“…a fine job for the beginner.”: Corporal Chatten Writes

Black and White Queens Square

Half-way up the side is the name of C.W. Chatten. War Memorial, Queens Square, Cambridge (Galt), Ontario. Photo by author.

Corporal Clement William Chatten was all of  21-years-old when he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force at Galt, Ontario on October 27, 1914. Though he enlisted as a private soldier, on May 2, 1915, barely a month after his unit, the 18th Battalion, arrived overseas, he was promoted corporal. This letter was written in early October 1915, barely a month after the 18th had arrived in Belgium to take its place in the line near Mount Sorrel.

Card outlining Chatten’s serivce with a ntoation of a “Marion E. Ritchie of 16 Middleton Street, Galt, Ontario. Was this the person who wrote the biography and what relationship did she have with Chatten? Picture of house is the current residence at this address.

The letter gives a glimpse into the conditions the 18th, and its sister units of the 19th, 20th, and 21st Battalions of the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade, experienced during its formative exposure to the conditions at the front-line.

From the letter it appears that it was written on October 11, 1915, as the Battalion had been stationed in reserve at R.E. Farm and then moved to Vierstraat to occupy front and reserve trenches. It appears that Corporal Chatten was a member of either “C” or “D” company as they were assigned positions in the front-line and this would be consistent with his description, “We are just 40 yards from the enemy’s trenches, which isn’t far, I can tell you.” This date is also consistent with the letter being sent and arriving in time at Galt to be published on the 21st of October.

The letter gives brief glimpses at trench life relating how the weather seems to dominate everything about their condition, with its wet clothes and inconvenience. This was especially relevant for the soldiers in the Ypres sector as the water table was not very deep and the rain would only add to the misery of the troops as the manned their trenches. Often the “trenches” were not dug into the ground as the water table prevented that and were piles of sandbags fashioned into a parallel barrier in which the troops got some rudimentary form of protection from the rifle fire, rifle grenades, and artillery, such as the “Jack Johnsons” Chatten mentions in his letter.

There is a wonderful connection to Galt in the letter when he writes, “One night they gave us some rapid fire with a machine gun, which only lasted about an hour period at night you would think we were at a tattoo over at Dixon [Dickson] Park.” Harking back to the past, this former machinist remembers watching bands playing at the river side park of his adopted town.

BULLETS WERE NEAR

LETTER WRITTEN IN THE THRENCH WHILE LEAD PELLETS FLEW PAST OVERHEAD

[Mr. W.J. Enwin] has received the following letter form Corporal [C.W.] Chatten from somewhere in France:

“I received your welcome letter last night and was very pleased indeed to hear from you . A letter in the trenches is very acceptable. I can assure you. They bring our mail right up to the firing line to us and when one is away from home a letter sure is good to get. We have been in the trenches 3 days now and will likely be here days before we are relieved. We relieved the 19th Battalion, Canadians, so they will likely relieve us when our six days are up. It isn’t too bad here. The night we came in it rained to beat the band and made [lots] of mud and wet clothing for us. When once you get wet here you have to dry your clothes while they are on you as there is no artificial heat. The sun though came out for  a few hours yesterday which helped us greatly to get things dry again. It is not very pleasant to be wet here, as the nights are cold. However, these are things we have to put with, and we are getting along fine.

We are just 40 yards from the enemy’s trenches, which isn’t far, I can tell you. We are under fire continuously from where I am sitting now the bullets are going over less than a foot above my head. The only time we take a look over the top is at night. Just to let them know we are still here. One night they gave us some rapid fire with a machine gun, which only lasted about an hour period at night you would think we were at a tattoo over at Dixon [Dickson] Park. They shoot up all kinds of star shells. We use rockets too. When they are in the air it would be suicide to put your head over the parapet. These Jack johnsons and make a noise like an express train when they go over. The only thing I don’t like is the rifle grenades. They drop the trench from the top. It sure is exciting for us , always something to do. So we don’t get much sleep, but that is nothing. I won’t know how to behave when I get back to civilisation again.

Another nice job we have is the listening post. We crawl out of our trenches and go about halfway to the enemy’s trench, lie on our stomachs for an hour, hearing and seeing all you can, a fine job for the beginner. Hope all the folks I know in Galt are good health. Must go now as my spare time is up.”

Source: Galt Daily Reporter. October 21, 1915. Page 3.

The letter is a brief window to the world of a Canadian infantry man, new to war and its dangers. It gives one an idea of the dangerous environment Chatten found during his service at Ypres but there is some aspect of a young man’s bravado as he states, “Another nice job we have is the listening post. We crawl out of our trenches and go about halfway to the enemy’s trench, lie on our stomachs for an hour, hearing and seeing all you can, a fine job for the beginner.” Or, perhaps he is expressing irony as serving on a listening post would not be, “a fine job for the beginner.”

His rise in the Battalion was quick. Shortly after this letter was printed, he was appointed lance-sergeant (November 14, 1915) to replace a fellow Galtonian, Joseph Spooner, who was killed in action on that date. In April 1916 he appointed acting-sergeant to replace Ernest Emmerton, who was sent to hospital. His last promotion was confirmed on April 28, 1916 and he became a sergeant due to Emmerton being invalided to England and would not be returning to the 18th.

Sadly, he was killed in action on September 15, 1916 at Fler-Courcelette, the Somme, on the opening day of the Canadian involvement in that battle. He is memorialized at the Vimy Memorial and at Queens Square in downtown Cambridge (Galt).

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