IN the early part of May, 1915, while the British were still disputing ground yard by yard in the now protracted contest for Ypres, the French were beginning an operation of terrific violence. The scene of this activity was ground that two years later became to many Canadian soldiers as familiar as the streets of their native towns and villages. For who among the Canadian corps in 1917 was not familiar with La Targette, Carency, Ablain-St. Nazaire, the shell-pitted plateau of Lorette, and the slopes of Vimy Ridge? On Sunday, May 9th, General Foch, having concentrated some 1,100 guns, opened on the German lines between Carency and La Targette and expended as many as 300,000 shells that day. And from then on day by day to the end of the month he remorselessly crunched through all resistance until he held a line marked by the suggested outlines of villages, which ruins were called by the now Canadian words Souchez and Neuville St. Vaast. This was Marshal Joffre’s answer to the crime of April 22nd.
This attack by the French was not made without a distinct understanding with their British allies. Sir John French in his report states :
” In pursuance of a promise which I made to the French Commander-in-Chief to support an attack which his troops were making on the 9th May between the right of my line and Arras I directed Sir Douglas Haig to carry out on that date an attack on the German trenches in the neighbourhood of Rouge Banes (north-west of Fromelles) by the Fourth Corps and between Neuve Chapelle and Givenchy by the First and Indian Corps.”
He did not, however, like the French general, sup-port his assault by 300,000 shells the first day. On the contrary, a brisk forty-minute bombardment was the insufficient preparation for this ambitious movement. The result, despite many a display of gallantry, was a sanguinary repulse. The unbroken wire and unsilenced machine guns rendered the taking difficult and the holding impossible. The tactical surprise of Neuve Chapelle was too recent to be reproduced with success.
Not permitting themselves to be discouraged by this rebuff, the British commanders proceeded to concentrate their available shock-troops upon the southern point of attack. For this purpose the famous 7th Division were moved round to support the operation, which by vicissitudes of weather was delayed until May 15th. And on this date Canada became a partner in the struggle, the Canadian division being placed at Haig’s disposal.
This reduction of the front involved enabled the British to concentrate more gun-fire and follow it by heavier swarms of bombers and bayoneteers. Otherwise the tactics employed were not changed and bear a close resemblance to those by which a Canadian governor and ex-officer of Wellington’s army, Sir John Colborne, once explained his own rise to prominence, ” hard fighting and a damned lot of it.”
On the night of the 15th the Indians on the left and the 2nd (Imperial) Division on the right led off and the 2nd Division secured the precarious glory of sinking a salient into the German line half a mile wide and a quarter of a mile deep. A similar and wider pocket was made to the south (and just north of Festubert) by the inexorable 7th (Imperial) Division. The space between these two salients was won most expensively and the process of enlarging and deepening the pocket went on day by day. Those fine instruments, the 2nd and 7th Divisions, being somewhat blunted by this incessant chiselling, they were relieved, the 7th being succeeded by the Canadian division, whose commander, Lieut.-General Alderson, was given the conduct of operations.
The contributions of the Canadians to this combat can conveniently be divided into the three episodes, the Orchard, K5, and what happened after Sir John French was convinced of the expensive futility of further action.
The art of military map-making had not advanced to the stage of perfection to which it attained two years later with the assistance of the airmen. So if we read of individuals or companies taking a wrong direction, it need not surprise us, after a glance at the style of maps of the irregular and much intersected fields near Festubert with which our officers were furnished. Most of the roads seem to have been located with the design of not proceeding anywhere, but wound them-selves into a series of ” Puzzler’s Corners.” This sort of terrain was most perplexing to Canadians accustomed to the gridiron regularity of Canadian surveys.
Nor was it possible to make a straight line by compass to their objectives. For here and there the fields were bounded by long, wet ditches. Across such country the leading battalions of the 3rd Canadian Brigade made their way to take their place in the line and continue work whose character was grimly at-tested by hundreds of dead bodies that lay still unburied.
The first lines which the Canadians took over were just in advance of La Quinque Rue and of the diagonal road that joins that street to the Givenchy road. Every step of the way thither increased the evidences of previous fighting, shell-pitted roads, shreds of entanglement, demolished parapets stained with lyddite, and the accumulated arrears of work for burial parties.
On the 18th of May the 3rd Brigade had been occupying reserve trenches whose dismal discomfort was much more increased by the cold drizzle which had set in the day before. About 2 p. m. they were pushed up to the front line at La Quinque. Rue, and about 4 p. m. there was a sudden movement over the top by two companies of the 14th and two of the 16th. The left company of the 16th was to follow a German communication trench on the left and take the Orchard. There was no artillery preparation; there had been no time for the Canadians to reconnoitre; and the hour selected gives the impression that this was -a hasty attempt to snap a position which under a misconception was thought to be unoccupied. The Orchard was a garden enclosed, but its fruits were not pleasant fruits; it was a trap. The attack of the 16th at least reached the Orchard. The best that can be said of the movement is that it served as a reconnaissance in force. The position as disclosed by the impetuous ardour of the Highlanders was as follows : —
The ground in the Orchard sloped up to the German lines and was enclosed by hedges and ditches. These hedges and ditches had been amplified by the Germans into communication trenches by the use of poultry netting and earth; and owing to this amplification and the heavy rains that had preceded this day the ditches held just so much more water. The upper part of the Orchard containing the farm buildings was enclosed in the German line and appears on the maps of the period as M9. Beside the Orchard ran the cross-road from La Quinque Rue to Rue d’Ouvert. This road was obstructed at the intersection of the real German line only by a wagon-load of stories. But further up the road at a distance of 150 yards was M10, which enfiladed the whole road.
These numerals with letters attached, the letters being taken from squares on the maps, were the house-numbers of dangerous neighbours.
The scheme of German defence was that from which they eventually evolved their system of ” pill-boxes ” disposed in checkerboard fashion. At this stage of their tactical development they used all houses and buildings that commanded a field of fire as machine-gun nests strengthening the walls with sand-bags and other materials. As houses did not always present themselves in the right places they supplied the lack by quite ponderous and formidable concrete structures. These fortified houses and concrete structures have been called by the convenient French term fortins. They had to be individually stormed and were responsible for the terrific casualties suffered by the British divisions in working up to La Quinque Rue and were now the chief impediment to the Canadians. They also, by their irregular disposition, made it impossible without an assault to determine the real line of defence.
To the right of the Orchard were M8 and M6 in the German line, with M7 thrust out half-way to the Canadian line. These could only be taken by troops acting in co-operation with an assault on the Orchard and eventually fell by storm to the 15th.
There was one clear opening into the Orchard which served the 16th as a picked run-way serves the deer for the purposes of the hunter. The 16th found the opening as they were meant to, and their casualties were numerous before discernment qualified their determination.
The ill-luck of the 14th still accompanied them into this action, when their two companies went over the top, gallantly led by Lieut.-Colonel Burland. Burland had followed the practice then in vogue among senior officers of making a hasty convalescence from the wound he had received at Ypres and rejoining the battalion. It was not until later that the substantial advantages of a ” blighty ” came to be understood. An officer of those times would have smiled, as at a jest, if you had seriously pointed out the Tontine advantages of survivorship and that the way to advancement in rank did not always lead across No Man’s Land.
The intention appears to have been for the 14th once clear of the trench line to have inclined half-left and made connection with the 16th. For some reason they inclined half-right. It probably made no ultimate difference. They immediately discovered features of the landscape which, inconspicuous to the eye, were tactically much outstanding, the nests of German ma-chine guns. The casualties became prohibitive of their reaching the German line. So they were halted and stubbornly dug themselves in with their entrenching tools. During the night the survivors were withdrawn to the trench at La Quinque Rue.
The line reached by the 16th was not abandoned. But the rest of the night and the whole of the following day and night were used in making a proper reconnaissance and in occupying with machine guns a deserted house not far from the Orchard. An attack was concerted for 7.45 p. m. on the 20th.
It was not pleasant waiting, but the morning of the 20th brought a cessation of the steady drizzle and the men’s spirits revived notwithstanding the systematic clawing of the German artillery. For a while before the ” zero hour,” as the time fixed for an assault came to be termed, our guns opened, and if they did not seriously breach the defences of the Orchard they at least did good sheriff’s work in evicting most of the occupants.
Artillery support is, however, like the candid friend, a parlous protection. Shrapnel covers a fairly wide belt and high explosives lash out both ways. The bar-rage must be lifted in concert with the infantry advance and allow a margin of safety to the foot-soldiers. In later years of the war the artillery worked up the range on a time-table which resembled that of one of our local passenger-trains except that the gunners were precisely on time, which trains seldom are. Possessed of the same time-table our infantry men could follow or wait according to order. But at the time of Festubert no such system had been devised. So history records a frantic staff-officer finding a wire and heating it white-hot with a message for the British guns ” For God’s sake tell Major to stop shelling Emma Ten [M10].”
At 7.45 on the 20th the attack was launched, if so gradual a term as launching can be applied to the rush of three kilted battalions. The 15th attacked on the right and stormed their objectives, losing heavily in the effort. The best comment is that of Lieut.-Colonel Marshall, who watched them from a point near at hand and on returning to his battalion headquarters observed with a sigh, ” It cost a lot ; but they did it.”
The 16th took the Orchard and with it the house and buildings of M9. When their drastic horticulture was complete and they had dug into the German parapet, the survivors were relieved by the 13th, who had been wickedly battered on their way up as supports. The 13th put up such improvised makeshifts to consolidate the position as the German artillery would permit. But the high-water mark had been reached. The 3rd Battalion relieved the 13th and on May 24th tried to take M10. The attempt lacked the element of surprise and was badly punished.
We had about exhausted all our stock of ruses and the enemy was abundantly furnished with flares. By this time, too, he must have perceived that our guns lacked the versatility that goes with full limbers, so that a bombardment always meant one thing.1 In fact by the 24th the wisdom of still deepening the salient in face of the enemy’s increasing superiority of gun-fire had become a lost secret.
The engineers are a combatant force, at times vehemently so. But except for the fact that they are allotted their quota of decorations, which append-ages soldiers insist have only a casual connection with real events, the fighting qualities of the sappers are carefully ignored. This is a retribution. For in bar-racks and hut-cantonments the engineers have a monopoly of repairs and alterations. If you put a nail in a wall the engineers give you a ” difficult look.” Perhaps after your electric fuse blows out you notify the engineers and go to bed for a couple of nights with the assistance of your pocket flash. Then you remember that a humble corporal was in civilian life a $5,000 electric official and in the twinkling of a thumb he starts the light going. This is a crime on your part; and then some weeks later, when the engineers discover the offence, there starts a voluminous and severe correspondence on ” tampering with the electrical appliances.” So any virtue in an engineer is grudgingly, conceded.
Ordinarily the engineers, if called in to make access easy to the Orchard, would have cut through the hedges and bridged the ditches, after the dry weather had set in and emptied them. But on this occasion, while the 16th were pecking with trenching-tool and bayonet, the sappers waded through the muddy water and with their adequate tools cut numerous tunnels out of the wired hedges amid the sip-sip of the machine-gun bullets. No men in the course of the war worked and died with more imperturbable usefulness than did that day Major Wright and many of his field company of Canadian engineers.
The Rue d’Ouvert was important tactically if you wanted to work up to the main road to La Bassée. The Germans quite appreciated this, and tried to put it out of our reach by placing two obstacles equally distant from where the road kinks at right angles. These obstacles were the Orchard on our left and K5 on our right. The Germans thought enough of K5 to fortify it strongly, defend all the approaches to it stubbornly, and when it was taken make it cruelly hard to hold.
At 7.45 p. m. on the 20th May, simultaneously with the Highlanders’ attack on the Orchard, the 10th Battalion made the first attempt to take K5. The intervening ground was found to be in many places al-most impassable, being badly broken and intersected by ditches brimming over with the recently fallen rain-water. The 10th pressed their attack with great determination, their leading company being almost wiped out by machine-gun fire. Owing to the irregularity of the ground the gains of the attack amounted to only a partial success, as some of the ground made had to be relinquished; and the night of the 20th-21st found the 10th holding on desperately to K4 and awaiting the arrival of our bombers.
For the attack of lines strengthened and in some places masked by fortins the rifle-grenadiers and bombers, or, as they were then all termed, grenadiers,’ were much in request. The limitations of the hand-grenade were not at that time clearly understood by some of the busy compilers of training directions, and the idea was still put forward that the bombers should advance in front of an infantry attack in the open. Some of this idea was clinging to the operations of the 2nd Brigade bombers on May 21st.
The 10th Battalion had lost their bombers in the slaughter at Ypres and the brigade force now totalled fifty men. These were marched, on the bright sultry afternoon of May 20th, through a very hot neighbour-hood to the old and solidly built trench that led to K4 and thence turned to the left up a connecting trench which ran to the parallel trench still occupied by the enemy. This connecting trench they blocked with a barricade at what was considered a suitable distance from the enemy and waited all night and into the after-noon of the 21st.
In the afternoon orders arrived that an assault in the open was fixed for 8.30 (dusk) by the 7th Battalion, who were to attack in three parties with the grenadiers leading. Accordingly at 7 p. m. the bombers were withdrawn to some dug-outs, and allowed access to a small packing-case with scraps of food which had to serve in lieu of rations. Meanwhile a stupendous artillery preparation was being carried on by one British gun. The bombers went forward again, and, by a skilful application of bombs, partly broke down the walls of the connecting trench to the left and right, and were then ordered to go out and lie down and wait for the infantry. This they did amid a very hot fire and few of them were long enough unwounded to help the infantry. The 2nd Brigade’s bombers were not in good luck.
On the same day the 2nd Brigade, being, as we have seen, short of bombers, borrowed some from the 1st Brigade, who sent one hundred under the brigade bombing officer, Lieutenant Sprinks. Reporting at the headquarters of the 10th Battalion in Festubert to Major Guthrie, then in command, they were sent by him up the Willow road to the trench occupied by the 10th and then reported to Captain Gay, who was directing the attack towards K5.
Hitherto the 1st Brigade bombers had never got much satisfaction out of their short-range means of destruction; but had been perforce content to assist in odd ways the general cause, as when at Ypres they acted as stretcher-bearers. This occasion was an opportunity; an occasion when the bombers had the right of way. Accordingly they took off from the 10th trench along a slender communication trench, and, reaching a German line to the left of K5, erupted into it and worked to the right, making a gain of four hundred yards before they thought good to block the trench. This was done under the bombing conditions of 1915.
In the later years of the war the bombers received a training which was not ill-suited to the Canadian temperament. The Mills bomb had become their standardized weapon so that the bombers could give their undivided attention to the work ahead. When they rushed a trench they split into two squads ; the first squad working along the far side of the parados headed by a bayoneteer who took pot-shots at any head appearing above the parados, while the second squad followed them inside and cleared the trench. But all this was later. In the year 1915 there were some Mills bombs, but rather as a sample than a supply. It took considerable time before the munitioners made them a staple. As late as the summer of 1916 bombers in Camp Borden, Canada, had to be instructed from a blue-print of a Mills bomb.
But if there was not a standardized article there was at least a variety in grenades. There were the G. S. (General Service) No. 1 Percussion; Hale’s Percussion ; Hale’s Rifle Grenade ; two sizes of T. & F. (Time and Friction) ; two kinds of Double Cylinder; the Square Box or Improved Hair-Brush; unimproved Hair-Brush (which sometimes rubbed the wrong head) ; Jam Tin (cleared out of that glory of our early con-tractors, Tickler’s jam) ; and Gas Pipe. There were also a number of kinds of German grenades left in quantity in their trenches, their G. S. Cylindrical Stick (being a jam tin with a long handle), and their variety of the Hair-Brush. The feast was not complete, however; for there were none present at Festubert of the British ” Newton Pippin ” or the German ” Oyster.”
Armed with such death-dealers our bombers were formidable to the enemy and dreadful to their comrades. To make up for any lack of complexity in the weapons the bombing tactics of 1915 had the stately solemnity of trooping the colours and the unhasting precision of a minuet.
The following extract and diagram under the heading ” Method of Attack,” from the then syllabus of training, will illustrate how our bombers should have approached K5 :
The following mode of action in working along an enemy’s trench has been found successful.
On arriving at traverse 1 the bayonet men should place themselves in position AAA, the N. C. O. at C or as required, the grenadiers at BB behind the traverse with the carriers, if any, and spare bayonet men be-hind them. No. 1 grenadier then throws a grenade over the traverse into the trench X and a second one into trench Y. The leading bayonet man can then move forward so as to see into trench X. If it is clear he passes back word and the 3 bayonet men move up trench X and occupy position at traverse 2 similar to those at traverse 1. The grenadiers then follow and throw grenades into Y and Z. Until Y is clear the re-serve bayonet men remain behind traverse 1 in case the enemy should throw grenades into trench X.
” Should trench Y be too far to reach from traverse 1 the grenadiers should move to point D and throw obliquely into it before advancing to traverse 2.”
What actually happened was this. The 1st Brigade bombers took the time from Corporal Allan Davidson of the 2nd Battalion, a well-known hockey player. Now Canadian hockey is the swiftest of all human games-on-foot. The result was that the bombers went through so fast that presently there was a gap of two hundred yards in their rear between them and the nearest body of the men that were following up. This caused Captain Day to send them a message to draw back. But they remained, in some danger from the shells which our own artillery were accurately drop-ping into the trench, but on the whole in greater comfort than our other men who were being bustled by the German whiz-bangs.
Early in the morning of the 22nd the 10th were relieved by a battalion of a London brigade. At this time, too, some of our dismounted cavalry, Strathcona’s Horse (and their partners, King Edward’s Horse),’ were accorded the privilege of being blooded. They took to the treatment with alacrity, as they had begun to fear that they were never going to get a chance in this war.
The 23rd up till midnight passed without more than the normal incidents of being shell-battered, sniped, and treated to the rude massage of the machine gun. The 5th Battalion were now suddenly awakened from their slumbers in a little orchard immediately back of Festubert village. The battalion, owing to their previous losses, had just undergone a reorganization.
Two large companies and a working platoon were formed of the whole and made up as follows :
A Company, under the command of Major Tenaille, were reinforced by two platoons of C Company and part of D ; B Company, under the command of Captain Magee, by a part of D also. The remaining two platoons of C (Captain Murdie) were used to bridge the maze of ditches ; without which being done K5 was likely to remain a ” virgin fortalice.” The whole were under the command of Major Edgar, as Colonel Tuxford was at this time a casualty.
One who was present, Private E. G. McFeat, has given us this picture of the entry of the 5th into this, the main act of the drama of K5:
” This thin line of boys filed silently out of that tiny orchard just after midnight. Citizen soldiers, weary after the strenuous fighting they had just come through, borne with unsurpassable fortitude, again toed the line without a murmur, although few ever expected to again see that orchard. All knew, only too well, the tremendous peril which awaited them in the taking of K5.
” A touch of pathos, pathetic by its humanness, crowned that impressive scene. As the line passed brigade headquarters, General Currie (then in command of the brigade) stood outside of his dug-out, and here and there with a kindly pat on the shoulder said,
‘ Now, boys, don’t forget, I am relying on you.’ The tone was sad, but many felt that whatever the price paid, here was a good reason why it should be done.
” Festubert village, itself, was a mass of brick and earth, and in the ghostly light presented a weird appearance. From the village down Willow road, that road which every night reaped its toll of dead and wounded, through the shell-torn remnant of the old British front line, manned by the 8th London Rifles (Post Office Rifles), and up to the K4 by the screen, screen only in name, as the shells and machine guns had shattered it along its entire length, pass the khaki-clad line of boys. The night air had a distinct chill, owing to the heavy dew peculiar to these parts, as the line waited patiently behind the trench for the word which would start an eruption of fire from the enemy’s guns ` over.’ ”
The 1st Division had not at that time achieved the skill and thoroughness in ” preparation ” that in the years ’17 and ’18 made an advance of the Canadian Corps an assured success. The pathetic bombardment by two small field-guns did very little to the enemy’s wire or morale. Indeed it afterwards transpired (or was given out as an excuse) that the telephone wires to the batteries had been broken by shell-fire. The bridging party succeeded in doing some work in spanning the ditches, but were roughly dissuaded from completing their operations by wicked bursts of machine-gun fire.
The attack itself, which had been originally timed for 2.30 on the morning of the 24th, but held up to get the bridging under way, went over just as day was breaking. It was fully expected by the enemy and greeted with a tremendous volume of fire of all sorts as the men leaped over the parapet. Quite a few were actually killed as they went over.
When they reached the ditches and found the lack of bridges they went at the water like our emblematic ” Beaver “; discovered a cleverly concealed net-work of entanglement; gnawed their way through somehow; and then charged recklessly through the barbed wire. Some of the wounded were drowned in the ditches. Those who won through and escaladed the final parapet were few in number and torn and bleeding from bullet and barb. But they made short work of what Germans remained to face them, most of the garrison taking to their heels for safety; and K5 had fallen to the 5th Battalion.
But if the taking was rough, the holding was worse. The artillery concentrated all kinds of shell-fire upon the position; and mines exploded in the communicating trench from K4, isolated the redoubt, and cut off the remnants of A Company from any immediate reinforcement. Here for once at any rate our guns made an effective intervention; for they smashed out of formation a counter-attack which would have taken our little garrison at a great numerical disadvantage.
Bodies of the Strathcona’s Horse, Royal Canadian Dragoons, and the 7th Battalion kept trying to reach the redoubt with supports. Late in the afternoon the 7th succeeded in getting a strong party through; and this in itself was a fine exploit and an inestimable assistance. For by this time the officers of the 5th were all down. Major Tenaille, bleeding from a wound in the side, was still working a machine gun whose crew had been killed. Tenaille had shown his quality at Ypres when, in command of the right flanking company of the Canadians, he received the order to retire and did so, deliberately, gradually, and with the most scrupulous regard for the safety of the British units on his right.
Tenaille was an old-world Frenchman or rather such a Frenchman as Napoleon was, from Ajaccio in Corsica. K5 was to be his death as it was that of many another hard fighter. But until the final shell struck him, his sharp exclamations and hot cursing of the Boche, delivered in broken English, but with unbroken spirit, kept the men’s courage to the boiling point. It was as good as a new platoon to have Tenaille say ” Shoot! Shoot ! Dam zem! Come on, Boche ! We fix you ! ” His dauntless bearing and stirring words acted like a strong stimulant on his followers.
Late in the night the Strathcona ‘s Horse, Royal Canadian Dragoons, and King Edward’s Horse took over the position, and what is more, held it during two days and nights of such things as happened at Festubert. They got all their degrees of initiation and by the time relief came were entitled to full membership as Canadians.
Sir John French in his report says :
” I had now reason to consider that the battle, which was commenced by the First Army on the 9th May and renewed on the 16th, having attained for the moment the immediate object I had in view, should not be further actively proceeded with; and I gave orders to Sir Douglas Haig to curtail his artillery attack and to strengthen and consolidate the ground he had won.”
This paragraph contains two true statements, namely, that the battle was commenced by the First Army on the 9th and renewed on the 16th; for the rest it is a Staff report. As to a battle not being actively proceeded with, it is obvious that so long as it remains a battle this cessation of active proceedings requires the consent of both combatants. As to the curtailment of Haig’s artillery attack, we now know (what the Staff, but not the public, then knew) that not French’s orders, but the War Office and its munition factories did this curtailing. The shell shortage of 1915 is it not written in chronicles? As to orders ” to strengthen and consolidate the ground won,” and all this to be done without artillery support, a similar order was issued once by a High Command : ” There is no straw given unto thy servants and they say to us, make brick.”
The artillery support given during the Festubert operations was curtailed throughout, and the losses of the attacking parties became increasingly expensive as the pocket deepened and brought the flanks of both advance troops and supports into ground every foot of which had been occupied by and was accurately known to the Germans. For their fire was then as well directed by night as by day. After the night of May 21st-22nd the efforts of our artillery became fitful and less and less frequent. The German artillery, with admirable precision and with the methodical mercilessness of gunners who have things their own way, proceeded to rake the front-line trenches for say half an hour; then the support trench for a like period; then the shallow holdings of the reserves ; and again the front line; and so on, day and night, with a fiendish impartiality.
There were some interruptions. One artillery free-lance had a section of tiny ordnance about which the legend was that they had been mountain-guns in India the sort that can be taken apart and carried on pack-animals. He had apparently an abundance of shells and of military impudence. His proceedings were during the long, weary hours of the 23rd and 24th a source of relief and occasional security to the infantry. He would suddenly open and send a shower of his tiny projectiles towards the enemy. Sometimes they hit our trenches, but their general direction and elevation was hopeful. Immediately the Germans resented this lèse-majesté of the guns, and for the time being left the infantry unmolested while they proceeded to punish the little shell-throwers. High overhead our men could hear the whir-whir as of the overhead trolley in a foundry and after a pause a thundering crash in the back-ground. They knew the German heavies were looking for that venturesome artillerist. But they also knew that by this time he had limbered up and away and was waiting elsewhere to open again with his two fox-terrier guns against their ponderous mastiffs. He was a great comfort to the Canadian infantry until he began to make too many direct hits on our own line. But for the most part there was no relief. Field-artillery shells, about one in seven of which were shrapnel, came at various angles from the front; while enfilading guns of larger calibre tore out sections of trench or crushed the men in their hastily dug ” funk holes,” burying some of the occupants beyond recovery under tons of earth.
The work of consolidating a captured trench is progressive and demands a sufficient superiority of the guns to enable working parties to have periods when they are free from molestation. Part of the German trenches captured at Festubert consisted of a high, ponderous parapet, a narrow trench, and back of that a slender parados sufficient to stop the back-lash of a high-explosive shell. This parados was pierced as though it were tissue paper by the direct hit of a shell; and, until it could be thickened with sand-bags, it was a death-trap for any troops attempting to line the trench facing towards the German artillery. Accordingly our men scraped out with their entrenching tools a row of narrow ” funk holes ” on our side of the parapet. These took various shapes according to the lie of the ground and its exposure. In some places a man could lie at full length and comfortably shiver. In other places he sat as in a hip-bath and listened to the splash of the shrapnel just a little beyond his feet. The earth from these holes was filled into sand-bags and deposited on the far side of the parados to thicken it into a new parapet. But as the action wore on, this work of consolidation had to be discontinued. The incessant flares shot from the German trenches made night work as insecure as in the day. The placing of a new sand-bag was detected with unfailing vigilance by the German observers and rewarded by showers of shells.
The strain of this unequal warfare, this game of take-all-and-give-none, fell upon the 1st Brigade and during the later days of the affair upon the 4th Battalion. This battalion had been replenished, but not refilled, by drafts at Bailleul, and was now under its original commander, Lieut.-Colonel Labatt. He had been left behind to undergo a serious operation in England and had induced a medical board to consider him sufficiently recovered to resume his position with the men he had trained. His strength was not equal to his eagerness and intrepidity; and the hardships of Festubert left him with a total disability which claimed him three years later.
The 4th were altogether in this hopeless part of the operation ten days and eleven nights and for the last week of this period were wardens of the Orchard. To the left of the Orchard was an open space of several hundred yards between it and our nearest trench. Be-hind the Orchard lay the road enfiladed by the machine guns and snipers in M10. To make an end of this pirates’ stronghold one of Labatt’s companies had brought up a ponderous type of trench mortar. It took thirty-five men to carry it up. Just when it was installed, a stringent order came from the Brigade Command interdicting any opening of fire; and Labatt had to incur the odium of muzzling the mortar. It took thirty-five men again to move it out.
Apparently the hostile gunners had our people tamed. No sign of life was permitted. If anyone started enough fire to heat a cup of water, the word passed, ” Put out that fire.” For no sooner did the smoke arise than shells descended. Rations could only be brought up by the taking of heroic risks. And all ranks drank water dipped out of shallow excavations in the muddy soil, strained through not quite irreproachable handkerchiefs, and rendered innocuous and loathsome by dissolving in it some antiseptic tablets. To evacuate the wounded it was necessary to run the gauntlet of a heavy and accurate fire. The sight of stretcher-bearers caused the German gunner to desist from his impersonal searching of the trenches and fill the field around them with shrapnel and high explosives. To this must be added the malignant activity of the snipers. Whoever was by reason of his duty required to move from place to place or had to expose himself as a sentry was in danger not only during the day but also at night-time from rifles that had been trained to bear accurately on particular points of the trenches. Indeed, during the periods when our men were not attempting new advances as many paid the silent toll of the sniper as gave up their lives under the crashing terror of the artillery.
So apparently they had our men tamed. But only apparently ! On the evening of the 27th, along the front trench where for several days companies of the 3rd and 4th had been lying, subjected to all these depressing hardships and calamities, and where the men now seemed to be as it were trodden below the ground word was passed that a German infantry attack was expected. Immediately the men swarmed out of their ” funk holes ” without further orders and climbed to the top of the parapet, straining their eyes along the sights of the rifles in the hope, as the saying was, of ” getting back a bit of our own.” The welcome attack did not arrive and a shower of the inevitable shells induced them to listen to their officers and come down from the sky-line. They were still a long way from feeling tamed.
All things come to an end, even a Chinese execution by slicing. The Canadians were relieved on May 31st and getting out alive is one of the few pleasant recollections of Festubert.
The currents of sentiment and local prejudice that animated the various battalions in the Canadian di-vision before the Second Battle of Ypres would form a curious and now happily harmless subject of philosophic inquiry. None of the battalions were quite homogeneous. Most of them were composed of contingents from different militia regiments, all of which had a local pride and sometimes a considerable mutual jealousy. So that there was chafing and sense of grievance according as one set of officers and non-coms. seemed to get a preference. The proximity of the Germans and the engrossing duties of the trenches were gradually supplanting these local and personal feelings by the nobler and more enduring sentiment of comradeship. For the friendships and respects formed under shell-fire far exceed in intensity and du-ration those of peace time. The brotherhood with the man that is lying beside you in the ” funk hole ” supersedes the chumships of earlier life. The officer you now look to is the man who makes good when rations are hard to bring up and when the tired resolution of the soldier needs the flick of a resolute will. Whatever was still working of the old leaven of localism was killed in the oven of the Ypres salient.
But immediately as if soldiers must always have some pretensions of superiority upon which some may swagger to the mortification of others the survivors of Ypres formed themselves into an aristocracy of the rank and file. The drafts from the base although enlisted on the same day as themselves were to these veterans as the unclean rabble is to a Brahmin. It was no longer a case of ” Did you come from Lon-don (Ontario) or Windsor?” or ” Did you belong to the 12th Regiment or the 13th?” It was ” Kindly remember I belong to the Old First,” or ” Yes! Of course, you do belong to the 4th, but you don’t belong to the Old Fourth.” Festubert did much to cure this disease. For after Ypres the first big drafts came as an amazing intrusion. Festubert revealed that this enormous replenishment by draft was going to be the habit of this murderous war. The Battalion spirit be-came simpler and less querulous and no longer grudged its comradeship to new arrivals. All began to feel that the individual was the transient leaf that was soon withered and could not persist and that the living things with roots were the Battalion, the Brigade, and the Division.