Modern History Sourcebook:
Private Donald Fraser,
Canadian Expeditionary Force:
Selections from My Daily Journal, 1915-1916
Selections, September 1915
We made our first trip to the firing line with rations, etc. for
the 28th Battalion.
The night is dark, wet and boisterous and we feel cold and shivery
all over. Nevertheless we leave the school, pass the Chateau and
halt beside H'Quarters, formerly the residence of the Belgian
doctor. The house is in fairly good repair, only several panes
of glass being broken and a few chips taken out of the building,
whilst the garden possesses a souvenir or two in the shape of
shell-holes. We line up for our loads, my particular one being
sandbags. Being a bit green and confident of my powers I tell
the fellow who is loading to chuck some more on my shoulder. Frisk,
a Swede, who was behind me, not to be outdone accepted a bigger
pile. We had not gone very far when we were sorry we had spoken.
We had to go about three hundred yards across the open before
we struck the communication trench which rejoiced in the Latin
appellation of "Via Gellia." The path was muddy and
slippery which added to our trials. At the entrance to the trench
a fellow ahead of me slipped and fell into a ditch. The air was
blue with rich language for the next few moments. The trench led
through a hedge then zigzagged for a few hundred yards. By this
time it began to deepen and stray bullets were hitting earth especially
near an old haystack close by. A little further on the trench
was six to seven feet deep so we were fairly safe from rifle fire.
Our loads were becoming troublesome falling off our shoulders
and the Ross rifle inclining outwards, the muzzle now and then
would catch on the side of the trench clogging up with mud. We
had to rest frequently but not for long. Dead Cow Corner was passed
and at Beaver Hat we entered the skeleton remains of a belt of
wood. Bullets were cracking in the trees. Strong Point 11 was
soon passed. From here the trench began to wind up the base of
the Wytschaete Ridge. On our right the support line branched off.
A hundred and fifty yards further on we file into a trench without
trench mats near a couple of crosses denoting the graves of former
occupants. We are now only a few hundred yards away from the enemy
so we move quietly up to the appointed dump in the front line.
There is a perfect hiss of bullets overhead and a peculiar hum
from those that ricochet. Our own men are firing in return and
every bay gives forth a crack, crack. It is the custom as soon
as darkness sets in for both sides to keep up a more or less continuous
fire at each other's trenches, to keep one another from attacking
and also, to keep patrols from No Man's Land. It also shows that
one is awake and there is not the same chance of being taken by
surprise. The tendency when firing in the dark is to fire high
with the result that the majority of the bullets go fringing over
the trenches, maybe to find a victim two thousand yards behind;
many men get killed in this fashion. It shows, therefore, how
risky it is moving around in the open within rifle range. . .
Tonight we had our introduction to dug-out life. The dug-outs
were small, damp and cold and overrun with rats. It is needless
to add once a fighting soldier leaves England he practically sleeps
in his clothes till he gets back there again. Taking off our boots,
there were three of us in the dug-out, we lay down between our
waterproof sheet and overcoat and snatched as many winks as we
could. There is a change of sentry every two hours, so the chances
are you get wakened up between the shifts, either by your mate
getting up or coming in or being wakened by mistake for guard.
To interrupt your prospective slumbers, sometimes, the order to
"stand to" for the night comes along which means you
have to hold yourseif in readiness for eventualities, in other
words, you have to be wide awake with equipment on, etc. An order
to "stand to" is equivalent to expecting an attack.
Many a time we wished those attacks would materialize so that
we could get a half decent sleep afterwards. At sunrise and sunset
there is a "stand to" every day, these being the times
the enemy is liable to come over. When the order is given everyone
is supposed to get out of his dug-out; get his equipment on and
have his rifle handy. "Stand down" is usually passed
along half an hour to an hour afterwards, when the day shifts
start. In the daytime two or three guards are considered sufficient
to keep watch.
We notice our rations are increased but there is no variety---tea,
bread, hard biscuits, butter, jam, bacon, bully-beef, maconochie,
fresh meat, cheese, rice, dried vegetables. These are the supplies
but they are not of daily occurrence. It may be tinned food one
day and fresh meat the next and so on. It is general knowledge
that rations are increased when we go into the line. The rum we
heard so much about came up tonight. We are given a tot--a few
teaspoonsful either at night or early morning. It is much appreciated
as it helps the circulation which gets very slow these cold nights
for want of movement....The way our old soldiers, physical drill
instructors, bayonet fighting instructors disappeared under the
stress of battle to realms of easier work was a great disappointment
to us. To instance a few cases. When the 31st became a battalion,
the Regt. Sgt.-Maj. was a man named B__. He was one of the mainstays
of the 103rd Calgary Rifles and naturally interested in military
work. He was very insistent that we smarten up and be soldiers.
His part of soldiering, however, was spent in England. He took
good care to stay on the safe side of the Channel. As Sgt.-Maj.
of our company--a hero of a hundred fights you would fancy him
to be if you listened to his conversation--he wore four ribbons
for service in Africa, Egypt and the Sudan and was a faddist on
bayonet fighting. In England, he used to tap his side gently and
remark that this, alluding to his revolver, was for N.C.O.s who
refused to go over the top. I only saw this fire-eater pay a visit
to the trenches once. I gave him the periscope to look through.
He was very uneasy and had a half-hearted glance through it, slinking
back to H'Qrs. a few minutes afterwards. This seasoned warrior
obtained a commission and in addition managed to get back to Canada.
I noticed his picture very nearly the central figure in a group
of War Veterans, taken before their quarters on 9th Ave., Calgary.
During the day, if we are not on day duty, we are almost certain
to be building dug-outs or fixing up the trenches, so our stretches
of sleep even in the best and quietest of times is of short duration.
If the line is quiet and the command does not anticipate trouble,
two sentries can doze in their dug-out. The man on guard stands
on the firing step and peers over the bags for any movement in
No Man's Land at the same lime listening intently for any sounds.
The ears are more dependable when it is dark than the eyes. The
touching of the wire, the stumbling against old tins, or the swishing
noise of the grasses moving are apt to give a raider or patrol
away. Unless on the skyline, it is difficult picking up anyone
moving till they are almost on you. If you are suspicious, the
usual thing is to get someone to fire a flare over the particular
spot. A good sentry does not move much but keeps to a certain
spot remaining mute for a considerable time and shows very little
of his head. He is better able to detect and, what is of as much
importance, he is less liable to be seen than a man who is moving
around the bay. The majority of fellows, however, do not worry.
They pass most of their time sitting on the firing step smoking
the pipe of peace, with an occasional glance over the parapet.
As a rule one can size up affairs pretty good. If Fritz is sending
up star shells pretty frequently you can depend upon it his patrols
or raiders are not out. If his riflemen are pinging bullets in
our direction and they are low, you can rest easy in the belief
that his men are behind his parapet. It is when his lights are
not going up often or his shooting is nil or high, you should
be suspicious and on the alert. It is then he is either up to
mischief, making a relief or has fatigue parties out in front
fixing up his wire.
A dull pop from the opponent's lines and one immediately scans
the horizon for a trench mortar. In ordinary times such noises
would escape one's attention. The German little fish tail bomb
starts its course through the air with a swish, swish and makes
a peculiar noise like wa-wa. Excepting high velocity shells, one
has a fair indication of direction when he hears the report of
the gun. Rifle grenades, when fired during shelling, are difficult
to detect. I often wonder that when trench mortar companies intend
throwing over their shells, they do not get the artillery to kick
up a noise so as their opponents will have to rely solely on their
sight to pick up what is going to happen.
At this stage it may be well to mention what the ordinary infantryman
in the firing line has to go through and what his nerves have
to stand. Old No Man's Land had an average width of 150 to 250
yds.; in many parts of the line it would come as close as 35 to
75 yds. As a rule, the narrower No Man's Land, the weaker the
wire. The distance between is so little that fixing up wire is
impossible. Ready-made wiring obstacles have to be thrown over
and, of course, they cannot be expected to be very effective.
In fact, later on, Fritz had the audacity to fix on one of our
wiring obstacles and pulled it on to his own side. Anyway, besides
being liable to be shelled at any moment, the man in the firing
line is liable to have bombs, grenades and trench mortar bombs
thrown at him. Machine-guns may open up and rip the sand bags
at pleasure. Clamped rifles go off every now and then, trained
at likely spots the infantryman has to pass. Any moment a swarm
of Huns may rush him. He is liable to be blown up by a mine tunnelled
underneath the trench. On dark nights the enemy could crawl into
his trench without being seen. It is the same when it is foggy.
He exists under these conditions, wet or dry, often in mud and
slush over the knees and almost frozen with the cold. Sometimes
he sleeps on the firing step or in the bottom of the trench with
practically no covering or protection. When he gets wet, his clothes
have to dry on him--at times he is worked off his feet digging,
draining, making dug-outs, carrying timber, corrugated iron, etc.
and has to run the gauntlet of being sniped on many occasions.
Knowing that any moment he may be hurled into oblivion, his nerves
are keyed to a certain pitch and his existence is one of suspense.
No wonder the average man's stay in the trenches is a few months.
Unfortunately these men who brave such dangers daily, hourly,
have nothing to show for it. A Canadian in England gets service
stripes the same as he does, not so the British Tommy. A Brigade
runner, who once in a while reaches the line, stands a better
chance of a decoration. Hangers-on who are seldom within the fighting
area and who sleep comfortably and soundly at night and can do
their own cooking, get all the medals or clasps they are entitled
to. It is high time some distinction was made between the actual
fighting man and his numerous knockers in khaki who take practically
no risk at all.
We have been out all day fixing up the communication trench which
has collapsed owing to the recent rains. From now on "Via
Gellia" keeps us busy when out on rest. The weather had changed
completely, raining almost daily and the ground is in a sodden
condition. For want of sunshine and wind, it is impossible for
the ground to dry up and after a while we learn that it is useless
trying to keep the trenches passable. The rain loosens the earth
and the sides cave in. With additional rain the bottom of the
trenches become liquid mud which defies all efforts at drainage.
We shovel, shovel and keep on shovelling but it is of no avail,
the trench absolutely refuses to clean up. It is a hard proposition,
the mud sticks to the shovel and after vigorous efforts to dislodge
it, it only comes off to fall into the trench again. In time the
bank becomes so high that we cannot fling the mud up so we have
to get up on top and in a crouching attitude shove the mud further
back, terracing it so as to ease the ground pressure and keep
it from sliding down. In wet weather it is stupendous work and
is about as hopeless as shovelling water. When a little progress
is made posts are driven into the trench and are strengthened
by being connected by wire with smaller posts on the parados.
The sides are now revetted with corrugated iron which is placed
behind the posts being kept in position by them and thus keep
the sides from caving in. The pressure of earth, however, is often
so great that it bulges the corrugated iron or snaps the posts.
One can imagine, therefore, the enormous amount of revetting that
is required and the immensity of work in connection with it.
The bottom of the trench has to have the trench boards raised
above the water or mud so that one can move up and down quickly.
These boards are roughly 1« to 2 feet wide and from 5 to
8 feet long. They consist of a couple of deals with strips of
wood laid crossways. These trench or duck boards are laid on a
couple of supporting trestles. Through usage or faulty positioning,
many fellows, in the dark, become croppers by stepping on the
edge when the board tips or slips and down they go. Often some
of the strips are missing or broken and down goes the unfortunate
soldier. In some cases the trenches are wide and at night it takes
some juggling keeping on the boards. Step to the side and down
in the mud you go. On a dark night it is quite a problem manoeuvring
along these boards. Without them it would be almost impossible
to reach the front line. Later on, we spend about a couple of
days trying to drain "Via Gellia" a few yards from the
firing line. There was quite a slope and we thought the mud would
run if we could only get it started. We had rubber boots on and
were up to our thighs in the stuff. It was too soft to shovel
out and yet the darned thing was not watery enough to flow. This
part of the trench we gave up as hopeless. It was only in March,
when the ground began to dry, that the trench became passable.
What we failed to achieve Dame Nature did.
For four months we were continuously wrestling with trenches and
dug-outs, shovelling, draining, ditching, digging, revetting,
filling sandbags, carrying timber, corrugated iron, etc. When
in reserve almost every night, as soon as darkness set in, we
had to hike to the Engineer's dump at Kemmel and carry stuff up
the line. We were usually too early at the dump and lay around
in the mud and rain for half an hour to an hour waiting for the
arrival of the Engineer. Orders called for our presence at a certain
time and orders had to be obeyed. Meanwhile we would hang around,
too often soaked to the skin and our clothes and equipment as
heavy as lead, waiting at the side of the road for word to load
up and move on. These working parties were a regular nightmare.
Often when we were figuring on a fine rest, word would come along
telling us to get ready for fatigue immediately. Wearily and with
many complaints we would get up, get our goat skins on, equipment,
rifle, and lastly our raincoat. If it drizzled the raincoat was
admirable, but if it rained it soaked up the wet like blotting
paper and sent a perfect stream of water down our thighs and legs.
With a view to improving matters many fellows cut several inches
off the coat but it did not help. Others substituted the waterproof
sheet for it. Anyway, night after night in mud and rain saw us
squatting around Kemmel, shivering to the bone, waiting to set
out with our loads for the line. . . .
At the break of day, Gen. Turner, the commander of the 2nd Division,
came down the line from the 27th direction and stopped to question
Sgt. Boyd regarding the units on his flanks. He also enquired
if the boys had their rations and rum. He was up looking over
the line with a view to consolidating the position. Whatever plans
he had formulated were never properly executed for Fritz shortly
afterwards started shelling; the fire intensifying later and developing
as the time went on, so that no opportunity was given for trench
work. At 9:30 a.m. prompt the hostile artillery began to speak
and by noon it was raging in all its fury. Shrapnel came pouring
over the lines in a ceaseless whine, interrupted only by the crumps
of 4.3s and 5.9s [shells]. From every direction this fire storm
was turned upon us. Every gun within range seemed to have cut
loose and the very gates of hell let open. Overhead bursts, then
deadly sprays of shrapnel, were showered into our midst. Heavy
shells rocked the earthworks and buried their occupants. The artillery
concentration was tremendous and the range was painfully accurate.
Imperials, who had been at Loos and previous battles, never experienced
such a concentrated fire on so small a frontage. There seemed
to be a nest of batteries on the northern flank. Men were digging
in feverishly to escape this blast of iron, but to no avail. The
bombers were the first to suffer and before long half of them
were casualties. Crater 7 quickly became untenable and the survivors
stole along to crater 6 for protection, but it was only going
from the frying pan to the fire.
Sgt. Wilson of the bombers, one of our Company, was struck down
early in the day. He lay there till darkness set in before he
could be got at and removed. His injuries were fearful yet no
one could succour him, his arm being almost blown off and bodily
wounds besides. He was ultimately removed but succumbed later.
The Cpl. of the bombers, George, who had found a German rifle
and had taken it to the supports for safe-keeping intending to
take it out as a souvenir, was returning to his post when a shell
burst almost upon him, mortally wounding him and injuring an officer,
who fled out to the dressing station. George, when dying, requested
the boys to tell his parents "that he had died like a soldier.
" He left a widow and a child he had never seen. The second
sergeant, with three or four bombers, was sent up to reinforce
his badly stricken comrades, bursting into the crater in the face
of heavy fire. But they could not stick it, they soon began to
fall. Before being relieved the enemy had taken its toll. Tom
Smith going to the assistance of a wounded man was sniped at receiving
an explosive bullet in the arm and shattering it completely, returning
to Calgary several months later, an amputation case. Blackie Sayce
had his arm almost torn off and is disabled for life. Hannan was
also wounded and both bombing officers were casualties. L/Cpl.
Dalziel, 6 ft. 2 ins. of humanity, finally came out of the shambles,
leading the remaining bombers with an enhanced reputation. For
his gallant work he was awarded the D.C.M., but never knew of
the honour, for the day it appeared in orders, he was killed in
the Canadian Battle Of Ypres. Meanwhile the company was gradually
being wiped out as shell after shell burst burying and unburying
dead and living. The fire was so murderous that it was impossible
to live under it. It was a miracle that anyone emerged alive.
One saddening case was a stretcher bearer near half a dozen dead
Tommies, a little to the right of the trench leading to crater
7. He was sitting with a bandage between his hands in the very
act of bandaging his leg, when his life gave out, and his head
fell back, his mouth open, and his eyes gazing up to heaven, as
if in piteous appeal. There he sat in a natural posture as if
in life, the bandage in his hands, and the Red Cross bag by his
side. Lovett was his name, and he belonged to the King's Liverpool.
Another strange, appalling spectacle was a couple of Tommies sitting
on the firing step; the head of one had fallen forward on his
chest, and between his fingers he still held a cigarette. There
he was as if asleep, yes, but in a sleep that knows no awakening.
His comrade beside him was in a sitting position but inclining
sideways. Both were unmarked and must have met their doom by concussion.
In the support line an Imperial with a Balaclava cap on was lying
on a stretcher, dead. Eight bodies of British soldiers were collected
in the crater for burial, when a shell came over and burst amongst
them, plastering Webber and Doull with gangrened flesh. At daybreak
one of the bombers was shocked to find himself standing between
a dead German and an English officer, whilst close by was a German
private and English Tommy. What trench mats there were seemed
to rest on bodies. One could not dig anywhere without coming across
a human corpse. Huddled together amongst the dead our men passed
their lonely vigil in the early hours of April 4th. "Amidst
life is death" was indelibly printed on the minds of everyone
present on that fateful morning.
It rained practically all the time we were there, making movement
almost impossible. The artillery concentration was too much for
us and what attacks were engineered on our side were on a ridiculously
small scale. There was not much display of generalship. Affairs
ran themselves. Our men hung on till they were completely wiped
out by shell fire. Unfortunately, though the opposing artillery
held us, ours could not restrain them from attacking. Those who
were in the center of the conflict quickly realized that the positions
were impossible, that they were untenable, and casualties would
have been saved by withdrawing, but the command only realized
this several days later when the whole line was lost, and then
they ceased aggressive action. St. Eloi taught us a lesson, a
lesson the ordinary soldier through bitter experience quickly
learned; namely, that it spells disaster to attack over a small
frontage, for it allows the enemy artillery to concentrate its
fire. The Canadian command, however, failed to grasp this significance
and the same errors were repeated at Fresnoy and Lens. Objectives
at those places were taken but we had to retire shortly afterwards,
after suffering heavy losses. As usual the command to bolster
up their cause would give out the usual announcement that we inflicted
heavy casualties on the enemy, when all the time the engagements
were rank failures.
About 2:00 p.m. of the 19th the enemy started shelling, principally
with light stuff. After a pause he reopened with heavies creating
a number of casualties. Later on a bombardment of terrific intensity
commenced and heavy casualties were created, many of the wounded
were killed, and shelters smashed in. The gunfire switched to
Crater 7 and shortly afterwards rifle fire opened up from the
opposing craters and when it died down fifty to sixty Germans
started across. It was raining and our men were glued in the mud.
The survivors were in no condition to offer fight being dazed
and shell shocked. The rifles were clogged and useless, only two
or three being capable of firing. These commenced but the feeble
fire soon died away. By this time the enemy were into Crater 7
and our men had their hands up surrendering. The order was given
to those in Crater 6 to retire if they wished but only five did
so, the rest being disinclined to take the risk. Out of this number,
two were wounded. Along with a wounded officer they regained their
lines, but only one man got back untouched. Thus ended the closing
tragedy of the craters whose garrison of ninety men were practically
all killed or taken prisoners. The Germans did not occupy the
ground but left it to the dead.
For the last few days, shelling was more constant than usual but
no prominence was given to this for the Ypres salient is at all
times stormy and every battalion that takes up its abode in this
stricken field usually returns to a more peaceful front very much
attenuated in numbers. In these days it was a byword amongst the
men that one was not a soldier unless he had served on the Ypres
front. Since the fall of 1914 till armistice was declared this
countryside has been bathed in blood. Here have fallen thousands
of our best manhood. Many a soldier grievously wounded has staggered
back plastered with mud and blood from head to foot and dazed
almost beyond reckoning. The traffic in human flesh in this region
is scandalous. Thousands pass up to the line, returning shortly
afterwards completely shattered. It will always be a debatable
point--was the salient worth holding? The Germans themselves had
a dread of this front. The mention of Ypres conveyed a sort of
horror to them. It had always sinister forebodings of death. .
About 6:00 a.m. of June 2, General Mercer, the 3rd Divisional
General and Brigadier Williams of the 8th Brigade, with a few
of their staff set out for battalion headquarters, which they
reached about 8:00 o'clock. A few minutes later they started for
the line and on the way up the comparative stillness of the morning
was broken by a crash from the enemy's guns as a torrent of metal
came streaming down on our trenches. The success at St. Eloi had
taught the Hun the advantages of intensive fire and he prepared
himself accordingly. His plans were laid; our trenches had been
registered upon with an artillery accumulation and he simply sailed
into us and we soon floundered amidst the wreckage of obliterated
trenches, smashed dugouts and torn sandbags. Our men simply melted
away under this tornado. In less than no time the ground was strewn
with the remains of the mangled and the dying. The survivors,
few in number, tried to creep away. It was in this inferno that
the Generals were caught. Enveloped in shell fire, the Brigadier
was wounded and when the enemy came over, captured. General Mercer
tried to win his way back, but he never got further than Armagh
Wood for there his body was found several days later with three
wounds in it. He was buried at Poperinghe, a village where, in
the old cemetery on the western side of the Reninghelst-Poperinghe
Road, lie the mortal remains of Colonels Hart-Machary and Boyle
of the 7th and 10th Battalions respectively, killed more than
a year previously in the Second Battle of Ypres.
The fire continued for about four hours and when resistance was
considered broken the Germans emerged from their trenches in the
southwest carrying packs and overcoat, and advanced in several
waves. After pulverizing our front line the artillery lifted and
barraged the supports and approaches, creating heavy casualties
in the communications lines. Our supports held but if the enemy
had never made the common error of easing up when the road was
clear and the line confused, they could have advanced much further.
As it was they threw away their opportunity and gave us time to
rush up reserves. It is said some of their patrol penetrated as
far as Zillebeke, but were beaten back in skirmishes, paying the
penalty in full for their rashness. Though the attack started
on the right it gradually worked its way north and soon the 7th
Brigade were in desperate straits. Both C.M.R. battalions had
been snowed under and in consequence resistance was weak. The
4th C. M. R. 's had 640 casualties and the 1st fared little better,
their trenches being completely flattened and casualty roll 367.
The Princess Pats now came in for a gruelling. They resisted valiantly,
fighting rearguard bombing actions. Being surrounded, the remnants
had to retire to the supports early next morning.
During the retirement two eighteen pounders, sacrifice guns, were
lost in Sanctuary Wood. Sacrifice guns are placed in advanced
positions to be utilized in case of emergency either for attack
or defence. Consequently they are silent, till the moment arrives
for special action. It is essential that they refrain from shooting
if they wish to escape detection. Being so close up, an imprudent
shot would be at once observed and woe to the unfortunate gunners.
These guns opened up when the attack started and kept on firing
till the enemy appeared over Observatory Ridge. Practically all
the gunners were killed. The attack still continued northward
but came to a halt opposite the R.C.R.'s. Instead of pushing against
a weak line, the enemy made the fatal error of digging in in Armagh
and Sanctuary Woods. The Engineers who followed up the infantry
quickly had suitable trenches dug.
A counter-attack was planned but it had to be postponed several
times because certain units did not reach their jumping off positions.
When it was ultimately launched, there was no co-ordinated effort
and it failed, nevertheless a few patrols were brushed away and
we established ourselves nearer the German line. The members of
the battalions participating belonged to the 7th, 10th, 15th,
14th, 52nd, 60th and 49th. The casualties were heavy, the 14th
losing nearly 390 men. The attack should never have been delivered.
The artillery preparation was poor; the exact positions of the
enemy uncertain--- and the time was daylight. In addition there
was no cohesion or definite understanding. Our men were met by
a withering fire and did the best they could in digging in. The
52nd and 60th were badly cut up in the communication trench having
been caught in barrages. The 49th had also a disastrous time getting
in. It is estimated over eight thousand took part in the assault.
The troops were the Wurttemburg, under the command of the Duke
of Wurttemberg and the furthest point they reached was seven hundred
yards in the direction of Zillebeke. They captured besides General
Williams, Colonel Usher, thirteen officers, 518 non-commissioned
officers and men, 168 of whom were wounded. The enemy was now
in possession of the Ridge and our left Rank was in the air. Up
to this period our losses were about 80 officers and 2,000 men.
. . .
Word has just eked out that we are in for our third engagement:
first, St. Eloi; second, Third Battle of Ypres; and now the Somme,
this time not as defenders, but as aggressors primed up for the
event. The announcement that at 6:20 tomorrow morning we would
make a charge, co-operating with the Brilish and French created
quite a stir. Some looked upon the matter in a serious light,
others were indifferent while the remainder treated the whole
affair in a humorous vein. A few discussed the mode of attack,
chances of success, but the knowing felt and knew that the result
depended upon the artillery. Exaggerated tales had reached us
that the attacks on the Somme were a series of walkovers and there
was nothing for us to do but gather in the spoils. I believe most
of us hearing such stories, treated the derences with, if not
contempt, at least with levity.
As zero hour approached I glanced around looking for signs to
charge. The signal came like a bolt from the blue. Right on the
second the barrage opened with a roar that seemed to split the
heavens. Looking along the right, about forty yards away, I caught
the first glimpse of a khaki-clad figure climbing over the parapet.
It was the start of the first wave, the 27th Battalion. More Winnipeg
men followed. Then glancing back over the parados I saw Sgt. Teddy
Torrens rise up from a shell hole and wave his platoon forward.
So quick, however, were the men of the 31stl on the heels of the
27th that when I turned my head, those of my platoon beside Sgt.
Hunter were actually up and over the parapet with a good five
to ten yards start ahead of me. In a hurry to overtake them and
carry the line as even as possible, I was up and over in a trice,
running into shell holes, down and up for about twenty yards,
until I found that if I continued this procedure and rate, loaded
up as I was, I would be exhausted before I could get to grips
It was at this juncture that instinct told me to avoid the shell
holes and move along the edges. I raised my head for the first
time and looked at the Hun trench, and to my astonishment, saw
Heinie after Heinie ranging along the line, up on the firing step,
blazing wildly into us, to all appearances unmolested. Seriousness
and grim determination took possession of me as I stared hard
and menacing at those death-dealing rifles. Strange to say they
all seemed to be pointing at me, an illusion but nevertheless
that is how it appeared. My eyes were for a moment glued a little
ahead to the right on Sgt. Hunter, who was leading with little
Lt. Newlands beside him. He appeared a picture heroic in the extreme;
his rush had dwindled to practically a walk, and he strode forward
with body erect, rifle in the forefront, a target for innumerable
shots. As I was fast levelling up on the left, it seemed a thousand
miracles that he was not laid low.
My wits sharpened when it burnt deeply into me that death was
in the offing. At this stage an ever changing panorama of events
passed quickly before my gaze, and my mind was vividly impressed.
The air was seething with shells. Immediately above, the atmosphere
was cracking with a myriad of machine-gun bullets, startling and
disconcerting in the extreme. Bullets from the enemy rifles were
whistling and swishing around my ears in hundreds, that to this
day I cannot understand how anyone could have crossed that inferno
alive. As I pressed forward with eyes strained, to the extent
of being half-closed, I expected and almost felt being shot in
the stomach All around our men were falling, their rifles loosening
from their grasp. The wounded, writhing in their agonies, struggled
and toppled into shell holes for safety from rifle and machine-gun
fire, though in my path the latter must have been negligible,
for a slow or even quick traverse would have brought us down before
we reached many yards into No Man's Land. Rifle fire, however,
was taking its toll, and on my front and flanks, soldier after
soldier was tumbling to disablement or death, and I expected my
turn every moment. The transition from life to death was terribly
Halfway across the first wave seemed to melt and we were in front,
heading for Fritz, who was firing wildly and frantically, and
scared beyond measure as we bore down upon him. Their faces seemed
peculiarly foreign to me. Their trench was full and firing strong
and as the remnants of us were nearing bombing reach, we almost,
as one man, dropped into shell holes, a move wisely done and swiftly
executed. Further progress and it is more than likely that we
would have stepped into a volley of grenades. At this time, I
had the shell hole to myself and took cover behind the left front
edge, which was higher than any other part of the lip, and I could
see without being seen from the immediate front, the flanks to
the Hun line and the left rear right back to our trench. I was
hardly down, when a man around the forty mark, medium-sized, well
built, with a heavy sandy moustache, of Scandinavian appearance,
came up on my left and stopped not a yard away. He seemed to be
non-plussed as if wondering what came over those who were ahead
of him a moment ago, as it suddenly dawned upon him that he was
the nearest moving soldier to Fritz. I will never forget the look
of bewilderment which came over his face, but it quickly changed
to puzzled thought, as if wondering what to do next, when a rifle
bullet caused him to shudder as if he had received an electric
shock. In a flash another must have tore into his vitals for he
winced with the shock, then his eyes opened wide and a terrified
look of despair and helplessness crept over his features, his
eyes rolled, and with a heart-rending shriek as he realized his
end had come, he fell forward flat on his face, stone dead, almost
on top of me.
It all happened in a twinkling, his death practically instantaneous,
but that fatal moment, the wincing, the hopeless, piteous look,
were indelibly printed on my mind forever. Glancing back I saw
waves of men coming on, right away back to the parapet, but they
were collapsing right and left and not a single one got as far
forward as the remnants our own Company. I saw one poor fellow
stretched out, apparently dead, with a bullet wound in the head
beside the ear, with a face waxen white, and a line of blood tracing
down his cheek and neck. The moment after dropping into shell
holes we started sniping. The target was so easy it was impossible
to miss. The Huns, not many yards ahead, were up on the firing
step, blazing in panic at the advancing men behind us, seemingly
with only one thought, namely to stop those moving, and in their
fright and fear, forgot our little band lying close at hand. Heiny
after Heiny fell back in a heap as we closed upon the triggers.
On my left at the edge of the shell hole, a few inches from my
shoulder a little ground flew up, and at once I saw I was observed
and that a Fritz had just missed me. Pulling in my rifle I lay
quiet. Looking back not a man was moving, the attack had stopped.
By this time, Cross and Judge, formerly of the 56th Battalion,
had jumped into the shell hole one after the other. Fritz finding
no movement across No Man's Land, turned his attention to those
nearest his line. Cpl. Recknell, who was in a shell hole about
ten yards away on my right and very slightly ahead, got up on
his knees and stretching his head, curious to see what was happening
ahead, got slung in a second by a rifle bullet, quivered, doubled
up and dropped forward, killed instantaneously. He appeared to
have been struck in the body. Bobby Bisset, a stocky little Scotsman,
who was lying in the same shell hole, crawled up on Recknell,
caught him by the shoulders, as if to speak and shake him, and
immediately his head fell and he practically lay dead on the top
of Charlie. The next instant, adjoining Recknell, still further
to the right, another soldier was killed as he peered over the
shell hole. It looked like Thiebot. Nearer still and on my right
was Grewzelier. He was sniping steadily. I saw him get shot also.
Just when he was on the point of firing, a bullet got him and
he rolled completely round on his back, stone dead. They were
killed within a few moments of each other and I think by the same
At this lime a strange incident happened; a German, without arms
and equipment, climbed over the parapet on my right and ran into
No Man's Land, shrieking and waving his arms, apparently stark,
staring mad. He ran about twenty-five yards, wheeled round in
a circle several times, the circles narrowing each time, then
flopped dead. It was a weird and uncanny spectacle and I was held
spellbound, watching his cantrips. I do not think any of our men
shot him when he was in the open. He seemed to be in his death
throes when he clambered over the parapet and reeled into No Man's
Land. Thrilling sights passed before my eyes, during what must
have been seconds though they could easily have been construed
into hours, so great was the tension, and so miraculous was it
that I and a few others in this vicinity escaped destruction.
Lt. Newlands rose up a little from me and gallantly endeavoured
to signal us forward by a sweep of his hand, but the time was
inopportune and no one moved. He himself was hardly up, when he
was wounded and fell back into the shell hole. In the adjoining
shell hole, almost touching ours, Lt. Foster got up almost simultaneously
with Newlands and promptly collapsed back again, having been hit
in the upper arm or shoulder. Freudemacher jumped in beside him
to render first aid. It seemed that Foster was painfully hit,
for I could see for a minute or two, an arm waving back and forward
above the shell hole, as if he was in pain.
As the attack subsided and not a soul moved in No Man's Land save
the wounded twisting and moaning in their agony, it dawned upon
me that the assault was a failure and now we were at the mercy
of the enemy. It was suicide to venture back and our only hope
lay in waiting until darkness set in and then trying to win our
way back. During this period of waiting, I expected we would be
deluged by bombs, shrapnel and shell fire, and when darkness set
in, ravaged by machine-gun fire, altogether a hopeless outlook,
especially for our lot, who were lying up against his trench.
The situation seemed critical and the chances of withdrawal to
safety nigh impossible. So many things had happened, so many lives
were snuffed out since I left the comparative safety of our front
line, that I lost completely all idea of time. Lying low in the
shell hole contemplating events with now and then a side glance
at my sandy-moustached comrade, lying dead beside me, his mess
tin shining and scintillating on his back, a strange and curious
sight appeared. Away to my left rear, a huge gray object reared
itself into view, and slowly, very slowly, it crawled along like
a gigantic toad, feeling its way across the shell-stricken field.
It was a tank, the "Creme de Menthe," the latest invention
of destruction and the first of its kind to be employed in the
Great War. I watched it coming towards our direction. How painfully
slow it travelled. Down and up the shell holes it clambered, a
weird, ungainly monster, moving relentlessly forward. Suddenly
men from the ground looked up, rose as if from the dead, and running
from the flanks to behind it, followed in the rear as if to be
in on the kill. The last I saw of it, it was wending its way to
the Sugar Refinery. It crossed Fritz's trenches, a few yards from
me, with hardly a jolt.
When first observed it gave new life and vigour to our men. Seeing
away behind men getting up, and no one falling, I looked up and
there met the gaze of some of my comrades in the shell holes.
Instinctively I jumped up and quickly, though warily, ran to where
I could see into Fritz's trench, with bayonet pointing and finger
on the trigger. Running my eyes up and down his trench, ready
to shoot if I saw any signs of hostility, and equally on the alert
to jump out of view if I saw a rifle pointing at me, it was a
tense and exciting moment but I felt marvellously fit and wits
extremely acute, for any encounter. I expected opposition and
was ready for danger, but a swift glance, and to my amazement,
not a German was staring at me, far less being defiant. Down the
trench about a hundred yards, several Huns, minus rifles and equipment,
got out of their trench and were beating it back over the open,
terrified at the approach of the tank. Only a moment sufficed
to show that it was safer in the German trench than being up in
the open, where one may be sniped, so with a leap I jumped into
the trench, almost transfixing myself with my bayonet in the effort.
When I jumped into the trench, the sight I beheld, for sheer bloodiness
and murder, baffles description. Apparently our artillery had
sent over a last minute shrapnel barrage, for the Huns were terribly
mangled about the head and shoulders which coupled with our sniping,
completely wiped out every Heiny in the bays in front of us. Everyone
of them was either dead or dying and the trench literally was
running blood. As each bay contained three to five men, it required
no imagination to picture the carnage. In the middle of a bay,
a Heiny with a dark, stiff moustache, completely doubled up, was
suspended, stuck between the parapet and parados. It seemed a
peculiar and strange sight to see this Hun, head and knees almost
touching, blocking the trench. A few feet north, at a corner,
another Hun lay in the bottom of the trench, his head and face
terribly lacerated, feebly groaning to death. Every soldier practically
stepped on his face when passing south along the trench. Lying
around a bend he was trod on before one was aware of his presence.
Several times I ran over him. He appeared to be unconscious and
was gasping his last breaths.
A German with ruddy face, clean shaven and intelligent looking,
was lying on his back on the firing step, minus equipment, as
if he had been placed there. At first I wondered what happened
to him for he appeared unmarked. His feet, however, were torn
to shreds. He had a pleasant countenance and looked as if he was
smiling in death. It was from that I took the Iron Cross ribbon.
A typical Hun, big, fat with a double chin, was sitting on the
parapet in the south corner of the bay, his stomach so protruding
over his thighs that very little of the latter could be seen,
stone dead, and not a mark to be seen. There was no shell hole
near him, so I conjecture he must have died of fright and not
concussion. In the other corner of the bay, reclining back against
the parapet, lay a young German, a bullet wound in the head, his
face ashen white and with a look as if he sickened to death. How
deadly the sprays of metal had done their work, how effective
our sniping had been, was plainly discernible. In every bay lay
dead and dying Germans, lying in grotesque shapes, and some huddled
on the top of each other. Most of them had fearful wounds and
the whole line resembled a shambles.
Reginald H. Roy, ed., The Journal of Private Fraser, 1914-1918,
Canadian Expeditionary Force (Victoria, BC: Sono Nis Press, 1985)[Copy-permitted].
Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton
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