CHAPTER XIII

THE BATTLE OF ST. ELOI

No one realizes better than I the utter futility of attempting to describe a modern battle so that the reader can really understand or visualize it. There are no words in any vocabulary that convey the emotions and thoughts of persons during the long days and nights of horror–of the continual crash of the shells, the melting away or total annihilation of parapets and dug-outs; being buried and spattered with mud and blood; with dead and wounded everywhere and, worst of all, the pitiful ravings of those whose nerves have suddenly given way from shell shock. No imagination can grasp it; no picture can more than suggest a small part of it. None who has not had the actual experience can ever understand it. The hospital and ambulance people back at the rear see some of the results, but even they can have no conception of what it is like to be actually in the torment and hell-fire _at the front_.

I could not, if I so desired, give an accurate description of the operations in general. I have not the necessary data as to the various troops engaged or local results accomplished. Historians will record all that. My field of description is limited to my field of personal observation, which was not very extensive. I suppose, however, that I saw as much as it was possible for any one person to see, so I shall try to describe that part of the battle of St. Eloi in which it was my fortune to participate.

At the point at the southern end of the Ypres salient, where the line turns sharply to the eastward, stood the village of St. Eloi. It consisted of perhaps fifteen or twenty buildings of the substantial brick and iron construction characteristic of all Flemish towns and was situated at the intersection of the two main roads paved with granite blocks, one running to Ypres and the other through Voormezeele. The village itself, except for two or three outlying buildings, was inside our lines. The portion held by the enemy, however, included a prominent eminence, called the “Mound,” which dominated our whole line for a mile or more. This mound had been a bone of contention for more than a year and several desperate attempts had been made to take it; notably in February and in March, 1915, when the Princess Pat’s were so terribly cut up and lost their first Commanding Officer, Colonel Farquhar. All these attempts having failed, our engineers proceeded to drive tunnels and lay mines, six in number, so as to cut off the point of the German salient for a distance of about six hundred yards.

All was completed; mines loaded and ready, and the time for the attack was fixed for daybreak of the twenty-seventh of March. The mines were to be fired simultaneously, followed immediately by an attack, in force, by the Royal Fusiliers, the Northumberland Fusiliers and a battalion of the West Yorkshires. Our brigade (Fourth Canadian) was immediately to the right of the point of attack, but, as the Imperial troops had changed their machine guns for the lighter Lewis automatic rifles to be used with the advancing troops, it was deemed advisable to bring up all available machine guns of the heavier types to support the advance and to resist the inevitable counter-attacks. These guns, twelve in number, were placed at advantageous positions on the flanks of the attacking troops. I was only a sergeant at that time, but, having been an officer, and having had more actual experience in machine-gun work than the others, the direct supervision of these guns was entrusted to me.

We got all the guns up and in place during the night of the twenty-sixth. In addition, our people brought up a great many trench mortars of different calibers, with enormous quantities of ammunition. We then sat down to wait for the “zero” hour, meaning the time for the show to begin. I took my position at our extreme left, as I wanted to be where I could see everything.

Promptly at the appointed time, the mines were fired and then ensued the most appallingly magnificent sight I have ever witnessed. There was little noise but the very earth appeared to writhe and tremble in agony. Then, slowly, it seemed in the dim light, the ground heaved up and up until, finally, bursting all bonds, earth, trees, buildings, trenches and men went skyward. Immediately followed great clouds of flaming gas, expanding and growing like gigantic red roses suddenly bursting into full bloom. It was an earthquake, followed by a volcanic eruption.

Before the flying debris had reached the ground the Fusiliers were over the top, fighting their way through the jungles of wire and shell craters. The occupation of the mine craters themselves was, of course, unopposed as there was no one there to offer opposition. They kept on, however, meeting the German reinforcements coming up from the rear, fighting them to a standstill and establishing themselves beyond the Mound.

Then all hell broke loose. From the beginning our artillery, machine guns and trench mortars had been maintaining a continuous fire, but the Germans, taken by surprise, were several minutes getting started. When they did open up, however, they gave us the greatest demonstration of accurate and unlimited artillery fire which I, or any of us, for that matter, had ever seen. The air seemed to be literally full of shells bursting like a million fire-flies. Our parapets were blown down in a hundred places and the air was filled with flying sand-bags, iron beams and timbers. A shell struck under the gun by which I was standing and flung gun, tripod, ammunition-box and all, high into the air. Even under such conditions I could not help laughing at the ridiculous sight of that gun as it spun around in the air, with the legs of the tripod sticking stiffly out and the belt of ammunition coiling and uncoiling around it, like a serpent. The lance-corporal in charge of it looked on, spell-bound, and when it finally came down back of a dug-out, he looked at me with a most peculiar expression and said: “Well, what do you think of that?” Then he jumped up and went after the wreckage and, strange to relate, not a thing was broken. After about twenty minutes of stripping and cleaning he had the gun back on the parapet, shooting away as though nothing had happened. He was an Irishman, named Meeks.

I walked down the trench to get a spare barrel for a gun when a shell struck about ten feet in front, killing a man. I started on and another lit exactly where I had been standing. During that little trip of perhaps fifty yards and back I was knocked down and partly buried no less than four times.

Then the prisoners commenced to come back. They appeared to be glad to get out of it and I don’t blame them. When they found that they had to go through the Canadian’s lines, however, they held back. They had been told that the Canadians killed all prisoners. (We had heard something of the same kind about the Germans, too.) However, when our cooks came out with “dixies” full of steaming tea, with bread and marmalade sandwiches, they soon became reconciled. Our men made no distinction that morning between captor and captive, serving all alike with everything we had to eat or drink. At one time, however, owing to the congestion in the trench, we were compelled to “shoo” a lot of the prisoners back “overland,” to the next support trench. As their artillery was raising merry hell all over that section, they were a bit backward about starting and it required threats and a display of bayonets to get them out of the trench and on their way. It was a funny sight to see them beat it. There was little in the way of obstacles to impede their progress and I think that several of them came near to establishing new world’s records for the distance. When they arrived at the second line they wasted no time in climbing down into it; they went in head-first, like divers going into the water. I don’t think any of them was hit during this maneuver, at least I did not see any of them fall.

Now, it has come to be an axiom that “any one can take a trench but few can hold one.” It is another way of expressing the idea that “it isn’t the original cost–it’s the upkeep.”

It was no trick at all, with the assistance of the mines, to advance our lines to what had been the German third line, but, right there, some one had made a miscalculation. It’s a cinch our “higher-ups” did not know how much artillery the Germans had that they could turn on that salient. Our own artillery had been greatly increased and they evidently thought we were at least equal to the enemy in this respect, but, say: the stuff he turned loose on us made our artillery look like pikers. For every “whizz-bang” we sent over he returned about a dozen 5.9’s. By that night, nearly all the original attackers were gone and Fritz was back in at least two of the craters.

During the day a good many of us, including all our stretcher-bearers, made many trips through the devastated German trenches, getting out wounded and collecting arms and other plunder. I went up where the Fusiliers were trying to consolidate their position, intending to bring up a few guns if it appeared to be practicable, but abandoned the idea as, in my opinion, they were due to be shelled out within a short time, which proved to be correct. We did dig out and mount a German gun which was used for a while, but I then had it taken, with several others, back to our line. We could do so much more good from our original position by maintaining a continuous barrage to hamper the enemy in getting up supports. From prisoners taken later we learned that our machine-gun barrage was much more effective than that of our artillery. However, as we were obliged to fire from temporary positions, on the parapet and without cover of any kind, it was impossible to prevent the loss of some guns by direct hits from shells. During that night and the next day a Highland brigade came up to relieve the Fusiliers. They included battalions of the Royal Scots and the Gordons.

By this time the Germans had brought up more guns and were keeping up such a terrific fire on our position that it did not seem humanly possible to hold it, but that night a bombing attack by the Fourth Canadian Brigade bombers, reinforced by about two hundred volunteers, retook the craters and reestablished our line in a more advanced position than that occupied by the original attackers. This line was thereafter called the Canadian trench to distinguish it from the other, which was called the British trench.

Early next morning we had a chance to see some of the “Kilties” in action with the bayonet, during a counter-attack, which they repulsed. As I remember it, they did very little shooting but jumped out of their trench to meet the attackers with the cold steel. I never saw any lot of soldiers who seemed so utterly determined to wipe out all opposition. They were like wild men; savage and blood-thirsty in the onslaught and, although the Germans must have outnumbered them at least three to one, they never had a chance against those brawny Scots. But few of the boches got back to their own line and no prisoners were taken. We then appreciated the nickname given by the Germans (first applied to Canadian Highlanders at Langemarck, but afterward used to designate all “Kilties”), “The Ladies from Hell.”

From that time the Canadians were alone in the fight. The Fusiliers, having started it, faded away, and the Scots, after a few brief days, likewise vanished and for two months or more St. Eloi was a continuous struggle between the Second Canadian Division and at least four German Divisions, including some of the infamous Prussian Guards.

During the next twelve days the righting was almost uninterrupted. Troops came in and troops went out, but the Emma Gees held on, forever, as it seemed to us. But few remained of the original gun crews who started the engagement. Not all had been killed or wounded, but it had been necessary to relieve some who were utterly exhausted. How I kept going is a mystery to me as it was to others at the time. One thing which probably helped was the fact that I never, for one minute, permitted myself to think of anything except the matter of keeping those guns going. Sentiment I absolutely cast out. I was nothing but a cold-blooded machine. Good friends were killed but I gave them no thought other than to get the bodies out of the trench so that we need not step on them. To tie up and assist wounded was a mere matter of routine. In no other way could I have withstood the awful strain. I was hit, slightly, on several occasions but never severely enough to necessitate my going out. A dug-out in which I had a table where I wrote reports and figured firing data was hit no less than three times while I was in it, finally becoming a total wreck. The fact that I was not killed a hundred times was due to just that many miracles–nothing less. My leather jacket and my tunic were cut to shreds by bits of shell, a bullet went through my cap and another grazed my head so close as to raise a red welt, but that same old “luck” which had become proverbial in the battalion, still held and I was not seriously injured.

Our troubles were not all caused by artillery fire by any means. Fritz had a large and varied assortment of “Minenwerfer” with which to entertain us at all hours, day and night. A good many people, even among the soldiers themselves, think that Minenwerfer or “Minnie” for short, is the name of the projectile or torpedo, while, as a matter of fact, it is the instrument which throws it; a literal translation being “mine-thrower.” In the same way they often speak of the shells thrown by trench mortars as “trench mortars” themselves. Now the family of “Minnies” is a large one and includes every device, from the ancient types used by the Greeks and Romans, with springs of wood, to the latest and most modern contraption in which the propelling power may be steel springs, compressed air or a small charge of powder. In its smallest form it is simply a “rifle grenade,” somewhat similar to a hand grenade or ordinary “bomb,” to which is attached a rod of brass or iron which slips down into the bore of the regular service rifle and is fired with a blank cartridge. Other and newer types are without this rod but have vanes or rudders affixed to the rear end which serve to guide the projectile in its flight. These usually have a hole through the center through which the bullet passes and can thus be used with the regular service ammunition. This whole class, embracing everything from the small “pineapples,” fired from the rifle, to the monstrous “aerial torpedoes,” are commonly spoken of as “fish-tails.”

The shells from the trench mortars proper, and most of the “fish-tail” family, are somewhat similar to ordinary artillery shells in that they are made of steel or iron and designed to burst into small fragments, each of which constitutes a deadly missile. On the other hand, the “mines” thrown by the Minenwerfer, are merely light sheet-metal containers for heavy charges of high explosives (T. N. T. or tri-nitro-toluol as a rule), and depend for their effectiveness on the shock and blasting effect of the detonation. They have been increasing in size continually. At first we called them “sausages,” then “rum-jars” (they resembled the ordinary one-gallon rum jar in size and shape), then they became “flying pigs” and by this time, I have no doubt, new and still more expressive names have been applied to them.

The havoc created in a trench by one of the large ones passes belief. The strongest dug-out is wiped out in a twinkle; whole sections of parapet are obliterated, and where was a strong, well-built wall eight feet or more in height there remains a hole or “crater” fifteen or twenty feet in diameter and several feet deep. Any man who happens to be within this area is, of course, blown to atoms, while frequently men in the near vicinity, but not exposed to the direct blast, are killed instantaneously by the shock. Medical men say that the effect is identical to that known as “caisson sickness,” and is caused by the formation of bubbles of carbonic acid gas in the blood vessels. Not being a “medico” I can not vouch for this, but you can take it for what it is worth.

In daylight it is not difficult to dodge these devilish things and even at night, if they come one at a time, it is possible to escape the most of them, but when they come over in flocks, as they sometimes do, it is more a matter of luck than anything else.

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