The Second Battle Of Ypres – The Anabasis Of The Mad Fourth And The Fighting First

On the afternoon of April 22nd, 1915, the 4th and the 1st Battalions as part of the 1st Brigade were luxuriating in their quarters as Army Reserve. They had marched the day before along a stone-block road through Poperinghe and towards the sound of the guns at Ypres. The 4th were comfortably billeted in Vlamertinghe and the 1st occupied a hut cantonment about a thousand yards down the road to the south. In those days our battalions had no concert companies or opera troupes or moving pictures; but neither did they pass their days in melancholy and their nights in lamentation. The institution of war bread was then unknown in France and here and there a soldier could be seen threading his way along the streets of Vlamertinghe with a long French loaf under his arm as the basis for one of those improvised feasts that linger longer in the memory than tactical details and the burden of battle. General Mercer had arranged, too, for battalion sports in his brigade; and they went off with much zest according to programme like some event carefully trained for and not a mere interlude held in the shadow of impending fate. The 1st followed their sports with their usual game of Association football, which to the soldiers of the old 1st Division was as sacred an observance as the National Anthem. To their right the heavy guns of two nations were mingling their spawn of annihilation on the debatable slopes of Hill 60. Diagonally to the north-east the towers of Ypres were shaking into piteous ruin under the concussion of prodigious shells which cast up a thick black dust. And then began an in-comprehensible tumult and hurly-burly to the north about the place where the lines of Old France were known to join those of her sometime colony of Canada — a tumult that marked the opening of a new and atrocious method of warfare and a tumult out of which arose the new martial reputation of a young nation which for the moment seemed to keep the roof of West-ern Europe from tumbling in; but a tumult which added to the thundering uproar of Hill 60 and the crashing downfall of Ypres did not cause the flicker of an eyelid in that game of Association football. For a moment attention wandered to an aeroplane twisting its tricky way among the puffs of shrapnel. But that in itself was a game — an event of sport and thereby justly noticeable and not a mere affair of war. The soldiers of the 1st and 4th played out their sports and took their evening’s rest in due course, save for some officers and other alert souls who were curious about an odd exodus that was gradually filling the fields and roads about Vlamertinghe.

First a few French Moroccan soldiers came across the fields calling ” Fini! Fini! Asphyxié!” Then there developed a long stream of Belgian civilian fugitives panting down the main road from Ypres, with all the evidences of that mingling panic and thrift which makes the Flemish villager run for his life after waiting to the last minute to save his possessions. For both sexes were loaded with all the household be-longings they could carry, and some of the women and children slightly wounded by shell fragments were still carrying something out of the wreck. A little later some French gunners, riding their artillery horses, rattled in with the first coherent news of a disaster.

The 1st Colonial Division had been forced to leave their trenches by some kind of poisonous gas, and the Germans were breaking through a gap on the left of the Canadian division on a five-mile front. About seven in the evening a French lieutenant came painfully in to the headquarters of Major Belson’s company of the 4th in Vlamertinghe. His story that out of his company of one hundred and fifty men one hundred and forty had been asphyxiated by a poison gas and his own manifest agony from the same cause, stirred his hearers to a new wrath against the enemy. On that day the Germans for a fleeting tactical advantage made an application of the chemistry of murder that, turned against herself, has cost Germany some tens of thousands of her sons, and an application of fright-fulness that, instead of producing fear, has incurred for her a hatred that will endure for generations.

That night about one o’clock the two battalions fell in quietly, passed out of Vlamertinghe, and took the road north-east through Brielen to the Ypres Canal, which was crossed on the bridge of boats at about 4 o’clock just as day was breaking. At the cross-roads just before this bridge was reached was the squat-built stone estaminet immortalized as the headquarters of the 1st Brigade. Here, listening to the heavy shells rocketting by as they searched the Brielen road for our imaginary reinforcements, sat General Mercer during most of the day, smoking a pipe with a large bowl and tranquilly assuring anybody that was reporting on his way to the rear that the Canadians were all connected up. While to help out the illusion his brigade-major, Hayter, stood by and used large technical words to impress the wayfarer with a sense of imperturbable security. But at this hour of the morning the brigadier had not taken to his pipe, and the padre, Major Beatty, was taking advantage of the halt to hearten up the men with appropriate sayings out of Holy Writ.

If the Canadians were not connected up that day it was through no lack of diligence on the part of the 1st Brigade. A slim scout-officer, Lieutenant Bennett, was despatched on a bicycle to St. Jean to report to Colonel Geddes the arrival of the two Canadian battalions at their position and inquire of him where his left flank rested and when he intended to counter-attack. Bennett reported back the position of Geddes’ left flank and said that the colonel had about 1,500 men and would attack at about 5.30.

He was then despatched along the Ypres-Boesinghe road to try to locate the headquarters of the disintegrated French division. Proceeding up this road about a mile and a half, he came upon some elements of French troops who, in a very discouraged and de-moralized condition, were entrenching in a perfunctory manner along the west bank of the canal. But he could not obtain any information from their commander as to when they would be in readiness to attack. Indeed he returned with small hopes of assistance from that quarter.

The battalions, having advanced across the canal, arrived in the vicinity of the Pilkem road, near where some well-built farm buildings were situated at a bend in the road. Here at first they were ordered to dig in with their entrenching tools — the 4th in advance and the 1st to their left rear. – This order, given in anticipation of a retirement of the 3rd Brigade, was can-celled in about half an hour, and about 5.30 Colonel Birchall, commanding the 4th, summoned his company commanders to an old German trench and directed an immediate attack.

In the ancient world they called it an anabasis or going-up when the ten thousand Greeks proceeded to go through the Central Empire of that day — the Persian — with small regard for proportion of numbers or assistance on their flanks and with amazing unconcern for what might lie in their way. The going up this day of the 4th and 1st along the Pilkem road was in the nature of an anabasis. There was the flavour of Old Greek audacity about this movement. For on the right were the Middlesex forming part of Geddes’ detachment; behind was the canal with two guns on its bank; in front were the unknown forces of the Germans. And with a splendid pedantry Colonel Birchall fixed his left flank on the Pilkem road to join the French where no French were. It was as if working out a tactical scheme with skeleton forces on a limited training area, where you have a field marked with a sign ” Out of Bounds ” and in your scheme you mark it ” occupied by Allied troops.”

Only the ground to the left had a building or two and was not out of bounds to the Germans. They had the buildings occupied with machine guns, which worked sad havoc among the Canadians ; but at length our two guns on the west bank of the canal found these buildings and set them ablaze. However, the choice lay with Birchall to scatter his scanty force in a mere skirmishing line reaching to the canal or to organize it in depth and strike heavily in one place. He chose the narrower front and the result justified his choice.

The ground over which the 4th made their attack sloped gently upwards to the Pilkem Ridge, which stands about thirty feet above the lower fields, with a fine field of fire and unobstructed observation for the artillery and rifles of the occupants of the ridge. To the right of the Pilkem road lay first the field which was afterwards called the ” Field with the Manure Piles,” because near the road the thrifty farmer had erected a row of piles of sods and manure cut square with fastidious precision. Not a few Canadians seeking temporary cover behind these found them better ranging marks than protection. Across the north boundary of this field ran a cross-road from a chapel on the Pilkem road. Behind this road lay a ditch one of the few good breathing spots on the way up the slope.

Beyond the road lay wide farms and in one place an intersecting thick hedge which caused the Canadians many casualties. On top of the ridge itself lay one of those typical old-time Flemish farmhouses with the courtyard in the rear surrounded by the stables and hollowed out to collect the generous heap of manure on which the Gallic rooster struts and crows.

The two leading companies of the 4th advanced each on a two-platoon front, the remaining platoons in sup-port, and were followed with precision by the remaining two companies in similar formation. After them the companies of the 1st in succession were led along a shallow ditch in the rear of the ” Field with the Manure Piles,” turned to the left and copied the precise formation of the 4th. The whole movement of the two battalions was as of an expert teller peeling one by one the bills off a roll. The German artillery was well served. Their shrapnel was as the hail and their high explosives from the field guns, fired at low trajectory, tore out of the sod strips the size of a hall rug, pulverizing everything within the strip. Major Kelly of the 4th was seen to fall wounded and never seen again — the stripped sod his sole evidence and epitaph. Mean-while even more than the artillery the machine gun and sniper took their toll of the advancing rushes of the Canadians.

Backed only by two guns and alternating short rushes with halts, when under cover of their superb musketry the thinned firing line was fed by the sup-ports, the attackers made their way up and still up, forty yards at a lift, until about eleven o’clock, when they had reached a line some four hundred yards from the summit of the ridge. At this point Birchall, having come up to the front line of supports, thought the going too heavy for the present advantage and ordered the men to dig in and await a more favourable moment when the fire should have died down.

Even thus far the price had been heavy. Among the earliest to fall was Captain Brant, a dauntless descendant of the famous line of Mohawk chiefs that fought with England in her wars of the American Revolution and the War of 1812, who thus bore testimony to the continuance of Britain’s oldest alliance in the New World — that with the Confederacy of the Six Nations.

Until well on in the afternoon Colonel Birchall remained with the firing line. Conspicuous on account of his great height, his ” British Warm,” and the light cane he carried, he kept walking up and down, cheering the men and encouraging them to make further advances. About four o’clock he thought the opportune moment had arrived and sent back a message that as the fire was less intense another attack, he thought, would be advisable. Unless advised to the contrary, he would attack and was asking for supports.

By this time some English and Scottish battalions were showing up in the rear and a message from brigade headquarters stated that the French promised support on the left. So, shortly before five o’clock, the 4th, by this time pretty well mixed with the 1st, made for the thick hedge with Birchall leading. It was in breaking through this hedge that the heaviest casualties fell to the German machine guns. However, break through they did and reached a position about eighty yards from the enemy, when the order was given to prepare to charge. At this point Birchall him-self paid the penalty of his smiling disregard of danger and fell pierced by three bullets. His adjutant, Captain Jack Glover, had already been killed, and his second-in-command, Lieut.-Colonel Buell, disabled, and the companies were for the most part without officers. Nevertheless, with both flanks for the moment in the air, the battalions kept going and took the ridge.

We advanced,” writes Major G. H. Wilkinson, then a captain commanding No. 3 Company of the 1st, ” as far as a little old farm I don’t remember its name on the top of the Pilkem Ridge, which we took at the point of the bayonet, surprising Fritz somewhat, because I don’t imagine he thought we were able to do it. The centre of that old farm and the stink-pot in the middle of the courtyard was a regular shambles. I saw more wounded and dead men in a radius of about fifty yards than I think I ever saw before or hope to see again. It was just before dusk when we succeeded in taking this place and as the fire immediately or about this time diminished somewhat in intensity we were able to look after some of our wounded and get them back.” It is of interest to note in this connection that the battalion bombers of the 4th attended to the wounded as the stretcher-bearers had all been killed.

That night the Canadians, relieved by the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and others, were taken to the left to dig in and link up with what was left of the French between the Pilkem road and the canal. This position they held for another twenty-four hours, twice during that time showing their teeth by making feint attacks. At nightfall they were relieved. The 4th were taken across the canal and at roll-call there responded 3 officers and 127 men.

The 1st having lost only about half their officers were thrown into the mêlée in the vicinity of Wieltje, which during that night was, as our inform-ant says, ” almost everybody’s property, sometimes ours and sometimes Fritz’s; but the morning found us entrenched in front of Wieltje.” Next day saw them in another curious episode at Fortuin, when an English battalion of light infantry very green troops just out from England and wholly untuned to the snarl of shrapnel and the wheesh-pong of high explosives broke and fled. What happened then and some subsequent proceedings we give in the words of an officer who took part in the action.

” They really seemed to be frightened to death, running for their lives. As far as I could see, there weren’t very many of them hurt, and Colonel Hill and Colonel Beecher, and several of our officers attempted to stop the stampede as much as possible by getting out in the road and holding them up at the point of a revolver. This we more or less succeeded in doing, and then went in and took their place with them in the line which they held. That we held until again that night about midnight or perhaps a little earlier, when we were moved again through Wieltje and off to the left, with instructions to line the Ypres Canal, near Bridges No. 1 and No. 2, and defend the bridgehead at all costs. We stayed there, if I remember rightly, about forty-eight hours, during which time we had one or two scares, one being given us by receiving the impression from the French troops in front of us and to our left, that they were being attacked so severely that they would have to retire. In fact, it looked, one time, as though they were retiring, but on further investigation by an officers’ patrol, consisting of Lieutenant Brookes and the writer [Major Wilkinson], during which time we were made prisoners by our own troops, we found that our scare was caused by the peculiar manner they had of sending out their ration and relief parties for supplies. Two or three attacks were made by the French in front of us, supported by us, during which time we lost pretty heavily through shell-fire.

” At any rate, after about two days of this sort of thing, we were again taken up the old Pilkem road, at midnight, when the whole of the Canadian division moved to the extreme front, and dug in again that night. We found, however, that the corps had been so badly cut up, and needed rest so badly that they were taken out for a rest, and marched back to the Vlamertinghe huts, and we stayed for another day or two in support of the front line, during which time we had another scare that the Germans were breaking through the lines, when we again went up to the front line, and dug in just in the rear of Wieltje, supporting and providing an escort for some field artillery. However, the Boche didn’t get as far as he thought he was going to get, and after about twenty-four hours of this sort of thing, we again retired to the Vlamertinghe huts, which had mostly been destroyed, by this time, by shell-fire, and we dug in, in the open field.

” This whole business lasted, if I remember rightly, about fourteen days, when we were pulled out of the line entirely, and taken back to the town of Bailleul for reinforcements.”

Thus from the steadfast bearing of these two battalions during so many and varied vicissitudes of battle we get a clear understanding of that characteristic Canadian fortitude which was at that date considered an unexpected phenomenon, but became later on in the war a fixed element of military calculation. For we see it mattered not whether a battalion was bled to the white all in one day like the 4th or was bled freely and taken out and put in and taken out and put in like the 1st so that the exhaustion of fighting in one place was relieved by marching to fight in another place ; the battalion still formidably lay in the path of the enemy. Where there were officers they led their men, and where there were no longer officers the men led them-selves almost as if pleased at the responsibility. It was a very democratic army, that old 1st Division, and all the more so because in respecting their officers the men did not have to distinguish between a cold respect for the uniform and that warmer regard men have for the neighbour and fellow-townsman who has taken them to the war.