Passchendale, Thelus, Arras, Amiens and Drocourt Queant.

He was mentioned in despatches for his services.

My fourth son, Arthur Connaught Ryerson, was also educated at the Model School, Toronto, and Upper Canada College. Tie passed into the Royal Military College, Kingston, and graduated in 1913. On the outbreak of war he volunteered, being then attached to the Royal Grenadiers, but was at once transferred to the Canadian Field Artillery, being appointed a lieutenant and given charge of the ammunition column. He went overseas, endured the discomforts of Salisbury Plain and went. to France with the 1st Canadian Division in February, 1915. He took part in the terrible battle of St. Julien and was wounded as related elsewhere. He was invalided home and on his recovery was appointed adjutant of the 8th Artillery Brigade, C.E.F., with which he returned to England, where he was appointed staff captain of artillery, at Whitley. Desiring more active service he was appointed officer commanding the 31st Battery, Canadian Field Artillery, with the rank of major, and again went to France. During his service he took part in the battles of St. Julien, Neuve Chapelle, Somme, Vimy Ridge, Arleux, Fresnoi, Cambrai, Douai, Avian, Hill 70, Passchendaele, Thelus, Arras, Amiens, Drocourt Queant and Mons. He was three times mentioned in despatches and returned to Canada on March 30, 1919, pretty well worn out; but has since recovered his health.

Total Number of Canadian Enlistments 590,572

Killed in Action and Died of Wounds 51,679

Died of Disease 4,960

Drowned on the Llandovery Castle 89

Total Deaths 56,728

Wounded 149,732

Total Casualties 206,460

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