from ‘My Year of the War’
'the Maple Leaf Folk'
by Frederic Palmer


an American Reporter on the Western Front

Canadian soldiers in Flanders on the western front - from 'the War Illustrated'


These were "home folks" to the American. You might know all by their maple- leaf symbol; but even before you saw that, with its bronze none too prominent against the khaki, you knew those who were not recent emigrants from England to Canada by their accent and by certain slang phrases which pay no customs duty at the border.

When, on a dark February night cruising in a slough of a road, I heard out of a wall of blackness back of the trenches, "Gee! Get on to the bus !" which referred to our car, and also, "Cut out the noise !" I was certain that I might dispense with an interpreter. After I had remarked that I came from New York, which is only across the street from Montreal as distances go in our countries, the American batting about the front at midnight was welcomed with a "glad hand" across that imaginary line which has and. ever shall have no fortresses.

What a strange place to find Canadians — at the front in Europe! I could never quite accommodate myself to the wonder of a man from Winnipeg, and perhaps a "neutral" from Wyoming in his company, fighting Germans in Flanders. A man used to a downy couch and an easy chair by the fire and steam-heated rooms, who had ten thousand a year in Toronto, when you found him in a chill, damp cellar of a peasant's cottage in range of the enemy's shells was getting something more than novel, if not more picturesque, than dog-mushing and prospecting on the Yukon; for we are quite used to that contrast.

All I asked of the Canadians was to allow a little of the glory they had won — they had such a lot — to rub off on their neighbours. If there must be war, and no Canadian believed in it as an institution, why, to my mind, the Canadians did a fine thing for civilization's sake. It hurt sometimes to think that we also could not be in the fight for the good cause, particularly after the Lusitania was sunk, when my own feelings had lost all semblance of neutrality.


pages from from 'the War Illustrated'


The Canadians enlivened life at the front; for they have a little more zip to them than the thorough-going British. Their climate spells " hustle," and we are all the product of climate to a large degree, whether in England, on the Mississippi flatlands, or in Manitoba. Eager and high-strung the Canadian born, quick to see and to act. Very restless they were when held up on Salisbury Plain, after they had come three-four-five-six thousand miles to fight and there was nothing to fight but mud in an English winter.

One from the American contingent knew what ailed them ; they wanted action. They may have seemed undisciplined to a drill sergeant; but the kind of discipline they needed was a sight of the real thing. They wanted to know, What for ? And Lord Kitchener was kinder to them, though many were beginners, than to his own new army ; he could be, as they were ready with guns and equipment. So he sent them over to France before it was too late in the spring to get frozen feet from standing in icy water looking over a parapet at a German parapet. They liked Flanders mud better than Salisbury Plain mud, because it meant that there was "something doing."

It was in their first trenches that I saw them, and they were " on the job, all right," in face of scattered shell-fire and the sweep of searchlights and flares. They had become the most ardent of pupils, for here was that real thing which steadied them and proved their metal.

They refashioned their trenches and drained them with the fastidiousness of good housekeepers who had a frontiersman's experience for an inheritance. In a week they appeared to be old hands at the business. "Their discipline is different from ours," said a British general, "but it works out. They are splendid. I ask for no better troops."

They may have lacked the etiquette of discipline of British regulars, but they had the natural discipline of self-reliance and of " go to it " when a crisis came. This trench was only an introduction, a preparation for a thing which was about as real as ever fell to the lot of any soldiers. It is not for me to tell here the story of their part in the second battle of Ypres, when the gas fumes rolled in upon them. I should like to tell it and also the story of the deeds of many British regiments, from the time of Mons to Festubert. All Canada knows it in detail from their own correspondents and their record officer. England will one day know about her regiments ; her stubborn regiments of the line, her county regiments, who have won the admiration of all the crack regiments, whether English or Scots.

"When that gas came along," said one Canadian, who expressed the Canadian spirit, "we knew the Boches were springing a new one on us. You know how it is if a man is hit in the face by a cloud of smoke when he is going into a burning building to get somebody out. He draws back — and then he goes in. We went in. We charged — well, it was the way we felt about it. We wanted to get at them and we were boiling mad over such a dastardly kind of attack."

Higher authorities than any civilian have testified to how that charge helped, if it did not save, the situation. And then at Givenchy — straight work into the enemy's trenches under the guns. Canada is part of the British Empire and a precious part; but the Canadians, all imperial politics aside, fought their way into the affection of the British army, if they did not already possess it. They made the Rocky Mountains seem more majestic and the Thousand Islands more lovely.

If there are some people in the United States busy with their own affairs who look on the Canadians as living up north somewhere toward the Arctic Circle and not very numerous, that old criterion of worth which discovers in the glare of battle's publicity merit which already existed has given to the name Canadian a glory which can be appreciated only with-the perspective of time. The Civil War left us a martial tradition ; they have won theirs. Some day a few of their neutral neighbours who fought by their side will be joining in their army reunions and remarking, "Wasn't that mud in Flanders — — " etc.

My thanks to the Canadians for being at the front. They brought me back to the plains and the North-West, and they showed the Germans on some occasions what a blizzard is like when expressed in bullets instead of in snowflakes, by men who know how to shoot. I had continental pride in them. They had the dry, pungent philosophy and the indomitable optimism which the air of the plains and the St. Lawrence valley seems to develop. They were not afraid to be a little emotional and sentimental. There is room for that sort of thing between Vancouver and Halifax. They had been in some "tough scraps" which they saw clear-eyed, as they would see a boxing-match or a spill from a canoe into a Canadian rapids.

As for the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, old soldiers of the South African campaign almost without exception, knowing and hardened, their veteran experience gave them an earlier opportunity in the trenches than the first Canadian division. Brigaded with British regulars, the Princess Pat's were a sort of corps d'elite. Colonel Francis Farquhar, known as " Fanny," was their colonel, and he knew his men. After he was killed his spirit remained with them. Asked if they could stick they said, "Yes, sir !" cheerily, as he would have wanted them to say it.


pages from from 'the War Illustrated'


I am going to tell the story of their fight of May 8th, not to single them out from any other Canadian battalion, or any British battalions, but because the story came to me and it seemed illuminative of what other battalions had endured, this one picturesquely because of its membership and its distance from home. Losses in that Ypres salient at St. Eloi the P.P.s had suffered in the winter, dribbling, day- by-day losses, and heavier ones when they had made attacks and repulsed attacks. They had been holding down the lid of hell heretofore, as one said graphically, and on May 8th, to use his simile again, they held on to the edge of the opening by the skin of their teeth and looked down into the bowels of hell after the Germans had blown 'the lid off with high explosives.

It was in a big chateau that I heard the story — a story characteristic of modern warfare at its highest pitch — and felt its thrill when told by the tongues of its participants. There were twenty bedrooms in that chateau. If I wished to stay all night I might occupy three or four. As for the bathroom, paradise to men who have been buried in filthy mud by high explosives, the Frenchman who planned it had the most spacious ideas of immersion. A tub, or a shower, or a hose, as you pleased. Some bathroom, that!

For nothing in the British army was too good for the Princess Pat's before May 8th; and since May 8th nothing is quite good enough. Ask the generals in whose command they have served if you have any doubts. There is one way to win praise at the front: by fighting. The P.P.s knew the way.

"Too bad Gault is not here. He's in England re-covering from his wound. Gault is six feet tall and five feet of him legs. All day in that trench with a shell-wound in his thigh and arm. God! How he was suffering ! But not a moan, his face twitching and trying to make the twitch into a smile, and telling us to stick.

"Fuller away, too. He was the second in command. Gault succeeded him. Buller was hit on May 5th and misser" the big show — piece of shell in the eye." And Charlie Stewart, who was shot through the stomach. How we miss him! If ever there were a 'live-wire' it's Charlie. Up or down, he's smiling and ready for the next adventure. Once he made thirty thousand dollars in the Yukon and spent it on the way to Vancouver. The first job he could get was washing dishes ; but he wasn't washing them long. Again, he started out in the North-West on an expedition with four hundred traps, to cut into the fur business of the Hudson Bay Company. His Indians got sick. He wouldn't desert them, and before he was through he had a time which beat anything yet opened up for us by the Germans in Flanders. But you have heard such stories from the North-West before. Being shot through the stomach the way he was, all the doctors agreed that Charlie would die. It was like Charlie to disagree with them. He always had his own point of view. So he is getting well. Charlie came out to the war with the packing-case which had been used by his grandfather, who was an officer in the Crimean War. He said that it would bring him luck."

The 4th of May was bad enough, a ghastly forerunner for the 8th. On the 4th the P.P.s, after having been under shell-fire throughout the second battle of Ypres, the "gas battle," were ordered forward to a new line to the south-east of Ypres. To the north of Ypres the British line had been driven back by the concentration of shell-fire and the rolling, deadly march of the clouds of asphyxiating gas.

The Germans were still determined to take the town, which they had showered with four million dollars' worth of shells. It would be big news : the fall of Ypres as a prelude to the fall of Przemysl and of Lemberg in their summer campaign of 1915. A wicked salient was produced in the British line to the south-east by the cave-in to the north. It seems to be the lot of the P.P.s to get into salients. On the 4th they lost twenty-eight men killed and ninety-eight wounded from a gruelling all-day shell-fire and stone-walling. That night they got relief and were out for two days, when they were back in the front trenches again. The 5th and the 6th were fairly quiet; that is, what the P.P.s or Mr. Thomas Atkins would call quiet. Average mortals wouldn't. They would try to appear unconcerned and say they had been under pretty heavy fire, which means shells all over the place and machine-guns combing the parapet. Very dull, indeed. Only three men killed and seventeen wounded.


pages from from 'the War Illustrated'


On the night of May 7th the P.P.s had a muster of six hundred and thirty-five men. This was a good deal less than half of the original total in the battalion, including recruits who had come out to fill the gaps caused by death, wounds, and sickness. Bear in mind that before this war a force was supposed to prepare for retreat with a loss of ten per cent. and get under way to the rear with the loss of fifteen per cent., and that with the loss of thirty per cent. it was supposed to have borne all that can be expected of the best trained soldiers.

The Germans were quiet that night, suggestively quiet. At 4.30 a.m. the prelude began ; by 5.30 the German gunners had fairly warmed to their work. They were using every kind of shell they had in the locker. Every signal wire the P.P.s possessed had been cut. The brigade commander could not know what was happening to them and they could not know his wishes ; except that it may be taken for granted that the orders of any British brigade commanderare always to "stick it." The shell-fire was as thick at the P.P.s' backs as in front of them; they were fenced in by it. And they were infantry taking what the guns gave in order to put them out of business so that the way would be clear for the German infantry to charge. In theory they ought to have been buried and mangled beyond the power of resistance by what is called "the artillery preparation for the infantry in attack."

Every man of the P.P.s knew what was coming. There was relief in their hearts when they. saw the Germans break from their trenches and start down the slope of the hill in front. Now they could take it out of the German infantry in payment for what the German guns were doing to them. This was their only thought. Being good shots, with the instinct of the man who is used to shooting at game, the P.P.s "shoot to kill" and at individual targets. The light green of the German uniform is more visible on the deep green background of spring grass and foliage than against the tints of autumn. At two or three or four hundred yards neither Corporal Christy, the old bear-hunter, lying on the parapet nor other marksmen of the P.P.s could miss their marks. They kept on knocking down Germans ; they didn't know that men around them were being hit; they did not know they were being shelled except when a burst shook their aim or filled their eyes with dust. In that case they wiped the dust out of their eyes and went on.

The first that many of them realized that the German attack was broken was when they saw green blots in front of the standing figures, which were now going in the other direction. Then the thing was to keep as many of these as possible from returning over the hill. After that they could dress the wounded and make the dying a little more comfortable. For there was no taking the wounded to the rear. They had to remain there in the trench perhaps to be wounded again, spectators of their comrades' valour without the preoccupation of action.

In the official war journal where a battalion keeps its records — that precious historical document which will be safeguarded in fireproof vaults one of these days — you may read in cold, official language what happened in one section of the British line on the 8th of May.

Thus: "7 a.m. Fire trench on right blown in at several points ... 9 a.m. Lieutenants Martin and Triggs were hit and came out of left communicating trench with number of wounded . . . Captain Still and Lieutenant de Bay hit also . . . 9.30 a.m. All machine-guns were buried (by high explosive shells) but two were dug out and mounted again. A shell killed every man in one section . . . 10.30 a.m. Lieutenant Edwards was killed . . . Lieutenant Crawford, who was most gallant, was severely wounded . . . Captain Adamson, who had been handing out ammunition, was hit in the shoulder, but continued to work with only one arm useful . . . Sergeant- Major Frazer, who was also handing out ammunition to support trenches, was killed instantly by a bullet in the head."

At 10.30 only four officers remained fit for action. All were lieutenants. The ranking one of these was Niven, in command after Gault was wounded at 7 a.m. We have all met the Niven type anywhere from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Circle, the high-strung, wiry type who moves about too fast to carry any loose flesh and accumulates none because he does move about so fast. A little man Niven, rancher and horseman, with a good education and a knowledge of men. He rather fits the old saying about licking his weight in wild cats — wild cats being nearer his size than lions or tigers. Eight months before he had not known any more about war than thousands of other Canadians of his type, except that soldiers carried rifles over their shoulders and kept step. But he had " Fanny " Farquhar, of the British army, for his teacher ; and he studied the book of war in the midst of shells and bullets, which means that the lessons stick in the same way as the lesson the small boy receives when he touches the red-hot end of a poker to ascertain how it feels.


pages from from 'the War Illustrated'


Writing in the midst of ruined trenches rocked by the concussion of shells, every message he sent that day, every report he made by orderly after the wires were down was written out very explicitly ; which Farquhar had taught him was the army way. The record is there of his coolness when the lid was blown off of hell. For all you can tell by the firm chirography, he might have been sending a note to a ranch foreman.

When his communications were cut, he was not certain how much support he had on his flanks. It looked for a time as if he had none. After the first charge was repulsed, he made contact with the King's Royal Rifle Corps on his right. He knew from the nature of the first German charge that the second would be worse than the first. The Germans had advanced some machine-guns ; they would be able to place their increased artillery fire more accurately.

Again green figures started down that hill and again they were put back. Then Niven was able to establish contact with the Shropshire Light Infantry, another regiment on his left. So he knew that right and left he was supported, and by seasoned British regulars. This was very, very comforting, especially when German machine-gun fire was not only coming from the front but in enfilade, which is most trying to a soldier's steadiness. In other words, the P.P.s were shooting at Germans in front, while bullets were whipping crosswise of their trenches and of the regulars on their flanks, too. Some of the German infantrymen who had not been hit or had not fallen back had dug themselves cover and were firing at a closer range.

The Germans had located the points in the P.P.s' trench occupied by machine- guns. At least, they could put these hornets' nests out of business if not all the individual riflemen. So they concentrated high explosive shells on the guns. This did the trick ; it buried them. But a buried machine-gun may be dug out and fired again. It may be dug out two or three times and keep on firing as long as it will work and there is anyone to man it.

While the machine-guns were being exhumed every man in one sector of the trench was killed. Then the left half of the right fire trench had three or four shells, one after another, bang into it. There was no trench left; only macerated earth and mangled men. Those emerging alive were told to retreat to the communication trench. Next, the right end of the left fire trench was blown in. When the survivors fell back to the communication trench that also was blown in their face.

"Oh, but we were having a merry party!" as Lieutenant Vandenberg put it.

Niven and his lieutenants were moving here and there to the point of each new explosion to ascertain the amount of damage and to decide what was to be done as the result. One soldier described Niven's eyes as sparks emitted from two holes in his dust-caked face.

Pappineau tells how a tree outside the trench was cut in two by a shell and its trunk laid across the breach of the trench caused by another shell; and lying over the trunk, limp and lifeless where he had fallen, was a man killed by still another shell.

"I remember how he looked because I had to step around him and over the trunk," said Pappineau.

Unless you did have to step around a dead or a wounded man there was no time to observe his appearance ; for by noon there were as many dead and wounded in the P.P.s' trench as there were men fit for action.


pages from from 'the War Illustrated'


Those unhurt did not have to be steadied by their superiors. Knocked down by a concussion they sprang up with the promptness of disgust of one thrown off a horse or tripped by a wire. When told to move from one part of the trench to another where there was desperate need, a word was sufficient. They understood what was wanted of them, these veterans. They went. They seized every lull to drop the rifle for the spade and repair the breaches. When they were not shooting they were digging. The officers had only to keep reminding them not to expose themselves in the breaches. For in the thick of it, and the thicker the more so, they must try to keep some dirt between all of their bodies except the head and arm which had to be up in order to fire.

At 1.30 p.m. a cheer rose from that trench. It was in greeting of a platoon of the King's Royal Rifles which had come as a reinforcement. Oh, but this band of Tommies did look good to the P.P.s! And the little prize package that the very reliable Mr. Atkins had with him — the machine-gun! You can always count on Mr. Atkins to remain "among those present" to the last on such occasions.

Now Niven got word by messenger to go to the nearest point where the telephone was working and tell the brigade commander the complete details of the situation. The brigade commander asked him if he could stick, and he said, "Yes, sir !" which is what Colonel "Fanny" Farquhar would have said. This trip was hardly what would be called peaceful. The orderly whom Niven had with him both going and coming was hit by high explosive shells. Niven is so small that it is difficult to hit him. He is about up to Major Gault's shoulder.

He had been worrying about his supply of rifle-cartridges. There were not enough to take care of another German infantry charge, which was surely coming. After repelling two charges, think of failing to repel the third for want of ammunition! Think of Corporal Christy, the bear-hunter, with the Germans thick in front of him and no bullets for his rifle! But appeared again Mr. Thomas Atkins, another platoon of him, with twenty boxes of cartridges, which was rather a risky burden to bring through shell-fire. The relief as these were distributed was that of having something at your throat which threatens to strangle you removed.

Making another tour of his trenches a little later in the afternoon, Niven found that there was a gap of fifty yards between his left and the right of the adjoining regiment. Fifty yards is the inch on the end of a man's nose in trench-warfare on such an occasion. He was able to place eight men in the gap. At least, they could keep a look out and tell him what was going on.

It was not cheering news to learn that the regiments on his left had withdrawn to trenches about three hundred yards to the rear — a long distance in trench warfare. But the P.P.s had no time to retire. They could have gone only in the panic of men who think of nothing in their demoralization except to flee from the danger in front, regardless of more danger to the rear. They were held where they were under what cover they had by the renewed blasts of shells, putting the machine-guns out of action.

Now the Germans were coming on again in their supreme effort. It was as a nightmare, in which only the objective of effort is recalled and all else is a vague struggle of every ounce of strength which one can exert against smothering odds. No use to ask these men what they thought. What do you think when you are climbing up a rope whose strands are breaking over the edge of a precipice ? You climb ; that is all. The P.P.s shot at Germans. After a night without sleep, after a day among their dead and wounded, after torrents of shell-fire, after breathing smoke, dust and gas, these veterans were in a state of exaltation entirely oblivious of danger, of their surroundings, mindless of what came next, automatically shooting to kill as they were trained to do, even as a man pulls with all his might in the crucial test of a tug of war. Old Corporal Christy, bear-hunter of the North-West, who could "shoot the eye off an ant," as Niven said, leaned out over the parapet, or what was left of it, because he could take better aim lying down and the Germans were so thick that he could not afford any misses. Corporal Dover had to give up firing his machine-gun at last. Wounded, he had dug it out of the earth after an explosion and set it up again. The explosion which destroyed the gun finally crushed his leg and arm. He crawled out of the debris toward the support trench which had become the fire trench, only to be killed by a bullet,

The Germans got possession of a section of the P.P.s' trench where, it is believed, no Canadians were left. But the German effort died there. It could get no farther. This was as near to Ypres as the Germans were to go in this direction. When the day's work was done, there, in sight of the field scattered with German dead, the P.P.s counted their numbers. Of the six hundred and thirty-five men who had begun the fight at day-break, one hundred and fifty men and four officers, Niven, Pappineau, dark and Vandenberg, remained fit for duty. Vandenberg is a Hollander, but mostly he is Vandenberg. To him the call of youth is the call to arms. He knows the roads of Europe and the roads of Chihuahua.

He was at home fighting with Villa at Zacetecas and at home fighting with the P.P.s in front of Ypres. Darkness found all the survivors among the P.P.s in the support and communication trenches. The fire trench had become an untenable dust-heap. They crept out only to bring in any wounded unable to help themselves ; and wounded and rescuers were more than once hit in the process. It was too dangerous to attempt to bury the dead who were in the fire-trench. Most of them bad already been buried by shells. For them and for the dead in the support trenches interred by their living comrades, Niven recited such portions as he could recall of the Church of England service for the dead — recited them with a tight throat. Then the P.P.s, unbeaten, marched out, leaving the position to their relief, a battalion of the King's Royal Rifle Corps. Corporal Christy, the bear- hunter, had his "luck with him." He had not even a scratch.

Such is the story of a hard fight by one battalion in the kind of warfare waged in Europe these days, a story only partially told; a story to make a book. All the praise that the P.P.s, millionaire or labourer, scapegrace or respectable pillar of society, ask is that they are worthy of fighting side by side with Mr. Thomas Atkins, regular. At best, one poor, little, finite mind only observes through a rift in the black smoke and yellow smoke of high explosives and the clouds of dust and military secrecy something of what has happened many times in a small section of that long line from Switzerland to the North Sea.

Leaning against the wall in a corner of the dining-room of the French chateau were the P.P.s colours. Major Niven took off the wrapper in order that I might see the flag with the initials of the battalion which Princess Patricia embroidered with her own hands. There is room, one repeats, for a little sentiment and a little emotion, too, between Halifax and Vancouver.

"Of course we could not take our colours into action," said Niven. " They would have been torn into tatters or buried in a shell-crater. But we've always kept them up at battalion headquarters. I believe we are the only battalion that has. We promised the Princess that we would."

In her honour, an old custom has been renewed in France : knights are fighting in the name of a fair lady.


Canadian soldiers in Flanders on the western front - from 'the War Illustrated'


Back to Index