So, where, exactly, is this Kitchener’s Wood, I hear you ask? Well, sorry to disappoint, but there isn’t one. Not any more. But there was during the Great War, and it saw an action in 1915 that goes down as one of the most heroic, if, perhaps, ultimately unnecessary, of the whole conflict in Belgian Flanders.
The memorial itself, in the fields a little over half a mile due west of St. Julien ( now Sint-Juliaan), is made of polished stone, apart from the roughly worked plaque that sits at the top and represents the oak wood that once existed where, beyond the memorial, nothing but a field can now be seen. And the wartime inset aerial photo shows that such has been the case for a long time now, the wood never being replanted post-war.
So what exactly took place here? By the evening of 22nd April 1915, the Allied lines to the northeast of Ypres (Ieper) were in turmoil. That morning the Germans had used gas for the first time, and by 9.00pm the resulting chaos had opened a gap of some 8000 yards in the French & British lines. A few strongpoints were still preventing the Germans from breaking through, but the situation appeared desperate. For whatever reason – the lateness in the day, lack of reserves, surprise at the speed of their advance, lack of awareness of their day’s successes, or perhaps the fact that the gas attacks were intended to achieve a limited objective, and they had no idea what to do when things went far better than they thought – the Germans decided to halt for the night. On the French side Marshal Ferdinand Foch, however, obsessed with the doctrine of attack and counterattack, had far from finished, ordering an immediate counterattack by the French to retake Pilckem, while the British were to make a subsidiary attack on Kitchener’s Wood, a mile and a half to the south east, to help the main French effort, and to recover four 4.7-inch guns that the 2nd London Heavy Battery had been forced to leave there during the earlier German advance.
It was the Canadians who were tasked with recapturing Kitchener’s Wood and by 11.30pm the troops were ready to attack, 816 men of the 10th Bn. alongside a similar number of the 16th Bn. (Canadian Scottish), who had literally just arrived in the line, and about a hundred bombers from the 2nd & 3rd Canadian Brigades, all awaiting the order to advance. At 11.45pm, on what had become a freezing cold night, the men rose from the trenches and began the 500 yard advance to the German lines. Little did they know that the main French counterattack, for unknown reasons (to me, at any rate), had failed to transpire, leaving the Canadians to enter their first attack of the war alone and unsupported.
After 300 yards they encountered a thick hedge strung with barbed wire, and it was as they attempted to cross this obstacle that the Germans, entrenched along the southern boundary of the wood, were alerted to their presence. As the Canadians regrouped on the far side of the hedge, a fusilade of fire opened up on them from both ahead and from their flanks, and men began falling. Nonetheless the Canadians continued to the wood, overrunning the shallow German front line trench and, although some serious hand-to-hand fighting took place, it was not long before most of the wood had been wrested from German hands.
The four guns were recaptured and put beyond use, there being no way of recovering them, and the Canadians began to consolidate their positions within the wood. By this time however, the Germans were pouring fire into the Canadians from three sides, a German strongpoint still operating in the south west corner fending off a concerted frontal assault and causing heavy casualties. At 2.30 in the morning of 23rd April, with their positions within the wood becoming nigh on untenable, the Canadians were ordered to withdraw. 10th Bn. could muster only five officers and 188 men at the subsequent roll call, 16th Bn. faring slightly better, with five officers and 263 men present, leaving maybe some 1200 men killed, missing, wounded or captured.
Was it all worth it? Although 2nd Army Commander General Horace Smith-Dorrien considered that the Canadian attack had stabilised the front that night, and Foch believed it to be the finest act of the whole war, history tells us that the Germans had no intention of advancing further on 22nd April, and indeed were digging in along the whole line.
But it’s easy to be wise after the event, and there is no doubt that the Canadians fought heroically that night; as an interesting postscript, during the maelstrom of fighting in the wood, the Germans had managed to capture two officers and twenty six men of 10th Bn. By 11th November 1918, that total of twenty eight men made prisoner had increased to just thirty five.
The Canadians attacked from close to Cheddar Villa*, in the centre at the very bottom of this trench map which, although dated April 1917, still shows Kitchener’s Wood clearly marked – which the photograph, dated 1915, shows was no longer true. Such things are always worth bearing in mind when reading trench maps – what is marked on the map may well not exist any longer on the ground. The memorial is marked in pink. As the battle continued the following day, 23rd April, another Canadian, Lance Corporal Frederick Fisher, 13th Bn., would win a V.C. near here, but that is, perhaps, for another time.
*and very close to the current site of Seaforth Cemetery, where we have visited twice before.
Kitchener’s Wood 1919.
Right, I’m off on a four day trip to revisit some areas of Flanders I know well, and visit a few places for the first time. The same applies later in the week in France. Exciting stuff! See y’all soon.