RMR Soldier Describes St-Julien Attack

Tuesday, June 8, 1915

Trenches, Givenchy

The Battalion War Diarist wrote nothing for day: “Lt. Godwin in command of Machine Gun Section had ranged roads behind German lines used for transport.  Hearing wagons moving on these roads about 10 p.m. he got permission to fire, at point about G.17, range 1000 yards and evidently found target, as wagons were heard to increase pace to a gallop to get away.” [1]

THIS DAY IN RMR HISTORY:  The Ottawa Evening Citizen on June 8th 1915, published a letter from a member of the 14th Battalion then at the front, telling of the experiences of some of his comrades in arms during the early stages of the Second Battle of Ypres more than six weeks earlier.

St. Julien Gas attack at Ypres“Private Thomas Hodgson, 14th Battalion, writing home to friends in Montreal, relates a plucky incident of the battle of Ypres in which an Ottawa soldier in the same corps, Private Hal Brown, figured.
They were in the Village of St. Julien on the afternoon of April 22 when the fight started.

SONG BEFORE THE BATTLE: ‘There were,’ says Hodgson, ‘the ruins of a house next door in which there was a piano which had not been damaged at all, although every house in the place was in ruins. We had a great sing-song for a couple of hours. One of the best of our boys, Joe Bolton, a big fellow from Birmingham, sang comic songs and had us all roaring – less than half an hour after he was lying on the field outside dying. Hal Brown, Cleaver, and all my pals were there.

About 4 o’clock one of the fellows noticed a yellow cloud hanging over the trenches on our left, where the Algerians were. It was like that for twenty minutes, and we did not take any notice of it, until all at once a Jack Johnson burst in the street just above us. It scattered a house all over the place. A couple of minutes later they started coming thick. We were all ordered to put on our ammunition, and formed up in the field.

SHELL DROPPED ELEVEN: When we moved off from that field, it was the last time that I saw the greater part of our company and its officers. Our platoon ran across a field and through a brook into another small field behind what had been our headquarters, but was now a pile of bricks. Just as we got into this field a Jack Johnson dropped eleven of our section. I got knocked flat on my face before I knew what happened. I got to my feet, but my shoulder was stiff. I got hit with a flying piece of turf, and some stone or wood from a building. When I looked round there were three of us not wounded in our section of twelve. The other sections were not so badly hit, as the shell burst at the rear of the platoon.

STAYED WITH WOUNDED: The fellows knocked out were yelling and screaming in pain. The shells were bursting all around and tearing up the field. Joe Bolton and Tony, the Italian, were marching on either side of me. I got up and crawled over to Joe. He was moaning, for there was a big gash in his side. I took out my bandage, but I could do nothing for him, so I went to another fellow called Bill Hughes, whose leg was broken at the thigh. I dragged him into a shell hole which had just been made, and got two others with him. Just then the remainder of the platoon retreated and Hal Brown and another fellow called Lawton stayed behind to help the wounded with me. We fixed Bolton, and tied him up, and dragged him back to the lane.

REACHED A COTTAGE: As we were bandaging Bolton a coal box burst about ten yards from us. The three of us were alone on the road, as the rest had retreated, and we never expected to get out alive. The French were running past us, shouting ‘Allemands coming,’ and we saw them coming in hundreds. We laid Bolton and Hughes in a ditch and then had to cross a flat field while the Germans shot at us. We jumped over dozens of French dead while the horses ran wild around us. We reached a cottage finally, and took off our greatcoats, emptying our rifle magazines at the Germans.

HELD OFF THE ENEMY: There was a party of nine or ten making for the field where Bolton and Hughes were, and we swore that we wouldn’t budge from the cottage until we bowled every one of them over. My first shot dropped one, and my next got one who got up and ran back, and then fell into a shell hole or something. We stopped every one of that advance party, who were probably looking for a position for a trench.’

The writer then tells how he finally rejoined his platoon.

FIVE DAYS WITHOUT FOOD: ‘We scooted further down the road,’ he continues, ‘to give a cheer to the lads driving three ammunition wagons right into the inferno.’ Later they went into a trench behind a wood. ‘A man gave me a coat; we had lost everything except our rifles and ammunition, and it was bitterly cold. No relief came until the fifth night. By that time we had been three days without food. We lost every officer in our company in that fight. Captain Steacie was the first one killed. The only two living are Major Hanson, who is badly wounded, and Capt. Knubley, who is having a leg amputated.’

Hal Brown is the son of Mr. J.H. Brown, 9 Fourth Avenue. He was a former reporter on the Ottawa Free Press.”

Note: A letter from Private Hal Brown was included in our post for April 12th, 1915.

[1]   War Diary, 14th Canadian Battalion, The Royal Montreal Regiment, June 8, 1915.Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa http://data2.collectionscanada.ca/e/e044/e001089757.jpg
[2]   “Stayed With Wounded Pals,” The Ottawa Evening Citizen, Tuesday June 8, 1915, pg. 1, col. 3.
[3]  Ibid

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