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   Chapter 27 XXVIIToC

The Red Watch By J. A. Currie Characters: 14511

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


TWELVE GLORIOUS DAYS

"They've got me in the back, Colonel! My poor wife and children!"

This was the startled exclamation of one of my men who occupied a "digin" about ten feet from mine. He turned pale.

The Germans were shelling us with high explosive shells from the north rim of the salient. Huge "coal boxes," coming from the direction of Pilken, were falling in the village of Wiltje on our front. With a twang like a giant steel bow a shrapnel shell had burst overhead. They had commenced to spray us in the back with shrapnel from the direction of Hill 60, and one of the bullets that pattered like hail on our clay parapets had struck him.

I had ordered all the men to keep on their overcoats, as the stout woollen cloth of the Canadian great coats will stop the German shrapnel bullets and a lot of high explosive splinters, American experts to the contrary. The thick overcoat and the pack is the next best thing to a coat of mail.

Sergeant Lewis and I jumped out and pulled him out on to the banquette of his trench and in a minute had the overcoat and jacket off him. His shirt followed and there, sunk into the flesh of his back about half an inch from his spine and almost half an inch deep, was the black shrapnel bullet. I picked it out with my pen-knife and handed it to him with a silent prayer of thanksgiving.

"There's the bullet. You're worth a dozen dead men yet," I said.

The look of relief on his face was worth seeing.

"Will you let me have the bullet as a souvenir?" I asked.

"Yes, Colonel."

He was not the only man relieved.

We dressed the wound with iodine and put a pad and a piece of plaster over it. He put on his clothes and I told him to go back to the dressing station, but he refused and kept on fighting.

We held the narrow trenches all afternoon and evening. Fierce fighting was going on all around us and we spent a very disagreeable night dug in in Mother earth.

My men endeavored in every way possible to make me comfortable. Sergt. Coe requisitioned a long bolster pillow from a ruined estament in Wiltje for me to sleep on. Another man brought in a few fresh eggs that some Flemish hens had laid in a henhouse in the outskirts of the village. The occupants of Wiltje had all disappeared. Some of them were dead in their cellars, which were not proof against the high explosive shells.

Towards dawn in spite of the lurid glare of bursting shells and the roaring of the flames in the burning houses, the Flemish roosters crowed lustily, typifying the Belgian as well as the French nation.

Dawn came at last but it brought no cessation of the terrible artillery fire. The fighting along the line to the north still continued. The British troops were holding their own and dealing lusty blows at the enemy.

This was the situation as outlined by Corporal Pyke, one of my signalling staff who had gone away to the right to see what was going on in the old "hot corner." A British Division had taken up the supporting trenches of the 2nd Canadian Brigade along the crest of the Gravenstafel Ridge. They had our supporting trenches east of Hennebeke Creek along the Kerrselaer Zonnebeke highway to the ruined houses at Enfiladed crossroads where I had met Captain Victor Currie and the officers of the 7th and 8th Battalions.

The 2nd Brigade, all that was left of them, had been kept hard at it in this section and were still in reserve behind the 28th Division. The line of the 28th Division ran thus from Gravenstafel to Fortuyn, which was still held by us, and along west to where the headquarters trenches crossed the St. Julien-Ypres Road at Vanenberghem, from thence almost due west to a part of the Yperlee Canal near Zwaante. The east bank of the canal was held by the French and Belgians. The Germans had crossed the canal the night of the 22nd at Lizerne and had been driven back at the point of the bayonet by our allies.

Strung along from Gravenstafel Ridge in the following order were the following British Battalions: The Hants, the Rifle Brigade, the 12th London, the Suffolks, the Northumberland Fusiliers, five battalions, the 5th Durhams, the Somersets, the E. Yorks, the Yorkshire, two battalions, two battalions of Yorks and Durhams, the 5th S. Lancasters, the 1st R. Lancasters, the Lancaster Fusiliers, the Essex, the 1st Irish, the Monmouths, the 2nd West Riding, the London, the Royal Kents.

General Hull commanded the 1st R. Warwicks, the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders, the 1st and 2nd Fusiliers, the 2nd Dublin Fusiliers, the 7th Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders.

Colonel Geddes' detachment held the line from our old general headquarters to where they linked up with the French troops who were coming up in some strength. The 1st Canadian Brigade was back west of the canal, protecting Brielen, while our brigade was again south of Wieltje.

All the Canadian troops had fought with great valor and had lost over half the effectives of each battalion. It was my misfortune that I could not chronicle the many deeds of individual bravery performed by my countrymen. I could only describe what was taking place in my own vicinity and in my own corps.

The shelling continued all day of the 27th. There was a chilly wind blowing but the sun shone very brightly. I had a fairly comfortable section of trench and tried to snatch a wink of sleep in the bottom of it during the afternoon. I had not been sleeping long when General Turner, V.C., our brigadier, came up and I made room for him alongside of me. His dugout a couple of hundred yards in the rear of us had been hit several times by German shells and he had a very narrow escape. When he jumped in alongside of me he picked up several spent splinters of shell that had fallen on my greatcoat as I slept. He laughingly remarked that everybody said I bore a charmed life and the shells never bothered me, so as his dugout had become untenable he had come up where he could find a quiet "restful" place.

He informed me that since the battle began on the 22nd he had seen and sustained more rifle and shell fire than had been his lot during the whole South African campaign. He and his hardworking chief, Lt.-Colonel Hughes, had not had any rest since the previous Thursday.

Sergt. Coe made the General comfortable in the bottom of the trench beside me, and in a few minutes he was sound asleep with the shells still beating their infernal tatoo in the heavens over us.

A number of French troops had come up and so had the gallant Lahore Division consisting of Indian troops, and they had attacked the Germans and driven them back some distance towards Pilken.

No jauntier soldier ever trode the plains of Flanders than the brave Ghurkas. Short and swarthy with that peculiar elastic step and well set-up figure which can only be obtained by a rigorous course of physical setting up drill of the old style with "thumbs behind the seams of the trousers," the Ghurkas are in a class by themselves. Their battalions are led by pipe bands. The weird music of the Highland Glens seems to have the same potency with the Indian Highlanders that it has with the Scottish and Canadian. In a charge at close quarters the Ghurka uses a peculiar shaped knife with a blade as heavy as a b

utcher's cleaver and keen as a razor. Like the Highland Pipers who play

"Mo dhith mo dhith gun tri lamhan

Da laimh 'sa phiob 's laimh 'sa chlaidheamh."

"My loss, my loss, without three hands

[271]

Two for my pipes and one for my sword,"

the Ghurka bewails his great loss, also that he has not three hands, two for the pipes and one for his "crookie."

That evening orders came through that we were to march out again and we followed the old line along the hedges and ditches back to our transport. We found that our transport had been moved further back to a field on the Ypres Poperinghe Road to avoid shelling. We were all thoroughly done out when we arrived and we had a good sleep.

Next morning we had roll call and counted our losses. It was the saddest moment in the history of our regiment.

The "roll call" showed killed, wounded and missing, seventeen officers and six hundred and seventy-four men, a fearful total of six hundred and ninety-one out of a battalion of nine hundred and twelve effectives. Seven officers and one hundred and fifty-seven men, all of them gassed and wounded, were taken prisoners. The rest had paid the price of Empire. As the wounded I had sometimes pitied had always said, "That is what we came here for," but it was very hard to be reconciled to the loss of the flower of the regiment. Of all our officers only Major Marshall and myself were left unhurt. How we escaped the Lord alone knows. His mercy was very great. How jealous we had all been of the lives of the men. What care we had all bestowed on their drill, their discipline, their health and equipment. We were all a happy family, no quarrelling, no disputes either among the officers or men. Everyone tried to live up to the best traditions of the old Highland Regiments that oftentimes went through campaigns without a crime. When we reached France not a dozen men in the battalion had entries on their conduct sheets. We all fondly hoped that our efficiency, our courage and power would be reserved for some great day when we would march triumphantly through the German trenches, charging with our bayonets and clearing the road to Brussels, the Rhine, and Berlin.

But our day came differently to what we expected. Still we did our duty. Had we come to grief through any blunder or fault of mine or any of our officers there might have been cause for regret and heartburnings. Our orders were very simple-to hold the trenches at all costs until relieved. We carried out these orders and held the line. When finally ordered out we left nearly four hundred dead in the trenches.

Often during our days and marches in Flanders, in admiration of the men of my regiment and the other gallant men of the First Canadian Division, there would recur to me the words spoken at St. Helene by Napoleon of the men of the Army of Italy:

"Another libeller says that I conquered Italy with a few thousand galley slaves. Now the fact is that probably so fine an army never had existed before. More than half of them were men of education, the sons of merchants, of lawyers, of physicians, of the better order of farmer and bourgeoise. Two thirds of them knew how to write and were capable of being made officers. Indeed in the regiment it would have puzzled me to decide who were the most deserving subjects, or who best merited promotion, as they were all so good. Oh! that all my armies had been the same."

A new form of "casualty" had been written into the records of the hospitals and dressing stations, "suffering from" and "died of gas poisoning."

If there is a law of compensation which evens up injustice, if there is an avenging Deity, then the German nation is doomed to die and be forgotten. Cowardly methods of attack will ultimately sap the vigor and courage of their men, and they will curse the day when their ruler wrote them into the history of the ages as a race of cowardly poisoners, unfit even to stand alongside of the Red Indians or the savages of the Soudan.

The tortures inflicted by savages of burning and flaying alive are not comparable to the torture of burning lungs with tissues seared as with a red hot iron. The agony which often ended in gangrene of the lungs was worse than a thousand deaths from pneumonia and the suffering is very long drawn out.

I know whereof I speak as to the torture of scorched lungs, and my case, I am thankful to say, was not as severe as many of them.

On the 28th all the Canadians were west of the canal having a little rest which was enlivened constantly by salvos of high explosive shells sent by the Germans into our vicinity. Every village and farm building for miles back were being shelled.

In the evening we were ordered to prepare to go back into action again. We started out at dusk and followed the familiar paths back down to the engineers' pontoon bridge and then along up the highway in the rear of La Bryke. We were shelled and several men hit with shrapnel while we waited for some transports to get out of our way on the west side of the canal.

When we got to the east and began climbing the slope we were halted again while a battery passed us on the way out. The battery looked very weird against the skyline as they came down the roadway and passed us. The feet of their horses and the waggon wheels were muffled, and they appeared for all the world like the ghostly horsemen out of some old world tale.

We met some English soldiers who told us that the gallant Col. Geddes, who had taken charge of this section and whose corps was the first to come to our aid as we were trying to stop the first mad onrush of the Germans, had been killed in the morning by a shell that entered his headquarters.

We turned to the left and steered straight north to a point in support of the French troops who were in position on the east bank of the Canal opposite Brielen. Further along the road we found some transports and a French Battery stuck. A huge German shell had fallen in the road at this point and blown a crater in which a good sized house could easily have hidden. The hedge had to be cut to allow of a passage, and it took some engineering to get this tangle straightened out. After a little man?uvring we found our trenches, and as the Germans began shelling the highway immediately in our rear, following the transport waggons along the road, it did not take us long to dig in. Some one remarked that the Germans have underground telephones along the roadways.

That morning our base company, under Captain Musgrove and Lieutenant Muir, reached us. A few days later at Festubert Musgrove was to lose an arm and Lieutenant Muir was to be killed. They were full of ginger and cheered us up considerably.

During the night we consolidated our trenches. The shelling continued all the next day. Thousands of French troops continued to arrive and it looked very much as if a general offensive was going to be organized against the Germans on our front.

On the evening of the 29th we moved into trenches at Number Four Pontoon Bridge and remained there until the 4th of May. Day and night the shelling continued. Many stirring and some even humorous incidents occurred during these twelve glorious days of fighting.

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