The First World War
An RCR Officer's Diary 1914-1918

FEBRUARY 1916

The strength of the battalion at this time [1 Feb 1916] was 35 officers and 960 other ranks.

During this tour an American newspaper reporter spent a night in the trenches collecting "Local Colour", colour was given gratis by the men judging from the fantastic account that ultimately appeared in the American papers.

Hon Captain D.B. Pidgeon, 2nd Canadian Ammunition Column, was appointed Paymaster in the place of Lieut Rousseau [who] returned to England.

On the conclusion of the first tour in trenches by 7th Cdn Infty Bde the following letters were received:-

Dear Gen Mercer

It gives me a good deal of pleasure to inform you that during the stay of the 7th Brigade in 1st Brigade Area they behaved at all times most gallantly besides they did a great deal of necessary and useful work.

At the time they took over the line the trenches, owing to very bad weather, were not in the best shape but your fellows have made a great difference.

I went over the line last Saturday morning and was delighted with what I saw had been done and so expressed myself to Brigadier General Macdonell. I asked him to convey my thanks to all ranks of his Brigade, I know he will, but I want you to know as well how I appreciated them.

They were active in their patrolling, did a lot of wiring, greatly improved the front trenches, worked hard on the strong points and were aggressive always. While I deeply regret their casualties, I do not think they were excessive.

Brigadier General Hughes has written to me in warm terms of praise of what has been accomplished by Macdonell's Brigade.

Ever your faithfully,
A.W. Currie

Maj Gen M.S. Mercer, C.B.
Cmdg 3rd Canadian Division.

G.O.C.
1st Candian Infty Bde.

As Commanding Officer of the relieving unit following upon the tour of duty in the 1st line of The Royal Canadian Regiment, I wish to record some appreciation of their splendid work.

The good state of repair (six words?) spare their untiring vigilance, while the general cleanliness of all points occupied indicate a high regard for the enforcement of rules of sanitation.

M.A. Colquhoun, Lt Col
Cmdg 4th Cdn Infty Battn

7th Cdn Infty Bde

I have much pleasure in forwarding copy of a letter received from 1st Battn expressing its appreciation of the work done by tour Battalions in the trenches.

Other battalions of this Brigade also appreciate your work while in this area.

Jan 30th 1916

1st Cdn Infty Bde

1st Cdn Infty Battn would like to convey to The Royal Canadian Regiment and 49th Cdn Battn its appreciation of the excellent work done in the trenches C3, C4, D1 and D2 during the tour of 7th Can Infty Bde from Jan 7th to Jan 29th.

All ranks feel much encouraged by the excellent condition of the trenches.

F.A. Creighton, Major
Cmdg 1st Cdn Infty Battn.

During the rest in billets, football matches were played and sports held in the Brigade and on 4th [Feb] the whole Brigade went for a route march. The usual training, bombing practice and musketry was carried during the rest.

Zeppelin Airships were reported over the rest billets, hostile Aircraft dropped some bombs but no damage was done.

On 6th [Feb] the brigade began the relief of 6th Cdn Infty Bde at Kemmel and the battalion relieved 28th Cdn Bn at Kemmel Huts as Brigade Reserve.

The next day the battalion relieved the 27th Cdn Battn in the front line trenches with Headquarters at Lindehock. P.P.C.L.I. were on the left and a battalion of 1st Canadian Division on the right.

Lt Bate was invalided to England.

During this tour an American newspaper reporter spent a night in the trenches collecting "Local Colour", colour was given gratis by the men judging from the fantastic account that ultimately appeared in the American papers.

Having been relieved by 42nd Cdn Bn, the battalion went into Divisional Reserve at Locre on 11th [Feb], the machine guns remaining in position in front of Kemmel Hill.

The weather became very cold About this time snow being on the ground for abut a month. The effect of this snow was instantaneous on both sides. Positions, tracks to hitherto invisible showed up black in the snow and areas previously safe were swept by machine guns and shell fire.

A big action took place just north of our position in the vicinity of Ypres. The enemy having attacked and captured part of our line during the progress of a relief. A few days later these trenches were recaptured but being untenable were evacuated and merged into no man's land.

The battalion relieved 42nd Cdn Bn in the front line 15th [Feb].

Four days later, while inspecting a machine gun emplacement in no man's land in the early morning, Brig Gen Macdonell, C.M.G., D.S.O., Cmdg the Brigade, was severely wounded. Lt Col Macdonell immediately assumed command of the Brigade and Major Eaton took over the battalion.

On 17th [Feb] the Chief of the French General Staff, General Castelnau, visited Kemmel Hill.

On 19th [Feb] the battalion went into Brigade Reserve on relief by 42nd Bn.

Two officers and twenty-two other ranks proceeded on leave on 20th [Feb]. This was the first leave given since the arrival of the battalion in France. Eight days leave, later increased to 14 days, was given whenever possible. This depended on the requirements for battle purposes, transportation, or the presence of submarines in the Channel. Each battalion was allotted so many "leaves" for officers and men. For officers, turn for leave would come round from anything from nine to as often as three months, for the men from a year to four months. One form of punishment was to put an officer (in rare cases only) or man to the bottom of the roll for leave, or to miss so many places on the roll.

Motor busses and special trains conveyed men on their journey down to the base where a special leave boat took them across the Channel and a special train up to London.

All were given free transportation to any part of the United Kingdom. The two routes for leave were Boulogne, Folkestone and Victoris, and Le Havre, Southampton and Waterloo.

Some men convicted of court martial for being absent from their battalions when warned for the trenches and then reporting some hours later some way in rear of the battle line were sentenced to be shot at this time.

The enemy became very active in the air, their aeroplanes passing over our billets both by day and night bombing and scouting. The weather was excellent at the time for these operations.

Capt Buck, C.A.M.C., relieved Capt Hutton, C.A.M.C., as medical officer to the battalion on 21st [Feb].

On 23rd [Feb] the battalion relieved 42nd Cdn Bn in the front line.

Large tins of biscuits were received by the battalion as a present from the City of Toronto.

Lieut Campbell bombing officer was seriously wounded by a shell on 25th [Feb]. A badge consisting of an embroidered grenade in Kharki worsted with a red flame was ordered to be worn by all battalion bombers one inch below the shoulder. This was afterwards changed to an all red grenade and flame.

Rat reports were called for about now. There was a regular plague of rats both brown and black, and as many diseases are caused by rats or at least spread by rats it was thought desirable to ascertain whether the number was becoming a serious menace and that certain specimens should be examined for disease. These rats became extremely bold and often showed fight and were extremely objectionable and often dangerous to sleeping men in dugouts and elsewhere.

While occupying the Kimmel Line a flock of geese passed over in the early morning. On approaching they were flying in "column of route" but as they passed over they came within range of the Germans who immediately commenced a fusillade at them. The geese at once hesitated over no man's land and formed "mass", by this time the battalion and the units right and left had seen them and they also opened fire. The geese finally split up into "Artillery formation" in groups of four and five and although hundreds of men, both German and English, had been "potting" at them not one of then were hit and they disappeared in the direction of Wytchaete. The effect of the fusillade at a distance was that of an attack or raid being carried out without artillery.

On 26th [Feb] owing to movement of the Corps the Brigade front was greatly increased temporarily by the addition of units of 6th Cdn Infty Bde, the 29th and 31st Cdn Battns, together with the Borden Motor Machine Gun Battery and 6th Canadian Machine Gun Coy being attached.

The tin hats (shrapnel helmets) which had just been issued proved themselves very effective. The usual prejudice was encountered and some men considered it bad form to wear them but the issue of orders making the wearing compulsory soon stopped this. At first they were only "trench stores" and were handed over from unit to unit on relief but as they became more plentiful an issue was made to each officer and man. The helmet was an almost round, basin-shaped, with a 2" brim. The lining inside which was fastened only by a stud at the top, was made of leatherette with rubber buffers and a chin strap. Later the sharp edge of the brim was covered with a metal rim, and the leatherette lining changed for one of leather and netting.

Small steel forks were found in the forage coming from America at this time and a warning was issued to all units to carefully examine the forage. Horses had been dying in large numbers and on examination was credited to a perforated stomach. This unnecessary cruelty was credited to German agents in America. Later certain beans in the grain issued were found to be of a poisonous nature causing animal casualties, this also came from the States and was put down as due to the action of German agents there.

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