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   Chapter 22 XXIIToC

The Red Watch By J. A. Currie Characters: 21324

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


GERMAN GAS AND TURCOS

"Be careful there," said Capt. McGregor. "The French were short of sandbags here and they have built several dead Germans into the parapets." I was examining our new trenches in the twilight and my nose had been assailed by that peculiar odor which emanates from the dead.

"Get plenty of quicklime down here to-morrow," I suggested. "Build some traverses where they are laid."

"You're pretty heavy, don't step too hard. Dead Germans there." Lieutenant Langmuir was then piloting me along his section.

"Out in front, there on the left, there is a dead French officer caught in the German wire. He has been hanging there since last November. The Germans have left him there. There is nothing now but a blue coat and red trousers."

This certainly was the worst corner in the way of trenches I had seen since we came to Flanders. Behind the ditch rows of crosses, black and white, stood up a few feet away, ghastly reminders in the half darkness of the toll that had been paid to take and hold the trenches. The defenders here were buried where thy fell.

Earlier in the day I went down to the front line and had leisure to examine the commandant's headquarters, which had been held by our gallant French Allies since November, 1914. It was a dugout in the rear of a ruined windmill, and contained several pigmy rooms. There was a room for the signallers, another for the adjutant and one for the commandant. The French officers had left behind them excellent maps of the German position showing their trenches, also panoramic sketches showing the roads, villages and houses opposite, with compass points. These sketches were the work of their gunners. No wonder the 75's were so deadly. Their efficacy is in their recoil and the "graze" fuze they use. Their high explosive shells strike the ground, bound in the air and burst about thirty feet forward from where they strike. In this way they form a curtain of fire filled with splinters of steel, over the German trenches.

I turned a copy of the panoramic sketch over to Major MacDougall of the Toronto Battery, when he went into the loft of a ruined house some distance away to check up his guns as they fired on the Poelcapelle road in front of us.

I slipped quietly into a fire trench on the forward slope of the ridge to observe the guns at work also. I had sent word down to Major Osborne in the forward trenches to clear the men out of the redoubts on either side of the road so that if a shell fell short it would not hurt anyone. The Canadian "observing officers" were always very careful in "registering," as they called it. They began by sending their shots well over the German parapets, and gradually coming closer, instead of firing a shell short, another long and dividing.

While we were observing the Germans replied to our guns, and very nearly got Major MacDougall. Poor chap, he was subsequently assassinated by a German spy or sniper behind in billets. His clothing was stolen and worn by the assassin who was caught and suffered the death penalty.

Major Marshall came along to see what was going on and stood for a minute at the head of my trench. The Germans spotted his Glengarry and began shelling my trench with "Jack Johnsons," and Major Marshall had to clear out. I stayed until they got tired of shelling and then had a good look at their lines through my field glasses. The ground sloped gently down from where I stood in the sap-head for about three hundred yards to our forward line of redoubts. Away to the northwest the double line of parapets disappeared in the trees and hedges around Langemarck. Just short of the village the Third Brigade (ours) took up the defence. The trenches here for about five hundred yards were held by the Royal Highlanders of Montreal. Major Osborne held several half moons on the far side of the Poelcapelle Road. Then our battalion lines continued southerly, running for about eight hundred yards till there came a gap which occurred between us and the Winnipeg Rifles. Immediately behind our line ran Strombeek River, (we would call it a creek). It marked the bottom of the slope and crossed the line of trenches held by the "Little Black Devils," as the men of the Winnipeg Battalion were called.

The Break in the SalientToList

The line of the Second Canadian Brigade trenches then ascended the Gravenstafel ridge. On the east side of the ridge the land sloped up towards Poelcapelle and Roulers. This slope was not very steep, but sufficiently so to dominate the little valley in which were our forward line of trenches. All along the enemy's lines were various clumps of trees, each one of which no doubt concealed several batteries of artillery, referred to in the conversation of my friend of the flying corps. High above the trees and the distant red tiled roofs of Roulers I could see the spire of the Gothic Church of St. Michael. Beneath these walls on June 13th, 1794, a fierce struggle took place between the Austrians under Clerfait and the French troops under Marshal Macdonald, in which the French Republican troops of the latter were victorious. Beyond Roulers lay Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels. The high ground in front was strongly held by the enemy, for this was the key to the advance on Brussels and Waterloo.

My examination of our position ended. I began to retrace my steps to St. Julien, but the Germans spotted me in some way and followed me across the fields with salvos of high explosive shells. I could hear the shells coming as the field was dotted here and there with "crump" holes or craters where shells had fallen. I promptly ducked into a hole till the "whistling Willies" fell and sent showers of mud and flying steel over my head. I observed that sometimes these "crump" holes were very small, and found that after all in this war a small man had some advantage over me. I made my way back to the village, carefully reconnoitering all the trenches on the way, for I had a premonition that we might want to use them some time soon.

After dusk I returned again to commandant headquarters and went into the front line of trenches along with the ration party. There was lots of work to be done to strengthen our position if we were to hold our trenches as we had been ordered to do.

We started down the old disused mill road in the twilight of a lovely spring evening. Behind us the moon hung a silver bow almost on the horizon. It was going to be one of those nights, clear, but with objects not distinguishable at any great distance. Major Osborne met me at his dugout, which was on the east bank of the creek, and together we went on to the left of our line where his men were busy digging fire trenches in the rear of the half moons. Here I saw for the first time a line of French trenches. The French lines were held entirely different to ours. We usually built solid parapets of clay and sandbags high enough and strong to protect a man standing up, but the French usually do not allow this to be done. They had adopted their favorite method of entrenchment here, namely, a series of low parapets built in the form of half moons. My battalion held seventeen of these half moons and our brigade, I understood from our Brigade Major Lieut. Col. Hughes, held far more of the line than it was intended we should hold. About three hundred yards of our right line, some seven half moons, were to be turned over to the Second Brigade on the next relief.

I went over his section carefully with Major Osborne. All the young officers were hard at work bracing up the parapets, joining them together and rapidly erecting formidable defences. I consulted with them all as I passed along the line from left to right, Macdonald, Fessenden, Daniels, Taylor, Bath and Smith, and all were of one opinion, viz., that the half moons should be turned into small redoubts, and a line of parapets built as quickly as possible connecting them.

The French parapets were not built to be held, as we were ordered to hold our line. They build low parapets so the men will have to crouch behind them, and they will want to go forward and take the other fellow's line in order to get better quarters in the German trenches.

This corner had been the scene of some hot fighting at some period during the war, for in my tour of the trenches that night I encountered a dozen little graveyards a few yards in rear of the parapets.

Back and forward I went, and the entire line was canvassed and discussed. Lieutenant Fessenden, one of the most brilliant graduates of the Royal Military College, had a particularly hard spot to deal with, and was handling it in a manner worthy of any of the great Belgian engineers. Fessenden had a brother in the British army. No lieutenant in the whole allied army was a better student of the art of war, or a more fearless man, than this rosy-cheeked boy of twenty-two.

"Sandbags, and more sandbags!" was the reply of Lieutenant Macdonald, when I questioned him as to the requirements of his section. He was on the extreme left, and if anything happened on that side he was sure to be enfiladed. He was quite cool about it, however, a worthy namesake of the great Marshal who had fought so valiantly beneath the walls of Roulers a few miles away.

Lieutenant Smith, always cool and dour, a thorough Scot, was a man to be trusted in a tight place. Captain McKessock had a long talk with me about the machine gun positions. He had reconnoitred his ground very carefully, and had found several places back of the lines where he could mount a gun and rake the German lines if they advanced to the attack. Captain McKessock was one of the men who had sacrificed a great deal to do his share in this war. He was a captain in the 95th Battalion when the war broke out, and he brought a large quota of men to Valcartier. He joined the 48th and insisted upon having command of the machine gun section. It was pointed out to him that it was a subaltern's position, but he wished to have it, and his wishes were gratified. He left the position of crown attorney of a large district, with an income of ten thousand dollars a year, to go to the front, leaving behind him a wife and family. Such devotion to duty is exemplary. He understood his guns thoroughly, and is one of the few men I have met who had studied the tactical employment of the gun as well as its technical operation.

When I came to Captain Daniel's section he was waiting for me. Daniels was a very handsome man, an engineer of note, a graduate of the Technical Department of Mines in Queen's University. He, too, gave up a splendid position, as manager of a large mine in

Cobalt, to go to the war. He was a very competent engineer and knew his work thoroughly. As we passed along his parapets we could hear the Germans talking, and a party of them out in front of their parapets were driving in stakes for their barbed wire. There was not much firing going on, and as we had several parties out in front engaged on the same task, we decided to leave our Saxon friends alone for the time being until ours got back under cover. We could see their ghost-like forms close by from our listening post. If we opened fire on them they would likely get some of our patrols.

Lieutenants Taylor and Langmuir were both busy at their sections. Langmuir was one of the "finds" of the 48th. He joined us at Long Branch by coaxing me very hard to give him a commission. I hesitated on account of his youth, but finally consented because I recognized a gleam in his hazel eyes that told me that if the occasion arose he would be a man of high courage. He was tall and slim with a bright color on his cheeks, and several of my older officers said it was a shame to take him along, he was so young that the hardships would kill him. I took him nevertheless, and though he knew very little about drill or military matters, he studied night and day so hard that it soon became known he was one of the best instructors in the battalion. He developed into a strong well built man, over six feet tall with broad shoulders and a commanding presence. He had a splendid grip on his men, who worshipped him and would follow him any place. Captain McGregor never tired of singing his praises. He was admired and loved by everyone, an ideal officer and a gentleman worthy to lead a Highland platoon or regiment anywhere. Taylor, who was with McGregor, looked up his captain for me when I came to his section. Lieutenant Taylor was a student at Oxford University when the war broke out. He threw up lectures and joined our battalion as a supernumerary. Our officers had almost all known him before. Standing over six feet tall, with the shoulders and chest of a young giant, Taylor was a man to be noted anywhere. He was famed both at home, in Canada, and abroad as a student and an athlete. He pulled a good oar, played a splendid game of football, hockey and lacrosse. He was an all round star, "a born leader of men," as Lieutenant Alex. Sinclair, himself a well known athlete, said to me when he was pleading Taylor's cause for a commission. Both Taylor and Langmuir were very fearless men. They were constantly out in front of their lines at night reconnoitreing the German lines and boldly trying to get a look into the German trenches. I had to check them several times and warn them against taking any unnecessary risks.

Daniels had a very hard section of trenches at Neuve Chapelle. He had gone out on the "devil strip" at night, reconnoitred his whole front and mapped it for an advance.

I arranged with Lieutenants Mavor and Fessenden to have a sketch of the line made showing the work proposed to be done. On our right there was a wide space between ourselves and the Winnipeg Battalion. This open space was protected by wire entanglements, but McGregor and Mavor both contended that it was a dangerous spot. I told them that it was the intention to give several of the redoubts on our right to a Company of the 8th Battalion, and that the order was expected to come through the following evening. Lieutenant Mavor accompanied me out to commandant headquarters. On the way out we met a working party of the Canadian engineers going in with Major Wright at their head. I could not help remarking about the commanding figure of Major Wright, who looked like a giant in the uncertain light, a paladin out of the pages of ancient or mediaeval history. I made my way back to St. Julien that night, not by any means satisfied with our military position. The Germans could certainly shell us jolly well if they liked, for so far only five of our own batteries had been put in position behind our lines. But the French had some ten batteries of 75's on our left rear and that was assuring. The way in which our fire trenches were sighted at the bottom of the Gravenstafel slope did not commend itself to me. It is very difficult to get a good position for trenches. If you go on top of a ridge, the enemy's guns will pound you to death, and if you lift your head they will get you with rifle fire on the sky line. If you dig in on the forward slope they will look into your trenches with their guns. If you go to the bottom of the slope, the enemy on the high ground on the other side can command your trenches. In rear of the crest, the old Wellington position is the best. Our supporting line held this position, but I felt that on the forward slope towards the enemy a few rifle pits would give us a chance to get at them behind their lines. This was to be attended to as soon as the work on the forward trenches was completed. This Ypres salient had only one thing of military value to commend it. It afforded a position in which troops could be massed to break through and advance on Ghent and Antwerp. I suspected that when the proper time came that was what would happen here. "Sentiment should have no place in business" is a hackneyed expression. War is a business, therefore sentiment should have no place in war. In war there is usually too much sentiment. We cling to impossible positions because we have won them and held them. We attack villages and redoubts that we should go around, and out of which the enemy would run the minute they found us on their line of retreat. We fail to support because we think it is a corps duty to hold their own line, which they may be able to do, but out of which if they had been supported they might launch a counter attack at the worn and shaken enemy which might bring us a notable victory. The principles of war which guided Wellington and his staff apply to this war. I often wished I had brought my "Napier's History" of Wellington's campaigns with me.

When we got back to St. Julien the staff told me that the Germans had registered pretty nearly all over the place during the evening, and that it was a case of shells from north, south, east and west. During the night I called up the various sections of our line and they all reported that the Germans were very quiet.

While I was doing the rounds of the forward trenches I could not help noting the roar of waggons and limbers along the whole German line in front of us. The night was very calm, and whilst it was quite usual to hear a lot of waggons about rationing time, still on this occasion the whole German line seemed to be in motion. I had never heard anything like it before. Something extraordinary was certainly happening. Either the Germans were changing the army in front of us, or else I thought they had got tired of holding the line in our immediate front, and anticipating a strong offensive of which rumors were abroad, they were preparing to retreat to the Rhine. I reported the occurrence to headquarters that night.

In the morning of the 22nd of April Lieutenant Drummond of the Royal Highlanders came to see me and told me he had attended the funeral of Captain Warren.

The Germans were shelling our billets and dugouts in St. Julien pretty heavily, and I was asked to look up some places outside of the town into which I could put some of the men and build new dugouts. I selected several places along the banks of Hennebeke brook where the ground was soft, and the shells would bury themselves and not explode, and started the men digging the dugouts. The particular spot which the Germans had chosen to shell that day was the "Cross Roads" and church of St. Julien. All of the church was gone but a piece of the spire. The graveyard in the rear of the church was torn all to pieces with "coal-boxes," and the coffins and remains of dead civilians and soldiers had been unearthed. These graves had already been carefully repaired by our men under Pioneer Sergeant Lewis under heavy shell fire. Some distance east of the church a line of fire trenches had been cut. These were to be occupied in case of an attack. The shelling continued all day. In the afternoon about four o'clock my adjutant and I visited the supporting trenches and dugouts at the forward lines. We had a chat with Major Marshall and some of the officers over the telephone, and repeated the orders given to me, that if we were attacked we were to hold the trenches till support came, for if we gave any portion of them up we would have to take them back ourselves with the bayonet.

Lieutenant Dansereau was returning with me about five o'clock to St. Julien to see what progress had been made on our new dugouts, when a very heavy cannonade and rifle fire broke out along the northeastern face of the salient along the section held by the French troops. The rifle fire seemed to grow heavier every minute and a strange yellow haze grew over the distant line of the French trenches. I remarked about the haze to the adjutant, and we both concluded that either the French or Germans were using some new form of gunpowder that caused the greenish haze.

For weeks we had become accustomed to heavy bursts of infantry fire, but these bursts had usually died away. This seemed to continue longer than usual. As we neared St. Julien I met Captain Alexander, and ordered him to tell his men to get their rifles and ammunition and "stand to." The Germans immediately began shelling our dugouts near the church with "coal-boxes," and in a minute they had put a shell into one of them and four men were killed. As I passed up the main street I warned the men and told them to be in readiness to take their places in the trenches in front of and at the northeast corner of the village.

I went to the battalion headquarters and ordered out the orderlies, and in a few minutes the French troops began streaming back without arms or accoutrements. To my horror I found that they were Turcos and not the regular French troops which we had thought were holding that part of the line. Lieutenant Dansereau spoke French to them, but many pretended they did not understand.

Almost immediately the bombardment of St. Julien became fiercer and the number of Turcos coming back greater. We hurriedly gathered as many as were armed of them together and sent them up to assist our companies in the St. Julien trenches. By this time the rifle fire was very intense and the gas so thick that it choked us, so I ordered every man to go to the trenches. I sent messengers to General Turner, V.C., to inform him of conditions and where we were.

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