This week we continue the humourous adventures of battling lice on the Western Front as Sgt. Frank S. Iriam, a Canadian sniper in the 8th (90th Winnipeg Rifles) Battalion shares his experience with “lively” clothing:
“The baths were some institution. There was usually an old stationary boiler that had been patched and made to stand a few pounds pressure of steam… fitted with short branch pipes that had a tin can perforated with nail holes to serve as a spray. We would disrobe in one room, throw our underwear through a window to an attendant and pass on naked in Indian file into the spray from the tin cans. After a very short time there you would hear a yell from the Sgt. in charge of operations. Then you moved out and a new suit of underwear was thrown to you as you passed another window. You had to take pot luck on what you got. If you were tall and broad you were sure to get an outfit to fit a runt and vice-versa [sic]. Sometimes we were able to trade off ill-fitting garments with some small guy who had drawn a big suit in the lottery. These clothes were supposed to be free from lice or vermin but it was only a dream. The first dose of lice I got in France was on a new suit taken from a pile of stuff that had never been worn since coming from the factory. It had been stored and handled over the floors of these baths, in close contact with infected clothing until it was literally loaded for bear. You did not notice anything wrong until you got warm or started to perspire. Then things got lively and interesting all at once.”
(Iriam, In The Trenches – 1914-1918, p. 178).
After Lt.-Col. Edward Stewart’s visit to Sir Fabian Ware in October 1914, his Mobile Unit’s work had gained support, and eventually official recognition in February 1915, becoming officially responsible for finding, marking and registering all graves in France (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 14). As the war’s attrition increased, public pressure from those at home had re-enforced the need for a registration such as Ware was proposing. Letters were being written to newspapers and government officials, both requesting information for the graves of loved ones, but also expressing angst that none was being provided.
“One such, on 9 January 1915, told of a woman who had tried to locate the grave of her brother and had been disturbed to find that every trace of the cross or other identifying marks described to her by his comrades had disappeared” (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 14). Renamed the Graves Registration Commission, they set to their work with haste and purpose. Nearly a year into the war, Sir Fabian Ware’s men were already facing a backlog of thousands of unregistered graves. The task of registration “meant locating and marking a burial site and where necessary erecting an inscribed wooden cross” (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 14). Once registered, the grave’s details were recorded by the officer responsible for that battle sector, who in turn created a report of all graves his sector (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 14).
A member of the Graves Registration Commission remarked that the work required “considerable patience and some skill as an amateur detective to find the grave of some poor fellow who has been shot in some out of the way turnip field and hurriedly buried, but I feel my modest efforts amply rewarded when I return a day or two later with a wooden cross with a neat inscription and plant it at the head of his grave, for I have the proud satisfaction of knowing that I have done some slight honour to one brave man who has died for his country” (H. Broadley, quoted in Longworth’s unpublished manuscript for The Unending Vigil, sourced from Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 15).
During the period of May to October of 1915, Ware’s men registered 31,182 graves alone.
2 June 2017 marked the 100th Anniversary of the events for which Canadian pilot William Avery “Billy” Bishop, VC, CB, DSO & Bar, MC, DFC, ED was awarded the Victoria Cross. Quickly winning the confidence of his commanding officer, Bishop was allowed to fly with a generously loose leash, allowing him to go out on lone wolf patrols without supporting wingmen, and more importantly, witnesses. On June 2, 1917, Bishop set out on his own, patrolling over German lines. His citation for the Victoria Cross reads as follows:
“For most conspicuous bravery, determination and skill.
Captain Bishop, who had been sent out to work independently, flew first of all to an enemy aerodrome; finding no machine about, he flew on to another aerodrome about three miles south-east, which was at least twelve miles the other side of the line. Seven machines, some with their engines running, were on the ground. He attacked these from about fifty feet, and a mechanic, who was starting one of the engines, was seen to fall. One of the machines got off the ground, but at a height of sixty feet Captain Bishop fired fifteen rounds into it at very close range, and it crashed to the ground.
A second machine got off the ground, into which he fired thirty rounds at 150 yards range, and it fell into a tree.
Two more machines then rose from the aerodrome. One of these he engaged at the height of 1,000 feet, emptying the rest of his drum of ammunition. This machine crashed 300 yards from the aerodrome, after which Captain Bishop emptied a whole drum into the fourth hostile machine, and then flew back to his station.
Four hostile scouts were about 1,000 feet above him for about a mile of his return journey, but they would not attack.
His machine was very badly shot about by machine gun fire from the ground.” (London Gazette, no.30228, 11 August 1917)
In the years following his death in 1956, Billy Bishop’s war record has come under scrutiny due to discrepancies in his claimed actions. Researchers have found that many German war records and casualty reports do not match with Bishop’s claimed victories, while a vast number of his victories are logged in British records without any sworn statements of the necessary supporting witnesses. Meanwhile, proponents of Bishop’s impressive record argue that Germany’s spotty records may have been the result of their struggling to figuratively “keep a lid” on what would have been a propaganda disaster if Bishop’s successes became public. Moreover, the Germans were becoming increasingly selective of reporting damage at this stage of the war, often preferring to not take note of bad news. Ultimately, Billy Bishop’s career is marked by both unquestionable bravery, as displayed in his confirmed actions but also clouded by what may be half-truths and fabricated encounters.
For a more complete presentation and understanding of the arguments for and against Billy Bishop’s legacy, we suggest reading the following two articles:
During the First World War, thousands of Indigenous soldiers served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Many became snipers or reconnaissance scouts, but Indigenous soldiers served in numerous roles throughout the CEF. Fighting in regular military units, over 37 were decorated for bravery during the war.
Despite close camaraderie with non-Indigenous soldiers, their return home was plagued with unequal treatment and marginalization.
Notable Indigenous soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force include long-distance runner Tom Longboat, Cameron Brant, Oliver Milton Martin, Sniper Henry Norwest and Sniper Francis Pegahmagabow whom we featured in our 100 Days of Vimy Post on 13 February 2017.
Amidst the mud and misery of the frontline, a trip out of the line sometimes meant a bath and welcome change of uniform and underwear for the troops. But the process wasn’t quite as refreshing as it may sound. John Becker of the 75th (Mississauga) Battalion recounts his visit to the baths in the area of Gouy-Servins, France in June 1917:
“This particular bathhouse was a rough board building with a boiler fired by wood alongside. Inside we took off our clothes and threw underwear and socks in a heap at one end. The underwear was immediately grabbed by fatigue men before it walked off under its own power [infested by lice]. We passed into another room and under long pipes shooting streams of warm water. A sergeant-major called “Soap On.” We soaped for three minutes. “Soap Off” – we had to immediately rinse ourselves as in another minute the water was shut off. We passed on to the other end, wiped our louse bitten hides, got clean towels, fumigated underwear, and resumed our clothes. The underwear was whatever we were handed. Some of it had been used for a long time… It was supposed to be free from livestock [lice], but this didn’t take into account the babies that had laid their eggs in the seams of my trousers and tunic, and an hour later I was providing a dinner for those eggs and all their brothers and sisters.” (Becker, Silhouettes of the Great War, 84).
In May we marked the 100th Anniversary of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission by introducing Sir Fabian Ware, a 45-year-old education director who, in September 1914, went to France desperate to serve his country. When Lt.-Col. Edward Stewart visited Ware’s Mobile Unit for the Red Cross in October, he was pleased with the additional work and care Ware’s staff had undertaken for the graves. In a Bethune Cemetery, Ware’s men had ensured British graves received labelled wooden crosses. Yet even at this early stage, Stewart was alarmed at the seemingly temporary nature with which graves registration was being treated:
“On most of these graves the names were only inscribed in pencil and we gave instructions at once that they should be painted on, on the reverse side to the pencil inscriptions”
(Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 14).
Besides the pencil markings on wooden crosses, registration had only gone so far as the cemetery book kept by the original French caretaker, and Ware realized its incomplete state was probably reflective of all burials across the entire Western Front. With Stewart’s backing, Ware’s Mobile Unit was provided with the means to undertake the marking, registering, and tending of “all the British graves it could find” (Summers, Remembered: The History of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, p. 14).
With the drive up the Belgian coast successfully underway, (the Battle of Messines ending June 14, 1917), it was hoped the cross-channel air raids would slowly be reduced. In the meantime, pilots and gunners continued to do battle with massive Zweppelin airships and winged bombers in the skies over England. One Canadian patrolling english skies in 1917 was Air Marshal Robert Leckie, CB, DSO, DSC, DFC, CD.
Just over 100 years and one month ago, in the early morning of 14 May 1917, then-Flight Sub Lieutenant Leckie was piloting Curtiss Flying Boat type H.12 No 8666, on a patrol to the north-east from RN Air Station Great Yarmouth. Off the coast of Terschelling, the Netherlands, the crew spotted Zeppelin L 22 10-15 miles away, seemingly at the end of its route patrolling the Dutch coast at 3,000 feet.
They increased speed and climbed to 6,000 feet. Nearing L 22 and still undetected, Leckie took control of the Curtiss from Flight Lieutenant C J Galpin, jettisoning three of their four bombs to lighten the aircraft as the crew moved to battle stations. CPO Whatling went to the rear Lewis Gun while Flt.-Lt. Galpin manned the two Lewis Guns in the bow.
Unspotted until only half a mile away from L 22, Leckie dove at the Zeppelin, roaring down out of dark fog and cloud to 3,800 feet, levelling out 20 feet below L 22’s gondolas. In the bow, Flt.-Lt. Galpin seized the moment and:
“opened fire with both guns at 50 yds range and observed incendiary bullets entering the envelope… the port gun jammed but the starboard gun fired nearly a complete tray before jamming also. We were then 100ft from her and turned hard a starboard while I tried to clear the starboard gun. As we began to turn I thought I saw a slight glow inside the envelope and 15 seconds later when she came in sight on our other side she was hanging tail down at an angle of 45 degrees… Five or six seconds later the whole ship was a glowing mass and she fell vertically by the tail. CPO Whatling observing from the after hatch saw the number L22 painted under the nose before it was consumed. He also saw two of the crew jump out, one from the after gun position on top of the tail fin and one from the after gondola. They had no parachutes. When the airship had fallen to about 1000ft four large columns of water went up below in quick succession either from bombs or engines becoming detached from the framework. After 45 seconds from the first ignition, the envelope was burnt off and the bare exoskeleton plunged into the sea, leaving a mass of black ash on the surface from which a column of brown smoke about 1500ft high sprang up and stood.” (Report by Flight Lieutenant C J Galpin on the destruction of Zeppelin L.22 on 14 May 1917, addressed to the Commanding Officer RN Air Station Great Yarmouth, dated 14 May 1917. Air 1/660 ).
The crew landed back at Yarmouth at 7:50 AM, with only two bullet holes from L 22’s return fire in their aircraft. For their actions that day, Flt.-Lt. Galpin received the Distinguished Service Order and Flight Sub-Lt. Leckie received the Distinguished Service Cross.
On June 14, 1917, the Battle of Messines came to an end. The first phase of fighting up the Belgian coast had ended in resounding success. While the Canadians provided large diversionary raids, the British Expeditionary Force had advanced two and a half miles over the Messines Ridge, straightening the line between Mount Sorrel and Ploegsteert and thus ending the German domination of the Ypres Salient (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 282). “The completeness of the victory and the speed with which it was attained surpassed that of any previous major operation of the B.E.F. Only the Canadian capture of Vimy Ridge – a lesser operation which the Second Army used as a model – bears comparison” (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 282).
Sir Arthur Currie, Commander of the Canadian Corps
Just as Sir Arthur Currie took command of the Canadian Corps, a fault from his past haunted his success. A senior member of the pre-war 50th Gordon Highlanders militia unit in Victoria, B.C., Currie had diverted $10,883.34 of regimental funds to pay off debts incurred with the collapse of his real estate investments at the start of the war. When Currie left Canada for overseas deployment, the 50th Highlanders were still short of their diverted funds.
In the years since his departure, successive commanding officers of the 50th Gordon Highlanders had slowly traced the missing funds to Currie, coincidentally catching up to him in June 1917, just as he achieved his most senior promotion. Raising the issue with Minister of Militia and Defence Sir Edward Kemp, who had just replaced Sir Samuel Hughes, the government officials desperately sought to resolve the issue without a public scandal. Even Canadian Overseas Minister in London, Sir George Perley wired Prime Minister Borden asking if Kemp would “be willing put up half the money personally if I do same” (Brown, Morton, The Embarrassing Apotheosis of a ‘Great Canadian’: Sir Arthur Currie’s Personal Crisis in 1917 in The Canadian Historical Review, p. 60).
Fortunately for Currie, his momentary lapse in judgement was superseded by his outstanding military leadership qualities and the Canadian Corps’ clear dependence on his success. In an interesting twist to the story, it appears Currie’s ability to obtain the faith and trust of his subordinates carried him through the scandal; indeed, it was only through loans from Major-General David Watson and Brigadier Victor Odlum that Currie was able to repay the $10,883.34, staving off his dismissal and avoiding bringing public disgrace to the Canadian Corps (Zuehlke, Brave Battalion, p. 168, & Brown, Morton, The Embarrassing Apotheosis of a ‘Great Canadian’: Sir Arthur Currie’s Personal Crisis in 1917 in The Canadian Historical Review, p. 58).
“The Missing Airman” was written by Nelson Moses, of the Delaware band, Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, upon receiving word that his son, Lt. James Moses of 57 Squadron, RAF, had been reported missing-in-action. His body was never identified. Lt. Moses first served in the same 107th (Winnipeg) Battalion as Lt. Milton Martin from our 100 Days of Vimy post of 30 January 2017. (Read it again here: http://www.vimyfoundation.ca/100daysofvimy-january-30-2017/ )
The Missing Airman
By Nelson Moses
O, sometimes yet I feel lonely,
For him who went away overseas;
Time’s healing wing, and time only,
Can soothe the empty heart with ease.
That parting hour was hard to bear,
When we shook hands and said good-bye.
Hope alone breathed over our prayer,
While tears rose up and dimmed each eye.
But our Mother, in sore distress,
Was heard from o’er the restless wave
Her sons falter’d not in her stress,
It was victory, or the grave.
Jim sleeps, with many comrades brave,
Sleep on; your battle is done.
No lonely cross will mark the grave,
Where rests the Empire’s warrior son.