Thursday, 14 July 2016
With Canadians from the Front
From The Canadian Magazine, Vol. XLVIII Contents, March, 1917 No, 5.
By Lacey Amy
Digitized by Doug Frizzle, July 2016.
All who don khaki are not fighters or Red Cross men. Another class has sprung up with the new conditions of war: the Pioneer Battalions, the sappers and miners and wirers. They are the labourers of the force, the men who take strange risks against which they can scarcely protect themselves. Their work is never finished, idleness is never more than enforced at the point of a gun. With the big guns roaring about them their duties continue, increase, oblivious to the fortunes of the struggle in which they indirectly take such an important share.
Day and night are the same to some of them. To others night and darkness provide the only protection they know. But some time their toil must be performed. The Pioneers are pioneers indeed, first on the new ground where the deserted, battered trenches of the enemy must be rebuilt without loss of time for their new occupants, always fighting against conditions that seem to conspire to impede them. Like the fighters, they are not fair-weather soldiers; but, unlike the soldiers, the resting enemy affords them no rest.
In the German army the Pioneers and sappers form an integral part of the combatant forces. When there is no fighting they are working. When their friends go “out over the top” they are in the thick of it. That is one reason why they are a larger proportion of the soldiers in the front lines. In the British army they are called on to fight only in extreme cases. In such a struggle as that at St. Julien, when the enemy was held up only by the grim grit of every man in the Canadian camps, they are able to prove that, under necessity, they can handle a rifle as well as a pick. But even the camp cooks and roustabouts were called into that affray. Every arm that could pull a trigger or throw a bomb figured in the repulse which added the grandest battle-page to Canadian history.
But these charmen of the army are not left to the charman’s standing in society. The boys who make things possible, who make impossible the worst of the enemy’s menaces, who offer to their friends that protection which could come from no other source, are not apt to be looked down on in an army where every man has his part—and it makes no difference whether he was a clergyman or a billiard marker. Digging trenches, piling up a parapet, gouging out a dug-out for others to enjoy, laying a trench mat, clearing the water and mud from about the soldiers’ feet— it all gives them an importance which is appreciated at its real value in the scheme of things. And even back in camp they are not allowed to rust, for a camp is a huge house to look after. Then at night they may form a burying party, that evaded task of the soldier’s daily life, with a chaplain mumbling reverently but hurriedly the service in the blackness of a cemetery within reach of the enemy’s machine-guns.
Plug—plug—plug is the routine of the soldier who lifts pick and shovel as his share of the great war.
The miners are as real miners as those who seek coal or gold from the depths of the earth. Indeed many of them were miners in civilian life. The Maritime Provinces have supplied hundreds of miners from their coalfields, men inured to underground life and work, accustomed to the back flaying task in impure air, trained to play with gunpowder, to sense subterranean dangers, experienced in the demands of safety where an accident is certain death. England’s miners have responded by the thousands, many of them engaged at their ordinary wages in a task that requires an expertness equal to that demanded of the army General.
Never, day or night, are the tunnelers of either side idle along those hundreds of miles of front. Down beneath the mud and cold of the trenches above, the snow and rain, the thunder of guns and the tearing of shells, the advance and retreat of struggling millions, the miners swing along foot by foot farther and farther towards the enemy, cutting the shafts and drifts and galleries that will some day play an important part in the defeat of the enemy. And the men above never forget it. To them the menace of the unsuspected mine is more terrible than a score of attacks.
Tunnels vary in size and length and shape as they do in the pursuits of peace. Usually about three feet wide and four to five feet high, they advance about a foot an hour, two miners using the pick while two others carry back the loosened earth.
If it is to be a long tunnel it will sink as far into the earth as sixty feet before striking its level. In that case it probably starts back in the supporting trenches and sinks either straight into the earth or by a slope. The extreme depth of a long tunnel is necessitated by the fact that an obstruction of water or rock is surmounted only by rising, and in a tunnel of a mile many upward deflections may be necessary. As it progresses it is shored up every three feet by timbers brought in by working parties during the night. The loosened earth is removed in sandbags that are used as parapet or emptied somewhere out of sight of the enemy. For the earth from a tunnel is recognizable, and the entire value of a mine is its surprise.
Over all these operations a mining officer, an engineer, has charge, performing the task as accurately according to plan as his facilities permit.
Some of these tunnels are the products of more than a year of unbroken work. As this is written there are at the front certain huge tunnels about which the soldiers speak in awed voices. Extending on and on, they pass beneath two, three, four enemy lines, even back beneath towns in which the enemy thinks himself secure, under artillery emplacements which will one day be marked only by a tremendous hole in the ground. When the time comes for advance these mines will play a part that will effect the results.
At the great fight at Hooge a German mine blew up almost an entire company of Canadians. The boys are going to exact retribution.
Four to eight hours at a stretch the miners toil underground, coming to the surface “for a blow” as the quality of the air and their experience demand. Fresh air is pumped in by bellows through pipes, but only the most modern ventilating system would purify the air of some of' these larger tunnels.
And all the time an enemy mine may be near, awaiting the moment when it may be blown up with greatest damage. The only defence against a mine is a counter-mine. Groups of enemy miners may tunnel within hearing of each other, both feverishly seeking the advantage of level where the other may be destroyed. When the enemy’s mining is suspected a counter-tunnel may be hurried out towards it and blown up in its path, thus blocking its progress by means of what is known as a camouflet.
Another kind of tunnel has proved itself especially serviceable to the Canadians. At an exposed point where a hill ranges behind the front lines a tunnel was dug beneath the hill to provide safe passage for the incoming and outgoing troops. Six feet in height, it is a luxury that has saved its hundreds of lives, for it prevents an exposed movement within easy range of an effective German artillery that here has every foot under fire.
A third variety of tunnel is that utilized as a listening-post. One of the wounded Canadian miners has told me that the strangest feeling he had at the front was when he lay only four feet or less beneath the feet of a trenchful of Germans, hearing tham with perfect safety converse and laugh and play their musical instruments almost within reach of his hand. A charge of gunpowder would have blown up the entire company, but the spying value of the tunnel was greater than its destructive value. From that listening-post we were kept informed of every enemy movement in the immediate vicinity, with some knowledge of their gun emplacements, their working parties, their night patrols, and their suspicions of the movements of the enemy before them. There is always the chance that the conversation of the front line is within the hearing of the enemy.
The sappers are the privates of the Engineers. They take charge of fatigue parties for digging trenches, building parapets, laying trench-mats, guarding ammunition dumps and stores, and of the thousand and one duties for which men must be detailed. In most of these the knowledge of engineering, however slight, is of value.
The wirers have a particularly unpleasant job. Not so expert as the miners, they are, nevertheless, selected for this task which takes them always within reach of the enemy rifles and machine-guns, of flares, of bombing and patrol parties, of every sniper who looks out towards the lines for a chance shot. Barb wire, while it is a curse to friend and foe in the wrong place, is as necessary for protection and rest as the sentinels themselves. Its only place of usefulness is in the most dangerous part of the front, where only darkness offers protection to the men who stretch it. And the Germans have an unpleasant habit of turning loose a machine gun or two without provocation; and a machine gun may wipe out an entire company of wirers without knowing it. When the wirer goes out into No Man’s Land he simply takes a big swallow —and his life in his hands. At the first sound of a Veery light, before it has had a chance to light up the ground, the wirer throws himself on his face or turns to stone and escapes notice by mere lack of movement.
His fate is less disagreeable to-day with the improvement in the style of fence. At first the posts were wooden, and had to be driven in. Even when they were made of iron in the next stage, they still were pounded in where noise was the last thing desired. The Germans first developed the new idea, the screw post, but the British quickly followed, the only difference in the two styles used being that the British posts did not have the arms that were a characteristic of the German variety. Now a wiring party goes out into the danger zone and works in silence. The posts are four feet high and eight feet apart, with a low post midway between. The barb wire, which at first was wired to the wooden posts, then strung through poles in the early iron posts, is now simply looped over hooks on the posts. From high post to high post it runs, with other wires proceeding downwards to the low posts, thus making a network impossible to pass through without cutting.
Comment has long been made on the maze of wires that protects the German lines, the deduction being that the enemy is much more afraid of surprise attacks than are our men, so nervous, in fact, that he is willing sometimes to wire himself in as well as wire our soldiers out. And patrol and listening-post is considered to be an integral feature of the British war scheme.
The strain of continued wiring must be tremendous. S., a Toronto-born lad who enlisted in the West, was sent from the trenches to hospital with a complication of diseases, among them being a weakness of the heart. Arriving in England for treatment, he fumed at the enforced inaction, for, although feeling at times almost as well as ever, he was ordered to bed. He knew it was unlikely that he would see the trenches again, and back in Canada a very sick sister and mother called to him to return. It seemed to him, too, that only in Canada would there be relief to the lung trouble that was one of his ailments.
Of course his only chance was to remain in bed, an order which he consistently ignored at every opportunity. He was a dark, suspicious-eyed fellow, fostering the idea that the world was against him, and to every effort at restraint he opposed a watchful silence or an explosive disgust. The knowledge that came to him gradually that the doctors were not frank with him increased his insubordination, and finally one evening I undertook to put his case frankly before him. It was a seemingly useless task, for when I called the next two nights he was out. On the fourth evening I was prevented from visiting the hospital, and a message was delivered to me from him that he was remaining in bed at last. I understood. For a week I saw him every day, and for another week he stuck faithfully to his word. Then he was allowed up, and to give himself some interest in life he established a barbershop in the hospital. It brightened him up wonderfully. And there he remained, seeing ahead of himself in the end a reasonable recovery that could be attained only with extreme care.
His weak constitution and bad family record were scarcely the foundations on which to build a wirer’s career.
Of course there are thousands of others in khaki who not only have not fought the enemy but have not even seen them, who could scarcely be called soldiers in any sense of the word. Many of these have landed in the non-combatant service from choice. For instance, the Canadian War records Office in London was filled with them, until a “man-power board” yielded to public clamour and cleaned a lot of them out for the work for which they were supposed to enlist. But “man-power boards” are more for the public eye than for real “combing-out”, and still many continue to draw good pay without more danger than threatens in the life of London. There have been, too, in these offices many who were not permitted to go to the front, because their faithfulness to the work in hand made their presence in London desirable. What they suffered from was the quality of their work. The young fellow who loafed on his job and filled no essential place in the offices was—unless he had the “pull”—cleaned out for active service, while those who were eager to do everything they touched with all their energies were put down as “indispensable”, although they were usually the ones who had enlisted to be real soldiers. In addition there were a number upon whom sickness fell before they could cross the Channel. So that not by any means all the clerks in the War Records Office were shirkers.
Of the didn’t-want-to’s I came across an interesting example who for many months had succeeded in evading discovery. He was admitted to the hospital where I met him with what appeared to be shellshock. It was a well-defined case. I saw him first seated on a bench in the blazing sun (of which England had experienced none for weeks previously) but in his surly, cynical face was a hopelessness and disgust with life that seemed to call for sympathy. His right knee thrown over his left twitched spasmodically and he watched it with sneering contempt and disgust.
From the first word I found him “fed up” with everything—the many hospitals he had been in, the weather, the state of his health, the food and treatment he had received at everyone’s hands. He was explosive in language, irritable, almost vicious, with a face from which every gleam of pleasure seemed to have taken permanent leave. At times it was impossible to get a word out of him until some impulse started him, when he would hiss and sputter out his anathema until it was considered wise to keep the poisons out of his reach. The only treatment seemed to be to rouse his interest in something outside himself, and at first he was put on the mess. For a few days he improved, and then he began to complain of the clatter of the dishes. He was set at gardening, but something fir other there did not agree with him and he was put to making chicken coops. For a few weeks the young chickens did seem to be working a cure.
I came to understand his case and the reason for his eternal grouch, as well as for his transference from hospital to hospital. He had not only never been at the front but he had tried every means to escape being sent. At Shorncliffe his leg was injured by being thrown from a horse, but his “shellshock” was sheer fear. In the hospital where he was undergoing treatment for his leg the inmates quickly diagnosed his case and laid themselves out to make him undergo some, at least, of the suffering, even though he never got to the trenches. They piled on him such terrible stories of the life in the trenches, the suffering, the danger, the misery and injuries that he developed shellshock without having heard a big gun. It is an established fact that the boys who have been in the trenches have nothing but contempt for the khaki-clad pseudo-soldiers who prefer a safe job in England to taking a term in the active fighting.
Of the other kind who were prevented from reaching the front one whom we will call R. is a good example. R., a Westerner, had enlisted with the C.A.M.C. Always before him he held the picture of the good he might do as a stretcher-bearer up in No Man’s Land. After very little training he was sent to England and there his training stopped. His earnestness and indefatigability earned for him right away one of those positions of drudgery that come to the faithful, in order that some officer may have at his beck and call the best workers in the army. He became a batman to an officer, and such a good one that his delivery to the active forces was not to be thought of. In the course of many changes he reached a convalescent home, not as a patient but as one of the staff whose duties were to scrub and sweep and clean and perform other tasks within the powers of wounded soldiers unfit for the front. Transferred to another convalescent home, he came to my notice. He was never idle. No need to point out what needed attention; R. always saw it and attended to it. When the ordinary of the staff orderly failed, he filled m his time in a little garden he commenced to make in waste ground.
He was too good for the trenches, of course, said the officers.
He became a silent lad, moving about his work with a wordless suffering behind his patience that was pathetic. It was in a moment of confidence that I obtained his story. He had never been “crimed,” never been even lectured save when he pleaded to get to the front. Strong and cleareyed, he was at first sight the very man to have about anywhere. Had he dared he would have removed the red cross from his arm, “for,” said he, “anyone can do this work. I thought I might be of use out there at the front,” he moaned. “They told me they needed stretcher-bearers when I enlisted.”
I was able to obtain for him his wish, and the last word I had from him, written in a Y.M.C.A. hut at the front, was the gratitude of a happy soldier at last within sound of the guns. The flotsam in the eddies and back currents of military red tape and discipline is sometimes as pathetic as the suffering of the wounded and nerve-stricken.
Another, a Russian, who enlisted in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, came over to England as a gunner, full of the enthusiasm that so often characterizes that branch of the service. When about ready to leave for the front, at Shomcliffe his gun backfired. Once before it had done the same without serious injury to any of the crew, but the second time it caught five of them. The other four recovered, but the Russian’s heart had been too badly tampered with. In the hospital he struggled hard with his malady. Time after time as the medical officer inspected the boys he put on the best face he knew how, but the trained ear heard the murmur of the weak heart and turned the Russian back. Long since I lost track of him but at the last he was becoming reconciled to return to Canada without a taste of that for which he had enlisted.
As sad as any are the cases of those who took sick in the training camps in England through no fault of their own. The exposure of that first camp at Salisbury Plains will stand for many years a discredit to the authorities. How many of the boys contracted through it pneumonia or rheumatism, tuberculosis, kidney trouble or the other diseases resultant from such outrageous mud and exposure I do not know. That any of them came through it is surprising. English weather, combined, perhaps with a certain recklessness on the part of the boys, has claimed a toll that has decreased as experience taught the best methods of combatting it. So that to-day the Canadian soldier who has no chance to reach France is becoming a rarity. In that stands the protection of these who would be real soldiers.
- 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
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- 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.