I enlisted with the 60th Canadian Infantry Battalion in June 1915 at Montreal. After training at Valcatier Camp in Northern Quebec we came to Branshot in Hampshire at the end of November 1915. By February 1916 we were in Northern France. We were part of the 3rd Canadian Division and destined to join the 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions in holding the Ypres Salient. Our first assignment under fire was that of an all night working party carrying trench repair supplies to a French Canadian battalion in the front line at Plooge Street. We all wore our overcoats which were long and very warm and comfortable but hardly suitable for the job in hand. Having picked up our individual loads we preceded in single file on roughly a miles walk to the Front line. Of course it was raining and the path soon became muddy. Occasionally a ricochet bullet passed over our heads for we were hidden from the enemy by a slight rise of the ground between us and them. Shell holes in our pathway were easily skirted round in the early part of that night but as we came back and forth over the self same path during that nights work the path became a mass of slime of the consistency of cream and the edges of the shell holes became increasing traps for the unwary or disasters for the weary as the night wore on. Under such circumstances personal feelings turn from grousing to anger and altercations continually occurred as to whom knocked whom. As I approached one particularly nasty shell hole, now a complete bowl of slime one of our number slipped right in and turned in anger to the next to b… well go round the other side. He took the polite advice and promptly fell in on top of the first and immediately the next heeled over on to the struggling pair from the first side. That broke the spell for the anger gave way to hysteria and the three floundered down there convulsed with laughter in which everyone else joined. We eventually dragged them out by their rifles hardly knowing how to do so as we were nearly helpless with laughing ourselves. The slightest of incidents from then on kept us in fits of laughter for the rest of the night, including the sight of everyone's mud encrusted overcoats especially those who had stopped and cut off some eighteen inches or so of the lower parts of their coats making them a great deal lighter to carry but amusingly short coming barely to their knees. At last the nights toil was over and dawn was approaching so we plodded our way back to our billet which was an old farm barn somewhat worse for wear under previous gunfire. However we hung up everything we were clothed in to dry wherever we could find a nail or projection on which to suspend our soaking uniforms and rolled ourselves in our blankets and slept for the rest of the day. Those of us who had not our coats cleaned away the caked mud next day and so retained that extra bit of warmth so needed at night as an extra blanket during the severe weather later.
Our Division was now sent in to hold the front line at the apex of the Ypres Salient namely Sactuary Wood and the village of Hooge but of course there was now no wood or village. A few tree stumps in the case of the wood and occasional foundation brickwork signifying some erstwhile building but everything was swamp. So low lying is the terrain from here to Passchendaele that any ditch or trench dug two feet down just filled with water. The constant shelling by both sides had quickly disposed of all former land drainage systems and water stagnated in the shell holes.
I had now left the Infantry Battalion having been transferred to the newly formed Brigade Machine Gun Companies. Our job was to support our brigade with the heavier Colt machine guns (four in all) while the battalion had two Lewis guns apiece to take into the front line. Both these types of guns had great disadvantages and our Colts were soon superseded with Vickers but the Lewis continued in service much longer.
In early June 1916 the enemy captured some Canadian trenches to the right of our Brigade so a fortnight later we were all set to recapture them, which was eventually accomplished. For this attack I took my Colt gun to a shell hole a little in rear of our support trenches and this was the first time machine guns were used as artillery, that is to say by firing over our forward troops on to map targets such as cross roads behind enemy lines in the hope of preventing reinforcements from coming into the battle. My target was a pathway leading to their trenches. Whether or no I did any harm to anyone your guess is as good as mine but I fired an awful lot of bullets until the gun jammed. Now when a Colt gun jammed there is nothing for it but to dismantle the whole contraption. This now had to be done in the darkness and rain and the one vital bolt that finally held the gun together on its reassembly slipped from my grasp into the mud at our feet. My companion and I delved after it straining that slime through our fingers for twenty minutes before discovering it and then we were both so covered in mud that it took us an even longer time to get it into place. Eventually the gun was again back on its tripod and we again opened fire. Now the flash from the muzzle from each rapid shot was evidently seen by the enemy and so their guns were turned on that revealing flash. We promptly stopped and hoped they had seen something else to fire on for their shots though near had left us intact. At intervals we sent off further bursts from our gun and continued until dawn approached when we packed up and slipped away before daylight would reveal our retreating forms.
The village of Hooge was our next assignment but my gun; this time was to be in the front line. This front line had been a German communication trench prior to its capture by the Guards Division in a previous attack. It was just 35 yards from the enemy front line. To reach this position we scrambled, knee deep round the water filled mine crater in which there were numerous dead Germans half submerged. My two day spell here was spent dodging snipers and lobbing bombs into the enemy line or receiving their replies but sometimes things quieted down and I set to at writing letters home and incidentally composed a doggerel rhyme concerning sandbags. This effort finally found itself in various war magazines. It also gave me the nickname of "The Poet" among the Company to which I belonged for the officer, who censored that letter told everyone about it. On being relieved of Front Line duty that night we struggled through that crater again and down that much battered communication trench beside the Menin Road. No one ventured on the Road for the enemy fired a machine gun straight down it at intervals. There were some sappers mending the trench and one, as I passed was standing up on he banking as the gun opened fire again. He spluttered to me something, which I couldn't understand and took hold of his tongue. The tip of his tongue had been scorched by a passing bullet! There you are I said, "You shouldn't work with your tongue hanging out" We, four of us, eventually reached a dugout where we were to spend the night. We were all soaked through not only with the rain but in passing thro' a culvert under the Menin Road which was our only means of crossing it, other than chancing that machine guns intervals. After a meal our sergeant arrived with rum. Up till then I had never touched alcohol of any kind and he was determined that I should and under the circumstances, he got his chance. In a very short time I was as drunk as a Lord, as the saying goes, and must say I didn't care if the enemy came over in mass or the shells, we heard dropping a little too close for sober feelings should hit us fair and square - it would have been all the same to me, I didn't care a scrap and then slept like the proverbial log. The next night our Company was relieved and we made our way back to the billets for a short rest. We walked, as usual to the west side of Ypres where, if we were lucky, a train might be waiting for such as we. There being no train, we sat down on the lines to wait, as we thought, we were too early for it. We stretched out on the rail side and courted sleep. Now the big shells, from long distances sound very similar to a freight train moving at speed. We all sat up suddenly wide awake and a great explosion occurred at the same moment, not too far away for our comfort but we all dropped back and the wag among us exclaimed "Wrong train" and then went to sleep again.
It being a fine sunny day on our first day in the billets (a half dozen wooden huts in a field) I took a writing pad and soon found a quiet spot in a hedge beside a cornfield where I could write a letter home. Before starting to write I let my mind wander there in imagination. I imagined I had arrived at our house at home but would surprise Mother by going in by the garden gate at the back. I'd walk down the side way to the gate. Oh, bother I always step on that manhole cover and it always has a dull ring. I reach the gate but what about the dog so I called out ' Prince'. Yes, he barked once and wagged his tail. I took up my pencil and wrote my letter after that comforting reverie. Several days later I received a letter from Mother who said she was very anxious about me, as she had had a most vivid experience. She detailed that on a certain afternoon she sat thinking of me when she started up on hearing my footsteps coming down the side way, the manhole rang as usual. She was certain I was coming and went to the window. The dog jumped up and barked once and ran to the gate wagging his tail - but "Jack" she added, you never came in. When two souls who love each other and think of one another, particularly in times of stress, then intellects can amalgamate, just the same as the air we breathe is common property among us, so also is the intellect, and this truth was amply illustrated for me by this perfectly true episode.
Our next spell of duty in the battle line was again to be Hooge but this time that accursed "Culvert" was to be the scene of our adventures. The water continued to pour through it with men bent double, emerging at intervals with faces only an inch or two above the water but around and about the exit two machine gun posts had been established to enfilade the Menin Road. Corresponding dugouts for the shelter of the crews had been dug into the bank under the road. As my gun was not one of these two my job was to supply these crews with their rations. This culvert position was now some four hundred or so yards beyond our front line in "No- mans - land" and we were aware that our artillery was going to bombard the enemy that night to try and distract them from the offensive about to be launched on the Somme, for this was the last night of June 1916 and the horrors of that supposed "Offensive" were soon to break upon the World. However we will meet the Somme later in this narrative but at the present our artillery diversion astride the Menin Road was well on as we approached our front line laden with rations and water for our outlying crews. We waited awhile for a quieter period and then started forward up the Menin Road. We kept to its edge and froze, as statues whenever a "Very light" illuminated the scene for then, the slightest movement are visible. On we went almost a step at a time then suddenly, all hell seemed let loose. The enemy guns were laying a barrage in front of our line to stop the infantry that they thought was coming after our bombardment and there we were, caught right in the might of it. We dropped everything and rolled into the slight ditch alongside the road and literally digging our bodies into the soft earth to gain any shelter possible from the explosions around us. These were so near that we had to hold our steel helmets tight down on our heads or the blasts would have blown them away. I have no idea how long we endured this very close proximity to certain death should even one have landed right on us and I don't know even now why it didn't. The boy next to me suddenly said, "I've been hit in the face". At last the fire slackened and without thinking we turned and ran, bent double, as fast as we could along the ditch to the Front line. Here we came to our senses . I sent the wounded lad off to the dressing station and arranged, now that the "Row" had died down we should go back and get those rations to the waiting crews and also find out what had happened to our three other members of our party who had not followed us back. When we reached the place where we had left our loads I found the sergeant who was in charge of the Culvert party with two others gathering up these rations. I asked for our missing men. It appears that as we all turned to go they found that the third man was dead and the two went on to the Culvert to report this and take what load they could with them. I said "Sarg", here's your water but I wonder? There were those two cans standing stark and looking very naked on the top of the Road. I crawled over to retrieve them still completely full and not a hole in them anywhere. It was arranged on the spot that next evening we should bring up a stretcher with us to carry out the dead comrade but that arrangement was later cancelled, as at least five stretchers would be needed. A shell next day penetrated the road banking where one dugout was and all inside had been killed. All lads with whom we had lived and worked had been from Valcatier and whom I knew so well! Now gone!
The Canadian Corps was now ordered south to join in the battle of the Somme. Of course we did not know this at the time and all we knew was that we were withdrawing from the Ypres Salient but before relating the story of that time I wish to say a word or so concerning the Belgian peasants. Naturally we could understand their annoyance at having troops billeted in their barns but after all we were there to indirectly assist them and we devoutly believed propaganda of "Brave little Belgium." It was thus with astonishment that we found that we found little or no co-operation or friendliness but very much the reverse. One farmer made us move from one loft to another (each worse than the other) until we were over his pigs. The floor if one could call it that was a few rustic poles for supporting his hay crop but was now empty with only a sparse covering of hay. The ladder to reach it was very old with only four rungs left on it. On reaching loft level one could only roll across for to stand would be disastrous. Parfitt one of the heavyweights got up the ladder and promptly came down on to one of the sows below. She turned on him. He came tearing out into the yard with the sow in hot pursuit. Fortunately for him the sows ears prevented her from seeing the wall right opposite so that she crashed her snout into it. This knocked her down but grumbling and snorting she returned to her sty and Parfitt decided he would only climb again when he had to go to bed. This same farmer removed his pump handle and so prevent us from using his water for our ablutions. He probably saved us from an epidemic had anyone drunk any for it as in all farm yards the central part of the yard right in front of the house was a deep pit into which all manure was thrown to rot down for further use at what is known as muck spreading time! Also right up against the pump was the water closet. One is aware that they don't drink this one only water supply as their beverages are wine or home brewed beer but it the ignorant location of the well that was puzzling. However we washed at the duck pond until that was forbidden because his horses objected to soap in their drinking water.
These appear as trivial inconveniences perhaps, but at the time they aroused much criticism and feeling amongst us when one had to put up with things after an almost intolerable period of duty, in the front line. One interesting custom I observed in many of these farms was that the whole family and their workers sat around the kitchen table and each helped themselves with their fingers from a huge tray of mixed cooked potatoes, meat vegetables or whatever it was, in one big pile. Anything unpalatable was spat out on the floor for the hens, dogs and even pigs to scramble after, as all these wandered in and out of the kitchen at will. I have since seen Kenya Africans eating from a common dish but never so disgustingly as the peasants in Belgium.
We had finished an August day's gruelling footslogging and put up a bivouac in an adjoining field and sat down by the roadside determined to rid ourselves of our hungry lice. Our perspiring bodies had certainly made them very active. So there we were studied in seams of our shirts and tunics when another battalion, still marching went by . Their often repeated comment, on seeing us was "Lucky devils", lucky devils, lucky devils.
The next and many more days saw us marching on our after hour through Northern France and one night, miserable and tired out, with many grumbles about sore feet we settled down in a barn. The time of lights out had gone but someone still had a candle burning. When our wag of a corporal came in and said "Put that light out - think it so dark in here that I cant see it?" It set us all laughing as the candle was snuffed but we laughed even more when he added "Light it again I've lost my way out".