Read CHAPTER XV of The Red Watch With the First Canadian Division in Flanders , free online book, by J. A. Currie, on ReadCentral.com.

THE FLARE-LIT TRENCHES OF FROMELLES

Next day I started out on foot with an officer of each of my companies to go to the headquarters of the Seventh Division. We got a motor bus where the railways cross the Armentieres road. Our Brigadier and Staff were all there, and we rode out to a big farmhouse where the conference was held. As we went along the road we could hear the Maxims going like air rivetters. The Germans were shelling Armentieres which has been shelled again and again. They threw two shells a couple of blocks away from where I was quartered. When the Germans start shelling the people take to their cellars. The Germans are great on killing children. Priests are also a specialty of theirs. At the last town where we were quartered they were being run out by the English, and they wanted the church tower for a machine gun position. They asked the Cure, an old man, for the keys of the church tower and he refused to give them up to them. He was at once taken out and shot. They broke into the tower and cut a Scottish battalion up pretty badly with their machine guns, but a Scottish sergeant of the battalion made his way into the church, climbed the tower and surprising the Germans bayoneted them all single handed. He was decorated for this brave act and the shooting of the priest was thus avenged.

We considered it a very great honor for our regiments to relieve the Guards and Gordons. The people at home in Canada would thus understand that in spite of bad weather, sickness and other difficulties that made us leave over one hundred and forty men of the battalion in the hospitals in England, that our hard work, drill and discipline had not been in vain. We had learned a great many lessons and the men now drilled and moved like regulars. In fact, the British had no regiments there that were smarter, for to tell the truth they had found the trench work very trying. I desire to give every praise to my officers. They had their work up perfectly, and the men as a result gave me very little trouble. On parade the men stood like a rock. The captains and other officers had the knack of getting along with them which makes for the best of discipline and prompt obedience born of respect. There were many regiments there, good ones, but there was very little fault to be found with ours. No commanding officer was ever better supported by his officers, non-commissioned officers and men.

It was on March 1st, St. David’s day, dear to the Welshmen, that I visited the headquarters of the Seventh Division and of the Guard’s Brigade, whose trenches we were to take over. We met Colonel Fisher-Rowe of the Guards and had a cup of tea with him. He was a very kindly-mannered man and we took a liking to him. One of his officers, Lieutenant Barry, was to remain with my regiment and initiate us into the mysteries of the flame-lit trenches in front of Fromelles.

The regiment paraded on the morning of the 2nd and General Congrieve and Colonel Levison-Gower were on hand to bid us good-bye. It was a very pleasant march. The day was fine and cool and the men in splendid spirits. We reached Bac St. Maur in the afternoon and went into billets for the night. I was quartered at the Mayor’s house. We now began to realize that in Flanders every cross road means a town or village. The men were quartered in a flax weaving mill. Every town in this country boasts a flax mill with numerous weaving and bleaching plants. Many of the factories before the war were owned by Germans. As the German-owned factories are never shelled they make splendid billets for the troops.

We spent one night in Bac St. Maur, and next day we marched to Sailly, taking over the billets held by the Guards. My quarters were in a large farm house. The companies were each quartered at a similar farm and telephone wires were soon laid by our signallers. We took over the living room of the farm house for our sleeping bags, and as straw was plentiful we made some trusses to soften the feel of the red tile with which the room was floored. It was chilly so I ordered a fire to be made in the grate. We had only just stretched out to enjoy the warmth when suddenly there came the report of a rifle followed by a fusillade, and bullets flew all over the place. We at first thought the Germans were upon us, but the scattering of the fire brands all over the room told us that some “blighter” had left some clips of live cartridges in the sweepings of the fire place. The stampede which had followed the first burst of fire died away in roars of laughter. No one was hurt although pieces of cartridge cases had been shot some distance.

While we were in these billets we experienced for the first time the splendid system that had been organized to keep the men of the allied armies clean. Soldiers from time immemorial have suffered from vermin but a new cure has been discovered by some one attached to our column which was soon used universally. The cure is gasoline. One or two applications destroy all living creatures or their ova. Arrangements had also been made so that the men could all have a hot bath once a week. A factory, usually a bleachery, was commandeered and about a hundred large tubs of hot water were provided. One after another the various companies and units were marched to these bath houses. Every man handed in his soiled shirt and underclothing on entering, and received a complete clean outfit after he had performed his ablutions. The only inconvenience attached to this system was that the underwear, shirts and socks were pooled and they sometimes got mixed, and our battalion being comprised chiefly of very large men sometimes had difficulty struggling into their clean underwear.

On Saturday evening, March 6th, we went into the trenches opposite Fromelles at La Cardonnerie Farm which had been the scene of a very warm action in the previous November.

Before we came to Flanders we had been told a great deal about the trenches in the Low Countries. We had seen pictures in the illustrated papers of deep ditches in which men were packed like sardines, so deep that we wondered how they used their rifles. After we arrived at the front our ideas were changed, and we came to the conclusion that the trenches we had seen depicted at home had been dug for the benefit of photographers, and were situated in some nearby park. Certainly the trenches in Flanders were not at all like the photographs we had seen. In addition, the trenches described in “Our Notes from the Front” were the trenches at the Aisne, where the country is altogether unlike the country in Flanders. At the Aisne the soil is chalk and limestone and the country broken and rolling. In Flanders, on the other hand, the soil is sticky, yellow clay, and the land flat with the exception of an occasional sand dune like an inverted pudding dish, at intervals of about ten or fifteen miles apart. Hill 60 was one of these. All over this flat clay country there are countless ditches. The roads are elevated above the level of the fields, and along each road there is a deep ditch or two, while there is sure to be one along each hedge. Water is invariably found at a depth of about two feet. One can therefore quite comprehend how in such a country trenches dug in the form of ditches would be full of water in a very short time.

The trenches in Flanders are altogether unlike our conception of them. Trenches are an evolution, not an accident nor a design. This is how they happen. Our troops will be advancing or retiring as the case may be, and will have reached a point where progress is difficult, either by reason of the resistance of the enemy or the impossibility of the flanks coming up and conforming. Word comes from a higher authority that the men are to “dig in.” Every man carries, attached to his waist belt on his back, a small entrenching tool, a “grubber” it is called. This tool is like a hoe, only the blade is pointed like a Canadian railroad shovel, and opposite the blade there is a chisel-shaped pick. The handle, about eighteen inches long, is carried in a sling along with the bayonet and enters the “grubber” at right angles. Immediately the word comes to “dig in” the men get out their entrenching tools or “grubbers” and set to work. They stand at intervals of about a yard apart, make a half turn to the right, lay down their rifles at arm’s length, and as they are taught to use the grubber in the prone position, when the ground is favorable they can dig themselves in in fifteen minutes. The trench is dug at an angle of about 90 degrees to the enemy so there will be a clear field of fire in front. Each man places the earth in front of him and digs a hole about two feet wide, six feet long and about eighteen inches deep. These are known as “hasty” or “shelter” trenches. They are the safest trenches to be in when high explosive shells or Mauser bullets are about. If a shell falls it will rarely get more than one man. A little straw in the bottom makes these shelter trenches not uncomfortable at night.

After a battalion has spent a night in the “dig ins,” as they are called, it is usual, if no retreat or advance is ordered, for higher authority to send word for the trenches to be “consolidated.” That means that more deliberate entrenchments are to be made. “Deliberate” entrenchments in the Low Countries mean parapets, not ditches. “Consolidating” invariably means building parapets. Before a man “digs in” he is supposed to move forward to a position where lying prone he can have a clear field of fire of about one hundred yards in front of him. It will thus be seen that the line of parapets will usually come just in the rear of his shelter trench. At night the engineers send down waggon loads of sand-bags and hurdles. These hurdles are made by driving a number of sharp stakes about two inches in diameter into the ground, the stakes being about four feet high and eight inches apart. In and out between these stakes wire and elm or willow branches are woven basket fashion and the ends are strengthened by a warp or two of wire. When the hurdle is completed it forms a grill-like section of from four to ten feet in length, ready to be set up like a fence by driving the stakes into the ground. Similar hurdles were used at the time of Cæsar, so they are not new in this war. In fact such hurdles were used by Julius Cæsar in building his camp a few miles east of the Fournes ridge opposite the trenches which we occupied, for it was there he met the Nervli. These hurdles were set up on the side furtherest away from the enemy and the men, being provided with picks and shovels by the engineers, build parapets of earth against them about four feet high and four feet through at the top. The hurdle is fastened into the parapet with stakes and wire, and on top of these parapets are placed three or four rows of sand-bags filled with earth. At intervals among the sand bags steel plates about half an inch thick are inserted. These plates have a hole in them for the rifle to go through, and sharpshooters “man” these port holes night and day. Immediately behind these parapets zigzag trenches about four feet deep are dug. These are called “fire” trenches. When the enemy shell us we get into these deep trenches. When they come to an attack we “man” the parapets. Behind the parapets at intervals are located the “dug outs” where the men sleep and hide in the day time. These are built to accommodate about four men each. They are eighteen inches high, dug into the ground about one foot, then a row of sandbags make a bit of wall. The roofs are sheets of corrugated iron with three or four rows of sandbags piled about four feet high. On top of the earth and sandbags there is generally placed a row of broken brick to cause any shell striking the roof to explode before it penetrates. Behind the parapets are places where the men cook and attend to their wants.

Behind the first row of parapets about two or three hundred yards is a second line of parapets or breast-works with fire trenches. This constitutes the second line or supporting trenches. Behind these again about one thousand yards, with plenty of barbed wire entanglements and a clear field of fire, will be built a line of small forts or redoubts. In the parapets at various intervals are located machine-gun positions hidden so that the enemy’s aviators cannot see them.

Two lines of parapets such as I have described with but few variations extend from the North Sea near Nieuport to the Alps, for the Germans build their trenches exactly like ours. Sometimes they run short of sandbags, and at one place where we were they were using blue drill, such as engineer’s overalls are made of, for sand bags.

The distance between these two lines of trenches varies; sometimes it is one hundred yards, sometimes two or three hundred, but never more than four hundred yards. This “devil strip,” as it is called, is night and day subject to fire from sharpshooters from both sides.

All night long the Germans shoot “flares” into the air. These flares are like rockets filled with magnesium and they show a very brilliant light, so brilliant that objects on the darkest night are brought into prominent relief a mile behind the line of our trenches.

The Germans are prodigal in their expenditure of these flares. We had to husband our supply, but if the lights began to die down a few rounds of rapid fire from our trenches would soon cause them to send hundreds of their flares into the air. The Germans are rather given to “nerves,” and while they were cooling down our men read the papers by the light of their flares.

On the evening of the sixth we went into the trenches at La Cardonnerie Farm, which being translated means thistle farm. The trenches were very wet and muddy and my headquarters were located in a ruined farm house about five hundred yards from the trenches. There was a fine row of tall elm trees in front of the house, which offered a splendid target for the German gunners.

We took over the trenches from Colonel Meighen of the Montreal Regiment who had gone into them three days before. In running wires to the various sections Lieutenant Dansereau and Captain Cory had an exciting time. They had to drop flat in the mud several times while the German flares and bullets flew overhead. The left section was taken by Captain Alexander, the right by Captain McLaren and the centre by Major Osborne. The left section was about eighty yards away from the enemy and subject to constant bombing and enfilade fire. The river Layes crossed our line of trenches. What we would call a creek in Canada is called a river in Flanders. Five lines of wire connected us with the various sections of the front. Captain McGregor’s Company was in reserve, hidden away in dug-outs. No finer officer ever drew the breath of life than Captain McGregor. Always cheerful and loyal, an experienced soldier of the King, he did credit to his name. There were many McGregors in the army but none braver, more skilful or careful of their men than Captain Archie McGregor, veteran of Paardeburg.

The duties of a commanding officer, and also of company officers while their units are in the trenches, are so strenuous as to leave very little leisure. A great many reports have to be sent to headquarters during the night, and at least once an hour the signallers in the trenches have to report that they are awake. Every burst of rifle fire, every bomb explosion, has to be reported, and any unusual happenings explained. It soon becomes the usual thing to throw one’s self down on an old mattress, tuck a blanket over you and take forty winks.

It did not take us very long to get into the swing of things and become quite at home. It is a law of the trenches that at night the men must sleep on their arms, that is to say, they must sleep, if they sleep at all, in their greatcoats, clothing and boots, with equipment and ammunition buckled on and rifle in hand, so as to be ready to “stand to” at a moment’s warning. To “stand to” means to fall in behind the parapets ready to repel or take part in an attack. In the trenches the men “stand to” at least half an hour before daylight and remain in readiness to man their parapets until half an hour after dawn. Then they are ordered to “stand down.”

The first duty of a soldier in a well ordered regiment after he “stands down” is to take out his oil-bottle and cleaning apparatus and clean his rifle. Then he takes off his puttees, boots and socks, rubs his feet to restore circulation, and if he has an extra pair of socks he puts them on, or if not he changes the ones he is wearing from one foot to the other, puts on his boots and puttees again. Cotton socks are very uncomfortable, for when a man stands all day and sleeps at night in his boots, if the socks are made of hard thread, the thread will leave a mark in the feet. Unless the men remove their puttees, boots and socks once a day they are liable to have “frost bite” “cobble feet” or varicose veins. These troubles soon render them fit subjects for the hospital. After the rifle and feet are attended to the men shave. Our men always shaved every day, and were very proud of their clean appearance in spite of the mud. One man was brought before me shortly after we went into the trenches for neglecting to shave. He explained that he had served in one of the South African wars and that on service there he was supposed to wear a beard. I fined him for neglecting to observe the King’s Regulations and Orders, and his comrades who had warned him against trying to “put anything over” on the Commanding Officer gave him the laugh. He asked to see me and expressed such regret that I forgave him. He was a splendid soldier and his example made a rule for the others.

Perhaps it will be just as well here to explain the remainder of the daily routine and how the men are fed and cared for. Some time during the night the company waggons, which are kept in billets at the quartermaster’s stores, are loaded with food for the men in the trenches. This food, also charcoal, for fuel, barbed wire and other supplies are placed in sand bags, in weights that one man can carry. A fatigue party from each platoon meets the waggons at a convenient spot, and carries their respective sacks into the trenches held by their platoons. A non-commissioned officer from each company remains always in the quartermaster’s tent to supervise the preparing of supplies for his company. He sees that the company cooks prepare steaks, soups and other food to be sent into the trenches. He is responsible to his company commander that his company gets its proper share.

The rationing usually begins about eight o’clock, and if you listen you can hear the rumble of the ration waggons in the German lines as clearly as in our own. At this hour there was generally a truce to sniping, but as soon as either side finishes rationing a few rounds of rapid fire warns the other to hurry up and get down to the business of killing.

When the water in the vicinity of the trenches is bad, water waggons are brought down along with the ration waggons, and the men’s canteens and a number of dixies or camp kettles are filled with water and sent into the trenches.

Every man, besides carrying a “First Aid” bandage in the flap of his coat, carries a day’s “iron” rations in his haversack. An “iron” ration consists of two or three hard-tack biscuits, a package containing tea and sugar, and a tin of what is currently known as “Macconnachie’s Rations.” This consists of a tin containing about a pound of what would generally be called thick Irish Stew, made of meat, potatoes, green peas, carrots and some condiments. Thank goodness it contains no Brussels Sprouts. Great Britain went Brussels Sprout mad about the time we got over there. Wherever we went, on the trains, in the restaurants we had indigestible Brussels Sprouts.

In the trenches the men make charcoal fires, boil water, make tea and fry their ham or bacon and eggs. Ye gods what eggs they ate. All the hens in Flanders seemed to be busy night and day laying eggs for the Canadian soldiers at five cents an egg.

This is a standard feeding routine for the men in the trenches. The men and officers get the same rations. Often the men fare much better than the officers for they get parcels of food from friends in Great Britain and Canada. The officers are supposed to be millionaires and of course are expected to live like Nabobs. But they do not have anything better than the men.

After the men have cleaned up they gather about the charcoal fire with two or three chums that mess together. Bacon or ham of the best quality is soon sizzling in the lid of a dixie. Frequently some cold potatoes are provided which are sliced in with the ham and the meat ration is ready. There is always plenty of good white bread, which arrived the day before fresh from England. There is tinned butter from Australia, and hot tea with plenty of sugar in it. After the meat they have dessert. Usually a fine tin of jam with more bread and butter. If jam does not suit, or they grow tired of jam, they have honey. What a breakfast for a hungry man. The noon day meal will consist of thick soup, steak or mutton chops grilled on charcoal, potatoes dug from nearby pits in the deserted farms, bread, butter, tea and jam or honey. For supper they had cold meat, cheese, bread and butter, jam and tea. The men seldom grumbled at their food as everything was of the best quality, and they had plenty of work and fresh air to give them good appetites, and with such excellent fare they gain in strength and weight. Many a weak, hollow-chested “mother’s boy” has developed in a few months into a rosy-cheeked, bread-shouldered athlete, weighing twelve or fourteen stone.

It was a wonderful sight at night to watch the trenches at Fromelles. As far as the eye could see from the North Sea, away past Bethune and death-stricken La Bassee, streamed the meteor flares like a great Milky Way, the flares crossing and recrossing each other. In front of us the German Mausers sound with their constant “to-ho,” “to-ho,” for the Mauser has a double report. On the right the wicked bark of the English Lee-Enfield rifles, and along our front and to our left the “chop, chop” of the Ross rifle of the Canadian Division. The Ross has a sound at a distance, for all the world like a lot of men chopping wood in a hardwood forest. No wonder the Germans knew when the Canadians came opposite their sector. Whenever they heard the Ross they generally got an attack of nerves and would fire wildly into the air on the slightest excuse.

I visited the line of the trenches passing from flank to flank the second night we were in them and laid plans with our officers to strengthen the position so as to make it almost impregnable. The first man to be killed in these trenches was Private Stanley, a Toronto man, who was shot through the head while standing behind the parapet at night. He fell dead in the arms of his son. We buried him the next evening at the Canadian Cemetery at La Cardonnerie Farm by the fitful gleam of an electric torch while the bullets and shells whistled overhead.

The Germans were very vicious when we went into the trenches for the first time, but we adjusted our fire so as to enfilade their trenches, that is to say, instead of firing at the trenches opposite we aimed to the right or the left so our bullets dropped behind their parapets. I went along the trenches with a photograph of their position taken from an aeroplane and pointed out to the section commanders the targets and range so as to get in behind the German lines. Sand bags and port holes were adjusted to this new form of fire and orders were issued to open enfilade fire after nine at night, sniping briskly. Some of our men suggested that we must have hit a German General because suddenly the whole German line burst into a sheet of flame and they continued to fire their rifles for all they were worth for about fifteen minutes. After that night the Germans opposite kept very quiet when we were in the trenches. A few days later we heard that General Von Kluck had been wounded opposite our lines. We wondered if we had hit him.

The friends of the regiment at home were kind enough to present our battalion with Khaki Tam O’ Shanters which we used in the trenches. They were a splendid headdress and we had very few casualties during our various turns of duty in the front line, which good fortune we ascribed to this headdress. General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien was very much taken with the “tam” as a trench cap.

On the morning of March 8th, while Major MacKenzie and I were having coffee, the Germans began shelling our quarters. We were in an old brick house on the Rue Pettion and our breakfast was rudely disturbed by several loud reports. One of the orderlies came in to say that German shells were falling in the field in front of the house. We went out to see what was happening. The Germans were firing salvos of four shells at a time and “searching” for my humble quarters. First four shells fell about fifty yards apart about five hundred yards away to the right looking to our rear. Then four more came closer. Salvo followed salvo but a number of the shells failed to explode. After they had raked out our front yard we heard four burst behind our quarters and we knew that the next bracket would get our happy home. It did. Four struck the barn and the quarters occupied by Captain McGregor and his staff fifty feet away from where we stood. We feared that our cows were gone, done to death by miserable Hun gunners. When we took over these quarters the Scots Guards were good enough to turn over three cows in good milking trim to our headquarters. These three cows were all that were left on the farm of a fine herd of brown Swiss cattle. The rest of the herd were scattered about the fields with their feet sticking up in the air, and it was our unpleasant duty to later on bury them darkly at dead of night. We forgot our three milkers for the moment, however, as we heard the whistling of more shells and orders were given for everybody to duck and get under cover. Two shells struck the house and tore about two inches off the tile ridge at intervals of about ten feet apart. They fell in the ditch in front of the house but failed to explode. Four more fell to the right, and then the gunners began to rake back and forward, dropping in all about fifty shells within a radius of five hundred yards. Then they took up another target and we had leisure to examine the damage. Our shack had escaped except for a few broken tiles, the next building south occupied by Captain McGregor had one room blown up, that in which he had his cot. Fortunately he was out when the German visitors arrived. The shell, a four inch high explosive, tore a couple of sandbags out of the back window, and as it apparently had a “delay action” fuse it burst fairly in the middle of the room. There was nothing left of Captain McGregor’s cot but a pile of woollen shreds. His trunk and the clothing hanging on the wall were ripped to pieces.

Captain Perry was having a bath in an old fashioned wash tub in the next room when the explosion took place. Nothing happened to him as he bore a charmed life.

Some of the shells that fell into the ditch were dug up by Sergeant Lewis who was in charge of our pioneers. They were four inch high explosives.