Monday, Oct. 22
9 a.m. It didn't. A heavy downpour at 5 a.m. and now heavily overcast.
Midnight. It cleared later and has been warm and pleasant. Zero hour was 5.35. Not a very large affair apparently, though had it been more successful it might have spread to the 2nd Army. Anderson over from Nine Elms in the morning. They had not even been warned of a possible push. Walking wounded began to come in about 2 p.m.---very muddy but, as usual with walkers, optimistic and jubilant at getting back with a prospect of Blighty. The attack seems to have been in only two areas---in front of Poelcappelle to get the brewery (so long an obstacle), and in the direction of the forest to straighten the line there. So far as one can judge, the 18th, 15th, 35th, and 31st Divisions participated. I have seen men of Norfolk, Suffolk, Berks, and Essex regiments from the 18th. One of their officers, who has a slight scalp wound, says they were in the Poelcappelle area, and the artillery of an entire army corps was concentrated behind their two brigades. The 35th has taken over from the Guards on the edge of the forest, and some of the Sherwoods were also appropriately on the forest end of the line.
The conditions must be appalling. An officer who is in here with trench feet says that a messenger he had sent back lost the tape and his sense of direction, wandered twenty feet away, and was found the next morning in a quagmire nearly up to his neck. He was still living when extracted, but died. The officer himself was in a shell-hole lake for five days with two or three of his men. During this time they had only three meals, and when they finally were reached this morning during the advance, and he was carried back, he couldn't get his boots off. During the early attack in the mist, dummy figures of cardboard were put up to draw the enemy's machine-gun fire, and the barrage was timed to advance and recede so as to catch the Boche after he had come out of his dugouts and pill boxes. A German threw away his gun and floundered up to one of the dummies shouting "Kamerad."
The Mess President promised us a great treat for dinner---some Indian corn---on the cob! "They" simply didn't know what to do with it, and for that matter neither did we Americans. The objects were about the size of hen's eggs, boiled and tasting of paraffine oil, difficult to hold and particularly untidy when you are at a mess which boasts of no napkins.
Across the table from me is a new Padre---Wesleyan. This one wears the gold stripe on his sleeve signifying a wound. He came out with the First Hundred Thousand, served in the line two years, went home and completed his theological course, and is now back, able to talk the soldier's language to the living as well as to read a service over him dead.
Wednesday, Oct. 24th
Spells of cold rain all day. News that Bob Fitzsimmons, the pugilist, has died of pneumonia in Chicago arouses more interest than the results of Monday's battle. The attack was about as I had gathered---from Poelcappelle to Mangelaere. The French troops did particularly well in spite of the swamp, and got well into the forest. More important is the rumor that four or five Zeppelins got adrift in a raid over England and came down, or were brought down, somewhere in France the next morning.
Thursday, Oct. 25th
Flanders weather continues to be the topic of outstanding interest--and condemnation. Last night following a prolonged cold downpour it came on to blow a hurricane. My tent, after flapping like an unfurled topsail, began about 4 a.m. to settle down on top of me. Fishing for tent pegs in muddy darkness is no joke; fortunately a stray P.B. man secured a shovel, which was much more effective with loose tent pegs than the brick with which I was belaboring them. My tent was new when I came and has had only three months' wear. Though it grows leaky in spots, it did not rip asunder as did many others early this morning. So I got off lucky.
All this brings up the lavish employment of canvas by the. British. The cost of a marquee is 80 pounds and four to a ward make 320 pounds. They last about six months. A hut of the type of our Church Army hut costs 250 pounds and will hold more patients and take up less room than the marquees . . . . But the real waste is in smaller things. Our so-called platform some 200 yards long beside the tracks is built up of ashes and gravel. Suddenly a week ago the R.E.'s appeared with six-inch logs and have perpendicularized the edge bordering the tracks, where the platform slopes off. To-day this is all being torn up and a corrugated iron facing put in its place. No one seems to know why. The logs, having been once used, are thrown in the ditch.
And the wastage of food is prodigious. The waste bread from the ambulance trains is put in sacks and unloaded anywhere. Our own waste, which is enormous, goes to the pigs---not ours but those of the Belgian farmer, who still inhabits his buildings. He is growing wealthy on it beyond his dreams of avarice, for, once raised and fattened, he sells the pigs back to us. The men in the mess kitchen have had no instruction whatever concerning the saving of food. Such economy as a bread pudding is unknown. A woman housekeeper and a farmer could feed our mess, keep pigs, cows, and chickens, and make money. Telfer estimated at breakfast that the daily waste of our officers' mess alone would provide for a London family in the East End for a week.
Later. It's an ill wind, etc. Things have been drying rapidly and it feels less like rain than for some time. To the Château Lovie---haunt of the red fox---to get what information I could about our Base Hospital being moved. The red fox is the 5th Army emblem and the splotch of red color on caps and brassards at headquarters is a relief in the khaki-colored landscape. The leaves in this area are falling fast. Consequently many a building and ammunition dump is left scantily concealed. There are only two corps remaining in the 5th Army---the 14th and 18th. Even the 5th was crossed off on the Headquarters map; so that the 2nd Army comes well up to the St. Jean line.
Still later. Bandagehem I find is misnamed. They don't bandage at all. A walk over there along the tracks to tea at No. 62, where all the N.Y.D.N.(18) cases are congregated, in other words the shellshock cases---very dismal. A dumping ground for M.O.'s who can't wriggle out---none of them appear at all interested in, or acquainted with, psychiatry. We are warned of another battle to-morrow. A clear cold still night for a change, and Fritz is up taking advantage of the returning moon. The conditions promise to favor us.
Oct. 26th. Friday
3 p.m., while Sullivan is doing some scalps. To-day, according to my unofficial reckoning, was the twelfth battle for the ridges. Pouring as usual since an early hour this morning, despite the brilliant promise of yesterday.
Early breakfast on some G.W. coffee in my wet and shivering tent, and a get-away at seven with Maynard Smith to visit the C.D.S. for each of the two corps still in this army---one at Duhallow for the 18th and the other at Solferino Farm for the 14th Corps. Good going at first, by the switch road around "Pop" to Vlamertynghe, which is far more damaged than when I first saw it a month ago. Then on to "Wipers," passing dripping Australians on the way out, for they were replaced last night by two divisions of the Canadians, one of them the 3rd from Toronto.(19) By the asylum---over the moat---the prison---the Grande Place, and on through the wreck of the town with its big sewers torn open and bared to view---an eviscerated as well as mangled city---to the Menin Gate.
Then St. Jean and the Junction Road; and so northwest to Boundary Road, which runs north and south behind Admiral's Road, and so to Irish Farm (C27a5.2)(20) where is the Collecting Station for Walking Wounded of the Corps---a desperate place in a sea of mud and crater lakes. To be sure, there are still some fairly intact trees standing in this area, though most of them are broken and splintered past recall. The pollard willows, which encircle the little Flanders ponds, alone seem to have largely escaped, as though they had gradually become immune to wounds at the hand of man. Indeed, only by the fringe of willow stumps can one tell whether the pond is old or newly made by the rain filling a large crater. Every time a shell lands it of course makes a pond.
The C.O. at Irish Farm had established this advanced station by order, on the 21st, only five days ago; the leveling of the ground and partial filling of shell holes occupying the first day, and then after all was nearly ready the wind storm the other night blew every tent down. He now has wangled a lot of the crinkled iron posts designed for wire entanglements, and using them for tent pegs, with some wire for ropes, hopes he will outlive the next gale. There's no way, alas, to reef a tent---it must weather a storm under full canvas. In such a camp as this, too, one learns the absolutely essential rôle played by the duckboard. Crushed stone and the duckboard versus tea and jam. I wonder which Tommy would take if he had to choose between them.
We are early, and though they are busy enough all the time with bombed cases from the area, to-day's wounded have not yet begun to come in. They are to receive from the 18th Corps, where are the 63rd-the naval division---on the right, and the 58th on the left, to which division the C.O. belongs. In his outfit are four M.O.'s, fifty-six bearers, and thirty temporarily attached people. At a similar place during the last---i.e., Monday's---battle they passed on 1745 wounded and 246 walking-sick in twelve hours, between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m.
Irish Farm, as I have said, lies near Boundary Road about where Buff's Road joins it, and from all appearance it is thoroughly searched by shells. Just across the road were some huge howitzers sulking under their camouflage, and beyond, in a fringe of stumps marking a former wood, was a long row of naval guns whose snouts we could see and whose flashes and roars were too close for comfort. Certainly not all of the guns were blinded, and though it was raining and misty, the air was simply buzzing with planes like swallows, singly and in formations---there must have been fifty or sixty within the near radius of a mile.
The C.O. shows us what he can in the time he has; and while we wait for Kenzie to disentangle the car from ambulances and lorries and ammunition mules the wounded straggle in---one of them with a bloody bandaged leg being helped along on the narrow duckboards by two Boche prisoners, a sight which would be good for "the Hate" of both sides. A toy of a narrow-gauge Decauville with its little gasoline engine pulls into the camp with a load of liers from some forward area---a sopping Tommy rides by on a mule with its upper lip, nostrils, and part of one ear blown off, but still worthy of salvage---farther on a recently disemboweled horse lies at the side of the road, reddening the pools and the muddy water of the ditch for a hundred feet beyond---a large slug of an observation balloon begins to rear its carcass up from a wrecked copse just behind the camp.
So back to the canal, which we cross just north of Ypres, with the skeleton of the Cloth Hall and the stump of St. Martin's western tower still dominating the distant landscape despite their pulverized condition; and finally to a place called Duhallow where formerly was an advanced dressing station dug in the bank, and where the 18th C.D.S. is now placed.
In this part of the canal, south of Boesinghe, the English held both banks, so that the western slope of each bank is lined with quasi habitations, their entrances toward the west. Those on the western bank lie between the canal itself and the little tributary of the Yser---the Yperlée I believe---running parallel to it.
The C.O. ordinarily in command of F.A. 150 had been stationed here for only a week, but had erected his tents on a sea of mud and shell holes which had to be filled with whatever could be found. Indeed, more like the ancient lake dwellers in parts, for the Yperlée has expanded into a veritable lake, over which duckboards in many areas stand close together on piles. We found the C.O. in one of the dugouts--- the so-called "elephants" which line the canal bank---corrugated steel frames like miniature Nissons about six feet high along the centre and ten feet long---comparatively safe in view of the very heavy additional sandbagging above and around; and advantage had been taken of a brick wall supporting the bank at this place. The only danger lies in the great air pressure in the enclosure, should a large shell happen to burst just behind.
The C.O. was by no means daunted by this sanitary problem, and, managing somehow to scrape together men and shovels, had dug a ditch from the stream through the bank, and in the bottom had laid a huge pipe three feet in diameter made of rolled-up corrugated iron sheets, through which the muddy water was pouring in a solid mass down into the canal below.
I had never realized before how high were the banks of the canal, or how wide it was---certainly a formidable military obstacle with either bank well fortified in defense of a crossing. We slipped and waded out on the canal bank, avoiding shell holes and German duds which abounded, to see this engineering feat of the C.O.'s, of which he was most proud; and despite the rain, the water under the wet part of his camp had fallen over a foot. How the D.G. must have raised his eyebrows when we complained that the lower part of No. 11 General at Camiers was occasionally under water!
Some young American M.O.'s were attached---everyone saying a good word for them. I saw one who said he was from Georgia---all he wanted was to know where he could get an officer's cord for his hat. The place is at C25d3.O, just east of what once was the Belgian town of Noordhofwijk; and when on the canal bank we could see better than at Irish Farm the ridges from whose low elevation the Boche so long looked down on this region which he could shell at his pleasure. Though it was 10.30 when we were there, only one wounded officer and ten other-ranks had as yet been admitted.
Then back to Salvation Corner on the way to Solferino Farm (B23a5.1), a name indicating, as do the occasional graves with their red and blue circle on the wooden cross, that the French long ago were holding this area---desolate beyond words---a ruined château---some derelict tanks---past the H.Q. of the naval division, where the white naval ensign flies over some scattered tents in a sea of mire---through the wreck of Brielen village, where from a niche in the remaining wall of the nave a stone saint looks down on the rubble of his church and the adjacent cemetery, topsy-turvy with barbed wire and headstones and opened graves, new and old---for a reserve line of abandoned trenches runs through it.
So on to Dawson's Corner and the new-laid Boesinghe road, where we should turn but for a traffic youth who holds us up and makes us retrace our steps---first left at the road leading to Essex Farm, then first left and first left again to Solferino Farm, which is but a little way down the road, but it's a one-way road for all but horses and bicycles. Owing to this we got stalled for an hour.
The second "first left" was evidently a mistake, for it put us on to a narrow and badly broken road from which there was no turning; and after about a mile we ran up against two lorries. They completely blocked the narrow path of rough-laid cobbles on which we balanced, with ditches and unfathomed mud on each side. Two signs just beyond were labeled "Perth Road" and "Rum Road," though there was no recognizable track to be seen.
Each lorry held a dissected small Nisson, and the young officer in charge apologized; but there was nothing to do but for him to unload---which he would do as fast as possible. Incidentally it was pouring, and from somewhere a bedraggled group of mud-colored Tommies appeared, picking their way through the mire, and began to carry away the sections. These poor devils were out on what is regarded as a temporary rest billet! From their struggles I got an idea of what a stretcher-bearer must endure, only he carries a man on a stretcher and not a mere curved plate of rusty iron which minds not whether the bearer slips on his face or sinks into a hole halfway to his middle and has to let go. Low-flying planes were scudding over---mostly our familiar R.E. No. 8's. A continued hubbub of guns, meanwhile, their flashes showing against the fragments of a wood and the slight elevation of Pilkem Ridge beyond. And then from the east, cross country, sucking herself along through the mud like a prehistoric lizard, came slithering a tank---female of the species, for painted on her chest was DAME. I could think of nothing but "all mimsy were the borogoves," for she certainly "gyred and gimbled" in the mire, but came on nevertheless, ignoring crater pools, and finally down the ditch by the road she sank, then heaved herself over, then down the other side and on across the country beyond---doubtless home to feed her young. She crossed the road immediately in front of the first lorry and I was so dumbfounded I got out of our car and immediately sank in above my ankles, for alongside the narrow track of loose pavés there was no roadbed whatever. So I got aboard again and lit a cigarette as though I were quite accustomed to these things, having been in the army for a full five months.
But this was not all, for shortly Kenzie, the chauffeur, called out: "Here come some more of 'em!" and sure enough, from off our starboard quarter was a procession of the beasts. This time a male---DEATH'S HEAD his name---with guns sticking out of his side and a man on his back---like a bird on the back of a rhino---scratching the mud out of his claws as they passed by. DEATH'S HEAD barely negotiated the road. Then three more along the same slimy track: DRUID, a male, DRONE a lady---then a final female misnamed DOMINIE possibly escaping in female disguise.(21)
Well, the lorries were finally unloaded and moved on to the spot marked Rum Road where we could just squeeze by, and then came a succession of shell craters which seemed too much even for Kenzie---"worse than anything they 'd seen on the Somme"---but we got through somehow, the car tilting over the fragments of muddy duckboards we had rescued from the roadside. Luckily I had rubber boots, but the well-groomed Smith was mud to his knees.
At Solferino Farm is the M.D.S. for the 14th Corps, and it would be good for all who only know the meagre discomforts of the Base to be detailed for a time in some such place. Col. Gowlland, the C.O., and a big red Scot of a young captain named Barclay, who wears an M.C. ribbon and has been with this 51st F.A. of the 17th Division for full three years---they two showed us around the station and the scattered structures of sandbags and railroad ties in an adjacent muddy copse, where they eat and sleep. It was 11.30 and the first real walkers from the battle were coming in, straggling along a rickety duckboard path labeled "Track to Pilkem," which led from nowhere in the direction of No Man's Land. It was 5.45 when they went over---this means nearly six hours---and these are the slightly wounded during the first few minutes of the attack.
So home through Elverdinghe, with the usual ruined church, and a sign on the sandbagged chapel door reading "To the bomb store." And we get back just as the first trainload of walkers is being dropped at our dripping platform.
And all this "carrying on" in the muck and mire of a back area is nothing to the condition further on. I have just been talking with a young subaltern of the 50th Division, who, shaking and trembling, is pretending to smoke a cigarette in his bed in the officers' ward. His battalion went in last night, following a muddy tape. They got absolutely scattered and lost---had no idea where they were---many wandered directly into the enemy's area---they tried to dig in where they thought was their objective, merely throwing up a little mud and lying in the puddles behind it---the wrong place and they were ordered away-this was repeated twice, the last time just before zero. Wet through and thoroughly chilled, they tried to follow a barrage which got ahead of them, and passed over their real objective: a line of concrete gun emplacements camouflaged as old frame buildings which opened up on them. Well, there was practically nobody left.
It's easy to play the game from the grandstand; but I can't help feeling that this show in view of the downpour ought to have been called off. It certainly could have been even at the last-moment, by a system of prearranged rocket signals which could reach all the participants, even though wires might not, for wires are often cut and units thereby temporarily shut off from their communications.
Saturday the 27th Oct.
5 p.m. Only one penetrating wound out of this entire lot, and this a man wounded just going over. Almost all the wounds are minor ones---walking cases, and about 2000 have gone down from our platform. This means either that we were driven back and left our more serious wounded, or else only the walkers survived to get away and out of the mire. The papers said almost nothing of the attack of the 22nd, and they probably will say as little of this one.
Sunday, Oct. 28th
Little wonder that people have found it difficult to describe. Yet one has the sensation of vague familiarity, doubtless due to the official photographs---like seeing Niagara for the first time and being surprised it is so like the picture postcards. Apart from the wreck of the last remaining house, which the Canadians now use as an A.D.S., the salient is a waste unbelievably littered with débris of every kind, dead horses, derelict tanks, fallen and crumpled aeroplanes, cordite cans, shells, mortars, fish-tail bombs, broken and abandoned limbers, barbed wire, old trenches, water-filled craters, strips of old road camouflage, gravestones and tumbled cemeteries, sheet-iron fragments of old Nisson huts, fallen trees, frames of inverted A-shaped trench supports, and I can't remember at the moment more---except the gooey mud.
And on this particular day the road to Zonnebeke, which, like the Menin Road, is kept in some sort of repair, is alive with Canadians and ammunition mules and artillery and lorries; and from the tumbled surface of the country on all sides are flashes of guns, some of them silent flashes from Quaker guns to deceive the enemy's planes, others belching out a rushing and ripping shell with a thunder and roar to deafen you---8-inch "hows," naval guns, rows of field guns, and you have to look close to see them; and people the color of the mud that encases them are moving about on all sides, singly, in clusters, in columns, in bodies, waiting their chance or their orders to move up; and in the air are crowds of black planes at various heights and appearing the size of gnats, swallows, cranes, circling singly or in formations, some surrounded by black shrapnel puffs showing they are Huns, and the puffs cease as other flocks of gnats appear, and they engage and separate, leaving only scattered planes.
And before long there's a bang! and black earth is thrown up like a geyser 200 yards away and another one nearer---in short, just like the picture postcards. And the savage in you makes you adore it with its squalor and wastefulness and danger and strife and glorious noise. You feel that, after all, this is what men were intended for rather than to sit in easy chairs with a cigarette and whiskey, the evening paper or the best-seller, and to pretend that such a veneer means civilization and that there is no barbarian behind your starched and studded shirt front . . . .
It came about through Myer Coplans, the sanitarian of the 2nd Army, who, as I've said somewhere else, knows much about Ypres, and told me some day he would take me there. We get away at eleven, leaving the capable Gil to do the two stray heads that have come in.
A cool misty day with thin clouds and visibility a little too good for safe journeying as far afield as was hoped for. A stop at the Canadian H.Q. off the Poperinghe switch road, where for politeness we register our intent of entering their area---even though M.C. is everywhere persona grata when strictly on business bound. Major Greer, the A.D.M.S. of the 4th Canadian, we find is away at Bridge House, which in fact is one of our objectives (C24a3.6) -and Col. Peters we will find at the Menin Gate. Our final point, the Hun permitting, will be the A.D.S. at Frost House (D25a1.2), from which we will have a complete survey of the ridge---no place for an officer's motor like Fullerton's, and we therefore proceed by ambulance.
So on by the usual road---the famous Poperinghe-Ypres plaisance of Chaucer, where we dodge lorries and artillery columns and dispatch riders and troops going up or coming out. Coplans is much distressed over the roadside drains, which are not well cleared, so that water is backing up, and there is much from him about road construction; the character of the soil which "puddles" when churned up and won't let the water get through easily---hence the mud produced by the footsteps of an army. Not really a great rainfall---only about 20 inches, and in this country, as in the case of dry farming with us, the farmer harrows and then rolls the soil to keep in the moisture. Also about the limon, the yellow sticky clay under the soil and the blue clay many feet below---and much more only indirectly relating to war.
C. was in this area early, and knew Vlamertynghe when to its normal 3500 inhabitants 3000 refugees and 11,000 troops were added with no doctor, and typhoid in every house. But what I have heretofore thought was Vlamertynghe is only a part of the town; for beyond in what appears to be waste country beside the road were places he knew---here stood the town hall, here the station, here the blacksmith shop---now nothing---hardly a trace after these two years even of the grass-grown cellars. So along the crowded Chaussée de Poperinghe, past the brick ruins of the huge insane asylum, once Von Bissing's headquarters, into Ypres at the Poperinghe Gate, with the wreck of the Yser canal-lock on the right, the leaning water tower---the Château d'Eau---on the left. Then by the rue d'Elverdinghe and to what remains of the prison where No. 11 F.A. of the 4th Canadian Division has established itself.
Preparatory to the coming battle---whether to-morrow or the next day is not quite apparent---thirteen Canadian M.O.'s are gathered here under Major Moshier, their C.O., and he volunteers to accompany us to Potijze---to Bavaria House---and, if the roads are sufficiently clear, to Frost House, which he warns us is a hot place. So in tin hats and gas alert, out by the Menin Gate to the rue de Roulers, the shell-peppered signpost pointing to Zonnebeke, and on as far as Potijze, where, in the ruins of the last house standing this side of present and former strips of no man's lands, is located the A.D.S. so recently taken over by the 4th Canadians, who are on the right, astride the railway.
We turn in from the crowded road and get out in time to see a great aerial engagement, quite indescribable---there must have been. 60 planes over our immediate vicinity---during which all traffic is stopped and the moving troops on the road fall back and scatter. In the heavily sandbagged cellars of this one remaining Potijze house, wrecked as it is, were the preparations for the coming event, and we are told that the Canadian bearers bring in their wounded in relays of four carriers who cover the 5000 yards from Frost House to this point rather than to have the same bearers bring one patient all the way, as is customary.
We start in from here over the muddy road, on foot, along with the limbers and lorries and miles of mules and men, well beyond the line of observation balloons, and get across the old line of fixed trenches a little beyond Verlorenhoek and toward Frezenberg, when some heavy German stuff begins to come over in answer to our batteries which are trying to draw them out. An explosion and a geyser of earth about 300 yards ahead, then another a little closer---the advancing column halts and begins to open out, and I can see by Major Moshier's behavior he doesn't care to assume the responsibility, this afternoon at least, of taking us any further along this particular road.
We pick up our car again at Potijze and so back toward Ypres, whose ruins stand out against a brilliant red sky made by the sun, setting in a haze. We turn off to the left past a tumbled cemetery and along the Menin Road, by the ruined École de Bienfaisance, where the 5th Division had its headquarters in 1914---a spot which will probably figure in many a diary kept in those days. We are now in the 1st Anzac Area, and here again we find our way to the cellars of the ruins, past piles of dirty stretchers to which occasional bloodstained first-aid dressings still adhere, past sandbag protections; and the C.O., Captain McCoy, does the honors of his A.D.S. and tells us incidentally what the Boche would like to know---probably does---at this moment, that the entire 1st Anzac Corps lies in the angle between the Menin and Potijze roads. A lot of howitzers are banging away in the neighborhood---loud-mouthed ones---8-inch I'm told, though to me they sound 80 inches at least; and I am given to understand that when in a given sector an SOS. rocket is sent up---such as my friend Evans of the Proven R.E.'s spends his time in making--the batteries in the ensuing five minutes fire off 80,000 pounds' worth of ammunition.
We drop Moshier at the Prison and C. goes to visit his pumping stations, securely hidden in the ramparts at a certain corner of the town. Rather than wallow after him through the mud of the embankment I choose to stay outside and watch the fading glow of light behind the cloven tower of the distant Cloth Hall---indeed endeavor to make a sketch of it while one of the big balloons is being lowered for the night and the Boche is sending over at regular intervals shrapnel shells which burst over the Grande Place, doubtless searching for the ration wagons which begin to move up at dusk.
Monday the 29th
11 p.m. "If he drops them now he'll just about get us"---"Ripping, right on his tail"---"There he goes off"---"He's turning back"---"Into the moon; now they've lost him."
Thompson, the intelligence officer or "Brains" of Flying Squadron 7, 18th Corps, said it was a long time since I had visited them and I must come to dinner, so after holding forth for two hours at our weekly meeting while the M.O.'s of Nos. 12, 64, and 46 picked my lean brains for the last time on matters cranio-cerebral, I hied me to their mess which is, "for safety," some 300 yards beyond the aerodrome.
A very festive dinner, and their new C.O., Sutton by name, transferred from No. 9 squadron, had invited a friend who brought a band with him---an enlivening guest. Before he went into the R.F.C., Sutton and this patron of music had been in the Earl of Lonsdale's Westmoreland Yeomanry---mounted troops. I had seen none of these fellows before, with their square buttons and white gorgets with a central red stripe. The band was near and loud, and a band confined in a Nisson hut which opens out of another Nisson, where is the mess, can make quite a little noise. But not enough to blanket the sound of anti-aircraft guns and bombs falling in Proven.
During the meal no one even commented on them, but when we were through we crowded out for a moment and there he was, the usual illuminated moth sailing along almost overhead with everything let loose at him and, what's more, a good deal of it falling round about. He finally turned and passed almost across the orb of the full moon, when they either lost him or he got beyond the reach of the rays. Even these boys, familiar as they are with this sort of thing, were interested and excited.
They tell me it's positively blinding to be in the rays, and one is absolutely helpless unless he can slip out, for over the German lines you can't fly out of reach as the Hun can over here; for another picks you up immediately, and they have an uncomfortable kind of gun which fires in line of the light as soon as you are picked up. The Hun in fact, it's admitted, does most things pretty well ---and, "How many American troops are over here?" is the usual question which follows this train of thought.
Possibly the most lively and jovial of the lot was young Gardiner, who must do the contact patrol to-morrow, three hours after zero, when the troops should have reached their objectives. "A somewhat sticky job," says the Oregon youth, standing in a group of Canadians. "It's the second time he's had it and after the first he wound up in 46 C.C.S. with a bullet in his bottom." It means of course flying the length of the corps' final objective, at a low altitude, and identifying the position of the troops either by their sending off of flares or by actually seeing them, in case those carrying flares for various reasons never get there.
And this is not straightaway flying, but zigzagging, tumbling, falling, dodging, until one's observer often gets nauseated and maybe nearly jerked out of his seat, for countless machine guns are turned loose on you at close range. Then if he gets through he comes back and drops a bag containing notes of his observations at the army, the corps, and each of the two divisional headquarters, and brings still another home. If he doesn't come home in about an hour, another goes out to tackle the job, and about this time most of the rest are out for counter-battery work. For such tasks, together with photographing, are the main duties of these fickle R.E. 8 machines.
I finally fled, but not before the yeomanry band played "Marching through Georgia," and Thompson as a parting gift presses on me some Poelcappelle pictures and accompanying maps. It's a frosty clear moonlight night and Fritz abounds; but nevertheless two of these delightful youngsters, bareheaded, insisted on walking through Proven and nearly home with me---a way they have in the air corps. It certainly cannot rain to-morrow.
Tuesday, Oct. 30th
8 a.m. I sat up so late last night shivering in my cold tent over Thompson's maps and photographs of Poelcappelle that they were afloat on the surface of my mind when, from Ashford: "Seven-thirty, sorr, and coffee up. Shall I close your tent, sorr, it's raining and gusty." I groan and look out, and, though a high wind, not an unpromising morning after all, and they've had a two-hour start. But the bad thing about it is that it's not decently "flyable" weather for those poor boys.
From these pockmarked photographs of Poelcappelle one can easily understand how units get lost, particularly when they go up at night, for the remaining landmarks of one day may be obliterated the next, and after a barrage such as must be going on this minute, roads and crossings and the rubble of remaining buildings are so tumbled about that even in daylight it must be nigh impossible to tell where one's objective really lies. A given area may even turn into a shallow lake overnight, for banks of swollen streams are broken down with the flooding of large areas which previously were relatively---though only relatively---dry.
Ashford, in reply to my question as to how, during the night, I may keep the moisture from condensing inside my ground sheet, and thus waking up on a saturated blanket, says: "I'll ask the quartermaster for a couple of biscuits for you, sorr." I look at him vaguely, and swallow my coffee. Ashford, I may add, is a Tommy from Limerick and belongs to the 2nd Royal Something Fusiliers. He has been out here for eighteen months, has never seen any fighting, and is going on a two weeks' leave to-morrow. His thoughts are probably concentrated on this.
Some have acquired dogs to keep them warm, others favor cats. I have Beatrice. I found her at the canteen. Miller's dog is a small unintelligent-looking fox-terrier bitch of which he is very fond, though some wag long ago dipped her tail and caudal segment in a pan of picric acid. The Flying Squadron had a collection of cats which sat on their shoulders at dinner, and they make good muffs to warm one's head. "Beatrice" is a small kerosene-burning affair, distinctly feminine, and, lest you overlook the fact, her name is painted in gilt on each side of her bottom. She suffices to warm a basin of shaving water in the morning---for which I am waiting---also, later on, the cold iron-clad soles of my issue boots. At least she does these things when Ashford remembers to fill her up. She has an insatiable appetite and Ashford a feeble memory.
Wednesday, Oct. 31st
1 a.m. Unquestionably it's been another disappointing show, like the last two---rain, mud, heavy casualties, a small advance difficult to hold . . . . The wounded have come from the 63rd Division with men of the Nelson Batt'n, Artists' Rifles, Hawkes' Batt'n, and Bedfords; the 58th also with London troops; the 57th with Lancs, King's Liverpool, etc., and the 50th with East Yorks. So four 5th Army divisions at least were engaged. It sounds as though they had done the King of France's trick; but if I know the Canadians, in the army on our right, there'll be no marching back if they once get astride the ridge at Passchendaele before the downpour. . . (22)
General Skinner summoned me to say good-bye----rather depressed, I thought, and after the mere statement that 140,000 casualties had occurred in this 5th Army area since June, we talked about other things---racial characteristics notably; he has great respect for the fighting quality of the Teuton---only the French and English can stand up against him. By English he means of course British. There is a story of a Scot who saw on a signboard a reference to "Gott strafe England." He took a black crayon, scratched the last word, and substituted "Britain."
Gil has held on till this late hour, while I have struggled with the loose ends after our three months of work. We have orders to leave for the Base and rejoin our unit to-morrow. Patterson has wired that we are to be transferred immediately to Boulogne.
Oct. 31st. Evening
Another beautiful clear morning. Yesterday's battle in the rain was sandwiched into this stretch of good weather by some Jonah. At 4 a.m. a raider dropped six torpedoes by the crossing at Proven about 400 yards from here, but it wasn't enough to wake me. One of our bearers has brought me a fragment about eight inches long, and the thing must have had a circumference of between one and two feet. The big French mobile naval guns were browsing around this neighborhood and firing as I went to bed, and the Hun was possibly after their train---or else the R.E.'s dump which was near. No damage done, I believe.
To-day is the anniversary of the Gheluvelt day of three years ago, so fateful for the British, for the enemy were on the point of breaking through to the Channel Ports. It ends our period at No. 46, and we will be cut off from further close contact with this recent ghastly struggle for the very same ridges.
After a morning's clean-up of dressings, of handing cases on to our successors, and of packing our chattels, Horrax and I have had a memorable final afternoon in what was once Ypra opulenta; for Myer Coplans thought we might like to see for the last time what for the British would ever remain the most hallowed spot of the Great War. Again by the now familiar but always fascinating causeway with its unending processions, one moving east and the other west, and a chance for an ambulance occasionally to dodge ahead. We make for the Grande Place, and spend the two hours of remaining daylight among the ruins of St. Martin's and the Cloth Hall---climbing over and around the piles of stone and rubbish and fallen columns---picking up bits of white Carrara and marble of other colors from the altar; of leaded glass from the great windows; of gilded and painted stone decorations. What would not a little digging bring forth! Much of the fallen stone is weathering, and the piles of débris are beginning to be moss-covered and grass-grown. There must have been a court or possibly a churchyard between the two buildings, for there are large shell holes full of water, and though no recognizable gravestones are seen, bits of human skeletons are exposed---a tibia and fibula , part of a skull and humerus---possibly from a recent grave, it is true; and many dud shells---some very large and quite rusty---are lying about.
Despite what I felt before, the Cloth Hall tower is still a very noble ruin; and on this rather cloudy late afternoon, with the tottering pinnacles and arches between us and the reddish streaks of light from the broken western sky, it was particularly effective---sad and depressing as the spectacle is. For the mutilation is too recent for us to forget its beauties of only three years ago. Coplans knew it well at that time, and admits he is always much affected ---100 years to build and a few short months for man to destroy.
Most striking was the way in which the birds had taken possession. The ragged top of the Cloth Hall tower was literally alive with them, and whenever a shell burst---for they were being dropped on the distant side of the town---the birds would rise in a cloud and twitter and settle down again, just as I have once seen the birds rise off from Piercé Rock when the passing steamer blows its whistle. Mostly starlings and a few doves, but there were smaller birds too, some of them in song, and the conical-shaped ruin of St. Martin's, as well as the square one of the Cloth Hall with its dentated top, were covered with them. And beyond, in the sky, was the row of ugly balloons, like partly curled-up black maggots, and still higher were mechanical birds becoming apparently more numerous every day, and more sure and skillful in their flight. Some day they too would be landing like these birds, on towers of their own, to rest and prune their wings.
I wandered through the old basements of the Main Hall, with their low arches supported by stone pillars, where some Tommies are billeted and are making tea. Then out through the littered court to the old Square---die Groote Markt---and around to the Place Vandenpeereboom, alongside of which rushes the muddy Yperlée in the broken-down conduit which once completely covered it over.
Then we go on to see the pumping station, and even Coplans has difficulty in finding the camouflaged entrance to the engine rooms, where are two pumps, each capable of pumping 7000 gallons of water an hour from the moat. The water is first allowed to settle, and then it is aerated, chlorinated, and stored in great tanks---also camouflaged---though not as well as I should like to see for a place so vital to an army's welfare---to be distributed finally to the large force of thirsty men in this battle area.
We pass the old Vauban wall, which, though battered, still stands despite the rain of shells, and one marvels at the strength of brick and mortar which in the freshly-scarred areas is almost as solid as newly laid concrete. Indeed Coplans once had to make a passage through the outer fortification to the east of the moat; the mortar laid down in 1680 was hard as iron and proved nearly too much for them. It's growing dark, and the old moat, with the wall of the fortification beyond lined by the dead and fractured trees reflected in the still water, was a striking example of war's desolation.
Then a visit to the cellar of an old brewery, where the personnel of the R.E.'s are billeted and well barricaded by sandbags---necessary enough, for they said that fifteen Gothas had been over earlier the afternoon, dropping bombs on that part of the town. And from there a painful scramble through mud and fallen trees and old wire entanglements onto the ramparts, where we can look down, at the risk of our necks, onto the moat, and where one of us nearly falls into a hole leading down a precipitous flight of steps to a dugout some 30 feet below. And who should climb out and accost us in broken English but a Russian soldier! Just why he is here we are at a loss to know, but as the Canadians now occupy one half of Ypres and Anzac troops another, why may not a Russian or a Zulu or an Indian pop his head up from somewhere? One need not be surprised at anything in this war.
So across the darkening town by the rue de Lille, past the ruined Church of St. Pierre, and out through the Lille Gate, and Coplans explains to us the marvels of the ancient system of canals and gates and sluices whereby the streams flowing down from the low hills---the Zillebeek and Kemmelbeek and one or two others---are controlled. Remarkable, the management of these low-lying and crisscrossing streamlets which would flood the country if let loose. The Dickebuschbeek, for example, dips by syphonage under the Ypres-Comines Canal, and so the Yperlée, further north, dives back and forth under the Canal de l'Yser. The Dickebuschbeek empties into the moat on the western part of the town as does, I believe, the Zillebeek at the southeastern corner, while the Bollaartbeek flows along below this Ypres-Messines roadway directly under our feet, and at the Lille Gate becomes the Yperlée.
In the faint light we follow along the road---the Chaussée de Warneton---as far as Shrapnel Corner, where the Ypres-Comines railway crosses the road---a low country, pocked with shell holes which are full of water reflecting the sky. In the old defenses it was an easy matter to inundate all this area by the mere closure of one of the gates, which prevented the Bollaartbeek from emptying into the Yperlée. For the beginning of this stream is directly under the Lille Gate, a massive structure---I counted eighteen paces in going through. In short, by the system of gates one should be able to make the water flow, in these streams and the moat, in any given direction, or if desired flood the outlying marsh; and Coplans was disturbed to find, as he thought, that the current in the moat was in the wrong direction. He ought to know if anyone does, for he gets his water from there.
in October 1917
Encircling the Old Bell
We went into the casemate just to the west of the gate and could hear the rush of water under our feet. Meanwhile some New Zealanders who were lodged therein, cooking their supper with fuel which was as bad on the eyes as lachrymating gas, took an interest in us, and one of them showed us, by the light of a candle, the cathedral bell, which had been placed for safe-keeping in custody of the occupants of this particular casemate. A big bell standing about four feet six, and some four feet in diameter at the base, with a ragged hole through its thick side. It was partly buried in sandbags, and Gil and I took some rough rubbings of the figures round its top---evidently the Totentanze figures---Death beckoning to the bride---taking the old man by the arm, and the like. Probably an old bell, and doubtless with the date inscribed on the line of letters below, but with only a shaded candle, and even that not permitted to be shown at night in this area, we made no attempt to decipher the Latin inscription. So the bronze cathedral bell of St. Martin's has carried the ancient legend cast in its crown all these years; but it has now tumbled into a dance of death more horrible than any it has previously seen, and it doubtless has known many.
Then after a visit to a large T-shaped dugout in the ramparts, full of Australian R.A.M.C. people---two officers and seventy-eight bearers who are "in rest"! ---we creep out of the black town and home again, very sad and very muddy, and in time for our last mess, when speeches and thanks and good-byes have to be said.(23)
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