Chapter 14

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Far above the lingering gas, the tornado of explosions and all the horrors below, long trailing clouds turned luminous pink as the sun set in the western sky.

Major McDougall and his signaller had long ago slithered down from their rooftop look-out, for there was nothing to be made of the chaos in front and observation was useless if information could not be sent back. In the first minutes of the attack the telephone lines that linked them to the guns were shattered. It was pointless to brave the inferno to try to repair them for the Germans had already penetrated beyond their position and a machine-gun trained on the back wall of the farmhouse opened up at the slightest movement. There was nothing for it but to try to get back to the guns. They crawled out through a ditch half full of rank, stagnant water but it was shelter of a kind from the ferocious shell-fire. Their hands and arms were plastered with mud, their clothing sodden and stinking, but at length they emerged near the Battery on the outskirts of St Julien, and made a dash for it.

Sgnr. J. E. Sutton, 9th Bty., Canadian Field Artillery.

The major told me that he had heard more shell-fire in one hour than he heard in the whole of the Boer War. When we reached the battery we found that our guns had swung considerably to the left. Gunner Budagier had been wounded and I took his place as number two gunner on number four gun. They were so close together that number three gun was firing almost directly into my left ear. Later when we stopped firing I went with Signaller Macdonald to see if the road was clear so that we could move our guns back to the rear. The German infantry were almost at the edge of the village and the cemetery at the cross-roads, which was filled with ornate memorials and artificial flowers under glass that morning, was completely wrecked. On the main street we saw six Highlanders moving a grand piano from a house. When we asked them where they were taking it, they said they didn’t know and they quit the job. Our casualties were six men wounded – four at the guns and two drivers bringing up ammunition.

After dark we moved back to a position on the outskirts of St Jean. Macdonald and I pushed our reel cart which held over two miles of telephone wire, our telephones, reels, pliers, etc. But we lost our kit-bags and coats in the move.

Now it was the Germans who had thrust their line forward into a salient. It jutted southwards from Poelcapelle into the open flank that ran westwards from the Canadian left, and doubled back to run north parallel to the canal bank to enclose the ground left empty by the French Colonials fleeing from the gas. A few were still there holding a straggling tenuous position that ran for a hundred or so yards east of the canal, far behind what had been the French right flank. A few of the others, least badly affected by the gas, had been rallied on the left of the Canadians’ original line. But there were precious few of them and four and a half miles of completely open country stretched east to west between the remnants of the line and the canal four miles behind. The first imperative was to close this gap.

In the smoke, in the midst of the confusion and the pulverising shelling, it was difficult to judge exactly what had happened from the muddled messages that filtered from the battlefield, but the panic on the roads north of Ypres told its own tale, and the chaos and congestion near the canal itself was frightening. On the long, straight stretch that ran north from the outskirts of Ypres there was one bridge only behind the British sector and another behind the French at Boesinghe and although the gas travelled slowly, thinning and spreading on the wind as it approached, the fumes now reached as far as the canal and even beyond it, spreading further alarm among the French reserves who had not been close enough to fall victim to gas in the early stages of the attack. As their eyes began to stream, as the sickening fumes were sucked in with each gasping breath to burn their throats and sear into their lungs, as they saw the survivors of their front-line troops dragging their way towards them, some staggering and dropping to the ground overcome with pain and exhaustion, with sickly pallor and blue foam-flecked lips, the reserves turned and ran. The retreat became a rout.

In the struggling mass crowding on to the narrow bridges men collapsed and were trampled underfoot. Some tried to swim for it, and a few drowned in the attempt. Many who made it to the other side could go no further and lay retching and gasping on the far bank or on the road beyond, unable to go further. Those who were still on their feet streamed across the fields and meadows towards Elver-dinghe and Vlamertinghe, progressing more slowly now but still pressing on in desperation to get well away from the horrors behind. Officers mounted on nervous rearing horses were frantically trying to stop the tide of frightened men and turn it back if they could, but they got short shrift, and the few small groups they managed to rally were clearly in no condition to return to the fight, even if they had been able to get through the press of soldiers and civilians streaming across the bridges and along the roads. The people who had obstinately refused to leave farms and cottages close to the battle-line, who had preferred to take their chance among the shells rather than abandon their land and possessions, had taken fright at last. Now they too were struggling to get away, laden with sacks and bundles, pushing hand carts, trailing weeping children, clutching bird cages, pictures, candle-sticks – whichever of their valued belongings they had been able to snatch up. And now that the big shells were thundering into Ypres as they had never thundered before, people were streaming out of the town to swell the mob.

Mme Marie de Milleville.

We lived in a cottage just outside Boesinghe. I was only twelve but I could never in all my life forget that afternoon! It was shocking. I was alone with my mother and the little yard in front of our house was full of coloured soldiers lying on the ground or slumping against the wall. We could do nothing for them but give them water. We had two big metal jugs that held two or three litres apiece and for hours I went back and forwards to the kitchen filling them and filling them again, one after the other, while my mother stayed outside pouring it out for the soldiers to drink. More and more came along, wanting a drink as they passed. I poured water for hours and hours. After a while I had to pump up more from the well at the back because we soon used up what we had drawn that morning. They could not tell us what had happened, but we knew that it was something dreadful and that Germans might come at any moment. We kept on pouring the water, even after it got dark. Much later in the night some carts and ambulances came along to take the poor soldiers away – at least two of them were dead by then. And all the time, although no shells were falling near us, we could hear the guns. They never stopped. I could never forget it.

Even before they knew the full extent of the catastrophe the Divisional Commanders on the spot did not wait for instructions before ordering reserves to the line. By a fortunate chance, two of them had seen the attack for themselves for the Commanding Officer of the Canadian Division had been visiting his gun batteries north east of St Julien at the time of the attack and General Snow, in command of the 27th Division, had been in the observation post above his headquarters in Potijze. Looking across the flat meadows both had seen the thick yellow cloud rolling out from the German lines and although their own lines had been quickly swallowed up in the turmoil of smoke and explosions, it was all too easy to surmise the rest. General Smith-Dorrien had seen it too as he walked back to Ypres after visiting Hill 60, and it was obvious to them all that there was no time to lose.

Had the gas been released and the attack launched early in the day the Germans might easily have poured through the gap and fought their way into Ypres, cutting off the troops in the salient with little resistance to stop them. The anxious commanders, conferring together by telephone, and with General Smith-Dorrien at his headquarters and the French General Putz at his, were fearful that, when morning came, that was precisely what the Germans would attempt.* Darkness came as a blessing, but it was a mixed blessing, for conditions on the roads were still chaotic and the rumours that spread among the civilian population caused more and more of them to take to their heels. It was not easy to get the reserves up. There was still little news to go on, and the scanty information that did reach Headquarters was far from reassuring.

The Canadians had spread out and flung back their line in a sharp angle facing north at right-angles to their original front. The military called it a defensive flank, but it was a short, short line of a few hundred yards and the snout of the German advance had pushed in well behind them. There was no one but Germans between them and Brigadier General Turner in his headquarters at Mouse Trap Farm beyond St Julien. Turner had acted quickly. Almost as soon as the attack began he ordered up his reserve battalion, keeping one company at Mouse Trap, where they had already prevented the Germans from advancing, and sending another two companies to defend St Julien as the Germans neared the edge of the village. The 10th Canadians who had just fallen in as a working party were ordered up to help, but it was a long time before they could get there along the roads blocked by fugitives. All round the salient and in the rest areas behind every battalion, every company, every detachment of engineers who could be spared from the line or was in rest behind it was warned to prepare to move to the shattered line.

Pte. W. J. McKenna, 16th Bn., (Canadian Scottish), 3rd Canadian Brig., 1st Canadian Div.

We were in rest billets in a big barn well behind the line and early in the evening when we were just enjoying tea there was a great commotion outside and we saw hordes of people rushing back – French Colonial troops – civilians with every kind of transport – perambulators, hand carts, barrows, all piled with personal possessions. We soon found out what had happened for the result was an order to ‘fall in’ with skeleton equipment and no overcoats. Extra ammunition was served out, and we had two hundred and twenty rounds. Then we started to march off and did about five miles. It was dark by then and the gas had practically dispersed, but over everything there was the thick smell which affected the eyes, mouth and throat. We lined up in a field and expected to be warned for trench duty but the fates decided otherwise and our battalion was wanted elsewhere. It transpired later on that about two miles behind the original front line which had been vacated by the French Colonials there was a battery of 4.7s of the Canadian heavy artillery. These guns had been abandoned, and the Germans, advancing behind their screen of gas, had taken them. This was our objective. I cannot help thinking that the enemy lost a wonderful opportunity, for surely he could have walked through us like a man could walk through a hoop of paper.

Even by nine in the evening the four and a half miles that ran straight back from the original Canadian left to the canal bank was held in only three places and the gaps between them were wide – two thousand yards, a thousand yards and, longest of all, three thousand yards whose only defence was a single French machine-gun post. Along the rest of the French front, between that one machine-gun and Steenstraat, although the French had formed a straggling line behind the western canal bank, on the enemy side, east of the canal there were no troops at all. The road to Ypres was open. The night was wild with shelling but there was one crumb of comfort. The German infantry had stopped and was digging in. It had been a long twilight but at last it was growing dark and there were seven hours in the allies’ favour before daylight. The misty moon was still in its first quarter and there was still some light in the sky as it rose.

Along unfamiliar tracks, across unreconnoitred ground, runners slogged through the night taking messages to and from the outposts, and the signal that finally reached the Canadians hanging on in the old front line was brief and to the point. It came from their Commander, General Alderson, and it could be summed up in two words, ‘Don’t budge.’ Although he was not a Canadian himself, the men from Canada thought a lot of General Alderson. It was barely two months since the Canadians had come to France and the General’s speech before they first went into the line had earned their respect. Alderson was a man’s man and a soldier’s soldier. He did not beat around the bush, nor did he make the same mistake as the Commander-in-Chief who had caused barely suppressed hilarity during his inspection when he addressed the Canucks as ‘Men and Canadians…’ Alderson spoke to them like a father. He pointed out the perils of the trenches, the danger of ever-vigilant snipers, the stupidity of risking a peep over the parapet from mere curiosity and took pains to point out that dead soldiers never won a battle. He advised his men to lie low and sit tight under shell-fire and to refrain from showing ‘nerves’ by shooting at nothing. And he praised them. He praised their physique, he praised their zeal as volunteers, he assured them of his confidence and his certainty that they would do well. ‘And,’ he said, ‘there is one thing more. My old regiment, the Royal West Kents, have been here since the beginning of the war, and it has never lost a trench. The Army says,“The West Kents never budge.” I am proud of the great record of my old regiment. I now belong to you, and you belong to me, and before long the Army will say, “The Canadians never budge “ Lads, it can be left there, and there I leave it. The Germans will never turn you out.’

In the Canadian line that night, Jim Keddie was not the only man who remembered these words, and Alderson’s latest message, when it arrived, reinforced them. ‘Don’t budge.’ Hanging grimly on to their straggling line, each man separated by several yards from the next, not knowing what the morning might bring, the Canadians would not budge if they could help it.

The Canadian batteries had succeeded in pulling back their guns but two heavy guns had been lost, for the 2nd London Heavy Battery in support of the Canadians were concealed in Kitchener’s Wood behind the French – and Kitchener’s Wood, not half a mile from Mouse Trap and St Julien, was now in the hands of the Germans. The reserves were still inching with difficulty towards the line, or what there was of it, but General Alderson had taken a bold decision. The 10th Canadian Battalion and the 16th Canadian Scottish were filtering towards the gap between Mouse Trap Farm and St Julien, but he did not intend them merely to fill it, they were to plunge forward, counter-attack the Germans, recapture Kitchener’s Wood and retrieve the guns.

Kitchener’s Wood was a prize worth having. Although its name had a contemporary ring it had nothing to do with Lord Kitchener whose imperious finger had recently beckoned so many recruits into the Army. It was a literal translation from the French ‘Bois de Cuisiniers’ (‘Cook’s Wood’) and the origin of the name had been lost to local memory. It was Cook’s Wood and that was that. Kitchener’s Wood was not large, only a few hundred yards in depth, but in the hands of the enemy, it was a position of huge advantage, lying on the small ridge that ran north from St Julien and protecting the village from the north-west. The Army called it Mouse Trap Ridge, for it ran behind Mouse Trap Farm and overlooked a wide valley of scattered farms and homesteads where only the previous day a soldier could have strolled with impunity. On the far side of the valley the ground rose for two hundred yards or so to the Pilckem Ridge and dropped gently across a mile of open farmland to the Yser Canal.

In Kitchener’s Wood the Germans were digging in to consolidate their position but in the morning they would be able to assemble unseen in the concealment of its trees and in the lee of the ridge behind ready to leap forward to renew the attack. A hop, a skip, and a jump would take them to the canal bank. It was vital to regain the wood before that happened.

The Colonels of the two Battalions were no strangers to adventure. Colonel Boyle of the 10th Battalion was a rancher from Calgary and Colonel Leckie of the 16th Canadian Scottish was a mining engineer who had roughed it in the remotest wilds of Canada. But it was another matter to lead a night attack with inexperienced troops, on unfamiliar ground and with no artillery support, for the ‘line’ was so fluid, the positions of the enemy – and even of their own men – so uncertain, that it would be folly to suppose that guns, newly pulled into unfamiliar positions, could do anything at all to help. A counter-attack seemed an impossible feat to attempt, but daring and surprise might just pull it off.

Like Bill McKenna, Harry Hall of the 10th Battalion was one of the Canadians who slogged up on the long laborious trek to make the attack. Three Hall brothers had gone to war, but the eldest, Edmund, who had been through the battle of Neuve Chapelle, had joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders before the rest of his family emigrated to Canada. It was years since he had seen his younger brothers although they had been not far off, supporting the left of the I Corps during the battle. Now Harry and Fred were both at Ypres, facing another battle and their first real fight.

Sgt. H. Hall, 10th Bn., 2nd Canadian Brig.

Our Battalion and the 16th Canadian Scottish were the only reserves in the whole salient and, as the Germans had broken through, things were looking very black for us. We were instantly summoned to fall in, and soon we were on our way to fill the gap – two thousand men to stop the German divisions in their thousands.

An ordinary general would have posted us in a reserve line of trenches until the Germans advanced the next morning, but not so General Alderson, our divisional commander. He tried a strategy which was one of the biggest bluffs of the war, and it utterly surprised the Germans. Instead of waiting for the Germans to swamp us the next morning he ordered us to make a night attack on Kitchener’s Wood, where the Germans were massing for their attack.

We made the attack in lines of double companies, five hundred men in each of the four lines. A and Β Companies were in the front line, supported by C and D Companies, and then the 16th Battalion behind them.

Pte. W. J. McKenna.

Our objective was not only the four guns in the little wood near St Julien, but also to convince the Germans that we were there in considerable force, and not only to take the guns but to have a strong moral effect on the enemy. Whatever the reasons, two Battalions of Canadian Scottish – the 16th of the 3rd Brigade, and the 10th of the 2nd Brigade – were lined out on a field, on a bitterly cold night nearly at midnight. We were told that our efforts were regarded as practically hopeless and that our work was to be in the nature of a sacrifice charge. At midnight, without bombs, machine-guns or artillery support, we started to advance. We had about two fields to cover and two hedges to pass through and the gaps weren’t too many. Presently a bullet whistled past, then another and, before you could close an eye, enemy machine-guns opened about as hot a fire as you could imagine. Men fell in hundreds, but some of us got there, and, when they were facing our bayonets, the Germans were soon beaten and those that weren’t killed escaped as fast as they could. We ran behind them through the wood, bayoneting as many as we could catch up with, and eventually we soon cleared the woods of live Germans! The guns were there and we put them out of action.

In order to deceive the enemy in regard to our numbers, we were told to make as much noise as we could and the shouting, swearing, cursing at the top of our voices was terrific! Added to the firing and the groans of the wounded, it made the night hideous. But the effect worked and the handful of us who did reach the enemy were able to drive him before us with the bayonet.

The onslaught on Kitchener’s Wood was intended as part of a larger plan, for the French on the left had been meant to advance too. But there was no sign of them and it was clear that, for whatever reason, they had not been able to get forward. The Canadians were riddled by machine-gun fire as they advanced in the dark through the wood across the thick tangled roots of ancient oaks. But they came at last to the abandoned guns and sent back the triumphant message that would bring up the gun teams to haul them back. Long before the teams could get there the German artillery had begun to bombard the wood.

Sgt. H. Hall.

An hour after we had dug in there was a terrible concentration of shells sweeping the wood – it was just like a tropical storm sweeps a forest. It was impossible for us to hold the position. But, instead of retiring, we tried our old tactics of advancing and attacking the Germans again. They were digging themselves in two hundred yards in front.

We got in a forward position and stayed there until the early hours of the morning. Our Colonel was killed and we only had two officers left, we were still losing men from the German artillery fire, and our ranks were now so thin that we couldn’t stay out in that exposed position. What could a few of us do against the German hordes? Sick as we were with the gas fumes and the terrific strain of it all, we retreated back through the wood to an old line of trenches and there we dug in and waited for reinforcements.

Pte. W. J. McKenna.

We worked for dear life to get cover before daylight. Fortunately for us it was a little misty in the morning, and that gave us another hour or so to burrow into the earth. It’s hard graft digging with an entrenching tool, especially after an exciting fight and when you’re hungry too, but we managed it at last and we were well out of sight when Fritz dropped a few shells among us next day. Our roll-call while we were in our trench was about three hundred and sixty, which means our battalion alone lost about seven hundred and forty men, all in about ten minutes, and we suffered more casualties before we got away.

Sgt. H. Hall.

But our object had been achieved, and the Germans were demoralised. Our first Brigade appeared on the scene and the line was strengthened, and then the Buffs, the famous English regiment, came up at the double after having marched miles from another part of the line.

So the bluff that we pulled off was entirely successful, and the Germans thought that we had about twenty thousand men attacking them. It never struck their cold-blooded unimaginative minds that two thousand men would have the audacity to attack whole German Divisions without artillery support.

Pte. W. J. McKenna.

To withdraw we had to go along a ditch full of wet muddy slime, and bent double. That’s no easy job at any time, but it’s worse when you’re nearly famished and weary for want of sleep. To get out of the ditch meant a bullet, because snipers were on the look-out. We were under rifle fire for about two miles from our trench, and it was a relief when we found ourselves at last out of range. We thought we were in for a rest, but we were told to fall in and go to relieve a battalion that had been in the trenches and had to retire. However, St Julien, the village we reported at, was suffering severely from shell-fire and several houses were on fire. We hung about for two hours before being told to retire.

Of the strength of two battalions, only ten officers remained to shepherd four hundred survivors away from the battle-line. It had been some consolation to find that the guns abandoned in Kitchener’s Wood had finally been destroyed by the enemy’s own shelling. Even if they had not managed to retrieve them they would at least be of no use to the enemy.

Two nights earlier when they had been relieved from a four-day stint in the trenches the 9th Royal Scots were disappointed to find that they were not to return to their cushy billets in Ypres and had to march on to Vlamertinghe. It was a long, long march and, after four days of inactivity in the trenches, the men were sore and stiff and weary by the time they turned into the field full of black-tarred tarpaulin huts where they were to spend their four days’ rest before going back. It was dawn before the huts were allocated and the weary soldiers of the Dandy Ninth were at last able to turn in. They slept most of the day and they binged most of the next night.

Pte. W. Hay, A Coy., 9th Bn., Royal Scots (Lothian Regt.), 27 Div.

We woke to parcels and letters – the height of bliss! Everybody passed everybody else his cakes or sweets, and the bully beef of our daily ration was stacked in a heap – untouched. What digestions we had! One man, whose only vices were cigarettes and tea, and who was bemoaning the scarcity of fags in the trenches and was hoping all the way down that some would be waiting for him, he sat grinning, opening box after box – seven hundred or so cigarettes. According to our tastes, we were all as happy as he was. Soon the tidy hut was strewn with cardboard boxes, paper, string, and luxuries, and what a mess there was to be cleared up when we got the order to move!

They had hardly recovered from the long march, hardly finished stretching after their long-awaited sleep, and had not nearly finished demolishing the contents of the parcels, when the order came. It was barely forty hours since the Royal Scots began the trek out of the line and they were just settling down to enjoy their second evening of relaxation and looking forward to their second long sleep, when rumours began to fly. It came as no surprise when they were ordered to pack up and to fall in at the double.

Pte. W. Hay.

We knew there was something wrong. We started to march towards Ypres but we couldn’t get past on the road because it was absolutely solid with troops marching up and with refugees coming down the road. We couldn’t pass them so we had to go up along the railway line half-way to Ypres and there were people, civilians and soldiers, lying along the roadside in a terrible state. We heard them say it was gas. We didn’t know what the Hell gas was! There were limbers parked at the side, because they couldn’t get through and it was an absolute turmoil. In fact we had to turn into a field and wait there for a while before we could get on at all. We knew the people must be trying to get away from Ypres, and we could see Ypres up ahead of us all on fire. Blazing! Eventually we got the word to move on, and we had pretty mixed feelings when we got to the outskirts and knew we were going to have to run the gauntlet through the fire, with shells falling all the time. The whole town seemed to be on fire. It was a terrible sight – appalling!

We were split up and we went by platoons, fifty yards between each platoon, and when we got to the big square opposite the town-hall there was blazing and smoking and shells bursting everywhere. We could feel the flames of the fire hot on our faces. Ypres was being demolished – literally razed to the ground with bricks and mortar flying everywhere. I was the Company Sergeant-Major’s batman, Sergeant-Major Ferguson, and he’d given me a sandbag to carry with his binoculars in it and the Company roll-book and his shaving gear and all that sort of thing. Of course I was loaded with my own gear, my pack and my rifle, and this sandbag was hampering me, dodging all the stuff that was flying about. Sergeant-Major Ferguson wasn’t carrying anything, being the Company Sergeant-Major. So I got rid of the sandbag – I just threw it into the fire, because I honestly didn’t think that any of us would get through Ypres the way it was being shelled and bombarded, and fires everywhere and buildings crashing down. You would never have dreamed that you were going to get through that and you’d have even less chance if you were carrying a lot of gear, so I slung the only thing I could get rid of, which was the sandbag. Just slung it into the fire as we passed.

It was a pity really, because we did get through. It was miraculous how we did it but eventually we got out on to the Menin Road and there wasn’t a single casualty in the whole battalion. I’ve always thought that was a miracle! Later on I was sorry I’d got rid of the sandbag because it wasn’t long before Sergeant-Major Ferguson was calling out for me, wanting his stuff, and I was in trouble. I told him I lost it in the inferno in Ypres, and I couldn’t tell you what he said! He gave me a full account of my personal charms, and it wasn’t printable what he said. I got dumped out of that job on the spot unfortunately, because as a batman you can dodge parades and a bit of fatigues. But of course, all that happened next day. That night we didn’t have time to think of anything but getting away from Ypres and getting up to the line. We were up at Potijze Wood by dawn and waited there in bitter cold until the early morning, and of course we didn’t really know what was happening. Then we were moved up to Wieltje not far away and it seems the idea was for the battalion to make an attack from there. Then the orders were changed and the battalion was split up and my company, A company, and Β company were told to fall in and we were marched off to make up part of a composite force with two companies of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry and we were sent up to fill this gap on the left of St Julien. Of course we were nothing like four full companies, because there had been a lot of casualties. We had to go into ditches and fire a few rounds, and go on a bit further and fire a few more, and come back again and fire again – and this was to give the impression to the Germans that there was plenty of troops there. There were a lot of Canadians lying there dead from gas the day before, poor devils, and it was quite a horrible sight for us young men. I was only twenty so it was quite traumatic and I’ve never forgotten nor ever will forget it. The first time that I’ve ever felt really terrified in my heart was when the Colonel gave us orders to fix bayonets.

We were in a ditch in a sunken road and lying there, rifle loaded and all ready, we were told to fix bayonets, and I was really apprehensive. We were all definitely scared thinking that we were going to have hand-to-hand fighting, which wasn’t what I thought we’d have to do. I thought we’d be firing rifles – I didn’t expect to be going bayonet fighting with the Germans. No, I didn’t expect that. There was a temporary sort of cottage they were using as a dressing station at St Julien and I took a look round the corner of it and saw loads and loads of Germans, just like rabbits! There were thousands of them there, a good bit away of course. You could see at a glance that we were very much outnumbered.

We got the order to advance – just to go forward a bit, because there was no barbed wire there and it was open country. However we went no further because it was getting late in the evening so we were told to start digging rifle pits, one to each man, so that they could be joined up to make the forerunner of a trench. We were all up there, because they needed every spare man, there was nobody hanging around, everybody had to go up into action and fill this gap – and I was digging with David Newbury. We were both young men and we didn’t know the name of psychology, but we’d both been brought up reading the old schoolboys’ magazines and we heard all the tales about Germans being frightened of the Highlanders. We came to the conclusion together that if both of us made for one German it would frighten the wits out of him if he saw two Highlanders come at him with their bayonets. We thought that if we looked ferocious enough as we ran at a German he’d just pack it in and run away, and maybe that would influence the others to do the same. That was our idea, but we never got to putting it into practice.

When we began to advance, their machine-guns opened on us and David got a bullet across his forehead and his blood was running all down his face. I thought he was killed, but even though he was my pal, I wasn’t allowed to stop and tie him up. We had to go on, so we went further and we came to a little hollow in the ground and got into it. We couldn’t see any Germans then because we were really under cover there in that slight hollow and the Germans were machine-gunning over our heads. And then the Captain got a bullet in his thigh, Captain Taylor. Of course we were stopped then, so I managed to tie it up roughly for him and then stretcher-bearers took him and as he went away, he told us to get on and dig these rifle pits.

We had to get over this stream where all the trees had been knocked down by shell-fire, so we clambered over them, hanging on to the branches to get over the other side and start digging this line such as it was. For some reason the Germans didn’t come on. If they had we’d all have been massacred. A few hours later we were pulled out and rushed back to Sanctuary Wood. And that went on for four days. Back and forwards. Out and in. Here and there. We never knew where we were or what we were supposed to be doing!

Hay now belonged to a force of men that was hastily cobbled together, put under the command of Colonel Geddes of the Buffs and rushed to the assistance of the hard-pressed Canadians. It was not much of a force, for it only consisted of a few half battalions, some odd companies, and a few battalions drawn from Divisional reserve, Corps reserve – even Army reserve. Many of them were already under-strength and together they only amounted to seven Battalions, thinned and weakened by casualties. But it was the best that could be done – and it was a dangerous ‘best’ because although a third of the strength was strung out in a ‘second line’ just behind the fluid front, every man was in the line. If the Germans made a move and poured through the gaps or broke through the embryo defences of the new flank before reinforcements arrived, there would be no reserves at all to stop them. Forty-two German battalions were on the march and only seventeen battalions of British and Canadians stood in their path. They could be brushed aside as easily as a single finger might push open a well-oiled door and, even with the paltry amount of information at their disposal, the senior officers knew it.

Colonel Geddes’s orders were not only to fill the gaps and extend his line to cover the open French front. He was ordered to attack, where he could, to pin the Germans down and, if possible, to push ahead and recover lost ground.

Geddes was as ignorant of the situation as anyone and, with no staff, with only a Brigade Major to assist him, and a platoon of cyclists as a makeshift signalling section, he hardly knew the whereabouts at any one time of all the scattered troops of his command. It was a mammoth task for any Battalion Commander to undertake. But somehow it had to be done.

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