Detailed Account of the Second Battle of Ypres, 1915

Source: History of the County of Brant, by F. Douglas Reville, Vol. II (Brantford: The Hurley Printing Company, Limited, 1920), pp. 452-6. Transcribed by Alison Kilpatrick.

"Detailed Story by Local Survivor."
   One of the most detailed accounts of the great battle [Second Battle of Ypres] was given by Pte. A.W. Wakeling, who was one of Capt. Colquhoun's company, and who had joined the British army at the age of fifteen years, being in Sirdar Kitchener's command in the campaign in Egypt against the Mahdi, and serving for three years in the South African war in the Royal West Kents. He wrote to E.A. Darby, a local friend [i.e., of Brant County, Ontario].
   "We are now having a well-earned rest in France. This is eight days we have been here, re-organizing after the severe cutting up we got. I was lucky enough to come through without a scratch, and went right through the lot from beginning to finish. It will be a big blow to Canada when it knows the casualties. It is given out 8228 of all ranks. In my battalion we lost 750; a very few were left by time darkness set in on April 23. I think we totalled 250 men and five officers out of the 1,000 men and 26 officers. We lost 700 in the first hour of the fight, making an advance of over 1,500 yards in open country.
   "Nearly all our work has been in France, the 2nd and 4th battalions taking it in turns in the trenches. We used to relieve each other every four days. The battalion out, would be the reserves. We used to have plenty of excitement during the night. As soon as it was dusk we would go out prowling around for anything eatable and wood and coal to make fires. The weather was awful cold and wet when we first landed here. The mud would be up to our knees, and we were wet through the whole of the time. Sleep was out of the question for the four days on account of the cold and the wet. We used to get what they call "trench feet"——the feet and legs would get numb and there was hardly any use in them. The four days seemed like four weeks.
   "We remained in France till a month ago, then we were given a rest and taken up to Belgium. We were only in Belgium three weeks. That is a pretty hot corner round Ypres. We have been in about 25 different towns and villages in France and four in Belgium, on the go all the time.
   "On April 21, we marched to a place called Vlamertinghe and billeted in a factory on the main road from Ypres to Calais. On the 22nd, during the afternoon we heard fierce bombarding, and about 5 o'clock the French were retreating, both infantry and artillery. It was an awful sight to see the refugees, poor little children, mothers and babies, old man and women. We helped them all we could, putting them in wagons and transports, so that they could get out of the danger zone of the long range guns. We were told to be in readiness at any time, so laid down to get what rest we could. At midnight we were called out and marched up to the Yser canal. We arrived there just before daybreak and dug ourselves in along the roadway. (I guess you are familiar with that phrase. We carry a small shovel and pick 'entrenching tool,' and dig a hole and make ourselves scarce.) At daybreak, the Germans did not look as if they were going to make an attack, so we advanced a little further under cover. At 5 a.m. we were told to take a trench about 1,500 yards away. We had been lying down behind a hedge, and we no sooner showed ourselves than a terrible fire was opened up, machine gun, rifle and shrapnel. It came from all directions on our front and both flanks; our boys went over in dozens. There was nothing to do but push forward, and we had only just started. One particular spot I noticed was awful. It was a small piece of ploughed land with just a little ridge to it. Bullets were hitting and whistling everywhere. We could do nothing for our wounded, only leave them on the field, and trust to Providence. some we managed to pull into a ditch. (When we advance we are not allowed to carry a man back. I will explain that later.) It took us just one hour to take the trench the French had lost. Only 250 of us were left and five officers. We lost about 700 men and 20 officers that morning. The colonel was killed, second in command wounded, and the adjutant killed. Captain Colquhoun was the only company commander left, and he was carried off that night through the poisonous gases. In my platoon 55 started and only 11 of us reached the trench.
   "The worst was yet to come during the day. We had no artillery behind us and we had to hold the trench at all costs. Their artillery started shelling us right away to drive us out. I think we sampled every kind of shell made in Germany. For 14 hours they kept it up continually——Jack Johnsons, shrapnel, gas shells and coal boxes. The last named are terrors; they hit the ground and explode, throwing out a big black cloud of smoke. It fairly shakes the life out of a fellow.
   "If every anyone prayed for night, I did. Our wounded, we could do nothing for. They just lay there patiently. It must have been awful for them. I never expected to come out alive.
   "Towards evening our artillery came into action and reinforcements from the British army. It was a grand sight to see them advance. They certainly can fight. Battalion after battalion came up and the French in reserve. That made our position secure. We had been up against big odds, and the sacrifice was great, but we managed to hold out and gain the day.
   "That night we rallied together again, Lieut. T.P. Jones being in command, as he was the senior officer left, and a pretty sorry looking bunch we were. There was only a handful of us left. We started to carry our wounded away. (The dead we left; I don't know who buried them.) We were then ordered to take up another position at a different point, and so we were kept at it for seven days. We lost another 45 during that time.
   "On the seventh night, April 30, we went up again and dug trenches, then came back into the reserve for seven days, and finally away back here to get rested and re-organized.
   "I will explain why you are not allowed to carry a wounded man back. Take this fight as a sample. Suppose every man carried a comrade back, how many would be left to make the advance? In that case, none at all. It may sound a trifle brutal, but when you come to think it over, it is only right.
   "You would hardly believe the sights we see here. The dead were lying everywhere, and towns blown to atoms. I came through Vlamertinghe one morning about 4 o'clock. In the doorway of a house a man was lying in a pool of blood. We went over to see if he was dead, and there was a girl about 19 and two other girls about 10 years old, all four were dead. It is enough to break a man's heart. There are dozens of cases similar.
   "Ypres is the worst place I have been in. Another fellow and I came through here about one o'clock on Sunday morning. The town was in flames, dead horses lay everywhere, and there was hardly a house that had not been shelled."
[Similar accounts by Corp Orr, Pte. Robert McCartney, and Pte. Ernest Edwards, followed by:]
   Pte. Albert Adams wrote to his father, H.B. Adams, "On Thursday night, April 22, we were billeted about four miles from Ypres. Just at dark, French troops came marching past our billet from the trenches and they told us that the Germans had broken through. They looked 'all in' from the gases and poisons from the shells the Germans used. That was about 6 o'clock. At 2.30 the next morning we fell in and marched about seven miles to a farm that was just behind the German position. Of course it was some distance from them—about 1600 yards. At 6.30 the order came in for 'B' company to extend to the green field to our right, and right then and there hell was let loose. You know 'B' company consists of the Brantford boys, and as soon as we extended they let us have it. We would advance 25 yards at a time and then drop, and with every advance some poor fellows would go down, never to rise again.
   "This was the first of our real fighting. It was daylight and the sun was just coming up, so that made things all the worse. If it had only been night we would have had a much better chance.
   "Well, we had advanced about 300 yards and had to cross a small creek. I got my feet good and wet, but that didn't matter much then, as the Germans had started shelling us with their gas shells. Gee, but they're hellish! They made your eyes run and nearly strangle you, but we couldn't stop them as they were coming too thick. So on we went. We were now getting into a cross-fire from them, which made things very bad. We were only a few hundred yards from the enemy by now and I was nearly all in. I was running beside Corp. William Blacker of my section, a real fellow, too. A German trench, one they left, was only a few yards away. Well, we had advanced about 50 yards on a fast run, trying to make the trench, but they opened fire on us again and we had to drop. I was lying on my stomach and Corp. Blacker came up beside me and just as he was getting down, he was shot right through the legs a little above the knee. It looked as if a dum-dum hit him. I dressed the wound and dug a hole with my entrenching tool, big enough to put him in so they wouldn't get him again. Just as I was going to go on Wag Bremner came up. He got hit through the leg. I made the hole large enough for two. It took me some little time, but I will never forget the hole if I live to be a thousand. Reinforcements now came up, so we just lay and watched them getting shot to pieces. It was one terrible sight. A 'Jack Johnson' would alight in a field and you would see a cloud of dirt, and parts of the poor chaps fly by. More than once I saw a shell land in a small bunch of fellows, and after the explosion just see parts of them here and there.
   "A moment later there would be the most terrible smell come. Your eyes would feel as if they were burning out and that you were being suffocated. What a lovely feeling. There were dozens of dead lying quite close to us. I crawled up the trenches and told a sergeant where we were. Just a few moments after that our colonel and adjutant were killed. Shell after shell came, and I saw quite a few of our fellows get it. Each time I thought I would be next, but it wasn't to be, for all I got was a big piece of mud in the back that knocked my wind out, and a small piece of shrapnel that was spent, in the back of the neck. It didn't cut me—just bruised.
   "At dusk we were told to retire and bring the wounded back. That was the worst job I had. There weren't many of us and to hear the wounded calling for help, and we had to go on and leave them, as each fellow that was retiring had a wounded pal. When we got to the dressing station, it was filled with wounded, so we had to go on further to the next. I lost Blacker and Bremner somehow, and on my way back I saw Capt. Huggins from Hamilton, who was badly wounded. I was with him for an hour and a half, to get a stretcher, as he could not walk and was bleeding very badly. I finally got one and had to leave him. I have not heard if he has got better or not.
   "We were all tired out. It was nearly 11 p.m. and we had had nothing to eat all day. We were told to go to a barn that was about a mile down the road, to get a little rest. In the morning 173 were all that was left of our battalion. I believe there are a few more than that who were not wounded. It sure was a terrible cutting-up for us all right. Don't think for a moment they didn't get some. They suffered very heavily as well."

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"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there."—Lesley Poles Hartley (1895–1972), The Go-Between (1953).

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