Fritz mush have got his eyes on us…

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The letter below is a wonderful example of the process Canadian Expeditionary Force soldiers experienced during the Great War when they were transferred from their training bases in England to active duty with a combat unit on the Continent.

Private Frank Allan Westlake had enlisted with the 161st Huron Battalion on January 10, 1916 and was assigned the regimental number 654227.  His brother, Thomas Henry enlisted twenty-one days later. They both arrived in England on November 11, 1916 and, as this letter relates, began their journey to the front on February 28, 1918.

The letter describes in some detail the process a Canadian soldier would experience when sent as a replacement to an active unit. In this case, both brothers and others from the 161st Battalion were being sent to the 18th Battalion. He describes the short trip across The Channel, each turn of the Channel ferry’s propeller taking him and his comrades closer to the front.

In all, it took Private Westlake of Wroxeter, Ontario fourteen days to transition from the relative safety of England to the 18th Battalion, which was in reserve at a location named Le Pendu in the war diary. But first, they had to endure another “reinforcement camp” where they “…had to drill very hard there and [we were] fed up on it and long to join our battalion.” An interesting comment given that the opportunity for death or wounding at this camp was virtually non-existent. It appears that the C.E.F. was hardening up the soldiers moving to the front or, perhaps, Westlake and his chums suffered from some martinet non-commissioned officers during their short stay at this camp.

They do get a break and “Bob” and Westlake walk to Lillers, misidentified as Tillers in the letter, to partake in the services of the ubiquitous Y.M.C.A. facility there.

From there Private Westlake and his group join the Battalion and on March 21, 1918 Operation Michael, the last serious German Offensive of the war began. The units of the Canadian Corp were put on alert, requiring the Battalion to “stand to” when there was a perceived increase in threat, but no serious action occurred for the Battalion.

The beginning of April 1918 was another matter. The Battalion was stationed in the line in hits old hunting grounds at Vimy near the Village of Neuville-Saint-Vaast and the Germans seemed to have shells to spare as the activity of the German artillery is noted on several of the War Diary’s entries at the beginning of April.

The day that Private F.A. Westlake was wounded the 18th Battalion War Diary recorded:

“Position as shown yesterday. There was no shelters in any of the trenches for the men, so funk holes were dug and improved as opportunities occurred.

In answer to S.O.S. on our left flank we opened up a heavy barrage on Enemy front and support lines, which drew retaliation from the enemy. We suffered several casualties. Lieut. G.N. TUCKER being wounded. 3 ors. killed in action. 30 wounded.

Owing to erratic shelling by the enemy it was impossible to keep telegraphic communication with each company but this communication was kept up with Brigade H.Q. with the exception of short intervals. Communication to companies was done by Runners working at night but some dangerous trips were made during daylight, part of the way being overland in direct view of the enemy, and over ground continually swept by M.G. fire.”

Private Westlake was, undoubtedly, one of the thirty of those “several casualties” wounded by the shelling reported in this entry.

What follows in his letter is a succinct record of the level and speed of care to his G.S.W. to his right thigh. Within days he is in England and after a series of treatments lasting until September 11, 1918 he is release from care and leaves for Canada in and is demobilized in London, Ontario on January 20, 1919.



Frank Westlake Writes of His Experiences

Norwich Hospital
April 21st, 1918

Dear Sister:-

I know it is my turn to write you, so will start from the time we left England as we could not write much over there. We left Folkestone Harbor, February 28th [1918] at 9.30 a.m., the channel was rather rough going over and some of the fellows had to give up their breakfast on the fishies but I managed to hang on to mine. We landed at Bolougne [sic] at 11.30 a.m., got off there and expected to have a good stiff walk to Etaples but instead of that we were met by a whole lot of busses and we all piled in, although we had only standing room but it was a lot better than walking. We arrived at Etaples Camp at 3.30 p.m., went into the tents then had supper and turned in for the night.

The next day at 8.30 a.m., we had “kit inspection” 9.30 “medical inspection” 2.30 p.m. issued with 120 rounds of ammunition. The next morning at 7.30 they have us 24 hours rations and we left Etaples at 8.30 a.m. arrived at a town called Pernes at 3.30 p.m., we rode to Pernes in trains, little box cars and we were jammed in there like cattle, hardly room to move. We saw a lot of Hun prisoners on our way working with our soldiers guarding them.

From Pernes we marched to another reinforcement camp, that was Sunday, March 3rd, we stayed there until the 14th and we had to drill very hard there and was fed up on it and longed to join our battalion. On Sunday Bob and I went to a town called Tillers [Lillers], it is a nice place and I going to send you some views I got there. I remember the day well it was very hot,, as hot as I found it since I left Canada. It was a walk of about three miles, we had super in a Y.M.C.A. and about five we left for Camp about an hour’s walk.

On the 12th the Sergt. Major called out all the Signallers, Harry, Bob and I just fell out and just go started to work, when we were warned that we had to join the Batt., of course we were happy as could be. We left there March 14th at 3 p.m., packed in the little box cars again and arrived at Mt. St. Elio at 10.45 p.m., tired and cramped up from our rough ride on the train we had two hours walk to where the 18th battalion was camped “out on rest.” We were supposed to have a month’s rest there but did not get it. We only had parades in the forenoon’s there so we weren’t worked hard. We found the boys in the platoon Bob and I joined all good hearty fellows.

On March 24th we were ordered to move and left at 9.30 a.m. We were taken up in Motor Lorries, arrived at the new camp at 1.30 p.m. that night and had to go and dig trenches as we were getting closer to the front line. We had the next day off and you believe me were ready for a good sleep. On the 26th we had the hardest march I think I’ve had since I joined the army. We left at nine at night and had no idea where we where going which made it all the harder. But at last we came to the end of our tramp, my shoulders ached awfully from the pack. It was 4 a.m. the next morning when we came to the little broken up village where we were turned into some old barns and some had to sleep outside. I wasn’t long getting my blanket out and George Savage and I rolled in together and were soon off to sleep. We slept most of the next day, then on the night of the 28th we had another good stiff walk. We left our billets at 9.30 p.m., and arrived at another town all shelled to pieces at 2.30 p.m. The next day we couldn’t get any rations up so Bob, Geo. Savage and I, like many others went out too [sic] see if there was any eatables in this old brick yard, for such it was, we found some Bully beef, lots of potatoes and some jam and as we had a good fire in our hut we roasted the potatoes with some of the beef and had a good old meal finishing up with some of the jam.

We were close to the support line now and at 9.30 p.m., we marched to the supports and there I spent by first night in the trenches in France, that was March 29th. Fritz mush have got his eyes on us as he started shelling us very hard.

The next day March 31st Easter Sunday, was a fine day, the sun shone down on us all day, I was in the Bombing Section. We had some tin off the roofs of huts over our trench to shelter us from rain.

We were going up to the front line at 10 p.m., April 1st, but just about that time old Fritz opened up and gave us a good shelling so we went out and “stood to” for half an hour and then went back to our trench cover and I went to sleep and the next thing I remember I heard a terrible explosion and one of the fellows sprang up from where he was sitting and landed on top of me groaning in pain so I knew he had been hit and when I got unto my feet I felt blood running down my leg and it felt as though I had got a severe burn. I asked Bob if he were hurt, but he was alright so I told him I had got mine, so he said we’ll get out of here but we stayed a few minutes longer and along came another shell then, we did move, five of us were wounded out of eight. One of them came with me to Coy. H.Q’s, and we lay there till five in the morning, and then walked to the 4th Field Ambulance a distance of two miles where we got our wounds dressed, and then were sent by ambulance to the C.C.S., from there to the base [hospital] where they operated on me at 9.30 a.m. April 3rd.

I left the base for England next day at 10.30 a.m., arrived here at 8.a.m. on April 5th, where I am still and getting of fine.

Well Annie what do you think of my experience in France? The may not be a very interesting letter, but will give you some idea of what I came through, nothing to some poor chaps. I am getting on fine and expect to be up in a few days.

Well I will say good-bye for this time and write soon.

Your loving brother,

No. 654227
Pte. Frank A. Westlake
18th Bn., Canadians,
Norfolk & Norwich Hospital
Norfolk, England
“King Edwards Ward”

Source: The Wingham Advance. June 6, 1918. Page 1.

The letter is interesting for its overall length and detail. Many letters posted in the newspaper did not cover the breadth of a soldier’s military experience. In ten paragraphs Private Westlake has given a description of service that has humanizing details such as he dislike for the second training camp he went to prior to being taken on strength with the 18th Battalion. He further gives a good account of the logistics of treatment for an Imperial soldier on the Western Front at that time. From being transported to a field ambulance unit where he would have been assessed and stabilized, hence to a casualty clearing station (C.C.S.), to a base hospital in France (22 General Hospital, Etaples, France), and then on to England.

In all, Private Westlake served with the 18th Battalion from March 15 to April 2, 1918. His first action was his last. He survived the war, as did his brother. His letter allows us to see how this short experienced impacted his life and the small details such as his ability to handle rough seas compared to his mates and his disdain for the treatment at the camp brings him to life.

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