Far away in Ypres

Short Story – Military History

By Will Linhares- Huang

As I lay still underneath the brittle earth I could hear a sporadic crack of a rifle and then a flurry of sounds like firecrackers. In between merely silence, but filled with the breath of fear. Filling the void was the occasional cry or groan of another man-unknown, friend or foe. The smell of wet earth and the cold seeping in between my toes dominated the space between thoughts. I looked to the side and saw my subordinates who clutched their rifles, shaking at every bursting shell. As their lieutenant, I felt the weight of their families on my shoulders as I tried to lead men who were mostly my age, but some as old as my masters who had taught me at UCC. 

I was born at Ravesmont, in Rosedale, on April 17, 1887. As the son of a wholesale woolen merchant and the eldest of five brothers who all attended Upper Canada College we were a well off family. My family and I lived a traditional Canadian lifestyle, but it was clear that our true roots resided in the country of my extended family in Great Britain. I graduated from UCC in 1904 and was subsequently accepted into the Royal Military College of Canada where I studied engineering. During my last year at R.M.C. I was promoted to sergeant, and I stood high enough at graduation three years later to be offered a commission in the army. However, I gratefully declined the offer and entered my father’s business. For seven years I lived a simple yet comfortable life helping my father selling wools. Eventually, when my father knew it was time, he handed the business over to me and I was filled with pride and pressure to live up to family expectations. However, this next chapter of my life reached a dramatic halt when on August 4th 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany. Because of Canada’s legal status as a British dominion, Canada was obligated to follow Britain’s declaration.  I distinctly remember the long sleep I had that night with thoughts circling my mind concerning my role in this war and my dedication to the motherland that was Great Britain and my decision seemed inevitable. The following morning I wrote to the Minister of Militia offering my services and was enlisted in the 8th Battalion, first contingent. 

In mid October of 194, I sailed for my true homeland in England with over 30 000 other volunteers belonging to the first contingent. At Salisbury, we trained in the harshest of conditions for four months since England experienced one of its wettest winters in years that turned the ground to a shivering mud. We learned the basics of soldiering in England and I moved up the ranks faster than others due to prior knowledge and training from RMC, but nothing had prepared me for the Western Front.

… 

They had told our regiment that this push into German territory, city of Ypres, was the first for a Canadians and I remember feeling a rush of pride, patriotism and boldness when I heard that. This swiftly transformed into trepidation and some doubt as the details unfolded. The Germans would have the high ground as we, the allied forces, would push forward in what we studied at RMC was called a Salient. We would be pushing into enemy territory which would leave us exposed on almost all sides with some risk of being pinched from the rear flanks and now we learned we were also vulnerable from above. Either they thought that we as the new contingent were an experiment that they were willing to sacrifice or that they were confident enough in our abilities as Canadians that they wanted us to be the vanguard in pushing forward. I chose the latter confidence.

Due to this positional disadvantage, we would have to inhabit very narrow trenches and try to camouflage with whatever brush or cover that we could find. So here we were, half buried underground in the pitch black trying to keep our bearings and our wits about us. My men were good men, though we all virtually were in the same shoes. I had a little more experience than them but it was mostly in my brain from RMC and some range practice at camp, Valcartier and Salisbury plain. Kingston town and Avenue road was a far cry from trenches in Ypres and live fire whistling above your head.

Belgium -all I had ever known was only the occasional fancy chocolate at Christmas and now I was here. We were teamed up with some Limeys and the Frogs. We were all from different places but they were all good men-all of us on the same team now and all trying to keep our toes from falling off from the cold and our heads from getting blown off. It was fun trying to place where the Brits were born from their accents! I was one of the few who could talk to the French which came in real handy and I was suddenly grateful for Master Crawford and his brutally demanding ways in French class. 

My French was really useful, apart from mediating some dice games during the day, with what we were trying to accomplish now at night. Every night we were tasked with advancing even twenty feet forward and if we were lucky, dig a new trench. The trench was the only thing keeping us from getting picked off during the day so we were pretty motivated to dig hard and fast. We hated the trench and loved the trench like a turtle loved its shell. It was these times in between the frantic pushes forward and the mechanics of maintaining the trench during the day with all the laying of planks and emptying latrines and debating the merits of the Allan Cup versus the Stanley Cup. It was these times in between that I would think of mom and dad beside the fire in the living room and my sweet Margaret waiting for me when I would get home. But first, we had a job to do, one that I was so proud to do- to stop the Huns from overrunning Europe and our way of life.