In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amidst the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Ypres deserves a place beside Waterloo and Blenheim in British military history. At Ypres the English "Tommy" did all that was expected of him—and that is saying a good deal. Yet here, as elsewhere in the Great War, the generalship was French, and the victory was won through the genius of Field-Marshal Foch, backed up most ably by the fighting ability of the British soldier. And for Foch—great strategist and leader, who had recently delivered the decisive thrust at the Marne—the supreme test came in the midnight hours of a day in which his son and son-in-law had died on the field of honor.
But however close the contest, the decision was absolute. The whole German conception of a swift, terrible, decisive thrust at France had ended in the bloody shambles of the Yser and Ypres. Not a French army had been destroyed. Not a French army had been captured. The great battle that was to come six weeks after the declaration of war had come. It had been a French victory; not a Waterloo or a Sedan, but a victory which compelled a general German retreat, and which dislocated the whole strategic conception of the Huns. Each separate offensive effort from St. Mihiel to Nieuport had been beaten down almost where it started.
At Ypres fifty thousand British were killed, wounded, or captured—a third of the whole Expeditionary Army. On the same field the French lost seventy thousand, and the Belgians mourned twenty thousand. As for the German loss, there can be no doubt it passed a quarter of a million!
Ypres—The Cloth Hall in ruins.
Memorable, hereafter, will be the fact that as the last German attacks before Ypres were failing, there died within the British lines the one British soldier who had foreseen what was now happening—whose words had been greeted with sneers—whose voice had almost been silenced by the cheap and empty optimism of Liberal and Radical politicians. Come to France at the moment of the crisis, come to cheer his well-beloved Indian troops, now fighting bravely on the western line, Lord Roberts died on the eve of a great victory which saved his own country from the worst he had feared for it. Worth repeating, too, is the legend—attributed to De Souza—that, having studied the maps and examined the plans and preparations of the French commander-in-chief, Lord Roberts said, with deep insight and true prophecy, to some staff-officers of Foch, "You have a great general."
Let us now, before describing the First Battle of Ypres, devote a little study to the ground, also show the relation of the Second Battle of Ypres to the whole western campaign of 1915.
Turning first to the examination of the country itself, it should be remembered at the outset that Ypres (pronounced "Eapers") is in the midst of the typical Flanders region—that is, the country is quite flat, and is marked by innumerable little brooks and rivulets, many of which have been converted into canals for centuries.
This portion of France begins as far back as Bethune, and stretches northward to the estuary of the Scheldt. Hills, mentioned so frequently in the battle dispatches from the front, are in reality only gently-sloping rises. Just as the American who is familiar with the history of the Battle of Waterloo, and has read of the height of Mont St. Jean, stands in amazement while he looks down upon the battlefield and recalls, not the rugged Appalachian seaboard, but the prairies of the West, so he would view the district between the Lys and the Yser, on which was fought a battle really greater than Waterloo itself and scarcely less momentous in human history—for, had the Germans broken through to Calais, they might have abolished most of the consequences of the French victory between Paris and Verdun.
Comparatively small though they may be, it is well for us to recognize that these hills played a decisive part in the various contests of arms in the Flanders area, and that for the possession of the most considerable of them three battles were fought—one in October and November, 1914; the second, in April and May, 1915; and the third and greatest (based upon the size of the armies engaged), from June to the end of the campaign of 1917.
Between Bixschoote, at the edge of the marshes along the Yser River, and Warneton on the Lys, there is a fifteen-mile stretch of solid ground, or it might be more explicit to state, ground suitable for the movement of troops and heavy guns. West of Bixschoote is the marshy region which was flooded when the Belgians closed the sluices at Nieuport and drove back the enemy in the critical days of the Battle of the Yser, which preceded the present one.
South and east of Warneton, on the right bank of the Lys, Allied operations were rendered impossible by the German occupation of the town of Lille, with its forts and defences.
The solid ground between the Lys and Yser was in the nature of a sallyport, should an army come north and seek to advance down the Lys valley toward Ghent and Bruges. On the other hand, for an army moving south it was the main gate to Calais and Boulogne, and to the Channel ports facing the English coast, once the Yser front had been closed by inundation and the front south of the Yser barred by adequate armies.
Could an army moving north push up to Roulers and Menin it would insert a wedge between hostile armies operating on the coast in front of the Yser and those to the eastward about Lille. Could any army moving south thrust through this gateway it would similarly intervene between the troops defending the Yser front and the other forces before Lille.
And when the British army moved north in October, 1914, its main purpose was to isolate the Germans advancing along the coast from those about Lille. The German plan was, when the offensive should pass to them, to push down to Calais, cutting off all the adversary troops west of Ypres, which included the Belgian army and a large French force sent to aid the Belgians.
Ypres itself lies in a little basin about the tiny Yperlee stream which flows west to the Yser. It is the junction point of several roads and railways, and through it passes a canal from the Lys to the Yser. In the Eighteenth Century the town was a fortress, and some of the ramparts of Vauban have survived the artillery of Krupp, but these had no value on the contemporary military side.
Of the roads and railways the more important from east to west were: the Bethune-Bruges railway, which came up from the south and, after leaving Ypres, crossed the canal near Boesinghe, passed through Langemarck, and continued thence to Thourout; the Ypres-Roulers railway and highway, which paralleled each other and ran northeastward to Roulers; and the Menin road, which ran straight from Ypres southeast to Menin on the Lys. A mile south of this last, was the canal connecting the Lys with the Yser, and Ypres with Commines.
South, east, and northeast of Ypres, at a distance not quite three miles, is the famous Messines-Zonnebeke Ridge, which is the most important geographical detail in the entire country. This promontory runs from southwest to north-east. At no point is it more than two miles wide, and at many not more than one. Its highest point is at the south near Messines, where it is two hundred and fifty feet above sea-level. At the other end, beyond Zonnebeke, it is rather less than two hundred feet. Nowhere is it more than a hundred feet above the surrounding country, and it rises in gentle slopes, making a far more impressive showing on the map than upon the vision of the tourist.
Along this ridge, from south to north, are a number of small villages, forever famous in British battle history. These are Messines, Hollebeke, Klein Zillebeke, Zandovorde, Gheluvelt, and Zonnebeke. North of the last-named village, the ridge narrows to a point at Paschendaele. Actually it is the watershed between the Lys and the Yser. Down its mildly-sloping western flanks flow a number of brooks which reach the Yser west of the inundated district. Eastward, over a much shorter course, flow other brooks leading to the Lys. Except in rainy weather—which is unhappily generally present in this particular corner of Europe—none of these little streams are obstacles to military operations.
Separating the streams which flow west to the Yser are a number of lower ridges running at right angles to the main Messines-Zonnebeke Ridge. Of these the only one of importance in the present narrative is that of Pilkem-Grafenstafel, which lies north. It is a natural extension of the main ridge, and troops in position upon the Pilkem-Grafenstafel would cover the flank of an army on the Messines-Zonnebeke Ridge. On the other hand, were both the southern end of the latter ridge and the western end of the Pilkem-Grafenstafel in possession of an enemy, the position of an army defending Ypres would be exceedingly dangerous, because its rear and communications would be under the constant fire and observation of its foe. The fact is, this contingency really happened; the Messines position was lost in 1914, and the Pilkem the following year.
So much for the general topography of the district. Bear in mind again that an army holding all the Messines-Zonnebeke Ridge would look down upon a vast sweep of country to the east and southeast. It would be able, through its observation balloons, to see as far as Lille—to sweep the whole of the upper valley of the Lys. With its heavy artillery in position behind the ridge, it would even be able to command the Menin-Roulers road five miles to the east, and play havoc with enemy communications. At the same time its own operations would remain hidden, outside of aerial observation, and its communications would be well beyond reach of effective bombardment. Once, however, should the army be driven over and off the ridge, it would lose all these advantages, and would be huddled in the Ypres basin in a position which would subject it to constant peril and great loss of life and materials.
It is worth recalling that the First Battle of Ypres was, like that of Gettysburg, quite accidental. Neither army expected to encounter the other on the ground on which the meeting actually took place. And it is equally interesting to recall that this selfsame First Battle of Ypres was the last battle of the old-fashioned sort—that is, a battle in the open, as contrasted with trench warfare which immediately followed.
Over the entire western battle-front did this trench style of fighting become the rule. Mining and counter-mining superseded all other sheltering methods; the lines were in reality areas of parallel trenches protected by networks of barbed wire so thickly interlaid and interwoven that only long-sustained artillery fire proved equal to the task of breaking them down in clearing the way for an assault. The troops lived in and under the ground, so that the shrapnel—the ideal man-killing projectile, against troops in the open—proved nearly useless and was replaced by the high-explosive shell which is able to pierce these overhead shelters and injure the occupants.
The truth is, operations degenerated into a struggle of wear and tear. So close did the lines draw to each other that antiquated war methods and weapons sprang into new life: hand grenades, knives, and even clubs became popular. Trench-mortars were used. Asphyxiating gases, in violation of The Hague Convention, were brought forward by the Germans, and afterward adopted in a retaliatory way by the Allies. Artillery took a position of first importance, as was natural.
The reason for this state of affairs is to be found, in part at least, in the air service. Here "blimps," or captive observation balloons, and air-planes equipped with wireless telephones and special cameras for photographing the enemy's position, soon made a surprise attack well-nigh impossible by either side.
On October 14, 1914, the first British troops reached Ypres. They comprised the immortal Seventh Division, under the command of General Rawlinson, and had landed at Ostend a few days before, since which they and some French formations had been busy covering the retreat of the Belgian army.
At this moment the Belgians, closely followed by General von Besseler's army of Germans, which had taken Antwerp and was advancing along the coast roads, were already near the Yser line. This line the Belgians were to hold, and French troops were being rallied up from the south to support them. True, the Belgian army was in a sad condition of inefficiency, yet it was believed—justly, as the result proved—that, with a little Allied assistance, they would be able to hold the Yser line.
The high command of the Allies also believed that between the German army approaching the Yser and the northern end of the main German front—which now extended from Switzerland to Lille,—there was a wide gap. This gap, it was thought, was squarely in front of Ypres, and extended from Menin to Roulers. Sir John French, British Field-Marshal, had sent Sir Douglas Haig north with the First Army Corps; Allenby's cavalry, already about Armentieres, was to cooperate with it; and this combined force, including the Seventh Division, after seizing the crossings of the Lys from Menin to Courtrai, was designed to turn the extreme flank of all the German armies, aim at their communications, and compel a retirement from the coast toward Brussels, which was not felt to be beyond reach of the Allies. Such a success would isolate von Besseler on the Yser, and probably lead to the capture of his army. In any event it would release Lille and the industrial regions of northern France, now firmly held by the German armies which had been brought north and west from the Aisne and Lorraine fronts. And in conformity with this strategy, Sir John French ordered General Rawlinson to move out of Ypres on October 17th, and seize the crossings of the Lys at Menin.
Once more, as at Mons, British information proved wholly out of accord with the facts. In approaching the region between Lys and the Yser, the Allies had less than one hundred thou-sand men. These were from Rawlinson's Seventh Division and some French cavalry units. On the other hand, the Germans were moving four corps and some other formations, totaling upwards of a half-million men, into this Ypres sector. Already aware of an impending change, but still unable to measure the extent of the threat, Rawlinson conformed to the imperious order of the French and the next day had the Seventh Division go to Zonnebeke.
On October 19th, this division sent out a brigade which actually reached the Roulers-Menin highroad, but there it encountered the advance guards of two German corps, and was compelled to fall back rapidly to Zonnebeke. This date thus marks the end of the advance towards Menin and the crossings of the Lys.
That same night Sir Douglas Haig reached Ypres, and the next day his First Army Corps came up. At once there arose the question as to whether his corps should be put in to the east to support the Seventh Division on the Messines-Zonnebeke Ridge north of the Menin Road, or sent north to cover the flank from Zonnebeke through Langemarck to Bixschoote. Unless it were sent to the support of the Seventh, there was now danger that General Rawlinson would be overwhelmed; but if it were sent thither, then a gap would open in the Allied line between Zonnebeke and the marshes. This would allow the Germans coming south through Langemarck, to outflank both the British and the Belgians, drive a wedge between them, and have an open road to Calais and Boulogne, and eventually to Paris.
Sir John French chose to risk the former peril. So he sent Haig north. When he was in position the Allied line from Switzerland to the sea was complete, but from the Lys to the Yser it was alarmingly thin, and for some days no reinforcements were available because the French troops which Joffre was sending up could not arrive before the 23rd—in fact, did not arrive until the 24th.
As the First Battle of Ypres begins, the British hold the front from the inundated district at Bixschoote along the Pilkem and Grafenstafel ridges to the Messines-Zonnebeke Ridge east of Zonnebeke, and thence south along the ridge through Becelaere and Zandevoorde to the Commines Canal. South of the canal Allenby's cavalry holds the Messines-Wytschaete sector with ridiculously insignificant cavalry screens.
The real battle opens October 20th—a battle so fierce and so filled with divers sanguine encounters that, in a work of the character of this volume, it is quite impossible to do much more than cover the general trend of events. As to the opening engagements it is enough to say that by October 22nd, it becomes clear that Sir John French's scheme of turning the German right in the neighborhood of Tourcoing is impracticable, for through the gap of west Flanders there is pouring a new German army, making more than a million Boche between Lille and the sea.
Thus the contemplated offensive of the Allies is closed early in the contest, and becomes now a purely defensive movement, and one against great odds, at that. The Germans are aiming at the Channel ports and the seaboard of northern France. If they attain their objective, the war in future will have to be conducted by the Allies under the gravest handicap. There are three possible routes for Germany to break through—along the sea coast, through the gate of La Bassée, and through the gate of Arras. Of these routes the best is the third and last, for success at Arras will result in cutting off a large part of the Allied forces. But all three are possible, and a concentration upon any one might give Germany the victory. For some unknown reason she dissipates her gigantic strength and attacks at all three points simultaneously. Devoutly thankful can be the Allies for this blunder, which is only one of many committed by the Central powers throughout the long war, and which helped to bring it to an earlier termination.
On the 23rd and 24th the arrival of the French Ninth Corps allows Sir Douglas Haig to bring his First Corps from the Pilkem-Grafenstafel to the Messines-Zonnebeke Ridge, and thus reinforce the Seventh Division which has largely been bearing the brunt of the German attacks and is now fast approaching the point of annihilation. But, despite their utmost efforts, the British are slowly but surely driven from the crest of the Messines-Zonnebeke, and on October 31st, their line is actually broken on the Menin Road, near Gheluvelt. This is the crisis of the whole battle. It is at this moment that Sir John French himself sends every available man to the front line. Even cooks, hostlers, chauffeurs, surgeons and chaplains are called upon and gladly respond.
But for an intercepted wireless message of the enemy's it is doubtful if the British would have been thus well prepared. This message disclosed the fact that the Germans were about to make their main effort to force an issue. Already the point of the salient—the "nose" of the loop formed by the lines of the defenders—has been smashed in, but the main danger lies in the two reëntrants, that to the north between Bixschoote and Zonnebeke and that to the south between Zandevoorde and Messines. The enemy, confident in his numbers, attacks both, also the point of the bastion in front of Gheluvelt.
The thin British lines have already been in constant action for more than a week, with very few reserves. They are very weary as they enter upon this critical and enormous struggle for the mastery. But their morale is high, their spirit indomitable. Rest assured they will give a good accounting of themselves. Even if defeated, rest assured of that!
The great battles of the world have not uncommonly been fought in places worthy of so fierce a drama. The mountains looked down upon Marathon and Thermopylae, Marengo, Solferino, and Plevna; mighty plains gave dignity to Châlons and Borodino; the magic of the desert encompassed Arbela and Omdurman; or some fantasy of the sky lent strangeness and glory to death, like the morning sun at Austerlitz, or the harvest moon at Chattanooga, against which was silhouetted Sheridan's memorable charge. But Ypres—Ypres was stark, naked, grim, below and above. The ground sweltered in harsh outline and harsher red blood; the heavens were leaden and foreboding. Nowhere was there a soothing touch to the grim picture. But hold! Yes, there was. And what a beautiful, what an inspiring sight it was, to see these brave men of the Allies march right into the maw of sure death, with a smile on their lips for the sake of their countrymen and the good of humanity at large!
But to go back to Sir John French's heroic efforts on the 31st of October to save the battle by calling in every type of man able to bear arms. Hard his army fought to retain their new ground. Charge after charge of the Germans is met and broken up. But slowly the British, against whom the enemy seem to have a special grudge, begins to weaken. A shell strikes the headquarters of the First and Second Divisions, and half the staff are killed or put out of action.
Between two and three o'clock that afternoon, the position seems desperate to Sir John French. Gheluvelt has been lost, and it now appears that before dark the German vanguard will be in Ypres. At this crisis General Charles Fitzclarence, V. C., commanding the First Brigade, gives an order on his own responsibility to the Second Division. As a result, the Second Worcesters come suddenly upon the right of the enemy advance, check their onslaught, retake Gheluvelt, and reform the line.
On November 1st, the Germans shift their attack to the Messines-Wytschaete front, and seize the southern end of that ridge. This is their greatest success in the whole battle. Henceforth the Germans, from the highest ground in the whole region, are able to look down upon the British rear and are in command of the British communications in and east of Ypres.
After November 1st, the battle continues with undiminished energy up to November 11th, when the celebrated Prussian Guard of the enemy makes its famous attack under the eye of Kaiser Wilhelm himself. The Guard is flung into the British line along the Menin road, and temporarily pierces it between Gheluvelt and Veldthook, but these crack enemy troops are soon overwhelmed and are practically annihilated.
A week later French reinforcements arrive, and the sorely-tried British troops are relieved from the trenches which they have stubbornly held for four weeks. The weather, at first dark and rainy, has changed to high winds and snow-storms. In one of the latter tempests, the First Battle of Ypres dies away.
Menin Road—showing effects of artillery fire.
Let me put this remarkable achievement of British arms in its simplest terms. As I have stated, between Lille and the sea the Germans had not less than a million men, and six of their fourteen army corps were of the first line. Against that part of this force which faced Ypres, the British opposed numbers which began with less than one hundred thousand and later often reached one hundred and fifty thousand. In the actual salient there were three divisions and some cavalry of Allies to face five army corps, three of the first line, of the enemy. For the better part of two days one British division held a front of eight miles against three of Germany's army corps!
In this mad mellay strange things happened. Units became hopelessly mixed, and officers had to fling into the breach whatever men they could collect. A subaltern often found himself in command of a battalion; a brigadier-general commanded a company or a division, as the Fates ordered. Indeed, at one time a certain brigadier had no less than thirteen battalions under him.
Many battalions were wiped out as fighting units, and had to be blended into other remnants to make a complete organization. For instance the Second Royal Scots Fusiliers, which had landed in Flanders over one thousand strong, came out with only seventy men commanded by a junior subaltern. In the famous Seventh Division, out of four hundred officers only forty-four were left, and out of twelve thousand men only two thousand. One divisional general, two brigadiers and nearly a dozen staff officers fell, and eighteen regiments and battalions lost their colonels. Scarcely a house famous in British history but mourned a son. Wyndham, Dawnay, Fitzclarence, Wellesley, Cadogan, Cavendish, Bruce, Fraser, Gordon-Lennox, Kinnaird, Hay, Hamilton—it was like scanning the death-roll after Agincourt or Flodden!
First Ypres was a decisive battle inasmuch as it wrecked that new German offensive plan which had been devised after the failure of the Marne. Like Albuera, it was a soldiers' battle, pure and simple, won by the dogged fighting quality of the rank and file rather than by any great tactical brilliance. There was no room, no time for ingenious tactics. More than once in the history of war we find a great army checkmated and bewildered strategically by one much smaller. A classic instance was Stonewall Jackson's performance in the spring and summer of 1862 when, in Colonel Henderson's own words, "one hundred and seventy-five thousand men were absolutely paralyzed by sixteen thousand."
It was the end of the old British army—for the future battles volunteers and drafted young men would be the rule—and a more noble culmination to a noble military history could not be imagined than this seemingly hopeless stand against a torrential invasion by a great and perfect war-machine.
If Fate had rendered the strategy of Marlborough impossible, General Sir John French had none the less fought his Malplaquet.
I am going to turn over the description of the Second Battle of Ypres to Paul Vondette, a participant. Young Vondette is a French-American—a boy born in France, but brought up in the United States. At the age of sixteen he left his home in eastern Michigan and joined the Sixty-Fifth Regiment of French-Canadians in Montreal, Canada. That was early in August, 1914. Within four weeks he was on the high seas, and four months later entered his first trench at Armentieres. Many strenuous battles did this lad go through. It is a miracle that his life was spared. But he has come back at the end of the Great War with three wound stripes upon his sleeve and the Croix de Guerre modestly tucked away in an inner pocket of his olive-drab uniform. This is his story:
I won't try to tell you of all I went through from the time our regiment left Montreal, September 25th, 1914, on board the Cunard liner Alunia, bound for Plymouth, England, till I finally brought up at Ypres early in the month of April, the following spring. It's enough, I think, to say that about half of my time had been put in training in Larkhill, and the remainder in working up to the front and in fighting the Fritzies at Richebourg, at Laventie, and at Neuve Chapelle.
At midnight of the eighth day of our little scrap at the last-named place, we were warned to get ready for marching again. We walked twenty-seven kilometers to Cassel, where General Dorrien, who was in charge of the battle when the English retreated from Mons in the early part of the war, told us that he was going to take charge of the whole Canadian division, and that our regiment would be transferred to another army corps. He gave us three days' rest, and told us we were to occupy French trenches at Ypres, where a fierce battle had been fought the previous fall.
Ypres is the graveyard of the old Seventh Division. We were carried to within six miles of the place in London buses, twenty-five men in a bus. We met there the Canadian Scottish Third Brigade of five thousand men, also the gallant French troops. My company was on the left of the English line, so that we acted as interpreters between the French and the English. A roadway ten yards wide separated the two lines, and a tunnel ran from the English to the French lines.
Before saying any more about our neighbors it will be best for me to make some explanations as to the situation about Ypres. The close of the First Battle saw the Allies holding one of the most remarkable positions in all the front from Belfort to Nieuport. Pushed eastward from Ypres was a sausage-shaped salient or bulge. It extended north-northeast to its greatest depth at Grafenstafel, six miles from Ypres. The base of this salient was the Ypres-Commines-Yser Canal, and between the two points where the German line touched the canal, north and south of Ypres, was barely seven miles. The Boche had possession of the Messines and Wytschaete hills to the southward, and this gave them direct observation and a fine artillery sweep of the whole rear of the salient. But north of the canal the British still clung to the western slope of the ridge all the way from the vicinity of Gheluvelt to a point east of Zonnebeke; likewise from Zonnebeke westward they held both the Grafenstafel and Pilkem ridges as far as the western limits of Langemarck. Between Langemarck and the canal at Steenstrate a division of French Colonials was in line.
In April of this year the British were preparing for their subsequent offensive southward near La Bassée. The French had recalled their best troops from this front to participate in Foch's great Artois operation, and most of the few heavy British guns—I tell you they were few in those early days!—had likewise gone south. Nobody looked for any German didoes to be kicked up in the Ypres section—at least none of consequence. But right there is where everybody got nicely fooled.
I think it was on April 17th that the British, having decided to attempt to get possession of Hill 60, exploded a mine under the Fritzies in that locality, and followed it up with a hard attack. This so-called hill is not much more than a respectable little mound, and is located near the point where the Ypres-Commines Canal crossed the battle-front. Hill 60 was taken, but the British were not allowed to retain it in peace, and heavy counter-attacks on the part of the Germans came often during the course of the next few days.
Don't forget that Ypres was still a city in which civilian life went on as blissfully as before the war. The inhabitants had become so used to the sound of guns and the whir of an occasional shell that they paid no attention to a new outbreak of minor character.
But, say, a change was due in that burg mighty soon! On Tuesday, the 10th, there suddenly began a furious bombardment from the enemy that would have made you think all the world was being turned upside down had you been there. The biggest pills the Heinies had were tossed into the town—and fast, too. Children were killed at play, and some in their homes where they had run for refuge. Old men and old women were slaughtered before they could get off the streets. Of course there was a scamper by everybody that could walk or be put into a conveyance and trundled, for the protection of the surrounding hills.
It was only a little while before Ypres was a heap of ruins. It surely was a wretched sight—those shell-torn buildings, with bricks and mortar and splinters of wood scattered over the fair streets—as we saw it later on. The angering part of it all was, the destruction of the town served no military object in itself, without it were to block our communications against a coming attack, as the city was the neck of the bottle-like salient and through it all the roads passed to our lines within. Anyhow, the Allied command took this view of the bombardment, and later events proved it correct.
I can never forget the evening of Thursday, the 22nd. It was very calm and pleasant, with a light but steady breeze blowing from the north-east which cooled us immeasurably whenever we chose to take a chance on a German bullet and stick our heads above the trenches for a brief moment. About six-thirty our observers reported that a strange, greenish-colored vapor was moving over toward the French trenches in the northern angle, which was some little way from our quarters. Then, as the night closed in and the great shells still rained upon Ypres, there were strange and awful scenes between the canal and the Pilkem road. Back through the dusk came a stream of French soldiers, blinded, coughing, clutching at their throats, wild with terror. Those diabolical Fritzies had let loose upon them some new form of black deviltry which they could not understand and before which they broke and fled in a panic that no human being likewise placed could have withstood. Behind them they left hundreds of their comrades stricken and dead, with froth on their lips and horrible blue faces staring up at the night sky.
The rout surged over the canal, and the road to Vlamertinghe was choked with broken infantry and galloping gun teams without guns. Some of the Zouaves and Turcos fled due south towards the Langemarck road, and in the early darkness came upon our Canadian reserve battalions. With amazement the Canadians of my company saw the wild, dark faces of the new-corners, saw their heaving chests, saw their lips essay to speak but remain mute in silent agony. Then our men, too, sniffed something peculiar in the breeze. This something gripped at their throats and made them deadly sick in a few minutes.
At this time I and a companion were not in our trench, as we had been sent out a short time before to examine the wire entanglements of the enemy. We heard a sound as of some one handling pipes, but in the darkness discovered nothing. Then, suddenly, the Boche sent up their flares—skyrockets whose bursting bombs turned night into daylight—in an effort to discover if any enemy prowlers were about their domain. Instantly we dropped into a friendly shell-hole and lay perfectly still.
After that the rockets and star-shells went up so often that we gave up getting any nearer the German lines as a hopeless task, and started to crawl back. When we had almost reached our trench another big flare burst right over us, and we had to lie still until the welcome darkness gave us an opportunity to drop back into the trench with our comrades.
But it was an awful sight we had come back to. As I dropped to the bottom of the trench I came down upon the dead body of a young chap who had been one of my best friends ever since I left Canada. The terrible, mysterious stuff loosed by the Germans had got this fine, robust fellow—my own buddie—during my absence. In my grief I threw my arms about him and tried to call him back to life. But there was no longer anything human-looking about that ghastly, bluish face with the protruding eyeballs which stared up at me. I let go of the limp body, shuddering, and staggered back. In the brief few months I had been in the trenches at the front I had witnessed many a tragic death, and had become enured to such things. But this—this way of dying seemed so ignominious, so horrible—for a brave soldier, a soldier such as poor Dan, Dan who I knew would have gone into the very pit of hell itself if thereby he could save one other life!
However, Dan had not been a sacrifice to his country alone. As I regained control of myself and looked about me I saw on every side dead men and dying men. Eyes of the living were rolling, their faces drawn and twitching and terrible to behold there in the gray light of night. "Water! Water! I'm choking! Air! Air! Air!" From everywhere about me those pleading cries were going up. What a frightful thing it is to hear your friends taking on like that! Right before my eyes one poor chap was dying—rolling upon the ground as if mad—tearing at his chest. In a little while it was all over, his sufferings past, thank God! But his fingers were crooked after death, his body covered with blue blotches, his mouth ghostly white. Even as I turned from him, another unhappy wretch went reeling into the mud at the bottom of the trench. Like a maniac he thrust a dirty handkerchief into the slimy earth, and fell to frantically sucking the moisture from the crumpled cloth.
All this time the bullets of the relentless enemy were zing-zinging over my head, as a reminder to keep low. There was a mighty swelling from an organ more sonorous than ever played by human organist. The rockets were bursting fitfully, the flares shedding white patches of light over the torn ground beneath. Our "coffee-grinders" were put-put-put-putting away in heavy retaliation, finding many a Boche mark, and levying a grim tax of death upon those devils who had introduced us so disastrously to the cowardly gas.
Suddenly I began to experience a stinging in my nose. At once I realized the situation: while the gas clouds were no longer coming over, some of the fumes still lingered in our trench and had assailed me. A moment later my eyes began to water and run. When I breathed I breathed fire, not air. It seemed, presently, that I would suffocate. I tore open my shirt at the throat for relief. There seemed to be a million needles and razors in it, and that I was drinking boiling tea over the raw sores. My head swam, and I was half-blind. Desperately I struggled up out of the trench, and threw myself flat upon the cool turf of the parapet, caring not if the Fritzies did pick me off so long as they ended my agony, or so long as I could get one good whiff of pure air.
Luckily for me I had inhaled very little of the gas. Luckily, too, the flares of the Germans were not then directed in my quarter. For fifteen minutes or more I lay there, my face buried in the coolness of a tuft of dewy grass, my pain gradually subsiding and strength returning. All this while German bullets whistled over my body in random shots towards our trench, but only one hit me, and this for a slight flesh wound in the left forearm which I did not discover till sometime later.
After a little while, just as I was thinking of trying the trench again, out sprang a lot of my comrades. They were off and by me, going madly toward the enemy trenches with a loud hurrah. I could not resist the impulse to join them. I believe if I had had to creep forward I would have gone. But I didn't. I found I could stand pretty well, and run pretty well, so going back into the trench after my gun, I followed quickly after them. An ecstatic confidence buoyed me up. It seemed to me that my life was charmed; that the bullet had not been moulded, the shrapnel not loaded, the gas not mixed, which would place me hors de combat. I felt unusually brave. I think this was because I was so sure of life.
My platoon, I found when I came up with it, was under a withering fire. As if under the scythe of some mighty husbandman the men about me were crumpling and melting away. All of the imps of Satan seemed to have risen from the bowels of the earth and to be pouring over us seething flame and molten lead. The ground was kicked up everywhere by exploding shells. The mitrailleuses vomited death.
Our thinned lines gave a yell of joy. I saw a black hole in the ground. Sergeant Albert Levan shouted, "Into their trench!" There was so much noise I could scarcely hear him. I leaped in. Four Germans were trying to escape on the further side. I did not fire, intending to take them prisoners. But the only thing I took was a hard blow on the side of the head from another and an unseen Boche, and away went my prospective prisoners! But the Boche who hit me with his gunstock was not with them. I got him, anyhow. As he came up to finish me, a jab of my bayonet did the business.
I crawled up the trench a few feet, and came upon two men trying to strangle each other. I thought, then, of motion pictures I had watched back home. Here was a more terrible drama than ever the movie camera showed.
A bayonet charge is a street fight magnified and made ten thousand times more fierce. At close range it becomes almost impossible to use your bayonet. So it was with us at times there in that Heine trench. We fought more than half the time with fists and feet, using our guns as clubs when we could.
We lay in our prize trench for about four hours. The boys, excited because they still lived and were masters of that dirty ditch, sang and jested, as if in a drawing-room, and told of queer experiences and narrow escapes they had met.
By ten o'clock came the news that the British had lost four machine guns, and we were asked to help recapture them. I was one of twenty-one from my company who volunteered to go. So we joined men from the Tenth and Sixteenth Battalions, and at eleven o'clock prepared to storm the wood where the guns were said to be.
We had only forty yards of open ground to cover, but the German artillery and machine-guns worked havoc among us. I tell you, it did not take us long to cover that forty yards!
We were soon in the wood, where it was so dark that we could hardly distinguish friend from foe.
I ran in and out among the trees, and asked every one I met who he was. In this way I came upon one big fellow. My mouth opened to ask him who he was, when his fist shot out and took me between the eyes. I went over like a ten-pin, but I retained logic enough in my reeling brain to figure out who he was now. He was a German! I got up as quickly as I could, you may be sure, and swung my rifle to hit him in the head, but the stock struck a tree and splintered. I thought I had broken all my fingers. The big German made himself scarce. I guess he thought I was going to use one of the splinters on him next!
I wandered about until I found three wounded men in that gloom. These I took to be French. One by one I carried them back into our trench. As I brought in the last one, the officer said, "You are doing good work, Vondette." I blushed like a school-girl, and asked him why he thought so. His answer just about took the life clear out of me: "When we put the light on these fellows you have brought in we found they were Germans! I take it for granted this is another, my boy." And so it proved. Well, anyhow, I am glad I saved those pesky Fritzies. I guess I would have done so had I known their nationality. For we were all trained to give a wounded man help, whether he were friend or foe.
We found our machine-guns—that is, the pieces of them that were left when the retreating Germans destroyed them. Our sacrifice of men had largely been in vain.
Before morning we were relieved by a British regiment and marched back to our billets to have a rest. I slept all the rest of the night and until eleven o'clock the next morning. It was the first real rest I had had in forty-eight hours, with only a slice of raw bacon and a piece of bread to eat.
But to go back to that first terrible night—the first time in the history of the Great War that any faction had faced the awful chlorine gas of the Germans. The immediate result of the panic was, a four-mile breach in the Allied line between Langemarck and the canal. The German road to Ypres was at last open. The black troops had fled south and west, toward Ypres and across the canal.
East of the French-Colonial division were the Canadians. When the French troops fled, the Canadian flank was left in the air, while the Canadians were themselves exposed to gas fumes and suffered severe losses from this cause. Yet, despite all the trying circumstances, the plucky Canadians hung on. They drew back their left flank, forming in a half-circle. Desperately they fought on, for many hours holding back the onrush of exultant Germans. And right here, on this very front, the Canadian contingent won their right to rank with the old British Army which had held the Ypres position in the autumn. Sharing in this privilege were their Anzac brethren, from Australia and New Zealand, who were soon to win equal glory at Gallipoli.
The next morning, Friday, April 23rd, was critical in the extreme. The Germans had forced the crossing of the Yser Canal between Boesinghe and Steenstrate and taken Lizerne. Already they were in possession of Langemarck and Pilkem, and crowding the roads from these towns to Ypres itself. Could they push on for three miles more, Ypres would be in their hands, and all the troops in the salient east of Ypres would be caught like rats in a trap. It's hard to state why they did not do this. Some say a part of it is due to the bravery of the Canadians and their British supports, and others declare the real reason is that the Germans had not expected so tremendous a success with their dastardly chemical and lacked reserves at the decisive point at the favorable moment. A better chance than the British had had at Neuve Chapelle, therefore, slipped through their fingers.
In the next few days the situation slowly improved. But it remained critical, nevertheless, throughout the first days of May. First the French threw the Germans back to the east bank of the canal. At the same time the British brought up troops from all points of their line and succeeded in closing the big gap between the canal and the right flank of our own Canadians.
Even the Belgians, from their side of the Yser River, sent over reinforcements. Meantime the German heavy artillery finished destroying the beautiful buildings of Ypres, and the British army suffered from shell-fire as it had not suffered even in the first bloody days of the battle about Ypres the previous year. To this heavy gun-fire it had neither the artillery nor the ammunition to make answer.
By the first of May—the day on which the Germans were to win their great victory of the Dunajec—it was plain that the old Ypres salient could no longer be held. By now it had become a rectangle three miles wide and six miles long, thrust forth into the Boche lines. From the Pilkem Ridge as well as from the Messines-Wytschaete Ridge the enemy had a clean sweep over British communications. From their height they also commanded our position, and delighted in raking us all day with machine-gun fire. Looking through my periscope, I counted between four and five hundred unburied German dead lying between the lines. They had lain there as they fell, days before, since neither side had given the other a chance to come out in the open and take away the dead for burial.
Realizing the futility of holding out any longer, the British, during the second week of May, reluctantly drew back from the Grafenstafel Ridge, from Zonnebeke, from all the ridge between the Roulers Railway and the Menin Road, and occupied a new front in a narrow semi-circle rather more than a mile east of Ypres.
Almost all the high ground was now lost. All the salvage of the First Battle, defended with such gallantry and obstinacy, was surrendered. Second Ypres had been far more costly than the First in territory given up, but this was due almost wholly to the costly gas attack and the consequent rout of the French troops. On May 13th the Second Battle of Ypres closed. Up to that time the Fritzies made other attempts to use chlorine gas, but after that first dreadful experience with it the Allies invented a mask which thereafter robbed it of its worst power.
What little the Germans had gained in this fight was afterward all regained by the Allies in August and September, 1917, when the entire salient was abolished.
The battle lasted close to a month. When it was over they called a roll of our regiment. There were five hundred of us when we left Montreal. As the commander went down the sheet, name after name met with no response. There was a terrible hush, and when a chap did answer, almost in a whisper, it sounded like a thunderclap. I hate to say it, but only twenty of us were there to speak for ourselves. The rest—poor fellows—had gone to join the roll up Yonder.