Stuff of Legend: The Wounding of Private Dickson on Christmas Day 1915

Introduction

There is no doubt that Sergeant Fred Young was an ardent supporter and chronicler of the 18th Battalion. He was very active in the 18th Battalion Association after the war, serving on its executive and being designated as its “poet laureate”. But, perhaps his enthusiasm for his Battalion allowed him to exercise some “poetic license” when he shared his memories from the war and his service. He wrote a story[i] printed in The Border Cities Star, of Windsor, Ontario on December 22, 1934 that gives the reader wonderful insights into the events on December 25, 1915 at the front line as the Battalion occupied the line near Dickebusch [Dikkebus], Ypres, Belgium, but this letter also calls into question the veracity of the account he gives.

War Diaries: Some good. Some bad.

War diaries from this era of the Canadian Army are relatively “static” affairs. They are exclusively textual in nature and any maps, diagrams, or other descriptive information is available (sometimes) in the appendices of the war diary. Some war-diarists were diligent and descriptive in the happenings within a battalion, while some were down-right pointless, offering the least possible information possible to meet the minimum requirements of the keeping and maintenance of a war diary. The meat of the diary is the written record and sometimes it is very difficult to gain a perspective from the sanitized writing of a diary. In some cases, war diaries offer the historian real gems of insight[ii] into the feelings and expectations of the men serving, but, overall, a war diary is a day-by-day account of battalion movements, actions, personnel changes, and other details that give an overview of the activities of a military unit.

December 25 1915

War Diary covering December 25, 1915.

The 18th Battalion War Diary varied in its detail and enthusiasm to portray the Battalion’s war experience. Sometimes, such as at the Somme in Fall 1916 the War Diary is a mute testament to the carnage the Battalion suffered, giving only the most rudimentary information because, perhaps, the bloodshed of war was often too raw to share. Given the lack of typographic and spelling errors it may be that these war diaries were compiled and written after the month to which they were about to summarize the activities of a battalion with only pertinent information. This summarization served also as a form of self-censorship, as these records would be preserved for future reference and are now part of the public domain.

December 1915: The 18th Battalion at War

The December 1915 War Diary of the 18th Battalion maintains a consistent, albeit disappointing, brevity in detail that tells the most basic information about the Battalion and its activities for the month of December, and specifically on December 25, 1915, the subject of Sergeant Young’s letter to the newspaper.

The Battalion had been active on the Continent since mid-September and December marked its third month of service. It had been blooded with men both wounded and killed and some soldiers are noted for “being in a bad way” after an incident or action, alluding to the effects of PTSD, or in the more common vernacular of that time – shell shock.

December was a relatively quiet month for the 18th. The cost to the battalion was seven men, two of which died from a shell striking them as they talked on a road on December 29, 1915 and the other soldiers, save one, being killed in action. Private Rucker sustained wounds to his head and face some time prior to his death on December 12, 1915.

img-125

Contemporary map showing the sector in which the 18ith Battalion served. Dickebusch is in the upper left corner.

As Christmas Day 1915 approached (this is where details in the war diary would be valuable) there may have been an active campaign to discourage the behaviour experienced during the “Christmas Truce” of 1914 where the adage of “live and let live” was applied to such effect that German and Allied troops were to meet and fraternize in “no man’s land” during that day. The War Diary makes no mention of a policy entailing increased aggression towards the enemy but on that day the War Diary records:

“Battn as yesterday – Everything very quiet tonight and all day. Very little firing but no liberties where taken by either side.”[iii]

The War Diary relates in one line the events of the day.

Or did it?

Enter Sergeant Young’s Letter

The letter is full of vivid detail about Christmas Eve night and Christmas day. In contrast, the War Diary is remiss in detail, indicating only some minor personnel movements and five other ranks being admitted to hospital. Sergeant Young’s account, on the other hand, is profuse with details. His account reflects that heavy German shelling prevented the relief of “A” and “C” Companies with “B” and “D” Companies. Yet no record of this relief is recorded in the War Diary until December 26, 1915. It does not indicate that the relief was attempted. “A” and “C” Companies had taken their front-line positions on December 19, 1915 and had been in that position for a total of four days until it was relieved by “B” and “D” Companies. “B” and “D” Companies then were in the front lines for three days of the seven-day tour. It is possible that there was shelling that prevented such a relief but no mention of the shelling or an attempted relief is made in the War Diary.

The 20th Battalion was in the line as well and it war diary indicates some shelling and rifle fire in the morning with a decline in enemy activity as the Christmas came closer.

Young relates that on Christmas Day there is a “sudden cessation of cannonading” creating an “uncanny silence.” This gives him an opportunity to review the men in the line and give out medical supplies for the prevention of trench feet.

It is at this point he encounters Private Charles H. Dickson, reg. no. 53098. He is a 23-year-old Scot from Edinburgh who joined the Battalion in London, Ontario on October 23, 1914. He was one of the first men to enlist in London. They may have known each other from their enlistment with the Battalion, as they enlisted in London, Ontario and were only separated by their enlistment dates by three days. As the initial cadre of the 18th Battalion it is very likely they were aware of each other and it appears that a familiarity, if not a friendship, was created.

The story continues:

‘A battalion stretcher bearer [Young] is making his rounds of the trenches issuing medical supplies to the men for the prevention of “trench feet.” He enters bay number seven. To his utter astonishment he finds the occupants seated astride the top of the parapet waving their arms and shouting friendly greetings to the Germans on the opposite parapets. [emphasis added by author]

In language more forcible than polite, he denounces their foolhardiness. But his tirade is met with good-humored banter.

“Are you afraid that you’ll have a little extra wurr-rrk?” inquires Private “Scottie” Dickson from his perch on the parapet.

Still irate, the stretcher bearer asserts that he could carry Scottie out in his haversack, if necessary.

“Aw, be a good sport,” laughs Scottie, “Come on up, and take a good look around.”

Using a vocabulary familiar to soldiers, the stretcher bearer declines the invitation and announces that he would trust those German snipers as far as he could throw a bully by the horns.

“If it wasn’t for the rain squalls,” continues Scottie, “we could see clear through to Berlin. We shall……”

But he got no further. Treacherous German snipers have opened “rapid fire” on the unsuspecting Canadians and Scottie Dickson is one of the first to receive a bullet in the shoulder. With a cry of pain he falls from the top of the parapet into the arms of this stretcher bearer pals.’

Though the veracity of this account is yet to be confirmed, it illustrates a behaviour that occurred in the front lines. Though, to the now seasoned veterans of over two months in the trenches, to risk one’s life by exposing oneself on top of a trench seems unrealistic and foolish. Perhaps the advent of the Christian holiday season and a wish that the sentiments expressed during the prior Christmas “truce” in 1914 would be repeated made some soldiers ill-cautious to the potential threat of death or wounding.  It was Christmas after all. The War Diary states for that day that, “Everything very quiet tonight and all day. Very little firing but no liberties where taken by either side.” The firing the Diary refers to could well be that involving Private Dickson. The 18th Battalion War Diary usually did not make note of men wounded or killed during service unless it was a significant event so, sadly, the Diary is not much value regarding this event since it indicates that “everything” was “quiet”.

What we do know is Private Dickson was wounded on that date.

His service record confirms his wounding[iv] on this date but not the exact circumstances of the wounding. A medical report of Private Dickson’s condition shows that upon his wounding he eventually was sent to Manor House, Folkestone where he arrived on January 9, 1916 and an operation was carried out to remove a foreign body from his wounding. A radiograph (x-ray) showed a bullet under the shoulder blade near the 3rd and 4th rib and an attempt to remove it was made but the bullet was under the suprapinatus muscle and was not removed. After 40 days at this facility he recovered at Monks Horton for 23 days and was discharged to other duties in England on March 9, 1916.

Aftermath of Wounding

The wound Private Dickson appears to effectively end his active front-line service or a determination was made to utilize his talents in a different branch of the C.E.F. He is assigned to the Canadian Engineer Training Detachment (C.E.T.D.) on April 23, 1916 and serves in this capacity until a transfer to the Canadian Engineer Reinforcement Depot at Seaford. He obtains the rank of acting-corporal and it appears that he does not obtain the rank of sergeant. His discharge documents reflect his permanent grade of private. He is repatriated to Canada and is demobilized at London, Ontario on February 7, 1919.

As related in the story, Private Dickson is carrying a “souvenir” of his encounter with German gunfire on December 25, 1915. A bullet is lodged under the muscle of his shoulder and eventually it is removed surgically at the Christie Street Hospital in Toronto, Ontario. It is interesting to note that the medical records upon his demobilization indicate that there was “no disability due to service” but the bullet must have become problematic as time passed as it was removed 15 years later. It is not clear why the bullet was not removed at the time of wounding though an attempt to remove it was made.

The Story

Sergeant Young’s story has several aspects that can be corroborated. We can confirm the date and the type of wound Private Dickson suffered and the service records of Private Dickson give us the outcome of the gunshot he suffered. We know that Sergeant Young served with the 18th Battalion from his attestation papers and from a variety of secondary sources.[v]

But the actual circumstances of Private Dickson’s wounding, are, yet, a mystery. The “story” Sergeant Young relates has aspects that accentuate the action and activities at the front for the 18th Battalion. The War Diary of the 18th, 19th, 20th, 21st Battalions and the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade do no reflect some of the details that Sergeant Young shares. Young relates, “Arriving at La Brassiere, the forward dressing station, the dead are placed in the morgue and the wounded handed over to the care of Dr. George Hale, the battalion medical officer.” On this date, the Commonwealth War Grave Commission records nine deaths. Of these, six are buried in Canada or the United Kingdom and the other three men are serving in units not associated with the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade. To which dead is he referring to? The 18th Battalion War diary does not even record the wounding of Private Dickson on the 25th, so it is not much help to us. Given the War Diary relates, “Battn as yesterday – Everything very quiet tonight and all day. Very little firing but no liberties where taken by either side.”[vi] the activity Sergeant Young portrays appears inconsistent with the official record.

But that does not make for as good as a story.

Though we cannot ascribe the true nature of the events of that day and how accurately Sergeant Young relates them the “story” does give us an event that most likely happened. That one soldier of the 18th Battalion was wounded on Christmas Day is incontestable. We cannot, however, determine if he did sit on that parapet at Dickenbush but he was exposed to fire at one point during that day so that a German bullet hit his shoulder, wounding him.

Perhaps after 15 years the events experienced were expanded upon and some details added for effect.

Regardless, Sergeant Young’s letter helps one to experience a singular and, if true, unusual event in 18th Battalion history. Perhaps with time this “story” will be confirmed. I hope it will be.

It is a good story. It is an even better legend.

 

[i] The news story will be shown in full at the end of this article.

[ii] The 21st Battalion War Diary is of note in this regard. It is a rich representation of the activities of this sister unit of the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade (19th, 18th, 20th, and 21st Battalions C.E.F.).

[iii] Source: December 1915 War Diary. 18th Battalion. Transcribed by the author.

[iv] Service record of Private Charles H. Dickson, reg. no. 53098 accessed via LAC.

[v] As of the date of this post Sergeant Young’s service records have not been digitized. We do have his booklet of poetry and numerous letters authored by him as well as news articles indicating his service with the 18th Battalion and the 18th Battalion Association that existed after the First World War.

[vi] Source: December 1915 War Diary. 18th Battalion. Transcribed by the author.

Letter Transcription

Got Bullet As His Gift

“Scotty” and Stretcher Bearer engaged in Debate

The ‘Negative’ Won

Christmas in the Trenches 19 Year Ago is Recalled

Here is the story of Christmas in the trenches on Saturday, December 25, 1915, when a “Christmas party” with the enemy was no party. Sergt. Young, well known war veteran of the 18th Battalion is the stretcher bearer mentioned.

By Sergt. Fred Young

LONDON, Ont., Dec. 22. – In the dark hour which precedes the dawn, the men of “A” and “C” company of the “Fighting 18th” battalion are “standing to” in “M” and “N” trenches of the Ypres sector.

THE BIRDS SING CAROL

THE LONG night vigil which had begun on Christmas Eve has been filled with the din of warfare as enemy guns from Voormeceeles to Messines rain shells and showers of shrapnel over the British lines, completely disrupting the schedule for the men of “B” and “D” company to enter the trenches and “take cover” under the cover of darkness.

British guns, from their commanding position of Kimmel Hill, have taken up the challenge and their screaming shells, falling in the enemy’s lines have enforced a silence so strangely in contrast to the artillery duel that everything around seems to be thrown out of balance. In the eastern sky the heralds of dawn are silently announcing the arrival of…Christmas Day. Birds by the hundreds are twittering in the shell-torn hedgerows as they greet the oncoming dawn.

Daylight succeeds dawn. The men in the trenches relax. In case of sudden attack they are able to distinguish friend from foe. But they know that the coming daylight will force them to remain in the trenches for Christmas Day. Incessant rain has filled Poppy Lane communication trench, and to attempt to reach the reserve lines by the “overland” trail in daylight would be mass suicide.

WAIT FOR A CHANCE

Officer world passed down the line to refrain from firing unless attacked. The sudden cessation of cannonading all along the battlefront has created an uncanny silence. Rain squalls sweep over the parapet. Through the drifting clouds the sun is waging a losing fight.

The enemy barrage of the previous night prevented the stretcher bearer[s] from evacuating the previous day’s casualties from the trenches, and in sheltered corners the dead and wounded are lying until friendly darkness has again cast its mantle over the battlefield.

A battalion stretcher bearer is making his rounds of the trenches issuing medical supplies to the men for the prevention of “trench feet.” He enters bay number seven. To his utter astonishment he finds the occupants seated astride the top of the parapet waving their arms and shouting friendly greetings to the Germans on the opposite parapets.

In language more forcible than polite, he denounces their foolhardiness. But his tirade is met with good-humored banter.

“Are you afraid that you’ll have a little extra wurr-rrk?” inquires Private “Scottie” Dickson from his perch on the parapet.

Still irate, the stretcher bearer asserts that he could carry Scottie out in his haversack, if necessary.

“Aw, be a good sport,” laughs Scottie, “Come on up, and take a good look around.”

Using a vocabulary familiar to soldiers, the stretcher bearer declines the invitation and announces that he would trust those German snipers as far as he could throw a bully by the horns.

“If it wasn’t for the rain squalls,” continues Scottie, “we could see clear through to Berlin. We shall……”

But he got no further. Treacherous German snipers have opened “rapid fire” on the unsuspecting Canadians and Scottie Dickson is one of the first to receive a bullet in the shoulder. With a cry of pain he falls from the top of the parapet into the arms of this stretcher bearer pals.

Frantic calls for stretcher bearers all down the trenches are mingling with the groans of the wounded and dying.

Christmas Day…What a travesty… Are the falling rain-drops, the tear-drops from the angels in heaven who are weeping over such a tragedy on earth?

“Christmas nights… Through fields of unharvested chicory, studded with shell holes filled to the brim with water, stretcher bearers, in single file are evacuating the dead and wounded from the trenches. Ahead of them, a vanguard of two men is cautiously feeling their way through the darkness to give warning to the stretcher bearers against water-filled shell holes.

A sudden splash. One of the vanguard has fallen in a shell hole.

“Man alive,” he gasps, as he emerges from the unexpected bath, “it’s a good thing that I found that shell hole before stretcher bearers walked into it with a wounded man, for the shock of the cold water could have killed him.

AN INVISIBLE SOUVENIR

Arriving at La Brassiere, the forward dressing station, the dead are placed in the morgue and the wounded handed over to the care of Dr. George Hale, the battalion medical officer.

Racked with pain in his wounded shoulder, Private Dickson voluntarily admits his “fool-hardiness” as he passes through the doctor’s hands and is carried to on of the waiting ambulances.

Military doctors at Bailleul and Etaples examine his wound and diagnose it as a “Blighty.” Under efficient nursing care at Manor House, Folkestone, the wound rapidly heals. A decision is reached to allow Scottie’s Christmas gift to remain as an “invisible” souvenir, and Scottie returns to duty with the Canadian Engineers.

In the spring of 1919 he returns to London, Ontario, as a full-fledged sergeant, fully convinces by “inside” information that German snipers are not to be trusted.

February, 1930 finds Scottie lying prone on an operating table in Christie Street Hospital, Toronto. For 15 years the bullet has caused constant irritation of the shoulder muscles, and paralysis of the neck muscles is threatened. A successful operation is performed, and Scottie is presented with a visible souvenir, which eventually becomes a watch chain fob.

THE THEME SONG

Christmas Day, 1934, is almost here. And Sergeant Scottie Dickson (53098) and his stretcher-bearer pall (53180), both London residents, have arranged a rendezvous around the domestic hearth. There will be a theme song. Listen…

“Then here’s my hand my trusty friend
Angle me hand o’ thine.
We’ll take the cup and drink it up
For the sake o’ auld lang syne.”

Old soldiers never die…..

Source: The Border Cities Star. December 22, 1934. Page 10.

 

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