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.

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