Battlefield Tour

A Nurses Memoir

The following contains extracts from the text from Chapter 17 of Our Bit : Memories of War Service By a Canadian Nursing Sister, by N.S. Mabel B. Clint

The Battlefields after the Armistice

A four days' tour of the Battlefields of the "immortal Salient" was made possible to two of us in March, 1919, before hospitals in France closed. We bought a one franc ticket from Boulogne to Calais, which was not collected, and the rest of transportation cost us nothing. We reached Hazebrouck on a dark, rainy evening, and put up at the station hotel. It was pitch-black in the courtyard, and there were not even candles to light us to bed. In the morning we discovered that most of the roof was off, and only four rooms habitable, the ceiling of the one we had slept in being temporary, corrugated iron. The enemy had been within six miles the previous year, and the town was a wreck. Refugees were back in a patched up room here and there, and this Sunday morning Mass was again being said in the shelled church.

We went by train to Poperinghe over the battlefield, rusty guns, trenches full of water, and debris of war had not yet been touched. One dismantled gun had a pile of empty cases just as they had fallen beneath the breech. We passed a C.C.S. with new-made graves thick around its door, and had a vision of the disputed Mont des Cats, and its ruined monastery. Scattered cemeteries marked hurried burial after action behind the lines by night. At Poperinghe we took a look at "Toc H" house - one of the bright spots of the war, and were invited to an al fresco lunch at the Women's First Aid Yeomanry Corps Field Ambulance. (the 'Fannies') One of them was lying under a car adjusting and cleaning for a run up to Ypres, in response to an order. She took us with her up that sacred nine miles of tree-lined road that led to the "inviolate line", that road over which 500,000 men had trudged, and not returned. From Flamertinghe on only stumps of trees remained, the fields on each side were densely marked by shell holes, and afar off the gaunt spectre of the Cloth Hall appealed to heaven. We crossed into the ruins by 'Bridge 10', and drove into the shattered Grande Place, where at that moment a rainbow very impressively arched the fallen Menin Gate and the stricken field beyond.

Our "Fanny" friend deposited us here, and we had not an idea as to how we should proceed farther. After viewing the remains of the once beautiful, mediaeval building, and being shown the spot where 44 men of the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry were buried by one shell beneath the cloisters, also climbing over the fallen columns of St. Martin's Cathedral, of which only the western arch remained, we walked over the deserted tracks, once streets, and the prison and sugar factory recalled to us names and details in connection with English and Canadian defenders, through four long years. A solitary chimney had "YPRES" painted on it in huge letters, and warning signs, direction posts and old dug-out entrances met us at every turn. The Grande Place had been fairly cleared; in one corner two men, Old Contemptibles, in the service of the Imperial War Graves' Commission, were using a large shelter as a dwelling, in which they had stored 'souvenirs', many picked up as they went about their gruesome, but comradely task. Chaplains attended daily from the 5th. Army Hdqts., and read the Committal Service over the newly-made graves in the Cemetery.

In the centre of the town ruins was the British cemetery, which already seemed of large extent, but now vies with Etaples for size. It was the commonly accepted idea then that Ypres would never be rebuilt, surrounded as it was by half million dead, ground impregnated with gas and chemicals, quagmire and decay. Otherwise it hardly seems likely that this cemetery in the centre of a small community would have been selected. English, Scottish, Australians, Canadians and many men of almost every Unit sleep together in that sad but famous acre. A transport wagon, with a faded flag awaited Monday morning, and resumption of a duty which in some areas of battle is not yet finished. (800 bodies were found during 1931 in the Somme district!) "Ypres stands a mere skeleton of a city, curiously swept and clean, but incredibly silent. We came before the broken Cloth Hall as pilgrims before a holy shrine. Very lonely it stands, lonely as death, plain as the path of duty, monumental as that which gave it place, and purpose and meaning forever here."
The British military policeman in the square, to whom we had explained our intentions, now signalled to us, and we found that several London buses, looking extraordinarily out of place, had brought officers from Lille on a tour of the Salient, had seats to spare, and would be delighted to take two Sisters along. We threaded our way through sandbags, and fragments of red walls, over the half-filled moat through the gate of Dickebusch. Crosses leaned everywhere singly and in groups on the Canal bank. From the open bus top we had an excellent view for miles over one of the most horrible scenes of desolation in the world's history. On one side of the road a large hollow contained about 30 graves, but the water and mud almost submerged the mounds, a cross here and rifle there, surmounted by a tin hat, crookedly reflected in the marsh. "Some rest camp!" said the officer in front of me. Our way lay between Messines and Mount Kemmel, and the view from the latter must have been valuable to the holders during those years. Stumps of trees were the only things standing, beside crosses, above the morass.

Several times we passed large areas marked "Cemetery", but not a trace remained of memorial or mound These had been shelled and reshelled, and must have presented an insoluble problem to the Graves' Commission. (The "Missing" numbered 517,771, out of a total of 1,104,890 British dead in all fields, and their "Names live forever" on the great common memorials erected in four chosen spots, but especially on that noble and simple Menin Gate, the British gift to Ypres, where nightly still the Last Post is sounded. Let no man or woman of our Race ever forget that for the liberty of all our generations "the British armies stood here four years.") A uniform lay in one mud hole, a boot in another, but farther along, right on the roadway was a neat Australian grave, with a regimental design and border of white pebbles, evidently carried recently from some back area. The most pitiable sight we noticed was a half-uncovered stretcher, with a blanketed form partly visible. The sinking of the soil and spring rains had washed away earth and stones, but of what hasty retreat or wiping out of a night working party did that lone stretcher tell? In one long wide trench 300 were interred, said a notice-board. We became so oppressed by the vast, level plain of death, that it seemed hard to believe any had escaped alive, that it was not the graveyard of a country.

At Neuve Eglise the church lay shattered amidist the rubbish of homes to which it had ministered, and the village cemetery here had been torn up, tombs smashed open, coffins crushed, a skull disclosed, head-stones lying cracked in two, and grey dust over all. One remembered, as each ruined church was passed, that it was in them that the wounded were collected, especially in French sectors, and one dimly visualized the shambles they became before the day ended; 2626 churches were destroyed. To the east of the road Ploegstreet was pointed out, only a few blackened trees remaining. Bailleul was another skeleton city, but looked more as if fire had swept through it, as many walls were standing, but each house roofless, windows gone, and mouldering furniture lying in heaps.

Enormous craters abounded along this road turning east toward Armentieres, which was considerably worse than Bailleul. Here, as we drove through in approaching dusk, we could see a few people returned to the demolished town. Where a lower room still boasted a ceiling, they slept on the floor, had stretched a tarpaulin or corrugated sheet over an open space for day use. One meagre shelter had chalked up "Estaminet" on a blank wall! One guttering candle sputtered in these vague interiors, a few boxes seemed the only furnishing, and sometimes a face gazed out through gaps that had been windows, at the other human beings who had ventured into No Man's land. Not one thing had been touched otherwise since the 10th. November, over these wastes, since pandemonium had given place to quietness; no one, we gathered, had trod the Salient during that cold and silent winter. We saw it exactly as battle had left it. Several German internment camps had been established nearby, till full exchange of prisoners could take place, and the men were starting a systematic clearing of military salvage. (One wished the ex-Kaiser's family, the high command and Junkers might have been among them.) They looked lazy, well fed and churlish, and I have never heard of any gratitude for the lenient treatment on the part of the British forces. Chinese labour battalions also were marching back to quarters, having spent the day retrieving equipment and metal from the mud, and piling it up in dumps. We noticed one most moving incident. An old peasant had a lean-to, like a dog-kennel, in what had been a yard. Only the chimney of the former house stood, and a blue and white tiled path had led to the front door. Curiously, nearly three feet of it was intact, and he was collecting bits of tiles, and fitting them into place. There was not another soul in sight for miles, and he never looked at the three bus loads of uniforms. He must have been mad, the fate of his family unknown perhaps, or scenes of horror seared into his brain forever. Later, we saw little groups of refugees, hopelessly pointing out uncertain localities, or standing in silent misery about a few yards of broken ground, their little bundles fallen there, as with bowed heads they contemplated a hearth identified.

Lille was reached at dinner time, after a journey that had left ineffaceable impressions. A young aviator joined us at dinner at l'hotel de l'Europe, and described some of the exploits of the Air Force just before Armistice. He said he had a scheme for bombing Berlin, which could have been accomplished, though he probably would have had to descend in Holland and be interned. He had urged this through "the proper channels" for many months, finally receiving permission to make the attempt on Saturday, Nov. 9th., immediately followed by orders to "stand fast"!

Lille gave us a good idea of a town held under the iron hand of the Germans for so long. The inhabitants seemed hardly to realize that they were free. The long, empty streets were lifeless. Windows were blank, and many shuttered, as if besieged or terrorized. Few commodities were for sale, everything had been commandeered, and no one had dared to protest. All young civilians had been claimed for labour, and one night hundreds of young women had been carried away by the brutal soldiery, amid heart-rending scenes. "None have returned", said my informant. "Alas! most of them no doubt are dead, and for the rest. . .” When one thinks of the difference in the occupation of Cologne, Coblentz, Bonn and Mainz one can only characterize the German invaders as true descendants of their Hun ancestors.

Next a.m. we were advised to apply to the Town Major, H.D.Q. the 5th. Army, for leave to go up to the Salient by lorry or ambulance. All these had left however, but, to our surprised gratitude, a Ford car was supplied us, with a driver who was an original member of the "Princess Pat's. This was unexpected luck, and a thrilling ten hours followed. The landscape of the day before was repeated, but from Menin to Ypres no trace remained of anything but battlefield, for the fight never shifted from the Salient from first to last. At Tournai on the retreat the enemy had blown up the great bridge, which had fallen sidewise across the stream. One cannot help wondering if they warned those who lived in the vicinity. Scarcely a house remains nearby. One refuses to conjure up a scene of midnight horror, of a sudden explosion involving a whole locality in destruction. One hopes, rather than feels, that even the Germans may have had a limit."

The ground we had read of daily, and that had been the theatre of the intense and unremitting struggle for the Channel ports, lay before our eyes, the pathway over the graves of half a million dead. It was a panorama which staggered the imagination and memory. There was an immense German cemetery outside Menin, the little low, grey crosses in close, military formation, as if each man had been laid "at attention". Further on, where many single and grouped graves of 1914, British regiments of the old army, in what had then been the front line. There was a huge crater, like a lake, and thousands of smaller ones, all coated with green, metallic-looking scum, miasma breeding. A large mound at intervals was marked "Horse buried here". A little collection of crosses on a hillock seemed miraculously to have escaped direct hits. German concrete "pill-boxes" were battered, but a number had survived.

I had a pre-war local map with me, and from this, calculating distance as best we could, and the driver's intuition, I was extremely keen to recognize the remains of Gheluvelt . . . . that very historic spot of the repulse of the enemy onslaught, when there remained only one man to 7 yards of trench, and the enemy could have broken through if they had known it. But they declared under oath afterwards that the British trenches were filled with large reinforcements! The only explanation is the vision of some who lived to tell it . . . of Spirit forces aligned here as at Le Cateau for the cause of Right. The detailed descriptions given by soldiers (before they ever heard of a writer's fanciful but quite different tale in England), and the personal stories of both officers and men who saw the "Angels of Mons" between the armies, convinces me at any rate that they were not hallucinations. But Gheluvelt was no more. A small heap of rubble by the side of the road, about the size of a room, was passed, and as there were some vestiges of a cross-road which might correspond with the map, we paused to look round, and found a fallen sign-post: "Gheluvelt". It affected me more than anything else I saw. To the south wound the trenches of the gallant 7th Division, and the Guards, who held them at terrible cost, a magnificent charge of the Worcesters recapturing them at a very critical moment. In parts they were intact, in others the parapet had been smashed in, and a tangle of weeds, wire and junk made them impassable. I think they should have been preserved forever under cover, like the "Tranchee des Baionettes” at Verdun. Their lines should never have been obliterated in a cow pasture. One felt that they ranked with all desperate charges, all glorious moments, all undying deeds in the history of the Race. It was a great privilege to have seen them as the "forlorn hope" of heroes left them on Oct. 31st, 1914. I believe a small memorial now marks the cross-roads.

Soon we came upon about 30 tanks, wallowing in all sorts of positions in the mud, looking like uncouth pre-historic beasts, and the wreckage of an aeroplane by the roadway. Sanctuary Wood once was south of the road near here, but not a stump marked the site. The remains of the Roulers' Railway were passed at "Hell -fire Corner." Hooge and Hill 60 (how many relays of patients had come from that sinister spot) also had entirely disappeared. The enemy always had the rim of the saucer-like terrain in front of Ypres, the British below them. The graves hereabouts were nearly all officers, names of renown. Many Canadian officers also fell not far off, to the right of the line in June, 1916. Through the yawning breach that had been the old Menin Gate, we gained the town, from the east this time, and returning to the right of the Place, drove in the direction of St. Jean, sacred to the memory of our countrymen. No trace of it remained however, but the driver showed us points that used to be "unhealthy" in his day, and for many other days. "Shrapnel Corner", "Wind-up Corner", "Salvation Corner" still bore their labels. A very bad corduroy road passed through the vacant ground, once St. Julien, that name on every Canadian's lips one past week. As a Canadian one was proud to be in that spot for a moment, where fame in arms was won for our country, and not a small part contributed to a tremendous Imperial and world task. Our Princess Pat's man pointed out the ridge where the first gas attack was launched, and the road where the P.P.C.L.I. was cut up, but he confessed the field had changed so much since 1916, that he found it hard to get his bearings.

One remembered some lines read after that second battle for Calais:

"You say that the First Contingent
Are dolts, and rotters, and snydes;
The dregs of the nation's manhood,
And a whole lot besides;
We ruined your reputation,
But you must admit we're men,
We held the line for the Empire
We fought at St. Julien".

"The guns were recaptured by a deed of the Canadian troops which will fill the heart of the Motherland with love and pride. The Canadians advanced with magnificent steadiness . . . . No words can express the gratitude of the nation to the great Dominion for this valour of her sons". "One topic has this week absorbed all our thoughts and conversation, the magnificent effort of the Canadian Division in Flanders, which saved Ypres from capture, and the Allies from possibly an overwhelming defeat. The Canadians held on with grim courage under terrible shellfire and a dense cloud of poison gas . . . . The Empire unites in sorrow for their dead, and shares the pride in Canadian gallantry."
(English Press)

Cemeteries were thick on each side of the road now, the last resting-places of these boys from Ontario and Quebec, Manitoba and the West, and the provinces by the sea. Langemarck was off to the north, but could not be reached, as the road was broken up at this point, and the rest squelchy mud, that no one had stood on for a year. With difficulty getting the car turned round, we retraced our way, through "Danger" signs, to the Grande Place, and then turned to the left again into the northern Salient as far as Zonnebeke. About a mile off we saw Paschendaele Ridge, but had no time to go nearer. A Sister told us the next day that that mile was the worst of the whole area, bodies scarcely being covered, and many washed down the slope. It was a most shocking sight, and to be avoided. The men who fell there numbered: Great Britain, 321,616, Australia, 31,301, Canada, 16,404.

We now, following my obsolete map, attempted to take a cross-road that used to run from here to Gheluvelt, and seemed passable, though very rough. It proved to be merely a succession of shell-holes. We passed the site of Polygon Wood without knowing it, and after climbing over mud banks and falling into deep ruts, finally slid into a shell-hole, and stayed there! We disembarked a third time, but thirty minutes' efforts were useless. It was, needless to say, raining! completing the usual picture of the district to all who served in it. We were miles from anywhere that was habitable. To our satisfaction two Belgian peasants hove in sight from the south, and combined action of the men rescued the Ford. But they told us progress towards the Menin Road was impossible, as this section was cut to pieces from here on.

While the car was being extricated, my companion and I walked a quarter of a mile along the road, and saw the sign, "Becelaere". Skeletons of horses lay thickly about, as well as rotting and rusty gun limbers and wheels. I remarked that this spot must have been the scene of the last open fighting in 1914, when field artillery and cavalry were used, before the stalemate of trench warfare. As soon as I had access to information I found that this was the case, that we had actually stood on the spot which had for months been the very apex of the Salient, where lives had been sacrificed to save the guns, where Byng's Cavalry charged, and about half a mile farther, would have passed the scene of the Worcester's recapture of the front line in the First Battle for Calais. However it was getting dark, and impossible to reach Lille to catch the train. It seemed hopeless, to turn round and go through Ypres to Poperinghe at that late hour, and we resigned ourselves to overstaying our leave by a day. Our driver also had only been loaned for the day, and had a long way to return to Lille. However, being a "Princess Pat", "he wouldn't hear of seeing Sisters 'stuck', and insisted on driving us straight to Hazebrouck, where the train was due at 8 P.M. I forget how many miles we did in one and a half hours, but it was a wild ride. Fortunately, there was no traffic the whole way. We tore through villages, whizzed round corners and past mile-posts at about 60 miles per hour, and after what the car had done that day, it was marvellous nothing flew off. We saw faces at windows and doors opened as our approach was heard, and we shot past . . . . another declaration of war perhaps, the inhabitants must have surmised. The train was already puffing at the platform, but we had six minutes to spare!
Boulogne had gone to bed . . in peace, to make up some of its lost sleep. No cabs, no ambulances, no one about, trams stopped, and it was 1 a.m. With what energy we could muster, we started up the long, long hill to the hospital . . .one more long way to Tipperary . . . . in the dark, carrying, for my part, three shell-cases, and a piece of the Cloth Hall! IT WAS RAINING!

One more crossing of the Channel; chains taken up, buoys gone, no escort of destroyers, and ships going about their peaceful business after the four years' reign of frightfulness.

The Great War was over!

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