The Last Stand of the Princess Pats
I.—The Retreat From Polygon
EDITOR’S Note.—Mr. Pearson, whose first war articles appeared in MACLEAN’S and who has since contributed to several prominent A merican publications, is writing of war as it actually is—as he himself saw it with the original Princess Pats. In this article, the first of a series of three, he tells how soldiers behave in retreat, h is a grim and realistic picture, an actual recited of fact.
THE noose of the net we were in was drawing up tighter with each new day. The closure of the strategic sack either at Hill 60 or at St. Julien spelt ruin and annihilation for us here in the main body of it.
Daily now there came to us of the Princess Pats where we lay at Polygon Wood orders to stand-to and be ready to evacuate. The story ran that we were faced by Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria and half a million men converging on us for a drive to Calais. It took on wild shapes. They said an airman but newly back from a reconnaisance over the German lines had collapsed in a faint at the landing place so that they had to carry him from the machine. They dashed water in his face and brought him to. “Are you all right, old chap?”
He rolled his weak eyes. “Good God, sir! The country’s black with Germans— moving men and guns,” he wailed.
I marvelled at the fine rage of my comrades. They cursed the saving order to evacuate in the same strong spirit that had made them laugh at the gas. Retreat, retirement, evacuation; call it what others might, our lads wanted none of it under any name. If there was trouble elsewhere, the better reason we should stand our ground here. Man for man we feared no other men and ached to destroy the complacency of those fat ones yonder that fairly oozed their contemptuous derision across No Man’s Land and to us. Let them come over at us. That was all we asked! We should show them. Myself—I hoped that they would not take us at our wish whilst we stood around thus so clumsily burdened with all the dunnage of equipment and souvenirs of the private soldier. That would have been a slaughter.
We had put on everything we owned and stood about, waiting. It was very hard.
A pack is never so heavy as when the bearer of it is chained to a tiresome inactivity that places the full weight of the load on one set of aching muscles as the uneasy twisting of any pack-mule proves. So we waited and blasphemed the Bavarians and our own higher com-
And then the glorious order came: “Take off your packs. The contingent is holding its own. We’re going to stick it another day.” We slapped one another boisterously on the back and cheered in a voluptuous relief and in a manner that
choked the throats of those who heard and thought on the fineness of its meaning. Others who were further down the line were quick to catch the infection and cheered also so that the sound ran merrily up and down the length of Polygon Wood and I dare swear the stolid Teutons facing us must have wondered what false victory the verdammt Engländer fed on now that men doomed to die should shout so lustily.
This thing happened upon several days and towards the crucial last thrice in one day so that our nerves were likely to crack with the strain of it all. It was a time of great unease and dread of the unexpected which was for active imaginations harder to bear than all other bad things hereabout
And with each fresh evacuation order the sullen determination of our men to die, if die they must, here and without giving up one foot of ground hardened and set into an obsession so that when the order came, officers and non-coms, had to go down the trench angrily bidding rebellious privates to stand-to in fuff marching order and to “Jump to it.’ And then when the order came once more: “Stand fast,” we cheered some more, in growls by this time; flung our packs savagely down, peeled off our great-coats and took one more insuring look at the proper working of our rifles.
THE others were all packed up and waiting, inarticulate as usual, for the end of our little world. As our time drew near we began out of our misery to make light of our mental travail. There were pitiful jests as though we did not care when we were in fact eating out our hearts because of this thing we were about to do after all this waiting — it was now the third of May—-to sneak off in the night like beaten men. It was indescrib-
Who wrote “Engländer Schwein," and “The Soul of the Assault."
ably terrible and humiliating to us and beyond the power of words. We were glad that the old colonel was not alive to see this bitter night when we, the proud Patricias, should march away from lesser men. We made sullen protest by humming in a sickly minor key a parodized version of “We’ll Wind Up the Watch on the Rhine” and “When I Get You Alone To-night.” That was our last defiance. We scowled and flung the cartel in their teeth. Every man realized the serious nature of the occasion and that the slightest mishap to any small portion of the forces engaged in the retirement might easily spell disaster for the whole, but with that sublime egotism of the soldier which makes his armies, we utterly failed to take cognizance of any such possibility in our own case, for were we not invincible? Were not we, we? We did not then know that ten miles of British front participated with us in this highly dangerous retirement.
At first the plan had been for the rear guard of an officer and fifteen men to dynamite our trenches, but this was given over, presumably because it would most efficiently notify the enemy of our more important intentions. Instead they were up there in the front line now under the command of Mr. Lane giving rapid fire from sixteen different spots and as quickly changing to an equal number of new ones. They would do this for two hours more, changing rapidly from one spot to another, thereby giving us time to march back to the new position and shake down in it. Then if the Bosche had not already perceived our strategy and annihilated the rear guard, they too would come, trusting to their good luck that the enemy opposite would be slow in discovering the ruse—that he was sold, stung and stepped
We could hear them now up there, shooting smartly. We could imagine it— one man here and another there—from each a shot, perhaps two—a hasty run on the part of each to a new position, a shot, another run, then back again and so on ad infinitum, a nerve-racking task. They were brave men. We hoped no ill would befall them.
We selected our loads from the pile at our feet. I choose two one-inch boards, a foot wide, sixteen of them long. They were very green and very full of sap and heavy in proportion, so that their floppy ends made much grief for me before I laid
pouches full of ammunition so that each man had two hundred and forty rounds about his middle and in addition to three extra bandoliers of twenty-five rounds each across each shoulder so that our load in lead alone was a very great one. We tightened our belts and shifted the bulky packs which contained our all of wordly possessions, from souvenirs to the greatcoats which some thoughtful mind had bid us not to wear because there might yet be work in the wood this night not suited to the wearing of great-coats. We wondered--?
We clustered in a small open place amongst the pines. There were these few odd shots from our rear-guard. That was all now, that and the less frequent twitter of some sleepy bird—except for that dull glow of villages which had these many nights become a fixture in our summer sky—just the peaceful twilight of a summer evening that now closed in on us, leaving the world to us and it.
THE main body of our comrades from the front line trench had joined us here as soon as it was dark enough for them to do so unobserved. They too were full of this mellow sadness, that evinced itself mostly in such negative inaction as a gentle disinclination to grouse at petty things or to swear when one tired soldier bumped another’s pack, so that one needed to be skilled in the reading of hearts to correctly interpret their insular and wordless reserve.
Our hearts were too full for utterance. It seemed to our simple reasoning an inspired thing that it was at this extremely trying moment put into the heart of one man out there in the darkness to weep out to the night and to us, so that some crooned it with him savagely, proudly, tenderly and tearfully and so that all in their hearts followed and grasped at and re-echoed the fair promise of the word of
“O Canada ! Glorious and free ! We stand on guard for thee, we stand on guard for thee! O Canada! Where pines and maples From East to Western sea, Our Fatherland, our Motherland, Our true North, strong and free. 0 Canada! Our home, our native land. With chains of love—O Canada ! God bless and guard thee and keep us true to thee, Keeps us true to thee.”
We choked with emotion; we gave our belts one last pull, bent down, picked up our loads and then with bitter hearts and like the beaten men we knew we were not, turned our backs to a foe we did not fear and trudged out into the night to Bellewaarde and away from him.
Again, we thanked God that the old colonel had not lived to see this night Weeping men cursed the Germans and stopped to shake closed fists at them— muttering brokenly.
A CAPTURED German colonel was led back that night through the empty shell of the Ypres salient and on back again through that line where massed men and guns should have been but were
He clasped his hands and wrung them in a grand despair: “Nothing! Oh nothing! Nothing at all. Donner wetter. Only let me back for one short hour and we will go through to Calais—if we had only known! If we had only known!”
THE night was heavy with the travail of unspoken woe and with that battle stillness which was the more ominous because of its apparent lack of relation to the evil circumstances of the moment. The dying fires of the blasted villages ringed us in with a dull and sullen furnace glow which in its unconscious art furnished just that bare modicum of light which was necessary to suggest rather than actually to portray the dim mass of marching men and which because of the strange stillness of the night and all other things held the greater threat. Queer looking trees and shapeless bundles of men loomed indistinctly for a moment in the poor glare of the villages and then slid slowly by.
The suspended sword of Damocles had fallen at last: Fear had become fact and the terrible thing which all had so fiercely dreaded had passed from that inconsequential region of rumor to this sterner one of actuality—and we, the proud Princess Pats with those precious colors over Which a princess had strained her eyes in the making, and which were now up there at the head of the column, were in full retreat! To these other agonies was added that more poignant one of the separation from the bodies of our sacred dead, now left to the unkind mercies of what well might be evil minds. The thought was torture. We stumbled on with our awk-
ward loads of flopping boards and heavy sand-bags, full of a fatigue so keen that it was a physical pain and a heart-ache that was worse—upwards of a thousand disillusioned children. Dark though it was, it was easy to tell that we were very tired by the way in which our feet slipped on the cobbles, the lack of decision in the dragging sound of them and the utter lack of words.
A little eddy of confusion arose for a moment when without any warning, a man in the middle of the column gave at the knees as though he had been shot and clattered so to the road where his rifle and pack caught in the feet of other men, tripping them. They stopped for a moment while one of their number spoke harshly to him. There was no response. At the low voiced order one man, with a picturesquely worded protest stopped and flung over his own already laden shoulders the box of rations which lay against the prostrate figure while another man dropped out of the ranks and pulled at the still figure, endeavoring to roll it off the road and out of our way as we passed
At every hitherto unimportant crossroad a hidden figure stepped out: “Who are you?”
“Pass, P.P.’s and all's
NOW that we had left Polygon Wood the air seemed keener, but although it was not unpleasant, neither was it bracing. But that like all other things seemed merely part of the strange dreams in which we now found ourselves and in which nothing mattered and so that the brain, except in certain rare and automatic moments, took no account of anything that passed: For every shrieking nerve was falsely energized to its own highest pitch to the more pressing need of hounding the tired body on, whipping it harshly whenever its strangely unrelated feet lagged and slipped to the near point of falling. A condition of natural self-anesthesia set in which mercifully dulled the brain to all impressions and the body to all pain—after first driving into the one for the direction of the other that one insistent command —“carry on.”
It was this condition which makes all memories of so trying an occasion mere snatches of the whole, a high light here, a shadow there, trifling incidents well remembered whilst greater events have retreated into the darkness of forgetfulness and gone on by. And that same haziness of recollection clouds all later events because the trying nature of the time has always tended to discourage discussion of itself by any of those who participated in it and who have since gathered together and
so that these forgotten details because of their painful nature have not in this case even been aided by the helpful recollections of other men. The soldier seeks to forget and one is able to write this now only because Time in its great mercy has at last brought with it that zero point of the partial detachment of the mind from the painful incidents herein recorded and which usually precedes the final leap of the remembered facts into the limbo of forgotten things. It is for fear of this last eventuality that it is thought well to preserve for all concerned such memories of comrades and of the occasion as have been accorded one mind.
We had fallen in for the retirement of this night march about eight o’clock, but by reason of the heavy loads each man bore it was well on to midnight when we reached the edge of Bellewaarde Wood, three miles as the crow flies from the trenches we had just evacuated in the Wood of Polygon and a slightly greater distance from the still active lamp of the dying Ypres.
The trench, if it could be called that, lay out from the wood in the middle of a mud-smooth field. We deployed along its course in single file by platoons until
the entire regiment had been aligned, after which we were bidden to take off our packs. Our extra loads of lumber and other trench furnishings were already on the ground to which we had let them slide at the first hint of a halt, so that latterly and during this last short trek to our position on the edge of the trench the greater portion of us had been dragging them because we had not the poor strength necessary to lift them up; even as it was our fingers slipped their hold on the loads because there was no longer any firmness in our grasp and our knees gave wickedly at inconvenient moments.
1 T was raining now. They told us to *• wait a while. We did so. Our heads nodded so that we slept standing—like horses. The distant star shells only served to throw the picture into relief without in any way disturbing the figures. In a few minutes an officer wandered along the line giving orders. We reached down for our things, all of a tremble with this sudden new weakness which the unaccustomed rest had brought. We slipped one arm through the sling of the rifle and grasped the straps of the rest of our equipment in that hand, reserving the other for the boards and other foreign loads.
We dragged them so, a separate collection in each hand, still like horses, but between shafts this time. There was no one to see that it was done properly and we did not care, so we did not pile the trenchmaterial as we had been ordered to do, but merely let it clatter down, each piece sinking into its own bed of mud and so that the whole was spread out over an acre of ground. We continued to drag our packs as we turned back toward the trench, going further up it this time to make more room, as we had been directed to do. For the first time that night we began to talk. Weak voices lifted up as mate sought mate and, being answered, quietened again. We strove to walk faster under the spur of the knowledge that first come should be first served in the matter of positions in the trench and we began to detach ourselves from the main group in odd ones and twos, coalescing into the customary sentrygroups of the necessary three men each.
“Lie down and get what sleep you can. We’ll wake you up when the tools come. You can dig yourselves in them — there’ll probably be hell to pay in the mornin’. Lie down and
ge--” The voice of the
officer trailed off in a monotonous repetition as he shambled by, mouthing the order to each group in
We looked at the trench and, weary though we were, longed ardently for
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tools with which to augment its pretence of shelter. Despite permission, or rather order to lie down without even the necessity of posting sentries, we fell to with our entrenching tools, seeking to deepen our shallow shelter. It was of no use. The pick end was a tooth-pick and as useful, the shovel end good only for the work of a poor pick. We tried loosening it so and then scooping the earth up in
double handfuls, but after viewing the united efforts of the three of our group for over a quarter of an hour, we gave it up in despair and lay down, wondering dimly why they had not prepared a place for us and if they had been too pressed these last few days why the magnificent ones on the staff had not justified their jobs by doing so before the great battle had started.
The trench was only waist deep and so narrow that when lying on the side one had no room in which to bend the knees as a man likes to do when he lies down, but had instead to lie out straight. Even the bent elbows struck the wall at the back as the hands did in front. There was no comfort in that, and the voice of Radcliffe could be plainly heard saying so with great effectiveness from his position at our left. The rain had turned into a steady drizzle now, but by preference I turned my face up to it and lay on my back in order that I might make shift to bend my knees. The trench was so narrow that the sides of it pinched both shoulders and so that when the rain changed into a steady down-pour I endeavored to get up for the purpose of exchanging the service of the rubber ground sheet on which I lay, planning to put it over my body, I heard grunts and sighs and oaths on either side of me as others came to the same hard decision only to find themselves stuck, as I was. The narrowness of the trench was such that in my weakened condition it held me in a vise, the wet walls of which slipped from out my grasp and the floor from under my feet each time that I endeavored to gain a hold with which to draw myself erect so that for a minute I had to lie back exhausted while I endeavored to determine how, since there w’as no room to bend the legs, I might best gain my feet.
I DID it somehow and had almost decided to lie out on the top when I saw that the men lay so closely at either end of my six feet of trench as to threaten my ownership of them and so plumped down in to my old quarters, which in the brief interval of the thought had already filled with water in the holes my hips had made in the mud. I lay there in the water, listening to the rain strike on the rubber sheet that covered my face until, discovering that each fold of the sheet directed its own individual stream to augment the increasing body of the one I lay in, I cast the thing off with a curse and lay thus for the remainder of the night, as all others were doing, in a pool of water, my face dead to the impact of the pouring rain. Once I felt hob-nails exerted with pressure against the top of my head and when I sought relief by extending my own, was met by a vicious curse which in turn trailed off into a whine of helpless anger as the pressure on my head forced me because of the lack of room and in spite of all good intention to the contrary to pass the pressure on down. It did not seem possible that people in other places were perhaps going quietly to their sheltered beds, or that such things as sheltered beds could exist when here the deadly cold only crept the further into one’s marrow bones and almost ate of courage itself. It was, I remembered, on just such nights as this that somewhere, some time, a long, long time ago, we used to like to gather around the open fire and listen to the lash of the storm. A grand night for a dance—but, of course, no one danced any more—the world was at war —women worked and wept—men fought —there was no dancing. All denied them-
selves. The last thing I heard before I became utterly stupefied, for certainly it was not sleep that followed, was the threat and counter-threat of a jangling quarrel at my feet.
WE were very glad when they routed us out at three o’clock in the morning and bade us go to digging with the tools which had just been received and which they now handed to us. We sought our share of them and found it to consist, for our group of three, of only one shorthandled and broken-backed shovel, together with fifteen or twenty sand-bags.
Our first coherent thought after the movement of our limbs had sharpened our senses, was of the enemy. “The - ’ll be in our old trench by this time.” “—— ’em. Like to see their - faces when they find we’ve done a nip.”
We stamped up and down in the pouring rain, flinging our arms about to gain a little warmth, our teeth chattering.
Two of us fell to on the bottom of the trench with our entrenching tools, loosening the earth which the third man shovelled into the empty sacks. We had not filled many of these when we discovered that we were cutting to the quick of the water level of that particular section of Flanders and that any further gain in depth meant the same in water. The problem was evidently one of a parapet and that meant more sand-bags; our present equipment of them would never do; we must play the old soldier and get
\\Jr E clambered up on top and while ' ’ Shepherd and Stamborough went to an industrious filling of the remainder of the sacks from the field in our rear I cruised along the trench, following my nose and keeping a sharp look-out for sacks or tools.
Everywhere men were digging and filling just as we were. I asked each group for picks or shovels or bags, for anything in fact that they might have in the shape of trench plunder. Nothing doing! Everywhere it was the same. Already our minds were shaking off the evil effects of the night march co-incident with the exercise of digging operations, a fact that was reflected in the manner of the reception of my request, for they merrily told me to go to hell. One man did at last give me a pick after taking my name, rank and number, together with most solemn assurances on my part that the tool in question should be returned at the appointed time. I returned with that to my two comrades and found that they had similarly added to our store by commandeering the supply of sacks of the men on our left who were still lying down and who as the result of their own weariness and domestic and internal quarrels in their group steadfastly refused to do any digging or otherwise improve their and our unsheltered position. There seemed to be no one there to make them do so, so we argued with them, pointing out that tile Germans who were undoubtedly pressing hard on our heels from the Polygon Wood position, would most certainly be down on us as soon as daylight should expose the disposition of our forces. “’em,” they said. “Let ’em - well come—the quicker the sooner. If we’re for it, we’re for it! Have an énd to this anyhow.” Whereat they rolled over and made pretence of sleeping again. We held a council of war and decided that it was now high time to put into effect our Atkinsonian theory
that the state of Torrimy can do no wrong. In view of the acquaintance with the ground, which my earlier trip had given me, my comrades elected that I should do the skirmishing, get what sacks I could as far away from home as possible and spurlos versenkt. I drifted up the line of digging men until I had passed several groups and then picked up the first unprotected pile of sacks I saw. I doubt if I even salved my conscience with the weak defence that it was possible that they had no owner. I simply did what Tommy always does in like circumstances, what an honest starving man does when he lacks bread : I stole them from the plûtes.
I took a cruise up the other way, but without result. Only Number One and Two companies of ours were here, the others were in support in huts around the chateau and lake behind us; and it was impossible to go far without getting into the lines of other regiments—which meant trouble, so I retraced my steps.
WHEN the last dull cloud of mist had risen and set the seal on the arrival of the new day which, because of its murkiness, seemed rather to ooze out of the night than to be sharply divided from it, we straightened our backs, wiped muddy hands across our wet foreheads and looked around to see what we could see.
“Well, God love a sailor, Lumme! Look at that will -you, mate? Them blokes!” Shepherd pointed a mud encrusted finger out in the general direction of our front; our eyes followed and this is what they saw.
To the right and to the left of us there stretched a long and irregular line of knots of our comrades, all digging furiously except for those who were like us, straightening up and gazing across and at our front where a solid line of other men were also digging furiously but without any looking up on their part. Apparently the surprise was all on our own side. “By the piper that played before
Moses.” “Well, by -. What d'yuh
know ’bout that?” “-They sure know
we can’t hurt ’em or they wouldn’t do
that.” “Why the Hell don’t our-artib
The thing left us breathless, too amazed for any foolish words or speculation; interjections the only exception.
Our natural impulse after that first one of numbed astonishment had been to bid us fly to our holes, but by the time our minds had formulated the thought to fling down the tools, grasp rifles, leap down into the trench and go to shooting we had seen that the Germans continued to dig as phlegmatically as though this was not war. Since that accorded well with our designs on our own poor trench we were glad to observe the unspoken truce they thus initiated and carry on without any such aggressive action. Occasionally a man would stop from his digging long enough to look up, wipe the rain from his face, painting it with mud instead, and swear feebly in a fresh astonishment as he looked over at the industrious Teutons before again resuming his own desperate labor. Except for these small incidents our surprise had given over on the instant of perception of the major fact to one of a tacit acceptance of a natural and to-be-expected one which was in the final analysis one more in a long succession of surprising facts to which our shock absorbent systems had long since ceased to react. I emphasize the fact that this recital is of a set,of facts ami not of fiction.
So there we were, two long lines of men
just so far as the eye could follow which then was until some intervening hill or bit of wood cut off the view in front or perhaps sheltered the other diggers from our curious sight. Our line was thin and straggling, that of the enemy simply packed with men so that they seemed to be in one another’s road in the digging; a fact which was perhaps partly explained by our shortage of tools and which only allowed one pick or else a shovel to each group of three men, although on the other hand the men who had no tools were for the most part above the ground, carrying and placing the filled sacks or otherwise fiddling about.
The Germans were further away from us than on any previous occasion, some hundreds of yards in fact, but still within comfortable rifle range. The explanation was obvious: The ground between us dipped gently into a narrow vale on the higher side of which our trench edged so that for them to have followed us to any closer point would have meant that they would have been directly beneath us and so fully exposed, even in their completed trench, to our more protected fire. Their judgment in standing off was excellent.
We had an opportunity now to observe the salient features of the landscape. The ground sloped very gradually aVvay from us for a hundred yards or so, and from that point on held to a rough level until it swelled up again into the low rise of the German trench. The little flat was heavily wired with a solid criss-cross of entanglements which were in some places many yards wide and which were interrupted only here and there by gaps or by the intrusion of groups of burning farm buildings such as those that directly faced us a hundred yards away. The German slope of the valley was dotted with small clumps of woodland which on our immediate right merged into the more solid wall of wood that swung down and over into the one that lay behind us. We observed all these things and then continued again with our digging.
The Germans did likewise. The rain and the faint mist which now began to flout itself in nebulous and smoke-like wisps gave to their toiling figures a certain indefiniteness which only intensified the strange air of unreality and added to the weird nature of the entire proceeding. A very few shots were fired at first; none of which were aimed if the fact that no one on either side fell could be taken as any indication. Except for that there was no firing. After that the only sound was that of scraping shovels and falling clods of earth, intermingled with snatches of talk anent the manner and the disposition of our work.
Apparently the enemy had not yet got his artillery up or if he had, was not prepared to use it on us until his own troops had dug themselves in. But in any event his unsurprised acceptance of the present situation undoubtedly proved his acquaintance with the sad fact that he need fear no artillery of ours.
EDITOR’S Note—Mr. Pearson'x narrative will be continued in the next number when he will tell of the terrible battle of llellewaarde in which the regiment wax nearly annihilated.