CHAPTER XI.

THE ATTACK ON MOUNT SORREL.

Summer, 1916.



    EASTER Day, 1916, fell on the 23rd of April, and a great many interesting facts were connected with it. The 23rd of April is St. George’s Day. It is also the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and of his death, and also of the 2nd Battle of Ypres. The day was a glorious one. The air was sweet and fresh, the grass was the brightest green, hedgerows and trees were in leaf, and everybody was in high spirits. After services in St. George’s church I rode over to Poperinghe and attended a memorial service which the 1st Brigade were holding in the Cinema. General Mercer, who himself was killed not long afterwards, was one of the speakers. The building was crowded with men, and the service was very solemn.
    Life at this time was very pleasant, except for the fact that we never knew what might happen when we were in the Salient. We always felt that it was a death-trap, and that the Germans would never give up trying to capture Ypres. I was kept busy riding about, visiting the different units. Round about Hooggraaf the spring roads were very attractive, and the numerous short cuts through the fields and under the overhanging trees reminded one of country life at home.
    One day Dandy bolted as I was mounting him, and I fell on some bath mats breaking a bone in my hand and cutting my face in several places. This necessitated my being sent up to the British C. C.S. at Mont des Cats. Mont des Cats was a picturesque hill which overlooked the Flanders Plain, and could be seen from all parts of the Salient. On the top there was a Trappist monastery. The buildings were modern and covered a large extent of ground. They were solidly built of brick and stone and the chapel was a beautiful building with a high vaulted roof. From the top of the hill, a magnificent view of the country could be obtained, to the North as far as the sea, and to the East as far as our trenches, where we could see the shells bursting.
    Mont des Cats hospital was a most delightful temporary home. There was a large ward full of young officers, who were more or [Page 128] less ill or damaged. In another part of the building were wards for the men. From the O.C. downwards everyone in the C.C.S. was the soul of kindness, and the beautiful buildings with their pleasant grounds gave a peculiar charm to the life. My room was not far from the chapel, and every night at two a.m. I could hear the old monks chanting their offices. Most of the monks had been conscripted and were fighting in the French army; only a few of the older ones remained. But by day and night at stated intervals the volume of their prayer and praise rose up above the noise of war, just as it had risen through the centuries of the past. There were beautiful gardens which the monks tended carefully, and also many grape vines on the walls. We used to watch the silent old men doing their daily work and making signs to one another instead of speaking. In the evening I would make my way up the spiral staircase to the west-end gallery, which looked down upon the chapel. The red altar lamp cast a dim light in the sacred building, and every now and then in the stillness I could hear, like the roar of a distant sea, the sound of shells falling at the front. The mysterious silence of the lofty building, with the far off reverberations of war thrilling it now and then, was a solace to the soul.
    A smaller chapel in the monastery, with a well-appointed altar, was allotted by the monks to the chaplain for his services. While I was at Mont des Cats we heard of the death of Lord Kitchener. The news came to the Army with the force of a stunning blow; but thank God, the British character is hardened and strengthened by adversity, and while we all felt his loss keenly and looked forward to the future with anxiety, the determination to go on to victory was made stronger by the catastrophe. As the chaplain of the hospital was away at the time, I held a memorial service in the large refectory. Following upon the death of Lord Kitchener came another disaster. The Germans in the beginning of June launched a fierce attack upon the 3rd Division, casing many casualties and capturing many prisoners. General Mercer was killed, and a brigadier was wounded and taken prisoner. To make matters worse, we heard of the battle of Jutland, the first report of which was certainly disconcerting. We gathered from it that our navy had suffered a great reverse. The death of Lord Kitchener, the naval reverse, and the fierce attack on our front, following one another in such a short space of time, called for great steadiness of nerve and coolness of head. I felt that the hospital was no place [Page 129] for me when Canadians were meeting reverses at the front, especially as the First Division was ordered to recapture the lost trenches. I telephoned to my good friend, Colonel Brutenell, the C.O. of the Motor Machine-Gun Brigade, and asked him to send me a side-car to take me forward. He had always in the past shown me much kindness in supplying me with means of locomotion. Colonel Brutenell was an old country Frenchman with the most courteous manners. When I first discovered that he was the possessor of side-cars, I used to obtain them by going over to him and saying, “Colonel, if you will give me a side-car I will recite you one of my poems.” He was to polite at first to decline to enter into the bargain, but, as time went on, I found that the price I offered began to lose its value, and sometimes the side-cars were not forthcoming. It then became necessary to change my plan of campaign, so I hit upon another device. I used to walk into the orderly room and say in a raucous voice, “Colonel, if you don’t give me a side-car I will recite one of my poems.” I found that in the long run this was the most effectual method. On the present occasion, therefore, the side-car was sent to me, and I made my way to Wippenhoek and from thence up the dressing station at Vlamertinghe. Here our wounded were pouring in. Once again Canada was reddening the soil of the Salient wither best blood. It was indeed an anxious time. That evening, however, a telegram was received by the O.C. of the Ambulance saying that the British fleet had sunk twenty or thirty German vessels, and implying that what we had thought was a naval reverse was really a magnificent naval victory. I do not know who sent the telegram, or on what foundation in fact it was based. I think that somebody in authority considered it would be well to cheer up our men with a piece of good news. At any rate all who were at the dressing station believed it, and I determined to carry a copy of the telegram with me up to the men in the line. I started off on one of the ambulances for Railway Dugouts. Those ambulance journeys through the town of Ypres after midnight were things to be remembered. The desolate ruins of the city stood up black and grim. The road was crowded with men, lorries, ambulances, transports and motorcycles. Every now and then the scene of desolation would be lit up by gun flashes. Occasionally the crash of a shell would shake the already sorely smitten city. I can never cease to admire the pluck of those ambulance drivers, who night after [Page 130] night, backwards and forwards, threaded their way in the darkness through the ghost-haunted streets. One night when the enemy’s guns were particularly active, I was being driven by a young boy only eighteen years of age. Sitting beside him on the front seat, I told him how much I admired his nerve and coolness. He turned to me quite simply and said that he was not afraid. He just put himself in God’s hands and didn’t worry. When he came afterwards to Headquarters and drove our side-car he never minded where he went or how far towards the front he took it. I do not know where he is in Canada, but I know that Canada will be the better for having such a boy as one of her citizens.
    When I arrived at Railway Dugouts, I found that there was great activity on all sides, but my message about our naval victory had a most stimulating effect and I had the courage to wake up no less than three generals to tell them the good news. They said they didn’t’ care how often they were awakened for news like that. I then got a runner, and was making my way up to the men in the front line when the Germans put on an attack. The trench that I was in became very hot, and, as I had my arm in a sling and could not walk very comfortably or do much in the way of dodging, the runner and I thought it would be wiser to return, especially as we could not expect the men, then so fully occupied, to listen to our message of cheer. We made our way back as best we could to Railway Dugouts, and telephoned the news to the various battalion headquarters. The telegram was never confirmed, and I was accused of having made it up myself. It certainly had a wholesome effect upon our men at a critical and anxious moment.
    We had a hard time in retaking the lost ground. Gallant were the charges which were made in broad daylight in the face of heavy machine-gun fire. In preparation for the attack, our men had to lie under the cover of broken hedges for twenty-four hours, living only on the iron rations which they carried with them. I went up one morning when one of our battalions had just come out after a hard fight. The men were in a shallow trench, ankle deep in mud and water. As they had lost very heavily, the Colonel put me in charge of a burial party. We buried a number of bodies but were stopped at last at the entrance of Armagh Wood, which the Germans were at the time heavily shelling, and we had to postpone the performance of our sad duty till things were quieter. [Page 131]
    Still in spite of reverses, the spirits of our men never declined. They were full of rebound, and quickly recovered themselves. As one looks back to that period of our experience, all sorts of pictures, bright and somber, crowd the mind—the Square at Poperinghe in the evening, the Guards’ fife and drum bands playing tattoo in the old town while hundreds of men looked on; the dark station of Poperinghe in the evening, and the battalions being sent up to the front in railway trucks; the old mill at Vlamertinghe with the reception room for the wounded, and the white tables on which the bleeding forms were laid; the dark streets of Ypres, rank with the poisonous odours of shell gas; the rickety horse-ambulances bearing their living freight over the shell broken roads from Bedford House and Railway Dugouts; the walking wounded, with bandaged arms and heads, making their way slowly and painfully down the dangerous foot-paths; all these pictures flash before the mind’s eye, each with its own appeal, as one looks back upon those awful days. The end was not in sight then. The war, we were told, was going to be a war of attrition. It was to be a case of “dogged does it.” Under the wheels of the car of the great Juggernaut our men had to throw themselves, till the progress of the car was stayed. How peaceful were the little cemeteries where lay those warriors who had entered into rest. But how stern was the voice from the sleeping dead to carry on undismayed.
    The Canadian Corps seemed to have taken root in the Salient, and, after the severe fighting had ended, things went on as if we were to have a long residence round Ypres. In looking over the notes in my diary for June and July, I see a great many records of visits to different units. How well one remembers the keen active life which made that region a second Canada. There was the small town of Abeele, where our Corps Headquarters were, and where our new commander, General Byng, had his house. Not far away, up the road, was the grenade school where the troops were instructed in the gentle art of bomb-throwing. We had our divisional rest-camp in a pleasant spot, where our men were sent to recuperate. The following is a typical Sunday’s work at this time:—Celebration of Holy Communion at St. George’s Church at eight a.m., Parade Service for the Division at nine fifteen a.m., followed by a second Celebration of Holy Communion at ten a.m., Parade Service followed by Holy Communion for a Battalion at Connaught lines at eleven a.m., service for the divisional rest-camp [Page 132] at three p.m., service at the Grenade School at four p.m., service outside St. George’s Church for the Divisional Train six-thirty p.m., service for the 3rd Field Ambulance and convalescent camp at eight-forty-five p.m. On week-days too, we had to arrange many services for units which had come out of the line. It was really a life full of activity and interest. It filled one with a thrill of delight to be able to get round among the men in the trenches, where the familiar scenery Sanctuary Wood, Armagh Wood, Maple Copse and the Ravine will always remain impressed upon one’s memory. Often when I have returned to my hut at night, I have stood outside in the darkness, looking over the fields towards the front, and as I saw the German flares going up, I said to myself, “Those are the foot-lights of the stage on which the world’s greatest drama is being enacted.” One seemed to be taking part, however humbly, in the making of human history. But it was a grievous thing to think of the toll of life that the war forced upon us and the suffering that it involved. The brave patient hearts of those at home were continually in our thoughts, and we always felt that the hardest burden was laid upon them. They had no excitement; they knew not the comradeship and the exaltation of feeling which came to those who were in the thick of things at the front. They had to go on day by day bearing their burden of anxiety, quietly and patiently in faith and courage. To them our men were always ready to give the palm of the victors. [Page 133]