Tuesday, 26 July 2016
Hell at Hooge
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 Amphibious Suburb of St. John’s
- Literary History of Nova Scotia
- A British Eskimo
- The Bombers and Snipers
- 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
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- 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.