The Second Battle Of Ypres – The Highland Spear-head

The Second Battle Of Ypres – The Highland Spear-head

( Originally Published 1919 )

On Thursday, April 22nd, the 15th Battalion, as we have seen, were holding the line to the left of the 8th. On their own left the 13th continued the line to where it joined the Algerian division of the French. To the 13th was entrusted the responsibility for the main road which runs through Poelcapelle and St. Julien to Ypres. Of all the Canadian battalions in the Ypres salient these two, in the event of a breach any-where in the line, stood the least chance of escape. Probably no two battalions had less notion of escaping.

As a local reserve there lay in or close by St. Julien, Major Alexander’s company of the 15th, two platoons of No. 3 Company of the 13th, and a company or half company of the 14th.

In the event of serious attack the two battalions had with these reserves to make good some twenty-five hundred yards of most awkward salient, with little hope of immediate relief. As trouble might be carried in through any of the entrances to Ypres from Langemarck to the Menin road, the remaining four battalions of the 2nd and 3rd Brigades had been echeloned to meet whatever case might arise: the 7th near Fortuin; the 14th, part near St. Jean and part near Wieltje between the Roulers and Broodseinde roads ; and the 10th and 16th close to Ypres. But it would not have been easy to make a workable distribution of these reserve battalions with a view to a quick reinforcement of the salient occupied by the 13th and 15th. They were so far up that if attacked they must rely on their supply of intrinsic Scotch stubbornness for some hours before help could arrive. As events proved they ran out of other things first — ammunition, food, and water.

The French on the left were not of the type that had turned the tide at the Marne and afterwards revised the world’s idea of the typical Frenchman by their stolid holding of Verdun. Those in front of Langemarck were French Colonials, Turcos and Zouaves, men of all complexions except light ones, breezy, flamboyant, stagey fellows, flash-in-the-pan fire-eaters; good enough to storm a position; less reliable to keep one. The Germans selected wisely the theatre for the most atrocious of their criminal exploits. Nowhere in the Allied lines could they have found a group. more prone to a sudden depression or less fitted to resist an unheard of and mysterious form of military doom.

On the German side it must have been with a curious sensation that the infantryman watched the preparations for a new warfare. He saw reservoirs and pipe lines with force-pumps being installed and vents carried out beyond the parapet, all done as methodically as such work is done in a municipality. He could have pictured himself as a grumbling ratepayer watching the expensive growth of local improvements. Only when the work was nearly complete, instead of a tax bill he was given a new kind of helmet and saw his neighbour arrayed in a similar headdress and looking more grotesque than the gargoyles on the churches he had helped to destroy. That must have brought home to him the meaning of this work, with perhaps a glimpse of how good it would seem to men in the long years to come. But whatever thoughts he had, he could not have pictured himself as a plumed knight or his new method of war as a combat of chivalry. A war which has crushed and brought to the judgment seat a nation that could stand by and applaud such diabolism is a war that the cleansed earth need not regret.

The Turcos saw none of this installation of pre-meditated murder. Looking across to the German trenches about five in the afternoon, they saw a series of sharp puffs of white smoke and then trundling along with the wind came the queer greenish-yellow fog that seemed strangely out of place in the bright atmosphere of that clear April day. It reached the parapet, paused, gathered itself like a wave and ponderously lapped over into the trenches.

Then passive curiosity turned to active torment, — a burning sensation in the head, red-hot needles in the lungs, the throat seized as by a strangler. Many fell and died on the spot. The others, gasping, stumbling, with faces contorted, hands wildly gesticulating, and uttering hoarse cries of pain, fled madly through the villages and farms and through Ypres itself, carrying panic to the remnants of the civilian population and filling the roads with fugitives of both sexes and all ages.

There was no battle at the trenches ; the French line simply disintegrated. Thus, with all the fences down, the masses of German infantry came roaring past the flank of the 13th Battalion, sweeping up the artillery of the French and accelerating the pell-mell disorder of the fugitives. This rush, making straight for the headquarters of the 3rd Brigade, carried forward the German line a distance of two miles, embracing, but not, as we shall see, securing, the wood to the west of St. Julien and a battery of British 4.7’s that had been loaned the French.

This left the 13th stranded like cowboys watching a stampeded herd thundering by; and worse than that, it left them the two miles of the Poelcapelle-St. Julien road as a ruinous responsibility.

The first crash of the disaster overtook Major Norsworthy and the two platoons holding the support trench. This trench was covered by the Canadian front line from the direction in which the Canadians were facing, but not from the north. It lay squarely in the way of the deluge of shell that the Germans were pouring over the French trenches. The last message that came to the first line from Norsworthy was that he was evacuating after heavy loss and to avoid further casualties was moving to another position from which he could support the battalion if necessary. What happened is now a matter of conjecture based on traditions handed down by word of mouth from soldier to soldier in the battalion. He appears to have taken up a position next the St. Julien road about six hundred yards from our front line and to have been killed in hand-to-hand fighting while endeavouring to keep the Germans from reaching the road. Lieutenant Guy Drummond is said to have been killed while rallying French fugitives. It is just another of the many instances in this battle where a small detachment fought it out to a finish and by the desperate character of their resistance added to that hesitancy to advance which lost the Germans the fruits of victory.

But the wire broke and communication with the rear was suspended until midnight, when Major Rykert McCuaig, now in command of the front companies, first got in touch with Colonel Loomis in St. Julien. The first messenger had been intercepted and killed by the Germans.

Colonel Loomis’ message was a direction to McCuaig to use his own discretion as to his dispositions. McCuaig had not waited for this; and these are some of his acts of discretion, which by most men would also be taken for acts of valour. His first effort was to bear aid to the French, and he proceeded into their lines to investigate, noticing as he went that the sun had a peculiar greenish appearance. The Germans have at least won themselves a place in a sun of that colour. He found the remains of the Algerians holding a sort of natural breastwork running back about a hundred yards from the trenches and about one hundred yards away from the Poelcapelle-St. Julien road. From there they were exchanging a lively enough fire with the Germans, who were now lining a hedge about one hundred and fifty yards further west. The breast-work was in the nature of an isolated position and could not be extended as a trench line.

To McCuaig the ditch of the road was obviously the position on which he should form his company, in other words, ” refuse his flank.” But he had to proceed gingerly lest he cause a new panic among the Algerians. So he left them two sections of Captain Walker’s platoon to stiffen their morale and formed the rest of the platoon in echelon, that is to the rear and to the side of the Algerian position and in the ditch of the road. Gradually he extended his left flank down the road by adding other platoons.

The situation of the men still left in the front trenches now became peculiarly trying. These trenches, which were practically as they had been turned over by the French, consisted of a sand-bag parapet which was not thick enough to be bullet-proof near the top. But this was not the worst feature. There were very few traverses and practically no parados. Traverses are walls of earth or sand-bags at right angles to the front and intercept enfilade fire from either side. The parados is a rear wall that prevents rifle-fire from the rear and catches the back-lash of any shells that drop too close.

So long as the fire was from in front, these trenches were like Charles XII’s bread, of which he said : ” It is not good ; but it can be eaten.” They were uncomfortable and precarious, but endurable. But about 6 p. m. the Germans turned the guns of one of the captured French batteries on the rear of the section of trench just north of the road and made four direct hits with about a dozen casualties.

At 9 p. m. the Germans attacked and chased the Algerians out of their advanced position. McCuaig and his men were able to retrieve about two hundred of them and use them chiefly to reinforce the line along the road and partly to assist in pulling down dug-outs and forming a parados for the front line.

In this condition of affairs the 13th passed the night, gradually extending down the road and suffering severe casualties under the heavy enfilade fire. The Germans gave them no rest and had the advantage of being able at their discretion to command light and darkness ; for they had an abundance of flares and our men had none.

The firing abated but little during the night. Two attacks were pressed by the Germans, but they got it hot and heavy. The officers of the 13th Battalion did not stint ammunition, as they were determined to disguise from the enemy their numerical weakness, until the arrival of reinforcements.

During the night a new trench affording a better field of fire, and shortening the line so as to save one hundred men to fill gaps, was constructed three hundred yards in rear of the road. Shortly before dawn, as no reinforcements had arrived, the retirement was made in great secrecy, covered by a brisk fire by the machine guns under Lieutenant Ross. No sooner was it effected than the reinforcements came — having had to follow a very circuitous path. These were Captain Tomlinson’s company of the Buffs and two platoons of No. 3 Company under Major Buchanan, who was now second in command of the 13th. It was decided that McCuaig should reoccupy with the relics of his own company and part of the Buffs the portion of front trench just abandoned, and this was again man-aged without detection by the Germans.

Shortly after this a manifestation of German guile was frustrated. McCuaig, Tomlinson, and a French officer were standing where sand-bag work was being constructed at the point where the 13th trenches crossed the road. A number of figures, apparently wearing French uniforms, but indistinct in the early morning light, appeared in rear of the French trenches, crying out, ” We are the French.” It did not deceive ; and ” fire was opened on our alleged allies, who at once replied.”

If there are degrees in such matters, — when all our companies were in such deadly plight, — then for a haven of rest McCuaig’s Corners during the Friday would have been about the last spot to be picked. The incomplete barrier across the road had to be abandoned. The former support trench was now occupied by Germans, so that from the front — the old French trenches on the flank and the old support trench in rear — the defence was subjected all day to a heavy rifle-fire. The badly constructed and unfinished para-dos was not bullet-proof and had numerous gaps which made the carrying of messages a terror to the messenger 1 and an uncertainty to the sender. Add to this the pestilential bombardment most accurately directed by aeroplanes.

About dusk the order came from brigade head-quarters for a further refusing of the flank. This time, the battalion was to take up a position reaching from the left flank of the 15th towards St. Julien. It is some indication of the unshaken steadiness of these Highlanders that the burying of their dead and the evacuation of the numerous wounded were first methodically carried out under Captain Whitehead.

The retirement itself was not easy. A determined assault by bombing detachments of the Germans was held back by a rear-guard skilfully handled by Lieutenant Pitblado. Once arrived at the new line they were for some recondite German reason allowed to dig in without interruption and to supply themselves with water, which most of them had lacked for twelve hours.

The position of the 3rd Brigade as now formed left the 15th Battalion in their original trenches, which ran at a sharp angle with the new formations. In fact the Highland salient was now like a spear-head thrust into the flank of a wild beast; and from the accompanying sketch it is obvious that General Turner must either flatten out his spear-head or have it broken off.

The process of flattening began on the Saturday morning under a heavy bombardment accurately directed by aeroplanes, and when the enemy had worked their way to about two hundred yards from the position. Obviously it should have begun with the companies at the peak of the salient. But the pressure of the Germans governed, and the word came from the left and was passed up after the movement had already begun further down. Very few of McCuaig’s company got out, but those captured were all wounded. At least one remained voluntarily, — Lieutenant Pitblado, who had already distinguished himself in trying to save Captain Whitehead, who had a mortal wound. The circumstances as related in McCuaig’s report also illustrate why his report and his activity in this war both break off at 10 a. m. on Saturday, April 24th, 1915 : ” We were going back together when I was wounded in the knee, but was able to proceed. I was shortly after shot through both legs and rendered helpless. Pitblado, in spite of my protests, refused to leave me and bandaged up the wounds in my leg under a very heavy fire. He was then wounded a second time in the leg, which finished his chances of getting away. I was subsequently wounded four times while lying on the ground. We both remained there until picked up by the Germans an hour or two later. Their firing line passed us about ten minutes after we were wounded.”

The original 15th Battalion were preponderantly made up of the 48th Highlanders of Toronto, with a fair-sized contingent of the 97th Regiment, Algonquin Rifles. Thus these latter, who had in peace invested themselves with the name of a tribe which called up visions of moccasins and war-paint, suddenly at Valcartier found themselves in a different tribe and garbed in kilt and sporran. On occasion no doubt the 15th could have shown either the fiery and tumultuous rush of the Celt or the stealthy and panic-bearing stroke of the Indian. But the present occasion called for the valour of sacrifice ; and called not in vain.

Their entrance into the salient was not auspicious of good fortune. Brought from their billets on the Steenwoorde-Cassel road, partly by route-march and partly by motor, they entered Ypres to find its famous buildings rocking and reeling under the crushing missiles of huge German ordnance. Safety for the men was sought by moving some of them further up the salient to La Brique. But during this time a single seventeen-inch shell opened the chambers of death to some forty civilians and soldiers, and among the latter Captain Trumbull Warren, one of the best-beloved of the battalion officers.

About 9 p. m. of April 20th the battalion took over from the 16th Battalion some trenches which had just been handed over by the French. These trenches were much as the 16th had received them, with some very urgent sanitary improvements. The shallow burial in the trenches themselves of some fifty French casual-ties was beyond remedy and almost beyond endurance.

From right to left flanking the trenches of the 8th Battalion the companies of the 15th ran, — No. 1 under Captain McGregor, three platoons of No. 3 under Major McLaren, and two platoons of No. 4 under Major Osborne. Osborne had an old French headquarters dug-out about 250 yards in rear of the line ; through which communication by field wire ran to the battalion advanced headquarters, on the northerly front of the ridge about 750 yards in rear of the line. At this advanced headquarters there were some support trenches, where the battalion second-in-command, Major Marshall, was stationed with three platoons and some other details.

The trenches themselves were airy, sketchy indications of field fortifications, chiefly consisting of semi-circular redoubts about forty yards across. These redoubts, of which the parapet was none too firm, had no parados or rear wall and no traverses or protection against enfilade. The forty-yard gaps in the line were connected by an earthen screen, behind which a small man crouching very humbly might run unperceived. Connected by a similar screen lay the flank trench of the 13th Battalion about one hundred yards to the left of Major Osborne’s line.

There was no accumulation of spare ammunition in these trenches, merely a little left by the 16th. The result was that despite some ammunition brought up during the bombardment there was not sufficient to face a continuous assault. Another shortage was that of water, for which the 15th depended on farm wells, which had been broken by the heavy shell-fire. Rations also turned out to be scarce owing to the difficulty of bringing up the ration parties. Added to this, the field telegraph wire was cut early by shell-fire and, notwithstanding several hazardous efforts to keep it in repair, was out of commission except for a few minutes near midnight of the 23rd, when Major Marshall sent word to hang on as he was sending Lieutenant Jones and thirty-one men to replace casual-ties. These duly arrived and were much appreciated. But with this exception the front companies were an isolated detachment, holding out with parched tongues and tightened waist belts to the limit of their cartridges.

During the 22nd the casualties were not extreme. Not that the service was easy or free from incidents that, but for what followed, would have in after years been sufficient in themselves for memoirs and romances. The continuous bombardment; the turpenite shells ; the ominous attendance of the aeroplanes marked with the cross and observing for the German artillery; the cloud of greenish-yellow gas over to the left; the battalions of Germans advancing through the gap ; the pretended French officer that turned out to be a spy; and the continuous stream of French Algerian fugitives passing through the trenches, these were enough entries for one day’s diary and enough to keep the men standing to all the night.

Daylight on the 23rd brought neither relief nor certainty, but was the signal for a renewed bombardment of villainous intensity. The lachrymatory shells were almost beyond endurance, the men getting some alleviation from wet handkerchiefs. About 4 p. m. a ray of hope came to them. The artillery ceased for fifteen minutes while the enemy’s infantry poured in rapid fire. But the assault which the Highlanders were awaiting with grim anticipation did not come over ; and the shell-shower recommenced as before.

About 5 o’clock Captain Clark-Kennedy, of the 13th, who had been through to General Turner, brought a copy of the brigade order instructing the 13th to hold their present trenches until after dark, when they were to fall back and, pivoting on the left flank of the 15th, dig themselves in on a line roughly inclined to the advanced headquarters of the 15th. The order also directed Major Osborne to take measures to protect the right flank of the 13th. This movement was carried out after dark. And Osborne went over the ground with Captain Tomlinson of the Buffs, who were to hold that part of the line running from Osborne’s left to a house (inclusive) about 150 yards in his left rear.

These Buffs, who had already passed up through St. Julien and, being guided by circuitous paths, had reported for duty to the 13th, now proceeded to fit into the Canadian line as if they belonged to it. For it is one of the virtues of the true English regiments that they are not temperamental and do not require humouring when in strange company; but fit comfort-ably into any section of a fight like interchangeable parts in a standardized machine. Thus on the night of the 23rd they joined with a company of the 15th to form what on that day was called the ” Devil’s Corner.”

The Buffs had only their entrenching tools, and like the Highlanders had no rations and little water. Nevertheless, finding an old partly constructed and disused trench more or less on the line indicated, Tomlinson borrowed some tools from Lieutenant Fessenden of the 15th and managed to improve and occupy the position.

The night of the 23rd-24th was a second sleepless night. In addition to their own casualties the 15th had to evacuate those of the 13th and about two hundred wounded Algerians who had been congesting their trenches and were waiting until dark to be removed. For this purpose the stretchers were supplemented with blankets, fascines, and planks torn out of the dugouts. What men were not employed in this service were put to work in reconstructing the redoubts, of which one had been completely blown out at one end, and in putting up traverses against enfilade fire. In this work the last materials of the dug-outs were absorbed. As it was to be expected that the Germans would move along the now abandoned original trench of the 13th, Captain McKessock, the machine-gun officer, arranged the machine guns as a form of reception committee. Lest anyone should sleep during these hours of darkness the enemy’s guns kept going — principally against the new trenches of the 13th.

About 4 a. m. of the 24th the still sleepless troops had been ” standing to ” in accordance with the practice of the trenches and were just about to stand down when a German stationary balloon dropped three beautiful but ominous red lights. This was marked by an increase in the intensity of the cannonade. Germans also appeared over their parapet, wearing what seemed to be divers helmets, and with hose pipes in their hands. And then came the gas !

Now the first effusion of gas had, with a fine impartiality, been intended for the Highlanders equally with the Algerians ; but had been mercifully deflected by the wind. This irruption did not miss its Canadian objective, but centred squarely on Archie McGregor’s company, overlapping on the one side upon the 8th Battalion and on the other upon the right platoons of McLaren’s line. The expression, ” a fog that can be cut with a knife,” was literally true. For there was a definite line of cleavage, the edge of the vapour reaching about half-way between the redoubt where Captain McLaren and Lieutenant Scott were stationed and that further to the left occupied by Lieutenant Smith.

What happened to McGregor’s fine company will never be fully told. The 15th opened rapid fire — as at a ghost. In a few minutes the men in the gas zone could neither see nor breathe. The German was quite correct when in anticipation of this attack he said: ” It is a weapon against which they are simply help-less.” In Archie McGregor was lost a veteran officer who knew and taught his men what real musketry fire could do. In Lieutenants Langmuir and Taylor perished two fine upstanding young men, the latter having stroked the eight of the Argonauts into the championship of America. It was here, too, that Lieutenant Mavor began to acquire that persistent casualty habit that led him to add another gold stripe to his sleeve whenever he entered an action. No. 3 Company, being nearer to the edge of the poison zone, fared somewhat better. Lieutenant Scott was carried out and recovered sufficiently to be able to rejoin and be wounded at a later period of the war. Major McLaren, along with Lieutenant Bath and some twenty men that were able to move, got into a trench some hundred and fifty yards in the rear; from which they worked up to the left redoubt still held by Lieutenant Smith.

Smith had lined a small communication trench almost at right angles to his own line and with the aid of the machine gunners that Captain McKessock had planted on the edge of the redoubt was cheerfully busy accounting for the Germans who had now occupied the gassed sections of the trenches. McLaren himself went over to get in touch with Major Osborne, but being much affected by the gas, lost his bearings and landed amongst the 7th Battalion, and was evacuated by them as a casualty in time to prevent his being taken prisoner. In the meantime, at Smith’s position, which was now the right end of the trenches held by the 15th, the Germans were being brought to a halt, but they were trying to break through from other directions. A number of them had come across further to the left and were making for the redoubt occupied by No. 14 Platoon

On the left flank the old trench of the 13th was filled with Germans, who were trying to stem the effective fire of the Buffs.

The fire had to be slowed down as cartridges were running short, and the situation was, in Major Osborne’s opinion, ” more than serious.” So he made his way down from the trenches to his headquarters to try to get a message to Major Marshall for reinforcements and for ammunition.

The efforts of the operators working in the open to mend the cut wire — were unavailing. While waiting to see the fruits of their efforts, Osborne saw a most fascinating but tragic demonstration of the skill of the German gunners. Starting at the southerly end of the new 13th line, they dropped shell after shell of high explosive with surgical precision into these frail trenches, clearing them bit by bit and shortening the range as the 13th abandoned them and retired in scattered groups across the fields. Then up the abandoned portions of the trench the German infantry poured in a stream, headed by one bearing an artillery flag and following the barrage at a distance of about seventy-five yards.

It was this enforced retirement from the left that cornered McCuaig, who got word of it too late to get his company of the 13th safely out. The word never reached McCuaig’s next neighbours, the Buffs, who all the while were busily pouring rapid fire into masses of the enemy coming down the original 13th trench.

There is a rude old saying about ” sticking your nose into danger.” This literally applies to Osborne. For, returning from his headquarters to the front line to view the situation, he was shot through the nose by a rifle bullet, and as if that was not painful enough, had his shoulder pierced by shrapnel. Tomlinson of the Buffs was also by this time a casualty, and his men, having spent their last cartridge, came into the 15th trench. To this must be added that the investment of this tiny fortress had been completed by consider-able numbers of Germans who had come through No. 3 Company’s old line. These had occupied the farm in rear of that company, and, attempting to advance, had met a stiff resistance from riflemen, whose unexpected musketry drove them back, so that they retired across a mustard field on the rear of Osborne’s trench.

Invested now on all sides and under heavy rifle and machine-gun fire, with their own ammunition exhausted, no rations or water, and without sleep for two nights, these survivors waited with expectancy that hand-to-hand assault which is the last resort and the consolation-of the British soldier. It did not come. Instead, the methodical German gunners began to range on the trench. The first shell landed fair and blew out the end dug-out of Lieutenant Fessenden’s platoon. Another shell would have written ” finis.” Lieutenant McDonald, to whom Major Osborne gives the lion’s share of credit for those days’ work, consulted with Lieutenant Rider, now commanding the Buffs, and with his own officers. All that men could do, had been done ; to continue resistance longer would be a useless sacrifice of life — and so he surrendered.

At that period of the war Staff erudition was a ponderous thing. There was a good deal of working out of ” Appreciations,” and deliberate writing and is-suing of orders. So that by the time the General Headquarters Staff, the Army Staff, the Corps Staff, the Division Staff, the Brigade Staff, and the Battalion Adjutant had all written and issued orders, the original opportunity was in danger of being lost and the original emergency had become close to a disaster. The final report of General Ian Hamilton, explaining what did not happen at Suvla Bay, is instructive as to how far a chain of British Staffs resembled the chain of necessary links in that inimitable nursery story of ” The Old Woman whose Pig would not go over the Stile.”

The Highland salient (not forgetting the Buffs) had lasted from 5 p. in. on Thursday, when the Algerians broke, until 10 a. in. Saturday, forty-one hours — long enough for even British Staffs to loosen their joints. The spear-head was broken off, but the beast had lost his advantages in pausing to bite at it.