This account of a group of chums from Ottawa who enlisted together in 1914 was written by Fred Plet of Ottawa, nephew of Arthur Carl Plet who died, with 6 of his closest friends, outside Ypres in April, 1915.
The Ottawa Ten
Riding the great patriotic wave in the summer of 1914, Canada was automatically and eagerly counted in with the British Empire. When Great Britain's ultimatum to the German Kaiser to withdraw from Belgium was ignored beyond its deadline, war was declared on Germany on August 4th right after Canada's Bank Holiday weekend. As in all many other urban communities in Canada the response to the call for immediate recruits was overwhelming in Ottawa. Beyond an indignation over the invasion of little Belgium, there was a keen sense of the adventure that could be shared among young friends and reflected so in the press. Immediate appeal was also fed by a popular conception that the war would most certainly be over by Christmas and to delay in signing up would mean missing the moment.
In this setting August 6th was like no other day. Young men thronged to the recruitment depots hastily erected along the O.E.R. streetcar tracks winding past the old Russell Hotel to the new Grand Trunk Central Station. The mood everywhere held to a confident expectation of a prompt and worthy victory over the Hun. There was a moral sense of duty and solidarity in these files of volunteers, backed up by the exuberance of their admiring fellow citizens.
Among the many, one group of ten chums from Ottawa East and Centretown, companions from boyhood, arrived to enlist together. Most of them had shared membership in Ottawa's 43rd Regiment Reserve Unit with which they had, on an occasion eleven months earlier, proudly participated in an invitational tattoo held at New Haven, Connecticut. They may have felt their peace-time experience with the military as militiamen made this step of volunteering for active duty seem like a natural commitment and a further bonding as buddies with a cause. They ranged from 17 to 25 years of age.
Those ten Ottawa boys answered their country's call to duty. Their names were:
Upon enlistment all ten were placed in the 1st Division C.E.F.and stationed at Valcartier north of Quebec City for basic training. Under 1st Brigade command they were assigned to the 2nd Battalion of Eastern Ontario and the 1st Brigade Field Artillery.
Alexis Helmer’s father, Col. R. Helmer, had been an instructor of musketry with the militia at Rockcliffe before the war. At that time he had managed to give special training to some of his son's friends. D'Arcy Latimer and Arthur Carl Plet were two of those gaining benefit, both attaining a grade of "marksman" in their teens. Through the guidance of his father, 22 year old Alexis (a former O.C.I. “Lisgar” student) became affixed to the Field Battery after arriving in England on Oct.15th. At that juncture he and his nine enlisted companions were all stationed at Bustard Camp on Salisbury Plain. Through his active artillery connections Alexis came to renew an old friendship with his former medical instructor from his prewar days at McGill University. That person was now second in command of his unit in addition to holding the official capacity of brigade surgeon, namely Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae.
The dank soggy days spent at preparatory exercises on Salisbury Plain came to an end when the fit 1st Brigade crossed the channel to St. Nazaire on the Bay of Biscay, in late February of 1915. A railroad trip eastward across the full breadth of France delivered the contingent to the war zone. In a span of two weeks lengthy letters were sent home from Armentieres, and then from the southern Flanders region in Belgium by five of those Ottawa buddies, describing living conditions and impressions. The first, sent by Latimer, was dated April 9 and the last, sent by Plet, was written cheerfully to his mother from a "barn overrun with rats somewhere in Belgium" on April 22, 1915. Close by, soon after at 5 p.m. that same sunny day, the thick yellowish cloud of chlorine gas was released by the Germans directly into the French Algerian Division lines, signalling the onset of -The Second Battle Of Ypres.
Having formed a vital segment of the Front line near Langemarck, the engulfed soldiers of the French Division were suddenly streaming back from their line positions in disarray. Gasping, their lungs seared and bursting, they fell in agony as they attempted to escape the crawling cloud. The outpouring of the blinding deadly gas over the field of battle was taking its horrible toll and for the first time in history an opposing army was being brought down, hideously suffocated or maimed, through use of airborne chemical means. Six divisions of seasoned German infantry, some fitted with gas protection, were poised at the ready for a charging strike to exploit the gap that the gas had opened for them. Militarily the war stood to be lost by the Allies, there being no means at hand to stem the unopposed German offensive that loomed as an imminent certainty.
Joining the crisis the 2nd Battalion was split to extend the existing line at each flank. "A" company would be required to eliminate the dominating German redoubt in the southwest of Kitchener's Wood. To maintain cover, the attack mission had to be completed by dawn. Probing in the dark to locate the enemy, a reconnaissance patrol composed of elements from "D" company included specialists Sergeant Latimer and Private Plet.
Shortly before dawn, despite having received no word yet of an enemy sighting, the order was passed by Lt.Col.David Watson to "A" company to"fix bayonets". "A" Company was about to make its first attack. With arrival of daylight, the German machine-guns would sweep out a virtual massacre.
"B","C" and "D" companies of the 2nd rejoined the 3rd Battalion (Toronto) in a temporary defence of the nearby village of St.Julien where the Germans used the gas again. Just to west of the village, in Flanders fields, on the evening of April 24th a difficult retirement manoeuvre was executed by remnants of the 2nd Battalion. Before all its advanced posts were finally swamped by six unrelenting German attacks the Canadian diversionary action had held for a full four days. This stand bought enough time to deny the Germans their needed access to the Yser Canal and railways to The English Channel where Germany would then almost certainly have won the war early in 1915. Instead of that outcome, the Allies were afforded the opportunity to fall back for regrouping on the G.H.Q. line and to continue on the Western Front. By battle's end 6,036 Canadians stood and fell (an overall ratio of more than one in three). A British official communiqué summed it up: "The Canadians had many casualties but their gallantry and determination undoubtedly saved the situation." In context, the term "situation" was clearly a synonym for "the war".
All ten of the young enlisted chums from Ottawa served together at the Second Battle Of Ypres, April 22nd to May 2nd, 1915.
All but three lost their lives in that bloody but crucial Canadian stand that blocked the drive by the Germans to swiftly and easily win the war by resorting to the first ever use of poisonous gas.
On the morning of May 3rd, one week after the horrific culmination of battle, a grieving surgeon Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae sat down in his field hospital at Essex Farm, north of Ypres, to ponder the great cost to those he had held so close. He had just recovered what was left of his body of his friend,Lieutenant Alexis Helmer. On an emplacement close by the dressing station Helmer had been killed at his gunss late in that action, strewn in pieces by a heavy shell-burst. He became the last of the company of brave buddies to die holding back the German tide. All had made the ultimate sacrifice less than nine months after joining their country's call.
McCrae then penned his reverent immortal poem - "In Flanders Fields", its first two stanzas reportedly completed in that one morning. Among the many other Canadian heroes at the Second Battle Of Ypres, it can also be taken forever as a fitting tribute to seven Ottawa boys whose fallen lives then became directly symbolic of an entire war - the very subjects of McCrae's ultimate and touching lament that morning in Flanders.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
We are the Dead. Short days ago
Note: The third stanza was added later at the supplication of the British War Office.
1 Ben St. Germain was listed in the Ottawa Newspapers as having died at 2nd Ypres, but there is no record in the Commonwealth Graves Commission database and the Regimental history has no record of him being dead or wounded, so it is presumed that he survived the war and the newspaper was in error, a common occurance during the war. The text has been changed from the original to reflect this.