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.

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