Ypres: The price of Canada’s first glory in battle - Macleans.ca

Ypres: The price of Canada’s first glory in battle

In April 1915, when Germans charged behind a drifting yellow-green fog of horror and death, the Algerians broke and the French broke. The Canadians held.


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    When Canada went to war in August 1914, it was in the expectation of a short campaign and a certain victory. The cabinet's first decision had been to send twenty thousand men overseas. This, considering the puny state of the country's existing military sinews, seemed like a sizeable enough undertaking. But before the war was over more than thirty times that number, nearly three quarters of a million, were to serve in uniform. Sixty thousand of them were to die — almost fifty percent more than the combined losses of the Canadian Army, the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Canadian Air Force in the six years of World War 2. Nearly two hundred thousand were to be wounded. Of all the Canadians of military age. one in eight became a casualty.

    Their first great battle was fought at Ypres, in Belgium; and Ypres, no more because of its military significance than for the hard responsibilities and the stature it thrust on a young and uncertain nation, thereby became as much a part of Canada's fabric as Hochelaga and Muddy York.

    The army’s first volunteers in 1914 came for the same disorderly maze of reasons that usually send men to war: some because they saw it as a simple matter of duty, some because it offered their lives a prospect of new meaning and excitement, some because of the eternal instinct of knight-errantry enriched by the blood and thunder and the vision of their empire that they had acquired with their ABCs. Early in 1915, Sam Hughes, the fire-eating eccentric who headed the Department of Militia and Defense, was able to proclaim: “Canada has sent one contingent, a second is on the way, and if necessary we will send a fifth, a sixth or a twentieth.” If his mathematics were to prove somewhat at fault, his sense of the country’s heartspring was unerring. Even Henri Bourassa and the isolationists of Quebec were at first relatively silent and the ugly struggles over conscription were still more than two years in the future.

    To the large majority of Canadians patriotic fervor meant military fervor, and those to whom it meant something else had as yet no urgent cause to argue. By early September thirty-two thousand men had crowded into Sam Hughes’s camp at Valcartier, Quebec, far more than were wanted.

    Parliament had already voted $50 million as an immediate war appropriation and passed a sweeping War Measures Act that conferred on the government the powers of a dictatorship. Within two weeks various provinces heaped oats, potatoes, flour, horses and canned salmon on the mother country by the shipload. For most of August British Columbia was loyally in the grip of an invasion scare. Two German warships had been seen off the west coast. Banks in Vancouver sent their gold reserves to Winnipeg and Seattle and made plans to burn their paper money in the event of a German landing. A few civilians fled inland, but, thanks to two submarines bought hurriedly in Seattle, confidence soon returned.

    For the first overseas contingent the first three and a half months on the bare plain of Salisbury were a winter of mud and misery on a heroic scale. The sparse grass soon dissolved under weeks of rain and the traffic of infantrymen’s boots, horses, cannons and wagon wheels. Tent ropes tightened and pulled loose, canvas collapsed, oil stoves went out or gave enough thin heat to turn the surrounding accumulation of blankets, kitbags, packs, palliasses and overcoats into reeking bogs and backlashes of web equipment and unwashed socks. Lice were epidemic.

    By the time they began moving across the Channel to France early in 1915, most of the Canadian troops were sure that whatever they were about to meet was certain to be better than what they had left. In this they were pathetically mistaken.

    A prince's vanity helped his foes

    Having been thrown at each other’s throats by the ineptitude of emperors and statesmen, the marshals and generals were now just beginning to recover from their own ineptitude and to sort the war into some manageable and predictable pattern. Rather like two nearsighted men caught in a revolving door, the German and French general staffs had both groped and pawed for direction during the first two weeks of the fighting. Both had thrown away any immediate chance of advantage. Germany’s hoped-for breakthrough from the northwestern plains of Belgium had been based on enticing France to attack in the south and east in Lorraine. But Rupprecht. the vain Crown Prince of Bavaria who was in command of the Germans in Lorraine, could not bring himself to retreat when the French, as anticipated, did attack. The expectation had been that if he merely held or gave ground slowly, the thus hopeful French would concentrate their strength on that front. Thereupon Germany would mass in the north and break through to seize the Channel ports. But Rupprecht could not bear to accept a passive role. He attacked. In so doing he threw away his chance of drawing the French in on the southern hinge and left them free to manœuvre on the Belgian front to the north.

    The outcome was that ten French divisions and four British divisions were at the disposal of General Joffre to attempt a pincers movement against the Germans in the north. These Allied troops and their commanders had no idea that the Germans in that sector outnumbered them by more than two to one. Nor did they have any clear idea where the Germans were. The two opposing forces literally stumbled into each other on a fogbound night eighteen days after war had been declared. Startled and bewildered, they both dug in and thereby began to create a pattern of fighting that was to prevail, despite all local and temporary variations, for almost four years.

    By the winter of 1914-15 the war was already out of the hands of the generals and the field marshals. Its shape and nature were dictated by one thing: the private soldier’s stubborn — in the circumstances it sometimes seemed his unreasonable and inexplicable — desire to live. In the strategic sense two resistible forces had met their two immovable objects. There was nothing now to do. for the forces and the men who made then up, except to carve two systems of trenches along the western half of Europe and see which forces and which men had the greater power to survive. The calculations and miscalculations of the men of authority had become, almost overnight, irrelevant, and they were to remain irrelevant for four more years.

    The time for genius and mighty utterance was done. The ordinary human being was now in charge of human fate. Wet, disgruntled, miserable and heroic men faced one another across all Europe, and held the future of Europe and the world in their numbed, not wholly willing hands. Their trenches stretched from the North Sea to Switzerland, through bog and mire and hill and forest. Into them were packed more soldiers, at closer quarters, than had ever been engaged in military combat before. And in their painful and deadly proximity this multitude of strangers reinforced and fed upon one another’s virtues and upon one another’s faults. In the animal life they had to learn to live, there was an animal brutality; there was an animal stupidity: there was an animal acceptance of the need to carry out orders however absurd and fatal they might seem. But there was too, in both sets of trenches — in the German and Austrian trenches as well as in the English and French and Canadian trenches — a continuing testament to the spell and magic of the human will. Often, in defiance of all reason, the muddy, beaten soldier of the front-line trenches, half drunk with noise and fear and mud and cold and insects and the approach of a tomorrow that could only be more uncomfortable and menacing than today, rose to acts of exaltation, courage and endurance that had never been surpassed in any place or any time.

    During the three years between early 1915 and mid-1917 the whole of the Canadian ground forces fought and died, and if fortunate lived, in an area hardly bigger than three or four Saskatchewan townships. Their every value a .id perspective had to be adjusted accordingly. From one small piece of quagmire another piece of quagmire fifty yards away could look as enticing as the towers of Cathay. The slightest bulge on the flat, sodden, dangerous plains they contested for became a hill or a mountain. On a reverse slope a company or a battalion could buy respite from the incessant artillery barrages. On a forward slope it could be wiped out. In the desperate lore of the front, hummocks not large enough to make a toboggan slide became as high and famous as Everest or the Matterhorn.

    The exact nature of the trench war varied from time to time and from place to place. In the flat northern plains the depth of the fortifications — which were also the living quarters — was often limited by local drainage conditions. Usually the troops dug until they struck water. This might mean a trench only two feet deep. To the front and to the rear there were parapets of sandbags, often wired together and fixed to wooden stakes. Along the top of the parapets there were snipers’ plates of thick steel, with holes just big enough to accommodate a rifle barrel and a human eye. At the back of the trenches there was usually a row of dugouts, also protected by sandbags. It was there that the soldiers oil duty slept when they could. Communications trenches zigzagged toward two or three lines of reserve trenches between a quarter and a half mile to the rear of the main trench. Both sides used the same basic scheme of fortifications and in many places the front lines were only thirty or forty yards apart. Along the whole of Western Europe there was hardly a single front-line soldier of either side who could not make himself personally acquainted with his opposite number merely by waiting for a lull in the barrage and slightly raising his voice.

    Both sides thrust out narrow trenches into No Man’s l and, or the Devil Strip. Both sides maintained listening posts there amid the tangles of shell craters and barbed wire. A primitive and sardonic humor surrounded all these hazardous enterprises. New' place - names sprang up: Plug Street. Wipers. The Piggery, Goldfish Farm, the Devil’s Elbow, the Doll’s House, Rats’ Paradise, The Barbary Coast and Lovers' Walk. In the wettest, coldest trenches the infantrymen not infrequently got what sleep they could standing up and leaning against the sodden sandbags. For amusement they filled old jam tins with clay and odds and ends of metal, put fuses and guncotton in them and hurled them at the neighboring trenches. The standard front-line tour was four days, but often it was much less. After that, exhaustion or despondency became a threat to morale.

    A vital toehold in Belgium

    When the Canadian First Division left the dank plain of Salisbury for the danker and far more dangerous plain of Belgium, it was with a feeling of relief and anticipation. The division had an important job to do and the job was easily understood. Although they had been thwarted in their first attempt at an encircling breakthrough, the Germans had taken virtually all of Belgium except the old cloth-manufacturing city of Ypres. The reluctance of the Allied command to abandon the city, while it was to create endless debate in the years to come, had a strategic purpose behind it,

    Ypres commanded a canal that entered the North Sea about halfway between Dunkirk and Ostend. Far more important, it stood directly in the path to St. Omer, and St Omer in turn was the crossroads to the Channel ports of Dunkirk. Calais, and Boulogne. Since wars do not have control groups, it cannot be said what might have happened if Ypres had been lost in the first German surge to the northwest in 1914. At the very least it would have become more difficult for Britain and the British dominions to send reinforcements to France and to supply them properly. But in any case, the Allies were still holding the bulge in front of Ypres in the spring of 1915 and a key part of the bulge was held by the Canadians.

    In front of the city there lay a wallow of sunken roads, soggy fields, tiny woods, and trenches. In mid-April 1915 the Canadian division took over a frontage of four thousand yards from the French Eleventh Division. Nothing in their training and indoctrination had prepared them for what they found. Through a tacit semi-truce the French and Germans on that part of the front had spent most of the winter avoiding anything but the most perfunctory show of hostility. The forward trenches had been manned lightly and given up and retaken repeatedly by both sides, often without much fighting. The French were rich in artillery where the British were lamentably poor. With their abundance of shells the French could yield their trenches briefly to an advancing wave of German infantry, fall back on their reserve trenches and their guns, and then shell the Germans out again.

    As a consequence of this kind of warfare the front-line defenses that the Canadians took over and were ordered not to yield were primitive and insecure even by the prevailing standards. They found no continuous trench, but only a series of unconnected ditches two or three feet deep. The customary breastwork of sandbags was extraordinarily flimsy. In many places it was not even thick enough to stop a sniper's bullet.

    The rear part of the trenches — called the parados — did not have the customary reverse breastwork to offer protection from shrapnel breaking behind. A captain of the Canadian Engineers, making an official report on the condition of a section of the trenches, described “the ground where the men stand in the firing position" as being “paved with rotting bodies and human excreta.” In places the parapet was only six inches thick and two feet high and almost everywhere it was open to enfilading fire.

    To the French, well versed in and well equipped for artillery fighting, these muddy scars on the face of the Ypres salient had been hardly more than observation posts to he abandoned and repossessed at their convenience. But when the Canadian division took over the left of the line of the British Second Army its assignment had far less flexibility.

    Near the battered little village of St. Julien there was one of those precious little wrinkles in the ground called the Gravenstafel Ridge. There was also a little stand of oak trees, hardly as large as an Ontario farmer’s back maple lot, called the St. Julien Wood. The Canadians' chief assignment was to deny these two tiny fragments of Belgium to the enemy.

    According to their training and instruction the way to do so was to hold their trenches. For any unit that lost a section of its forward fortifications the standing order was to counterattack at once and take it back. To give up a trench was to lose honor, hope and the bare expectancy of life.

    By modern standards the Canadian division that held this assignment was a big and deep division, with each of its three infantry brigades four battalions strong. From the seventeenth of April to the twenty-second they spent much of their time trying to deepen and strengthen their flimsy and reeking trench positions, but for the bitter ordeal that was to give them their baptism of fire they were prepared only by their own inner resources of courage and instinct.

    Two French divisions stood at the Canadians’ left, one a territorial unit, the other made up of Algerian conscripts. On this part of the front German prisoners taken as early as the middle of March had told their captors that cylinders of poison gas were being stored in the trenches opposite Ypres. On April 13 a German deserter actually showed up with a primitive gas mask consisting of a wad of cloth soaked in protective chemicals. To intelligence officers of the French Eleventh Division, soon to be relieved by the Canadians, he reported that the Germans had prepared twenty cylinders of gas for every forty metres of front.

    On April 14 the Germans accused the French of using gas at Verdun. Although the accusation was false, the fact it was made might have suggested the Germans were getting ready to "retaliate.”

    When Ferry, the local French commander, handed over his trenches to the Canadians he told them they might soon be attacked by gas. He had already passed on the same opinion to his corps commander. along with a proposal to shell the German trenches in the hope of destroying the gas cylinders. His corps commander not only overruled him but caused him to be dismissed for passing on the frightening reports of impending gas warfare to the British troops on his flank. By the time the Canadian division actually reached the trenches, the talk of gas had become a little stale, a story for frightening newcomers to the foul, weird land of Flanders. The British corps sent a few reconnaissance planes over the German trenches to look for gas cylinders, but spotted none. The corps commander. Sir Herbert Plumer, finally relayed the reports of an impending gas attack to his divisional commanders with the warning that he did so only “for what it was worth.”

    If the Allies’ assessment of the imminence and effectiveness of gas as a major weapon of war was at fault it was no more so than that of their enemy. To the German high command, steeped in orthodoxy, the slender canisters of chlorine had never appeared to be a major instrument of war. Rather they were a new' toy, one that might or might not work. Certainly the German commanders were not ready to make heavy investments in them. So. although the enemy had a strong striking force of four divisions ready, only one division was in reserve when the first gas attack began. Neither the individual German infantryman. clutching his strange wad of a respirator, nor the high command was prepared to exploit success, for no decisive success was expected.

    But none of this was known to the Canadian soldiers who brewed their tea and munched on their bullv-beef and hardtack in the trenches before St. Julien on the morning of April 22, 1915. It soon turned to a fine fresh day. too calm for the Germans to spill forth their chlorine as it had been planned for them to do shortly after dawn. But they kept up their shelling and lobbed at least one of their high-explosive coalboxes. five feet long and a ton in weight, into Ypres. F.arly in the morning they mounted a brisker than usual artillery attack on the forward trenches and dropped in a few gas shells. But on balance the day seemed like almost any other — that is, a day to be endured and, if possible, survived, and if not the hell with it.

    Mouth organs were available

    Early in the afternoon the Canadian Third Infantry Brigade asked its divisional headquarters to send up some mouth organs and playing cards. It was informed that cards were out of stock but a hundred mouth organs were available. The long day w-ent on. In the nearby German trenches they tested the wind again, and found it still wanting. But by late afternoon a little breeze had risen and the Germans at last released their gas.

    It came across the low-lying fields as a drifting fog that some men saw as grey, some as yellow, some as green.

    When the cloud of gas struck the Algerian conscripts on the left of the Allied line they simply broke and ran. This had not been their war to begin with. They were only there because they had been made to come and now, as the choking fumes enveloped them, their only thought was to get away. They threw away their rifles and raced, crying, ahead of the deadly cloud. Many, overtaken, clutched their throats and fell into the canals and roadside ditches. Some cut artillery horses loose from their stakes, mounted them, and raced for Ypres. The gas was moving at nearly six miles an hour, which was nearly as fast as a fit man could run.

    Soon the civilians who had remained near the front were fleeing too. with their dog-drawn carts, and w'ith their bundles of bedding, clothing, and food piled grotesquely on the stooped backs of old men. All around, the scenes were apocalyptic, some of them noble, some ignoble. “Pauvre France! Pauvre Paris!“ a group of stragglers sobbed as they streamed through St. Julien. A Canadian sergeant who had not yet seen or tasted the gas reported in bewilderment to his headquarters that the streets were “full of runnin’ n--ers.“

    In their sum all these personal disasters could well have dealt an important — conceivably even a fatal — blow to the Allied cause. The two French divisions at the left of the Allied line had virtually ceased to exist. Where they had stood there was now a beckoning gap three miles wide. The Germans came storming across the fields with bayonets high and no one to resist them and soon were within four miles of Ypres itself. In reaching there they completely turned the flank of the Canadian division and left it naked and untended. Had they pushed on to take the city, more than fifty thousand British troops and nearly two hundred cannon would have been enveloped. But three things stopped the Germans: their lack of any master plan at the level of high command: the terror and discomfort the advancing soldiers met as they themselves stumbled over their writhing enemies into the gas cloud they had created: and perhaps above everything else the unreckoning and unreckonablc valor of the Canadian division.

    Entirely aside from the advantage their gas attack had given them, the Germans held an advantage on the main approaches to Ypres of more than two men to every one. Twenty-one British battalions confronted forty-two German battalions, and twelve of the British battalions belonged to the oversized Canadian division. To make matters far worse, an already scandalous shortage of ammunition on the British front had been worsened by the demands of the campaign at Gallipoli, then beginning. In the last half of April the British in France had been driven to a cruel scale of artillery rationing.: an 18-pounder gun was allowed to fire two rounds of ammunition a day: a field howitzer could fire three and a medium howitzer six.

    With gas ahead and overwhelming artillery superiority behind, the German infantry came across the fields like an ancient Saxon horde, with standard-bearers racing in front to mark the captured trenches.

    The little oak forest near St. Julien — soon to be renamed Kitchener’s Wood — was one of the tiny bits of ground where the question of ownership was particularly vital. In the main breakthrough a battery of 4.7-inch guns attached to the French by a London division was overrun in the wood and captured. The Germans kept it in action and turned the guns on the half-encircled Canadian division's rear.

    As midnight settled over the battlefield two battalions of the Canadian division set out to recapture the wood and the guns that threatened to annihilate them and their comrades from the rear. Their method was grotesquely valiant and grotesquely outdated: eight little waves of men marching through the dark fields and craters with their bayonets high. They had almost no artillery support, for. besides the chronic shortage of ammunition. the guns that would ordinarily have tried to clear a way for them were cither in enemy hands or groping in the darkness to establish new lines.

    While still a quarter of a mile away from the wood the desperate little crest of infantrymen ran into a fence and betrayed its approach. Instantly the black sky became a white nightmare of flares and the entrenched Germans opened up with their rifles and machine guns. But the attacking force plunged on. reached the wood, and finally recaptured the British guns. Before dawn the Germans counterattacked and won back most of the wood in their turn, but another Canadian assault once more carried a fringe of the wood.

    Ordinarily it is the attacking force that suffers the heavier casualties in ground warfare. But with the advantage of gas and the breach of the Allied flank the Germans were inflicting greater losses than they sustained. Altogether the Allies were to lose sixty thousand in killed, wounded and missing in this brief and furious battle. The most damaging blows of all, proportionally, were felt by the Canadian division. Within twelve hours one of its battalions, the Tenth, had been reduced in effective strength from more than 800 to 193. Another, the Sixteenth, could muster only 250 men. But the ordeal of Ypres was far from ended in the first eruption. The two crushed French divisions on the left rallied slightly, British reinforcements arrived and the sorely weakened Canadians still held a line of trenches when dawn broke on April 23, less than twelve hours after they had seen the first wave of chlorine.

    Through that second day the Third Infantry Brigade withstood repeated attacks. All along the regrouping British and Canadian front, battalions, companies and platoons jabbed at the Germans in a scries of suicidal attacks whose only but essential purpose was to persuade the enemy he was facing resolute and organized opposition. At least four times the Germans opposite the Canadian positions tried to sweep from their trenches and add more ground to the seven square miles they had already won. But each time they were driven back.

    Men in miner’s helmets appeared

    There was, providentially, no optimism. The survival of the Canadian division and indeed of the whole of the Allies’ northwestern position was still in the direst jeopardy. The fact that after twenty-four hours it had not collapsed but had even shown some sign of strength was not taken by those on the ground as a sign of hope. As the second night set in, local commanders began grimly passing out cotton bandoleers and ordering kettles of water to be placed on the ground immediately behind the parapets of the trenches they still held. The instinct of every good battalion commander told him that gas would come again with the first favorable breeze. By now most of the waiting men knew there was some chance of living through another gas attack by breathing through wet cloth. So they worked and waited through the night, repairing their trenches as best they could.

    At stand-to on the early morning of the twenty-fourth a few signal rockets soared overhead. Two German planes chugged across the Canadian trenches and then chugged back home. In a minute the whole array of German artillery opened up and the Canadian sentries peering across the scarred and flickering strip of No Man's Land saw what they had been half expecting. Above the German parapets a few knots of men in miner's helmets appeared. They thrust forth long dark hoses and in the interstices in the crump of falling shells the waiting Canadians heard a vast hissing. Then, almost at once, they saw the greengrey-yellow fog of chlorine rolling toward them again. And now once more the German infantry came storming across the black, cratered, city-block-long stretch of No Man’s Land. And now another unpredictable disaster fell on the holders of the trenches.

    Their basic infantry weapon was the already controversial Ross rifle. It was, by common agreement, a superb rifle for target shooting and Sam Hughes, himself a shot of nearly championship calibre, was one of the many experts who vouched for it.

    But for all its accuracy the Ross was subject to jamming in heavy action. It was not an effective weapon in the rough-and-tumble of a war where men often did not begin shooting until they were no further apart than the width of a good-sized sitting room. In this fighting the Ross rifle failed. Its too delicately tooled bolts and cartridge chambers seized against each other in the heat generated by quick fire. Without warning hundreds of Canadian infantrymen found they could do nothing but weep, curse or pray in the face of the advancing Germans and attempt to pry loose their jammed rifle bolts with trenching shovels or the heels of their big army boots.

    The gas too proved more damaging than had been expected. On the first day of the attack its power to destroy the human body had been established. But now, as became apparent, it could destroy the human will. In the last minutes of a fatal exposure the victim lost all desire to live. Many a man who fell before chlorine greeted his fate with words no more memorable than the plea: “Go away and let me die!”

    As the Germans clawed and hammered their way into the forward trenches behind the pall of gas, the disorder and lack of communication became so great that companies, battalions and even brigades found themselves isolated and apparently fighting alone. Gradually the front was forced back another half mile. Except for the handful of men who were trapped there and went on fighting, the vital village of St. Julien itself was abandoned. But against the threat of a complete collapse in the Allied position, the Canadian Eighth Battalion clung implacably to the equally vital welt of land called the Gravenstafel Ridge. The Third Infantry Brigade attacked and closed the gap to the Second Brigade. The Germans attacked again with gas toward Ypres on May 2, ten days after the first assault. Another attack came in on May 4; the Ypres salient, although almost wholly flattened out, was again firmly held.

    Of the little Canadian contingent raised so quickly and rushed so quickly into battle, over six thousand men — one in five — were killed, wounded or missing.

    The individual Canadian soldier and the individual Canadian commander had no idea, of course, what part his deeds of desperate resolve were playing in the grand plan. This was continually being debated far to the rear. General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, who had originally been in charge of the British corps on the left, was fired because he kept insisting that it was up to the French to restore the left flank. On a higher plane General Foch, the French commander in the north, and Sir John French, the British chief of staff, had been continually wrangling about what to do with Ypres in the total design. French wanted to abandon the salient, but Foch persuaded him not to do so. A week after the first German attack French won an admission from Foch that, far from reinforcing it, he intended to draw off troops to mount an attack from Arras. French thereupon decided to shrink the salient within the boundaries which, in fact, had already been settled by the battalions on the ground.

    Whether the redoubt at Ypres had ever made sense was a question still to be debated for decades. The British military writer Liddell Hart offered this judgment twenty years later: “Having forfeited sixty thousand men for the privilege of acting as midwife, the British were then left to hold the most uncomfortably cramped . . . target, at continued expense, for over two years.”

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