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The Red Watch By J. A. Currie Characters: 12845

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


On April 17th we received orders not to gather in groups on the street if hostile aircraft were seen, and also that officers were to keep close to their billets. Three of my companies were moved out to farms in the outskirts. They had been billetted in a big factory, and if a shell had come in many would have been killed. I went out to see Brigadier-General Turner at noon. His headquarters were located at a large farm northwest of St. Julien. I found General Alderson and several of his staff there, and the matter of the defence of the Canadian line was discussed. From this point with my field glasses I could get a good view of the greater part of the salient at Ypres.

Let me here explain the line of the salient of Ypres held by us. South of Ypres, about four miles away, at St. Eloi, the opposing trenches ran straight south of Armentieres, a city named after Thomas de Armentieres, envoy of Flanders to Philip of Spain of Armada fame. From St. Eloi the German line was bent northeast running to what is called Hill 60, and from there northeast past Chateau Hooge to the village of Zonnebeke. From there the line ran almost north across Gravenstafel ridge to where Stroombeek Creek crossed the road from St. Julien to Poelcappelle, thence the line ran northwest past Langemarck to Bixschoote, on the Yperlee Canal which runs northwesterly. The British held the southern face of the salient as far east as Zonnebeke. The Canadian Division replaced a French division on the extreme toe along Stroombeek brook almost to Langemarck. From there on to Bixschoote two French divisions were garrisoning the northern face until they came in touch with the Belgians.

Roughly speaking the whole British front from north to south on the whole Flemish frontier is only about forty miles. All the Ypres salient is historic ground and every foot is rich in sentiment. Every farmhouse, every field bore the scars of war,-the houses and barns with their broken tiles, the fields with almost every hundred feet, a "crump" hole where a shell had fallen and exploded! Some of these holes were ten feet deep and thirty feet across. Life was cheap in this great salient and the Canadians were given "the post of danger, the post of honour."

There was no strategical reason why this salient should be held so far east of Ypres. If we kept our artillery west of the canal where they could not be enfiladed, the shells would not reach where the Canadian battalions were holding the trenches six miles away. If the guns were brought into the salient they could be bombarded by German artillery from each flank as well as the front. If the infantry line was broken at any point the whole would be compromised. There was the danger also of the canal in the rear with only a few pontoon bridges. The canal would be filled with our guns and dead. Very few of our men could escape. There were no troops but ours and the French on the left between us and Calais. Two weeks after the Battle of St. Julien the salient was flattened to conform with sound strategy.

The weather had been very fine and it was a bright clear day with clouds scudding across the sky, such as we see in Flemish pictures. Everywhere tall lines of elms and stubs of pollard willows filled the landscape. The cattle were grazing in the field and everything looked very peaceful. The larks were soaring and singing on high. Every now and then a muffled roar alone told us that there was war. Somewhere along the horizon to the south I could see the famous Hill 60, and east of it the Zillebeke ridge where, on October 31st, Moussey's Corps, with a division of the French Ninth Corps, made a great stand against the Germans and foiled their attack by calling in the cooks and transport men and dismounting their cavalry. There again in the evening of November 6th our Household Brigade under Kavanagh saved the situation that cost the British Blues and Second Life Guards their commanders. Along the same ridge towards Gheluvelt Cawford's Brigade came out of action reduced to its brigadier, five officers and seven hundred men.

A little to the north, on the afternoon of October 31st, the Worcesters made a famous stand, and on November 10th the Prussian Guard was wiped out by the Black Watch on the same spot. They tell how General French told the Black Watch that they had many famous honors on their colors that told of many glorious days, but that the greatest day in the history of the Black Watch was that on which they met the J?ger Regiment of the Prussian Guard and the J?gers ceased to exist as a unit.

Every little farm was dotted with graveyards where the British and French had buried their dead. On the way back to Ypres, Major Marshall and I took a short cut across the fields and ran into a battery of 4.7 British guns, Territorials. When they saw us coming they loosened up for our special benefit, and the first thing we knew the answer came back in the form of a heavy German shell that came within a few hundred yards of the British batteries.

That evening the British blew up Hill 60. Captain Frank Perry had been told off to assist the British engineering officers in this work. The explosion was followed by a most terrific cannonade and rifle fire which continued all night. This was a hot corner. During the night my slumbers were disturbed with the whistling of German high explosive shells in our vicinity.

On Sunday, April 18th, Canon Scott preached a sermon to the men. During the day several shells burst in the town and some of them not far from our billets. The inhabitants had begun to flee.

About eleven o'clock at night Canon Scott wandered into my billets. He had been holding service with the men and had lost his way. I was afraid he would get killed or drowned. He was so zealous, and such a charming character, he made an ideal chaplain. No hour was too late, no road too long for him. His son was wounded with another corps and would lose his eye.

Early in the morning Sergeant Miller of the headquarters staff called me to witness a duel between a German and a British aviator. It was a beautiful bright morning, with not a breath of air stirring and not a cloud in the sky. Away to the north the two aviators were at it, circling about each other like great hawks. The British aviator was the smarter of the two, and he finally got the Hun, whose machine started for

the earth nose down at a terrific speed. Both of the German air men were killed we learned later. It was certainly a thrilling sight.

The next day, the 19th, more shells were thrown into the town. One shell fell into the billet where Lieutenant Frank Gibson was quartered. It killed an old man, his wife and daughter, a beautiful girl of seventeen. The back of her head was blown off. Lieutenant Gibson got a splinter of shell in the calf of the leg and had to be sent to the hospital to have it cut out. The Germans continued shelling the town all day. When they get beaten they always start shelling the nearby towns and work their spite off on the inhabitants. The blowing up of Hill 60 seemed to have stirred them to an extraordinary degree. Towards dusk I went down the Menin road to watch the bombardment. Some of our batteries, hidden in the hedges away on my right, were sending shrapnel across the German lines beyond Hill 60. I could watch the flight of the projectile and its bursting in a sheet of flame over the enemy's line. The opposing guns were hard at it, while away in the distance the rapid rattle of rifle fire told of the tragedies that were being enacted near the crater that Captain Perry had blown in Hill 60. Away to the south a momentary flash like sheet lightning on an autumn evening would light the horizon with a baleful gleam, and after a long interval the muffled roar of a "Grandma" would mingle with the twang of the bursting shrapnel. Truly as one British Tommy, who watched the battle, said, "Hell was let loose that night." As I returned to my billets along the ancient moat that at one time defended the city, shells passed over my head and a dozen or so aimed no doubt at the tall chimney of the ancient magazine de gaz fell within a few yards of my quarters.

On the evening of April 20th we were to take up the line of trenches held by the Sixteenth. The Germans still continued to shell Ypres, (which is pronounced Ep-r-r, E as in fee, two syllable r-r, the R sounded the Scotch way with a burr aspirate).

Shortly after luncheon Captain Warren and Lieutenant Macdonald came to the orderly room to ask some questions about the order in which we were to march into the trenches. An officer from each company had gone into these trenches the night before and looked them carefully over. The left section was given to Captain Osborne, the right to Captain McGregor and the centre to Captain MacLaren. The position consisted of seventeen half moon redoubts and they were not at all strong. Captain Alexander's company was to be in reserve with headquarters at St. Julien. As the officers had received orders not to go away from their billeting area, and had to receive permission to do so, both Warren and Macdonald asked me if they could go up to the Cloth Square to buy some comforts to take down into the trenches for the men. I gave my consent, but warned them to be careful and take cover from any shells that came along. About ten minutes later Lieutenant Macdonald arrived back breathless. He asked quite coolly, "Where is Major MacKenzie? Trum's hit with a piece of shell."

I immediately called the major, who was in the next room, and we learned that "Trum," as Captain Warren was affectionately called, had been badly wounded. He and Macdonald were standing in a grocery store at the north side of the square when a "Jack Johnson," as the huge seventeen inch shells fired by the Germans from the Austrian howitzers they have brought up to shell this town are called, fell into a building in the south side just opposite. The shell wrecked the building into which it fell, killing an officer and seventeen men. A piece about an inch square flew fully two hundred yards across the square, passed through a plate glass window, missed Macdonald by an inch, and struck Warren below the right collar bone piercing his lung. "They have got me in the back, Fred," were the last words he said. He was carried on a stretcher to the hospital a few hundred yards away, and the surgeon made an examination of his injury, cutting his clothing away. In a moment we saw there was no hope for him. It was only a matter of a few minutes. Canon Scott heard that he had been injured and hurried to the hospital. He had only time to repeat the prayer for the dying as poor Warren passed away in Major MacKenzie's arms. His death was a great loss to the regiment.

The Original Salient at YpresToList

I left the arrangements for the funeral with our Quartermaster, Captain Duguid. He was to be buried the next night at the Place D'Amour.

Truly, this was a war of attrition. One by one we were losing the gallant young officers that came over with us to Flanders. Darling was wounded, Sinclair wounded, Warren killed. Sinclair had had a dixie of boiling water spilled on his leg while in the trenches and had received a very severe burn.

In the evening Captain Perry arrived from blowing up Hill 60. He had escaped as usual without a scratch. Perry bore a charmed life. I suppose it was because he lived so much in the north country in Canada among the miners who always carry a stick of dynamite in their boot legs. At the Rue Pettion billet he escaped the "coal box" that entered the next room in which Captain McGregor slept. The shell made pulp out of McGregor's clothes and belongings, but Perry was not scratched, although not ten feet away from where the shell burst. At Hill 60 he assisted the British engineer to run several mines under the German trenches. He was the last man out of the tunnels when they were loaded with several car loads of dynamite, and his was the grimy hand that touched the button that sent half the Hill and about eight hundred Germans into the air. He had a narrow escape from being buried alive.

Captain Perry had a terrible experience after the mine was blown up. As soon as the mine blew up the Germans turned all their artillery on the crater to prevent the British from taking possession till they could bring up reserves. The place became a living hell. Perry, after examining the crater with a lantern, found a German counter mine with a candle still burning in it. It had been vacated. He started to make his way out through a communication trench to make his report when he ran into a British brigade coming in and had to lie down in the trench and let the brigade pass over him. He was mud and sand from head to foot.

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