If Ye Break Faith

This blog is dedicated to the promotion of educating about the Canadian experience of World War One. To discover who we are as a nation in the 21st Century, we must understand our past.

Monday, 29 May 2017

When the Battle’s O’er

“With the forces at my disposal, even combined with
what the French proposed to undertake in co-operation,
I did not consider that any great strategic results would be
gained by following up a success on the front about Arras.”
-Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig
Despatches, pg. 82

By late spring of 1917, it had become evident that the results promised by the French Commander-in-Chief, General Robert Nivelle for his grand offensive were not to be realised.  In actual fact, the French Army was very near collapse: Nivelle ousted in disgrace and a growing unrest among its soldiers coming to a quick boil of outright mutiny; many details of which are still kept secret.[1]

Without the decisive breakthrough Nivelle had sought, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Armies, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, was now permitted as had been an agreed contingency to dedicate his resources to his preferred operational area of Flanders.  British troops were already in preparation for this new effort which would begin in June with the taking of Messines Ridge.; the overall objective was to secure the Belgian coast.

As a “necessary part of the preparations” for this attack in Flanders, Haig ordered his forces on the Arras front- which included the Canadian Corps- to continue limited and diversionary operations “sufficient to keep the enemy in doubt as to whether our offensive there would be proceeded with.”[2]

Very little of any of this would be known, beyond the abstract, to those most intimately involved in the implementation of these grand schemes; the ordinary front line infantryman, one of whom is caught in his own contemplations.

* * * * *

It were just after lunch when Sergeant Douglas came by.  I hadn’t noticed as I were set against a tree, looking up through branches no’ yet in full leaf, trying tae catch a gander at the ‘planes o'erhead.  Suppose it’s why I dinnae hear him an’ aw, the sky quite busy with the chop of their engines coming and going, but never really fading, while here and there, quite distant, thank goodness, the rumbling thunder of big shells bursting.  It gets so I dinnae really notice it ony mair, no’ when it’s that far off, and thair’s even times when I have to concentrate to hear it at aw.

Has a knack for doing this, does auld Douglas; a’ways finding ye for giving bad news after ye’ve had a good feed.  Mind, a tin of bully et cauld frae the tin isn’t a grand notion of a good feed; though it’s better than nothing at aw, and thair’s been plenty times of that.  Bad news is a’ways easier to take when thair’s at least something in yer gut.  It stops that sinking feeling what comes alang wi’ it.  Well, no’ stops it sae much as makin’ it no’ as bad.

            “Alright, Catscratch?” he asked as he drew up to the tree I were leaning against.

            “Suppose so, Sarge,” I says.  ‘Catscratch’ is what the older chaps in the platoon ken me as, coming frae ma first name being Felix and that no’ one in ten realising ma second name, Strachan, is no’ pronounced as it’s spelt.
            “Good.  Best get your men sorted.  We’re moving up to the line.”  There it was, then.  I’d some notion of it, as the reason why ma lunch was tinned beef was that the company kitchens had started packing up after breakfast.  Ye cannae spend aw this time abroad and no’ pick up a sense for these things.

            “Awright,” which wasn’t sae much ma agreement, but just the thing one says to make it seem like it was the thing tae be done as if choice played a part, “when do we go?”

            “Form up in Companies at eight, stepping off at eight-thirty,” he checked his watch.  “Gives us about seven hours.  Make sure your Section’s area is tidied up, nothing left behind.  Small packs are to be given over to Battalion Transport.”

            “Onything going on?”

Douglas shrugged.  “Routine; though it is a new part of the line for us.  Bert went up with the scouts and guides yesterday.  Talk to him is you want to know more about where we’re going.”  He made to leave, paused.  “Oh, and Catscratch, mind the new fellahs.  Be certain they know what to do.”

With that, he was aff, moving through the wooded glade what had been oor hame near tae a fortnight while oor Brigade had been in support.  What this meant was we were tae be ready tae gae intae a counter attack should the Hun put force against oor line. As that may no’ happen, oor day-tae-day was providing parties of men tae carry aw manner of supplies tae the front, or be given o’er tae the Royal Engineers as brute labour in fixing roads and laying rail.  This, after a fashion, had been another clue that we were tae be on the move.  Why else would I have had a spare moment tae sit against a tree and count aeroplanes?

We were that far back frae where oor front lines were now that we would be going o’er the ground we had that big scrap for last month.  That was a weird sensation, right enough.  Since the New Year, when the Division had been brought up, aw of us had been faced with that high ridge, with only oor imaginations tae fill minds with the battle tae come.  Now that had been and gone, we tramped aw o’er it with nae bother at aw, liked we owned it- which I suppose we did.

We’d certainly paid for it.  Frae what I heard, it were eleven thousand casualties in those four days of fighting, and that’s no’ considering the trickle of blood in the months afore while we set out patrols and raids in the getting ready for it.  That trickle was never fully staunched, and after that tough go at Easter, it kept up, a drip, drip, drip of small haunfulls of men day tae day tae day.  It’s that bloodletting as tae why Sergeant Douglas had charge of Six Platoon.  Oor officer, Mister Thorncliffe was awa’ tae England tae see about getting iron pepper oot his arm and face for having been too close tae a Hun bomb.  Hopefully he’d be back in due course, preferably afore the platoon picked up a new officer.  Seeing as how poorly it had gone for aw involved the last time that happened, best tae avoid a possible repeat of a bad show↟.

Mair important tae ma state of affairs was that this flow of life and blood these past five months tae get us where we were now is reason that I found maself with the ‘new fellahs’ Douglas had telt me tae mind. With nae work the day, the kitchens hitching up and these three lads put tae me just this morning it were a cinch we’d be moving tae the line.  Aw Douglas had tae give me was what I didnae ken- which was exactly when that move would be.  Now, besides squaring awa’ ma neck of the woods (no’ meaning a joke, there) I’d have tae do what I could tae give these lads enough of a lesson tae no’ do anything daft.  Solve that, and maybe they’d last lang enough tae learn something of substance.

With that thought rolling around ma coconut, I stood up tae walk o’er tae Two Section’s area and follow the Sarge’s advice in having a chat wi’ Bert Ellins, for what he might tell me of the road ahead; but no’ afore I put ma ain section on warning tae move.

            “Pretty rough up there,” he says, and lets me in on what he saw.  We’re holding trenches what used tae be well intae Fritz’s rear areas.  Meaning that what was his support lines were now oor front lines.  As support trenches, being further back aren’t usually dug as deep or fixed up as well as fighting trenches, and the whole lot has been under oor artillery for the best part of this year, Bert says tae me that they were pretty mean.  Just deep enough to be head high in most places, nae dugouts, very little in the way of revetting.  That’s no’ at aw comforting, especially with those what haven’t been up front afore.  New fellahs are awfy prone to sticking their heads oot tae have a look aroon’.

            “It’s been pretty brisk business for sniping on both sides,” Bert added, “everyone’s been working like mad to get the trenches in decent shape.  Wiring parties and patrols are going out every night.  Looks as though we’re fixing to stay a while.”

I trust Bert’s opinion.  No’ that he’s got ony mair information than the rest of us, but he’s that bright tae put what little we do ken intae the right picture.  After a moment when neither of us had much else tae say, he added, “Pretty dry, though.”

            “Well,” I says tae him, “at least there’s that.”

What he said which most concerned me was that we were, of course, holding ground which had been Fritz’s backyard.  I already ken that, but what Bert reminded me of was that aw roads, cuttings and approaches leading to oor lines were well ken tae the Hun, and his guns were dropping aw manner of guff here and there along these routes.  Bert had a few close calls himself the night afore.  Lucky for us, it were meant tae rain a wee bit tonight, which was nae guarantee, but at least a safe bet that Fritz wouldnae send o’er ony gas shells, which he’d been doing quite frequently of late.

Another thing struck me then as well.  If Bert were right, aw this work intae getting these trenches in shape meaning that we weren’t pushing ahead again ony time soon.  Well, just wha’ the Hell happened tae “This push will be the big one, boys,” aw the hoi polloi in their Chateau headquarters promising us that aw we’d been doing was gonnae knock the pegs oot of the Hun onyhow?  It set me thinking.

Near six months in the making tae have a go at that bloody Ridge, and near two months by that and we can still see it frae where oor front line is now.  I have nae idea how far it is from here to Germany, but it seems tae me at the rate we go, nane of us here now will see it.

It’s ma birthday in two months.  I’ll be nineteen, if I live.

* * * * * 

The monologue above is a work of imagination; but it closely portrays the realities of a Canadian soldier in late May, 1917.  The Battle of Vimy Ridge had been won, but an end to the war was nowhere in sight.  Situational specifics were drawn from unit War Diaries and their Appendices contemporary to 27-29 May 1917. 

The characters of Corporal Felix Strachan, Sergeant Basil Douglas and Corporal Bert Ellins feature in my ground breaking, realistically tense WWI novel, “Killing is a Sin” available in print and e-book from Amazon sites and by request at book retailers & libraries world-wide.  

[1] Meyer, G.J. “A World Undone: The Story of the Great War 1914 to 1918” Delta Books, 2006 pg. 540
[2] Boraston, JH, Lt Col. (ed.) “Sir Douglas Haig’s Despatches: December 1915-April 1919” JM Dent & Sons, 1919 pg. 101
Here, Felix hints at the plot of "Killing is a Sin"-the events of which he has, in this monologue, just recently come through.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Hot Courage

“Have reached black objective, in touch on right with
16th Bn. Am consolidating Black objective, awaiting
message from left.”-Maj. WJ Gander, O.C. ‘C’ Coy,
18th (Western Ontario) Battalion

By the time Major Gander had scratched the short note and sent it to Battalion H.Q., the three forward companies of the 18th (Western Ontario) Battalion (4th Canadian Infantry Brigade, 2nd Canadian Division) had held their portion of the Black Line for little more than half an hour.  The first main objective line in the battle for Vimy Ridge was mostly in Canadian hands, which would allow the advance to the subsequent reporting lines to continue as planned.  “At 6.05 a.m.,” the 18th Battalion War Diary records, “the Black Objective had been captured….The casualties up to this point had been very slight, considering the magnitude of the operations.”[1]  One of these casualties was Major Charles Gwyn, struck dead by machine gun fire just short of reaching the objective.  Major Gwyn had been the officer commanding the 18th Bn.’s attack, the vacancy now being filled by Major Gander.

Despite the loss of Major Gwyn, “one of the most…popular and efficient officers”[2] of the Battalion, the attack had maintained good order and momentum, taking the Black Line without loss of unit cohesion.  Most critically, for their part and for the battalions shortly to pass through them to assault the Red Line, they had gained their objective on time.

A battle on such a broad front incorporating a dynamic topography as Vimy Ridge was reliant on precise synchronicity, and time is an entirely fickle variable.  Attacking units were to advance behind a creeping barrage which had been arranged to the minute.  This fire plan could not be changed or adjusted on a whim.  Four Divisions had to reach each objective line nearly simultaneously or they would risk creating a gap of several hundred yards which a German counter-attack would be certain to exploit.

That the 18th Battalion was where they were; where they were supposed to be, when they were supposed to be there was owed entirely to one man and his quick response to the conditions encountered on the advance.

“Very little opposition was met with whilst capturing the first line of trenches.”[3]  Reports such as that from the 18th Battalion were fairly common.  The German Front Line had become untenable.  Pounded ceaselessly with high explosive and shrapnel, what was once a formidable obstacle had been ground down to a loose collection of shallow ditches which were passed by in the first few minutes of battle.  The troops were held up more by the fractured ground than by any hostile defenders.  “The ground was very broken up by shellfire and the going was very heavy owing to rain and snow.”[4] An
undesirable side effect of this, particularly in 2nd Division’s operational area was that all of the eight tanks seconded to the Division for the operation would ditch or be otherwise disabled before reaching the Black Line, due “to the extremely bad state of the ground.”[5]

While it seemed to be fortuitous for the assault to breeze through the forward lines, their vacancy was deliberate.  German tacticians had begun to realise the futility of a rigidly defended front line.  No matter how strong a position might be, a determined and consistent attack always had the potential of breaching it.  In addition, the pattern of softening up these trenches with overwhelming artillery fire prior to an attack did nothing for a heavy forward garrison than put men at risk for no conceivable gain.

No, the enemy was well disposed to let the attack “walk over” the now pulverised front line system.  The broken ground between the Canadian line and where the attack would be repulsed- the Main Line of Resistance; the Black Objective- would serve to slow progress and disperse tight formations as ways over or around shell damage were sought.  Plus, it was the ideal place to conceal machine gun teams with instructions to ravage the attack as much as possible before retiring to the MLR.  This tactic- colloquially known as “Elastic Defense”- had been created with the objective of draining strength and concentration from an attack so that when, much reduced and spent, it crashed against the main line it would be checked and then rolled up with units especially trained for counterattacks.  That was the ideal notion, anyway, and in early 1917 it was still a work in progress.

Nevertheless, three companies of the 18th Battalion, advancing abreast in platoon waves were through what little was left of the German front line in five minutes, and well on their way to crossing the support line in the same fashion.

‘C’ Company, Major Gander’s company, was the centre of the battalion’s advance, and just shy of the support line, where, among a knot of shallow trenches and communications lines, a solitary machine gun ripped into action, “doing considerable damage.”[6]  ‘C’ Company was checked, and if they were stalled for long, ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies on either side would have a hole between them and no way to fill it; precisely as this style of defense was designed to work.

Moments such as these; relatively small episodes of crisis, have the potential to overturn the outcome of the larger event of which they are part.  No amount of training can adequately prepare for these furious blinks of time, and none can predict how they might respond.  “Personality type,” says Professor Patrick Tissington, a psychologist who has studied such instances, “is not a good generic predictor of behaviour like courage.”  Rather, it is an intricate and unquantifiable combination of situational factors and both psychological and physiological responses. “What tends to happen,” Prof. Tissington has found, is that “a particular situation develops where an individual realises that someone has to do something (the individual) knows what that something is (and that they are) the only person who is able to do it.”[7]

I consulted with Professor Tissington because the individual in question on a muddy Monday morning a century ago, stalled with the rest of ‘C’ Company under the barking muzzle of a German machine gun was Lance Sergeant Ellis Wellwood Sifton, whose imprint on history up to this point had been unassuming in the least way.

L/Sgt Sifton, a twenty-five year old farmer from Wallacetown Ontario had sailed out with the 18th Bn. in April 1915, along with the troops who would form the 2nd Canadian Division.  “I am feeling fine,” is how he would close a collection of letters written to his sister, Ella, during the ocean crossing.  All evidence, particularly his service records, point Sifton out as being quite ordinary.  He accrued, in the eleven months between enlisting and arriving in France with his Battalion no mentions of merit, nor any charges; and had not even reported sick.  His promotions- to Corporal just prior to embarking for France and more recently (less than a month prior to Vimy) to Lance Sergeant give the impression of someone at least noticeable enough to be vested with the responsibilities of a Non-commissioned Officer.  Other than that, there is nothing which might lead to predicting what he might do in such a dilemma as faced him and his comrades in that hanging moment.

“Having located the gun, he charged it single-handed, killing all the crew.”[8]  The Battalion diary specifies that Sifton “attacked the Gun crew and bayonetted every man,” a feat, plainly speaking, of quickly stabbing five men to death.  Having gained the position, Sifton continued to hold out against a small enemy party advancing to the aid of the gunners.  He “held them off with bayonet and clubbed rifle until his comrades arrived to end the unequal fight.”[9]

With the German gun silenced, the advance to the Black Line continued unimpeded.  In the space of thirty-five minutes from Zero Hour, the 18th Battalion was on line, consolidating their gains and shoring up with flanking units, as Major Gander’s note stipulated.

Lance Sergeant Sifton was not with them.  One of his adversaries, in his dying throes managed to deliver a parting shot.  “In carrying out this gallant act he was killed, but his conspicuous valour undoubtedly saved many lives and contributed largely to the success of the operation.”[10]  His Victoria Cross would be awarded posthumously.

General Sir Henry Horne, General Officer Commanding First Army sent a congratulatory note to all units involved in the attack, specifically mentioning the Canadian capture of Vimy by saying: “To have carried this position with so little loss testifies to soundness of plan, thoroughness of preparation, dash and determination in execution and devotion to duty on the part of all concerned.”[11] In his last point, General Horne pays unnamed tribute to Lance Sergeant Sifton, and all the other unassuming Canadian boys possessed with hot courage.

The rush of raids, the tension of late night patrols, a great Canadian battle and men on the razor's edge between life and death are all part of my acclaimed premier novel

Now available from Amazon sites worldwide.

Some praise received for "Killing is a Sin":

“Really enjoyed the book, well done.”

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[1] 18th Battalion War Diary 09 April 1917
[2] 18th Battalion, ibid.
[3] ibid.
[4] 2nd Canadian Division War Diary, April 1917, Appendix 702
[5] 2nd Canadian Division, ibid.
[6] 18th Battalion War Diary 09 April 1917
[7] Quotes taken from correspondence between Author and Prof. Patrick Tissington April 2017
[8] Supplement to the London Gazette No. 30122, 08 June 1917, pg. 5704
[9] Nicholson GWL, Col “Canadian Expeditionary Force: Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War” Roger Duhomel, Queen’s Printer Ottawa, 1962 pg. 254
[10] Supplement to the London Gazette No. 30122, ibid.
[11] 2nd Canadian Division War Diary, April 1917, Appendix 704

Monday, 10 April 2017

Even the Bravest Among Us

“I cannot give an estimate of our casualties, but
 I believe they are severe”-Capt. TW MacDowell,
O.C. ‘B’ Coy, 38th (Ottawa) Battalion

Kingston, Ontario, January 1918

The young officer appeared a great deal more settled.  A recent medical board, convened to assess his condition had noted that he had begun to show much improvement.  Three months’ rest and observation in hospital seemed to have been sufficient to regain emotional control and his sleep had gone from frequent insomnia to being practically normal.  Although it seemed he was of good physical condition, he did complain of being more easily fatigued.  Well, that could be overlooked.  After all, the gentleman was only requesting a return to a staff position in England, not duty in France.  Other doctors had made note of the progress the patient had made, and now it rested with Major Russell, Canadian Army Medical Corps to make the final decision.

            “You’ve seen a fair bit of this war.  It wouldn’t be ill thought of if you remained at home.”

            “Thank you, Sir, but I must get back.  Surely I can be allowed to do what I can.”  He spoke evenly, and at a sedate pace.  The infrequent stammer seemed to have gone.  His hands rested naturally, the tremor also having diminished.[i]

            “It’s very admirable of you,” the Major admitted, “you’re certain about this, Captain MacDowell?”

            “Captain MacDowell!”  Only feet away, Kobus had to shout as he pointed towards the redoubt, the barrage overwhelmingly crashing down, taking over all sound.  Formed by staggered sandbags slightly raised from the trenchline, not ten yards away, two machine guns within it were hammering away at the advancing troops.  MacDowell looked about and could only account for Kobus and Hay, his company runners.

            “You two, follow me!” he ordered, “make ready with bombs.”

Vimy, France, April 1917

The first bit had gone famously.  ‘D’ Company had gained possession of the enemy’s front line.  Springing from a tunnel which led out into No-man’s Land a stone’s throw from the German trenches this first rush came directly behind the creeping barrage and these forward positions “had been taken with practically no opposition, and the other waves swept on after the barrage to their objectives further into the enemy’s line.”[1]  ‘A’ and ‘C’ Companies fanned out to the right; en route to clear out a series of fortified craters and gain touch with the left-hand battalion of the 11th Canadian Infantry Brigade.  Captain MacDowell and his ‘B’ Company were tasked with securing the “Main Line of Resistance,” a tangled intersection of trenches beyond the front line which was where the Germans were expected to stand firm.  Lifting and dropping sequentially, the barrage worked well to shield them on approach, but its protection was fleeting.  Once in, ‘B’ Company would have to clear out this position on their own while the artillery concentrated on BLACK Line targets in preparation for subsequent waves from the 78th Battalion.

Soon after breaching the MLR, a “nest of German Machine Guns were encountered near the junction of CYRUS and BABY”[2] trenches.  Once pointed out, Captain MacDowell knew exactly what to do.  Luck would have it, this wasn’t his first dance with a prepared MG emplacement.  “He led his company against an enemy position with great courage and initiative, capturing three machine guns and fifty prisoners,”[3] was the substance of his citation for the Distinguished Service Order he’d been awarded for actions at the Somme last fall.  Now, he’d have to do it again, and with only Kobus and Hay to assist him.  ‘B’ Company had become scattered, working in isolated groups.  The line, pummeled over a week’s heavy bombardment was no longer contiguous and now resembles a mess of disjointed, shallow ditches rather than a formidable defensive line.

“Captain MacDowell DSO 38 Bn. with his two runners bombed up BABY Trench and dislodged two of the guns, killing some of the crews and capturing on of the guns.”[4]  The men pursued the other gun and crew which had made haste to a dugout at the junction.  It turned out to be teeming with enemy troops still sheltering from the barrage.  Far more, it seemed, than was wise for the three men to face up to on their own.  All the same, the three here were all there was to work with.

“By a judicious amount of bluff, Capt. MacDowell fooled the enemy into thinking he had a large party with him.” Brought out in batches of twelve at a time between his runners, they were “dispatched towards our lines with a few parting shots.  The capture of this party was admirably carried out and it is due entirely to the bravery of Capt. MacDowell.”  Taking what turned out to be seventy-seven prisoners with just himself and two privates, MacDowell wasn’t able to accomplish this feat entirely clean.  “Some of the prisoners showed fight when they found out the smallness of the party.  This was promptly and effectively prevented from spreading by immediate and drastic measures.”[5]

When the last of them had been sent off, Captain MacDowell began work to organise his position into a strong point.  Very quickly, he scrawled out a report and sent it back to Battalion HQ.  It was now eight o’clock in the morning.

“A report came in,” Battalion logs note, 45 minutes later, “from Capt. TW MacDowell by runner, timed 8 a.m., that he was on his objective at BABY Trench.”[6]  Of that MacDowell had written “I am afraid is not fully consolidated.  The mud is very bad and our machine guns are filled with mud.  I have about 15 men near here and can see others around and am getting them in hand slowly….I cannot give an estimate of our casualties but believe they are severe….The 78th have gone through…The line is obliterated.”[7]  Suggesting Brigade machine guns would be well suited to the fields of fire he had, Captain MacDowell prepared to defend his position with what men he could muster.  “This is all I can think of at present,” he closed, “Please excuse writing.”[8]

Battalion HQ had no ability to help MacDowell for the time being.  The C.O. was wounded and ordered out of the line by the Medical Officer.  Major Wood had taken over operations, and ‘B’ Company wasn’t in the worst state.  No one was in contact with ‘A’ Company, and it was unknown if the right flank was secure at the craters or if contact had been made with 11th Brigade.

Claiming the large dugout which he had slyly wrested from the enemy as his headquarters, Captain MacDowell sent back another dispatch at half-past ten.  “There are only 15 men with me,” he reminded Battalion HQ, “of whom two are stretcher bearers.  The rifles are one mass of mud.  I have two Lewis guns and only four pans.  Both guns are out of action on account of the mud.”  He also couldn’t observe anything from the 78th Battalion which had moved beyond his post, except that there appeared to be wounded men out there.  Also out there were more German machine guns, pouring sporadic, grazing fire on his isolated outpost, keeping him pegged.  “I have no Subalterns or N.C.O.’s, and unless I get a few more men with serviceable rifles I hate to admit it, but we may be driven out.”[9]

Situation at Battalion HQ had settled in the hours between Captain MacDowell’s reports.  ‘A’ Company had lost most of its officers, so Brigade reserve troops had been sent to reinforce the right.  As MacDowell’s runner was relaying his own urgent need for more men, “Pte. GJP Nunney who had come in to get a wound dressed…volunteered, if he got a carrying party to go out again, get the ammunition and go over to Capt. MacDowell.”[10]

Such a party was pressed together, mainly from ‘D’ Company men.  Led by Lieutenant Kelty, they found Captain MacDowell and his band of fifteen still holding firm, using captured German rifles, which, having been in the dugout, were not stopped with mud.

Early in the afternoon, Captain MacDowell sent back a third note.  It had, aside from occasional bursts from those German guns out and to the left, quieted down a great deal.  He and Lt. Kelty had a chance to make a good survey of this dugout.  “I cannot impress upon you,” he told Major Wood, “the strength of this position and the value of it as a strong supporting point to the left flank.”  From this point, he could see Lens and other villages as well as enemy battery positions.  Taking the dugout intact had been a tremendous boon.  It had been home to troops fresh to the line and fully accoutered.  “The cigars are very choice,” MacDowell informed Wood with a slightly cheeky coolness, “and my supply of Perrier water is very large.”

“Tell Ken to come up for tea to-morrow if it is quiet.”

The room was quiet.  “Captain MacDowell?”

He shook his head, returning to the time at hand.  “Sorry, Sir?”

Major Russell smiled, thinly.  “I said that as to your request to return to duty in England, I’m recommending that there is no medical reason why you should not do so.”

            “Thank you, Sir.  I was hoping to be of some good use.”

            “I’m pleased you feel so well about it.  We’ll get you back as soon as can be arranged.”

Thain Wendell MacDowell was awarded the Victoria Cross for his extraordinary efforts on 9 April 1917.  In July, a bout of trench fever put him in hospital and thence to Canada for a month’s medical leave to recuperate.   While home, the strain of his time at the front pushed past his resolve and he was readmitted to hospital in Spetember, suffering a nervous break from “stress of service and shell fire.”  Symptoms of this had first begun after he was wounded during the action at the Somme for which he was awarded the DSO.

Severely debilitated with tremors, physical exhaustion, profuse sweating and palpitations underscored by frequent “attacks of crying,” Thain MacDowell spent three months under medical care.  The man he was came through to the surface and by January of 1918 was returned, by his own request, to a staff position at Canadian Forces HQ in London.

He demobilised in 1919 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and went on to a productive private life.  Lt Col. TW MacDowell VC DSO passed away at 70 years of age in 1960.

None could question the courage of a man with such decorations for valour, but perhaps the bravest thing he did was seek help for his invisible wounds.

No one need suffer alone.  If you or a loved one is affected by emotional or mental health concerns, it is a great strength to reach out for help.

In Canada:                 Veterans Affairs Crisis Line:
·        1-800-268-7708
·        TDD 1-800-567-5803

United States:            Veteran’s Crisis Line: call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1

United Kingdom:      Veteran’s UK Helpline: Freephone:0808 1914 2 18
Telephone (overseas):+44 1253 866 043
Normal Service 8.00 am to 5.00 pm Monday to Friday
When the helpline is closed, callers will be given the option to be routed to Combat Stress or The Samaritans 24hr helpline.

[1] 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade “Report on Operations on Vimy Ridge” War Diary, April 1917, Appendix 5
[2] 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade, ibid.
[3] Supplement to the London Gazette, No. 29898, 10 January 1917, pg. 454
[4] 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade, ibid.
[5] ibid.
[6] 38th (Ottawa) Battalion “Report on Operations of 38th Canadian Infantry Battalion” War Diary, April 1917, Appendix 2
[7] MacDowell, TW, Capt. “Battle Report, 8 a.m. 9 April 1917” 38 Bn. War Diary, April 1917, Appendix 3
[8] MacDowell, TW, Capt. Ibid.
[9] MacDowell, TW, Capt. “Battle Report, 10:30 a.m. 9 April 1917” 38 Bn. War Diary, April 1917, Appendix 3
[10] 38th (Ottawa) Battalion ibid.

* This narrative was compiled with information contained in the medical records of TW MacDowell. The conversation between MacDowell and Major Russell is dramatized.