Letter from the Front - 2nd Battle of Ypres
Red Deer News
Thursday, May 06, 1915
Transcribed by: M. I. Pirie
This letter was published in the Red Deer News with the caption:
W. K. Wickens Receives Letter from His Brother at the Front
Belgium, May 6th, 1915
You, of course, have all seen all the particulars of what the Canadian Division went through ten days ago. It was a stiff trial, but they held their end up well and no one who has not been over here or through a similar one knows what they have been through. I will never forget the day we moved up. That afternoon there was the wildest confusion in the little village near which we were billetted (we were all in the village, while some of the companies were in farms just a short distance out). Nearly all afternoon refugees had been streaming through the village from the country round about, but chiefly from Ypres and the vicinity, which had been heavily and by this time was practically a mass of ruins. We had been watching a ball game for an hour or so up to 5.30 p.m., between our machine gun detachment and the third Field Ambulance, and I was with Made McDonald at the time. About two hours later we got orders to be ready to move, and a few hours later Mado had gone, and ross Binkley, who pitched, was also killed. Hammond, the catcher, was badly wounded, Bickerstaff and Barker (who died next day of wounds) and Sgt. Molley were killed. We expected, as we were reserve, to remain this side of the trenches all night, but only a temporary halt was made. It was only by chance that I was not in it, as I had turned off as usual with the transport officer and the quarter master and the transports. However, I was not in it, and can only speak as an outsider, and I take off my hat to the men who went through it.
That afternoon and the next several days are indelibly written on my mind. About 5.30 or 6 p.m. on the Thursday the refugees and Turcos and Algerians and some French artillery were just streaming through the village, which is about four miles from Ypres, in a hopeless rabble, crying that the Germans had broken through and were coming over the Canal. As a matter of fact they hadn't got over the Canal at this point though they had got up to it. The people in the village were terribly excited, and I had the greatest time persuading the people I was with that the Germans were not going to get through and that they were safe where they were for a couple of cays. The only people who were not excited were the British soldiers, and they were going the other way, whistling and singing, and our men went out that night in the highest spirits, also whistling and singing, until they were told to keep quiet. It was a wonderful march out and little did we think there were such big things for the Battalion and the Division to tackle.
We had turned off at the side of the Canal, and the Battalion went on over to take up a reserve position, as we thought. Well we were shelled out of where the transport was and it became much too hot so we moved back a bit. Capt. Crowther brought the rest out the next morning very early. Half an hour after that this shelling caught them and badly hit the machine gun section, and from that time there was no one hurt until the next morning, when Geo. Ryerson was shot getting into his trench under fire. I think it was really a stray bullet that caught him.
Then things started in real earnest. Our whole brigade was reserve brigade, and the 1st and the 4th were the first to be called for the attack, though I think our half battalion of C. and D. Company under Major Kirkpatrick, had gone up before this to hold some advance trenches on the right. It was merely by chance that C. and D. companies went instead of A. and B. After our battalion had taken up its position, C. and D. Companies, who were behind in reserve, were forced by one of our own batteries changing position to move. Just then a hurry-up order came in to send two companies to support and hold trenches on the right, so they were sent under Major Kirkpatrick, the second in command. Col. Rennie was in constant touch with Major Kirkpatrick all the time, and there is no doubt that those two companies put up a magnificent fight. They drove off the Germans time and time again though they kept coming in hordes, but at last were cut off and surrounded. The last reports that were sent in from them was that Bill Jarvis, Ross Medland and Douglas Kirkpatrick were killed and Geo. Smith and Hamilton Morton were wounded, also Kerr Cronyn, who had one of his toes shot off. Then communication was cut, and we had no further word from them at all.
From the last report from Major Kirkpatrick there were not many casualties, not over about 30, I think, but the last part of it was not reported at all. The rest of the four hundred men are missing.
There were also Capt. Streight, Capt. Johnson, Lieut. Green and Lieut. Allen missing, and of course Major Kirkpatrick. We hope they have been taken prisoners, but of course cannot tell yet. One thing sure if they have been it wasn't because they didn't put up a great fight, but they were in an isolated position and the Germans were too many for them.
These two companies were composed of one of the original Q.O.R. companies and the G.C.B.G. Co. under Capt. Streight, and the two Grenadier Companies under Capts. Morton and Ryerson.
In the meantime Len Morrison, Capt. of A. Company, had been sent further to the right with two platoons as a re-inforcement to another battalion. They had a very stormy passage and got into trenches further away than they were intended to go, and they also were surrounded and cut off. They were ordered to retire and Walter Curry with 24 men got out, but Len and the other 80 or 90 men haven't been heard of since, and we don't know whether they were captured or killed getting out. The balance of A. and B. Companies were kept in the firing line in reserve, and did not suffer so heavily, though Gerry Muntz was badly wounded and died on the 30th. He was one of the best officers we had, a really first class officer, and we had a lot of mighty good officers at that.
They had a bad time in the H.Q. where they were quartered with the Brigade, and where on the next day they were shelled out by Jack Johnsons. They put over seventy into it about an hour and a half, and burnt the place down and set fire to 200,000 rounds of ammunition. It was while all this was going on they had to carry out several wounded, including Gerry Muntz. Dr. Alf. Haywood did great work up in the trenches. He said he nearly went off his head at that part of it, but he certainly pulled himself together again and did wonderful work.
The men went in Thursday, the 22nd, and came out Tuesday morning at dawn, arriving back at our billets about 4 a.m. It was a great shock to see those who were left. Less than half the battalion came out, and there were 19 officers missing, 6 killed, 6 wounded and 7 missing. It was a big change and a bad one.
By that time they were shelling our village and it became so warm that we had to get out into the fields for the night. Just fifteen minutes after we got out of our H.Q. a shell went clear through where five of us had been sitting immediately before that, and one landed into the front of the house next door to where I slept, so you can't blame us for taking to the open fields. We gave the hospital a hand also in clearing out their wounded from the dressing station in the village.
As the Adjt. had been slightly wounded, and his nerves a wreck, he was was sent to hospital, and as the other officers who were there were "all in" after the four days' strain, the Colonel appointed me Adjutant pro tem, and ever since I have been going it all the time day and night to keep both jobs going, and at times like this there is a great deal to be done on both.
Well, we thought we had settled down for the night in the fields, but at 11 p.m. orders came in to move to the trenches immediately notwithstanding the fact that the men hadn't slept practically for four days. We went up that night and dug ourselves into new trenches, just temporary ones, and the following day got a pretty heavy shell fire, though fortunately only one man was wounded in our brigade. That night we moved out at 8 p.m. to build new trenches connecting up old ones, just in front of the German lines, about 250 yards away. The men certainly made a fine job of it, and worked like beavers without a sound. We left there about 2 a.m., and I don't believe the enemy knew we had been there until the following morning, though they must have been a little suspicious, as they put a number of shells over us. We didn't get back to camp until 6 a.m., making three hours' sleep in three nights for me. It was rather an exciting experience, though nothing compared to what the others went through. We just lay down in the field when we came in and went to sleep in the sun under our blankets, and most of us slept until about 2 p.m.
Then Sunday was a quiet day. Jno. Cameron had arrived on the draft the previous day so we went for a half an hour's walk on Sunday afternoon. That was the only time that day I had to myself, for about 6 p.m. orders came to move immediately to the trenches again and the rumor was that the Germans had broken through again. We moved up in hot haste and took up our position this side of the canal, and while there was considerable firing in the distance, and a little shell fire in our vicinity, though not near, there was no further excitement, and we marched back again, arriving at our billets about 3.30 a.m. just at daylight.
Then I got orders to have a billetting party ready to leave at 11 a.m. to go to our present billets, where we are having a ten days' rest and reorganization, absorbing about 400 men who have arrived recently, and five officers, including Frank Tidy. So you see between paymaster and adjutant and billetting officers' duties I have had my hands full.
We came in by bus in the morning, and the battalion came in the following morning at 3 a.m., but it was 5.30 a.m. before I got to bed, which was another night's sleep gone, as I had been busy up until their arrival.
But the part that the Canadians took at Ypres was a splendid thing, and, though it was terribly costly, was most important in holding the Germans in check,and they went through what it hardly seemed possible flesh and blood could stand. The greatest trouble at first was the gas the Germans used. It makes a man absolutely useless unless he gets a wet cloth of some kind over his face soon enough.
Then again we had to attack over very open ground in order to keep the enemy from attacking, and they consequently suffered very severely. It is impossible to say what the casualties of the division were. You will probably see that before I would, though we lost in killed, wounded and missing, 500 officers and N.C.O.s, and men.
I am afraid you will think I have the war on the mind altogether. I did not feel like writing about it before, but I thought you would like to hear about the battalion. This is not written in the spirit of a write-up at all, merely to let you have a rough idea of what happened, which is all the censor will allow,
CAPT H. G. WICKENS,