Chapter Three: Baptism—April 22–May 4, 1915
The Canadians knew nothing about the strength or composition of enemy forces facing them, for there had been no time for any reconnaissance. Advancing in the dark, they could see neither the German trench nor any sign of enemy troops. All the leading Canadian Scottish could see were the shadowy forms of the 10 th Battalion men ahead of them. Each company had two platoons ahead of the other two and, in No. 4 Company, Lt. Urquhart’s 15 Platoon was leading on the left while Lieutenant Victor John Hasting’s 13 Platoon was to his right. At first the orderliness of this formation held but, once the troops had advanced a short way, it became clear the ground was not as open as expected. Urquhart came to a ditch bordered by a hedge and saw that 13 Platoon was on the other side and moving away from the obstacle while his own men were following the line of the hedge which veered to the right. In the dark the hedge seemed impenetrable, so the only option was for 15 Platoon to spring alongside the hedge until they came to a break. Passing through they jumped the ditch and ran to catch up with 13 Platoon.
German artillery began falling on the field at a rate that suggested the gunners were still seeking the range, but several men were struck down by shrapnel. Before the attack began Urquhart and the other officers in the battalion had only been told by Hughes that they were attacking a wood across the field. Urquhart kept straining his eyes for some sight of trees, but all he saw ahead was “a dark blur.” They had crossed about 500 yards and now seemed to be in a level pasture free of further hedges or ditches.
Such was not the case for Captain William Rae’s No. 2 Company. From the outset Rae’s men had been forced to find ways through thick hedges, jump one ditch after another, and cut openings in several wire fences. Then a German flare arced into the sky. The Canadians were suddenly bathed by its harsh glare and, a second later, Oblong Farm erupted with tongues of flame as dozens of machine guns and rifles opened fire.
There was no cover, nothing the men could do but keep advancing toward the woods as the Germans in the farm tore into their flank. Urquhart walked “over absolutely bare ground as [if] on a rifle range going from the Butts to the Firing Point with ceaseless angry zip, zip of bullets from rifles and machine guns. You could see the spit of fire from the rifles to our front and left. Then came the cries of those who were hit, the cracking of the bullets so close to our ears made them sing and it was impossible to make yourself heard.”
“I know now the meaning of a hail of bullets,” Rae later wrote his mother. “I never dreamt there could be anything like it. At first I never for one moment expected to come through alive, but afterwards in some extraordinary way I made up my mind I was not going to be hit and went right on.” All around other men fell. They had been ordered to make no sounds. No shouting, no cheering as they advanced. But with bullets scything them down, with those coming from behind trying not to step on the fallen underfoot, with many of the wounded screaming in agony, the need for reassurance and to muster courage to keep going overcame this order. “Come on Seaforths!” men in Rae’s company cried. “Come on Camerons,” Urquhart’s platoon shouted. “Come on the 16 th!” others bellowed as they realized all the Highlanders were in this together. One soldier broke from the line, screaming and tearing at his shirt which had burst into flame. Captain Geddes had been knocked to his knees with a mortal wound, but still urging No. 4 Company on he crawled forward a short distance before collapsing. Doggedly the ever-shrinking battalion made “for the spit of fire and flickering line of flame showing up in front against the darkness of the wood.”
Rae’s company twice halted in the midst of this hell storm to straighten its line, the second pause coming while only about forty yards short of the woods. There was no set formation now, the 16 th had overtaken the 10 th and the two advanced the last part of the distance intermingled. Suddenly, with just yards between the Canadians and Germans the fire from the latter melted eerily away. The men let out a mighty cheer and then without Rae or any of the other officers shouting a command “rushed right at the German trench.”
As they plunged in they found that “barely a few of them waited for us and these were shot or bayoneted at once. I jumped clear over the trench and rushed into the wood with some men. It was full of undergrowth and most difficult to get through but ultimately we came to the far side, the Germans flying before us. I cannot tell you everything that happened, but ultimately we established a line about 1000 yards back from the original German front.” Rae and the others who had spontaneously driven on through the wood rather than holding up at the trench began digging in where they were.
Moving through the woods one Can Scot “vaguely saw some Germans and rushed at the nearest one. My bayonet must have hit his equipment and glanced off, but luckily for me, another chap running beside me bayoneted him before he got me. By this time I was wildly excited and shouting and rushing into the wood up a path towards a big gun which was pointed away from us. Going through the wood we ran into several Germans, but I had now lost confidence in my bayonet and always fired.” The gun the soldier saw was one of the British field guns overrun by the Germans.
Urquhart, too, had plowed into the woods, firing his revolver at retreating Germans until it jammed. He scooped up a rifle lying next to a 10 th Battalion man who had fallen seconds before right in front of him. Some horses were tied to trees in the wood and Urquhart noticed one “standing on three legs, holding one leg up as if it had been hit by a bullet. We rushed through the wood coming out on the further side from the German trench we captured. German flares were now going up behind us to the left and it looked to us as if we had broken through the German line. We started to entrench on the far side of the wood. … Col. Boyle of the 10 th I met on the right of the wood a short time afterward, also Col. Leckie. … Col. Boyle was wounded about this time. Col. Leckie was directing the digging in and giving orders that the 10 th who were collected in a group near a house were to connect up from the hedge where we were digging in to the right where a further party of the 16 th had started to entrench.”
Boyle had been asking a junior 16 th Battalion officer about where the Canadian Scottish were deploying. Drawing out a map, Boyle turned on an electric torch, pronounced “he was satisfied with the information given” and then started walking back to his men. Moments later he was struck by a machine-gun burst. Five slugs shattered his thigh. Mortally wounded, the battalion commander died three days later in hospital.
As far as Urquhart could determine, the 10 th Battalion men were not digging in, possibly because its command structure was in disarray after Boyle’s death. Hoping to help restore order, Urquhart approached the battalion’s second-in-command, Major Joseph MacLaren, and relayed Leckie’s orders about digging in. Seemingly distracted, MacLaren replied that “he was wounded in the leg” and headed toward the rear. MacLaren was eventually loaded into an ambulance, but it was struck by an artillery shell while passing through Ypres and the officer was killed.
Urquhart and the few officers who were left finally got the men of both battalions entrenching. The situation was dangerously confused, with clear idea about where the Canadian flanks rested or whether they could expect any support or reinforcement. German fire was coming from several houses to the north of the wood.
Leckie told Urquhart he was going back to find out whether reinforcements would be forthcoming and advised Rae that he was in command of the forward position. Back at the captured trench, Leckie looked around and estimated that the Germans had lost about 100 killed, 250 wounded, and 30 uninjured men taken prisoner. More Germans seemed to be milling in the woods attempting to surrender, but Leckie could spare no men to deal with them. He cautioned the men within hearing “against dealing harshly with prisoners.” Tempers were hot as the battalions began assessing how badly they had been cut up. Leckie scribbled out a brief report and an urgent plea for reinforcements and sent it by runner to brigade.
About 0100 hours on April 23, one of 16 th Battalion’s machine-gun squads brought its Colt machine gun forward. The machine-gun officer, Lt. Reginald Hibbert Tupper, had the gun set out on the flank in an attempt to enfilade the German trenches in front of Oblong Farm and the area extending back from the farm to the southwest corner of the wood. This section of wood had yet to be cleared and seemed strongly held by the Germans, who often shouted that the Canadians had best surrender for they were surrounded. While the men could ignore the verbal harassment, there was nothing they could do to stop the deadly crossfire cutting into their lines from the German positions. The enemy fire from the southwest kept intensifying.
As the machine gunners ventured forth to try and meet the German fire with their own, Lt.-Col. David Watson brought two companies of his 2 nd Battalion into the woods while sending a third company to directly attack Oblong Farm. Soon intense gunfire could be heard from the direction of the farm and then all fell silent, leading Watson to advise Leckie that he thought his men had succeeded in taking that position. The two battalion commanders decided these reinforcements should consequently try and clear the trenches in the woods, but the two companies had too few men to succeed at this venture. A thirty-minute assault launched at 0130 hours was finally repulsed. During the course of this fight, Tupper’s machine-gun squad was “practically surrounded and subjected to intense fire.” Tupper was “dangerously hit, and rendered so helpless that he was only able to drag himself back into the Canadian lines lying flat on the ground.” When the 2 nd Battalion attack failed, the Germans used the opportunity to charge and overrun the gun, taking two of its crew prisoner. But the crew managed to destroy its breach and block, rendering it useless. One gunner, who managed to escape, had his hand smashed by a bullet. Later, he discovered his kilt had been riddled by fourteen rounds.
On the northern edge of the wood, the news that the flank remained exposed was sobering. Unless reinforced before morning, Rae considered his position would be untenable and that his men would soon be cut off from the rear. Rae ordered a withdrawal, just as the first glow of light touched the horizon. Leaving behind small groups of men to guard the recovered British artillery pieces, Rae led the rest of the battalion back. The men moved so quietly that the Germans failed to twig to what was happening, so the withdrawal neither attracted artillery fire nor any pursuit by infantry. When these troops arrived back at the trench on the edge of the woods, however, it was clear there was insufficient room for all of them. A large group were sent 150 yards out into the field to create a secondary trench line, which they finished digging just before dawn.
April 24 dawned clear and sunny, bearing the promise of an unusually hot spring day to come. A lull descended on the battlefield, few sounds of gunfire or artillery heard. In their trenches, the men of the 16 th and 10 th Battalions took stock of their situation and reflected on all that had happened in that night “which seemed like a life-time.”
One Canadian Scottish diarist noted that “the fellows looked frightfully tired and discouraged.” As the light improved they saw on their left flank the German position in the woods that had subjected them to such deadly fire. Stretching back across the field they had crossed, rows of their dead lay strewn. “On certain parts of it the bodies were heaped; on others they were lying in a straight line as killed by the enfilade machine-gun fire. The men of the different companies of the 16 th could be picked out by the colour of the kilt—the yellow stripe of the Gordons, the white of the Seaforths, the red of the Camerons, the dark green of the Argylls—with the 10 th Battalion men in their khaki uniforms mingled everywhere amongst the Highlanders. [Despite the battalion officers having earlier decided that allowing the men to wear four different kilts would not do and a simple khaki one would replace the various tartans, the replacements had not yet reached the field so the men were still fighting in the tartans that identified their original regiment.] Slight movements of some of the bodies showed that life still lingered. Attempts were being made to get help to these men, but the spurts of dust, knocked up by the bullets hitting around the rescue party, indicated that the ground was under a fire. At last a stretcher-bearer was hit; he pitched forward on his face, whereupon the enemy’s fire was much increased, and the relief work came to an end.”
With Leckie in command of both battalions, his brother Jack was responsible for 16 th Battalion while Major Dan Ormond—the most senior surviving 10 th Battalion officer—had charge of that unit. Fearing a counterattack was imminent, the officers began hurriedly regrouping their battered forces. The trench remained overly crowded and the first action was to put the dead up over the parapet and to dig small nooks into which the wounded could be sheltered. While some men began extending the trench on the right flank, others were sent crawling back through the cover of a mustard patch to Leckie’s headquarters area in a trench about a thousand yards west of St. Julien. Within a couple hours a coherent defensive line had taken shape.
Lt. Urquhart knew in his gut that they were in for a shelling like they had never seen before and so was not surprised when an aircraft appeared overhead at 0530, lazily circling, its Iron Crosses marking it as German. Surely it was an artillery spotter plane determining the co-ordinates of the trench. Shortly thereafter the first shells fell and with the plane still overhead to correct the fire the guns soon “got our mark. Some men were blown out of [the] trench, others injured by shrapnel, others killed by shock.” From the left flank of the woods, machine-gun fire made any movement hazardous and hindered evacuation of wounded. “Difficult to get back to dressing station with wounded and some men hit in so doing,” Urquhart noted in his diary, “so ultimately we had to forbid men to cross and kept wounded in trench, lifting dead over parapet. Very long day and glad when anxious time came to an end. All night we were standing to, every five minutes, and dawn was just as anxiously looked for as dusk.