Captain FAC Scrimger, 14th Battalion (Royal Montreal Regiment), just outside Yrpres: 25th April 1915.
‘SIR, the last ambulance has left for Wietje!’ a messenger called through the stable door.
Blast. I uttered a profanity and wiped my brow with the back of my hand, muddling blood and God-knows-what-else with the sweat and dirt that had accumulated over the last six hours. I dared not look up. I couldn’t look at the row of casualties coughing, bleeding, leaning against the stable walls. I couldn’t look any member of my beleaguered team in the eye at this point. I had no plans, no course of action, no thoughts. Just exhaustion. Reaching back to the heavy workshop table, I pulled myself in to look at the patient lying there. His abdomen was riddled with holes; my men, with frantic hands and scraps of shirt fabric and hessian sack, battled to stop the relentless flow of red. I pushed my already blood-soaked sleeve up and reached into the fray, feeling the hot spurts of blood under my fingers as I tried to think of a way to help the poor boy. For boy is all he was. Turning to look at his face, I could see the terror etched in the lines and wrinkles he was too young to have, the horror of war mirrored in his eyes; I could tell then those eyes did not see me back. I closed my eyes and shook my head, and as I did, it was as if all the guttural sounds of war returned to my ears. The smell of sweat, blood, ash, smoke and death returned to my nostrils, the vibration of distant shellfire rattled upwards through my feet; I swear I could almost taste the battle.
‘He’s gone,’ I whispered. The corporal next to me pushed me out of the way and clutched the boy’s face with both hands, then with a sudden gentleness, closed the two green eyes, those two, terrified eyes. The barn shook violently and dust cascaded down on us, the shellfire seeming closer than ever.
‘Heads down!’ the yell from across the farmyard.
Men dived in all directions as a shell smashed into the adjacent building. As I pushed myself up off the floor my ears were ringing, and I coughed and spluttered on the dusty air. I stumbled for the door of the stable and peered out into the chaos beyond: men scurrying frantically to collect their equipment in preparation to evacuate the farmyard. The barn next to the stable had been completely levelled by the most recent bombardment. We weren’t evacuating fast enough. I could see the men were shaken by the proximity of the shellfire, and were clearly flagging, emotionally and physically, from days of fighting and the ever-advancing enemy.
‘Ho!’ I grabbed a passing soldier, pulling him in to the stable wall, ‘Get behind the farmhouse; there’s a horse in the paddock there, I need him bridled and ready to move this cart, we have to get these casualties out of here.’ The man was trembling and staring straight past me, not hearing what I’d said.
‘Look at me. Look in my eyes,’ I said, gripping his shoulder.
The soldier was still quaking.
‘What’s your name, Private?’
‘John, did you hear what I said? Go and ready that horse. We are getting the wounded into the cart, and we are walking up that road together, do you understand me?’
John stared at me, suddenly still.
‘We are all walking up that road together, and no one else is going to die today.’
‘Sir,’ John acknowledged, ‘Thank you, sir.’
He ran around to the south side of the farmhouse, and I turned back to face into the stable to see Corporal Anderson helping a bandaged soldier to his feet.
‘Corporal, help these men round to the cart behind the farmhouse, leave as soon as you are ready.’
‘Sir,’ Corporal Anderson stood up smartly. I smiled briefly. Corporal Anderson was invaluable in these situations, and I trusted him to get the wounded out of here without further input from me. Facing back into the farmyard, I took a deep breath:
‘Men! On me!’ The remaining twelve able-bodied soldiers gathered round, ‘Corporal Anderson is assisting the last of the wounded on to the cart-,’ I was stopped by the sound of shells crashing into the field just to the east of the farmyard, ‘-some urgency required?’ There were scattered chuckles at my sarcasm. ‘You are to escort the wounded to Wietje, where we are to be relieved. Double-time please.’ The men vocalised their understanding, and hurried off to help Corporal Anderson.
I ducked down and headed round the North side of the stable. In the distance I could see a line of bayonets, advancing slowly across the uneven field. Time to go. As I went to go back to the farmyard to leave with the cart, I noticed a figure slumped against the wall.
‘Captain MacDonald?!’ I called. A grunt in reply. I hurried over, to find his left leg covered in blood, a makeshift tourniquet fastened around his thigh. ‘We need to get you out of here, Mac!’ He looked up, with a face as white as a sheet.
‘Leave me Frank… I can’t walk.’
‘I promised the men earlier, Mac, we’re all walking out of here together, no-one else will die here today.’ I dropped my shoulder and, hauling Captain MacDonald up onto my back, set off into the farmyard. The farmhouse was ablaze now, and I could see the cart, a few hundred yards away down the Wietje road.
It was going to be a long walk.
Captain Francis Alexander Caron Scrimger received the Victoria Cross for his actions in assisting the wounded at ‘Mouse Trap Farm’, he carried Captain MacDonald onto the road and as far as he could physically manage, until they were aided and transported to Wietje. At times of heavy shelling, Captain Scrimger used his own body as a shield for Captain MacDonald. The 2nd and 3rd Canadian Brigades were relieved by British units on 25 April, however on 26 April, the 2nd Brigade were ordered back to the line, which they did with depleted numbers and days of battle weariness. Nelson’s History of the War devotes a lengthy passage to the fine leadership of the Canadian officers.
Image: Bob Dilworth