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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)

In the dispatches and stories about the Western Front, it’s often lost that the battles took place among ordinary people living in villages and towns.

Glimpses of those lives surface in the diary of Lt. Col. Woodman Leonard during the weeks he travelled from battleground to battleground.

In late November 1916, Leonard and the Canadian forces were happy to leave the Battle of the Somme and its trenches behind, in Belgium, for the long march to Chatelain in France.

Along the way, Leonard describes the countryside, a long chat with a French villager, the trials of moving 1,100 men and the relief of finally sleeping in sheets.

Nov. 25, 1916 (The Somme)

Steady downpour of rain all day, with water coming into dug-out instead of out of it. Hope I have seen the last of my miserable situation. Major Porter and his adjutant arrived at 11 a.m. And I handed maps, papers etc. over to them . . . Gave the newcomers a light lunch and they gave me some tea. At 5:15 p.m. . . . I left on foot and reached our horses in half an hour. The night as dark as pitch, but we started, often horse-deep in mud and up and down sides of one-hundred shell holes . . . Allowed the horse to go quietly back to wagon lines. My shack very comfortable with stove and a good dinner waiting.


Canadian soldiers return from the front at the bloody battle of the Somme in November 1916, before marching into France. (Library and Archives Canada)

Nov. 26, 1916

Did not sleep much, owing to re-action and the rain falling on a tin roof. Besides, the Boche shells were falling quite close. We are now across the River Ancre from Aoeluy, but there is quite a stretch of water between. . . I issued marching orders for tomorrow’s start.

Nov. 27, 1916 (Marching to France)

Moved out at 8 a.m. Very thick mist and very heavy going along the Ancre River until hard road was reached . . . In spite of heavy traffic we made good progress until afternoon halt . . . We arrived at our billets at 7:30 a.m., but as town was small for our brigade and 1,100 Imperial troops found it cramped. However, found an unfurnished room in the town chateau without cooking facilities. Turned in early after having some bully beef, cheese and bread. It was cold outside and inside.

Nov. 28, 1916

Another very misty day, with a little rain . . . We reached our billets at 4:45, just before dark and found a decent town and fair billets. Our ration wagon broke down, so we had an omelette dinner and it was very good. Horses are showing signs of the strife, but there were no casualties.

Nov. 29, 1916

Up early and moved out about 8 a.m. . . . Another cold and foggy day. I walked most of the day to keep warm. My billet was in a big farm, whose owner talked English and liked airing it. It was about as hard to understand as my French. He asked me to have a glass of port wine, and we drank each other’s health very formally. His grandfather had British officers billeted with him in 1814 . . . This is an interesting country, rather hilly, but the farms are better than on the Somme. The trees were covered with hoarfrost, which added to its beauty.

Nov. 30, 1916 (Camblain-Chatelain, France)

Again quite cold and ground frozen, and moved out about 8 a.m. Moved via Dieval and Ourton on very good roads made of slag, passing the Clarence coal mine, and reached our destination, Camblain Chatelain, before noon. Found all wagon lines in one field and good water, but men scattered. I was billeted in a butcher’s shop, but it was not bad . . . Went to bed with sheets for the first time in a long period . . . . Some of the men are limping about, but no wonder, after three months of the hardest service and the long march.

Dec. 1, 1916

Had breakfast at 9 a.m. With a nice clean tablecoth and a decent formality. Arranged for baths for two-hundred men and secured better standing for the horses. Two more zeppelins have been brought down in England.

THIS WEEK IN THE WAR

Nov. 21, 1916: HMHS Britannic, an ocean liner transformed into a hospital ship, sinks after explosion by underwater mine near Greek island of Kea. Of 1,066 on board, all but 30 are saved.

Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, dies. Had ruled for decades in peace, but assassination of nephew Archduke Franz Ferdinand led to declaration of war against Serbia and the domino effect of nations choosing sides and starting the First World War.

Nov. 25 to Dec. 3, 1916: Battle of Bucharest, part of conquest of Romania. Central Powers (Austria-Hungary, Germany) occupied Romanian capital until war ended in 1918.​


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