Canadian Engineers prepare canal bridges for demolition
22 April 1915: 17:30
The Ypres/Yser Canal Bridges
Bridge No. 4
When the British took over the northern sector of the Ypres Salient in April 1915 the only bridge in tact for crossing the Yser Canal north of Ypres was one east of Brielen. From engineer records it was constructed out of solid timber trestles with a canal barge in the centre. This bridge was known as No. 4 or Brielen Bridge (shown on this map as 4). It was just inside the French Army sector of the Ypres Salient, indicated by the dashed line of the Franco-British Boundary on the map.
Bridges No. 3A, 3, 2, 1 and A
During April five temporary footbridges north of Ypres were constructed across the Yser Canal in the British Army zone. They were called Bridges No. 3A, 3, 2, 1 and A. Bridge No. 2 was also a horse traffic bridge.
These footbridges, plus one west of Ypres and another five south of Ypres were constructed by the
- 59th Field Company Royal Engineers (of the British 5th Division)
- the 1st Canadian Field Company Canadian Engineers (of 1st Canadian Divison)
- Cornwall, Wiltshire and Monmouth Army Troops Companies Royal Engineers.
The construction and maintenance of all these bridges was very difficult. On each side of the canal there were high embankments, which had been created from the earth excavated from the canal. These embankments hid the engineers from view of the enemy, but because the German field guns constantly peppered the canal with shrapnel no work or repairs could be done during daylight. No bridge, however, was destroyed by German shellfire prior to the attack of 22 April.(1)
Bridge No. 5
Bridge No. 5 was a barrel pier bridge in the French sector.
Two Pontoon Bridges
In addition to the above bridges in the British sector, two pontoon bridges were laid by the 1st Bridging Train north of Ypres at the junction of the Yser Canal and Menin Canal. (The two canals meet at the point to the left of A on the map.)
1st Canadian Divisional Engineers
The headquarters of the 1st Canadian Divisional Engineers was located on the eastern canal bank near to A and No. 1 bridges (see above map). The Engineers were commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel C J Armstrong. The 2nd Field Company (commanded by Captain T C Irving) and the 3rd Field Company (commanded by Major C B Wright) were situated east of the Yser Canal. The special task of the engineers was the construction of a support line across the Canadian front.
The 2nd Field Company was billeted in Burnt Farm, which was just north of the Franco-British Boundary near the Ypres-Pilckem road and about 500 metres east of Bridge No. 4 (see above map). The Official History of the Canadian Forces writes:
“About 5.30pm while the men were having their evening meal preparatory to continuing the night work on the trenches of the 2nd C.I.B. [Canadian Infantry Brigade], large numbers of French troops, some wounded and all with red bleary eyes and running noses, came straggling down the road in great disorder, artillerymen galloping on unhooked horses shouting as they clattered past that the Germans were only a short distance behind, and soon the atmosphere was thick with “sulphurous fumes” from the north and bursting shells and chlorine gas.” (2)
The 3rd Field Company was billeted in Canadian Farm, which was just south of the Franco-British Boundary and about 1.5 kms northwest of Wieltje (see above map). After the release of the gas from the German lines the vapours began to reach Canadian Farm. It was recognized as chlorine. French troops had been seen passing to the west of the farm but it had been supposed that they were reserve troops in the process of assembling at the rear of the French lines. At about 6.00pm the rifle fire became heavy onto the vicinity of the farm from German infantry located to the northwest on Mauser Ridge. It was decided to harness up the horses and the company tool wagons. The transport moved off to cross over the Yser Canal to Vlamertinghe. The rest of the men of the company stayed in the field, however, and were under the orders of the 3rd Canadian Brigade HQ. The men of 3rd Field Company moved into position to man the G.H.Q. Line along a hedge which ran to the east of Mouse Trap Farm.
As the shelling became heavy the Canadian Engineers sent their transport and tool wagons over to the west bank of the Yser Canal at 6.00pm. Lieutenant-Colonel Armstrong sent a message later in the evening at 9.25pm to 1st Canadian Division HQ in the Chateau des Trois Tours, Brielen. The message was to confirm that his engineers were preparing the bridges for demolition. Telephone wires had evidently been cut by the shelling from about 8.30pm as he said he had not been able to communicate by telephone with 1st Canadian Division HQ. His message was delivered by hand to the HQ in Brielen one hour after he had written it.(3)
Bridges Prepared for Demolition
- Bridges 4 and 5: Canadian responsibility did not extend to Bridges 4 and 5, which were in the French sector. However, the French officer in charge of them reported to Captain T C Irving, commander of the 2nd Company of Engineers, that he could not look after them. A party from the 2nd Field Company prepared bridge No. 4 (Brielen Bridge) on the Franco-British Boundary. Another party had gone further north to the barrel bridge No. 5 in the French area, 365 metres across the Franco-British Boundary. They had cut it and rigged wire guys so that it could be swung to the west bank on the approach of the enemy.
- Footbridges 3, 3A, and horse traffic bridge No. 2: These bridges were charged and manned.
- Bridges 1 and A: Prepared for demolition under direction of an officer of the divisional engineers.
The remainder of the 2nd Field Company, commanded by Captain T C Irving, entrenched at Bridge No. 4 (Brielen Bridge).
(1) British Military Operations: France and Belgium 1915, footnote p. 177
(3) Official History of the Canadian Forces in The Great War 1914-1919, Appendices, no. 379, p. 244