THE CANADIANS AT THE FRONT.
The First Despatch of the Canadian "Eye-Witness."-General Alderson's Stirring Speech.
The Acting High Commissioner for Canada has authorised the communication to the Press of the following notes from the Canadian Record Officer now serving with the Canadian Division.
NONE can examine what, for want of a better name, is called "the front" of this amazing war without realising the truth of what has been so often said, that it is a war almost without a front.
As one approaches from a distance the actual point of contact between the opposing forces, one is struck ever more and more by the immense numbers which are converging, as it seems, for some great military purpose. But the nearer the front approaches, the more completely does all that is spectacular disappear, until, finally, the flower of the youth of Europe disappears and is swallowed up by immense but barely visible lines of field fortifications.
And now the Canadian Division, too, has reached the front. The long, the tedious winter discomfort of Salisbury Plain, never resented but always disliked, already seems far away. No one in the Canadian Division grudges the honour which was paid to Princess Patricia's Light Infantry to carry first the badge of Canada on the battlefields of Flanders. It was freely recognised that this regiment had arrived with greater technical knowledge and had reached a degree of efficiency which the other battalions could hardly equal without longer preparation. The time has not come in which it will be possible to describe the fortunes of the Princess Patricia's, but it can be said that the battalion has proved itself worthy of fighting side by side and on equal terms with the army of veterans and heroes which has held the trenches in the horrible winter of Flanders. The day for a longer story for the giving of honour to units by exact identification often comes in this war very late, for, in the face of the superb organisation of the German Intelligence Department, it would be mischievous to publish details of units, and of their doings, as long as the general military formations in which these units play a part remain unchanged.
A General Picture.
These notes, and those which it is hoped will follow them, must always be read in the light of these most necessary restrictions. But it is perhaps possible, while observing every rule which has been laid down for our guidance, to give a general picture of the Canadian Division, its surrounding and its doings, which, whether it interests other people or not, will not be read without emotion by those who sent their sons and brothers to the greatest battlefields of history in support of principles which in their general application are as important to the liberties of Canada as they are to the liberties of Europe.
It is not necessary to describe the journey of the Canadian Division to its present postion. It is, however, worth while recalling the march made by the Division past an Army Corps Commander and his Staff with whom it was to be closely associated. Those who watched the troops defile in the grey, square market-place of a typical Flanders town were experienced judges of the physique and quality of soldiers. No one desires in such a connection to use exaggerated language, and it is therefore unnecessary to say more than that the unanimous view of those who watched so intently and so critically was that, judging the men by their physique and their soldierly swing, no more promising troops had come to swell our ranks since the day the Expeditionary Force landed in France.
In the Trenches.
As Lord Kitchener has stated, the Canadian troops have now, after gaining some further preliminary experience, taken their turn as a Division in the trenches. Nothing sensational has happened to them. It has not, up to the present, been their fortune to be swung forward in a desperate attack, or to cling in defensive tenacity to trenches which the Germans have resolved to master. There have, of course, been casualties. One does not enter or leave trenches without casualties, for the sniper never fails to claim his daily toll, but the trench experiences of the Canadians have not up to the present been eventful, as one judges incidents in this war. This period of immunity has been all to the good. Whatever else he is, the Canadian is adaptable, and the experience of these weeks has brought him more wisdom than others might have drawn from it.
Work in the trenches no longer involves, in respect of duration, the heart-breaking strain which was imposed upon all in the dark and anxious days of last autumn, when a thin line of khaki held, often wholly unsupported by reserves, so immense a line against superior forces. Trench work now, in relation to the period of exposure, is well within the powers of stout and resolute troops. For a certain period relays of the force take their turn in holding their lines. When that period is passed they are relieved by their comrades.
By this time everyone is familiar by description with the general outline of life in the trenches, and those held by the Canadians naturally do not differ from others. But it is strange to a Canadian and deeply interesting to study the tiny town in which the troops in repose are billeted, and the hustling life of which they have already stamped so much of their individuality. Picture to yourself a narrow street, the centre paved, the sides of tenacious mud. Line it on each side with houses rather squalid, and with a few unimportant stores. Add a château (not a grand one) for the headquarters, a modest office for the Staff, and you have a fair conception of the billeting place which shelters that part of the Division which reposes. But this town is like many other towns in this unattractive country. Its interest to us lies in the tenants of the moment. Walk down the street, and you will, if you are a Canadian, feel at once something familiar and homelike in the atmosphere. One hears voices everywhere, and one does not need the brass shoulder-badges, "CANADA," to know the race to which these voices belong. It may be the speech of New Brunswick, it may be the voice of British Columbia, or it may be the accents in which the French-Canadian seeks to adapt to the French of Flanders the tongue which his ancestors centuries ago carried to a new world; but, whichever it be, it is all Canadian.
And soon a company swings by, going perhaps to bath parade-to that expeditious process which in half an hour has cleansed the bathers and fumigated every rag which they possessed. And as they pass they sing carelessly, but with a challenging catch, a song which, if by chance you come from Toronto, will perhaps stir some association. For these, or many of them, are boys from the College, and the song is the University song whose refrain is Toronto.
And if you go still a little further in the direction of the front, you will soon-very soon-after leaving the place of billeting, come to the country over which the great guns by day and night contend for mastery. And as one advances there seem to be Canadians everywhere. Here are batteries skilfully masked. Here are supplies on their way to the trenches. And all the time can be seen reliefs and reserves until it seems as if it was strange to meet anyone not in khaki and without the badge of "CANADA." And the liking for football which the Canadian has begun to share with his English comrade abates none of its keenness as he marches nearer to the front. A spirited match was in progress near our lines not long ago when a distracting succession of "Weary Willies" began to distribute themselves not very far from the football ground. The only people who took no notice were the players, and nothing short of a peremptory order from the Provost Marshal was able to bring to an end a game which was somewhat unnecessarily dangerous. And our men have, of course, made the acquaintance of "Jack Johnson," and without liking him-for he is not likeable-they endure him with as much constancy as a brave man need. Nor, indeed, have our own artillery failed to do more, and even more than hold their own. The gunners inherited from the Division which preceded them in the trenches a disagreeable inheritance in the shape of an observation post which had long harassed and menaced our lines by the information which it placed at the disposal of the enemy. We were so fortunate as to put it out of action in the third round which we fired-a success very welcome as an encouragement and giving a very substantial relief from an unwholesome scrutiny.
Canadian Artillery at Neuve Chapelle.
Our infantry were not specially engaged in the fighting at Neuve Chapelle, but our artillery played its part in that triumph of artillery science which preceded the British attack, and our men were ready during the whole fight for the order which, had the tactical situation so developed, would have sent them too to make their first assault upon the German trenches. And there were not a few who were longing for that order. They think that the Germans have presumed upon a slight acquaintance. For on the very first night on which our men were put into the trenches the Germans began to call out, "Come out, you Canadians; come out and fight." Now, the trenches at normal times have their own code of manners and of amenity, and this challenge was and is regarded as impertinent.
The Canadian brings his own phrases into his daily life. When the German flares in the trenches nervously light up the space between the two lines, "There are the Northern Lights," was the comment of Canada, and "Northern Lights" they have remained to this day.
It would be evidently impertinent to say more of the General Officer Commanding the force, General Alderson, than that he enjoys the most absolute confidence of the fine force he commands. He trusts them and they trust him, and it will be strange if their co-operation does not prove fruitful. And an observer is at once struck by the extraordinarily accurate knowledge which the General has gained of the whole body of regimental officers under his command. He seems to know them as well by name and sight as if he had commanded the force for six years instead of six months. And this is a circumstance which in critical moments counts for much.
The General to the Troops.
General Alderson's methods-his practical and soldierly style-could not be better illustrated than by some extracts from the speech which he addressed to the troops before they went into the trenches for the first time:-
"All ranks of the Canadian Division: We are about to occupy and maintain a line of trenches. I have some things to say to you at this moment which it is well that you should consider. You are taking over good, and on the whole dry, trenches. I have visited some myself. They are intact, and the parapets are good. Let me warn you first that we have already had several casualties while you have been attached to other divisions. Some of these casualties were unavoidable, and that is war. But I suspect that some-at least a few-could have been avoided. I have heard of cases in which men have exposed themselves with no military object, and perhaps only to gratify curiosity. We cannot lose good men like this. We shall want them all if we advance, and we shall want them all if the Germans advance. Do not expose your heads, and do not look round corners, unless for a purpose which is necessary at the moment you do it. It will not often be necessary. You are provided with means of observing the enemy without exposing your heads. To lose your life without military necessity is to deprive the State of good soldiers. Young and brave men enjoy taking risks. But a soldier who takes unnecessary risks through levity is not playing the game. And the man who does so is stupid, for whatever be the average practice of the German Army, the individual shots whom they employ as snipers shoot straight, and, screened from observation behind the lines, they are always watching. And if you put your head over the parapet without orders they will hit that head.
"There is another thing. Troops new to the trenches always shoot at nothing the first night. You will not do it. It wastes ammunition and it hurts no one. And the enemy says: 'These are new and nervous troops.' You will be shelled in the trenches. When you are shelled, sit low and sit tight. This is easy advice, for there is nothing else to do. If you get out you will only get it worse. And if you go out the Germans will go in. And if the Germans go in, we shall counter-attack and put them out: and that will cost us hundreds of men instead of the few whom shells may injure. The Germans do not like the bayonet, nor do they support bayonet attacks. If they get up to you, or if you get up to them, go right in with the bayonet. You have the physique to drive it home. That you will do it I am sure, and I do not envy the Germans if you get among them with the bayonet.
"There is one thing more. My old regiment, the Royal West Kent, has been here since the beginning of the war, and it has never lost a trench. The Army says, 'The West Kents never budge.' I am proud of the great record of my old regiment. And I think it is a good omen. I now belong to you and you belong to me; and before long the Army will say: 'The Canadians never budge.' Lads, it can be left there, and there I leave it. The Germans will never turn you out."
I may, before concluding the present note, point out that the most severe military critics both in England and in France are loud in their admiration of the organising power which in a non-military country has produced so fine a force in so short a time. In equipment, in all the countless details which in co-ordination mean efficiency, the Division can hold its own with any Division at the war. This result was only made possible by labour, zeal, and immense driving power. These qualities were exhibited in Canada at the outbreak of war by all those whose duties lay in the work of improvisation, and if the Minister of Militia and Defence could see to-day the force which his energy has created in the town which I cannot name he would have the full reward of his unceasing labours.
I shall hope, without violating any of the rules which are binding upon all, to give in the notes which I am permitted to write, information of the doings of the Canadians which, if general and sometimes negative, will not, at least, be either misleading or inaccurate.