As a civilian, the whole idea of experiencing combat is foreign to their experience. Watching intense war scenes in movies like Steven Speilberg’s Saving Private Ryan, or the gritty realism of Sam Mendes’ 1917 can capture aspect of combat, but not the visceral emotion and feeling an individual may have during engagements. War documentaries, such as Peter Jackson’s They Shall No Grow Old can set a timbre and nudges an empathetic audience toward the measure of that time. Or the more intense Restrepo (Tim Hetherington / Sebastian Junger) almost puts the audience in the boots of these soldiers, manning a constantly attacked outpost in the Korengal Valley. Even raw combat news video cannot put a civilian audience in the mind set of a combatant. We are too far disconnected from such violence, especially those people living in the West.
A similar distancing is the content of medal citations. They range from succinct bare descriptions of an action to some, such as some Victoria Cross citations, of giving a good account of the actions of the recipient.[i] By their nature they are official communications about the nature of the action for the medal recipient and offer a sanitized review of the circumstances around the action.
In researching the men of the 18th Battalion there are 77[ii] currently identified recipients of the Military Medal. Very few had citations attached to when the London Gazette referenced. Thus, the circumstances surrounding the action(s) that led to the decoration being awarded can be unknown and unknowable. There are cases when, like after the brutal experience at the Somme and the Battle of Flers-Courcelette, that men, in this case almost all stretcher-bearers, where cited shortly after the action and actually listed in the 18th Battalion War Diary.[iii]
The citations for the Military Medals appear to be issued with a descriptive citation to the soldier and a copy forwarded to the family. They were not posted in the London Gazette due to time and space requirements. These citations give an account of the action, though often lacking a date, which can be used in conjunction with other sources to determine the action to which the citation refers. All to often this connection cannot be made, especially if the date of the citation is separated by time. Many Military Medals were issued after the conflict was over, and without the citations, connecting them, especially short citations such as “For bravery in the field,” give no context to the event that led to the award.
Time-to-time we get lucky.
A recent blog post transcribing the after-action report for the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade (comprised of the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st Battalions) for the military operation for August 25 to 27, 1918, gives some idea of the intensity of action the Battalion would experience. The pace of operations for the Canadian Corps was quickening and as each month progressed to the end of the war the pace of operations did not slack off.
It is in this context an examination of one soldier’s Military Medal will be done.
In early September 1918, the 18th Battalion was training for the next stage of war. Just prior, Private John Ernest Jolie, reg. no. 3131396, had arrived on August 28, 1918. He was a fresh conscript who had reported for duty in January 1918, and had now arrived the day after the action at the Sensée River where the casualties for that day with the Battalion amounted to 10 men killed in actions with 7 times wounded. He was one of 52 men arriving as replacements and one wonders what they thought as they are not making up the numbers lost that very day.
Private Jolie would not have long to prove his mettle in combat.
Having barely 2-weeks to get oriented, it perhaps was good that he arrived when he did. The Battalion was involved in training August 29, September 2, 3, and 4th. Private Jolie was able to get more experience on the following items:
This was probably not enough, even adding the 5-days of training and familiarization he may have had at the Canadian Corp Reinforcement Camp.
By September 12, 1918, 77 more reinforcements arrived, and the Battalion moved into the front line, just in time for the next action.
September 13, 1918, was dull and chilly. But at 5:00 am on part of the 18ths Battalion frontage things where hot. The War Diary relates:
“At 5.00 a.m. this morning the enemy attempted a stealth raid against one of our posts this morning at W.9.b.40.30. This was repulsed. Pte. Jolie of “A” Coy. shot and killed the foremost German and wounded another breaking up the party. Body of the dead German was recovered. He was an N.C.O. from the 63rd I.R. [Infantry Regiment] 12th Div. and apparently leader of the raiding party. None of our men were missing.”
Of note is this description was entered in the 4th Canadian infantry Brigade’s War Diary. It, however, does not mention Private Jolie and does give the time of the raid as 5:05 am.
At 22, with barely 2-weeks service under his belt, he beat off a German raid. The War Diary mention of a private soldier is unique, as the diarists of the 18th were not too generous in relating the events of other ranks in the war diary. This was an exception, and this action was probably what earned this soldier his Military Medal. The Gazette entry is no use as it does not expand upon the action and simply lists hundreds of Canadian recipients of this award.
There is a first-hand account available, recorded by Private Jolie’s son,
“John E. Jolie entered the army in early 1918, and was soon sent overseas directly to the front lines somewhere in France. He was already very familiar with guns and was an excellent shot.
One night he and two others were on outpost duty ahead of the lines, beside a raised railroad track, with a marsh directly behind them. A large and heavily armed German combat patrol approached the other side of the tracks. When he saw them he started shooting as fast as he could while the other two retreated quickly to the trenches. The Germans, not realizing that they were facing only one man, dug in and began to lob mortars at his position, which landed in the marsh water behind him and did not explode.
While he was shooting straight ahead, he saw, out of the corner of his eye, a German standing on the tracks off to his left, aiming a gun at him. Without moving his body, he swung his rifle to the left, and without sighting, shot. He saw the German fall, and resumed shooting towards the rest of the patrol.
Reinforcements from his platoon arrived and the Germans withdrew. Investigation the next day indicated that the patrol was large enough that it could have done serious damage to the Canadian positions had they not been stopped. The German he shot had been killed instantly – shot in the head.
J.E. Jolie Jr.”
The 18th Battalion War offers us another unique and rare insight. We know almost exactly where the action occurred. A Disposition Report dated that day gives the position of all the units and men of the Battalion. “A” Company had an outpost at map Sheet 51 b SE at W.9.c. 2 platoons occupied positions adjacent to the train tracks and marsh just to the east of the Canal Du Nord, Cambrai was a tantalizing 12 kilometers away. The two platoons comprised of 22 and 19 men respectively. 1st Platoon had 1 officer, 1 rifleman, 9 grenadiers, 11 rifle grenadiers, and 1 stretcher-bearer. 2nd Platoon had 1 officer, 10 riflemen, 8 grenadiers, and one stretcher-bearer. It cannot be determined to which platoon Private Jolie was assigned to but the most likely disposition was for him to be adjacent to where the Arras-Cambrai Road and the railway tracks meet. There is no records of an outpost detachment but from a disposition report and map for the same area dated September 21, 1918, the front line was made up of individual dugouts (posts) in the front-line and the rear-line was organized into trenches.
As illustrated by the War Diary entry and the eyewitness account, the action from the first-person perspective of Private Jolie is more intense. It captures a sense of what happened. Its short, precise description captures some of the moment and certainly does his actions justice, to which the lack of medal citation does not. His action was noted in the War Diary, a rare notation for a common soldier doing uncommon valour.
It appears that the Company Commander, Captain Rayward, moved some of his platoon forward of the dugouts and manned it with three men[vi]. The action ensued approximately 1-hour and 15-minutes before sunrise (estimated to be 6:18 am local time) and two of the men left their post, leaving Private Jolie alone. It is possible in the confusion of the action that both men were going to get help and that they both left without realizing they had abandoned Private Jolie to his fate. He obviously thinks they deserted him. This did not deter him as he stood is ground and with rapid fire halted the advance of the patrol. The “mortars” reported was probably hand grenades, as the Germans possessed no man-portable mortars and the likelihood of this type of artillery being called up at such close quarters and so quickly is unlikely. The contact seems to be too close for rifle grenades as they were able to recover the body of the dead German shortly after the action. It is certainly possible that during the action the Germans forgot to ignite their grenades and it is possible that that if any exploded, they may not have been noticed by Private Jolie as their explosions might have been muffled by the damp and wet marsh.
Having the original citation would, perhaps, fill in some details. But the discovery of the actual account of the action by Private Jolie helps complete the story. With the additional aids of the appendices of the 18th Battalion helps to establish the place of the action with accuracy. It also allows us to see what Private Jolie looked like when he was in service.
Private Jolie survived the war and lived until the age of 67-68 and is buried at Assumption Cemetery, Windsor, Ontario. His memory lives on as we now know what happened that morning along the Arras-Cambrai Road over 100-year ago. He was cool in action and his superior marksmanship and mental attitude saved the lives of his comrades and he was recognized for it by his officers.
[i] For example Captain Gordon Flowerdew, VC, “For most conspicuous bravery and dash when in command of a squadron detailed for special services of a very important nature. On reaching his first objective, Lieutenant Flowerdew saw two lines of enemy, each about sixty strong, with machine guns in the centre and flanks; one line being about two hundred yards behind the other. Realizing the critical nature of the operation and how much depended on it, Lieut. Flowerdew ordered a troop under Lieut. Harvey, VC, to dismount and carry out a special movement, while he led the remaining three troops to the charge. The squadron (less one troop) passed over both lines, killing many of the enemy with the sword; and wheeling about galloping on them again. Although the squadron had then lost about 70 per cent of its members, killed and wounded from rifle and machine gun fire directed on it from the front and both flanks, the enemy broke and retired. The survivors of the squadron then established themselves in a position where they were joined, after much hand-to-hand fighting, by Lieut. Harvey’s part. Lieut. Flowerdew was dangerously wounded through both thighs during the operation, but continued to cheer his men. There can be no doubt that this officer’s great valour was the prime factor in the capture of the position.”
[ii] Canadians have received 13,654 medals, including 848 first bars and 38 second bars.
[iii] The practice of the 18th Battalion was to note, almost exclusively, all awards earned by officers. In rare occasions, such as Lance-Sergeant Sifton’s Victoria Cross, or other ranks Distinguished Conduct Medal, be mentioned. Other units, such as the 21st Battalion took the effort to record most of their awards for all ranks.
[iv] This company reorganization was probably a result of lessons learned and the fact the BEF/CEF was expecting a more open style of warfare, including skills in street-fighting and house-clearing.
[v] Unknown term.
[vi] A subsequent disposition chart shows listening posts were only manned at night and that they comprised of 1 officer and 4 or 5 other ranks, or 5 other ranks. Chances are that only 2 men were on duty in the listening post for a 1 to 2 hour shift and then spelled off by another pair of men.