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   Chapter 14 XIVToC

The Red Watch By J. A. Currie Characters: 20424

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


UNDER HIEX SHELLS

"I understand that orders have just arrived at the orderly room that we are to march up to the trenches to-morrow. I guess we will have to close the officers' mess till after the war."

This is the greeting I received from Surgeon Major "Alick" MacKenzie when I rode up to the door of my billet on the 22nd.

I had just been out for a gallop. "Alick," as our officers affectionately called our regimental surgeon, had been sitting on the doorstep surrounded by a group of Flemish children. He was engaged in giving them a lesson in English as I rode up. Wherever we went, the children seemed to recognize a friend in our regimental M.O.

I told him that I was glad we were going to the trenches at last and that we would form a staff mess which would consist of Major Marshall, the adjutant, Captain Darling, the signalling officer, Lieutenant Dansereau, and myself. That evening the officers of the 15th Battalion dined together in the Academy at Caestre, and it proved to be the last time we were all to dine together. We were all in good humor, but there was not much ceremony.

Our orders were that we were to move up nearer to the trenches and take up quarters at the City of Armentieres. Armentieres is about ten miles west of Lille, the famous fortress built by Vauban and besieged and taken at one time by the famous Duke of Marlborough. Previous to the war it was a great manufacturing centre. The line of opposing trenches was about a mile and a half east of Armentieres. We were to march as light as possible, our packs being carried on transport motor trucks. We spent all day getting ready for it as it was to be a hard march along a stone paved road.

Our first march to the trenches began on February 23rd, and it took some time for us to parade. For the first time my regiment did not march on the minute. We were ten minutes late in starting. Then I halted five minutes to let the transport catch up. Three hundred pairs of rubber boots had been issued to us the night before and we had to pile them on the waggons which caused delay.

Two miles up the road General Alderson stood waiting for us to go past. Each platoon was called to attention, and the officers saluted. The General was apparently highly pleased. Near the village of Fletre General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien and his staffs were waiting for us. He marched with us on foot for a while, and complimented me on the appearance of the regiment on the march and wished us good luck.

At the village of Fletre General Pultney and General Turner, V.C., with their respective staffs, were waiting. We gave them the customary salute, and later on in the afternoon General Pultney sent word to me that one of my officers had saluted him with a stick in his hand, and that two of the men had failed to remove their pipes when called to attention.

We recognized General Pultney as having what we called "class" and we were delighted that that was all the criticism we had evoked.

The march came to an end about half past three. We soon found our billets. It was a stone block paved road all the way. The men had on new English boots with iron nails in the soles and the hard smooth stones made the walking very hard. It was the most trying march the regiment had. Putting the packs and great coats on the waggons had caused great confusion. The men on reaching town found their packs and coats all mixed up and it took several days to straighten them out. The men would never be allowed to part with their great coats and packs again if I could help it, unless they are going into action.

On going into billets, with the trenches only a mile and a half away, we learned some new wrinkles and it is a blessing we were now in double companies.

Our platoon commanders were ordered to go to the trenches that night to learn something. It was to be their baptism of fire. They came back to my orderly room at ten o'clock after going the rounds and dodging a lot of German bullets. I was to go in on the 26th with Colonel Levison-Gower of the Sherwood Foresters who had called and said he would take me around and show me what to do when my men were in the trenches.

Our orderly room was in a fine house. We had good cooking facilities and two women to look after the meals. Our orderlies had only to look after the kits. The number of the house was thirteen and we came here under gun fire on the 23rd. That meant bad luck to the Germans.

Armentieres was a factory town. They made linen chiefly and there are several large weaving mills. The people were very friendly and cheered us along the way. We met a lot of English soldiers, the Westminsters, the Yorks, the Durhams and Sherwoods. They had been fighting here since early in November and were rather "fed up" on the trenches as they describe it. The Toronto Regiment was up here and were full of ginger, they told us. Outside of being a little too eager to let off their ammunition, the Canadians were declared to be first class troops. We are at the point of a small salient that sweeps east in the German line towards Lille.

That famous city was only about seven thousand yards from our trenches, well under our cannon fire.

The next day I had lunch with Colonel Levison-Gower of the Sherwood Foresters. They were quartered in a magnificent chateau owned by a French cavalry officer who was married to the heiress of the place. She owned most of the factories. The town was shot full of holes, about one house out of every ten having been peppered with shell fire. The British had some big guns there. One half of my battalion was to go into trenches one night, and the other half went the next night. I warned the officers against any foolishness or bravado. I could hear the rattle of rifle and machine-gun fire and I tried to sleep. The billets we occupied were the finest we had lived in so far. I had a good coal fire in my room. Some devilish battery commander kept pounding away all night. Every ten seconds his blighting guns would go off and rattle the windows. Major "Billy" Marshall slept in the next room, and his snore told me he was dreaming of Paardeburg, Poplar Plains and battles of South Africa. A few days before we left England his horse had slipped and rolled over on him, lacerating some of the ligaments of his hip and rendering him virtually unfit for duty. He could hardly walk or ride, and should have been put in hospital, but he pleaded so hard with MacKenzie and I to let him go, and forget that he had been hurt, that he was passed as fit for duty. He was a brave, keen soldier.

February 25th was my birthday and it was the first day that the regiment I had helped to organize twenty-four years before went into action. I hoped it would be a fortunate day and that none of my officers or men would be hurt. Trench work is bad, and gun shot wounds there are usually fatal as they are generally in the head. I spent an excellent day and in the evening the Staff had a little dinner for me. I telephoned Brigade Headquarters and found out that up till noon none of my men had been hurt. They had been told off with the British soldiers and mixed up so they would learn the work.

While we were at dinner the first of the officers that had been in the trenches came in. This was Lieutenant Barwick and he reported no casualties in his section. He was as cool as a cucumber. He was followed by Captain McLaren and Lieutenant Bickle. Then Captain McGregor came in and reported for his company. In a few moments I got a note from Major Osborne saying his men were all right so that the first day was a fortunate one. I thanked God that it was so, and the officers were as cheerful as if they had been at a ball game and had won it. They said they had put several German snipers out of business. They drank my health in cocoa and we all hoped that my next birthday would be spent at home with all the officers and men with me safe and sound.

It is wonderful how careless of danger people become. In the afternoon while I was out riding the Huns started shelling the station and town. Half a dozen British Howitzers 9.2 inch guns started to reply. The German high explosive shells, or "Hiex" as they were called there, were falling five or six hundred yards off, still the children were playing in the street and a bunch of little girls were skipping with a rope. That night there were several outbursts of rifle fire, and it sounded very much as if an attack was taking place in the section of the trenches held by the Royal Montreal Regiment.

When we got up the next morning the sun was shining very brilliantly. A big British naval gun had opened fire on the German lines, and overhead two aeroplanes were sailing about directing the fire of the naval gun. The Germans had opened fire on the aeroplanes with anti-air craft guns, and their shells were bursting high in the air in white puffs like Japanese fireworks. We took our field glasses out to the square in front of our billet and could follow the course of the air craft quite plainly. After each one of our shells fell the plane would shoot a rocket as a signal. The German air craft shells fell hundreds of yards short. The aeroplanes soon rose to such a height that the German guns quit firing on them. The British naval planes were beautiful large craft. On the frontier we had already established air preponderancy and were also doing well now with our artillery.

About five o'clock Colonel Levison-Gower sent a guide to take me to the ruined Chateau near the trenches where he had his headquarters. Captain Darling and Major Marshall and Surgeon Major MacKenzie accompanied me. We took our horses as the Chateau was about two miles down the road. The road wound along like a serpent with about every second house on either side blown up with shell fire or the walls peppered with rifle bullets. The British guns were growling on either side. This is an old historic road. Many a time William the Silent, Count Alva, and the great Marlboro galloped along it. Lille, the great masterpiece of fortification designed by Vauban, is only a few kilometers further on. We were beginning to think and calculate now in kilometers. After a

smart trot of about twenty minutes we came to a coal yard on the left side of the road. We had passed a number of batteries of heavy guns in position ready to open fire.

It was a beautiful evening. The moon was in its first quarter and there was every prospect of a bright night. At the wood yard we were told to stable our horses, and pretty soon we were struggling along the muddy paving stones on our way to the Chateau. We had on one side passed a small cemetery that had been set aside for the British and Canadian soldiers shot in the trenches. I should have said that just before I left, word had come in that Private Ford of "H" Company had been shot in the thigh. This was our first casualty. A bullet struck a British soldier of the Westminsters in the shoulder and cut into Ford's thigh, failing to go through. Ford was a fine brave man. He and another chum came over from the Edmonton Regiment just before we left Lark Hill. He asked to be allowed to join the 48th, and as he was a very likely chap, with a clean conduct sheet, I said, "come along." He was steward of the Edmonton Club and joined at the outbreak of the war. He was hit in the thigh, and the fact that he was wearing the kilt greatly facilitated the bleeding of his wound being stopped. He had two small arteries cut, but the first aid dressing which he carried was soon tied over the wound and the hemorrhage ceased.

It was still light when we got to the Chateau. Colonel Levison-Gower welcomed us into what was originally the kitchen, where a beautiful range decorated with tiles made the room look very cheerful. Several of his officers were there having tea, and I was offered a cup which I accepted. We sat around waiting for darkness. It was going to be a moonlight night, just the night for sharpshooters, but we had some good sharpshooters of our own out in front of where we were going, and we felt that not even a hare could get through the lines. When it became dark Colonel Levison-Gower said "get ready," and began putting on his togs. He wore an old Burberry coat with the skirts cut off, heavy trench boots, a slouch British cap and armed himself with a long pole, in other words a stable broom handle. He gave me one and said, "This will help you to find a footing in the trenches." We started out the front door of the shattered house, turned to the right past the driving shed where a sentry sharply challenged us. It was one of those moonlight nights with a bit of a haze making objects indistinct and exaggerating them. We started out across the fields towards the trenches. There was plenty of light to see our way across several ditches. The ground was perfectly flat and the outlines of several pollard willow stubs, with a bundle of small branches growing out of them, etched themselves on my memory.

"Ware wire," said the Colonel, who walked ahead to show the way. I ducked a field telephone wire strung between trees.

"Ware wire," he said again, and I found we were making our way between barbed wire entanglements.

"These are the breastworks," he said, pointing to ghostly heaps that loomed on either side. "We line them every night, they furnish our support."

Several wet ditches were jumped by the aid of the broom handles we carried. The ditches in Flanders are exceedingly deep and the gunners find much trouble in negotiating them.

The Colonel pointed out a line of shelter trenches his men held on the first advance. They held these trenches where they "dug themselves in" on the first night they won this ground. A little further on we came to small holes dug in the beet field.

"Here is where they did some digging that afternoon." "They are pretty shallow fire trenches, barely deep enough to give cover to a man." Pretty soon a shadow loomed up ahead of us. "This is our first line of trenches," he said.

The line of trenches proved to be a wall of mud, willow hurdles and sand bags; in reality two walls. I followed him down a short bit of zigzag ditch or communicating trenches and found myself in the trenches that will go down to history, the famous trenches of Flanders.

It would require the pen of a Dante to picture this inferno. Day and night, night and day the rifles were cracking like the sound of a big rifle match on the ranges at home. Two lines of parapets, for there are really very few trenches, wind sinuously over the country from the sea to the Alps. These parapets are about the height of a man, and run in zigzag fashion. Here and there where the wall is specially built a dugout is constructed that will hold four or five men. In these huts the men cook and sleep during the day.

At night they come out like moles digging or straightening their defences or else running saps towards the enemy. Here and there along the line about every hundred feet a machine gun position is built into the wall. These positions are not disclosed. The sharp "chop" of the Ross Rifle, the hoarser report of the Lee Enfield and the double cough "To hoo" of the German Mauser made it impossible for any conversation to go on except at very close range. Now and again an eighteen pounder would crack wickedly in our rear and its projectile went screaming overhead down to the rear of the German lines to keep the supports and reserves in their "funk holes." Now and then a German bullet would strike the edge of the parapets in our front and ricochet with a wicked note overhead. The air was filled with a swishing sound as if thousands of swallows were passing overhead. Down the line of the trenches we went to the right, then back to the left. The new relief were going in and manning the parapets. Manning the parapets means standing in a recess built into the wall of the parapets on the side away from the enemy. At stated periods during the night the men man or line the parapets ready for an attack. "Tut tut tut," sung out a German Maxim and a shower of the bullets swished uncomfortably close. "Bir-r-r-r," replied a British Vickers that fires twice as fast, and the German subsided.

Death was sailing about in the air everywhere, but everybody went on with their "business as usual." The Canadians were cool under fire, just as cool as the British Tommy, and violent language and "swank" was very little in evidence. After inspecting the line we walked back across the turnip field in the fitful moonlight to the ruined Chateau.

"How is it all going to end?" I asked Colonel Levison-Gower.

"We will have to break through when the time comes," he said, "and we can do it if they give us support."

The total losses in his corps since he came over in September has been over fifteen hundred. Very few of the original battalion remained. I forgot to say that in the trenches we met Captain Street, son of the late Judge Street of Toronto. He had been distinguishing himself as a very brave man. He had been caught out the day before in front of the trenches on the devil's strip with a scouting party as a fog lifted and two of his men were wounded. He had his own clothes ripped with the German bullets. He got his men in safe and doubtless will get his decoration. We returned to our quarters, had a bite and went to bed.

On the morning of the 28th word came from the trenches that Private Ferland of my regiment had been struck in the head and killed. Ferland transferred to the 48th at Valcartier. He had seen service in the American Army and Navy and wore a medal for bravery which I understood he had won in the Philippines. He was of French Canadian descent and was a very good soldier. When the time came to man the parapets in the morning he jumped up on the banquette and called to his comrades to come along and not be lazy. He was tall and his head was above the parapet and two bullets caught him, one in the eye, the other in the temple. He was stone dead when he fell. He belonged to Captain Alexander's Company and the Captain felt very badly about him. They took the body out in the evening. He was a Roman Catholic and his nearest of kin lived in Quebec. The next morning the Sherwoods had a casualty. A soldier was shot through the heart by a sniper. There was one consolation, my men claimed they got the men of two patrols of Germans. In one patrol there were six men, and the six went down on the first volley. One got up and tried to make his trench, but poor fellow they were too much for him. It seemed cruel and rather rough, but the Prussians are not sports, they snipe all the time and when a man falls they fire away at his body for hours to make sure he is not "foxing." This war is a game without an umpire or referee.

We buried Ferland at nine o'clock the next morning. Reverend Father Sylvester performed the service which was very simple. The section to which he belonged marched to the little graveyard. Bullets sang over our heads and pattered on the clay tiles of the barn as the simple Latin service of the old church was read. High in the easterly sky a German aeroplane hovered and our guns were making trouble for him.

I rode home and found the regiment, all that were out of the trenches, formed up on Victor Hugo Square ready for church service. Canon Scott, who had accompanied my regiment from Caestre, and who had managed to make his way up from the front in spite of many obstacles, preached a very fine sermon. Eight of my best shots formed the choir.

General Congrieve, V.C., was present and before the service began he instructed me to post a man with a strong field glass to observe if any German air craft approached. After the service he reviewed the regiment and complimented us very highly on our appearance. He said that I had every reason to be proud of the men, and that he had heard nothing but good words spoken of them since they went into the trenches with his men. He invited me to luncheon next day. Late that night, however, I received my marching orders for next day, which precluded the possibility of accepting his kind invitation. I was to go next day to a conference at the headquarters of the Seventh Division, the Guards and the Gordons whose trenches we are to take over shortly. We are to take their places and give them a chance to rest and refit.

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