England and France, 1915-1916

By Mr. W. H. Hayes (late C.S.M.I.)
The Connecting File, Vol. X, No. 2, April, 1931
(The regimental journal of The Royal Canadian Regiment)

(Being another interesting and entertaining glimpse of the Regiment by Mr. W.H. Hayes (late C.S.M.I.) whose popular article "On to Bermuda" appeared in our January number—Ed).

On nearing the shores of England we were met and escorted in by several destroyers and the way they frisked around the old "Caledonian" was a shame. They made us feel as though we were standing still, but they served to remind us that we were really going into something serious and that a real War was going on. On arrival at Plymouth, the band of the Devon Regiment played us a welcome with patriotic airs during the time we were docking, etc. The Regiment then proceeded to Shorncliffe, on the South East Coast of England, in two sections, the first under the command of Lieut.-Colonel A.E. Carpenter, and the second under the command of Major E.L. du Domaine.

We were quartered at Quested Farm Camp, but the farm was in name only, and did not resemble anything like the picture one conjectures up when thinking of an old English farm.

Here we found everything and everybody on a war footing and the surrounding hills resounded to bugles and bands at practice, whilst below us the air was rent at intervals with loud explosions which eventually proved to be coming from the Bombing School at Westenhanger, where in due course we learned all the little niceties about making "Hair brush" and "Jam tin" bombs. All the Canadian troops in England were in this area, so there was a general air of "Canada" pervading the whole atmosphere. We commenced training immediately, taking advantage of the experience already gained by those who had been to the front, and did both day and night manoeuvres, long and short route marches, and trench digging, etc. We were issued with new Ross rifles, and also gas masks, which were composed of a piece of black muslin filled with a pad soaked in a chemical solution and which had to be tied around the head at the back of the neck, if you had time to do it. We also received a clasp knife with a white lanyard to be worn over the left shoulder, which had to be blancoed. We were "hot stuff" on polishing and burnishing, a habit which was kept up throughout the War, and our example was followed by other units in the Brigade earning us the name of the "Shiny Seventh."

We were now named "Corps Troops," Canadian Corps, and remained so in France until brigaded into the 3rd Canadian Division in February, 1916.

Whilst at Shorncliffe many pleasant times were indulged in, besides very hard work at training. The Serjeants' Mess held a dinner at the Hotel Metropole, with Mr. H. Phillips presiding, and a wonderful time was had. Seated next to me was a Serjeant who has only recently left the Regiment and whose name I will withhold. When champagne was served he looked at it, took a sip and then called the waiter and said: "Hi there, take this b— pop away and fetch me some beer," the waiter tried to explain but it was useless, as my friend said, "I am no pop wallah," so beer was obtained for him.

The Regiment was later taken for escort duty, on the embarking of the 18th Battalion for France, and what a night it was!!! Rain came down in torrents and it was pitch dark, and why we were there the Lord only knows; but we wore white ground sheets over our shoulders and were called the "ghosts," the "goats" would have been a better name. A few days afterwards word came around that we were to proceed to France and we were granted 36 hours leave. it seemed that all other units got at least seven days leave before going across, but of course WE were different.

About this time the command of the Regiment was assumed by Lieut.-Colonel A. H. Macdonnell, C.B., D.S.O., and a few days afterwards we proceeded to France aboard the packet "Queen," leaving behind a Base Depot at Shorncliffe.

We arrived at Boulogne about 2.00 a.m., in the rain, and for the night were billeted at Ostrahove Camp, Boulogne. This was in October, 1915. There were a lot of mysterious "muster parades" and roll calls and the air seemed filled with Staff Officers and R.T.O's, and Military Police. Next morning we got some food and about 3.00 p.m. entrained for "Up the line." We arrived at Bailleul, and marched to Meteren where we took up quarters by Companies at the surrounding farms. My first night I slept with C.Q.M.S. L.J. Ryan, in a cart load of potatoes, but after that I learned that it was up to one's ownself to make oneself as comfortable as possible, and to use anything handy for this purpose.

On our first day at Meteren one of the men of our Company reported sick and we never saw him again, but some months later I was handed a clipping from this lad's home town paper which went on to tell of the wonderful reception he had received on going home after "being buried in a trench in flanders by a huge German shell." Up to that time we had not even experienced long range gun fire, but this boy certainly told some tall stories. We also saw on this day for the first time an aeroplane being fired at by the German "Archies" and it was, at that time, a very thrilling and interesting sight.

In the evening I took a stroll with L.J. Ryan, and at 8.00 p.m., the local gendarme came into the Estaminet to close it up, but L. J. spoke French fluently, and coaxed for another drink and then induced the gendarme to "have just one" and then "just one more" and eventually the gendarme and L.J. sang the Marseillaise, whilst holding each other up for support.

We left the gendarme in a road-side sentry box, or police box, and went back to our farm billet. At the billet was the inevitable "Marie"—they were all Maries—with her hair tied back and her wooden shoes, and her continual "Je ne comprends, Monsieur,"always on the move with her wooden pail and shuffling feet.

From here we moved to Aldershot Camp, in Belgium, and took our first trip into the trenches at Ploegsteert (Plugstreet).

We were filled up with the usual line of talk by our more experienced instructors of the 1st Canadian Contingent, about "this being the trench which is the hardest one on this front" and "Over there the Germans fought to the last man," etc., but in reality this trench was a "Home." It served the purpose of giving us an idea of what conditions were like in the front line and what was the layout of dug-outs, communication trenches, ammunition dumps, etc. Occasionally a shell from the enemy lines came over and rifle and machine gun fire was indulged in by both sides,but nothing out of the ordinary occurred, and we only remained in those trenches for 48 hours.

We then marched to the La Clytte area, where we were quartered in tents and farm billets, and were now beginning to feel like veterans. From here we provided night working parties and the duties were to dig new trenches and repair broken wire in "no man's land," broken by gun fire, and also carry up supplies of ammunition, etc., to the front line. During this period we suffered our first casualties and the loss of some of our comrades who had been with us for years cast quite a gloom over the Regiment, and particularly our own Company. We gave our late comrades as good a burial as circumstances would permit and even had a chaplain come to the cemetery, which was situated very close to the reserve trenches at Ridgewood.

We next moved to the Westoutre Area, and here had a splendid opportunity to de-louse and bathe and we spent Christmas, 1915 at this place. About this time parties of us were shown over the defences of Kemmell Hill, a bill which overlooked the whole area from Hooge in the Ypres Sector, and away North, and included both the enemy's and our own front lines.

We divided into parties of two in order to avoid too much movement, for we were also in view of the enemy, but at the time I am speaking of we did not know this, although we should have, if we had used our heads. However, I mated up with my good old friend, the late Mr. R.J. Roberts, who was at that time C.S.M. of "B" Company, and by some means we must have wandered into view of the enemy, for while admiring the landscape and the view of the trenches below us, a sudden explosion occurred about 20 yards to our left front, followed by three more explosions in quick succession. Altogether about 15 or 16 shells came over and "Robby" ducked out of sight, but I had him beaten to it by a mile. When the excitement had died down I came out of cover and found "Robby" taking cover behind a crock sewer pipe, and then, while laughing about it, we noticed that I had been taking cover behind a canvas screen. We had beginner's luck, for that cover was of no use to either of us excepting from view. No doubt Fritz enjoyed a bit of fun at our expense, but we both learned a lesson.

Later, on the Somme, a similar experience befell "Robby" and I whilst being bombed from the air when we both took cover behind a canvas screen erected for a convenient purpose on the Brickfields at Albert.

On leaving Westoutre we were brigaded with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, the 49th Battalion C.E.F., from Edmonton, Alta, the 42nd Battalion C.E.F. from Montreal, forming the 7th Brigade, 3rd Canadian Division and we now ceased to be Corps Troops. We now commenced to take our regular trips into the front line trenches and moved into what were known as the "F" trenches at Regent Street, in the Kemmell sector. These trenches were graced with such names as the "Bull Ring" and the "Glory Hole," and we now began to get our quota of casualties in killed and wounded. During one of our trips in this line our Brigadier—Brig.-Gen. A. C. Macdonnell—was wounded on one of his daily inspections of the trenches, but he continued on his inspection, although the wound was sufficiently severe to keep him away from us for over three months afterwards.

An incident occurred in February, 1916, which may serve to show the spirit prevailing at the time. A small box was stuck up on top of a post in "no man's land" and this was brought in by Charlie Pope, our unsurpassed Scout Serjeant. It proved to contain a note written by the enemy which read to the effect that the line opposing us was occupied by Saxons and, if we did not fire, they would not, but to please lay off with our Whiz-Bangs. I cannot vouch for the truth of this note's contents, but that was the story given out. I do know, however, that the box was there and that it was brought in as described.

Here is a true story of an incident which actually happened. On taking over a section of the line from the 60th Battalion C.E.F. (Montreal), I was advised by the C.S.M. of the out-going Company that the wire in front of a certain bay had been blown down by enemy gunfire during the night. I verified this information with the aid of a periscope and after night-fall, I detailed Cpl. McDowell and a man to go out and examine the wire and ascertain how much material would be required to repair the damage and stop the gap. After a while the Cpl. returned and reported the wire in good condition and not requiring any repairs. I told him that I knew positively that the wire was broken and sent him out again, but again he returned with the same information.

Thinking something was wrong I told the man who was with Cpl. McDowell to remain behind and I accompanied the Corporal myself. On going over the top we descended into an old disused communication trench, which was filled with old wires, staples, etc., and which ran from our line in the direction of the enemy trench. Cpl. McDowell led the way, but before we had gone many yards I became entangled in some old barbed wire from which I could not get loose immediately. The Corporal was about 20 yards ahead of me creeping along, and I dare not shout to him owing to the close proximity of the German listening post, so Mac. kept on going straight ahead.

Imagine my surprise when he went straight on, underneath our own wire and up to the German wire and then out of sight along it. After a while he returned and, after asking me what had held me up, he told me that the wire was all O.K., and did not need any repairs, as far as he could see. Poor Mac. nearly collapsed when I pointed out our own wire to him and told him that that was the German wire he had examined. He had made three trips along that same wire, behind the German listening posts. Corporal Rudee (now Q.M.S.I. Rudee) eventually took a party out and repaired the wire.

From here we moved into the Ypres Salient where there was something doing all the time. It seemed that the enemy fire came from every direction and the only way one could get an idea of the direction and bend of the line was from the Verey lights which were used at night time. Some names in this sector which will be familiar to some of the boys are: Zillebeke Dug-Outs (The Reserve Line), Gordon Dump, Leinster trench, Cork Street trench, Hell fire Corner, Maple Copse, Sanctuary Wood, The Culvert and Halfway House.

During our time here I remember three instances of men being wounded which were outstanding. The first was a man with a G.S. wound right through the fleshy part of the calf of the leg. All the boys were congratulating him on having such a "soft Blighty", but next morning we received word of his death. It seemed impossible, but the M.O. told us he had died from shock as he seemed to think that he had to die.

The next instance was our friend, now Q.M.S.I. F.J. Rudee. He was standing talking to me in the trench with about one foot of head cover above us when suddenly there came the smallest flash and explosion imaginable. A small piece of splinter of the missile struck Sjt. Rudee in the eye-brow, and we concluded that it must have been an explosive bullet.

The third instance occurred on the morning of the 2nd June, 1916. A certain Serjeant, feeling very happy, was running around singing (as usual) some song about "My son, my son, my only currant bun, etc." when suddenly a salvo of Whiz-Bangs came and the Sergeant was struck with a splinter in the foot. He stopped singing immediately, and, instead of singing "My son, etc." he picked up his foot and standing on one foot looking in the direction of the enemy he said "You son, etc." The sudden change was so quickly made and it sounded so funny that all around couldn't help laughing.

This occurred about 8.00 am. on the 2nd, and that salvo proved to be the prelude to the most severe action in which we had yet taken part. The action lasted until June 9th, I think, and many casualties were suffered on both sides in the fighting, but the lines at the conclusion were practically the same as before. This action served to show us the method of the German Army in attack, and they came over the top evidently all prepared to go right through to the sea, but actually advanced only about 100 yards in the whole action, at least on our front. It was in this action that our Commanding Officer, Lieut. Col. C. H. Hill, won his Distinguished Service Order, and decorations were won by many others in the Regiment. A good account of this action is contained in "Canada in flanders," Vol. 3., by Lord Beaverbrook.

There must be many stories of personal experiences of the men of the Regiment while in this sector—March, 1916 to August, 1916, embracing such places as the Asylum, The Ypres train, Vlammertinge, Poperinghe, "A" Camp, Ouderdom, The Cloth Hall Square, Lombard Street, The Lille Gate, and the Menin Gate, The Convent, Menin Road, Shrapnel Corner, etc.

Here is a story about the Belgian Chateau.

The Regiment was in reserve at the dug-outs graced by that name and one day came in for a very heavy shelling from the enemy who was using the "Rubber Necks," his favorite 4.1's.

During the shelling I went into a dug-out occupied by No. 13 Platoon, under the charge of Capt. A. Nicholls, M.C. (then Serjt).

I found "Nick", who by the way was an ex-artilleryman, calculating the degrees of elevation etc., that Fritz would require in order to make a direct hit on the dug-outs, and figuring from each successive shell burst the general direction of the traverse of the enemy gun fire. His calculations proved to be correct and we commenced to evacuate our position, but before we could accomplish this move, a direct hit was registered on the dug-out occupied by No. 16 Platoon and two or three men were killed and several wounded. The remarkable thing about the whole show was the coolness of Serjt. Nicholls, and his selection of the right moment to remove his command to comparative safety. I might mention that move had to be made quickly but quietly and in order, owing to the absence of cover from fire and to the fact that an enemy plane was hovering above us observing the effects of the fire.

This shelling lasted from 11.00 a.m. until 1.15 p.m., and we couldn't do a thing about it, only build up hopes for the future if ever our opportunity came, which it did later in the game.