H. “Oh, to hell with it.”: Memories of Passchendaele

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Passchendaele

18th Battalion Association[i]
Windsor and Detroit Branch
*MEMORIES[ii]*

On the night of November 5th[iii], 1917, our “A” Company was rushed into the line to relieve a company of a battalion of the 4th Division, who had been severely mauled and had suffered many casualties. Our own Company was only at half strength with four Officers and 96 other ranks. I was the C.S.M. at the time. Most of the trenches had been pounded to pieces, so most of us took positions in the shell holes. On my left were Sergeant Oudet [Oudot][iv]and Corporal Johnson[v]. Next to them were four batmen, and further on, the Officers. A number of signallers had dug in on the right.

The enemy seemed to have our range and ever once and a while would send over some shells forcing us all to find the best cover we could. It was a very dark night and some of the men were scooping our [out] dirt to find more room. I suggested they should leave the shell holes as they were, as the wall between might stop the spreading of the shrapnel. One N.C.O. remarked, “Oh, to hell with it.”

It was only a short time later when the Germans fired a heavy salvo. We had six killed and several wounded. Among the dead were Sergeants Oudet, Braisley[vi] [Braisby], Brendly[vii] [Brindley], and Corporals Jensen[viii] [Janson] and Frank Bryant[ix], the latter having been with us since we mobilized in London. What was left took up positions in other shell holes, or in the ruins of houses. I was buried, and when I broke out asked Lieut. McGamon[x] to give me a hand. I jokingly remarked that he didn’t need a new C.S.M. yet.

Some of us found an old house with the floor still intact but covered with rubble, so we took refuge in the cellar. We were later joined by some of the Officers who remained with us. There was nothing to do but watch the enemy and wait for our relief, as the mud prevented movement by either side.

About noon, Lieut. Smith[xi], who was an Indian from Brantford, came over and I suggested we gout out and visit the men in the shell holes, as we thought it might help their morale. We visited all that were left, and did our best to give their spirits a boost. We then started back to our cellar when an enemy plane spotting for their artillery came over flying about a hundred feet. He fired about three shells at us, but they were all behind us, and when they exploded in the deep mud, they didn’t do any harm. He made two more passes but by that time we had taken cover. Some of the men claimed they could see the face of the pilot, as he was flying so low.

A few hours later, we were relieved and only 24 walked out under their own steam. With several days rest and many new reinforcements, we were prepared for the next assignment. At one of our Reunions, I met former Signaller Dennis O’Connor, who claimed he had told this story before but no one believed him.

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Stretcher Bearers at Passchendaele. An iconic photgraph of the conditions of this battle.

The Story

The author (unknown) relates an incident that was significant to the Battalion. The Battle of Passchendaele, or 2nd Ypres, was a hard fought, short campaign that cost the Battalion fifty-nine dead and countless wounded. The nature of the conflict was such that the War Diary made specific mention to the conditions the Battalion experienced:

“During the whole of this tour the Officers and men held this part of the line under the most severe conditions possible. Great difficulty was experienced in the evacuating of casualties from the front line to R.A.P.s [Regimental Aid Posts] and dressing stations. Front line trenches were subjected to frequent barrages and the rear country [area] was also heavily shelled and bombed. The supports on this front were reached by a series of tracks, being trench mat walks, and rations had to be carried by mules up these tracks. Each track being subjected to continual shellfire, the transport and ration parties where fortunate in escaping with the loss of 3 men killed and 1 mule which fell off the duckboard track and owing to the depth of the mud had to be shot. Splendid work was done by the Battalion Stretcher bearers in tending and evacuating the wounded.”[xii]

From this hard experience the story-teller offers his first-hand experience as a Company Sergeant Major. The senior sergeant of a unit that normally comprised of 200 to 250 men and was below half-strength when it was assigned, as part of the 18th Battalion, to relieve these two battalions with one under-strength one.

The status of the trenches in the 18th Battalions assigned sector was: There were none. The men were forced to use shell-craters near their assigned area of control. The author noting some soldiers trying to improve the shell holes suggest they move against a wall that might have been part of the Hill Side Farm. The frustration of the soldiers is well summed up by the N.C.O. stating, “Oh, to hell with it.”

The six men enumerated in the story hardly reflects the actual carnage. The 18th Battalion suffered the following casualties:

Date Killed in Action/Died of Wounds
November 9, 1917 15
November 10, 1917 12
November 11, 1917 18
November 12, 1917 6
Total 51

 

Thus, in four days the Battalion suffered 86% of its dead. It shows the intensity of the combat the soldiers experience.

All the soldiers mentioned are “Originals” having enlisted with the Battalion upon its formation and would have represented a large loss to the Battalion as these men would be experienced non-commissioned soldiers but also a represented a large part of the Battalions culture and history.

The story also offers further evidence of the horrid conditions of the ground given the weather and high-water table. Countless stories relate to the conditions and how trying they were with stretcher-bearers taking hours to carry a wounded soldier from the front line to the R.A.P. and onto the casualty clearing stations.

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A photograph giving an idea of how the high water-table affected the men at Passchendaele. “Boche pill-box near Passchendaele out of action. Battle of Passchendaele. November, 1917.” MIKAN no. 3397881

The story also offers an example of one of the primary duties of a good non and commissioned officer exhibit: A concern for their men’s moral and well-being. They check on “…all the men that are left…: and suffer the attentions of a German observation plane who tries to bring to bear some artillery rounds on the C.S.M. and Lieutenant Smith. As luck would have it the German aviator is not successful allowing the author the opportunity to share this story fifty years after it happened.

Twenty-four men of ninety-six are relieved. Twenty-Five percent. Or 10 percent of an up to strength company. The nature of wastage and the continuation of the life of the Battalion made good by replacements is evident as the author assures us, “With several days rest and many new reinforcements, we were prepared for the next assignment.”

Discussion

This story reflects one of the darker times that the Battalion experienced. Like the action at St. Eloi there is almost a sadness and resignation reflected in the story. That combat conditions were so bad that helplessness and loss were the only feelings reflected by the recollection of the story. The author offers some humour to counter-point his and his men’s experience, but one can almost sense a frustration in the telling for the author could not do more than boost the morale of his men. Their fate was out of their control by the interminable, horrible conditions of their shelter and the German shelling.

This was not the worst month of casualties for the Battalion but the impression the soldiers had from their service at Passchendaele was so singular bad that, when related to others, the men telling the story are simply not believed.

One can imagine the C.S.M. counting off his men before their relief and return to the rear. They were able to move far back from the line for rest and would not have to go back into the line until November 29, 1917 when they relieved the 21st Battalion in the Maroeill Sector, just north of Arras, France, familiar territory for the Battalion near Vimy Ridge.

[i] The blog has come into the possession of an exciting and valuable series of documents care of Dan Moat, a member of the 18th Battalion Facebook Group. His Great Grand-Father, Lance-Corporal Charles Henry Rogers, reg. no. 123682 was an active member in the 18th Battalion Association and the Royal Canadian Legion. With is interest in the post-war Association a series of “MEMORIES” in the form of one-page stories relate many of the Battalion’s experiences from the “other ranks” soldiers’ point-of-view.

It appears that the documents were written in the early 1970s, a full 50-years after the end of The Great War and are a valuable social history of soldiers’ experiences as told in their own words about the events that happened a half-century ago to them, and now a full century for us.

[ii] The transcription and research of these “memories” is an attempt to connect and identify the people mentioned in the stories with some accuracy. This is, in no way, a definitive identification of the people in the stories but there is high confidence that these are the men mentioned in the “memories”. In some cases, the story may identify people, places, dates, times, and details inaccurately and, where possible, these details are noted. Given that the men relating these memories would be in there late 70s, at the minimum, their errors can be forgiven. The stories related stand on their own as a social history of the experiences of the men of the 18th Battalion.

[iii] The author is probably relating the incorrect date. The War Diary shows that the 18th Battalion, “During night of 8th/9th [of November] 18th Battalion took over front line between D.12.b.45.90 and D.6.b.65.35. relieving portions of the 22nd Canadian Bn. and 25th Canadian Bn.” The 22nd and 15th Battalion was a member of the 5th Brigade, 2nd Division, not the 4th Division.

[iv] Arnold Lewis Oudout (Military Medal), reg. no. 53149 was killed November 9, 1917 by an enemy shrapnel to the head at Hill Side Farm [Hillside Farm].

[v] This soldier is unknown.

[vi] William Henry Braisby, reg. no. 53204. He was instantly killed by an enemy shell that landed near him on November 9, 1917.

[vii] John Henry Brindley, reg. no. 53087. He was “Killed in Action,” on November 11, 1917.

[viii] Peter Janson, reg. no. 53128. His circumstances of death simply state “Killed in Action,” November 9, 1917.

[ix] Frank Bryant, reg. no. 53205. He was “Killed in Action,” on November 9, 1917.

[x] This officer is unknown.

[xi] Later Captain Charles Denton Smith (Military Cross).

[xii] 18th Battalion War Diary entry. November 9 to 12, 1917.

Signallers

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