Search The Archive

Search form

Collection Search


A TRIP TO FRANCE by Robert (Rob) Andrew Garvie (1888-1971)

I was not by any means among the first to enlist and therefore will have nothing to say about the fast 2 years of the World War. I really don't know what good my humble participation did in this war any more than I can tell what good the war did. In France today might take place such a scene as.. .perhaps you have heard the old poem which starts off like this -

"It was a summer's evening

Old Kaspar's work was done

And he before his cottage door Was sitting in the sun.

And by him sported on the green His little grandchild Whilomeme.

Presently young Peterkin

Brought something large and round

Which he before the stable door In playing there had found.

"Now daddy tell me what I've found That is so large and white and round. "

"Tis some poor fellow's skull

Who was slain in that great war. "

"Now tell us all about the war

And what they fought each other for. "

"Now that I cannot tell, said he But twas a famous victory... "

And so on through the whole story the old man harps on the mighty victory but cannot tell what good came of it all. The same scene might be as truly said in France today.

To get back to my story, I enlisted at The Pas, Manitoba. Went to train in military barracks in Brandon, Manitoba and after a few weeks training we were given two days notice of draft for England. This was longer notice than usual, as in the army no matter how long we were in one location the warning for draft always came with dramatic suddenness. This was, of course, army strategy and contributed to our safety.

Our trip by C.P.Railway from Brandon to Halifax was quite uninteresting as are all such trips in the hum-drum of life of ... (a soldier) .... across the western prairie lands, stopping for a short time at the depot in Winnipeg where many unusually friendly girls cheered their khaki clad heroes on their way, or perhaps kissed them for a first and last time. Not so fortunate was I on this occasion, but later I may tell you of a time when it was different.

Passing by the many lakes and rugged rocks of Northern Ontario we finally crossed the famous St. Lawrence bridge and entered the old city of Quebec. Here we detrained and marched through the narrow streets for some much needed exercise, and a foretaste of French atmosphere. A long journey through New Brunswick and Nova Scotia brought us to Halifax where we boarded the S.S. Aquitania for England ....3 passenger boats all laden with troops, 2 or 3 torpedo boat destroyers, all painted in various colors of weird design commonly known as camouflage.

The trip to England was uneventful for at least six of us who were confined to a very small flick or state room somewhere in the bowels of the boat.  The reason for this was that one of our 6 had contracted a mild case of measles and we were promptly quarantined and placarded. To add to our discomfiture, one of the number, John Gojack by name, was queer. His actions, while merely causing good -natured amusement in the open, threatened to cause a mutiny in our cramped quarters. One of his favorite stunts was to suddenly stretch himself by putting the soles of his feet up to the bed above and giving a mighty heave, hoisting the sleeping occupant above into the ceiling. As I was the occupant and much smaller than John, my retaliation was only halfhearted. However, before the end of our trip we were allowed on deck to see sky and water and get some exercise.

Our vessel was quarantined in Liverpool harbour for a few days before we entrained for a fast ride across the green fields of England to a military camp at Folkstone near the southern border.

During our whole time in the army, we never got more exercise and less to eat than at Folkstone. Consequently it was a relief when a few others and myself were transferred to the Engineers' training camp at Seaford in Sussex.

After a few weeks training here we were given a few hours notice to be ready for French draft. We left Seaford camp on June 21st and arrived in Folkstone on the same day. At 3:30 next morning we marched through Folkstone town to the boat. Glad of a change and a little excited at the future prospects, we awoke the town with cheers and songs during our march to the boat. Some came to windows to wave farewell, but no doubt many just rolled over on the other side with the thought - more troops on their way to France.

We arrived at Boulogne about noon. I have here an automobile map which I picked up later somewhere in France. It shows the front lines as they were about the middle of August, 1918. Later while billeted in some deserted French office, I found an unused book (notebook) which I cut in two to fit the tunic pocket and used this half as a diary, and this little diary is responsible for the boredom I am causing you tonight.

From Boulogne we went to Estaples, which at the time was the great military camp of the British, from which troops were sent to various other camps. After 2 days we were sent to the Engineers' camp at Aubin St. Vaast 5 miles from Hesdin. Here we spent a week in final training, explosives, bridge building - work which I later had charge of.

It was in July that we passed through Colon-Ricourt and St. Pol where we spent one night, leaving next morning by narrow gauge railway ever closer to the scene of action. I can still see our dinky little train top heavy with troops standing close in the little box cars, winding its sinuous way through the poppy fields of France. Wheat fields, oat fields, hay fields all thick with bright red poppies. I never saw so many poppies in all my life.

It was on July 4th that we arrived at Aubigny and saw our first "Fireworks Display". But it was real. Shells were bursting in the vicinity of Mt St Eloiso far away that the noise could be heard only by putting an ear to the ground, yet in the darkness of the evening the exploding shells lit up the distant sky. I thought of the folks at home and how I would like them to see it too, if they could only be as quickly transported again to their peaceful homes.

From Aubigny we marched to Riviera near Beaumetz, where Hoskins and myself were picked out for drafting work at Battalion Headquarters office. Hoskins had done engineering work around Detroit and Windsor, chiefly on the Welland Canal. From this time on he became my buddy until separated by a wound I received at Rumacourt. For nearly three weeks we were engaged on this work, which I will pass with the remark that it was interesting - the hours were long and the eats were good.

On July 26th we left Riviera on a journey to the Amions front. Sometimes after ­marching for about 20 miles in full equipment, consisting of rifle, gas mask, shoulder knapsack (containing blankets, rubber cloak, steel helmet and other equipment), we would spend the night sleeping on the cobble stones of some French yard, but believe me, we slept as soundly as though it were a feather bed.. Our first lap on this journey was a 20 mile (27 kilometer) march to Broviellers. Leaving here on the 30th, we marched 12 miles to Acquaire. It was on this march that I wore a new pair of boots that blistered my ankles to such an extent that I finally complained to our lieutenant, and he loaned me his horse. Perhaps he was as sore elsewhere as I was at my heels. The following day, after a 4 or 5 kilometer march, we were lucky enough to meet in with a freight train. We rode this for a few hours, many on top ofbox cars or wherever convenient. Finally another walk of 6 kilos brought us to Saleux. Here most of us enjoyed a very refreshing swim in the canal. Further refreshments in the bars or French "estaminets" that night led to a fist fight with French soldiers, which in turn led to our being called on parade next morning for a very severe lecture by our commanding officer. While history shows no record of this battle, it nevertheless goes down in my diary as an outstanding victory for C. Company 9th Battalion Canadian Engineers.

On August 3rd we went in army lorries to Gentil Woods 1 kilo east of Beves. Here we were sent out on night working parties to fill shell holes, repair roads, or build new roads suitable for hauling cannon etc, over. The district was pretty well watched by German artillery, machine gunners and snipers. Our gangs stole forward, in small lines of about 8 in each group and not too close to each other. Words of any obstructions such as wire or logs on the path were quietly passed to the follower behind.

While engaged with pick and shovel in the darkness, if "Fritz" (hereafter identified as "the German enemy") sent up a flare or light rocket, we as suddenly dropped flat on the ground.

On Aug. 7th our small section under cover of darkness stole forward to the small shell-wrecked village of Domart in the vicinity of no man's land. Our hiding place was in the cellar of what had been at one time a comer store perhaps. There was, of course, no one but ourselves in this village and not a single building left standing. A short distance down the road, probably a half mile ahead of our front line, was a bridge that crossed a small stream. This bridge was of strategic importance as the surrounding land through which the creek flowed was boggy and impassable for artillery. A sergeant and myself went to this bridge some time during the night to remove the mine which had been place there to blow it up if necessary. The deep dark secret was that at daybreak was to occur probably the most sudden and concerted attack by the allies, that occurred during the whole war. However, even the most solemn occasions often have their amusing incidents. Two English soldiers driving mules attached to an army cook kitchen had lost their way and crossed the bridge. They came back on the dead run, lashing the mules and the wagons rattling and inquired of our sentry, "Where the bloody'ell are we?" They were lucky to escape the machine guns.

On the morning of Aug. 8th, just before daybreak our armoured tanks were crossing this bridge while a few aeroplanes raced their engines overhead to drown any noise the tanks might make. A few machine gun bullets rattled harmilessly off the tanks and then suddenly as light began to dawn in the eastern sky, all hell broke loose. It seemed as if every allied gun on the whole hunt spoke at once. Our engineers were in instant action along the road and especially at the bridge.

Infantry was already crossing it while we piled planks and bags of stone on it to reinforce or protect it from shells. The air was filled with smoke; the noise was terrific. German shells too were bursting around us but their aim was hurried and astray as most of them burst in the marsh to our north and south, while the long white road as far as the eye could see was covered with a steady stream of soldiers and artillery steadily advancing toward the Germans.

Long before noon the shells were bursting in the distance and the greatest racket I have ever heard was becoming an echo far to the west. Our work at the bridge was done and we rested by the roadside watching the steady stream of reserves going forward and an equally steady stream of German prisoners returning. There were thousands of prisoners and many of them carried stretchers with their wounded; alas many of the occupants of these stretchers wore the khaki uniform, but the great majority wore the iron gray. Dressing stations had been quickly established on both sides of the road for first aid. These stations were the end of the road for many a mortally wounded soldier.

But still the advance went on. Heavy artillery was now the chief traffic. One dust ­covered and hatless officer marching forward attracted my attention, for it was good old Don McKenzie whom I had not seen since we roomed together at high school. He said he had been in the advance of early morning and Fritz had been caught completely with his pants down - man and officers captured in bed. Don had lost his horse and grub and was hungry so I gave him what was left in my canteen.

In the afternoon this sunny day I took a stroll by myself across the fields to the west. Hundreds of bodies lay in the sun, mostly German and yet not a few of our own.

Next morning we followed the advance as far as Beaucourt, and then on to Beaufort, where we were engaged in roadwork repairing shell holes. My diary says that we had some close shaves by bursting shells on the night of August 14th. On the 16th we went back to Domart on rest for 2 days, and then we began our transfer to the Arras front, often sleeping at night in shell holes or trenches, with no candles lit because they might attract a German plane. These German planes were one of the worst pests of a soldier's life, for though we distinguish them from our own by the noise of the train motors, we could never tell just where the next bomb would light.

One of the most interesting sights I witnessed was an aerial combat between enemy planes and British, in which there were 6 or 8 on each side. Three German planes fell and one British, (most of them bursting into flames while falling) before the Germans retreated.

Well, we marched on to Beves; a train took us on to Lew Souich. The 43rd Batt. band accompanied us on a march to Borlancourt. From there a walk to Tillog during a downpour of rain and on to Arras, a city of ruins. We worked out of Arras for several weeks, repairing and building light railway tracks and frequently dropping into shell holes if one whistled too close. We advanced to Biery where some of us were lucky enough to get in a former German pillbox. This was an observation post with concrete walls about 3 feet thick.

Thieves raided this place one night while we were at work. My friend Hoskins lost a box of goodies he had just received from Canada and my shaving kit was taken. Our suspicions rested on some English soldiers who had passed through. My diary reports that Joe Gladis was wounded in the foot by a sniper's bullet.

Three days later we were at Rumacourt. A long narrow cellar housed about 20 of us with rows of bunks on each side. The roof was covered with a mass of debris, fallen bricks, etc, and the only entrance, a flight down of 7 or 8 steps, faced the Gennan lines. It was a former German billet. We reinforced it and built a barricade of corrugated sheeting in front of the doorway as Fritz was constantly shelling our artillery in this vicinity. He blew our cook kitchen to smithereens, but that was not the worst. The billet was already thickly populated with German fleas ... Now I had grown acquainted with our own ordinary grey backs and had read my shirt with the rest of them, but for pure cussedness and itching torment, deliver me from those black jumping German devils. Our peace was so much disturbed that Hoskins and I consulted the medical officer and obtained some itch allaying dope from the pill slinger. We soon got relief, however, in another way.

On the night of September 10, some of us were engaged in a little game of poker at the base of the short stairway. A dim candle burned while a wet blanket covered the entrance to obscure the light and wet to keep out gas fumes. Luckily I had soon retired and was lying in bed when Fritz's shell struck. I awoke with a start. All I was aware of was absolute darkness and the groans of wounded. It was probably a 5.9 shell and scored a direct hit on the entrance where several of the boys were having their little game. Someone lit candles. Others administered first aid, but it seemed hours before a doctor arrived.

As it turned out, McDonald had been killed outright. Holt, Prosser, Fetterley, Richard, Williams, Wartman and Pheasant all wounded. Prosser died later from abdominal wounds. Richard's arm was shattered and he died from loss of blood after the bandage loosened.  Fetterley's left was severed.

As for myself, I was slightly wounded on the scalp," probably hit by a glancing fragment whose force had already been spent. I would probably not have been sent back with the wounded had not the ambulance driver asked for a walking case to ride with him on the seat, as the others were all stretcher cases. It was after midnight when our ambulance left. I remember little of the ride except that it was a fast one. Speeding over a hill we must have been espied by artillery, for shells began bursting around us and the driver stepped on the gas while groans to go easy came from the rear.

Our wounds were hurriedly dressed at An-as and we spent on to Ambigny. Breakfast here and a sleep and then by train to Camiers. I don't know where my wounded comrades were left. I know none of them were on the train with me except Pheasant, the Indian. The only Indian in our company, a good natured jolly fellow but a constant trouble to officers because of his slovenly manner of dress. He never could roll is puttees even.

At Cameirs our Khaki suits were exchanged for the hospital blues after receiving steam baths and shaves. After a few days here with daily dressings Pheasant and I were sent to Etaples convalescent depot. This was a pleasant change. Here we had sports, football games and moving pictures to see.

My wound being better healed than Pheasant's, I was sent on to No. 10 Con Camp - Imperial Detention Camp, I called it as it belonged to the English and we were expected to salute even the sergeants. Another Canadian Scotty and myself ran into trouble on this score. We were given kitchen fatigue as punishment - had fight with kitchen sergeant and were finally released from all duty, but our pay was stopped. My diary says that I was in Boulogne on Sunday with no money. Then on to St. Martin's Camp farther north and finally back to Etaples for the old route toward the front again. It was here I saw again 3 of our old "C" Company who reported about 130 casualties in the Co., mostly from gas, and the deaths of Prosser, Holt and Richard.

By October lst I was back in Aubin St. Vaast. Near here was a German prison camp guarded by the British. Part of my duty was to call at this camp for a bunch of these prisoners and supervise their work of loading stones in box cars for roads. Two English guards always accompanied us. I might say that some of these prisoners were fine fellows and especially their corporal whom I grew quite friendly with. At noon I would take them all to our camp for a hash dinner, which pleased them greatly, as they got little to eat in their English prison.

One morning while waiting for my prisoners, our commanding officer Colonel Malcolm happened along and recognized me. I had been in his surveying classes at Queens University in Kingston (Ontario) and had also training there in military engineering. Of course he wanted to know why I had never taken a commission and asked me to do so. After that promotions came fast and I began eating in the sergeants' mess, was given charge of the powder magazine and had to give the troops lectures on demolitions, explosives and bridge building. To do this we took the troops as they came from Etaples - took them across the road to a French field a mile or so away where there was a small river and trees and stumps. We gave practical illustrations of cutting down trees with gun cotton, blowing out trees with ammonel, etc.

Once I put a large charge of ammonel under the roots of a stump and the discharge was so successful that a large chunk of the stump lit about `/ mile away near where a Frenchie was ploughing. You should have seen him tearing about with his arms in the air and shouting "Sacre ­Mon-Deu!"

I was surprised one day to find in my class, my old pal Hoskins who had been sent back for stomach trouble from drinking water that had been gassed.

It was on November 11 that we heard that ARMISTICE had been declared. Our C.O. called a parade and said the rumor had not been confirmed so please don't attempt to tear down the camp. However, a few rifles were discharged late that night in honor of the event.

I had already passed inspection for officers Comm. but that was stopped together with my Paris leave. I went back to work of surveying pipe lines, laying out camp, making bills of material.

Then our company was formed into a demobilizing unit and sent back to England to help demobilize other troops as they returned from France. We would feed them, outfit them, inspect them and everything else. While time grew on well into 1919 and we were still at this work while always wanting to get back home ourselves. One night, as my pal and I were returning to camp from a dance in Godalming, we saw part of our camp in flames. Some of our Co. had set fire to tin town and burned up and looted all these stores and canteens, except for the Salvation Army hut.

The authorities probably then recognized the uneasiness, for we were soon after sent back home ourselves. We boarded boat at Southampton — demobilized in Toronto and bought a civilian suit and took train for Saskatoon. Family was at the train and big dinner was prepared.