Pte. James Lickley and Lt. Geoffrey Barron Taylor were just two of the thousands of Torontonians who fought in Ypres, Belgium. (Aidan Lising/Ryersonian)

By Declan Keogh and Ryan Moore

Lt. Geoffrey Barron Taylor was a true sportsman. He was, after all, Toronto’s darling. Considered by many of his peers to be the finest stroke oarsman Canada had ever produced, the teenage prodigy was known for breaking records and winning championships, according to historical documents retrieved from the Toronto archives.

Between 1907 and 1912, Taylor won a number of championships with the Toronto Argonauts, which, at the time, was Toronto’s premier rowing club — the predecessor to the football team we know today.

In August 1907, 17-year-old Taylor, the “pride of aquatic Canada,” won five consecutive races in one day, the first Canadian to ever do so. He reached the apex of his athletic career, perhaps, at the first of two Olympic appearances — two bronze medals at the 1908 Summer Games in London.

In 1913, after attending the University of Toronto for three years, Taylor left Canada to study at Trinity College in England.

While Taylor, a short-listed candidate for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, was busy studying and making a name for himself in the English rowing scene, tensions in Europe were brewing.

Alliances faltered, empires crumbled and nationalism came into public consciousness in a way never seen before. The Old World, consisting of kings and queens, collided with new ideas and the Industrial Revolution.

The world was unravelling. And then it came undone.

Never leaving England, Taylor put studying history on hold to join the 48th Highlanders. The brigade was a decorated and seasoned unit that saw several battles in Ypres — summer operations in 1915 and the Flanders offensive in 1917.

Taylor would never see his home again.

Hostilities between the great European nations demonstrated the immense killing power of the 20th century. Soldiers died at staggering rates. In the first three months of fighting during the First World War, Germany suffered 375,000 casualties on the Western Front, while the Allies — France and England — collectively lost roughly 400,000.

Over the course of the war, roughly 61,000 Canadians died and another 172,000 were wounded.

Beleaguered soldiers were subjected to hellish conditions as many millions of artillery shells and machine gun bullets rained down. Disease and rat infestations competed with insomnia and hunger to whittle away the spirits and health of those in the trenches. It was, until that time, the grandest display of human propensity for self-destruction.

Taylor survived less than two months on the front.

He joined the 6,500 Canadians — hundreds from Toronto — who were killed, captured or wounded at the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium. His body was never recovered.

Although fighting on the front, Taylor had been reporting on the war for the Toronto Star. On Oct. 1, 1914, he wrote in the Star that this war is “different.”

“Trains of wounded pass continually. The men do not seem happy or lighthearted.” He writes that seasoned soldiers refer to the conflict as an “inferno,” as hundreds of artillery shells fell every minute. “On the whole, the battle of ‘blood and iron’ seems to have entered their souls.”

At one point, Taylor was mistaken for a German spy by a drunk Frenchman and was almost stabbed to death.

He described the graves, that were intermingled with shrapnel, rifles and discarded helmets , spanning the horizon. “The men have all been buried. The crows come and find the cupboard bare.”

He, like so many at Ypres, couldn’t have been prepared for what was coming.

Soldiers carry the body of a fallen soldier throughout the trenches at Ypres, Belgium. (Photo courtesy of the Toronto archives)

The use of asphyxiating and toxic gases began with operation “Disinfection” with the release of 145 tonnes of chlorine upon Ypres by the Germans on April 22, 1915.What followed was a nightmare. Totally unprepared, French and Algerian troops died horrifically, drowning from liquids in their clogged lungs. The ominous chlorine gas cloud opened up kilometres of the front line, which left British and Canadian troops exposed on their flanks.

In one of his last letters home, published in the Star and addressed to his former coach, Joe Wright, he was upbeat and optimistic. Taylor, like many young Canadians, was more bored than scared.

“The trenches are not uncomfortable. We are in a quiet part. We have to make our own excitement,” he writes. “On the whole, the war is the most luxurious, and at the same time the most unlucky. Unlucky because casualties come high, but we have to have them.”

Amidst the destruction of the battle, Taylor’s wallet, along with a photo of his fiancée, were found on the battlefield in early May, according to historical newspapers at the Toronto archives.

The last time Taylor was seen he was at the bottom of a trench, gassed and unconscious. His brother, Sgt. W. M. Taylor, was shot in the head and lost his eye at Ypres. After 10 months in the hospital, he made it home to Toronto.

A letter addressed to Taylor is glued to the first page of a dusty scrapbook in the Toronto archives. It reads: “I join my grateful people in sending you this memorial of a brave life given for others in the Great War.” It is signed by King George V.

The 48th Highlanders were honoured in 1926 when a monument was erected at Queen’s Park. The regiment received two dozen battle honours over the course of the war, fighting in nearly every major battle on the Western Front — from the Somme, to Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele.

The trenches of Ypres, Belgium, where soldiers spent weeks on end. This was the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War, claiming the lives of around 100,000 people. (Photo courtesy of the Toronto archives)

Although Pte. James Lickley rubbed shoulders with Taylor’s Highlander Brigade several times en route to the Western Front, the two never met. Taylor had already been dead for five months.

Lickley, a medic, spent his time piling injured and dead soldiers on to stretchers, transporting the unlucky ones into morgues he built himself. Born in Dundee, Scotland, the Lickley family immigrated to Canada in the early 1900s, settling in Toronto’s west end.

A woodworker and draftsman by trade, Lickley served in the army for six months before joining the Canadian Expeditionary Force in July 1915. It didn’t take long before he was living only on hardtack and bully beef, common rations for the soldiers.

“It has been a weary journey towards the end,” Lickley writes in his journal retrieved from the Toronto archives. He describes the difficulty of sleeping on the cold, hard and dirty floor of the SS India, a steam passenger liner that was commandeered in 1915 by the Allies. Four days later, a colonel, unnamed in Lickley’s diary, gave a speech to the nervous soldiers saying they’d soon be in the trenches.

Drenched in sweat, tired and hungry, amidst the “well-tilled” fields of Northern France, Lickley and his brigade began their 32-kilometre march through fields of fruits and flowers towards Armentières before the light of dawn.

A year earlier, German and Allied forces had smashed into each other with a shocking display of brutality at Armentières — there were heavy casualties on both sides. Germany’s early war strategy, the Schlieffen plan, was premised on being able to break through French defences and knock them out of the war before Russia could mobilize. The plan, according to historian Alan Kramer, was to surprise the Allies with vicious force and destroy their will to fight.

Lickley’s division stopped near Dranoutre, Belgium, and camped next to the 4th Brigade in a field on Sept. 21. “There are a lot of Canadians in this village,” he writes. “16th Scottish, 48th Highlanders. The Canucks are replacing a division of British troops and it is wonderful the good opinion the English tommies have of the 1st Division infantry.” In the morning, he recorded being stirred from his sleep by a “great chorus of guns,” repeating verses on the frontlines like some ailing maestro in the sky was conducting a magnum opus of annihilation.

A week later, Lickley watched a harrowing English bombardment against the Germans. In the aftermath, he and the 48th Highlanders headed northeast to Neuve-Église. The town took periodic shelling from the Germans and was “pretty battered to bits.” Lickley watched passing ambulances return with injured and dead soldiers.

It wouldn’t be long before he and his fellow medics would see action — the 4th Brigade would be in the trenches that night and Lickley was expected to follow.

“It is raining hard and it is cold and raw,” he writes while in the trenches. Caked in mud, surrounded by rats and looking at his pay for the month — 30 Francs, or $6 — he sarcastically describes it as “lavish.”

Despite being a medic, Lickley was still expected to help dig out the trenches as the static frontline morphed at a glacial pace. By October, he was constantly in no man’s land, jumping out of the imagined safety of the trenches to find wounded men. The roads were a terrible quicksand of mud, blood and gas.

He never got used to German shells whistling past his ears. “Bullets whizzing past us are the worst,” he writes, not knowing whether they were strays or snipers.

But saving the wounded men helped him forget about his own danger.

After taking a few week’s leave, he returned to the trenches — this time to heavier fighting. “We can get a great view of Ypres, the city of death, from here,” he writes on Oct. 26, glancing upon a cathedral standing tall and alone. “The German artillery are raising hell all day.”

The next night he went into the infamous town. For Lickley, Ypres was “a sight never to be forgotten.” Every street a twisted maze of bent metal, jagged rock and mud. Always mud.

The remaining buildings were hollow and crumbling, waiting to be reborn or incinerated — whichever came first.

It rained for weeks without respite and the tedium was wearing on the soldiers. If things got too quiet, for too long, they would throw parties — or fight and bully one another.

“Poor chaps on the front are suffering,” Lickley writes on Oct. 31. “The trenches are caving into the dugouts, many of them knee drop (sic) in water and mud.”  

On Nov. 17, for the first time in nearly a year, German artillery rained down on La Clytte (now De Klijte), Belgium. Civilians, unaccustomed to an attack like this, ran from the bombardment in panic. Many soldiers dove for cover, staying still for over half an hour. Those who were playing football were unaware. For whatever reason, they didn’t – or couldn’t – find cover. Six of them were wounded and three died on that pitch.

Lickley’s journal is a mixture of stress and boredom — pain and comradeship. For every entry from the front line, there’s more from behind. The soldiers often had nothing to do but rearrange their shelter —usually just dirt, mud and wooden boards — and write. Between battles, Lickley would read letters from family and throw sandbags from one pile to another. He spoke highly of his brothers-in-arms and relished in the small joys of a good fire, cooking bacon and getting sweets in the mail to share with his friends.

In the early morning light, always so cold and blue before sunrise, German artillery fell outside of Ypres — the city of death. And, six days before Christmas, Lickley was gassed.

Most of the soldiers were roused from their sleep by the thunderous roar. Lickley, along with his friend Johnny Hay, struggled to find their respirators. Soldiers hated the infernal devices because they were uncomfortable and made it hard to see.

Lickley’s chest was tight, his nose and throat burned as they made their way out of the cloud. They were lucky – the wind pushed the gas down the line towards less fortunate troops. Gas attacks were most feared in the war but, despite this, Lickey was unperturbed. “It turned out to be a very beautiful clear day … We had a day’s bumming around, playing football.”

Christmas came and went quietly. Men shared meat, drank rum, smoked cigarettes and joked with each other. Artillery guns, so terrifying and powerful, were silent. All that was left to remind one of their existence was the pock-marked roads, glistening black holes under the frozen moonlight. Forced to wander the pit, the roads made travel difficult, if not impossible.

A soldier walks through the trenches at Ypres, Belgium. (Photo courtesy of the Toronto archives)

War is a “monotonous existence,” Lickley writes, but on Dec. 29, “things got exciting again.” Hundreds of German shells fell onto the front lines and there were dozens of casualties. Lickley’s small, makeshift morgue was put to use. “It is strange the sudden bombardments they make of a place. We have been speculating as to what their object really is and can’t agree on it.”  

Hundreds of civilians and troops were forced from the area with nothing but what they could grab during the chaotic shelling. “It was a sad sight to see old women and women with babies treking (sic) out,” he writes. Many of the soldiers carried scared children out of the area.

Even when he wasn’t under direct fire, Lickley lived in the shadow of the reaper, surrounded by death — the inescapable nature of war. “Some job, hundreds of dead heads to stack up.”

Lickley served with the 5th Canadian Field Ambulance (CFA) until 1919. His brother, William, also enlisted with the 5th CFA. Two more of his brothers also enlisted. All of them survived.

James Lickley died on May 9, 1978. He’s buried in Mount Pleasant Cemetery.

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