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   Chapter 28 XXVIIIToC

The Red Watch By J. A. Currie Characters: 10529

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


"Jump down into the trench quick, Colonel! That shell may explode," called Captain Musgrove.

"What shell?" I enquired, as I had not heard any "whispering Willy" arriving, but something seemed to have covered my clothes suddenly with mud and splinters of wood and bark.

"Look up over your head. It is a wonder it did not stun you. And please do move out of there for a while at least, for fear it may be still alive."

I glanced up at the pollard willow over head, against which I had been leaning to steady my field glasses as I watched our artillery "strafe" the Germans who were attacking the Ghurkas. Captain Musgrove stood by my side when the shell arrived. It struck the hard red clay about twelve feet directly in front of me, plowed up the earth about three feet and turning upwards entered the tree directly over my head. The shell, which was a large one from a four-inch howitzer, entered the willow bole, burying itself in the soft wood all but about half an inch of the base.

These shells are fused with what are called detonating fuses that burst when the shell touches anything. It should have exploded when it struck the ground in front of us. If it had we would have had about one chance in a thousand. Again, when it struck the tree it should have blown up. The "kickback" would have certainly killed or wounded us both. But a Merciful Providence caused that shell not to function.

I climbed down into the trench. Next day when the Germans were quieter, Colonel Leckie photographed us. It was a marvellous escape.

On the evening of the 29th we had moved a short distance to our left and again dug in in four lines in rear of the French and as guard over Pontoon Bridge No. 4. The canal here passed north between high banks and a schooner, that had doubtless plied between the North Sea ports and Ypres, had been sunk in the middle of the canal and furnished a pier for the bridge which the engineers had perfected.

Along the banks of the canal were shelters and places where previous troops had "dug in" and the place looked like a huge rabbit warren.

Our batteries were in action along the banks and they were very skilfully hidden. I looked them up and found some old friends from Ottawa, Lieut. Colonel Morrison, the commandant, amongst them.

We had tried to preserve the Belgian buildings in the same condition as we found them as much as possible, but since the Germans were setting fire to all the barns with thatched roofs we decided to annex some straw from the roofs to put in the bottom of our trenches.

The trenches in our front were being unmercifully shelled by the Germans all the time, and about three times a day the Germans and the French would exchange front trenches. Divisions of French troops kept coming up. They carried on in the most casual way. The cooks took soup down to the front line trenches in broad day. They did not seem to care for shot or shell.

The French always moved in single file with men about three yards distance. We learned to like and admire them. They are great soldiers.

The Germans would shell the French troops out of their trenches and then charge and take the low parapets which the French built. After a short rest the French would fix their terrible long four-cornered bayonets which they call there knitting needles, charge the enemy and recover their parapets again. This game of see-saw went on for several days.

The second morning we were at the bridge a handsome well set-up French officer came past our lines and stopped to chat. He wore the gold medal of honor given by the Czar which he had won a few weeks previously for conspicuous bravery. He was very proud of it. We all envied him his good luck. He went on up to the front line. About an hour later he passed us again, lying in an ambulance hand cart very severely wounded. Poor fellow, he was in a bad way but still cheerful.

When the Germans got tired shelling the French they would start in and give it to us. Three and four shells would follow in close succession. They would search up and down the fields and hedges with their guns showering shells on everything within their range.

The gallant 16th Canadian Scottish were dug in about fifty yards in front of us. Colonel Leckie was in a dugout at the extreme left, and alongside of him was another dugout in which were some of his staff. A large German shell fell in the staff dugout during the night, completely obliterating all traces of four men who were sleeping in it at the time. A part of Lt.-Colonel Leckie's dugout was torn off at the same time and he had a very narrow escape.

The same night while I was dozing in my "digin" I was awakened by heavy breathing on my right as if a man was dying. It was pitch dark, so I called the sentry and told him some one was hurt.

Sergeant Miller, who was close at hand, jumped up and with an electric torch we started to search the line to find out who was wounded. In the second digin on my right we found Corporal Kells very nearly gone. A large five-inch shell had fallen in his "digin," slicing a large piece of flesh off the calf of his leg and stunning him. Fortunately the shell had not exploded. He had almost bled to death when the pecul

iar heavy breathing of a man suffering from bleeding attracted my attention. We bound him up and had him taken back to the dressing station. He subsequently died from the shock.

One morning about daylight I was wakened in my narrow cell by a lot of earth tumbling down on my face. I fancied a shell had fallen on my parapet, and after clearing the dirt out of my eyes and ears I lay awake listening to the seventeen-inch Austrian batteries which were shelling some place very heavily. The guns were apparently in a position not far from Pilken. I could hear the "Kerr-Rump" of four guns of a battery firing in rapid succession, then a pause, and I could hear the huge projectiles go roaring on their deadly mission till the sound ceased. I waited for the report so I could count the time to find out how far away they were ranging, but I noticed a very strange thing. I could hear no report from the explosion of the shell. Evidently it was falling too far away for me to hear it. A few days later we learned that they had been shelling Dunkirk, some twenty-odd miles away.

The second day we were at the bridge, the Germans were searching diligently for us with their shells when I was called to the telephone which was located in the next hole in the ground to mine. I found Corporal Pyke in charge of my wire. Pyke was a brave cheerful lad, a splendid operator and telephone expert. He was thoroughly posted in wireless work and used to rig up an attachment to our telephone by means of which he could read all the wireless messages that came over the wires from the ships of the Navy in the Channel to the naval batteries that were working behind our lines which were called the Admiral Churchill batteries. If there were any German wireless men in the neighborhood they could also get these messages. Pyke could hear the Germans working on their lines but could not get their code.

As I hopped over to see who wanted me, and crawled into the telephone hole in the ground a shell came whizzing past and ripped the earth from the parapet about a foot above Pyke's head. He never even ducked, but quite coolly remarked as he shook the dust off, "That sod is rather thin, Colonel. I guess it was only about six inches."

The urgent message that I was called to take was something to the effect that clean socks, underclothes and a bath would be ready for my battalion at a certain date.

I told headquarters to cut out commercial messages for a few days.

Our batteries were earning a great reputation for themselves. They were posted on the bank of the canal and alongside of them were some of the batteries of the Indian Division. Our guns were in action one evening when the major of one of the Indian batteries came along inspecting his observation wires. He watched the drivers of one of our batteries (Morrison's) take a limber of ammunition up to its guns through a perfect hailstorm of shells. He remarked to me that the Canadian gunners were magnificent, and that they did not have six drivers in the Indian Army that were as well trained and as good at their work as the Canadian boys who were driving the limber we were looking at. That was a high compliment from a regular officer as the Indian army knows its trade.

On the afternoon of the 28th, while the Germans were trying to destroy the Canadian batteries with heavy seventeen-inch shells, a German aeroplane came along flying low to check up the big gun practise. We were getting very tired of these German visitors so I ordered my battalion to fire on the flyer, using one thousand elevation and leading the birdman about five times his own length. In a few minutes we had the satisfaction of seeing him turn back with a tail of fire streaming from his gasoline tank. We had got his tank and he was on fire and trying hard to make the German lines. He fell in our lines and the aviator and observer were made prisoners.

Aeroplane activity in that section ceased for a time. The fighting, however, never let up night or day.

On the evening of May 2nd we were ordered to co-operate with British troops in our right who were heavily attacked with gas. There was a dull, heavy atmosphere and everything seemed favorable for the German poison plan. Our guns, however, were ready and they opened a fierce bombardment with shrapnel over the German trenches. It was here the shell incident described at the beginning of the chapter happened. A gentle shower came which dissipated the gas. Three times their infantry climbed out of their trenches and started to charge across the space intervening between the lines. The iron voices of the bursting shells blended into one note as the deadly spray of lead swept entire sections of them away. There was little left for the rifle fire to do.

The attack was beaten off easily. The German offensive for the moment was weakening. They had never fully recovered from the terrible punishment they had received during the first three days from the Canadians. They realized that a new element was barring the way to Calais and victory.

Canada had won many championships on the fields of sport, science, art and mechanics, and now another championship had been won on a sterner field, the field of battle in historic Flanders.

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