The Second Battle Of Ypres – The Canadian Gunners

During the years before the war no class of officers in Canada’s neglected militia were more enthusiastic and study-sharp than the artillery. This was perhaps due to the intricate fascination of their branch of the art of war. An infantryman was apt to limit his tactical studies to a few set forms of attack and defence and then concentrate the energies of his leisure time either on close-order movements or on the lure of the rifle-range. Thus in a few years he became recognized either as a ” Drill ” or as a “Pot-Hunter “; just as before the war a man would be either a Grit or a Tory, but could hardly be both.

In the mounted corps of the militia tactical studies were not unknown; as prior to the advent of the aeroplane the duties of reconnaissance presupposed the use of the horse. But the notion dies hard that the first duties of a mounted man are to learn to ride well and care for his mount. So that there was not much leisure for theoretical studies when so much practice was needed to keep one’s seat and not ride like an infantry major.

Nor did our batteries fail us during the bad hours in the Ypres salient. They were outnumbered, it is true, and in the absence at La Bassée of our own heavies were trying to make the 18-pounder speak up against everything from the German 77 millimetre and captured French 75 millimetre (all firing shells of about the same calibre — three inches) up to those monstrous engines whose missiles were tearing to shreds the Cathedral and Cloth Hall of Ypres. Indeed when we seek for reasons for the lumbering hesitancy of the German advance, we must in fairness say that to the redoubtable musketry of the Canadian infantry were added the accurate ranging and effective impertinence of Canadian field-guns that refused to be silenced.

The 2nd Brigade Canadian Field Artillery, under Lieut.-Colonel J. J. Creelman, when the great on-fall began on Thursday, April 22nd, 1915, had their guns posted southerly from Fortuin with a view to the most likely attack being upon the lines occupied by the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade on the Gravenstafel Ridge. For from Roulers to Ypres lay the most direct road. So these gunners were covering the trenches of the 8th and the 5th and in addition a company of the Buffs on the left of the 28th Division.

Under Colonel Creelman’s command were the 2nd Battery (less one section), 3rd Battery (less one section), 5th Battery (less one section), 6th Battery, 7th Battery, and 8th Battery (less one section), making sixteen guns in all. He started the action with a quite moderate supply of ammunition, about 2,800 rounds in the gun-pits and about 1,200 rounds in the ammunition column at Wieltje. Before the end of the 24th he had expended some twelve thousand rounds, partly borrowed from the neighbouring British divisions, but chiefly brought up under difficulties by the energetic commander of the Brigade Ammunition Column, Captain Eakins.

With these shells the gunners made the take-off of a rush difficult for the Germans in the trenches opposite the 8th and the 5th. As often as the artillery saw the signs of any massing of infantry for the purpose of migrating in the direction of the Canadians, they would drench the German parapets with shrapnel and the movement would be cancelled. Time and again this prevented assaults from being pressed home and enabled the infantry to husband their ammunition for the few occasions when the enemy were able to get across.

About 4 o’clock in the afternoon of the 24th the business of the front companies of the 13th and 15th Battalions had been at length wound up and the German infantry were beginning to feel their way in behind the left flank of the 8th Battalion. To check this Lieutenant Geary and a section of the 6th Battery were ordered forward to a semi-covered position on a fold of the Gravenstafel Ridge. Geary performed this task, retiring only when his ammunition gave out, and by his effective gunnery forced the Germans to temporarily forsake their objective. The respite gained enabled Colonel Lipsett to complete the movement of refusing his left flank.

Towards the evening of the 24th a peril began to accumulate that threatened not only the rear of the 2nd Infantry Brigade, but also Creelman’s gunners and the whole rear of the 28th (Imperial) Division. This was nothing less than a massed attack being prepared to take off from St. Julien Wood. Between this and the Canadians guns were mere details of a badly cut up Territorial battalion; and these were withdrawn at dark to Wieltje. Our artillery accepted the emergency and served out an iron ration to the hungry Hun.

Two guns of the 6th Battery, under Lieut.-Colonel H. G. McLeod, and two guns of the 2nd Battery, under Lieut.-Colonel C. H. McLaren, were withdrawn from their pits and laid in the open upon the line of woods. Orders were sent to Lieutenant J. S. N. McPherson, who was in command of an outlying section of the 8th Battery, to do the same. Soon Germans in long lines emerged from the line of trees and started across the open, each man on the sky-line and silhouetted against the red glow of the setting sun. It was the most ideal target any of us had ever seen. Every man at every gun saw his objective. The order to fire was given and in a very few minutes two lines of Germans ceased to exist. Up to dark no third line had attempted to leave the woods.”

That night the 2nd Artillery Brigade withdrew to a new line at Potijze. The reasons are thus set forth in Colonel Creelman’s report:

” About 10 p. m. our supply of ammunition was al-most exhausted. German infantry were digging in only a few hundred yards away, with no British or Canadian infantry between us and the enemy. No reinforcements were in sight, or reported to be on the way.

” We were under heavy rifle and shell fire. Several billets were on fire, lighting up the sky. We had not received any orders or information from superior authorities for over twenty-four hours and conditions elsewhere were unknown. I accordingly, very reluctantly, gave the order to the brigade to retire to behind Wieltje, which we did after I had spoken to Lieut.-Colonel Lipsett by telephone and regretfully explained the reason for our forced withdrawal. As we moved out the large thatched-roof farmhouse occupied by the 5th and 8th Batteries as a billet was in flames, the result of incendiary shells.

” The retirement of the brigade was effected with very little loss. We were able to avoid the heavily shelled main roads as we had previously made a rough cross-country road by removing a few fences and hedges and filling in a few ditches in preparation for a forced retirement. The following morning, April 25th, the brigade was in action near Potijze.”

It may seem a strange thing to say, but it is often a great relief to infantry to have their own artillery shelled. When they hear high overhead a whirring like that of a trolley in a factory or like a child’s express-wagon on a cobble pavement, they know this six-inch fellow is on a visit to the guns, and not, like the last one, about to thunder against their own door. It is selfish but comforting.

Nevertheless the shells that rumble into the back-ground, and then ominously fall silent for a long drawn moment, — followed by a crash, — often, in the language of the trenches, have the names of gunners written on them. During April and May, 1915, the 2nd Artillery Brigade had around two hundred casualties (including seven officers) ; and there were four hundred horses to replace. Before the operations were completed both the commanding officer and adjutant were in hospital.

The movements of the 1st and 3rd Artillery Brigades are not so easily followed as those of the 2nd, being more complex, and in the case of the 3rd still more hazardous. The 1st Artillery Brigade, under Lieut.-Colonel (afterwards Major-General) Morrison, on the afternoon of April 22nd was moving from Poperinghe via Vlamertinghe towards Ypres. By the time when the action of Colonel Birchall up the Pilkem road was commenced, early on the 23rd, there were in position to help him only a composite battery of four guns composed of the left sections of the 2nd and 3rd Batteries. As the situation became clear that there were no French batteries covering this sector Lieut.-Colonel Morrison began energetically to concentrate his brigade, and orders were immediately sent to the 1st and 4th Batteries of the 1st Brigade C. F. A. to move up from Poperinghe with their ammunition echelons. By 4 p. m. we had in action the entire 1st Brigade (less one section each of the 2nd and 3rd Batteries), to which was added one section from the 5th Battery, 2nd Brigade, and one section from the 11th Battery, 3rd Brigade — a total of sixteen guns. The line here was afterwards strengthened by several batteries of French artillery as well as several batteries of Royal Field Artillery. Our guns remained in action, covering Pilkem Ridge and Hill 29 to the right of the ridge, from April 23rd to May 9th. The average expenditure of ammunition amounted to fifty rounds per gun per day; the total casualties in the 1st Brigade in this battle numbered one hundred and forty officers and men. Lieut.-Colonel (afterwards Brigadier-General) Dodds, writing more particularly of the work of the composite battery, says :

” During the entire seventeen days in action, the original composite battery position, at the bend of the canal west of the Brielen cross-road, was never found by the enemy and at times on the 23rd April one section was supporting the French whereas the other section was assisting the Canadian infantry. Many attempts were made by the French infantry to capture the re-doubt ` Hill 29,’ without success. At the same time several successful attacks on the enemy line east of Pilkem took place, but the superiority of the German heavy artillery at this time made it impossible for us to retain any gain made and the line on this front was practically the same on the evening of the 9th May, when we were released, as it was on the morning of April 23rd. The ammunition supply never failed us, although at times the entire supply consisted of high-explosive shells, no shrapnel being available; on other days the reverse was the case and only shrapnel was issued. The gunnery was excellent and many buildings were destroyed and set on fire; the Pilkem windmill was blown up by the shell-fire of the composite 2nd and 3rd Battery commanded by Captain D. N. White.”

We have seen what an exciting position was occupied by the 10th Battery in advance of St. Julien. The 9th Battery had even more troubles. The battery were commandeered by General Turner by direct order to Major Macdougall, the commander. Staff work was somewhat disorganized in the evening hours of April 22nd, and Colonel Mitchell, in command of the 3rd Artillery Brigade, was not notified of this move. No precautions were taken for escorts; indeed no infantry could have been spared for such a purpose. The result was that the 9th were very much exposed to fire at effective rifle range. The Germans working out to the front of the wood shot some of the 9th gunners out of their seats with machine guns.

Accordingly the 9th moved to the left front of St. Jean and kept their guns playing for the remainder of the night on the ridge about a thousand yards away. This spot was not a lucky one. About 8 a. m. on the 23rd the enemy got a direct hit on a small dug-out and put two gun crews out of action. The remainder of the men were driven from their guns, which had to be left in the open all day; but were successfully retrieved at night. This was as near as any Canadian guns came to being lost in the war.

It may appear in the foregoing pages of this chapter that very little mention has been made of official records or of the higher officers, such as Major-General Alderson and his staff or Brigadier-General Burstall, the Canadian Artillery chief. This is not by way of meaning that such officers failed in any respect of their duty. Their part will no doubt appear when the Official History of the War makes its appearance, after the sifting of the reports from army, corps, divisional, and battalion commanders.

Nevertheless, as the shell-power of modern guns has rendered first-hand observation increasingly out of fashion for higher officers, the reports of such officers have become less approximate and more conjectural. Few things in official reports will be found in their details to be exactly as they happened, because in many instances the men who saw did not live to describe the sight; and no systematic endeavour was made to get the details from survivors insignificant in rank but senior in evidence. It therefore appeared to the present writer to be in the interest of true history, while not neglecting such official documents as are now avail-able, to supplement his narrative by the cross-examination of battalion officers, non-commissioned officers, and privates actually and manually engaged and most of them casualties in the fights.

The author was the more encouraged in this line of investigation by having heard no less eminent an authority than General Smith-Dorrien, in addressing the officers and non-commissioned officers of the 1st Canadian Brigade early in April, 1915, say to them : ” All the battles thus far in this war have been soldiers’ battles.” Certainly nothing in the Second Battle of Ypres or the Battle of Festubert would have caused the general to vary his candid verdict.

This then is less the Chapter of the General or Colonel than the Book of the Battalion; and not of the battalion as a tactical unit whereof one says ” it,” but as a plural word comprising numbers that gloriously diminished as the actions progressed.