Grace Triumphant - Chapter 4 - Service in World War I

Service in World War I

“What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed?” (Rom. 6:21)

The answer to that question is so obvious!  NONE!  If it were not for the wonderful goodness and love of our gracious Lord during the experience of military service, it would be better to draw a veil over those years.  One of the most unhappy people in the world is the believer who is not living for God.  He gets no joy out of his Christian experience for he is out of fellowship with his Lord when he is disobedient.  He is not allowed to get any happiness out of the world because of his guilty conscience and the working of the Holy Spirit in his heart.  As I was one of those weak and sad Christians, I did many things of which I am now utterly ashamed.

Some years later, after the Lord graciously restored me to Himself, I found much comfort in the prophecy of Joel.  While the interpretation refers to Israel, there was an application that I could and did appropriate.  “And I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten” (Joel 2:25).  An earlier chapter tells of the havoc and destruction caused by a plague of locusts.  How much better it would have been if there hadn’t been any locusts in the first place.  Yet the God of all grace has restored what the locusts ate.  Though assured of my own salvation, I was a weak believer, so weak that those around me didn’t know I was a believer.

The military authorities decided to form a battery of artillery from among the Royal Canadian Garrison Artillery.  So I was one of the detachments from the West Coast.  A journey of 3000 miles took us across Canada from the Pacific in the West to the Atlantic in the East.  In Halifax, Nova Scotia, we joined detachments from other outfits and were stationed in the Citadel.  This is an old fort on the top of a hill overlooking the city and Bay of Halifax.  One of my buddies had a brother who, in the Navy, had charge of a launch there.  Once or twice we went on the launch for a cruise around the harbor.  It is a spacious harbor; in fact, it is two harbors connected by a narrow channel.  Some months later, while we were in France, an ammunitions ship collided with another ship in the channel.  The resulting explosion destroyed a large part of the city.

One night while there we were called to fight a fire at the docks.  We dashed down the hill, through the town to the docks.  A ship was on fire but we could do nothing as we had no firefighting equipment.  One man was trapped and tried to wriggle through a porthole.  He died before a torch could be brought to cut a larger hole.  Often I wondered why portholes on ships were not made a little larger.

Church parade on Sunday mornings was compulsory.  Our colonel suggested that the whole battery march to a different church each Sunday, rather than going off in small groups to the church of our choice.  Since I didn’t know of any assembly in Halifax, I went along.  It was a standing joke that after the parson welcomed the battery to their midst that morning, he would announce, “We will now take up the offering.”

A huge Newfoundland dog was our mascot.  He marched down the dock with us when we embarked for the Atlantic crossing but was not allowed on board.  The dog did not intend to be left behind.  At midnight when everything was quiet he started up the gangplank.  The lone sentry could not restrain such a large dog, so he stowed away.  He got out of quarantine in England just in time to rejoin the battery when it crossed over to France.  The mascot disappeared when we first went into action and we heard reports that a large dog had been seen up in the front lines.

In the south of England we were moved to different camps for various stages of our training.  Occasionally I got a weekend leave and was able to visit my brother and his wife and some of our old friends.  In the depth of winter we were at Lydd, a bleak spot on the south coast.  There we were trained in building gun emplacements.  One night with snow on the ground I attempted to jump over what I supposed was a narrow creek.  While still in mid-air I realized it was wider than I thought!  I went through the ice up to my hips in cold water!  A breathtaking discovery!  But it had its compensations—I was ordered back to barracks to get hot soup and dry clothes and was excused from further duty.

At our last camp on Salisbury Plains we were supplied with our guns—six-inch (155m) howitzers—and other equipment, including steel helmets, which had been introduced the previous year.  One chap entered the barracks wearing his helmet.  Behind the door was another soldier, with a push broom, which he brought down on the steel helmet with a resounding whack.  He almost knocked the fellow out but pleaded, “I just wanted to see how good they are!”

An overnight trip on a smelly cargo ship took us from Southampton to Le Havre in France.  On the previous trip, it had carried horses and mules, much used for carrying supplies to the front lines.  Nobody seems to have bothered to clean up afterwards.  After a short while in Le Havre we traveled north by box cars to the front.  Our guns were in place just in time for the opening barrage for the battle of Vimy Ridge on Easter Sunday, 1917.  Being quite far back (befitting greenhorns as we were) the Germans were soon pushed back beyond our range.  Vimy Ridge overlooks the coal mining district of Lens and the Douai plain.  On a clear day Douai can be seen, the place where the Roman Catholic version of the Bible was published in 1609 A.D.  The Canadian infantry soon cleared the ridge of Germans and pushed forward to the plains beyond.  They probably could have broken through the German lines and gone on to Douai, but the generals were not prepared for a fluid war.  For them it was a static war of armies in the trenches facing each other.  It was not long before the walking wounded were filtering back through the village where we were.  From one of them I learned that my chum, Frank Maynard, had been killed in the assault that morning.  It was quite a shock because I was hoping to see him again soon.

During the summer of 1917 we saw considerable action as we were located in a village at the north end of Vimy Ridge.  German planes knocking down our observation balloon, a disabled plane skimming over our heads to a crash landing, dog fights as those planes did barrel rolls and loops.  One day we saw a red plane which we guess may have been the famous German Red Dragon ace, Baron von Richtofen.  When I see our modern planes I wonder how the contraptions they flew then could stay together.

My job as signaler involved mostly repairing and installing lines between the guns and headquarters.  During two years of combat I never once fired any kind of gun.  Our quarters were in the basement of a ruined house.  One day in the next village we saw a stove, which had been removed from a house and was evidently destined for some officer’s mess.  That night we “acquired” it for our own use.  As I was reading by the light of an oil lamp one night, my buddy knocked it over.  I jumped up to beat out the flames from the kerosene on my bed.  My buddy roared with laughter as he said, “Look at your hair!”  I couldn’t see my hair but I rubbed my hand vigorously to extinguish the flames shooting up from my hair.  He thought it was a hilarious sight!  Fortunately no damage was done apart from a free hair singe; it was just the kerosene that burned.  I got even with him a little later.  One day he said, “I smell something burning.”  With a laugh I replied, “Yes, it is your moustache.”  He was burning his cigarette to such a short butt, it was singeing his moustache.

Soon after arriving at that village it was my turn at noon to collect our food from the cookhouse.  The cooks were in a ruined house.  Since I was busy on a job one of my chums from Victoria offered to go in my place.  The Germans had evidently been watching men gathering at that spot.  That day a shell struck the cookhouse killing seven of our fellows, including my chum.  Another fellow from Victoria lost his leg at that time.  I realized that God was taking care of me, even though I didn’t deserve it.

That same afternoon two of us signalers were ordered to accompany a lieutenant to a forward observation post.  The road we had to take was one of those French hard cobblestone roads, and the Germans were dropping a shell on it every minute.  Our lieutenant never thought of taking a detour apparently.  We started up that road.  A shell landed and as the fragments flew overhead we ran as fast as we could, loaded down with equipment.  Then the whistle of another shell coming!  We dived into a trench beside the road long enough to avoid its fragments.  Then up and on the run again.  We were very expert in judging the size and approximate destination of any shell by the sound it made.  A leisurely hum could be ignored but not a sudden rush.  The problem was that the nearer the shell was coming, the less warning time.

One September night the Germans shelled the village with small shells.  We called them “whiz-bangs” because there was a whiz, then a bang.  Among these were some gas shells.  The gas sank into the hollows so we avoided the ditches and shell-holes.  We had gas masks which we seldom used.  It was impossible to communicate with a mouthpiece, and the eye pieces were of mica, which clouded up.  (That was before clear plastic had been invented.)  A lot of our lines were broken so we were out all night repairing communication lines.

With daylight the shelling stopped and it was a beautiful sunny clear morning.  Before getting some rest, Martin and I volunteered to go to the cookhouse for our day’s rations.  Returning to our billets we were approaching the main intersection in the village.  We heard the screech of a large shell coming fast and close!  I dropped and flattened myself on the road as the shell landed and fragments flew.  Sometime later I found a small piece the size of a split pea had penetrated the leather patch on my riding breeches and just lightly scratched the skin.  Relieved that I had not been hit I jumped to my feet and called to Martin to come on.  He was lying face down on the road and didn’t move.  I turned him over—a fragment had torn into his chest.  Already his uniform was soaked in blood.  I rushed to get help but knew it was no use.  He was a fatalist and venturesome, so I doubt that he even tried to fall flat.  For a while my nerves were a wreck.  Again the Lord had graciously delivered me.  Yet I didn’t change my ways.  Strange but true, that often the fear of men has a stronger hold on us than the fear of God.

Soon after that episode we were transferred north to the cathedral city of Ypres in Belgium.  The cathedral and most of the town lay in ruins.  We were billeted in the basements of ruined houses.  Our guns were located about five miles out of the city towards Passchendale Ridge which our forces were trying to take from the Germans.  Every other morning we walked out to our battery position for a 24-hour duty; we passed through places where there had been villages but not a brick remained.  Off the main road it was nothing but mud, knee-deep and thigh-deep.  The mud had its compensations for it smothered the fragments of bursting shells.

At that time I was teamed up with a typical old soldier, usually grumbling and complaining about everything.  However, we seemed to get along well together.  One day we were sent to check on telephone connections installed in an old German gun emplacement.  The doorway faced the German line and the door was a wet blanket soaked with mud.  Ever thank God for a wet blanket?  I had just entered, trying to adjust to the candlelight inside, when a German shell burst just outside the door.  The blanket smothered any fragments but the candles were all extinguished.  I was shook up and the fellows inside were cursing me for attracting that shell.  What about Brown who was just behind me.  I called to him.  He shouted back, “I’ve been hit!”  I dashed outside—he had been thrown 20 feet to the other side of the emplacement.  He was feeling himself to find out where he had been hit.  Actually he wasn’t, but was badly shaken and that ended our duties for that day.

The Canadian infantry captured the ridge with much loss of life.  We were pulled out for a rest over Christmas.  The Canadian Commander, General Currie visited us on the farm where we were resting.  Before the war he owned a real estate agency in Victoria and I often delivered packages to his house.  In his speech he said the capture of the Ridge afforded us a jumping off place for the spring offensive.  That spring of 1918, the Germans took the offensive and pushed our troops off the Ridge back almost to Ypres.

At that time we were in position on the southern end of Vimy Ridge.  We didn’t get news but we knew by watching the positions of the observation balloons that the Germans were advancing both north and south of us.  We were in a dangerous salient.  Our officers were edgy for they knew it would be difficult for us to retreat.  The code word was “Ottawa.”  That meant blow up the guns and get out as best you can.  Fortunately we didn’t have to run for it.  With the arrival of American reinforcements on the Western Front, the German drive was halted and turned.

That summer and fall we were out of trench warfare and more constantly on the move as the Germans were being driven back.  We would hardly get into position before orders came to move again.  We were advancing through terrain which had not been so badly destroyed.  We stopped in villages that had only recently been evacuated by the inhabitants.  The danger here was booby traps left by the enemy.  A soldier entered a home where there was a piano; as he struck the keys it blew up.  During that advance we ran into some poison gas but it was fairly well dispersed.  Apart from runny eyes and noses it didn’t seem to bother us much.  Not wanting to be thought of as a malingerer, I didn’t bother to report it.   Later I realized it would have helped me to have a sick call on my record.  Also I reaped some consequences after discharge.

One evening one of our buddies killed a rabbit with a lucky throw of a stone.  We gathered some vegetables from some Frenchman’s garden and had a good rabbit stew, a welcome variation to bully (corned) beef and hard biscuits.  Then in November came the glad news of an armistice.  I still have a message form that came to our battery, “Hostilities will cease at eleven hours on November 11th… there will be no intercourse of any description with the enemy.”  In a village in Belgium at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we embraced each other and rejoiced that at last the fighting was over.  Sometimes it had seemed as if it would go on forever!  We moved into a town near Mons and were there for some months. This was where the British “Ol’ Contemptibles” first faced the Germans in 1914.

Some of us got a pass to visit Brussels just ten days after the Germans left that city.  We splurged on an expensive meal in a hotel on the main square.  On our way there we passed through Waterloo, reminder of an earlier war.  The army set up some practical courses, which would be a help in returning to civilian life.  Early in 1919 I went on a pass to visit my brother in England.  On my return I passed through Folkestone to get my boat across the Channel.  Some Canadians were demonstrating, demanding an immediate return to Canada.  The delay gave me an opportunity to visit with my uncle and aunt there.  When I got to France I was again delayed at a base camp but finally got on a train, riding a freight car.  It was headed for Cologne, Germany, and I was tempted to go all the way.  However, since I was already AWOL I decided to hop off near Mons.  I feared if I stayed away too long it might delay my return to Canada.

In the spring we transferred to a camp in North Wales to await our departure for Canada.  At the beginning of May we boarded the S.S. Mauritania at Southampton.  It paid off to have a name beginning with “B”—I was assigned to a cabin, instead of a hammock in the hold.  The Mauritania was a sister ship to the ill-fated Lusitania which had been sunk by the Germans early in the war.  For years it was the fastest ship across the Atlantic.  Our trip was no exception.  Leaving Southampton on Sunday evening we arrived in Halifax early Friday morning.  Disembarkation went off without a hitch.  Those going to the West Coast disembarked first on to a waiting train.  Thousands of men were off the ship that morning and at noon it left for New York for a return trip.

At many towns on that 3000-mile journey welcoming crowds greeted the returning veterans.  Only on the last part of the journey did the authorities foul things up.  We had to have just one more experience of the army’s “hurry up and wait.”  From Vancouver to Victoria they chartered a slow boat when we could have easily been accommodated on the regular daily sailing.

The inner harbor of Victoria is one to the most picturesque in the world.  It never looked better than on that evening in May as we filled the forepart of the ship.  As the ship approached the dock, right ahead was the beautiful Empress Hotel, ivy-covered and surrounded with lawns.  To the right were the stately Government Buildings with trim lawns and beautiful flowerbeds.  But the best sight of all was the loved ones waiting on the pier and waving frantically as we came in sight.  Home again safe and sound!  “But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound.”  It surely was only because of super-abounding grace that I was back from the horrors of war.