After some delay at the Havre docks for petrol, we got away and reported our arrival at one of the rest camps on the outskirts of the city. Our elation at having finally arrived in France was marred only by the news that we would probably be detained at the base for two or three days. Having been informed that the Hotel Tortoni was the liveliest place in town to stay, and not to go there on any account, we went and concluded that we had been the victims of a practical joke, for we had not seen anything so dull in all our lives; it was as dull and as good as a hotel at Chautauqua. There was more "life" to be seen in an English hotel in a minute than one could see in the Hotel Tortoni in a month.
As there were no theatres or concerts to go to and nothing else to do, we went to bed in the chilliest bedrooms that I had ever been in up to that time. I soon learned that French hotel bedrooms in winter have the same cold, clammy feeling as the interior of refrigerator cars in summer. This accounts, perhaps, for the French being a hot-blooded people.
Of all the cities of the world that it has been my privilege to visit, the city of Havre is the dirtiest, the ugliest, and the least interesting. We could find no public buildings with even the slightest pretence to beauty, and the rest of the city was as dull and commercial as it is possible for a seaport town to be; one can say little more than that, in consideration of any city. With the exception of the docks and the casino there is nothing of interest, and even the casino, like all the casinos in France, had been converted into a hospital.
After two days of killing time, our orders came through to leave for the front, two of us to go by motor and the rest by train. Our experience with the British officer at the base had certainly been pleasant and proved to be a happy augury of our future relationships with them. The British officer in France is quite a different man from the same officer in England, and does not impress you with the fact that the war is being carried on by his individual efforts.
At the base we learned for the first time that we had been a great source of anxiety to some of the officials of the British army three weeks before, when the war office had announced our departure from England. When we had failed to report our arrival at Havre the authorities had assumed that we, being Canadians and more or less independent, had gone off on a little trip of our own into the interior of France. In their efforts to locate us they had telegraphed far and wide; consequently when we did arrive everybody knew of us as "The Lost Canadian Laboratory" and seemed to be quite pleased that we had been found. When anything goes astray in the army it causes a tremendous amount of consternation and trouble until it is located; the easiest thing to lose is a soldier in hospital but as he can talk this matter usually rights itself sooner or later.
The morning on which we set out on our first day's "march" to the front was misty and raw, and motoring was very cold. Even this early in the season—mid March, 1915—the fields were being ploughed, but the ploughing and harrowing was being done by women, old men and boys. Hardly one able-bodied man was to be seen, the contrast with England in this respect at that time being very marked. A crowd of schoolboys pleading for souvenirs were made to earn them and amuse us by running races while we had a tire replaced.
The banks on the roadside were yellow with the first primroses, and patches of golden daffodils could be seen in the woods, though spring seemed to be far enough away that chilly day. It was characteristic of one's experience in France that, as we sat down to dinner that evening in an Abbeville hotel I had beside me an officer in the British army who had been in Canada for a number of years and who had, during that time, been a frequent caller at my home in Toronto. The spontaneous manner in which the two of us rose and rushed at each other with outstretched arms would have done credit to native born Frenchmen.
As we approached the front, the long straight French roads gave way to winding narrow ways, frequently paved with cobble stones called pave. The country became flat, and the roadside ditches were filled to the brim with water. That we were within the sphere of military operations became more and more evident. Motor cars carrying officers passed frequently; motor transports carrying food and fodder rumbled along the roads or were parked in the outskirts of villages or in village squares; motor ambulance convoys were drawn up in front of hospitals, and, in general, we felt that we were nearing the real seat of operations, the front line.
It was a drive of a hundred miles to the little town which was to be our headquarters for nine long months, and I remember the thrill that I had when we first saw the effects of shell fire—a hole about two feet in diameter in the bricks above the door of the Hotel de Ville. As we later discovered, the village authorities had decided not to repair that hole but to leave it as a memorial of the day when the Germans had been driven from the town and had fired some shells back into it, killing a dozen of the inhabitants.
After reporting to the corps headquarters in town, we were instructed to attach ourselves to No. 7 Clearing Hospital, where we were made most welcome by the commanding officer and his staff. Colonel Wear found billets for us in the town, and a splendid room for a laboratory in the Hotel De Ville. This room, 22 x 36 feet, had been the banquet hall and band room, and was well lighted by windows and gas. When equipped as a laboratory it presented a most imposing appearance, and from it we had a fine view of the village square, commonly called the Grande Place. As everything going through the town had to pass by our windows in order to cross the bridges over the canals, we could view a continuous panorama of never-failing interest whenever we had the leisure to look down upon it.
Captain Rankin found his billet at the top of a house on the opposite side of the square from the laboratory; Captain Ellis found his in a house in the corner of the square, and mine proved to be a little room over a grocery shop on another corner of the square. My room was reached by passing through the shop, up a very steep staircase, and through a storeroom filled with boxes of soap, biscuits, bundles of brooms, and other staples. The room itself was clean but without heat, and I usually fell asleep after a couple of hours of shivering in the depths of a damp, cold, feather mattress. Eleven crucifixes and two glass cases of artificial flowers, together with portraits of the pope and local cure, constituted the decorations of the room, and was typical of the region, for this part of France was thoroughly Catholic.
Our equipment did not arrive for three days, so that we had some opportunity to look around and get our bearings in the area in which we were to work. The Director of Medical Services of the army had called just after we arrived, and had given us instructions. Like all the British officers we met in the field, he treated us with the greatest kindness and consideration. Faultless in dress, precise in manner, with monocle and carefully trimmed hair and moustache, he gave one the impression of just having stepped from his dressing room after a bath. And yet his knowledge of the military game as it applied to the medical service was just as accurate, precise and complete as his external appearance indicated. He was a tremendous worker and efficient to the last degree, as his record since has demonstrated.
THE DAYS BEFORE YPRES.
The following day we drove over to Estaires, five miles away, to see the first Canadian division coming back into rest after a month in the trenches. As we passed the infantry on the road it was pleasant to see broad smiles spreading over the faces of the men who recognized us as having been with them at Valcartier and Salisbury Plain. Fit and rugged they looked as they swung along with the confident air which newly arrived troops often seem to possess. Their officers were pleased with them, and were satisfied that the division needed only an opportunity to make good. The division had been on the left at the battle of Neuve Chappelle, and had had no real fighting as yet; but it had received an excellent month's training in trench warfare, and was now well broken into the new game.
The division remained for a week in that neighborhood resting, and we had several opportunities of visiting our friends. On Sunday three of us called on my old friend General Mercer of the first brigade, and had tea with him and Majors Van Straubenzie and Hayter of his staff. General Mercer expressed himself as being delighted with the men and as having the highest confidence in them.
We also had dinner with Colonel (now General) Rennie and our old friends of the third (Toronto) battalion who were located in a little peasant cottage in Neuf Berquin. In a room adjoining Captain Haywood, the medical officer of the battalion, lay on a pile of straw with symptoms of appendicitis. He was not too sick to give some extremely graphic descriptions of his first experiences in the trenches, while we all sat around and smoked. The room was lighted by a single stable lantern which also smoked and we sat on boxes; I have seldom passed a more pleasant evening in my life than that spent in the little peasant cottage with my soldier friends, Captains George Ryerson, Muntz, Wickens, Major Allan (all since dead), Major Kirkpatrick (now a prisoner in Germany), Captains Hutchison, Bart Rogers, George, Lyne-Evans, Robertson, (of the first battalion) and others. Some of these chaps I knew well in Canada and we talked of home and the old times, all the while realizing that some of us would never again get back. The feeling was now fast settling down upon us that we were actually at war, and that soon some of the men we had grown to admire and love would have to pay the price.
During the evening two stocky little French girls came in and sang "Eet's a longa, longa wye to Teeperaree" in English for the "seek Capitan."
The Canadian division was in rest during those early April days when the cold, long-drawn out spring became almost imperceptibly warmer and the buds were beginning to swell on the trees and bushes.
On the first day of April, Bismarck's birth-date, we were expecting something unusual along the front and were not disappointed. While driving up to the Clearing Station to breakfast, we noticed a couple of Hun aeroplanes being shelled by our "Archibalds." When we returned to the town half an hour later we found that the place had been bombed.
One bomb had gone right through Rankin's billet, exploded in the workshop on the ground floor and blown out all the windows; another had fallen in the square about twenty yards in front of my billet and had failed to explode, while six others had fallen in different parts of the town, half of which were "duds." Nobody was hurt and no other damage was done.
Bittleson, Captain Rankin's batman, who happened to be looking out of the top window at the time, swore that the bomb which went through the roof beside him had grazed his forehead.
The bomb which had failed to explode in the square was taken possession of by our staff sergeant and placed on my laboratory table as a souvenir. A staff officer from headquarters, fortunately, came along before we returned and bore it off to his chief after promising to return it. Needless to relate it never came back, much to my relief and to the disgust of the staff sergeant who on several occasions referred to the iniquity of this high handed action.
On Easter Sunday we were invited to some sports by the divisional cavalry. As we drove up to the orchard specified in the invitation a crowd of typical big western cowboys with their broad brimmed Stetson hats came streaming up the road from a nearby farm where they had been foregathering.
A clear stretch of turf was selected, a ring formed by the crowd and the first event was announced—a cock fight between Von Kluck and Joffre. Cock fighting is the native sport of the countryside in that region where nearly every farmer keeps a couple of game cocks and fights them on Sunday afternoons, incidentally betting on the results.
After everybody had been warned not to move, the two birds were placed gently on the ground on opposite sides of the circle. Carelessly, and without apparently having noticed one another, the roosters walked about picking at the grass but gradually getting nearer to one another. When they got within a yard of each other they became more wary, though still feigning carelessness, until one seeing an opportunity, sprang into the air and struck at the head of the other with the curved wire nails attached to his legs in place of spurs. The other dodged and counter attacked and the action became general.
Using beak, wings and spurs they jumped, flew and struck at one another as opportunity afforded, until Joffre got a strangle hold on Von Kluck and buried his spurs again and again into the prostrate body until he finally struck a vital spot and the combat was over. Then, stretching himself, the victor flapped his wings once or twice as if to say "bring on the next" and went on picking at the grass as before.
It was the first time that I had ever seen a cock fight and I hope it will be the last. The concentration on the faces of those men as they watched the cruel "sport" and the play of expression passing over them was intensely interesting to me; you could almost tell what some of them were saying within their minds and it was pleasant to know that to the great majority of them the game was as repulsive as it was to us. It was obviously unsuited to the taste of our new country and men who might themselves be dead in the course of a week or two.
One other cock fight was put on and then we turned to a game much more suited to our men—a wrestling bout on horseback. Four men on each side mounted on horses, without saddles or bridles, were drawn up at opposite sides of the field. The men were dressed in trousers and shirts only; the horses were guided solely by a halter.
At a given signal the two parties approached one another at a trot, each man selecting as his antagonist the one opposite him. In the first crash a couple were dismounted almost instantly, and the battle resolved itself into several separate encounters.
The horses seemed to enter into the spirit of the thing and backed up, wheeled, side-stepped and did their best to help their owners win.
Meanwhile the riders, grasping one another by body, arm or leg, did their utmost to tear one another off their horses. When it became three against two, the two would tackle one opponent and it was the task of the single man to try to keep the two others on the same side so that they could not grasp him on both sides at once. It was exciting enough to see one man being pulled by one arm from one side, while another man was trying to throw his opposite leg over the horse. Even when they succeeded in accomplishing this he clung to the horse's neck and it was only with the greatest difficulty that his feet were made to touch the ground and he was thereby put out of the game.
One or two obstreperous animals who objected to the game ran away with their riders and tried to brush them off on the apple trees. The contestants were all as hard as nails and could stand any amount of rough usage such as they received in this gladiator-like contest.
After the games were over we adjourned to the Colonel's billet for afternoon tea and music. The Colonel was exceedingly fond of his gramophone, and, being troubled somewhat with insomnia, would sometimes rise in the middle of the night and put on a few of his favorite records, much to the annoyance of the rest of the staff billeted in the same house. Knowing this, one did not think it so strange as it might otherwise have seemed, that, during the course of a move of the division, the gramophone fell from a wagon and was run over by six other wagons. What did seem mysterious was the fact that none of the drivers had seen the gramophone in the road until it had been crushed as flat as a board.
When I visited the divisional cavalry a few months later the Colonel was still carrying forty dollars' worth of records with him but had not yet ordered a new gramophone.
Gradually the Canadian division moved on. One night we found them in the neighborhood of Winnizeele and Oudezeele, hamlets near the Belgian border. In searching for a battalion headquarters we asked one soldier sitting in front of a barn what village this was and received the not uncommon answer "I don't know." It was astonishing how frequently that answer was given. Apparently some men were quite content to be moved about like pawns in a game of chess without question as long as they were fed and clothed; they seemingly had adopted the attitude of the Mohammedan, "It is the will of Allah."
We had dinner with Colonel Rennie and his staff that night, and a pleasant dinner it was. I remember yet how envious we were of Major Kirkpatrick who took us up to his room and there opened up a box just received from his wife in England—a box containing cigarettes, chocolates, taffy, gum, magazines and other things so greatly appreciated by the soldier in the field, and so liberally shared by them with less fortunate ones. Some men were very lucky in having wives who seemed to spend a great deal of thought—and money—in things that would be appreciated by their husbands in France. The Major was taken a prisoner a fortnight later and I sincerely hope that he was as lucky in having his boxes come through to him in Germany.
After dinner we accompanied some of the younger officers to a mysterious place called "The Club"—an Estaminet in the village, operated by a French woman and recently "out of bounds" for several days because of failure to observe the early closing law.
The scene in that little French "Pub" that evening might have been from a comedy written of the period of one hundred years ago. In the common room were a number of officers playing cards at little tables. The air was blue with smoke and numerous bottles of wine stood on the tables.
A young French woman sat over in a corner chatting confidentially in French to a Canadian officer who thought he was replying in the same language. Neither understood a word that the other said, though both were obviously delighted at their success in making themselves understood, so what was the difference?
The scene, which grew more and more interesting as the evening advanced, was brought to a sudden conclusion by the entrance of a Lieutenant, who announced that nine o'clock had struck; in a moment the room was emptied, lights were out and we were all wending our ways homeward.
The first impressions of a soldier at the front are invariably the most vivid. A week after we had settled down to routine work we had occasion to visit one of the advanced dressing stations in our area. Leaving our little town by motor we crossed the canal by the lift-bridge after waiting to allow three Dutch barges to pass through. These lift bridges are hinged about one third of the way from one end and are raised by means of stout cables hitched to the other end and passing back to towers. They are so balanced that little effort is required to raise or lower them.
Turning to the left we struck into a pave road which led for some distance along the canal bank. Pave is not a bad road when kept in good repair as this one was, and when you get used to the vibration of the car bouncing from one cobble stone to another; when, however, it is not kept in repair, depressions form which rapidly increase as cart and motor wheels fall into them and hammer them deeper and deeper.
A little grey tug boat, painted the regulation battleship grey, slipped quietly along through the canal towing several barges loaded with road metal and lumber.
A buzz like a huge bee approaching us across the fields attracted our attention, and we looked up to see an aeroplane, like a gigantic dragon fly bearing directly down upon us. A hundred yards away it left the ground and passed over our heads climbing steadily in a great spiral into the sky. Another aeroplane, and another followed till there were five circling above us, getting smaller and smaller as they soared into the heaven, looking like herons in flight among the clouds. They then made off towards different parts of the German lines to their daily task of reconnaissance.
The women, old men and children, were busy on the farms ploughing, harrowing and putting in the seed. Though the men were away there was no dearth of labour on the farms and everything was going on as it should. The silly-looking, heavily-built, three-wheeled carts, empty or loaded with manure, bumped along behind the broad-backed Flemish horses, guided solely by a frail looking piece of string. The driver, seated crosswise on a projecting tongue of wood, guides the horse by mysterious signals conveyed through jerks of the piece of string, and steers the cart by leaning over and shoving the small front steering wheel to the right or left by hand. The Flemish horses are very placid and are never startled by motors, gun fire, or anything else.
Away to the right we could see the spires of a church in a little village nestling among the trees. Our road took its tortuous course through fields as flat as a board. Tall trees flanked the roadside which was separated from the fields by ditches three or four feet wide, serving to drain both road and fields and ultimately emptying into some canal or creek. In this particular part of Flanders hedges were not in universal use for fences. In one place we execrated the Germans for having cut down dozens of the roadside trees, only to discover later that the British themselves had cut them down in order to clear the course for aeroplanes ascending and descending to the aerodrome close by.
We overhauled a trotting dog team dragging a heavy little milk cart and driven by a boy who ran alongside. At the sound of the motor horn the dogs turned sharply to the right without waiting for orders from the boy, ran over his foot, and nearly upset the cart. One judged that they had had some previous and possibly not pleasant experiences with motor cars, and were taking no chances. What the boy said to them was shameful, judged even by our limited knowledge of French and the short time we were within hearing of him.
Coming into the little town of La Gorgue we could see to our right a chateau in quite pretentious gardens—a chateau in which the German Crown Prince is said to have been staying when a British shell crashed through the roof and made him move on the double quick. This town like our own was intersected by a canal which was used both as a sewer and source of water supply for washing purposes. The streets in this town are dirty and ill kept; the stores uninteresting, and the houses squalid; it ran into the next town of Estaires by the continuation of the main street.
Canadian soldiers were everywhere in evidence, wandering along the roads in the manner so characteristic of them. Canadians have never been over fond of saluting officers, and have never quite accepted the statement that it is the uniform of the representative of the King they are called upon to salute—not the man.
The first story I heard was about a chauffeur I had had in Valcartier. He had been standing at the doorway of a store trying to talk to a French girl when a couple of British officers passed. The man did not see them till they were just going by and drew himself up to a sort of a half attention. The officers passed, halted, and came back.
"Why didn't you salute?" queried one officer.
"I didn't see you," replied the man.
"Oh, yes, you did; you came to a kind of sloppy attention as we passed," said the officer.
"Yes," said the man. "I did as you were almost past; but anyway we don't salute much in our army."
"What?" said the officer, "are you a Canadian?"
"Yes, sir," said the chauffeur proudly, and the British officers went on laughing heartily.
The officers we came to see were out and we seized the opportunity to run over for a look at the shell-shattered town of Laventie—the first battered town we had seen. To us, at that time, it was an awe-inspiring spectacle, though nowadays it would be considered a comparatively undamaged town.
The houses on the outskirts were quite intact, but as we approached the centre of the town, shattered windows, pitted walls, and scarred woodwork indicated that the town had been heavily shelled. Near the church the buildings were wrecked; roofs were lifted off, windows blown out, and walls were frequently half down or had great holes in them, while the block right around the church was a heap of rubbish.
The church itself had been hit scores of times, and the walls though still standing were perforated like a sieve. The stones in the foundation of the church were fractured by the force of the exploding shells into tiny fragments, still pressed together with the weight of the material above them. So crushed were they that if removed, a tap with a hammer would make them fall into thousands of splinters.
The houses round about the church had been completely razed to the ground. Those adjacent were partly unroofed, with perhaps a wall blown out showing an upstairs with a stairway swinging from the floor, beams from the roof fallen over the iron bedstead, sheets of wall paper dangling from the walls, and every other imaginable combination of wreckage. And yet a few doors away down the street where the houses had not been very badly damaged they were occupied by civilians who tried to eke out an existence by selling candy and foodstuffs.
It is a never-failing source of wonder to see people in such places which were being shelled daily, hanging on desperately to the old homes, not knowing when a shell might come through the roof and kill them all. That was brought home to me later on when, as I passed through a village one afternoon, I saw three women being dug out of the cellar of a house in which a shell had exploded a minute before. On another occasion in a village close by a mother with her babe at her breast, three children of various ages, the husband and the grandmother, were all killed in one room by a German shell, the walls, ceiling and floor being splattered with blood and brains. And so it goes on day after day among the civilians in the shelled area in France. Most of them escape but many of them pay the price.
THE SECOND BATTLE OF YPRES.
It was a glorious spring day on Saturday, April 17th, 1915, when I motored to Ypres. The first Canadian Contingent had gone into the salient several days before, and had now settled down to business in the trenches. Our laboratory had been given permission to keep a check on the purity of the water supply of the Canadians; hence this trip from our laboratory, located twenty miles away in another part of the line.
The cobble stone or pave road between Poperinge and Ypres was like a moving picture to our, as yet, unsatiated eyes. Here a small party of soldiers marched along quickly; there three blue-coated French officers, with smartly-trimmed moustaches, cantered by on horseback; a pair of goggled despatch riders on throbbing motor cycles dashed along at terrific speed, leaving long trails of dust behind them; a string of transport waggons with hay and other fodder, crept along leisurely; a motor ambulance convoy sped past with back curtains up, showing the boots of the recumbent wounded, or the peering faces of the sitting cases with heads and arms bound in white linen; some old women arrayed in their best dresses, and with baskets on arms, were coming from market gossiping volubly; boys and girls garbed in the universal one-piece black overdress of the country, played games on the roadside; an armoured-motor machine gun halted beside the children to make some adjustment; great three-ton lorries lumbered along; officers in touring cars, sometimes with red and gold staff hats, flew by, taking salutes with easy nonchalance, while we, with ears and eyes wide open, bowled along towards the famous city of Ypres.
It was war,—apparently an easy going, leisurely sort of game. Everybody seemed to be going about as if they had been at this sort of thing all their lives; as if, in fact, they couldn't do anything else.
Every vehicle and every person that went into the salient had to travel on that broad highway, flanked with tall trees, and paved with cobble stone. Wire entanglements and trenches traversed the roads at intervals, and shell holes filled with water in the adjacent fields showed the road to be within range of the German guns.
As we approached Ypres we could see that, like all the towns of northern France and Belgium, it was sharply separated from the adjacent fields; there were no extensive suburbs such as are found around the modern British or American city causing them to merge gradually into the surrounding country. When we passed the first houses we were practically in a solid compact town.
According to the custom in Flanders, the houses and stores of Ypres were built close together, right on the sidewalk, without gardens or spaces between them. Many were white, and the effect of the white stucco and red brick gave the city a clean and sanitary appearance. It was a town with a population of less than 20,000, a mere reminiscence of that ancient city of Ypres of the 12th century which had had a population of 200,000 inhabitants and which had been the most powerful city in Flanders and one of the richest in the world,—a city larger and more powerful than London. Ypres was famous for its cloth in the 13th century, when it had 4,000 looms in use. Through wars and religious persecutions the population of Ypres had dwindled at one time to 5,000 people. Her fortifications had long ago been dismantled, and with the exception of a few magnificent buildings, her ancient glory had departed.
As our car slowly passed through the town evidences of shell fire were abundantly apparent. Here was a house with its roof blown off; another with the windows blown out, the woodwork splintered and the walls pitted with shrapnel; while another had been completely gutted. We turned to the right and came upon the famous church of St. Martin's. Great piles of stone and debris lay in front of it, the roof was gone and the windows had disappeared, but the tower was still intact; the houses in the neighborhood had been blown to atoms.
Our hearts beat faster when we came upon the building adjacent to it, facing the Grande Place,—the glorious cloth hall of Ypres, beautiful even in its ruin. Few such wonderfully majestic specimens of architecture as this ancient monument of the weavers of Ypres have come down to us through the ages. On the great square in the heart of the city it stood, nearly 500 feet long and half as wide. The walls were yet fairly intact, also the main square tower in the centre and the graceful pointed turrets at each corner. Most of the roof was gone, but enough remained to show that it had been very high-pitched, and that the proportions of the building must have been perfect. The interior was a mass of rubble; here and there direct hits had blown holes in the wonderfully carved walls, and some of the statues of the famous men of the ancient city had been tumbled from their niches between the third tier of windows. None of the woodwork of the famous painted panels of the interior remained; it had all been destroyed by fire from the incendiary shells of the apostles of culture.
I stood and gazed, quite carried away by the beauty of even the fragments of the magnificent bit of Gothic architecture, and with indignation at its destruction. The warm spring sun of midday played about its columns, making heavy shadows under the windows and ruined arches; soldiers crossed the square and stood about as if they were a thousand miles from the German lines. Several officers could be seen wandering about studying the ruins; two of them I knew and they came over to shake hands. I asked where I could get some dinner, and was directed to the only decent restaurant left in the town, located just beyond the Cloth Hall on the square.
As we stopped at the door of the estaminet Lt.-Col. (Canon) Frederick Scott, one of our Canadian poets, came by and stopped for a chat. I had not seen him since the memorable days of Salisbury Plain, and he was full of his experiences as a regimental chaplain. He drew from his pocket the manuscript of a newly-written poem and, oblivious of his surroundings, stood by the car and recited it to me.
The little restaurant was well filled with officers even at this late lunching hour of two o'clock. It had been a millinery store, but latterly there had been little sale for millinery and there had been a great demand for food; the three pretty Flemish sisters who owned the shop had therefore accommodated themselves to the situation and now served most excellent food daintily on clean tables, though not with great despatch. At any rate, my omelette, cheese, toast and coffee tasted very good to me that day, while I chatted to two engineers who had countermined and blown up a German mine at St. Eloi a few days before.
After lunch we hunted out No. 3 Field Ambulance, whose personnel came largely from Toronto. Colonel McPherson of Toronto, the officer commanding, seemed glad to see me, as he always did, and showed me over the ambulance and billets where the officers were quartered. I took water samples for examination of their drinking water supply, which was not above suspicion. The garden at the rear of their temporary home was vibrant with sunshine; the pears, trained against the walls in the rectangular manner so much in vogue in France, and the peach trees, were already bursting into clusters of pink and white blossoms. I picked some beautiful blue pansies to press in my pocket book and send home as souvenirs of my first visit to Ypres.
Upon leaving the ambulance we passed over the river by the bridge, where soldiers were filling water carts by means of hand pumps; passed the ancient ramparts on the river's edge and through the hamlet of St. Jean to Wieltze, where the advanced dressing station of the ambulance was located. Here I saw my friend Captain Brown and collected water samples for examination. Returning to Ypres we went out to Brielen to see the A.D.M.S. of the Canadian Division and there found some letters from home waiting me.
While in the office a sudden commotion among a group of soldiers outside and the raising of glasses skyward drew us forth to watch an aerial battle in progress. With the aid of borrowed glasses I could see six machines in the sky manoeuvring for position. Two in particular seemed to be closely engaged when the German suddenly turned tail and fled. A white puff of smoke beside him indicated that the Archibalds had been watching the combat closely. A second, third and fourth followed in rapid succession until suddenly at the fifteenth burst the Taube began to drop and flutter down, like a leaf falling from a forest tree on a quiet October day. Five minutes later, far out in the salient, we saw a second driven down in a straight nose dive, making the third for that day in the vicinity of Ypres. One might watch for months, as I afterwards did, without seeing another aeroplane brought down.
When we were on our way back from Ypres on our return, a horse ridden by an officer suddenly curvetted across the road in front of us. Rad pulled up the car to a full stop, and the officer pulled in his horse at the same time. The horse reared, his front feet caught in the fender, he pawed the air wildly for a moment and, losing his balance, he fell over backward rolling on the officer. Soldiers quickly caught the horse and pulled him to one side, and greatly to our relief the officer was able to get up and walk. It was characteristic of the British officer that he had no feeling towards us on account of his accident; on the contrary, bruised and aching as he must have been though he would not admit it, he came over to the car and apologized for having caused us inconvenience. It is the British way of doing things.
As we traversed Ypres on our homeward route, a little girl held up bouquets of spring flowers and we stopped while I bought a large bunch of daffodils for the equivalent of two pennies. Crossing the railway tracks by the shell-shattered station we struck into the Dickiebush—Bailleul Road, and drove slowly homeward over the rough pave.
Near Dickiebush the fields were pitted with numerous shell holes, and the rails of a light railway at one place pointed heavenward where a shell had exploded between them.
A pup, evidently unused to motor traffic on this bad bit of road, took a chance and tried to dash across in front of the car but miscalculated his distance and was bowled into the ditch.
It was curious to see one field ploughed with shells and full of holes, and the next field with prominently placed new signs bearing the inscription, "It is forbidden to walk over the growing grain." As we passed through the rolling land of Belgium under the brow of "The Scherpenberg," with Mount Kemmel over to the right honeycombed with dugouts, it was difficult to believe that, locked in a death grapple, not three miles away, were thousands of soldiers living underground like moles, and that at any moment the air might be filled with shells carrying death and destruction.
At the end of a peaceful day we reached our little French home town, glad to have seen our friends in their new area by the famous old city of the Flemish weavers.
Springtime had come in truth; the hedges of Northern France were beginning to bloom white, and the wild flowers were quite thick in the forest of Nieppe near Merville. It was the time in Canada when the spring feeling suddenly got into the blood, when one threw work to the winds and took to the woods in search of the first violets.
On the twenty-second day of April the very essence of spring was in the air; I felt as if I had to go out into the open and watch the birds and bees, loll in the sun, and do nothing. We struggled along until noon with our routine work, and having completed it Captain Rankin and I left for Ypres. A soldier had been transferred to us, and as we did not need him we decided to register a formal protest and see if he could not be kept with his present unit. Our road lay through Dickiebush and we made good time, again reaching Ypres about two o'clock.
It was quite evident to me as I retraversed the streets of Ypres that it had been heavily shelled since I had been there a few days before. Many more houses had been smashed, and unmended shell holes were seen in the roads. As we crossed the Grande Place there was scarcely a soldier visible. The Cloth Hall, which the Captain had not seen before, showed further evidences of shell fire. After viewing the ruins we drove to the little restaurant kept by the pretty milliners, only to find that the place had completely disappeared—literally blown to atoms. Later on we found that a fifteen-inch shell had landed in the building next door and both houses had simultaneously vanished. A well known officer, Captain Trumbull Warren of the 48th Highlanders, Toronto, coming out of a store on the opposite side of the square had been killed by a flying fragment of the same shell.
We wondered whether the milliners had escaped, and somewhat depressed, drove along in search of another restaurant. A sign "Chocolat" on a door in a side street made us inquire, and, curiously enough, we found this also to be a little restaurant kept by two other milliners. They informed us that the first three milliners had escaped when the bombardment began, and before their restaurant had been blown up. One's interest in a place or in a battle is often in direct proportion to the number of one's friends or acquaintances there.
After lunch we drove to Brielen, but found that the A.D.M.S., whom we were in search of, and his deputy were both out. We were shown maps of the salient, and had the area pointed out to us where the French joined up with the second and third brigades of Canadians, and where the British troops joined up with the Canadians. When about to leave, a friend, Major Maclaren of the 10th Infantry battalion, riding a mettlesome horse, rode up and I got out of the car and held the bridle while we had a long talk about the experiences of the Canadians since we had left Salisbury Plain.
We then drove back to the Ypres water pool, which was the largest supply of drinking water in the area. There were at least thirty-five water carts in line waiting their turn to fill up at this presumably good supply. We were told that it was safe because twice a week a couple of pounds of chloride of lime were chucked into the middle of the pool. We took samples of the water and passed on to Wieltze, intending to walk into the salient to see what "No man's Land" was like. Men had told us that, unlike the rest of the front near the trenches, there were no growing crops, and no birds sang in that desolate, dreary, shell-shattered area, and we wanted to see it for ourselves.
We were surprised and delighted to find Captain Scrimger, whom we had left convalescing at Bulford, England, in charge of the Advanced Dressing Station. He had just arrived that afternoon, and was in hopes of getting his old battalion again, explaining that on account of his illness in England he had been temporarily replaced as regimental medical officer by Captain Boyd. We talked with him in the little estaminet in which the dressing station was located, while the old woman who kept the place and two peasants chatted quietly together in a corner and drank beer. I wondered at the time whether they were spies. Captain Scrimger walked with us up to the edge of the village and then returned to his charge.
At the outskirts of the village we noticed a peasant planting seeds in the little garden in front of his house. The earth had all been dug and raked smooth by a boy and a couple of children. To our "Bon jour" he replied, and added "Il fait bon temps n'est ce pas?" looking up at the sun with evident satisfaction.
No motor transport was allowed to pass Wieltze because the road beyond was exceedingly rough, and it would only have been inviting disaster from breakdowns and German shells to have proceeded farther.
As we tramped along towards St. Julien our attention was attracted to a greenish yellow smoke ascending from the part of the line occupied by the French. We wondered what the smoke was coming from. Half a mile up the road we seated ourselves on a disused trench and lit cigarettes, while I began to read a home letter which I had found at Brielen.
An aeroplane flying low overhead dropped some fire-balls. Immediately a violent artillery cannonade began. Looking towards the French line we saw this yellowish green cloud rising on a front of at least three miles and drifting at a height of perhaps a hundred feet towards us.
"That must be the poison gas that we have heard vague rumours about," I remarked to the Captain. The gas rose in great clouds as if it had been poured from nozzles, expanding as it ascended; here and there brown clouds seemed to be mixed with the general yellowish green ones. "It looks like chlorine," I said, "and I bet it is." The Captain agreed that it probably was.
The cannonade increased in intensity. About five minutes after it began a hoarse whistle, increasing to a roar like that of a railroad train, passed overhead. "For Ypres," we ejaculated, and looking back we saw a cloud as big as a church rise up from that ill-fated city, followed by the sound of the explosion of a fifteen-inch shell. Thereafter these great shells succeeded one another at regular intervals, each one followed by the great black cloud in Ypres.
The bombardment grew in intensity. Over in a field not two hundred yards away numerous coal boxes exploded, throwing up columns of mud and water like so many geysers. General Alderson and General Burstall of the Canadian Division came hurrying up the road and paused for a moment to shake hands, and to remark that the Germans appeared to be making a heavy attack upon the French. We wondered whether they would get back to their headquarters or not.
Shells of various calibres, whistling and screaming, flew over our heads from German batteries as well as from our own batteries replying to them. The air seemed to be full of shells flying in all directions. The gas cloud gradually grew less dense, but the bombardment redoubled in violence as battery after battery joined in the angry chorus.
Across the fields we could see guns drawn by galloping horses taking up new positions. One such gun had taken a position not three hundred yards away from us when a German shell lit apparently not twenty feet away from it; that gun was moved with despatch into another position.
Occasionally we imagined that we could hear heavy rifle and machine gun fire, but the din was too great to distinguish much detail. The common expression used on the front, "Hell let loose," was the only term at all descriptive of the scene.
Streaking across the fields towards us came a dog. On closer view he appeared to be a nondescript sort of dog of no particular family or breeding. But he was bent on one purpose, and that seemed to be to put as great a distance as possible between himself and the Germans. He had been gassed, and had evidently been the first to get out of the trenches. Loping along at a gait that he could, if necessary, maintain for hours, he fled by with tail between his legs, tongue hanging out and ears well back. And as he passed he gave us a look which plainly said, "Silly fools to stand there when you could get out; just wait there and you will get yours." And on he went, doubtless galloping into the German lines on the opposite side of the salient.
By this time our eyes had begun to run water, and became bloodshot. The fumes of the gas which had reached us irritated our throats and lungs, and made us cough. We decided that this gas was chiefly chlorine, with perhaps an admixture of bromine, but that there was probably something else present responsible for the irritation of our eyes.
A lull in the cannonading made it possible to distinguish the heavy rattle of rifle and machine gun fire, and it seemed to me to be decidedly closer.
The Canadian artillery evidently received a message to support, and down to our right the crash of our field guns, and their rhythmical red flashes squirting from the hedgerows, focussed our attention and added to the din.
Up the road from St. Julien came a small party of Zouaves with their baggy trousers and red Fez caps. We stepped out to speak to them, and found that they belonged to the French Red Cross. They had been driven out of their dressing station by the poisonous gas, and complained bitterly of the effect of it on their lungs.
Shortly afterwards the first wounded Canadian appeared—a Highlander,—sitting on a little cart drawn by a donkey which was led by a peasant. His face and head were swathed in white bandages, and he looked as proud as a peacock.
Soon after, another Canadian Highlander came trudging up the road, with rifle on shoulder and face black with powder. He stated that his platoon had been gassed, and that the Germans had got in behind them about a mile away, in such a manner that they had been forced to fight them on front and rear. Finally the order had been passed, "Every man for himself," and he had managed to get out; he was now on his way back to report to headquarters.
Then came a sight that we could scarcely credit. Across the fields coming towards us, we saw men running, dropping flat on their faces, getting up and running again, dodging into disused trenches, and keeping every possible bit of shelter between themselves and the enemy while they ran. As they came closer we could see that they were French Moroccan troops, and evidently badly scared. Near us some of them lay down in a trench and lit cigarettes for a moment or two, only to start up in terror and run on again. Some of them even threw away their equipment after they had passed, and they all looked at us with the same expression that the dog had, evidently considering us to be madmen to stay where we were. It was quite apparent that the Moroccan troops had given way under the gas attack, and that a break, doubtless a large one, had been made in the French front line.
Then our hearts swelled with a pride that comes but seldom in a man's life—the pride of race. Up the road from Ypres came a platoon of soldiers marching rapidly; they were Canadians, and we knew that our reserve brigade was even now on the way to make the attempt to block the German road to Calais.
Bullets began to come near. Neither of us said a word for a while as we saw spurt after spurt of dust kicked up a few yards in front of us.
"I think we had better move, Colonel," said Captain Rankin at last. As he spoke, a bullet split a brick in the road about three feet away from me, and slid across the road leaving a trail of dust.
"I think we had," I said as I walked over, picked up the spent bullet and dropped it in my pocket. Another bullet pinged over head and another spat up the road dust in front of us. "Those are aimed bullets," I said. "The Germans cannot be far away; it's time to move." It was then about 6.30 and we walked back to Wieltze, near which we met our anxious chauffeur coming out to meet me.
Canadian soldiers with boxes of cartridges on their shoulders ran up the road towards the trenches; others carrying movable barb-wire entanglements followed them. A company of Canadians took to the fields on leaving Wieltze, and began advancing in short rushes in skirmishing order towards the German front, while their officer walked on ahead swinging his bamboo cane in the most approved fashion. Another company was just leaving the village, loading their rifles as they hurried along. I overheard one chap say, as he thrust a cartridge clip into place, "Good Old Ross."
As we approached Wieltze we could see ammunition wagons galloping up the other road which forks at Wieltze and runs to Langemarck. Turning into the fields they would wheel sharply, deposit their loads, and gallop wildly off again for more ammunition, while the crashes and flashes of the guns showed that they were being served with redoubled vigor.
At the edge of the village the peasant, whom we had seen preparing his little garden and sowing seeds earlier in the afternoon, came down to the gate and asked rather apologetically if we thought that the Germans would be there to-night; "in any case did monsieur not think it would be wise for the women and children to leave?"
Behind him, standing about the door steps, were the members of his family, each with a bundle suited to their respective ages. The smallest, a girl about six years of age, had a tiny bundle in a handkerchief; the next, a boy about eight, had a larger one. All were dressed in their best Sunday clothes, and carried umbrellas—a wise precaution in the climate of Flanders. We agreed with him that it was wise to move away, because it would be possible to return, if the Germans were driven back, whereas if they stayed they might be killed.
As we talked to the father, the eldest, a boy of eighteen, came down to the gate with his grandmother, a little old lady perhaps eighty years of age, and weighing about as many pounds. The boy stooped down to pick her up in his arms, but she shook her head in indignant protest. Accordingly he crouched down, she put her arms around his neck, he took her feet under his arms, and set off down the road towards Ypres with the rest of the family trailing behind him. About ten o'clock that night my friend, Captain Eddie Robertson, standing with his regiment on the roadside ten miles nearer Poperinge, waiting for orders to advance, noticed a youth with a little old lady on his back, trudging by in the stream of fleeing refugees.
Wieltze was a picture; the kind of moving picture that the movie man would pay thousands for, but never can obtain. The old adage held that you always see the best shots when you have no gun. Small detachments of Canadian troops moved rapidly through the streets. Around the Canadian Advanced Dressing Station was a crowd of wounded Turcos and Canadians waiting their turn to have their wounds dressed. All the civilians were loading their donkey or dog carts with household goods and setting out towards Ypres, sometimes driving their cows before them.
As we climbed into the car, which had been placed for shelter behind the strongest looking wall in the town, and slowly started for Ypres, a section of the 10th Canadian Battalion came along with our friend, Major Maclaren, whom I had talked to at Brielen earlier in the afternoon, at its head. I waved my hand to him and called "good luck." He waved his hand in answer with a cheery smile. A couple of hours later he was wounded and was sent back in the little battalion Ford car, with another officer, to the ambulance in Vlamertinge. While passing through Ypres a shell blew both officers' heads off.
At the fork of the roads, Lt.-Col. Mitchell of Toronto, of the headquarters staff, who was directing traffic, came over and asked us if we had seen certain Canadian battalions pass by. We told him we had and we shook hands as we wished each other "good luck," not knowing whether we should ever meet again. We picked up a load of wounded Turcos and took them into the ambulance at Ypres. Fresh shell holes pitted the road and dead horses lay at the side of it. One corner in particular near Ypres had been shelled very heavily, and broken stone, pave and bricks lay scattered about everywhere.
All the while the roar of guns and the whistle of flying shells had increased. We reached the ambulance in Ypres between dusk and dark; it was light enough to see that the front of the building, which had been intact earlier in the afternoon, had been already scarred with pieces of flying shells. The shutters which had been closed were torn and splintered, and the brick work was pitted with shrapnel. We forced our Turcos to descend and enter the ambulance, though from their protests I judged they would have much preferred a continuous passage to the country beyond Ypres.
As we entered the door Major Hardy (now Colonel Hardy, D.S.O.) was found operating on one of his own men; the man had been blown off a water cart down the street and his leg and side filled with shrapnel. It was rather weird to see this surgeon coolly operating as if he was in a hospital in Canada, and to hear the shells screaming overhead and exploding not far away, any one of which might at any moment blow building, operator and patient to pieces. That is one of the beauties of the army system; each one in the army "carries on" and does his own particular bit under all circumstances.
A terrific bang in the street outside, followed by the rattling and crash of glass and falling of bricks, caused Rad to remark "there goes the good old Lozier car." At the same time the piercing shrieks of a woman rang out down the street, shrieks as from a woman who might have had her child killed. We went to the door and looked out; the Lozier was still intact, though later on we found the rounded corner of the metal body of the car bent as though a piece of pave or metal of several pounds weight had struck it, and the floor of the car was covered with bits of broken glass and brick.
Major Hardy asked us to take his patient on to Vlamertinge as it was doubtful when a motor ambulance would return, and we were glad to do so. After being given the usual dose of anti-tetanic serum, he was wrapped in blankets and made comfortable in the back seat. We shook hands with the Major and started off for Vlamertinge.
It was too risky to go through the centre of the town on account of falling walls, chimneys, and the swiftly descending fragments of houses blown skyward. So we skirted the town and tried to get down a side road to Vlamertinge. It was choked with refugees and transport, and the military traffic policeman strongly advised us to take the main road from Ypres. As there was no alternative we drove back to the water tower in the city. This road was clear, for nobody was going into Ypres at that time by that particular intersecting road.
We made all possible speed to get through the town and into the main Ypres-Vlamertinge road. There wagons began to pass us going the opposite way, the horses whipped into a gallop as they made haste to get through the town to the bridge-head on the far side. Motor transport lorries also drove at full speed to get by this danger point as quickly as possible. As we cleared the town again, the traffic became heavier, and we gradually worked into and formed part of a great human stream with various eddies and back currents.
It was now dark, and but for the feeble light of a young moon, which sometimes broke through the clouds and faintly illuminated the road, nothing could be seen. All headlights were out, and not even the light of a hand lantern or flashlight was permitted. Yet one's eyes became accustomed to the dark, and when the pale moonlight came through we could dimly see over on our right a line of French Turcos moving like ghosts along towards Vlamertinge. Next them were the fleeing refugees with their bundles, wagons and push carts, and their cows being driven before them. If there was a cart, the old man or old lady would invariably be seated on the top of the load, sometimes holding the baby.
In the centre of the road we groped our way along with infinite care. A shadow would sometimes bear down on the car, and suddenly swerve to one side as a horseman trotted by. A motor lorry would approach within a few feet of us before the driver would see, and stop before we crashed into each other. On the left were troops standing by all along the roadside, and we felt very proud as we realized that they were Canadians, and that they were the only troops at hand to plug the gap made by the German poison gases.
At one time the road became jammed, and we had visions of staying all night in the midst of a road block. Gradually, with the aid of mounted gendarmes and our military police, the mass, composed of cows, wagons, horses, dogcarts, refugee men, women and children, with hand wagons and baby carriages; motor lorries, horse transport, lumber wagons, motor cycles, touring cars, and mounted horsemen, was dissolved, and slowly began again to flow in both directions. Looking backward we could see the red glow of fires burning in different parts of Ypres and the bright flashes of shells as they burst over that much German-hated city. All around the salient star shells flared into the sky and remained suspended for a few minutes as they threw a white glare over the surrounding country, silhouetting the trees against the sky like ghosts before they died away and fell to earth.
At last we reached Vlamertinge and turned into the yard occupied by No. 3 Field Ambulance. Our car was known, and several officers came forward to see if we had any authentic news. Our patient, whom they recognized as belonging at one time to themselves, was carried into shelter, and we also entered the building. Lying on the floors were scores of soldiers with faces blue or ghastly green in colour choking, vomiting and gasping for air, in their struggles with death, while a faint odour of chlorine hung about the place.
These were some of our own Canadians who had been gassed, and I felt, as I stood and watched them, that the nation who had planned in cold blood, the use of such a foul method of warfare, should not be allowed to exist as a nation but should be taken and choked until it, too, cried for mercy.
We could not help smiling as we shook hands with Captain Boyd, who had been shot in the calf of the leg and was now getting the wound dressed, particularly when he heard that Captain Scrimger had already been ordered to replace him. (Captain Scrimger won the V.C. the following day).
We offered our car to the Colonel of the ambulance for the night, but he had to stay at his work, and the car was not very suitable for evacuating wounded. As we could not be of use, we reluctantly passed on out of the fighting zone toward home, and the refugees being not so numerous we could travel faster.
Near the entrance to Poperinge a British Major came over to our car as we were showing our passes to a military policeman. "Are you Canadian officers?" he said.
"We are," I answered.
"Then would you mind telling your Canadian transport drivers to stop going up and down this road; they insist on doing it, and I can't stop them."
"There is a big battle up in the salient," I said. "Shells and many other things are needed; our men have been sent for them and know what they want; I wouldn't interfere with them if I were you."
He looked at us as though we were hopeless idiots, and we drove on. The motor ambulance convoy, which we had been asked to have sent forward, had already gone, and our last errand was done. Putting on our headlights and opening the throttle, we tore homeward, reaching Merville at eleven o'clock.
When we arrived at the Mess, Captain Ellis, who had been anxiously waiting, said that we looked grey, drawn and ghastly, partly perhaps from the effects of the poisonous gas. We had an intensely interested listener as we recounted our experiences and drew plans of the line as we thought it probably existed at the moment. Whether the Germans could get through or not was the dominant question. Nothing lay between them and Calais but the Canadian Division, and whether the Canadians could hang on long enough in face of this new terror of poison gas until new troops arrived, no one could even venture to guess. We felt that they would do all that men could do under the circumstances, but without means of combating the poison it was doubtful what any troops could do. Supposing the Germans just kept on discharging gas? Nothing under heaven apparently could stop them from walking over the dead bodies of our soldiers, choked to death like drowned men. We could not decide the question that time alone could answer, and we went to bed to spend a long sleepless night longing for the day, when we would get news of the battle.
The next afternoon I was sent for by General Sir Henry Rawlinson, commanding the corps in our area. He had heard that I had seen the gas discharged the day before and wanted to know what the gas was, what the effect had been, how it could be combated and, in fact, all about it. When I had finished my narrative he placed a large map in front of me and asked me to sketch out the part of the line where the gas had been discharged, and how I thought the line should be at the present moment. I did my best, tyro as I was. It was one of the satisfactory moments of my life when the General drew the map to one side and showed me a map of the line as it really was, given him by General Foch that very morning. The maps were identical, and the General smiled a smile of appreciation as he thanked me for the assistance that our laboratory had given in helping to diagnose and combat this new mode of warfare, and I left his office feeling that we had been of some real use in the war even if we never did anything else.
THE AFTERMATH OF THE GAS.
The day after the gas attack I reported to headquarters, that in my opinion the gas used was chlorine with possibly an admixture of bromine, and that a mask with a solution of "Hypo" to cover the nose and mouth would probably absorb the gas and destroy its effectiveness. I also suggested that the battle area be searched for masks which the Germans were sure to have had prepared as a protection for their own men. (Most of the morning I had spent in bed with an attack of bronchitis suffering from the effects of the gas.)
Later I learned that German prisoners had given the information that the gas was contained in cylinders but would not admit that they knew what kind of gas it was. They also said that the men who operated the tanks wore protective masks and gloves.
All that day the Indians of the Lahore division from our area were passing through our town on the way to Ypres.
On Sunday afternoon Captain Ellis and I left for Vlamertinge to find out just what had happened. The suspense had become terrible and we felt like quitters because we were not in the salient fighting with our fellows. At Poperinge we saw a cart on the road beside a house which had been recently blown down by a shell. As we drove slowly by, a wounded old woman was carried out and laid beside the bodies of two other white-haired women who had just been dug out of the ruins. Though fatally injured, they were still living, and I shall never forget the pitiful looks on those ashy gray faces as they looked up into my face with eyes like those of sheep about to be slaughtered.
At No. 3 Canadian Field Ambulance we found that 2,600 Canadian casualties had already passed through during the three days since the gas attack. We heard there that Major Mothersill, Medical officer of the Eighth Battalion, had been lying out in front of the lines for two days, unable to move and apparently paralyzed. It was one of those personal experiences which brings the war home to us with startling reality, for I had made a tour of his area with him just a few days before. You hear of the loss of a thousand men and it affects you very little, but if you know personally a single one of the thousand, the news of his death may give you the blues for days. The loss of a million unknown Russians does not really mean as much to one as the loss of a single friend.
On our return trip we passed a large number of London busses loaded with wounded; they were all sitting-up cases and were a very happy looking lot. It was an odd sight to see bus after bus tearing down that long, straight road, with the tall trees on either hand, each bus with rows of soldiers seated on the upper deck, with heads and arms bandaged, looking about at everything with the greatest interest,—like tourists rather than men who had just come from the very gates of hell. They waved hearty greetings to the French artillery which was then pouring up the side roads.
As the French 75's bumped along the roads, drawn by rat-tailed, wiry horses, they looked like pale blue, painted wooden guns, instead of what they were—the deadliest weapon that the war had till then produced. An officer who watched them the following day gallop onto the field, unlimber and start firing, told me that the way their fire covered that front was an absolutely uncanny sight. With mathematical precision the shells would begin to drop at one end of a field and cut out a belt across it from side to side, the belt growing as each explosion threw up a splash of dust from the showers of shrapnel; having completed the belt they would begin another a few yards farther back until the whole field had been covered and not a soldier hiding anywhere in it left alive.
On the day of the first gas attack there were soldiers everywhere back of the line; that day as we drove home there was not a single one to be seen. They had all gone forward toward the front where they could be of the greatest use.
When the French people of the little villages through which we passed saw the name "Canadian" on our car they nudged each other and repeated the word "Canadien." It was the name in everybody's mouth those days, for it was now general knowledge that the Canadian division had thrown itself into the gap and stemmed the German rush to Calais. The whole world was ringing with the story of how the colonial troops had barred the road to the channel to a force many times its size in men and guns, and armed with poison gas, the most terrible device of warfare that had yet been invented.
And well may it be said that the 22nd of April, 1915, was, to the allies, one of the two most vital days since the beginning of the war. The Germans had planned to break through and seize the French coast along the narrowest portion of the channel. Once established there they would have attempted to cover the channel with their long range naval guns, while they would have established for their submarines harbours which could be protected by the same guns. Under such circumstances, cross channel traffic and the maintenance of our lines of communication would have proved to be a very difficult matter indeed, for the subs would then, at any time, have easy access to our channel path.
The importance of the Canadian fight during that first twenty-four hours was out of all ratio to the size of our forces. The whole success of the battle hinged on the attack by two battalions on the morning of the 23rd of April. These two battalions were sent up into the centre of the gap left in the line by the retreat of the French colonials. Supported by four field guns, they advanced steadily under a terrific fire from the enemy. As General Mercer said to me afterwards, it was, according to the book, probably as crazy a bit of military tactics as could possibly have been tried, but the very daring of the attempt proved its success. The Germans, believing that such a counter attack must be backed up by much stronger forces, hesitated to come on and the day was saved, for while they hesitated and made sure of their ground, troops were hurried up from other parts of the line and the Huns had missed their chance. That first night if the Germans had simply walked ahead they would have found nothing to stop them, but they were too much dazed with their own success to realize the situation and take advantage of it.
Naturally we were thrilled with pride at the success of the division; we had been present at its birth; we had watched it through the various vicissitudes of its eventful career; and now its great opportunity had come. Now its name had been indelibly written on the scroll of fame. It had saved the situation in one of the most critical happenings of the whole war.
The next day the General of the fourth corps, accompanied by his staff, paid a visit to our laboratory, and the General told us that the Germans had tried their gases on the Belgians the very day after they had gassed the French and Canadian colonial troops. But the Belgians breathed through wet handkerchiefs till the gas had passed over, and when the Germans came on, full of confidence in the efficacy of their deadly new weapon, the Belgians gave them a severe punishing.
On April 27th the three of us started out after 5 o'clock to the Canadian area in search of news. The military policeman on the road at the outskirts of Poperinge on being queried said, "All right, no shells to-day in Pop." But we got only about 150 yards into the town when there was a terrific hair-raising explosion near us, followed by showers of bricks and bits of whizzing shell. It was a shell of very high calibre, and as we passed the next cross street and looked up it, we could see four houses settling into dust and a few people running towards the spot. A telephone wire cut by a flying fragment fell upon a car just ahead of us. It looked funny to see the doors of the houses along the street belch forth their inmates who rushed to the shutters, banged them to, rushed in again and no doubt hid themselves in the cellars. It reminded us exactly of the actions of a flock of chickens when a hawk appears in the sky.
A moment after, as we were leaving the town, another shell went screaming overhead, exploded to our right near the station close to the road, while a third went off on our left. Some Belgian soldiers who were bringing in a wounded man on their shoulders dropped flat upon the ground, letting the poor wounded chap fall with a crash. We opened the throttle and speeded on. A motor ambulance convoy loaded with wounded flew by us toward the base; in fact everything on the road was going at top speed that evening. We buttoned our coats up to our throats and took a fresh grip on our cigars as we tore up the road into that "unhealthy" district, feeling that we must go on. "This is the life," said the Major with a grin. Perhaps it was foolish but the excitement was worth the danger.
In the fields by the roadside were picketed cavalry horses, saddled and bridled, and ready to be mounted at a moment's notice. No contingency appeared to have been overlooked; everything had been put into readiness for anything that might happen.
At Vlamertinge everybody was standing by ready for the word to move. Heavy shelling had been going on all day and the shells were still coming pretty thickly. The street was littered with broken bricks, fresh plaster and other debris; on all sides were crumbled walls and ruined houses. The office of the A.D.M.S., Colonel Foster, had a shell hole right through it and his desk was covered with plaster. The office staff occupied the cellar and they informed us that the officers were housed in a white chateau on the opposite side of the street. There were several officers there; most of them evidently thought that we were fools to come voluntarily into a place that they would have given a good deal to be out of.
The front line was being held, and things were going fairly well in the salient. But sitting around in a building that was liable to be blown up any moment was not pleasant work for either officers or men, and some of the men who had been subjected to the strain for several days showed unmistakable evidences of it. The Canadians had lost heavily but as yet no accurate figures were obtainable on account of the complicated nature of the fighting and the fact that the wounded were going through several ambulances.
We did not stay any longer than was necessary to obtain the news and our return trip to Poperinge was a record one. We saw freshly-killed horses on the roadside, and in the Grande Place in "Pop" the fresh shell holes showed that the process of hammering was still going on with undiminishing vigour. Dinner was half over when we reached our mess that evening. As we entered the room a tin bowl fell to the floor with a crash. Every person in the room started as though it were a bomb, and we, fresh from our day's experiences, ducked our heads for safety. Tired out, we said nothing about our trip and went to bed early.
The next few days were full of interest. The news from the Canadian Division was both good and bad, they had had 6,000 casualties,—practically half of the infantry,—but all the reports, even those of the Germans themselves, agreed in giving them credit for having fought like fiends and having spoiled the great German plan. The first lists of the killed had come out and contained the names of many of my personal friends, and the sense of a great pride in the achievements of one division was marred by the sorrow for their loss.
The town of Poperinge was now deserted. Travelling in that direction one morning I met streams of refugees coming from it and on entering it found it like a city of the dead. Not a soul could be seen except one small unit which had been temporarily forgotten. The French gendarmes had driven the inhabitants out of the place because it was said to be full of spies who had been of great assistance to the enemy at a time when any bit of information might be of incalculable value to them. From one of the men of this stranded unit I obtained a three-pound piece of the 15-inch shell which had exploded close to us a few days before.
A non-com of the sanitary section who had come through Ypres an hour before told me that he had seen an old woman over 80 years of age sweeping the front sidewalk and polishing the windows. She was perhaps the only remaining resident.
The city was being steadily reduced to ruins by a continuous avalanche of shells and he spoke to her and tried to induce her to come with him but without avail. "She had lived there all her life and she intended to die there; it had been her custom to clean the windows and sweep the sidewalks, and if Providence willed that shells should come and knock down her neighbors' houses and make a lot of dust, she would just have to sweep oftener, what was the difference anyway?" And so he had to leave her.
The laboratory at this time was a place of much interest and many distinguished generals and medical men came to find out about the gas and methods of combating it. General Headquarters had sent for me to watch some practical field experiments and to give them the benefit of our experience on this question. With the chief engineer of the local army we carried out some experimental work of our own on a large scale. These experiments led to certain recommendations which were later found to be of value in making the German gases less effective. We also did a good deal of experimental laboratory work with other gases which might possibly be used, with the object of discovering their antidotes.
On May 5th the Canadian transport was strung along the roads leading from Ypres and we knew that the division was out for a rest. We hunted out some of our friends in Bailleul,—some of the few that were left. There were 7 of the 25 officers in the 3rd (Toronto) battalion and 6 out of the 25 in the 48th Highlanders of Toronto, though the missing ones had not all been killed. They were greatly changed in appearance, were very tired, and could tell little of their experiences in any connected way; at that time they had simply a succession of blurred impressions; they could recall a terrible excitement but had little idea of the sequence of events. The men, sitting around the streets of Bailleul in the sun, looked as if they had seen and experienced more than they could ever tell.
One of my officer comrades had gone insane, and another had been so shell shocked that he was of no further use and had been sent to England,—the latter was one of those officers whom I had seen in the little club house at Winnezeele. Two of my friends had been buried out in the front one night with two other officers—all in the one shell hole.
The medical officer, Captain Haywood, conducted the burial without candle or book. The green white light from the German flares and the red flashes of the guns was the only light to show the sad little party where their erstwhile comrades rested. The lay parson, exhausted with seventy hours' continuous work, and unable to recall a single word of the burial service, broke huskily into this rugged commendation, "Well, boys, they were four damn good fellows; let us repeat the Lord's prayer," but they couldn't manage to say even the Lord's prayer among them.
What a setting for a soldier funeral! The black night, the roar and flash of the guns and the green flare of the German star shells silhouetting those bowed heads above the soldiers' grave. What a fitting tribute to a soldier! The broken voice with the rough and ready words of praise: "They were four damn good fellows." What more could be said? What more would any soldier desire?
One chap had seen General Mercer, with his aide-de-camp by his side, crossing a fire-swept field deliberately stop in the middle of it to light his pipe. Everybody agreed that the General was the coolest man in sight that day. The Aide himself assured me that it took several matches to light the General's pipe and that the matches were the slow-burning variety; he said that it seemed to him to have taken about an hour to light that pipe, and all the time he was wishing himself safe in the shelter of a ditch. It had not been mere bravado on the General's part but a deliberately planned act to steady his men.
Some of the Canadian soldiers came into the dressing stations during the battle, accoutred in wonderful equipment that had taken their fancies. One wounded chap wore an Indian's turban, a French officer's spurs and a British officer's pistol.
Major W.D. Allan had seven bullet holes in his clothing, two of them through his hat; and yet his skin was not broken. The nearest approach to a wound was a big triangular bruise on his shoulder, made by a piece of spent high explosive. One of the bullets had gone through his hat and tipped it over his eyes as his unit was falling back from one trench to another; he said that he was positive he had broken the world's record for a hundred yards in the next few seconds.
The First Battalion, at whose mess I dined one night, had lost 400 out of a total of 800 men during a 600-yard advance into the breach made by the German gas in the face of a terrific fire.
Meanwhile preparations were in progress for a battle in our area evidently for the purpose of relieving the pressure on the line elsewhere, and on the 9th of May we were wakened at 4.30 a.m. by the final bombardment. I had been invited to witness the battle by a general on the staff but I was unable to go.
The first wounded came in about noon and by four o'clock the hospital where we took our meals was filled. From the windows above we could see scores of wounded lying in rows on stretchers in that sunny courtyard, some conscious and others unconscious. Every conscious wounded soldier held a cigarette between his lips and I even saw them going in to the operating table smoking. The wounded were a depressed lot that day; the men themselves realized that they had been badly cut up for little purpose, for the wire had not been destroyed and they had been unable to make any progress. The authorities in England had not yet realized that high explosives were necessary to cut wire in spite of the fact that everybody in the field knew it. It required a newspaper agitation to convert some of the authorities as to the need of high explosives.
After a rest the Canadians took over a new piece of line near Festubert, and a hot spot it was. We knew this area well as far forward as the advanced dressing stations, and had been there by day and night in the car.
When the Canadian attack at Festubert began, I was wakened one night by a lull in the booming of the guns, and got up to sit by the window. It was one of those still nights in June when every sound carries for miles. The odours of sweet flowers floated up from the garden below, and the splash, splash of frogs hopping into the river could be heard from time to time. The guns had stopped, but the rattle of rapid rifle fire was as distinct as if it had been only half a mile away; then the rattle of machine guns could be distinguished, succeeded by the explosions of hand grenades, and I knew that the Canadians were hard at it, probably with the bayonet. It was not a comfortable feeling to sit seven miles away and listen to a succession of sounds so full of meaning, nor is a vivid imagination a good thing for a soldier to have in the field.
The following day a young lieutenant whom I had hunted out three days before, came in to the clearing station down the street, wounded in shoulder, head, hip and leg, with shrapnel. That boy is now Major Mavor, M.C., D.S.O.
Two days after, we drove over to headquarters of the 1st army. With the sun setting in a gorgeous glow, and with hedges in full blossom, Flanders was transformed for once that evening into a land of beauty.
About ten o'clock we heard a hum of an aeroplane overhead and then a series of explosions, like those of a heavy gun. Flashes were seen in the direction of a French town where there were great steel works and we drove home that way. The inhabitants of the country and the hamlets along the road were all out of doors gazing at the sky, and as we entered the bombed town we found everybody quite excited. Eight bombs had been dropped in the place, but none of them had any effect, except to rouse the populace to a condition of excitement.
Our headlights were burning, and suspicion was evidently aroused as to the possibility of this being connected with the attack, for we were suddenly halted by a blue-coated French soldier stepping in front of the car and holding his gun above his head in the usual way while eight other French soldiers surrounded us. Some of them pointed bayonets threateningly at us while we were all covered by rifles. It was quite a picture. Our headlights shone brilliantly on the three men in front, while the faces of the others, nearly all with moustachios and goatees, lit up by the moon and the glare of the red lights from the works, looked most ferocious. The slender, flashing French bayonets seemed to be at least three feet long.
As we waited to be identified, a British sergeant lounged forward, a little the worse for beer, and nodded cordially as he leaned carelessly on the front door and explained all about the bombs. At a word from him the Frenchmen fell back, and we moved on. Every house seemed to have a soldier on guard, but we were not questioned further, and drove peacefully home along the canal, whose iris-decked banks were perfectly reflected in its glassy waters in the brilliant moonlight.
Again I changed my billet by the bridge to live at a fine old house farther up the river. It had a beautiful old garden which was separated from the street by a high iron fence on a brick foundation. Walnut trees from the garden overhung the street and shaded a little octagonal summer house. The old-fashioned, square, red brick house faced the lawn, in the centre of which was an elongated brick-lined pool of water with a bridge over it. In the centre of the lawn was a large polished silver ball on a pedestal; this was regarded as a fine ornament. The lawn was separated from the garden by a high hedge. The garden proper, a real old-fashioned one, containing many berry bushes, fruit trees, and a few old-fashioned flowers, ran right back to the river. A brick boundary wall kept the river from washing away the banks, and brick steps led down to a little floating platform. There was much shade in that old French garden; it was the most peaceful and restful place that I ever found in France. Even aeroplanes sailing overhead on their missions of destruction seemed from my garden to be harmless.
I always took my French lesson there after dinner, when the bees droned about and one had an irresistible desire to sleep. My teacher, Professor Paul Balbaud, had been a lecturer in Toronto University, and at this time was drawing the magnificent sum of one cent a day as a private in the French 77th territorial regiment. On one occasion he presented me with ten days' pay which he had received that very morning, and I had the two five-sou silver pieces made into watch charms. Monsieur Balbaud was engaged in the telegraph service, and was an excellent teacher. Later on that year the pay of the French soldier was raised to five cents a day.
Madam Carre, a dear old lady, owned the house and she was kindness itself. Nothing was too good for the Canadians. Her grand-daughter, a tall good looking girl of Spanish descent, twenty-one years of age, had been married seven months when the war broke out, and her husband, an artillery man, had been killed. Three times a day during that first year did the girl go to church to pray for the safety of her husband, for she would not believe him dead.
I was wakened the very first night at my new billet, about 2 a.m., by the rat-a-tat of a kettle-drum, and two dreary notes continuously repeated by a bugle. It was the alarm for a fire at a farmhouse about half a mile from town. Our men from the hospital helped to get most of the furniture out, and were standing around watching the farmhouse and barns burn down, when the 17 Brigade Lancers appeared with the hand hose-reel, which, however, proved to be useless. The Lancers had broken into the fire hall and stolen the apparatus.
The local firemen afterwards came to the fire hall but found the engine gone; after some discussion they went home and donned their white duck trousers, blue tunics, and polished brass helmets. The fire chief and first deputy then had a dispute about something which resulted in the deputy going home in a huff, while the chief and the second deputy (the whole fire brigade) resplendent in their spotless uniforms of white, blue and gold, marched out to the fire. The British soldiers lined up when they saw them coming, and gave them three rousing cheers, while one of the Tommies solemnly swept the road before them with a broom. As my chauffeur "Rad" said, "It was just like a scene from a blinking comic opera."
The area was now well known to us, for, in the course of our work, we had been over every bit of road in it. It was very noticeable how the farmhouses along some roads, which paralleled the front line trenches about one and a half miles behind it, gradually disappeared. On Monday perhaps we would have to go down to a certain battery located on this road, and there would be a dozen intact farmhouses in the course of a half mile. On Friday of the same week, one or more of them would be burned down, while the shell holes in the fields and road around them indicated deliberate concentration of fire.
Our work was interesting and we kept busy all the time. The monotony of working seven days a week, however, becomes very great after a few weeks and seriously affects the health and the ability to work. In the other army services work came in periodical bursts; ours was a steady grind of seven days a week.
We saw the hay mowed and gathered in; we noticed the grain fields gradually turn to gold, saw the reaping and all other operations of mixed farming carried on in all its interesting detail. Meanwhile the First Canadian Division had settled down in the Ploegsteert section, which was out of our area, and the second Canadian Division had arrived and joined up with them. The Second Division had come over to teach the First Division a lot of things and there was a fair amount of feeling between them as will be seen from the following confidential conversation between two brothers in different divisions, upon meeting for the first time:
"Say, we have had a hell of a time trying to live down your reputation," said the younger brother.
"Yes, and you will also have a hell of a time trying to live up to it, too," retorted the senior.
And there the matter rested until events subsequently showed that both divisions were composed of exactly the same stuff.
THE MEDICAL ORGANIZATION OF THE BRITISH ARMY.
Each battalion at the front has a headquarters, usually in a dug-out or a sheltered farm house close to the lines: each brigade, consisting of four infantry battalions has a headquarters farther to the rear: each division, consisting of three infantry brigades, artillery, etc. has a divisional headquarters in some town, still farther to the rear, out of shell range: each corps comprising two to four divisions has its headquarters in a town back of this again: each army, composed of two to four corps, has its headquarters still farther to the rear, and the popular idea of the Tommy is that since the respective headquarters occupy bigger and bigger chateaux the farther back they go, away back somewhere in a town all by himself, living in a big castle from which he operates everything, is the commander-in-chief of the whole British Army.
General headquarters is usually a very busy place, for there are the heads of the various services of the army, and all the orders affecting the army as a whole are issued through it. The offices of the chiefs of the services are business offices and are operated in a most business-like way. The system is so perfect that it is difficult to escape from it should an order be neglected or a duty left undone.
Among these chiefs is the Director-General of Medical Services of the British Army in the field, General Sir Arthur Sloggett. Through him and his deputy, General Macpherson, went all the general orders affecting the health of the army.
At the head of each army medical service is a Surgeon-General (D.M.S., or Director of Medical Services), and at the head of each corps a full colonel (D.D.M.S. or Deputy Director of Medical Service). The chief medical man of each division is also a full colonel (the A.D.M.S. or Assistant Director of Medical Services), and he is responsible for the operation of the field ambulances and the evacuation of the wounded to the casualty clearing station while his division is in the firing line. The medical officers of battalions and the sanitary squad are also under him.
The casualty clearing stations and the mobile laboratories, are under the D.M.S. of the army, who is responsible for the clearing of the hospitals by motor ambulance convoys and by hospital train.
There are normally three field ambulances to each division and one casualty clearing station. The number of base hospitals to each division is normally two, but as many of these are utilized as are needed. They are scores of miles from the fighting zone, and do not particularly concern us here.
When a battalion medical officer or sanitary officer wishes to make a report or suggestion he does so through the A.D.M.S. of the division. In the same way the A.D.M.S. of the division communicates with the D.D.M.S. of the corps; the D.D.M.S. of the corps with the D.M.S. of the army, and the D.M.S. of the army with the D.G.M.S. at G.H.Q. A battalion medical officer cannot go over the head of his A.D.M.S., nor could the latter pass his D.D.M.S. to make a report or suggestion. Everything must go up or down the system through the various heads, and no side stepping is permitted.
The front line trenches were about seven miles from our laboratory which was located in a town with three casualty clearing stations, a railroad and canal. This made it possible to evacuate the wounded rapidly to the base by means of hospital trains and barges during an engagement.
The system which enables a sick or wounded man to be removed from the front is simple enough. Each day the medical officer of a battalion, who himself may be located in a dug-out in the trenches themselves or in a cellar of a house not far behind the trenches, holds a "sick parade" at his "regimental aid post." During a battle the wounded are collected by the regimental stretcher bearers and brought to the aid post.