Lull in Flanders in 1915

Sunday, July 4, 1915

Billets – La Crêche

The Battalion War Diarist wrote nothing for this day:  [1]

THIS DAY IN RMR HISTORY: “Frederick Palmer, who is at the front in France for The Associated Press, sends the following:

04 July 15British Headquarters in France, July 3 – (via London July 4) – 10:25am – One might have gone miles along the British front this week without hearing the sound of a gun. It seemed as if both sides were taking a holiday from war out of respect for the beautiful summer weather, or else the silence was significant of preparation and accumulation of shells by one side or the other for some great effort.

Beyond the occasional explosion of a mine and routine shelling to harass the enemy’s guns, to destroy new fortifications work, or to keep the enemy from taking life too easily, there has been no action. The soldiers in reserve have been swimming in the canal, resting under shaded trees, playing cricket and football and tending their flower gardens about their quarters which have been made to look like those one sees in front of rows of cottages at this season in England.

The flat and gently rolling country of Flanders and northern France which was a forbidden, gray, leafless mire under chilling winter mists, has become a pleasant land of rich crops dotted with groves, while long lines of motor trucks of the transport pass along stately avenues between poplars which line the roads.

Soldiers’ Health Good: All fears of an epidemic of sickness in the hot months for the immense army billeted in the thickly populated lowlands are groundless. Thanks to anti-typhoid inoculations, the habitual personal cleanliness of the Englishmen and the strict enforcement of sanitary precautions by the Royal Army Medical Corps in the minutest details, the health of the troops is as good as that in the barracks at home. Flies are being kept down to a minimum. There are few even around the camps of the cavalry and artillery horses. The paths, roadsides and yards where the men are billeted are kept as clear of litter as a first class golf course or the lawn of a fastidious suburbanite.

Tommy Atkins frequently lends a hand to the French peasant, all of whom, from boys and girls of six or seven to bent old men and women, are engaged in the harvest, and by the way Tommy uses his scythe or fork one knows whether he is city or country bred.

The correspondent has walked through the long communication trenches safely in broad daylight to the firing trenches which, if approached in winter except over open ground and stumbling through mud under cover of darkness, would have been worth one’s life.

Siege Warfare Comfortable: Siege warfare has been made comfortable. Some trenches even have become a sort of Sylvian paradise where meals and tea are taken al fresco, and flowers even have been planted on the parapets which support the trenches.

Where in winter men stood freezing in water up to their knees, mud oozed from sand bags and only continued pumping and bailing kept them from complete immersion and walls continually falling in, now the only complaint of the trench housekeepers is the want of water for washing, for the spongy subsoil is as dry as a bone and as hard as cement.

The total of casualties where there are only sniping and infrequent shelling has been much reduced owing not only to the increased adaptability of the men in self-protection – the result of experience in trench warfare – but to an immense improvement in the protective character of the work.

Though a trench may be on exactly the same line as it was in December, spade work in the spring and summer has completely transformed it, affording small chance for either shrapnel shell bullets or bullets fired by snipers from trees or buildings to hit the defenders.

Maze of Warrens: You can move only a few feet in a straight line in this maze of human warrens. The zig-zag traverses localize damage. On dull days in the stalemate part of the line there have been instances of not a single casualty for a distance of a mile in twenty-four hours. It is when the artillery fire is concentrated and an effort is made to get through the barbed wire and take a trench by either side that the casualty list leaps like a thermometer thrust from an ice box into an oven.

So used have they become to trench life that some soldiers prefer life in an average trench on an average day to that in billets because sniping has the elements of sport and excitement. The confidence and patriotism of the fighting men at the front are shown in both officers and soldiers, even if they have only a few shillings put by in subscribing to the war loan.

Army is Optimistic: The professional opinion of officers at the front is that they are not discouraged by the German offensive in the east. They say the war must be won by the killing of Germans and that the further the Germans are drawn into the Russian quicksand the more wastage for them. This period of the war for the Entente Allies is compared to that for the North in 1863 at the time of Lee’s and Jackson’s success in Virginia and the Confederate advance in Pennsylvania before Gettysburg was won.

Riding about the British front even an expert observer is unable to guess how many troops the British have in France, so easy of concealment is the thickly settled country. He passes bodies of infantry, changing station, or moving to the front, without being any the wiser. Only Sir John French, commander in chief of the British expeditionary force, and a few staff officers really know. The average officer never asks but attends strictly to his business.

In the hard fighting in the Festubert and La Bassée region and the French offensive in the Arras region, though the changes show as little on the map, gains of a very positive tactical value for the future were made, if the opinion of a lay observer counts anything like a maximum effort yet.

The anger of officers and men at gas attacks of the Germans has not yet passed. Tommy Atkins always is seen in new trenches with a respirator in a bag slung at his side.” [3]

[1]  War Diary, 14th Canadian Battalion, The Royal Montreal Regiment, July 4, 1915.  Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa
[2]   “Lull in Flanders May Presage Coming Storm,” The Quebec Chronicle, Monday, July 5, 1915, pg. 3, col. 6.
[3]   Ibid

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