|Canadian Expeditionary Force, local history, Canada, Ca, Can, Canadian, World War 1, WWI, WW1, First World War, 1916-1918|
CANADA IN FLANDERS
By SIR MAX AITKEN, M.P.
THE OFFICIAL STORY OF THE
CANADIAN EXPEDITIONARY FORCE
Canadians' valuable help-A ride in the dark-Pictures on the
.....road-Towards the enemy-At the cross-road~' Six kilo-
.....metres to Neuve Chapelle "-Terrific bombardment-
.....Grandmotherly howitzers-British aeroplanes- Fight with
.....a Taube-Flying man's coolness-Attack on the village
.....German prisoners-A banker from Frankfort-The
.....Indians' pride-A halt to our hopes-Object of Neuve
.....Chapelle- What we achieved-German defences under-
.....rated-Machine gun citadels-Great infantry attack-
.....Unfortunate delay-Sir John French's comment- British
.....attack exhausted-Failure to capture Aubers Ridge-
.....Digging in "-Canadian Division's baptism of fire-
.....Casualties "-Trenches on Ypres salient.
The glory dies not, and the grief is past."-BRYDGES.
"During the battle of Neuve Chapelle the Canadians held a part
of the line allotted to the First Army, and, although they were
not actually engaged in the main attack, they rendered valuable
help by keeping the enemy actively employed in front of their
trenches."-Sir John French's Despatch on the Battle of Neuve
Chapelle, which began on March 10th, 1915.|
IT was night when I left the Candian Divisional
Headquarters and motored in a southerly direction
towards Neuve Chapelle. It was the eve of the
great attack, and in the bright space of light cast
by the motor lamps along the road, there came a
kaleidoscopic picture of tramping men.
Here at the front there is no need of police
33...............CANADA IN FLANDERS.
restrictions on motor headlights at night as there
is in London and on English country roads. The
law under which you place yourself is the range of
the enemy's guns. Beyond that limit you are free
to turn your headlights on, and there is no danger.
But, once within the range of rifle fire or shell, you
turn your lights on at the peril of your own life.
So you go in darkness.
As we rode along with lamps lit, thousands of
khaki-clad men were marching along that road-
marching steadily in the direction of Neuve
Chapelle. The endless stream of their faces flashed
along the edge of the pavé in the light of our lamps.
Their ranked figures, dim one moment in the dark-
ness, sprang for an instant into clear outline as the
light silhouetted them against the background of
the night. Then they passed out of the light again
and became once more a legion of shadows, march-
ing towards dawn and Neuve Chapelle. The tramp
of battalion after battalion was not, however, the
tramp of a shadow army, but the firm, relentless,
indomitable step of armed and trained men.
Every now and then there came a cry of "Halt,"
and the columns came on the instant to a stand.
Minutes passed, and the command for the advance
rang out. The columns moved again. So it went
on-halt-march-halt-march-hour by hour
through the night along that congested road-a
river of men and guns.
For while in one direction men were marching,
in the other direction came batteries of guns, bound
by another route for their position in front of Neuve
Chapelle. The two streams passed one another-
legions of men and rumbling, clattering lines of
| 34...............CANADA IN FLANDERS. |
artillery, all moving under screen of the dark, to-
wards the line of trenches where the enemy lay.
This was no time to risk a block in traffic, and
my motor, swerving off the paved centre of the road,
sank to her axles in the quagmire of thick, sticky
mud at the side. The guns passed, and we sought
to regain the paved way again, but our wheels spun
round, merely churning dirt. We could not move
out of that pasty Flemish mud, until a Canadian
ambulance wagon came to our aid. The unhitched
horses were made fast to the motor, and they heaved
the car out of her clinging bed.
In the early morning I came to the cross roads.
The signpost planted at the crossing and pointing
down the road to the south-east bore the inscription
"Six kilometres to Neuve Chapelle."
This was the road that the legions had taken.
It led almost in a straight line to the trenches that
were to be stormed, to the village behind them that
was to be captured, and to the town of La Bassée,
a few kilometres further on, strongly held by the
"Six kilometres to Neuve Chapelle "-barely four
miles; one hour's easy walking, let us say, on sueh
a clear, fresh morning; or five minutes in a touring
car if the time had been peace. But who knew how
many hours of bloody struggle would now be needed
to cover that short level stretch of "Six kilometres
to Neuve Chapelle"! Between this signpost and
the village towards which it pointed the way, many
thousands of armed men-sons of the Empir~
had come from Britain, from India, from all parts
of the Dominions Overseas, to take their share in
driving the wedge down to the end of this six kilo-
metres of country road, and through the heart of
German lines. Here for a moment they paused.
What hopes, what fears, what joys, what sorrows,
triumphs and tragedies were suggested by that
austere signpost, pointing "like Death's lean-lifted
fore finger" down that little stretch of road marked
"Six kilometres to Neuve Chapelle"!
I went on foot part of the way here, for so many
battalions of men were massed that motor traffic
was impossible. These were troops held in reserve.
Those selected for the initial infantry attack were
already in the trenches ahead right and left of the
further end of the road, waiting on the moment of
1 had just passed the signpost when the com-
parative peace of morning was awfully shat-
tered by the united roar and crash of hundreds
This broke out precisely at half-past seven. The
exact moment had been fixed beforehand for the
beginning of a cannonade more concentrated and
more terrific than any previous cannonade in the
histoyry of the world. It continued with extraordinary
violence for half-an-hour, all calibres of guns
taking part in it. Some of the grandmotherly British
howitzers hurled their enormously destructive shells
into the German lines, on which a hurricane of
shrapnel was descending from a host of smaller
guns. The German guns and trenches offered little
or no reply, for the enemy were cowering for shelter
from that storm.
I turned towards the left and watched for awhile
the good part which the Canadian Artillery played
in that attack. The Canadian Division, which was
| 36................CANADA IN FLANDERS.|
a little further north than Neuve Chapelle, waited
in its trenches, hoping always for the order to
Then I passed down the road until I came to a
minor crossways where a famous general stood in
the midst of his Staff. Motor despatch riders
dashed up the road, bringing him news of the pro-
gress of the bombardment. The news was good.
The General awaited the moment when the can-
nonade should cease, as suddenly as it had begun,
and he should unleash his troops.
Indian infantry marched down the road arid
saluted the General as they passed. He returned
the salute and cried to the officer at the head of the
column, "Good luck." The officer was an Indian,
who, with a smile, replied in true Oriental fashion:
"Our Division has doubled in strength, General-
Sahib, since it has seen you.
While the bombardment continued, British aero-
planes sailed overhead and crossed over to the Ger-
man lines. The Germans promptly turned some guns
on them. We saw white ball-puffs of smoke as the
shrapnel shells burst in front, behind, above, below,
and everywhere around the machines, but never near
enough to hit. They hovered like eagles above the
din of the battle, surveying and reckoning the
damage which our guns inflicted, and reporting
Once a German Taube rose in the air and lunged
towards the British lines. Then began a struggle
for the mastery, which goes to the machine which
can mount highest and fire down upon its enemy.
The Taube ringed upwards. A couple of British
aeroplanes circled after it. To and fro and round
38............... CANADA IN FLANDERS.
and round they went, until the end came. The British
machines secured the upper air, and soon we saw
that the Taube was done. Probably the pilot had
been wounded. The machine drooped and swooped
uneasily till, like a wounded bird, it streaked down
headlong far in the distance.
I walked over to where a British aeroplane was
about to start on a flight. The young officer of the
Royal Flying Corps in charge was as cool as though
he were taking a run in a motor-car at home. "As
a matter of fact," he said, "I wanted change and
rest. I had spent five months in the trenches, and
was worn out and tired by the everlasting monotony
and drudgery of it all. So I applied for a job in
the Flying Corps. It soothes one's nerves to be
up in the air for a bit after living down in the mud
for so long."
I watched him soar up into the morning sky and
saw numerous shrapnel bursts chasing him as he
sailed about over the German lines. What a quiet,
easy-going holiday was this, dodging about in the
air, a clear mark for the enemy's guns! But, to tell
the truth, the British flying men and machines are
very rarely hit. Flying in war-time is not so perilous
as it looks, though it needs much skill and a calm,
At length the din of the gunfire ceased, and we
knew that the British troops were rushing from their
trenches to deal with the Germans, whose nerve the
guns had shaken. Astounded as they had been by
our artillery fire, the Germans were still more amazed
by the rapidity of the infantry attack. The British
soldiers and the Indians swept in upon them in-
stantly till large numbers threw down their weapons,
scrambled out of their trenches, and knelt, hands
in token of surrender.
The fight swept on far beyond the German
trenches, through the village, and beyond that again.
The big guns occasionally joined in, and the chatter
of the machine-guns rose and broke off. Now the
motor ambulances began to come back-up that
road down which the finger pointed to Neuve
Chapelle. They lurched past us as we stood by the
sigpost in an intermittent stream, bearing the
wounded men from the fight.
Presently the cheerful sight of German prisoners
alternated with the saddening procession of am-
bulances. Large squads of prisoners went by, many
hatless and with dirt-smeared faces, their uniforms
looking as though dipped in mustard, the effect of
bursting of the British lyddite shells among them
in their trenches. The dejection of defeat was on
Some of them were halted and were questioned
by the General. One man turned out to be a Frank-
fort banker, whose chief concern later was what
would become of his money, which he said had been
taken charge of by some of his captors. He was
also anxious to know where he would be imprisoned,
and seemed relieved, if not delighted, when he
heard that it would be in England.
Another prisoner had been a hairdresser in
Dresden. The General questioned him, and he
gave an entertaining account of his experiences as
"I am a Landwehr man," he said. "I was in
Germany when I was ordered to entrain. Presently
the train drew up and I was ordered to get out, and
40...............CANADA IN FLANDERS.
was told I had to go and attack a place called Neuve
Chapelle. So I went on with others, and soon we
came into a hell of fire, and we ran onwards and
got into a trench, and there the hell was worse than
ever. We began to fire our rifles. Suddenly I heard
shouting behind me, and looked round and saw a
large number of Indians between me and the rest
of the German Army. I then looked at the other
German soldiers in the trench and saw that they
were throwing their rifles out of the trench Well,
I am a good German, but I did not want to be
peculiar, so I threw my rifle out also, and then I
was taken prisoner and brought here. Although I
have not been long at the war, I have had enough
of it. I never saw daylight in the battlefield until
I was a prisoner."
Some of the prisoners were brought along by the
Indian troops who had captured them. They com-
plained bitterly that they, Germans, should be
marched about in the custody of Indians! They
did not understand the grimly humorous reply: "If
the Indians are good enough to take you, they are
good enough to keep you."
The Indians smiled with delight, for they are
particularly fond of making prisoners of Germans.
Most of them brought back their little trophies of
the fight, which they held out for inspection with a
smile, crying, "Souvenir!"
The stream of prisoners and of wounded
passed on. The fury of battle relaxed. Now
and then some of the guns still crashed, but the
machine guns rattled further and further away,
and the crackle of the rifle fire came from a
The British Army had traversed in triumph those
"six kilometres to Neuve Chapelle."
At Neuve Chapelle it halted, and there halted,
too, the hopes of an early and conclusive victory for
the Allied forces.
The enemy's outposts had been driven in, but
beyond these, their fortified places bristled with
machine guns, which wrought havoc on our troops,
and, indeed, brought the successful offensive to a
close. Controversy has arisen over the disappointing
results which were achieved. For a month after the
battle, Neuve Chapelle was heralded by the public
as a great British victory. But doubt followed con-
fidence, and in a few weeks the "victory', was
described as a failure. The truth lies between these
The object of this battle of Neuve Chapelle was
to give our men a new spirit of offensive and to
test the British fighting machine which had been
built up with so much difficulty on the Western
front. Besides, if this attack succeeded in destroying
the German lines, it would be possible to gain the
Aubers ridge which dominates Lille. That ridge
firmly held in our hands, the city should have
ours. That would have been a great victory.
would probably have meant the end of the Ger-
man occupation of this part of France. In any case
it must have had a marked effect upon the whole pro-
gress of the war.1
1 The scheme of the attack on Neuve Chapelle had been worked
General John Gough just before he was killed, and it was
to his Corps Commanders by sir John French on May
as follows: -The 1st Army was to launch the main assault,
4th Corps being on the left flank and the Indian Corps on
the right. To hold up the enemy all along the line, and to
42...............CANADA IN FLANDERS.
That was what we hoped to do. What we actu-
ally accomplished was the winning of about a mile
of territory along a three-mile front, and the
straightening of our line. The price was too high
for the result.
It was the first great effort ever made by the
British to pierce the German line since it had been
established after the open field battles of the Marne
and the Aisne. The British troops had faced the
German lines for months, and while the funda-
mental principles of the German defences were
fairly well understood, their real strength was very
Things went badly from the beginning of the
action. The artillery "preparation" represented
quite the most formidable bombardment the British
had so far made. but even so, it was ineffective
along certain sections of the line. After the way
had been paved by shrapnel and high explosive,
the British infantry moved forward in a splendid
offensive to secure what everyone believed would
be a decisive victory; and trained observers of the
battle were under the impression that the gallant
British infantry had won their end. This is an
impression, too, which was shared by some of the
men for a time.
For many months the British had been almost
entirely on the defensive, and over and over again
had been called on to repulse heavy, massed Ger-
man attacks. The casualties sustained in repulsing
1prevent his massing reinforcements to meet the main attack, two
other supplementary attacks were also to he made-one attack
by the Ist Corps from Givenchy, and the other by the 3rd Corps
detailed from the 2nd Army for that purpose - to the south of
these attacks first revealed our shortage of machine-
guns. What they lacked in machine-guns, how-
ver, the British troops made up for in a deadly
accuracy of rifle fire, which was at once the terror
and the admiration of the Germans. The British
had thus come to an exaggerated idea of the efficacy
of rifle fire, and a consequent over-estimate of the
importance of the German first line trenches. Over
these they swarmed, and the word went forth that
the day was won.
It was only when the British troops had occupied
the enemy's first and second line trenches, they dis-
covered that, in actual fact, they had not done more
than drive in the outposts of an army. Close at hand,
Germans' third line loomed up like a succession
of closely interlocked citadels. Nay, more, those
citadels were so constructed that the trenches from
which our men had ousted the enemy with so much
heroism and loss were deathtraps for the new
tenants. The circumstances were such that to retire
meant acknowledgment of failure, and to hang on, a
Even so, there were features of the situation
which made for hope. There were positions to be
won which would very seriously jeopardise the
whole German scheme of defence; but, at the
critical moment of the battle, the advanced troops
seem to have passed beyond the control of the
various commanders in the rear on account of the
The real tragedy, however, was the non-arrival
of the supports at a point and at a time when the
appearance of reserves might have made all the
difference to the fortunes of the day. The enemy
44................ CANADA IN FLANDERS.|
was still bewildered arid demoralised, and, but for
the delay, might have been completely routed.
Unfortunately, the British front was in great need
of straightening out. The 23rd Brigade continued
to hang up the 8th Division, while the 25th Brigade
was fighting along a portion of the front where it
was not supposed to be at all. Units had to be
disentangled and the whole line straightened before
further advance could be made.
The fatal result was a delay which, Sir John
French says, would never have occurred had the
"clearly expressed orders of the General Officer com-
manding the 1st Army been more carefully observed."
Sir Douglas Haig himself hurried up to set things
right, but it was then too late to retrieve the
failure which had been occasioned by delay. The
attack was thoroughly exhausted, its sting was gone,
and the enemy had pulled himself together. Night
was falling, and there was nothing to be done but
"dig in" beneath the ridge above Lille, the capture
of which would have altered the whole story of the
campaign on the Western front.
As I have said, the Canadian infantry took no
part in the battle, though the troops waited im-
patiently and expectantly for the order to advance,
but the activity of the Canadian artillery was con-
siderable and important. The Canadian guns took
their full share in the "preparation" for the sub-
sequent British infantry attack, and the observation
work of our gunners was good and continuous.
After Neuve Chapelle, quiet reigned along the
Canadian trenches, though the battle raged to the
north of us at St. Ebi, and the Princess Patricia's
Battalion was involved. Early in the last days of
March our troops were withdrawn and retired to
The Canadians had received their baptism of
fire, and in extremely favourable circumstances.
They had not been called on to make any desperate
attacks on the German lines. Nor had the Ger-
mans launched any violent assaults upon theirs.
The infantry had sustained a few casualties, but
that was all; while German artillery practice against
our trenches had been curtailed on account of the
violent fighting both to the south and the north.
On the other hand, we had been surrounded by
all the circumstances of great battles. We had
watched the passage of the giant guns, of which the
British made use for the first time at Neuve
Chapelle, and we had moved and lived and stood
to arms amid all the stir and accessories of vehement
war. The guns had boomed their deadly message
our ears, we had seen death in many forms, and
understood to the full the meaning of "Casualties,"
day by day, the aeroplanes wheeled and
circled overhead, passing and re-passing to the
The Canadians had come to make war, and had
dwelt in the midst of it, and after their turn in the
trenches many of them, no doubt, accounted them-
selves war-worn veterans. Little they knew of the
ordeals of the future. Little they dreamt, when
towards the middle of the month of April they were
sent to take over French trenches in the Ypres
salient, that they were within a week of that terrible
but wonderful battle which has consecrated this
little corner of Flanders for Canadian generations
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Second Publication: Monday, 12-Mar-2001 21:50:07 MST
First Published: March 1, 2001