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The First World War: Excerpts from the diary of Woodman Leonard

London Free Press

Lt.-Col. Woodman Leonard. (QMI Agency file photo)

Lt.-Col. Woodman Leonard. (QMI Agency file photo)

Dead soldiers and horses littered the fields and roads. Shells bust left and right, night and day.

The fear of more gas attacks settled in the trenches.

No wonder Canadian soldiers were a little “jumpy,” as artillery officer-diarist Leonard wrote during the Second Battle of Ypres in the spring of 1915.

The month-long engagement in the First World War cemented Canada’s reputation for producing tenacious fighters, but at a high cost — almost 6,000 dead or wounded soldiers.

Diary excerpts from the Great War

April 25, 1915 (Ypres, Belgium)

Got a lot of contradictory orders . . . Attack and counter attack going on all the time. One of our horses was wounded passing through Ypres . . . Bodies of men and horses and smashed vehicles all over this road . . . Suspected spy arrested. It seems the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade has lost about 60% all ranks. They made a most gallant defence of their position and probably saved the whole situation for the British . . . Streams of wounded men coming down both roads all day . . .


Bleak mortar-cratered ground, barbed wire and charred remnants of trees mark the ‘Kitchener’s Wood’ battleground near St. Julien, Belgium after the fighting involving Canadians in April 1915.

April 26, 1915

Aeroplane gun arrived on road near us, but German planes still very daring . . . had my boots off for the first time in five days . . . Very heavy German shell fire all day and much damage done. Indian troops attacked on left of wood and white troops on the left. The former were stopped at first by gas, but went through later. The latter got through fairly well. I saw a good deal of the advance which was made under a hail of shells and rifle fire. Fields strewn with dead and wounded . . .

April 27, 1915

. . . Opened battery on St. Julien at 12.30 p.m. and had lifted 500 shells by 1:15, but do not know to what success. Our guns are getting into bad shape with them wearing out rapidly with so much firing

. . . Every one worn out after five days of incessant firing, but no one complaint or whine among my officers and men . . . (Another man) says he heard I was killed . . .

April 28, 1915

Awakened at 2 a.m. by terrific disturbance and got out of building as shell had hit it and burst in upper storey. The room where the men were in was pierced with a dozen shrapnel bullets and also our room . . . How we all escaped I do not know . . . Our rifle fire brought down a German plane near us. Went up to old wagon line . . . to get my diary out of stationary box, but it was gone. Papers everywhere and box rifled apparently by our troops . . . This indifference makes me rather sore.


Gas masks made their debut in the war not just for Canadian soldiers, like the one above, but also for horses who suffered from the toxic fumes. (Library and Archives Canada)i>

April 29, 1915

Up at 6 a.m. . . . Censored a lot of Northumberland Fusiliers’ letters. Most of the poor fellows who wrote them are now probably dead. Had a call from the new Col. of Howitzer guns. He calls it hereabouts “Bloody Hill” and he is not far wrong. The Germans bombarded steadily all day and dropped some large ones very close to my guns . . .

April 30, 1915

The French made an attack in morning and we, supported by heavy fire, bring down all battery positions. This was the most violent bombardment yet . . . Dead horses on the road beginning to smell very badly. The French evidently made some progress, as a great many wounded come down . . . I met a lot of Spahes (Algerian cavalry) on the road . . . very grateful to a French private who was carrying two pails of issue wine and offered me a drink. I never tasted anything so cool and delicious . . .

May 1, 1915

We supported heavily in the p.m. an infantry attack . . . The Lahore Division (Indian) advanced with little loss . . . The French were to co-operate, failed to take their trenches and our General withdrew his men . . . Was in our billet when a . . . howitzer shell burst in building, killing (one man) and wounding six others . . . Had a hard job getting (another man) out of the wreck, as he was pinned by down a beam . . . a horrible experience and now like a nightmare. (The second man) died a little later.

randy.richmond@sunmedia.ca

 


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