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In this section:
Interview with J.R. McIlree: 7th Battalion
Transcript Excerpt, 17 minutes, 10 seconds
Q. Can you tell me about the 22nd of April?
A. Yes. When we finished our trip in the trenches we went back into relieving brigade and we were out on working parties for two or three nights and then on the 22nd of April just as the sun was going down we saw a weird light in the sky from the west and then we smelled it and then I remembered our chemistry classes, chlorine. One of our transport drivers came who had been into Ypres. He came galloping up in his limber and he said, "They've broken through, they've broken through". Someone said, "Shut up, you bastard". We'd fall in, in the meantime, quite instinctively. All that day and the day before we had such strict aeroplane control that nobody was allowed to move as long as there was a plane in sight. Consequently we were the only billet in sight, farm in sight, that had not been shelled. Well, we went up. We could see, before that, our troops coming up and our building was on fire in the background. You could see them silhouetted along the ridges coming up in single file. We dug in with entrenching tools and stayed there the next day without any action. The enemy knew we were behind there somewhere but they couldn't see us and we couldn't see them. Picks and shovels were brought up and we dug in and dug trenches. I got word in the middle of the morning from my company commander to retreat, to take our section and cover the retreat. I went up there and there was sort of a hedge, there was nobody in sight. We were there and the enemy started coming over. You could just see the tops of their heads, that was all.
Q. Would that have been up there by the Gravenstafel Ridge?
A. I imagine so. As I explained, I don't know where I was at any time. The retreat, I imagine, was the Gravenstafel Ridge which would involve St. Julien on the left. I didn't withdraw with the rest of them, I got a bullet through the corner of my tunic, and when I came back to the partial trench we had dug, I found one of my sergeants who had been shot above the heart and there was this fellow who was not very bright who had attached himself to me and I didn't want him so I said to this fellow, "See if you can take the sergeant and get the sergeant back" and in some miraculous manner he did although he died. We got to a road in a village which was in ruins. We went back in a very leisurely manner. There was no space in the trench available there. It was very deep trench. There was one of our machine gun sergeants, Weeks, whom I saw behind blazing away. I then tried to organize things, using our own dead as firing steps because the trench was too deep to see out. There were places where we knew the enemy would be and we just kept them down. Then the tear gas started to come over, just go "pop". After a little while, you couldn't sight your rifles for fifty yards. Then one of our stragglers came back the same route that I had taken and a German ran out along the road into St. Julien and started to shoot him. A young fellow from the 13th Battalion shot him and a second after he got it right between the eyes. I was shoulder to shoulder with him and nobody tried to shoot me. Then the word came down from the right, "Cease fire" from Major Something-Something. I came along and messages got garbled but I knew that it was my company commander, Major Byng Hall. Well then the question arose as to what to do. The propaganda was such that I figured that if I was taken prisoner I would die a lingering and miserable death and a quick and merciful bullet would be the easiest way out of it and offer some sporting chance, so I gave the order, "Every man for himself" and about six of us started off and we had to dodge through the hedge behind and then get into a field with the enemy on one side and then a hedge on the other side and a fellow ahead of me was hit and fell screaming and, grabbing my foot, tripped me up. Then I got the idea of playing possum. I braced myself and went forward a few yards and dropped and lie dead or possibly have a few artistic wiggles as if I was an extremist. My equipment was hit at least half a dozen times and I never got a scratch. I finally got up and walked off. I was the only one that got away from there; all the rest were taken prisoner. The Germans, as I say, they weren't killing except a few extremely excitable ones. They knew they had us in the bag and as long as you didn't try to be belligerent or escape, they let it go at that. That was my impression anyway. I drifted back and found a certain number of the battalion who were right back in the billets where they started from. The Imperials were coming through, a couple of battalions on the other side of the salient, in open order with the big, black coal boxes bursting over them. That night we were collected and brought up to I don't know where and dug in to the left of the newly arrived Territorials, absolutely green battalion. In the morning I thought I'd make sure it was No. 1 Company and when he saw my sergeant's stripes he said, "Now look here, kid, if you start giving any orders". There was nothing in sight at all as usual except a farm, what was left of a farm, slightly to our left. Away far to the left we could see the Germans coming up in solid queues about the extent of an acre, I'd say at a thousand yard range but on the immediate front, nothing doing. There we were shelled by our own artillery, the usual business that night and the Germans were behind us. The wounded we had, in the morning they were simply taken prisoner and disappeared. By the time I had been five days and nights without sleep and as dusk started and it started to get dark, I saw coming from the right Noah's Ark, two and two, just like a child. They came and they climbed up the chimney, the elephants and the giraffes and all the rest of it, and down the other side. I saw it quite plainly. Then we were taken out again and went back. I was carrying one fellow on my arm and his rifle and he was asleep but he was walking. Nobody interfered. The first thing we heard was at British outpost and they were our own people. We went back a bit and we got a light and there were trenches further back. I broke into an estaminet, you know, pub, which was deserted and drank a whole quart bottle of white wine and boy, was it good.
Q. That's the best thing that happened to you in five days eh?
A. Then we went up again, back to the same old spot, and dug in individually and I knew nothing more for six hours. When I woke up, everybody who had dug in with me had disappeared. I slept for another bit and found a young officer and we went out that night. I went down to where the officers had been, our company officers, with a few dead horses that had accumulated in the meantime and everything was as usual but all the company mail that they started to censor was lying around on the floor. I picked that up and put it in its own bag and brought it out. We went out on the other side of the salient, on the east side, in single file at three paces interval. At one place there was a battle going on just about two hundred yards to our left. You could see the flashes of rifles and grenades and so forth. It was just exactly like the illustrations of Dante's Inferno. Then we went through Ypres which was deserted except for an occasional lorry dashing through. I still remember one poor bugger, he was badly wounded and all by himself and he was staggering around and I've often wondered what happened to him.
Q. How many would there have been left of the battalion?
A. I couldn't give you any idea. In my platoon, which went in on the 22nd with fifty strong, eight of us mustered afterwards. In the whole brigade, three of the four, many were killed in their dressing stations. When they arrived at the dressing station, they were simply told that they were filled and that they were capable of moving, keep going, keep going.