Montreal has good reason to be proud of her soldiers in 1915

Montreal has good reason to be proud of her soldiers in 1915

Wednesday, April 21, 1915

No Location Given

The Battalion War Diarist wrote for this day: “Relieved by 13th Battn. R.H.C.  Relief completed by midnight.  Total casualties in tour, 7 killed, 15 wounded.  Killed buried in St. Julien, just outside northwest corner of churchyard.  Marched by companies, independently, to billets in St. Jean.  No. 2 Company under Major Hansen remaining in St. Julien as local reserve to 13th R.H.C.  Machine gun section of the battalion under Capt. Williamson also remained with the 13th Bn.  2 guns being mounted in ruined houses on outskirts of St. Julien.” [1]

THIS DAY IN RMR HISTORY: The Operation Report dated May 6th, 1915 appended to the War Diary covering the period April 16th to May 4th 1915 reiterates these details relative to this date:

“The 14th Battalion took over the left sub-sector of 3rd Bde. Canadian Div. trenches on the night of April 16/17and remained there for five days, being relieved on the night of April 21/22 by the 13th Cdn. Bn. and returned to billets in St. Jean with the exception of No. 2 Company which took over billets in St. Julien as a local reserve to the 13th Bn.”[2]

ANOTHER LETTER FROM PRIVATE C.D.B. WHITBY

21 April 15

Tommy Plants Flowers – Garden Bloomed Between Opposing Lines
How Montrealers Met Death – Canadians Training For “Big Drive”

“Another interesting account of work with the Canadian regiments in France, has been received by The Gazette from Pte. C.D.B. Whitby, (formerly of The Gazette staff, but who now writes from that elusive address known as ‘In the trenches, March 1915.’ Pte. Whitby continues his story as follows:

‘Near the platoon commander’s dugout in our trench is a little garden, planted weeks ago, when the days were grey and cold, by some unknown Tommy. This morning it is in bloom. Two daffodils nod gaily in the breeze, while around them cluster real English daisies and some small blue flowers. So, although it snowed last night and the night before, we have a token that the winter is unmistakably over.

Since the affair at Neuve Chapelle things have been very quiet along this part of the front. There is the daily artillery duel, of course – a long distance interchange of compliments between the heavy guns – but the ‘Weary Willies’ whine high overhead, aimed at larger game than the trench garrisons.

Life would be rather monotonous if it were not for the ‘daily ration’ of shrapnel which the Germans serve out at noon. They seldom get the range, and always stop when our howitzers shower a few shells on their trenches. The snipers, too, are always with us. Our friends in front endorse the Donnybrook Fair advice, ‘When ye see a head hit it.’ Very useful shots they are, too, as our six casualties in the past two days prove.’

EXCITING RECONNAISANCES: Describing night reconnoitering patrols, Pte Whitby says that at night a non-com, with one or two men wormed their way over the ‘No-Man’s Land,’ from 30 to 400 yards wide, hugging the ground through the barbed wire entanglements when the ‘Fourth of July’ rockets went up, and hunting for sniping pits, sap-heads, hidden trenches, etc. Similar parties were sent out by the Germans, and they often got quite close. This was dangerous work, as the sentries were very alert, and any suspicious objects always attracted a murderous fire.

‘This work,’ proceeds Pte Whitby, ‘is voluntary. Pte. A.S. Jones lost his life this week on patrol. He and Sergt. W. Smith, both old Victoria Riflemen, had got close to the enemy’s lines when the moon broke out, exposing them. The Germans at once fired, killing Jones outright, Sergt. Smith, although wounded, crawled back to safety, and search parties were immediately sent out to hunt for Pte. Jones. ‘Stan’ was very popular in his platoon, and is greatly missed.’

STRETCHER-BEARER’S BRAVERY: A fine piece of work was accomplished this morning by Stretcher-Bearer R. H. Drake, of No. 3 Co., Royal Montreal Regiment. A man working 100 yards in rear of our trench was bowled over by a German sniper. Drake and M. Gould at once started out to bring him in, and both were hit the moment they left the trench, falling. Drake, despite a severe wound in the side, gamely kept on, reached the wounded man, and, although still under fire and weak from loss of blood, gave him first aid dressing. Not until then would he allow a rescue party to take him to hospital. These and similar acts of gallantry are winning the 14th Battalion an enviable reputation out here. Montreal has good reason to be proud of her soldiers. For spirit and indifference to danger the sons of Ville Maria are admittedly the equal of any troops in the field.

Pte. Whitby writes that one of the English Tommies who was in the Neuve Chapelle fight told him that the German trenches were a pitiful sight when the British reached them, piled with dead and wounded, and the bodies turned yellow with lyddite (sic) * fumes until they looked like a lot of Chinamen.

* Note: Lyddite was a high explosive used in WWI. It is Picric acid (2,4,6 Trinitrophenol), so called because experiments on its high explosive use were once carried out at the town of Lydd in Kent.

CHARGED IN SHIRT SLEEVES: Most of the British stripped off their tunics, and charged with shirt sleeves rolled up. Thomas Atkins prefers to travel light. This may be our last sojourn in the trenches for some time, as there is a strong rumor that we are to have a taste of fighting in the open before very long.

This concluded Pte Whitby’s letter from the trenches, and he continues from ‘A Town in Northern France’ –

In this war the transition from scenes of sudden death and shell havoc to the comparative peace of rest billets is very abrupt. On Friday night we, dirty and muddy, were in the trenches, a few hundred yards from the Prussians. On Saturday night we, with some thousand others, were in the square of this quaint old town, while Dr. Winnington Ingram, Bishop of London, spoke eloquently from the Hotel de Ville steps – a veritable bishop militant, and in the neatest khaki, and preaching the doctrine of a holy war – his eighth address in 48 hours, which had overtaxed his voice. He was frequently cheered by the Canadians, and finally gave the sign for cheers each time his voice gave out, the men responding vigorously while he chewed a lozenge.

GENERAL ALDERSON’S SPEECH: ‘We had another speaker, General Alderson, commanding the Canadian Division, and he is not given to many words. He said, in part: – ‘The Canadian Division has now spent a month in the trenches. It has done well – all that could have been expected of it. Now you men are here for a short rest, to fit you for the really hard work, which will soon begin.’

This, then is why the entire Canadian contingent was last Friday sent back some six miles to this town, which is crammed with Canadians, whose trim khaki contrasts oddly with the impractical red trousers and … grey coats of the few ‘piou pious.’

The Canadians, says Pte Whitby, were immensely popular with the remnant of the French civilian population, while of course, the French Canadians, old 65th men, were masters of the situation, especially as to language.

LINGUAL ACROBATICS: ‘But for the rest of the battalion they are no mean linguists,’ he continues. ‘To hear a hungry Montrealer with a French vocabulary of about five words explaining to a patient butcher that he wants ‘un bon bifsteak, tres thick, and pas trop fat,’ is well worth while.

There were an enormous number of taverns, where only beer, ‘Deux sous le chope, m’sieu,’ alone was sold to the soldiers, and beer it was of extra-ordinary thinness and acidity, much poorer than Cobalt 3 per cent. Topers would drink quarts of it, and depart sadly sober – even the vin ordinaire being forbidden the soldier.

The town itself had not been much damaged, although the Germans had taken everything portable during their stay, even looting the barbers razors, scissors and perfumes, and Pte Whitby says, judging from the prisoner ‘bosches’ they needed the latter badly.

For horses and cattle lifted the Germans gave notes payable ‘after the war’ which the French knew were no good, and consoled themselves by charging 6 cents for a candle, 5 cents for an egg, 20 cents for a loaf of bread. Withal they were very religious, and it was notable how frequently the pious objects escaped the general destruction.

PRACTICING FOR “BIG DRIVE”: Although supposed to be resting the Canadians were working very hard, getting away from the softness after long hours in the trenches, and breaking their backs learning how to ‘dig themselves in.’

This work is performed lying face downwards, scooping up mud and earth with mole like energy, to form a head protection against bullets, and if the position is to be held these form the beginning of labyrinths of trenches.

Other companies were marched to the front to dig second lines of trenches at night, when rifle and machine gun bullets flying overhead would galvanize the most languid into fervent activity. Another exercise was scaling barbed wire entanglements and attacking trenches at the double, which was a difficult one, and a fall meant torn skin and uniform.

HOW TRENCHES ARE WON: Actual trench attacking had been worked to a regular formula, always either at dusk or dawn. Massed artillery hurls projectiles at the German lines some two hours before the advance, smashing the wire entanglements and parapets as much as possible. The bomb throwers then sortie, crawling to the doomed trench and throwing grenades at the remaining enemy. The whole line then advances in open order, bayonets fixed, and supports close behind. After heavy shelling the German trench is generally found to be a veritable shambles, there being little call to use the bayonet. The real difficulty is to hold the captured trenches, as the Germans invariably make every effort to retake lost ground.

This work was being practiced with enthusiasm by the Canadians, who knew that before long they would have to practice it in real fight, and they were in splendid physical condition, full of spirits and anxiety to get to work.

A BOMB INTERRUPTION: ‘We have a good idea where we are going,’ continues Private Whitby. ‘This town is on a road leading to an important strategic point. I was interrupted here by a terrific crash outside. A German Taube flying high overhead, dropped three bombs near the gas works, about 100 yards from our barn. The aviator, flying too high, missed his objective, but spoiled some fine trees and wounded a few passers-by. As our anti-aircraft guns immediately opened fire the visitor discreetly withdrew, with a British war plane in hot pursuit. C. D. B. Whitby ” [4]

[1]   War Diary, 14th Canadian Battalion, The Royal Montreal Regiment, April 21, 1915.  Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, http://data2.collectionscanada.ca/e/e044/e001089716.jpg
[2]  Operation Report  May 6, 1915; War Diary, 14th Canadian Battalion, The Royal Montreal Regiment, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa,   http://data2.collectionscanada.ca/e/e044/e001089723.jpg
[3]   “With Canadians In The Trenches,” The Gazette, Montreal, Quebec, Thursday, April 22, 1915, pg. 5, col. 4.
[4]    Ibid

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