On the evening of 3 May Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry were waiting to move back from their position in the front line on the edge of Polygon Wood. Despite its name this regiment was not part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. It was part of the 27th Division of the British Army composed almost entirely of Regular battalions and the Patricias were not alone in the belief that they were just as good as the professionals. They were a unique force, and well they knew it, although it was only nine months to the very day since they had been conceived in the imagination of a Montreal businessman, Hamilton Gault. On 3 August, the eve of the declaration of war, he had travelled to Ottawa, where an emergency military conference was taking place, to ask permission to raise a Battalion of Canadians. Hamilton Gault was a prominent citizen and a wealthy man with the entreé to influential circles. He had also done service as a soldier and there was no difficulty about seeing Sir Sam Hughes during a recess in the conference. But it was a certain Colonel Farquhar who was fired by the idea and joined enthusiastically in Gault’s efforts to get it off the ground and proposed they should aim at recruiting experienced soldiers who would settle down quickly to military life and need minimal training – a mere refresher course – before they were ready to go to war.
Thousands of ex-servicemen had settled in Canada in the decade before the war and since they were self-evidently young men of adventurous spirit, they were the right type or, as Farquhar himself put it, ‘the best of the breed’. So many of them flocked from all over Canada to join up that, even among these desirable recruits, the regiment was able to have the pick of the bunch. There were prospectors, farmers, professional and business men, lumberjacks, even some cowboys and a prize-fighter or two. Fifty, who called themselves The Legion of Frontiersmen’ banded together and arrived in a body and the Edmonton pipe band in full Highland regalia, played themselves into the recruiting office and joined up en masse, announcing that they had ‘come to play the regiment to France and back again’. The band was enrolled even before the Battalion was complete. Hamilton Gault himself contributed $100,000 to set the ball rolling and the Battalion was raised and equipped in the short space of ten days.
Only one in ten of its members had been born in Canada. Sixty-five per cent were English, 15 per cent were Scots and 10 per cent had been born in Ireland, some had been in Canada for as long as twelve years, some for a matter of months, but they considered themselves Canadian to a man. Of 1,100 recruits 1,049 had served in the Army or the Navy, almost half of those had seen war service and between them they wore the ribbons of 771 campaign and service medals. There were two sections of ex-guardsmen, two of ex-riflemen and two of ex-public school boys. They were tough and they were fit. They also had royal patronage. Colonel Farquhar was Military Secretary to the Duke of Connaught, the Governor General of Canada, who had not only released him so that he could take command of the battalion but had also agreed to part with his ADC and another member of his personal staff, to form a nucleus of officers. Gault himself was appointed senior captain and other officers had been found among the hundreds of willing volunteers.
The Duke of Connaught had also, in a sense, given his daughter and the Battalion, now bearing her name, basked in the distinction of having the prettiest and most glamorous Colonel-in-Chief of any Battalion anywhere. Princess Patricia of Connaught took her duties seriously and intended to be more than just the figurehead of her Regiment and she began by making them a unique and personal gift. On Sunday 23 August, while the British Expeditionary Force was in the thick of its first engagement at Mons, Princess Patricia presented the Regiment with its own colours. She had designed the banner herself, cut out the red material with her own hands, fringed it with gold and embroidered her own entwined initials as a centrepiece. It had taken the princess a week of hard work and late nights to complete it but the pleasure and pride of the men made it more than worthwhile. Five days later the colours, escorted by a guard of honour, were carried proudly at the head of the Regiment as the Patricias marched on board ship to the skirling strains of their own pipe band. The anticlimax came when they were forced to disembark again at Quebec. The Patricias, as they were now called even on the parade ground, finally sailed on 27 September and despite the disappointing delay they were still the first of the Empire’s troops to arrive at the war – or, at least, to arrive in the United Kingdom. The 27th Division was in the process of being formed by Regular Battalions brought back from overseas and there was no question that the Patricias were good enough to join them. Before they left England for France they were inspected by Lord Kitchener who was deeply impressed by the medal ribbons displayed on chest after chest as he passed along their ranks. ‘Well!’ he exclaimed to Colonel Farquhar. ‘Now I know where all my old soldiers went to!’
In four months at the front the Patricias had earned a high reputation and not a few more medal ribbons to add to their collection. There had also been casualties for they had been in the gruelling close-fighting in the trenches at St Eloi and when they left to come to Ypres many of the originals were left behind in their own small regimental cemetery. The last to be buried was their Commanding Officer, Colonel Farquhar, shot by a sniper as he was handing over to the Colonel of the Battalion that relieved them. That had been a blow, and it was felt personally by every man, because now the Patricias were more than a regiment, they were a family. Major Gault had been wounded and, in his absence, Captain Buller had taken temporary command and a hundred reinforcements had arrived from Canada. Among them was Jimmy Vaughan. On the night of 3 May he was almost the last man to leave the line.
The Patricias had not expected to take part in the withdrawal, for they were long overdue for relief, but the 2nd Shropshire Light Infantry who should have relieved them had been hurried away to assist elsewhere and the Patricias had been twelve days in the line in front of Polygon Wood, fifty yards from the German trenches. Now they were to fall back, in the trickiest part of the whole retirement, and they were very tired, for each company, when it was not engaged in the firing line and was nominally ‘in support’, had been engaged in back-breaking labour helping to dig the new line three miles in the rear. The rudimentary trenches were far from complete, but it was time to go.
Like nine tenths of his comrades Vaughan was not Canadian born. Four years earlier he had left Stockton-on-Tees to work on a farm in Canada.
Pte. J. W. Vaughan, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, 80 Brig., 27 Div.
I joined up with my pal Jack Bushby and we didn’t join with the first lot because we were working near Winnipeg on a farm and it was harvest time. Well, the harvest was hard work but it was two dollars a day and that was good money so naturally we didn’t want to miss out, but we joined up in November when the Patricias called for reinforcements. We were young and we had the same idea that everybody did, ‘Oh, the war will be over in about three months, so we’ll get a nice trip home out of it and we’ll soon be back.’ Well, how wrong could you be? We didn’t get much in the way of training. We were shipped out in January, had a bit of training at Tidworth in England, and we joined the regiment in the field on 28 March and by 19 April we were in the front line at Polygon Wood, and there we stuck until we had to retire. We didn’t worry about the fact we had to retire, didn’t think we were losing out or anything, because it was all explained to us.
They started on the move as soon as it got dark and, of course, we had the wood behind us, quite a thick wood that time, so there was no problem about concealment or anything, and over a period of a couple of hours they moved off a platoon at a time. But they’d told us just how important it was that the Germans shouldn’t be given the idea that we were clearing off. I was one of thirteen men left behind as a rearguard and we were told exactly what we had to do. What we did was fire a shot – and of course at night you could see the flash of the rifle, the Germans could see it – then we would walk along the trench, maybe for about ten yards, and we would wait a few seconds and fire another shot, and then another chap would come along and do the same and I’d come back to another place and fire off again. That led his nibs across the road to figure that the trench was still fully occupied. Of course I was scared, but we were all very conscious of the responsibility and that we had to stay in the front line until the officer figured that the main part of the regiment had taken up the line at Frezenberg and Bellewaerde Ridge a few miles away. That was the idea. Eventually he came along and he said, very quietly, ‘All right, boys, I think they’ve had long enough now. We’ll be off, and he went along the line getting the men together. Out we got, into the communication trench and back to the main trench we had in Polygon Wood. Everything was quiet at first and then, after a minute, all hell broke loose because, as soon as they didn’t hear any more firing from the front line, the Germans figured that we were coming over. They thought it was the lull before the storm. Well, that hurried us on our way, all this firing going on behind us and bullets coming right through the wood, knocking twigs off the trees. But we never got a scratch, nobody got hit, and eventually we cleared the wood and started going across country to the new position. It didn’t take us as long as it did the main body of the Regiment because there weren’t so many of us. It took about an hour and we got there about maybe half past three in the morning.
Well, there were trenches, I suppose you could call them that, but they were only about two and a half feet deep because there had been no time to do any more, and the boys that were already there were trying to build up a parapet, filling sandbags and piling them along the trench, so we had to forget any idea we might have had about having a kip, because we had to start in too, digging and such. We didn’t get them very deep either before the next morning. It was a beautiful morning. It’s funny, but the weather we had during all that battle was beautiful, beautiful, beautiful weather. Next morning there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and pretty soon after it got light some German planes came over looking for us, and of course they’d found we’d gone by then but they had no idea before the morning, because all night and when we were going back, we’d heard them bombarding, wasting their shells on these empty trenches, and that gave us some satisfaction, even a laugh. But how they found us was this. When these planes came over and spotted us they dropped smoke bars over the side of the plane, and the German artillery officers would naturally have their glasses trained on the plane, you see, and these smoke bars came down in streaks and they just hung there above our position. No clouds, no wind to blow them away, they just hung there plumb above us – and then it started!
It started with the German infantry. It was the first time the Patricias had seen anything approaching open warfare and it was an impressive spectacle to see long lines of Germans pouring down over the Westhoek Ridge at the double – so impressive that some men incautiously stood up on the parapet to get a better view. As it approached, the great mass of grey-clad soldiers thinned, split, separated, and mounted officers galloped up and down the lines directing the deployment.
The Germans were beyond the range of rifles, and the guns that might have created havoc could not easily find the range from their new positions before the enemy went to ground and began to dig in. They had pushed machine-guns forward to protect them and they were firing at close quarters, raking the half-built parapets with streams of bullets that kept the Patricias’ heads well down. There was nothing they could do but grit their teeth and stick it out. And then the shelling began when the Germans had got the range. The ‘smoke bars’ had done the job well, and they had the range to the inch. The shallow trenches crumbled beneath the onslaught, machine-guns were buried, whole bays disappeared and, by the end of the day, 122 men had been hit.
It was the last and the worst of the Patricias’ twelve days in the line. Later in the evening the Shropshires came up to relieve them and the Patricias gathered up what remained of their belongings. Dog-weary, hollow-eyed with fatigue, carrying their dead to be decently buried and their wounded to be tended, they trudged out of the line.
The Shropshires set to work to do what little they could to shore up the defences before dawn, and in the shifting dark beyond the battered line the Germans were busy too. All night long, as they waited on the alert, the Shropshires could hear the chink of iron, the faint sound of voices on the breeze, and knew that the enemy was on the move. But the Germans were hard at work, digging and consolidating their new line, and they made no attempt to advance further.
The retirement had taken them completely by surprise. Now, at last, it was complete.
In Ypres too it was time to go. The Provisional Committee met for the last time in the house of the secretary, Aimé van Nieuwenhove. It was a dreary meeting. There were no minutes to read, for his notes had been destroyed by the shell that demolished his study, but no one needed reminding that the main topic of discussion had been on the number of bodies in the streets and the fear that if they were not removed the typhus epidemic could not be contained for much longer. A start had been made in the intervening week and three labourers engaged to dispose of the bodies at the rate of ten francs for a dead horse and three francs for a human corpse. The horses were buried in the largest shell-holes and the human remains interred, with little more ceremony, in temporary plots within the ramparts.
There had been no difficulty in finding people willing to undertake even this unpleasant job now that the economy of the town had come to a halt and there was no work to be had. But there were nevertheless rich pickings, and for the last few days posses of soldiers had been roaming the ruined streets, searching cellars for wine, breaking into abandoned shops and houses and helping themselves to objects they regarded as ‘souvenirs’. The officials of the town regarded them as stolen property and there were reports that civilians venturing to protest had been threatened with rifles and even bayonets. People were complaining bitterly and demanding that the Committee should press the military authorities to stop the pillage. Even in the midst of the débâcle, such a request had to be made through the proper channel, and the ‘proper channel’ was the departed civilian Commandant of the town. No one knew precisely where he had gone, perhaps to Watou, perhaps to Poperinghe, possibly even further afield, but the Committee spent most of the afternoon drafting a letter urging him to take the matter up. It also asked for the prompt dispatch of a force of workmen to assist with the removal of corpses from the streets.
It was sent off by messenger to the Commandant’s last known address in the hope that it would find him. It never did, but it hardly mattered now. Next day Ypres was ordered to be evacuated of all civilians and the order had to be obeyed. It was a hard blow to stomach.
Aimé van Nieuwenhove.
Tuesday 4 May All of us are deeply dispirited. After battling for six months against all these adversities, having been deprived for so long of our comfortable everyday lives with the sole object of trying to hold on to our homes, we must now resign ourselves to abandoning all our belongings. What will be left when we return?
Last night was reasonably quiet, but in the morning a huge number of shells fell from different directions. About eleven o’clock the bombardment eased off and I started to make my preparations for leaving. I took everything that remains into the wine cellar for safety and blocked up the entrance with boxes and crates. About three o’clock I heard that two motor ambulances will leave about ten o’clock to take the Committee to Abeele. So, here we are, and this is the last night I shall spend in Ypres. I feel deeply discouraged. Even the anticipation of seeing my dear ones, and the satisfaction of emerging from this furnace with my dignity intact, makes up only a very little for my sadness in having to leave my house.
The town was being evacuated section by section and for three consecutive days the Friends Ambulance Unit ran a shuttle service to transport the old and the sick, while the able-bodied made their way on foot to Poperinghe where trains were waiting to convey them far from Ypres. Ahead of them lay a journey of many days, for they were to be sent well away from the danger zone, away from Belgium itself, deep into France to be billeted on strangers and to manage as best they could. It was a bleak prospect. More fortunate citizens who had relatives in France or who, like Aimé van Nieuwenhove, were people of substance, could make private arrangements, but it was small consolation. Everyone had to go.
Aimé van Nieuwenhove made a last tour of his beautiful, battered house. During the night the glass of the drawing-room windows had been shattered by an explosion. He removed two leaves from his dining table to nail across the gaps but without much hope that they would prevent any determined person from getting in. He went upstairs, looked into the bedrooms and locked the doors. Last of all he went to the kitchen where his children’s three canaries chirped happily in the morning sun, unhooked the cages, carried them one by one to the garden and opened the doors. The canaries, as reluctant as van Nieuwenhove himself to quit familiar surroundings
were in no hurry to fly off. He watched them for a few minutes, sick at heart, and then he turned away.
Aimé van Nieuwenhove.
Wednesday 5 May The members of the committee met at my place for departure. During the whole period of the bombardment I have seldom seen my colleagues so well-groomed as they were today. At last, the cars having arrived, everybody got in and I double-locked my front door. What a lovely day it was. I hadn’t seen the outskirts of the town for six months now. I sat up in front with the driver.
I cast a last look at the Grand’ Place and the Place Vanden-peereboom and finally on the rue Elverdinghe. The shells escorted us out of town as if to pay us their farewell compliments. It was extraordinary how frightened we felt at these explosions, just as we were leaving the places where so many other shells had fallen without much bothering us.
Our first stop was in front of the hospital on the Vlamer-tinghe road. I got out of the car and looked towards the derelict railway station. I could still see the shells exploding on the town, then, as I got back into the car, I bade a sad, tearful farewell to our dear little city.
The Committee were almost the last to go but, despite the official order, a few obstinate souls remained although the bombardment had started up again only a little less furiously than before. Now that the town officials had departed Father Delaere had taken charge.
6 May I have got permission from the English Commandant to stay in the town with ten men who are working under my orders, burying the dead, interring the horses, putting out fires and patrolling the streets to prevent pillaging. We are virtually alone.
The weather has turned rainy. I wish to heaven that it was only raining rain but, alas, shrapnel shells are also raining down, three or four every minute. There are no more than twenty of us left in the town. Ypres is well and truly dead! There is a terrible emptiness but I do not let it depress me. I will not submit to this enforced evacuation without trying every possible means to resist it. I have decided to stay to the end – dead or alive. God have pity on me!
7 May The fire that reduced the church of St Nicolas to cinders spread to the boys’ school next door and it too fell prey to the flames. In the rue Carton many houses went on fire, among them Judge Tyberhien’s with all his treasured antiques. My men, who had gone out to look for bodies, triumphantly brought back a poor old man of eighty-six whom they’d found in an abandoned house where he would certainly have died of hunger. They have been doing a good job in finding bodies. Between 27 April and 7 May they buried thirty-two civilians and many, many horses – seventeen of them in a single enormous shell hole.
Our life is very strange. We have enough meat now to last us a long time because my men killed a calf they found abandoned and wandering along the street. We have bread too. There is no longer a baker in the town but we have the key to his house and there’s plenty of flour so, this afternoon, my men managed to bake some bread in his oven.
8 May Towards seven o’clock in the morning the shelling started up furiously – deafening crashes of big guns and the constant whistling of shrapnel shells. While I was praying in the chapel there was an enormous bang and a shell demolished the best part of the neighbouring building which was newly built. Nevertheless, my men arrived with three bodies, one of them a woman found in the Café Reubens. We thought we’d be here for a long time but suddenly I heard that permission to stay in the town had been withdrawn and we were ordered to leave before six o’clock in the evening. The police showed me a telegram saying that the evacuation must be completed with no exceptions whatever. Three of my men, who had gone out to bury the bodies, did not return so I went out to look for them. It was truly terrible! All the time shrapnel was exploding above the town. Four horses lay bathed in their own blood in the Grand’ Place at the corner of the rue de Lille and all along the length of the rue au Beurre we could see bloodstains everywhere, but not a living soul. Everything is in flames, nothing but ruins and it’s rare to see a whole wall standing among the heaps of brick and rubble. Hardly a cellar has not been broken into and there are many strong-boxes forced open and tossed among the debris. The houses that have escaped the fire are all holed and splintered, at the mercy of the four winds, ripe for pillage. It is truly the abomination of desolation.
I searched in vain for my men, for they had been arrested by the police and taken forcibly to Poperinghe.
The shells that rained that day on Ypres were not directed at the few defiant civilians still lurking in the ruins. It was the start of a new offensive.
Creeping forward within a stone’s throw of the new allied line the Germans were able to judge that it was crude and sketchy, that its defences were weak, and it was easy to tell from the sparse bombardments that the British were short of shells and heavy guns. And there in front of them was Ypres, almost within spitting distance. The Germans still lacked troops, but the retirement had given them new heart. Surely with one more push Ypres would fall into their hands.
It was 8 May, and that same morning General Plumer sent an order to the troops around the salient. It urged them to hold the line tenaciously and, at all costs, to avoid the necessity of calling for reinforcements. In the light of ‘the big scheme further south’ there would be no one to spare to help them out of trouble.
It was Plumer’s first official order as Commander of the Second Army. Thirty-six hours earlier Smith-Dorrien had at last been forced into resignation. In a personal letter to the Commander-in-Chief he had pointed out, in tones of injured dignity, that the evident lack of trust in him ‘constituted a weak link in the chain of command’ and that for the general good, it might be better if he were to serve elsewhere. It was delivered on the morning of 6 May and, although his letter was addressed personally to Sir John French, Smith-Dorrien did not receive the courtesy of a personal reply, or even an acknowledgement. That evening a curt order arrived from GHQ, instructing him to hand over command of the Second Army to General Plumer and to return to England.*