Canadian Expeditionary Force, local history, Canada, Ca, Can, Canadian, World War 1, WWI, WW1, First World War, 1916-1918
Canada in Flanders Logo
CANADA IN FLANDERS
By SIR MAX AITKEN, M.P.

THE OFFICIAL STORY OF THE
CANADIAN EXPEDITIONARY FORCE
VOLUME I.

CHAPTER II

WARFARE

Plug Street "-British Army In being-At General Head-
.....quarters-Rest billets-Mud or death-The trenches-
.....Buzzing bullets-Sir Douglas Haig-The Front-
.....Restriction. on the narrative-Reviewed by Commander-
.....in-Chief-Canadians In the trenches-Our men take to
.....football-" Jack Johnsons "-A German challenge-
.....General Alderson-The General's methods-His speech to
.....the Canadians-A fine Force.

"Things 'ave transpired which made me learn
.....The size and meanin' of the g~e.
I did no more than others did
.....I don't know where the change began;
I started as an average kid,
.....I finished as a thinkin' man."

-KIPLING.

"The strong necessity of time commands
Our services awhile."

Antony and Cleopatra.


AFTER a Slow journey by rail of 350 miles from
landing point in France, the Canadians reached
a wayside station which lies about twelve miles due
west of Ploegsteert-the war-historic" Plug Street"
wood which British regiments had already made
famous. At this point the Canadians were well
within that triangle of country lying between St.
Omer to the west, the ruins of Ypres to the east,
15


16...............CANADA IN FLANDERS.

and Bethune to the south, which at that time con-
tained the entire British Army in France.
.....It was one of the most remarkably interesting
pieces of triangular territory imaginable, full of
movement, romance, and the intricate detail of
organisation. Within it lay the already wonderful
beginnings of the great British force as it is to-day,
and I will do my best to make clear how, within that
triangle, the first British Army lived, moved, fought,
and generally had its being.
.....You must picture the British Army in the field,
spread out like a fan. The long, wavy edge of the
fan is the line of men in the firing trenches, at the
very forefront of affairs, often within a stone's-throw
of the opposing German line. Some hundreds of
yards behind this firing line lie the support trenches,
also filled with men. The men in the firing and
supporting trenches exchange places every forty-
eight hours. After a four days' spell they ail retire
for four days' rest, fresh troops taking their places
as they move out. At the end of their four days'
rest they return again to the trenches. All relieving
movements are carried out in the dark to avoid the
enemy's rifle fire.
Further back, along the ribs of the fan, one finds
the headquarters of the many brigades; behind
these, headquarters of divisions; then headquarters
of army corps, then of armies-the groups becoming
fewer and fewer in number as you recede-until
at the end of the fan handle, one reaches the General
Headquarters, where the Commander-in-Chief
stands, with his hand on the dynamo which sends
its Impulses through every part of the great machine
spread out in front.
WARFARE...............17

From General Headquarters the movements of the
entire British Army, or rather of the several British
armies, are directed and controlled. It is a War
Office in the field, with numerous branches closely
co-ordinated and working together like a single
machine. Here is the operations office, where plans
Of attack are worked out under the direction of the
Commander-in-Chief and his chief of staff.
.....Near by is the building occupied by the "signals"
branch, which with its nerve system of telegraphs,
telephones, and motor-cycle despatch riders, is the
medium of communication with every part of the
field, and also with the base of supplies and the War
Office in London. "Signals" carries its wires to
within rifle shot of the trenches, and every division
of the Army has its own field telephones from batta-
lions headquarters to the firing line.
.....Close at hand is the office of the intelligence
branch, which collects and communicates informa-
tion about the enemy from every source it can tap.
It receives and compares reports of statements made
by prisoners, and interrogates some prisoners itself.
It goes through documents, letters, diaries, official
papers-captured in the field-and extracts points
from these. It collects news from its own agents
-it is only your enemy who calls them spies
-about events that are happening, or are likely;
to happen, behind the screen of the enemy's
lines.
.....At General Headquarters you find the department
of the Adjutant-General, who is responsible for the
whole of the arrangements-keeping the army in the
field supplied with men and munitions of war, for
the transfer of all prisoners to the base, for the trial

C


18...............CANADA IN FLANDERS.


of offences against discipline, and for the spiritual
welfare of the troops.
.....From a neighbouring office the Quartermaster-
General controls the movements of food and fodder
for men and horses, and all other stores, other than
actual munitions of war.
.....Still another branch houses the Director-General
of Medical Service, who supervises the treatment of
the wounded from the field aid post to the field
clearing station, from there to the hospital train,
and thence to the base hospital in France or Great
Britain.
..... One of the most fascinating spots at General
Headquarters is the map department. Thousands of
maps of various kinds and sizes have been produced
here since the war began. They vary from large
maps, to be hung on walls or spread on great tables,
down to small slips-with a few lines of German
trenches accurately outlined-and most handy for
the use of battery and battalion commanders.
Remarkable photographs are also printed here-
panoramic views and photographs of German posi-
tions, taken at very close quarters, often under fire.
There are officers who specialise in this perilous and
wonderful business.
.....As one goes forward from General Headquarters
towards the edge of the fan, one comes in contact
with more and more men, and realises quickly that,
in spite of the hardships of trench warfare, our
troops are superbly fit and ready for any task which
the fortunes of war may impose on them. Their
physical condition remains so robust as to be
astonishing.
For instance, the evening that I reached the
WARFARE................19


billeting area, I saw several battalions of the Ex-
peditionary Force marching from their billets to-
wards the trenches-they had been at the front for
months, yet they stepped as freshly as though they
just from home or route-marching in English
lanes. Their faces shone with health; their eyes were
bright as those of a troop of schoolboys. They
were, in fact, tramping down a long, straight, poplar
lined Flemish highway, with a misty vista of flat
land on either side. They whistled as
they marched.
.....The complete efficiency of the men is largely due
the excellence of their food. The Army is, in
fact, healthier than. any other army that has ever
faced war. Typhoid is almost unknown. The
amazing record of health owes much to the sanitary
precautions which are taken. One of the most
remarkable of these is the system of hot baths and
sterilising of clothing.
.....Bathing establishments have been put up in
various parts of the field, and the largest of them is
a building which, before the war, was a jute
. factory. Every hour of the day, successive com-
panies of men have hot baths here. They strip
to the skin, and while they wallow in huge vats of
water, their clothing is treated with 200 degrees
of heat, which destroys all vermin.
.....At first the small towns, the villages, and the many
farmhouses and cottages within easy reach of the
firing line provided all the rest billets. A great
men are billeted in this way still. I found,
for instance, a company of Territorials snugly resting
in a huge farm, the officers having quarters in the
on the other side of the yard; but

C2


20...............CANADA IN FLANDERS.

recently a large number of wooden huts have been
put up in various places across the countryside, and
here the men come back from the trenches to
rest. They are tired when they come "home"
but a sound sleep, a wash, a hearty breakfast,
and a stroll in the fresh air-out of range of the
insistent bullets-have a magical effect. In the after-
noon you find them playing football as blithely as
boys, and those who are not playing stand round and
chaff and applaud. I saw as many games of foot-
ball one day, in the course of a motor run behind the
lines, as one would see on a Saturday afternoon in
England.
.....Every day brings its letters and newspapers-
every rail-head has its little travelling letter office
shunted into a siding. Here the letters of a division
are sorted. They average more than one letter a
day for e very man in the field. That is another
reason why the Army is in good spirits. No army
in the world before ever got so much news from
home, so regularly and so quickly. Besides this
drafts of men are constantly being sent home---
across the Channel-for five or seven days' leave.
.....The firing line is not much further from the base
than London is from the sea. One passes on
through the region of rest billets and headquarters
of sections of troops, and arrives behind the firing
line. When the Canadians first landed, the British
forces held a front between twenty and thirty miles
long, running from Ypres, on the north, where the
Seventh Division made its heroic stand against the
Prussian Guards, to Givenchy, on the south, near
the scene of the battle of Neuve Chapelle.
This stretch had been held ever since the British


WARFARE...............21


troops made their swift dart from the Aisne to
Flanders, hoping (how Strange it seems now) to out-
flank the Germans, and in fact, by immense exer-
tions, defeating a far more formidable outflanking
movement by the enemy. Here they have main-
tained their ground. They lived and fought in
seas of mud all through the winter. The water
pumped out of the trenches with hand-
pumps, only to ooze back again through the sodden
soi1. Plank platforms were put down, and straw
was piled in. Yet the mud smothered everything.
The men stood in mud, sat in mud, and lay in mud.
Often it was as much as they could do to prevent the
mud from clogging their rifles. They crawled
through mud to the trenches when it was their time
relieve those in the firing line. They had to hide
in the mud of the trenches to escape the German
bullets. It was a choice of mud or death. With
the arrival of spring, conditions were improved.
There was less rain, and the winds had begun to
dry the ground. On fine days there was even dust
on the paved roads, although the quagmire of mud,
each side of the centre strip of granite, still remained.
The trench mud was becoming firmer.
..... The line of trenches runs nearly everywhere
through low-lying ground, intersected with watery
ditches and small streams; the land is so level,
and the atmosphere so heavy, that, as a rule,
the eye ranges little further than a rifle bullet will
carry. The nearer the firing line the more difficult
you find it to set eyes on men. Thousands of men
are almost within hailing distance, but none are to
be seen. Friend and foe alike are hidden in the
trenches.




22...............CANADA IN FLANDERS.


..... Some of the most famous trenches are in a wood
that is known to all the army as "Plug Street,"
although, as I have already made clear, it is spel1ed
a little differently on the maps. To reach the
trenches you have, of course, to come within rifle
shot of the enemy, for in most places the German
and British trenches are not more than 250 yards
from each other, and here and there they are only
40 or 50 yards apart. One creeps and crawls at
dusk along paths which months of experience has
told the soldiers are the best means of approach;
and one eventually scrambles into a communication
trench which, in a number of zig-zags, leads you to
the firing trench, where the men are waiting, rifle in
hand, in case of attack, or now and again taking a
snap-shot through a loophole in the trench parapet.
..... The trenches in " Plug Street" are like all the
other trenches~very exciting to think about before
you reach them, but, unless you happen to arrive
when shells are bursting overhead, comparatively dull
and matter-of-fact when you are actually there. It
is only the chance of death that gives them their
peculiar interest over other holes excavated by men
in clammy earth. The bee-like buzz of an occa-
sional bullet overhead reminds you that death is
searching for its prey. "Plug Street" has a fame
which will endure. All through the first winter, the
men squashed about in its awful mud, making quite
a number of slimy, ankle-deep, or knee-deep lanes
from point to point among the trees. In course of
time each of the muddy woodland alleys received
its nickname from the men in the ranks.
..... Such was the appearance and atmosphere of things
at the front when the Canadians first arrived. After


WARFARE...............23


a few days of special instruction they were billeted
in the area of the First Army under Sir Douglas
Haig. The Divisional Headquarters were located
near Estaires, with the Brigade Headquarters in
advanced positions, and the "Front' is clearly
indicated by the sketch on page 37.
..... I have described, as fully as is permissible the
general disposition and the general organisation
of the British Army in the field as it was when the
Canadians first set foot in France. It now becomes
necessary to deal in detail with the "Front "-that
almost endless succession of warren-like lines where
scores of thousands of men stand to arms by night and
day, and where the Canadian troops have already
fought with a gallantry and a dash, and yet a tenacity,
which have seldom, if ever, been equalled in military
history
..... None can examine what for want of a better name,
is called the "Front" of this amazing war, without
realising the truth of what has been so often said-
that it is a war almost without a " Front."
..... As one approaches from a distance the actual
point of contact between the opposing forces, one is
struck ever more and more by the immense numbers
which are converging, as it seems, for some great
military purpose. But the nearer the front ap-
proaches the more completely does all that is spec-
tacular disappear, until, finally, the flower of the
youth of Europe vanishes and is swallowed up by
immense but barely visible lines of field fortifica-
tions.
..... And now the Canadian Division, too, has reached
the front. The long, the tedious winter discomfort
of Salisbury Plain, never resented but always dis-




24...............CANADA IN FLANDERS.


liked, already seems far away. No one in the Cana- dian Division grudges the honour which was paid to Princess Patricia's Light Infantry, to carry first the badge of Canada on the battlefields of Flanders. It was freely recognised that this Regiment had arrived with greater technical knowledge and had reached a degree of efficiency which the other battalions could hardly equal without longer pre- paration. The fortunes of the Princess Patricias will be told in another chapter, but it can be said that the Battalion has proved itself worthy of fight- ing side by side, and on equal terms, with the army of veterans and heroes which held the trenches during the first horrible winter in Flanders. It is a story which will demand the utmost care in the telling, and, in any case, much that would be of the greatest interest must of necessity be omitted, because, in face of the superb organisation of the German Intelligence Department, it might be mis- chievous to publish details of units, and of their doings, as long as the general military formations in which these units play apart remain unchanged. It is out of respect for this consideration that the day for giving full honours to units by exact identifica- tion has so often to be postponed, so that the re- cords of our men's heroism only appear when, in the maelstrom of fresh splendid deeds, they are already half forgotten. This volume, and those which it is hoped win follow it, must always be read in the light of these most necessary restrictions. Nevertheless it is pos- sible, while observing every rule which has been laid down for our guidance, to give a general picture of the Canadian Division, its surroundings and its


WARFARE...............25


doings, which, whether it interests other people or will not be read without emotion by those who sent their sons and brothers to the greatest battle- fields of history in support of principles which, in their general application, are as important to the liberties of Canada as they are to the liberties of Europe. Before the Canadians took up their allotted posi- tions in the trenches they marched past the Com- mander-in-Chief and his Staff. Those who watched troops defile in the grey, square market-place of a typical Flanders town, were experienced judges of the physique and quality of soldiers. No one desires in such a connection to use exaggerated language, and it is therefore unnecessary to say more than that the unanimous view of those who watched so intently and so critically, was that, judg- ing the men by their physique and their soldierly swing, no more promising troops had come to swell our ranks since the day the Expeditionary Force landed in France. When the Canadian troops first took their turn as a Division in the trenches, nothing sensational hap pened to them. It was not their fortune, at the out- set to be swung forward in a desperate attack or to cling in defensive tenacity to trenches which the Germans had resolved to master. There were, of course, casualties. One does not enter or leave trenches without casualties, for the sniper never fails to claim his daily toll, but the early trench experi- ences of the Canadians were not eventful, as one judges incidents in this war. This period of im- munity, however, was all to the good. whatever else he is, the Canadian is adaptable, and the




26...............CANADA IN FLANDERS.


experience of these weeks brought him more wisdom than others might have drawn from it. Work in the trenches no longer involves, in respect of duration, the heartbreaking strain which was imposed upon all in the dark and anxious days of the autumn of 1914, when a thin line of khaki held, often wholly unsupported by reserves, so immense a line against superior forces. Trench work now, in relation to the period of exposure, is well within the powers of stout and resolute troops. For a cer- tain period, relays of the force take their turn in holding their lines. When that period is passed they are relieved by their comrades. Exciting, if occasionally monotonous, though life in the trenches may be, it is strange to a Canadian, and deeply interesting, to study the tiny town in which the troops in repose are billeted, and the hustling life on which they have already stamped so much of their individuality. Picture to yourself a narrow street, the centre paved, the sides of tenacious mud. Line it on each side with houses, rather squalid, and with a few unimportant stores. Add a château (not a grand one) for the Headquarters, a modest office for the Staff, and you have a fair con- ception of the billeting place which shelters that part of the division which reposes. But this town is like many other towns in this unattractive country Its interest to us lies in the tenants of the moment. Walk down the steeet, and you will, if you are a Canadian, feel at once something familiar and homelike in the atmosphere. One hears voices everywhere, and one does not need the sight of the brass shoulder badges, "CANADA," to know the race to which these voices belong. It may be the
WARFARE................27


speech of Nova Scotia, it may be the voice of British Columbia, or it may be the accents in which the French-Canadian seeks to adapt to the French of Flanders the tongue which his ancestors, centuries ago, carried to a new world; but, whichever it be-it is all Canadian. And soon, a company swings by, going perhaps to bath parade to that expeditious process which, in half an hour, has cleansed the bathers and fumigated every rag which they possess. And as they pass they sing carelessly, but with a challenging catch, a song which, if by chance you come from Toronto, will perhaps stir some association. For these, or many of them, are boys from the College; and the song is the University song whose refrain is, "Toronto." And if you go still a little further in the direction of the front, you will soon-very soon-after leaving the place of billeting, come to the country over which the great guns, by day and night, contend for mastery. And as one advances, there seem to be Canadians everywhere. Here are batteries, skilfully masked. Here are supplies on their way to the trenches. And the time can be seen reliefs and reserves until it strange to meet anyone not in khaki and without badge of "CANADA." The passion for foot- which the Canadian has begun to share with his English comrade, abates none of its keenness as he marches nearer to the front. A spirited match was in progress near our lines not long ago when a dis- tacting succession of "Weary Willies" began to distribute themselves not very far from the football ground. The only people who took no notice were players, and nothing short of a peremptory order from the Provost Marshal brought to an end a game






28...............CANADA IN FLANDERS.


which was somewhat unnecessarily dangerous. And our men have, of course, made the acquaint- ance of "Jack Johnson," and without liking him -for he is not likeable-they endure him with as much constancy as brave men need. Nor, indeed, have our own artillery failed to do more than hold their own. The gunners inherited from the division which preceded them in the trenches a disagreeable inheritance in the shape of an observation post which had long harassed and menaced our lines by the information which it placed at the disposal of the enemy. We were so fortunate as to put it out of action in the third round which we fired-a success very welcome as an encouragement, and giving a substantial relief from an unwhole- some scrutiny. Our infantry were not specially engaged in the fighting at Neuve Chapelle, but our artillery played its part in that triumph of artillery science which preceded the British attack, and our men were ready during the whole fight for the order which, had the tactical situation so developed, would have sent them, too, to make their first assault upon the German trenches. And there were not a few who were long- ing for that order. They thought that the Germans had presumed upon a slight acquaintance. For, the very first night on which our men were put into the trenches. the Germans began to call out, "Come out, you Canadians! Come out and fight!" Now, the trenches at normal times have their own code of manners and of amenity. and this challenge was, and is, regarded as impertinent. The Canadian brings his own phrases into his daily life. When the German flares in the trenches
WARFARE................29


nervously lighted up the space between the two lines, "There are the Northern Lights" was the comment of Canada, and "Northern Lights" they have remained to this day. It would be evidently impertinent to say more of the General Officer Commanding the force, General Alderson, than that he enjoys the most absolute confidence of the fine force he commands. He trusts them, and they trust him; and it will be strange if their co-operation does not prove fruitful. And an observer is at once struck by the extraordinarily accurate knowledge which the General has gained of the whole body of regimental officers under his command. He seems to know them as well by name and sight, as if he had commanded the force for six years instead of six months. And this is a circumstance which, in critical moments, counts for much. General Alderson's methods-his practical and soldierly style~could not be better illustrated than by some extracts from the speech which he addressed to the troops before they went into the trenches for the first time "All ranks of the Canadian Division: We are about to occupy and maintain a line of trenches. I have some things to say to you at this moment which it is well that you should consider. You are taking over good and, on the whole, dry trenches. I have visited some myself. They are intact, and the parapets are good. Let me warn you first that we have already had several casualties while you have been attached to other divisions. Some of those casualties were unavoidable, and that is war. But I suspect that some - at least a few - could have






30...............CANADA IN FLANDERS.


been avoided. I have heard of cases in which men have exposed themselves with no military object, and perhaps only to gratify curiosity. We cannot lose good men like this. We shall want them all if we advance, and we shall want them all if the Germans advance. Do not expose your heads, and do not look round corners, unless for a purpose which is necessary at the moment you do it. It will not often be necessary. You are provided with means of observing the enemy without exposing your heads. To lose your lives without military necessity is to deprive the State of good soldiers. Young and brave men enjoy taking risks. But a soldier who takes unnecessary risks through levity, is not playing the game. And the man who does so is stupid, for whatever be the average practice of the German Army, the individual shots they em- ploy as snipers shoot straight, and, screened from observation behind the lines, they are always watch- ing. And if you put your head over the parapet without orders they will hit that head. "There is another thing. Troops new to the trenches always shoot at nothing the first night. You will not do it." It wastes ammunition and it hurts no one. And the enemy says: 'These are new and nervous troops.' You will be shelled in the trenches. When you are shelled, sit low and sit tight. This is easy advice, for there is nothing else to do. If you get out you will only get it worse. And if you go out the Germans will go in. And if the Germans go in, we shall counter-attack and put them out; and that will cost us hundreds of men, instead of the few whom shells may injure. The Germans do not like the bayonet, nor do they support bayonet attacks.
WARFARE................31


If they get up to you, or if you get up to them, go right in with the bayonet. You have the physique to drive it home. That you will do it I am sure, and I do not envy the Germans if you get among them with the bayonet. "There is one thing more. My old regiment, the Royal West Kents, has been here since the beginning of the war, and it has never lost a trench. The Army says, 'The West Kents never budge.' I am proud of the great record of my old regiment. And I think it is a good omen. I now belong to you and you belong to me; and before long the Army will say: 'The Canadians never budge.' Lads, it can be left there, and there I leave it. The Germans will never turn you out." I may, before concluding the present chapter, point out that the most severe military critics, both England and in France, are loud in their admira- tion of the organising power which, in a non-military country, has produced so fine a force in so short a time. In equipment, in all the countless details which in co-ordination mean efficiency, the Division holds its own with any division at the war. This result was only made possible by labour, zeal, and immense driving power, and these qualities were ex- hibited in Canada at the outbreak of war by all those whose duties lay in the work of improvisation.
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Copyright Dates:
Second Publication: Monday, 12-Mar-2001 21:50:03 MST
First Published: March 1, 2001
CANADA IN FLANDERS

Index

I
Mobilisation


II
Warfare


III
Neuve Chapelle


IV
Ypres


V
A Wave of Battle


VI
Festubert


VII
Givenchy


VIII
Princess Patricia's Light Infantry


IX
The Prime Minister


X
The Canadian Corps


Appendix I
The King's Message to the Canadians


Appendix II
Canadians in Despatches


Appendix III
The Prime Minister and the War


Appendix IV
Lieut.-General E.A.H. Alderson, C.B., Commanding the Canadian Corps


Appendix V
Honours and Awards Granted


Appendix VI
Statement of Casualties