THE ARTILLERY AT PASSCHENDAELE
AN ADDRESS BY MAJOR ROBERT MASSIE, D.S.O.
Before the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto,
January 17, 1918
MR. PRESIDENT AND GENTLEMEN, The work this year at the front, from the standpoint of shell fire and difficulty of working, has increased very much over 1916. Certainly after the break-up of the Russians the increase in shell fire was very noticeable on the Western front, and apart from the machine-gun fire and the attacks, the daily casualties are the result of shrapnel and highexplosive fire from the enemy guns which cover the rear areas continuously, sometimes more intense than at other times, and of course shutting up entirely sometimes. But speaking from my own experience, the shell fire during 1917 is, on the whole, from three to five times as bad as it was in 1916, referring particularly to the Somme and Passchendaele. The ground conditions were also worse.
The work done by other branches of the service-aeroplane observation, medical corps, engineers and transport-has always appealed to me as being exceedingly good, including the reconstruction by the engineers of the roads in Passchendaele. Before the Canadian division went in there, the engineers had gone about 350 or 400 yards in building a plank road in about two weeks, the ground being impassable. The transport service was
Major Massie is a Toronto man. He acted as the forward observation officer for the Canadian Artillery and was able to see the whole battle of Passchendaele up to the time he was wounded equally good; there was never a day we went hungry, though of course sometimes we would not get fresh meat, but the grub for the men and horses was always delivered. The work of the medical corps appealed to me particularly on account of the treatment I got. I was laid out at about 7 o'clock in the evening three-quarters of a mile from the dressing station, the roads being anywhere from ankle-deep to knee-deep in mud. At the station I was mud pretty nearly up to my waist. They put a pad on my head, and I sat up beside the driver and went down to Plammerton. The Huns were shelling the road a little further down from where we were, and it took us an hour and a half to get the seven or eight miles. When we got to the dressing station, they gave me an injection of antitetanus, put a pad on my head, and said I would be all right, and shot me back into another bus and down to another station outside of Poppering. I got there between half past ten and eleven. The medical men came up and took off the pad, looked at it, looked at the card pinned to me; a sister gave me a drink of hot Scotch, which was the best thing I had taken for a long time, and sat me down on a sofa, and in about ten minutes when my turn came, they shot me into the room, took my clothes off, and operated on my head-I don't know what was wrong with it-and I was back in my bed before midnight. That is the same treatment the men of the army get; it is no different for the officers. The operating-room looked like a nice, clean, well-run butcher shop. The orderlies carried me up on a stretcher; the doctor asked if I was able to sit up, and I said "yes." I jumped up on the table, and before I got settled down, one sister came up to clip my hair off, another one said, "Take a long breath," and another clamped a cover over my head, and that is all there was to it.
Speaking about Passchendaele, I will confine myself to what I saw or what came through the Intelligence Department of our own battery. I only got to Canada last year after the batteries went over Vimy. From one of my own officers who took the 33rd Battery over the Vimy Ridge, I have heard a description of what it was like, but I will tell only what I have seen. We sat down in Vimy this year and had the life pounded out of us more or less during the good summer months, during which several minor attacks were made on Lens and Avion. We used to read in the papers that we were not fighting the German nation; that may be true, but it does not strike me that way a bit. After an attack at Avion, when the boys had taken that place and straightened out the line, I went up to the o'pip in front of the rolling ground on the front line, so that what we could see up there could not be seen from our front line; I got there about seven o'clock in the morning. The officer who was in charge of the o'pip is here today. When I came up, he went back to get some breakfast, and I sat down to look over the front. In a little while I saw a party of 30 or 40 Germans coming up under the white flag. Unfortunately, instead of shooting them up I called out, "Come up and see these men that are going to surrender." His remark was, "Shoot them up;" but I didn't. They were not stretcher bearers; as it turned out afterwards, they were reinforcements that had used that fake to get into the front line. They dropped into the front line quite safely; the infantry could not see them, and I very foolishly let them get up. The next party that came up did not get in. Later in the day we saw a couple of what looked like stretcher parties coming from Lacolette, a place on the left, and this officer was then in charge of the o'pip and shooting the battery, and his attention was directed particularly to the rear stretcher, on which there seemed to be an enormous man; if he had been a German he would have had a stomach about 30" high, and he asked me if he could shoot him up. I said, "Shoot if you want to." He fired at this apparently invalided German. The stretcher bearers dropped him, and he broke into a machine-gun and a tripod with a blanket over it. Now, those men were carrying this under the white flag. That is the sort of thing you meet in the front. One cannot help but appreciate what it means when you are up against that sort of thing.
In August we went from Vimy down to Hill 70 to take it. It was a very nasty attack that time.-I am quite safe in saying the most strenuous time, from the standpoint of actual fighting, that the Canadian artillery had had. We had about eight days there when there was absolutely no peace; the Germans pulled off some twelve or fourteen counter-attacks in that time, night and day attacks, and the artillery which was called on then to put up a protective barrage beyond the final objective did not have any rest, though we had the satisfaction of a liberal reward in the way of dead Huns for our work. The officer and other men figured that in ten minutes of firing we laid out from 300 to 500 Huns. It was a registered barricade. The Germans broke through that and ran into the woods, and we soon got at them with 6" and 9.2", and had the pleasure of scattering them around the country. At that place we also had another experience of extremely heavy gas shelling, including the mustard gas and others whose names I don't know. It was during one of those attacks that the men of the artillery in charge of those batteries took off their gas helmets and worked the guns until they could not work any more, in reply to the calls of the infantry for a barrage; they took it in series, two men would work with their helmets off. In some cases they dropped; a great many died as a result of it. This shows how the arms of the service will work together to carry their point.
Passchendaele has probably appealed to all of us more than any other action this year on account of the difficulties that existed in connection with it, and because of the fact that other troops had failed to take it. There were five attacks on Passchendaele, three of them being main ones. Generally the artillery major, if he is wise, keeps as far back as he can, and creeps into the dug-out if there is one. I went forward, not to the front line, but about 600 yards behind it in the first instance, about the same in the second, and in the third I was 400 or 500 yards from the German front line, so I had the opportunity of observing through the glasses quite clearly what took place on our own front. The roads are the chief point of shell fire, as communication must come along them, therefore before we took them from the Germans we used to shoot them up, and after he took them he shot them up; hence the roads were pitted with shell holes and in some places entirely obliterated. Those holes may vary from 6 inches to 6 feet, but supplies and ammunition had to be brought along them. The infantry also had to go forward, and their advance was assisted by constructing duck-walks, that is, the short duck boards that are put in the trenches to form a footing for the infantry; they put them two boards wide for several miles out to form paths for the infantry; but the artillery was obliged to stick to the roads. The first day I went in, the mud was 6 inches deep everywhere, and in most places half way up to my knees. It would dry up sometimes, but would always rain afterwards and be worse than ever. The surrounding country was literally shot to pieces, looking like a field after trees and stumps have been pulled out, except that the holes are as deep as 10 feet and filled with water. The lips of one shell hole practically touch the lips of another, so that horses and mules could not go across the area. The first lot would get across, but half a dozen following would soon turn the whole thing into a mass of water and mud so that the animals could not make it at all. Being obliged to go down a road across which the Germans had placed a barrage extending to 50 yards on either side of the road, I tried to walk through the mud- around the end of the barrage, but at last I decided I would rather walk through the barrage than take chances of being laid out on either flank where it would be impossible for anybody to get me out. Nobody goes near shell-fire if he can get away from it. There were no gun positions; ordinarily we dig our guns in, from two to five feet, but in Passchendaele if you went down you would drown, so we stuck the guns up on the only dry pieces of ground we could find. The first we took over was an English battery, and we had to move it for 500 yards. We had filled sandbags and pounded them in, and then put a wooden platform on them, and our guns on that, driving stakes in behind to form supports for the control of the guns. The observation was done from the higher ground forward, which at that time was the Abraham Heights.
The first attack took place on the 26th October. The 3rd and 4th Divisions had to attack over low ground, called marsh bottom on the maps, prior to reaching the higher ground on the other side which was named Bellevue Heights, on which there were a number of pill-boxes. It rained that night, so that in the morning the going was extremely difficult. The barrage opened fairly well on time, and after the light got stronger, about half past eight or nine o'clock, I could see the infantry going forward fairly well up with the barrage, but the going was so difficult that the men could not keep pace with the lifts of the barrage-I think it was 50 yards every four minutes; ordinarily, on dry ground, we had 100 yards every two or three minutes. I could see the barrage on our left going further ahead of those men, and it was quite impossible for them to keep up. You could hardly distinguish them; if they had not been moving you could not tell them from the ground. I don't believe they had been going ten minutes before they were all soaked and covered with mud, head to foot. Those that were going forward on our particular zone, which was just on the right of the Gravenstahl road, were the ones I was chiefly interested in. I saw the men take the pillboxes on Bellevue Heights quite a bit ahead of our barrage, because they had a quick slope to go up, and it had turned the rain better; the men who were going on our front were still going on low ground; the barrage lifted and went ahead of them quite a bit, then about ten o'clock went beyond a certain strong point which looked to me like the ruins of a farmhouse on which the Huns had created a roof and thus made it a strong point. These pill-boxes vary in size, some being 8 by 10 feet inside, some bigger. There would be 12 to 18 inches or 2 feet of concrete on the sides which are exposed to our shell fire, and from 2 to 5 inches on the top, the whole reinforced with steel work. It is a small target for a heavy gun to hit. An 18 pounder shell or a 4 or 5 Howitzer shell just bounces off it, on account of the construction of the shell and the solidity of the object which it hits. I would be very doubtful whether the 6 inch guns would smash up the pill-box or not. Anyway, there were a lot of them that were unsmashed, and those that had escaped destruction were on the low points. I saw those men moving forward. They came to about 200 yards from this pill-box; it seemed to me there were over 100 of them; you could see the bullets of the barrage spatter in the mud, and the line melted. I don't think there were more than eight or ten men of that party who went on, and I could see those eight or ten make a rush, one at a time, from one shell hole to another, and gradually creep up until they got beyond the zone of fire from this pill-box; then they crept in behind it, and so far as I could see, everything on our front was quiet; the line of attacking men had melted, there were no reinforcements sent forward to carry on, partly because it was almost impossible to get through the barrage that was put on the low ground by the Hun artillery. While watching this strong point I would occasionally see the light-flares which the Huns sent up to indicate that they were still holding out, so that their artillery would not shoot them up, and occasionally I would see the figure of one of our men move somewhere, though very seldom; where he was would be indicated more often by the splash of bullets in the mud. Of course word was sent through to headquarters that the advance was held up at that time. Apparently it was successful on the left, but on account of the men that were surrounding this strong point, one could not even suggest that artillery fire could be directed there, so we just sat and waited. About noon the stretcher parties came out, and in course of time reached the point where this line of men had been laid low by the machine-gun fire from this strong point, and they set to work to gather up those that had been seriously wounded and fix them up; I think there were in the neighbourhood of eight stretchers. The stretcher-bearers went the same way as the men they were taking; there is no question of where they were when they were deliberately shot down. You may not be fighting the German people, but that day I did not agree with that view at all. I have a very distinct impression of the party of stretcher-bearers that were on the extreme right. They got a wounded man on their shoulders, when the machine-gun that was on the strong point was turned on them, and three went down; the fourth, who was apparently an old man, stood there, and I could see him shaking his fist in the direction of the pill-box, and he crumpled up too. Later on, about three o'clock, the Germans that were in the strong point surrendered to the eight or ten men who survived. The exact number that came out I could not certify to, but I counted over 80 who surrendered to the men that surrounded them. Under ordinary conditions I presume they would have laid the Germans out as they came out of the pill box. They did kill the first two or three, but I imagine that their rifles were clogged with mud and they had not energy to bayonet the rest, which they certainly should have done. Anyway, these prisoners came down the road, and our men made them sit up and carry out the men that were on the stretchers that should have been brought in by the stretcher-bearer parties who were shot down. Those prisoners passed close to me; in fact, the German officer that was in command of them, laid our wounded men down and wanted to go on. However, they took them out on their way out. The German is quite indiscriminate in the way he shoots. There was no question that those prisoners on the way coming down were under observation from Passchendaele itself; it was only a matter of perhaps 1,500 yards. The Germans deliberately turned their artillery on this gang of prisoners to shoot them up, and did kill quite a number on the way, I am glad to say, but the vast majority got through.
The second attack, which took place about the 26th October, was rather a different proposition. The night before the attack the Germans shelled us very heavily with gas shells and high explosives, and the men had a much more uncomfortable night than on the first attack; but they had taken most of the low ground so that the going, on our front particularly, was much easier, and the attack was pulled off in time. Only one point held them up, and they made their objectives fairly close on time, though on this occasion the Huns pulled off quite a stiff counter-attack which seemed to side-slip over to our left, but what went by the machine-guns and artillery never reached our front line; it was taken by the Fourth C.M.R's. The same continuous shelling of rear areas and of the roads beyond took place then, but I did not have a very good view of the attack that day; however the attack on that occasion was successful. After the barrage was finished, we put up a protective barrage to permit the men to dig in in case they had to reconstruct German trenches or build trenches of their own, and in some cases we used smoke shells on the final barrage in order to obscure our men, while working, from the view of the Germans behind this smoke screen.
The third attack, on the 6th November, was the day when the First and Second Divisions took Passchendaele itself. On that occasion I went away over on the right flank to get a view of the forward areas so that if there was a counter-attack I could send back word. There were buried cables up to the forward areas, and I had to limit my advance to where the communication could be kept up, because observations were of no use if they could not be sent back. On this occasion I went over the hillside farm, and the same thing happened; the Germans spent most of the night in heaving shrapnel and high-explosive gas shells into us, and at dawn they dropped one of the heaviest protective barrages for their own men that I have ever seen them start, but they were not quite on to the game our boys had played, because half an hour before, our men, with the companies that were supporting them, crept out into No Man's Land as close up to the German trenches as they could get with any degree of safety, so that when the Germans dropped their barrage on the front line there was nobody there but the wounded. On this occasion the attack went off the most smoothly of any of the three. They had fair ground to go over, and especially those that went into Passchendaele itself had pretty fair going, and the objectives were reached on time. Some officers came out of cellars and surrendered; they had expected Passchendaele to be retaken if it was taken in the first instance, which apparently they did not expect. The shell fire that day on our lines was the worst I have ever seen. From about half past eight in the morning till half past ten, there were certainly not thirty seconds when there was not a shell dropped within 100 yards of the little pill-box where I was standing. On that occasion I saw particularly the character and feeling exhibited by the Germans towards the wounded and the stretcher-bearer parties, and though I don't want to harp on this subject, I can't drive it home too much that there is only one decent Hun, and that is a dead one. Stretcher-bearers that came up to me from the low ground came under machine-gun fire and I saw lots of them go down. Those that passed on the left within about 15 or 20 feet of me had to go over this area of high ground, about 200 yards in extent, and they were under direct observation of the German artillery men, and from the manner in which the fire was directed and the accuracy with which it came down they must have been directing the fire from about 2,000 yards away. Three out of four were shot down. They had not got 50 feet from where I was, before the artillery fire was opened on them; it was not a chance shot, because they were simply plastered with high-explosive shells. That went on all morning as long as any wounded men, either walking or carried by stretcher-bearers attempted to cross that area of ground. They did not keep up shelling that area when nobody was going over it, but let two or three men or a party of stretcher-bearers step out into that area and they were literally blown off.
I might mention, as a demonstration of what our young lads will do, that a shell struck a pill-box in which a young lad was posted, and the left side of his face had ten or fifteen splinters in it; yet he carried on and went over to the objective, and came back and reported to me from Abraham Heights about four o'clock.
The infantry work in weather conditions in France was so disagreeable that in comparison I would prefer to run around Toronto in weather like we have now without an overcoat, but what those men did at Passchendaele was beyond praise. There was no protection in that land. They could not get into the trenches which were full of mud, and you would see two or three of them huddled together during the night, lying on ground that was pure mud, without protection of any kind, and then going forward the next morning and cleaning up their job. While other troops had failed to take that town, our men succeeded, and they certainly have earned anything that can be done to ease their minds, and the great majority of them over there are married. If the people of this city saw what those men have gone through, there would not be any unkind remarks made. The suffering they have endured, particularly in the fall and winter, is something I would not attempt to describe, yet they have gone through it and cleaned up the job, and every time they have met the Hun they have licked the devil out of him, and they can do it again.