The Canadians at Ypres

From the Canadian Record Officer

[The New York Times/Current History, June 1915]

The full narrative of the part played by the Canadians at Ypres is given in a communication from the Record Officer now serving with the Canadian Division at the front and published in the British press on May 1, 1915. The division was commanded by a distinguished English General, but these "amateur soldiers of Canada," as the narrator describes them, were officered largely by lawyers, college professors, and business men who before the war were neither disciplined nor trained. Many striking deeds of heroism and self-sacrifice were performed in the course of their brilliant charge and dogged resistance, which, in the words of Sir John French, "saved the situation" in the face of overwhelming odds.

On April 22 the Canadian Division held a line of, roughly, 5,000 yards, extending in a northwesterly direction from the Ypres-Roulers Railway to the Ypres-Poelcapelle road, and connecting at its terminus with the French troops. The division consisted of three infantry brigades, in addition to the artillery brigades. Of the infantry brigades the First was in reserve, the Second was on the right, and the Third established contact with the Allies at the point indicated above.

The day was a peaceful one, warm and sunny, and except that the previous day had witnessed a further bombardment of the stricken town of Ypres, everything seemed quiet in front of the Canadian line. At 5 o'clock in the afternoon a plan, carefully prepared, was put into execution against our French allies on the left. Asphyxiating gas of great intensity was projected into their trenches, probably by means of force pumps and pipes laid out under the parapets. The fumes, aided by a favorable wind, floated backward, poisoning and disabling over an extended area those who fell under their effect.

The result was that the French were compelled to give ground for a considerable distance. The glory which the French Army has won in this war would make it impertinent to labor the compelling nature of the poisonous discharges under which the trenches were lost. The French did, as every one knew they would do, all that stout soldiers could do, and the Canadian Division, officers and men, look forward to many occasions in the future in which they will stand side by side with the brave armies of France.

The immediate consequences of this enforced withdrawal were, of course, extremely grave. The Third Brigade of the Canadian Division was without any left, or, in other words, its left was in the air. Rough diagrams, may make the position clear.

It became imperatively necessary greatly to extend the Canadian lines to the left rear. It was not, of course, practicable to move the First Brigade from reserve at a moment's notice, and the line, extending from 5,000 to 9,000 yards, was naturally not the line that had been held by the Allies at 5 o'clock, and a gap still existed on its left. The new line, of which our recent point of contact with the French formed the apex….

(I)t became necessary for Brig. Gen. Turner, commanding the Third Brigade, to throw back his left flank southward to protect his rear. In the course of the confusion which followed upon the readjustments of position, the enemy, who had advanced rapidly after his initial successes, took four British 4.7 guns in a small wood to the west of the village of St. Julien, two miles in the rear of the original French trenches.

The story of the second battle of Ypres is the story of how the Canadian Division, enormously outnumbered—for they had in front of them at least four divisions, supported by immensely heavy artillery—with a gap still existing, though reduced, in their lines, and with dispositions made hurriedly under the stimulus of critical danger, fought through the day and through the night, and then through another day and night; fought under their officers until, as happened to so many, those perished gloriously, and then fought from the impulsion of sheer valor because they came from fighting stock.

The enemy, of course, was aware—whether fully or not may perhaps be Doubted—of the advantage his breach in the line had given him, and immediately began to push a formidable series of attacks upon the whole of the newly-formed Canadian salient. If it is possible to distinguish when the attack was everywhere so fierce, it developed with particular intensity at this moment upon the apex of the newly formed line, running in the direction of St. Julien.

It has already been stated that four British guns were taken in a wood comparatively early in the evening of the 22d. In the course of that night, and under the heaviest machine-gun fire, this wood was assaulted by the Canadian Scottish, Sixteenth Battalion of the Third Brigade, and the Tenth Battalion of the Second Brigade, which was intercepted for this purpose on its way to a reserve trench. The battalions were respectively commanded by Lieut. Col. Leckie and Lieut. Col. Boyle, and after a most fierce struggle in the light of a misty moon they took the position at the point of the bayonet. At midnight the Second Battalion, under Colonel Watson, and the Toronto Regiment, Queen's Own, Third Battalion, under Lieut. Col. Rennie, both of the First Brigade, brought up much-needed reinforcement, and though not actually engaged in the assault were in reserve.

All through the following days and nights these battalions shared the fortunes and misfortunes of the Third Brigade. An officer who took part in the attack describes how the men about him fell under the fire of the machine guns, which, in his phrase, played upon them "like a watering pot." He added quite simply, "I wrote my own life off." But the line never wavered. When one man fell another took his place, and with a final shout the survivors of the two battalions flung themselves into the wood. The German garrison was completely demoralized, and the impetuous advance of the Canadians did not cease until they reached the far side of the wood and intrenched themselves there in the position so dearly gained. They had, however, the disappointment of finding that the guns had been blown up by the enemy, and later on in the same night a most formidable concentration of artillery fire, sweeping the wood as a tropical storm sweeps the leaves from a forest, made it impossible for them to hold the position for which they had sacrificed so much.

The fighting continued without intermission all through the night, and, to those who observed the indications that the attack was being pushed with ever-growing strength, it hardly seemed possible that the Canadians, fighting in positions so difficult to defend and so little the subject of deliberate choice, could maintain their resistance for any long period. At 6 A.M. on Friday it became apparent that the left was becoming more and more involved, and a powerful German attempt to outflank it developed rapidly. The consequences, if it had been broken or outflanked, need not be insisted upon. They were not merely local.

It was therefore decided, formidable as the attempt undoubtedly was, to try and give relief by a counter-attack upon the first line of German trenches, now far, far advanced from those originally occupied by the French. This was carried out by the Ontario First and Fourth Battalions of the First Brigade, under Brig. Gen. Mercer, acting in combination with a British brigade.

It is safe to say that the youngest private in the rank, as he set his teeth for the advance, knew the task in front of him, and the youngest subaltern knew all that rested upon its success. It did not seem that any human being could live in the shower of shot and shell which began to play upon the advancing troops. They suffered terrible casualties. For a short time every other man seemed to fall, but the attack was pressed ever closer and closer.

The Fourth Canadian Battalion at one moment came under a particularly withering fire. For a moment not more it wavered. Its most gallant commanding officer, Lieut. Col. Burchill, carrying, after an old fashion, a light cane, coolly and cheerfully rallied his men and, at the very moment when his example had infected them, fell dead at the head of his battalion. With a hoarse cry of anger they sprang forward, (for, indeed, they loved him), as if to avenge his death. The astonishing attack which followed pushed home in the face of direct frontal fire made in broad daylight by battalions whose names should live for ever in the memories of soldiers was carried to the first line of German trenches. After a hand-to-hand struggle the last German who resisted was bayoneted, and the trench was won.

The measure of this success may be taken when it is pointed out that this trench represented in the German advance the apex in the breach which the enemy had made in the original line of the Allies, and that it was two and a half miles south of that line. This charge, made by men who looked death indifferently in the face, (for no man who took part in it could think that he was likely to live), saved, and that was much, the Canadian left. But it did more. Up to the point where the assailants conquered, or died, it secured and maintained during the most critical moment of all the integrity of the allied line. For the trench was not only taken, it was held thereafter against all comers, and in the teeth of every conceivable projectile, until the night of Sunday, the 25th, when all that remained of the war-broken but victorious battalions was relieved by fresh troops.

It is necessary now to return to the fortunes of the Third Brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. Turner, which, as we have seen, at 5 o'clock on Thursday was holding the Canadian left, and after the first attack assumed the defense of the new Canadian salient, at the same time sparing all the men it could to form an extemporized line between the wood and St. Julien. This brigade also was at the first moment of the German offensive, made the object of an attack by the discharge of poisonous gas. The discharge was followed by two enemy assaults. Although the fumes were extremely poisonous, they were not, perhaps having regard to the wind, so disabling as on the French lines, (which ran almost east to west), and the brigade, though affected by the fumes, stoutly beat back the two German assaults.

Encouraged by this success, it rose to the supreme effort required by the assault on the wood, which has already been described. At 4 o'clock on the morning of Friday, the 23d, a fresh emission of gas was made both upon the Second Brigade, which held the line running northeast, and upon the Third Brigade, which, as has been fully explained, had continued the line up to the pivotal point, as defined above, and had then spread down in a southeasterly direction. It is, perhaps, worth mentioning that two privates of the Forty-eighth Highlanders who found their way into the trenches commanded by Colonel Lipsett, Ninetieth Winnipeg Rifles, Eighth Battalion, perished in the fumes, and it was noticed that their faces became blue immediately after dissolution.

The Royal Highlanders of Montreal, Thirteenth Battalion, and the Forty-eighth Highlanders, Fifteenth Battalion, were more especially affected by the discharge. The Royal Highlanders, though considerably shaken, remained immovable upon their ground. The Forty-eighth Highlanders, which, no doubt, received a more poisonous discharge, was for the moment dismayed, and, indeed, their trench, according to the testimony of very hardened soldiers, became intolerable. The battalion retired from the trench, but for a very short distance, and for an equally short time. In a few moments they were again their own men. They advanced upon and occupied the trenches which they had momentarily abandoned.

In the course of the same night the Third Brigade, which had already displayed a resource, a gallantry, and a tenacity for which no eulogy could be excessive, was exposed (and with it the whole allied case) to a peril still more formidable.

It has been explained, and, indeed, the fundamental situation made the peril clear, that several German divisions were attempting to crush or drive back this devoted brigade, and in any event to use their enormous numerical superiority to sweep around and overwhelm its left wing. At some point in the line which cannot be precisely determined the last attempt partially succeeded, and in the course of this critical struggle German troops in considerable though not in overwhelming numbers swung past the unsupported left of the brigade, and, slipping in between the wood and St. Julien, added to the torturing anxieties of the long-drawn struggle by the appearance, and indeed for the moment the reality, of isolation from the brigade base.

In the exertions made by the Third Brigade during this supreme crisis it is almost impossible to single out one battalion without injustice to others, but though the efforts of the Royal Highlanders of Montreal, Thirteenth Battalion, were only equal to those of the other battalions who did such heroic service, it so happened by chance that the fate of some of its officers attracted special attention.

Major Norsworth, already almost disabled by a bullet wound, was bayoneted and killed while he was rallying his men with easy cheerfulness. The case of Captain McCuaig, of the same battalion, was not less glorious, although his death can claim no witness. This most gallant officer was seriously wounded, in a hurriedly constructed trench, at a moment when it would have been possible to remove him to safety. He absolutely refused to move and continued in the discharge of his duty.

But the situation grew constantly worse, and peremptory orders were received for an immediate withdrawal. Those who were compelled to obey them were most insistent to carry with them, at whatever risk to their own mobility and safety, an officer to whom they were devotedly attached. But he, knowing, it may be, better than they, the exertions which still lay in front of them, and unwilling to inflict upon them the disabilities of a maimed man, very resolutely refused, and asked of them one thing only, that there should be given to him, as he lay alone in the trench, two loaded Colt revolvers to add to his own, which lay in his right hand as he made his last request. And so, with three revolvers ready to his hand for use, a very brave officer waited to sell his life, wounded and racked with pain, in an abandoned trench.

On Friday afternoon the left of the Canadian line was strengthened by important reinforcements of British troops amounting to seven battalions. From this time forward the Canadians also continued to receive further assistance on the left from a series of French counter-attacks pushed in a northeasterly direction from the canal bank.

But the artillery fire of the enemy continually grew in intensity, and it became more and more evident that the Canadian salient could no longer be maintained against the overwhelming superiority of numbers by which it was assailed. Slowly, stubbornly, and contesting every yard, the defenders gave ground until the salient gradually receded from the apex, near the point where it had originally aligned with the French, and fell back upon St. Julien.

Soon it became evident that even St. Julien, exposed to fire from right and left, was no longer tenable in the face of overwhelming numerical superiority. The Third Brigade was therefore ordered to retreat further south, selling every yard of ground as dearly as it had done since 5 o'clock on Thursday. But it was found impossible, without hazarding far larger forces, to disentangle the detachment of the Royal Highlanders of Montreal, Thirteenth Battalion, and of the Royal Montreal Regiment, Fourteenth Battalion. The brigade was ordered, and not a moment too soon, to move back. It left these units with hearts as heavy as those with which his comrades had said farewell to Captain McCuaig. The German tide rolled, indeed, over the deserted village, but for several hours after the enemy had become master of the village the sullen and persistent rifle fire which survived showed that they were not yet master of the Canadian rearguard. If they died, they died worthily of Canada.

The enforced retirement of the Third Brigade (and to have stayed longer would have been madness) reproduced for the Second Brigade, commanded by Brig. Gen. Curry, in a singularly exact fashion, the position of the Third Brigade itself at the moment of the withdrawal of the French. The Second Brigade, it must be remembered, had retained the whole line of trenches, roughly 2,500 yards, which it was holding at 5 o'clock on Thursday afternoon, supported by the incomparable exertions of the Third Brigade, and by the highly hazardous deployment in which necessity had involved that brigade. The Second Brigade had maintained its lines.

It now devolved upon General Curry, commanding this brigade, to reproduce the tactical maneuvres with which, earlier in the fight, the Third Brigade had adapted itself to the flank movement of overwhelming numerical superiority. He flung his left flank around south, and his record is, that in the very crisis of this immense struggle he held his line of trenches from Thursday at 5 o'clock till Sunday afternoon. And on Sunday afternoon he had not abandoned his trenches. There were none left. They had been obliterated by artillery. He withdrew his undefeated troops from the fragments of his field fortifications, and the hearts of his men were as completely unbroken as the parapets of his trenches were completely broken. In such a brigade it is invidious to single out any battalion for special praise, but it is, perhaps, necessary to the story to point out that Lieut. Col. Lipsett, commanding the Ninetieth Winnipeg Rifles, Eighth Battalion of the Second Brigade, held the extreme left of the brigade position at the most critical moment.

The battalion was expelled from the trenches early on Friday morning by an emission of poisonous gas, but, recovering in three-quarters of an hour, it counter-attacked, retook the trenches it had abandoned, and bayoneted the enemy. And after the Third Brigade had been forced to retire Lieut. Col. Lipsett held his position, though his left was in the air, until two British regiments filled up the gap on Saturday night.

The individual fortunes of these two brigades have brought us to the events of Sunday afternoon, but it is necessary, to make the story complete, to recur for a moment to the events of the morning. After a very formidable attack the enemy succeeded in capturing the village of St. Julien, which has so often been referred to in describing the fortunes of the Canadian left. This success opened up a new and formidable line of advance, but by this time further reinforcements had arrived. Here, again, it became evident that the tactical necessities of the situation dictated an offensive movement as the surest method of arresting further progress.

General Alderson, who was in command of the reinforcements, accordingly directed that an advance should be made by a British brigade which had been brought up in support. The attack was thrust through the Canadian left and centre, and as the troops making it swept on, many of them going to certain death, they paused an instant, and, with deep-throated cheers for Canada, gave the first indication to the division of the warm admiration which their exertions had excited in the British Army.

The advance was indeed costly, but it could not be gainsaid. The story is one of which the brigade may be proud, but it does not belong to the special account of the fortunes of the Canadian contingent. It is sufficient for our purpose to notice that the attack succeeded in its object, and the German advance along the line, momentarily threatened, was arrested.

We had reached, in describing the events of the afternoon, the points at which the trenches of the Second Brigade had been completely destroyed. This brigade, the Third Brigade, and the considerable reinforcements which this time filled the gap between the two brigades were gradually driven fighting every yard upon a line running, roughly, from Fortuin, south of St. Julien, in a northeasterly direction toward Passchendaele. Here the two brigades were relieved by two British brigades, after exertions as glorious, as fruitful, and, alas! as costly as soldiers have ever been called upon to make.

Monday morning broke bright and clear and found the Canadians behind the firing line. This day, too, was to bring its anxieties. The attack was still pressed, and it became necessary to ask Brig. Gen. Curry whether he could once more call upon his shrunken brigade. "The men are tired," this indomitable soldier replied, "but they are ready and glad to go again to the trenches." And so once more, a hero leading heroes, the General marched back the men of the Second Brigade, reduced to a quarter of its original strength, to the very apex of the line as it existed at that moment.

This position he held all day Monday; on Tuesday he was still occupying the reserve trenches, and on Wednesday was relieved and retired to billets in the rear.

Such, in the most general outline, is the story of a great and glorious feat of arms. A story told so soon after the event, while rendering bare justice to units whose doings fell under the eyes of particular observers, must do less than justice to others who played their part and all did as gloriously as those whose special activities it is possible, even at this stage, to describe. But the friends of men who fought in other battalions may be content in the knowledge that they, too, shall learn, when time allows the complete correlation of diaries, the exact part which each unit played in these unforgettable days. It is rather accident than special distinction which had made it possible to select individual battalions for mention.

It would not be right to close even this account without a word of tribute to the auxiliary services. The signalers were always cool and resourceful. The telegraph and telephone wires being constantly cut, many belonging to this service rendered up their lives in the discharge of their duty, carrying out repairs with the cost complete calmness in exposed positions. The dispatch carriers, as usual, behaved with the greatest bravery. Theirs is a lonely life, and very often a lonely death. One cycle messenger lay upon the ground, badly wounded. He stopped a passing officer and delivered his message, together with some verbal instructions. These were coherently given, but he swooned almost before the words were out of his mouth.

The artillery never flagged in the sleepless struggle in which so much depended upon its exertions. Not a Canadian gun was lost in the long battle of retreat. And the nature of the position renders such a record very remarkable. One battery of four guns found itself in such a situation that it was compelled to turn two of its guns directly about and fire upon the enemy in positions almost diametrically opposite.

It is not possible in this account to attempt a description of the services rendered by the Canadian Engineers or the Medical Corps. Their members rivaled in coolness, endurance, and valor the Canadian infantry, whose comrades they were, and it is hoped in separate communications to do justice to both these brilliant services.

No attempt has been made in this description to explain the recent operations except in so far as they spring from, or are connected with, the fortunes of the Canadian Division. It is certain that the exertions of the troops who reinforced and later relieved the Canadians were not less glorious, but the long, drawn-out struggle is a lesson to the whole empire. "Arise, Israel!" The empire is engaged in a struggle, without quarter and without compromise, against an enemy still superbly organized, still immensely powerful, still confident that its strength is the mate of its necessities. To arms, then, and still to arms! In Great Britain, in Canada, in Australia there is need, and there is need now, of a community organized alike in military and industrial co-operation.

That our countrymen in Canada, even while their hearts are still bleeding, will answer every call which is made upon them, we well know.

The graveyard of Canada in Flanders is large; it is very large. Those who lie there have left their mortal remains on alien soil. To Canada they have bequeathed their memories and their glory.

On Fame's eternal camping ground
Their silent tents are spread,
And Glory guards with solemn round
The bivouac of the dead.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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