P: The Unforgettable Experience: Buried by a Shell

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

Every man who served in the Front Line for any length of time, whether he be an officer or in the ranks, had some unforgetable [sic] experience he would often recall during his lifetime. Some men had several and some of the experiences are much worse than others.

My unforgetable [sic] experience was tiled in with Harold Ball[iii] and it all started bear the close of a nice summer day. Just before midnight, two or three of us were sitting in the Bay, the other men standing guard. About an hour later, the enemy stated to shell and when the shelling was intensified, the two Companies of the Eighteenth Battalion, who were in the line, were ordered to stand to, which we did for the rest of the night.

Just before daybreak one of our Platoon Officers came into the Bay and, during a casual conversation, stated that he believed an attack was imminent. We were well prepared for it, as we had extra bombs in every Bay and one of the Battalion machine guns was mounted in the Bay next to ours. I believe the other machine guns were further along the line. Every man knew exactly what he had to do if the red flares went off. It did go off just before 7.00 a.m. and in a moment, we were all on the parapet firing as rapidly as possible.[iv] I took a look at the German line which was about sixty yards away and all I could see was men in grey uniforms climbing over the top.

We were all tense as this would be our first close contact with the enemy. Within a matter of seconds, however, there was a withering machine gun fire from the rear, and the enemy had no chance. Those who were not hit were forced back into their trenches. I don’t believe any of them advances more than ten or fifteen yards. We were all ordered to continue to stand to as the attack would likely be repeated. It was, shortly after 9.00 a.m. The red flare again went off and, well, let me quote from the Official Canadian War Record of that day,

“The enemy attacked the Eighteenth Battalion on two occasions but were driven off. We had eight killed and twenty seven wounded. Several of our men were buried during the terrific bombardment.”

Shortly after noon, Harold and I were standing together talking quietly when there was a loud explosion behind us and we both felt ourselves going up in the air. When I started to come to and found I couldn’t move my arms or legs or get the dirt out of my mouth, I knew we were buried. It was an awesome feeling. Some times later I could hear them digging and in a short time we were both pulled from the slimy hole more dead than alive. Among the diggers were Rickert[v], Scarde[vi], Bayliss[vii], Tooke[viii], and possibly others. I know that some of them are still with us. What a nice bunch they were. What happened to Harold and I was not unique as the same thing has happened to many other Canadian Soldiers. We were just fortunate that our friends were close enough to help us or we might still be in that crater. It was quite an experience.

The Story

The author relates the events leading up to a German attack that occurred the morning of June 6, 1916 in the Ypres sector near the town of Dikkebus, Flanders, just west of the town of Ypres. The premise is based on an unforgettable event to which he relates the experiences leading to him being buried by a shell with Corporal Ball. The story offers insights into the experiences of the soldiers of the 18th Battalion and some of the tactics that were practiced at the time.

Discussion

Regrettably the background information on this attack is minimal. The war diaries of the 18th, 19th, 20th, 21st Battalions, and the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade do not relate much detail of this attack. The attack was not successful and the casualties from this action were not excessive making one wonder as to why more effort from a diarist standpoint would not be exercised in relating more detail about the attack.

Obviously, from the author’s view this was their “first contact” with the enemy and his story relates it with some detail. But, overall, the event is treated as part of a diary entry and not an event that required more detail:

“Position as yesterday. Heavy evening bombardment of BEAN and POLLOCK and reserve trenches from 1 to 5 pm. Small party of enemy penetrated right junction of BEAN and POLLOCK consequent upon the destruction of the M.G. emplacement and Garrison at BEAN JUNCTION. Enemy was enabled to do so by means of an old communication trench but were driven out by remainder of Garrison at the BEAN under Cpl. ROUTLEY. They evidently hoped to find trench unoccupied. Garrison of the LOOP were called upon to “Stand To” by the sentry Pte. MONTGOMERY and rapid fire was opened as the BOSCHES retired. A wounded Hun was secured in front of POLLOCK.   10 o.r.s Killed in Action. 30 o.r.s wounded. 24 o.r.s arrived as reinforcements”[ix]

The part that deals with the action related in this “memory” appears to be: “Garrison of the LOOP were called upon to “Stand To” by the sentry Pte. MONTGOMERY and rapid fire was opened as the BOSCHES retired.”

There are some interesting details regarding how the men acted when on duty in the trenches. Some men stand guard while others are waiting the call to action, if required. The use and deployment of machine guns is touched on and indicates that the Battalion was still using the Colt Machine Guns. There were four to a battalion and the story mentions that two where deployed in the line. The other two are not accounted for but may have been referred to later in the story as being the source of “…withering machine gun fire from the rear…” The importance of grenades (bombs) is hi-lighted by there mention as being deployed and it is interesting to note in Corporal Ball’s service record that his specialist role was that of a “bomber”.

The role of flares and their importance to imparting information is touched on in this “memory”. Flares were used by both sides of the conflict to signal attacks, call for shell fire (S.O.S.) and to illuminate the battlefield during the night. Flares, in this case, would signal the start of the attack and the sentries would be on the lookout for such flare signals. The interpretation of these signals was difficult as the pattern and colour of the flare signal would be varied by the enemy and there was no certainty that when a flare or set of flares went off if that portended an attack. This “memory” indicates that red flares indicated the start of an attack. This is an intersting observation because any element of surprise would have been lost to the Germans and one would think that military logic about tactics would value the element of surprise.

colt-browning-m1895-machine-gun_3

Colt Browing Machine Gun in trench emplacement. Source: https://www.militaryfactory.com/smallarms/detail.asp?smallarms_id=785

At this stage of the development of the tactics of the C.E.F. the machine gun had not met its zenith of use. The C.E.F. and B.E.F. were beginning to adapt and determine the roles of the machine gun. Eventually the role of the Colt would be superseded using the Lewis Gun at the battalion level and the use of the Vickers Gun in dedicated units as a support weapon[x].

The attacks are now over, and the author and Corporal Ball resume their normal duties on the front-line when a shell explodes and buries them. One can almost feel the panic the author must have felt being buried alive. He and Corporal Ball are extricated in a timely manner by several friends in their platoon.

Though we do not know the fate of the author regarding his injuries, or lack there of, we can examine Corporal Ball’s service record to see what a soldier that suffered this type of experience would face.

Corporal Ball was a freshly minted corporal when he was injured. An “original” member of the Battalion having enlisted in Galt, Ontario in October 1914, he had been promoted to corporal on April 4, 1916 just two-months prior to this incident. He had a “clean” military record with no notations about any discrepancies of military behaviour and had served without injury, illness, or wounds from his enlistment until the date of his burial by the German shell.

Upon being wounded he was transferred to No. 1 Canadian General Hospital, Etaples, France. It is unusual that his service record does not show him moving up the chain of facilities used for administering care to the wounded. Normally a soldier goes to the Regimental Aid Post, then to a Field Ambulance and then to a Casualty Clearing Station. These movement were not recorded in Ball’s case but is likely that this process transpired as he did not arrive at No. 1 Canadian General Hospital until June 8, 1916. This institution applied, “…an angular back splint with foot piece.”

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He had suffered a fracture of the left thigh and a sprained ankle. After a short stay at Etaples he was transferred to Queen’s Canadian Military Hospital, Beachboro, Shornecliffe. The medical report indicates that the treatment in France led to bone fragments being out of place and that, as a result, a shortening of his leg by a quarter-of-an-inch had occurred even though an extension splint had been applied under anesthetic. His treatment at this facility lasted from June 12, 1916 to August 29, 1916, at total of 78-days.

Though the treatment was successful, and he was released to “Permanent Base Duty” and he served in England in various capacities before being shipped back to Canada and being demobilized as “Medically Unfit” on February 28, 1919.[xi]

All the soldiers named in the story survived the war and several of these are mentioned in other stories. Their participation in this event helped the author and Corporal Ball to survive.

Corporal Ball lived until the age of “69” if you use his birth date on his attestation papers. Ironically, he may have lied and, according to his grave stone, was born in 1897, not 1893 as he attested in 1914 on enlistment. That would have made him 17-years old. The authorities noted this on one of the forms on his service record and this may have been part of the reason he was not returned to active service.

 

[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] Ball, Harold:  Service no. 53885.

[iv] June 6, 1916.

[v] Rickard, Walter:  Service no. 53961.

[vi] Scard, Edward John:  Service no. 602228.

[vii] Bayliss, Benjamin:  Service no. 53886 (Military Medal).

[viii] Tooke, Samuel Harold Leslie:  Service no. 54052.

[ix] 18th Battalion War Diary entry for June 6, 1916.

[x] For a brief explanation of the roll of machine guns in the C.E.F. see The Colt-Browning M1895/14 Machine Gun Used By Canadians From 1899-1916.

[xi] This discharge papers are stamped with the date February 29, 1919. This is not possible as 1919 was not a leap-year.

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