Sergeant Guy Smith
A Soldier's Journal
Written on the 50th Anniversary of Vimy Ridge -- That My Children Know
As a preface, I will go back to the battle of the Somme. Where, in the fighting around Courcelett and the attacks on the Regina Trench, we suffered the loss of two sections of the ninth Machine Gun Corp, to which I belonged. We were supporting the 43rd battalion, the battalion to which I originally belonged. I was in the old sugar refinery at Courcelette, our headquarters and the headquarters of other units and the ninth brigade of the third division. Signal headquarters was also located here. The Germans had so reinforced it with steel rails and concrete, what was left of it was impervious to shell fire. It was a one hell of a job to get in, for it was under almost constant fire from the German artillery, but once inside you had a sense of temporary safety. Though the noise of shells exploding almost drove you nuts. It was in the last few minutes before the main attack began that word came through signals, the wire in front of the German trenches, that the objective of the 43rd battalion and two sections of our Corp had not been broken up by our artillery fire. It was with a sinking feeling of dread, we realized the terrible task our boys faced. In the meanwhile a shell had landed a direct hit upon the dugout that sheltered 43rd battalion headquarters Col. Thompson was badly wounded, other battalion officers were killed and our OC and adjutant were also killed.
The German rifle and machine gun fire took a terrible toll of our troops, advancing across no mans land. It was to their great credit that they captured the trenches facing them. But there were so few left that they could not hold back the counter attack that followed. Some were taken prisoners and the rest were forced to retreat across that terrible stretch of no mans land again. Many did not make it before Reinforcements arrived and the shattered remnants of a great battalion were relieved. I recall three days later in the brickfield outside the almost demolished town of Albert, a Battalion parade and roll call took place and less than 100 men answered their names out of a total of nearly 700 that took part in the battle. Quite frankly I cried while watching that thin line of men and looking for the faces of comrades I had known, from our landing in France, the fighting at Mezires and the Ypres Salient. We had lost more than half of our Machine Gun Company. After a few days rest and return to spic and span drill, we left the Somme for an unknown destination. We were told we were going to a quiet front for a rest and recuperation.
The long days of marching began again as we moved back from the lines. It was now the end of November and getting quite cold. We finally arrived at the reserve positions on the Arras, Lens and Vimy ridge fronts. We were informed that this was our destination. When our strength had been built up by reinforcements we were to take over and hold positions on this relatively quiet front. We soon found out what that meant. The Arras front had been part of those terrific battles in the early stages of the war with French stemming the tide of the invasion advance of the German armies. The cost to the French had been terrible 86,000 casualties on this front alone. They were supported by a few British regiments. We found much evidence of this while building trenches, dugouts and gun placements, many decaying bodies, mostly French but some British kilted highlanders. I don't think we had ever worked so hard before. The old trenches were of the revetment type, stakes and wattles holding back the earth, and they were crumbling and falling in every where. Especially when it rained, revealing ghastly reminders of the terrible destruction of life that took place there. We labored week after week, ploughing through mud carrying heavy loads of sandbags, lumber, etc. for rebuilding new trenches, dugouts and gun emplacements. We carried in millions of rounds of ammunition and began to realize we were preparing for something big. As the saying goes "ours is not to reason why" -- headquarters didn't see the need to tell anyone anything. It was a relief to escape the work parties, with a turn of front line duty.
It was relatively quiet, based upon our past experiences. Although there was continual probing raids and we never knew when a terrific box barrage of artillery fire would hem us in, followed by an attack probing for information and prisoners. There was a continual flow of casualties and replacements and those of us who escaped so much often wondered why. So many who within the first few days of the front line would get wounded in the arm or leg that sent them back to hospital. We called this "getting a cushy one" and wondered if ours would be R.I.P. We were back in billets for rest periods just outside the mining town of Equarres (I'm not sure of the spelling of this) just before Xmas 1916. When we got word that we were to take over front line duty three days before Xmas, this meant we would spend Xmas there. Happy Xmas ha! ha!. The line extended, at this time in front of the much shelled and devastated town of Neuville St. Vaast, we faced the ridge with Forbes Wood directly in front of us, on the brow of the ridge. Theilus and Theilus Wood were to the right, the line ended at the Souchez Valley to the left. We had arrived one day too early to effect relief and were quartered that night in the chalk caves, from which hard chalk blocks were cut for building purposes. These were deep caves 60 to 70 steps down and we thought this was good and safe from the shellfire at least for the night. We were able to build fires and cook some hot food and tea. I looked forward to a good sleep, we were very tired lugging our guns and equipment along those miles of muddy trenches. We gradually settled down in our blankets, it was cold but we soon were warm and reasonably comfortable. No sooner had we got quiet and warm the fleas started their usual tormenting itch and as the candlelight went out we hear rustling and then grumping and the boys started cussing and slapping as literally hundreds of rats, swarmed over us. The place was alive with them and they were hungry. We had to detail guards to keep the rats away by continually moving around swatting and keeping the candles burning . In spite of this they ate or spoiled most of our food except tin ration. Some of the boys were bitten and incredible as it may seem, some had holes bitten in their socks on their feet while sleeping. In fact there was very little sleep, it was a very tired and disgruntled bunch glad to leave the safe confines of that pesthole the next morning.
It was a short distance to the front line, arrangements had been made and we took over the position vacated. That evening, the 23rd December, it started to snow and soon there was two inches or more on the ground. I can assure you we had not been longing for a "white Xmas" it was damn cold. We were doing the usual routine of a six-man gun crew, two hours on four hours off sentinel duty. Which meant a constant periodic looking over the parapet, toward the German lines, endeavoring to keep warm by constant stamping of feet and clapping of hands and keeping moving to keep the blood circulating. We had devised ingenious methods of heating tea and food over the months of trench duty. The least wisp of smoke would give our position away which would invite a barrage of bombs and shellfire. The best method consisted of cutting up candles in chimbles and bags cut in strips punching holes in bully beef tins, stuffing the tins with strips of bags and layers of candles chips. Sticking our bayonets in the sand bag walls and suspending our mess tins on the handles over the prepared fire. This gave the almost smokeless fire. That never the less needed constant watching with sand bags ready to smother it should it start to smoke, this seldom happened if the fire was constantly supplied with candle chips. The fire had to be immediately smothered when things were cooked. Candles were rationed to us and we had to buy more while out on the front line to be assured of sufficient supply. We had some anxious moments at times during this cooking process. I had become somewhat expert in this and could cook porridge, bacon, eggs and tea for six of us using about three or four candles with less mishaps than some of the others. So as the turns of gun duty evolved one or the other would say "you do the cooking Smitty I'll take your turn on the gun" On the 24th our officer appeared with two large bottles of champagne, a Xmas pudding and shortbread cookies. Also an additional tot of rum.
We had received extra Xmas rations and with the mail picked by the ration detail, even a very small Xmas parcel from home was welcome. Our thoughts went back then to Xmas's of the past and with infinite longing to be back home again. In one of the parcels from Scotland was a very well packed bottle of Scotch and a Xmas cake and those delicious shortbread cookies, for which the Scot housewives were so justly famous.
There had been rumors passing down the line, that an Xmas truce was being arranged. Our officer denied this and we were ordered not to fraternize in any way. It snowed some more. As evening came the intermittent crack of rifle and machine gun fire ceased. A strange quiet descended over the whole front. Star shells burst in incredible quantities over no mans land. Because of the quiet we decided that one man was sufficient sentinel on gun duty, so five of us at a time could enjoy the comparative warmth and cheer of the dugout. (Which was about six feet square and less than 5 feet high) and the extra plentiful and diversified food supply. We quietly sang Xmas carols and our thoughts went back home and I think we cried a little as those memories of happy days came back to us. David Jones was on gun duty. He suddenly poked his head around the heavy curtain of sandbags shielding the entrance, saying "hey fellows come out and have a listen". It had quit snowing, it was dark and the stars were shining intensely bright and reflecting from the snow covered ground. Drifting across the waste of no mans land we heard the strains of Silent Night, O Come All Ye Faithful, accompanied by music in a language the words we did not understand, but we did know. They meant the same in German as they did in English and we quietly joined in. The bitterness of the war was dissolved as we realized that those German troops across the wasteland were celebrating Christians as we were and they were thinking of home and families as we were. This was a senseless strife impelling us to kill one another.
Morning broke clear and cold, it was Xmas day, the sun came out and started to thaw the snow. It was still strangely quiet, no rifle, machine gun or artillery fire could be heard along the entire front. We could hear the Germans singing over there as though they were enjoying themselves. Then suddenly we heard voices calling in English (they had devised some form of loud speaker) and "Hello Canada, Hello Winnipeg" came distinctly across. "We know where you come from. Come over and see us. We promise you will return safely". We did not accept the invitation, we had orders not to fraternize in any way. We were told afterwards that counter proposals by troops on our left to meet half way were accepted and they met in no mans land and exchanged greeting. I cannot verify this and all talk that it did actually happen was promptly squashed, and we were advised not to talk about it. Xmas day came to an end and promptly after hostilities resumed. The rifle and machine gun fire, bombing and shelling resumed on an increased scale. Holy Night had passed and the devil took over again. Mans inhumanity to man for now prevailed again. It had opened a window of understanding for many of us of how infinitely senseless this whole war was.
One sight that comes to clear memory is the much battered but still standing spire tower of the church at St. Elois, the village itself had been reduced to ruins months before. That spire of stone was the guiding landmark on our way in and way out of the trenches. We left it with regret going in and welcomed its sight coming out. German long-range shells still occasionally tried to reach it.
We had no casualties on this trip in the line on our gun crew and at the end of three weeks we were back in billets near St. Eloie. After a few days rest with pay we had coming we got passes to visit the town of Equarres to shop and fraternize with the French people of that town. The French people were very kind to us and respected us on our visits. The company of other people was a great change and relief, these occasions became meaningful and very special. After which we returned again to the arduous task of work parties, carrying building and preparing for what?
During the months of preparation artillery units comprising thousands of guns, of all dimensions were constantly taking over positions, building gun emplacements arming and ranging shells on German positions and targets. Then quietly settling back while the latest arming units moved ahead and did the same. Our gun crew was engaged in carrying in ammunition and engineering supplies, mostly at night, for we were under constant observation from the ridge. The sudden noise and flashes of a battery of guns ranging would cause you to jump right out of your skin. A battery that had not been in place a few days before was suddenly there now. When a battery goes off in the darkness a hundred feet from where you are passing there is a deafening sound that causes your eardrums to ring and ache with pain. One of the projects we worked on was the building of a huge tunnel extending from the back of our lines up to the Ridge. I was in that tunnel three or four times carrying engineering supplies while on work parties. It eventually held thousands of troops sheltered from the bombardment and ready to advance as the bombardment lifted. This was in fact one of the major projects in successfully capturing the Ridge. Finally the Great day came the 9th of April we did not know exactly until the day before. When we were notified that zero hour had been set at 6:05 the following morning. The officers of course had been receiving instructions of the general battle plan for some time and their part in it and had dropped hints.
But now on this, what was to be the last day for so many, we received detailed instructions of the part we were to play. The machine guns were allotted their tasks. Many of the guns were in close forward support of the front line, some in the tunnel, others in open camouflaged positions just back of the lines, which was my position. We had our map targets, upon which we were to pump overhead fire continuously. Our corps guns were placed a hundred or so feet apart, ammunition was stored in separate sandbag covered dugouts in case one shell explosion should destroy all. I should mention here that during the winter we had been back in-groups to Carriers and the machine gun training school to receive intense training in over head fire. In addition to this at every opportunity we trained to get split second reaction for gun stoppages. Timed to so many seconds for the correction of troubles with the gun or ammunition, like a broken lock spring or firing pin, faulty ammunition or a misfire stopping the gun. We trained on map reading, trajectory and course of fire, traverse fire, use of level and protractor to set the gun for overhead fire and constant checking of the settings, to assure that our fire was truly directed. This constant split second drill was very tiring. After our first engagement in the line we realized how important it was to our lives and of those we were to protect and cover. I believe I can recall many instances when this training in instant reaction time saved me from injuries in civilian life afterwards.
Night came on, our preparations were all made and we were read. There was no sleep that night. The tension was terrific. So far I have described what was taking place on our immediate front and we were positioned opposite the center of the Ridge. The whole Canadian force was in position to the left of us this was to be a massive attack. It was a fairly bright night some stars were showing, toward morning most of the firing died down and it became strangely quiet. The minutes and hour ticked by, at two or three minutes to go our firing started, some watches had not been properly synchronized. All hell broke loose thousands of artillery guns of all sizes at the back of us opened up until it looked like one continuous sheet of flame and noise it was an inferno. At this stage we could only watch and wait seeking any cover we could as the German guns responded. Shells were bursting almost every where. We were waiting our signal to open fire. When the terrible pounding barrage of fire would lift and advance so the infantry up front could follow it. So far we had escaped casualties, though one of our guns to the left of us had received a direct hit. There were two men at the gun and they were killed instantly.
Because our gun positions were in the open the whole front along the Ridge was in view to us. The woods in front of us disappeared under the heavy shellfire. The signal we had been waiting for came and our guns swung into action pouring a curtain of machine gun fire just ahead of our advancing troops. We increased our range as we received the signals from the front line; our part in the fight was soon over. Our effective range was less than 2700 yards the order came to cease-fire and from now on our job was to prepare to move forward. In the mean time we could view the battle ahead. During the time we were engaged Corporal Jack Taylor was standing along side of our gun when a piece of shrapnel took off the top of his little finger on the right hand. Another piece hit the gun and glanced off my belt buckle. We were fortunate our casualties were light. Later in the day we saw tanks advancing over near Theleous Wood and then, to us what was an incredible sight, a column of troops marching up towards the ridge in column route, just as though they were on an ordinary route march. We watched with amazement and expectation. Sure enough it came, one, two, three, four large shell bursts right in amongst them. Great gaps appeared in that struggling column of men. More shells burst and they scattered. We watch and cussed those incompetent officers that led the men to their destruction this way.
The bright morning had clouded over and soon thunder and lightning flashed to add to the continual noise and flashes of the guns. It was a spectacle almost beyond description, then the stream of stretcher-bearers carrying the wounded back and soon small groups of prisoners being escorted to the rear. In some instances the prisoners were handling the stretchers. It had turned cold now and as evening approached it started to snow. Word finally came to move forward and we advanced over open ground incredibly pitted with shell holes. The trenches had been demolished and the going very rough, loaded down as we were with guns, ammunition and equipment our feet clogged with snowy mud. Soon we passed many dead killed in the first wave of the infantry attack the snow slowly covering their bodies in a blanket of white.
We were halted at what had been German positions on the brow of the ridge as night fell. We were told to find shelter as best we could and await orders and to be ready to move on instant notice. We found a few German dugouts that were still habitable and set about making some hot tea and eats. It was now dark and we could hear and see the flashes of guns just over the ridge in the valley below us. A few shells came our way, but the Germans had been broken up and demoralized by the tremendous barrage of shellfire and the infantry advance that had been so well planned. We learned afterwards that the casualties were less on our immediate front than on our left where the 78th battalion suffered very sever losses. There is no doubt that the huge tunnel had provided shellfire cover during the bombardment and saved lives.
Our officer had been reconnoitering up front and now called the number 1 rank of each gun of our action to report to him. He had seen in the light of the bursting shells below the ridge German artillery and transports withdrawing along the roads, leading to La Chaudiere and Lens. His proposal was to take four guns to the vantagepoint from which he had seen what was going on below. From there we could fire (open Sites) into the retreating Germans. So they drew lots to see which guns would go. My gun was one of them and I was number 2 on the gun. Each gun crew was to carry all the ammunition they could to the position, when we got there, set up the guns, and line them up. Then four of each crew went back, leaving just eight men and the officer. We could not see much down there, except when the flash of exploding shells would light the area and we could see the movement going on. So we waited for enough light to break to see where we were shooting. A quiet "now" from the officer opened up the four guns on the artillery and transports retreating along the road. Our artillery had also spotted them and soon there was a line of scattered shell blasted guns and transports. Our ammunition did not last long and there was no abject to staying there, although we were fascinated with this first glimpse of the valley below. The ridge dropped off quite sharply and down below we could see the towns of La Chaudiere, Petit Vimy and in the distance the mining town of Lens. The flashes of German gun fire from in front of Lens and our exploding shells. Captain Drinkwater, our officer said "well boys we had better get back" and we started off not any too soon. The Germans must have picked up the flashes of our guns and as we looked back the place where we had been exploded with bursting shellfire.
The next day we moved over the brow of the ridge and occupied some of the most wonderful and comfortable dugouts we had ever seen furnished with beds and furniture. Evidently brought in from the towns and villages down the valley. Some of the officer's dugouts had pianos in them such were the comforts they had built into their temporary homes. The trenches and dugouts were not badly damaged, situated, as they were about halfway down the steep drop of the ridge. Making them almost impossible targets from our side of the ridge. We realized how comparatively comfortable they had been to our miserable existence during those long winter months. We had suffered under constant observation, daring hardly to move during the day. Now we could see why it took so long to secure the ridge and the reason it was so difficult to determine the German positions. There were many dead Germans lying around so we surmised that our fellows must have buried our dead.
Our front line had advanced and occupied La Chaudiere and the high built rail embankment running parallel to the ridge. We cleaned our guns and equipment and were prepared to move up awaiting orders. While waiting we searched the dugouts for souvenirs, German postcards, pictures, German helmet badges and letters from home, a pitiful reminder of our own homes. Little Macky, a Finnlander, on our gun crew could read some German. He had joined us soon after we had arrived on the front from the Somme. There were tears in his eyes when he read some of the German cards and letters. We could not persuade him to read them aloud to us. He was a quiet reserved very fine boy anxious to do his share and more when he could. But he couldn't read aloud the cards and letters we found -- he found them too personal to share them with the rest of the crew. I found a beautifully built short light snipers rifle. I never did discover its maker and in another dugout a queer sword, quite evidently an antique with a heavy carved brass handgrip. I buried these in a dugout near the communications trench leading out and back. Hoping that if we came back this way I could pick them up again. Is not acquisitiveness queer? Especially when the future was so uncertain.
We saw many of our planes brought down mostly three winged artillery observation planes. They were like sitting ducks for the fast Red Devil fighter planes of the Germans. One of our planes came down about 200 feet in front of our position. Two of our boys climbed over the parapet to see if they could help, but both the pilot and observer were dead riddled with machine gun bullets. Then Fritz artillery started shelling it, our boys got back safely and we had some uncomfortable minutes as the shrapnel shells burst over our positions.
When night approached we moved down the ridge and took up positions in some German trenches that had been badly shelled and the old tasks of filling sandbags and building up sections of the trench and gun placement began again. We were now within range of targets ahead. Our officers quickly plotted them on the maps and we were intermittently firing at those targets all night. We shielded our gunfire with wet sandbags to keep our positions hidden. We must have caused Fritz trouble for he started searching for us with shrapnel fire from Lens. We had a few minor casualties in this position due mostly to shrapnel wounds. We were informed that a special task had been given to our company. Four guns were allotted to participate my gun was one of them. We were to pack and be ready to leave at dusk, accompanied by extra ammunition carriers. On leaving we were instructed that there was extra hazard involved and that we were to proceed in completed silence. We were joined on the way by a section of engineers loaded with supplies. We soon found out we were passing our own front line into no mans land, which at this point was about a mile or more from the German lines in front of Lens. Stray machine gun and rifle fire was crackling around and near us and we had to stand motionless when star shells burst over head. Finally "halt" was passed down the line and we were told to dig in as quietly as possible. With the aide of the engineers we quickly went to work, our guns and us were to be as invisible as possible by daylight. Now they told us this was to be sacrifice strong point, in case of enemy attack and that as daylight broke there was to be no movement. Before daybreak the job was finished and the engineers left us to get back to our front lines. They were to return the next night with rations, more ammunition and other necessary supplies. We managed to get some food during the day but missed our hot tea. By this time deadly tired as the sun came up we rolled up in our blankets and tried to sleep. Late in the afternoon 4 shells landed very near our position and shook us up some, David Jones Said "that was close Smitty" and one crew member of the end gun to the left got a deep shrapnel wound in the arm. We wondered whether Fritz had discovered our position and had tried to wipe us out. Following this a lot of shells passed over us and our batteries began returning fire. We could see our shells exploding on the German lines in front of us. We wondered if this was the prelude to an attack, but it didn't develop any further. Dusk started to fall giving us relief, to get some food and move around. Now we started to consolidate our positions but ran out of sandbags so we had to wait on the engineers to arrive. Soon they came with very welcome rations and supplies. We deepened the trench from gun to gun, made our very shallow cubby holes deeper and more comfortable. We rebuilt the gun emplacements, camouflaging them as best we could before the engineers had to leave. They told us rations and supplies would be bought again the next night. We felt more ready to meet an attack and passed the rest of the day without event. A few shells were near, but not so close as the day before. In the very early morning we saw two figures running toward our lines, they ran a short way and as they were fired upon they flopped and crawled then lay quiet, each time we wondered if the were hit. We surmised they were scouts from the battalion holding our front lines checking opposite positions and marking targets.
Soon after night fall, what we thought were engineers returning to us, proved to be a light machine gun section from the 61st battalion. They had instructions to relieve us and take over the position. It was a welcome relief to us. We packed and moved back to our old position at the rear where we found out that our company was being relieved and were waiting for the relief to appear. They came in the early morning and we headed back, for a well deserved rest, to reserve positions, which incidentally were the front lines we occupied before the attack of April 9th. It was raining hard when we left; the communication trenches were full of men coming up to relieve. It was a recognized order that the troops moving up had the right of way. The troops moving out must wait if necessary, unless there was an alternative in our case the alternative was to get out of the trench and go overland. We received instructions to do just this and each gun crew was to find their own way back as best they could. Our meeting place was at a point in front of Neuville St. Vaast. The going was heavy through the mud and in the darkness we tumbled into shell holes with a lot of water in them. We cursed that we ever left the communication trench and when we finally reached our dugouts, we were a sight to see haggard, unshaven, wet, dirty, muddy, still lousy dead tired and hungry. To eat and sleep were our first needs. The hot tea rejuvenated our souls and tasted wonderful. We removed our shoes for the first time in almost two weeks, then our uniforms to let them dry. Rolled in our blankets we subsided into oblivion.
I have omitted many incidents both tragic and humorous. I will recall one here to show how accidents can happen. Our main dugout was large, but not high enough for a person to stand up. There were sleeping cubby holes leading off it the section was occupied by two snipers before we took over. They slept there that night and the next day we were sitting around delousing our shirts by candle light. A not very enlightening but I assure you a very necessary thing to do whenever you got the chance. The snipers were cleaning their rifles when suddenly "bang" one went off and there was a yell. Just what happened we were never did find out. I saw one of them suddenly thrust his arm out, with his hand over the muzzle of a rifle. Then the flash, bang, yell and I saw a hole in his hand, the knuckle blown away. In the commotion we were mainly concerned with getting him medical attention. A medical post was a short distance along the trench and we hurried him there. The other fellow was distraught and we left them both in the charge of the MO. It is very strange for these accidents to happen when these fellows had such special training in handling and firing rifles.
It was warm now with a bright sun and we enjoyed for two days just lolling around, cleaning the equipment, our bodies and clothes. This was short lived for we started the routine of constant gun drill to condition and bind together again. Each crew had been reinforced to full strength, after about a week we received orders to be ready to move up to the front on short notice. It came later that day. There had been increased activity on the front with increasing shell fire. We moved up into it and as an experiment our transport was being provided by mules. The general idea was to use the mules to carry our guns and equipment and much more ammunition than we could lug in ourselves. The gun crews were supposed to arrive at their destination much less fatigued. There was a limit to how far the mules could go, of course we would have to carry everything ourselves into more forward positions. We liked the Idea, although we had doubts about the mules, because of their obstinate traits, wondering what would happen, when a shell burst near enough to scare them. We knew we would have to chase them to recover the guns. For some reason the idea was abandoned at the last minute and we loaded up to proceed without them. There were sighs of relief from some, they disliked mules anyway and did not relish using them in fact some were down right afraid of mules.
We approached the brow of the ridge when a funny thing happened. Before the big attack began a wide and deep artillery trench had been built parallel to the ridge and snow blanketed the bridges spanning the trench. It was knee deep in mud and some of our corps had already crossed when we reached it. A pack train of mules started across from the other side. The smallest man in our corps, Little Mac. Hated mules and decided he would wait until the pack train passed. We waited for him on the other side urging him to come on over. It was a long pack train and when a gap appeared Mac shouldered his gun tripod and started across, another 7 or 8 mules appeared and met him halfway. Mac put his arm out to ward them off saying whoa there. One of the mules side stepped and Mac disappeared over the side of the planks into the trench mud below. It was really funny for us and quite heartlessly roared with laughter. We hauled Mac out, you should have heard the language, delivered in a broad scotch accent. We had to hurry to catch up with the rest of our corps. We passed over the brow of the ridge and word was relayed back from the front we were to proceed with caution, to stop and remain motionless when told. The Germans possibly were observing us from Lens halfway down the ridge. We proceeded along a trench parallel to the ridge then we halted and informed we would be staying the night and to find ourselves dugouts. We did this although some were untenable, as the smell of dead Germans was unbearable they had been killed by, bombs tossed down in the big attack. There were lots of rats around feeding on the rotting flesh of the dead bodies. We had to prepare our food and hot tea in these conditions and were ordered there would be no movement above the parapet. It was under direct observation and we should be prepared to move quickly when the orders came. Fritz was still pounding the ridge with artillery fire occasionally; it was difficult but we still managed to get some sleep.
The next day was bright and clear and we had a beautiful view of the valley below through our periscopes and peepholes through the sandbags. The devastated village of Petit Vimy was just below us, a little to the left was La Chaudiere and further left the Souchez valley and Lens in the distance. Our artillery was pounding Lens with big shells, the observation planes were searching for gun positions and other strong points. They also signaled for fire and recorded hits on targets. We saw six of the slow flying planes brought down that day on our immediate front. Suddenly a red streak out of the sky would swoop down like a hawk after a pigeon, with a burst of machine gun fire and our plane would come tumbling down, sometimes on fire. Some would manage to get back far enough to the protection of our anti aircraft guns. We had watched one plane brought down and the German fighter plane went into a show of victory. It did a snake like move up and down then suddenly we saw a burst of fire on either side of it and then another that blew it to smithereens. A whiz bang battery back in Neuville St. Vaast had caught the plane in their sights just over the brow of the ridge and with perfect gunnery brought it down. We were so excited and thrilled that some of us climbed up on the parapet yelling and waving our steel helmets. We paid dearly for this later. Shortly after we got orders to pack up and be ready to move up at dusk. We packed our guns, rations, etc. from the dug outs, had them assembled in the trenches ready to move when a couple of big shells landed at back of us quite away up. We hear them coming over and then two more fifty or so feet behind us. We crouched as shrapnel and mud flew around us. Then one landed amongst us I don't know how close. I felt myself hurled down the trench and I guess I was stunned, the next I remember I was crawling back. I came to Maki first, he was riddled with shell pieces and terribly twisted. Jones lay just beyond him, I managed to reach him, his tongue was rolling in and out and I tried to raise him, as I did a huge gap appeared in his stomach and his bowel came out. I think I must have passed out then and fallen on top of him. I remember later crawling down the trench. Bill Mattocks had come to assist us and was bending over me. I tried to tell him to help Jonesy he went along the trench and came back to tell me Jonesy was dead. I don't remember much after that, I guess Bill must have helped me down to where our other guns were. I was terribly shaken up and remember crying very much every time I thought of Davey Jones. Bill checked me over, (he told me after) there was a spot of blood above my left knee he treated with iodine. A small fragment of shrapnel worked its way out months later. I stubbornly refused to let him take me down to the medial dressing station, which he reminded me of many times later. Orders had come that we were staying where we were for another day. We found out later that our wait was for reinforcements and casualty replacements that arrived during the night.
The dugout we were in was very large concrete German gun position. I do not remember much of that night or the following day except that when our officer came for inspection he asked me if I was capable of carrying on. I said yes and asked him to let me stay. He reminded me that I would now be Number 1 on the gun and in that position, in charge. I reminded him how long my service had been and I think that decided it. My gun was now made up to full strength again. I have not mentioned names too much and I will not do so. One of the new members of our gun crew was a demoted Sargent machine gun instructor, who constantly reminded us of this fact and told us how a gun crew should operate. I stood it as long as I could and then reminded him of the many engagements I had been in with the gun from Meziere, Ypres, the Somme and the build up and initial attack on the Ridge. I reminded him that this was not theory but actual experience. I told him I didn't need any more instruction from him. The rest of the crew agreed with me and I think we got along better for having it out.
We got orders to prepare to move at dusk, down in the valley, we were marching along that road leading into La Chaudiere, the same road where we caught the retreating German artillery and transports a few days earlier. We had not traveled far when Fritz started to shell the road Captain Drinkwater led us off the road and started to cut across the fields in the dark. Soon shells were falling all over, something was happening up front, Star shells were going up and in the light of them we could make out the rail embankment ahead of us. This embankment running into La Chodierre and the mines was about 25 to 30 feet high and after capturing it the engineers had constructed tunnels and dugouts. These were well protected from small gunfire and we halted in the lea of the embankment until assigned dugouts. Our job was to support the front line incase of attack. The shelling up front had died down it had been another of those flurries that would start with sentries spotting something and starting fire and soon machine gun and artillery would join in then gradually fade away again. But of this we were never quite sure whether we had been spotted and it was an attack. There were prepared gun placements ready for us, which meant the welcome lack of work parties. The dugout we took over was a long tunnel, so narrow we had to climb over each other to move around. We managed to get some eats and there was the usual sentry posting after which we settled down for the rest of the night as best we could. I must admit that on the way in I had very grave doubts I would make it because of tight choking pains in the chest from the exertion and I was very glad of the rest. I felt better in the morning even though I didn't sleep too well.
Captain Drinkwater called for a volunteer burial party of six to go back and bury the dead. I asked if I could go saying Jones and Maki had been my pals on the gun. He looked at me doubtfully, but said yes I could go. The captain and six of us started off we kept in the lea of the embankment as far as we could and then split up 50 paces apart and started to cross the open fields to the ridge. There was some shellfire but we made it across without mishap. We found Davey Jones, Maki and Freddie Burrows, I didn't know that Freddie had been killed, he was discovered afterwards blown clean over the top of the parapet. He died of terrible head wounds and I know I cried again. We found a spot with loose gravel where sandbags had been filled and dug a shallow grave. Captain Drinkwater had a small cross marker and we laid them side by side. The captain recited a short burial service and prayer and we covered them up. I had a feeling as I saw Davey for the last time that some part of me had gone forever. We had been very close in many tight places for months, had used our two blankets to cover us huddled together for warmth many times. There was a special bond existing between us, that was beyond any physical explanation . We had exchanged thoughts in those long vigils of sentry duty and had quietly hummed tunes and sung songs. He had a very good bass voice and I had sang in the Welsh choirs in the Estedfods, now I felt very lonely.
We got back to our position without mishap and remained there for another five days. On the second day Fritz staged a counter attack, the object of which was to recover the rail embankment and line we held. It was a very well protected strong point with considerable advantage to those who held it. This attack started in the early morning with heavy artillery fire. A battery of eight of our artillery guns with horses at full gallop lined up about a quarter mile to our left, in front of the embankment and opened fire on the German positions in front of Lens. It was a magnificent and heroic display and we were thrilled and cheered them on. Before long the Fritz heavy artillery found their range and heavy shells landed blowing guns and men in the air. Four guns received direct hits and were disabled, the others kept firing until they were silenced. It was terrible to watch and we were saddened. The attack was beaten off and stopped. Those heroic gun crews had played an important roll. In all the years since I have never been able to talk about what had happened. Now as I write this down my memories come back vividly as if it were just a few days ago and not fifty years. Such are the terrible facts of war and the destruction we witnessed it is embedded in the subconscious ready to appear as vividly as the day it happened for years to come.
Fritz tried again three days later, this time, a surprise night raid, without preliminary artillery just a mass of men in a sudden rush. We beat them back and the German losses must have been terrific. I have been describing only what took place in front of our immediate front. To the left toward the Souchez Valley the 44th battalion suffered very heavy casualties in the neighborhood of the slag heaps. After six days and nights in this positions we were relieved and word passed around that we would be going back to reserve positions for a rest period. It had rained heavy again and the mud was terrible. I was getting pains in my chest and a choking feeling with it and I was deadly tired. I had to stop frequently to get breath, the boys were good to me and helped carry my portion of the equipment. It seemed it would be so easy to sit down in the mud and go to sleep. We were way behind the rest of the corps but eventually caught up, when the corps had halted in and around some ruined buildings back at Neuville St. Vaast. The word came down we could spend the rest of the night there. There were dugouts and shelters in the ruins. Two of the boys helped me to a dugout and I lay down, I don't know if I passed out or went to sleep.
The next morning the Sargent came around and said he was taking some men to the dressing station and I had better accompany them. Bill Mattock had come looking for me and said you must go see a doctor Guy and we went with the Sargent. The MO examined me, asked me some questions of what happened and muttered damn young fool and told me to lie down on a stretcher. He gave me some pills and the Medical Sargent tied a tag on my tunic. I was placed on the first ambulance to come up and taken to hospital. I was soon in a comfortable cot with white sheets and a pillow for the first time since we left England. I had slept in a bed at Aunt Maude's while on leave 20 long months ago. They bought me some pills that relieved the pain in my chest and some hot food. I fell asleep and don't remember for how many hours. Two days later I was aboard a hospital train bound for Boulogne. It was May 22nd when I was taken to hospital and I don't remember how long I was in hospital just outside Boulogne. I do remember a visit from the first American unit to land in France. It was I think a hospital unit and they bought lots of cigarettes, chocolates etc. the Americans always had these items and gave them to everyone. After about three weeks I was allowed to get up and walk around a little with help. I was still getting chest pains and moving around left me gasping for breath. After much rest I was able to take short walks outside and felt like I was on the mend. Bill Mattocks had been sent down to machine gun school for more special instruction. It was not far from the hospital and he came to see me. I walked around with him for a bit and he was much distressed at my condition and again chided me for not reporting to the MO after the shell explosion. Poor Bill had to go up there again, I think I felt more sorry for him, than he did for me.
It was about this time that my youngest brother Jack arrived in France. Not knowing I was in hospital was sent up to the Passchendaele front with reinforcements for the 8th battalion. The whole Canadian corps had been moved there from the Vimy front. He had gone to our lines to find me and was told I was in hospital in Boulogne. I never saw him again, he was killed there during the big attack. Jack was still not eighteen years old. I didn't learn he had been killed until sometime later in England.
We had taken over part of the Ypres Salient 14 months past from the Guards Brigade, after a stint in the front lines of Meziere. Edward Prince of Wales was with his Regiment in the Guards. I saw him twice, once walking with escort in Poperinge, the Guards Headquarters and again in a staff car racing along the Poperinge, Ypres road. It was quite a thrill to see the Prince in action and gave the men a boost in moral to think someone of his stature and upbringing could be at the front with the rest of us. It was at this time the engineers had started work upon that tunneling and preparation which took about sixteen months. They had started it before we arrived there and they were tight lipped about what they were doing. We heard a little about this in the Estamind, while drinking Vin Rouge or Vin Blanc. The ridge for a length of ten miles was blown up opening a gap and confusing the enemy for the attack. We of course did not know what was going on up at the front. But in the hospital so far away did recall later feeling the shock of the explosion when miles of tunnels under the observation ridge and Hill 60 were blown up in the initial attack and advance of the Canadian Corps. We got an inkling of this some days later, when the first casualties arrived at our hospital. The terrible, pitiful condition of some of them was almost beyond belief. It was sometime later still when the first victims of Mustard Gas began to come in. The poor fellows were a mass of blisters coughing and spitting a yellow mass from their lungs. The gas affected the victims in many ways in some cases it caused blindness. I can never forget seeing them, they have occupied my dreams or nightmares when sleeping for years to come.
The hospital became over crowded and those of us who needed extended treatment were evacuated to England to make room for the new arrivals that so desperately needed immediate attention. I was one of those evacuated and we were some on a hospital ship crossing the channel. I was one of a number placed on a hospital train bound for Birmingham. During this time I had not set foot upon the ground I was carried on a stretcher everywhere. After about a week in Birmingham hospital my sister Violet came to visit. My sisters in England had been notified I was a casualty in Birmingham Hospital. I cannot tell you how grateful I felt to see Vi. By this time I knew Jack and Ernest had gone to France and I thought of them constantly. I don't recall whether it was Vi who told me that Jack had been killed in Passchendaele My nerves were terrible the least unexpected noise would make me jump and shake.