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Ypres - Part Two

The full horror of the situation remained with Draycot long after the events themselves. The narrator attempts to account for his apparent carelessness. His explanation is not entirely convincing, however, as it is difficult to believe that one could be unaware of such danger. On the other hand, it is equally hard to believe that the German observer in the Birdcage did not see Draycot! Perhaps only those who have lived through the stress and chaos of war can understand both Draycot and the German guard’s oversight. The description of Draycot’s stealthy retreat, slithering like an animal at snail’s pace through the foul mud, is reminiscent of Northrop Frye’s ironic hero in bondage. As the sketch of ‘No Man’s Land’ shows, this is a demonic world of iron stakes, barbed wire, machine-gun embankments, tunnels, and dead and broken trees. The ‘Sanctuary’ of ‘Sanctuary Wood’ suggests a world in which there is still a God; the landscape of No Man’s Land, on the other hand, belongs to Hell.

The memoir adds to the demonic picture by incorporating the human element. It describes numerous scenes of death and destruction. The style is economical and stimulates the reader’s imagination. While trying to locate Colonel Gascoigne, for example, Draycot was involved in a desperate search: ‘owing to the trench being shallow at this stretch and the many dead lying therein, it necessitated a journey on hands and knees – peering into the ghastly contorted faces of the dead for half a mile or so’.ix ‘Peering’ suggests sustained and concentrated observation, a gruelling task at the best of times, but for half a mile on hands and knees, it must have been a nightmare. Draycot’s knowledge of the terrain proved invaluable, as he was able to make use of a disused trench known only to himself, in order to reach Colonel Gascoigne quickly and safely.

Damage caused to trenches during the Third Battle of Ypres necessitated an update of topographical information. The memoir describes how Draycot was called upon to investigate and record the extent of the destruction in the frontline area. He filled a notebook with his sketches. The memoir includes events that are not specifically related to Draycot’s drawings but influenced his ability to work safely and speedily. One such event relates to when he was almost killed by a fellow soldier: ‘as he came alongside a shot rang out from his rifle which caused the bullet to send my steel helmet spinning off my head’.x

The sketch below is a panorama of the northern end of Ypres Salient. The accompanying text reads:
The ridge at Hooge was held by Canadians during the third battle of Ypres. This sketch was, fortunately, made on the afternoon prior to the attack and proved invaluable. The Chateau at Hooge is completely destroyed, and, therefore, cannot be seen; the wooded grounds have also suffered heavily by shell fire. The Menin Road, which runs through Hooge and the ‘Front Line’ of trenches, was not traceable owing to shell fire and trench work.xi
Because the sketch is described as ‘invaluable’, it suggests that the features that are highlighted were the very ones required to ensure the Canadians’ victory. It is also clear that he evaluated them in relation to what existed before the actual time of sketching Panorama of Northern End of Ypres Salient - click to enlargeWhile he was not able to depict earlier conditions, he could refer to them in his commentary. The sketch itself was made at a very specific physical location and could only record what was visible at the time. In other words, Draycot’s sketch fulfilled the primary purpose of such a work: to assist the commanding officer and troops in the field.

The image to the left (when enlarged) clearly shows the British and German front lines and also marks the strong point in the enemy lines. A section of the sketch is enlarged and shown below, demonstrating details of the ‘Old Wheat [that] hides trench from view of Enemy’. The construction of the duckboard walk is clearly reproduced to warn the troops about the kind of surface to expect. The ends of the resistance line and Bond Street trench are marked by trees that would have been easily recognisable thanks to the accurate delineation of their size and number of branches. A stream is also clearly demarcated as a potential obstacle.

The sketches of the moat at Ypres and Ypres Salient (reproduced in full on the following page) provide a rare opportunity to see how Draycot touched up some of his sketches for sale after the war Panorama of Northern End of Ypres Salient - click to enlarge (they were sold to officers, historians and museum directors for five dollars each). The first sketch contains a faint inscription in pencil that reads ‘As the sketch appeared before being touched up. You will now realise the difficulty and time spent on the copy’. Draycot added shading to the sketch of the moat, giving it the appearance of a work of art rather than a military sketch. As such, it breaks the basic rule of sketching as outlined by Legge in Military Sketching and Map Reading: ‘the tendency to sacrifice truth to effect must be guarded against’ as ‘sketches should contain nothing except what is absolutely necessary for military work’.xii The sketches would now perform work of another kind, augmenting Draycot’s post-war income.

The memoir provides interesting insights into the production of the two sketches. As the text underneath them indicates, they were commissioned by Sir Max Aitken, better known as Lord Beaverbrook. As the memoir explains briefly, Beaverbrook required the services of ‘an artist'xiii to produce a sketch of the ramparts and moat for possible inclusion in his book. Draycot was confused about his position and function at this point in time: was he a sketcher, an artist or perhaps even a replacement for a photographer? The narrating ‘I’ asks: ‘[W]hy not send a photographer? Had none!’.xiv Underlying this question is the disappointment deriving from the recognition that not even his commanding officer appeared to appreciate the special value of his sketches.

The memoir includes an intriguing detail: as Draycot proceeded to the ramparts he was arrested as a spy. This irritated him as it cost him valuable time to sort out the misunderstanding. A second attempt, this time with an official pass signed by General Macdonell, proved more successful. The narrator emphasises the danger of his mission:
That sketching was no pleasant task. The enemy shells were falling into the moat and smashing the masonry of the Ramparts ... The sketch was made while sitting in a gun pit wherein were hundreds of shells! Intensity of shell fire increased. My orderly paced up and down. ‘Got it finished yet?’ he kept saying.xv
The omission of the definite article in the sentence ‘Intensity of shell fire increased’ heightens the drama, while the repetition of the orderly’s question demonstrates the urgency of the situation. The sketch, a section of which is reproduced below, includes the introduction of life and a semblance of normality in the form of a family of swans. Swans and cygnets - click to enlarge The inclusion of this detail is clearly described in the memoir: ‘[T]wo swans, with their family of two cygnets hastily swam to cover around a bend in the moat’.xvi Even the innocent swans perceived the danger of the situation. The ramparts are associated with war and bondage; cygnets swimming innocently in a moat belong to the pre-war world of peace and harmony. The explanation in the memoir is reminiscent of Paul Fussell’s argument that memoirs exist on the knife-edge between the low-mimetic and ironic modes of fiction, as they illustrate a rite of passage from pre-war freedom to wartime bondage. The narrator could, of course, have omitted the swans but decided against it. Their inclusion clearly has no military purpose.

ix Draycot, Walter MacKay. ‘Pawn No. 883. Being the Adventures of a Pawn of War in the Affair of 1914-18. Recollections of My Activities during the First World War, 1914-1918.’ Unpublished memoir. North Vancouver Museum & Archives' (1938), 111.
x Ibid., 116.
xi 2 June 1917.
xii R.F. Legge, Military Sketching and Map Reading for Non-Coms. & Men (London: Gale & Polden, 1916), 1.
xiii Draycot, Walter MacKay. ‘Pawn No. 883’, 120.
xiv Ibid., 120.
xv Ibid., 120.
xvi Ibid., 121.

Next: Ypres - Part Three
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