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

By Randy Richmond, The London Free Press

Londoner Woodman Leonard commanded an artillery unit in the First World War and kept a daily diary of life on the Western Front and during several major battles. Sun Media is publishing excerpts of the diary each week.

The German forces called it the Week of Suffering.

The Canadian forces called it softening up the enemy.

For a week, the Canadian artillery fired more than a million shells onto the hard-to-crack German defences on Vimy Ridge.

The constant bombardment weakened German morale, blew apart barbed wire, destroyed trenches and cut supplies to the front lines.

Lt. Col. Woodman Leonard, commander of the 3rd Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery, barely noted the barrage in his diary, so focused was he on planning for the main attack and making sure his guns and men could move forward in safety.

Z-day, April 9, was fast approaching.


A heavy naval gun, brought in for extra firepower, pounds the German defences at Vimy Ridge as the Canadians assault the strategic heights in northern France in April 1917. (Library and Archives Canada)

Diary excerpts from the Great War

April 1, 1917

A fine day until late p.m., when it rained and sleeted quite hard. . . . went forward up the valley and found a good deal of work has to be done on same on five bridges . . Had meeting of battery commanders after dinner and again discussed the forward move. Later went over the whole scheme with my adjutant and orderly officer.

April 2, 1917

Very heavy frost at night and cold all day, with snow falls. S____ went forward to ascertain if bridges had been put up last night. M_____ in for an hour and I went over the whole forward scheme with him. There are many problems to be faced, and one of the worst is the present condition of the horses. . . . E____ reported landscape very much altered during the past week. . . Very heavy snow storm in p.m. Surely they will postpone Z day (Zero Day — start of attack) as weather most harmful. Our attack will be followed by others north and south to clear Arras and pinch off Lens.

April 3, 1917

Very cold night, but things warmed up as day went by. . . . went forward and went over the advance route. Everything covered with snow, and sloppy. Had boiled chestnuts for lunch in place of potatoes. All 18 (pounders) busy on wire and 4.5 (pounders) on trench destruction. Sgt. B_____ of the 10th Battery was shot through the body while handling bridge material on the forward route.

April 4, 1917

Dull, with some rain. Made an early start. Went over the route again and found infantry had blocked it in one place and dug a trench across it in another. Heavy firing all morning to the south. Batteries still wire cutting and on trench destroying. A plane came down 50 yards from our headquarters, nearly knocking the car. The pilot was shot through the body and dead . . . Our attack is to be supported by eight tanks and they are in the wood just behind us.

April 5, 1917

The corps put on a test barrage at 8 a.m., and it looked pretty good, but we might just as well send the Boche a note telling them where we are going to attack. . . . Infantry patrols were over in the Boche trenches all p.m. trying to catch one alive. Our artillery very active all day, with only a mild come-back in reply. It seems now that we may get a few days good weather, which will make all the difference in our offensive.

April 6, 1917

Good Friday. Aeroplanes out at night. A glorious day with sunshine and blue sky. Had notice that Z day postponed 24 hours. Went up front line to 500 crater and got out of trench too soon coming back and were nipped at. My praise of the day quite uncalled for, as it clouded over at noon and by dusk was pouring hard. The Boche planes got 3 of ours this morning, and I saw two of them come down in flames, which made me quite sad.

April 7, 1917

Very cold, with north-east wind, but no rain. Received a succession of orders during the day and was kept busy getting them out. Several times one just issued to a battery was cancelled and amended by the next. But this is war, and we must keep it up. The C.R.A. [Commander, Royal Artillery] was up to discuss a few last points and expressed the hope that he would see me next somewhere behind the German lines. Boche shelled our headquarters trench for an hour after dinner and got some unpleasantly close.

Lt. Col. Woodman Leonard died in battle on April 9, 1917. This is the last installment of QMI’s chronicling of Leonard’s story from his diaries in weekly segments.

Woodman Leonard

  • Born: Nov. 23, 1883
  • Graduated Royal Military College: 1903
  • Major, 12th Battery: 1914-1916
  • Distinguished Service Order (DSO): Jan. 14, 1916
  • Promoted to Lt. Col., 3rd Brigade: June 1916
  • Died: April 7, 1917 (killed at Vimy Ridge)
  • Battles fought: Ypres, the Somme, Vimy Ridge​


The Canadian National Vimy Ridge Memorial is dedicated to the memory of Canadian soldiers killed during the First World War, including 3,598 who died at Vimy Ridge in a battle that became a national symbol of achievement and sacrifice.

Vimy Ridge Barrage

  • Canadian artillery bolstered by British
  • March 20: Partial bombardment of German forces begins
  • Batteries, trenches and barbed war targeted
  • April 2: Entire artillery begins bombarding German forces
  • 5:30 a.m. April 9: Infantry moves forward under creeping barrage of shells
  • April 12: Canadian Corps control ridge. 3,598 Canadians killed and 7,004 wounded

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