Wednesday, 27 July 2016
Part II of the series ‘With Canadians at the Front’
By Lacey Amy
From The Canadian Magazine, October 1916.—
THE mission of mercy on the battle-field is not the earliest stage of battle, but its importance is not lessened thereby. As the soldier cannot live without food, so a successful campaign does not permit him to die without the best of attention. The men who care for the wounded do not figure in the number of the enemy they kill, but in the number of friends they save. From those daring men who carry relief to the very cannon’s mouth, back to the skilled surgeons who give their brains and experience to great war hospitals, the worst of the horrors of war are eliminated by means of an organization that is as complete as the commissariat. The battle is won just as surely by the Red Cross brassard as by rifle and gun.
Through these unselfish, sacrificing men human life in the Great War becomes an individual treasure, not a great mass to be preserved in the aggregate but neglected in the unit. Even to those who understand the tremendous system built up for the soldier’s care when he is stricken the fatal casualties are so few as to seem miraculous. Against every engine of destruction the world can devise, against every devilish development of the perverted German mind, the millions of allied soldiers face trench life with as little danger of the final payment as in some of the hazardous occupations of civilian life.
The forces that surround him with a wall of protection that is a constant surprise to him are made up of organization, medical efficiency, and personal bravery. The organization rests in the hands of men who sit at desks far from the sound of the guns, their fingers nevertheless on every beating pulse of the service. Everywhere, from the trenches to the hospitals in England doctors work as they never thought to work, for wages they never expected to accept. But up at the front, where the shrapnel shrieks, where death and disaster lurk in every space, is another branch of the Red Cross that has been unsung too long.
Ask the wounded soldiers who saved their worst suffering, to whom they owe their lives, and the list will be headed by the stretcher-bearers, the fellow-soldiers who brave everything they brave without the satisfaction of taking revenge, who stand and await their call without any of the hysteria of battle or the hope of a safety-valve in some glorious rush. Theirs is the personal bravery branch of the great life-saving service. Beneath the jagged bursts of shell fire, in the face of rifle and machine-gun, where every enemy eye is focused for destruction, the stretcher-bearer, the wounded soldier’s friend, crouches at work.
Unarmed, save by the Red Cross brassard on his arm, outfitted only with a water bottle and a medical bag, he clings with his mate close to every bombarded trench, to every hideous crater, to every perilous mission. Where danger is lies his only sphere of duty. Right at the front, or in a small auxiliary trench where he will be out of the way of the fighting men, he awaits the call that is sure to come. There is nothing for him to do to take his mind from the perils, and always his work is with the horrors. Fatigue duty, which is often relief duty, is not permitted him, for he always must be ready. He sleeps fitfully, boots and medical bag on.
It is not even as if he were trained for his work. Somewhere available there is usually one with some medical training, but seldom has the stretcher-bearer time to apply more than what his common sense and growing experience teach him. It is one of the peculiarities of military training that the Red Cross end of war is trained to a finish—in the things that don’t matter. Months and months of hard, dry drill are thrown about the careers of thousands of military doctors whose helping hands millions of wounded soldiers are longing for. And never for a moment will those doctors have use for one sentence of what they are driven into before they can apply their skill where it is needed. Many stretcher-bearers enter the front trenches without a knowledge of field dressings, although that is their entire work. But necessity and the very interest they must have in their duties to assume them are swift teachers. For the next war the wasted drilling and time may be eliminated for the training that counts.
“Stretcher-bearers, on the double!” It is the cry the stretcher-bearer is always waiting for. It is always “on the double”. Also it is one of the products of the moment of excitement that the report mentions many casualties, even though there be but one. To this excitement he alone dare not yield. Cooly, methodically, he cuts away the clothing from about the wound with a large pair of scissors carried for that purpose, decides instantly as to the necessity of an opiate, and completes the dressing with as little pain as possible.
Always he is in touch with the reserve by telephone. If the casualties are few and slight he and his mate may attend to their conveyance to the dressing-stations at the rear, but usually a fatigue party is sent forward for that purpose. It is seldom that the communication trenches permit the transport of the wounded even on the backs of the bearers. In exceptional cases, however, the wounded are carried “out over” when darkness comes. In the dug-outs or beneath the firing-platform (the raised platform beneath the parapet on which the soldiers stand to fire) they lie through the weary hours of daylight, dependent entirely upon the skill and attention of the stretcher-bearer.
In some battalions there are standing orders that the stretcher-bearers must not go over the parapets save in the wake of an attack. The wounded must be brought in to them by their companions. But with or without orders the stretcher-bearer is everywhere with the wounded, even to the desperate chance of No Man’s Land, where no sane person ventures unwounded in daylight.
It is these bearers of comfort who bring in the stories of real grit. P. No. 13789, a stretcher-bearer of the 5th Battalion, tells of unflinching heroes who took their wounds almost as a matter of course. One, of the 7th, his right hand gone, the left shattered, lower jaw almost shot away, thirty wounds in his chest and as many in his legs, and two in his abdomen, wrote his name for them on a parados of the trench. Nothing could be done to deaden his pain, for the condition of his jaw prevented his taking a pill, and the stretcher-bearers had lost their hypodermic. But all through the dressings he never winced. His two wrists he held up for the bandages, and as occasion required he shifted his body in order to assist the work.
“Did he get over it?” I asked.
“Pooh!” replied P. “You couldn’t kill a fellow like that. He just would not give in.”
When heavy “strafing” is on, every wounded man who is able to walk must find his own way back to the dressing-stations. Only the incapacitated are carried out. And the manner in which they respond to the appeal to shift for themselves in order that their less fortunate fellows may be attended to is a record of self-sacrifice and grim grit.
One day when the Germans let loose there was in one trench a casualty list of three hundred and sixty-five. It was impossible even to dress the slighter wounds, and everyone who could had to shift for himself. Of one who had been wounded from foot to chin every stitch of clothing had to be cut, and when they were finished with him the wounded man was swathed like a mummy. It was a terrible moment, with the trench blocked with casualties and an attack impending. The call was given for every wounded soldier who could to make his way back through the communication trenches. One of the first to stagger to his feet was the mummy, a stiff twist on his face, but grit to the last inch of him.
“I should worry,” he smiled, took three steps, and dropped dead.
Under excitement men tramp back to the dressing-stations with bullets in their legs, or crawl back with gaping wounds that would, under ordinary conditions, render them utterly helpless. Once when P. and his mate were struggling back over the open with a badly-wounded man, a shell whistled over their heads. P. felt the stretcher suddenly lighten behind him, and then a bounding figure sped past him. The wounded man, startled by the shell, had leaped from the stretcher as a method of progress too slow for the occasion. The last they saw of him he was still racing at top speed. They never learned what became of him.
On another occasion a shell burst in a room adjoining a dressing-station full of stretcher patients. Half the wounded got up and bolted. It was not that they had been “swinging the lead”, as the soldiers speak of deception, but that a form of hysteria had put into them unnatural strength.
It is only in special cases that the open is risked for the conveyance of the wounded by daylight. The wounds may be of such a nature as to demand immediate attention beyond the skill of the stretcher-bearer, or one of those strange moments of insane bravado may drive hearer and patient to take the chance. Once a shell claimed two victims in P.’s trench, one with a had gash in his back, the other with wounds they could not fathom and severe nervous shock. It was a case of risking the open or depriving both men of every chance they had. The sergeant looked at P., and P. looked back.
“We’ll run ’em out over.” said P., whose leave was to start the next day.
“All right,” replied the sergeant. “If you’re game I am.”
It was put up to the wounded men.
“If you can keep still.” they told the shell-shock victim, “we’ll take you first,” The poor fellow realized his condition, but doubted his ability to hold himself under the heavy shelling. After a time he promised to try. But in the midst of the passage, with shells shrieking about them, he could not control himself. Twice he threw himself from the stretcher. Twice they had to stop and force him back.
“If you don’t keep still,” they warned him, “we’ll all be pushing the daisies.” But at the next shell his nerves gave way again. Forced to take heroic measures that might seem cruel to the uninitiated, but are sometimes necessary for the safety of the sufferer, they finally reached the dressing-station.
Back in the trenches the other waited. He could not stand to be touched, and they placed the stretcher beside him that he might shift himself onto it. But he could not lie down. All the way through that danger zone they trudged back to the dressing-station, the wounded man resting against P.’s back, a cigarette puffing furiously. And not a shell fell near them. To-day that man is back in the trenches getting even with the Hun with double fury.
At the moment of writing P. is in a convalescent home recovering from shell-shock and slight wounds, the result of being buried by a shell, with many of his patients, fifteen feet beneath the surface.
Sergeant W., of the 13th, has been buried six times, four within twenty-four hours during the big Canadian battle at Hooge in early June. And yet he has returned to the trenches apparently as fit as ever. He was through the terrible crater fighting before Ypres, and every minute of his work for the relief of his wounded companions was under heavy shelling.
While lying in one of the craters recently recovered, dressing the wounded, the Germans blew up the communication trench back to the line. In an adjoining crater a soldier lay groaning with a shattered leg. Sergeant W. crawled over, dressed the wound, and with a companion carried the man through the open back to the protection of the trenches. Not a German fired on them. In this connection it is only fair to say that the stretcher-bearers, as a rule, speak well of the Germans. There have been glaring exceptions, but there is not the deliberate sniping of Red Cross workers we are sometimes led to believe. With but one exception the stretcher-bearers to whom I have talked have expressed their conviction that any seeming inhumanity in this respect has been under the stress of excitement. It must not, too, be taken for granted that even the Canadians are completely blameless. In the strain of action a soldier is scarcely accountable for every bullet he fires.
There are, of course, well authenticated instances of German brutality and callous disregard of the ordinary demands of humanity. I have been told of one instance when an ambulance rushed right across the rear of the front lines in broad daylight, taking on its load of suffering, without a single shot being fired at it. Another time an ambulance had just started back with its burden of wounded, during a lull in the fighting, when the Germans commenced shelling again, obviously of intention, with the ambulance as the mark. Two of the wounded were killed, together with the horses. The rest were hastily unloaded back into the trenches.
The seriousness of Sergeant W.’s work did not prevent his seeing some of the lighter incidents of warfare as coming within the range of the stretcher-bearers. One of his friends had always insisted that, should he be wounded, he would bolt. One day a whizz-bang came over the parapet, into the parados, and a few small fragments slightly wounded him about the head. Instantly he put his hands to his head, shouted the familiar “stretcher-bearers, on the double,” and dashed off down the trench. Behind him chased a stretcher-bearer, a Scotsman, pleading in expressive Scots for him to stop, clinging grimly to a pipe and scattering bandages all along the way. W. could follow the course of the chase by the shouts of laughter that came back to him from all along the trench. Right to the section held by the British the fleeing soldier continued, but there he was stopped. Fifteen minutes later Sandy came triumphantly back, leading the bandaged soldier as if he were a German prisoner. He was taking no more chances on that special variety of relief work.
One of Sergeant W.’s experiences was to have a water-bottle shot from his shoulder. With the recklessness that so often comes to the soldier he was returning overland to the trenches through a fog, a bottle of water balanced on his shoulder. Suddenly the sun came out. W. felt a slight jar and heard a crash, and then the water flooded over him. There are cases of rum jars having suffered in the same way, but the lament was always louder.
Back of the stretcher-bearers come the ambulance men. At the dressing-stations, and from there back to the hospitals, they complete the work begun by their fellows in the front trenches. Their place is not so dangerous, their work not so arduous in some ways, but they are in closer touch with the more skilled part of the treatment of the wounded. Sometimes, on ambulance duty, they are exposed to shelling, and not infrequently the dressing-stations are under fire.
In the hospitals another body of men continue the care of the wounded. It is with no lack of appreciation of their necessity that the soldier thinks of the R.A.M.C. as the Rob All My Comrades branch. From dressing-station to the hospitals in England the wounded soldier has little chance to pull through with the smallest of the trophies and souvenirs he has so zealously collected in France.
But the hospital workers are not charged with neglect of duty, however free many of them may be with the common pelf of war. His life of grind is lightened with few bright spots, free many of them may be with the Queen’s Base Hospital, has been cut short by a physical breakdown from which he is slowly recovering, has seen the active service of the hospital unit in Egypt and France. Formerly an efficient attendant at the Asylum in Kingston, he enlisted with the supply force sent out to the Queen’s unit. In Egypt he faced flies and heat and disease. With others he contracted dysentry, was brought to France when the unit was moved to that section of the front, and was given every possible attention in an effort to procure his intelligent service as soon as possible again. Not recovering so fast as they wished, he was shipped to England for the added care possible there. Now he is fighting his way back to health through a nervous collapse. When you feel cold water running off your chest hour after hour it is time to rest up against the strange delusions of war.
B., a well-known Toronto jockey and polo pony trainer, a member of the 58th, enlisted in September, 1915, as one of the comparatively few whose sympathies went out to the suffering horse. A horse to him was more than a dumb, unfeeling creature. Unfortunately he was one of the many who suffered from the red tape and disorganization that is only too evident in some war departments.
He was kept in Shorncliffe for months, not training, but doing odd jobs and acting as batsman to an officer. Reaching France at last, he became ill of pneumonia and rheumatism, and finally reached the hospitals. With the approach of the time when cavalry might again be called into service, he was sent, upon recovery, back to France, where such men as he will be needed.
The development of official recognition of the horse as a combatant factor of war, with all the care of a special branch of the service, is a result of this war, as are a score of other details never before suspected.
The next article of this series will describe the work of the bombers and snipers.
Tuesday, 26 July 2016
From The Canadian Magazine, Toronto, September 1916, No. 5, Vol. XLVII
With Canadians from the Front
By Lacey Amy
A Series of articles, of which this, the first, depicts the grim, revengeful determination of the Princess Pats in “That Particular Hell at Hooge.”
Map from Wikipedia; originally Canadian War Museum, George Metcalf Archival Collection/drf
He was seated on the edge of a white-covered cot, one eye concealed by a bandage, the other, bloodshot and swollen, staring off into a corner of the ceiling. In the stare, in the pendulous foot, in the limp hands lying over his knees was a singular air of detachment hard to understand until it was whispered to me that it was not his bandaged eye that kept him there, but shell shock, that penalty of modern warfare which technicists have not yet found time to befuddle under an unintelligible name. Later he pointed to the neighbouring beds where men lay reading, munching, talking or watching the distant life of the corridors—New Zealanders, Welshmen, Englishmen. He was Canadian.
It was not that being Canadian put him in a different class, but that having just emerged from that “particular hell” at Hooge, between Sanctuary Wood and Zillebeke Lake, he had pictures all his own at which to stare.
“They started shelling us,” he said, “that Friday morning, June the second, about nine. The Princess Pats and the Mounted Rifles were in the front trenches, with us on the right.”
“You were in the front line?” I asked eagerly.
He looked at me vaguely a moment, then smiled.
“Hell, no! You’ll never talk to anyone from the front line—not till Germany gives them up. . . . I saw two come staggering out, blinded, smashed up so bad they would only be in the road up there when the attack came. Only two! . . . The rest are—not talking, or in the German hospitals. I was in a supporting trench a hundred yards back. They let loose on us with everything they had and lots we didn’t know anybody ever had, from trench mortars to fifteen-inchers. . . . They didn’t let up till two in the afternoon.”
I wasn’t sure whether he shuddered, but his hands were covering the one good eye.
“Pretty had, I suppose,” I commented weakly.
“Bad! . . . Say, it was a dream of a day before they started—sun and blue sky and all that, and we Canadians were feeling fine again, we hadn’t seen the sun for so long. . . . And then. . . . I didn’t see any more blue sky. I didn’t see anything but trees falling and flashes bursting right into my eyes. . . . and I could feel myself bounce every time a shell burst near me. We got it in the supporting trenches near as bad as they did in the front. I was buried once, but I remember that didn’t seem to hurt me, except my eyes. . . . Then at two they came at us over the parapets.”
He seemed to have finished, contemplating the picture he had been sharing with me.
“They say the Canadians ran,” I spurred him on.
Even one eye can express contempt. “Yes . . . they ran, But—. Back where I was I could see it all, that next fifteen minutes. Yes, they ran. . . . There wasn’t a dozen yards of cover in one stretch left of our front trenches when they stopped their big guns. We didn’t think there’d be a fellow left to stop them when they came over. But we were wrong. There were a few, most of ‘em cut up—but they could run. Fritz came over like sheep, thousands of them. They were dead sure they had it all their own way. And then a few dozen of those boys heaved themselves up from the front line (hosts of ‘em tried to, but couldn’t) and ran—you’re dead right there—bang at Fritz.
“Most of ’em didn’t have a thing but a rifle-barrel or an entrenching tool in their hands, but they sailed into that mob of Germans like as if it was a big game or a movie show. . . I remember one big fellow right ahead of me. There wasn’t a sign of cover where he got up from—all alone—and he hadn’t a blessed thing in his hands. he looked like a scarecrow with his clothes all torn. I watched him. He grabbed a German bayonet and spiff! the German just toppled over. With that rifle he banged about till I couldn’t see him for Fritzes. . . . Yes, they ran. I don’t wonder the Germans said so. They felt ‘em running.
“Then I had other things to do. I was the only one left in my bay and the Germans were coming down the communication trench. One place their shells had filled it in and they had to jump out to get to the next part. I kept my rifle on that place. I thought I’d got them all when suddenly one jumped out in front of me and yelled in English, ‘Hands up, friend!’ But he was too near the end of my rifle to work that. Then I could see them coming over in bunches, so I dropped my outfit and bolted across to where I heard firing from the Princess Pat trenches. I guess I was pretty well locoed, for I didn’t know where I was going. There were dead and wounded all about and one of ’em told me the Pats had retired along their communication trench and I dropped into it and followed.
“About fifty yards back we found a little cover and there we stuck, a mixed bunch from the supporting trenches. They never got us out of that. I think Fritz was afraid we might ‘run’, too. And they knew we had more than our bare fists. Then a shell came along and buried a few of us, and when I was digging another struck the same spot. I don’t know what happened after that.”
He pointed up to the end bed of the ward where a soldier lay with closed eyes.
“That’s the only other one came out of my bay. He was deaf and dumb at first. He can talk now. Oh, yes, the fellows got him easy enough. You see, Fritz held that supporting trench only about twenty minutes. There was enough of it left to be worth taking. Sergeant—, in Ward—, will tell you how they got it back.”
Not one Canadian, of the dozens with whom I have talked, emerged from the Sanctuary Wood fight without showing nerve effects of the terrible bombardment. Some stage of shell shock was visible or in grudging retreat. That in itself is proof of the intensity of the gunfire the Canadians had to endure. Never has there been an engagement where shell shock was such a general result.
In a later article I will have something to say about shell shock, its effect, its treatment and cure. It is the most interesting of the “wounds” of the new type of warfare, and, like the other wounds, is developing a treatment discovered in its entirety only as the war progresses.
One of these shell shock patients, who started even at my appearance in the doorway fifty feet away, was dallying with his supper. A large, piece of headcheese lay on the plate beside his cot, and an orderly was dumping some very appetizing-looking salad and slices of bread and butter inside it. Conversation with him was difficult, for he was recovering but slowly.
He had been on a machine gun battery a hundred yards behind the front line covering a gap. Through the worst of the shelling he lived without a scratch. In his little bit of trench were three Lewis and four Vickers guns the former a machine gun too large to carry. Early in the fight the Lewis guns were buried by the bombardment, and although they unearthed them twice, they were always buried again before they could be brought into use. It was evident the Germans knew they had the range.
Accordingly, with the four Vickers, he and his remaining mates left the trench and hid themselves a few yards further up in a hedge. Their duty was to keep the Germans from rushing the gap in the front lines, and this they succeeded in doing with the Vickers, in spite of the shells that began to search them out. The enemy succeeded in getting into the front trenches, but they did not attempt to come any farther.
All through that afternoon the handful of men and the four machine guns clung to that hedge, spraying the gap, and later the captured trenches. Not until darkness came did they retire to their friends, now rebuilding behind their protection the destroyed trench they had left.
And when the strain was over, the three unwounded gunners broke down. All alone, with the front trenches only a few yards away in the hands of the Germans, with shells showering everywhere, burying them and their guns repeatedly, with hundreds lying wounded and dying all about, with no idea how far the Germans had reached in their rear, they had worked amid a din that drowned the sound of their own guns. No human nerves could stand it. The three were taken back through the darkness to the hospital. What happened to the other two he did not yet know.
Tell the most apathetic shell-shocked Canadian who survives the Sanctuary Wood affair how his mates “ran” and you effect an instant cure, even if it but temporary. Those of the front line who ran must have preferred exposing themselves to the peril the Germans said they were fleeing, to the eyes of their friends. The supporting line did not see them run except forward. Indeed, those who remain from the second line won’t admit even a German gain.
They point out that, although the Germans entered the front trenches over a length of three-quarters of a mile, the Canadians got back everything of value within a few hours. In the first overwhelming rush of the Germans following the terrific bombardment, a few of them entered the supporting trenches, but even at that a few of the Pats in one section held on up at the front till morning and then retired when no relief came. In twenty minutes the Germans were scrambling back from the supporting trenches, and had there been enough trench up at the front to take the Pats would never have had to retire.
It didn’t take long to convince the Germans that they had taken a larger bite than they could masticate, and when they saw that it was nothing like demoralization they faced from the supporting trenches they turned tail to the mixed band of Canadians that charged up from only fifty yards away. For a couple of hours a few held the intervening bushes and shell-holes, while their friends worked feverishly behind them to bring the old Canadian front line into something like protection, but after that No Man’s Land was that hundred yards between what had been the first and supporting trenches of the Canadian line. That the unorganized counterattack of the Canadians within twenty minutes should have retaken the second line is sufficient comment on the German morale before a “running” enemy.
It was there a member of the 49th took up the tale.
“We had been in reserve perhaps a mile in the rear. We knew there was a big row up in front, but the German curtain fire kept us from moving till night. Then we got up to what had been our former supporting trenches, now our front line. There wasn’t a lot of cover even there, but the fellows who’d been in the thick of it were making the most of it and throwing up more. We sent them back, although some over at the side of us hung on for four days before they were relieved. All night long the Germans shelled us in spasms. They sure were nervous that night, and every little while they’d cut loose with artillery enough to have cleaned us out behind that cover if it had been daylight.
“We knew we were down for a counter-attack in broad daylight When the enemy’s expecting you it isn’t what you call a picnic. But it wasn’t ourselves we were anxious about, but whether we could last out to those front trenches in the face of all those guns. We didn’t dare try in the dark, because we didn’t know what there was left to take or what we aught to prepare for.
“Well, next morning at eight we got the word. Down the line we could hear them hot at it, and then we got into the thick ourselves. Before started we saw that the Germans had been able to do little towards digging themselves in, but they were there thick, and back of them the machine guns. We got it heavy. Men were falling all about, but we kept on I don’t know exactly how far we got but I remember feeling kind of lonely and looking around. There weren’t more than fifty of us moving, but a little way back I saw the rest digging in. It didn’t seem worth while—fifty of us bucking up against a few million Germans, so we dropped down and crept back.”
He chuckled, and snatched from his head excitedly an old knit cap and banged it on the table beside the cot.
“What had happened was we’d gone clean through our old front line with-out knowing it, there was that little of it left, and we were making across for the German trenches.
“We dug in there as best we could but the German guns kept tearing it down as fast as we could got it and that night we went back to the other line and made things solid there. But, you bet, if we couldn’t hold it the Germans were in for a time trying to. I got mine late in the afternoon, but managed to crawl out that night when relief came.”
The story was rounded off by one of the relieving troops. By that time the Germans were content to leave the new front line in undisputed possession of the Canadians, and the latter were willing to grant the Germans for the time the tragic prize of their former front line on which the Allied artillery was now turned. The new forces sent up made life miserable for the Germans for four days. In the meantime the Canadian wounded had to be treated in the trenches, because the Germans were turning their guns on the stretcher-bearers from the first of the fight.
“Tuesday,” said one, “things were quieting down a bit. We couldn’t understand why we weren’t getting a chance to get back, but it was frightful weather and the Germans were welcome for a while to the beautiful job of holding down that front line till we were good and ready to make it solid when we took it. Then that night they banged at us again, and in the midst of it they set off a big mine close to Sanctuary Wood. I happened to be there. I guess I’m about the only one who got back to a hospital. But they didn’t get the hole. The company next us crowded over and sat in that.”
One sleeve of his shirt hung loose, but from the outline I judged that his arm was in a sling underneath.
“You’ll get your chance,” I said, for his eyes were flashing and his left fist was clenched.
His face clouded, and he raised his left arm to his right shoulder. “It’s not for me,” he said. “I lost this. I’m having another slice taken off in a few days. But, tell me, did they Hooge back? I know the rest. Here’s a letter from a chum who was through it—a lieutenant now.”
I couldn’t tell him we had Hooge; but in the letter he allowed me to read was the spirit that reconquers the Hooges of life anywhere. It told of the third stage of the fight, of the final sweep of the victorious Canadians.
The battle was divided into three distinct actions. There was the German bombardment and attack, the immediate counter-attack whereby the Canadians won back the old lines, but found them not worth the holding, and the great attack a week later by which the lost trenches were recaptured except in the village of Hooge and reorganized to their former strength.
From the first line trenches very few Canadians have come out to tell the tale. The second stage is told here. The heroes of the third, who swept the Germans before them with a fury that had been bottled for days, are still fighting in France, or were kept there in the hospitals until the big push, now on at the time of writing, was about to commence. No interview can present the picture painted for me in a letter from one of the wounded in the final drive to his friend in an English hospital from the effects of the first few days of the German success. The friend with whom I talked was minus an arm—the one I have just written about. The wounded writer in France had just been made a lieutenant as his share of the rewards for fighting well done. His jubilation, irrepressible by mere physical incapacity, is too contagious not to give in his own words:
“It was hard to think of you fellows going out that way. I know you’d like to have waited here until we got even. And they’d have kept you, I know, until the boys bunged up like you were fitter for travel. But there was not going to be room over here for you when we got going, because when we started after that lost trench there was going to be work for the hospitals here without you fellows choking things. And there is.
“I’m tickled to death you’re getting along so well. I knew you would. That’s the best of living like you have. My own case doesn’t look quite so sure, but I’m not fretting. It would be different if we hadn’t done it.
“It was five or six days. I think, after they carted you away that they let us loose at the Huns. We had been stewing to get at them, and I guess our officers knew something had to happen pretty soon. It did not look as if there was trench enough up there to be worth a scrap, but the Germans had it, and it once belonged to us, and that was enough. Well, up there at the top of Sanctuary Wood, where you went up among the tree-tops, we had a whale of a time after they blew that hole. Say, that was some place where we dug in. We were pounded with a terrific shell fire for days. Then they relieved us for a few days—not before it was time—for a lot of us were jumping with the noise and almost deaf, and nearly dead for sleep. And then we went into the same place again, and the assault took place through us.
“I’m sorry, old chap, you didn’t last it out so you could have been along. Lord, it was fine. I could feel that terrible fretting of the past week just oozing out as the boys jumped the parapets and smashed across to where our old first line had been. I don’t think anything could have stopped them. I didn’t get in with the first bunch, because my company was held on the edge watching for the counter-attack, if it came too soon for our fellows to make a stand.
“When we got going we went through the Germans like a knife through cheese. They didn’t know what to do with us but throw down their rifles and bolt, or hold up their hands. They said we ran. You should have seen them skedaddle for home and ma, what didn’t throw themselves on the ground and beg to be taken. We went clean to the old line and captured some hundreds of prisoners. Our artillery had kept them from doing much in the digging-in line, and so we had a chance to slam them good and plenty. And you bet we did.
“Then we had to take ours. They had the range of us to a nicety, and they gave us particular hell with shell fire for days before and during the assault. When we went up and took over the line from the assaulting troops we had to take another dose of iron, which the Huns put on while they were getting their counterattack ready. But the counter attack never came off—at least, not what we’d call an attack. Our artillery got them in the belt and cut them up too bad to want to come to close steel with us. So we settled down in a day or two as if there hadn’t been even a brush, and Fritz was glad to let it go at that.
“During nearly all the last turn-in the rain poured down in torrents off and on, and you can imagine the state the lads were in, with freshly-dug trenches and everything being blown to smithereens by shell fire. Towards the last our trenches consisted of shell holes connected by ditches and carpeted with water and some Flanders mud. If a shell burst within a hundred yards we had to get someone to scrape the plaster from our eyes before we knew if we were hurt. You couldn’t tell a captain from a Tommy and it didn’t matter much just then.
“I’m mighty glad I lasted through it. After they’ve got me spliced and refurnished it’s Canada for mine, I guess. It is if the refitting takes. I’m not so bad just now, and I feel cocky enough to win out. Already I’m short a leg, and goodness know what else I’ll need to forage from the factory before they’re through with me.
“But we did it, old sport, we did it. We got good and even with them for trying to wipe out the old bunch. Why, the Huns were lying so thick when we drove through that we had to jump them all the way. You and I, old pal, can go back to Canada and join forces and make a whole man between us.”
The next article of this series is entitled “The Life-Savers”. It gives a graphic and touching description of the work of the stretcher-bearers, the ambulance men and the workers of the Blue Cross.
- The Life Savers
- Hell at Hooge
- Dumb Talkies
- Introduction to The Fourth Dagger
- Salvage—A Canadian Idea
- The Women of The Magdalens
- The Credit System in the West
- The Perfect Ending
- Education and the War
- The Timber Wolf at Home
- Treating That Chilly Feeling
- Earmarks of Genius
- The Farmer and the War
- Labour and the War
- The Non-Combatants
- Woman and the War
- After Three Years
- My New Gardening Gloves
- ▼ July (19)
- ► 2015 (35)
- ► 2014 (55)
- ► 2013 (41)
- ► 2012 (88)
- ► 2011 (104)
- ► 2010 (43)
- ► 2009 (40)
- ► 2008 (48)
- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.