Our introduction to the trenches was at Ploegstrert wood, going in a half battalion at a time (with the London Rifles) in order to get acquainted with conditions and procedure in the front line.
Leaving the chateau, where we were billeted, a rather fancy name for the bare bleak pile of stones which even in peace time would be a cold comfortless place in which to live, we arrived at the front line when it was quite dark. (We were detrained at St. O'mer and inspected by Lord Roberts. The only man to hold two V.C.'s: His own and that of his son.)
After a slight delay in arranging for the disposition of the troops, I was assigned to the care of one of the "London Rifles" boys and with him detailed to take up our position at a listening post, a short distance out in front of the line.
This was the customary procedure on both sides as soon as it was dark, as those outposts were the eyes and ears of the army during the hours of darkness. It was a time of activity behind the lines; the bringing in of supplies, the rotation of troops, the working parties detailed to such activities as to filling sand bags, repairing wire and any other jobs which would make the trench safer and more comfortable and the general strengthening of the position.
The listening post to which I was assigned was simply a few sand bags head high, when one sat down. The ground was wet and cold and to keep my feet warm from freezing, wrapped my ground-sheet around them. Sometime later in the night an Officer and Sergeant, making their usual rounds of inspection paid us a visit and squatting down beside us we were interrogated in whispers as to what we had seen or heard; then the officer noting that my feet were covered with my ground-sheet, ordered the Sergeant to remove it, stating in no uncertain terms that, "this man is too comfortable".
It was well for me that he was not a mind reader, as I was mentally classifying him among the unmentionable lower order of things, otherwise I would still be doing time in some British prison, as in the British army at one time, one could be crimed for dumb insolence. (This night our rations failed to come up and the lad from the London Rifles shared his with me.)
From Ploegstrert we moved to Fleurbay or Fleurbeux. I don't know if those names are spelled right, but that is how they sounded.
Here we took over a sector of the front line to ourselves, our own responsibility. It was probably of no great importance in the general scheme of things and as a rule was pretty quiet, but to keep us on our toes, and when we least expected it, the Germans would open up with a barrage with sometimes disastrous effects. If they didn't open up, our battery of four light field pieces would and due to ammunition shortage, it was said, was limited to four rounds per day. For every round they sent over we would get a dozen back, so our boys at the guns were far from popular. However, sometimes we would have a bit of fun on our own. I can recall one time the Germans setting up a bit of a field kitchen, but they made the mistake of having one section of the stove pipe sticking up above the parapet. After it had been smoking away nicely for some time and we had figured that whatever they were cooking would be about ready to eat, we opened up with our rifles, cut down the stove pipe by grazing the top sandbags, so whatever he was cooking would be well seasoned with soot and sand, and judging by his immediate response I don't think he appreciated our efforts.
This I think was about the first we operated as a division; a self contained unit. The second brigade to which I was attached was composed of the 5th, 7th, 8th and 10th battalions and commanded by Brigadier Arthur Currie. When the brigade was in the line, two battalions would be up front, the other two lying back as immediate supports and getting a bit of rest. Sometimes however, the Germans would pay more attention to our supports than they did to the front line in order to disturb their rest as much as possible.
The 10th Battalion was our support when we were in the line and was our relief when we came out for a rest, and we rotated on a three in and three day out basis.
Our next move, and the last for me, along with hundreds of others, was to Ypres. We were moved from Fleurbeux to Ypres by truck and billeted in a non-operating coffee mill on the bank of the Ypres canal. I can't recall just how long we were there, only for a night or two, but long enough for our lads to become acquainted with the purveyors of wine and cognac. We were soon alerted however, for our trip into the line, and our company emerged from our coffee mill billet, sporting a fine light brown coffee tan.
Our part of the line was some few miles out of Ypres, traveling along what was to become know as the Graffenstafel Ridge to St. Julien and from there turning at right angles to the trenches.
Arriving at our rendezvous or contact point, we halted and pretty soon our guides appeared, followed shortly by the head of the column, whom we were to relieve and who were traveling in single file on one side of the road. We were then alerted, and resumed our march on the opposite side of the road, and in single file also, moved to take up the position in that part of the line which they had just vacated.
In the gathering darkness and in silence, the two lines shuttled past each other. The troops going out burdened with loaded stretchers of dead or wounded, and noting the number of them remarked to Fletcher; That it looks like a hot spot, and its doubtful whether or not we will be coming out on our feet. Fletcher pooh-poohed this observation, asserting that we would both come out OK, his assertion however, sounded more like a smoke screen to cover up his own thoughts which were in agreement with mine, As it transpired, I was the one, largely due to his aid, that came out and he the one, destined to remain.
In the trenches one is only aware of that part which he can see, as the troops normally go in and out under cover of darkness. In front of him all that he can see is through a loophole or through a periscope. As to our contacts with our forces on either side of us, unless one is on the extreme flanks, as the trenches don't run in a straight line and are broken up with bays and traverses in order to give protection against infilade fire, ones view is restricted and very limited
Arriving in the trenches the first order of business was the attending to the securing of our position. Listening posts had to be manned and each section or company assigned to their own particular part of the trench. In our case it was more of a wall or parapet of sand-bags than a trench, as the ground was low, to dig down was to get into water, but even to fill sand-bags had its problems. As this same part of the line "the Ypres Salient" in the early days of the war had been a burial ground for both sides, first one then the other side holding it, it was hard to fill a sand bag without disturbing the remains of someone buried a little too close to the surface.
Having got settled and allotted to our positions, our next concern was the parapet itself; to strengthen weak spots if any, working parties were assigned to this duty. About the parapet itself, which was a little better than head high, one could move about freely, but in the event of attack one had to be able to get up quickly and lie over the top, and in order to do this we had a firing step, which in most cases was merely a toe hold to get up, and the ability to get up quickly had to be demonstrated to the officer's satisfaction, in our case it was Colonel Lipsett himself who made the inspection.
Our listening post had been manned and as nothing could be expected during the night, part of our company had been with-drawn to a small support line about fifty yards behind, which was once a bit of a hedge, where if they were lucky, could snatch a bit of sleep.
Now in the line there were two exercises, which were performed twice daily; The Stand too, morning and evening. It was the generally accepted theory that if the enemy attacked in the morning, it would be in the period just before sunrise, just as it is beginning to lighten, a fake dawn, so that if their attack failed they could retire, without too much exposure, and if successful would have the coming daylight to press home their advantage, and as will be seen later, this was the theory the Germans put into practice.
The same theory applied to the evening, if an attack was contemplated it would be made sometime before sunset, if it failed they had the darkness to cover a with-drawl and if successful, all night to dig in and consolidate their gains.
Sometimes the nights in the trenches could be both interesting and beautiful, especially when there was no moon. On such nights I have leaned against the parapet and watched the powerful searchlights; like the fingers of God, sweep the darkness overhead, intersect with another, pause, then on with their probe of the heavens.
The dull boom of a gun in the distance, breaking the silence of the night, or some nervous sentry opening up setting off a chain re-action along the front. The very lights would be shot up, like giant fire-crackers, hang in the sky for a moment, then slowly descending making an eerie glare and lighting up everything on the ground.
It was during those two critical periods of time that the order was given to Stand Too and which when passed, the order was given to Stand Down. Sentries could be posted and the others could relax.
It didn't take long for us to find out that this was an important part of the line: the following day, there was quite a bit gun fire, mostly of the heavy variety, going far behind the lines, seeking out concentrations or ammunition dumps.
Two days later when we were to due to be relieved, we were informed that there would be no relief, and even to the troops, there seemed to be a creeping intensity to the activity of the Germans. The feeling that an attack was imminent, must have been held at headquarters, and they were taking no chances of being caught with the rotation of troops at this time.
As the shelling continued to draw closer, the odd plane began to put in an appearance; there were not many in those days. One I watched as it slowly cruised around, lazily it seemed, apparently making observations and paying little heed to the shells, as we could see by the white puffs of smoke as they exploded around it.
I watched as it dropped coloured streamers, which I presume indicated the targets observed, the guns would concentrate on that spot, by using different coloured streamers he could direct the gun fire and then when they were on target, drop a different coloured streamer, then head back behind his own lines.
Another three days and still no relief, and it was again our turn to rest in our little support trench, slipping back in there after Stand Down at night.
Early the next morning, the whole place seemed to erupt, shells were exploding all around, others were screaming over head to lay down a curtain to stop our reserves on their way in to our support.
In a matter of minutes we were up in our front line positions, and on looking back could see our supports the 10th Battalion, coming down from the ridge in skirmishing order, and on the double; It was a pretty heartening sight and one never to be forgotten.
Our front line was a shambles; dead, wounded and gassed were stretched out all around, and here and there great holes were blown out of our parapet.
The trench itself was filled with the acrid biting fumes of gun-fire and exploding shells; no helmets, no gas masks; it was difficult to tell whether or not one was hit, as after each explosion there would be a rain of debris coming down on the unprotected head with painful results.
Now after the gas had been quietly slipped across, the real strafing of our front line began. Our protecting breastwork was leveled, leaving only little bays here and there along the line. The firing suddenly ceased on the trenches and lifted to lay down a barrage behind the lines. Then a yell "Here they come" and the great Battle of Ypres was on.
All along the line and etched against the sky, were the grey clad hordes as they scrambled out of their own trenches and came for us on the double. In our own line every man that was able, was up and lying over the parapet firing as fast as he was able. Where did they go? Of the Germans, who it seemed a moment ago were coming at us, there was no trace.
There was a short interval of quietness, then the guns started work on our position again, the softening up procedure, the prelude to an attack.
While the gun and rifle fire kept us pinned down, I watched as they brought up their reinforcements in big double decked buses and disgorged them quickly into their trenches. Again the cry "Here they come" and it was the same thing all over again. Now you see them, now you don't; they never did reach our wire, on our part of the line. Whatever may be said of the Germans, one knew which side he was on and he was a worthy opponent.
By this time, the Germans had broken through our left, and I, with my back to the parapet, watched the French Algerian black troops going like hell with the Germans close on their heels. One of the black boys was carrying a flag and the way that lad was picking them up and laying them down, would have assured him a place on any Olympic team. It was just like some Hollywood movie. In order to seal up this breach, our own troops on our left, one of our Canadian Scottish units, swung back to keep in touch, this left our left flank wide open. This the Germans quickly took over, separated from us only by bomb throwing distance.
It was here at this time that our company sergeant Major Fred Hall earned his "Victoria Cross" which also cost him his life. One of our boys had been severely hit and was lying out in the open, Clarkson was the lads name, and he was from Portage. It was suicide to attempt to get him in but Sergeant Hall thought it could be done and with two other men to help him, left the bay and around the traverse. He had scarcely gone ten yards when I heard a smack and saw his cap go hurtling out into the open, the other two lads came running back. Hall was instantly killed.
During his time I had carried a couple of reports along the line to retire the left down the communication trench, both of which were cancelled, as by this time, the men themselves figured it was just about as safe to stay as to retire out into the open.
Our lines of communication having been cut, we had no contact with headquarters, and as by this time we were mixed up with other battalions, no one seemed to know just who should or should not be in command. So it was just a case of doing the best we could under the circumstances as conditions were changing momentarily.
I can recall an instance when the Germans broke through on our left, and our one and only machine gun, being inactive on our immediate front, a Lieutenant of the Fifth Battalion; and if my memory serves me right, Fitzpatrick, was his name, coming into our bay and on seeing our machine gun, wanted to know if it was in working order, and on being told that it was, wanted to know why the hell we were not using it to our left rear.
Our officer at the time replied that he could not tell which were the Germans and which the French. To this Fitzpatrick replied, "You can't go wrong. If they are Germans you are OK and if they are French then they have no bloody business going back."
I have stated that we had only one machine gun, this is wrong. We had two, one for the right half and one for the left half of the battalion, but where the other was at the moment I have no idea. All I know is that we ran short of ammunition and were filling the belt with whatever shells we could find lying around.
One might wonder perhaps why our artillery wasn't ripping hell out of the advancing Germans; the fact of the matter was we didn't have any. Our four light field pieces being captured by the enemy on their break through - Wee Davey, of holly writ, had a better chance against Goliath.
Now to return again to our own little immediate front; the Germans with two mass frontal attacks, having failed to move us, tried new tactics. They started making small rushes, first at one place then another, so that while one party was making rush there would be a party behind in the trench covering their advance and trying to pin us down so as to keep us from getting up to check their advance.
It was during one of these sorties that I got hit. Fletcher and I had been lying over the parapet, he had fired his five rounds and stepped down to reload, telling me also to get down as I had been up too long, in fact he was pulling me down, and was picking up my rifle to step down and just as the rifle was in line with my head, "Crack".
Now it so happened that there had been a Sergeant standing on some sand bags behind me, as he said "directing fire". Just as I was on my way down, for a brief instant he was exposed, and the bullets which some kind hearted lad on the other side had intended for my head, on passing through my hand, hit him over the heart setting fire to his ammunition, and we both came down on fire, he, never to move again.
Fletcher then wanted to know where I was hit. I told him I thought it was my head, but he assured my that it was OK then it was he who noticed my hand. One of the bullets had gone through the back of my hand, taking half an inch of the bone with it, the other had broken my thumb. Bullets on entering make a nice clean little hole, but on coming out, usually make a dirty mess. Fletcher lost no time in getting my field dressing out and in short order had me all fixed up.
Many years later I was wondering why the man behind me was not using his rifle, instead electing to, as he said, "direct fire" and I came to the conclusion that the lad wanted to have a look at what was going on and was using my body as a shield, and had I stayed up a split second longer, he would have lived and I would have had a couple through the head.
After having bandaged my hand up Fletcher insisted that I get out and I was just as insistent on staying, not because I wanted to pose as a hero, but on the contrary, I figured it was safer in the line than trying to make my way for about a mile over bare ground, with no cover at all, an easy target for any sniper.
While we were arguing the pro's and cons, a lad who was kicking the bolt of his rifle with his heel, in an effort to extract a spent shell without success, asked me "How was my rifle". So handing it over to him, I had no further excuse for staying in the line.
Here I must stop and say a little prayer for that moronic bastard Sam Hughes. After the Ypres engagement, his Ross rifle was thrown away and the Canadian troops were issued with the British Lee Enfield.
On my way back, I came on one of the Canadian Scottish, down on his hands and knees, his elbows on the ground and his head between his hands and face pressed to the earth. I bent to help him up, to urge him on, but there was no life.
Shortly after I left a shell came over and Fletcher was badly wounded, but on making his way back, another one landed too close to him, and that was the end of my very good friend, a cool quiet fearless boy and a fine young gentleman. For quite some time I corresponded with his mother in England. From the farm, he emigrated to Canada working with the Lake of the Woods flower mill until his enlistment in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba in August 1914. His name is engraved on the soldiers memorial in Portage.
A little further on I was alerted by several men shouting and waving at me to get down. They were our own digging in, and out in front of them a hundred yards or so were the Germans doing the same thing, and there I was ambling along without any cover. The only thing I think that saved me, was the Germans in their short advance were just about as exposed as I was, and were to busy digging in to risk exposing themselves for a shot at me.
A few hundred yards more, and I had made it to our Headquarters; a farm house on the ridge. Here were Colonel Lipsett and Major Kirkcaldy. As our communication was cut with the front line, they had no idea how their boys were faring in the front line. It was suggested that the Battalion papers be moved further back, but Lipsett replied, that as long as his boys could stick it out in the front line he was going to stay put where he was. It was then that there was quite an explosion outside and someone came in to inform Lipsett that a shell had landed in the yard killing our Battalion Sergeant Major Robertson.
From our headquarters, I started on my way to Ypres walking along the ridge when all of a sudden there was the damnedest explosion, which nearly scared the wits out of me. Concealed in a hedge on the side of the road, and which had just recently arrived was a battery of French 75's and were the latest in field artillery, and had just opened up.
To one suffering from constipation, the unexpected boom of a battery of those going off would be pretty nearly certain to produce a bowel movement.
Approaching Ypres my next concern was to find a way through the barbed wire, which surrounded the City, the wire being of considerable depth, and it was some time before I found the way through. On my arrival, the town itself was a shambles; the narrow streets were chocked with rubble, dead horses, timbers and the wreckage of buildings.
Here, as I went along lying on the sidewalk was a civilian, beside him two bed sheets filled with all the household belongings he was able to carry and which he had apparently been carrying on each end of a pole, slung over his shoulder, when the shell had ended his flight.
The City was still under heavy shell fire, and I found it difficult to decide on which was the safest side of the street to travel. If I traveled on the side from which the shells were coming, I was afraid that if they hit a building, I would be buried, and if I traveled on the other side I would be totally exposed. So zigzagging along I finally reached a dressing station, but as it was full up, and I could walk, I was advised to continue on.
Here again was a bit of an interruption. A Highland regiment I think it was the Argyle & Sutherlands, with one piper at their head, was on its way at the quick-step, in a hurry to get into the line, which by this time was not too far away, in fact before I got out of Ypres, some of those same troops were coming back wounded.
Then again there were the Indian troops, "the Gurkas" and I watched and waited as these tough looking swarthy soldiers passed by in a seemingly endless stream.
Arriving at Poperinge I got a shot for tetanus, had my hand dressed, and from there on, it was just a matter of moving along from one place to another, Rouen, Le Havre, and finally Sheffield, England.
This was supposed to be the last "Great War". The war to end all wars, but no; there was only a recess, the wounds of the first being scarcely healed when another excuse, preached by a madman, had been found and once more the world was ablaze with a second war, which was terminated by the Atom Bomb.
Since then there has been really no peace; the atom bomb or H. bomb, being for the moment ruled out, as its potential destructive power could not be controlled, as this great leveler is no respecter of persons, rich and poor alike come under its blight.
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