Chapter 15

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All down the line from Ploegstreet to Merville troops were ordered to prepare to move off at short notice but those in reserve or at rest nearest to Ypres were sent for first. They at least could cover some of the distance reasonably fast on foot. Telephone wires hummed and lights burned in Headquarters’ offices far into the night – and the next night, and the next. No matter how desperate the situation, Battalions and reserves could not be suddenly withdrawn from the line without first making complicated arrangements to ensure the safety of the line when they had gone. Vehicles had to be provided to carry them north and to follow them up with supplies of rations and ammunition, so transport parks were scoured for lorries and limbers, trains were rescheduled and diverted, and long lines of London buses trundled up to camps and villages behind the front to carry the troops away. No one had the faintest idea what had happened, or where or what they were bound for.

The London Rifle Brigade was rudely interrupted at the start of a spell of rest, made all the more enjoyable by the fact that the weather was fine. A sports day was planned to keep the men entertained, the Adjutant had already been to Bailleul to purchase prizes from battalion funds, and the athletes, excused from parades and fatigues, were spending energetic days training for the various events, sprinting, jumping and pole-vaulting in the mild spring weather.

The train they boarded at Steenwerck jolted first towards Hazebrouck on the first leg of the journey and prompted wild speculation. Various wagers were staked in cigarettes, although the joker who suggested that the war was over and they were bound for Calais and home found few takers. But at Hazebrouck, after much delay and shunting, the engine was reversed, the train began to head north and if there were still any doubts about their destination the trainloads of refugees they passed soon dispelled them. It was clear that something serious had happened and that it had happened at Ypres.

The three squadrons of the Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars were in billets round the small village of Pradelles on the road from Hazebrouck to Bailleul, but when the colonel received the order to turn out his men as quickly as possible he had some difficulty in laying his hands on them. They had already trotted off on various training schemes in different parts of the countryside, but it was a fine morning for a gallop, they had let the horses have their heads, and there was no sign of them for miles. It took more than an hour before dispatch-riders, scouring the countryside on motor bikes, were able to track them down and bring them back and it was well after mid-day before they reached the rendezvous at Strazeele where they were to link up with the rest of the 1st Cavalry Division on the way to Ypres.

Tpr. P. Batchelor, D Squadron, Queen’s Own Oxfordshire Hussars.

We waited there for hours before anyone turned up and we didn’t have a clue what was happening. Of course we were used to that – all through Neuve Chapelle we’d waited to go into action and nothing happened. We’d had no grub, so Captain Gill let us go off a few at a time for a quarter of an hour to get some coffee and maybe a bit of bread and cheese in the village. It was half-way through the afternoon before we finally moved off, and the road was so packed with troops marching up that we could hardly get the squadron through. It took us more than three hours to cover three miles and then we were dismounted and waited for hours again while they tried to find billets. By the time we’d fed and watered the horses it was past midnight before we turned in ourselves – and we’d hardly got to sleep before we were up again and off on the road to Ypres.

By setting off before first light when the roads were slightly quieter and the weary infantry still slept, by riding across country after daylight, spurred on by the sound of the guns booming louder as they approached, the Oxfordshire Hussars arrived shortly after nine in the morning and unsaddled in fields near Vlamertinghe three miles behind the front. One latecomer got there almost ten hours behind the others and his arrival by taxi-cab caused something of a sensation. Lieutenant Wellesley had been on a machine-gun course at Wisques and on his way back, arriving at St Omer on market day, he had indulged in a little shopping for provisions to enliven meals in the mess. Flanders is renowned for succulent asparagus, in season for a few short weeks in April and early May. One stall was piled high with the pick of the crop – the fattest, whitest, freshest stalks Wellesley had ever seen. Like most officers of the Oxfordshire Yeomanry, Wellesley belonged to the landed gentry and enjoyed a comfortable income which enabled him to indulge his epicurean tastes. He purchased a capacious hamper from a stall selling baskets, had it filled with a large quantity of asparagus and, leaving it in charge of his servant, strolled off to find a wine merchant. He bought two cases of the best champagne that St Omer could offer and, after a satisfactory lunch in a restaurant, he hired a ramshackle taxi-cab for the eighteen-mile journey to Pradelles. Wellesley’s servant sat in front with the driver and Wellesley travelled in the back with their luggage plus his bulky purchases. It was a tight squeeze, but Wellesley did not mind. For dinner there would be champagne and asparagus – dripping with country butter (for he had not forgotten that!) – and he looked forward with pleasure to surprising his brother officers with a rare feast.

It was nothing to the surprise that awaited Wellesley himself at Pradelles when he discovered that billets were empty and the Oxfordshire Hussars had gone. Brigade Headquarters had gone too and, given the situation, the confusion of orders, the congestion of troops, no one could tell him precisely where to find his regiment. He guessed, wrongly, that it might have gone south, and the elderly cab-driver, who was no doubt congratulating himself on picking up a lucrative long-distance fare, changed his mind at Laventie when a clutch of shells exploded on the road less than three hundred yards ahead. He stopped the cab and dived beneath it for shelter, flatly refusing to go on, and it was some considerable time before he could be induced to return to the driving seat. Even then, only a large bribe with the promise of more to come dissuaded him from driving straight back to St Omer. By the time their wanderings ended, by the time they had scrounged petrol, lost their way a dozen times, made a thousand enquiries, and roamed the length of the front within earshot of the bombardments, the driver was a broken man.

It was more than twenty-four hours before they tracked down the Oxfordshire Hussars encamped in miserable bivouacs at Vlamertinghe. The champagne and asparagus was unloaded at the entrance to a muddy field in the midst of a bombardment. The taxi-driver, lavishly paid off, set off thankfully to St Omer, and if, in the heat of the emergency, Lieutenant Wellesley did not receive precisely the welcome he had expected from the officers, at least they were impressed by his style. The mess cooks, working in difficult circumstances, were possibly less impressed by the prospect of scraping a hamperful of asparagus in the middle of a battle.

The first task of the Cavalry Division was to reconnoitre and, in particular, to reconnoitre the French front, for the situation was still far from clear and General Wanless O’Gowan, who had crossed the canal expecting to find French positions, had been appalled todiscover that there were still large gaps where no troops were to be found. The new British line was fragile and tenuous enough, but the greatest danger zone was along the canal. The bulk of the French troops had fallen back beyond it and four long miles stretched between the British left and Steenstraat where the French joined hands with the Belgian front running to the north. Reports from French headquarters were patchy and imprecise and the British Command suspected that General Putz himself was not entirely sure of the whereabouts of his men. But one thing was certain. The Germans had crossed the bridge at Steenstraat and gained a foothold on the opposite bank. Luck and the Belgians had prevented them going further, and the Belgians had indeed been lucky. By some uncharacteristic mismanagement or misunderstanding on the part of the Germans not all the gas-cylinders at this crucial juncture of the front had been opened and the gas that had been released had so little effect that the Belgians north of Steenstraat had been able to beat back the Germans and bring their artillery into action to help French comrades on their right. But the Germans did manage to cross the canal. Now they were fighting at Lizerne to the west of it and although the French were fiercely resisting, the enemy was within an ace of driving a wedge between the French and Belgian armies. That would bring disaster. Disaster to the Belgians, who would be entirely cut off between the enemy and the northern swamps. Disaster to the French, already in disarray, whose lines could so easily be rolled up. Disaster to the British in their ragged vulnerable line in the salient round Ypres which could be cut off with ease from the rear. As soon as they arrived on the morning of the 23rd, as soon as the horses were watered and fed and rested, British cavalry patrols were sent off to reconnoitre. But one man was ahead of them.

Artur Barbieur was senior policeman at Proven. The bridge at Steenstraat was in his charge and, war or no war, he did not intend to shirk this responsibility. Barbieur was a family man, and his seven-year-old daughter Paula would remember that evening for the rest of her life.

Mevrouw Paula Hennekint.

My mother pleaded with him not to go, but he would go. Nothing would stop him. After he set off on his bicycle I remember my mother lighting candles in front of a little crucifix and kneeling down to pray. She was a very pious woman. She did the same every night – but that night I remember especially because she was so terribly anxious. She had done the same when the German Hussars passed through our village in August 1914. I remember how frightened we were. We closed all the shutters and kept very still and quiet, my mother on her knees in front of the crucifix.

Of course the Germans didn’t stay then, and the French came when the war really started. I had been going to school since September, and there were soldiers everywhere, French soldiers and Belgian soldiers passing through. The main road was always so blocked with troops and wagons and horses that we had to go to school by the back lanes because the main road was for the military and we were warned not to use it. Next to the police station in the village there was a little prison for soldiers who had misbehaved themselves – nothing serious, but they were under arrest, although it wasn’t rigid and they weren’t strictly guarded. We used to go and talk to them and take them water, and they asked if we could take them some wine – because the French soldiers liked wine. So my mother used to put a bottle of wine hidden in a big jug of water, and we children used to carry it to them in the prison. They could pay for it. It was all fun to us. The French soldiers were good to us. They used to give us some of their rations and white bread, which was wonderful to us.

Then, on the evening of the first gas attack, there were so many rumours going round that no one knew what had happened. All we knew was that something had happened at the canal at Steenstraat and my father decided that he must go to see if the bridge had been blown up, because it would have been his duty to make a report if it had. My mother didn’t try to stop him, but she was very worried and upset. I can understand why she was so emotional now, because my brother was born in December 1915, so she must have just recently found that she was pregnant. It must have been dreadful for her. But my father set off, wearing his police uniform and riding his bicycle as if it was nothing out of the ordinary. We children were sent to bed, but my mother waited up all night – and he didn’t come back.

Late in the evening, by the time Artur Barbieur reached Steenstraat, the fighting had died down. His police uniform enabled him to pass through the French lines. But the Germans were on the look-out and as Barbieur cycled towards the bridge they opened fire.

Mevrouw Paula Hennekint.

I shall never forget the next day. In the morning two Belgian policemen came to tell my mother that my father had been shot and wounded – but they could tell her no more, only that he had been taken away. My mother was distracted. She kept wringing her hands and saying over and over again, ‘What’s going to become of my husband!’ Mother, children, all of us, we were all crying. He just disappeared and we could find out nothing. Every day we saw trainloads of wounded going away, and there were camp hospitals all around us, but we could find out nothing. We didn’t know how badly he was wounded, we didn’t know where he was – or even if he was alive or dead. My poor mother! She almost went out of her mind. She thought he would never come back.

Three weeks later he walked in on crutches. He had been badly shot up in the legs with a big shell splinter in his thigh. He’d had several operations in one of the British camp hospitals and when he began to recover they were going to send him on to a military hospital in England. But he wouldn’t hear of it. He said, ‘No, no. I must get home to my wife and children.’ So they let him go. He hobbled in while my mother was on her knees praying. She went wild! We all did! It was the first news we’d had of him since he went out on his bicycle three weeks before.

Early on the morning of 23 April Sir John French drove to Cassel to discuss matters with General Foch at French headquarters. He did not by any means have a clear picture of the situation but he knew enough to judge that it was critical and that the line of the salient might have to be drastically reduced, if not withdrawn altogether. Foch was scandalised at the very idea. His only thought was to regain his original line and, he assured the British Commander-in-Chief, he had every intention of doing so. Reinforcements were on the way and as soon as they were in position the attack would go in. The British must support it. He was convinced that they would succeed.

General French was in two minds. The salient was so small, the situation on his left so perilous, the casualties were already so large and his own resources in men and materials so small, that all his instincts as a soldier told him that the sensible course would be to draw back to a line that could be more easily defended – even, in the last resort, to contemplate relinquishing Ypres. But it was difficult to refuse an ally who was so convinced that the situation could be retrieved. French hesitated, and finally, almost against his better judgement, he agreed. But he made one stipulation. If the French did not succeed, with his support, in restoring the situation within ‘a reasonable time’ he would be forced to reconsider his position and draw in his line. Meanwhile, he would reinforce his Second Army and fight on. Already fresh troops had been ordered to stand by and be prepared to move at short notice. As soon as he returned to his advanced headquarters at Hazebrouck the Commander-in-Chief issued the orders that would send them on their way.

The French Commander-in-Chief, Marshal Joffre, shared Sir John French’s misgivings. The unexpectedness of the German attack at Ypres was a disconcerting annoyance and not at all in conformance with his own plan for the prosecution of the war. Joffre had his sights firmly set on the triple attack that would disrupt the German lines of communication – the all-out effort, so carefully planned, that would reduce the huge German salient that swung deep into France, and release the towns and villages imprisoned in its maw. Preparations were almost complete, the British – who had risen in his estimation since their independent action at Neuve Chapelle – were committed to cooperate and, in Joffre’s view, the best way of relieving the pressure at Ypres was to distract the Germans with a major offensive elsewhere. Ypres, by comparison, was small beer and had the British 29th Division not been diverted to Gallipoli, thus preventing them from taking over his entire line in the north, Joffre would have had no French troops there at all.* As it was, in the light of the coming offensive, he was reluctant to commit any more of his men and to weaken his armies, poised for the assault, by bleeding them of badly needed resources in men and materials in order to commit them to what, at best, was a distraction and, at worst, might well turn out to be a lost cause. General Foch would have to fight hard to wrest reinforcements from the ample reserves at Marshal Joffre’s disposal.

Sir John French, who was equally anxious to participate in a breakthrough and to capitalise on the initial success at Neuve Chapelle, was in sympathy with the French Commander’s view. But a promise was a promise. General Foch had been so optimistic, so sure that the French could recover the lost ground, that Sir John French had only a few qualms as he issued the order for the counter-attack that would help them to get it back. General Foch, perhaps with a qualm or two of his own, had already driven to the headquarters of the unfortunate General Putz to urge him to take action as quickly as possible. He must attack, and attack at once. But it was an attack which General Putz was in no position to undertake and it had precious little chance of succeeding. The only reinforcements which Putz had yet received – two battalions and two batteries of guns rushed down from his isolated command at Nieuport – had already been thrown in at Lizerne where the French were holding back the German advance.

There was no time for preparation, no time for reconnaissance of the ground, and no exact knowledge of the enemy’s position. Nevertheless there was no arguing with a direct order from General Headquarters and, in the circumstances, both Smith-Dorrien and Plumer agreed that if an attack must be made it ought to be made speedily. The enemy front was ominously quiet and that could only be because the Germans were digging in, wiring a line that might soon become impregnable, and bringing up reserves to replace their casualties and increase their strength. But the hold-ups were many, the arrival of fresh troops was delayed by the congestion on the roads and the attack which should have gone in at three o’clock was not launched until almost half past four. Communications were so sketchy that it was all but impossible to arrange for artillery support and the batteries which did receive the message to fire a preliminary bombardment at 2.45 in support of the three o’clock attack did not receive the news of its postponement and the precious ammunition they fired in the general direction of the enemy went for nothing. When the troops finally started off, moving in broad daylight across open country towards the unseen German positions, the guns did their best to support them, but there was not much they could do. The German guns opened up, the infantry vanished into the smoke of explosions and half of those who survived to get within striking distance of the German positions were mown down by close-range fire from rifles and machine-guns. After the attack had started four hundred French colonial troops lining the eastern bank of the canal joined in, apparently spontaneously, but they very soon withdrew and no more was seen of the French. By seven o’clock it was all over and limp bands of survivors were lying low, waiting until darkness fell to cover the long crawl back. All the time the German heavy guns were thundering, as they had thundered all day, raining shells into the battlefield and into Ypres.

But the Commander-in-Chief had kept his promise to General Foch, although at a fearful price. No ground was captured which could not have been occupied if the fresh troops had simply walked forward under cover of darkness and now those badly needed troops who might have served to strengthen the line had themselves been decimated. They had lost most of their officers – including three Battalion Commanders – and more than half the men. It was only some consolation that matters might have been worse for, except at Lizerne, and apart from isolated bombing raids where the out flanked angle of the weak Canadian line turned to join the new extended front, the Germans had not followed up their success of the previous evening with a full-scale assault. But no one had any doubt that sooner rather than later they would, and every man would be needed to meet the attack when it came.

It was Friday night, 23 April. St George was the patron saint of the Northumberland Fusiliers and, as they marched towards Ypres, there was not a man of the 7th Battalion who was not aware that today was St George’s Day. It was exactly seventy-two hours since the 50th Northumbrian Territorial Division had landed in France and its 149th Brigade had spent one night in troop trains chugging slowly north, and another in billets around Mount Kemmel. Now they were going into battle, and if any such thoughts as iambs to the slaughter’ occurred to the mind of their Divisional Commander he kept them to himself.

L/cpl. J. Dorgan, 7th Bn., Northumberland Fusiliers, 50 Div. (TF).

We arrived at the outskirts of Ypres and marched through the square, the market place of Ypres. Shells were dropping on the cobbled stones and some of the lighter shells and the shrapnel were spreading right across the square and the Cloth Hall and the Cathedral were on fire. We had our first casualty in going through the square, Tommy Rachael, who was a postman in Ashington. He was marching behind me and he shouted out, he said, ‘I’m wounded.’ Nobody would believe him and then somebody said, There’s blood coming down his legs,’ and another fellow said, ‘Help him, help him somebody. He’s not going to drop out. We’re the Northumberland Fusiliers!’ That was the spirit we had.

As we reached the outskirts we didn’t know where we were going, neither officers nor men. After having an hour or two’s sleep just outside of Ypres we marched on in the early hours of 24 April under heavy shell-fire.

Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien had spent an anxious dispiriting evening, counting the cost of the counter-attack and poring over maps, trying as a soldier to read the soldier’s mind of his opposite number at German Headquarters. In the position of the German Commander, what would he do? It was true that there had been local skirmishes but, from the German point of view, they had demonstrated very little other than their desire to improve their position. The absence of a full-scale infantry assault – which could hardly have been withstood – was a blessing, but the strange lack of movement was ominous. More than twenty-four hours had passed since the Germans had broken the allied line, and still their infantry hesitated. Why? Something was bound to happen. Somewhere the blow would fall. But where?

Knowing, as the Germans must, that the allied line had been broken, guessing, as they surely would, that the scanty reserves had been used up to strengthen the new northern flank, knowing full well the extent of the casualties they had inflicted, Smith-Dorrien reasoned that a German General’s inclination might be to attack the southern face of the salient, to break through and take the northern flank from the rear or, by forcing the British to fight back-to-back on two flanks, to gradually squeeze them in and snuff them out. He was dismally aware that it was only one of several imponderable possibilities but it could not be discounted, and he made haste to send a signal to the troops in the thin denuded lines on the east and south of the salient to be vigilant and alert to the likelihood of attack.

But the line on the eastern face of the salient was more vulnerable than the line facing south, and no one knew better than Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien just how inadequate it was. The British Army had only begun to take over this sector from the French in the early part of April, the defences were woeful and even after a lot of hard work they were not much improved. The sector held by the 27th and 28th Divisions ran from the Menin Road, a mile in front of the village of Gheluvelt, lost to the Germans in the autumn of 1914, crept out to enclose Polygon Wood, swung north past Broodseinde east of Zonnebeke, and jutted east again across a slope to enclose the farms the French called Seine and Marne. Here for a few hundred yards the line ran very close to the Germans, a matter of yards away, and from this point the salient began to tail down on its slow curve to the north-west.*

Beyond the tiny copse they called Berlin Wood the Canadians took over the line that ran across the Ostnieuwkerke road half a mile north of the hamlet of Gravenstafel and on, sloping gently above the Gravenstafel Ridge, to the Poelcapelle Road half a mile in front of that village. It was here that the Canadians had joined hands with the French and it was just beyond the Poelcapelle Road that the French line had been forced in by the gas attack. The Canadians had been in the new line for just over a week and the defences they inherited from the French were lamentable. The front-line trenches were constructed of thin sandbagged parapets, far from bullet-proof, and with no sheltering parados to prevent shots striking from the rear. They were mere outposts grouped together at intervals with nothing to link them but a few shallow ditches, less than three feet deep, running back here and there to flimsy support positions behind. A few tumbledown dug-outs of wood and tarpaulin that were good enough to provide shelter from the rain would give much the same protection as umbrellas against bombardment.

A little way behind the front, on the western edge of the Gravenstafel Ridge, some unfinished trenches straggled across ground that was still littered with the unburied bodies of French and German soldiers killed six months ago in the First Battle of Ypres. The army referred to this sector as ‘Locality C’. Canadian working parties, given the distasteful task of scattering chloride of lime in an effort to smother the stench of corruption, referred to it in less printable terms.

But the one bright spot in this pathetically weak front was the deep belt of barbed wire entanglements that protected it and the French had depended on this, on machine-gun posts behind it, and on their excellent quick-firing .75 guns to defend it. And they had constructed another line, far stronger than the first. It was the line of last resort and it ran not far in front of Ypres, from Hill 60 to the Menin Road, across a gradual slope to pass north of Potijze, to encircle Wieltje and cross the low ridge between Mouse Trap Farm and Kitchener’s Wood. It was so far back that the British, dearly wishing when they took over their stretch of it that their allies had constructed a line half as strong two miles ahead, little thinking that they would ever need to make use of it as a front, named it ‘the GHQ line’. Now, pushing against the newly formed and fragile defensive flank, the Germans were ranged against its northern extremity.

The Germans had made the most of the twenty-four hours’ breathing space, and they were thinking on their feet, because the gas attack had been a tactical experiment and had not figured in their overall strategy as the preliminary to a full-scale planned campaign. But the opportunity presented by such remarkable success was too tantalising to resist. Their misfortune was that no reserves had been on hand to exploit it to the full. Even now there were few reserves to call on for their own casualties had not been small and the counter-attacks had taken them by surprise and even demoralised their troops.*

The best that could be done in the short term was to depend on heavy artillery fire to soften the British front and create havoc in Ypres, to fight on at Steenstraat and Lizerne, and to warn the tired troops facing the British defensive flank to dig in and stand fast. Even though these troops were in the best position to make a successful assault they were in no fit state to undertake it. But there was still the gas, and with gas they could repeat their success. On 23 April, all during the hours of daylight, through the dusk and on into the dark, while their big guns fired incessantly, the Germans moved up field guns and trench mortars to support their captured front and dug in fresh gas cylinders in front of the Canadians in their unbroken original line still facing them to the east. This time the Germans were determined to make no mistake and to give themselves ample time to press home their advantage.

The wind was steady and blowing in the right direction. Long before dawn they began to bombard the Canadians’ vulnerable line. An hour later the gas cylinders were opened and the gas was released across the centre of their front. It was four o’clock in the morning and the moon behind the flashes of the guns had barely begun to wane in the night sky when the first fumes drifted across. Drifting ghostly and lurid in the dim light in a bank fifteen feet high, it rolled across the wire and engulfed the Canadians in the makeshift trenches inherited from the French. They had nothing to protect them from the gas – only handkerchiefs, towels, even cotton bandoliers, hastily clapped across mouth and nose, and soon there was no time even for that, for the enemy was advancing in the wake of the fumes and the men who had not immediately collapsed had to mount the parapets to meet them. Only where the gas was thickest in front of part of Jim Keddie’s 48th Highlanders did the line give way after a bitter fight.

L/cpl. J. D. Keddie.

Just before 4 a.m. on the 24th we managed to get a mouthful of rum each. We had no sooner got it down than the enemy started an attack, beginning with gas. They then began to shell the reserve trenches, and they did it to some tune. You could hardly get breath for the concussion! They also had the range, and the loss of life was awful, and oh, the horrors, the sights were dreadful. One poor beggar came along crying for someone to tie up his arm. Nobody seemed to care for the job, so I got hold of him and did my best. The arm was completely off up to the elbow – a fearful sight. While I was attending to him, I got a flesh wound on the head, and, Lord, did it bleed! But it wasn’t sore. I’d fired about a hundred and fifty rounds by this time, and I’d sent two men to get more ammunition. I saw them coming back and they only had about thirty yards to go when one of them was shot right through the head. Well, I knew the other couldn’t carry it himself, so I crawled out to give him a lift, and on my way I got it through the sole of my right foot. It wasn’t very painful at the time. We got the box of ammunition to the trench somehow, then I looked for the quickest way to a First Aid Station and beat it as quick as I could. I could walk on the foot fairly well, and in fact I could sometimes do a little trot. But when I got there I found that an order had been given to retire, so they could do nothing for me.

The previous day when they had been brought up towards the line, the raw inexperienced troops of the 50th Northumbrian Division had only been intended to act as reserves. Now that every man of the reserves was needed, raw or not, they were pushed up into the salient and ordered to press on through the shelling to the front line.

L/cpl. J. Dorgan.

We suffered many casualties on the road up, many, many casualties. I remember a shell dropping when we were lying behind a hedge, and two men had both their legs taken off. One lived a few minutes, the other lived about half an hour. One was called Jackie Oliver and the other was Bob Young. Bob Young was the first to go. When he was hit he said, ‘Will you take my wife’s photograph out of my pocket?’ He was sensible to the last and jokingly, as I thought, he kept saying to me, he says, Tut my legs straight.’ Well, he’d no legs to put straight, and I just made a movement, touched the lower part of his body. What could I do? He died with his wife’s photograph in his hand.

Jackie Oliver had a brother in our Battalion and I shouted to our fellows who had to leave me with these two wounded men, Tell Weedy Oliver his brother’s wounded.’ He never recovered consciousness but eventually, some time later, Weedy Oliver came back and was with his brother when he died. No doctors available. No first aid available. I don’t know where they were, because our Battalion was still advancing towards the front line. I just had to leave them. I don’t know where they were buried. I never saw them or heard of them again. I had to go as fast as I could to catch up with our Battalion.

We went on and on and, as we went up the Canadians and the Highlanders were retreating from the front line because they had been under gas. There was no gas-masks, nothing for gas casualties, and all they had on was their bandage out of their first aid kit which every soldier carried in a pocket in his tunic, and they had these bandages on their eyes and there they went staggering back. Gas never affected me and there was fellows dropping behind all the time – I must have been one of the lucky ones. We came to the reserve trenches, but we didn’t recognise them as trenches, nobody in them, they were all retired. So we just jumped over, but we never reached the front line. The gas was too dense and then we had to retire. We never reached St Julien. I think we only got as far as St Jean but, wherever it was, we had to retire from there. We didn’t come out of the line for four days.

The Canadians had finally ‘budged’ – but only some of them, only in the last resort, and only because the odds against them were not humanly possible to overcome. But, on either side of the gap in the line they had left, others like Jim Keddie were fighting on, manning the parapets with rifles, blazing machine-gun fire to break up the German ranks as they closed in ahead of them, swinging round to pour crossfire on the enemy soldiers as they attempted to advance to ‘Locality C’. As soon as the situation was known in the scattered batteries every available gun joined in the fight to beat them off. The Germans took heavy punishment, but they had twenty-four Battalions against the Canadians’ eight to envelop the angle of the line that ran in front of Gravenstafel and swung back in front of St Julien to Kitchener’s Wood, with a dangerous gap in the eastern face where the Royal Highlanders of Canada had been forced to retire and part of the 3rd Battalion had been overrun in the first onslaught.

L/cpl. J. W. Finnimore, 3rd Bn., 1st Canadian Brig., 1st Canadian Div.

I’d only been four years in Canada when the war started. Before that I was an apprentice at Woolwich Arsenal, but times were slack and I knew perfectly well that as soon as my time was out and I reached twenty-one I would be sacked. It didn’t seem worth waiting around for that, so I emigrated to Canada in 1910. Still, I considered myself to be a Canadian, though proud of my British descent, and I considered it my duty to join up. I was glad to do it.

That day, 24 April, was the worst day of my life. It started with a really violent bombardment and then – you could only call it a cloud of death when the gas came over, and this time it was directed straight at us. People were suffocating, but some were worse affected than others and the word was passed down that we were to hold on at all costs. We did our best, but first I was wounded in the leg and then, when the Germans were advancing and we got the order to retire, I couldn’t move – naturally. All I can remember much later is a German soldier standing over me pointing his rifle and bayonet at my chest. It was my worst moment of the whole war because, being wounded in the leg, I couldn’t get up and I couldn’t walk. I thought he was going to let me have it. But he didn’t. We were near a deserted farmyard and he handed his rifle to a comrade and went off into this farm and came back a few minutes later with a wheelbarrow. He put me in it and then he pushed me all the way through to their rear dressing station – and it must have been a good mile behind their lines. The German doctors and orderlies were up to their eyes with their own casualties. They couldn’t do a lot for us. We wounded prisoners were laid down on some straw in a church hall and there we lay from Saturday to Monday. Then they put us in box-cars and took us to Paderborn in Westphalia, a journey of two or three days. They gave us a meal, and I remember thinking it was the first hot food I’d had for a week.

But the Canadians were holding the Germans at one dangerous point they had even counter-attacked, but they could not hold out indefinitely. Nor could the guns. And if the troops were forced to retire, the guns would be in danger.

Lt. Col. P. Burney, 9th Heavy Brig., RGA.

I was commanding the 9th Brigade of Heavy Artillery, consisting of the 71st Heavy Battery of four 4.7-inch guns and the 121st Battery, also 4.7-inch guns. The 121st Battery was in action at Wittepoert Farm, firing in a southerly direction. It was in the forenoon that I got a message by telephone to say that masses of Germans were advancing up the Poelcapelle to St Julien road. I kept Owen’s gun teams near his farm billet, to the rear and towards the railway, and had arranged with him for his line of retreat in case of emergency. Just about 11 a.m. my adjutant, Captain Pask, came up to say that numbers of Canadians were coming back from Zonnebeke and that they were not wounded, but he could not get them to turn back, although he had threatened to shoot them! I went down and in the hall of my billet I found about half a dozen Canadians looking very pale, having choking fits and asking for water. Many others were in the road outside, and none could explain what had happened to them.

I went back to my telephone room and called up Owen, told him the situation, and I asked him to turn his guns end for end (no easy job with a 4.7-inch deep in mud), and get on top of his billet at the farm, where he would probably get a view of the Poelcapelle to St Julien road, and keep up a heavy shrapnel fire on the advancing Germans. As soon as he had used up all his shrapnel he was to report to me on the telephone, or if that was cut, to use his own discretion about retiring along our prearranged route.

My billet was just outside the Menin Gate and around us were two other field artillery Brigade Headquarters, and one Belgian. The enemy were bombarding Ypres with huge 17-inch Howitzers and the shells were falling mostly on the Menin Gate. Both my horses in a stable across the road had been killed and the stable set on fire, and my Adjutant was somewhat worried and wanted to know whether we had better not shift. I told him to have everything packed and put into the wagon and to be ready to move at once.

About 2 p.m. I heard that the Germans had taken St Julien and were pressing on to Wieltje. Just at that moment Owen called me on the telephone. He said that he had got a good view of the enemy on the Poelcapelle to St Julien road and had kept a heavy shrapnel fire on them until all his shells were expended. He also said that the enemy were now beyond his left rear and asked if he was to retire. I ordered him to move to his wagon lines to the other side of Ypres, as arranged. All the time these 17-inch shells had been causing havoc at the Menin Gate and our billet was being badly shaken by the explosions. The telephone room was an outbuilt room of glass used by the previous owner as a dentistry, and it was literally tumbling to pieces, so I ordered my Adjutant to move to the other side of Ypres and to wait at the Vlamertinghe crossroads until I joined him.

Shortly afterwards it got very unhealthy and I then decided to leave the billet with the two telephone operators who had remained with me. In the street I saw a passing car and hailed it. It was a Staff Officer who was going back through Ypres to Poperinghe, so I got a lift and asked if I might sit alongside the driver, because I knew the best way through Ypres when it was being shelled. As we were passing along one of the streets I heard a shell coming straight for us, so I told the driver to stop. Sure enough, a 5.9-inch burst in the line of houses about two hundred yards ahead of us and blocked the street with debris. Our car was a Ford, and I asked the driver if he could drive over the debris. He said, ‘Yes,’ so I replied, ‘Drive like hell then, before another shell comes.’ He revved up the engine and that little car made for the pile of debris and we lurched and bumped and positively jumped over it! We got through safely.

At the Asylum Road junction I met General Gay and told him that I had retired the 121st Battery to its wagon lines and just before leaving the Menin Gate billet had heard from Major Owen that the battery had arrived safely with the loss of only two horses killed by shrapnel on the Hooge to Ypres road just where it crosses the railway.

It had been a day of close shaves. The Germans were on the move. St Mien had been captured. The guns were retreating. Every man was in the line. At nightfall the Canadians were ordered to retire from their hard-pressed front to a position further back and the Germans moved forward exultantly into the ground they had given up. But it was not over yet. Ypres and the shrunken salient around it still held out.

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