If Ye Break Faith

This blog is dedicated to the promotion of educating about the Canadian experience of World War One. To discover who we are as a nation in the 21st Century, we must understand our past.

Monday, 29 May 2017

When the Battle’s O’er

“With the forces at my disposal, even combined with
what the French proposed to undertake in co-operation,
I did not consider that any great strategic results would be
gained by following up a success on the front about Arras.”
-Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig
Despatches, pg. 82

By late spring of 1917, it had become evident that the results promised by the French Commander-in-Chief, General Robert Nivelle for his grand offensive were not to be realised.  In actual fact, the French Army was very near collapse: Nivelle ousted in disgrace and a growing unrest among its soldiers coming to a quick boil of outright mutiny; many details of which are still kept secret.[1]

Without the decisive breakthrough Nivelle had sought, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Armies, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, was now permitted as had been an agreed contingency to dedicate his resources to his preferred operational area of Flanders.  British troops were already in preparation for this new effort which would begin in June with the taking of Messines Ridge.; the overall objective was to secure the Belgian coast.

As a “necessary part of the preparations” for this attack in Flanders, Haig ordered his forces on the Arras front- which included the Canadian Corps- to continue limited and diversionary operations “sufficient to keep the enemy in doubt as to whether our offensive there would be proceeded with.”[2]

Very little of any of this would be known, beyond the abstract, to those most intimately involved in the implementation of these grand schemes; the ordinary front line infantryman, one of whom is caught in his own contemplations.

* * * * *

It were just after lunch when Sergeant Douglas came by.  I hadn’t noticed as I were set against a tree, looking up through branches no’ yet in full leaf, trying tae catch a gander at the ‘planes o'erhead.  Suppose it’s why I dinnae hear him an’ aw, the sky quite busy with the chop of their engines coming and going, but never really fading, while here and there, quite distant, thank goodness, the rumbling thunder of big shells bursting.  It gets so I dinnae really notice it ony mair, no’ when it’s that far off, and thair’s even times when I have to concentrate to hear it at aw.

Has a knack for doing this, does auld Douglas; a’ways finding ye for giving bad news after ye’ve had a good feed.  Mind, a tin of bully et cauld frae the tin isn’t a grand notion of a good feed; though it’s better than nothing at aw, and thair’s been plenty times of that.  Bad news is a’ways easier to take when thair’s at least something in yer gut.  It stops that sinking feeling what comes alang wi’ it.  Well, no’ stops it sae much as makin’ it no’ as bad.

            “Alright, Catscratch?” he asked as he drew up to the tree I were leaning against.

            “Suppose so, Sarge,” I says.  ‘Catscratch’ is what the older chaps in the platoon ken me as, coming frae ma first name being Felix and that no’ one in ten realising ma second name, Strachan, is no’ pronounced as it’s spelt.
            “Good.  Best get your men sorted.  We’re moving up to the line.”  There it was, then.  I’d some notion of it, as the reason why ma lunch was tinned beef was that the company kitchens had started packing up after breakfast.  Ye cannae spend aw this time abroad and no’ pick up a sense for these things.

            “Awright,” which wasn’t sae much ma agreement, but just the thing one says to make it seem like it was the thing tae be done as if choice played a part, “when do we go?”

            “Form up in Companies at eight, stepping off at eight-thirty,” he checked his watch.  “Gives us about seven hours.  Make sure your Section’s area is tidied up, nothing left behind.  Small packs are to be given over to Battalion Transport.”

            “Onything going on?”

Douglas shrugged.  “Routine; though it is a new part of the line for us.  Bert went up with the scouts and guides yesterday.  Talk to him is you want to know more about where we’re going.”  He made to leave, paused.  “Oh, and Catscratch, mind the new fellahs.  Be certain they know what to do.”

With that, he was aff, moving through the wooded glade what had been oor hame near tae a fortnight while oor Brigade had been in support.  What this meant was we were tae be ready tae gae intae a counter attack should the Hun put force against oor line. As that may no’ happen, oor day-tae-day was providing parties of men tae carry aw manner of supplies tae the front, or be given o’er tae the Royal Engineers as brute labour in fixing roads and laying rail.  This, after a fashion, had been another clue that we were tae be on the move.  Why else would I have had a spare moment tae sit against a tree and count aeroplanes?

We were that far back frae where oor front lines were now that we would be going o’er the ground we had that big scrap for last month.  That was a weird sensation, right enough.  Since the New Year, when the Division had been brought up, aw of us had been faced with that high ridge, with only oor imaginations tae fill minds with the battle tae come.  Now that had been and gone, we tramped aw o’er it with nae bother at aw, liked we owned it- which I suppose we did.

We’d certainly paid for it.  Frae what I heard, it were eleven thousand casualties in those four days of fighting, and that’s no’ considering the trickle of blood in the months afore while we set out patrols and raids in the getting ready for it.  That trickle was never fully staunched, and after that tough go at Easter, it kept up, a drip, drip, drip of small haunfulls of men day tae day tae day.  It’s that bloodletting as tae why Sergeant Douglas had charge of Six Platoon.  Oor officer, Mister Thorncliffe was awa’ tae England tae see about getting iron pepper oot his arm and face for having been too close tae a Hun bomb.  Hopefully he’d be back in due course, preferably afore the platoon picked up a new officer.  Seeing as how poorly it had gone for aw involved the last time that happened, best tae avoid a possible repeat of a bad show↟.

Mair important tae ma state of affairs was that this flow of life and blood these past five months tae get us where we were now is reason that I found maself with the ‘new fellahs’ Douglas had telt me tae mind. With nae work the day, the kitchens hitching up and these three lads put tae me just this morning it were a cinch we’d be moving tae the line.  Aw Douglas had tae give me was what I didnae ken- which was exactly when that move would be.  Now, besides squaring awa’ ma neck of the woods (no’ meaning a joke, there) I’d have tae do what I could tae give these lads enough of a lesson tae no’ do anything daft.  Solve that, and maybe they’d last lang enough tae learn something of substance.

With that thought rolling around ma coconut, I stood up tae walk o’er tae Two Section’s area and follow the Sarge’s advice in having a chat wi’ Bert Ellins, for what he might tell me of the road ahead; but no’ afore I put ma ain section on warning tae move.

            “Pretty rough up there,” he says, and lets me in on what he saw.  We’re holding trenches what used tae be well intae Fritz’s rear areas.  Meaning that what was his support lines were now oor front lines.  As support trenches, being further back aren’t usually dug as deep or fixed up as well as fighting trenches, and the whole lot has been under oor artillery for the best part of this year, Bert says tae me that they were pretty mean.  Just deep enough to be head high in most places, nae dugouts, very little in the way of revetting.  That’s no’ at aw comforting, especially with those what haven’t been up front afore.  New fellahs are awfy prone to sticking their heads oot tae have a look aroon’.

            “It’s been pretty brisk business for sniping on both sides,” Bert added, “everyone’s been working like mad to get the trenches in decent shape.  Wiring parties and patrols are going out every night.  Looks as though we’re fixing to stay a while.”

I trust Bert’s opinion.  No’ that he’s got ony mair information than the rest of us, but he’s that bright tae put what little we do ken intae the right picture.  After a moment when neither of us had much else tae say, he added, “Pretty dry, though.”

            “Well,” I says tae him, “at least there’s that.”

What he said which most concerned me was that we were, of course, holding ground which had been Fritz’s backyard.  I already ken that, but what Bert reminded me of was that aw roads, cuttings and approaches leading to oor lines were well ken tae the Hun, and his guns were dropping aw manner of guff here and there along these routes.  Bert had a few close calls himself the night afore.  Lucky for us, it were meant tae rain a wee bit tonight, which was nae guarantee, but at least a safe bet that Fritz wouldnae send o’er ony gas shells, which he’d been doing quite frequently of late.

Another thing struck me then as well.  If Bert were right, aw this work intae getting these trenches in shape meaning that we weren’t pushing ahead again ony time soon.  Well, just wha’ the Hell happened tae “This push will be the big one, boys,” aw the hoi polloi in their Chateau headquarters promising us that aw we’d been doing was gonnae knock the pegs oot of the Hun onyhow?  It set me thinking.

Near six months in the making tae have a go at that bloody Ridge, and near two months by that and we can still see it frae where oor front line is now.  I have nae idea how far it is from here to Germany, but it seems tae me at the rate we go, nane of us here now will see it.

It’s ma birthday in two months.  I’ll be nineteen, if I live.

* * * * * 

The monologue above is a work of imagination; but it closely portrays the realities of a Canadian soldier in late May, 1917.  The Battle of Vimy Ridge had been won, but an end to the war was nowhere in sight.  Situational specifics were drawn from unit War Diaries and their Appendices contemporary to 27-29 May 1917. 

The characters of Corporal Felix Strachan, Sergeant Basil Douglas and Corporal Bert Ellins feature in my ground breaking, realistically tense WWI novel, “Killing is a Sin” available in print and e-book from Amazon sites and by request at book retailers & libraries world-wide.  

[1] Meyer, G.J. “A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914 to 1918” Delta Books, 2006 pg. 540
[2] Boraston, JH, Lt Col. (ed.) “Sir Douglas Haig’s Despatches: December 1915-April 1919” JM Dent & Sons, 1919 pg. 101
Here, Felix hints at the plot of "Killing is a Sin"-the events of which he has, in this monologue, just recently come through.

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