“Blinded, deaf and half crazy”: A.Y. Jackson at Sanctuary Wood

Private A.Y. Jackson, photographed June 1915 by Edmond Dyonnet. McMichael Canadian Art Collection Archives

A.Y. Jackson was the only member of the Canadian landscape art movement that gave rise to the Group of Seven in 1920 to volunteer for combat service in the Canadian army in the First World War. He enlisted with the 60th Infantry Battalion, a new regiment formed in his native Montreal, in June 1915, and reached France in late February 1916. The journey to the front took Jackson through familiar territory, including the arts community of Étaples, now a major military hospital centre, where he had painted in 1908-09 and 1912. This excerpt from Jackson’s Wars: A.Y. Jackson, the Birth of the Group of Seven, and the Great War, details his harrowing experiences at Sanctuary Wood during the larger action known as the Battle of Mont Sorrel on the Ypres salient in June 1916.

•. •

“I don’t think I ever told you about the third of June,” A.Y. Jackson wrote J.E.H. MacDonald on 10 September, 1916. “I never tell anyone, for that matter. For weeks I only wished to forget all about it.” 

The 60th were in the trenches on 23 May, 1916, when they were relieved by [Jackson’s cousin] Willie Gray’s 52nd Battalion and moved into support for the 8th Brigade’s 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles, a battalion raised in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. A.Y. Jackson’s A Company, including signallers, relocated to Maple Copse. From 26 to 31 May, the Germans heavily shelled the front lines and support positions around Maple Copse and Sanctuary Wood. When the 60th retired from support duties, along with the rest of 9th Brigade, around noon on 1 June, the lack of actual combat had not spared the battalion’s numbers. Over the past sixteen days, the 60th had recorded seventy-one casualties. 

The British were preparing a major offensive at the Somme, and had begun to move equipment from the Ypres salient in support. The Germans attacked first, all along the Ypres salient, determined to seize what little high ground was not yet in their possession. Approaching midnight on 1 June, German artillery fell silent for seven hours, which allowed soldiers to steal forward into No Man’s Land and cut barbed wire in the dark. Around six in the morning, on 2 June, Carl Ahren’s old art patron, Major-General Malcolm Mercer, commander of the 3rd Canadian Division, joined Brigadier-General Victor Williams, commander of 8th Brigade, in the front-line trenches of the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles, to see what the Germans might be up to. Mercer and Williams arrived just in time for the German barrage to resume, with overwhelming violence.

“The storm which burst on the 3rd Division at 8.30 that June morning,” Sir Max Aitken (by then Lord Beaverbrook) would write, “was like a tropical tornado which presses men flat to the ground and suffocates them with the mere force of wind, which uproots forests and hurls them headlong, obliterates all ancient landmarks and the houses and shelters of men and beasts, and leaves behind nothing but a tangled desolation from which a few survivors creep out scarcely sane enough to realise the catastrophe or to attempt to repair the damage.” The 4th C.M.R. essentially ceased to exist, suffering 89 percent casualties. 

At ten a.m. on 2 June, the 60th, back in rest camp A, west of Ypres, received orders to be prepared to move on one hour’s notice. As Jackson related to MacDonald, “On the 2nd we were in camp about four miles back, but all day long the guns kept up an unceasing din, and on the long low ridge to the east we could see the shells exploding and smoke hanging over it like a curtain.” At one in the afternoon, the Germans set off four mines in front of the Canadian trenches at Mount Sorrel, and unleashed the ground attack. The badly shredded Canadian line collapsed; Brigadier-General Williams was taken prisoner. 

“We got word that the Germans had got our front line trenches and that we were to be ready to march within an hour,” Jackson continued for MacDonald. 

We didn’t take things very seriously. We had often been told to hold ourselves in readiness before, but after eating a few biscuits for supper we moved off in small parties. The roads were full of troops all going in the same direction. In some places we took to the fields, through which there were paths through the crops. A number of our aeroplanes were overhead and our guns were barking pretty loudly. The sun had set by this time, and as it got darker we moved forward. The Huns were dropping tear shells at random and as there was no breeze the beastly stuff just hung round and got us all weeping. We took shelter in a reserve [trench] about a mile and a half back of the line. The signallers ran a line from our end of the trench to the other. As it got darker the machine guns started up an infernal noise, and then flares popping up two or three at a time on the ridge [warned] of things about to happen. We could hear our transport wagons grinding over the rough roads full of shell holes and the German shrapnel bursting overhead, but towards midnight on the ridge ahead suddenly the whole place burst into light and the rattle of rifles and machine guns became a prolonged roar, flares popping off by the hundreds, green with white to light the landscape, and here and there red and green ones used as signals, then a kind of meteoric shower went off and then everything quieted down. Soon after we got word to move forward.

At the north end of the salient, the 7th Brigade’s Princess Pats fought desperately to repel the attack. A.Y. Jackson’s cousin, John Hayward, was still away, attending cadet school in England, and was spared being present for the slaughter. The Pats lost their commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Buller, who had already lost an eye in May 1915, and suffered more than four hundred casualties. Among them was Percival Molson, who had signed John Hayward’s attestation papers. Captain Molson was shot in the face, the bullet passing through both cheeks and breaking his jaw. After months of convalescence, and a period of leave in Canada, he would return to the front, to be vaporized by a shell in July 1917.

Kenneth Forbes’ The Defense of [Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry at] Sanctuary Wood (1918), depicted the moment of Lieutenant Colonel Hubert Buller’s death on 2 June, 1916. Collection: Canadian War Museum.

The British artillery loosed shrapnel shells in an attempt to stem the German advance, and early on the morning of the third, Major-General Mercer, whose leg had been broken by a stray bullet, was killed instantly by a piece of British shrapnel that pierced his heart. Brigadier-General Williams was the highest ranking Canadian captured in the entire war, Mercer the highest ranking Canadian killed in action.

“The Germans had been pounding [the China Wall] pretty badly because there was dead men all the way along it, you just had to step between them. That was the first time I had seen a lot of corpses, you know. You’d look down and see a little kid of about fifteen in the line there.”

Sir Julian H.G. Byng, the new commander of Canadian Corps, organized a counter-attack for two a.m. on 3 June, and issued orders that “all ground lost today will be retaken tonight.” The Sanctuary Wood portion of the plan called for the 7th Brigade’s 49th Battalion to strike back with the 52nd of the 9th Brigade in support, and with the 60th of the 9th Brigade in support of both. Lieutenant-Colonel William Antrobus Griesbach of the 49th was given command. 

Almost from the beginning, Griesbach, an experienced militia commander who had been a trooper with the Canadian Mounted Rifles in South Africa, had difficulties coordinating with the leadership of Jackson’s 60th. Lieutenant-Colonel Gascoigne was to have conferred with Griesbach at 9:30 pm on the second, after the battalions reached the ramparts of Ypres, but he did not, and Griesbach would not hear from the 60th’s commanding officer until almost one in the afternoon on the third. In any event, Griesbach’s forces were in no way ready to launch a counterattack at the prescribed start of two a.m.  

Jackson was moving forward in a party of signallers, accompanied by Arthur Jackson [no relation to A.Y.], a young man named Kelly, and a D company signaller, twenty-six-year-old Robert (Douglas) Doyle, an Irish immigrant to Montreal who had spent three years in the U.S. Army. “We followed a smashed up railway track for a time then a road or what was once one, it was really a series of holes, and a little before daybreak got up to what the boys call ‘the China Wall,’ about six feet high and all built of sand bags. It zigs and zags its way for over a mile, affording cover against machine gun and rifle bullets and shrapnel to a certain extent.”

Halfway along the China Wall, they stopped, having gotten ahead of the rest of the 60th. “We met a number of boys from other battalions, who told us the row was all over and we had back our trenches.” They stood around, waiting, until a lieutenant ordered them to move along and wait for everyone else at a support trench. The 60th had been ordered to move forward to a section of the R-line or reserve trench called R.63, between Zouave Wood and Sanctuary Wood, a blasted, pitted landscape of shattered tree trunks. With the Germans having overrun the British forward trenches all through Sanctuary Wood, the rear R-line was the new British front. “As I knew the way which was rather confusing I took the lead. It had changed considerably since I had last gone up. Great holes were knocked out of it and some places [it was] completely blocked. A boy in kilts was lying in the bottom. The waning moon and the pale dawn showed us he was just a youngster.” To the CBC, Jackson would explain: “The Germans had been pounding [the China Wall] pretty badly because there was dead men all the way along it, you just had to step between them. That was the first time I had seen a lot of corpses, you know. You’d look down and see a little kid of about fifteen in the line there.”

“All the way up the trench,” Jackson continued to MacDonald, “huddled figures were lying. Stretcher bearers passed us struggling to get the wounded out and every now and then machine gun bullets spattered angrily against the sand bags or whistled over the tops. It was daylight when we reached the support trench.” Jackson and his signal party found it crowded with troops who “squeezed themselves a little tighter and made room for us to squat.” Then the entirety of the 60th’s B Company arrived, commanded by Lieutenant Bruce Macfarlane.

The 60th and 52nd were trying to move forward at the same time other troops were attempting to withdraw. “The trench was jammed all the way along,” Jackson told MacDonald. “Shells were passing quite regularly over our heads at the trench we had come up. We could see dirt and sand bags flying up in the air.”

A.Y. Jackson, A Copse, Evening (1918), Canadian War Museum. Roughly based on a sketch Jackson was said to have made as a war artist at Passchendaele in late 1917, the painting more likely evokes his personal experiences on the Ypres salient in 1916. The ironically bucolic title is a telling nod to Maple Copse, a part of the Ypres Salient near Sanctuary Wood where Jackson’s commanding officer, Captain Fred Shaughnessy, was the first member of A Company to be killed in action (and buried there, in an unknown grave), in March 1916.

Moving along China Wall, troops were incapacitated by German tear gas shells, then shelled relentlessly. Early that morning, Griesbach set out on foot from Halfway House, a command position between the front and China Wall. “I found the China Wall blown in many places, and many dead and wounded men were lying about and made progress forward with difficulty.” He tried to locate the 52nd, but “could find no trace of them.” To exacerbate matters, because shelling had severed all communication wires, Griesbach was only able receive messages and issue orders by using runners. “Some events were 2 hours old before I was advised of them,” he would report. “Messages were normally an hour on the way from any point.” 

By 2:00 a.m., Jackson’s 60th had only reached Halfway House. Apprising the confusion and delays, Griesbach at some point after 2:00 a.m. ordered the 49th not to begin their counterattack until he could bring up the 52nd in support. At 4:00 a.m., Griesbach ordered Lieutenant-Colonel A.W. Hay, commander of the 52nd, to take up his attack position. In his report to 7th Brigade headquarters, Griesbach stated that he then learned that Hay, “leaving his Battalion at GORDON HOUSE came into ‘R’ line and was there shell-shocked and ceased to command, and that his 2nd in Command was subsequently killed.” Colonel Hay in fact was initially reported wounded, then missing, then finally was presumed to have been killed. His body was never found.

“The sun came up very bright and with it the German aeroplanes,” Jackson told MacDonald. “We kept very still so as not to draw their attention. A crowded trench is a great find for artillery. It was cold in the trench so sitting close together warmed us up.” Jackson would write the artist Anne Savage on 3 June, 1932: “I was just thinking back to another June 3rd crawling along a trench in Sanctuary Wood, and an aeroplane circling overhead like a big hawk, signalling to the artillery who were trying to blow us up. It was a day of glorious sunshine and only man was vile, in general, individually they were magnificent.”

“The Germans saw us coming in, and they caught us in a trench there and they just simply plastered us…”

Around six a.m., an order was passed down the trench for B Company and the signallers to move out, the way the way they had come in. “We obeyed very reluctantly. The sun was very brilliant and the trench we had come up was under constant observation from the German lines, which are on higher ground. We filled the trench for a couple of hundred yards, and moved slowly as a body of men always do in a narrow smashed up trench. This part of the trench was dug about three feet below the ground level and a sand bag wall built on either side. Shells started dropping pretty thickly ahead of us and the line stopped up and a little later [came] the usual message, ‘Pass the word back we can’t get through,’ and then a message from the rear, ‘Pass the word up that we have to get through, no movement.’”

An officer came running, calling out “Prepare to counter-attack!” Jackson confessed to MacDonald, “I don’t know what he meant, but just then three or four shells screeched right on top of us and we were almost smothered in dirt and dust and pieces of brick. We didn’t know what to do. The trench was crowded both up and down, and over the German lines a sausage balloon was looking right down the trench, with an apostle of Kultur in it, his eye glued to the end of a telescope. Another screech and directly over our heads only a few feet up it burst with a wicked sound, and turned into a green yellow ball of smoke, and then cries and groans.” 

“The Germans saw us coming in,” Jackson would tell the CBC, “and they caught us in a trench there and they just simply plastered us…The Germans had got a range on it and they were just waiting.” Jackson was right next to B Company’s Lieutenant Macfarlane, who he saw “turn pale and fall in a huddled heap,” killed by shrapnel; a mere boy beside Jackson was “looking in dismay at a great spurt of blood coming from his arm, which was only hanging by a few shreds of flesh.” Jackson was completely unscathed. A.Y. would write his sister Catherine that, while moving into position with Arthur Jackson, he had “one narrow escape after another in the early morning, We nearly got hit by the same shell that killed Lieut. MacFarlane [sic]. We were right beside him, and a lot of the boys were hit.”

“To stay was death,” Jackson told MacDonald, “and without accomplishing anything, we went back to where we came from, the only thing we could do, as we did not know where we were going. We lost over sixty men in those few minutes. All the rest of the morning we sat crowded in the reserves trench. Shells were exploding all over but not very close to us. No one wanted to speak.”

•     •

Lieutenant-Colonel Griesbach received from brigade headquarters a notice that the counterattack led by the 49th was to begin at 7 a.m. on the morning of 3 June. The 49th launched their assault at the prescribed hour, which Griesbach assured brigade headquarters was “well planned and carried out in a very gallant manner. Officers, pistol in hand, everywhere leading their men, and I desire to draw to your attention the fact that Capt. P. McNaughton and Lieut. F.W. Scott, fell in front of their men at the high tide of the attack with ‘B’ Coy.” The war diary of the Princess Pats also recorded a counterattack launched from their trench positions by the 49th around nine a.m. “which was not successful being held up by machine gun and rifle fire.” 

Griesbach’s 49th had carried out its counterattack on the morning of the third without the planned full support from the 52nd or the 60th. The 60th did manage to provide one platoon in close support, while the rest of the battalion, “greatly impeded by the concentrated shell fire,” was “slowly making their way along trenches R64, R65 & R66 and up the communications trenches in rear. Our casualties at this time where [sic] extremely heavy, both in Officers & men.” 

Once Griesbach had located elements of the other two battalions on the morning of the third, he decided the 60th should mount a counterattack, with the 52nd in support. Among the soldiers in the 52nd was Jackson’s cousin, Captain Willie Gray, whose nerves seemed frayed when Jackson saw him about a month earlier. In 1917, the enterprising journalist would publish anonymously in London A Canadian Subaltern: Billy’s Letters to His Mother. One of those letters, dated 8 August, plainly recounted the events at Sanctuary Wood. 

Here for the first time the really hell of the war came to me. That trench, or what was left of it, was congested with the dead and dying. Men crawled along, over dead bodies distorted beyond only the ken of one who has been there. We lifted wounded men a little to one side while from each turn of the trench came the heartrending, throaty sob of dying. Ghastly! well, don’t suppose there’s a word been coined in English to describe it. Meanwhile, shrapnel rained on its horrible hail, high explosive lifted sandbag and bodies house-high. Everywhere men lay half-buried, gasping. Some, reason fled, climbed out only to be struck down a few yards away. And all this, kept up for what seemed aeons, but really was only about three hours.

Gray’s account of the horrors of Sanctuary Wood was incomplete, for Gray himself broke down. The letter was written from a hospital in London. He had been evacuated with a superficial leg wound, on 4 June, but the real damage was psychological. On 10 June, his diagnosis was recorded as shell shock: “Long exposure to shell fire for 16 days & then had to return. Came under salvo of HE [high explosives]. Remembers no more, was stationed between Sanctuary Wood & Hooge. Nerve absolutely gone, loss of emotional control, memory badly affected…Does not remember where he was taken from the front.” Gray would return to active duty with the 52nd in October, and have his front-line service ended for good by appendicitis later that year.

•.    •

Shortly before one o’clock on the afternoon of 3 June, Lieutenant-Colonel Griesbach met with the 60th’s commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Gascoigne, “and gave him a written order to attack.” It was the first time Jackson’s 60th had been asked to assault a German position. When Gascoigne said he was short one company, Gascoigne told him he could draw on the 42nd or the 52nd. Gascoigne “then stated that he could not get ready for the attack for two hours.” Verbally and in writing, Griesbach ordered Gascoigne to attack at 3:00. The hour passed without an attack. The 60th’s war diary said the delay occurred because “on an account of the heavy shelling and the damaged condition of the line and communication trenches it was impossible to get the men in position by that time.”

At 4:15, Griesbach received a message from Gascoigne saying he lacked ammunition for the Lewis guns, and because of casualties among his officers, “it was taking time to explain matters to N.C.O.’s.” Griesbach ignored the message. At 5:55, Griesbach received a fresh message: the 60th’s fourth company had not yet arrived and the battalion had no bombers. Still another message arrived from Gascoigne at 5:55: “the artillery preparation for the 3 o’clock attack had given away to the enemy the impending attack, that he had difficulty getting his men across broken down trenches, and he was being badly shelled by the enemy, also that enemy snipers were active, that he was unable to attack at 4.00 pm. He asked me to set a later hour in the evening.” Gascoigne received orders about 5:00 to be prepared to attack at 7:00. Those orders were then cancelled.

At 7:00, the 60th was found moving back through the 42nd’s lines, despite the protests of the 42nd’s Lieutenant-Colonel Cantlie. “I was compelled to halt them till darkness as they were drawing heavy shelling.” Griesbach was dissuaded from ordering his own 49th to mount another attack by a message at 7:43 from the officer commanding of the Prince Pats, “pointing out the casualties that had occurred, the condition of the trenches, and the large number of wounded who were lying about.” At eight that night, the Germans bombarded intensely this section of the front for about thirty minutes, and then attacked with infantry. The 42nd, 49th, and 60th repelled them.

“Again and again, we were nearly buried in dirt, the shells just skimming the parapet and bursting about twenty or thirty feet behind us till we were deaf with the awful roar. Then the whole parapet suddenly jumped right at us. I staggered back blinded, deaf and half crazy.”

Although the day ended without the 60th launching the planned attack on German positions in Sanctuary Wood, its men were pounded, maimed, obliterated, and scattered. In Jackson’s A Company, George Harrington, a Montreal machinist who had served in the artillery of the U.S Army, was so badly shell-shocked that he was left deaf and mute, a condition that military doctors “cured by suggestion.” Harry Brussel, a young Philadelphia salesman, was admitted to hospital with shell shock: “He does not remember how the shock occurred or anything until he found himself in a cas[ualty] clearing station,” a medical report would record. Donald McIntosh, an eighteen-year veteran of the British Army, was buried by a shell and knocked unconscious for three hours. “Thereafter slept poorly, tremulous, headaches & poor hearing.” One of Jackson’s fellow volunteers of 14 June, 1915, Ernest Moore, a ship’s stoker with experience in the Royal Navy Reserves who had signed up with B Company, disappeared during the action of 3 June. He was found two days later, wounded and shell-shocked. These cases only scratch the surface of the horrendous collective experience of the men in the 60th who managed to stay alive.

•     • 

“About two in the afternoon,” Jackson told MacDonald, “we got orders to continue along the reserve trench, which ran irregularly towards the front line. In places the parapet was so beaten down we had to crawl to avoid being seen, other places to dash quickly across the open, then when shelling got very severe we would crouch down and wait.” The “Pats and the Kilties”—the men of the Princess Patricia and the Royal Canadian Regiment—who had borne the brunt of the initial German assault in this part of the front, provided advice about places that were safe and unsafe. “Eventually we got up to the front line and had no sooner got there than a message came through for all the signallers but four to report back to headquarters.” A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Jackson, Kelly, and Doyle decided to stay. “About this same time the Huns started in to blow the place to pieces.”

The trench was very wide and provided poor shelter; they hid as best they could in some of the bays. “The Germans were systematically smashing up bays all the way along,” Jackson told the CBC. “They’d get the range on them and then keep pounding at them until they had blown them up…A shell would land right over the top of the trench and about twenty feet at the back of you, and there would be a big pile of earth come up and come down all over, you know. The next shell would be a little closer and the next one would probably land right in front of the trench.”

“Again and again,” Jackson told MacDonald, “we were nearly buried in dirt, the shells just skimming the parapet and bursting about twenty or thirty feet behind us till we were deaf with the awful roar. Then the whole parapet suddenly jumped right at us. I staggered back blinded, deaf and half crazy and found [Arthur] Jackson in the same state, with the blood running from a wound in his neck. I don’t know what happened to Doyle. He was on a bay further, and has never been heard of since.” Doyle was declared killed in action. His name was added to the roll call of 55,000 men in the British Imperial forces who died on the Ypres salient and whose remains were never recovered, which are inscribed on the Memorial to the Missing at the Menin Gate, in the eastern wall of Ypres. 

It was now around dusk. Arthur Jackson left the bay, to seek medical help, and told A.Y. to come with him. “Oh, he said, ‘You better get out of here. You can come down with me, and I’ll get…fixed up somehow and give you an excuse to get out.’ Anyway, so I did.” A.Y. knew he was abandoning his post, but decades later, he made no apologies. “No use staying there. The next shot would have, I think there were two men [who] were never heard of again.”

There were no stretcher bearers. The only wounded who reached help were the ones who could move under their own power or with a comrade’s assistance. The two Jacksons made their way to the rear for about a quarter of a mile, to a dressing station where wounded were being assembled for evacuation. A.Y. decided against leaving with Arthur. He took refuge in a shelter, waiting for a break in “a terrific bombardment” before returning to the line, to face whatever came next. 

A strange salvation arrived from on high. “A shell came over and exploded right over me.”

Jackson’s war souvenirs from June 3, 1916. The piece of shrapnel on the left penetrated his hip. The shrapnel ball on the right pierced his shoulder. The half-inch ball was not discovered until Jackson was x-rayed in hospital at Étaples, France. McMichael Canadian Art Collection Archives. Photograph by Douglas Hunter

A “whizz bang,” a small, high-velocity round, had hit the shelter roof. He was knocked unconscious. When he came to, he was “bruised and bloodied,” with a jagged piece of shrapnel in his right hip. There was no question now of his need to be evacuated. “I got a smash on the back that knocked me senseless,” he told MacDonald. “I really thought I was blown all to pieces, and was much relieved to find that my arms and legs were still on, so I chucked most of my equipment and as my legs were still good I caught up with Arthur Jackson, and told him I had changed my mind and decided to go out with him. We walked two miles down the road, and got properly bandaged up and were hustled into the ambulance, him in one, I in another, and we have never met since. In a dressing station further down I was bandaged again, had a cup of hot cocoa and a sandwich, and among a whole lot of other poor wretches I rolled up in a couple of blankets and went to sleep on the floor. And thus ended the 3rd of June.”

Jackson would write his six-year-old niece Naomi that August, telling her he was now at “a repair station for men who get in the way of bullets and shells, not sea shells but nasty things as big as a Quebec heater, that go off with a bang like a fire cracker only worse. And if you happen to be near, some of the pieces may knock you down or make holes in you. If you get a big hole or a dint in you, you have to go to the first repair station and get the hole bandaged up. Then you get in a motor car and tear along to the next station. The Germans try to drop shells on the motor car but it tears along so fast that they don’t often get them. At the next station they bandage you up again and give you a drink of OXO or cocoa. Then you get in another car and whiz faster than ever to the next station. More bandages, and then you get on a motor bus and it takes you to a railway station; you are safe now. All the shells and bullets are far away, and you have a nice sleep and after a while you get on a big train and go away off to a hospital by the sea side.”

A.Y. Jackson saw sand dunes and pines through the window of his hospital train and realized where was. He was back, once again, at Étaples.

Excerpt from Jackson’s Wars: A.Y. Jackson, the Birth of the Group of Seven, and the Great War, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2022. Copyright Douglas Hunter. Reproduction in whole or in part, including images, is forbidden without expressed permission.

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