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The Red Watch By J. A. Currie Characters: 19668

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


"Kar-r-umph!!! Bang!! Puff!!

"Kar-r-umph!!! Bang!! Puff!!

"Kar-r-umph!!! Bang!! Puff!!

"Guess the Germans are handing us the wrong bill of fare this morning. Coffee and iron rations," said Sergeant Coe as he bent over and took a look into the tin basin on the Flemish stove in the kitchen of one of our billets, where we were both striving to get hot water for some tea.

Three "coal boxes" had landed in succession in the upper storey of the house with a great rattle of tile, and as each one exploded huge puffs of black smoke and cinders flew out of the cracks in the stove, turning the water in the basin into a black decoction not unlike coffee.

We started a fresh fire. Sergeant Coe calmly remarked that lightning never struck twice in the same place. He was right.

Major Marshall had met me at dusk, in the rear of St. Julien village to tell me that he had sent the men into headquarter trenches at Wiltje under Sergeant "Jock" Thomson, and that he could not find out anything about Captains Alexander and Cory.

No officer in the division was more conscientious in his work and duty than Captain Alexander. Every man in his company worshipped him. He was absolutely fearless and always wore a pleasant smile when the danger was greatest. For his gallant defence of St. Julien, on my recommendation he was subsequently decorated with the Military Cross, although he had been made a prisoner of war. Capt. Cory, also on my recommendation, got his promotion to major.

On the way out I had passed a number of British regiments in extended order advancing to try to restore the lines for which we had fought so dearly. Seeing them going forward under shell fire in extended order told me at once they were green troops. When I reached Fortuyn I saw a battery of our artillery loaded and hooked up in the shelter of some farm buildings ready to withdraw.

I was then sent for to report to a British Aide-de-Camp in a "dugout" what the situation at Gravenstafel Ridge was. I told him briefly that my front trenches had been blown up, that I had retired all that was left of my supports,-some seventy all told,-on orders from Canadian Headquarters,-and that the British troops could easily make good our supporting trenches below the crest of the ridge without any difficulty.

After this I left the "report centre" and was passing through a territorial regiment which was advancing in open order when a man called out from the ranks, "Is that you, Colonel Currie?" I recognized him at once, and he asked me how his brother was. I knew them both well in Canada. I was sorry to have to tell him that his brother, who was with my regiment, was missing, either dead, wounded or a prisoner. He told me he had been rejected in Canada for being undersized and that he had gone to England and joined a territorial regiment. Their battalion had only just arrived from England and they were getting their baptism of fire. Truly the world is very small.

It was dusk when Major Marshall and I got back and we could not locate our contingent among the mixed units that were snatching a wink of sleep in the reserve trenches. We had partaken of very little food ourselves for about forty-eight hours, so we found our way back to our old billets in the outskirts of Ypres to get some bully beef and biscuits.

The shelling still continued. Every minute a shell would break close by and pieces would rattle against the wall of the house. I arranged that Major Marshall was to go in the morning and gather up the men in the reserve trenches and get them together, while I went to look up any stragglers in the city and send them forward. I was also to find the transport, which had been shelled out of their quarters at Ypres, and arranged with them to send food to us that evening. I then wrapped myself in my cloak and fell asleep on the floor to the weird sound of the German shells passing overhead.

The next day was Sunday, but no peal of bells was heard that morning calling the worshippers to early mass in the churches at Ypres. The civil population had fled. If there were bells ringing their notes were drowned by the fierce explosives that were following each other through the crooked streets in rapid succession. When old Vauban fashioned the moats and ramparts he never imagined they would be bombarded with seventeen inch shells from guns that had a range of twenty-four miles.

I was up by four o'clock. Major Marshall snatched a hasty breakfast and started so as to be in the trenches when the men "stood to." Coe, my signallers, and runners, all that were left of them, tried to get some breakfast when we were interrupted by the "coal boxes" just referred to. We persisted, however, and finally got the tea. Then we sallied out to see if any of our strays or wounded had reached Ypres.

We found that our transports and quartermaster stores had been pretty badly smashed up, and that what was left of them had been moved back about a quarter of a mile from the canal. It was absolutely necessary that they should refit at once and get rations down to us that night, so we went up to the stone bridge on the canal which we had crossed so gaily a few days before with ribbons and tartans flying.

From a couple of sentries that had been left at the lock by their regiments when they marched into action, we were informed that a few of our men who were slightly "gassed" had gone back to the transports. I made my way back, leaving the guard on the bridge. At the transport headquarters I found some thirty-five men who had been partially gassed. They were sent back to the headquarters trenches.

I learned that our division had been badly cut up, but that the Canadians were given credit for having saved the situation.

Our transport and quartermaster stores and baggage had been terribly shelled in their quarters at Ypres. On the way out a shell had exploded in front of our mess-cart occupied by Captain Mabee, the paymaster, and had killed the horse and smashed the rig. The gas fumes had overcome the plucky paymaster and he had to be sent to the hospital.

What had happened to Major MacKenzie, our surgeon, no one seemed to know. The last seen of him he was giving aid to stricken men in a house in the outskirts of St. Julien. We afterwards learned that for twelve days and nights he had served in the forward dressing station. Three times he had been shelled at the dressing station. The annals of the British medical service can show no better service, heroism or devotion to duty. He was the soul of honor and efficiency.

As soon as I had finished reorganizing what was left of the transport and given instructions about rationing I went down to the headquarters line of trenches. The arrangements made for the rationing of our remnant kept the brigade from starving. Capt. Duguid drew double rations for 1,000 men every day and sent them in to us every night by by-paths and by mule pack.

My battalion got these rations. Sergeant-Major "Soldier Grant" had been badly wounded in the leg, and Quartermaster Sergeant Keith, a very brave and well-trained soldier, took his place. Keith had left an excellent position in Canada and a wife and several small children to follow the pipes. He had fought in the Camerons in Egypt and South Africa and was a splendid soldier.

Lieutenant Frank Gibson, son of Sir John Gibson of Hamilton, Canada, was in the clearing hospital at Poperinghe suffering from a wound in his leg, which it will be remembered he received at Ypres, when he heard from some of our wounded men that the battalion had been badly cut up and the officers gone. He left his cot, evaded the surgeons and came down five miles to the transports. Nothing would do but he must accompany me back to the trenches. Never did a young man show greater devotion to duty and forgetfulness of self than did Lieut. Frank Gibson. I asked him if he felt able to take over the duties of adjutant and signalling officer and he immediately consented to do so. He was one of six graduates of the Royal Military College that held commands in our battalion. He later lost his life at Givenchy. Captain Perry, although badly shaken with the gas and the terrific explosions and fighting at Hill 60, insisted also on accompanying me. We proceeded to the trenches which ran in front of the headquarters of the 3rd Brigade, but owing to the fact that this line was subject to the most intense rifle and cannon fire all day it was very difficult for us to assemble the scattered Highlanders.

During the day the Germans bombarded the headquarters of General Turner, V.C., of our brigade close by. Huge shells fell in the house, and the shock from the explosion and the effects of the gas had knocked out Staff Captain Pope. The gasses acted on him, and many others, like chloroform, so that for a time he lost his reasoning power and appeared to be delirious. He had to be carried away. Captain Harold Macdonald, one of the staff captains of our brigade, was struck with pieces of shell and narrowly escaped with his life. He was literally filled with splinters. One in the cheek, one in the eye, one in the shoulder, the right lung and in the neck. His wounds were dressed by Captain Scrimger of the 14th Battalion. They managed with considerable difficulty to get him out of the burning building, and for this action Scrimger won his V.C.

General Turner, V.C., and Lt.-Colonel Garnet Hughes had to move their headquarters to a dugout close to the burning building. They had clung tenaciously to this building which was in the fighting area and only about six hundred yards south of St. Julien Wood. General Turner had borne the brunt of the fighting from the evening of the 22nd. He had not had a moment's rest night or day, all the troops along

the broken section having been placed under his command.

On Sunday evening General Alderson was superseded by General Plumer.

At dusk we succeeded in gathering together most of our men that were about brigade headquarters. Major Marshall had a detachment in the trenches south of the storm-swept St. Julien Wood at Wiltje. When we reached the much-shelled village we found General Hull in charge and Colonel Burland and Colonel Loomis in a house on the north side of the road waiting for orders. The Third Brigade Sergeant-Major soon brought orders to the effect that the remnant of the 3rd Brigade was to march out by way of La Bryke.

During the morning and afternoon a number of attacks had been launched by the British against the village of St. Julien. The stalwart Irish and Highland Regiments had forced their way a number of times into the blood-soaked streets of the village, only to be driven out again with a murderous machine gun and howitzer fire. There was not much of the place left. Every house had been set on fire and the pavements were a shambles. Highlanders, Irish Fusiliers, Canadians and Huns had fought it out in the crooked streets hand to hand. As the shades of evening fell over the scene the German still held his ground, but our artillery had come up in increasing numbers and were raining deadly gusts of shrapnel over the tile and pavements, making it impossible for any creature to live in the place.

We learned that fragments of the 2nd Canadian Brigade still held their trenches near Gravenstafel Ridge, that the valiant Suffolks were still in part of our supporting trenches, and that the Hun had made no progress along the line of the Poelcapelle Road east of St. Julien. The Red Watch had not held in vain. The Hun was just as far away from Ypres and Calais as ever.

We waited until long after midnight for General Turner, V.C., and his staff, and when they did not appear we decided something must have happened to them. Silently in Indian file the brigade slipped quietly through Wieltje, led by one of my signallers, Sergeant Calder, who knew every hedge, ditch and by-way in the Ypres salient. It had been the custom, and a good one, with our signallers, as soon as we got into a new area to bicycle and walk all over it so that they could readily find their way about in the dark. Sergeant Calder took us as straight as a gunbarrel across fields and ditches to the stone road that ran from the unfortunate headquarters of the 3rd Brigade which we could still see was a lurid mass of flames in the distance. We gave General Turner and Col. Hughes up for lost.

Along each hedge we passed we were halted by English "Tommies" who, busy as moles, were digging in. The Germans would find that a tough crop had grown up during the night in the shell-stricken field of the Ypres salient.

Every minute or so there would be a burst of rifle fire along the German lines. They were beginning to show "nerves" and signs of exhaustion. They had paid a terrific price so far for the few blood-soaked acres they had won.

As we reached La Bryke we met at the crossroads two British staff officers on horseback who wanted to know the way to Wieltje and General Hull's Headquarters there. One of them was Brigadier-General Riddell, who was killed a few hours later not far from St. Julien at the head of the brave Northumberland Brigade. He was shot through the head while personally conducting an attack to recover St. Julien.

When we reached La Bryke we found that Captain Duguid, our quartermaster, had fortunately brought down double rations for a complete battalion. This enabled us to ration the whole brigade. He had done the same thing on the Friday night previous. The transports of the other battalions had been all shot up, but Captain Duguid had used mules as pack animals. We waited for several hours for orders and the General did not turn up. The Brigade Sergeant-Major, who had brought us his orders, said he would remain at La Bryke and notify the General if he should come while we went back to the transport to spend the few hours of darkness left. It was necessary for us to go through and past the bridges over the canal before daylight, otherwise we would be spotted by aeroplanes and shelled.

It was dawn when the tired battalions made their way into the field in which all that was left of the transports of the four battalions was packed. They had hot soup ready and it was a case of bivouac on the green grass with the heavens as a blanket.

Very soon afterwards General Turner, V.C., and Lt.-Colonel Hughes, his staff officer, arrived. They both warmly congratulated me on sticking it out at the hot corner. General Turner, V.C., told me that the Canadians had been given credit for saving the situation, and that my battalion, though it had been almost wiped out, had not died in vain. He was completely worn out, so I gave him and his officers a place under a piece of tarpaulin after they had had something to eat. They had not had any rest or sleep since Thursday morning, and in a few minutes everyone was fast asleep except the transport men.

I had not been in the Land of Nod half an hour when I was roused by the trample of a horse and the voice of a horseman enquiring for me. I was up in an instant and found a staff officer looking for General Turner. I refused at first to awaken him unless the matter was urgent, but when I was assured that it was, I roused him and he opened his message. It was an order to take the brigade back immediately to La Bryke to go into support of the Lahore division under General Snow, which was to attack that afternoon together with some French troops.

The men were all dead tired and sound asleep on the ground. They had not had any sleep since the previous Thursday night, and now they were to be roused to go at it again, digging in with General Snow.

The Muster of the 48th Highlanders after Battle of St. Julien-212 out of 1,034ToList

Rations and ammunitions were issued and off we started. We crossed the Yperlee Canal by a foot bridge and climbed the steep slope once more into the deadly salient. As we passed down to the bridges in Indian file several of our men were struck by shrapnel bullets. When we crossed over the canal we were led to the west of La Brique and halted in a ditch, where we promptly dug in. The Indian guns were in front of us. About an hour after, just as we were well dug in, we were again moved further east and put in behind some hedges and some more Indian batteries. Again we dug in, making a good job of it. The troops in front of us were apparently attacking and the din of the shell and rifle fire became terrific. We all thought we would be at it again in a few minutes, and the men began tightening up their puttees and looking to their rifles and ammunition. Some began eating their rations, for as one poor fellow said they might as well enjoy them because they might not need any more after a few minutes.

The attack in our front died away and pretty soon another order came and we started down behind hedges and ditches back to Wiltje. The Germans were shelling the village for all they were worth and the church was burning, so we gave it a wide berth and slipped in behind the village and proceeded to dig in again. Every few minutes the Huns would start shelling Wiltje and we would come into their "Zone of influence." The shells that missed the roofs of the houses from the north would pitch over into our lines and we had to duck and count ten when we heard them coming.

While we were being jolly well shelled in these trenches an incident occurred which was of extraordinary interest. I remember reading when I was a boy how at the siege of Toulon, while Napoleon was dictating a message to a young soldier named Lannes a British shell struck the parapet and threw sand all over them and also on the written message. The writer coolly shook the sand off the paper, remarking that they would not need any sand to blot the ink. This soldier showed such bravery that he subsequently became a Marshal of the Empire. That afternoon after we were dug in I was dictating a message to Sergeant Venner of my signalling staff who had his telephone in a "dig in" alongside of mine. He was half way through when a big "coal box" shell exploded a few feet away emitting a terrible stench, a cross between marsh gas and camphor balls.

The smell was overpowering. Venner dropped his pencil and clapped his hands to his face saying, "Wait a minute, Colonel, the smell of that shell makes my head ache." I looked at him and saw he had turned very pale. Looking more closely I noticed blood trickling down the side of his face between his fingers. I snatched his Glengarry off his head and sure enough a jagged piece of shell had cut through the Glengarry and ripped a gash in his scalp about two inches long.

I pulled the piece of steel out and said, "No wonder the shell makes your head ache! You are wounded."

In a trice I had my scissors out, and cutting the hair away from the wound I put some iodine into the cut, Corporal Pyke, his assistant, helped to bind Sergeant Venner's wound with his first aid bandage. After he was fixed up he pulled out his book to finish the message, but I ordered him to clear out and go back to the dressing station. To my amazement he dissented.

"Not a bit of it, sir," he boldly replied, for the first time in his life disobeying my orders.

"Go on, sir, please, and finish the message." "I am all right."

I was so surprised that I finished the message and he stoutly refused to go to the hospital and worked on the signal wires till the battalion was permanently relieved a week or so later. I recommended him for a decoration, also a few other brave officers and men who did not get them.

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