Now It Can Be Told

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Author: Philip Gibbs

VII

The Canadians who were in the Ypres salient in January, 1916, and for a long time afterward, had a grim way of fighting. The enemy never knew what they might do next. When they were most quiet they were most dangerous. They used cunning as well as courage, and went out on red- Indian adventures over No Man’s Land for fierce and scientific slaughter.

I remember one of their early raids in the salient, when a big party of them—all volunteers—went out one night with intent to get through the barbed wire outside a strong German position, to do a lot of killing there. They had trained for the job and thought out every detail of this hunting expedition. They blacked their faces so that they would not show white in the enemy’s flares. They fastened flashlamps to their bayonets so that they might see their victims. They wore rubber gloves to save their hands from being torn on the barbs of the wire.

Stealthily they crawled over No Man’s Land, crouching in shell-holes every time a rocket rose and made a glimmer of light. They took their time at the wire, muffling the snap of it by bits of cloth. Reliefs crawled up with more gloves, and even with tins of hot cocoa. Then through the gap into the German trenches, and there were screams of German soldiers, terror-shaken by the flash of light in their eyes, and black faces above them, and bayonets already red with blood. It was butcher’s work, quick and skilful, like red-Indian scalping. Thirty Germans were killed before the Canadians went back, with only two casualties. . . The Germans were horrified by this sudden slaughter. They dared not come out on patrol work. Canadian scouts crawled down to them and insulted them, ingeniously, vilely, but could get no answer. Later they trained their machine—guns on German working-parties and swept crossroads on which supplies came up, and the Canadian sniper, in one shell-hole or another, lay for hours in sulky patience, and at last got his man. . . They had to pay for all this, at Maple Copse, in June of ’15, as I shall tell. But it was a vendetta which did not end until the war ended, and the Canadians fought the Germans with a long, enduring, terrible, skilful patience which at last brought them to Mons on the day before armistice.

I saw a good deal of the Canadians from first to last, and on many days of battle saw the tough, hard fighting spirit of these men. Their generals believed in common sense applied to war, and not in high mysteries and secret rites which cannot be known outside the circle of initiation. I was impressed by General Currie, whom I met for the first time in that winter of 1915-16, and wrote at the time that I saw in him "a leader of men who in open warfare might win great victories by doing the common-sense thing rapidly and decisively, to the surprise of an enemy working by elaborate science. He would, I think, astound them by the simplicity of his smashing stroke." Those words of mine were fulfilled—on the day when the Canadians helped to break the Drocourt-Queant line, and when they captured Cambrai, with English troops on their right, who shared their success. General Currie, who became the Canadian Corps Commander, did not spare his men. He led them forward whatever the cost, but there was something great and terrible in his simplicity and sureness of judgment, and this real— estate agent (as he was before he took to soldiering) was undoubtedly a man of strong ability, free from those trammels of red tape and tradition which swathed round so many of our own leaders.

He cut clean to the heart of things, ruthlessly, like a surgeon, and as I watched that man, immense in bulk, with a heavy, thoughtful face and stern eyes that softened a little when he smiled, I thought of him as Oliver Cromwell. He was severe as a disciplinarian, and not beloved by many men. But his staff-officers, who stood in awe of him, knew that he demanded truth and honesty, and that his brain moved quickly to sure decisions and saw big problems broadly and with understanding. He had good men with him—mostly amateurs—but with hard business heads and the same hatred of red tape and niggling ways which belonged to their chief. So the Canadian Corps became a powerful engine on our side when it had learned many lessons in blood and tragedy. They organized their publicity side in the same masterful way, and were determined that what Canada did the world should know—and damn all censorship. They bought up English artists, photographers, and writing—men to record their exploits. With Lord Beaverbrook in England they engineered Canadian propaganda with immense energy, and Canada believed her men made up the British army and did all the fighting. I do not blame them, and only wish that the English soldier should have been given his share of the honors that belonged to him— the lion’s share.

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Chicago: Philip Gibbs, "VII," Now It Can Be Told, ed. F. N. Maude and trans. James Legge in Now It Can Be Told Original Sources, accessed January 26, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=94RUZ9ZIE64URDB.

MLA: Gibbs, Philip. "VII." Now It Can Be Told, edited by F. N. Maude, and translated by James Legge, in Now It Can Be Told, Original Sources. 26 Jan. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=94RUZ9ZIE64URDB.

Harvard: Gibbs, P, 'VII' in Now It Can Be Told, ed. and trans. . cited in 1909, Now It Can Be Told. Original Sources, retrieved 26 January 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=94RUZ9ZIE64URDB.