“The day is beautiful and everything is quiet as night.”

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“How I did it” An Australian infantryman telling his comrades of an exploit. The storyteller is caught in silhouette against the firelight which reflects the grinning faces of his friends in the dugouts at Ypres. © IWM (E(AUS) 1223)

Introduction

One of the challenges of understanding the service and experiences of the men of the 18th Battalion is that experience, removed in time and distance, is sanitized by the War Diaries. The 18th Battalion war diaries are often bereft of detail and often only deal with the bare minimum of the military events that are transpiring. Thus, the reader does not get a sense of the experience of the individual, or even that of the unit. This brevity does not make for compelling reading and the experiences of the soldiers, as part of a unit, are minimalized. Many entries have the word “ditto” to express that the Battalion was, for example, in reserve. Yet, during those days the normal daily duties of the Battalion would carry on. Men where drilled, disciplined, trained, and a whole myriad range of skills and abilities that a modern soldier of that era needed to function in the environment that they found in their sectors of the Western front.

In contrast, the men of the 18th Battalion wrote many letters home and they often fill in details that are lacking from the official record. Piecing together a narrative is difficult as it can be broken up in segments as each paragraph can deal with a different subject or person. Perhaps this form of writing was a soldier’s concern of the intervention of the official military censor; the brief spells available for writing letters, especially in the front-line; the size and availability of the writing paper; and, further contributing to this was the editing by the local newspaper for those letters published. Yet, the letters, such as the one to be related here, are an important source of information about the men that served in the 18th Battalion giving insight into their lives and attitudes.

The Letter

This letter is significant as it is written almost one month after the Battalion’s introduction to combat in the front-lines of the Ypres sector. The Battalion had been blooded with, ironically, my Grandfather’s wounding on the Battalion’s first trip to the front-line on the night of September 24, 1915. Sergeant Cruickshank knew my Grandfather well, as his daughters were acquaintances to my mother (his daughter) and as a further testament to their relations he was one of his pall-bearers at his funeral when my Grandfather died. My Grandfather’s wounding was just the start of the wounded, and soon to be, the dead. The Battalion lost it first soldiers to action with the loss of three soldiers at the end of the September. Two of the deaths were recorded with graphic detail. Captain Hallam died from being, “…shot through head + killed instantly while looking over broken parapet. [illegible] puncture! “ on September 29. The next day The M.O. entered the circumstances of Private Frew’s death during this “quiet day” as he was killed in action when, “At about 4 pm No. 53227 Pte W.W. [Frew] while filling sandbags in D support was shot by a stray bullet which ploughed through the base of the skull killing him instantly.”

It is in this context that we find the letter. As Cruickshank was a lance-sergeant, an appointed rank – sometimes temporary in nature, he may have been responsible for a squad or a platoon. If this was the case his time would be full during day addressing and attending to the many needs of his men and responding to and acting on orders from his superiors. He was able to write a letter during his free time and relates several aspects of his military service.

“We always like to hear all that goes on in the old burgh and eagerly look forward to the mails, as our friends always send us copies of The Reporter. So you can see, although far away we can still keep in step with the home town. I am back again in the trenches for another six days. I get a double dose of trench life each time the Battalion takes over as I belong to the bomb-throwers or “Suicide Club,” which is the name we get in France. We do 12 days out of the 18, while the companies only do 6 days in 18. However, I do not mind it so much. I feel just as safe up here as any place else. You soon get used to it, and as long as Fritz behaves himself it is all right. Our trenches here are in bad condition having bee poorly kept by previous regiments. However, the Royal Engineers are busy each day and things look more home like. When it comes to keeping trenches in good, clean healthy condition you have got to take your hat off to the Canadians, and I guess we can do our share of the fighting when the time comes along, eh!”

The first paragraph illuminates the service rotation of a battalion. At this time a brigade made up of four battalions would rotate two battalions in the front-line and two in the reserve line. Both positions were generally in range of enemy shellfire and the battalions in the front-line would be station adjacent to one anther, one taking the right side of the line and the other the left. Two companies of the battalion (approximately 150-200 soldiers) would occupy the front-line and the other two companies would hold the support (or “reserve”) trenches in the rear, thus being available and support the front-line in case of a trench raid or general attack.

Cruickshank’s comment about the rotation being “12 days out” compared to the other battalions doing only “6 days in 18.”, is a word trick. This rotation, that seems unduly onerous, is dependant on when you count the start of the rotation. If one counts the first rotation as being the one in the line, then there are 6 days at the front followed by 6 days out of the front and then 6 days at the front. If the rotations count is started when the battalion out of the line (i.e. brigade reserve) then the rotation is 6-days out, 6 days at the front and “finishing” with 6 days out. If he counted the rotation based on four rotation cycles the rotations would represent the same numbers of days in and out of the line. This type of “scheduling” trick seems to have been used by other soldiers to give the impression their unit was unduly saddled with more front-line duty than other units in their brigade.

He aptly names the bombing squad as the “Suicide Club”. At this time the CEF comprised a battalion of riflemen, bombers (using grenades), rifle-grenadiers, and other specialists. It was not until later in the war that the squad and company comprised of a blend of specialists. One probable reason for the name of this “club” was the rather crude and rudimentary technological nature of grenade technology at the time. Before the adoption of the Mills No. 5 grenade in quantity in 1916,

“…grenades had often proved as deadly to the thrower as to the intended target. The first grenade used when war broke out in 1914 was a cast-iron canister on an 18-inch stick which was dangerous to use because it often caught on the trench front when lobbed.”[i]

There were alternatives available and the CEF was so short of grenades that they adopted local alternatives in order to supplement their shortage of this weapon. Cruickshank also had the Battalion’s recent experience to draw on as on October 3, Private Aikenhead[ii] was, “…was hit in head with bully beef tin which someone was using to test a trench catapult.” according to the Medical Officer’s war diary. This use of a trench catapult was a stop-gap measure until more reliable tools became available, but until they did the soldiers used tins and a short length of burning fuse to initiate the weapon. Depending on the reliability, or lack there of, the name “Suicide Club” was an apt moniker for the men tasked with utilizing this imperfect weapon.

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Replica jam tin grenades.

His comment about the trench conditions is consistent with the experiences of the CEF in Ypres. The use of the Royal Engineers to remediate the challenges of the low water table tells how the need for special knowledge and skills were required to solve, or at least, mitigate the conditions in this sector. The weather, as recorded by the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade War Diary listed many of October’s days as “weather fine” but this would not be much comfort as winter advanced on the Canadian at Ypres.

Tilt with the Enemy

We had a lively tilt with the enemy a week ago and believe me while it lasted it was a hummer. The shells were flying as thick as flies. It was a whiz-bang chorus all night. Two came close to my dugout. The first ploughed through the sand bags on the roof and the other struck the parapet in front of my door. I immediately decided that it was not the place for me, so I beat it up the first line trenches beside the boys. It was just as bad there only I had company. We had five men killed and six, I think, wounded. However, none of the Galt boys were hurt much. The whole thing lasted about three and a half hours and that was enough, believe me. Things, however, have been rather quiet this trip until last night when Fritz sent over about twelve trench mortars. I was in my dugout where all the bombs are stored and was busy looking over them when the fun started. I was about 8 p.m. The first four or five were short-ranged but the rest came right over our parapets. Then, all of a sudden, out went my candles. Say, I waited about a second, expecting the place to go, but luckily enough, nothing doing. It must have exploded right over my dugout, as the whole place shook. However, we have to contend with those things and the main part of the war is to keep alive. The day is beautiful and everything is quiet as night.”

The next paragraph relates the Battalion under fire by German artillery. The reference to “whiz bang[s]” refers to a high-velocity shell that made a sound reminiscent of its name. It appears that Cruickshank feels that the Germans have the range and are concentrating their fire on the area where his dugout is so he is willing to expose himself to fire and leave his dugout to seek the company, and the relatively better protects (as the shells are not concentrating there) with the “boys” in the front-line. There may not have been any overhead cover and, as it turns out, “It was just as bad there…” This artillery action occurred on October 13 and the casualties included the Nelson brothers[iii] whose mother would receive the news of their death on the same day about the time of the composition of this letter. This was also the largest number of men killed in the Battalion in one day since their arrival on the Continent – more terrible days would come and more brothers would die, several on the same day.

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25 cm Minenwerfer in Waterford, Ontario. Displayed as monument in front of high school. Via Wikepedia.

Then, to add to his woes, the Germans start to shell the lines on October 21 with a large calibre mortar, possibly a 25 cm schwerer Minenwerfer, with its large explosive to propellant ratio this weapon could be very dangerous indeed. Exacerbating Cruickshank’s concern is his protective dugout is full of grenades!

He survives this incident and ends the letter with an ironic closing: “The day is beautiful and everything is quiet as night.” Rather upbeat given the past two paragraphs.

Conclusion

This letter, like that of Private Chatten, gives the reader some sense of time and space from an infantryman’s perspective. Cruickshank was a relatively old soldier of 31-years old, the average being 27, and in a position of responsibility. His letter speaks to the technological challenges of war at that time being that he is assigned to a weapon specialty that is associated with the act of suicide. Coupled with this is the fact that his service, by its nature, is dangerous and this is reflected in the deaths the Battalion have experienced to date, especially the five men killed on October 13. But, “…none of the Galt boys were hurt much.” A small comfort to the loved ones in Galt reading this article with relatives and husbands in active service at the front. Cruickshank relates events that are, remarkably to a modern audience, unremarkable. The events at the front has become his new norm and the soldiers of the CEF used many tools[iv] to mediate and adapt to this new environment. In many ways, the letter is representative of this new norm being rather “newsy” and topical and unpretentious. It is like he is writing to a friend (which he probably is) and telling of his day, unaware that from a person experience the home front with is security and safety would be appalled and that any day at the front would be anything but, ““…beautiful and everything is quiet as night.”

GDR November 9 1915 Page 7 Shells Dropped on His Dugout

Galt Daily Reporter. November 9, 1915. Page 7.

The Letter Transcription

SHELLS DROPPED ON HIS DUGOUT

SERGT. CRUICKSHANKS[i] OF GALT GIVEN INTIMATE ACQUAINTANCE WITH FRITZ.

A member of The Reporter staff is in receipt of a very interesting letter from Sergt. George Cruickshank, formerly of Galt, with the 18th Battalion, “somewhere in Belgium, in which he tells of some of his experiences as a member of the “Suicide Club” or bomb-throwers, and how he enjoys the life in the trenches.

Sergt. Cruickshank was quite a follower of all kinds of clean sport, with baseball as his favourite. He shows that although many miles away from the diamond he is still interested in the game, as he closes his letter by picking Boston to beat the Phillies in the world’s service. Boston did win the championship. The letter was dated October 22nd and reads as follows:

“We always like to hear all that goes on in the old burgh and eagerly look forward to the mails, as our friends always send us copies of The Reporter. So you can see, although far away we can still keep in step with the home town. I am back again in the trenches for another six days. I get a double dose of trench life each time the Battalion takes over as I belong to the bomb-throwers or “Suicide Club,” which is the name we get in France. We do 12 days out of the 18, while the companies only do 6 days in 18. However, I do not mind it so much. I feel just as safe up here as any place else. You soon get used to it, and as long as Fritz behaves himself it is all right. Our trenches here are in bad condition having bee poorly kept by previous regiments. However, the Royal Engineers are busy each day and things look more home like. When it comes to keeping trenches in good, clean healthy condition you have got to take your hat off to the Canadians, and I guess we can do our share of the fighting when the time comes along, eh!

Tilt with the Enemy

We had a lively tilt with the enemy a week ago and believe me while it lasted it was a hummer. The shells were flying as thick as flies. It was a whiz-bang chorus all night. Two came close to my dugout. The first ploughed through the sand bags on the roof and the other struck the parapet in front of my door. I immediately decided that it was not the place for me, so I beat it up the first line trenches beside the boys. It was just as bad there only I had company. We had five men killed and six, I think, wounded. However, none of the Galt boys were hurt much. The whole thing lasted about three and a half hours and that was enough, believe me. Things, however, have been rather quiet this trip until last night when Fritz sent over about twelve trench mortars. I was in my dugout where all the bombs are stored and was busy looking over them when the fun started. I was about 8 p.m. The first four or five were short-ranged but the rest came right over our parapets. Then, all of a sudden, out went my candles. Say, I waited about a second, expecting the place to go, but luckily enough, nothing doing. It must have exploded right over my dugout, as the whole place shook. However, we have to contend with those things and the main part of the war is to keep alive. The day is beautiful and everything is quiet as night.”

[i] Cruickshank, George Barker:  Service no. 54014.

[i] THE MILLS BOMB – THE GRENADE OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR | The Royal Montreal Regiment. (2019). Retrieved from http://www.royalmontrealregiment.com/the-mills-bomb-the-grenade-of-the-first-world-war/

[ii] Aikenhead, Harold Raymond: Service No. 54160.

[iii] Nelson, Thomas: Service no. 54356 and Nelson, William: Service no. 54340 where killed by the same shell. They are buried beside each other at Ridge Wood Military Cemetery.

[iv] See Tim Cook’s THE SECRET HISTORY OF SOLDIERS: HOW CANADIANS SURVIVED THE GREAT WAR for a thorough analysis of this.

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