Putting It Together

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.

A Century Now…

It’s now been a century since the Battle of Bellewaerde Ridge.

I remember only a few hazy fragments that I believe happened on that day, of moving across darkened fields lit only by moonlight and the reddish glow of distant fires, of barbed wire and bear traps that snared the legs of our best men, and of a feeling of profound and sustained horror, like the feeling of shock you get when your car goes out of control but attenuated and stretched over several long, agonizing hours.  I remember hearing things buzz by my head, unsure if they were bullets or the large corpse flies that seemed so ubiquitous on the Ypres Salient.

I still don’t know if the wood I remember was Polygon Wood from earlier on in the spring, or Railway Wood during this particular battle; if it was Railway Wood then in all likelihood I was in Y Company which managed to take the German front line, though I have yet to confirm this.  My memories are far more visceral than exact; I just remember there were good men being killed and maimed all around me and I was somehow left standing.

I can’t say I’ve been much at ease knowing this anniversary was looming but I’ve been trying not to think about it.  Here in the quiet suburbs west of Portland, a whole century and several lives later, it seems far away but I have only to be reminded of what happened and it’s real again to me.  If I close my eyes I can still see the sun rising blood red on those shell-scarred fields the next morning.

Not sure what I’m going to do today, besides rest and try not to dwell too much on those memories.  It was another life altogether; the eyes I saw it through are closed forever and there is nothing but to accept that what’s done is done.

98 Years Ago Today…

The 80th Brigade (27th div.) was among the brigades involved in the horrendous Battle of Bellewaerde Ridge.  This was one of the battles that shrunk the salient to its smallest size of the war; it was not a good moment for the allies.

I have no new memories of this battle; only memories I have already mentioned here.  The more detailed memories remain elusive, even now, and I wonder if I ever can… or should… bring them back.  So far my most lengthy and detailed memory was of my rifle developing a sticky bolt while I was laying in a shallow muddy hole, perhaps a forward sap point.  I had to use a small hammer to knock it loose so I think it had been doing this for a while, but in our haste that was all they could give me to fix the problem.  That memory, I’m fairly sure, dates from the day of the battle itself whereas I’m unsure about all the others.

I’m relieved I haven’t remembered anything more today.  I’ve actually had a fairly pleasant day and I’m glad to not be in angsty tears over an anniversary for once.  It’s not to say I don’t still feel sadness, but I feel like I’ve started to put distance between myself and what happened all those years ago.

Memory Fragment

This one gave me a panic attack when I remember it.  I haven’t had one this traumatic since the first one.

I remember after the battle at Bellewaerde Ridge, we were at a rest point deeper into the Salient, in one of the redoubts or more developed trench systems around the city.  I remember those trenches were a fair bit more modern than the ones immediately at the front, or in the area around Armentieres; they’d spent more time and effort refining the ones at Ypres.

We were all tired and sitting on a bench in an area we’d been given for a break after getting back from the front line.  This officer came by, grinning and waving and said “Ah, there you are, boys!  Draw any fire from them Boche over at the ridge?”  I could have strangled that man then and there.  We took substantial losses in our brigade in that attack, it was my first time in battle and I was horrified beyond words.  To see someone treat it that way just made me terrified and nauseated; I came to understand what hell really was that day.  To have someone laugh and wave…  any good Anglican should surely be able to spot that man as the devil himself? (for  I was indeed Anglican in that life).

The words “draw fire” sent me into a deep sense of dread when I heard them.  I’m horrified again.  I feel the sharp bristling of shock in my spine, just the same as when I saw those boys blown to bits.