Soldier 214384 - France and Flanders

The 2nd. Canadian Infantry Battalion while Pte. Arnott served

Upon his arrival to the 2nd Battalion, IKA was probably assigned to the Signal Section of the Battalion, reporting to the Signals Sargeant who in turn reported to the Signals Officer. The Signal Section contained about 30 men and was responsible for communications between the the front line companies of the 2nd and the Battalion Headquarters in the rear. Signallers were responsible for setting up communication lines from the forward position to the rear, using Lucas Lamps to relay messages to the rear, setting up phonelines and even handling and using messenger pigeons. There was even some experimenting with a new method of communication, the wireless radio but that was on a very limited basis. The level of danger a signaller would experience in the line of duty varied greatly. Those close to the frontline trenches or near the front of the advancing Battalion would of course be exposed to the most danger. During most of the 'quiet time' at the front, the signallers would be positioned in the reserve trenches with other specialist platoons. However, even these positions were exposed to the dangers of shelling and snipers. Quite often when all other lines of communication were not available, the signallers would be forced to relay messages in person. Out in the open, they were exposed to any number of dangers again the most prominent being snipers and shelling.

On April 21st, the Battalion gave out 6 'Military Medals' (Bravery decorations) to soldiers for their actions during the Battle of Vimy Ridge. The next day the Battalion left to relieve the 13th Battalion at Farbus on the eastern slope of Vimy Ridge. The march from Mont St. Eloy, up the ridge to Thelus, must have been an eye-opening experience for the newest members of the 2nd. They saw first hand the landscape of battle, the real and visible evidence of the magnitude of the Easter Monday victory.

The 25th of April was also of significance for IKA. It was also on this day that the 2nd Battalion suffered its first casualty since his arrival. The poor soul was Pte. W.H. Read. Also on this day the 2nd Battalion were witness to several dogfights over Vimy Ridge by the German Luftwaffe and the Royal Flying Corp. Unfortunately, the British suffered several losses. One of the German pilots of that day was none other than Baron Manfred, Freiherr von Richthofen ("The Red Baron"). In his autobiography entitled, "Der rote Kampffleiger" published in 1918, he mentioned the dogfight of 25th April 1917.

The 2nd Battalion's, Capture of Fresnoy

During the preceding few days, plans had been drawn up to continue the Vimy battle across the Plains of Douai to the east. The plan called for the 1st Brigade to capture the villages of Arleux and Fresnoy. The first stage of the Battle of the Arleux Loop (The Second Battle of the Scarpe), saw the 3rd and 4th Battalions capture the village of Arleux.

A Canadian searches captured Germans at Arleux

That second stage (The Third Battle of the Scarpe) would see the 1st and 2nd Battalions attack and capture the village of Fresnoy. The First Battle of the Scarpe involved the British Third Army's Arras offensive (a town 10km south of Vimy Ridge), in mid April.

The village of Arleux was captured on April 28th. After heavy bombardment by both sides, the Canadians attacked Fresnoy at daylight on May 3rd. After a day of fierce fighting, the village was taken by the 2nd Battalion. The Canadians consolidated their gains and set up defensive positions just east of town. On May 4th, the 2nd Battalion was relieved and exited west back over Vimy Ridge. The cost was high, the 2nd Battalion suffered 410 casualties of which 104 were killed. The taking of Fresnoy was all for nought. The British were driven from the village on May 8th in a costly defeat.

The 2nd Battalion still took pride in what they had accomplished. They were now tagged with the nickname, "The Iron Second".

Rest and Rotation

Over the course of the next few months the 2nd spent a lot of their time shuffling between rest billets and front line duty. They would spend 48 hours in the front lines followed by four days rest in the 'rear'.

A trip to the rear for the Battalion was a welcome, if short, breather from the grisly realities of the front. It usually meant a bath, clean clothes and fresh straw to sleep on. There were hot meals served on plates. Uninterrupted sleep. Sports and concerts. A peaceful walk through the countryside. Drinks at local estaminets (taverns). These estaminets were sometimes found in the homes of the French residents. There was always plenty of 'vin rouge' and a weak form of beer. The most readily available fare, was a serving of 'eggs and chips' for about 20 cents.

Deprived of the usual comforts of home, soldiers soon acquired a certain skill in foraging and 'making do' - a skill that sometimes led to understandable friction with the inhabitants of the farms and villages in which they found themselves.

While at the rest billets, the men would sleep wherever they could, in barns, in dugouts, in cellars, any place that might offer them a dry spot. Some of the more ingenious men would simply build their own shelters out of whatever material could be found.

During any extended periods in the rest billets, the 2nd Battalion was kept battle ready by the daily routine of the 'Syllabus of Training.' Their day would typically start at 6:45am with P.T. (Physical Training) for half an hour. Breakfast would follow. Beginning at 9:00am, the day would be broken up and the men would take part in such activities as musketry (rifle shooting), bayonet fighting, and lectures on specific military topics (e.g. map reading) by officers and NCOs (a platoon corporal or sergeant). As in IKA's case, specialized training for the Battalion signallers, scouts and bombers was also given.. The day was usually finished off with sports. The evening could have activities planned or the men would have time for themselves. All were expected to be bedded down for the night by 9:45pm.

Rotation to front-line positions often meant the battalion would find themselves in dirty, wet and smelly trenches. Rats were a problem as were lice. Lice or "seam squirrels" as they were called were quite a nuisance. Trying to remove them from one's clothing and kit was a daily chore. There was never enough water for washing, as a result there was the constant reek with the odours of stale perspiration and the sour alkaline smell of clothing. Even during the relatively 'quiet' times there was always the danger of shelling at anytime, day or night. The danger of snipers, meant that all repair work to trenches, the laying of barbed wire and such, had to be carrried on at night (in some cases the enemy trenches were as close as 100 metres). These 'work parties' involved all the men of the Battalion including the officers. Daylight usually meant periods of sleep followed by duty on watch.

The food in the trenches was also less than desirable. A day's ration was a tin of bully beef, hardtack, a billy-can of tea and possibly a sweet sticky mixture called plum and apple jam. One of the few luxuries the men were able to enjoy were their smokes. The brand was Players, but some indulged in chewing tobacco. It was always ensured the men always had plenty of smokes. The daily rum ration was also looked forward to by many. It was shipped to the front in ceramic jugs stamped 'SRD' (Service Rum Diluted). It was a joke among the soldiers that it really meant, 'Seldom Reaches Destination,' as the jugs could be easily broken or would 'disappear' before they reached those they were intended for.

Monday, May 28, 1917 saw IKA celebrate his 22nd birthday while in Barlin, France, out of front-line duty. The routine included the "Syllabus of Training" and that evening he may have taken in the baseball game between the officers and the NCOs. The officers won!

On Dominion Day of 1917, another proud moment occurred for the Battalion. For the first time they discarded the bronze badges issued by the government to all troops and donned the white metal insignia of the 2nd Battalion, they had themselves contrived prior to the Battle of the Somme.

The Battle of Hill 70

Hill 70 was located north of the city of Lens. It was not really a "hill", it was merely the highest contour level in the area. It was of strategic importance in that the Germans held it and it needed to be taken if there were to be any further operations in the Lens area. It was hoped that if Hill 70 was captured the enemy might be forced to evacuate Lens. The attack was also to divert the Germans' attention here instead of the north in Ypres where the British were planning a major campaign beginning in late July. This campaign was to be The Third Battle of Ypres, which included the Battle of Passchendaele.

The attack of Hill 70 started August 15, 1917 by elements of the 2nd and 3rd Brigades of the 1st Canadian Division. The 2nd Battalion moved into the offensive on August 16th. After a day of bitter fighting in which the 2nd Battalion, as well as a number of other battalions, were exposed to some mustard gas shelling, Hill 70 was captured by the Canadians.

The really intense fighting of Hill 70 came with the ferocious and repeated German counter-attacks that began on August 18th and continued for 3 days. The Canadian units, including the 2nd Battalion, beat back no fewer then 21 of these attacks. It was during one of these attacks that the 2nd battalion won its second Victoria Cross of the Great War. It was posthumously awarded to Major Learmonth for his bravery in the face of an enemy attack; despite being wounded three times he continued to command his company until he could no longer carry on. Before he was carried from the field he turned his command over to Lt. Hugh Smith. Learmonth later died of his wounds. Smith was a good friend of IKA, and was awarded the Military Cross (Bravery decoration for junior officers) for his actions. More on that later.

Major O. K. Learmonth VC

The Germans gave up on Hill 70. The 2nd Battalion was relieved on Aug. 19th and left the area on the 22nd. The 2nd Battalion suffered 140 casualties (23 killed). This was the last major tour of the front line prior to Passchendale.

On Sept. 19th, while the 2nd Battalion was billeted in the 'Fosse' area, IKA made a visit to Vimy Ridge. Fortunately, no 'Syllabus of Training' had been scheduled. Instead, the morning was devoted to the men getting paid while the afternoon of this 'fair and warm day', saw the Divisional Sports Day take place in nearby Hersain. IKA must have taken advantage of this and was able to get to Vimy Ridge, 6 miles to the southeast. There, he removed a piece of bark from a tree at the crest of the ridge. He kept it all his life and it survives to this day. (Cottage 150, Bruce Beach)

The Battle of Passchendaele

Canada is linked inextricably with Passchendaele. There is no other battle in Canadian history that compares in battlefield condition, commonplace heroism and military execution. Some say it was a more significant victory than Vimy Ridge because of the conditions it was fought under as well the brilliant performances of the Canadians who had very little time to prepare.

Passchendaele is officially known as the Third Battle of Ypres and was comprised of eight separate engagements. It was fought between July 21 and November 12, 1917, by the British, ANZAC (Austrialian and New Zealand) and Canadian troops . However, the Canadians did not enter the battle until October 26, but finally captured Passchendaele on Nov. 6th.

Field Marshal Haig (the allied forces commander), felt that if Passchendale could be taken and the allies could break out the Ypres Salient, they could clear the whole coast of Belgium. However, after only 4 days the battle ground to a halt in the mud that would become a dominant feature of all operations in the Salient for the next 4 months. Haig would not give up and continued the offensive. Even though the thought of a breakout from the Salient was abandoned, Haig pressed on hoping to achieve some sort of ' victory' by the end of the year. By the time all was said and done, the allies and Germans had both lost close to 250,000 men each. 42,000 of those were never recovered from the mud. The Canadian suffered 15,654 casualties, over 2600 died and of those 1000 were never recovered from the battlefield.

When the final objective, the 'victory' symbol Haig so much wanted - the Passchendaele Ridge - was within sight, the Canadian Corps, which now had reputation of never failing, were called in. But there were still 2500 metres of mud to be crossed.

In mid October, the Canadians moved into the Ypres Salient for their third tour of battle.(April 1915, May 1916) Three years of intense shelling had reduced the countryside to a desolate wilderness of scummy water-filled craters, ragged tree stumps and deep glutinous mud. Roads had virtually disappeared, so guns and equipment could not be moved without tremendous effort. It took infantrymen over 8 hours to trudge 6 km from Ypres to the front, often through knee deep mud. Bodies and other gruesome debris of many other early battles lay half-buried everywhere, and the whole area was engulfed in the putrid stench of decaying flesh. Of all the battlefields in which Canadians would fight in this war or any other, Passchendaele was by far the worst.

The morning of October 26th saw the 3rd and 4th Divisions enter the battle. Over the course of the next six days, brutal fighting ensued in dreadful conditions. Casualties were high. Two Battalions were particularly hard hit, 46th Battalion lost 70% of its strength, while the 49th lost 75%. In that time period, 7 Victoria Crosses were awarded, 2 more were won in the second phases of the battle. Finally, on October 31st, the battle "paused" for a week. The 3rd and 4th Divisions were relieved by the 1st and 2nd Divisions, with them of course, was the 2nd Battalion.

The 2nd Battalion, moved up from France arriving in Ypres on the 2nd of November. The Battalion moved through the entire battlefield before taking up their position at Meetcheele, just southwest of the village of Passchendaele on Nov. 5th. The conditions on this part of the battlefield were not nearly as bad as elsewhere. On the 6th of November, the 2nd Battalion, attacked the village of Mosselmarkt. By 11:30am the Battalion had reached its objectives at the village and set up defensive position, waiting for a counter-attack that never materialized. By the end of the day, all but one officer in the attacking units had been wounded. However, the Battalion's intense training paid off. Non-Commissioned Officers (Sergeants, Corporals and Lance-Corporals) took over platoons and the Battalion continued to function effectively.

The 7th of November passed uneventfully and the Battalion was relieved that evening. By the early hours of the 8th, the Battalion was just outside Ypres, out of the front lines. The 2nd Battalion had been in actions that were much more costly, but in none where conditions had been so utterly "poisonous". Even so, The Battalion suffered 280 casualties, 41 dead and 28 missing.

By November 10th the Battle of Paaschendaele was over. Canadian units begun to move back to the Vimy Ridge area.

The Last of the 2nd Battalion for Pte. Arnott

The Battalion returned to France. On December 1st, the Battalion voted in the Canadian elections.

They knew little of the issues at home, although there was some talk of a conscription crisis. The English newspapers had very little news about Canada's domestic problems. Polling booths, complete with Returning Officers and Poll Clerks were established at Battalion Headquarters in Servins, France. There the vote was duly taken.

Christmas of 1917 was spent at Camblain Chatelain, France, This was the 3rd time in three years the Battalion spent Christmas out of the front lines. The Christmas of 1915 was spent at Bailleul, 1916 was at Ourton, both in France. Christmas was a merry affair; there were "boisterous, animal spirits, much merriment, occasional foolishness and boundless laughter." Discipline was not relaxed, it took a much needed Christmas break, along with the rest of the Battalion. The 2nd Battalion enjoyed their well earned rest in the crisp atmosphere and healthy snow of Camblain Chatelain.

By mid January, there was talk that 2nd Battalion would soon be on the move again. Sure enough on the 20th of January, the Battalion left Camblain Chatelain. By January 21st they had trudged up to Les Brebis (northwest of Lens). It was here, on the 22nd of January, that IKA reported sick.

For a direct link to the author of this article, EMAIL TOM ARNOTT

Copyright © Tom Arnott, September, 1997.

Go to the next article in the series

Return to Tom Arnott's Start Page

Return to the Hellfire Corner Contents Section