CHAPTER XVI

OUT IN FRONT FIGHTING

We had been “home” but a few days when we received rush orders to pack up and march toward Ypres. There had been an intense bombardment going on up that way and we soon learned the cause from straggling wounded whom we met coming along the road. It was the second of June, 1916, and the Germans had launched their great surprise attack against the Canadians at Hooge. It was the beginning of what has been called the Third Battle of Ypres, but will probably be recorded in history as the Battle of Sanctuary Wood.

The enemy had gradually increased his customary bombardment and then, assisted by some mines, had swept forward, in broad daylight, overwhelming the defenders of the first and second lines by sheer force of numbers and had only been checked after he had driven through our lines to a depth of at least seven hundred yards over a front of nearly a mile, including the village of Hooge, and was firmly established in a large forest called Sanctuary Wood and in other woods to the south. By the time we had arrived at our reserve lines (called the G. H. Q. or General Headquarters Line), we were diverted and directed to a position on the line just south of the center of the disturbance where we “dug ourselves in” and held on for four days. Shell fire was about all we got here, but there was plenty of that. The rifle and machine-gun bullets that came our way were not numerous enough to cause any concern although we did lose a few men in that way.

Here the news of the fight filtered through to us. It seemed that the Princess Pat’s (unfortunate beggars), had got another cutting-up, together with some of the Mounted Rifles, and Major-General Mercer and Brigadier-General Victor Williams, who had been up in the front line on a tour of inspection, had both been wounded and captured. General Mercer afterward died, in German hands, but General Williams recovered and remains a prisoner. It was said that less than one hundred from each the Pat’s and the Fourth C. M. R. came out of the fight.

At this place several of our gun positions were in the grounds of what had been one of the most beautiful châteaux in Flanders–the Château Segard, hundreds of years old but kept up in the most modern style until the war came. Now the buildings were but a mass of ruins. Not only this but the grounds had been wonderfully laid out in groves, gardens, moats and fish-ponds with carefully planned walks and drives throughout the whole estate which comprised at least forty acres. There were trees and plants from all over the world; beautiful borders and hedges of sweet-smelling, flowering shrubs and cunningly planned paths through the thickets, ending at some old wondrously carved stone bench with perhaps an arbor covered with climbing rose bushes.

All had felt the blighting touch of the vandal shells. The trees were shattered, the roads and paths torn up, the ponds filled with debris and the beautiful lawn pitted with craters, but in spite of all this devastation, the flowers and trees were making a brave fight to live. I could not but think, as I wandered through this place, how well the little flowers and the mighty oaks typified the spirit of France and Belgium. Sorely stricken they were–wounded unto death; but with that sublime courage and determination which have been the admiration of the world they were resolved that _they should not die_.

Along the main road leading up to the château was a charming little chapel, handsomely decorated and appointed. It was the only structure on the estate that had not been struck by a shell. We used it as sleeping quarters for two crews whose guns were located in the immediate vicinity. One night a big shell struck so close as to jar all the saints and apostles from their niches and send them crashing to the floor, but did no other damage.

This same thing happened to us once when we were sleeping in the convent school at Voormezeele, when all the statues on the walls were hurled down upon us by a large shell which struck the building.

The boys used to take these sacred effigies and place them on graves of their dead friends. We were not a very religious bunch but I suppose they thought it might help some–at any rate it proved their good intentions and I never interfered to stop it.

For several days the fighting continued furiously, the Canadians recovering some of the lost ground, including most of Sanctuary Wood, and then things settled down to the old “siege operation.” During this time we had many opportunities to watch the splendid work of the men of the ammunition columns taking shells up to the batteries in broad daylight and within plain view of the enemy lines. It was one of the most inspiring sights I have ever witnessed and brought back memories of pictures I had seen of artillery going into action in the old days.

Down the road they would come, on the dead gallop, drivers standing in their stirrups, waving their whips and shouting at the horses, while the limbers bounded crazily over the shell-torn road, the men holding on for dear life and the shells bursting with a continuous roar all about them. It was the sight of a lifetime, and whenever they came past our men would spring out of the trenches and cheer as though mad. Time after time they made the trip and the escapes of some were miraculous. A few were hit, wagons smashed and horses and men killed or wounded, but not many, considering the number of chances they took.

The stories of heroism during that first day’s fighting equal anything in history. Batteries were shot down to a man but continued working the guns to the last. One artilleryman, the last of his gun squad, after having one arm shot off at the elbow, continued to load and fire. Then a shell blew off about a foot of the muzzle of the gun but he still kept it going. He was found, lying dead across his gun and a trail of clotted blood showed where he had gone back and forth to the ammunition recess, bringing up shells. One member of the crew remained alive long enough to tell the story.

In another place, in Sanctuary Wood, were two guns known as “sacrifice guns,” as they were intended to cover a certain exposed approach in case of an attack and to fight to the finish. How well they carried out their orders may be judged from the fact that every man was killed at the guns, _by German bayonets_, after having shot down many times their own number of the enemy.

Our old friends of the Lahore Battery lost so many men that they were having difficulty in maintaining an effective fire until two of our machine-gun squads volunteered to act as ammunition carriers, which they did for several hours, suffering heavy casualties.

Here occurred the only case of which I have ever heard where one of our medical officers was apparently “murdered.” Captain Haight, M. O. of one of our western battalions was reported, on excellent authority, to have been bayoneted and killed while attending the wounded.

While we were here, Major-General Turner, V. C., who was in command of the entire Canadian Corps, paid us a visit. He came up unannounced and accompanied by a lone Staff Captain. I was instructed to act as his guide over our sector. During one trip along an exposed road we found ourselves in the midst of a furious hail of shells. I looked at the General to see if he wanted to take cover (I’m sure the rest of us did); he never “batted an eye” but continued at an even pace, talking, asking questions and stopping here and there to observe some particular point. I overheard one of our men say: “_General_ Turner? General _Hell!_ he ain’t no general; _he’s_ a reg’lar _soldier_.”

On the night of the sixth we were relieved and, next day, took up our quarters in Dickebusch. The Emma Gees had taken possession of a bank building, about the best in town, and had strengthened it, inside and out, with steel and sand-bags until it looked as though it would withstand any bombardment. Fortunately it was not hit while we were there, although many large shells fell very near; but when I again passed that way, just a week later, I noticed that a big shell had gone through our carefully prepared “bombproof” and completely wrecked it. We only remained a few days and then received orders to go into the front line at Hill 60 (south of Hooge), as an attack was to be made to recover the trenches lost on the second.

As we had never been in the sector it was necessary for the non-commissioned officers to go in a day ahead to locate the gun positions and be able to guide the section in. We went in in daylight (the non-coms.) and found it to be the longest trip we had ever undertaken on such a mission. From Bedford House, on the reserve line, it is at least two miles to the front line, all the way exposed to observation and fire. There had been a little trench tramway but it had been wrecked by shells. By breaking our party up into twos we escaped any severe shelling and the rifle fire was at such long range that we ignored it. Beyond three hundred yards the German’s shooting is a joke.

We went over the position which extends from what was known as the Ravine, to a point exactly opposite Hill 60. At some places the lines were less than forty yards apart and it was possible to throw hand grenades back and forth. It required the entire day to familiarize ourselves with the wonderful maze of communication and support trenches at this place, as we had never seen anything like it before. We had become so accustomed to doing without communication trenches that they were a distinct novelty. They, together with the many support trenches, made a perfect labyrinth: like a spider’s web, only not quite so regular in form.

The next night we moved in. As the battalion was crossing the long open stretch we came under fire from an enemy machine gun and some men were hit. There’s no use talking, no other weapon used in the war is as deadly as a machine gun. Where you can walk through an artillery barrage with a few casualties, the well-directed fire of only one machine gun will pile men up as fast as they come along. When one of them catches you in the open the only thing to do is to drop into the nearest hole and stay there until the firing ceases.

We went in on the night of the twelfth and the attack was scheduled for the night of the thirteenth, or rather the morning of the fourteenth, as the preliminary bombardment was to commence at twelve-forty-five and “zero” was one-thirty A.M.

This was the greatest place I have ever seen for rifle grenades and “Minnies.” They came over in flocks or shoals and one must be everlastingly on the lookout to dodge them. But we had as many as they and also a lot of Stokes guns which seemed to “put the fear of God” into the boche. They sprung a new “Minnie” here, much larger than any we had seen. It hurled a whale of a shell; not less than one hundred and sixty pounds of pure T. N. T., and what it did to our trenches and dug-outs was a sin. And the worst of it was, they had it in a hole in a deep railroad cutting at the bottom of Hill 60, where our artillery could not reach it.

At this time we had both the regular machine guns and also a lot of Lewis automatic rifles. Shortly after, the latter were turned over to the infantry companies, while the former were taken into the newly-organized machine gun corps, an entirely separate branch of the service, which was under the direct command of the Brigade Commander. The guns were distributed along the line in favorable locations for either defense or offense but, as there were no prepared emplacements, the men had but little protection.

Here our work, as at St. Eloi, was to support the advance; in fact, that is the normal function of machine guns in an attack, although the lighter automatic rifles of the Lewis type are usually with the assaulting troops.

Our “Higher Command” had learned a lesson from the St. Eloi experience and had brought up many new batteries, including a fair sprinkling of the “super-heavies” of twelve and fifteen-inch calibers. It has been said, on good authority, that we had more than one thousand guns concentrated on about a thousand yards of trench, or a gun to every yard, and I am perfectly willing to believe it after hearing them all at work. It was our first experience of that delightful situation where we had “superiority of fire” and it made everybody happy. Afterward, on the Somme and Ancre, it had become a permanent condition; but to us, who had been “carrying on” under the overwhelming odds of the German guns, it was a welcome change. It did our hearts good to hear those monster thirteen hundred and fifty pound “babies” coming over our heads with a “woosh” and landing in the lines across the way, on Hill 60, where they left marks like mine craters. We could put up with quite a lot just to see that, and although we were suffering considerably from the rifle grenades and the “Minnies,” every one appeared to be in a good humor.

With everything ready we waited for the “zero” hour. Exactly at the designated time the artillery opened. It was as though all the hounds of hell were let loose. Such a wailing and screeching and hissing as filled the air, from the eighteen-pounders (“whizz-bangs”), which seemed to just shave our own parapet, to the gigantic missiles from the “How-guns,” as the Howitzers are affectionately called, each with its own peculiar noise. The explosions became merged into a continual roaring crash, without pause or break. Then our Stokes guns joined in, and, if there ever was an infernal machine, that is it. Vomiting out shells as fast as they can be fed into its hungry maw; so fast, indeed, that it is possible for seven of them to be in the air at one time, from one gun, at a range of less than four hundred yards, it is the last word in rapid-fire artillery.

Of course the Emma Gees started at the head of the procession and kept up a continuous fire.

Fritz soon began to do the best he could but, what with the noise of our own guns and the bursting shells, we were unable to hear his unless they struck very close. He did give us trouble, though, with that devilish Minenwerfer which sent over a wheel-barrow load of high explosive at each shot. He blew the left end of our line “off the map” for a distance of a hundred yards or more and made it untenable–for any one but a machine gunner. The infantry was ordered to evacuate that part and did so, but not the Emma Gees; they stuck until one of the big “terrors,” striking alongside, killed and wounded all the crew but one and then he still stuck it, loading and firing until I was able to get a reserve crew up to relieve him. He was a Scot, one of the kind that doesn’t know what it means to quit. Here’s to you, “Wullie” Shepherd, wherever you are!

The attack was carried off with absolute precision. At one-thirty the barrage lifted and over the boys went, sweeping everything before them, back to the original position and then a little farther for good measure. By daylight they had the new line so well consolidated that Fritz was never able to make a dent in it and the Canadian prestige was once more established.

At the left end of our line, where the Minenwerfer had done so much damage, was a mine shaft; one of many in that vicinity which our engineers were driving under Hill 60 (they afterward blew it up), and it seemed as though the boche knew of it and was endeavoring to cave it in with the “Minnies.” In fact, they did succeed in partly destroying it, but the sheltering roof at the month of the shaft remained in fair condition, and as it was the only protective covering in that neighborhood, Bouchard and I were sitting inside, with our feet hanging down the shaft, holding down that end of the line. We had relieved the other crew, or rather I had sent them back about two hundred yards along the trench as a precautionary measure and then, feeling that some one _must_ remain to keep lookout, decided to take care of the job myself. The boy, of course, insisted upon staying with me. The big fellows were coming over with regularity (I nearly said monotonous, but those things never get monotonous), and were bursting too close for comfort. Bou had just made a proposition that we sneak over after dark and try to locate the devil-machine and blow it up, when we heard something moving below us in the mine-shaft, and a moment later a mud-encrusted face came up into the light. With an unusually fluent flow of “language,” which sounded strangely familiar to me, two men came up the ladder, and as the first one emerged into the daylight he took a look at me and said: “Hello, Mac; it’s a long way to Ft. George, isn’t it?” When he had removed some of the dirt from his face I recognized a miner, named McLeod, who had once helped rescue me from the Giscome Rapids and afterward worked for me up in British Columbia. He and his partner had been caught in the shaft and had been a day digging themselves out. After a rest of a few minutes they went their way, down the trench, and I never saw or heard of them again.

During the next hour or two I managed to work around through the wreckage of this part of our line, searching for wounded and making a list of the dead. I found none of the former, all having been removed by their companions when they were ordered to evacuate, but I did find a number of bodies which I examined for identification disks or other marks and made a complete record which I afterward turned in to our Headquarters. This is a custom that is always followed, if possible, so that, in the event that your own troops do not return to that spot, a record will be preserved and relatives notified. If this were not done, many would be reported as “missing” which is, to relatives, far more terrible than the knowledge that death has been swift and sure. This is work in which many chaplains have especially distinguished themselves, often working close behind the advancing lines during a battle; writing last messages for the dying and compiling lists of the dead who may or may not be buried at a later date.

In burying dead on the field, every effort is made so to mark the grave that it may afterward be identified and a proper record obtained for the archives of the Graves Registration Commission. The best way is to write all the data, name, regiment and number together with the date, on a piece of paper, place it in a bottle and stick the bottle, neck down, in the top of the grave. If no bottle is available, the next best way is to write the record on a smooth piece of wood with an ordinary lead pencil which will withstand the action of water far better than ink or indelible pencil.

Here I had my last talk with Bouchard. He was very anxious to go to college and take an engineering course. I suggested Purdue, but he thought he would find it necessary to spend a year or two at some preparatory school. He had heard me speak of Culver and was very much interested in that place, and when I left it was definitely decided that, should he survive the war, he would spend at least four years at any educational institution I might recommend.

As soon as darkness came our infantry returned, and by working hard all night managed to restore the damaged part of the parapet. I went back to my dug-out for a little sleep and had just made myself comfortable when a six-inch shell struck the place and drove me out, together with a companion, George Paudash, a Chippeway Indian and corporal of our section. We had several Indians, there being two pairs of brothers, all from the same reservation and all of them splendid soldiers.

We had several men hit that night by rifle grenades. I particularly remember two: Flanagan and McFarland. The former was hit in numerous places, some of them really serious, but was most concerned over a little scratch on his face which he was afraid would injure his good-looks. McFarland, just a boy, about eighteen, had his left hand terribly mangled and nearly twenty pieces of metal in other parts of his body, but he laughed and called out: “I’ve got my Blighty; I’ve got my Blighty.” His brother had been shot through both eyes and totally blinded a short time before. By the merest chance I saw McFarland a few days later, as he was being taken aboard a hospital ship at Boulogne and he then gave me his wrist watch, which had been shattered and driven into the flesh, asking that I send it to his father in Canada: I sent it by registered post, from London, but never heard from it.

The artillery fighting continued for several days and on the night of the eighteenth we were relieved and moved back to Bedford House, in reserve.

Next morning I was summoned to Battalion Headquarters and informed that I had been commissioned and was ordered back to England to act as an instructor in one of the training divisions. Our Colonel at this time also received his promotion to Brigadier-General and he promised, as soon as he was assigned to a brigade, that he would request I be transferred to his command as brigade machine gun officer. He did, afterward, make an effort to have this done, but it was too late. I had finally got my “long Blighty,” and was out.

It was hard to part from that old crowd. I did not know when I would get back, but we all knew, without question, that there would be other faces gone from the ranks before we met again. When I did return, during the Somme campaign, I was attached to another battalion and did not often see the Twenty-first and when I did, I recognized but few of them. They had taken part in the great advance of September fifteenth, which captured Courcellette and numerous other towns–the greatest gain ever made in one day on the Western Front until the recent one at Cambrai–and had helped to add another glorious page to Canada’s brilliant record. But the cost was great. Many, oh, so many of the bravest and the best fell that day and among them was “my little boy,” Bouchard, killed at the age of eighteen, after two years of service.

Yes; a boy in years, but he worked like a man, fought like a man and, thank God he died like a man–out in front, fighting.

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