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   Chapter 18 XVIIIToC

The Red Watch By J. A. Currie Characters: 15471

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


BILLETS AND BIVOUACS

A terrible disaster happened the regiment on March 23rd. Our adjutant, Captain R. Clifford Darling, was wounded. This is how it happened: An artillery lieutenant was with us constantly in the trenches as observing officer. Sometimes it was Lieutenant Lancaster, son of an old colleague of mine, E.A. Lancaster, Member of Parliament for Welland, Canada. Sometimes it was Lieutenant Ryerson, son of Surgeon-General Ryerson, another friend of many years standing. This morning a young English artillery officer came along and said he wanted to be shown the German trenches and anything else that could be seen from our section. It was about noon, and Captain Darling insisted upon going down to the trenches with him. As I wanted to go over the trenches myself and see how some work was progressing on our right sector, I asked the adjutant to stay at headquarters till I returned. We got as far as the corner of the Rue Pettion and the Fromelles Road when we proceeded to climb up on the roof of a ruined house to have a look at the trenches. I had with me a panoramic sketch of the trenches which had been made by an English officer at Christmas during the time the British and Germans fraternized, for this was one of the places where there had been a truce for a few hours and Briton and Hun forgot their grudges. The various villages and farms were pointed out. Aubers and Fromelles, with their ruined towers, the Bois du Biez, Aubers Ridge and other objects on the landscape. In front of us there was a partially erected factory of some kind. We suspected that its blinking, unglazed windows harboured machine guns, and I fervently urged him to try out his guns on this building as soon as he got them in position.

After we had feasted our eyes on the German lines we climbed down, and no sooner had we reached the ground than we were met by Captain Darling, who said he had a message for Captain Perry, who was in a small redoubt on our extreme left, and whose telephone wire had been cut some time before by a German bullet. We all walked down a zigzag communication trench which led to the centre of our trenches. As we walked along I warned Darling to be very careful and not to take the short cut back to our quarters, but to join me at the communication trench and we would come out together. We turned to the right and I showed the visitor over our right section. While I was doing so a message came to me over the wires from brigade headquarters, asking me to go there for a consultation with General Turner. I turned back and started for brigade headquarters, which were about a mile back of the line. When I got there Colonel Garnet Hughes informed me he had heard by 'phone that Captain Darling had been wounded while he was on his way out from the trenches.

After receiving my orders from headquarters I hurried to my own quarters to see what had happened to our adjutant. I met Major MacKenzie, our medical officer, as soon as I entered the house, and he was very much cut up over Darling. The three of us, with Captain Dansereau, had messed together under shell and rifle fire so long that we had become very much attached. Darling was an ideal adjutant, a fearless rider and a splendid comrade. He coupled with a graduate's course at the Royal Military College, a thorough training as an accountant and business manager. The "Red Watch" was sad that day, for he was universally admired by everybody. He had been returning after delivering a message to Captain Perry that he was to get ready to go to Ypres to assist the British forces there in some mining operations at Hill 60. On his way back he met several officers who insisted on taking the short cut. They had to run across a short space of about fifty feet to get into a ditch which saved a walk through the trenches of several hundred yards.

In a moment of weakness, having learned that I had been called from the trenches and would not be waiting for him at the communication trench, he gave in and took the short cut. The Germans, who were always on the alert at this point, and only about one hundred yards away, let drive a volley, and a bullet caught him in the back under the right shoulder blade. As he was stooping it penetrated his body and came out above the right collar bone. The wound was a clean one and bled very little. The bullet had not pierced his lung. He was resting quietly when I saw him. He had very little pain, was quite cheerful and told me he would be back to duty in a few weeks. He had left a youthful bride behind him in London and was anxious to join her, so I gave orders that he was to be sent as quickly as possible to England. General Turner seconded me in this, but he was kept in France a week after he was wounded, the reason given being that they wanted to make sure that the bullet had not penetrated the lung cavity.

I immediately offered the vacant adjutancy to Captain Warren, but he declined it, saying that he now had the cares of a company on his shoulders and was taking a great deal of enjoyment out of it. I sympathized with him, for I knew his men would miss him very much for he was an ideal company officer. Captain Dansereau, who had been my scoutmaster and signalling officer, and who had learned all the topography of that part of France on his hands and knees at night, laying wires and hunting broken ones, consented to take over the job. We took on Lieutenant Hamilton Shoenberger as signalling officer. "Shon," as he was affectionately called by his comrades, and Dansereau were graduates of the Royal Military College. Captain McLaren raised a storm when I asked for Shoenberger, but when I pointed out that Darling expected to be back in a month or so he consented.

The men took all the fun there was in life out of things when they were back in billets. They fed, slept and played football, and had a good time generally while they were resting. Beyond furnishing fatigues for the engineers, a few hours' physical drill or a march, they had very little work to do.

The motto of the Canadian Engineers is, "We never sleep." They were very keen and ardent and were constantly working to strengthen the trenches. Major Wright of Hull, who was at the head of our section, was a very big man, about six feet four in his stockings, with a width of chest and shoulder that is found nowhere in the world so plentifully as in the valley of the Ottawa River and in Canada's Glengarry County. His towering form would loom up everywhere in the trenches at night, and along with him generally came young Pepler, another intrepid youngster, who was never quite at home unless he was in the most dangerous spot in the trenches, or out in front examining the German wire at close range. Wright was a born leader of men, and another of his staff whose light burned brightly was Captain Thomas Irving of Toronto. The exact opposite of Wright, they reminded me always of the two great warriors in Sienkiewicz's "With Fire and Sword." All the engineers were men of technical training and much experience. They were right at home in Flanders, and deserved the tributes that we heard tendered them by the British General Staff. Their confidence in the practical experience of the Canadians was demonstrated by their sending to us for a practical mining man to direct the big mining operations south of Ypres.

One of the happiest features of billet life was the receiving and writing of letters to friends at home. Pen and ink were plentiful, so was paper, and most of the spare time of the men was spent in writing letters to friends. All these letters had to be censored, and the censor was not Lord Kitchener, as some people seem to think, nor Sir John French, as the Lond

on papers would have it, but the colonel of each regiment. He is the heartless man who has to wade through reams of love letters, and he never even drops a tear when he finds one of his young men corresponding with two or more young ladies at home, and assuring each of them in the most fervent and fond language that he loves but her and her alone. Sometimes the commanding officer is so busy that the labor of censoring the letters is turned over to a junior subaltern who may happen to be handy. The letters are brought in to headquarters and left unsealed. They are supposed to be read by the colonel, closed and his name written across the front page vouching for the contents. On one occasion one of my platoon commanders brought into the orderly room a very large bundle of letters. His men had been very busy with their pens that morning, and he made some remark to that effect to me. At the moment I was very busy writing letters to irate mothers who would write to me whenever their sons neglected to provide a weekly batch of correspondence, so I told the young officer to take my stamp and censor the letters himself. When he had gone about half way through the correspondence, he gave an exclamation, jumping half way out of his chair. "What's the matter?" I asked in alarm, wondering if he had caught one of his men in treasonable correspondence with the enemy.

"The matter," he said in a tone of rage, "Why, one of the men in my platoon is writing love letters to my best girl in Toronto."

I advised him to let the letter go through and leave the settlement of the matter until after the war. Such a situation would in ordinary times have provided a theme for a three-volume love story.

After the battle of Neuve Chapelle, the Seventh Division, comprising the Gordon and Guards Brigade, moved to our right. They were badly battered but still in the ring. The first night they were in the trenches on our right they would occasionally open up with their Maxims, and the scare they would give the Germans was a sight worth seeing. The German flares would go up, and the Huns "stood to" and blazed away like mad. Out of some 800 men in the second battalion of the Gordons only about 350 came out uninjured from Neuve Chapelle. Only about thirty of the original battalion that fought on the retreat from Mons remained in the ranks. In the afternoon the day after they came alongside of us, my adjutant, Dansereau, and I paid them a visit. There were only six officers left in their mess, but they were cheerful nevertheless.

After another turn in the trenches we were moved back to Estaires and placed in billets. We were given to understand that we would soon be given a chance at the Rue D'Enfer, and so we began to train for it. Dummy trenches were fitted up and our bombing parties practised daily. The men were turned loose with their entrenching tools and practised "digging in" every day.

While here another serious casualty occurred. On the evening of Saturday, March 27th, Sergeant Rose and Piper Miller were returning with several comrades from Estaires. They were passing one of our billets when a sentry challenged them. Miller was playing the pipes, and there was a high wind blowing at the time and they did not hear the challenge. The night was dark and the sentry who misunderstood his orders fired and brought down both men with one shot. Rose was shot through the hips and Miller across the back. They were both very severely wounded and the sentry was at once imprisoned. Rose was a very fine young man, having risen rapidly from the ranks to be quartermaster sergeant. He was an ideal soldier. Miller was a splendid piper, a Lowland Scotchman with a Glasgow accent that convulsed everyone who heard him. He took great delight in using the dialect of Bobby Burns in its purest form, and could get his tongue around "Its a braw bricht moonlit nicht the nicht" like Harry Lauder. Dr. MacKenzie was quickly brought and did what he could to alleviate the sufferings of the two men. Rose received a wound large enough to insert your two fingers into it but did not bleed very badly. Miller had his ribs smashed at the back and bled internally. He had to lie on his face and groaned a good deal. Rose, like all the Canadians that I have seen wounded, never uttered a sound.

On March 31st General Turner took Colonel Loomis and me along with him to Laventie to reconnoitre the ground about the Rue D'Enfer. I was again told in confidence that the Canadian Division was expected to frame up an attack on this justly named road. We rode to Laventie and walked down to what was left of the village of Fauquissart. Laventie was deserted except for the troops, but the village with the euphonious name, which stood at one time at the corner of the Rue D'Enfer and the Rue de Bois, was nothing but a heap of bricks. When we approached, the Germans were busy throwing coal boxes at the church tower, or what was left of it. They generally like to leave a bit of a church tower or gable standing, for as nearly as I could follow their gunnery they used these points to "clock on," that is to say, a ruined steeple will be the centre of the clock. The observer will then direct the guns something like this, "Aubers Church, one o'clock, five hundred yards." The above directions would mean to fire from the church tower as the centre, five hundred yards towards one o'clock from the tower. Our gunners use a different system.

We got into the village without any casualties, and I climbed into a ruined house and had a look through the tiles of the roof at the German lines and made a panoramic sketch. Then we went down into the trenches and met the "Yorks." They told us that we were to do the attacking and they were to do the looking on and cheering. They appeared to be pleased that it was not the other way on.

On the way out General Turner, V.C., had a narrow escape. He missed a communicating trench and started with Colonel Loomis across an open spot about two hundred yards from the German lines. He was spotted and several volleys sent after him. The General is a very brave man, and I was always afraid he would be hit. We went back and arranged for working parties to make more supporting trenches to hold troops for the assault.

I made Lieutenant Dansereau my acting adjutant. He was my scout master and signalling officer, and when I went into the trenches either he or one of the other young rascals would step up smartly and start a conversation when I was passing a dangerous spot. I noticed that these escorts always got between me and the German lines so that if a bullet came they would get it first. This touched me very deeply but I made them stop it. No commanding officer was ever served more devotedly by his officers than I have been. My acting adjutant was Scotch on his distaff side, a descendant of Colonel Mackay, who climbed the Heights of Abraham with the immortal Wolfe. His father was one of the ablest men in the public life of the Province of Quebec. Young Dansereau knew no fear and would as soon go out in daylight and cut the Germans' wires as eat his breakfast. He was a graduate of the Royal Military College and a splendid soldier and engineer. I had offered the position to Captain Trumbull Warren, but he declined it, as he was second in command with Major Osborne and he said he wanted "company" experience, how to handle men and to get to know them and learn how the military machine was worked. The real reason he stayed with his company was because he was so devoted to his men. He had formed ties which he did not like to break. Every man in the company thought he was the greatest company officer in the division, and I thought so too.

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