This picture is of the Cloth Hall in Ypres in October 1914. Ypres would be the home of the Canadians for much of the war. By the time the Division arrived in this sector in February 1915, the Cloth Hall would be a pile of rubble. Already there were hundreds of thousands of dead still lying around the town of Ypres. Most of them would be German. Many were students. Just as nearly a million French men and boys were dead on the eastern border of France.
Here is an excellent short account of the Ypres salient for the entire war.
Both sides were learning that courage was not enough.
"The four new German Corps of the German Fourth Army made an advance on the British Line north east of Ypres. German casualties were very heavy especially in the vicinity of Becelaere and Langemarck. The courageous but inexperienced young Germans in the “Kinderkorps” were cut down in their hundreds. Some regiments lost 70% of their strength in casualties. The British battalions fought to hold their ground but also lost casualties in dead, wounded and prisoners.
This battle has a special significance for the German people for this reason. Many soldiers who fell during this battle are now buried in the German military cemetery of Langemarck (nowadays it is spelt Langemark)." Source
This took place bewteen the 21st and 24th of October. Machine guns, the "Mad Minute" of the BEF (15 rounds into the centre at 300 yards in one minute), and artillery could stop any charge in the open. The British 18 pounder field gun was designed to airburst shrapnel over crowds of men.
I find it interesting that not a word about the war exists in Alec's first letter home. (Here is a link to a post that has the full text of his letter) His letter is entirely personal and reflects what was going on with him. But on October 20th, the day that he disembarked, the long line of trenches from Switzerland to the Channel had been established and Ypres was the last part.
October 20th is a special day.
The war was definitely not going to be over by Christmas. There would be no open warfare until August 1918. Alec was going to spend much of this war in or near Ypres or within 50 miles of it. In April of 1915, he and the Canadians woud face gas for the first time and would hold the line and so prevent the Germans from winning the war that year.
No one could see this then.
Meanwhile, as the men arrived in Britain, many of their women were arriving too. Some like my great Aunt Frances had rented a house near Salisbury Plain so that they could see her father. Others like Lady Julia Drummond, whose son, Guy, had also just arrived would rent a house in London and would spend the war there. My Uncle Montague was already there and had lunch with Alec right after he arrived.
The Allans were in London preparing to move to England for the duration of the war. Their son, Hugh was in his last year at Eton. Aunt Marguerite would return to Canada to close their house and to collect two of her 3 girls. They would would return to England in May on the Lusitania. Her other daughter Martha would go ahead of them on another ship. Martha was back in Montreal preparing to be VAD.
My family was typical of their class in Montreal at that time. They had very close ties to Britain. They sent their children to school there. Alec too had been to public school in England. They might visit for months a year. In return they hosted English friends for months back in Canada. Another great Aunt of mine had been the mistress of Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught and the current Governor General. Alec's letter is full of references to this rich social network. They were British.
I find it so odd as I write this that I had the same connection. I moved from Canada to England in 1954, aged 4. I went to prep school, Harrow and Christ Church, Oxford. I go back in 10 days to see many of my school and university friends. Many that I have known for 50+ years. Britain, I include Scotland, is my second home. I think I have experienced the same closeness that my grandfather Alec did.
But for him, it was closer still.
Just as he enlisted on the first day of the war in 1914, so he did in 1939. Just as he spent most of WWI in Europe, so he did in WWII. I think that what sustained him was his network of close friends. They had shared the unendurable. The loss of friends and family. No one could know what they knew unless they too had been part of this.
Canada and the people there who had never been to France, seemed to be in another world. One of my aunts, his oldest sister, suggested in 1918 that they go into mourning for the dead of the flu. Alec was outraged. There had been no mourning for his brothers in arms and there was never going to be mourning again as far as he was concerned.
But enough of this gloom.
Later this week, more about the thrills of London in October 1914 and the visit to the contingent by the King. More about the moves from Montreal by some of the women.