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   Chapter 21 XXIToC

The Red Watch By J. A. Currie Characters: 13844

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


On the afternoon of the 19th I was very busy closing out my correspondence. I always made it a point while I was out of the trenches to answer all the letters I had received, and that usually occupied three or four hours every day while we were out of the trench line.

Previous to this our battalion has alternated with the Royal Montreal Regiment in our tour of trench duty. The rule used to be for each battalion to be three days in the trenches, and then three days out. In these trenches we were changed around. The 16th Canadian Scottish were to alternate with the 48th Highlanders. The 16th reported to us that the trenches were very bad, and we were to go into them the next night. This evening Majors Marshall and MacKenzie were out visiting company billets, and my Adjutant, Capt. Dansereau and I went into a small Flemish restaurant to have our dinner. While we were seated at the table an officer of the French Flying Corps and several of his men came in for something to eat, and we engaged in conversation. The French Officer, whose name is well known, and who was afterwards killed, was a small perky chap with black hair and eyes. His cheeks were hollow, as like most of the top-notch aviators he had had his teeth pulled out.

Many of the aviators have all their teeth drawn because when at very high altitudes it is very cold, and the nerves of the teeth become affected and give them most intense pain.

These officers told us that the French Flying Corps was going to leave that night for a district further south where there was going to be some "nibbling" at the German front. He told us further that the Germans were moving a great number of guns into the Ypres section, and that he had an idea that as soon as the Canadians and British took over the salient we would be "jolly well shelled," if not attacked in force. This was very cheerful news, and sure enough the next day they began shelling the city with big Austrian siege mortars, a shell from one of which killed Captain Warren.

In the evening of the 20th I rode out to the company billets to see that everything was in readiness for the battalion to take over the right section of our line from the 16th. The companies were to march into three sections independently, shortly after dark, and the idea was to have the relief over as quickly as possible. I found the men and officers in excellent spirits. Captain McGregor was to take the right section of our line, Captain Alexander the left and Captain McLaren the centre. They started off a little too early in the evening, and I had to send couriers to halt them and wait for the darkness. It was a beautiful spring evening, bright and warm. The larks were still soaring and singing in the sky, and the sun in the west was going down in a sea of gold and amethyst. South of us at about Hill 60 the guns were growling, the only sound at the moment to remind us of the war. But there was something else of ominous portent noticable. Simultaneously, northwest, east and southeast of our line three huge German captive balloons reared their heads for all the world like golden hooded cobras. Away, twenty miles to the south, in the sky could be seen the snaky outline of a zeppelin. The Germans were taking observations. When I reached the headquarters' line of trenches in front of our brigade headquarters, a few hundred yards west of St. Julien, I sent the horses back with Smith, my groom, and stood by the roadside to watch the companies go by. First came Major Osborne, who was to take the left, with his tam-o-shanter bonnet cocked on the side of his head, as jaunty a Highland officer as ever trod the heath in Flanders. His company swung after him, marching like one man. The trenches had certainly not taken anything out of them, for if anything they looked steadier and sturdier than they did the day they left their billets in Hazebrouck to take their first march in France.

Some distance behind came Captain McGregor, his two hundred and forty men tall as pine trees, with Lieutenant Langmuir and Lieutenant Taylor at the head of their platoons, both well over six feet. Next came Captain McLaren, always staid and correct, his company well pulled together, going so fast that a word of caution had to be given to them. Last of all came Captain Alexander, whose turn it was to be in reserve. His company was to occupy and act as part of the garrison at St. Julien, there to cover themselves with glory.

When I reached the village I found that Major Leckie was occupying the reserve headquarters of the 16th, and across the road was Colonel Meighen of the 14th or Montreal Regiment. The south section of the village was ours and the north was for the reserve corps of the battalion holding the left section of the line. The house in which we were quartered had at one time been a small restaurant, but the village had several times been shot up. The walls almost to the ceiling were plastered with blood. There was hardly a house in the village without several shell holes in the roof. Terrible tragedies had been enacted here. The gardens had a full crop of black and white crosses.

Colonel Meighen had a very swell house, the windows looking south towards Hooge and Hill 60. He came over and welcomed me to St. Julien and showed me his trench diary and plans of the trenches. Colonel Meighen was a very thorough and painstaking officer, very much loved by his men. Several companies of his battalion were French Canadians and they fairly worshipped him. He was a model trench commandant, never tired of strengthening the works, and always ready himself to do anything that he asked of his officers or men. He had made an excellent battalion out of his corps, and as we had alternated with them in the trenches until this turn, we knew their worth. His second in command, Colonel Burland, was also a keen and efficient officer. The commandant of the 14th was not a "fusser." He was always cool and collected and his example permeated his whole staff and officers. Captain Holt, his adjutant, was one of the hardest working officers in the division, cheerful, obedient and alert. He was a model staff officer.

Major Leckie turned over the trench diary to my adjutant. He reported that the 16th were hard at work fixing up the trenches which were in a very poor condition. His brother, Colonel Leckie, was down at commandant headquarters in the supporting trenches. Major Marshall went down to take over from Colonel Leckie, and I stayed at report headquarters to report back as quickly as possible that the trenches had been taken over. The 16th Battalion did not take very long to get out, and one by one our Captains reported their companies in place.

The battalions in the trenches reported that the front was quiet, and it was added that there had not been a casualty in our section among the French troops for a month.

My sle

eping bag was placed in a corner of the only room with a sound roof in the house, and I slept soundly in spite of the blood-bespattered wall which told of a desperate struggle in this room during the great battles of the previous November.

In spite of the fact that the French had not had a casualty for a month, the map told me we were in the hottest corner in the whole of Flanders. I did not feel at all nervous, as a matter of fact after a person has been under shell and rifle fire for a few days he ceases to be nervous. Nerves are for those who stay at home. At first the heart action quickens a little with the sound of the explosions and the crack of the Mauser bullets, but after a while the nerves fail to respond and the action of the heart becomes slow and the beats below normal. The explosion of a "Jack Johnson" in the next room will not give you a tremor. Why should it? Jock will say, "If you are going to be kilt, you will be kilt ony-way." That is the everyday religion of the trenches. "When your time comes you will get yours, and all the machine guns and shells in Germany can have no potency if your time has not come."

The Famous Road To Ypres.ToList

War tends to make us all fatalists, and the officers have to be continually on the alert to keep the men from becoming careless.

In the morning I tried to arrange to go down to Ypres to the funeral of Captain Warren. Major Osborne wanted to go also and take a firing party with him, but much as he would have liked to acquiesce, General Turner had to refuse, for we were in a dangerous corner and no one could be spared. Lieutenant Drummond, his brother-in-law, was permitted to attend. Captain Duguid, the quartermaster, with the assistance of the engineers, had a metallic coffin made for him and they buried him in the Canadian burial plot.

That morning I learned of the death of Captain Darling in London. We had expected that Captain Darling would be convalescent shortly after he went to England, but about a week before news had come that gangrene, the terrible disease that took so many of our wounded, had infected his shoulder, and a number of serious operations had to be performed. Still we had hoped that his splendid physique would pull him through. But it was not to be, and the two comrades that had been the pride of the regiment died within a few hours of each other.

The whole Empire did not possess two kinder or braver men than Captains Darling and Warren. It is only when men go down into the valley of the shadow of death together that they learn to appreciate each other. In the trenches soldiers are true comrades, backbiting, lying and slandering is left to the slackers and "tin soldiers" who stay at home. Both these young men were in the flower of their youth, both left young wives, both were men of means, brought up amidst wealth and refinement. They gave up a good deal to go to the war, and their example and their lives should fix a tradition not only for their fellow officers of "The Red Watch" but also for the whole Canadian Army. They did not hesitate to "take their place in the ranks," and they died like the heroes of Marathon and Salamis.

Early in the morning a German aeroplane, an albatress, came over St. Julien. The German aeroplanes have a large, black maltese or iron cross on each wing. The allies have a red, white and blue rosette. Shortly afterwards the German artillery started to shell the southern section of St. Julien. They threw a few shells at the remains of the church, then they started after a house and large barn south of us, about half way to the village of Fortuin. The barn was a large structure covered with a couple of feet of rye straw thatch beautifully put on. In a moment there was smoke and we saw some Canadian artillerymen running towards the barn which was apparently full of horses. One after another the beautiful artillery teams were chased out of the burning structure which the Germans continued to shell. The horses were turned loose in the field and proceeded to enjoy themselves like colts, and although the Germans fired shrapnel at them they did not hit one. In a moment the "red cock," as the Germans say, "was crowing on the roof." The flames rose to a great height and in a few minutes there was nothing but the charred rafters left.

The trenches reported everything quiet for the rest of the day.

That afternoon along with one of my signallers, Sergeant Calder, I made my way to commandant headquarters at the northern extremity of Gravenstafel ridge, northeast of St. Julien. I met Colonel Meighen, who showed me a line of trenches east of the church which his battalion was putting in order. When I got down to commandant headquarters General Turner came along with his Brigade-Major, Colonel Hughes. They were looking over the position with a view to having some dugouts and rifle pits established about five hundred yards south of my headquarters to support our right in case of trouble, the intention being to put a company in reserve there. I found commandant headquarters located in a dugout in the rear of a ruined windmill. The charred timbers of the mill lay scattered about, and all that remained of the dwelling house was a heap of bricks and some tiles still sticking to the roof. A line of short irregular trenches ran across the front of the slope. Behind headquarters the hill sloped back to Haenebeek brook, northwest and southeast. Five hundred yards behind the Gravenstafel ridge ran the road from Zonnebeke to Langemarck. On this road immediately in our rear there was a ruined blacksmith shop and several old farm engines. Some of the implements bore the name of Massey-Harris, which brought back visions of Canada, and was another evidence of our coming world-wide trade, the possibilities of which first struck me when I saw the name of another Canadian manufacturer, Gurney & Co., on a heater alongside the tomb of William Longsword in Salisbury Cathedral.

A few yards south of the blacksmith shop a dressing station had been fitted up in the ruins of another farm house at a cross-road which subsequently came to be known as "enfiladed cross-road." In front of the blacksmith shop a clear spring of water ran out of a pipe and the water was cool and good. I quenched my thirst from the steel cup taken from a French Hussar's helmet. The man who wore the helmet was no doubt sleeping peacefully beneath one of the crosses that were strewn thickly over the little cemetery of St. Julien. These little graveyards were to be found in all the fields and gardens. It was wonderful how the French soldiers cared for them. Wherever a soldier of France lay there you would find a cross, with his name and the legend that he fell on the field of honor. The graves were usually decorated with tile and flowers, some real, some artificial. France thus silently worships the memory of her gallant dead.

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