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   Chapter 13 XIIIToC

The Red Watch By J. A. Currie Characters: 10570

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


"I am the Commander of the British Army in France," said a thick-set ruddy-faced, grey-haired officer in staff cap and uniform.

"Yes, Sir John," I answered, saluting.

"I have had the pleasure of seeing you and your battalion before in Toronto. Have you all the Toronto Highlanders with you?"

"Yes, Sir John," I replied, "most of them."

Our Brigade was being reviewed by the Commander-in-Chief in a hop yard not far from Caestre.

It was raining as usual. We had not yet been reviewed, from the time we first went to Valcartier, that it had not rained.

"Is your establishment complete?"

"Yes, Sir John. In fact we are twenty over strength, and I am afraid you will 'wig' me for it, but we marched out at night and some of the men in the base company, hearing we were leaving, stole away from their quarters, marched five miles and smuggled themselves into the ranks as we marched out into the darkness."

"You will never be wigged by me for bringing such a battalion as this, a few men over strength. We will need them all. Good luck to you, Colonel." We shook hands, and he started over to review the 16th Battalion.

"I am the Officer Commanding the Second Army," and I was saluting and shaking hands with General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien. With Sir John French were the principal officers of the British Expeditionary Force.

General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien I had often heard of and he impressed me more than any officer I had hitherto met. Above medium height, broad-shouldered, with head set square on his shoulders, he seemed the living embodiment of resolution and force. His manner was kind and courteous.

He reminded me that our regiment had sent a detachment to England to the manoeuvres, some years previous, and that he had had the pleasure of meeting some of the officers.

He complimented me upon the fine appearance of the battalion and passed on.

Another officer shook hands. It was Prince Arthur of Connaught.

"Good luck to you, Colonel, and your fine regiment."

Then another officer stopped and shook hands. It was Lord Brooke. He had commanded the Canadian forces at Petawawa the year before when we were there. "I expect to get a command in the Canadians shortly," he informed me. He did. He got a Brigade in the Second Division.

In a few minutes the review was over and we marched back to our billets in Caestre.

Two days before the battalion had marched out of Hazebrouck hospital, leaving a picquet behind to clean up and bring along any stragglers. Thank goodness we were not bothered with many of them, and if it had not been for the bad weather at Salisbury Plains, which accounted for nearly seventy-five good men in the hospitals, we would have had very few weaklings.

We took the main road which turns north from Hazebrouck to Caestre. We were going into billets in the war zone. The place where we were to be billeted was just back of the centre of the line held by the British. East, slightly north, was the famous town of Ypres, due east twelve miles was Armentieres, southwest seventeen miles was La Bassee, south was Bethune, fifteen miles away. East twenty miles, or about as far as Port Credit from Toronto, was the famous fortress of Lille held by the Germans. We were in old French Flanders.

The farmers were ploughing and working in the fields as we marched along the road. The children ran out to look at us. They were all fair and flaxenhaired. It was as peaceful as a Sunday at home, but we were reminded of the war by the trenches running through the fields. The Germans had been here, but left on the big drive from the Marne. The road was a model, made of large stones set about 8×16 inches square and of granite hardness.

Just before we got to Caestre we ran into the Royal Montreal Regiment halted on the road, and I saw a horseman riding along a sideroad waving his hand. He joined us and proved to be Colonel Penhale of the Divisional Ammunition Column, who had been with us on the "Megantic."

I had sent out a billeting officer, Lieut. Dansereau, ahead of us, and when we got within a mile of the town I was joined by General Alderson, who rode Sir Adam Beck's prize winning horse, "Sir James." We rode along for a while and he told me a little about our future programme, just as much as he dared speak about. I rode into the village ahead to find out why we were halted. As I got to the outskirts of the town three horsemen appeared. They were English officers with lots of ribbons on their jackets. We saluted, and as I was going at a good trot, it was only as he passed and smiled and saluted that I recognized His Royal Highness Prince Arthur of Connaught.

When I got into the town I found Captain Pope who had been sent ahead by the Brigadier to divide up the billets among the battalions of the Brigade. My battalion was given the western part of the village. I was interested to know how the billeting would work out. I was put up with a brewer. The brewery was in the back yard. I was shown to my room which contained a large bed, plenty of sideboards and a pair of magnificent bronze lamps on the mantel which were never used.

We very soon got settled down, and mounted a guard and an inlying picquet. We then adopted the pl

an of making one of the companies furnish the duties every day. One company each day provided all the duty officers, guards, picquets and fatigue parties. This had the advantage that the men are all the time working under their own officers.

On Friday, February 19th, I was sent for to go to Brigade Headquarters. I found Colonel Mitchell of the Toronto artillery there, also the other regimental commanders. Soon a British General dropped in. It was General Campbell of the Ordnance. He was introduced to me and we had quite a chat. He told me that he had belonged to the Gordons, and was so glad we were here. He left, and shortly after another General came in. He told us he was our corps Commander, General Pultney. He had another General with him who sat down beside me and talked for a moment or two. Presently General Alderson came along and then we were told about the review next day.

In the afternoon the Brigadier and I rode out to the field where the review was to take place. There was a quaint old-fashioned churchyard across the road and a brewery further up. Behind us was a Flemish hop yard. This country is full of breweries, broken down wind-mills and hop yards. In the graveyard they said a German Prince was buried. His grave is not marked. The British and Germans had a pretty smart action down the road several months ago. They tell us that six thousand British troops defeated forty thousand Germans and drove them like sheep across the Lye.

We opened the officers' mess in a school room. I tried to keep the officers dining together as long as possible as I knew that as soon as our billets were more open we would have to mess by companies. At this time we were virtually occupying alarm quarters. The men had been behaving splendidly. The inhabitants took to them kindly and of course relieved them of all their spare change. The people of the town are mostly old Flemish. The Flemings have the proverbial long noses, sharp features and have fair complexions. Occasionally a stocky, swarthy individual shows Wallon extraction. Some of the peasants speak nothing but Flemish, which is one of the ancient Gallic languages.

The regiment was up at an early hour next morning and everyone was shaved and cleaned. We had thus far avoided that terrible but famous pest of the soldier that sheds more blood than bullets.

The regiment paraded at the alarm post at ten o'clock. At ten-thirty we marched out and in a few minutes were on the parade ground. We were the first regiment there and were soon formed up en masse facing the town. The officers were ordered to be dismounted and I sent my horses back. Shortly after the Brigade staff turned up and all the Brigade formed up in two lines, the 14th Montreal Regiment on the right, the 13th Royal Highlanders on the left of the first line, our regiment on the right of the second line and the Canadian Scottish on the left. The inspecting generals arrived and were accorded the customary salute. The inspection started with the Royal Highlanders, and I noticed that the General who led was a short chunky man with grey hair. He passed up and down the Montreal Regiment and went back and forwards through it. I expected he would go to the left but he headed straight for me, and I recognized the Commander-in-Chief, Sir John French, as already told.

In the afternoon after the review I met Canon Scott, who had lost (?) his way and had come up to the Front with the troops. I asked him to dine with me at a little Flemish restaurant, and we had an excellent Flemish dinner. The proprietress was a very lively creature. She chattered in French and broken English like a magpie, and flew here and there as lively as if she were on the stage. The Canon said the whole affair was like a scene from a French comedy.

Canon Scott was a well known poet and churchman in Canada. His son was an officer in one of the Canadian battalions, and was subsequently wounded. Canon Scott had volunteered as Chaplain with the First Contingent, giving up a fashionable congregation in Quebec city. I took him on the strength of our battalion from that night.

The men all behaved very well indeed. It had been given out in Divisional orders that several men had fallen out of the line of march for drunkenness, in other regiments, and been shot. The Canadians were all too keen to get to the front for anything like that.

Church Steeple Where V.C. was WonToList

On Sunday, February 21st, I arranged that Canon Scott should preach to the regiment in the morning. We marched out to a green field about a quarter of a mile from the village and formed up in a hollow square. The day was bright and clear, a typical March day in Canada. The ground was very wet and soggy, but the sun shone out bravely. The scene was very impressive. There was no wind and to the northeast of us, about three or four miles away, a terrible battle was going on. The drum fire of the guns shook the earth, and sometimes the good Canon could hardly be heard. He remarked about this unique experience of holding his first service in Flanders within sound of cannon. We sang the hymns quite cheerfully and then he left to attend another service.

I said a few words of thanks to my men, and then we marched back to billets.

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