Friday, 8 May 2020

A Remarkable Life: R.C. Royston, Part 2

This is the continuing story of Private R.C. Royston #29015; a Canadian soldier in the 16th Battalion Canadian Scottish, who enlisted at Valcartier and was taken prisoner at the Second Battle of Ypres. It was inspired by a single photograph and name in Library and Archives Canada.


Cunard Line RMS Alaunia, 1913



When Richard Cuthbert Royston arrived in St. Nazaire he was a long way from Creston, British Columbia, his home for six months before the outbreak of war. He would never have imagined when he left Liverpool a year earlier, arriving in Halifax aboard the Cunard liner RMS Alaunia on February 13th, that he would be back in England eight months later, and in France two months after that.  He was an accomplished engineer, already a patent to his name at the age of 22 for improvements in the design of furnaces - but engineering was not his passion; it was the prospect of farming that drew him across the ocean.  

At the turn of the century Canada was opening up its land with grants to those willing to work hard and take their chance. Creston was a small town on the Crow's Nest Pass, halfway between Nelson and Cranbrook with a population in 1914 that was still well under 1000 people. But it was a fertile fruit growing district with more than 50,000 acres of rich fruit land, much of it for sale - and help would be needed on the farms. 

Farm land advertised for sale in Creston
in the 1910 edition of Henderson's
BC Gazetteer and Directory


Richard Royston was just one of many in his family who would make their way to Canada and take the CPR across the country.  A good many of his relatives left Lancashire in the early 1900’s to head out on their own and settle in Western Canada.
The first family member was an uncle and namesake who, along with a number of his countrymen from Lancashire, settled in the Kootenay’s in 1904. They settled in the fast growing mining town of Morrisey, not far from Creston.  Two cousins, both farmers, also travelled to Canada over the next two years, taking root in Winnipeg and becoming very much a part of that burgeoning gateway to the Prairies; and in late 1911 a second uncle, William Drage Royston, also an engineer, arrived in Vancouver with his wife and their 29 year old daughter.

But Royston’s stay was short-lived. Less than six months after he arrived in Creston Britain declared war on Germany and Canada was automatically in the fight. Like so many other young men across the country, particularly those from Britain who were newly settled in Canada, Royston was anxious to enlist. On the last Friday in August he stood on the platform of Creston station with five other young men ready to catch the train that would take them east to Valcartier as part of the West Kootenay’s contribution to the first Canadian contingent.

That same week, across the ocean, the British and German armies clashed for the first time in a decisive struggle at the Battle of Mons. The stories on the front pages told of the serious losses to both sides
High casualties and a long fight
The Vancouver Daily Province, August 25, 1914
and the desperate fighting expected to go on for many weeks.  On Sunday, August 23rd the Germans had attacked the British with overwhelming superiority in the town of Mons along the French-Belgian border: 160,000 men and 300 guns compared to the British strength of 70,000 men and 160 guns. Despite holding out for several hours the British were forced to retreat, withdrawing over a two week period to the outskirts of Paris. When they counter-attacked with the French army at the Battle of Marne on the 6th of September they forced, in turn, a German retreat - and what followed was the Race to the Sea that set the battle lines for the Western Front for the next four years.

In Creston, the send-off for the six men was pulled together on short notice because of the uncertainty of their departure date. The station was dressed in gala attire with flags in evidence everywhere, including the town’s flag that flew aloft on the new pole erected near the station the day before.  After the bands played and the crowd sang their selections, Edward Mallandaine, a prominent citizen of the town who was one of its early settlers and a witness to the driving of the Last Spike at Craigellaachie in 1885, delivered a brief but heartfelt thanks. He offered a few tokens of appreciation for their “loyalty in volunteering for active service in defence of the King and Empire and also as deep feelings of patriotism of the Canadians.”  The men were presented with a pipe, a pouch and a generous supply of tobacco.
The send off for the Creston Men, joining others in the
Kootenay Contingent from Nelson, Trail, Kaslo,
Rossland and Greenwood on August 28th, 1914 

The six men, Philip W. Barrington Foote, Dennis Bunbury Howard, Robert Sinclair Smith, Patrick Douglas Hope, and H.B. Ford boarded one of the three cars on the regular CPR Train 514 that would take them on the start of their journey. The first leg was a three hour journey to Cranbrook. From there they would join up with the rest of the Kootenay/Boundary contingent and board a troop train - eight first class carriages in length, along with baggage and dining cars - that would take them across country to Valcartier. 
But before Train 514 got to Cranbrook on the first leg of its journey, and unbeknownst to the men on board, an accident occurred that saw the first death of a Kootenay volunteer.  It was a short distance out of Creston when William Reid, a man well known in the area, accidentally fell from the train when he was standing on the platform of the rear car to wave good-bye to one of his friends whose shack was near the tracks.  Although he survived the initial fall he lay down on the rails a short time later to rest and, falling asleep, was struck by a train going in the opposite direction. It was a sad, tragic start.

Troop Train in Cranbrook, B.C. leaving for Valcartier with the West Kootenay Contingent
August 28th, 1914
By the end of the War two of the original Creston men, Howard and Smith would be dead; Foote, Hope and Royston would survive. Of the sixth man, Ford, there is no trace - there’s no service record and his name is not mentioned in the nominal roll of any the seventeen battalions that formed up in Valcartier. A story circulated that one of the Cranbrook volunteers deserted from the Camp after arrival, but the rumour was dismissed by the Sargent responsible for the Cranbrook men. In his letter home he wrote that "the boys are all well and that there is no truth in the report of a desertion of a Cranbrook volunteer. All of the boys behaved as gentlemen on the journey and are now encamped at Valcartier." 

Certainly a number of men did walk away from the camp before the enlistment process began in ernest in the middle of September, unwilling to put up with the discipline, drills and other requisites of being in the army. Hundreds of other would-be volunteers were declared medically unfit for any number of reasons.  For those who persevered and met the grade it was the beginning of the Great Adventure.

Saturday, 25 April 2020

A Remarkable Life: R.C. Royston, Part 1


One of the things I am thankful for is the work done by archival teams around the world to capture history and move it online.  In Canada, tremendous work has been done by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) to move information online and various provinces and municipalities have done likewise.  I'm most familiar with the work done by the Vancouver archives, which has captured a rich visual portrait of life in the city over the past two centuries. Private organizations, like Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com are also a valuable resource to researchers, often providing the means for governments to bring more material online that they could not afford to publish themselves.  I'm of two minds when I have to pay so much to view our national heritage, but I understand there's a price to make it accessible, although sadly only to those who can afford it. I think every Canadian should think about the family heritage that might be kept in boxes in their basement and where appropriate - where it might be valuable history or offer a narrative - donate it at the right time to an archive. 

A few weeks ago I came across a picture of a young man, Richard Cuthbert Royston, in Archives Canada.  He was a soldier in the 16th Battalion Canadian Scottish and an escaped Prisoner of War; there was no other information about him. Ancestry was the natural place to start but it provided little more than tombstone information - a disjointed family tree with no substantive data. But it was a place for me to start my research that took me deep into archival sources and, as always, new personal connections with others around the world.   

So here's the story - the first of two parts - of Private Richard Cuthbert Royston.

Private R.C. Royston, May 1918
If I had to write the obituary upon his death in 1958 what a colourful story it would be: an inventor, a farmer, a soldier, a prisoner, a war hero - winner of the Military Medal for bravery - a landowner, a man who loved sports - cricket and rugby - a magistrate, husband and father; someone who lived life to it’s fullest, willing to take on new challenges and adventures; a very good friend - “extremely intelligent and well educated. . . a very fine type of man”.  He died at 68, in his prime, to be outlived by his wife by twenty-eight years, and his only son Toby, a big game hunter, who died in Zimbabwe in 1993. 

Richard Royston, standing next to his friend Louis Speirs, the man he’d been with in captivity for more than three years and had served alongside since they’d enlisted in Valcartier four years earlier, listened as they once again recounted the story of their escape to the reporter from the Metropolitan Press. The reporter hit the facts that would appeal: their narrow shave when they approached a farmhouse for directions, only to be told they were still in Germany; a little Hun-bashing about the prison guards who would deny them their parcels and then would empty the contents on the ground when they did hand them over - apparently a source of great amusement for the Germans. 

The Brattleboro Daily
Reformer, Vermont
April 20, 1918



Royston had read a story written by a reporter who interviewed them in Holland just a day after they crossed the frontier. The story had mixed up some of the facts - the date of his capture for one, writing 1916 instead of 1915. 

God wished it had been ’16: one less year in Dietersheim digging canals along the river for thirteen hours a day in all kinds of weather, in only the clothes they stood up in; the rolling mills at Wetzlar or the twelve hour days in the iron foundary near Brockenheim.  He’d spent a year at the American shoe factory in Rödelheim, near Frankfurt, that ended up making breach blocks for guns.  And in the periods between the work camps and factories he and Spiers returned to Giessen, the big prison camp about fifty miles north of Frankfurt-am-Main; but conditions there were not much better. There was one man - a man from the 13th Battalion - who boshed the job of trying to cut his own throat and was sent away and not seen again.

The stories of their escape, published in papers across Canada and the United States, captured the highlights: how they started out from a farm near St. Evor on the Rhine with two other prisoners who went off on their own after two days to better their chances; wearing a canvas waistcoat under their sweaters and carrying sixty biscuits to last them on their trip; the Dutch gendarme at the border who made them empty their pockets to make sure they weren’t smuggling gold to the Germans after a man was caught the week before with 20,000 florins in gold. 

But the stories bore little resemblance to the detail the two men had provided to their examiner, Captain Theodore Byard. He’d been appointed by the Committee on the Treatment of British Prisoners of War to debrief them when they got to England at the beginning of May, 1918. 

Giessen POW Camp - located on a slight hill just
of town, flanked on one side by the main highway
and the other side by pine woods
.




It would have been hard for a reporter to capture the true horror of the prison camps: how they were forced to labour for the Germans in conditions so bad that men were driven to maim themselves to escape the work: smashing a hand with a 15 lb hammer; giving themselves blood poisoning; scraping an arm or leg with a razor and covering it with a mustard poultice so the limb swelled, and then poisoning the wound with a rusty nail; pouring boiling water on legs, or putting a gloved hand into scalding water and pulling the glove off so it would remove the skin from the hand.  Even some Germans questioned conditions that would drive men to do such things: the soup with a few potatoes in it that could lead to a form of Bright’s disease that caused massive swelling in the joints; the  random acts of violence.

Royston and Spiers were captured during the second Battle of Ypres, on April 22nd/23rd 1915, along with 1400 other Canadians - the largest number of Canadians that would be taken prisoner on a single day in the War.  


16th Battalion disembarking in St. Nazaire, 
Feb 15th 1915. 
Photo courtesy of Jakealoo, "Doing Our Bit


The two men had arrived in France with the Canadian Scottish on February 15th - H.M.T. Maidan - docking in St. Nazaire after a stormy three day voyage from England.  A severe gale had hit them on the second night out and many of the men, unaccustomed to the sea, were violently ill.  Others were injured from the rolling deck and one man was washed down into the hold, while the starboard horse shelter and two horses were washed overboard. A number of other horses suffered injuries and had to be killed.

The troops disembarked at dawn and by late morning, to the sounds of the pipe band and carrying their overcoats with the new goat skin coats and mitts that had been issued to them earlier in the day, they marched through the streets of the town on their way to the train.  It had turned into a beautiful day, warm and bright.

The battalion boarded the train later in the afternoon - thirty-eight men to a cattle car, nine junior officers in a separate one, and the senior officers in the first class car - and at 5:08 the 16th Battalion headed towards the battlefields of France.

Entraining at St. Nazaire,
Feb 15th 1915.
Photo courtesy of Jakealoo, "Doing Our Bit"


Saturday, 8 October 2016

The First Night

Despite all of the information available, researching events of the first world war presents many challenges; after a hundred years both the facts and the feel are easily blurred. One diligent officer's entries in the battalion's war diary during an uneventful week might include descriptions of working parties, church parades and baseball games, deployments of companies and platoons, intelligence reports with time and grid references, and listings of casualties; but this detail could be easily replaced with one-liners by someone less inclined to prose.


Example of a typical battalion diary entry for the
16th Canadian Infantry Battalion during their deployment
at the front lines, July 1916
Such is the case with the 16th Canadian Infantry Battalion - the Canadian Scottish. The daily entries from the first week of September 1915, when the battalion was holding the Ploegsteert front in the Salient, contain intimate accounts of their activities. But entries a year later, in the last weeks of their deployment in the Salient, offer little more than basic deployment detail.  Fortunately, diaries of supporting battalions, ones that relieved the Canadian Scottish, were relieved by them, or for whom they provided support, often fill in the gaps about supporting movements. Such is the case with the 13th Battalion, which went so far as to list out each individual casualty, regardless of rank - a very unusual practise; while not Shakespeare, it offers remarkable historical context.

In the two months that followed his arrival in France, Forbes was introduced to the routine danger of trench life, the monotony of life behind the lines, and the terror of sudden, unexpected and relentless enemy bombardments. Since the Canadian Scottish were serving in support to the 13th Battalion Canadian Highlanders and the 15th Battalion 48th Highlanders in the period immediately after his arrival, he had a soft transition to the War. But on the front lines, the two highland regiments were subjected to heavy enemy shelling and mortars - and in the case of the Canadian Highlanders, a local German attack on their trenches by three individual squads of seventy men; the casualty details in their Battalion diary attest to the ferocity of the brief encounter.


But for much of July Forbes remained in the relative safety of Corps and Divisional Reserve with the exception of five days, from the 15th to the 20th, when the Canadian Scottish relieved the 48th Highlanders and deployed to the infamous Hill 60. Again, their battalion diaries reveal little of the intensity of activity at the front during this brief period.  On the day after their arrival, trench mortars killed two men and wounded a third. The shelling and trench mortars was tame by the standards of the Salient, nothing atypical and far from the scale of the battle they had endured in the Spring, in Mount Sorrel, that decimated their ranks. But the shelling would have been enough to shock and terrify someone who'd arrived from England less than a month before and had yet to serve in the front lines.

"We have had with us a young lad (only 17 years old) since last night. He was going to the trenches with the 13th Battalion last night, and he opened our gun pit door and asked for a drink of water. He was just able to stumble in and I thought he was going to faint - he looked so white and sick. We asked him if he was a wounded and he said, 'No, just all in."    
Norman Macintosh, CEF June 1916
Two days later the Germans again bombarded the Canadian Scottish lines, this time for two hours, killing four more and wounding twelve.


Printed in the Vancouver Daily World
 August 4, 1916
One of the four was Private Monatgue Capon Victor Wix, an 18 year old from British Columbia: a young farmer from Fernridge BC, a member of A Company of the 72nd Battalion Seaforth Highlanders who enlisted two weeks after Forbes and came to France with him in the First Draft in June. His passing was noted simply in the August 4th edition of the Vancouver Daily World, in the fashion of so many others:
"Son of Fernridge Resident Falls in Action:  Mr David Wix, of Fernridge, yesterday received the sad news that his son, Private Capon Victor Wix, had been killed in action on July 19th."
A two week break for the Canadian Scottish, following their July stint at the front, was an opportunity to refresh their knowledge and training: they attended aviation lectures, gas school (where they got a sample "taste" of gas) and performed general battalion work - as well as competing in baseball and soccer matches against neighbouring teams from the 29th Battalion and the Glasgow Yeomanry.
"I saw a grand football match this afternoon between two famous Canadian regiments. It did seem strange how everybody there forgot the blooming War and the thumping of the distant guns and were wholly taken up with the progress of the old game, so associated with peace times of old. The enthusiasm all through was tremendous, especially as the regiment that has the biggest name got beaten."   
John Pritchard Sudbury, 458189, 9th Cdn Brigade Machine Gun Company 
At the beginning of August their rest in the Dominion Lines would came to an end and the Canadian Scottish would be back in the front lines around Hill 60, in what would be their last engagement in the Salient, and Forbes's true Baptism of Fire.


Sunday, 26 June 2016

The First Draft

The Kilt Apron bearing the names of the First Draft
from the Seaforth Highlanders to the 16th Battalion.
It bears the signature and regimental number of each man.
I wanted to write and post this today as this past week was an auspicious anniversary; one that until a few months ago I would not have noticed. But having connected with artifacts linked to my Great Uncle, Arthur Forbes Ruddock, I've taken a much keener interest in his past and specifically, piecing together the story of the months that led up to his death at Vimy Ridge. There's much more to tell in this story, even around this event, but this will come in due course. For now, let's simply recount the days a hundred years ago that he left England for France in the first draft from the 72nd Battalion to the Canadian Scottish, joining that famed Battalion on the 21st of June.

My grandmother used to describe her brother, ten years older, as a quiet, sweet boy; a comment echoed in his obituary that described him as having "a bright and kindly disposition". He was a lad who Colonel Cy Peck, V.C., D.S.O. and Bar, Commander of the 16th Battalion Canadian Scottish and member of Parliament, remembered fondly when, as she recounted it, he visited the family in Vancouver upon the return of the Battalion in 1919, and delivered a copy of a small red book, A Remembrance, dedicated to the men of the Canadian Scottish Regiment from the survivors of the 16th Battalion, CEF.


A tribute from the men of the 16th Battalion
presented to Forbes parents after the return of
the Battalion from France in 1919
The 72nd Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders had arrived in England in late April, disembarking in Liverpool on the morning of May 5th after a nine day crossing of the Atlantic on H.M. Transport Empress of Britain.  In the month that followed Forbes and the men of the 72nd spent most of their time in routine preparation for war, stationed at Bramshott Camp in Hampshire: bayonet fighting, bombing, entrenching, wiring, and fine tuning their skills at musketry - something at which Forbes had demonstrated no particular prowess in the past.

It was not unusual for battalions upon arrival in England to be broken up or parcelled out to units already in France. In fact, the 72nd Battalion was one of the original Highland regiments from which men were drawn to create the Canadian Scottish.  But there would no doubt have been some disappointment on being selected as part of that first draft, comprised of men drawn evenly from Company A and Company B. He would be leaving those to whom he'd grown close, or at least gotten accustomed to, in the nine months since he had enlisted.


Nevertheless, he was joined by many others from his own company - men like Johnny Dewar, the "Kamloops Thunderbolt", who'd made a mark for himself in the boxing ring before they left Vancouver;  Lance Corporal Finlayson, a stalwart member of the Battalion soccer team, who some claimed was a bit of a grand-stander on the field but also known never to waste a kick; the 31 year old, Five Acre Mac" McGuire who was said to be able to do more with two acres than most men can with four - though it was a nickname he didn't take kindly to; and Louis Walker, at twenty-seven one of the older men in his company, who lived on the same street as Forbes, just two blocks away, on the other side of Kingsway.



Bramshott Camp 1916
And then there was Roy Dingee. Roy was a ruddy-faced young lad who had his medical just two weeks after he turned 18 and enlisted two weeks after that. Forbes would have known him well. They enlisted a day apart and only a year separated their age; they were also both born in New Brunswick and, of course, they were in the same company - Company B.  However unlike Forbes, Roy was at the front for less than a month.  While he survived the War he spent much of it in the hospital or on light duty. He was discharged, "medically unfit" in May 1918, diagnosed with neurasthenia - a diagnosis no longer in use, but at the time often used by doctors to describe "shell shock".   But we'll return to Private Roy Dingee at another time.

The Canadian Scottish were in dire need of replacements when the first draft was called. A little more than a year earlier, along with much of the Canadian 1st Division, they had been decimated in the fighting around Ypres; first, in their Baptism of Fire in the Second Battle of Ypres where gas was first used effectively, and then a few weeks later in the Battle of Festubert.  At one point they were down to half of their strength until, in late July, they again regained their full complement with the arrival of a draft from the Cameron Highlanders. But after spending the winter in the relatively quiet Ploegsteert front, they returned to the Ypres Salient at the end of March, reputedly "the most dangerous place on earth".  And on June 2nd, while stationed in reserve, the Germans launched a devastating attack towards Hill 60, Mount Sorrel and Sanctuary Wood that ultimately cost the Canada 1st Division 8,000 casualties.


German gun emplacements around Sanctuary Wood in the
aftermath of the Battle of Mount Sorrel in June 1916
On the evening of June 3rd the Canadian Scottish mounted a failed counter attack when a heavy barrage from the Germans threw preparations into disarray, and with troops so exhausted from the fighting no further action was planned until the evening 8th.  During the intervening five days the men of the 16th were continually shelled by German artillery while they worked on strengthening their defences and building out new trenches.  The clear warm days that had led up to the German attack were now gone and shallow, muddy trenches, worsened by the rain, provided little cover against German shells.  The planned attack on the 8th was again cancelled when it became clear that the men, exposed to miserable, wet and cold weather - "more like November" were unfit to attack and needed rest.

Finally, in the early hours of the 13th, in driving rain and wind, the Canadian Scottish attacked across ground that would latter characterize the battlefields of the Somme and Passchendaele.  The men "kept tumbling and slipping into the mud over the smashed branches and stumps; their rifles became useless".  The Battalion fought throughout the night and under cover of their own barrage they attacked the enemy around Observatory Ridge. As day broke on the 14th Lieutenant "Pete" Osler mounted the parapet of a trench with a red flare in hand that he waved back and forth, the signal for "alls well" (Lieutenant Osler would be killed the same day, shrugging of wounds that, once at the casualty clearing station were evidently more serious and led to his death).  

The Canadian Scottish had achieved all of their objectives, but at great loss. The officer corps in particular was hard hit.  In the preceding ten days they had lost ten officers, greater than that sustained by the Battalion in any engagement of the war.


I
Cant. James Hamilton, M.C. and Bar
t was in the aftermath of this that Forbes and the other men from the 72nd arrived at the 16th Battalion on the afternoon of June 21st. They were under the command of Captain James Hamilton, one of the officers from A company and formerly an accountant from Vancouver.  Hamilton survived the War and would be awarded the Military Medal (and subsequently a Bar) for "conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty where in command of half a company in an attack. By clever maneuvering he outflanked the enemy and captured five machine guns."


The trip had begun on the morning of the 18th with a swift three mile march to Liphook Station, a place they had last seen on their arrival six weeks before. From Liphook they took a train to Southampton which delivered them right to the docks; and from there they went aboard one of the many channel boats. Typically the channel crossing would have taken no more than a few hours - nine at most - but in June, likely less. It was then a day's travel by train to Poperinghe - generally in boxcars designed to hold horses. But what could have been a two day trip from Bramshott to the front seldom took less than three or four days, often requiring an extra night's stop after arrival on the French coast, to get kit in order or wait for transportation.


The contrast in the towns of Poperinge (left) and
Ypres (right), just a short distance from each other., in 1916.
On the afternoon of the 21st Forbes arrived in Poperinghe, a small Belgian town 12.5 Km west of Ypres where the Canadian Scottish were being held in divisional reserve.  The Battalion was resting and reorganizing after the battle of Mount Sorrel at an area referred to as "The Scottish Line", a quiet section behind the lines; they were also burying many of their dead in the nearby cemeteries, to the sound of pipe and drums.

The new draft was inspected by the new Command on the afternoon of the 22nd, while Captain Hamilton began his return journey to the 72nd Battalion, still in England.  There would be further inspections with the entire Battalion in the two days that followed, as well as a church parade on the morning of the 25th. And then late that same evening they boarded a train for the short journey to Ypres where they relieved the 5th Battalion: their role, to provide support for the 13th and 15th Battalions who were on the front line.


In the days that followed the front line was heavily shelled, and in the early hours of June 27th the 13th and 15th Battalions were forced to repulse a localized German attack. A day later the Canadian Scottish were hit and two men were killed and nine others were wounded. But this was a gradual introduction to the War for the men in the Draft. Through the weeks of July and August, as the Battalion gradually regained its strength in officers, it returned to Hill 60, site of the devastating battles  earlier in the summer, and the routine of War in the Ypres Salient.


Wednesday, 1 June 2016

July 1st, 1916 - Canadians in the Somme

I wanted to write and post this one month before the actual centenary because on July 1st Canadians will be celebrating Canada Day.  But of the leading countries in the Commonwealth, including Great Britain, India, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, it's quite possible that Canada will be one of the few Commonwealth countries whose top news story on July 1st will not be the 100th anniversary of the single bloodiest day in a war in which bloody days were commonplace. And added to this list of countries will be France, Ireland and Germany, all of whom were major combatants in the Somme.

By the time the Somme offensive had petered out four months later, in mid November, four hundred thousand Commonwealth soldiers were missing, wounded or dead. And of those casualties, approximately 125,000 were dead - one third the number of commonwealth combatants killed in the six years of the Second World War.  


But it is possible that not all Canadians will be recognizing Canada Day as the top story.  Newfoundlanders may be charting a different course. At 8:45 on July 1st, 1916 the men of the Newfoundland Regiment climbed the parapet at Beaumont Hamel to attack German trenches 600 yards to their front.  And within minutes, 680 were casualties - the hardest hit battalion of any on that day - they had advanced 300 yards (see: The Royal Newfoundland Regiment: July 1, 1916).

One of these men was Charles Taylor who showed up at the CLB Armoury, named for the Church Lads’ Brigade, on Tuesday September 1st, 1914, ten days after the enlistment of recruits had started for the newly formed Newfoundland Regiment. Already 597 men had signed up, although by the time he actually declared on October 2nd, enough had failed to get accepted that he would be counted within the “First Five Hundred”. Like others in the regiment he wore the blue puttees that, in the absence of khaki material, had been scrounged from blue broadcloth and would give the First Five Hundred their other nick name.


Taylor sailed to England with the Regiment at the beginning of October and spent the next ten months training. Like many of the lads he got in to his share of trouble, often skipping tatoo and leaving rank without permission, for which he was frequently confined to quarters and required to forfeit pay.

The Newfoundlanders finally shipped out to Gallipoli in August, arriving in September, a month after the major  campaign had ended. But as with others in his Regiment, Taylor still suffered. On the day they landed at Suvla Bay he was admitted to hospital suffering from dysentry. He would spend much of the next five months there, not rejoining the Regiment until it passed through Suez in March 1916 on its return journey to France.  It was to join British and other Commonwealth forces who were preparing for a summer offensive that was designed, in part, to relieve French trench struggling to hold the Front 250 kilometres southeast, in Verdun.

Unlike the Newfoundlanders, not yet a part of Confederation, the Canadian Division would not join the battle until the Fall when they moved from the Ypres Salient to provide "fresh blood" for the depleted British, Australian and New Zealand troops.


So different from the claustrophobic Ypres salient
When they arrived in late August the region still featured wide open spaces and gentle sweeping hills, but it had been devastated by the two month campaign and resembled a lunar landscape. In the Somme the British rarely expended less than a million shells a week on German lines that included dugouts so deep they were impervious to British artillery. Towns like Pozieres, that had been levelled by artillery, were little more than white scars. Canadian accounts of their arrival in the area all share a similar description of a ravaged landscape.

The rolling fields of the Somme looking towards
Regina Trench from Pozieres
“The countryside in the battle area was completely devastated. We did nearly all our fighting north of the Albert-Bapaume road and in this section two and a half months of the offensive had advanced the line less than four miles. The fighting had been accompanied by intense and continuous shelling by both sides, and scarcely a square foot of soil remained that had not been turned over again and again. Pozieres, a village captured by the Australians near the end of July, had simply ceased to exist. A small pile of pulverized brick marked the spot where the church had stood; there was nothing more. A like fate befell La Boiselle, Contalmaison and all the other villages and hamlets in the battle zone. Not an undamaged tree was left standing: there were no leaves, little grass. The colour green had practically disappeared, all was drab and dirty; fifty square miles of utter desolation.” Charles Henry Savage, 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles, 1936

The modern day town of Courcelette
Pozieres is the high point on the Albert-Bapaume road and was the scene of intense fighting between the Germans and the Australians through the summer of 1916. Today, the Australian monument in Pozieres, a short distance from the quaint crossroads village, is an ideal vantage point to take in the panorama of the Thiepval and Pozieres Ridge and what was the Canadian battlefield in the Somme in the fall of 1916: a short distance to the east and north east of the monument, crossing the Albert-Bapaume road, is Sugar Trench and Candy Trench, named for the German held refinery that the Canadians captured in the first hours of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette on September 15th; a little further on is the town of Courcelette itself, that the Canadian 2nd and 3rd divisions captured in brutal back-and-forth fighting with the Germans; directly in front of the monument was the heavily defended Moo Cow (Mouquet) Farm, a key objective for the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles on the 15th, and one that the Australians had been unable to capture despite repeated efforts through the late summer; and two kilometres in the distance, directly in front of the monument, running the length of the ridge, was the longest German trench on the Western Front, and the ultimate objective for the Canadians that would take them two months to achieve.

The battles in which the Canadians fought in the Somme, the battle of Flers-Courcelette and their repeated attempts through October and November to capture Regina Trench, were as bad as those they would encounter twelve months later at Passchendaele. And they were compounded by unseasonably heavy rains and constant artillery bombardments that resulted in similar conditions to what they would find at Passchendaele.

“Huge shell holes, half-filled with water, pitted the fields in every direction. . .  Far beyond Courcelette I saw the German flare-lights and the bursting of shells. It was a scene of vast desolation, weird beyond description. . . When I got in to Regina Trench I found it was impossible to pass along it, as one sank so deeplyinto the heavy mud” Canon Frederick Scott, 1st Canadian Division, 1924

Despite the battles to come, Vimy and Passchendaele, it was their two month campaign in the Somme that resulted in the costliest number of  casualties for the Canadians - more than 24,000 men were killed, wounded or missing. When called upon a year later to close the deal at Passchendaele, General Arthur Currie had one fundamental condition above all others before he would accept: that it would be with Plumer’s second army and not with Gough’s fourth, so poorly was his reputation with the Canadians after their experience in the Somme.


Many of those killed in this fighting, men such as James Richardson, recipient of the Victoria Cross, are buried at Adanac Cemetery or Regina Trench Cemetery, both just a few kilometres north of Courcelette.  But of the 8,000 men killed around Courcelette, 6,000 have no known grave.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

The Bombardier

William "Hike" Currin, buried at Reservoir
Cemetery on the outskirts of Ypres.
William “Hike” Currin was an adventurer; his two friends Lily and Edith were only too aware of it - and he blamed Uncle Sam for not giving him the opportunity for greater adventure - something he would fix, in time. He had graduated from the small Ohio university of Denison in 1913, a degree in classical and modern literature, where he had found some release in theatre. He had since taken a position as a junior reporter for the Cleveland Press, but he was looking for more:”I am tired of sitting on a three-legged stool, just a cub reporter for a penny newspaper. I want to live my life in all its largeness and its fullness and its joy.”  When war broke out in Europe, he saw his chance; it was the perfect vehicle to collect material for stories and would, he thought, probably last but a few months.


Almost immediately as war broke out in Europe, Americans began drifting north to Canada to enlist and fight with the CEF. Eventually, more than 15,000 would join up, 2,100 of which would end up as casualties, and five of whom would receive the Victoria Cross. A large contingent of volunteers would also form their own unit, the 97th American Legion, under the command of Lt. Col John Labatt, though on arrival in England in the fall of 1916, like so many other small battalions, it was divided up and never fought together as a unit.


A journalist from Ohio
In the first months of the War many Americans who tried to enlist were put on hold, as the number of applications exceeded the number of men required. But William Currin’s application was accepted and he ended up in “his great adventure”, sailing for England with the first contingent of Canadians in October, 1914.  “In a few hours the pilot we have on board gets off, an escort of British war ships picks us up and -- if nothing unexpected happens -- we're off for England: about fifteen big liners, transports, and some thirty thousand infantry and artillery with the latter's horses. This my friend L.B., this is life!”

But a winter on Salisbury Plain did its best to temper his enthusiasm: “Please tell Sam for me I decidedly am not a 'wild, sweet spirit.' If he could listen to me cursing reveille at 6:00 am, just before plunging out of a wet, floppy tent into eight and a third inches of mud, he'd change his opinion.”  

Serving with the 3rd Brigade, Canadian Artillery, Currin’s introduction to war was shortlived. Having written to his parents regularly leading up to the German attack around St. Julien in April, a break in the correspondence in early May led his father to believe that “his son had fallen in battle”. But it was not as bad as first feared; on Tuesday, 27th April, while the brigade supported a French counter-attack around St. Julien, Currin’s battery came under heavy fire, “from two and sometimes three sides” - sometime during the fight, Currin was hit in the thigh.  Two days after the first story showed up in his home town, a short note appeared in the Granville Times reporting that Reverend Currin, Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Kenton, had received word from his son to say that “he had been wounded and was in a hospital in France.”

By 1917, three years of war has done little to dampen Currin’s colourful prose, ever the thespian; though reality had long since invaded his words.

"I labor with pick and shovel. . . we do it in the dark. . . We work so aforesaid with pick, shovel, and sandbag till daylight or perhaps a little before if the lieutenant in charge has a heart. Then we pick ourself up and stroll merrily back to billets and beds. Program is sometimes diversified by an occasional short whiz-bang strafe from Fritz which may incline you to think that his sausage balloons have found you out if you're given to worrying over that sort of thing, or it may be illuminated by the beautiful yellow moon which shines here just as it does at home (slow music from the violins, please); or it's the other kind of night, possibly soaked by a pleasant midnight rain. 

A pick-and-shovel tour of Belgium by night with a cold bath thrown in for luck may be profitable and instructive - possibly entertaining enough in children's books of "how they fought the Great War in Yurrope" but it's "damned depressin'" for the troop that's doing the touring.  . . 

. . .but you get the idea, don't you - sad, old chap - a la cigarette (center stage, well down) blowing idle smokepuffs in Fate's face. Home this morning at three. Rain. Mud. Rotten tired.…

"Tut! Tut! What talk is this of three-years' terms and such things as that? Dae ye nae ken we're in it for guid and will be e'en waitin' here tar its end? And the end, my good friend, verily, verily, the end is not yet.… The job drags L.B., it drags horribly and the active mind turns to the lost images it knew of a different order of life in a little college town. The only common, decent, civilized life I've had a glimpse of for two years and a half now is English -- another two years and a half and I shall know you and your civilization's ways no more -- I've darned near forgotten 'em already.”

As Currin wrote these words to Lily, in the early summer of 1917, the 3rd Brigade was preparing for the Battle for Hill 70. His leave over Christmas, had slipped by ,“the scenes shift in the cinema -- flicker! flicker! -- Victoria Station -- the leave boat from Folkestone -- the shores of France -- and he is back again. . . He is back and the job has him again -- the stupid job of killing men and that by machinery! What an insanity that really is you comprehend only when you have been part of the machine -- insanity and a species of prostitution”.

By mid-October, after a four day march from Hill 145, his unit was back in the Salient to support the Canadian attack on Passchendaele. As the attacks began shelling in the area to the batteries, roads and wagon lines, was heavy and casualties mounted. The mud and water from bursting shells showered the guns, the breach mechanisms clogged and guns failed. Others were hit by counter battery fire or strafing from enemy aircraft. (The mud worsened and the roads became unusable; guns were moved by laying sandbags in rows, the width of the track, laying corrugated iron across them, and manhandling the guns forward.)

On the morning of November 6th, during the attack on Passchendaele village, enemy shelling of the area was so heavy at times that several batteries of the 3rd brigade, Currin’s among them, were ordered to stand down and take cover.  While Currin sent his men away, he remained at the gun, loading, laying and firing it himself. 

Record of Death
Five days later, with orders in hand for the relief of the 3rd Brigade, Currin’s gun pit was hit by a shell, and he was killed by a piece of shrapnel to the head. 

At the end of November, just a month before his younger brother enlisted in the US Army, a short notice appeared in the Granville Times announcing the death of W.J. Currin. At his memorial service, Denison Professor Theodore Johnson paid tribute, saying that “if ‘Hike’ Currin had enlisted merely in a spirit of adventure it had taken not many months to enlarge his vision and that comprehension of the real meaning of the great world struggle had come with service.”  Two months after his death William “Hike” Currin was posthumously awarded the Military Medal for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty” for his actions on November 6th.