Thursday, July 29, 1915

Conducted Relief in Place of 4th CEF – Trenches, Ploegsteert

The Battalion War Diarist wrote for this day: “Battalion relieved 4th Canadians in Trenches – Ploegsteert.  Nos. 1, 3 & 4 Coy. Fire Trench, and No. 2 in Support.  Relief completed by 8:30 pm.” [1]

THIS DAY IN RMR HISTORY: Yesterday we published the first part of a lengthy letter written “from the front” by an unidentified Quebec soldier. Here now is the rest of that letter:


“German Gas – We constantly read of the many attempts of the Germans to break through our line, which attempts are always, however, frustrated. These attacks are generally made when there is a slight wind blowing in our direction, and are invariably accompanied by the use of asphyxiating gas, and which is a terrible thing to contend against. It is either forced through nozzles from very highly compressed gas reservoirs which are kept in the German trenches, or contained in shells and bombs which they use in great profusion during a gas attack. We had our own little experience of this gas at Ypres or Langemarcke, as you prefer to call it, and it was very far from enjoyable. It was about dawn and the remnants of our battalion were gathered in a reserve trench a little back from the front line and the Huns were shelling us heavily, their high explosives dropping along all roads, hedges, and any places where troops might have been sheltered. Suddenly a shell came hurling along and we did the usual ducking stunt behind our little trench, but it was badly timed and exploded about forty yards in front of us. My eyes began to smart awfully and water just streamed from them, while we were all coughing violently and felt a sort of choking sensation. Another shell came along and then another, until it was simply stifling and unbearable – that knowing the peculiarity of this gas at the time we kept down in the trench as near as possible to the ground and it was much worse than when standing up. It became so strong that most of us moved over to the left of the trench and dug ourselves in there (the gas not having reached that portion of the trench). I always associate the acrid odor of trench gas with the smoke from a fire which has been kindled with green wood, except that it is so much stronger. There has been much criticism of the French for having retired when this gas was first used against them. Well, it was used in such volume that no human being could have lived in it, without respirators, and respirators are at best a very uncertain method of nullifying the effects of this poison.

However, referring to the particular evening at Festubert, the Germans as I have already stated, gave up their work in disgust – and must have been quite peeved with the Canucks.

Wholesale Devastation: I don’t think that I have ever seen as I did at Festubert. Homes that were once so beautiful, with their pretty little rose gardens in front and the splendid and stately rows of French poplars surrounding the cottage, were nothing more than a mass of ruins, the very trees having been cut and shriveled by the intensity of the artillery fire. Clumps of trees stood with hardly a branch left on them. I have very often seen trees cut off as though by lightning, by shells.

Upon being relieved we marched down what was once the main street of a little village, and it seemed such a shame that war should be so cruel. Such waste. The cobbled road was pitted and torn by great shell holes at close intervals, and every house was practically razed to the ground. Only a few pillars remained of what was once a beautiful church and over the whole scene reigned the silence that is found in all those ruined villages – the silence of death, broken only by the crackle of rifle fire and the crash of bursting shells. We formed up in fours just inside the village and in less than five minutes we were out of sight of all this inferno, and to judge by the landscape and the farms dotted all along the roads, one would never think there was such a thing as war – except for the utter absence of life, excepting tired-looking men in khaki. I often wonder how this is all going to end. Win we doubtlessly will, eventually, but only after terrible ordeals and at a price at present undreamt of by the people at home – but who is going to repay all this wastage? It is all very well to say that Germany shall, but how shall she be able to do it. It is a life and death struggle for all the combatants, and when Germany is crushed, as she must eventually be, she will be a ruined nation and unable to pay any indemnity that would in part compensate for this great wastage. The only indemnity I can see that she will be able to pay, will be the grant of territorial concessions to the victors. But this will not repay any one of them for the huge price they have paid in life and money to the great god of war. When one thinks of the millions wasted in every bombardment which may or may not mean the gain of a trench or two, seems like a ghastly dream and as if surely the world must have gone mad! However, to be optimistic, there is one thing which is greater that all to a nation and that is national honor, in which case Germany is indeed poverty stricken.

We proceeded to billets from the trenches and were resting for some ten days or so before we again returned to see Fritz & Co. once more, and our next visit indeed proved an interesting one, but more about this later.” [2]

[1]   War Diary, 14th Canadian Battalion, The Royal Montreal Regiment, July 29, 1915.  Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa
[2]    “Vivid Description Of Trench Life In France,” The Quebec Chronicle, Quebec City, Wednesday, July 28, 1915, pg. 3, col.1, and pg. 2, col.2.

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