THE most notable event in Canada’s war history between Givenchy and St. Eloi was the coming over of the 2nd Division and the formation of a Canadian corps at the front. It had been a question as to whether the making of another division would not endanger the sending over of reinforcements, but the splendid response that Canada made in recruiting, following the Second Battle of Ypres, was making itself felt and there were enough men overseas to assure two divisions and a safe number of reinforcements.
There were no major operations for the Dominion troops in this period; but the Canadians often found themselves in exciting positions and in one great battle rendered valuable assistance to the Imperials who joined them on the right flank.
It was after Givenchy that the 1st Division was taken out of the line and was given a much needed chance to refit and reinforce. This was on June 31st, 1915. Fresh troops to fill the gaps made at Festubert and Givenchy were already in France and these joined the tired battalions in the little villages around Bethune to complete their training. It was the first introduction of this busy city and important junction to Canadians, and the men from overseas made enduring friendships in the town, which lasted even after the dark days of 1918, when the place was razed by German guns. Billets were in little villages on the out-skirts, such as Essars, Hamel, Hinges, and Obinghem; but the cafés and fine hotels of the city were always in bounds and the Canadians tasted the first real bit of civilization that had come their way since they went into battle.
But it was not all play for the division. Bombing and grenade schools were formed in the areas behind Bethune, practice trenches were dug, and trench-mortar warfare was developed. The men of the Maple Leaf took a pride in their schools, there was always something new to be learned, and it was about this time that the professional instructors of the ” Old Contemptibles ” were replaced by Canadians and the division was able to do its own training. The schools were regarded as models and came in for much praise from visiting Imperial and French officers. The self-reliant men from overseas invented several new stunts for trench warfare which became part of the Allies’ general training.
Our casualties at Givenchy had been well over the two-thousand mark, with but little gained; the fighting of the division had been mainly what might be called an ” offensive “defensive. It was the Imperial Command’s idea to keep the Germans fully employed in order to cover preparations for a Franco-British offensive on a large scale, and in this they had succeeded.
After some weeks of strenuous training the Canadians began their sudden and secret move northward. Their ultimate destination was to be the long sector of Ploegsteert nicknamed Plugstreet by the soldiers. The long summer night marches would have been a severe test for veterans ; but, so fine was the condition of the division, the battalions with full kit made the grades to Neuf Berquin, on the Strazeele-Estaires road, and Noote Boom, a little village behind Steenwerck, in splendid shape.
Gradually the division, now joined by the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, which had completed infantry training under Brigadier-General Seely and included Strathcona’s Horse, Fort Garry Horse, and Royal Canadian Dragoons, took over the Ploegsteert sector. It was a line of length rather than depth. South of Ypres and St. Eloi, where the British position was always in peril, north of Armentières and facing the extreme edge of the Messines Ridge, which the Germans held like a Rhine fortress, the strength of the system lay in the fact that the trenches were ideal to defend against a frontal attack and were protected in depth by Kemmel Hill and Mont Rouge, two dominating knolls which became the scene of terrific fighting in 1918. A railway which the Canadian Overseas Construction Corps built round Kemmel made the matter of supplies easy and also allowed us to harass the Huns with big railway howitzers, which they were never able to locate.
Ploegsteert, with its rambling buildings and small copses, the château and racing stables of Hennessy, the French brandy manufacturer, and a score or so of dilapidated farms, became one of the show places of the British front, and scores of distinguished visitors, from His Majesty the King down to noted lady novelists, came to see the ” Canadians in action.” Sir Robert Borden visited the division on July 21st and Sir Sam Hughes reviewed the units on August 7th, both getting their first sight of their countrymen in active warfare.
The thick woods through which long and dry communication trenches wound gave excellent cover with which to gain the main fighting line; and the civilian, getting his first taste of war, was allowed the thrill of having German bullets hissing overhead, the Huns using indirect machine-gun fire in an attempt to harass us. The more venturesome visitors were taken through a forty-foot sap and dumped into the ” Bird-cage,” where they were told in whispers they were only twelve yards from the German line.
But if the new Canadian position was comfortable, there was always the necessity for alertness, as the Germans on the higher ground of the Messines Ridge had the tremendous advantage of observation and held their trenches in menacing strength. The shattered remnants of the town of Messines had been converted into a citadel. From an old red tower of what was formerly the French Military School they could keep watch on every movement in our line. For two weeks the Canadian artillery pounded away at this red brick pinnacle, making several direct hits, but were unable to destroy it. After the Germans had been pushed off the ridge by the Australians, I visited the town and looked over the tower. Powerful steel struts linked up huge boulders of cement carefully faced with ruined bricks; ladders, in tunnels lined with armour plate, had given the German observers secure entrance and exit even during the heaviest bombardment. The crumbled houses on the edge of the ridge were but camouflage for vast cement fortresses with disappearing machine-gun platforms. Warneton and Wytschaete were the same and the shattered farms that fringed the Big and Little Douve rivers were miniature redoubts bristling with machine-gun emplacements.
The Germans were taking keen notes of the movements of troops during these days. It was somewhat of a surprise, when the 3rd Brigade took over from a brigade of the 28th (Imperial) Division in the trenches fronting Wytschaete, to hear the Huns shout across No Man’s Land, ” Hello, Scotty!” They knew it was the Canadians opposed to them and brought up sacks of straw and sulphur which they set fire to in an imitation gas attack, at the same time shouting : ” Stand to, Canadians ! Remember St. Julien!” One of our patrols took from a dead German a little book having these phrases in German and English and explicit instructions on how to annoy the Canadians.
The necessity for concealing identity gone, the Canadians, remembering with pride that they were an army of a nation, prepared to celebrate Dominion Day, their first at war, in true fashion. Those whose duty kept them in the trenches hoisted the flag of the Maple Leaf alongside the French Tricolour and kept the emblems blowing in the summer breeze despite the hurricane of machine-gun bullets the enemy shot at them. Behind the lines, just out of range of Fritz’s guns, were held sports which every man who could be spared attended. Kits were unloaded in neighbouring fields so that the men could rush to their posts if the Germans attempted to take advantage of the celebration. All the competitions were open and Canadian Highlanders found themselves competing with men of the Imperial kilted regiments in tugs-of-war and throwing the hammer. And the men of the Scottish breed from overseas held their own. Baseball games with excited fans let the troops forget war for the time. Minstrel shows, by native talent of course, kept the men merry; and dancing and rag-time music, but, alas, no feminine partners, rounded off the ” perfect day.” How the Canadians were making their mark in the Air Service was shown on this great Canadian day by a squadron, composed entirely of Canadian pilots, which kept guard in the skies so that comrades of the ground forces could celebrate unmolested by German air scouts. Only one venturesome Teuton plane came over and the joyous crowd below saw it come swirling down in burning wreckage.
Although there were some exciting encounters in No Man’s Land, July and August were, for the most part, spent by the Canadians in improving their trenches. Everything mentioned in British military text-books necessary and unnecessary was put into this construction. By this time the 1st Division knew that good trenches meant comfort and safety. Second and third lines grew into being under the watchful eyes of the Hun observers on Messines Ridge. New communication trenches, which shortened and made safe the way for ration parties, engineers, and ammunition carriers, grew in number, and the night labour on the forward lines increased. If the Germans had the advantage of observation, the Canadians had soon offset it by the improvements they made in their lines. The Huns increased the severity of their artillery fire, but stretcher-bearers and runners were able to go to and from the front trenches in comparative safety, even in the broad light of a July sun. The area became noted for the completeness of its defence system; and if the Hun had it in his mind to attack he must have gradually changed his plans as he saw the system become almost impregnable.
Sniping, patrols, and mining were features of these months. The Canadians obtained control of the Hinterland through which the river Douve, a turbulent stream although only about ten yards wide, wound its way. Where the Canadian trench system needed straightening out it was done by clever co-operation between the engineers and the infantry. The 1st Bat-talion, occupying a position in front of Ploegsteert Wood, had an uncomfortable sector of trench, and when they were relieved, early in July, it was decided to remove the German posts that dominated it. The 13th Battalion went into the trenches one night when two mines were exploded under the Germans’ miniature redoubts. One of the Kilties’ captains with a small party rushed into the dilapidated structure and through the night consolidated the newly won position so thoroughly that, in spite of heavy shelling, it held. About a week later the same battalion repeated the trick, without casualties, and gradually the front line was straightened out.
It was in July that the Germans suddenly became active in sniping, those Canadians who had to use the communication trenches suffering severely. From camouflaged posts just behind his system the enemy would pick off officers and men and the matter became serious. Picked shots were called for from the Canadians and they were given relief from fatigue duties so that they could devote their whole time to stalking the German sharp-shooters. It was not long before the tables were turned on the Huns and many of their best marksmen fell victims to our keen shots. With telescopic sights fitted to the Ross rifle the Canadians were more than a match for the Huns, and one half-breed in a Western battalion had sixteen notches to his credit in the first week he operated. Later the Vancouver captain, an old member of Canada’s Bisley team, who instructed these men, became commander of the largest sniping school of the British Army. Nor was the sniping all confined to the enemy’s side of the line. The 7th Battalion was continually losing runners on their way from company headquarters to battalion headquarters, near Stinking Farm, although the stretch of road where their bodies were found was well screened from observation by the Hun. It was obvious that German spies were shooting them, yet a careful combing of the civilian population gave no clue to the snipers. The colonel gave an old timber cruiser and hunter from British Columbia full charge of the man hunt. He decided to work without assistance, and for over a week he prowled about the road which had become so dangerous that, although a short cut, it was seldom used. Then, one day, he called on his officer and offered to give him some sport that night. The pair crept up to what seemed only the corner of a dilapidated wall and waited. In the dim light they saw the battalion messenger running quickly over what had been nicknamed ” the death stretch,” and suddenly from the wall came the crack of a rifle. The bullet missed the runner, but before a second shot could be fired the Canadians rushed the rubble of brick and in a short rough and tumble fight killed the sniper, who was wearing civilian clothes. Under the wall was a little cellar with three rifles and plenty of ammunition, food and water sufficient for a month, and in addition German signal lamps. The sniper was undoubtedly a German, but clothes and papers on him were those of a murdered Belgian farmer who had lived in the neighbourhood before the fringe of war reached it.
During this period there were many exciting incidents in No Man’s Land. On the 27th a captain of the 3rd (Toronto) Battalion saw a party of the enemy in the wild wheat which grew in this section. With three men he crept out and surprised them just in front of their own wire. One German, after surrendering, suddenly raised his rifle and fired at the captain ; on the instant one of the Canadian privates shot him dead. In spite of the fact that the whole affair took place in full view of the enemy’s trench, the party, with two unwounded prisoners, got back safely. The prisoners on being questioned said that they had been detailed to find out if Canada’s 2nd Division were yet in the trenches. Instead of getting the information they told us of new brigades which had just reinforced the line fronting us.
On August 1st the Germans suddenly opened a terrific fire on a ruined house, known as Ration Farm, just behind our lines. Men from Strathcona’s Horse were quartered there in reserve, and they had to scurry to the shelter of their dug-outs in record time. Fortunately there were but few casualties; but the battalion magazine, which contained over 100,000 rounds of ammunition and huge supplies of bombs and hand-grenades, was hit and set on fire. It was thought that the entire magazine would explode, but the dismounted cavalry, under the direction of a Winnipeg major, beat at the pile of bursting explosives with blankets and sand-bags until they got it under control, in spite of renewed efforts on the part of the German guns.
By the end of August it was generally known that the 2nd Division was in the offing. From May, 1915, it had been in process of formation at Shorncliffe, in England. It was by this time borne upon everyone that the prophetic words of Lord Kitchener would come true and that the war would continue for at least three years. The 2nd Division had a more fortunate experience than its predecessor during training days, and when, after the final review by the King, it started for the front, it was in much better condition than had been ” the originals.” 1 Eight battalions, although bet-ter trained than had been the troops of the 1st Division, were left behind to join the reserves. These were the 23rd (Quebec), 30th (British Columbia), 32nd (Saskatchewan), 36th (Hamilton), 39th (Belleville), and 43rd (Winnipeg) as reinforcements for the infantry and the 48th (British Columbia) for the pioneers. In addition there was the Royal Canadian Regiment, which had been doing duty in the West Indies and which afterwards joined the 3rd Division.
The division was needed at the front with the least possible delay and was sent by the short cut across the Channel from Folkestone to Boulogne, not losing a single man on the trip, although the submarine men-ace was great and there were many thrilling experiences. The 18th Battalion and the staff of Lord Brooke were on an old Belgian paddle-steamer and were only a few miles from Boulogne when suddenly a dark mass rammed them, carrying away part of the paddle-box and veering the crowded mail boat over to a very dangerous angle. The shock threw the heavily equipped troops off their feet, and for a time it was thought the vessel was about to go down. But there was no semblance of panic among the soldiers. Every man took his place in the ranks with life-belt on, steady as if on parade. Parties of pioneers loosened the life-rafts and all was ready to abandon the ship. But it was not necessary, and although the paddle-boat was wallowing in a somewhat heavy Channel swell an-other transport got alongside and fastened wire hawsers to the crowded derelict. The hawsers parted before Boulogne could be reached, and finally tugs from the French port grappled with the Belgian steamer and as daylight was breaking brought her safe to harbour, a damaged British destroyer having preceded her. The battalion were immediately en-trained and within a few days found themselves within sound of the guns and behind the 1st Division, being billeted in the small villages around Caestre, which was headquarters. Lower Belgium was crowded with German spies at this time and it was not long before the arrival of the 2nd Division was known to the enemy, who redoubled his watchfulness. The arrival of this additional force in this sector fully convinced him that the British scheme was to use the Canadians in an at-tack on Messines Ridge.
The coming of the 2nd Division necessitated many readjustments of position, ending finally in the Canadians, now an army corps, taking over about six miles of trenches stretching from south of Wulverghem, on the fringes of Ploegsteert Wood, to Kemmel and St. Eloi. It was the longest sector any two divisions on the front were holding at the time. The moves which resulted in this final disposition were not all made in a day, and the new corps had to exchange several times with the Second and Fifth Imperial Corps to the right and left of them; but all changes were made like clock-work, the new 2nd Division gaining high praise for the way they took over despite the attention of the German artillery.
For several weeks the Canadians made many demonstrations against the enemy positions. Saps were built out into No Man’s Land and everything possible was done to convince the enemy that preparations were being made for an attack in force. Our augmented artillery used to practise barrages which caused the enemy to keep continually on the alert and to considerably strengthen his divisions. Night patrols repeatedly brought in prisoners who boasted that the enemy knew all about our intended attack which we never contemplated. The enemy shelled our front and secondary lines every night, hoping to catch a concentration of troops, but our casualties were few, so excellent were the trenches. Each evening or in the very early morning our patrols would start alarms in the German trenches, and red and green flares calling up enemy reserves would go soaring into the sky. The Huns would fire their machine guns wildly into the night, while our men, safely tucked away, would grin and enjoy the joke.
To leave the narration of Canada’s exploits for a time and survey the condition of affairs on the Western front will give the reader a good idea of how useful was all this ” circus ” work of our troops. A major action had been planned by Marshal Joffre and the French, which was to extend along a forty-mile front and involve, if successful, the whole line from Ypres to the extreme end of Champagne. The spear points of this attack were to be under General Castelnau in Northern Champagne, and at La Bassée under Field-Marshal Lord French. September 25th was the date finally set, and what developed in the British sector was the Battle of Loos, another partial victory where many lessons were learned. The Germans still had the initiative. Although the Canadian infantry did not actually get to grips with the Huns, they played a valuable part and the overseas artillery did essential work in enfilading the German positions just to the south, where Imperial troops were attacking.
The saps which our Canadian engineers had run out in front of our line were manned with trench mortars and machine guns, which commenced on the day previous to the great attack, and so roused the Huns suspicions that reinforcements from back areas were rushed up to the position opposite us. That night the Canadian guns opened up a terrific bombardment of the Huns’ trenches opposed to the Canadians and obliterated the Hun wire. It had every semblance of the prelude to an attack. The enemy dared not shift the reserves he had concentrated against the Canadians, and they were held off from the sector where the British were about to attack. All morning the Canadian machine guns kept up a fusilade from their advanced posts, sweeping the German communication trenches, which were filling with reserves. Then sacks, previously filled with straw and damped with oil, were lighted on our parapets and with a favourable wind the smoke cloud floated gently over the German trenches around the impregnable Petite Douve Farm. A small amount of gas was sent over to make the trick more convincing. The Germans, displaying all their distress signals, manned their advance posts and were caught by our artillery and machine guns. Then came the most artistic touch of all. The Canadians displayed trench ladders and flashed fixed bayonets over the tops of their trenches. Whistles of platoon commanders shrieked above the din of the machine guns. In the early dawn there arose almost in the enemy wire strange khaki figures with bayonets which caught the glint of the rising sun. The enemy poured his shells at them and smothered them with machine-gun fire. But they rose again and again, seemingly wavering under the intensity of the fire. All through the day they kept the Germans on the alert, and when at night the remnants of a gallant stuffed, painted canvas battalion were dragged in by the ropes that manipulated them, eighty per cent, of them were casualties in straw. It was the clever scheme of a young Vancouver engineer.
When it dawned on the enemy that the Canadians had never intended to attack, it was too late to send his reserves south to his hard-pressed divisions which were wavering under the British hammer-blows. The Germans included the Canadians in the battle, and in their communiqués even mentioned how they had beaten off a determined attack which cost the Canadians heavily.
Although the Canadian infantry played this minor part, the artillery was fully occupied. It had already registered for an enfilading fire on the front to be really attacked and joined in with the British gunners when they started their barrage. In one section the Canadian light guns kept up a concentrated fire on the roads by which the Huns might rush reserves south, for five hours, only letting up when the oil in the buffers had reached boiling point. Other heavier artillery kept up such terrific shelling on the German battery positions that they had no chance to move further south, where they were badly needed. The new 2nd Division had had what might be called a comic opera introduction to war, but life was not all a bed of roses for them, as witness the adventures of the 6th Brigade, which took over the northern extreme of the Canadian sector late in September.
The brigade had their share of demonstration fun during Loos from trenches that were well fashioned and deep except at two spots, known as the ” Glory Hole ” and the ” Bull Ring.” These were generally under enfilade fire from the enemy’s machine guns. The 28th (Saskatchewan) Battalion got its first taste of sudden activity when late one afternoon the enemy exploded two mines under trenches held by a platoon and bombers from Regina. The explosion followed a calm morning singularly free from shell-fire, and the incident might reasonably have upset and unnerved seasoned and experienced troops, but the Westerners stood the test well. They held on grimly under a terrific bombardment which was centred on the two craters, and with bombs and deliberate rifle-fire beat off three German attacks to gain the position. Many of the men who had been buried by the explosions when dug out grabbed rifles and joined in the fray.
The new division, which occupied the section of the line just north of the 1st, never let the enemy rest, al-though there were no major operations to hand down to history; and it was at this time that the Canadians boasted proudly and with reason that No Man’s Land was Canada’s. They drove in the enemy’s patrols either in daylight or in darkness.
On October 18th the 26th (New Brunswick) Battalion made what may be called the first daylight raid on the Western front. It was really a reconnaissance in force. There was a question as to whether the ” Bull Ring ” was worth holding in strength. It had cost scores of casualties owing to machine-gun enfilading. The men from the Maritime Province, after a heavy bombardment of the Huns’ front line and the explosion of a screen of smoke bombs which hid their movements, clambered from their trenches, bent on wiping out any German post that was in front of the enemy’s wire. In his wanderings a New Brunswick major stumbled into a new German sap along which wires had been laid. He traced the workings back to our own line and hurriedly cleared his men from the danger spot, and only just in time. The mine was sprung by the Huns and the terrific explosion, which would have engulfed a score or more men holding the ” Bull Ring,” by its detonation threw the raiders to the ground and buried some of them. The Germans, however, had been daunted by the previous patrol encounters and did not venture to follow up the advantage. The men stood doggedly to their posts while the wounded were carried back to the main trenches and the buried dug-out, and by display of calm courage the casualties were kept fairly light. It was in this encounter that a New Brunswick sergeant, well known in Canada as a guide and trapper, showed personal coolness and bravery that was such an example that the others of the party could but follow it. Instead of retiring helter-skelter for the trench, he went out into the open and, in the midst of bursting bombs and concentrated machine-gun fire, began deliberately picking off those Germans who ventured to embarrass the Canadian get-away. He accounted for eleven Huns with his own rifle and then turned from his grim work to assist the wounded. Making his way back almost to the sap-head, he found a fellow sergeant who was beyond aid. Near him was a private, badly wounded, and the sergeant, unwinding the wounded man’s puttees, bound him with them to his back, then crawled the hundred yards to his own trench.
The result of the ” investigation ” was that the crater was not to be held, but a greater discovery had also been made. The Saxons, who were opposite the 2nd Division, were getting tired of continually losing patrols and had developed land mines in such a fashion as to make the Canadians’ voyage of discovery into No Man’s Land exceedingly hazardous. The Canadians had, without doubt, developed the stalking of enemy patrols to a fine point. It came natural to them and was one of the most fascinating parts of the war game that had, up to this period, come their way. The rank and file were too keen-witted to ever be out-matched by the dull Saxons, and it was not many days before they found means of drawing the teeth of the Germans’ mechanical defences. In more than one in-stance they cut the Huns’ detonating wire and attached one from their own trenches, thus literally hoisting the German with his own petard.
With October’s ending the weather became wet and misty. The Canadians found that the trenches every-one had so much admired were crumbling under the weather. Parapet and parados dissolved in spite of continuous labour; and trenches which for weeks had been continuously dry and comfortable, after an hour’s thunderstorm were transformed into ragged ditches with water up to the knees of the men. It kept the men from overseas busy, and it kept the enemy busy too, for the river Douve, which ran through the centre of the position, bore the drainage of our trenches into the Huns’ forward works.
The weather did not stop the adventures of the Canadians in No Man’s Land, and one of the neatest cutting-out expeditions in which engineers and Scottish troops of the 1st Division took part could never have been completed but for a providential fog. Dotted behind the German wire were various farm buildings which the Germans, with railroad iron and concrete, had fortified into strong redoubts, and from which at night German garrisons used to spray our back areas with machine-gun fire. The Canadian party, under cover of the fog, stole out to one of these men-acing posts, killed the two sentries and blew up the shattered farm. Although it was only fifty yards from the Hun line, the heavy mist sheltered their return through the German wire and only two men were wounded.
In the second week of November one of the strange coincidences which show that war also has truths stranger than fiction occurred. A German Albatross, from a squadron with headquarters near Moorsleede, was attacked by one of our planes near Vierstraat, and pursued towards Messines, still being fired at by our anti-aircraft guns. The final fight occurred over the Canadian trenches and the German pilot, evidently wounded, dived low into the machine guns our infantry turned loose. It was an easy mark for the Canadian gunners and the riddled machine turned turtle and fell just behind our lines. The pilot was killed by the crash, but the observer, not seriously injured, staggered into the trenches of the 14th Battalion and gave himself up. Some scouts from the Montreal battalion crept out to the wrecked machine and gathered in maps and photographs as well as a complete wireless sending outfit, the first noted on the front. The Germans drove our men away by shell-fire, but that night they stole back to the plane and brought away the machine gun. It was a Colt belonging to the 14th Battalion and had been lost during the fighting at St. Julien in April.
Early in November His Majesty the King held his first review of the Canadians as a corps. It was impossible to take the battalions out of the line, so His Majesty inspected composite companies along the Dranoutre road, sheltered from the eyes of the Hun by the towering bulk of Kemmel Hill. It was a glorious autumn day, and the march past, the music of the bands mingling with the pounding of the guns only a few hundred yards away, made it a thrilling event. The men were in splendid fettle and as the King drove away down the Dranoutre-Locre road, they gave him a real Canadian ovation, hundreds of them breaking ranks and rushing to the royal motor car to shake His Majesty’s hand. It was a democratic welcome from the heart and that the King appreciated it was shown in the message he afterwards sent to Major-General Alderson.
During this month the trench raid was first operated successfully. It was invented and perfected by the men from the Dominion and soon adopted by the Imperials as a regular part of trench warfare. It was even copied with a variable amount of success by the Germans themselves. The raids gradually grew in magnitude until sometimes they would appear to be a serious frontal attack. One successful raid early in the following year was carried out by two whole brigades. It was never the intention of the raiders to hold the works ” cut out,” but merely to destroy as much trench and as many dug-outs as they could in the al-lotted time, kill as many Germans as possible, and gather in prisoners or anything that would help identify the enemy and disclose his plans.
The very first raid was carried out at a place in front of Messines called Petit Douve Farm, in the early morning of November 20th, on the little river Douve. Brigadier-General Lipsett and Lieut.-Colonel Victor Odium were the originators. The former commanded the 2nd Canadian Brigade at the time, later being promoted to the command of the 3rd Division and just previous to the Armistice was killed while commanding a British division. Colonel Odlum was in command of the 7th (British Columbia) Battalion. He later became a brigadier, and continued on active service until the end of the war, although several times wounded. The 5th Battalion, Lieut.-Colonel Tuxford, also later made a brigadier, assisted the 7th in their great adventure. So successful was the enterprise that an account of it was printed in British General Orders and later translated into French and Italian for the use of the Allies. It was thought, at the time, that development of the raid might lead to a break-up of trench warfare, which the Allies wished for. The Canadians were encouraged to perfect raiding and met with such success that Dominion instructors were sent up and down the line to coach British troops in the art for an art of warfare it had become.
I was fortunate enough to visit the happy 7th Battalion on the morning after the raid. Later, when Messines Ridge had been taken by the Australians, I went carefully over Petite Douve Farm. The huge blocks of concrete and strips of railway iron, our re-turning raiders reported, were still there. It was the fortress which for months had stuck its nose, with Teutonic insolence, out into our lines. It commanded two splendid fields of fire down the valley of the Big and Little Douve, and continuous machine-gun volleys from it made life miserable for our working and ration parties. Through No Man’s Land ran the smaller stream, passing diagonally from our trenches through those of the enemy. Snarled and shell-scarred willows joined by stretches of barbed wire, both ours and the enemy’s, lined the steep, crumbling banks. The Huns relied on this defence and seldom ventured beyond their own wire, which was gradually cut by our patrols, before the very eyes of the unsuspecting enemy. Intermittent shelling from our guns helped and it was decided to raid through the remaining tangle.
It was a typical November night, with heavy clouds racing before the moon. During the temporary eclipses a Victoria lieutenant, two British Columbia sergeants, and a corporal went out and for two hours worked hard in severing the last strands that the path of the raiders might be clear. Three low bridges were thrown across the narrow stream; one, at Red Lodge, was only twenty feet from the German parapet. There was an ostentatious, high, level bridge which no one ever used, which was continuously swept by German machine guns.
About two a. m. raiding parties of the 7th Battalion, totalling about thirty-five officers and men, started on their adventure. Every man wore a black mask completely covering his face. No one carried anything that would identify him if he were taken prisoner. Little flash-lights which worked from a switch on the stock were fastened to the muzzles of the rifles. It was a motley party that crept silently through the mud ; bayonet men, grenade throwers and grenade carriers, wire-cutters, pioneers, riflemen, telephone operators, linesmen, and stretcher-bearers were a few of the units. The objective of the raiders was to be the right of the miniature fort, and twenty minutes was to be allowed to clean out the trench. The Victoria captain gave the signal and the raiders threw themselves among the unsuspecting Germans. The captain jumped clean upon the German sentry sheltering beneath a sheet of corrugated iron, which went down clattering. Pandemonium then broke loose, but the alarm had come too late for the Germans. The party went through the trench, bombing, bayonetting, and shooting; and it was miniature massacre, although the Germans were in large numbers. Our artillery blocked their communication trenches and kept a continuous barrage on their support line, from which hundreds of red flares went up appealingly.
Prostrate on the German parapet, where the Canadians had entered, was a cool young lieutenant with a telephone line through to his battalion headquarters. The complete success of the raid was known to the corps commander before the raiders were actually out of the German trench. Twelve unwounded prisoners were sent back through our posts, over fifty Germans were counted killed, and there must have been many dead in the dug-outs that were destroyed. The 7th Battalion’s casualties were one killed and one wounded.
The 5th Battalion on the left did not meet with such success, having come upon a large ditch heavily wired with no way around. It was impossible to swim it or bridge it; and taking advantage of the diversion caused by the 7th’s attack, the party was successfully with-drawn without casualties.
The information obtained in this attack was valuable and the raid was even more successful than its enthusiastic inventors had hoped. Congratulations poured in from every section of the Western front, and little parties of staff officers were continuous visitors to the section held by the British Columbians. For weeks afterwards the German was an enemy with unstrung nerves and at any little activity on our part he rushed troops into his front trenches, where our guns punished them.
Early in December the Canadians had the great ad-venture of the Messines road barricade. It was one of those unlucky and almost unpreventable incidents of war which for a time seemed as if it would militate against the Dominion fighters, but which grim determination turned in our favour. Running due south down the ridge from the shattered town of Messines was the main road to Armentières. It was heavily paved, and was, in fact, built on the old foundations the Romans had constructed. However hard it was shelled it remained a menace along which transportation was always possible in case we had to give way to German pressure. Barbed wire and barricades with scores of machine-gun redoubts protected it where it passed through our lines. Our actual trenches passed under it through a tunnel. It was a favourite hunting-ground for the Sifton’s and Eaton’s motor machine guns, which at night used to run up the road and harass the enemy’s communication trenches by compass fire.
Just in front of our advanced wire and about three hundred feet from our front line there were two huge pollards which a German shell had cut down and thrown across the road. For a time the battalion that faced this position allowed them to remain unexplored; but a small patrol on the night of December 5th caught a German working party industriously wiring the trees and making a machine-gun obstruction of the fallen timber. The Canadians were driven off by heavy fire and they returned to report the situation to the artillery. The Canadian guns tried to smash up the menacing barricade; but the tall, thick trees pre-vented the shells from reaching the works. On three nights volunteers crept out along the ditches which lined the road and, supported by the motor machine guns working far ahead of our trenches, attempted to bomb out the enemy garrison, but always they were driven back with loss. One party from the Strathcona’s Horse, after a daring daylight reconnaissance, managed to gain the barricade, only to be thrust back with practically every man wounded.
On December 14th the 5th (Saskatchewan) Battalion took over this portion of the line and determined to make a vigorous attempt to dislodge the Germans. The 3rd Battery Canadian Artillery brought their guns down the road almost to our trenches and fired point-blank at the barricade for three nights and at intervals during the day. At one time a party of about twenty of the enemy broke from cover under the shelling and were caught by our machine guns and snipers, one of the latter alone accounting for five of the Huns. The men from Saskatchewan worked like beavers every night, constructing a sap from the road-side ditch so that they could outflank and rush the barricade at their next attempt.
On the night of the 15th one of the field-guns was hauled to within a couple of hundred yards of the obstruction by an armoured car of Eaton’s battery, and at four in the morning all our guns concentrated on the barricade for five minutes, firing twenty-five rounds each. As they lifted to cover the main German trench, grenadiers and riflemen of the 5th Battalion rushed from their sap and entered the fortress. The guns had done their work well and the holding of the barricade had been costly to the Huns. Only two live Germans were taken and these were hurried back prisoners to our lines. The redoubt was a chaos of splintered tree trunks, sand-bags, and broken wire. Fortunately wire connected with German land mines was found and cut in time, and the Canadians proceeded to place their own mines. The remnants of the famous barricade were blown up and, but for one brief period, it always remained a Canadian post. Each night a machine-gun party would garrison the place and play havoc with what German patrols came near; but early one evening, about a week later, the Germans managed to again get possession. The news spread rapidly in the Canadian trench and willing volunteers stalked through the ditch, finally driving out the Huns. One Regina sergeant, crawling forward, actually climbed one of the great trees near the barricade, although laden with a bag of grenades, and from his vantage-point sprinkled the Hun garrison with bombs, scattering them until his comrades arrived and killed them or took them prisoners.
During the remainder of the month the Canadians were kept busy in maintaining the line. It was a typical French-Flanders winter and the water gained headway in the trenches despite continuous pumping. Dug-outs crumbled in and altogether the first taste of winter in the line which the Canadians experienced was enough to destroy the morale of the finest troops. The sector they were holding was a long one and few battalions could be spared in support or in rest billets at one time. Six-day tours were the regular order. But in the towns behind there grew up a system which helped to offset these hardships and which freshened up the fighting infantry even with the shortest rest. Bailleul, Dranoutre, Locre, and Neuve Eglise, although battered and still under shell-fire, became little havens for the men weary of the trenches. The versatile engineers rigged up hot baths for the muddied men from the line ; battalion laundries which dried out, even if they did not clean the men’s clothes, sprang up ; and for the first time cinemas were started, although the films were few and far between. One Canadian brigadier got special leave to London and loaded up with thousands of feet of film, which ” red tape ” forced him to smuggle into his lines ; but he got his precious load through successfully, although he suffered a reprimand for his temerity. But the scheme was soon copied all along the line. It was not all recreation for the men, though, and hard training kept them from getting soft.
Artillery bombardments and nightly patrols were the order in the line, but as the Christmas season approached the Germans manifested a willingness to fraternize. They sometimes showed themselves on their parapets, but they were summarily forced to the conclusion that there was no fraternizing coming from our side. On Christmas orders were issued that if the Germans showed themselves we were at first to fire over their heads and then turn the machine guns loose. The first burst of fire decided the enemy and he contented himself with yelling in English from the safety of his trenches, “Happy Christmas, Canadians ! For the love of Mike can’t you keep quiet!”
Christmas in billets, in spite of lowering skies and a vista of battered buildings, was cheery. There were plum puddings from Canada, fruit and cigars, and parcels from home to add savour to the mid-day meal. Turkey was at a premium, but many an officers’ mess sported it. There were sing-songs and dances and a concert with divisional talent the beginning of those divisional concert parties which afterwards became famous all over the Western front and in many of the larger towns of France. And then the celebration of the Prince of Peace ended abruptly and the time of working parties and fatigues began again.
One of the typical Christmas experiences in the line was that of the 13th (Montreal) Battalion. At dusk the Highlanders sent a patrol through the German wire. It crawled along the ditches of the Messines-Stinking Farm road and was out under the German parapets for nearly four hours. One lonely Hun was playing Christmas tunes on a cornet; others could be heard in altercations over games of cards. Some were singing German carols. From our own lines was wafted the music of a gramophone. To the right an-other patrol was unlucky enough to get into a fight in which several Huns were wounded by our bombs; and mingling with the music came the groans of the wounded.
From Christmas to the New Year there were several severe patrol fights ; but no amount of scrapping could make the German forego celebrating the occasion. Just before midnight, large numbers of German flares, red and green and golden, shot up from the German trench, and, although the full-throated German festivities could not take place, they gave vent to their feelings by singing in part-song Die Wacht am Rhein. It was taken up along the whole line and sounded in the distance like a lonesome sigh for Home and Fatherland. At two places, which could be traced by the sound, full brass bands played thunderous Wagner. Our artillery did not bother them; but the watchful Intelligence officers noted the location of two new battalion headquarters.