Transcribed by Sandy Wightman – grandson of Alec W. Jack.
Mr. Chapel’s two tape recorded, undated Interview with Alec Jack – from the CBC.
Note to readers: I have transcribed these notes from a photo copy of a photo copy of an original transcription of an interview with my grandfather, Alec W. Jack with Len Chapple, a Vancouver CBC announcer/ producer. There is no date on the notes but if I were to guess I would think circa 1965 as this was a time when interest in Vimy’s 1967 fiftieth anniversary was approaching.
The notes were from a verbal interview as opposed to notes that Alec wrote himself, although I believe Alec prepared for the interview by writing notes on some of the actions. The interview appears to cover most of Alec’s 54th Battalion experience from enlisting through to being wounded.
While I have tried to copy the notes exactly I have made minor changes (indicated by *) for clarity or sometimes with relevant information. I added notes with approximate marching distances although I do not know their route so it could be more or less. I also noted when the bottom of photo copied pages were obscure or cutoff. Some transcription sentences ran on and on so I may have replaced a comma with a period and commenced a new sentence. Many sentences began with “And”, as happens in conversation so I dropped the “And” sometimes. It is, however, largely as the original transcript was typed. Col. Kemball was referred to as Campbell, Kimball, etc and I corrected that transcription error. E.R. (Sandy) Wightman.
While typing I felt I could hear AWJ, my grandfather, beside me with his word choices and expressions.
TAPE 1 of 2
A. I arrived in Canada from Scotland in 1913. And the war started, as you know, in August 1914, at which time I was 23 years of age. My brother was in to it right at the start and after a year I decided that I couldn’t hold back any longer. So I enlisted at Penticton, B.C.
Q. What were you doing there, by the way?
A. I was in the employ of the Bank of British North America at Hedley, as a matter of fact. Little town near Penticton, a mining town, a very busy little town, at that time. And we hired a car, which was quite unusual in those days. There were very few cars. Drove over to Penticton, and enlisted. And was posted in due course to the 54th Canadian Infantry Battalion, which I joined at Vernon B.C. about the 25th of August, 1915. The battalion was under the command of Colonel Kemball, O.B.E. Kemball was made a Companion of the Bath in 1912 so I suspect the O.B. should be CB), an old Indian Army veteran. A wonderful fine, old gentleman, who had forgotten more about soldiering than we ever knew. I-we trained at Vernon for 3 months, and then in the middle of November we left by way of Halifax. And the steamer, Saxonia, landed in Plymouth on or about the 30th of October, 31st of October perhaps, 1915. And proceeded to Bramshott in Hampshire.
Q. Anything about the trip across on the boat that sticks out in your memory?
A. The trip across was not very eventful, except that the food was terrible. And we had some near riots on our hands, that was a rather common thing at that time, men got very annoyed. We all did, as a matter of fact. The catering was very poor. But that trip itself was quite alright. We got off the boat at Plymouth, I remember, early in the morning, without anything to eat. Got on to a train at Exeter. The lady mayoress and a number of ladies, met us with hot coffee and various other things, which we remembered very well, because we were exceedingly hungry. Then we got nothing else until we arrived at Bramshott about mid night. And it was a lovely countryside there. We stayed there for – well until the middle of August 1916, nearly nine months. And did all the training which we could do in an imitative way, because after all in war the only way you can learn is to go into the actual fighting.
Q. Because every war is so different.
A. Every war is so different, but I think that that principle pertains pretty well in all – as far as I know. Then we embarked at Southampton, and landed in Le Havre, I think on the 16th of August 1916. Feeling that we were pretty late for the party because the war had been on for two years then. However, we needn’t have worried very much, we saw all we wanted latter on.
Q. They saved a little for you.
A. They saved a little for us, yes, that’s right.
Q. Can you tell me about the first time that you went into the trenches and where it was, and how you felt about-if you can recall.
A. Yes. A very few days after we landed in France, we proceeded to the old Ypres salient.
Q. You were an NCO (* Non Commissioned Officer) by this time.
A. I was a Sergeant, platoon sergeant, yes. And we went up to the line, or as near as we could get. In London buses, I remember. They bussed us up there. And then we proceeded into the trenches at St. Eloi, on the southeast section of the Ypres salient. And our front line trenches were facing the crater, as a matter of fact, mine craters of St. Eloi. Which were pretty well known. We stayed there for one month, and then we – a raid, raid on the German trenches was put on by three or four officers and ninety men. And then after that we left the salient by a route march enroute for the Somme. Our-
Q. Is this one of the raids that you were going to tell about, or is this-
A. Yes, it was rather-
Q. Well the records that I have which may not have been the same thing but-on the night of the 16th and 17th of September, is that the time you are talking about?
A. Actually we went over at midnight, midnight on the 15th,16th according
Q. Of September. Well there were quite a number of raids, they were battalion raids. Apparently there were ten army raids on that night, seven staged by Canadians. Does that follow your records? The 46th, 47th, 54th,72nd,75th, and the 87th battalions.
A. I’m afraid that I didn’t know anything about that, but I was in the middle of our one. And that was all I wanted.
Q. Yes. The -a number of us were invited to volunteer, if I might put it that way and we were withdrawn from the trenches, and did a little practicing which I remember as being rather feeble stuff, in the back country. And then the plan was for raiding parties to enter the German lines, at each end. We were debuted (*unknown word) on a mine crater, and we were – the plan also was that the party would also go down into the mine crater where German dugouts were located. Bomb the dugouts, and take prisoners, and generally create a lot of damage. I can recollect that at midnight, or 5 minutes past twelve our barrage came down on the German line. The noise was terrific, and of course we were completely green and inexperienced. However, we climbed over the parapet and set out on the double for the German line. It was pitch dark, pouring rain and I suppose it was two hundred yards across there. The whole of the intervening of space, or no man’s land, was pitted with shell holes, full of water, and lots of barbed wire. The result was that when we got close to the German line we had lost most of our men. They would tumble over wire into shell holes, and by the time they got up to there, the party had vanished into the darkness, and there we were. We had possibly seven or eight men and an officer when we hit the German line, instead of having four sections each under an NCO with about six or seven men. My section was to proceed down into the crater. I had been a bombing instructor in England and was supposed to know all about hand grenades. So I was chosen for the job. Anyway, I remember jumping into the German line, which at that point was quite shallow at about three feet deep, and I landed right on the back of a German who was very wisely crouching down. We booted him out and sent him back under escort to our line and then started to work our way along. We only had about half a dozen men and we were rushed by a large party of Germans who made it very interesting for us. We had a standup fight, lots of grenades thrown and so forth. I was scouting around behind the German line and by myself. I woke up after a while with a feeling that things had got very quiet and I realized that when I moved about I was by myself. The rest of the party had withdrawn. So I commenced to retire also across no man’s land. The German barrage came down at that time and I was very unhappy. They plastered the area. I was so turned around that eventually I lost myself. I didn’t know which way to go and I spent about four or five hours traveling across no man’s land, in one way or another, on my hands and knees. Finally, as dawn was breaking, I oriented myself and did a very foolish thing. A thing I would never have down if I had a little experience. By this time, it was broad daylight and instead of waiting all that day and getting in under cover of darkness I crawled up on top of our parapet and dropped into our trench. Very luckily I wasn’t seen, but that part of the line at that time if you put your finger over the parapet it was shot off by a sniper. So I was a very lucky boy indeed in getting in. I remember I found out that when I got in there I was very nearly shot by an Australian sentry. They had taken over from our people during the night. I finally wound up by walking somewhere in the vicinity of 11 or 12 miles before I caught up with our unit at about noon or shortly thereafter. I had had nothing to eat from about five o’clock the previous evening and I had been through all. I really got a scare that time.
Q. Tired and hungry.
A. Oh, was I and plastered with mud and soaking wet, oh yes. It was quite a show. But
Q. How many prisoners did you get?
A. We got 2 prisoners and a machine gun. But it was pretty badly executed for the simple reason that we were very inexperienced, and as I say we lost about three-quarters of our strength before we ever saw the Germans.
Q. Did you make any special preparations for the raid, like blackface and..?
A. Oh yes. We had our faces blackened, all identification removed, and we wore cardigan sweaters and balaclava hats, caps, which were woolen caps, toques and blackened. I had a khaki vest with eight mills grenades strapped on my chest, an automatic revolver which I borrowed about an hour before the raid and I’d never shot before and knew nothing about, my bayonet, and what we called a knob-carry, which was a wooden entrenching tool with a cog wheel slipped over the small end and jammed down to the big end. The first German who rushed me, I pointed the automatic in his general direction and pulled the trigger but kept my finger on the trigger and this gentleman got, at least if he got any, he got all six shots, because before I could………., the thing was empty. I stood stupidly looking at it, but I don’t know- it was pitch dark but he was shooting from the hip with his rifle, and we were too bothered to know whether he hit me or I hit him. But that was about the story. I think I’ve covered that one.
Q. Fine. Well then you went down to the Somme.
Q. And the Desire Trench was-
A. That’s right.
Q. your particular action.
A. In those days there was a no motor transport to carry the infantry, you walked. And we marched all the way from the Ypres salient, down to Albert (* about 140 km.), a city of possibly 15 or 20 thousand which was the centre of operations in that sector of the battle of the Somme, area. There is one very striking thing about Albert. A shell had apparently hit the spire of the cathedral high. It was canted over and was leaning across the street at right angles. Almost parallel to the ground and it stayed that way, I think for 2 years. I think the story amongst the troops was that it would fall the day the war ended. But it fell before that.
Q. Do you know why it stayed up so long?
A. I suppose it was damaged to some extent and it just stayed there.
Q. The engineers wired it there.
A. Oh, did they.
Q. You didn’t know that?
A. I’m learning something.
Q. Well apparently the Belgians –
A. No, it was France.
Q. Well the French peasants of Albert said if the Virgin fell that they would lose the war – this is one story.
A. Yes, yes
Q. So the engineers decided they weren’t going to have anything of this, so they went up and wired the thing up in this leaning position.
A. Well the battle of the Somme, as everyone knows, started on the 1st of July 1916, on which day the British army, excluding all Dominion troops, lost 60,000 casualties, one day. We got down there about, oh it mid – no it would be early October of ’16 and there we joined the rest of the Canadian corps who had preceded us from the Ypres salient. The commander of the Canadian corps at that time was Lieutenant General Sir Julien Byng, who was later Governor General of Canada.
Now the 54th went into the line. We tooled off the Albert-Baupaume road. We passed big craters and up into the line in front of Courcellette. We did this four times, four holding tours, and then on the 13th of November we moved up to the line preparatory to the attack on Desire Trench. The conditions on the way up after you left the Albert-Baupaume road were appalling. There were no landmarks. We always went in and came out at night and we always got lost. The mud was more or less knee-deep or worse, of course we were always carrying heavy weights, Lewis guns, and bombs, and so forth. And the troops generally arrived in the line in an exhausted condition. As we had been advancing, and I say we, I mean the troops generally, before we got there, there were no dugouts (* a partially buried place to sleep and seek shelter) in the trenches which we had dug, and our occupation of them was so temporary that it wasn’t worthwhile digging deep dugouts, whereas the Germans had been there for several years and they were well sheltered in that way. Well on this occasion we went into the line on the night of the 13th. The attack was postponed day after day, till the morning of the 18th, that was five days we remained in these trenches without shelter. The rain came down, the mud got deeper, we had absolutely no shelter at all, and conditions were appalling. Then we finally got word that the show was on for the morning of the 18th. At dawn we climbed out of the assembly trenches where we had been lined up, in extended order, four lines of troops with possibly 20 or 30 yards between each line and advanced. We didn’t have a great deal of trouble. There was a heavy barrage, and I remember noticing in particularly that at least one and possibly two, firing in a creeping barrage, were firing short. Possibly their base piece had slipped, but in any case they were firing (* last sentence not legible) dropping short. In those days the barrage advanced at the rate of a hundred yards in every three minutes and the idea was that the attacking troops kept up as close as possible to the barrage, to the point where it lifted off the German front line. Then the theory was that they rushed in and dealt with the Germans before they could draw their breath more or less. So that, a creeping barrage was a line of advancing shells. And where guns were firing short, it meant that the men behind this line of shells couldn’t – the tendency was for the men to keep in line, and with these guns firing short, well it resulted in casualties. We captured Desire Trench and went on a short distance, and dug in just over on the face of a ridge facing the German area. We dug very fast because snipers were very active, lost quite a number of men. A Company commander, Captain King was shot right through the head. I was standing beside him, I was his company Sargeant Major at that time, and all other officers were wounded. I was the senior NCO left and I took command and got the line dug in and so forth.
Q. This line you were speaking of, sort of on a small ridge, would Regina Trench have been beyond that.
Q. I know Regina trench was over a ridge, but not over that particular area.
A. It had already been taken about two weeks before, and we went through that and dug in on the forward side, on the slope facing the Germans. They put on two half-hearted counter-attacks during the following, during that day, but we broke them up with our Lewis guns before they developed at all really. And that night we were relieved by the 72nd Seaforths of Vancouver, and by which time the men …..really all….. (* Last sentence on page missing). We had to tramp about two miles through the mud to the Albert-Baupaume road at a point that was called – where the sunken road led off to Courcellette, and there luckily our transport limbers, horse and mule drawn, were waiting for us. And we all piled into these limbers and were transported back to the huts in the back country where we were dumped down and slept it off more or less. But I seldom saw men more exhausted than after that tour.
Q. Did you lose a lot of men there.
A. Yes. We lost I think, in that battle and in the holding tours immediately preceding it, we lost 12 officers and 200 men. Our battalion was possibly about 900 when we went in so-but that was perfectly in line with the losses in the Somme battle. It lasted for five months, from the 1st of July until the end of November. And the losses were simply frightful because men couldn’t even move and get out of the way of shells because of the mud.
Q. And it was an entirely different kind of mud than Passchendaele.
Q. In fact it was real gumbo.
A. Yes, it was. And by then we were better organized a year later at Passchendaele because in order to help troops going in and out, duckboards were laid. I know that our battalion did a great deal of that, laid from back areas, right up to, fairly close to the front line. So that while these were heavily shelled by the Germans, there wasn’t anything like the same degree of fatigue entailed to the troops going in and out. But the shell fire was possibly worse at Passchendaele.
Q. Yes, but a lot fell into the mud.
A. Oh, yes.
Q. And if they exploded they scattered mud, not shrapnel.
A. That’s true. That was the end of our tour on the Somme. And we proceeded by route march up to the Vimy area (* about 60 km), where again the balance of the corps had preceded us.
Q. What you refreshed your memory with then when you wrote this, was this the April 9 business, this is?
A. That’s right.
Q. What about the abortive gas raid on the 28th of February.
A. That was a tragedy. That was our –
Q. You took a real beating there, didn’t you?
A. We lost very heavily there.
Q. Isn’t this where Kemball.
A. – If I might just describe it for a minute or two.
Q. Yes, please do.
A. We were told by a staff-officer, I remember I was a Company Sargeant Major at that time, had a meeting of officers and NCOs, and this chap told us that the gas would be sent over in two waves. That it was a new type of gas, that all rifles and field guns on the German front areas would be corroded instantly, and would be useless. And that it would be more or less of a party, just going over to snip a few epaulets off uniforms, and get identification. All Germans would be killed; I mean there would be no trouble that way at all. Well shortly before, in the last days of February 1917, (* bottom of page missing) …canisters or tanks of gas, they had to be carried up largely by ourselves into the front and immediate support lines, in our case up what we called Tottenham Court road, and Vincent Avenue, and one or two other trenches. And they were set in position, in such way that at a given time a tap could be turned on and the wind would blow the gas across to the German line. They were lined up there, very many of them, and-
Q. How broad a front would there have been.
A. The Germans were possibly -their front line was possibly oh two hundred and fifty yards from ours.
Q. What distance would the cylinders have covered.
A. You mean the cylinders themselves or the gas –
Q. No, the cylinders themselves, were they entrenched the whole length of the Vimy front or just one sector.
A. Oh, no. Just in our battalion sector. And I think the section of the battalion to the left, but I’m not –
Q. That’s what –
A. sure of that-quite a narrow front. It was really on our part, it was really a battalion raid, we weren’t attempting to take and hold ground.
Q. I see.
A. That’s the theory – that was the plan, we were to go over there, take identifications, blow in dugouts, and do all the damage we could, and then come back and have breakfast. However, on the morning, very early in the morning of the 1st of March, the wind turned variable, and it was being watched very closely by people in the front line, in the support line, in Battalion HQ, and the commanding officer, Colonel Kemball and endeavored …… (* bottom of page missing) after an hour or so, to get the operation canceled because as you will understand it would require a wind blowing from west to east, very steady wind, and blowing from west to east to carry the gas over. The gas was fairly heavy, and it would sink into trenches and shell holes and so on in a density much greater than on the ground above. So that it required a steady breeze. However, this variable wind continued, and the commanding officer was unable to get higher command to cancel the operation which was a very sore point with us latter on, we think that it was at least a division level, or possibly corps level, but in any case cancellation of the operation was refused. Colonel – it was in the cards that Colonel Kemball should go over, but he, being the type of man he was decided that he would lead the battalion over personally. Now we were badly smashed up, the Germans were waiting for us, they knew just as much or more about the raid than we did. And it was found out weeks later that they had listening apparatus, at least we were told so, right under, contained in tunnels right under our lines. And that from that source they had more or less tapped our plans. In any case, they simply – Colonel Kemball was killed in German wire, we lost two company commanders killed, and two badly wounded, and about 190 men in five minutes. It was a nightmare, absolute nightmare of a raid. And it happened just a month before Vimy, first of March, as against the 9th of April, and the result was of course, that we were very much weakened when Vimy came along.
Q. Now they definitely let the gas off, didn’t they?
A. Oh, yes. But the gas drifted down to – towards the right flank and partially diagonal manner, and it didn’t affect the Germans in front of us at all. Incidentally there was one very interesting incident. After the show was over, the Germans sent an officer, an unarmed officer out under a white flag, or Red Cross flag, I forget which really, a flag of truce anyway. And he came right out into no man’s land, and called for a Canadian Officer to come out and meet him and our man went out and. And the Germans offered a truce during which time we could get all our casualties in and they would assist us. And that was accepted. The Germans who came out were obviously handpicked men, they were all big fellows with new uniforms, looked very smart indeed. They carried our casualties, dead and wounded, halfway across no man’s land, and we picked them up and packed them in. Then after the given time, that was finished, and the picnic started again. But I never saw that done anywhere else, all our time in France.
Q. And it was really in deference to your Colonel.
A. It was, it was. Because – a party of them brought Colonel Kemball’s body over. And they treated it with the greatest respect, and I think one of them spoke English, I think one of them, I wasn’t there. Said something to the effect, here is – I think they had his name, Colonel Kemball – and he, he and his officers were buried and the men, of course altogether in a ceremony – a cemetery at Villiers.
End of Tape 1
Tape 2 of 2
( * I think this is AWJ humour about April Fools)
The Vimy show is very vivid in my memory. I had been commissioned on the 2nd of April, narrowly escaping the 1st (* I think this is AWJ humour about April Fools).
And on the night of the 8th of April we proceeded to the line, as usual it was pitch dark, pouring rain, and the Germans were very nervous and were shelling very heavily as we went forward from the Music Hall line, down and across Zouave valley and entered the tunnels under the ridge. The battalion going up to the attacking trenches or assembly trenches went up in the normal way. But I personally was held out of the action, actual attack, as a kind of reserve officer, and had to stay with battalion HQ. They — the attack went off about dawn, they had snowing at the time, the ridge was in an appalling mess. Shell hole to shell hole practically the whole way across, interspersed with mine craters, barbed wire, all the shell holes were full of water. It would have been very difficult just taking a walk across there in normal attire, without the loads that we took, and under the conditions we went. However, the general plan for the 54th Battalion was that we would follow the 102nd Battalion in our sector. They were to go roughly half way across the ridge, we were to follow them up and go through them, and advance to the far side, or the eastern side of the ridge, facing out over the plain of Douai, toward Lenz or Lens. Now, some hours after the action started, reports were coming in as they normally would, but they were at odds. Reports from our right flank were to the effect that we had, we had got part way across the ridge and then gone through the 2nd Battalion and were held up by a machine gun sniper fire considerable distance across the ridge. Reports from our left flank, on the other hand, were stating that they were pinned down a very few yards out from their starting point by German machine guns which had apparently been missed by our barrage. The battalion on our left was also held up. These machine guns, or these strong points had been, the barrage had fallen behind them, and the result was they were unharmed and they simply swept the ground in front of them, and the left flank battalion, and our left flank were held up. But that was not realized, or not known by the commanding officer and he was very confused with these conflicting reports. He detailed me to go up to the front, see what the situation was, carry out any reorganization of the battalion which seemed to be necessary, then get them over somehow to their objective which was some 5 or 6 hundred yards further on as it turned out from where they were. I had no escort except one Lewis gunner and half a dozen middle aged batmen to carry ammunition, and we set off as the good book says, we fetched a compass out to the right flank, because the danger was on the left flank. We were guided by two young Kamloops boys, George Ellis and Eric Grisdale, fine young lads, both got the Military Medal that day. And they eventually landed us in a trench held by the 42nd Battalion Canadian Black Watch. We were being sniped at rather badly, and the Lewis gunner, my own right boxer, got hit just as we jumped into this trench. I left him with the attendants to look after him, and moved along the trench. I finally came to the left flank where I found that the 54th and 102nd, or the remnants of them, were all together. There were about 90 men of the 54th, and there were a few more of the 102nd, 102nd officers were all casualties and so were the 54th officers. So as a young fellow of 25 I found myself in command of the remains of two battalions. Our left flank up in the air and Germans all around us. I sent in a report on the situation, and then I started sorting out the men, getting the 54th on the exposed flank, and the 102nd on our right. I remember putting in a strong point with three Lewis guns on our left flank to ward things off. Then I decided that I would go forward myself, and see what I could find out about the situation in front. I knew there must be scores of our men pinned down in shell holes by the snipers and the same with the 102nd, probably far more than we had in our body in the trench. I got the, a volunteer, a young chap Bob Hall from the Arrow Lakes district to come with me. We crawled and crept down five or six hundred yards to our side of the ridge, on the east side. There was the plain of Douai looking out on – below us, with hardly a mark on it, looked just like a succession of farmers’ fields. It looked extraordinary to our eyes after the scenes on the ridge. I posted Hall at the end of these communication trenches, then we came down, obviously main German trench and I worked my way along. First in one direction and I observed quite a number of German posts, all manned. And I went along in the opposite direction, near the Folie Wood, and found the same thing, so I realized that the line there was fully manned by German troops. We came back the same way we went but part of the way up there a sniper sighted us, and gave us close attention all the way up. Finally, he got Hall and through the back, and I got down on my tummy in the bottom of the trench. The idea of crawling out to pull him to shelter. A couple of bullets in quick succession just chipped the chalk above my head although I was right down on my tummy. The sniper must have been up in a tree, up on high ground. Anyway I retreated very quickly, without any hesitation. I got back to our line by another route, crawling most of the way. By the time I came down again from the top end Hall was dead. But we had a series of bombardments during the day, that is we suffered them, then night came on and the 85th Nova Scotia Highlanders were sent up under darkness and they came through and drove the German snipers out and filled in the gap on our left flank, and the line became continuous from then on. The trouble we had been getting was mostly from a small pimple of a hill, I think it was called Hill 141, if I remember correctly. High ground, and possibly my sniper was up on Hill 141. But anyway we were relieved the following night, and as usual went back to recover, as it were. It was a tough do, and we lost again, we had gone into the line with a great many inexperienced officers and men as a result of the March gas raid, and many of our casualties were probably due to that reason. We lost about 220 officers and men in that day. So that we were again down to nearly skeleton strength.
Q. Vimy was a very contradictory show, it was very easy for some, very difficult for others. You can’t really describe the battle in any one term.
A. It was a vast battle. Of course we are very apt to think of it as a Canadian battle, whereas it wasn’t at all. The 51st Highland Division (* Scottish unit) were the right of the corps, and took full part in it although the ridge in their direction was no so much of a ridge, it was more of a rolling country. And I’m not at all sure that there wasn’t another division on their right. Our 4th Division, including the 54th Battalion, was in the left flank division, and we were one of the unlucky ones. We had a tough tough time. Possibly our inexperience had something to do with it.
Q. Vimy all round was a disaster for the 54th, wasn’t it?
A. Yes, yes it was.
Q. Yes, I think the significance in terms of Vimy being, if you will, an all Canadian show, which you have just disputed of course, but really in terms of its significance in Canadian history is of course – the first time the Canadians had fought as a complete unit.
A. There is one thing too which I don’t think people today realize is that the Canadian Corps of that day were a most efficient instrument and the Canadian corps and the Anzac corps, Australians and New Zealanders, the Guards (* U.K. troops), there were several divisions of Guards, their divisions, the 51st Highland Division, these were regarded as – and especially latterly toward the end of the war, the last year of the war, they were regarded much the same category as what the Germans called shock troops. And they were kept for attack purposes. The Germans knew very well that if the Canadians appeared on a certain front, or the Australians, or the 51st Highland, that they could expect trouble. And they prepared for it.
Q. This is why they were so careful in preparing for the Amiens on the 8th of August.
A. Yes, that was directly in my mind as I spoke just now.
Q. Marched and down, never marched in daylight at all.
A. They actually sent a unit to the Ypres salient. (*a diversion so Germans focus at Ypres. About 200 km march one way)
Q. And lugged them all the way back.
A. I think they permitted identification, or they arranged identification of Canadians up there. Our journey (* about 75km) down to the Amiens on August of ’18 was done at night, and no movement whatever allowed during daylight hours. So that is was I think, a very complete surprise indeed.
Q. Well before we get to August 1918, Captain Jack, what about Hill 70, and Lens, Passchendaele, and so on.
A. Yes. Hill 70 was more or less of a second division show, in fact we were not involved in Hill 70. We were to the south, our front lay to the south, that is between Hill 70 and the Souchez Canal, and fronting on Lens itself, or its suburbs, Lieven, and cite de M.
We put in the summer of 1917, on that front. And I wound it up with a two-party raid, at a point where the Vimy-Lens road enters Lenz, that is the road came from Arras through the village of Vimy and into Lenz. And we raided there. It was very successful, we got prisoners, and we kept some of the ground we captured. It was practically altogether a hand grenade raid, quite different than trench warfare. In that you were, you were – you had to do all your preliminary scouting in, amongst ruined houses, and in cellars, and in back lanes, and so on and so forth, but completely outside the trench area. And the German posts and our posts were in ruined houses. Lenz at that time was a city of 50,000 people, before the war. But I don’t suppose that there was one house that was still intact in it, I’m quite sure there wasn’t, there certainly wasn’t in our area. They were all in a state of demolition and the only cover you had really, were bits of wall sticking up here and there. But the cellars very often were intact.
Q. And I understand they had great connecting cellars too.
Q. They all seemed to be broken through and you could go-
A. Well the cottages very often were all built in a row, attached to each other and all you had to do was remove the bricks from the wall of the cellar and you were into the next cellar, and you could go right along the street that way. We found, as a matter of fact we found that the Germans had done that and when we occupied and advanced and took these places from them, we utilized the same thing. You could travel along a street without ever appearing above ground.
Q. What about Passchendaele itself, the 1917-
(* Alec was married in Inverness October 29,1917 so clearly had leave during part of the October 26 to November 10, 1917 Passchendaele activities)
A. The 54th Battalion, was sent up to Passchendaele ahead of the Canadian Corps and was attached to the Australian Corps. For some reason or other, they thought we were pretty good with pick and shovel. But in any case, we were utilized to build these duck walk lanes, you might call them, from the rear area up to close to the Zonnebeck road, Abraham Heights. They were subsidiary lanes leading off to-and as I explained once before they were used for the troops going out and in, for ration parties, and ammunition carrying parties. And they covered an area which otherwise would have been completely impossible to operate on because it was a low lying country, as Belgium is all over, and the valleys which we had to traverse had been drained in the old days. They had drainage systems, they had several creeks, or what they called beeks, Steinbeek, and various beeks. And the shell fire had busted all this drainage all to pieces, and the result was a morass absolutely. And these duck walks, as we called them, were as I say essential to movement. Of course they were targets for artillery and there were a lot of casualties going up and down. But I think there a good deal less than there would have been without therm. And certainly there was less fatigue. The troops got into the line and got out of the line much easier because of them. Then the balance of the corps arrived. We were not involved in any attack in the Passchendaele campaign. We were in the line several times and that in itself was a pretty assignment. I can recollect going once going in with two officers. There as in the Somme they always tried to leave at least one, possibly two officers, and some of the senior NCOs out of the line, on each trip. So that if any disaster happened there would be the nucleus of something to build on. And I took two officers in, my second in command, and one other officer. I lost them both. One was blinded completely and the other chap had a shell burst behind him and his back was badly wrenched and he was useless. So we sat it out there for four or five days, and they were pretty exciting-SOS going up right and left and centre, German attacks would start, and luckily none happened on our line, on our sector of the front. But it was a 24-hour vigil every day, and by the time that four or five days were over well nobody had any sleep to speak of, pretty well all in. But that was about the story, there was no death or glory for us particularly.
Q. The final push came at Amiens on the 8th of August 1918, and that was almost the end of the war for you. But you were there at the beginning of the big show.
A. Yes. The 8th of August, was afterward labeled as the Black Day for the German army. It was an attack put on by the Canadian Corps, and the Australian Corps on our left, and by French units on our right. The 54th Battalion right flank, and my own company, A Company right of the 54th advanced along the road from Amiens to Roye, the Amiens Roye road, and the French army were just across the road. We, the 3rd division preceded us, we advanced to a certain line and we were to go through them and proceed another couple of miles, I guess or a mile and a half, and capture the village of Beaucourt-en-Santerre
For some inexplicable reason, the French were to advance I think an hour and a half after we did which was very very wrong because as we went forward naturally it gave the Germans who were just across the road from us, nice opportunity to enfilade fire. Well anyway that’s the way it was. After we got our objective we sat back and watched the French advancing on the other side of the road. To the 54th it was more or less a picture-book advance, it was really our introduction to open warfare. We went through the line of the 3rd division, in which time we were in artillery formation. Then we broke out into sections, and eventually into extended order. All as one would do when practicing on a training ground. Then we began to come under fire, we had a scout fringe line out in front of us, and they were sending back information all the time. We lost several officers and quite a number of men before we got to our objective. The tanks were supposed to come through, or rather we were supposed to follow the tanks. Our advance was not supposed to start until the tanks went through us, and then we were to follow them but they were slow, and I got word back that the cavalry patrols were already in Beaucourt-en-Santerre which we had to capture. So I – we advanced right away. We saw more cavalry, mounted men for the first time in action. We didn’t envy them one bit. When machine guns are busy, it is a good thing to be close to the ground and not mounted up on a horse. We saw a lot of the poor animals hit. It wasn’t very nice. However, they were chased out of Beaucourt-en-Santerre and we eventually went in and took it. We had, as our particular objective, A Company, an imaginary line across a very level piece of ground. We came under shell fire once we attained that objective. But we came under fire from of all things, anti-tank guns. These guns had wiped out five tanks on our particular front inside, in less than five minutes. Firing amour-piercing shells, and the tanks just burst into flames and everybody inside was just incinerated in the tank. We had two officers in those tanks ourselves. They were supposed to go forward and drop an infantry officer and four or five men with a Lewis gun, and away forward perhaps behind the German line, you see. And harry them until the next advance the next advance pushed through. But these particular chaps never got anywhere, they got theirs right there. But anyway these anti-tank guns then turned on our targets and they were very unpleasant because they were very high velocity, and they shot almost along the ground and a shell would hit the ground and then bounce. And might bounce right over your head, or might bounce right into you. But they were very unpleasant things.
Q. Point blank range too, I think.
A. Well I suppose. I don’t know just how far away they were. I don’t think they ever located them but they were too close anyway. It was as I say, a model as far as we were concerned. There had never been an advance since the days of the Mons, of that extent, that penetration.
Q. How far did you go that day by the way?
A. I think-now I am pretty hazy on that, but I think the advance must have been five or six miles, that is the whole of it, advance of the Canadian corps.
Q. That must have been ten (*times) as far as you had ever gone before.
A. The days of trench warfare, if you went 100 yards you were really going places.
Q. Was it a continuation of this where you got knocked out
Q. can you describe it to me?
A. Yes, we moved from the Amiens front up to the Arras area. Operations had started there by one or two of the Canadian divisions who had proceeded us up there. I think on the 26th of August. We were slated for the second September. We started the advance at dawn, crossed the Arras-Cambrai road on a very, I would say very acute angle, and followed up a battalion of the 12 Brigade, the 38th Battalion. I think, who had an objective right in front of us. We were supposed to leap frog through them, as the saying was, and proceed to the Canal du Nord, which was oh several miles ahead. We got – A Company (*AWJ’s) were leading that particular morning, and we got into a trench, partway forward and found the 38th Battalion there. They were supposed to advance some distance further to, I think, to the red line as it was designated. I had my orders, and I imagine my neighbouring company commanders had orders, not to proceed any further until the 12th Brigade took their objective as laid down. But things were very hot, and the 38th Battalion didn’t get much further, didn’t get any further as a matter of fact. We on our left flank, there was a ruined windmill, and in that windmill which was possibly 25 feet off the ground, and the ground was – extremely level, there was a nest of German machine guns. They were sweeping the ground at different levels, as I found out later. And made it extremely difficult, I mean you just had to get up and go forward and that was yours. So the 38th didn’t get further forward and after a time I got a note from my commanding officer to the effect that the battalion on out left had decided that they were going to jump off anyway. He said if they go, conform and go with them. I got the message at 8:40, at least it was dated, time date on the second of September 1918. So we saw our flanking battalion starting out, so we climbed out. Went forward, one platoon after another, extended order. And we immediately came under heavy machine gun fire. Men were pinned to the ground, and really were just lying out there, it was as level as the floor here. They were just pinned to the ground with their noses in the turf, trying to make themselves as little a target as possible. But we had to get moving and we eventually did. It was quite a chore, I had moved-gone forward to the leading platoon, and got them moving. I was on my way back to the next platoon in line to them to stagger on when something hit me. Felt like I imagined a blacksmith’s hammer would. It was quite a shock but I had got a machine bullet through my right thigh. I found myself on the ground, I had my prismatic compass in my hand, we were traveling on a compass bearing you see. I must have dropped it right there, because I never saw it again. But the platoons kept going, and left me on the ground, and from then on there was nothing much to it. Was a bit of shell fire came along and I managed to edge my way in between two corpses, and that was the only shelter I had. Finally, a kiltie came along, and he was wounded, he was walking wounded, going to the rear. So I gave him a call and he came over, and gave me an arm and with a discarded rifle under the other arm, I staggered down to a place where our medical officer was. I was put on a stretcher and patched up. That was about the end of except that they grabbed a number of German prisoners that were captured and made them carry stretchers of wounded down there, on the road towards Arras. I was laying on my back, looking up at the sky, and feeling not to unhappy at all. Everything was pretty well all right.
End of Tapes.