After a couple of months we were sent to France, landing at Le Havre. The only thing I can remember there was that we climbed about 100 steps or more to get into town. We then went to Etape camp and trained some more and proceeded to the front. I joined the 50th Battalion from Calgary and spent the rest of the war with them. The 50th was stationed at a place called Chateau de la Haise (pronounced Hay). In 1917 and 1918 it fought on the Vimy and Lens front most of the time until we moved to the Amiens front for the final push at the end of the war.
I joined them four days after the Battle of Vimy Ridge which the Canadians took on April 13, 1917) if I remember rightly, and helped to clean up the battlefield. Though the dead and wounded had been taken care of, it was still quite a mess. The French had lost somewhere around fifteen thousand men trying to take it earlier in the war as it was a very strategical position commanding a view of many miles on our side of it. We had no aerial observation facilities during the first part of the war comparatively speaking. The British lost ten or twelve thousand before the Canadians took it with a loss of five thousand killed and wounded.
The morning they went over it was snowing and raining, the storm blowing towards the Germans making very bad visibility for them. They were taken by surprise, I guess. The front line trenches were very close together I was told and the whole ridge was honeycombed with dugouts and mine shafts. Both sides had sappers as they were called whose job was to dig tunnels under the enemy lines and put in massive charges of dynamite to be exploded in case of attack. Where no man's land was wide enough there were craters between the lines. The rival sappers used to hear each other working I was told.
In our cleaning up operation I was over quite a lot of the battlefield. All the craters and shell holes (there were hundreds of the latter) were full of water which was red with blood. Most of it must have been human though I suppose some was from pack horses or mules but none were lying around which was strange after only four or five days. The whole area still smelt like a battlefield. There was small creek just below Vimy Ridge on our side called Souchez river about three feet deep most of the time. Looking into it off a foot bridge over it I saw several French helmets and some human leg and arm bones as well as two skulls which impressed me very much at that time.
After a few days at Vimy we were moved up to the support line and put on night working parties carrying supplies, rations and things up the line. On one occasion I was carrying ammunition up, one man's load being two stokes mortar shells (40 pounds a piece) in two sand bags tied together and slung over the shoulder and a box of one dozen Mills hand grenades (10 or 15 pounds, I'd think) on the other - a fairly comfortable load under favourable conditions. I had to walk in a communication trench - a good deep one and quite smooth on the bottom and wide enough. Fritz was throwing a few six inch shells around indiscriminately. One hit about 10 feet from the side of the trench and buried me and my ammunition in about a foot of dirt, throwing me down on my face. Of course, my grena4es were somewhere in front of me. Not being experienced, I couldn't help being afraid something might pop so I didn't waste time looking for the grenades. After I got a few paces away I realized that if anything was going to happen it would already have done so. The shells weren't detonated so they were safe. The grenades were thought safe until the pin was pulled but I never trusted them too much. We had about a mile to carry them and made four trips during the night. We got to our billets (bunkholes dug into the side of a trench) and the sergeant dished out the rum ration, my first by the way - a good generous one. I and my pal, another kid about my age, had about fifty yards to go to get to our blankets. We made it but only just. The sun was rising when we got there but it was 2:00 p.m. when we came back to life. We felt fine.
On another night I was carrying up rations when we got to Coy headquarters which was located on a sunken road. This had been built by Napoleon so he could move troops across country without being seen, we were told. They were about seven feet deep and must have been quite a problem to build in his day, though I guess prisoners of war were used for the job in those days. Half of us had to carry part of the rations to the front line while the others could go to their shelters which were dug into the banks of the road with corrugated iron roofs to keep the rain off. The experienced ones were smart enough to go to billets as soon as they dropped their loads and we green ones had to go the rest of the way up the line about an hour later. It was only about a mile, I think, so we didn't care anyhow. In fact, I was keen to see what the front line was like. We went up through a communication trench and rested a couple of times for ten minutes. I sat down on something to rest and I remember thinking it sure smelt bad up there. Finally I put my hand down to see what I was sitting on and found it was the shoulder of a dead man who was laying in the mud. I was pretty near tired enough to not care but I did get up and stood the rest of the period. A month later I wouldn't have bothered.
When I got back to my billet which was just big enough for one comfortably, I found another guy laying on top of it. I could see he was a stranger and saw a 202 Battalion badge on his shoulder. I tried to wake him up as he was laying so I couldn't get in the dugout when I found the top of his head had been blown off by a piece of shrapnel. I was dog-tired by this time and decided I'd try to get in the next dugout with some of the other boys whom I'd discovered while at company headquarters were members of my battalion from Canada who had come to France in an earlier draft. They were the ones who dumped their rations and went to their billets as soon as we got to company headquarters. When I got to their dugout I saw it had received an almost direct hit by a shell. Everybody in it was dead including the sergeant whose stomach was lying on top of him with an odour rising off it smelling just like a fresh killed hog. As I didn't know where any of the others were located, I pulled the dead 202 man off my dugout and started to get in my blankets when my hand felt wet and slimy right where my head would lay: LuckilY 1 had thrown my great coat in on top of my pillow before I left and by taking it out carefully the rest of my bedding was dry. So I laid the greatcoat outside on the ground and was asleep before I hit the pillow (which wasn't a pillow by the way but my pack sack with some extra clothing in it).
The 202 Battalion had been sent up to reinforce the 44th who had got badly cut up by shell fire. I guess I should mention that the 44th, 46th, 47th, and 50th battalions formed the three other brigades formed the 4th division. The 202 men had gone by while we were taking rations to the front line. I think we were all relieved that night and went back to Chateau de la Haise for two or three weeks as we were pretty badly cut up by shell fire too. While at the Chateau we took battle order drill, gas drill, target practice, etc. We also got reinforcements.
On June 3rd (King George's birthday)we went up the line again and staged a night raid. It was quite an experience for me - my first trip over the top. Just after dark we crawled out of the front line trench about fifteen yards and were supposed to wait three minutes while our artillery softened up the German front line. The idea of putting us fifteen yards in front of our line was so we'd be out of our line when the German artillery opened up on it. During this three minute period the sergeants dished out the rum. Our sergeant was a middle-aged Scotchman who sure liked his rum. They were supposed to give us two ounces but it was poured from the jug into a coffee mug and would vary up to half a mug. He'd ask every man if he wanted it. (Quite a few didn't, by the way.) I was one as I wanted to have a clear head on that job. I said, "No, thanks."
He said, "Good, that's another one for me," and he'd take it.
The lads on either side of me gave him theirs also so he was getting plenty. When being out there the first time, three minutes seems at least three hours so when a guy took off prematurely on the left, we greenhorns went also. As it was dark I never noticed the others disappearing but the Gerrys had started putting star shells up so it was easy to see where the German line was. Presently I found myself there all alone. There were ten Germans in sight to myleft up the trench about twenty-five yards. When they saw me they put their hands up and came toward me. I never saw a rifle among them - perhaps a working party. I noticed the one in front had only one hand up, the other hand down with a hand grenade in it. As he came in front of me he turned facing me and I shot him at about five feet. He dropped the-grenade and turned down a communication trench and the others all followed photos I found myself alone with our overhead shells still bursting all around above me. I now think they had raised the barrage to the German support trenches. Anyhow, I jumped into the trench.
Pretty soon the rest of the boys got there and we went on to the next line and stopped there. We were supposed to stay there until told to return by a battalion runner who never came by the way. One of our lads got stuck somehow coming over and called for help. Three or four went to help him but it took them about half an hour to get him loose. Meantime an engineer officer came up and wanted men to put a block in a communication trench - the one the Germans went down from their front line when I got there. The lads that were trying to get the boy loose had the tools or something and the officer went to them and wanted them to leave and come with photos As they wouldn't until they got the boy out, the officer was going to have them court-martialled for refusing to obey an officer in the field. He could have made it stick too. However, they got the boy loose about then and put in the block, so it was forgotten I guess.
Just about dawn a group of men came out of another communication trench from the German side. Some of us started firing on them when they started to yell at us in English. We recognized them as some who had gone too far in the dark and were just coming back. Luckily, no one was hurt.
That was the only night attack I was in and it was plenty for me. There were about thirty of us in that spot. We stayed there all day afraid to move in daylight and decided to send a man back as soon as it was dark. Then a scout came along and said all the rest went back before daylight the night before. Headquarters thought we were missing. Lucky us, the Germans never came back either. As soon as it was dark we went out too. As we had one wounded man and no stretcher, we slung him on rubber sheets between two German rifles with bayonets. Their rifles were longer than ours. Anyhow, it was a very poor affair as his seat hung down so he rubbed on anything that stuck up and yelled from pain. We were following a disused trench that seemed to angle towards our line, but after following it for half an hour we did not seem to be getting anywhere. I volunteered to go over the top and see how far it was and come back to tell them. I said I'd be back in twenty minutes as I figured it couldn't be more than fifty yards. Everyone was tired and said okay.
I went, found the front line and came back. I was only gone about fifteen minutes by my watch but they had gone. I had left my rifle at the spot and found it but I didn't know which way to go looking for them and was a little peeved at them for not waiting for me. They no doubt thought I'd got lost or something and wasn't coming back. I went back home and stayed there. They did not come in until nearly morning about half a mile back from where we started.
I had found a Lewis gun spare parts bag laying in the trench during the day and being a conscientious young soldier I picked it up, kept it all day, and gave it to an officer when I found the front line. When I came back he told me to take it to a Lewis gun section up the trench about a hundred yards who had lost theirs and to attach myself to that section for the day as we had got disorganized going over. We were to be relieved that night and would reorganize when we got out.
As we hadn't had much to eat the day before, I was pretty hungry that morning. After I had eaten (they had plenty of rations), I crawled into an empty bunkhole. These were shallow shelters dug in the side of a trench for temporary use and protected you from rifle fire and flying shrapnel - a place to rest when off duty. As there were only two of the section left, I told them I'd take a turn on sentry duty. Whenever they wanted me, they were to waken me. The senior said he would but as he couldn't sleep, he didn't care how long I did. It was fairly quiet when I went to sleep, I slept until about two o'clock. It was raining, I think, but still fairly quiet. The No. 1 gunner (senior man in the gun section and in charge of the section when no Non-commissioned Officer, N.C.O., is available which was most of the time) was alone as the man who was with him had taken our water bottles to get filled with good water at a well that was in or near the front line about a quarter of a mile away just before I went to sleep. He should have been back long ago. I said I would go and find out what had happened to photos I found him about twenty yards down the trench blown up by a shell. I only recognized him because he had my water bottle on him with my name on it. The bottles were full so he very nearly got back with them. The number l (I never knew his name) was just about ready to crack up -as he said he had had all he could take for one day. He said I had slept through the worst shell fire he had ever seen. He didn't wake me because he was sure we would both be killed and it would be better for me if I never woke up. He meant it too. He said he couldn't possibly have gone asleep himself, so why wake me. He was a six-foot Englishman in his thirties, I'd say. When we pulled out to go back I wanted to carry the spare parts bag as a Lewis gun weighs 35 pounds but he said, "No, when I start out of here you will never be able to keep me in sight." He was right, too as I never saw him again. I think he belonged to another company if he belonged to the 50th battalion at all. We had 607 casualties out of that deal with most of them from that day's shell fire. It was harder on a man than fighting as you had to sit still and take it.
I joined the Lewis gun section then. We were out about a month that time I think. I trained with the gun section and liked it much better as it was interesting learning to use the gun - perhaps because six of us had to use up 1000 rounds of ammunition every day on the range. Of course) we had to take it out of bandoliers, load it into gun magazines which held 45 rounds, and fire it in bursts of five or more at various kinds of targets - some ordinary rifle targets, some stationary and moving men silhouetted about 100 and 200 yards away. We also had to take the gun apart and put it together again with and without blindfolds so as to be able to do it in the dark if necessary. We also had to change the breech bolt in the dark.
I was told by another lad who had gone with the Scotch sergeant who dished the rum out that he had taken them over five or six lines of trenches before they got him stopped and he decided to go back. He had fallen in the mud somewhere and got the front of the gun plugged up with mud. The Lewis gun was air-cooled and had radiator flanges running the length of the gun barrel with a cover over them. Air was sucked between those flanges by a cup shaped thing on the end of the gun barrel. The speed of the bullet caused suction behind the bullet. The gun couldn't be used until cleaned up but that didn't worry Jock. When he had to cross a trench he'd cover the Germans who were not standing to6 and holler, "Hands up." (There were no star shells back there. The Germans close enough to see him being startled by an attack from behind, raised their hands. Jock and his men jumped across the trench and got to the next one aided by the darkness before they got into action.
We were about the same time making a tour up the line for three or four weeks with one week in reserve) one week in support, and one week in line) getting 40 to 60% casualties a trip on average. On one or two occasions though we had between 80 and 90 percent casualties just from shell fire. The Lewis gun section was bad for casualties.
On the first trip I went up as No. 6 (Junior man) and came back as No. 3. The next two trips I became No. 2 and then No. 1 rapid promotion. We would have a muster parade each time we came out. When the battalion sergeant would see me reporting as the sole survivor of the section three times in a row, he'd say jokingly, "What! You back again! How long is this going to last?" I'd say, "You might just as well get used to it, Sarge, as I'm coming every time as I like it this way."
As I was now senior man, I was put in charge of a section and, when out of line, was instructing new gun recruits. About this time we started getting drafted men. One day I found myself instructing a school teacher that I had gone to school to six years before; we recognized each other right away. He told the class I used to be his pupil and now he was mine. When I was going aboard the hospital train after I had been wounded he was laying on a stretcher in front of the dugout they were using for a clearing station - either dead or unconscious. He died very soon afterwards. That was around three months later.
Well, we had a few minor engagements around Lens during the next month. I think it was on one of those that the brass was trying to be nice to us and gave us a ride out on a narrow gauge train they use to haul supplies up to the line. I think it had seven open cars on it. Two hundred or more of us climbed on board - all that could stand up on the cars. They never told us to put on the hand brake wheel which stuck up on each car when going down hill especially if there was a curve at the bottom of it. We were all dog-tired and only half awake. The cars had sides about four feet high on them by the way. I was standing about in the centre of it with my Lewis gun. After we got going I managed to squat down and stand the gun up between my legs. I was just starting to snooze when the whistle blew for brakes. The guys near the brake wheel didn't know what it meant. The engine tipped over and the cars jack-knifed and piled up. Our car tipped over on its side. I grabbed the edge of the side as it came up above me and was standing up. There were men I piled two or three tiers deep below me. I couldn'thold on so I just grabbed the gun and walked over them. I couldn't even help stepping on their faces but no one squawked so I got away with it. One man got his leg stuck between our car and the one next it and was really in agony. It took us a good half hour to get him out and then only after I accidentally found a broken track rail about twenty feet long. About ten of us got it between the cars and pried them apart. A stretcher bearer had morphined him so he was out of pain anyhow. I think we still had to walk a mile or more home.
Another time we were in support and I and my section were in a shelter close to a road that ran along a railway embankment. which was used quite a bit. The Germans used to shell it every fore noon with six inch shells. They were very systematic about it and would drop them 100 yards apart about once an hour for two or three hours and then quit for the day. A lad that I knew got hit above the ankle with a piece of shrapnel that practically cut his foot off. It was so nearly off that the Red Cross men just stood it on the stretcher beside the leg stump but it was hardly bleeding. Strange to say they saved his foot and he walked on it again. We were told the war was over for him no doubt. I know we never saw him again. When we carried him out the Germans started down the road with their shells again. When I saw we were about 100 yards from where the last one landed, I told the sergeant in charge the next one was going to land right about here and that we better hit the round. He thought I was panicking and gave me a dirty look. I was walking behind just then as we were changing off on the stretcher. When I heard the shell coming I hit the ground. It landed about ten feet from us but didn't go off - a miracle pure and simple. Had it gone off that close, we'd have all been just bits and pieces. The sergeant sure gave me a funny look then but never said anything.
Another time we camped overnight in a disused gun emplacement. It was covered over with sheet iron and was watertight anyhow, but had some rats in the walls. After we had gone to bed; I was just going to sleep when one plopped down on my face. Before I was properly awake, I heaved my tin helmet at him in the dark and hit another guy who was laying across from me or came close to him anyhow. The helmet came back and hit the wall about six inches above my head. His sense of direction was very good but, fortunately, his elevation was a little off. In the morning I heard a guy saying how some so and so had just about brained him with a helmet in the night but he never found out who it was.
I think we went over the top again about this time and took a very well made line that bad never been used much. There was a chalk ridge behind it that had some machine gun posts in it. They were giving us some trouble by making us stay down in the trench. I guess it was our objective as we didn't try to go any farther. Lots of times in that war the men weren't told what the strategic objective was. Anyhow we took off before the officer got the rum ration all dished out so he just dropped the jug where he was and forgot about it. We had no trouble as the Germans seemed to have left before we got there, except for the machine gun nest on the ridge. We had just got settled down when a couple of guns opened up from the ridge. Pretty soon a lad from my section who liked his rum came staggering over the edge of the trench with his rifle slung upside down and the bayonet trailing on the ground behind photos He was as happy as a lord and stuttered, "I brought the rum, boys." It was him the machine guns had been working on for about twenty minutes or more while he was staggering across no man's land. Of course, he should have been punished severely but he looked so funny the officer just picked up the jug and finished dishing out the rum. Carter, the lad's name, was already snoring peacefully on. The Lord looks after drunken men and babies, I guess.
I found a wounded German Red Cross man in the trench close to where I was. His wound had been dressed and he seemed to be sleeping, so I didn't disturb him at the time. I was proceeding to get a lunch for myself as we had brought a day's rations with us, when he woke up and called for "wasser". I gave him a drink from my bottle. He had a bad looking thigh wound. Then he asked for "brote" so I gave him a slice of bread. He wanted water again. I only had about a quart of water with me but I gave him one more. Then he wanted bread again. I decided to look in his pack as I didn't have much bread left. In his pack I found a loaf of rye bread so I cut off a slice of it and gave it to him but he wouldn't eat it. He preferred my white bread so I tasted his. It wasn't too bad for rye bread except that it was a bit stale. I didn't give him anymore of mine and he went to sleep again. I scooped out a small vertical hollow in the side of the trench and sat back in it and went to sleep too.
Presently I was wakened by a horrible clatter and roar and saw my first tank on the edge of the trench which was at least six feet deep and seven or eight feet wide at the top. It just eased over until it over balanced and its nose was just about touching the other side. Then it started to climb up balanced the front end down and it was over heading straight for the ridge where four heavy machine guns were giving it all they had. The German machine guns weren't bothering itat all. It had a small canon and two machine guns as armaments and drove around the German position about twice and it was silenced. It was not working the next day either. We were relieved then.
The wounded German was still quiet. It was getting late in the afternoon and I dosed off again. I awoke after dark and found two of our Red Cross men looking at my wounded German and he was dead. I told them what I had done for him and they said I had killed him with kindnesses. He had a stomach wound and giving him water killed photos I never saw any bandage on his body as I guess they had put his tunic on and buttoned it up to keep him warm. In those days I imagine a stomach wound was fatal anyhow.