Recollections of a Nonagenarian
of Service in The Royal Canadian Regiment (1916-19)
Part 4

by Robert England, M.C.


I missed Passchendaele and the March German offensive of 1918. On 26 August 1918 Steve Allan was killed, and by then I had succeeded in requalifying in Musketry, Machine Gun, First Aid, P.T., Bombing, Rifle Bombing, Anti-Gas Drill, Part III (score 92), Revolver (score 151) as the signed report of Col. Mainhead of 17th Reserve Battalion dated 29 August 1918 showed, (8) in spite of a shoulder disability. After several failures to secure a Medical Board "Fit for General Service," I had fortunately secured a note from Lt. Col. Willets saying that on my return to the Regiment I would be employed either as Asst. Adjt. or Scout Officer and would not be required to wear a pack. With this, I overcame the objections of the Medical Board, which, hitherto had always quoted my inability to wear a pack as a disabling factor.

I never knew the name of my saviour—he may later have been killed, for no one knew him nor did I ever hear from him.

By September 12, 1918 I was once again Scout Officer with The Royal Canadian Regiment, in France, in a new open warfare scenario, where alert intelligence and swift movement made my task more onerous and significant.

Amiens and Arras had illustrated the new mobility under more flexible objectives, giving the enemy no rest and no time to reform and counter-attack on the grand scale needed.

Now the goal was Cambrai. The task allotted the Canadian Corps was to force the line of the Canal du Nord on a narrow front of 2,000 yards and then to expand fan wise to a front of 1,500 yards for an attack on the enemy Marcoing Line cross the Douai road and railway when it was hoped the P.P.C.L.I. and 49th Battalion would take Tilloy and if possible the village of Ramilies and the bridge-head on Scheldt Canal.

My Scout section was in continuous movement while the Regiment crossed the dry bed of the Canal du Nord and deployed northeast towards Bourlon Wood. I transmitted new map locations to company commanders and assisted platoon commanders to correct direction as their men ran under the scattered shell-fire from shell-hole to shell-hole. I then, with some of my scouts, reconnoitred Bourlon Wood to determine the jumping-off trench on the east side.

Soon after midnight on the 27th of September, Lt. Col. Willets had a conference in a shell-hole with the company commanders, outlined the objectives, and we discussed the arrangements for getting the companies "D," "A" and "C" to their jumping-off trenches, "D" Company under Lieut. M.F. Gregg. Lt. Col. Willets shared his last whiskey with us, insisting that I should have an extra last tot in view of the task ahead.

The Fetherstonhaugh history described the operation:

In the pitch dark, amid the fallen trees, shell holes and barbed wire of Bourlon Wood, the reconnaissance constituted no easy task, and the difficulty assumed the aspect of a nightmare when the enemy bombarded the wood with gas shells. But in some manner, though no one can say just how, the hazardous work was accomplished, and the men of The Royal Canadian Regiment, summoned from their sleepless rest, were guided to the forward edge of the wood, where they relieve the 85th Battalion.

The Scouts knew how, and I saw Milton Gregg to the right of his line from which he placed his men left wards east of Bourlon Wood; "A" and "C" companies had more open terrain and not so involved with the maze of Bourlon Wood as "D" company.

At 5:30 a.m. on the 28th, supported by four tanks, the R.C.R. as part of troops of 3rd Division followed the barrage and reached the Marcoing Line. "C" Company under Lt. Wurtele pushed through much as described in the Fetherstonhaugh narrative in Chapter XXVI. "D" Company was stopped by uncut wire and very determined and effective resistance. Milton Gregg found a path through the wire, overcame the enemy defence, and entered the trench followed by Lieut. R. Duplissie and a few men. Unfortunately Duplissie was killed and further casualties left Gregg practically alone continuing to fight his way on.

At Advance Headquarters with Lt. Col. Willets, we were without any information, and the C.O. was hesitant to let me make a reconnaissance. Eventually I left with two of my Scouts, and as I was getting near to the Marcoing Line we found, in some dead ground, about a dozen Germans endeavouring to set up a machine gun; we had little difficulty encouraging them to make haste to our rear retaining their "Hands Up" posture as prisoners. We found "D" Company outside the wire and located the path through the wire taken by Gregg and Duplissie. I left my two Scouts at this location and finally found "Groggy" alone, still fighting, near a dug-out. I had my map, and we endeavoured to find out exactly where we were, but our conversation had to be interrupted, as we took shelter on the first two steps of the dug-out, by the necessity of beating off enemy attacks, using enemy cylindrical stick bombs and our revolvers. I then asked "Groggy" if he could hold on for a little, and I would get his company to file through the wire-gap, a man at a time under the enemy fire, now somewhat reduced by the prisoners taken in the trench. Groggy said he could. Then he asked me "What time is it?" I said "About 8:30." He replied "I thought it was evening." I returned, and got "D" Company men to infiltrate into the trench. I then checked with "C" Company.

When I reached Advance Headquarters just after 9:30 a.m. I found a shell had fallen, killed the Adjt. Capt. F.D. McCrea and other Headquarters personnel and wounded seriously Lt. Col. Willets. Major C. B. Topp, M.C., of the 42nd Battalion, Royal Highlanders of Canada had been present and reported the losses to Brig. General J. A. Clark, D.S.O., of the 7th Brigade.

For a time there was some confusion, and until Major Topp and Lieut. Malcolm Isbester (8) took over the command I had to keep contact, and a few surviving scraps of orders and papers indicate that a strength of 588 had dropped to 337 on the 28th. On the 29th we were ordered to continue the attack and Wurtele, Gregg and I reconnoitred the jumping-off area, drenched by gas shells, and found any attack without adequate artillery preparation and full barrage arrangements would be inadvisable. However, on our return to regimental headquarters we found that particular attack had been canceled.

On the 30th when I was reconnoitering on the front-line in a railway cutting we were ordered to attack towards a secondary road in the direction of Tilloy. Enemy machine-gun fire from our right was intense, and as we moved across the stubble field this enfilade fire was devastating. I got a bullet through each thigh, and as I fell another through my right lung and right arm, lodging below my ribs. While I lay helpless, and enemy fire was directed at any sign of movement among us, one of our men risked crawling towards me, and urged me to climb on his back and he would crawl back to the cutting.

I indicated that getting onto his back was hopeless and would also make us a certain target. So he cut my jacket off and my equipment, threw away my revolver and ammunition, then urged me to pull myself on my uninjured left arm. Coaxing and pleading he found a furrow—a slight depression that reduced our exposure a little from the line of enemy fire. How long we took I don't know—it was an eternity—resting, crawling, entreaties, and failed attempts to move. Finally, my scouts at the cutting ran out, hauled me in, and carried me through the enemy artillery barrage behind our jumping-off trench.

I never knew the name of my saviour—he may later have been killed, for no one knew him nor did I ever hear from him. But he remains in my memory high on the list of members of The Royal Canadian Regiment, C.E.F. Battalion, whom I remembered when I attended the 50th and 60th anniversaries of the Armistice of 1918 representing the Regiment of those days.

Lieut. Wurtele's men had more success than we did on his right nearer the strong enfilading fire from Tilloy, but in the end the R.C.R could not add much more ground to their already great victory, marked by the gallantry and leadership of Milton Gregg, rightly honoured by the award of the Victoria Cross.

In a forward hospital some days after the advance had got around Cambrai, General Horne visited our ward, and graciously conceded that time, fresh troops and supporting artillery were needed to win Tilloy and the environs of Cambrai, and that our depleted forces had gone as far as we could.

My recovery from wounds was very slow as my wounds had to heal before the surgery and I had a lung haemorrhage in Lady Murray's hospital in Le Treport in France and not until December 1918 was I relieved of the pain of the bullet lodged below my right lung by a Harley Street surgeon in the 3rd London General Hospital at Wandsworth. Early in 1919 I was well enough to attend an investiture of Military Cross by George V at Buckingham Palace, and subsequently to be present as a guest at the investiture of Milton Gregg with his V.C. and to marry charge sister Amy Marrion Hale, Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service (T.F.) in late February 1919. In March and April I was a patient at Canadian Convalescent Hospital, Matlock, Bath, and in June was posted for demobilization to the R.C.R at Ripon. I reached Canada in July and was discharged in Regina on July 17, 1919. Capt. "Beak" Holloway of the R.C.R. giving me special attention and wishing me well.