In The Trenches – Grandpa’s Story

Submitted by Michelle Lambert in the 18+ category

1914. I’m fed up with the farm and doin’ my own cookin’. No steady girlfriend.

An ol’ man tells me about the war; can’t last very long, he says.

Canadian government’s recruitin’. Talk to my good friend and we go to Saskatoon to enlist. We think, be back by spring.

They turn us down. “More applications than we need but you’re French-Canadians.

Go to Montreal. They’re forming a French-Canadian Battalion.”

We hitch back home just south of Biggar, Sask. My friend sells some wheat and I sell some cattle. Enough for train tickets and some beer. Fare’s $50.50. Load a suitcase full of groceries.

Head for the Grand Trunk Railway to Winnipeg, then travel through the States to Chicago, then back up to the Dominion of Canada, then up to Quebec.

In Montreal we join the 22nd French-Canadian Battalion. It’s November 2nd, 1914.

We get taken to St. Jean D’Iberville, not too far from Montreal, where we train all winter. Pay’s a dollar ‘n ten cents a day, with food, laundry and clothing included.

Big building in St. Jean with three boards to sleep on, ’bout six inches off the floor.

Overhear fellows who’ve served jail time: army or jail. What a choice.

Soon realize I have to take orders. Trainin’s hard and food is bad.

Not the government’s fault. Heard the Major’s pocketing food money.

Bread soup. Go to the little town at night. Whiskey: 5 cents a glass, beans or macaroni, same price.

Off to Amherst, Nova Scotia in the spring of ’15. Then to Halifax where we guard prisoners. Come May 20th , about 20,000 of us board a ship for England. More training.

Sure is a pretty coast line with the flowers. I’ve never seen so many nice flowers.

Since I speak English, I take courses for Lineman. Then comes the call for active service. September 1915. We embark a boat at Dover, and ship out to France.

Standing room only, for five hours: protection against the submarines, we’re told.

I wish I was back on the homestead.

Disembark at the major port of Calais, in northern France, where we end up in the trenches. We fight as part of the 5th Infantry Brigade, 2nd Canadian Division in France.

Bad weather. Have to sleep in the mud.

My best friend’s on top of a trench, putting down sand bags. German sniper gets him. My best friend’s killed today.

He was ten years older than I; like a father to me. He watched over me…

I wish I was back on the homestead.

July 1916 – Sent to Belgium near Ypres in the front line. Bloody attacks and so many rats. Heavy Canadian casualties. Early September in Ypres and St. Aloi, detailed for a bayonet charge. They tell us to take a crater between our trench and the German one. Lose several men.

So much rain. Trench feet. Have to bury four men under me one night.

One of the guys finds a deep well. We fill it up with dead soldiers. I wish I was back on the homestead.

Receive very few letters in the Army. Others get parcels with letters.

My family’s very poor and my sisters have big families. I never get a parcel.

Transfer to Belgium in the spring. Care for Officer Major G.P. Vanier’s horse. Battle’s fierce. British launch a massive offensive. Come with fifty big tanks going over trenches, through barbed wire.

Tons of planes over our heads and so much heavy artillery. My hearing’s getting bad. Bombs dropping down on us. Heavy losses. A third of British troops killed.

Corpses all over, wounded asking for help. Regiments of 900 to 1000, with only 100 left. Soldiers shell-shocked, while others praying out loud. This is hell.

We capture the village of Coursellette in northern France. It’s September 15th, 1916. Four of us get into a shell hole. Then a shell explodes behind us.

Two officers killed. A private soldier’s wounded then makes the mistake of getting up. He’s shot right away. Can’t even begin to count the number of wounded.

Now I wake up in a sweat, thinkin’ ’bout the Battle of Coursellette,

burying soldiers, and my friend dyin’ beside me.. I wish I was back on the homestead.

I have 61 wounds, shrapnel all over my body, mostly my left side.

Left shoulder and left arm badly injured. Use my rifle as a cane.

Fall into a hole ’til an ol’ Scot messenger gets me out.

Blood chills my body. First I’m hot, then I’m cold. Am I dying, am I not?

Now I wake up in a sweat, thinkin’ ’bout the Battle of Coursellette,

burying soldiers, and my friend dyin’ beside me..I wish I was back on the homestead.

They load every couple of men to two-wheeled carts pushed by four soldiers.

We’re bandaged up and given a cigarette. Hoist us upon trucks; strap us on so we can’t fall off. Rough ride as the driver has to dodge shell holes. All we do is curse.

I wish I was back on the homestead.

Finally get us to a field hospital in a tent from north of the Somme river between Arras and Albert. Snow! The Somme offensive grinds to a halt on 18 November 1916 after five long months of fighting.

Some sent to a hospital in France. Next day, I’m on a stretcher in a boat bound for England. Brought to London to a hospital in Richmond Park. British Medical Corps there.

I’m the only non-Brit. They call me colonial.

My wounds take a long time healing; and my arm is stiff. Nurse gives me massages.

Doc tells me to exercise my arm, but I don’t do it ’cause I don’t wanna go back to the trenches. Now I wake up in a sweat, thinkin’ ’bout the Battle of Coursellette, burying soldiers, and my friend dyin’ beside me..I wish I was back on the homestead.

Send me to a convalescent home. Nice place with good food and lots of entertainment. After a few weeks, send me to Sandgate near Folkstone, in the village of Kent.

There I get light duty – serving coffee. At least I’m not in the trenches.

Back of the building faces the sea, so I go and stretch out on the sand.

Meet a nice girl with red hair. I think she’d marry me, but I can’t see how she’d fit in on a homestead back home. Canadian public back home raising a fuss ’bout the Army keeping so many cripples in England, and having to send too much food over here. Meanwhile German subs still very active.

Another medical. In the line-up, many sent back to France.

Others get six months light duty, then back to the trenches with “Best o’ Luck, Mate.”

My turn: “Canada for you.” I’m so excited! I can hardly wait to get back on the homestead! A few days later, I’m on a boat going back to Canada. We’re only 15 on this one.

Several days on the coast of Ireland. Have to wait till it’s safe to travel.

Land in Quebec City. There I pretend I can’t speak French and have lots of fun with the waitresses. Because I got wounded in the left shoulder, ‘course it doesn’t show. On the train a lady remarks “The good boys don’t come back, but the bad ones do”. I tell her “I’m one of the bad ones, been there since 1914.” I’ve been gone a long long time.

A bunch of us get sent to Moose Jaw, Sask. We’re treated like heroes!

It’s good to be back on Canadian soil, but it’s still hard to sleep.

Now I wake up in a sweat, thinkin’ ’bout the Battle of Coursellette,

burying soldiers, and my friend dyin’ beside me..I wish I was back on the homestead.

Tell us we can take some courses. I’m in a hurry to get the uniform off and see my homestead again. Meet the main doctor and tell him about my farm, that I wish I was back on the homestead.

Finally the good doc speaks: “You’re welcome to stay until spring. But if you want a discharge, you’ll get it soon.” He arranges for a medical and recommends a small government pension.

Finally back home on my homestead. My little pension takes a very long time in getting to me from Ottawa. My shoulder’s hurtin’ and I can’t stop thinkin’..Finally fall asleep.. I wake up in a sweat, thinkin’ ’bout the Battle of Coursellette, burying soldiers, and my friend dying beside me.

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