Sunday, 24 July 2016
Salvage—A Canadian Idea
Salvage—A Canadian Idea
From MacLean’s Magazine, June 1, 1919.
MOTORING in France along a road close enough to the fighting front to be broken by shell holes and at the moment under intermittent fire I was held up in the traffic by an empty lorry that recklessly bumped its way along the narrow strip of roadway left for the outgoing line by the ingoing loads of battle supplies. It was not quite empty. From the dusk beneath the cover there peered out at me the wizened, leathery face of an ancient French peasant woman, a refugee from the strife she had dared for four long years. And under her derelict visage, on the back-board of the lorry, stared a query I had read many times before without interest: “What have you salved to-day?”
Even my driver laughed—that youthful veteran of stony indifference to everything in war but meal hours and engine trouble. My eyes were opened to a story I had been reading without understanding. So quietly and unobtrusively had it been weaving its plot into the great theme of war that few noticed it, fewer spoke of it, and none gave it the credit it deserved as an essential factor in victory.
It Was Canada’s Invention
IF it is the last gun and man that wins a war, Salvage will bob up at the end with that gun. For Salvage is to the material forces of the army what hospitals are to the men. It has made the bottomless pit of war fathomable. It was the life-line of millions of dollars’ worth of the raw materials of war—leather, steel, iron, brass, powder, cloth. It despatched the breeches buoy to brigades of guns of all sizes, to squadrons of saddles, to corps of rifles and boots and haversacks and uniforms. It fought the submarine menace with the most effective of weapons. It partially solved the transportation problem, the production problem, the man-power problem. It helped magnificently to defeat an enemy more independent of it because of years of preparation. It held down the colossal taxes of a world struggle and enabled the belligerent countries to step into peace with their wind good and their equipment fit enough.
Incidentally, but vital to this article, it was the product of Canadian brains, as were the trench raid, the tump line, the canthook as a war weapon, light railway construction, army farming, and a host of other members of the great family of victory. So proud a product was it that the British Army copied it entire. Which was no new sensation for the Canadians.
Economy is a fetich of the French. Among the peasants, as we discovered through that wonderful country, it supplanted the progress of invention and innovation. The flail repudiated the threshing machine. Conservation, economy’s modern cousin, was never more at home than in the Canadian heart and mind. And conservation developed, through the exigencies of the case, into that powerful arm of military service known as Salvage.
Conservation is an instinct of some Canadians. Now and then one came across it at the front in its extreme form. During the heavy fighting of 1918, after four years of ceaseless war had strewn France with its marks, a Canadian newspaper friend visiting the front for a few days entered the mess one evening with all the dignity of virtue. Solemnly holding aloft one of those little cartridge clips that will for years be earth of the very earth of France, he informed us that he had found it. Where, he enquired, should he hand it in? And not one of us even smiled.
An Invitation to Save
UP at Ablain St. Nazaire I noticed conservation first in organized form. There in the semi-shelter of Vimy Ridge was a welter of ruin unrivalled along the four hundred miles of battle line. Whole villages had been so completely levelled that in early 1918 one rode through them without suspecting they had ever existed. For years the Germans had been lobbing over destruction into that corner. So that the jagged remains of the church are perhaps more famous—in art, at least—than the Cloth Hall at Ypres or the Rheims Cathedral. It was while returning from the ruined church with a Canadian artist that I came on Conservation, the forerunner of Salvage.
Before an extensive area covered with engineers’ supplies was a huge sign which he who ran might read. Behind it a battery of big guns was lazily awakening to the afternoon strafe. The walls of the church stood dull white against the hills to the west. A mere trickle of water, dignified by the name of the Souchez River, meandered as a ditch beside the road. And only two or three miles away, around the curve of the hollow, lay Lens and its shattered suburbs, that town of evil but wondrous fame to Canada.
"Think," commanded the sign in a whole line to itself; and then: "before drawing R. E. stores, of the following prices:
£. s. d.
1 sandbag costs 0 0 8
1 large steel shelter 17 6 3
1 small steel shelter 5 18 9
1 roll wire netting 1 4 0
1 sheet corrugated iron 0 3 3
1 pick 0 3 3
1 shovel 0 1 6
1. By not indenting for more than you need and can use at once.
2. By bringing back all tools taken out on working parties.
3. By salving all the material you can and using where you can instead of new.
4. By remembering that everything has got to be paid for.”
The official photographer has made a record of that sign for posterity as the idea behind Canada’s Salvage scheme.
Canadian Bravery and Salvage
SALVAGE entered again into my experience when the Canadian Corps was resting at Pernes to block the victorious path of the enemy in early 1918—or to be ready for one of those famous attacks which placed the Canadians by themselves in the eyes of the German Army.
Bethune had moved up so close to the front that its future was uncertain. Its citizens had been gone for months, and the soldiers who moved amidst its strafed ruins looked into houses and stores that had been left as they stood when the sudden terror of capture drove their owners to flee without the family penates. Life in Bethune was as uncertain as a feather in the wind. One felt it keenly when, drifting through the deserted streets, a whining shell in the next block and altered the skyline before one’s eves.
Back at Pernes, short ten miles away, an old barn had become an auction room where French officials sold to the highest bidder stoves and grain and hay, the unorganized salvage of Bethune. Then the Canadians took it in hand. Lorries made daily trips. They backed up to the empty houses and stores of Bethune, loaded with everything portable, and rumbled back to Pernes, where every available space was requisitioned for storage. From ugly lorries there poured into these barns beautiful mirrors of past centuries, ornate chandeliers, tables and chairs, stoves, anvils, paintings—the most intimate possessions of a people who love their country so passionately that they have never become emigrants. And everything was tagged with the number of the street from which it was taken. Dangerous work it was. To-day the lorries would plan their duties for to-morrow—only to find when to-morrow came that the street they were to work on had vanished. But with dents in their sides, and holes in their covers, they emerged from the shelled towns each night with another day’s record of Salvage.
The Wonderful Fruits of Salvage
BUT Salvage, with a capital S, I became acquainted with first at Boves, an uninhabited one-streeted village of ancient visage down there south of Amiens. In that fight Salvage almost wearied. Its muscles ached. It so nigh to over-reached itself that it threatened to hamper transportation instead of relieving it. For the unexpected appearance of the Canadians was successful beyond the power of any organization of Salvage to cope with it adequately. Hitherto booty had been a mere incident of success. But when it takes the form of a couple of hundred big guns, among them a half dozen of the hated long range, high velocity five-point-nines; of equipment enough to outfit an army; of weapons of offence and defence never before met—then it ceases to be an addenda and becomes part of the text.
When the Corps wiped the dust of Amiens from its feet there remained as its mark such a hoard of Salvage as had never before rewarded an attack on such a width of front. A whole field was covered with it—stacked and piled. It might have been an exhibition of the necessities of war. The big guns were off some miles nearer Amiens, for they merited separate mention and, technically speaking, are not included in the sphere of Salvage—though Salvage rescues them as it does the other equipment.
In the field of Salvage were great groups of machine guns and heaps of rifles, bayonets and swords uncounted, grenades and cartridges in boxes piled higher than a man’s head, shells of every calibre, helmets of both armies, stacks of khaki and field grey clothing, leather in its multitude of shapes as used in saddles, straps, carbine carriers, German haversacks, boots, and bayonet scabbards.
Amidst this litter men were producing order. Every item was in its own pile. Live German shells and grenades were being “dehorned” by delicate but seemingly reckless hands. Novelties were set aside for future study.
At this stage of the year’s operation I came personally within the broad horizon of Salvage and learned something of its ramifications. In the hurry of moving from Dury, the Headquarters town, back to the Arras sector, a careless batman neglected a haversack of mine. By the time I could return for it, it had disappeared with the troops that followed us. “See the Salvage officer,” advised everyone. I did. And the machinery he immediately set in motion made me feel like a joyride clergyman, visiting the front for the first time. I never recovered my haversack—but I have copies of a month of correspondence that continued long after I had ceased to care, and extended back and forward from corps to army in that interminable way of military efficiency. It ceased only when, oppressed with the necessity of getting on with the war, I insisted that I had found the lost detail of equipment.
Saving Ran Into Millions
SALVAGE emerged from the experience in my eyes a tremendous machine of bewildering efficiency, a great rolling of wheels that had long since passed from human control. One got those impressions sometimes at the front.
Salvage came into official existence only in March, 1917. Before that it had been merely Divisional effort, independent in its various units but ambitious enough to reveal its possibilities. The one exception to the detachment of its early history was during the Somme offensive of 1918. In those two months of August and September more than $2,000,000 worth of ammunition alone was salved, and $2,500,000 in ordnance. Six million dollars was the record of that short period of organized Salvage in the Canadian Corps.
Accordingly only a few months intervened before the system was permanently adopted as a recognized part of the military machine. Since then there are official figures that prove its value beyond cavil. From March 14th, 1917, to the end of that year the Canadian Corps was better off by $8,200,000 through -the benefits of Salvage. For the next year I have returns only up to the end of August, including, therefore, only the Amiens battle of the tremendous season of fighting. After that time the Canadian Corps was advancing so steadily through a welter of German booty and the surviving possessions of French refugees that estimate is impossible. But in those eight months of the year, with only one battle, Salvage turned in $4,500,000 in material. And it must be understood that the value of German and French materials was never included.
It might not be clear how such an amount could be represented by British Salvage alone. The explanation is the revelation of the true sphere of Salvage. Salvage, concerned as it was with German booty and the recovery of French property, was primarily the salvation of British equipment discarded or lost in the ordinary course of war. It followed close on the heels of a conquering army, of a moving unit. When a battalion changed its location it left behind bits of outfit, deliberately or carelessly. Salvage picked it up. When an advance was made it often happened that whole units dropped their equipment to facilitate the operation. Salvage came along and saved it all. In the trenches remained stores of bombs, iron rations, blankets, ground sheets, ammunition, when the soldiers had departed. Salvage neglected none of it. The battlefield was a store of equipment discarded by the wounded or dropped by the dead, by the attackers and attacked. Salvage pushed out in the fringe of the shelling and rescued it.
Salvage missed little; it closed its hand on things that seemed the antithesis of the needs of war. But one never knows. For instance, the army to which the Canadian Corps was attached at the time developed one of those unaccountable cravings that come even to the soldier. It wanted two chaff cutters. Well—the Canadian Corps Salvage Company produced them immediately.
Salvage in Small Things
SALVAGE turned up its nose at nothing. The ubiquitous petrol tin seemed to the soldier worth nothing save in its varied capacities for adding to the comfort of dugouts and tents.
It was his wash basin, his waterpail, his brazier, his chair, his protection from wind and shell.
War would have been a hotter hell without the petrol tin. But why Salvage should bother with it was apparent to no one but Salvage in all that petrol-tinned France. But the army suddenly called for 1,800 one day, and Salvage had a thousand on hand blocking the landscape.
But there is no intention of implying that the soldiers did not co-operate in salvaging. There were established dumps all along the Canadian front. There were, too, sufficient signs and appeals to remind the men of those dumps. And the Canadians responded by bringing back with them from the Advance areas enough rescued material and equipment and tools to make their co-operation a worthy addition to Canadian assistance in the war.
The system of Salvage was well organized for its work. Each Division, as well as the unit known as Corps Troops (that body of men required around the Corps distinct from the battalions), had its own organization for salvage. It followed its own forces, established its own dumps, received credit for its own salvage. The First Division salvaged $250,000 worth of recaptured British material at Amiens alone. The Third estimated its savings up to the week before the Amiens fight at $655,704. There was a profitable rivalry induced by such a system.
When the Corps arrived at a new area it was the duty of the Corps Salvage Officer to furnish each of the Division Salvage officers with maps showing the location of dumps. Small sub-dumps were formed under the Division aegis, and their contents were transferred back to the main Division dump as transportation became available. Here was undertaken the great task of sorting and classifying. Sorting was according to kind, classification to serviceability. This completed, everything was despatched to the Corps Salvage dump. Here what was serviceable and fit for immediate use was turned over to Ordnance; serviceable, but requiring repair was returned to the Base repair shops; and the unserviceable was sent to the Base for breaking up. There unserviceable clothing became rags, and broken rifles were examined for serviceable parts.
In the collection of the salvage care was taken to confine the initial work to perishable material. After that the field was more deliberately combed.
How Souvenirs Were Secured
THE sub-dumps were located where possible near a light railway or frequented road. The Divisional dumps had to be convenient to a light railway. The Corps dump was beside a standard gauge railway for transportation to the Base. Light railway trains that went up with ammunition or troops returned with salvage. Lorries were requisitioned on the return journey. Salvage had no transportation of its own but it had considerable powers of requisitioning.
Salvage collected the material left at casualty clearing stations. Rest camps were cleaned up by camp commandants and town majors, and when the accumulation grew to sufficient proportions Salvage carried it away to the dumps. If the Corps moved too quickly for Salvage to complete its job the Salvage Officer left behind him a map of the area not cleared.
An incidental feature of Salvage operations was its contribution to the War Museum to be built at Ottawa. Scores of packing boxes were despatched direct to Canada—and scores more would have gone had Salvage had the authority it should have had. In that case it might have prevented the peculiar situation that developed of Great Britain taking the choice of everything captured by the Canadians, for the Museum to be constructed in London, England—where very few Canadians will ever see some of the finest trophies of the war, captured by their own sons.
The personnel of Salvage was drawn from the Area Employment Companies, consisting mostly of B2 men. The objection to this was that the men trained in salvaging were subject to recall by the Employment Companies at any time. Towards the end of the war it was proposed to form a permanent staff, as the duties justified.
Salvage recalls to my mind several scenes during the later stages of the fighting. Out before Arras a wide plain was largely filled with heaps of the trophies of' war, much of it equipment, shells, and even guns recaptured from the Germans after they had captured them from the British during their early successes of the year. Such an abundance of material did the Germans lay their hands on in their drive that they had not had time or means of removing it. Now hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth returned unharmed to the original owners to be used as first intended. There were thousands of British shell boxes to help to solve the shortage of wood and labor; and there were shell casings in piles that needed only to be touched up to be ready for use again.
Corps Salvage dump was during those days a hive of industry and a centre of deepest interest. It was necessarily some distance in the rear because of the destruction of railway further forward. There it had settled down to show just what Salvage can do with the broken, dented, rusted, muddied stuff that accumulates on every battle front.
A GREAT heap of empty oil drums represented a distinct operation. It started when the Salvage Officer happened one time to see an empty drum overturned. The little bit of oil that dripped from it gave him an idea. And ever since the drippings have averaged 500 gallons a month of clear gain. In one shed two men were hammering at pieces of bent tin rescued from damaged petrol and oil receptacles. And in a corner of the shed a third man illustrated their use. Signs—the multitude of painted signs necessary through the areas of the armies—were growing under his hand. No more valuable wood or tin for the signs of the Canadian Corps! Another shed was devoted to the cleaning of British rifles. A heap of 150 lay ready to go back to the trenches, polished and bright, their action perfect, in as good conditions as ever they were. Knapsacks, cartridge belts, haversacks, and trenching tool carriers and even clothing were being cleaned for immediate re-issue. A home-made furnace was struggling to extract the solder from the heaps of tins necessary to the life of an army.
There were German cookers—better than our own—awaiting disposal. Two had been captured at Amiens that belonged once to the British Army and had been improved in German hands. German field kitchens and hot water heaters, German tip-carts—one fitted with British wheels—German camouflage—and the German pre-dated us in camouflage and always excelled in it—German folding and bicycle stretchers, were in the dump. A furnace seemed to offer no service. The casings of the shells that had once fired on St. Pol had been captured at Vis en Artois, thirty miles away, and were welcome souvenirs. German shaft blowers had already been utilized by the Corps in the Headquarters’ dugouts at Demuin. Rolls of German barbed wire, German gas cylinders, German wagons and limbers were mixed with the accoutrements of our own armies. Bicycles and motorcycles were in condition to be repaired. German corrugated iron was stronger than our ordinary variety and would be quickly put into service.
There was an atmosphere of efficiency, of completeness, of a confident solution of many of the most trying problems of war about that collection.
Canadian Salvage had handed on its lesson to the rest of the British Army. It had revealed its story to those best fitted to estimate its value. Thereafter it was content to work silently in its own way, replacing production in part by conservation, preventing the strain and perils of shortage, recovering what would mean the difference between exhaustion and mere weariness, shortening the war every day it was in operation.
- The Amphibious Suburb of St. John’s
- Literary History of Nova Scotia
- A British Eskimo
- The Bombers and Snipers
- The Life Savers
- Hell at Hooge
- Dumb Talkies
- Introduction to The Fourth Dagger
- Salvage—A Canadian Idea
- The Women of The Magdalens
- The Credit System in the West
- The Perfect Ending
- Education and the War
- The Timber Wolf at Home
- Treating That Chilly Feeling
- Earmarks of Genius
- The Farmer and the War
- Labour and the War
- The Non-Combatants
- Woman and the War
- After Three Years
- My New Gardening Gloves
- ▼ July (23)
- ► 2015 (35)
- ► 2014 (55)
- ► 2013 (41)
- ► 2012 (88)
- ► 2011 (104)
- ► 2010 (43)
- ► 2009 (40)
- ► 2008 (48)
- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.