Nasmith Avenue

Nasmith Avenue History
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From Canada's Sons and Great Britain In The World War - with introduction by General Sir Arthur Currie - by George Gallie Nasmith

On April 22, 1915, the writer visited the Ypres salient for the second time.

On that April day the very essence of spring was in the air; the hedges of northern France were beginning to whiten with bloom, and the wild flowers were thick in the forest of Nieppe near Merville. It was the time back in Canada when the spring feeling suddenly gets into the blood, when one throws work to the winds and takes to the woods in search of the first violets.

It was quite evident to me, as I retraversed the streets of Ypres, that it had been heavily shelled since I had been there a few days before. Many more houses had been smashed, unmended shell holes were seen in the roads and the Cloth Hall showed further evidences of shell fire. Scarcely a soldier was visible. We studied maps of the salient to learn the topography and saw where the French right joined up with the left of the Third brigade of Canadians and where the right of the Second Canadian brigade linked up with the British.

Passing through Ypres we drove on to Wieltze, intending to walk into the salient to see that desolate, dreary, shell-shattered area where no birds sang. As we walked to the edge of the village, where we had left the car, we noticed a peasant planting seeds in the garden in front of his little house. The earth had all been dug and raked smooth bya boy and a couple of children. To our ''Howdoyoudo," he replied: "It is a fine day"looking up at the sun with evident satisfaction.

As we tramped along towards St. Julien our attention was attracted to clouds of greenish-yellow smoke ascending from the part of the line occupied by the French. We wondered what the smoke could be coming from in such volume close to the firing line. We seated ourselves on a disused trench and looked about us. An aeroplane flying low overhead dropped some fireballs which seemed to be the signal for the beginning of a violent artillery bombardment. Rising along the French line we could see this yellowish-green cloud ascending on a front of at least three miles and drifting, at a height of perhaps a hundred feet, towards us.

"That must be the poison gas we have heard vague rumours about," I remarked. The gas rose in great thick clouds as if it had been projected from nozzles, expanding as it ascended. Here and there brown clouds seemed to be mixed with the general yellowish-green ones.

"It looks like chlorine," I said, and the captain agreed that it probably was.

The cannonade increased in intensity. About five minutes after it began a hoarse whistle, increasing to a roar like that of a railroad train, passed overhead. "For Ypres!" we ejaculated, and looking back we saw a cloud as big as a church rise up from that ill-fated city, followed by the sound of the explosion of a fifteen-inch shell. Thereafter those great shells succeeded one another at regular intervals.

The sound of each crash following the great black cloud in Ypres. The bombardment continued to grow in volume. In a field not two hundred yards away numerous "coal boxes" exploded, throwing up columns of mud and water like so many geysers. Shells of various calibres, whistling and screaming, flew over our heads from German batteries as well as from our own batteries replying to them. The air seemed to be full of shells flying in all directions. The gas cloud gradually grew less dense, but the bombardment redoubled in violence as battery after battery joined in the angry chorus.

Across the fields we could see guns drawn by galloping horses taking up new positions. One gun we saw unlimbered not three hundred yards from us, when within two minutes a German shell exploded, apparently not twenty feet away from it, and the gun was quickly moved to another position. Occasionally we thought that we could hear heavy rifle fire and machine-gun fire, but the din was too great to distinguish much detail. The expression commonly used at the front—"Hell let loose"—was the only term at all descriptive of the scene.

By this time our eyes had begun to run water and become bloodshot. The fumes of the gas had reached us, irritated our throats and lungs and made us cough. We decided that this gas was chiefly chlorine, with perhaps an admixture of bromine, but that there was probably something else present responsible for the irritation to our eyes.

The Canadian artillery had evidently received a message to support, for down to our right the crash of our field guns along the hedges added to the uproar. Along the road from St. Julien came a small party of zouaves with their baggy trousers and red fez caps. We stepped out to speak to them and found that they belonged to the French Red Cross. They had been driven out of their dressing station by the poison gas and complained bitterly of the effect of it on their lungs. Shortly afterwards the first wounded Canadian appeared—a Highlander, swathed in white bandages, sitting on a little donkey cart driven by a peasant.

We could scarcely credit what followed. Coming across the fields towards us we saw men running, dropping flat on their faces, dodging into disused trenches and keeping every possible bit of shelter between themselves and the enemy while they ran. As they came closer we could see that they were French Moroccan troops, badly frightened. Some of them lay down in a nearby trench and lit cigarettes, only to start up in terror to run on again. Some of them even threw away their equipment after they had passed us. It was now quite evident to us that the Moroccan troops had given way before the gas attack.

Then our hearts swelled with the pride of race that so seldom comes to a man, for along the road from Ypres came a platoon of soldiers, marching rapidly. They were Canadians, and we knew that our reserve brigade was even now on the way to make the attempt to block the road to Calais so much desired by the German high command.

Bullets began to spit up the dust around us and about six- thirty we turned back towards Wieltze. Canadian soldiers with boxes of cartridges on their shoulders ran up the road towards the trenches; others, carrying movable barbed wire entanglements, followed them. A company of Canadians took to the fields, on leaving Wieltze, and began advancing in short rushes towards the German front. Another company was just leaving the village as we entered it, loading their rifles as they hurried along.

As we approached Wieltze we could see ammunition wagons galloping along the road, which forks from Wieltze and runs to Langemarck. Turning into the fields they would wheel sharply, deposit their loads of shell and gallop wildly off again for more ammunition, while the crashes and flashes of the guns showed that they were being served with redoubled vigour.

At the edge of the village the peasant, whom we had seen in the afternoon preparing his little garden, came forward and asked "if Monsieur did not think it would be wiser for the women and children to leave." Behind him were the members of his family, each with bimdles suited to their respective ages. The smallest, a girl of about six years of age, had a tiny bundle in a handkerchief; the next, a boy about eight, had a larger one. All were dressed in their best Sunday clothes and carried umbrellas. As we talked to the father, the eldest, a boy of eighteen, came down the path with his grandmother, a little old lady perhaps eighty years of age and weighing about as many pounds. He crouched down, she put her arms around his neck, he took her feet under his arms, and straightening up, he set off with his burden towards Ypres with the rest of the family trailing behind.

Small detachments of Canadian troops moved rapidly through the streets of Wieltze. Around the Canadian advanced dressing station crowds of wounded Turcos and Canadians waited their turn to have their wounds dressed. Villagers were loading their donkeys or dog-carts with household goods and setting out in all haste towardsYpres. Sometimes even their family cow was driven before them. We picked up a load of wounded Turcos and carried them to the ambulance at Ypres. Fresh shell holes pitted the road and dead horses lay at the side of it. Broken stone, paving and bricks lay scattered about everywhere.

All the while the roar of guns and the whistle of flying shells increased. We reached the ambulance in Ypres between dusk and dark and forced our unwilling Turcos to descend. We had just entered the building when there was a heavy crash in the street outside, followed by the rattling and crash of glass and falling of bricks, while at the same time the piercing shrieks of a woman rang out down the street. In spite of this the surgeons kept on operating as if they were in a hospital in Canada. It is one of the beauties of the army system that each one of the army carries on under all circumstances.

It was too risky to go through the centre of the town on account of falling walls, chimneys and fragments of houses. We, therefore, skirted the town and tried to get down a side road to Vlamertinge. It was choked with refugees and transport and there was no alternative but to drive back through Ypres into the main Ypres- Vlamertinge road. There wagons, with horses whipped into a gallop, began to pass us going the opposite way, and motor transport lorries drove through at full speed. As we cleared the city the traffic became heavier and we gradually worked into, and formed part of, a great human stream with various eddies and backcurrents.

It was now dark, and but for the feeble light of a young moon, which sometimes broke through the clouds and famtly illuminated the road, nothing could be seen. All headlights were out and not even the light of a hand-lantem or flash light was permitted by the military police. Yet one's eyes became accustomed to the dark, and, when the pale moonlight came through, we could dimly see over on our right a line of French-Turcos moving like ghosts along towards Vlamertinge. Next them were fleeing refugees with their bundles, wagons and pushcarts, and their animals being driven before them. If there were a cart the old man or old lady would invariably be seated on the top of the load, sometimes holding the baby. In the centre of the road we groped our way along with infinite care. A shadow would sometimes bear down on the car and suddenly swerve to one side as a horseman trotted by. A motor lorry would approach within a few feet of us before the drivers could see and stop before crashing into each other. On the left were troops "standing to" all along the roadside. We felt very proud when we realized that they were Canadians and that they were the only troops at hand to plug the gap made by the German poison gases.

At one time the road became jammed and we had visions of staying all night under fire in the midst of a roadblock. Gradually, with the aid of mounted gendarmes and our military police, the mass, composed of cows, wagons, horses, dogcarts, men, women and children with hand wagons and baby carriages, motor lorries, horse transport, lumber wagons, motor cycles, touring cars and mounted horsemen, was dissolved and slowly began again to flow in both directions.

Looking backward we could see the red glow of fires burning in different parts of Ypres and the bright flashes of shells as they burst over that much German-hated city. All around the salient star-shells flared into the sky and remained suspended for a few minutes as they threw a white glare over the surrounding country, silhouetting the trees against the sky like ghosts before they died away and fell to earth.

At last we reached Vlamertinge and entered the building occupied by the Canadian field ambulance. Lying on the floors were scores of soldiers with faces of a blue or ghastly green colour, choking, vomiting and gasping for air in their struggles with death. The faint odor of chlorine gas hung about the place. These were some of our own Canadians who had been poisoned, and I felt, as I stood and watched them in agony that the nation, which had planned in cold-blood the use of such a foul method of warfare, should not be allowed to exist as a nation among nations, but should be taken and choked in turn until in humbleness and on bended knees it, too, craved for mercy.

At midnight we arrived home, gray and ghastly from the effects of our experience with the poison gas and its consequences upon our men.

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