The Second Battle Of Ypres – The Companies That Kept Touch

On Thursday evening, April 22nd, the 2nd and 3rd Battalions 1 had been summoned to divisional head-quarters at Brielen and then proceeded on a night march across the canal and reached the vicinity of the St. Julien road near Wieltje, when their commanders reported to General Turner at the 3rd Brigade head-quarters. They got orders to take up positions and entrench, the 3rd near Wieltje and the 2nd about half a mile further along towards St. Julien. The line of the Canadian front at this time (between 11 and 12 p. m.) ran from St. Julien past 3rd Brigade headquarters and was thicker where the 10th and 16th were forming to attack St. Julien Wood. It was continued by part of the 14th, which was on the right rear of the 16th, and by Geddes’ detachment, which was taking up a position further to the left. Behind this front line the 2nd and 3rd took post as reserves. Enduring the usual experiences of the reserves at that period, the 3rd remained in this position with A and B Companies in advance and C and D in support behind them until about 4 a. m. of the 23rd, when orders were received by ‘phone from headquarters to send two companies in haste to hold a line from St. Julien to the wood.

Acting in accordance with this order, C and D Companies, under Major Kirkpatrick, took the road to St. Julien and swung to the left up a lane that branches off to the north-west from the edge of the village. Deploying off this route into two lines, these companies, D on the left and C on the right, proceeded to make an attack, according to the then most approved tactics of open warfare, across the unwooded country between the wood and the village. What the attack lacked in artillery support was made up in gallantry; and the line was pushed forward a considerable distance and a position secured in some shallow trenches believed to have been formerly occupied by the French. The enemy having proceeded to dig in about one hundred yards away, the two companies again attacked and occupied this further position.

Now always between the Staff and the battalion (and especially the company) officer there is a natural and perpetual antagonism in all ways of thinking. Says the Staff officer, ” Report on this “; thinks the battalion officer, ” I have something better to do than writing reports.” Says the Staff officer, ” Your men have acted riotously “; says the company officer, ” My men are angels.” And nowhere is this difference in thinking more manifest than in the stricken field. Says the battalion officer, ” Is that the enemy in front? Then me for him, ding-dong! ” Then comes message from the Staff —” How are you connected on your left? ” or, ” You must maintain touch on your right.” Well, every yard the two companies had made across the open was in the very teeth of destruction, said teeth being called shrapnel, high explosives, machine gun, and rifle. Officers and men went down and by 6 o’clock that morning the survivors looked on the results as one gazes on a long day’s work. It was an advance worthy of any troops in the Empire.

But every yard won had widened the gap between St. Julien and the right flank of C Company until now this gap was getting big enough to pass a deployed battalion — several hundred yards of gap. So along about 9.30 the Staff, not unappreciative of good fighting, but still thinking of connection and touch, sends a message to Major Kirkpatrick.

” Germans reported reinforcing wood. Our artillery is opening on them. Take all steps to strengthen your position and watch right from wood to St. Julien. Dig in and hold on to your position. Apply Colonel Loomis as to troops on right.”

To dig in and hold on was simple, and, as Clausewitz says, ” the simple is none the less difficult.” But the other part of the order was neither simple nor easy. So Captain Streight let loose Lieutenant Jarvis, who had already that day shown resourcefulness in breaking up a nest of snipers, and who now volunteered to take his platoon and make the connection with St. Julien. Accordingly Jarvis and his men proceeded to cover the ground and run the gauntlet of the German snipers by crawling on their bellies towards St. Julien. At regular intervals they planted a rifleman as one would drop seed — after the fashion of a certain Greek who planted dragon’s-teeth that sprang up armed men. But Jarvis’ supply of dragon’s-teeth ran short before he covered the gap to the village. So he proceeded alone and reported himself and his tidings to Colonel Loomis.

Now Loomis of the 13th at his headquarters was much worried and, as it were, waiting for the roof to fall in. Three companies of his battalion were in the most perilous predicament imaginable ; the remaining company he had sent to their aid. The situation on his right was more than precarious ; from his left he had no news except the rattle and crash of uncertain battle.

He conceived a great admiration for Jarvis’ exploit and lent him all the men he had left about his head-quarters — a few pioneers and his orderly room staff — in all a dozen.

With connection made in this way and maintained somehow, the companies fought on — even made an-other advance and repelled several. But St. Julien was falling and a connecting file with men from five to ten paces apart is not a flank guard. The messages to and fro — reassuring ones from Colonel Rennie and cheerful ones from Kirkpatrick — became less and less hopeful. At 11.35 a. m. on Saturday the companies were holding on nicely. At 12.20 they reported : ” Germans attacking in considerable numbers on our right moving from north to south on St. Julien.” At 12.35 it was : ” I fear Streight’s right flank will be turned. Enemy has secured all front trenches in St. Julien. We will drop back our right flank and hang on.” At 1 o’clock the Brigade Staff (as might be expected, running true to Staff form) sends, ” Do not lose touch with St. Julien. Hang on. A counter-attack is being made on your right.” At 2.03 the companies were ordered to ” retire on general headquarters here.” The platoon on the right was withdrawn first — two unwounded men reaching Colonel Rennie.

The next messages came from German prison camps. Shelled all day, repeatedly attacked in front, outflanked on the right, then on the left, surrounded, out of am-munition, and finally overpowered in hand-to-hand assaults, the companies continued the fight until 4.30 p. m., when the wearied survivors laid down their arms amid the compliments of an admiring German officer.

We may here mention what became of the battalion which, having despatched C and D Companies on their mission near St. Julien at 4.30 on the morning of the 23rd, became thereby technically, and later, as we have seen, actually the 3rd Battalion less two companies. At 8.30 on the same morning came the order to move two companies (A and B) and the Machine-Gun Detachment to the general headquarters line of trenches and to the left of the 3rd Brigade headquarters.

This latter headquarters was in a vicinity which on some maps of the period bears the cheery title ” Shell-trap Farm.” In this position the two companies maintained themselves with the vicissitudes normal to this battle. They got some relief to their overcharged feelings by industriously sniping parties of the Germans who were passing from St. Julien Wood to various trenches in its vicinity. There was one particular gate through which some of the Germans had to run the gauntlet, and this for quite a few led down into the chambers of death.

About 4.30 a. m. on the 24th the enemy opened a terrifie bombardment from the east and north-east of the 3rd Brigade headquarters and the farm began to ac-quire its name. This was no mere flurry. For at 6 o’clock the shelling was still most persistent, like rain that has set in for all day. About this time the Staff began to make preparations for the eventuality of having to hold the general headquarters line and shrink the salient.

Meanwhile, as the 3rd did not seem to be doing enough, orders were sent to Colonel Rennie to despatch ten men and two officers to reinforce Colonel Loomis on the Fortuin road south-east of St. Julien. The party under Captain Morrison and Lieutenant Curry duly arrived and fell in with a detachment of the 14th, with whom later they returned in time to escape capture.

The position of the two companies A and B was as far as they could judge flanked on the left by about 1,200 yards of open ground without any visible trenches or supports. But there is now a tradition in the 3rd that they were not considered to be sufficiently exposed and that the despatch which Captain Muntz, commanding B Company, was reading when he fell mortally wounded, was an order to carry his company further forward — an order which his death luckily forestalled. Captain Allan, commander of A Company, was likewise wounded, but stayed on duty and lived to command the battalion.

On the evening of the 25th the 3rd Brigade was relieved by British troops, but the 3rd Battalion was ordered to remain until other troops came up. This it did until dusk of the 26th, when it was relieved by the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

Ordinarily the name of the unit that relieves your own is one of the details of campaigning that dims in the memory with the lapse of days. But the survivors of the 3rd remember the advent of the Argyll and Sutherlands as the most beautiful of actual war-pictures. For without preparation they attacked towards St. Julien Wood and staged the attack with superb and punctilious regularity. The expression ” as if on parade,” sometimes applied to well performed manoeuvres, is no more adequate to convey the picture than would the word ” pretty ” be good enough for Juno the Queen of Heaven. It was marvellous to see these splendid Highlanders spring forward and simultaneously drop, fire, spring up again, and go forward to the whistle of an officer wearing a monocle. Up and up they went, with casualties falling here and there under the fire of the German machine guns, until they had covered half the distance to the wood. Thence, the attack having failed, they retired, leaving more casualties, but not abating one whit of the snap and regularity of their movements. The 3rd stood in their trenches and ad-mired. Yes, because the deed was admirable and even in a cynical world not without a sort of usefulness. For the Germans looking on must have felt the shabbiness of their own new warfare and wondered at the force that could make men die so splendidly.