Part 4

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The Desperate Days

The green and grey and purple day is barred with clouds of dun,
From Ypres city smouldering before the setting sun.
Another hour will see it flower, lamentable sight,
A bush of burning roses underneath the night.

Charles Scott-Moncrieff

Chapter 16

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Until news of the battle at Ypres arrived and the Germans’ infamous use of gas caused general outrage, the British public had been avidly following the progress of a sensational murder trial. George Smith was appearing at the Old Bailey on a charge of triple murder in the notorious case of the Brides in the Bath, and it had pushed even the war from the headlines of all but the most ponderous newspapers.

Spring was well under way, the fine weather brought crowds of strollers into the parks and shoppers into the streets, and shipping companies were urging war-weary people who could afford it to book up now for recuperative sea voyages to Cape Town or Madeira. Only Egypt had been struck from their agendas of peacetime destinations.

Harrods of Knightsbridge was preparing a special event to display the new spring fashions which, for one week only, would be sold at promotional prices. Recently, business in the fashion departments had been slow. It was not exactly considered unpatriotic to buy new clothes but unnecessary purchases were looked on as something of an indulgence and Harrods’ customers on the whole were shopping with care and with an eye to the practical. In tune with the mood of the moment the advertisements that publicised the new spring fashions featured practical garments – light coloured coats, severely tailored in artificial silk, but in an enticing range of fashionable colours, and plain well-cut blouses in fine crêpe-de-chine – and in all the tasteful window displays there was hardly a frill or a furbelow to be seen. As a further inducement to bring customers into the store the whole event was to have a patriotic theme. In the restaurant the Royal Welsh Ladies Choir would give afternoon concerts, conducted by Madame Clara Novello-Davies, accompanied by her son Ivor Novello at the piano, and weary shoppers enjoying afternoon tea would be encouraged to purchase programmes and copies of the songs in aid of Queen Alexandra’s Field Force Fund. There would also be collections for the Red Cross and, as usual, demonstrations of bandage-making and a cutting-out service for flannel bed jackets suitable for wounded soldiers and expert staff would be on hand to give advice on the selection of knitting-wool and patterns for garments for the troops. It was all nicely judged to appeal to the frivolous and the dutiful alike.

When the call came for gas-masks Harrods had several samples made up within the hour and lost no time in replacing spring fashions in a window near the Knightsbridge entrance with a display of home-made gas-masks, showing step-by-step stages of production. Inside the store a special counter was hastily rigged up to sell the gauze, the cotton wool, and tape required to make them up according to War Office instructions and members of staff gave non-stop demonstrations to show the willing public how to go about it.

A face piece (to cover mouth and nostrils), formed of an oblong pad of bleached absorbent cotton-wool about 51/4in. × 3in. × 3/4in., covered with three layers of bleached cotton gauze and fitted with a band, to fit round the head and keep the pad in position, consisting of a piece of 1/2in. cotton elastic 16in. long, attached to the narrow end of the face pad, so as to form a loop with the pad.

These respirators should be sent in packages of not less than 100 to Chief Ordnance Office, Royal Army Clothing Department, Pimlico.

The War Office appeal for half a million gas-masks had been published in the national press and all over the country there was a run on gauze and cotton wool as Red Cross working-parties, schools, and tens of thousands of indignant individuals applied themselves eagerly to the task of making rudimentary gas masks for ‘the boys at the front’. The government hoped to be able to send a hundred thousand home-made masks to France within a week. Until they got there the boys at the front would have to manage as best they could.

Emergency measures had been quickly drawn up by the Director of Medical Services and sent out in priority signals to all units. Pending the arrival of gas-masks the troops were instructed to dampen any available piece of material – a handkerchief, a sock, a flannel body-belt – and tie it across mouth and nose until the gas passed over. They believed that a solution of bicarbonate of soda would be the most effective liquid to combat the fumes and Commanding Officers were instructed to obtain supplies locally and to have the solution made up and placed at intervals in buckets or biscuit tins along the trenches. In quiet sectors of the line this instruction was faithfully carried out. At Ypres, where the battle still raged and the ‘trenches’ were no more than scrapes in the wavering line, it was clearly impossible. Conceding this, the Director of Medical Services advised that, in an emergency, any liquid that was to hand would give some protection against gas fumes. The men in the line, correctly interpreting this suggestion in the personal terms it implied, felt that ‘to hand’ was a somewhat inappropriate choice of words. But whatever method they used to combat the gas the troops were told to hang on for dear life until the gas cloud passed over, to stand fast and meet the enemy as he came on. It could be done – and the Canadians had proved it.

Although it thinned and dissipated as it went, the gas had left its mark as it travelled. Grass turned yellow. Leaves shrivelled and died. Hens lay dead in abandoned farmyards. Birds fell from the trees, and there were dead rats everywhere. Even quite far beyond the site of the attack the bloated bodies of farm animals lay swelling in the sun. No one had time to bury them. And no one had much idea how to treat the survivors of the gas attack who were carried to the dressing stations and hospitals behind the salient.

The distress of the gas victims was pitiful to see. By the time the lucky ones reached the Casualty Clearing Stations many hours after they had been gassed most had passed into the second stage. Their throats still burned; they were still coughing and gasping, incapable of speech, their chests distended and seared with agonising pain. But the retching and vomiting had passed. The yellow froth that foamed so copiously from the mouth and nostrils in the first few hours gave way to a bright viscous mucus streaked with blood from haemorrhages in the trachea, or reddish-brown where blood vessels had burst and seeped into the tissues of the lung. Now the men were exhausted and weak from lack of oxygen for the lungs had become so engorged with fluid that they swelled to twice their normal size. In the worst cases the skin turned reddish violet, and if pneumonia or pleurisy set in, as it so often did, there was small hope of recovery. Little by little men drowned in their own secretions. It was a horrible death and, try as they would, there was little doctors could do to prevent it.

The doctors and medical orderlies in dressing stations and clearing stations, and in ambulance units run by civilians – the Quakers of the Friends Ambulance Unit, the faithful nuns in the convents – were all frantically over-worked, for men wounded in the fighting and by the incessant bombardments far outnumbered the gas casualties. Stretcher-bearers working under fire performed heroic feats but, even so, men who were wounded in the costly counter-attacks where no ground was gained (or where the troops were forced back) were all too often left to fall into the hands of the Germans if they were lucky, or simply to die if they were not. It was fortunate for Jim Keddie that he could fend for himself, but there were times on his long crawl back when he thought it was touch and go.

L/cpl. J. D. Keddie.

I kept going on and on in a perfect hail of bullets and shrapnel. At last I found an English gun battery. A doctor was there and he put me in a little shed on straw, took off my boot and cut off my sock and dressed the foot. He asked how far I had come and when I told him about three miles he said he did not know how I had got that length. He told me to sleep until he could find a stretcher. I must have slept for hours, but I was awakened by bursting shells, so I thought I’d better get out. But how? was the question. The battery fellows had gone, and now that my boot was off I had nothing to hold my foot together.

There was a farm about two hundred yards away. I saw people moving around so I thought if I could get that length I should be all right. I noticed an old shovel nearby so I hopped over and got hold of it, but it was more difficult than I thought, because my foot started to bleed again, and the blood was dripping through the bandages. The ground was so rough I couldn’t hop without falling – and then I found I had a marsh to get over, which I knew was impossible. So here was a fine fix! I could neither go back nor forward, and shells were bursting all around, so I lay down.

Then I saw two soldiers running towards me. They carried me up to the farm and laid me in the barn, gave me some army biscuits and cheese, and a bowl of milk. It was the best they had. I lay there for a while, when, all at once, a shell crashed through the building and killed one of the men billeted there, so they said they would have to try and get me out. There was a Dressing Station not far off, and they said they could take me over, but it was very dangerous owing to the shelling.* I said I would go. I was then carried on their shoulders, and laid on the floor beside a lot more and given an injection for lock-jaw. Later I was taken to a small place outside Ypres, and at daylight next morning to Ypres itself and on by motor from there to a place out of sound of guns and put into a school. Next day I was put on the ambulance train for Boulogne.

Keddie was a fortunate soldier. Those who were more severely wounded or were less determined had a smaller chance, because, as the troops fell back and the fighting grew dangerously near, the Advanced Aid Posts, if they were to be of any use at all, also had to pack up and retire further and further away from the shifting line. Even the main Dressing Stations in Ypres itself were forced either to move away or be shelled out of existence. Most of them concentrated near Vlamertinghe, and others from as far back as Bailleul moved up to help them cope with the flood of casualties.

But nowhere was safe from the bombarding shells of which the enemy seemed to have such an inexhaustible supply. His big guns roared and probed, targeted on Ypres and searching for British and Canadian batteries driven back to new positions.

Sgnr. J. E. Sutton.

We pulled back across the main road and went into action behind a wood. After being fired at by enemy guns, which we could see to our rear, we went back to the other side of Potijze Wood. In the wood was a chateau, deserted but undamaged. The occupants must have been heavy champagne drinkers as there were several walls in the grounds built of empty champagne bottles. A direct hit by an enemy shell threw glass fragments a considerable distance. We were hopelessly outgunned. I could count only eight field guns and two 4.7-inch guns in our vicinity. The wood was being shelled by over twenty-four enemy guns, mostly heavies. Some additional field guns moved in, but we were still out-gunned. The enemy were using 17-inch Howitzers to shell Ypres and the shells sounded almost like freight trains as they passed over. Looking back into the city you could see several houses disintegrate when a single shell exploded.

Pte. W. Hay.

We fell back and the chateau in Potijze Wood was our rendezvous. We had one battery of field guns there belonging to the Canadians, eighteen-pounders. And there was a farm ablaze, set alight by a German shell and inside the barn were two big wagons loaded with ammunition shells, and the farm was in flames, blazing. Well, there were two wounded artillerymen, Canadians, in the farm. We had stretcher-bearers (the bandsmen were made stretcher-bearers because they couldn’t fight so they were put on a much worse job. A stretcher-bearer is much worse than being in the line, carrying the wounded back under fire) – anyway there was two blokes, Edmondson and another fellow, both of them bandsmen, and they went over with the stretcher and brought these two artillerymen out. The place was blazing – any minute it could have gone up! So two of their gun limbers went in while the place was blazing and hooked up the ammunition wagons and pulled them out, and the two stretcher-bearers went up to the farmhouse and brought out a couple of artillerymen who were wounded. They got no medals for it. Later on you got medals for making a cup of tea for the captain – but not then!*

Sgnr. J. E. Sutton.

Behind our guns was the playhouse for the owner and his meal guests, servants’ quarters below with a panelled room above, reached by an outside stairway. There was some beautiful cut glass, but no liquor, also a large oil painting of drinking and wenching scenes. For about a week Macdonald and I slept in the upper room. The building had a thatched roof, which was hit by an incendiary shell. We got out with our belongings in a hurry. Next day Major McDougall said to me: ‘Sutton, I have cursed and damned every man in the Battery individually and collectively, and when I was foolish enough to go into a burning building to get a picture, a man from the 9th Battery came along to see I got out safely.’ I did not tell the Major that Macdonald had told me that he went back to get the picture but that the ‘old man’ beat him to it!

Sutton and Macdonald relished the joke. There was not much else to laugh at, and the outlook was grim. In theory the guns were still restricted to firing three rounds of ammunition a day – in practice they had been firing as much as they could lay hands on. But the supplies of shells, so pitifully inadequate to start with, were sinking at an alarming rate. The gunners had done what they could, and field guns firing at close range had achieved miracle after miracle in helping the infantry beat off the enemy. But heavy guns were scarce, many were obsolete, and heavy shells were scarcer still, so that even when they had been able to pinpoint new enemy positions, their efforts were of little avail. The artillery was outnumbered and out-gunned and in the shrinking salient round Ypres the German guns were clustered round three sides, firing at short range now that their field guns had moved forward to positions on the captured ground which they were labouring night and day to consolidate. And they were consolidating fast.

The new German defences were makeshift, but they were strong and easily able, with the help of powerful artillery, to repel assault by infantry massed in numbers far greater than their own. They might have been smashed by concentrated shelling with high explosive, but there was no high explosive – only shrapnel shell, and the short sparse bombardments that preceded the counter-attacks were as likely to destroy thick wire and heavily sandbagged strong-points as a handful of gravel thrown at a brick wall. And still the counter-attacks went on. Still the ragged battalions were sent forward to wrest back the lost ground, and still they were being ripped apart in the attempt.

The Germans had no lack of heavy guns and apparently no shortage of high-explosive ammunition. Day and night, and with remorseless energy, their big guns searched the salient. Firing from artillery charts on which targets had been accurately plotted from peacetime ordnance survey maps, they shelled every farm that might possibly be defended and every chateau that might be in use as Headquarters – they shelled woods where troops or guns might be concealed – they shelled roads and crossroads to catch transport on the move – they shelled indiscriminately, in the certain knowledge that somewhere in the crowded salient each shell would make its demoralising mark. And there was no means of retaliating.

The slow-moving transport had suffered badly on the shell-racked roads. So many horses had been killed, so many weapons and ambulances reduced to matchwood, so many loads of supplies and ammunition had been lost, that lorries had to be brought up and sent dangerously close to the line to carry rations to sustain the men, bullets to feed their rifles, and the ammunition so sorely needed by the guns. They were nerve-racking journeys.

Driver Rodger Fish, Motor Transport Service, Army Service Corps.

We were just unloading inside Ypres when the bombardment commenced and we had to clear out of it as quickly as possible. We came back next day, but an officer stopped us, and wouldn’t allow us to go in. He said it simply meant suicide, but we had to take the load up as far as possible. I shall never forget the sights in that town. We had to go right through it, dodging dead bodies of men and horses. Then the worst part of the journey came – two and a half miles of open road in view of the Germans. They didn’t seem to notice us till we came to the wire entanglements across the road, then they shelled us, but we got into the dug-outs till they eased up a bit, emptied the lorries, and made a dash for it. I don’t suppose you have the least idea what it feels like to be close behind the firing line during a battle. As a rule, the lorries deliver to the horse transport, which is a decent way behind, but we weren’t allowed to unload in case there might be a breakthrough. This was just at the time when the Canadians made their great stand, and I can tell you it was a night! Guns were going all round us, and when there was the slightest lull I could hear the Maxim and rifle fire, and from the position of the line we were in a horseshoe.

As the battle thundered on, officers in charge of ammunition columns, counting the losses of men and wagons and horses, wrestling with the difficulties of sending up ammunition to the batteries, were miserably aware that the stockpiled shells in the ammunition parks were dwindling away. Lack of transport was only part of the problem, but until more could be spared there was no possibility of replenishing supplies from reserve stock held further back on the lines of communication. And the reserve stock was meagre.

Among Sir John French’s many anxieties the lack of ammunition weighed heaviest of all. For months now, and almost daily, he had fumed and raged, begged and pleaded in letters and telegrams to the War Office, pointing out with all the force he could muster that the supply of ammunition – far from meeting his previous demands – had actually diminished. And it was true, although the War Office might have justly claimed that overall supplies had, in fact, increased, if only slightly, and that the discrepancy between their calculations and those of the Commander-in-Chief arose from the fact that Sir John French based his demands on a certain number of shells per gun. He now had more guns at his disposal but guns without sufficient shells were useless. Thrust into a defensive campaign that was neither of his choosing nor his making, French was in despair. Rifle ammunition was also running dangerously low and on 25 April he shot off another protest:

The Commander-in-Chief points out that the average number of rounds per rifle on Lines of Communication has been: January 216, February 191, March 138, and on 19th April 134. From this it will be seen that the Line of Communication reserve shows no tendency to increase, but rather the reverse, and there will be further considerable reduction when transport has been provided to carry the whole of the rounds allotted to the Field Units. The 22 million rounds for which transport at present is short will, when with field units, reduce that Line of Communication reserve from 134 to 61 rounds per rifle. 200 rounds was the figure which the Army Council agreed would be maintained.

The reserves of shells had fallen in almost the same proportion. With his back to the wall at Ypres the Commander-in-Chief could hardly be blamed for feeling impatient and aggrieved. As the days passed and the clock ticked towards the date set for Joffre’s campaign in Artois which French was committed to support (the battle for which he had been so carefully husbanding reserves of the ammunition on which any hope of success would depend) he was more than aggrieved. He was furious with indignation.

At home in Britain people were equally anxious and enraged. They were not yet aware that the troops lacked ammunition – the ‘shell shortage scandal’ had yet to break – but they were very much aware that the Germans had descended to new depths of ‘beastliness’ and that the troops at Ypres were in a tight corner. Public confidence had not been shaken, the full story was not yet known, official press communiqués, though bald and brief, stressed the fact that the army was fighting back, and rousing editorials praised the Tommies, damned the Germans, and urged encouragement with impartial enthusiasm. The British Army had seen the Germans off before, and no one had any doubt that it would do so again. But it was clear that matters had taken a new and serious turn for the worse.

It was Sunday 25 April, and in churches all over the country there were prayers for peace – but it must be peace with victory. A large congregation crowded into St Clement’s in Notting Hill where the Bishop of London took part in the evening service. He preached a powerful sermon and it was one close to his heart, for he had just returned from a visit to the army in France and had seen enough of the war at close quarters to realise that things were not going smoothly. He warned against the danger of ‘facile optimism’ and sketched the gravity of the situation – not only on the western front but on the far-off battle-line where the Germans had brought the Russians to a standstill. He stressed the paucity of information and boldly demanded facts and, although his formal text was conventionally drawn from the Bible, his theme was ‘stick it’. The fortitude of the army was unsurpassed and a source of justifiable pride. They were ‘sticking it’. The nation must stick it too.

Father Delaere had a smaller congregation in Ypres that morning when he celebrated mass in front of twelve of the Sisters at the convent, and there was no congregation at all in the church of St Jacques, for the church was a blazing inferno. As soon as seven o’clock mass was over and he had blessed and dismissed the Sisters, the priest ran through the tumbling shells to try to help.

Father Delaere.

We got into the burning houses nearby and carried out the most important pieces of furniture. With huge efforts we managed to contain the fire and saved a few houses. But many others were demolished or fell victim to the flames in the Rue de Dixmude, Rue Jansenius and in other parts of the town. The Palais de Justice went on fire too. The Grand Place, the Leete, the surroundings of the Cloth Hall and the Rue de Dixmude were like an abandoned battlefield.

Five horses, an overturned ammunition wagon, a shattered motor ambulance, clothes scattered around, a big bundle of blankets, three bodies – a soldier and two women lying spread out miserably on the stones covered with dirt beside the pavements shattered and shell-holed.

At my request my devoted assistants Cottinie and Kerrinck, accompanied by Mademoiselle, went to lift the three bodies and carried them to a back entrance of the Cloth Hall, where I went to say prayers over them under a rain of shrapnel and had them buried.

Ypres crumbled and blazed, but for every shell that fell on the town a score were falling in the salient beyond it and long before Father Delaere had finished celebrating mass two thousand men of the 10th Brigade had been wiped out as they advanced to recapture St Julien. Most of the battalions that should have advanced with them had never received the order – and those which did had such difficulty in reaching the line that, of the fifteen battalions which were meant to be in position, only five had reached the rendezvous and even those who had were slow in advancing from the startpoint in the GHQ line through two narrow gaps in the wire. Long before they were able to spread out and deploy across the fields, machine-guns and trench mortars firing from Kitchener’s Wood, from isolated farms, and from houses in St Julien, began to mow them down. The German field-guns finished the job. Their own guns stayed silent. It was full daylight. The attack had been postponed from half past three in the morning but, yet again, no news of the postponement had reached the guns. Yet again the gunners had fired the preliminary bombardment two hours before the troops began to move. All it achieved was to put the Germans on the alert and when the 10th Brigade started out the Germans were waiting. Few of the leading waves returned to tell the tale. The assault had been carried out on the direct order of the Commander-in-Chief. It was brought to Smith-Dorrien by a Staff Officer and it admitted of no discussion: ‘Every effort must be made at once to restore the situation about St Julien, or the situation of the 28th Division will be jeopardised.’

The effort had been made and most of the men who made it now lay dead or dying among the long rye grass and the newly planted crops in the fields in front of St Julien. At 9.45 a.m. General Hull wired GHQ with the news that the attack had failed. He added a strong recommendation that there should be no thought of renewing it.

The Germans did not try to press home their advantage by pushing forward. It was fortunate that they did not for there was little or nothing to stop them and it was to their credit that they ceased fire as soon as the British ground to a halt and did not interfere with stretcher-bearers moving across the open to carry in the wounded. But the German soldiers had orders of their own and it was not part of the day’s plan to advance beyond St Julien but to attack elsewhere on the shoulders of the salient. And to bombard, bombard, and to go on bombarding to beat the allies into submission and open the road to Ypres. At one point observers, counting fast, reported as many as sixty-eight explosions every minute. By nightfall, the Germans had nibbled further into the line. Ground had been lost and the flanks of some battalions were once again ‘in the air’. A straggle of troops – companies, half companies, odd battalions of disparate commands – moved up or sidestepped to fill the gaps as best they could. With only the vaguest of directions to guide them, marching through shell-fire in the misty dark across strange country to some indeterminate spot on the map, it was hardly surprising that some bodies of men lost their way and appeared at dawn in entirely the wrong place. It was fortunate that the Germans were not alive to the precarious situation in the British line. They made no move to advance, but they made use of the hours of darkness to dig trenches across the ground they had gained, to wire the new frontages and set up machine-gun posts to stop the British in their tracks if they tried to hit back. But the shelling went on and the clouds that hung low across the salient glowed red in the reflection of the fires that raged in Ypres and in the villages around it. They could be seen for miles and from the trenches near St Eloi where the Liverpool Scottish were holding the line, Bryden McKinnell had a grandstand view.

Capt. Β. McKinnell.

These are very trying days and certainly no rest, the news from the left is not very elevating, what little we get, and we find here that ‘no news is bad news’.

The nights are like day, full moon and clear sky; and the days – well, one can only liken them to southern climes – such sunshine, wonderful sunsets and beautiful blue sky all day.

There is a continuous roar of the great battle on the left. Every now and then one of the 17-inch German shells rushes along like an express train, and though this shell is coming towards us from thirteen thousand yards away and is hitting its target in Ypres about three miles away, yet it just sounds as if it was passing along our front, while a cloud of red brick dust flies up and we can feel our dug-outs shake. Every night now we can see a fire in Ypres. So far the Cathedral tower and spires of the Cloth Hall are still standing.

Watching the flames lick into the sky McKinnell found it difficult to believe that barely three weeks ago he disturbed nesting jackdaws by climbing that very tower for a tourist’s view of the countryside around. Where were the jackdaws now? What had happened to Marie the barmaid? As the air above their heads trembled in the slipstream of shells thundering towards Ypres, it was hard not to dwell on another question. When would their turn come?

Trpr. G. C. Chaplin, 1st Northants, Yeomanry.

That night another bloke and I were left with the horses not far outside Ypres, and in the distance I could see a church standing out quite clearly. About 1 a.m. the Germans started to shell the area and some shells were incendiaries. One landed in the church porch and started a blaze and in minutes the fire was roaring down the whole length of the place. I could hear the sound of the wood cracking and the glass of the windows smashing in the intense heat. Then the fire reached the tower and we waited to see what would happen next. It was fearful, a terrible thing to see. When the timbers burnt through the spire slid into the tower in showers of sparks and across the fields we could hear the clanging of the church bell as it went down with it. Moments later the whole place was a raging furnace.

The fires could not be doused or even contained, for there was no water to be had. The inhabitants who still remained in Ypres were cowering in cellars hoping and praying that their houses would not catch fire or collapse in a pile of rubble that would block their escape. But Father Delaere was out and about. Someone had braved the explosions and run through the blazing streets to bring him news of casualties. He was not a man to shirk his duty and, even if Ypres was tumbling about his ears, that duty was to succour the dying and give them the last rites.

Father Delaere.

The wounded were at the old wood market. I hurried there with the nurse, and the shells never stopped falling. One woman had her head cut, another her stomach split open, and Alfred Landtsheere had a hand cut off and his knee broken. These last two were mortally wounded.

After having given what aid we could we wanted to go back home. It was dark, but one would have thought that some barbarous assassins not only boxed us in but followed us all the way through the shadows. Many shells and shrapnel exploded just metres from us and followed on our heels through rue Courte de Thourout, Grand’ Place, rue St Jacques. We lost ourselves dozens of times, blinded by clouds of dust, and all round us the ground seemed paved with diamonds, for the shrapnel bullets struck the paving stones in a host of tiny scintillating stars, very bright, which sparkled all around us and seemed to spring up beneath our feet. It was very beautiful – but hardly reassuring. These evil little sprites followed us mercilessly. But we got through, and eventually Mademoiselle and I arrived safe and sound at the convent, covered with dust. Deo gratias!

All over the salient there were soldiers on the move and for the reinforcements marching into the salient the sight of Ypres ablaze was an ominous welcome.

Pte. Η. K. Davis.

We set off marching towards the front on cobblestones and cobblestones are the most awkward things to march on because they’re never level – one will be an inch higher, and the one before it an inch lower. You slip all over the place. To start off with, when we knew we were really going into it, we were paraded and they said, ‘It’s going to be a bit stiff. Anybody doesn’t think he can stand it, one pace forward.’ It took more pluck to do that than stand still, I can tell you, so we all stood still.

We started off just when dusk was falling and we kept going until one o’clock in the morning. Anyone who’s ever done any marching knows that if the man in front takes a quarter of an inch step shorter than you, you’re going to catch up and bang into him, and you’ve got to stop. And if he takes a quarter of an inch the other way he goes away from you and you have to run to catch him up. All the way we were either bumping or running. It’s hard to explain the sound of the guns. The best way is to imagine you’re walking up a clock face and you hear batteries firing on your left and your right, going pop, pop, pop, pop, and sometimes it was bong, bong, bong, bong because it was a louder battery than any of the others. We started off on this clock face, say at six o’clock, and the shells started off bursting, one at five and twenty to seven and one at five and twenty past seven, and gradually as you went on the batteries seemed to go up the scale until the shells were bursting at eleven o’clock and one o’clock, on your right and left. It was unnerving!

This march lasted all evening into the night and every now and again, something seemed to affect our eyesight and we could only walk on by the sound of men’s feet in front. I thought it was some disinfectant they had been putting down on dead men and horses but of course it was gas! The whole Battalion marched over the countryside in single file. We were filling up a hole in the line and the C.O. got four of us, one man each from the four companies, and we set off to fill up the line. He dropped me as the first one as a marker for my company. There I was alone in Belgium! He had gone off with the other three and before very long there was a whizz-bang, and then another one, and that made me wonder whether I was standing on the skyline and Jerry could see me, so I flopped down. I’ve never felt so lonely in my life being all alone in Belgium. Eventually the C.O. came back with the others and we were told not to fire because they didn’t know who was in front of us. So we got busy and dug ourselves in.

What I remember most is going up to the line, and Ypres was burning. I was crossing number 2 pontoon bridge across the Yser Canal, and just a bit half-right was Wipers on fire. I’ll never forget it. It was wonderful. For the moment everything was quite still, no war on so to speak. There was this town on fire with flames and smoke reflected in the waters of the canal, shimmering. It was a wonderful picture. Frightening too, but beautiful. The whole place seemed to be on fire.

Earlier that evening Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien drove from Poperinghe to Hazebrouck to confront the Commander-in-Chief at his Advanced Headquarters. He made a wide detour but for much of his journey the fires of Ypres were clearly visible, flickering in the distance, glowing red against the night sky. As Commander of the Second Army, Smith-Dorrien was deeply anxious about the situation round Ypres. He was concerned by abortive counter-attacks which, in Smith-Dorrien’s view, in the light of the failure of the French Army to fulfil bold promises, were not only costly but worthless. The catastrophe that morning had proved it, the virtual annihilation of the 10th Brigade was the last straw, the toll of casualties was frightful and they were men that could ill be spared. As his big staff car inched along congested country roads he brooded on the folly of throwing still more men into the maelstrom to no good purpose. The sight of soldiers on the march did nothing to relieve the mind of their Army Commander as he drove towards Hazebrouck. He was anxious above all to ascertain precisely how the Commander-in- Chief intended to make use of these reinforcements and to dissuade him if possible from dissipating their strength in more fruitless counter-attacks. Behind him, as he well knew, the Lahore Division, newly arrived, was already marching towards the line. The French had promised to launch another strong offensive, but Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien was not so sanguine as Sir John French that they would come up to scratch.

And the war was spreading. Early that morning a force of British, French and Australian troops had been landed on the shores of Gallipoli.

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