The full story of the great deeds of our gallant Canadian troops cannot be told in this chapter. Their acts of heroism are so numerous and glorious that it would require many chapters to do justice to them. The superb stand of Princess Patricia's Light Infantry, the dauntless courage of the Canadian Contingent at Ypres, their famous fight for 'The Orchard' at Festubert—these are but some of the engagements in which our brave soldiers from over 'the herring-pond ' won undying renown.
When war broke out Canada echoed from east to west, from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean, with the sound of military preparations. The utmost enthusiasm prevailed, and nowhere in the whole Empire was seen greater eagerness to fight for the Motherland than was shown in the land of the Maple Leaf. Cowboys, trappers, and log-rollers hurried from the Far West to the recruiting offices. Clerks in big towns left their ledgers, students packed away their books, and the pioneer on the lonely trail set out on his long journey to join the Overseas Force. Nothing could daunt these young sons of Empire in their eagerness to fight. Some tramped hundreds of miles and swam rivers in order to be in time to join the first contingent of Canadian troops sailing to Europe. When all were ready, and after the strong, thick-limbed giants had been 'licked into shape,' the Canadian Armada set sail.
It was one of the most impressive sights ever seen. Thirty-two transports left the Canadian shores, carrying some of the finest and bravest fighters the world has known. Many, alas! saw Canada for the last time as the coast-line receded in the distance. The ships crossed the Atlantic in three parallel lines, guarded by British cruisers. A warship always led the way; during daytime others steamed out of sight, watching a wide expanse of ocean for the possible appearance of hostile ships. At night the cruisers came close to the transports—like a mother-hen gathering the little chicks under her wing.
The Canadians arrived at Plymouth in the late autumn and proceeded to Salisbury Plain for some months' further training. The chief thing many of them remembered in connection with that famous military twining-centre was the winter mud!—but excellent practice in shooting and marching and all the various arts of war helped to keep them fully employed. The spring of 1915 saw them installed at the front, where they soon met the Germans face to face.
The first big battle in which the Canadians were engaged was the terrible second battle of Ypres. Defeated in their terrific attempt to break through the Allied lines to Calais in the autumn of 1914, the Germans made an equally futile endeavour in April 1915. They foolishly boasted at the beginning of that month that they would be in Calais by April 24, and it is very significant that the four days, April 22-25, saw their fiercest effort. On the Canadians fell the full brunt of this desperate attack, and during these days three Victoria Crosses were gained.
It was at the second battle of Ypres that the Germans first used asphyxiating gas, thus setting at nought the recognized rules of civilized warfare. By means of this poison gas they were able to penetrate the French line between Steenstraate and Langemarck on April 22. The success laid bare the left of the Canadian Division, which was forced to fall back in order to keep in touch with the neighbouring troops. By midnight on April 22 they had fallen back to St Julien. In the rear of the French four Canadian 4.7 in. guns had been posted, and these had passed into the hands of the enemy. But some hours later the Canadians made a most brilliant and successful advance, recapturing their guns and taking a considerable number of German prisoners. The Colonials suffered heavy loss, but their gallantry and determination undoubtedly prevented disaster. In the words of the official report, "Their conduct was magnificent throughout."
The first of the three Canadian V.C.s was won on April 23 in the neighbourhood of St Julien, a little village some few miles north-east of Ypres, where a battle was fought, one of the series to which the name Battle of Ypres has been given. In the war of to-day, a battle is really a series of battles, so extended is the area of fighting, and St Julien was as determined a battle as Cressy or Agincourt.
With the retreat of the French, things looked black for the Canadians. It left the enemy a clear road to Ypres, the town they had for so long been struggling desperately to enter. Had the Germans been able to reach it, one important step along the road to Calais would have been accomplished, and incidentally the Canadian trenches would have been cut off from all assistance. In this emergency every man of the Canadian Contingent was summoned to hold the Germans back. Those in billets were rushed up to St Julien to relieve their comrades. The worst thing these gallant fighters had to contend with was the poison gas. They watched the wall of green vapour roll out of the German trenches and float toward them. They dipped their handkerchiefs in pools of rain-water, and, tying them over their mouths, waited. The horrible cloud drew nearer and nearer, and behind it the incessant crack of many rifles told that the enemy were advancing. Many of the gallant Canadians imbibed painful draughts of the chlorine gas. Some fell back, others lay on the ground writhing in agony, the rest kept the Germans back with rifle and machine-gun fire. Among the last was Lance-Corporal Frederick Fisher, of the 13th Battalion.
Fisher had charge of a machine-gun and, seeing his comrades in a serious predicament, he gallantly came to their assistance, although he had received enough of the poisonous fumes to make fighting difficult.
A battery of artillery had been forced to retire. Seeing their advantage, the Germans dashed forward and would have killed or taken prisoner the whole of the battery's crew, but for the prompt bravery of Lance-Corporal Fisher. He went forward with his machine-gun, under heavy fire, and got it to work. For some time he poured a deadly stream of lead into the ranks of the advancing Germans. Shells from their heavy guns made huge holes in the ground all round the machine-gun. Fisher was spattered with dirt, and pieces of shell struck the ground only a few feet from where he knelt at his gun. Nevertheless, he continued firing, heedless of all danger, until he had the satisfaction of seeing his comrades of the battery safely in the rear. He had not only covered their retreat, but caused heavy loss among the ranks of the enemy. He himself came out of this terrible ordeal without a wound, although four brave men of his gun team were lost.
After seeing the battery safe, Fisher went toward the rear, not to escape further danger, but to find four more men to take the places of those who had been killed. Having secured these men, Fisher returned to the firing-line. He knew reinforcements were on their way to take the place of the Canadians who had retired, and solely on his own initiative he went again to the firing-line to cover the advance of these supports. The enemy's shell-fire continued as fierce as ever, but the brave lance-corporal defied death to help his comrades. He had just got his machine-gun into action when he was killed.
On the following day, the 24th, it fell to a member of the 8th Canadian Battalion to carry off the soldier's highest honour. April 23 had been a trying day for the Canadians, the next day was even worse. The 8th Battalion had been in the first line trenches on the 23rd, and, in spite of a very terrible experience of the greenish gas, had held on grimly. This was the battalion which, when the Germans were heard coming on behind the gas, jumped to their posts, although half-suffocated with the poisonous fumes, and in the words of one of their number, "Made their rifles speak out 'No Surrender.'"
On April 24 the poison was again let loose by the Germans, and the most awful shell-fire witnessed at the front was experienced, yet the Canadians held on, determined to do or die. The Germans had been ordered to take Ypres at all costs, and they came on in dense masses, firing their rifles under the shelter of the gas clouds.
Sergeant-Major Frederick William Hall had charge of a company of men. These, inspired by his noble example, held their ground, although man after man fell dead, victims of the German rifle and machine-gun fire. They proved themselves real heroes, and Hall was the greatest among them. As he urged his men to stand firm in the trench, Hall suddenly heard a call for help. He risked looking over the parapet of the trench and saw a wounded man lying some fifteen yards away. Despite a heavy enfilading fire he rushed from the trench and endeavoured to reach the stricken man. His first attempt failed, and a non-commissioned officer and private soldier who endeavoured to assist him were both wounded.
Hall himself escaped, but the fate of his comrades had not lessened his desire to effect the rescue, and he made a second most gallant attempt. By an almost miraculous stroke of fortune, he succeeded in reaching the wounded man. Stooping down, the sergeant-major quickly and gently took him into his arms and started back. He had just reached the trench, and in another minute would have been safely over the parapet, when he was shot in the head and fell dead. Like his countryman, Lance-Corporal Fisher, he had died on the battle-field for Canada and Empire.
Of the three Canadian winners of the V.C. at the battle of Ypres Captain Francis Alexander Carm Scrimger, the medical officer attached to the 14th Battalion of the Royal Montreal Regiment, alone lived to wear the coveted medal. Throughout the fierce fighting of April 22-25 at St Julien, Captain Scrimger displayed continuously day and night the greatest devotion to his duty among the wounded.
On the afternoon of the 25th there was very fierce fighting, and the brave Canadian doctor had his hands full in tending the wounded. He was in charge of an advanced dressing-station in some farm buildings. The enemy commenced a very heavy bombardment of the temporary hospital, and the inmates were in imminent risk of being killed. To their agony of body succeeded mental anguish. They were in danger of being again struck by the deadly missiles. Captain Scrimger remained perfectly cool and was able to quiet the fears of his wounded charges. He gave orders for their removal, and went about wholly unconcerned amid the falling shells, assisting the orderlies.
A Canadian officer, Captain McDonald, was standing in front of a stable when he was wounded seriously in the neck and shoulder. Captain Scrimger saw him fall, and promptly dragged him into the building, where he dressed his wounds. Rather than leave the officer to die there, the gallant doctor carried him out and down to a moat about fifty feet distant, where they lay half under water. Captain Scrimger curled his body round the head and shoulders of the wounded man to protect him. They were under heavy shell-fire all the time, and the doctor risked his own life by staying with Captain McDonald. When the fire slackened Captain Scrimger went out to find the stretcher-bearers and brought them back. In a short time they had removed Captain McDonald to the safety of the dressing-station. "No one," says the latter, "could have shown more coolness and courage under fire, and no-one ever deserved the V.C. more thoroughly than he did." To Captain Scrimger's self-sacrifice, Captain McDonald owes the fact that he is alive to-day.