The "Little Black Devils" who faced hell: how the 90th Winnipeg Rifles kept the Huns out of Ypres
Transcript of an article from the Sketch describing events involving 8 DLI
HOW THE CANADIANS CELEBRATED EMPIRE DAY: THE SCENE OF THEIR CHARGE ON THE GERMAN TRENCHES AT FESTUBERT
“ Our orders” one of the Canadians told our artist “ were to charge as soon as the artillery bombardment had stopped, to carry the German trenches, and to retrench ourselves fifty yards further on . As we charged, one of our officers yelled out , ‘ Come on, lads: let’s celebrate the 24th ‘ – in reference to Empire Day – and although exposed to heavy fire, we succeeded in carrying the trenches . “
This is the story of Private L.L. Spalding, Machine Gunner of the 90th Winnipeg Rifles , better known as “ The Little Black Devils “ He is now convalescing from wounds and the effects of gas-poisoning .
Our regiment took over the trenches north-east of St Julien, which were adjacent to the Canadian Brigade on the left on April 19. When the French retired, compelling our Brigade to fall back also, we were then on the extreme left flank and in a very precarious position considering that the Germans had advanced about two miles toward St Julien.
But it was a great sight to see the thousands of German troops advancing . Our artillery fire was very effective, and as the enemy came on in companies and company formation their casualties were very heavy . We received our baptism of poison gas on April 21 in the shape of a gas- shell. It instantly affected our eyes and lungs, but was not nearly as deadly as the gas which they ejected from pipes , and which we received later.
Our casualties began to swell from this date, as we were also under a heavy shell-fire from both flanks . This was kept up steadily until the Sunday evening, stopping only long enough to allow them to attack . On the 24th they launched a very heavy attack in mass formation, and succeeded in getting as far as our wire entanglements, but our fire was so deadly that they beat a hasty retreat . With a yell of vengeance our boys were out of the trenches and after them. We chased them back to their own lines, inflicting severe losses with our bayonets. Six of our boys got lost owing to the gas still in the air, and took cover in a shell-hole half-way between the enemy’s trench and ours, and were obliged to stay there until dark, when they returned safely . Although our losses were heavy and our men under a great strain, we were not discouraged. Our officers were like veterans, and did everything possible to cheer the boys up. On Sunday morning, April 25, about 4am, our regiment, which had been holding the trench for five days, was relieved, with the exception of no. 4 Company, on the extreme right, by the 8th Durhams, who had been in France but a few days . We were certainly pleased to see them but when we were informed that the machine-gunners of the 90th were to stay in with the Durhams, as they were unable to bring up their own machine-guns, and that the remainder of our regiment, with the exception of no. 4 Company, were to go back to the second line of defence, we did not exactly feel like cheering .
About 9am on Sunday the Germans began a heavy bombardment on our trenches, sending over several gas-shells. Our line of defence was divided into three separate parts, or islands, and the middle island received a heavy dose of the yellow gas, that came in a great cloud and enveloped them, forcing them to retire from this section. We had three of the 90th machine guns in this section, and as the boys had been up against the gas before, they were prepared for it and able to stick to their guns and beat off the attack that followed immediately. Our artillery were advised of the conditions, and kept up a steady fire of shrapnel in front of their section, so that we were still able to hold out on the right and left flanks.
We had about two hundred Durhams with us in the left trench, but they were falling fast, and I certainly admire their captain’s pluck. Being on the extreme left flank, we were compelled to fortify ourselves in a triangular position to keep off flank attacks.
They stormed our little barricade time after time, but we drove them off with heavy losses . After each unsuccessful attack they would shell us for an hour and then try again . Our losses were appalling, and I have great respect for the small part of the new levies that I have seen in action so far . The few Durhams who were left, cheered on always by Captain Bradford, Lieut. Wilson and another lieutenant whose name I did not learn, hung on with the bulldog tenacity that has won Britain her fame. In the meantime the remaining few of the 90th on the right were keeping up their good work.
At 6.30pm my machine-gun was put out of business via “ coal-box “ shell, and as we were about out of ammunition, and only thirty of us left, the Captain gave the order to retire. I was detailed to lead the first fifteen, while the others protected our retreat until we got to the bottom of a hill about three hundred yards distant, and then they were to follow. We had a mile to go in plain view of the enemy, who had machine-gun batteries on our right that kept up a continuous fire. We were in a hailstorm of bullets and shrapnel all of the way, and twelve of us, including Captain Bradford, reached the second line, although all but two of us were wounded . When we arrived at the second line of trenches we knew that we had saved the day, as thousands of our troops were occupying them .
“ THE LAST LAMENT “ : A WOUNDED CANADIAN PIPER’S FINAL TUNE
Near St Julien, a wounded Scottish Canadian bagpiper crawled back from the firing line to a fortified house held by the Canadians . Although mortally wounded, he refused to retire to shelter, saying “ I’ll play my last tune .”
After emitting a few mournful sounds he fell back dead with his bagpipes pressed to his breast .
The Illustrated First World War website:
Reference: DCRO, D/DLI 2/8/26
Where to find this: http://www.illustratedfirstworldwar.com/
Durham County Record Office
Contributed by Sue Tallentine | Silvia Rago | Durham County Record Office