By Gregory Clark, November 6, 1937
Now on the 20th anniversary of Passchendaele it can be told – how a lone man forced the world’s cruelest battle to cease for half an hour
This big armistice we are celebrating next week was not the only armistice. It took all the kings of earth, all the prime ministers, statesmen, the international giants of industry and the super gangsters of blood and fury and the yearning hearts of 400 million people to bring about this armistice now about to enter its twentieth tremulous year.
But the little armistice, that fewer than a thousand Canadians and Germans saw, was staged by only one man.
It lasted 30 minutes. But this one man with his pallid face and his blue chin, had something. Joshua made the sun stand still on Gideon. This one man made the battle of Passchendaele stand still. And because what he had, all men may have, and what he did, any man may do, I would like to tell the tale.
It is true. You will find it recounted in the war records at Ottawa and in the history of the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles. In Schleswig-Holstein and Hanover, Germany, and in Grey county and New Brunswick, there are men who talk of it still, because they were in it.
They saw one man, alone, make Passchendaele stand still; which, in some men’s minds, was a greater feat than Joshua’s.
Passchendaele, you remember, was the titanic end of a greater battle, officially termed the Battle of Ypres, 1917, to distinguish it from all the other battles of Ypres around that shattered city which was the graveyard of an empire.
On July 31, 1917, the British, to keep up the pressure after Vimy, and to upset the Germans, who were rushing whole armies south from Russia, now that Russia had quit, started a major battle out from Ypres. They were going to smash across those Flanders lowlands, only a few feet above sea level, capture the ridges, six miles away, which were the first good ground beyond Ypres, and so relieve the three years’ pressure on that fateful city and salient.
But rain, rain that always has destroyed conquerors and always will, started to fall. That August was the wettest August in history. The plan of battle had to be postponed from day to day, waiting for the rain to cease. It did not cease. The great attack went on. But even indomitable infantry can go no faster than the guns that support it. And the rain and the guns had converted those low flats into a pudding.
Day after day, the attack waited, or tried minor moves; but the rain fell. September, it fell. And the Germans, inspired, suddenly selected all the little hillocks and bits of solid ground, amidst the quagmire, to erect solid concrete field forts, “pill boxes,” one behind the other, slantwise, the fire of each covering its neighbors. In these five-foot thick forts the German machine-gun crews hid while the British barrages reared. And the instant they lifted, the crews dashed out with their guns to the concrete wings and turned their withering fire on the plunging, floundering figures advancing not merely knee deep but often waist deep through the quaking bog. September the rain fell, October. That dreadful quagmire, flat, treeless, featureless save for the low sunk gray shadows of those pill boxes, became a quicksand filled with the bodies of British men from every part of the isles, from Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland – everywhere but Canada. The roads were no more. To move at all, the troops had to lay their wooden bathmats, four abreast, across the bog, and these shelterless paths they called “tracks.”
Not an Ordinary Battle
So 9,000 yards in three months the great attack had penetrated. And on October 26, at 20 minutes to 6 a.m., dark, with lashing rain sweeping the first ridge lifting out of this dire swamp was 2,400 yards ahead. And the Canadians were starting.
To go that 2,400 yards or to retreat 9,000 yards, back across the flats to Ypres again – that was the choice. Winter was at the door.
Our division attacked, that first Canadian day, with only three of its twelve battalions in front. We had behind us all our Third Division artillery, all the New Zealand artillery, the 49th Imperial artillery division, two army brigades of Imperial Field Artillery, the 13th and 70th groups of Heavy Artillery for counter-battery work, the 16th and 62nd Groups of Heavy Artillery for bombardment, and the 1st, 3rd and 6th Canadian Siege Batteries to cap all this immense weight of guns.
Don’t ask an infantryman how those guns got into position amidst the swamp. Don’t ask how a gun can fire aimed shots on a platform of quaking bog. But there behind three narrow-fronted battalions lost in the outermost sea of mud, were all those guns.
Trenches did not exist. Where those shelterless tracks of bathmats ended the troops took to the mud and move their forward way, in the night and eternal rain, amidst the water-full shell holes, across swollen brooks that flooded far and wide. Waist deep, they waded and foundered. Instead of trenches, they found little disconnected series of shell holes joined together, wherever a slight mound or a suggestion of dryness presented itself to those who had gone before. No landmarks showed. The furtive guides sent back to lead the platoons into their battle positions got lost. It was 5 a.m. of the 26th of October, 10 minutes before zero hour that the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles were all in position.
Ahead of them, Germans in concrete pill boxes, waiting. German cannon mased on the dry ridges of Passchendaele.
It was, of course, dark, when at 20 minutes to 6 a.m., all that British, New Zealand and Canadian artillery burst loose behind them.
The pauses between the 100-yard lifts of the barrage were 10 minutes. In ordinary battles, that pause is three or four minutes. But even 10 minutes was far too short a time for men to go the 100-yard dashes through that dark slime. Men swam. Men started only to have to return and seek a new path around some deeper bog. Men lightly wounded by the intense German bombardment that immediately broke loose sank and were smothered in the mud. The pill boxes blazed and laid the regiment in windrows. To add horror upon horror, both flanks were left open when the Canadian brigade on the right and the Imperial naval brigade on the left, were driven back, leaving the regiment enfiladed by pill boxes from both sides as well as in front. Yet when 10 a.m. came, four hours after the start of this incredible business, the 4th C.M.R. were 500 yards into the enemy, pill boxes had fallen to individuals like 17-year-old Tommy Holmes, V.C.; and the 1st, 2nd and 5th C.M.R., the fellow battalions of the brigade, were thrust forward, backing up the attacking battalion, squaring the flanks, filling the holes.
Scattered all over the front, the remnants of the battalion, isolated from one another but holding savagely on, saw, at noon, the magnificent performance of Captain Christopher O’Kelly. V.C., and Colonel W. W. Foster, of the 52nd Battalion, leading their men through a storm of fire to capture the first faint rise of ground that led on 2,000 yards to Passchendaele. This brought the right flank up. The Germans, fearful of that foothold on dry ground, began intense bombardments and counter attacks, but by 2.30 p.m., eight and a half hours from that start before the dawn, both flanks were level with the C.M.R.; and there they were, 500 yards deep. Four officers only, out of the 21 who started, were unhit; eight were killed, nine wounded. And 304 non-commissioned officers and men were killed, wounded or missing. Two of the battalion’s majors were dead.
An Astonishing Silence
But now, on the high ground, the Germans were beginning to catch their breath and realize that at last, after three months, and acres 9,000 yards, their enemy was within touching distance of solid earth and a ridge beyond which the Germans would have no direct view of that broad Ypres plain. The fury began to grow again. Now began the worst part of a battle, the holding.
It was about 3 p.m. that he was first noticed.
A familiar figure. Sturdy his helmet tilted curiously forward over his eyes.
He was surely the unlikeliest figure to be expected in such a place, in such a bloody slime and sea. He should have been back at the wagon lines, in the Canal Bank, in far-off Ypres. He was the padre.
Dramatize padres as we may have, the fact remains that the normal place to look for a chaplain is not in the middle of a battle. In the front line, frequently, yes. But this 4th C.M.R. chaplain, the Rev. W. H. Davis, was a little odd. He more or less lived in the front line.
And here he was, about 3 p.m. of the afternoon, floundering around right in the open, in full view of the enemy, in advance of the newly established line, acting in a very queer manner.
He had a handkerchief tied to his walking stick. Padres are not allowed to bear arms, by international law. Holding his stick up and waving it every time a blast of fire came near him, he went plunging about, bending and straightening, and stabbing rifles into the mud.
If it was a German wounded, he hung a German helmet on the gun butt. If Canadian, a Canadian helmet.
Men shouted to him to come in out of that. The heavens were about to break.
Aye, they were. In a funny way.
Serenely, the padre continued to quarter the dreadful ground this way, that way, while the crumps hurled in and the machine-guns stuttered and filled the air with their stomach-turning zipp and whisper.
One major caught the padre’s ear. Through the crumps, the padre waded over.
“I was getting anxious about you!” he cried.
They held him there a little while until, unnoticed, he slipped away, and appeared, far to the right, dipping and foundering, and setting up that ever-growing ragged chain of rifle butts, helmets aloft.
Small parties of his own men tried to reach him or to carry in one of the wounded he marked. But they were flattened with enemy machine-gun fire. The padre beckoned nobody. He called no man, Canadian or German, though he passed close to both. He simply stuck up the rifles, hung the helmets, and left them mutely there.
Then the heavens opened. But with silence. With a sudden gathering lull. Shellfire ceased. Machine-guns died, all across that narrow C.M.R. belt. To north, to south, the fury raged. But out from this solitary figure, resolutely plowing his zigzag course in the horror, there radiated a queer paralysis.
In a matter of minutes, silence grew. It was as if the sun stood still. As if the whole mad world were abashed. And there, all alone in the middle of the silence, walked the solitary figure, bending rising and stabbing rifles into the earth.
From the Canadian side figures crouched up, ventured forward. From the German side men rose. Where an instant before had been a three-year-old hate, grappled in its most tragic force, were men awkwardly and cautiously advancing, empty-handed, to meet one another. They ran to their own maskers, the helmets, German or Canadian. Some of the Canadians were far over amidst the Germans. Some of the wounded Germans lay back of the Canadian outposts. Canadians began to carry the Germans forward.
Padre Davis went and stood on the ruined remnants of a pill box, a few vast hunks of concrete. Aloft, he stood and beckoned the parties to him. He had established a clearing house.
They traded wounded. Enemy hands touched enemy hands. From German arms Canadian arms took wounded Canadians, tenderly. Cigarettes were offered. In amazement, enemy looked on enemy and grinned shyly. But with imperative signals and shouts, the padre bade them hurry. Waste no time. Garner in the sheaves.
For nearly 30 minutes this armistice maintained. And from back, thousand men stood and watched in astonishment.
Then, a mile away, some artillery observing officer, through his glasses, beheld the target. He could make out enemy uniforms. Yes, it must be enemy. Clustered, right in the open. What folly.
Aye, what folly. There is always an artillery observer, afar, not seeing, not hearing, not knowing.
Shells came whistling. The chaplain leaped down off his perch and commanded them all to run. Figures crouched and plunged homeward. The silence vanished in a rising mutter. In three minutes the whole dreadful business was in full roar again. And the dark came down, and the sons of God were all huddled in the foul swamp again, under the rain and the low Flanders sky, and the shriek and crack and stutter of night.
The 4th C.M.R. was relieved the next day and went away back to recruit and rebuild itself. Padre Davis was a week late in catching up with us. It took him the week to seek and find and consecrate as many of our dead as still showed a bit of themselves up in the bog. For, as you know, in two more attacks the Canadians went the full 2,400 yards and took Passchendaele and beyond, and handed it over safe and sound for the winter.
They pinned on him the M.C. when he arrived back. He put it on much as Dr. Livingstone would have put on some pagan ornament given him by the Congo savages. He was Dr. Livingstone, we were pagans. He was sane. We were a thousand lunatics.
An Order All to Himself
With his pallid, blue-jawed face, Padre Davis remains an eternal image in the memory of every 4th C.M.R. man. His pale gray eyes wide in innocent dismay and astonishment. He had the body of a man, the heart and mind of a child. He knew no fear. What we called courage – and hung decorations on him for it – he regarded with sheer amusement. He had something deeper. As preacher, with his thick Irish brogue and lilt, we could hardly understand a word he said. Even the passage from Revelations that ends the burial service – and surely we ought to know that by heart – sounded foreign as he lilted it. He had come out from Ireland as a missionary to some little Anglican Church in Alberta.
But he was a queer one. He consorted with publicans and sinners. He deliberately sought out all the blacklegs in the battalion, the drunks, the gamblers, the blasphemers, the timid, the fearful, and sat with them, by day and by night, in the trenches. He carried around haversacks of secret treasures which we who loved him most accused him of having stolen somewhere, and these he gave to the least worthy.
He wheedled patrols out of sentimental platoon officers in order to go ghouling around in No Man’s Land to seek and bury fliers, British or German, it did not matter, who fell flaming between the lines; and there, before the abashed patrol guarding him, he would kneel, helmet laid aside, in the wind and the night, speaking softly from a little open book which he could not see in the dark; and in the morning the Germans would be astonished to see, in No Man’s Land, a fresh grave and a new cross shining.
We tried to keep him. The colonel thought up special duties for him, that would detain him at the wagon lines. He was not encouraged to spend his time up in the front trenches. His friends, both officers and privates, reasoned with him. He listened to all our importunities with earnest, wide stare, as if trying so hard to understand our point of view. We told him he was becoming a moral hazard; if anything happened to him, it would ruin the morale of us all. He just laughed. He buried a hundred or two of us. He was so mad, so lawless, so childish and irresponsible, that when, ten months later, we came to the Battle of Amiens, the Colonel favored Captain Davis with a special, personal order. Not merely a mention in operation orders. An order all to himself.
“From the O.C.
To Captain W. H. Davis, M.C. Chaplain, 4th C.M.R
“During the coming engagement you will please remain at the battalion wagon lines at Boves Wood until you receive from the commanding officer a written order to come forward.”
At broad noon, we swept, almost a battalion in line, like in Wellington’s time, out of Le Quesnel to go, across a lovely August plateau of waving wheat, to Folies, 1,000 yards ahead.
About the middle of the line, stiff and straight, was Padre Davis, turning his head to right, to left, watching where they fell.
When enough had fallen he turned and ran back to the brick wall of the chateau in Le Quesnel and led out the bandsmen, who acted as stretcher-bearers in battle.
Leading them, pointing to where the boys had fallen, a shell struck at his feet.
And from his top left-hand breast pocket, the one the little purple and white ribbon was over, as we laid him number one in the long grave with Lieut. John McDonald and twelve men of the regiment, in Le Quesnel Catholic cemetery, though they were all Protestants, we took that same order, at the bottom of which the padre had written in pencil:
“Orders is orders.”
Editor’s Note: The 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles was the unit that Greg Clark belonged to in the First World War.