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Date: May 28th 1915
Cobourg World
William Beattie


A letter received by the congregation of St. Andrew's Church from their absent pastor, the Rev. Wm. BEATTIE, gives a graphic account of those stirring days from April 22nd onward, when our brave boys made such an honorable name for themselves. The first indication of coming trouble was on the 21st, when the frightened peasants began to seek safety. This movement increased until the road for eight or ten miles was congested with fleeing traffic. He says,

'Every vehicle conceivable was brought into use. Baby carriages, wheel barrows, hand carts, children's carts, dog carts, pony carts, farm wagons, brewery trucks, motor trucks, steam traction engines, all carrying what little (principally bedding) could be speedily gathered together. Here lies a mother on a mattress on a cart there an aged grandmother, a fifty pound sack of belongings. A Canadian officer asks permission to help her, but fear stricken she seizes it and runs away. Here an aged rheumatic can go no further and his wife pleads with passing motors to take him aboard. Here a young mother flees carrying a baby on one arm and a bundle on the other, while footsore and frightened two other little ones tug at her skirts. On, on they come in scores, in hundreds, thousands; horses, carts, soldiers wounded and well, civilians, women, children, women leading farm stock, artillery men saving their horses and incidentially saving themselves. On, on they go, but whither? They have no place to go. On, on down the road, out into the shelterless night hungry crying children, shivering fear stricken women, a panicy populace.

Then follows the real report that the enemy has broken through and things began to move rapidly.

'In the midst of it all an engineer from the Canadian Corps working up in front of the line burst through, with the news that the Germans had broken through. I took him to the General who bade him be calm and tell all he knew 'All right,' said the General, 'Don't spread panic, keep quiet,' and sat down to finish his game of checkers, but really to do some rapid and hard thinking. A few minutes later you might have seen him with another staff officer moving quickly out into the night. Soon the order came round, 'Pack up ready to move.' What! Going to join the mob? No!! WE ARE GOING TO ADVANCE. If ever our breasts swelled with pride at belonging to the breed it was then. Pack up we did and within an hour, at 9 p.m. half the Brigade marched out, and at 11 the other half followed. Who of us will ever forget that night? All we knew was that the enemy had broken through and that the situation was desperate, and that the General depended upon our single Brigade of Canadians, 4,000 strong to stem the tide, drive back the German herd, and hold the gap in lines. From the left of the line occupied by the Second and Third Brigades of Canadians, to the Yser Canal, about three miles was entirely open to the enemy. Into this gap the First Brigade was poured, and at daylight took the offensive with such vigor that the enemy was driven back from a portion of the ground he had taken, and was made to believe that forces in great numbers were present on our side. For nineteen hours our thin and fast thinning line held the hurredly made trench, till reinforcements came up, went through our line and forced the enemy to retire, still further.

I accompanied the men to the field and standing on the pontoon bridge that spanned the Canal gave them God's Blessing. About 1:30 or 2 o'clock in the morning they passed over the bridge to their great trial. I then went into a big house on the Canal bank and prepared it to receive the wounded should the action prove costly. I then, as daylight came on went to the roof of the house and with field glasses observed the advance of our boys. Oh how lazy the hours dragged on. How every hour seemed like five. I thought it just be eight o'clock. I looked and it was five. I felt it must be noon, it was seven o'clock. I was sure it must be five o'clock, it was eleven. There before my eyes, the boys I had 'learned to love were dropping and no one dare go near them. Even a companion nearby scarcely move. Yet every command to go forward was obeyed by all who were able. Away to the right and beyond my line of vision, the Second Battalion to which so many of the 40th boys belonged, were doing magnificently. When Colonel Watson received a message saying, 'Can you hold on?' He replied, 'Yes indefinitely.' But in their right the Germans had pushed home the attack and were coming down into St. Julian. This would have exposed the right of the second Battalion, and they were told to retire, which they did. It was during this retirement that they suffered so many losses. It was then that Major Bolster was wounded. One of his officers told me that he acted up to all the traditions of a British soldier, and was the last to leave the trench. Poor Tom Smith, who used to sing tenor in our choir, was killed in this action, and TOM AITCHISON was wounded. The losses were very heavy, but the men did their work.

Then the wounded began to come back to a hastily prepared temporary hospital, where after first attention they were laid on stretchers to await the arrival of the ambulances. Continuing he says: - 'As I move among the prostrate forms, one says 'Major,' can I have a blanket, I am cold,' but there are not enough to go around. No one expected such numbers of wounded here, it was all a surprise. 'Major,' whispers another as it begins to dawn a new day, 'will it be my turn for the ambulance soon do you think? I was wounded at four o'clock yesterday morning and laid on the field all day. I am nearly all in, but if there are others worse than me take them first.' That is the spirit that animated the Canadian troops. No wonder they are heroes.

After telling how he spent one forenoon helping the Doctors to dress the wounded he says: -
At noon they slackened off and I went out to see a group of men whom I knew were resting in a barn nearby. On my way I saw sixty of the Fourth Battalion men, who had just come out of action, and I went over and had a service with them. To go from where we had that service to the barn I had just mentioned, I could go by a road or across a field. I started to go by the road when suddenly I turned and went across the field. Just when I had gone far enough to have brought me to an exposed place on the road, had I taken that route, the Germans dropped six shells at that point. I saw one hit. It was a narrow escape, but these are everyday experiences here. Reaching the barn, I found the men occupying a line of trenches nearby. I went out and found their Captain G. T. Richardson, from Kingston, (a hero every inch) and arranged a service. I stood on the trench bank while they lay in the trenches. We sang their favorites these days, Lead Kindly Light and Nearer My God To Thee, and offered thanks for our escape. That Sunday night I shall never forget. It was my closest call, and most awful experience.

After narrating another narrow escape from a bursting shell and telling how useful his First Aid course at the Armoury last winter had proved to him in enabling him to save the life of a wounded man, he says: -
I must apologise for writing so much about what I have seen and done, but I know you want to know what your representative is doing, and what he sees. One cannot believe much one hears. As to our dead I am afraid most of them have been buried by the enemy, though many were tenderly laid to rest by our own hands. I buried seventeen in one grave, gathered from a small corner of the battlefield. We had to abandon further search as both a sniper and the artillery were getting shots too near for safety. I have every reason to thank God for the opportunities for service he has given me, and for many many prayers offered for my safety. When in danger my thoughts often fly to Cobourg and the prayers of my beloved people.'

It is hoped in view of this that the report that appears elsewhere in this issue about Mr. Beattie being wounded is not correct.