Saturday, 30 April 2016

Fresnoy - A Personal Memoir - Part 7

We navigated the first leg of our journey without event, but Lord those bottles were heavy. I felt as if my neck was being amputated. In the road, however, we met with many sights which will long remain in the limn of memory. Dozens of casualties were there. Wild-eyed from the last bombardment which had registered directly on our trench and was still going on, one man had lost his speech entirely. His plight was pitiable. All the way up the trench we dodged and ducked shells, and sniper bullets registered on the high spots, the water bottles around our necks and the cans in our hands took the last ounce out of us. We felt we should hurry. Anything might be happening in the trench, and such a sight as met our eyes defies description. Hell had reigned supreme for over an hour. It was a badly battered road that met our eyes. Many funk holes had been destroyed, including Andy's on our right killing both occupants. Two sergeants sat together their heads down, arms around one another. Helpless in the inferno to do anything, just taking it and ready to go together. Shortly after we landed a shell hit in the next hole on our left. Another lad and we too started in to help. Something went wrong with the other lads nerves when another shell landed nearby and without any forewarning he dropped his shovel and started to run over the bank. Heaven knows where he landed or if he ever did as I never saw him again. Maybe he lay out there and died. Maybe he got to Blighty.

Towards evening during the course of another bombardment the 20th battalion came up. Evidently an attack was expected. Barker was not with us; he had been buried and we were badly shaken. I said good-bye to Barker -- he was killed on May 12th. Nearly all night we stood to, until relieved again by the 20th. We occupied trenches a mile or so behind and to the left. It was quieter, but for three days we lived with gas masks on. The first night and day I was alone, Harry having been detailed to stretchers. He had found a cellar next to the dressing station where he slept all day.

I was incorrectly marked missing when they went over the rolls that day, the news even percolating as far as Canada. For some reason my name was also associated in Sandling Camp as I later heard when draft came over. Fletcher, a former pal, nearly passed out in his tracks on seeing me.

This pretty well concludes the story of Fresnoy as I saw it. The main feature in my favour was lack of previous experience -- which for a time was helpful, in that I did not realize the seriousness of the event. Friendships were formed which will ever remain. Though Harry, Doc and Allan are no more they will still live on, their cheery smiles, the grasp of their hands remain with me. Bill Squib, too, and Andy Atkinson -- the warmth of whose body on many a night contributed a restful slumber. Gord Davis and Abbie Brennan got theirs that trip, and Morgan who had a hunch and many another of fragrant memory. Baker's death was nearly too much for me. I made my way posthaste to the 20th lines after two hours of fitful sleep on our return to La Targette. Baker's pal Webber greeted me with only a look. Mute in its misery I nearly collapsed, but realizing sharply the need for control turned on my heel at once and fought it out alone on a long walk about the camp.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

Fresnoy - A Personal Memoir - Part 6

Billy Sunday, an officer, was at the junction of the communication and the road, which we were now to convert into the line, and called on Bill Squib to relieve us of our burden. He directed us away from the spot which surely would have been marked. (He was killed there himself the next day). We soon saw Purvis on his way overland in the growing dusk with a party of four and in the same minute heard the order, "Stand to!" "Heine coming over!" Well, Harry grabbed a rifle by the side of a dead comrade and we plastered ourselves against the wall. Squibb seeing us and knowing we were the newest recruits aligned himself beside us. Waving his hat in the air and with many fulsome oaths he defied the bastards to come over. Then, seeing me, green and white-faced, and with only a ladies revolver (which I had won in a poker game on the boat over), he laughed aloud, "Well for God's sake kid, what do you expect to hit with that peashooter?" I felt foolish no doubt, but bucked indeed to be beside so doughty a warrior, and when alarm passed, and Harry and I fell to constructing a funk hole, much of my trepidation had passed, too.

We weren't bothered much by shelling that night, comparatively speaking, but God how cold it got. Our clothing, which had been soaked from intermittent rains during the day was still damp, and with no overcoats and two feet down in a wet hole dug into the side of a wall, one just couldn't get warm. When Bill called later for a volunteer ration party we were glad to be on the move.

As we moved down the trench, illuminated by the occasional Heine flare, our first thought was overcoats. Every funk hole contained the body of some unfortunate, killed on the way up, or died trying to get out. We groped our way from wall to wall of the slimy way, and in one place I was just about to grasp a branch above the trench only to recognize in the light of a flare the outstretched hand of one of my comrades who had died the night before. A little further I spotted a great coat over a "stiff" in a hole in the trench. I gingerly grasped it, only to nearly collapse in my tracks when its owner very much alive shouted an imprecation. Well, we got back and Harry and I finally found a funk hole and crawled in. It was a roomy one and only our legs were in the trench. The heat of our bodies combined with the complete exhaustion following the events of the night and the day soon placed us in the land of complete oblivion.

How long we slept I have no idea, but it must have been four or five hours because it was dawn and men were stumbling over our feet, the ration party no less, loaded down and on the way back. Filled with a sense of guilt we eagerly offered our help to the nearest bearers. It was quickly accepted. On the way up Harry happened to notice his bag was labelled C.A.M.C. and on opening it an empty bottle of whiskey appeared. Making no mention of the fact until some time afterwards in our funk hole , the Sergeant Major appeared. "My God," said Bill. "I gave that bag to Babe Dale." Babe was his batman and he and Joe Bush (irresponsible souls) had polished off the liquor by the time the S.M. again located them.

Before we had arrived back at the break of dawn the whole Battalion had gone over the top without a barrage to the old front line to pick up survivors. They came back with few casualties, but apparently giving our position away to the enemy because all that day we certainly took it in the nose. The first spasm lasted all morning, most of the shells falling slightly long, but enough hit the opposite bank to put the fear of death in our minds. And again, during a lull in the shelling, when volunteers were wanted to go for water, it appeared infinitely better to be on the move (although the communication was shelled continuously) than to sit still and take it.

So we collected bottles and two cans apiece and away we went with the Sergeant Major's blessing. It was hot alright and when we came to the end of the trench and saw Heine lobbing shells at frequent intervals on the path to the next road, under direct observation from his balloons, we wilted a little. However, "Here goes!" and Harry led off at a jog trot towards the rear. The shells which had been landing ahead now shifted behind, then ahead again. We were spotted, but made the road in safety. Here an abandoned dressing station hit by a shell engaged our attention. The next road was several hundred yards away. Again we dodged a few, but arriving there made our way under cover to Willerval. A party was gathered around the well and it looked like a long wait. Harry got in line and in the sun I slept. Only a few minutes though, but what a relief. Harry had an idea, "Why wait for an hour while the old windlass worked a leaky pail up and down." There was plenty of wire around, so cutting the top of a can we lowered it by the wire, filled up our bottles and soon were on our way. We had only gone a short distance when a huge '59' landed near the well. Two were instantly killed, one falling down the well, and a dozen wounded. Our luck was with us for sure.


Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Fresnoy - A Personal Memoir - Part 5

In my funk hole was a wounded lad, cheery, but obviously distressed. Without disturbing him I retrieved my haversack and reported the incident to Allan. Two tins of beans and a good hunk of bread, taken with large gulps of friendly banter on Allan's part relieved this part of the day handsomely. And when a little later he left and Sergeant Davidson appeared looking for four volunteers to carry a stretcher party, although Heine had increased his shelling which had been going on incessantly all day, it wasn't too big an effort to accept the challenge of his eye as it roved around the group.

We located a stretcher in the road, and I shall never forget the mute appeal in the boy's eyes as we lifted him not too tenderly, as it was so difficult to brace oneself on the muddy slopes of the road, up and out of my funk hole. By now he was greenish in colour, he never complained -- he was grateful to be on his way to medical attention, and maybe back to life again from the Hell of that place. Someway or other with two carrying and two others helping in pinches (even when one of us slipped) we made it to the M.O.'s dugout. On the way we came to a widening in the trench made by a shell where, being absolutely done in, we were compelled to rest our load. It must have happened last night. The remains of three men lay where they had been blown by the shell. I recognized a head -- expression almost natural -- as belonging to a lad of my former Battalion with which I had often exchanged a friendly word.

In front of the M.O.'s dugout was a party of the 20th headed by Earle Barker from my own town, Paris, Ontario. They had been ordered up by the heavy shelling in support, should an attack materialize, and Barker acted as guide. It was good to see him, and a few moments chat while the M.O. examined our patient was helpful. We carried the wounded lad down to a dugout in a trench running off the communication trench and left him with food and water. His last words were full of cheer and he died there later, alone. Very sad.

Back in the road things were happening. The shelling was becoming worse. In our bay, everyone was alert. For how long we stood I don't know. From heavies Heine switched to whiz-bangs. One battery had us marked every few minutes they'd arrive. First one shell and then four in rapid succession. It was hard to be calm and even look at one's hands. One lad got the shivers, but Doc cheered him up. "Never mind old man." We couldn't keep our eyes away. "Cheer up laddie." Finally one landed right next door. "Stretcher bearer." I don't believe I could have moved, but Landon strong to the urge of duty stumbled into the next bay. We could hear moaning and Harry Dibble appeared. I hadn't seen him all day. He reported Sergeant Davidson killed in the next bay, Purvis with his heel shot away, and Morgan killed first thing this morning (our pals in the dugout the night before). He and Colonel Dennison had been in a dugout together (naturally the entrance faced Germany). There was only one -- it had been blown in -- Harry and Bill Squib the Sergeant Major had been up to the front line by Winnipeg Road which ran into it. They had buried a pal of Bill's, but there were dozens more. Apparently Heine had left, but the decision was that the line was too far forward and we would have to retire at night 1,000 yards to the next road.

When Allan appeared again later it was to announce the retirement. "Sixteen Platoon will fight the Rear Guard Action, if any is to be fought, and the only instructions I'm giving you beyond this is to get out even if you have to ditch your equipment, your overcoats and rifles, and get back." It was still light. Harry and I were amongst the last half dozen to go out, but back of us was a detail from the Brigade with machine guns which had come up to support the retirement. We had covered more than halfway when we met Purvis. He had been wounded as reported and with a sandbag wrapped around his foot had gallantly worked his way this far on the road to Blighty. Normally a quiet steady going chap he was now at the end of his resources, weak from pain and loss of blood, he couldn't go a foot farther. Added to this the thought of being deserted here to die, or be taken prisoner, he begged us to help. Well, we found a stretcher handy, ditched our equipment, our rifles, even our overcoats and loaded him on. With fear of capture or worse to spur our efforts we finally got him back assisted by Andy Atkinson -- a fine lad who heard what we were doing and came back to help. (Poor Andy was killed the next day).


Fresnoy - A Personal Memoir - Part 4

As we started I lit a cigarette offering one to my nearest neighbour. It surprised me to hear before we had gone six feet someone call out "stretcher bearer", then from another angle "stretcher bearer on the double." I couldn't see any danger and in the noise and confusion scarce recognized the whine of bullets around us. At about 50 to 70 yards we landed in a communication trench running at an angle to the front line and the orders were "up the trench to the line." Two men were ahead of me and I hadn't gone far before a bullet zipped into the mud beside my head. I dropped and lying face up beside me was Sergeant Edwards, killed by the same sniper no doubt. He was a fine fellow. They called him "Happy" as he was always smiling. We crawled along further as at this point there was only about three feet of protection in places.

At this point Joe Bush came around an angle. "Have you any bombs?" I hadn't. Fraser was behind me and neither had he. Joe and the other lad who was with him had heard Germans in the next bay. Fraser then called "there's no one following us." Well it didn't take us long to get back, and we found out the orders had been countermanded but didn't get as far as us; we were to block the trench instead and establish a bombing post. This work was nearly completed when we arrived and the rest of us fell to, converting the communication trench into a fire trench with a lookout on both sides. Towards the line and about two hundred yards away could be discerned figures moving toward the German trench. It was somewhat foggy, but they presented a good target against the light. Several of our boys took shots at them until it was suggested some might be our own men taken prisoner, at which the Sergeant intervened and ordered a stop to the firing. 

After all had quieted down my old pal Doc Rutherford, at that time Corporal Rutherford, appeared and seeing me suggested we build a funk hole. So unhooking his entrenching tool I handed it over to him while he fell to. Then I had a spell, and he had one, and I had one again and fell exhausted. Doc had another go and we both fell exhausted and slept with only our heads and the upper parts protected against rain and splinters of shells.

About noon our officer, Tom Allan, appeared and asked for Doc. I pointed him sprawled out over my legs and Allan had a good laugh, at which Doc awoke. Allan was hungry and asked Doc for provisions. They were both from Owen Sound, both graduates of pharmacy, good pals, as officer and man can often be in France. Doc had nothing and suddenly I remembered my haversack. I had thought of it earlier, but the mud had been so bad that even my cardigan was plastered from frequent wiping of my hands under my tunic. Our rifles too had been so plastered we had to lubricate the breeches to make them work.

Our bay was only the second from the road, and such a sight as met my eye: dead and wounded in all sorts of positions. The M.O's (Medical Officer's) dugout was only a short distance and farther down the road and above the trench had been tossed what looked like dozens of bodies of those beyond human aid. I then realized how easy it was to be marked missing. It was a physical impossibility to take out the stretcher cases in the mud, with snipers spotting every place where the trench was battered in. It was even impossible to bury them with the whole area so raked with machine gun and shell fire.


Monday, 25 April 2016

Fresnoy - A Personal Memoir - Part 3

After many delays, as a consequence of our guide losing his way more than once, and frequent stops to allow stretcher parties to pass, we finally landed dead on our feet from exhaustion in Winnipeg Road where "D" Company was in support for the Battalion. Being in the last section of 16 Platoon I found myself in the extreme funk hole, one to the right. The other boys having, foolishly too, located themselves in the nearest shelters that offered themselves to the community trench -- always a bad place to be as such spots were likely to be registered by enemy artillery.

We got out our ground sheets and plugged them with bullets into the clay above to form a protection from the rain. After much perseverance and pulling huge chunks of mud down on myself, in trying to get in under the rubber sheet, I finally succeeded, slumping into my funk hole in a condition bordering on coma from sheer exhaustion, this being my first trip into the front line trenches. How long I remained there I have no idea, but it seemed only seconds before I came to with the consciousness that something was happening. The most ungodly racket imaginable had broken all around me. It was not quite daylight yet but rifles were snapping, machine guns on both sides hammering, and the ground being continuously shaken with exposing shells, few of which seemed to be striking our immediate locality, but many were passing over our heads and lighting fifty yards behind. This I found out on making an inspection from outside the funk hole. No one else seemed to have moved though, so concluding this was a regular morning strafe which I had often heard about, I eased in to my hole and lit a cigarette. A slight abatement in the shelling about this time assured me that it was all over so I decided to have breakfast. Here I was wrong. The old-timers knew after so severe a strafe that it was just beginning.

Dawn had broken now and the first sight that met my eye right in the bottom of the road below my funk hole was a man laying on his back, a gaping hole in his face and very dead. I hadn't time to gaze. The next thing was someone running away from the road towards Vimy -- and then another jumped into the road right beside me. I called and he stopped in answer to my query. "What's the matter?" "Henie's come over. We'll have to hold him here." By now others were appearing from their funk holes and the front, and we stood to. The first lad who had joined us being an original took charge of our little group.

Shortly after an officer appeared. Later I got to know him as Major John Harmon. How white he looked, but calm and in the face of what he knew to be almost certain death he led us over the top. Fortunately for me and hardly realizing the seriousness of the affair, I quickly made up my mind. If there is going to be a scrap it won't be with all that load of harness on, so I left it and started with only a rifle, a bayonet, and a pocket full of bullets.


Sunday, 21 February 2016

Fresnoy - A Personal Memoir - Part 2

Four of us spent the last evening together in a sort of gun pit, with the usual corrugated iron covering, reminiscing. Well, three of us listened mostly while Morgan of the old 157th Battalion regaled us with many hilarious yarns of days in Camp Borden and fun with the nurses in Barrie Hospital where he had the good fortune to be incarcerated for a spell. We had a fine time. It was one of those evenings that stand out. Forgotten was all about the impending trip -- we were back in Canada again, neath sunny Borden skies, remembering all the good things about those days -- the cool evenings, wonderful drinking water, shower baths after parade and in the morning, the "Y" sports, the big tattoo, weekend leaves, etc. What a spell that evening was.

Then just before we moved we fell silent each immersed in his own pleasant dreams, except Morgan, perhaps, who had been listening to us for a spell. Suddenly he remarked rather quietly, "Boys, I don't feel like going up tonight." "Funny", said his pal Purvis, "neither do I." Well, we tried to cheer him up, but to me it came as a bit of a shock at that. "No Boys. I was over at Vimy and frankly it didn't bother me at all, but tonight -- well, I feel different."

Then came the "Fall In" above the trench in the dark. We moved off, jumping the trench enroute, to the shovel dump. Every man had something to carry that night besides his 48 hour rations and an extra 50 rounds. Slipping and sliding through the mud on an inky dark night we moved along and down the ridge.

Our first shock came near the bottom of the old chalk road, with startling suddenness. We were bombarded with gas shells, just as if he knew we were coming they landed in our midst. Some men were hit, some gassed and confusion reigned till we got organized again. It was an ominous start and our spirits were scarcely revived by a drizzley rain, the almost continuous whine of shells overhead, and a sickish smell of gas and corruption from dead horses which sprinkled the whole terrain. The route lay overland till we hit the trenches about one mile from the line.

And what a trip that was -- the rain had made it slimy, we slithered and slipped. I gave up my pick to help a man carry his bombs. Fifteen in a bag -- and darned heavy, too. The continual rains had made the trenches almost impassable, in places they were battered in, water waste deep in one spot, wire underfoot -- wire overhead. Continually you'd hear, "Make way for a stretcher party", and every so often find a wounded Tommy resting, or come across a group of three or four where a sniper had done his work infiltrating from the right where the trench was hammered in.

I remember one incident well. We were resting, by now our hands and clothes were an inch thick in mud, and our rifles -- well, we didn't examine them till the next day and the breechings were plastered with mud. One hardly knew who was near him, but I heard a voice remark with the depth of feeling which such a thought would indicate, "Man, if only our mothers could see us now." A star shell went up and I saw his face. He meant it too -- someone laughed -- and such is man's inhumanity. I laughed as well, quietly, and strangely enough the load felt lighter and we moved on, feeling just a little bit warmer to one another -- a little less sorry for our own particular selves, and more aware of the fact there were others, too, in the same box.


Fresnoy - A Personal Memoir - Part 1

by Edgar Harold, 19th Battalion, Canadian Infantry

Amongst the battle honours of the Canadian Corps there are many names which to the men of one Battalion have an entirely different significance than to the men of another. Such a name is Fresnoy. It was captured in April 1917 by the men of the 6th Brigade and for them there is at least some little satisfaction in the fact that "they captured Fresnoy". (Fresnoy: a small farming village situated 9 miles northeast of Arras).

For the men of the 4th Brigade, however, and in particular the 19th and 20th Battalions there is no such satisfaction as that, for the 19th "lost" Fresnoy -- but lest any misunderstanding occur it might be well to explain that the village of Fresnoy, or rather - what was once Fresnoy -- when captured formed the very point of a salient. A bulge had been made in the German lines at this point -- a very deep bulge - and the intention no doubt was that a strong point should be created here which would assist attacking troops on the right and left to straighten out the line.

Heine wasn't exactly dumb at that though and the attack having pretty well slowed up now, his morale was greatly improved by the addition of reinforcements. He decided, just as the morning the 19th took over, and before they really established themselves in the line, to do the straightening out himself. He had all the advantages with him of the high ground: several days continuous bombardment from three sides, which destroyed all the wire; and a fresh Imperial Battalion on our right composed mostly of young boys who stood the gaff too long and were in no fit shape to receive the attack when it came. He got in on them on the morning of the 8th of May, 1917, a foggy dismal morning after all night and several nights before rain.

But to go back. We had parked on the ridge in a series of shelters in old German trenches a short distance from the edge of the hill. We had heard the bombardment for days and on the 7th many walking wounded, wild eyed, and with all the appearances of having undergone a tough experience, passed along the trench. Prospects ahead looked none too rosy. We knew we were for it that night.


Thursday, 18 February 2016

Rookie Joins "D" Company - Part 3

Our first real appreciation of CSM Squib came about ten days later. We had been sent on a fatigue party to the Engineers for a week and assisted in the building of the plank road near Thelus, and when we came back the battalion was in dugouts on the east side of the slope. The first day we were there, Bill came along and invited us out into the sunshine.

The trench was only about three feet deep here and up to this point we hadn't used it. Here a fine view could be had of the entire region towards Fresnoy and Lens on the north. Bill pointed it all out to us, and in the midst of the narrative we heard a shell coming with startling precipitation. We had become somewhat familiar with the sound the previous few weeks, but this was a big one and was going to be close. Some of the boys eased into the dugout. The shell landed above us near the top, but Bill betrayed no sign whatever of interest, going on more earnestly than ever with his story. Three minutes later another shell came and we again experienced the same funny feeling in the pits of our stomachs. This one was below us and closer, but still Bill was unmoved, and despite our own misgivings we held our ground. For two minutes he continued to chat and pass remarks, and then said, "Well boys, he's apparently got us spotted, you'd better get inside." We needed no further invitation and Bill, without hurrying in the least, made his way along the slope and towards the next dugout. The next shell was just about due and in a wordless prayer I hoped to hell he'd just get around the corner into the deeper trench ahead of it. He just did and the next one was really close. It sprayed dirt all around our abode and shell splinters screamed through the air for a long time. You can readily imagine Bill made a wonderful hit with us new fellows that day.

I got another  glimpse of him at Fresnoy not so long afterward. We had retired a thousand yards to Winnipeg Road abandoning the deep salient where our losses were were so heavy that day. The word came, "Stand to, Heinie is coming over." Remember? It was the evening. Harry Dibble and I had thrown away our rifles in order to carry out "Purvis" who had been wounded. Harry had found another, however, and I had a little pocket revolver I had won in a poker game on the way across the pond. Bill Squib, picking out the two newest recruits, parked right beside Harry and I, and proud boys we were too as Bill waved his old hat in the air and with fulsome oaths, called the old bastards to come on. Then he looked down at me, tensed and white of face as I no doubt was after the strenuous night and day we had had, and burst out laughing. "Well for God's sakes kid, what the hell do you expect to hit with that pea shooter?" I had to smile too for I was no longer "skeered" but ready and hopeful for them to come.

Poor old Bill, he was the best Sergeant Major I ever had the honour to meet, and the friendship which we shared is one of my proudest recollections. We had come to look upon him as impregnable, steady as a rock, without any nerves... I slept on a bank beneath him at Gouay Servins the night before the move south in March 1918. He was restless that night tossing about considerably and I wondered... It seemed almost unbelievable... "Has Bill got a hunch?" Perhaps he had. It was his last trek and he died as he had lived waiving an old French sword in the face of the enemy that morning when they came over at Beillecourt.

To me Bill Squib was the supreme example of courage and inspiration to his men. When he passed on there was a feeling of gloom throughout the whole Battalion.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Rookie Joins "D" Company - Part 2

It seemed hard to believe in the actuality of those first grim casualties. On the way up odd parties could be seen moving about here and there in the vicinity of La Targette and my stomach took nearly a complete somersault when someone said, “There’s ‘Bunny’ Garde.” We had heard of Bunny’s death also the night before. I expected to see his body, but it was actually Bunny in the flesh and even the sight of him was another shock to a stomach which was much “in a wind up” condition. Bunny said the report of his death (like Mark Twain’s) had been greatly exaggerated. Bunny was wrong, however; the report was only anticipated by about one month.

We finally came to a halt in a big crater and the adjutant appeared from nowhere with Bernie Brown at his heels and we were detailed to companies. The old-timers were called out first and they disappeared without further preliminaries. The new men were then detailed and it fell to my lot along with two others to go to “D” Company. So we accompanied L/Cpl. Joe Stehl over a maze of shell holes to — well how anyone found “D” Company or anything else I couldn’t figure out, it all looked the same to me as Heinie’s counter barrage had sure made a mess of almost anything that resembled a trench. The CSM then appeared unshaven — without a head-covering, tunic open at the neck and a sweater underneath. What a hell of a Sergeant Major he looked to us, in our ignorance. But he was friendly, took our names and numbers, religion, next-of-kin, etc. In the meantime the mess hogs appeared with rations. We got in at the tail end, and coffee was our only sustenance that meal. But there was one bright spot. Harry Dibble appeared, and great was our joy to be in the same company. He said he’d get us into his dugout, only to return to us sitting on a bump in the snow later, with the discouraging news that they were all filled up — nowhere could we go; all the dugouts were filled up even to the stairways in some cases.

I will draw a veil over the rest of the day and night that followed. How we kept from perishing then and there will always be a mystery… one I don’t care to dwell on. To give CSM Bill Squib his due though, he told the Company clerk to find us quarters, but there the matter ended.


Monday, 15 February 2016

Rookie Joins "D" Company - Part 1

by Edgar Harold, 19th Battalion, Canadian Infantry

It was a bleak day in April 1917, exactly one week after Vimy and the reinforcement draft, of which I was a member. 

I’d spent the previous night at Mont St. Eloi, having come up from a month’s stay at the Cups Yards at Hersin Coupigny. The trip up to the battalion lines at “Mill Street” over muddy roads and shell torn trails was far from being a pleasure jaunt. Added to the natural trepidation one had going into the unknown was the knowledge of the ground we were crossing. Here rumour said 80,000 Frenchmen had died in a vain effort to win the ridge. Rusted French carbines and pieces of equipment sticking up through the mud and snowy water bore mute testimony to the truth of this. We cast half fearful glances into every shell hole for dead bodies we had been told would still be seen from the last big show on April 9th, but the sight of which happily we were spared by the Herculean efforts of the mopping up parties.

The reality of war had come home to us very forcibly the night before when we had met some of the boys from the old Sportsman’s Battalion at the “Y” at St. Eloi. They had the advantage over us of a month up the lines and gave us the news that Riley Helm, an old boy from my section in the old battalion, had been killed the day before. Poor Riley, we had slept in the same tent all the previous summer at Camp Borden.


Vimy Remembered - Part 3

In At the Forks of the Grand he was asked if they were aware what was happening elsewhere. He replied, ‘No, we didn’t know anything beyond what our own platoon or company was doing. That was true of most battles, big and small.’

Did you begin to think the war was coming to an end, he was also asked? On October 10, 1918, when we were going through a little town. It was the first we went through that wasn’t completely destroyed by shell-fire. And the night before people were coming down the road with baby-buggies and all that kind of stuff, getting back of the lines. We also saw dogs and cats. Any place else we had been nearly everything was wiped off the map.

On the chances of getting killed: Well, you always knew that there was a possibility. One method I used to keep from thinking of being badly wounded or killed was to keep busy. I took every opportunity to volunteer for extra duties… After I had been at the front for a few months, they sent me down to the divisional reserve to take a NCO’s course. Towards the end of it, I was all pepped up to go back to the front, but they told me I had to stay on as an instructor. I said, ‘I don’t want to do that’… I saw the colonel, and he said, ‘If you feel that way about it, we’ll see that you go back at the end of the course…’ You see, all my friends were at the front and I felt as though I was deserting them. So eventually I got back. I had weighed all the possibilities. I realized that I might be wounded or killed, but I must say that I didn’t really have any kind of hunch until the day I was wounded. The night before I began to think things over. I said to myself, ‘I wonder how many times I can get away with continually going over the top?’ It was a different kind of war towards the end. In trench-warfare you felt you had a chance. You could take some protection and the casualties were not too heavy in a normal trip into the line. There would be a few wounded and killed, but not many.

*Note: from At the Forks of the Grand, Vol. 2, D. A. Smith, Paris Public Library Board

Vimy Remembered - Part 2

I was lying there half asleep when suddenly all hell broke loose. The first thing I could think of in my muddled way was a typewriter. It sounded just like that. It was a machine-gun, and the bullets were whizzing overhead. The next thing was a barrage of whiz-bangs, and boy! they sure came fast. If they banged on the other side of the trench, you were lucky. I said to myself, ‘Well, I’d better see what’s going on.’ So I got out and looked around. I thought that this was the usual early morning strafe that we had to get used to. So I eased myself back into the hole and was just about to open a tin of beans when I thought I’d better look again. When I did, I found that the fellows were all out of their funk-holes, and that a man was running over the top right by me. I said, ‘What’s up?’ He said, ‘The Germans have overrun the front line! Our boys have all run away.’ So I said, ‘Well we’re in support. We’ll have to hold them here.’

So we got our rifles out and stood to, but in the darkness we couldn’t see anything. Then an officer appeared and he said, ‘Boys, we’ve got to go over the top and recapture that trench.’ As we started over the top, I thought, ‘Well, I am right so far, so I lit a cigarette, and right then somebody called out, ‘Stretcher bearer! Stretcher bearers on the double.’ I looked around and saw that somebody had been hit.

After going some little distance, we came to a communication trench and got into it. Then the officer yelled, ‘Up the trench and bomb them out!’ So we started up the trench in single file, and I was third. Suddenly, I saw my sergeant lying dead. We got just a short distance farther when a man came back and said to me, ‘Have you any bomb?’ ’No’ I said. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘there are some Germans up there. We can hear them.’ I said, ‘I’ll go back and get some.’ When I started back I found that nobody had been following us. I said to the other two, ‘We’d better go back. They want us to establish a strong point.’ This we did with sandbags, and we mounted a machine-gun. All the others were standing to and firing at dim shadows they could barely see ahead of them. So I said to the other sergeant, ‘Can you be sure that those are Germans or our own men?’ He said, ‘I’m not sure.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘perhaps we should stop firing.’ At that, he instructed to stop. That’s how much confusion there was. As a result of this little engagement we lost 75 of the 750 men in the battalion.


*Note: from At the Forks of the Grand, Vol. 2, D. A. Smith, Paris Public Library Board

Vimy Remembered - Part 1

In late 1915, 17 year old Edgar Harold, my grandfather, tried to enlist. He was unsuccessful. He later tried twice more but was also refused. On February 8, 1916, when not quite 18, he was accepted along with three boyhood friends into the 19th Battalion, Canadian Infantry.

Many years later my grandfather was asked by my uncle, Jack Pickell, editor of the Paris Star, in the book At the Forks of the Grand* why he was so eager to enlist. He replied that he thought his motives were pretty good. He went on to say there was quite an attempt to educate people on the causes of the war and he said he felt that he and his friends were fighting for what was right. Being brought up on Boys’ Own Annual and Chums and novels like Henty and Ballantyne, Edgar looked at joining as an adventure.

He was also asked if he could have imagined how terrifying an artillery bombardment or being under machine-gun fire could be. He replied, “Well, we knew it as well as one could from a distance. I talked to Am Fraser, and he gave me a pretty good run down on it. It didn’t sound all that good… I was prepared for it in a sense, that’s all. When you get pitched into it, you find it’s something you really couldn’t imagine." 

The following is from the same interview in 1978 in At the Forks of the Grand*:

My first experience in the line was probably the most devastating… It was on April 16, 1917 - the night we first went up to the line. We had just started down the hill on the other side of Vimy Ridge when shells began to fall - gas shells, quite a lot of them. We were choking, but just had to stay in line. Finally, still in line, we reached the trenches The water was up to our knees and deeper in places, and all kinds of wounded and dead were lying there in the mud because they couldn’t be evacuated… We landed in a sunken road and were told to spread out, so I took part in the spreading out and then put myself up against a parapet and dug a little funk hole with my entrenching tool. I then got my groundsheet and fastened to the top of the hole with with some bullets pulled through it… Finally I slid in and lay there exhausted - completely worn out.


*Note: from At the Forks of the Grand, Vol. 2, D. A. Smith, Paris Public Library Board

Edgar Harold - Sergeant - 19th Battalion, Canadian Infantry

I knew my grandfather, Edgar Harold, had won the Military Medal during World War 1 and that he'd fought at Vimy Ridge and elsewhere, but I knew very little about his time in the Canadian Army and certainly very little about how he won the medal. The Military Medal (MM) was awarded to non-commissioned officers for acts of bravery in the field and Edgar certainly wasn’t one to boast about it.

It wasn’t that I didn’t try to get information about the war from him while he was still alive. He simply programmed himself not to speak about the terrible things that happened. After all, it was supposed to be 'the war to end all wars' -- a short, quick victory.

Imagine for a moment, within months of joining up you find yourself in such horrifying conditions, living in a cold, muddy trench infested with lice and rats? Friends are dying around you and most of you are just kids. You’re under constant enemy fire and soon want it all over, but for over 60,000 Canadians there will be no return. This is not what you signed up for.

Well, it turns out Edgar was in fact interviewed about Vimy before his death in 1980 and wrote a bit about his experiences in his memoirs. It wasn't until years after his death that I came across his journals and thus this blog. Read here about my grandfather’s experiences and let us rejoice in the fact we have a written record of these events for future reference.

Jim Cook