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.

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.

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