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The Red Watch By J. A. Currie Characters: 12412

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The battalion paraded early on April 7th and once more we were on the march. We were working north and were to go into billets near Cassel. The intended attack on the Rue D'Enfer never took place. It was only an April fool joke.

We did the twenty mile march to Cassel in heavy marching order in good style and got into our new quarters at four in the afternoon. We were to have a week's rest there. Then we were to take over a piece of trench east of Ypres from the French so that the British line would extend between the Belgians and the French. As it stood, we were in the French line. Our billets at Cassel were excellent. We were in the Second Army under Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien.

The battalion paraded on April 10th at 9.15 and marched off to Cassel to be reviewed by General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien. The city of Cassel is situated on one of two sugar loaf hills that rise about a thousand feet above the adjoining plain. There is a wall around the city and it is now strongly garrisoned by French troops. From the summit of the castle you can, on a clear day, see Dixmude, Calais and the sea. You can also view Ypres, Armentieres and many other towns and villages. The city was not taken by the Germans in their rush last fall. The hills around Cassel are rich in historical associations, dating back to the Roman period. There is still shown the remains of one of C?sar's Camps, and underneath its walls William the Silent of Orange fought one of his most notable battles.

For review our brigade was drawn up in a field below the city walls. This field was in the form of an amphitheatre and the troops looked splendid in the bright spring sunshine.

General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien did not keep us waiting long. We presented arms, and he went over each platoon most carefully. While he was inspecting one battalion, the others rolled in the grass or enjoyed themselves by tossing bits of turf at the tame pheasants that gazed on the soldiers in wonder from the hedges surrounding the enclosure. The General reviewed the 48th and expressed much admiration for the fine physique and soldierly bearing of the men. He said it was a pity that such fine men should be taken from their homes and sent to war, but he was sure they would give a good account of themselves.

When the review was over the General called the officers and non-commissioned officers together and told them that he had never seen a steadier or finer body of troops; that we would soon have some stiff work to do and he knew we would do it, but that he considered the war would be over in a year. He told us that when the Canadians came to France they had been preceded by rumors that questioned their drill and discipline, and that the British doubted their soldierly qualities. They were, however, much surprised to find that the Canadians were most excellent soldiers, that they were as highly trained as any British soldier who had come to France, that their discipline could not be questioned, and that their behavior in the trenches had been splendid. The British generals at first thought the Canadian technical troops, such as the artillery and the engineers, might lack skill. They found that the artillery knew their business as well as the best British artillery, that the engineers were superior in many ways and that now every corps commander wanted the Canadians.

General Smith-Dorrien, at the conclusion of the review, called the men together and addressed them in a similar strain, and then we were ordered to march our battalions off to their billets.

It was a great pleasure to hear a few words of commendation from such a great soldier as General Smith-Dorrien, for the first Canadian Division had been greatly lied about and maligned in England. Every offence on the calendar had been charged against it, and one would have thought, instead of being composed as it was of young, well educated and well-behaved men, it was the off-scourings of the Canadian prisons and jails.

If we were well drilled we owed it all to ourselves. We went to England filled with high hopes that we were to be associated with British Regulars and to have the best of British instruction. We were disappointed from the first. No British troops were associated with us. We had to work out our own salvation.

But the Canadian officers were a self-reliant lot, so the drill manuals were conned carefully and the men were exercised in a sound system that made the companies great self-confident fighting machines. Every officer was on his metal and worked hard to bring his men to perfection in spite of mud and rain and all sorts of difficulties worse than we ever encountered in Flanders.

Comparisons are odious, but experience has shown that the Canadian officer, on the whole, is equal to any officer in the British army. His Majesty graciously ordered that we were to be classed as "regular Imperial officers." We had to line up to that standard.

The present war is altogether unlike previous experiences in the British army. "Forget South Africa" became a byword. The numbers are so great and the ground so restricted that new conditions have arisen. The Canadians quickly assimilated the new conditions.

On the morning of April 15th the battalion paraded at its billets at Ryveld and marched to Beauvoorde. This hamlet consisted of a couple of stores and a saloon. The men were quartered on farms. On one side of the road is Belgium, the other side is France. I was quartered in the estament or saloon, and the landlady told me that in the room in which I slept a German Prince Este had slept the night before he was killed by the British near Caestre. This was very cheerful news, and I am thankful I did not have his luck.

Trenches at Neuve ChapelleToList

The night before we marched we chopped down a tree at my headquarters and had a bone-fire and singsong. The Germans east of Ypres must have thought Cassel was on fire. The tree was an old dead one and burnt beautifully, but next day the owner put in a demand for one hundred francs. I agreed to settle for twenty francs cash, or a requisition for one hundred francs. The shrewd old Flemin

g chose the gold. We had the worth of the money.

Early the next morning the battalion paraded again and marched to Abeele, where thirty-eight motor busses that had been brought over from England carried the men with their kits to the eastern outlet of Poperinghe, where we alighted and marched down the famous road to Ypres along which thousands of Canadians marched never to return.

We crossed a stone bridge over the Yperlee Canal, passed by a large basin for ships with docks and warehouses, and found our billets in the north section of the city. My billet was at an old gas works by the railway and the house, which was a modern brick, had previously been shelled, as a large hole through the wall and floor of the parlor showed. The chimney of the old gas plant made an excellent mark. The man of the house, his wife and nine children, were living in the house. I took the front dining room as an office, put the telephones up in the back parlor and took down the half inch steel plates that were over the windows to keep out the shrapnel and let in the light of day.

It is wonderful what fatalists we become in the trenches. This war is not like any other modern war. In previous wars if a man was under fire once a month he was doing well. Here on the western front of Flanders in the British section if he gets out of rifle and shell fire one day in a month he is doing well.

The effect upon the men is very evident. They sobered up as it were. They were very happy and cheerful, but every man that goes in the trenches soon makes his peace, with past, present and future. The Protestants attend service every time they get a chance. There was a great service in Estaires before we left for Cassel and every man attended. The Roman Catholics attend Mass regularly and there is very little attention paid to politics. At home in Canada they were warring in Parliament over giving the soldiers the vote. In the trenches no one cared. What did it matter to a man who was appointed pound-keeper or member of Parliament, at home in Canada, if to-morrow a shell should take his own head off. The petty affairs and jealousies that affect politicians at home and give them spasms and sleepless nights do not interest the man who sleeps on his arms in a dugout with the thunder of cannon shaking down the clay on his face. Religious controversies are also forgotten. The men of this war are not inspired with religious enthusiasm like the men of Cromwell's time or the Japanese and Russians. There is religion of a deeper kind. The Bible is constantly in evidence. The Protestant and the Roman Catholic sleep side by side in the consecrated ground of Flanders. Both deserve the brightest and best Heaven there is, for they were all heroes and gave their lives for the cause of justice and humanity. In the church yard at Estaires, close by the wonderful church steeple which no German shell had so far been able to find, they buried the dead heroes of Neuve Chapelle in long trenches, three and four deep, with the officers who fell at the head of the mounds. In the corner of every farmyard and orchard you will find crosses marking graves, black for the Germans, and white for our soldiers.

In the presence of constant death, of wounds and anguish, it is wonderful the spirit that pervaded our men. They were reconciled with death and, often when I took a wounded Canadian by the hand and expressed regret that he was hurt and suffering the answer always was, "Its all right, Colonel, that's what I came here for." We all realized what we were fighting for, and the destruction wrought upon the poor Belgians has been so great that we all felt if we had a hundred lives we would cheerfully give them to rescue stricken Belgium and aid brave unconquerable France.

The Canadians that survive this war and return home will have a higher viewpoint, and there will be very few reckless drunken men among them. The "rough-neck" swearing soldier has found no place in this war.

With our brigade was Canon Scott of Quebec, an Anglican clergyman with a stout heart and a turn for poetry. He never tired of going about the billets among the men. There was no braver man in the division and his influence was splendid. Everybody loved him, and he was an ornament to the church to which he belonged. He reminded us often of the old fighting Crusaders.

On the evening of our arrival at Ypres I visited the Cloth Square a short distance away, and reviewed the ruins of the fine Gothic building known as Cloth Hall. This building was one of the glories of Flanders. In every niche over its hundreds of pointed windows there was a full-sized statue of some noted Count of Flanders and his wife. But the place was one great ruin, the inside having been blown out, and now it is turned into an horse stable. The town itself was resuming some of its wonted activity and workmen were busy mending the scars of war in the tiles and brick of the houses of the city.

Ypres was, in days gone by, the capital of Old Flanders. Within its walls there was an Irish convent, and in this convent was shown one of the few colors ever taken from a British regiment. Clare's Irish Regiment in the service of France, it is said, took this flag at the Battle of Fontenoy.

We were now among the Flemings proper, and they are a fine race of tall people, some with light brown eyes and flaxen hair, a rather odd combination. They are very clean and very friendly, worthy descendants of the warlike Belgae. They worship King Albert, who they say is the greatest warrior and king that Belgium has ever seen. The Belgians of to-day will not rank him second to even Claudius Civilis, the companion of the Roman Emperor Vespasian, nor to any of those heroes of Tacitus, who took up arms for Belgian liberty against the Romans, nor yet to Charlemagne, the great conqueror of Middle Europe.

We were to garrison Ypres for four days, and then we were to take over the piece of trench occupied by another battalion in our brigade, the Canadian Scottish. Our position in the line was the extreme point of the great salient of Ypres that has been held so valiantly for months by the British, French and Belgians.

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