A Soldiers Diary on Remembrance Day
Saturday November 11th 2006, 9:58 pm

This morning, just before 11:00 a.m., we were driving in our car and I was amazed by the number of people going to Remembrance Day ceremonies. There were young and old and everyone was wearing a poppy. Due to the newspaper reports of the war casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq, we are very aware of what our armed forces are going through and Remembrance Day is our way of showing all veterans how we feel. When I was young in the 1960’s, the only people who observed the two minute silence on Remembrance Day were the veterans themselves. None of my friends paid much attention to it, but in our house it was different. We were expected to observe the silence and listen to the stories about World War I and II on the radio for most of the day. My grandfather fought in the First World War and would tell us stories about the hardships he indured in the trenches where he almost died.

My grandfather enlisted in the Royal Canadian Regiment on June 20, 1905 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I know this because he kept three diaries of the war while he was fighting in Europe from 1915 to 1919. Diaries were issued by the army to every soldier and were called “A Soldier’s Diary.” The first page of the book had the notation “should this book be found, kindly forward it to the undersigned. To you these writings may not mean much, to others they mean everything that’s dear”. On the second page it stated “This book contains My Personal Experiences and Impressions of the Great European War which are not for publication unless authorized by the soldier who owns this diary.” My grandfather was a stretcher bearer at the time he started writing in the first diary in August, 1915.

The excerps from my grandfather’s diary dated from August 12 to December 31, 1915, describe sailing on the S.S. Caledonia from Bermuda to Halifax, and from Halifax to England. He explains that the “grub was rotten” and there was little of it, “dinner would not feed a kitten”, he said. He saw porpoises in the ocean from the deck and they fired guns at them. He didn’t explain why, but it may have been target practice. He was a musician and played in the army band while on the ship. He said they passed quite a few American boats on the way to England.

On September 5 they “picked up escorts - two torpedo destroyers. In danger, German sub looking for us”, he wrote. On September 6 they landed in Plymouth, England and they spent time there doing “field training, stretcher drills, and shooting on the firing ranges”. It rained most days and his tent leaked and he “near froze”. Everyday he complains about the food, the cold and the rain and that he misses Canada. He wrote that if he ever got home, he would never leave again. He waits for mail from home everyday. There is a lot of dissatisfaction with the troops. On October 19 he wrote that he “wishes this wretched war finished, would please everyone, friend and foe. Don’t see any sense killing one another. Strange world this”. On October 25 he saw his brother, Fred’s, name on the casuality list that morning. He wrote “God rest his soul, poor fellow. We never knew one another well but brotherly love is everything. Good thing he is not married. Never thought he would be a soldier. But Mizpah with us all”. A few days later he wrote “Poor Fred, in loving memory of my dear brother, killed somewhere in France. Blessed are they that die in the Lord”. “Poor Fred got a bullet right through his side and it came out the other side”. On October 29 he wrote “The 40th Regiment came in this morning with about 3,000 more Canadian troops. I suppose we will be with the rest soon. Lots never to return. Hope it’s finished by Christmas anyway, Mizpah”.

On November 2 they sailed for Bolonge, France, then drove in a cattle truck and spent the night in a barn. The next few days they had to march in the rain with “mud to their neck” and slept in another barn. They were somewhere in France but didn’t know where. They heard the guns firing at our planes and the bullets whizzing by their heads while in the trenches. At night they slept in tin huts and were very cold and wet. The artillery firing kept them awake at night.

On November 19 they start marching again for hours and are sleeping in tents. He heard that the Kaiser was very ill. “If he is, it might finish sooner.” The trenches are so full of water that they are caving in. On November 22 he is an “orderly today, looking after the sick and dressing wounds. Got to be near dead to go to hospital”. Everyone has lice and are sick due to the cold. On November 25 they are “digging trenches in the place where the Germans shell every day. The houses are badly battered. They say Greece has come in but we don’t know”. On November 29 he says that many soldiers are getting killed. On December 1 he “went out on a working party today in the pouring rain and no grub. We had nothing til we came back. The Germans certainly gave us some shells but our boys sent over a lot. They certainly make some noise. Hell let loose”. On December 6 he says they have been wearing the same clothes for five weeks and haven’t had a bath. They have moved out of Belgium and back to France and are staying in an old barn. Every day he talks about the lice bitting so much he can’t sleep.

My grandfather wrote diary entries every day in 1916 but nothing for 1917 or 1918. In 1919 he wrote entries every day until he returned home to Halifax in March, 1919. Tomorrow I will read the 1916 and 1919 diaries and will summarize them on this weblog.

Lest We Forget,