Duncan streets recall battles

With this year’s centenary of the start of the First World War, the Canadian government has been sprucing-up the cemeteries in Europe that contain most of our war dead from both world wars.

These cemeteries are well maintained at all times, but a century of weather had taken its toll on many of the tens of thousands of headstones, making some of the names hard to read, and some of the stones out of plumb.

According to the Associated Press, it’s part of a grand effort to bring Commonwealth military cemeteries up to perfection for the large crowds of visitors expected to visit them over the four years, 2014-2018, of centenary commemorations. An estimated 2,000 Canadian headstones will be replaced with identical markers and another 7,000, which can be salvaged, will be re-engraved with their occupants’ names, dates and regiments or, if unknown, that heartbreaking epitaph, "Known unto God." Those simply out of alignment will be returned to "geometric perfection" and the grounds freshly landscaped.

Making the centennial ceremonies more poignant is the fact that it will be "the first major anniversary for which no known soldiers survive".

Nevertheless, those in charge of our European cemeteries say that visitations, particularly those by school children, have increased in recent years. In 2011, more than 300,000 people visited Tyne Cot Cemetery, the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world. It’s near Ypres, Belgium, where Canadians made military history by standing their ground during the first poison gas attacks by the Germans.*

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has its own monument works in Beaurains, France, where, in 20-hour shifts, 50 tonnes of stone a week are cut, ground and etched by digital engraving machines into exact, perfect replicas of the original stones. The slightest flaw is rejected.

Not all of the headstones are meant for European cemeteries, they were world wars, after all, and they’re shipped to as many as 153 countries around the world. Production has been doubled during the past two years with the approach of the centenary.

Canada has 12 overseas military memorials, at St. Julien, Hill 62 (Sanctuary Wood), Courcellete, Vimy, Passchendaele, Le Quesnel, Dury, Bourlon Wood. Then there’s the Menin Gate, the Canadian memorials at St. Nazaire and at Mons, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey.

*Have you ever wondered how Duncan’s St. Julien Street (until quite recently misspelled with an "a") was named? It owes its genesis to the fact that Cowichan "boys" as they were fondly referred to in the press of the day, distinguished themselves as members of the 18,000-strong 1st Canadian Division when the Germans introduced poisonous gas. This was during the first week of April 1915 when the Canadians, who’d only arrived in France two months before, relieved French troops of 4,500 yards of the front line, at Ypres. To quote a Canadian Veterans Affairs publication, "Unchanged since the bitter fighting in the autumn of 1914, the deep curve of the Allied line encircling the town of Ypres on three sides was regarded as the most critical section of the whole front."

The Canadian sector was on the extreme left flank of the British Second Army and to strengthen their position the Canadians began digging – in mud. They couldn’t penetrate more than two feet before their holes filled with water, so they built what breastworks they could with sods and sandbags, it being noted that these "makeshift ramparts provided little protection from enfilade or reverse fire." This, at a time when our soldiers still hadn’t been issued steel helmets! (Or gas masks.)

Just four days after their arrival, the Germans began a three-day-long bombardment of adjacent roads and bridges behind the Canadian lines, a sure sign of impending attack. On the afternoon of the 22nd, a particularly heavy barrage of the adjoining French positions was followed by the release of poisonous chlorine gas from almost 6,000 cylinders. With the aid of a gentle northeasterly breeze, a thick green cloud slowly drifted across the French line which was manned by colonial troops and a French Territorial Division.

The gas attacked eyes, nostrils and throats, quickly choking the French. Those not immediately overcome, threw down their weapons in panic and fled, leaving the Second Army flank’s exposed for a mile and a-half. The Canadians and some British reinforcement battalions, who’d escaped the gas, were ordered to fill the breach. Together, they established a tenuous line then initiated a series of counter-attacks at Kitcheners Wood, west of the village of St. Juliens. For two days, with horrendous casualties, they held the enemy at bay but failed to recapture any of the ground seized by the Germans in the immediate wake of their launching the gas. It was during this Battle of Gravensanfel Ridge that Canada won its first Victoria Cross of the war, that honour going to machine gunner L/Cpl. Frederick Fisher, of the 13th Bn.

The Canadians had managed to hold their original ground but the Battle of St. Julien (second of the four battles of Ypres in 1915) commenced with a very short German barrage (only 10 minutes) followed by the release of chlorine gas along a 1,200-yard-stretch of the Canadian line that was manned by the adjoining 2nd and 3rd Brigades.

Immediately behind the gas, waves of Germans wearing "mouth-protectors" charged forward as the Canadians tried to protect themselves from the fumes by breathing through dampened handkerchiefs or bits of clothing (legend has it that they tried to counter-balance the gas by wetting them with urine). But these attempts were of little defence against chlorine and "with eyes blinded and throats afire, men collapsed on the floor of the trench in suffocating agony".

Nevertheless, with the help of artillery firing shrapnel and an enfilading fire from infantry companies on the right which hadn’t been gassed, the Canadians held the line but for the 3rd Brigade which was forced to yield ground, including Kitchener Wood, and part of St. Julien.

The arrival of British and French reinforcements had stemmed the German advance after the Canadians, without masks, had withstood the lethal gas and, during those first three critical days, prevented what the enemy had counted upon as a major breakthrough. As a War Office communique put it, with classic understatement, "Their gallantry and determination undoubtedly saved the situation".

Three more VCs were issued to Canadians for their heroic actions, including one to Capt. F.A.C. Scrimger, the 14th Bn.’s medical officer. When, after 13 hellish days of defending the Ypres Salient, the last of the Canadian battalions was relieved, the 1st Canadian Division had suffered 6,000 casualties, among them some of Cowichan’s own.

Hence Duncan’s St. Julien Street which shares its First World War provenance with Vimy and Ypres Streets.

The memorial at St. Julien has been described as "one of the most striking battlefield memorials on the western front". Thirty feet high, it consists of a single shaft of granite surmounted by the Brooding Soldier, so named because his head and shoulders are bowed, his hands folded in his arms. According to Veterans Affairs, "The expression on the face beneath the steel helmet [artistic licence in the case of the Battle of St. Julien] is resolute yet sympathetic, as though its owner meditates on the battle in which his comrades displayed such valour…" It is the work of Regina architect Frederick Chapman Clemesha.

On the day of the memorial’s unveiling, French Marshal Ferdinand Foch, former commander-in-chief of the Allied armies, said that the Canadians who withstood the German onslaught and lethal gas "paid heavily for their sacrifice, and the corner of earth on which this Memorial of piety and gratitude rises has been bathed in their blood."

The monument itself bears the inscription: "This column marks the battlefield where 18,000 Canadians on the British left withstood the first German gas attacks the 22nd-24th April, 1915. Two thousand fell and lie here buried."