Condition of the Line of Defence in the former French sector
17 April 1915
The trenches taken over in this former French sector were not in a good condition. Personal accounts by Canadians commented on the filthy and unsanitary conditions. There was a stench from numerous dead French and German soldiers killed in the fighting here during the battles for Ypres in autumn and winter 1914. They had either been buried in very shallow graves or were simply left lying on the surface in no-man's-land. Decomposing bodies were found in the trenches. In a report by Captain T C Irving, commanding officer of the 2nd Field Company Canadian Divisional Engineers, he stated:
“... things were in a deplorable state from the standpoint of defence, safety and sanitation, and large quantities of disinfectant should be sent into the trenches immediately for liberal use. This is part of the duty of the Sanitary Officer I understand and quick action should be taken.” (1)
The frontage of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade (Section 1 - 1,650 yards' frontage - and Section 2 - 1,250 yards' frontage) was described in detail in Captain Irving's report. The following extracts give an idea of the conditions inherited by the Canadians.
Section 1 consisted of 15 isolated portions of trench. The state of the trenches in its sub-sections is described as follows:
“The right flank and the next portion to the left had a parapet of mud heaped up in front approximately 2 feet thick at the bottom and from 4 inches to 1 foot at the top with an occasional loophole punched through the earth. There is no parados for this part of trench. The water level is about two feet down below the surface of the ground with numerous shell holes and also a section of the trench behind partially filled with water. There was a plugged drain passing between these two sections in a North Easterly direction through the German lines. In front of these sections are numerous bodies buried at a very shallow depth making it impossible for us at many places to excavate at all. There is also human excreta littered all over the place.” (2)
Section 2 consisted of 5 isolated sections of trench. Captain Irving wrote of Section 2:
“Going to the left we next strike 650 feet of firing line completely enfiladed by the enemy's artillery, which had no traverses in it. The parapet ranged from 2 feet to 4 feet in height and from 6 inches at the top to three feet at the bottom in thickness. The ground where the men stand in the firing position is paved with rotting bodies and human excreta. The ground behind is full of excreta and dead bodies. This ground is about an average of 1 1/2 feet above the water table, so we are first putting in traverses to protect the men from direct enfilading fire, next a parados to protect them from the side kick of the enfilading fire, then the deepening of the trench to the water table and the thickening of the parapet. This is all being carried on as rapidly as we can get material.” (3)
The construction of the trenches varied, but most of the front line trenches were better described as breastworks, as they were above ground more often than below it. Some were only waist high. Most dug-outs were flimsily built, giving protection from the weather but not from enemy artillery shelling. In most places the trenches did not run in a continous line, being instead made up of groups of shallow fire and support trenches. There were no communication trenches except in the area of the front and support trenches.
The barbed wire entanglements in front of the front line were reasonably good but there was not much wire in the unfinished subsidiary trenches and supporting points to the rear of the front line. Some of it was found to be rusted and rotten. Field gun emplacements had not been dug in. The Canadians set to work immediately to try to strengthen a front line from which they could successfully defend themselves should the enemy attack. Barbed wire entanglements were laid out in front of trenches, machine gun emplacements and strong points. The bottom of the trenches were dug deeper and isolated trench sections were joined up to create continuous trench lines. Trenches were drained. Improvements were made to the parapet of the trenches by filling with earth in front of it and adding numerous sandbags to make it bullet proof:
“Considerable sandbag revetting has been done on the parapet ... and traverses are under construction.” (4)
The War Diary of the 10th Canadian Battalion, signed by Major D M Ormond, stated on 15th April 1915:
“These trenches were the most remarkable trench [sic] we had seen up to this time and nothing of the kind have been seen since, the parapet, if such it might be called varied in height and thickness from none at all to 2 feet, averaging on the top 12 to 14 inches, there were numerous dug outs, and these so filthy that our men could not occupy them, the bottom of the trenches were paved with dead all GERMAN so far as we could learn, and very badly decomposed, The wire in front was useless, very little of any kind and a lot of that simply smooth trip wire, it was so meagre that one of the machine gun section when carrying a bundle of empty sand bags, walked through the wire and was on his way to the GERMAN lines when halted by a GERMAN SENTRY at the GERMAN listening post ...
The whole of the 15th inst was taken up by the men trying to keep out of sight of the ENEMY and not step, sit or lie down in filth left by their predessors [sic: predecessors], and in becoming accustomed to the oder [sic: odour] of sour ground and dead GERMANS. Our transport arrived about 10.20 pm also 2500 sand bags, before midnight a large number of these were in place making parapet and dug outs.” (5)
On the following day, 16th April, the War Diary continued as follows:
“The ENEMY shelled quite heavily, when we took over from the FRENCH, they informed us that they had lost less than 30 killed and wounded since CHRISTMAS, one company had not lost a man, this they claimed was due to the fact that they never showed themselves, we certainly had a much different experience, which may be due to one of two causes or both. Firstly our men would persist in looking about, secondly, we worked very hard and strengthened the position as much as possible, putting it into a state for defence if necessary, we did not see how it could possibly be held if a determined effort was made to take it by a strong force.” (6)
The GHQ Line: Second Line of Defence
On maps this line was originally called the “General Headquarters (GHQ) 2nd Line”. But as there was no “GHQ 1st Line” it became known simply as the “GHQ Line”.
It was a well-sited defensive line constructed originally by the French Army running from Zillebeke Lake (2 1/2 kilometres behind the Allied front line) to almost a kilometre east of Wieljte (5 kilometres behind the Allied front line). At Wieltje it continued in a north-westerly direction to take in Boesinghe village and its railway bridge.
The GHQ Line was well-sited to provide a good field of fire. It was not made up of continuous trenches. Rather it was constructed out of a series of well-built redoubts, at a distance of 350-450 metres apart. The redoubts were joined together by a thick band of barbed wire entanglements some 5 metres wide with openings only for roads and tracks. A garrison of about 50 men would hold the position of each redoubt.
(1) Official History of the Canadian Forces in The Great War 1914-1919, Volume I, Chronology, Appendices and Maps, Appendix no. 334, p. 235-238
(2) Official History of the Canadian Forces in The Great War 1914-1919, Volume I, Chronology, Appendices and Maps, Appendix no. 334, p. 235-238
(3) Official History of the Canadian Forces in The Great War 1914-1919, Volume I, Chronology, Appendices and Maps, Appendix no. 334, p. 235-238
(4) Official History of the Canadian Forces in The Great War 1914-1919, Volume I, Chronology, Appendices and Maps, Appendix no. 334, p. 235-238
(5) War Diary of 10th Canadian Battalion, April 1915: ref. WO 95/3770
(6) War Diary of 10th Canadian Battalion, April 1915: ref. WO 95/3770
British Military Operations: France and Belgium 1915, pp. 160-162