Saturday, January 24, 2015

Kitcheners' Wood

O! Canada, Mistress of snows and of mountain,
Tears are the dew of thy prairies to-day;
Thy blood has gushed forth as it were from a fountain,
‘Neath Belgium’s sweet soil thy noble sons lay.
Gallant the “Charge” that made the world-story,
Fierce were the odds, but they knew not dismay,
Ever their fame will reflect in the glory
Of self-sacrifice, as they fell on the way.
(Private George Gilmore, Tenth Battalion)

I remember my Grampa Dolan as a quiet and peaceful man. He never said a whole lot; was gentle and unassuming - to me anyway. David, Mary Beth, and cousin Kathy, and others may remember him differently. I have a hard time seeing him in combat - and close quarters combat at that. But he was. He saw it. He experienced it. He survived it. It was a place called Kitcheners' Wood.

Sketch of Battle for Kitcheners' Wood
April 22, 1915 was a beautiful spring day in Ypres – sunny, warm, temperatures in the 70’s. What would follow that day was not so nice. The 10th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force made a name for themselves that day in what is called the 2nd Battle of Ypres. That battle was really a series of battles. This was one of them. Just look it up. There's plenty of detailed information available. 

The 10th experienced the first ever gas attack, and made a heroic stand against the German offensive there. The account of the battle is too long to recount here, but it went something like this. Originally assigned to be a support battalion, they were called up to fill a huge gap in the line caused by the retreat of the French troops who received the brunt of the poison gas attack. The decision was made to counter-attack the Germans. The objective was a small woods, later called Kitcheners' Wood. They had to march across a ploughed field 500 yards from the woods. Just before midnight, within 200 yards of the objective, all hell broke loose. Machine gun and small arms fire from the front and the left flank mowed the Canadians down in droves. A small number made it to the woods where there was intense hand to hand combat. By the end of the day, most of the officers were dead or wounded, and chaos was everywhere. As the 10th reformed on Friday morning, April 23rd, only 5 officers and 188 other ranks were left out of the 816 who had gone into action 6 hours before.
What was left of Kitcheners' Wood
Friday was not as dramatic, but it was a day of fierce fighting as the 10th fought to hold their positions. They were bombed and shelled all day. On the third day the 10th fought off an all out attack by the Germans which was preceded by another poison gas attack. Finally they were ordered to withdraw, but that was no easy thing. They had to cross over a low ridge in broad daylight within 100 yards of the German machine guns. Now barely the size of a company, there were only 3 officers and 171 men left.

They weren’t done yet. The battalion was ordered back into action reinforcing another battalion. They found themselves in the direct path of another German attack, but time and again they fought it off. The Germans gave up on the frontal attack, but as one man said, “they (the Germans) started to play the piano on us”, which meant that they had to endure another heavy bombardment. Although they had picked up two new officers, the ranks were now down to 151 men. When night came on Saturday what was left of the 10th moved back to the rear for a hot meal and rest. 

The rest didn’t last long. Just before midnight what was left of the 10th joined up with what was left of another unit and were sent to shore up the line in a place called Gravenstafel Ridge. Sunday meant another day of shelling and fighting. Monday was more of the same. Finally on Tuesday, April 27th, the 10th Battalion, with only 2 officers and 117 men left, one of them Grandpa Dolan, pulled back to Ypres to regroup and receive replacements. They were assigned to guard pontoon bridges on the Canal de’Yser, and stayed there until May 5th when the Second Battle of Ypres officially came to an end.

I vaguely remember asking Grampa once about the war. I don't remember learning much other than it was terrible. He did seem to want to talk about it. My Dad remembered his Dad and uncles talking about it as they sat around the living room. Uncle Bruno was there in Belgium and France, in the Machine Gun Corps. Uncle Harry got into it later in the war - in the Dardenelles. Gramma, who saw the results of war as a nurse (more on that later) claimed that Grampa suffered from the effects of the war to his dying day. I don't doubt it. I can't even imagine it. 

Who knows, maybe some of Grampa's quiet was reserved for that time he spent, and for those he left behind at Kitcheners' Wood.

Grampa 2nd from Left With Three Other "Knuts" or Canadian Buddies
After Arriving at Lord Derby War Hospital in Warrington, England


  1. I too, cannot even imagine what it must have been like. Any soldier who has lived through the horrors of war must fight a daily battle with those memories. Makes my heart ache. Great picture of the Canadian buddies! Why "Knuts" again? I'm sure I know but I can't remember....:-)

  2. You are correct. I see him in the kitchen sitting by the stove eating his coddled egg and Grandma welcoming us.. A smile and a love.