The morale of the Germans was high. On 6 May they had finally pushed the allies off Hill 60, with another devastating gas attack. Now they were ready to launch a fresh attack which they believed might secure Ypres itself. They intended to attack all round the rim of the shortened salient, but the full force and the brunt of the assault would fall on the apex of the British line where it ran across the Bellewaerde Ridge to Frezenberg. Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry were back in the line, holding the rudimentary trenches that were traced across the eastern edge of the Bellewaerde Ridge.
In peacetime this small stretch of high ground, this circle of low ridges that swelled up like an amphitheatre from the flat Flanders Plain, had been a desirable place to live – and there were half a dozen chateaux arid small country estates, in as many square miles. Their wealthy owners had planted woodlands, hedged off fields, made roads to link up farms, built chapels in the hamlets and laid out water-scapes and pleasure-grounds round their fine country mansions.
All but one of them were now in the hands of the Germans. Previously the allies standing round the salient had invariably had another ridge at their backs and the advantage of dead ground, invisible to the enemy, where supplies could be brought up and troops could move unobserved to and from the line. Bellewaerde was the smallest ridge of all – and it was the last. Beyond it the ground dipped to meet the flat-lands that ran round Ypres and rolled off into the distance to meet the sea.
Across the ridge behind the Patricias’ trenches a finger of woodland curved round the edge of an ornamental lake in the grounds of Hooge Chateau concealing it from view. This was a favourite spot of the Baron de Vinck for it was well stocked with fish and he enjoyed relaxing there on a summer’s evening, drifting in a small boat on its placid surface with the trout rising to his bait. Tame swans sailed on the lake, birds nested in the trees and across the grassy parkland peacocks screeched and strutted on the chateau terrace.
Now beneath the shattered gables and glassless windows the terrace was a mass of mud and debris. The swans and the peacocks had vanished. Down by the lake the boats lay sinking by a half-demolished jetty, and where the margins of the lake had been battered by shell-fire the water was gradually seeping away and trickling down the hill. Nevertheless the lake was a lake still, and lying as it did directly behind the Patricias’ trenches a few hundred yards away it would hamper them severely if they had to fall back in a hurry.
The King’s Royal Rifles who extended the line to the right of the Patricias were better placed and better hidden, for their trenches bent back to run through Chateau Wood, still as thick and lush with springtime green as when the baron or his son Yves had strolled in its leafy glades to bag a rabbit or a bird or two for the pot. The glades and rides were ploughed and trampled now by the passage of many soldiers but, like the rest of the 27th Division line curving south round the salient through well-wooded country, Chateau Wood provided useful cover. Beyond it, on the open ground on the extreme left of the 27th Division line, the Patricias had no cover at all and they were badly in need of it.
In the forty-eight hours they had been out of the line the Shropshires who replaced them had done their best to improve the trenches after their pounding by German guns, but they were still lamentable and in places barely three feet deep, for beneath a shallow layer of topsoil the ground was marsh and without considerable manpower, without time to plan and dig an elaborate drainage system, without pumps to discharge the water, a trench would flood and turn to ditch if they dug deeper. There were parapets of a kind to replace the breastworks destroyed by the first bombardment but sandbags were scarce, and the claggy earth that crumbled and slipped for want of support threatened to turn into mud at the first sign of rain. The tangle of wire stretched in front of the trenches was too thin and too meagre to make up for their deficiencies.
On their left the Patricias’ trenches rested on a country road that meandered gently up the slope past a scatter of isolated ruins to the village of Westhoek on the ridge beyond. Before the war came to Ypres, when five minutes’ gentle stroll would have brought a walker to the village, they had been barns and cottages. Now they stood gaunt and skeletal in the No Man’s Land between the lines. Just a few nights ago the Regiment had tramped down this very road to the new line. Now hardly a mouse could scamper across without attracting the fire of machine-guns and eagle-eyed snipers on the ridge above.
Since the British retirement the Germans had made good use of their time. With the advantage of the newly won ridges and a hinterland of dead ground they had moved up large quantities of supplies – tools, wire, timber for revetments – and although their new trenches were not yet constructed to their customary standard of perfection, they had built strongpoints at intervals along the ridge, from the corner of the Menin Road which British Tommies had cheerily christened Clapham Junction to the ruins of Westhoek village, and across the open to the high ground above Frezenberg a mile beyond it. And they had sited them carefully to command the British trenches and everything that moved behind. There were guns well dug in and concealed in the woods close behind their line – in Clonmel Copse, in Nonnebosschen Wood, in Inverness Copse where so recently Jock Macleod had enjoyed his alfresco lunch with the hospitable French and where the gilt chairs and flamboyant clock salvaged from the chateau were doubtless now adorning the dug-out of German gunners.
The Patricias were still tired, for their time out of the line – and less than a mile behind – had been too short to restore men stunned by the ferocity of the bombardment that had decimated the Battalion, and too short to stiffen it with reinforcements. A draft of new men had arrived with Hamilton Gault, newly returned from hospital in England, but there were far too few to begin to fill the gaps. Even the Colonel was gone, shot by a sniper during the ‘rest’. Major Gault was now in command but there was no officer above the rank of lieutenant to assist him. Battalion headquarters was only an apology for a dug-out – a few rough boards thrown over part of the second-line trench a hundred yards behind the first – but Princess Patricia’s colours were there and they did a good deal to hearten Gault crouching with the signallers, and hoping against hope for the best.
If the Patricias’ trenches were badly placed they were marginally better off than the 28th Division on their left. Their position, bulging slightly forward to form the true apex of the new salient, ran across open ground on the forward slopes of the Frezenberg Ridge where they had no cover at all, for trenches could only be sited for concealment if there was high ground behind them where observers could direct bombardments on to No Man’s Land at the first sign of an attack. But there was no high ground behind, no more ridges for observation, no concealed artillery positions, few enough guns and not nearly enough ammunition.
On the flat land beyond Frezenberg village the 1st Suffolks were in the line and Signaller Harry Crask was at Battalion Headquarters in one of the dug-outs hastily constructed near the straggling stream they called the Hannebeek. It was Colonel Wallace’s own dug-out and it was not much of a place but from what Crask was able to gather he was a good deal better off than the men in the trenches in front. They were having a miserable time. The battalion had gone into the trenches on 17 April, and the battle had begun on the very day they were due for relief. They had been on the go ever since, attacking, counter-attacking, growing weaker in strength after each costly encounter. Shelling had also taken its toll and the Suffolks now were a pale shadow of the sun-bronzed battalion of Regulars which just a few months ago had quit garrison duties in Egypt to sail for Europe and the war. On that morning of 8 May there were fewer than four hundred of the originals left, and long before nightfall the Battalion would have ceased to exist.
But a company of Cheshires had been sent up to help them and, although shell-fire had accounted for some seventy casualties, the last few days had been comparatively quiet. Crask was not alone in suspecting that something was brewing and that the lull was only the calm before the storm for, working as they were at close quarters, he could sense that Colonel Wallace was worried and on edge. Captain Chalmers was a frequent visitor to the HQ dug-out, struggling back with difficulty from the front line, where the bombarded banks of the stream had given way and the water had spread to turn the low ground from a morass into a swamp. Conditions in the trenches were worse – much worse – and so Chalmers explained to the Colonel several times a day. ‘Pitiable’ was the word he used. The line was a pitiable mass of mud and blood, the men were ‘done up’ and in a pitiable condition, constantly asking when they were going to be relieved. There was nothing the colonel could do about it.
It was Crask who received the signal when it finally came through and, suppressing his own delight, handed it poker-faced to the Colonel. The battalion would be relieved that night. Colonel Wallace gave an audible sigh of thankfulness. ‘Thank God for that!’ he said. Then, turning to the Adjutant, ‘Let Chalmers know – and say he can tell the men.’ The message was logged in the small hours of the morning of 8 May. But in the darkness behind the enemy trenches orderlies were dishing out coffee, bread and sausage to long lines of German soldiers waiting to attack.
Pte. H. J. Crask, MM, 1st Bn., Suffolk Regt., 84 Brig., 28 Div.
I’d been on the telephone all night. About 6 a.m. a message came through that the 69th Battery would open fire on the whizz bang battery that had been bothering us. Whether it did or not I don’t know, for the Germans immediately opened an attack. Shells were raining all over the shop – especially round about us so as to prevent our supports getting up. I was in the dug-out with the C.O. and the Adjutant, working the telephone and making ready for breakfast – but that part of the business didn’t come off! All remained intact for about twenty minutes. Then number 1 dug-out next to us was struck by a shell, badly wounding Drew in the head and burying all the rifles, so everyone there scattered for the exit. Sergeant Crabb came into ours. Our dug-out lasted out for about another ten minutes, then a shell exploded just in the rear of the dug-out and knocked the telephone, me and Crabb out of our positions and wounded the Adjutant who was directly behind us. We hardly knew what was happening for a few minutes or how we had got off so lucky. The telephone, chair, table, all had disappeared – with a hole a few yards in circumference staring at us in their place. We all cleared out to the emergency trench which had been dug in the rear of a ditch and which turned out far worse than the shattered dug-outs because we were up to our waists in water – and up to our necks after ducking down with shells raining all around! During all this they had also dropped one on number 3 dug-out, shattering a beam which struck Corporal Pugh and smashed his right leg just above the ankle and also wounded him in the head and left arm. It was the hottest shop I had ever been in! I just had time to get properly soaked through, shaking with cold, when a shell dropped right on the edge of the trench, burying me and Lance-Corporal Game. I was lucky again for, after being helped out, Game was found to be horribly wounded with two large holes in the back, one on either side of his backbone. I took him back to number 2 dug-out (which hadn’t been hit again) and there I done him up as best I could.
All round the salient the air was whirling in a ferment of smoke and flying mud. The din was deafening, shock waves vibrated along the front, and the earth quaked and heaved and blew apart with the force of the explosions. Fields disappeared. Trenches disintegrated. Men were blown to bits. Two miles away from the Suffolks, and separated from them by the front of the 83rd Brigade, the Princess Patricias were having just as gruelling a time. Shortly after 6.30 a.m. Major Gault had managed to scribble a message to Brigade HQ reporting ‘very, very heavy shelling’ – but Brigade hardly needed to be told. In Brigade Headquarters dug-out, half a mile away at the western corner of Railway Wood, they were taking punishment on their own account, for the German guns were searching wide and probing deep and there was little doubt that this was the prelude to an all-out attack. It was hard to credit that the bombardment could possibly get worse but at seven o’clock the fire grew even stronger, the shells flew thicker, and every gun seemed to be trained on the sector where the Patricias and the Suffolks and the unfortunate battalions of the 83rd Brigade were clinging on at the crest of the battered salient. The Patricias’ front line was all but obliterated by high-explosive and shrapnel shells that, bursting high, rained red-hot fragments of metal that wiped out whole sections of men at a stroke, while machine-guns on the high ground, sweeping methodically from side to side, sprayed the trenches with incessant fire.
At eight o’clock Gault dispatched a second message to Brigade Headquarters:
Have been heavily shelled since 7 a.m. Sections of front trenches made untenable by enemy’s artillery, but have still about 160 rifles in front line. German infantry has not yet appeared. Should they rush our front trenches will at once counter-attack if possible… In lulls of gunfire there is heavy fire from rifles and machine guns. Please send me 2 machine guns if possible. I have only two left in the front line. None in support… Most of my wire gone.
The runner managed to dodge through the bombardment and safely reached Brigade HQ. It was the last direct news of the Patricias and already it was out of date. Even as the Brigadier was reading it the German infantry was swarming down the Westhoek Ridge to attack the British trenches. And they were whooping as they came.
Looking back on it, even the Patricias themselves found it difficult to believe that they had beaten the Germans back. The line was feeble, their front-line trench was almost non-existent, but every man, even the wounded who were still capable of raising a rifle, poured such accurate and such deadly fire into the German infantry as they advanced that the attack hesitated, faltered, and finally petered out as the survivors began to work their way cautiously back up the hill. When they saw that their infantry attack had failed the German guns opened up again more furiously than before and machine-gun crews which had managed to reach the ruined buildings in the first rush were firing in unison at almost point-blank range. The silence when the guns stopped was almost as stunning as the noise of the bombardment. Then there was a throaty rumbling from beyond the ridge that rose to a roar as the Germans poured down in a mass, running and shouting as they came. The front line was almost obliterated now and there was little point in trying to hold on. In the lull small groups of men had begun to make their way back to the support line and although the rearguard did their best to hold the enemy off, this time the attack was unstoppable. Watchers, peering anxiously from the support line a hundred yardsbehind, saw with astonishment a row of small white flags appear in part of the line where the fire of a few desperate survivors kept the enemy pinned down but the optimists whose first incredulous thought had been that the enemy was surrendering were soon disillusioned. The Germans were signalling their position to their own guns, warning them to lengthen range, to punish the second line as they had punished the first, and to finish the job.
Pte. J. W. Vaughan.
We were hit dead centre with heavy guns and machine-guns and then we were enfiladed from the right and enfiladed from the left along the trench both ways and it seems that they were using tear-gas too because your eyes were smarting and watering and you had quite a time fighting that off. All the officers practically were gone and of course these trenches weren’t much good even to begin with. Then they blew what there was to pieces and there was practically no protection at all.
You didn’t have much chance. I was hit with a shell splinter and I was just laying there in the trench, what there was of it, and Lieutenant Papeneau came along. He was a wonderful man from Quebec. He came from one of the oldest French-Canadian families, so he came along, and he had his automatic in his hand ready for the Germans to come on, but he stopped and knelt down beside me. One of my buddies had already ripped my puttees off and slit my pants down because I was hit in the leg and my leg had started to swell. Lieutenant Papeneau looked at it and he shoved a cigarette in my mouth and lit it, and he said, ‘Don’t worry, Vaughan, we’ll get you out just as fast as we can.’ I said, ‘That’s fine, sir.’ But I lay there for six hours. That’s as fast as they could get me out. Six hours! I was lucky to get out at all. One fellow had just been leaning over talking to me and he stood up and the next minute he got it, and he fell down dead nearly on top of me. That really upset me because he was one of the married men. In fact that’s when I began to get scared. It was all hell let loose, and laying there at the foot of that trench you didn’t know what was going on – except that it was bad!
Now that the Patricias’ front line had been withdrawn the support line was literally the line of last resort – and things were bad. But they were not so bad as they might have been. The 4th Rifle Brigade, in reserve in the lee of the Bellewaerde Ridge, took advantage of a brief pause in the shelling and managed to send forward a company to help out. They walked upright, for they were heavy laden, and the Patricias cheered them on as they came. ‘I don’t know if there were angels at Mons,’ remarked one soldier later, ‘but we saw angels that day at Bellewaerde, and they had RB on their shoulders.’ They brought boxes of ammunition, and, best of all, two machine-guns. And they also brought hope and fresh heart to the hard-pressed Patricias, for it was not enough merely to save their line – already it was clear that it was up to them to save the day.
Hamilton Gault, wounded for the second time in two hours, and this time seriously, was forced to send a message to Captain Adamson instructing him to take command of the Patricias in the line. He hardly needed to add that he must hold on ‘at all costs’. But the situation was worsening by the minute. Adamson himself was wounded and as he crawled along the line, supervising the setting-up of the machine-guns, and handing out rifle ammunition, he was well aware that there was a huge gap in the line on their left. Cautiously raising his head to scan the Frezenberg Ridge, even through clouds of swirling smoke he could see British troops of the 28th Division streaming back to the rear. It could be only a matter of time before the Germans followed to take up the lost ground. When they did the Patricias would be out-flanked.
It was the line of the 83rd Brigade that had given way – only a small part of it, but enough to allow the enemy first to penetrate the gap then to widen it by creeping to the rear of the troops on either side. From the rear, through the smoke and confusion of the fighting, it was hard for Brigade Staff to make sense of the situation, but the sight of retiring troops told its own story and it was clear to the anxious Staff Officers that reinforcements attempting to cross the open slopes of the Frezenberg Ridge would either be mown down or entrapped in their turn. All that could be done was to pray that the flanks would hold, to stiffen the GHQ line, and to hope against hope that the small bodies of men still holding out would be able to contain the enemy until his assault ran out of steam and they could rally the men to counter-attack.
Much closer to the crumbling front, where Harry Crask crouched with the remnants of the signallers in the ruins of his Battalion HQ dug-outs, the position was no clearer.
Pte. H. J. Crask.
Not one of us knew what was happening in front but we more or less knew what to expect. Young French eventually turned up from the front line about 11 a.m., slightly wounded in the head, and stopped with us since the shelling was getting wild again. He reported that our fellows were still holding out in the trenches, but we could see men retiring on our right.
A few minutes afterwards Germans appeared to the right of us, so we had to get out of the trench or we would have been enfiladed. We went back, or rather we struggled back on our chests to the dug-out dragging Game, but all the nine of us were in a helpless condition. There was the Colonel, Sergeant Crabb, Brown, French, Manton, Hayward, Humphreys, Lance-Corporal Game wounded, and myself – and we had not a weapon amongst us.
If Colonel Wallace could not go down fighting, he intended at least to go down with dignity. He had a box of fine Havana cigars in his pocket and he was equally determined to give no German the chance of filching them. He handed the box round and forced a smile to reassure his bedraggled men. ‘Smoke, lads? Might as well make the best of things.’ The cigars were large and opulent. It took a little while to set them well alight and the men had hardly begun to puff before the Germans were upon them.
They loomed up and circled the shell-hole shouting ‘Hände hohe’ and even if the words were incomprehensible the message was clear enough for they stood with rifles and fixed bayonets aimed at the entrance to the battered dug-out. One by one the men clambered out wreathed in clouds of cigar smoke and raised their hands. The air sang with bullets and they had hardly cleared the dug-out when French was shot through the heart and collapsed at Crask’s feet. ‘The direction of the shot,’ Crask noted sadly, ‘was from Burnt Farm.’ Burnt Farm was, or had been, behind the British line, but the line was so chaotic and the Germans were advancing so fast that it was hard to tell if it had been fired by friend or foe. Crask had his suspicions and so perhaps had the Germans, for one German soldier bent down to pick up French’s cap and placed it gently over the dead man’s face to hide the staring eyes.*
Pte. H. J. Crask, MM.
They immediately pulled the remaining lot of us down amongst them and we had to lay there roughly two hours in their front line (we were captured about 11.45 a.m.). During that time a party of King’s Own tried to retire about eighty or a hundred yards away, but they were simply mad! They were mowed down like so much corn by rifle and machine-gun fire. A few that were left put their hands up, and the Germans in our line ceased fire immediately. They were good fellows all round that captured us. They were 77th Hanoverian Regiment and they kept us from fire as much as possible by making a parapet in front of us as well as for themselves. They also gave us meat and bread and coffee, and did their best for our wounded. At 1.30 p.m. we were all put in a dug-out. Two guards stayed with us and their line then began to advance towards Ypres. We all had the same opinion – that they were simply making a walk of it to Ypres, then on to Calais, and that they’d finally reach London. The Germans hardly seemed to know as much as I did. They undoubtedly thought that we were all that was left of the Contemptible Little Army.
But it was not quite all – although, after three weeks’ fighting in the salient, such reserve battalions as there were were so pitifully low in numbers that they were battalions in name only, and a third of the men in the ranks of the 1st Yorks and Lancs – the only battalion that was anywhere near full strength – had arrived just three days earlier as a draft of inexperienced reinforcements. The 1st Welch, like the Territorials of the 12th London Rangers, were barely the strength of a single company. The 2nd East Yorks and the King’s Own could muster fewer than six hundred men between them and the 1st East Lancs were only three hundred and fifty strong. The reserves could not achieve much, but they had to try. Far out in front some ragged remnants were fighting on but they were isolated and would soon be surrounded and a great gap yawned across two miles of open ground between the Patricias at Bellewaerde and the Northumberland Fusiliers at Mouse Trap Farm.
Although by mid-afternoon the Germans had paused in their advance there was no possibility of a counter-attack because the fight had been taken up by their artillery and the British reserves could not hope to penetrate the curtain of deadly fire, but even in the teeth of the bombardment the five hundred men of the East Yorks and the King’s Own managed to advance as much as a thousand yards in an attempt to fill the gap. They were just half-way to the old broken line, but they could go no further. The advance had cost them dear, and still they were nowhere near the Germans. Behind their curtain of exploding shells the Germans were entrenching across the gap but mercifully on either side of it the flanks held. They did more than hold. East of Mousetrap Farm the Northumberland Fusiliers clung on, decimated by shelling, beating off attacks in front and on their open flank far into the evening. It was the Germans who gave up first.
Two miles away, the Patricias had every available man in the line – every signaller, every batman, every pioneer, every cook and every orderly. Earlier, with the help of the 4th Rifle Brigade, the left-hand company swung round at right-angles to their front, spread out in a thin line facing the gap, and attacked the enemy troops as they appeared. For the moment at least it seemed they had scared them off, and now help had arrived to extend the flank line further and to form a line of reserves at the Patricias’ backs. Even so, it was still touch and go and a determined attempt by the Germans to widen the gap further and ‘roll up the line’ would have been hard to withstand. But the Germans were still short of men and the one heartening piece of intelligence in an otherwise catastrophic day came from the Royal Flying Corps. Pilots, vigilantly patrolling the skies beyond the salient, could see no large-scale troop movements, no unusual number of trains rushing towards the German railhead and no fresh divisions making for the front. After their initial triumph the Germans seemed content to depend for the moment on the protection of their artillery while they dug in, re-grouped, and used the breathing space to bring up local reserves, to evacuate their casualties, and to marshal prisoners and send them tramping to the rear in long despondent columns.
Pte. H. J. Crask, MM.
We started back just before dusk and our own artillery gave us a parting shell or two which caused more than a little wind amongst us – at least Sergeant Hart of the Cheshires put in a certain amount of gymnastics after the style of the ostrich dance! I could not at all estimate the strength of the Germans. Zonnebeke was simply crammed with them and our own artillery seemed to be lost.
They made any amount of sarcastic cowardly remarks as we passed, calling us swines, etc. One sneering idiot called us ‘cousins from over the Channel’, telling us also that we were prisoners – we hardly knew that I suppose! – finishing up with a sneer and also spitting at us. We were halted again on the other side of Zonnebeke by some dirty little officer and made to carry the German guards’ packs. We had to leave behind our two badly wounded men, Corporal Pugh and Lance-Corporal Game, in two separate dug-outs – apparently dying and left entirely on their own, but with no stretchers they had to be left.
We halted several times before finally reaching our first night’s quarters and were questioned by any amount of officers trying to pump us. If they had not asked so many questions they would not have had so many untruths told to them! They thought we were all Kitchener’s men. We told them that they were still in England – and didn’t they look shocked! They had the impudence to tell us that our own Regular Army was absolutely wiped out during the latter part of 1914 and they were more surprised than ever when some of us showed them our pay books and told them that there were lots more Regulars to come from India. Then we were taken charge of by Uhlans and settled down about 10 p.m. at a place called Beclaeare and were put in the church which they had made something like a pigsty. But I was only too glad to get down after such a day and then a march of four miles.
For most of the day Jimmy Vaughan had been lying wounded and helpless in the Patricias’ line through the clamour and tumult of the battle, but at last he too was out of it.
Pte. J. W. Vaughan.
Do you know how they got me out? It was the roughest, readiest thing you ever saw, but they had no other way to do it. There was no parados at the back of the trench – well, there practically wasn’t a trench by that time! But normally you build up the front to fire at the enemy and it helps to shelter you, and you also should build up the back of the trench a certain amount, what they call the parados, but we had no parados, none at all, and with nothing to conceal you the stretcher-bearers couldn’t get up, couldn’t carry you back anyway for that matter. So what they did was this. When the first-aid men got to me a couple of fellows said, ‘Now, Jimmy, there’s an artillery dug-out just fifty yards straight ahead. Now, you’ve got to crawl over there, crawl to that dug-out and get down in there.’ And do you know how they did it? One took hold of my shoulders, the other took hold of my legs – and one leg was wounded, remember! – and they threw me over the back of the trench. That’s the only way they could get me out. When I got my breath back and got myself together, I crawled along and crawled along, and it felt like fifty miles not fifty yards. Well, I made it to the dug-out and when I did get in it was full of wounded men, packed with wounded men, and the moans and groans all over were something terrible. I squeezed in and lay down where I could and waited there for the dark, for the stretcher-bearers to come up.
Well, eventually it did get dark and I remember the stretcher-bearers picking me up and getting me out of the dug-out and they carried me to the field dressing station which was about three-quarters of a mile away from the front line.There was a Red Cross ambulance truck there and the doctor happened to come out, and whether the dressing station was full up or not I don’t know, but he looked at me and he said, Tut him in the ambulance and when she’s loaded, take him to Vlamertinghe.’ So they took us through Ypres to Vlamertinghe and when we got there, the whole street as far as your eye could see was nothing but stretchers and blankets and walking wounded with blankets over their shoulders, and there must have been half a dozen doctors or more working flat out.*
Darkness was a long time falling on that fine May evening and when it did come it brought little respite from the flash of the guns and the thunder of explosions. The air was heavy with fumes and smoke that thickened as they mingled with the night mist. The situation was still desperate but the Patricias were now in touch with the 85th Brigade, for fresh troops had succeeded in advancing a short distance and stiffening the last few survivors of the earlier advance in their forward position, while across the ridge near Mouse Trap Farm where the hard-pressed Northumberland Fusiliers were still standing firm, as late as 7.30 in the evening the 1st Royal Warwicks and the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers had extended the front and even dashed forward to push the enemy back. Coming after the advance of the 85th Brigade this feat so unsettled the Germans that they actually abandoned some positions they had captured and drew back. It was some small encouragement and these precious footholds made it possible in the hours of darkness to form a tenuous line between the flanks. It was a flimsy enough bulwark and it ran a full three-quarters of a mile behind the front-line positions of that morning, but it was complete. The gap was closed. The tension had slackened.
It would be hours, even days before, they could begin to count the cost but already it was obvious that it had been enormous. Whole battalions had been wiped out, like Harry Crask’s, for of the 1st Suffolks only one officer and twenty-nine men returned from the fight. Only two officers and a hundred and twenty men of the 3rd Monmouths survived, and fifty-three men and a sergeant of the 12th London Rangers. Next day the six thousand men of the 84th Brigade could muster only fourteen hundred of their number. The Patricias had four officers and a hundred and fifty men left.
They had fought like lions to the limit of their endurance and far beyond it. They were drained and exhausted, and it was time to go. The guns rumbled on but the fire was thinner now for the Germans had relaxed their efforts, as worn out as their opponents by the fearful day.
A young moon rose in the hazy sky above the battlefield. On both sides of the line they were carrying out the wounded and relieving the men who had survived the worst of the onslaught.
When the Patricias’ turn came in the early hours of the morning they dragged themselves thankfully back to assemble behind the trench. In the light of the first streaks of dawn Lieutenant Niven formed them up and placed himself at the head of the column. He was carrying Princess Patricia’s colours. They had not escaped entirely unscathed and the rich red of the banner was smudged and streaked and slightly torn. But the Princess’s colours had stayed in the line throughout the battle and now the colours led the survivors of her Regiment out. They marched down the track that led past Bellewaerde Lake, down the hill through Railway Wood and round to the Menin Road. In the shallow-scraped trenches reserve troops of their own 80th Brigade stood up to cheer them as they passed and some called out, ‘Well done the Pats!’ They were too weary just then to savour either the moment or the accolade, but it soon passed into Regimental history.