THE "PRINCESS PATRICIA'S FIRST ENTRY INTO THE TRENCHES IN FLANDERS, JANUARY 4th, 1915
Walter MacKay Draycott
We had marched from the slippery slushy camp at Winchester to Southampton, England, on the morning of 21 December, 1914, with everyone in high spirits. On entering the streets of Southampton we were met by crowds of citizens, who wished us well; we returned their thanks with a popular song, "Hail, Hail, The Gang's All Here, What the Hell do we Care..." At dusk we boarded the S.S. Cardiganshire and took what comfort there was on the upper deck to dodge the cold wind, there being no sleeping accommodation provided. C'est la Guerre!
Arriving in Le Havre next morning, tired, sleepy and feeling very dirty we marched up a hill to a camp in the field. The night being cold a blanket was issued for each man to envelope the clothing he had worn, and still was to wear, for several days without removal for a bath, or change of underwear.
Next morning, 23rd, the men were 'packed' like sardines into a French boxcar. After a cramped railway journey from Le Havre we detrained at a town named Aire and proceeded in the darkness - for it was midnight - to the village named Blaringham. Some of the companies were billeted in the village, others in the neighbourhood. During our stay here the time was much occupied in doing the usual guard duty, picquets and work parties; although the Front Firing Line was 25 miles away rifles were always carried, with ten cartridges, no matter where you went. When in the act of digging trenches our equipment - full marching order with the complete stock of ammunition - was placed on the parapet side of the trench together with rifle and fixed bayonet. Rain or sunshine (mostly absent) the work went on; troops returning from this task, soaked weighted with rain-water and mud, with the addition of a heavy pack, rifle and ammunition, hung heavily on one's shoulders. The sight of the billet, such as it was, gave hope for a bowl of hot stew from the cook and a possible letter or parcel from the postman.
The farmhouse had a quadrangle of outbuildings adjoining it. In the centre of the square was a large pit which contained refuse from all the buildings, pigstye, poultry-pens, horse stables, cow barns (shippon) and the house. In these buildings the men found some sort of a billet. Two of us slept in the oven (away from the house) after the farmer had withdrawn his bread - but we expelled later on. Becoming homeless we bunked in a farm wagon at night, the farmer used it during the day for hauling manure; it was returned wet, muddy and smelly. We swiped some of his hay, it smelled sweeter. The cold, wet windy nights forced us to change our 'bedroom'. Four of us, one frosty night, slept on a horse-manure pile to gain warmth - and none suffered.
Christmas Day, 1914, was cloudy. For the great festival we were forced to accept 'bully beef' (canned meat) for it was reported a boxcar containing Christmas fare had been sidetracked and could not be located...? Many of us had friends among the Imperial 80th Brigade, 27th Division, who were quartered locally, and spent Christmas with them, being warmly welcomed. Evidently their 'boxcar' had not been sidetracked!
At long last the expected Order was announced. "Get ready to move up to the Front Line." The troops were paid a few francs to buy necessaries for use in the trenches; unfortunately some of them mistook the French word 'Estaminet' for 'Epicerie' (saloon and grocery respectively). Arriving back from the village at dusk the ones who had imbibed 'firewater' were eager to comply to a suggestion from a vociferous mortal to hold a Camp Fire, in the Backwoods style. Reason had taken flight. Anything that would burn was collected. The leader mounted a box and invited the assembly to form a circle around the fire. He thus opened the 'meeting', "Gentlemen, I have the honour of calling on our esteemed brother and comrade-in-arms Private Underwood for a song of recitation." Each announcement was loudly applauded and choruses were re-sung many times. During the height of this revelry the farmer had sent for the officers whom, when remonstrating, were cordially invited to join in, also the farmer. The propounders of the group party were dangerously happy and not to be trifled with. The farmer had lost all his coal, most of the doors and much combustible material. This scene continued up to 5 a.m. and as the march to the trenches commenced at 7 a.m. there was no time for rest, for those who had imbibed overmuch wine had forgotten where their equipment lay. Facing us for the day's toil was an agonizing march of 15 miles. A lack of shoe repairers caused pain to many, also lack of ordinary-sized shoes, forcing some of us to walk the distance with the big toe peeping out - which was painful on a cobble-stone road, as they were then.
On the journey we occasionally asked citizens the distance to a village. The answers varied, "Just up the road", and "Not far" meant three to five miles. However, we finally arrived at a "billet". Truthfully a hovel. Here we had expected to rest at least one day, after our 15 mile march the previous day, but no! on the march again at 10 a.m. My boots were badly in need of repair - or a new pair, but the answer to that question was "We only have size 11" and my size was 8 which (like my Stetson hat) was my own property. Their size eleven of "sponge-leather boots were reluctantly declined; "Nothing so comfortable like an old shoe" - providing it is not falling apart. The cobble stones were still with us up to the time when we entered a field near Dickebusch, there to wait in the cold until dusk set in. The menu during that resting period consisted of that Army Special - Bully Beef and biscuits! The cook had apparently lost the toss for sugar and milk for both were absent from the tea - which was insultingly warm, not hot. We were entertained during the 'meal' by an aeroplane duel, the first we had seen. At dusk the men were lined up for parade; checking was made as to ammunition, emergency rations and other. Orders to "Stop Smoking" of pipes and cigarettes seemed ridiculous for the Front or Firing Line was three miles away! Yet it was a wise precaution.
Back again on the cobble stones, entering the village of Dickebusch in darkness. Villagers were waiting to greet us with "Vive l'Angleterre, sauveteurs de Belgique!" they, apparently, not knowing we were representing Canada. Some of our men requested water to fill their water-bottles and one generous human civilian brought a pail of coffee with an "elixir of life" in it - rum! A real godsend. Not a drop went into the men's waterbottles but each got a 'tot' to drink.
A drizzling rain with cold wind added to the gloom and discomfort that had been our lot during the past fortnight. Like ghostly spectres the men glided round the corner of the road at Dickebusch that led toward Groote Vierstraat (Great Crossroad); this short stretch of road was pitted with rain-filled shell-holes. Solemnly, simulating a funeral procession, dread silence - except when someone slipped into one of the shell-holes - we slowly proceeded. Of rubber sheets there were none, nor capes. Being soaked with rain it mattered little if one fell into the improvised bath - the shell-hole. The weight being carried on one's shoulders would vie with a pack-mule.
Halting in the hamlet of Groote Vierstaat the following orders were given, "We will enter the trench area by a field gate on the left of the road a few hundred yards down. There must be no talking, whispering or rattle of accoutrements for the enemy have two machine-guns trained on the gate. When star-shells go up everyone must lie flat, irrespective of where he is!' Mainly through the aid of enemy star-shells we discerned and finally reached the Gateway of Death; the night was pitch black. Have you ever tried to paddle through 18 to 20 inches of mud that lies on a greasy bed and carrying a soldier's kit, overcoat - soaked with rain and mud and carrying rifle, ammunition and other. Have you held your breath after bumping your head, or other, when in polite society? Well, our predicament was similar. Several of the 'boys' wallowed full length in this slimy-mud entrance to a field; the field was pock-marked with shell-holes that caused us to virtually crawl. There were also hastily-dug trenches and barbed wire, to be seen only when a 'friendly' star-shell illuminated the scene - causing us to gravitate to Mother Earth where our warm hands quickly sensed the chilliness. Slowly and painfully we rise. Our 'friends' across the way had not noticed us; the distance was about 200 yards! No-one had informed us of the topography of this area but a slow-moving stream (beek, or brook) indicated we were in a valley with the enemy occupying the opposite south bank, or ridge - with our trenches just below his! This position he maintained along the Line until July 1, 1916. With intense darkness prevailing there was difficulty in finding a crossing over the reserve-trench. A narrow plank was found but its breadth frustrated a few men who toppled into the water-logged trench - complete with all he carried. His plight can only be surmised - one would need to experience the feat. Some tried to jump across but jumping onto a raised clayey bank is unwise, 'Sloop!' and 'Plop', in they slipped. Bad as conditions were the worst was yet to come. In front of the trench was a barbed-wire entanglement; no wire-cutters at hand. It was with difficulty the men got through - though not without leaving some of their clothing on the bared-wire; two dead Frenchmen hung suspended on it - their presence caused a third of my company to be separated from the main body - in the darkness the dead men were mistaken for our men trying to disentangle themselves from the wire. It fell to me to sally forth into the unknown to seek information of the whereabouts of "les soldats Anglaise" from the French soldiers being relieved. Two were contacted and willingly gave directions.
In the early days of the First Great War there were no communication-trenches, hence the difficulty of locating any particular regiment on the spot. Members of my party were placed that night in their respective sections. On approaching the section allotted to us we stumbled over many dead bodies. Lying in a very shallow grave in rear of the trench was the corps of a Frenchman - by no means an encouragement to us (my fighting partner and self). Desiring to ascertain the depth of the trench in the darkness it occurred to men to sit on the edge and try one foot. That was not satisfactory so jumped in with both feet - right onto the body of a dead man. Ugh! When in billets at Blaringham the men were told the trenches were dry, had dugouts with coke braziers; propaganda for the Brass Hats to encourage the troops. We found them four feet deep, with a parapet of clay, taken from the trench, two feet high; muddy water was up to our middle and worse when the enemy on top of the ridge pumped his filth to course downhill into our trench; as for dugouts there was one only - for the officer in charge of the company.
As soon as we were established at our posts the question of ration duty arose; it fell to my lot to attend to the section. The thought of it! Walk, crawl, creep and flop over that terrain of uncertainty. Moving off in pairs we defied orders concerning star-shells, having become absolutely indifferent to the meaning of Life. Machine and rifle bullets whizzed about us. Four men out of eight reached the Crossroad in Groote Vierstraat. The rations consisted of 80 one-pounds of bully-beef and a sack of bread - which, being rain-soaked, was left for the rats. My comrade and self agreed to carry the cans of bully-beef in relays of 100 yards but owing to weakness from exposure, loss of sleep and decent food he could not uphold his part; it devolved upon me to carry the whole load. Strange it was that cans were not in a sack but neatly piled, pyramid-shape, in the middle of the road. Using my comrade's civil waterproof cape, which had been sent to him by a relative, the cans were wrapped in it. All went well until the muddy gateway was reached. A ripping sound of cloth tearing brings to mind a catastrophe - of that cape ripping open to permit the cans to disappear in that slimy clay trough. By groping in the mud about twenty cans were retrieved. These we stuffed into our pockets and haversacks, but having to contend with obstacles en route the total count on arrival at the trench was ten! On hearing our report none of the men cared to risk life or limb to obtain a can or two at the gate.
When dawn broke we gazed on our abode of discontent and misery. What a sight! How male species of the human family could live under such conditions would baffle the keenest student. To the right and left of me were men in the agonies of rheumatism, trench feet, in fact sickness of many sorts; not to be wondered at considering what they had undergone during three days and nights - a march of thirty miles in two days and on the night of the second day to be placed in this filthy, water-logged, stinky muddy ditch with no-one to attend to their afflictions and none to take them to a medical man. The only communication with the rear headquarters was by messenger at night; the sick and wounded had to remain in the trench until night came - no matter if he received his wounds at 6 a.m.
We were weak, not wholly from hunger, but from exposure to the elements, lack of sleep, regular food and drink. Merciless rain had soaked us through and through and the only antidote was to keep moving or at least active with hands and feet, to maintain body temperature. The mud was everywhere, almost all rifles were clogged with it and rendered useless; my 'fighting partner (military phrase)' had lost his in the mud last night when the parapet of filth and mud gave way and pinioned him. It was his turn to keep watch while I sat on the back of the trench to get relief from the water and try to snooze, coat collar up and both my hands crossed over into the opposite sleeves. It was indeed lucky for me that he cried for help. It saved my life, for my sleep was the sweet sleep of death. Having fallen into a state of coma my dream was of kith and kin; all my relations were seated around a spacious table in dining room. On the table were all those things one expects at Christmas. The feeling being so natural was the acme of comfort and even the warmth of a fire could be felt; in fact all was so realistic but - in the rude awakening was the yell from my almost entombed fighting partner calling for help ( he was afterwards killed at Vimy Ridge). The night was pitch dark. My senses returned slowly, then came the shock of realization at my predicament - and his! On making a move the water around my legs made itself felt, so did a trickle of rain down my back. There being no spade at hand it was necessary to use hands to throw the mud-clay back to where it had slipped - the parapet. Had this happening occurred at daylight we would have been 'sitting ducks' for the enemy. Being a watchmaker by trade the act of using his hands in place of a spade was an ordeal to my friend. After working for many hours we succeeded in throwing back most of the clay, but in our eagerness the wood-loophole had been covered; that robbed us of our only viewpoint and as dawn was breaking the enemy would be on the watch. However, it had to be cleared, and quickly too. That meant climbing on the parapet in full view of the enemy. Pleaded my partner, "Don't attempt it. You'll be killed." Firing bullets through the clogged loophole made no opening so by mounting the parapet and rapidly clawing the clay away the loophole was cleared. But the Germans, ever on the alert, spotted me and two bullets narrowly missed my right leg. That marksman was more of a friend than an enemy for his shots served as a warning. After a diligent search in the clay my fighting partner recovered his missing rifle; after giving it a bath in water it was outwardly presentable though not workable until oiled from my reserve bottle.
Just to let "our friends across the way" know there was animation in our trench Private Roch (killed later) and self kept up a fairly steady fire all day - for ours were the only rifles working in the immediate section where men were sick and possibly their rifles clogged. The elusive sun took an inquisitive glance at us, then receded to order more rain. Somewhere in the rear of our trenches a French 75mm gun, playing solo, was the only security of that type we heard. In reply the enemy about 10 a.m. introduced his might by sending over some new-fangled heavy 12 inch bore shells which, as the main shell passed over us would explode a shrapnel (lead bullets) then pass on to a second line of defence trenches (which were empty!) to explode one there, the main shell continuing its course to explode by percussion. The cannonading lasted all day. The only nice feature about their shells was the beautiful colours the emitted on bursting. Fortunate it was for us that the enemy did not shell us at night - the only time and occasion we had to get out of the trench to obey the Law of Nature but, Oh Lord, to get back into harness again after a respite of half an hour! At the back of our trench was a dead Frenchman; his greatcoat would be of no further use for him so by obtaining two wooden stakes and thrusting them through the sleeves a cover was made against the rain and wind while we 'rested' in the trench.
Had the opposition forces known our pitiful plight they could have walked downhill to us and taken over. Their gunners had sighted over us at first but later getting closer to do the job methodically, as it their wont. Shells dropped rather close to the rear of us then creeped toward our trench. Two direct hits were on my right. More misery and agony to be born by the wounded, who had to rely on comrades about them to dress their wounds. Without any communication trenches none could leave the trench or come to it during daylight. The situation became more wretched by additional groans of the increasing number of sick men helplessly squatting in water and clay; growing dusk mad a weird scene. No First Aid in the trenches. Rats appeared as night approached' it was common to have one's vision obscured temporarily at dusk when a rat crossed in front of your face.
The task of relief work was by no means light as those performing it had to bring out the sick, wounded and dead. Relief men too had to risk their lives while crossing that sloppy, greasy field with its water-filled trenches, shell-holes and barbed wire entanglement.
To become a member of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry one had to prove he had participated in previous military service or had some military training; therefore, the men who entered those trenches on the night of January 4th, 1915, had the necessary training. What they had endured since leaving Winchester-Southampton and the trek to the trenches would tend to break any man's stamina - and None Turned Back.
Origin of birth of men comprising the P.PC.L.I. in 1914:
Of English birth there were 660 (British had vets from Boer War and service in India and colonies)
Of Scotch birth there were 187
Of Irish birth there were 97
Of American birth there were 94
Of CANADIAN birth there were 9 (Canada only had Boer war vets)
Of West Indies, Boer, etc., birth there were 49
1096 (above records from Regt. Ord. Room)
The Commanding Officer was a Scot.
2nd in Command an Englishman
Though the Regiment bore an Irish-Canadian name the Band was Bagpipes