The initial avoidance of my memories is over and I find I’ve been able to sit down with the available resources and, between “Maginficent but Not War,” the KSLI Battlefield Tours Facebook, and my own memories, I can give an approximate account of what happened that night in 1915 just over 100 years ago.
I was with Y Company (a fact I have not yet confirmed), near the mid-point along a line roughly parallel to Begijnenbosstraat, near Witte Poort Farm. Zouave Wood was to my right perhaps 100 yards away. The ditches that are along the road now were probably enlarged to form a trench at that time. If I looked straight in the direction we were advancing, I was looking slightly to the right of where the Railway Wood cemetery now stands.
There’s an interesting anecdote from an officer with the 84th battalion of a car picking up some of the cavalry officers’ kit that had been left behind from a road between our line and the German line, but I don’t have any recollection of that strangely enough.
When the whistle blew, we advanced toward Railway Wood. The German line was roughly parallel to what is now Bellewaerdestraat. To get there I and a large swath of our company had to pass across an open field and through the wood which slowed us somewhat. The moonlight gave us just enough ambient light to see where we were going but there was also light from fires that had a dim orange or red cast.
The field was strewn with barbed wire. I got my leg caught at least once. The fear was worse than the pain; I think that moment was the single most terrifying in all of my fragmented memories and I’m still not sure how I was able to free myself. They had also laid out bear traps; I saw a man get his foot caught in one near enough to see how deep his wounds went but I couldn’t do anything for him, I don’t know what happened to him.
Most of the casualties it seems were reported missing and are commemorated on the Menin Gate. I think most of them were simply lost in the fields and in our retreat we had no time to bury them before mud and subsequent shell fire on the 26th left us with nothing to bury; I do not recall being under especially heavy shell fire that particular night. There was small arms fire and machine gun fire, mostly, but the Germans hadn’t set up as many machine gun nests as they should have. We still took heavy losses owing to the bright light that left us exposed, so the deficiencies in the German defense didn’t make it easy for us.
Thankfully I don’t think this was the time my rifle developed a stiff bolt. That was a daylight assault as far as I can remember and probably happened at St. Eloi much earlier in 1915.
Passing through Railway Wood, which was there but thinned considerably by small arms and shell fire by this time, we saw a gruesome sight. They’d decorated the trees and snags with some of the bodies of dead Canadians who had been holding the line when they broke through.
We took the German line and held it with a modest two machine guns and our rifles, but were pushed back the way we’d come by Dawn as the German reinforcements were on their way by this time, and our best intelligence said they had us badly outnumbered and out-gunned (if memory serves the rumor was twenty-to-one but I don’t know if that was the actual number).
Sunrise gave us a view of a landscape not quite the idyllic farmland you see today and not quite the moonscape you see in pictures from later in the war. It was one of those bright red sunrises, intense and in a way, foreboding.
It’s a sick tragedy to think I survived that night, knowing that I only had seven more weeks to live as John Harris.
Some of the details recounted here are things that I have not found in any official report of the battle, but are of the gruesome sort that often goes unreported in war diaries and correspondence. Given the strict censorship British command imposed and the reluctance of survivors to talk about these things, the world may never know. As my long-time readers might be aware, I have confirmed that at least some of these more lurid details- among them the bear traps- are at least possible given that there are confirmed reports from later in the war.