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   Chapter 23 XXIIIToC

The Red Watch By J. A. Currie Characters: 24314

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


It did not take us very long to realize that a great disaster had befallen our gallant Allies who held the northern face of the salient. The Turcos in broken French explained that the Germans had sent asphyxiating gas from their trenches, and that the gas had killed one quarter of their men. For weeks we had been warned that the Germans were going to use asphyxiating gasses against us, but no one had ever dreamed that they would be so inhuman as to use gas that would kill, but they had done so, for the Turcos told us that many of their men had fallen dead where they stood.

The gas used was chlorine gas which is one of the by-products of the process whereby common salt is turned into soda, salt being a combination of soda and chlorine. When the salt is heated along with an acid the chlorine gas is liberated, the soda remaining. This soda is used in manufacturing soap. The chlorine is generally combined with lime to make chloride of lime or bleaching powder. In the chemical works of Germany the amalgamation of chlorine and lime was omitted, the chlorine being liquified under pressure in tanks. This liquid chlorine was a cheap preparation used largely for bleaching linens and cloth of various kinds manufactured in the districts in which we were fighting. The bleacheries were silent and there was no longer any use in the cloth industry for the German chlorine gas, so the Germans having plenty of it on hand no doubt decided to use it against the Allies.

We had staid a trifle too long in the village of St. Julien while the streets were filled with this deadly gas. Some of our orderlies could hardly escape and several of the headquarters staff had to be sent to the hospital. I had taken on a pretty stiff cargo of it myself. When it is first breathed it is not unpleasant, smelling not unlike chloroform, but very soon it stings the mucous membrane of the mouth, the eyes, and the nose. The lungs feel as if they were filled with rheumatism. The tissues of the lungs are scalded and broken down, and it takes a man a long time to recover, if he ever does fully recover after having some of the "upholstering" of his lungs destroyed. We did not then quite realize the horror of this new form of cowardly and inhuman warfare, but we should have known that the Germans consider war a game without an umpire or a referee.

Sniping Through a Port HoleToList

Messages came promptly from General Turner, V.C., of the Third Brigade to hang on, that the Canadians were going to try and hold the Germans back until help came. We all knew we could depend on General Turner, V.C., and his Brigade-Major, Lt.-Colonel Garnet Hughes. We knew that we were fighting a rear guard action and that this was no time to think of running away. We hardly realized, however, that the Battle of St. Julien which had just commenced was to be one of the greatest battles in the history of the world, that the Canadian casualties were to be as great as the casualties of the British at Waterloo, that the total casualties of the combatants before the fight was ended were to number close to seventy thousand men, and that the Canadians, by brave fighting and losing sixty per cent. of their men for three days, were to hold in check five German army corps, or a total of close to a quarter of a million men.

The brunt of the fighting fell to the lot of the Third Canadian (Highland Brigade). Through their lines ran the frightened and disorganized Turcos, groaning and shrieking in agony and fright. The French artillery men, finding their lines broken and confronted with the deadly wall of chlorine gas which rolled slowly over the ground turning the budding leaves of the trees, the spring flowers and the grass a sickly white, destroying every living creature in its path, blasting and shrivelling everything over which it swept, cut their horses loose and fled, in many cases two of them clinging to one horse. Ten batteries, it is said, were lost in this way, a gap of nearly six miles was made in the French line through which the Germans poured firing rifles, machine guns and cannon at the fugitives. A Turco Division, and part of a French Division had fled. A remnant of French troops belonging to the "Iron Divisions" held on next the canal.

To meet this situation, the most alarming which had confronted a British General for centuries, there was for the moment only the reserve troops of one Canadian Division. These consisted of the 7th Battalion of British Columbia under Colonel Hart McHarg, which was in billets between Fortuin and Ypres, the 10th Battalion Calgary and Brandon under Colonel Boyle in billets in Ypres, and the 16th Canadian Scottish under Lt.-Col. Leckie billeted in Ypres and the farm cottages towards La Bryke to the north.

General Turner, V.C., of the Third Canadian Brigade, took prompt measures to ensure the safety of the line and the fighting part of the action was in sure hands. Not a moment was lost. Orders were sent down to the commanders in the trenches to hang on, and the 16th Battalion, Canadian Scottish, was ordered to "stand to" its arms on the outskirts of Ypres. Aid was asked from the 2nd Brigade, and the 7th and 8th Battalions were placed at the disposal of the Third Brigade Commander.

As there was only a very gentle breeze the gas did not clear out of the way very quickly, so that the victorious march of the Germans on Ypres was considerably checked. The Huns had a wholesome dread of the Canadian rifles and they advanced cautiously, firing "flares" in the air to mark their advance to their artillery. The flares flamed white in the dying sunlight.

The situation, as far as the Canadians were concerned, was that upon us there devolved the necessity of fighting a rear guard action. The word was passed from officer to officer. We knew we had to fight to the last. In a rear guard action every man has to be sacrificed. Behind us holding the other sector of the salient was the 27th and 28th British Divisions. If we gave way they would be slaughtered almost to a man, and the German road to Calais, forty odd miles away, only two short marches, would be open.

The Germans were spending millions of rounds of ammunition. The streets of St. Julien were covered with a curtain of shell fire, whilst the air was filled with the weird sound of the rifle bullets as they rattled a deadly tatoo on the few tiles that remained clinging to the charred and battered roofs. The air was thick with spent particles of steel and lead that rattled on the pavement and tiles as my Adjutant, Sergeant Miller and I made our way out of the burning shattered buildings through dense clouds of asphyxiating gasses that blinded us to the trenches at the east side of the village where Captains Alexander and Cory held their ground.

So far, so good. The fleeing Turcos had not spread panic in the ranks of the Canadians. Every man was prepared to die rather than give up the trenches. As we made our way to Captain Alexander in the gathering dusk we passed through a company of the 7th Battalion going into reserve behind St. Julien. As we reached the trenches we learned that the 7th Battalion had received orders, and were going to fill the gap between the defenders of St. Julien and the trenches held by the Royal Highlanders of Montreal and the 48th Highlanders of Toronto at the toe of the salient.

One of the first men to greet me when we got to the trenches was Captain Alexander, cool and imperturbable. He always had a pleasant word for everybody and a kind heart for his men. During the small hours of the morning the 7th Battalion slipped quietly past us, also a company of the Buffs. They quickly lined the St. Julien, Poelcapelle road and began to dig themselves in.

All through this trying time I was accompanied by my adjutant, Lieut. Dansereau, and Sergeant Miller. We all realized that the situation was very serious, but they were both very cheerful and Miller was in the best of spirits, cracking jokes with the men.

When the shelling of the village began, my men showed me a bomb proof cellar which they suggested that I should occupy. I examined it, but something compelled me not to stay in it. Inside of ten minutes it was destroyed by a couple of "coal boxes."

One of our signallers, Bell, tried to hang on to the telephone at our centre in St. Julien village, although two shells burst in the building and he narrowly escaped death. The signalling section under Sergeant Calder soon had the line connected up with our trenches, and Bell was ordered to leave St. Julien, which he did reluctantly although he had suffered a lot from the gas and had been slightly deafened by the explosions.

The chirpiest soldier in the whole outfit was Signalling Sergeant Calder, who was one of the shortest men in the regiment. The breadth of his shoulders and the burr on his tongue got him enlisted in the first instance. As he was stringing the wires to the trench he had to duck several times. "Here is where I shine by being a 'sawed-off,'" he informed me. We were soon in touch with commandant headquarters, and from Major Marshall I learned that our forward trenches were still untouched. As the night closed in the Germans redoubled their shelling of St. Julien. The charred church spire was lit up with the high explosive shells, and several fires broke out in the village and made the night hideous. Shrapnel broke constantly overhead spraying our trenches and several men were wounded. Several poor wounded Turcos had taken refuge in our trench. One of them, an under officer, informed Lieutenant Dansereau that the Turcos would stick with the British till the last. He added as an aside that he wished Algiers was as prosperous as Egypt. So much for this son of the desert who in this terrible hour envied the Fellah of Egypt who was permitted to follow his ordinary avocation as farmer, in the midst of all these warlike times, undisturbed by conscription or his British rulers.

As dawn came the German fire increased and my adjutant pulled a note book out of his pocket and began writing in it with a big blue pencil. I asked him if he was going to try and send a message through to headquarters. "No, sir," he said. "I am afraid I will not come out of this alive, so I am writing a message to my friends, I have reconciled myself to death."

I told him I felt sure that we were going to come out all right, that I had a "hunch" that we were, and that some time we would read that memo together under happier circumstances, and it would bring back memories of the Valley of the Shadow of Death through which we were passing together.

He shook his head doubtfully, and when I laughingly showed him a German horseshoe which I had picked up on the field when we first saw the gas and which I still carried in my overcoat pocket, he smiled but was not reassured.

However, the fact that he felt that we were both going to be wiped out did not dampen his courage. Strange to say my prophecy about his last message came true, for we read it together and laughed over it in Montreal, Canada, months later as I had predicted.

Before dawn several of my runners or signallers returned from brigade headquarters with the story of the fight around the farm house where General Turner, V.C., and Major Wright of the engineers had rallied the cooks and orderlies to the defence of the place. They told us how the 16th Battalion, the Canadian Scottish under Lieut.-Colonel Leckie and the gallant 10th Battalion under Lieut.-Colonel Boyle, had hurried from Ypres to the aid of their comrades. These two battalions reached the reserve trenches in front of Wieltje about eight o'clock, when they were ordered on to 3rd Brigade Headquarters and preparations made for them to counter attack the advancing Germans who had seized the wood northwest of St. Julien.

The counter attack was launched at midnight, the 10th on the right in two lines, and the 16th on the left. Major Lightfoot led the front line of his battalion, the 10th.

"Come on, boys," he said, "remember you are Canadians." The line advanced with great spirit

, less than two thousand Canadians against a hundred thousand Germans. It was the biggest bluff in history but it won. On and on went the Canadians, 10th and Highlanders, one moment with the bayonet the next moment firing. The Germans, who were busy digging in south of the wood, saw the Canadians coming in the twilight, and only waited to fire a few shots and then they started to run. Lightfoot was down, but the line went on. Major McLaren fell, but the lines never wavered. They drove the Germans into the wood and clear through it on the other side. If there had only been plenty of supporting troops the German victory would not only have been stayed but the charging Canadians would have gone through the German army that night.

The British howitzer battery which had been lost was retaken, the French guns were recaptured and a great victory was in sight.

When the Germans were caught they began to throw down their arms and cry for mercy. The gallant Canadians gave it, but in the hot rush of the charge they did not wait to disarm their foe. The second lines merged into the first and the fight in the dim forest became Homeric. Then the cowardly Germans whose lives had been spared, plucked up their courage. They picked up their rifles and began like the Arabs in the desert to shoot the men in the back who had spared their lives. Colonel Boyle went down, killed almost immediately. He had led his troops on through the forest by voice and example, armed only with a riding crop. The Germans were driven beyond the northern edge of the forest. The charge by this time had spent a good deal of its force, and as the flanks of the charging lines were not protected, and men were falling on every side, it was deemed advisable to withdraw to the southern edge of the wood and occupy the line of shelter trenches which the Germans had begun to dig. This was one of the most gallant charges in the annals of the Empire. The fame of the gallant charges of the Canadians in St. Julien Wood will live forever in history, engraved in letters of gold.

Considering that the brave Canadians met a foe that outnumbered them over twenty to one, that they drove the enemy ahead of them, foot by foot, exacting fearful toll, their success was phenomenal and had a tremendous effect upon the conquering Huns, who had fancied Ypres was within their grasp. The German Emperor, it was said, had come especially to the western front so as to be able to make a triumphal entry into the last city left to the King of Belgium, Ypres, and to be on hand when his guards and marines from the Kiel Canal, who were present in large numbers, did the goose-step down the Rue Royale to Calais. The courage of the Canadians proved his undoing.

The struggle in the Wood at St. Julien will go down to history side by side with the fight at Albuera and the hand-to-hand struggle at Inkerman. It was a soldier's battle, and many brave men fell. When roll call was held in the morning only five officers and 188 men of the 10th responded, whilst the 16th Canadian Scottish could only muster five officers and 260 men unhurt. The command of the 10th, owing to the death of Colonel Boyle, devolved upon Major Ormond, who gallantly held the position gained during the next day and until Saturday morning, when he was relieved and sent as support to the 8th on Gravenstafel Ridge where I met him and his remnant at Enfiladed crossroads, the hottest part of the line.

The brigade bomb throwing unit assisted in the charge on the St. Julien Wood, and few of them lived to tell the tale. One of them belonging to the Red Watch returned, Pte. Adkins, a boy of nineteen, and from him I learned many of the facts I have recounted.

In the meantime what steps were being taken to succor the hard pressed 3rd Brigade? A portion of the 45th French Division was still hanging on to the extreme left of the French line. They had fallen back to try and conform with the general retirement on their right, but they pluckily determined to try and extend their ground by a counter charge near Pilken and regained some ground.

West of the Yperlee Canal at Vlamertinghe the 1st Canadian Brigade was in billets. Two of the battalions, the 2nd and 3rd, were sent to aid the stricken front. The 1st and 4th were kept in divisional reserve west of the canal. The 2nd and 3rd marched through Ypres and up the St. Julien road. It was there they got their first real baptism of fire. They advanced in open order and the German guns gave them "the curtain of fire." The 1st and 4th were later sent, first to the banks of the Yperlee Canal and subsequently to take part in the counter attack along with the rest of the Canadian Division. By three o'clock in the morning all the Canadian troops that were in reserve were up and at it, "hammer and tongs," driving back the Germans and trying hard to reconstitute the broken line from St. Julien to Pilken.

In the counter attack some very brave deeds were performed by the Toronto Regiment. As they marched down the stone road to St. Julien they came under the intense shell fire, "the curtain of fire," which the Germans were directing against all the approaches to our position along which reinforcements might come. Here and there a shell would fall in the ranks, but the regiment would only pull itself together and keep on. East of Wiltje a big shell fell and when the smoke cleared away Macdonald of the machine gun section, Ross Binkley, Broughall and Bickerstaff, four of the most popular young men in the battalion, great athletes and football players, had paid the price. As they neared the 3rd Brigade Headquarters they were put into the headquarters trenches. Later on two companies were sent to fill in the vacant space between the right flank of the 10th and the corps that held the village of St. Julien. The companies that advanced were the Body Guards, the Mississauga Horse and the Royal Grenadiers, and they behaved splendidly.

As morning dawned the situation as far as we could learn was as follows: The British section of the salient had not been attacked beyond some desultory shelling. The section held by the Second Canadian Brigade had remained untouched also. This section ran from Gravenstafel northerly. First, the 5th Battalion on the right, the 8th battalion on the left. Then the 15th Battalion (the Red Watch) less one company, held the line along Strombeek creek as far as the Poelcapelle road. The 13th Battalion (Royal Highlanders of Canada) carried on till their line almost reached Langemarck. Their left was very much in the air. The line then bent back towards the Poelcapelle-St. Julien road, and in the gap there was a company of Buffs sent to try and fill in the opening. They stood almost back to back with the 13th. Then came three companies of the 7th Battalion. A company each of the 14th, "The Red Watch," and the 13th with some Turcos were holding the trenches in front of the village of St. Julien. The Third battalion had succeeded in getting into touch at St. Julien and continued the line to the 10th south of St. Julien Wood. The 16th Canadian Scottish continued the line with some supporting companies of the 14th on their left. Here a gap occurred, defended by a few groups from the 2nd, and further along astride the Ypres Pilken road the 1st and 4th Canadians were fighting like heroes. The Canadians during the night had reconstituted the line, but at great cost. The troops in this front line all came under the command of General Turner, V.C., of the 3rd Canadian Brigade, as senior officer present. His experienced eye recognized the weak places, and his staff, headed by Lt. Colonel Hughes, was there ready to lead the units to their proper places. Each Canadian unit as it came opposite its place had been ordered to attack, and after advancing some distance they were ordered to dig in, which they did.

The irresistible bayonet charges of the Canadians had misled the Germans, for their advance was paralysed and they had for the moment lost the initiative.

Here is where a great military mistake was made but not by the Canadians. The German staff came to the conclusion that there must be thousands of supporting troops behind the charging Canadians and made the biggest mistake of the war. But the Canadians had not accomplished this bluff without much loss of life.

One of the first officers of my acquaintance to fall on the evening of the 22nd was Lieutenant Drummond of the 13th Battalion. I had spoken to him in the morning. When the Turcos had come streaming across the field, tearing through his company of Montreal Highlanders, he, together with Major Norsworthy, gallantly tried to rally these men, along with my adjutant. Drummond fell, together with his comrade, each a victim to a German bullet. No braver lad, no more ardent Highlander ever donned the tartan of the Black Watch than Lieutenant Guy Drummond. When he fell Canada lost a valuable and useful citizen. His training, education and charm of manner, coupled with his intense patriotism, marked him for a great career. Major Norsworthy, his friend and comrade, fell by his side.

Further along the line held by the Toronto Regiment, Captain George Ryerson fell at the head of his company. "Happy" George, his comrades all called him, for he was worshipped by his men as he always wore a smile. No man ever saw a frown on the captain's face. Lieut.-Colonel Boyle had made the supreme sacrifice at the head of the 10th. Major Maclaren of the same battalion had been wounded in the charge at St. Julien Wood and was killed outright by a shell in the ambulance on the way to Poperinghe.

Word drifted through to me that our transport billets at Ypres had been shelled and that Sergeant-Major Grant, "Soldier Bill," as he was called by our men, had been dangerously wounded on the way down to the trenches with ammunition. Macdonald, a gallant corporal of the quartermaster's department, had also been badly wounded and much regimental property destroyed and lost.

We passed a very disagreeable night. The trenches were wet and unpleasant and the incessant shelling made it impossible to move. Several wounded Turcos in the trenches kept moaning like fretful children. Every time a shell burst there was a hideous chorus of groans and wails from them. Finally an exasperated Highlander shoved a rifle butt threateningly in front of the groaning figures and the noise was stopped. It is a strange thing, but I have never heard a Canadian groan when wounded.

As the east reddened the sentries called out to the troops to "stand to," and I watched the men as each one stood up in the trench and watched the sun rise. Many of them saw it that morning for the last time. Shortly after the order came to "stand down."

The quartermaster succeeded in getting some rations through to us. Captain Duguid and Capt. Jago never failed. During the remainder of the fight they fed the whole brigade.

My forward line reported "all well," and we were cheered by the knowledge that the advance of the Hun had been checked, and regardless of numbers we felt we could hold them.

As the men were ordered to "stand down" I watched them one by one start cleaning their rifles, getting ready for the stern business ahead the coming day. Their conduct so far had been splendid, and as I thought of them in this critical hour standing in the gap for the Empire, I realized that a new figure had risen in the lurid battle-swept horizon of Europe, that of the Canadian soldier, young, athletic, tense, alert and indomitable, a figure that will now live as long as history and song is written. Unconsciously there rose that morning in my mind the majestic words of the great Milton:

"Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissent nation rousing herself like a strong man after his sleep and shaking her invincible locks."

Those soldiers of ours that had barred the Hun were well worthy of the Homeric age fit to follow old Cromwell and his Ironsides. That night had witnessed thousands of gallant deeds that pen may never tell and to which neither crosses or medals could begin to do honor.

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