We Are The Dead

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 In November 1998 Gloria Gray, an English and drama teacher at Carleton Place High School asked her husband, Larry to assist with a project. Gloria was responsible for the school’s Remembrance Day services and she was looking for more than a just a reading of names from the local cenotaph. Gloria wanted to put faces to the names. Larry thought this was a terrific idea and started to work.

What started as a simple list of biographical information became the book “We Are The Dead”, published by General Store Publishing House in 2000. Over the course of thirty one chapters, Larry Gray tells the story of the war and the forty-six young men and one woman who are commemorated on the cenotaph in Carleton Place Ontario. Using their own words, from letters, poems, newspaper articles and military files, Larry provides the setting of the war years.

One of those thirty one chapters tells about Railroaders and William Fraser. With the author’s permission, that chapter is reproduced here.

We are the Dead
Larry Gray
Chapter twenty-one
Railroaders

In 1914, Canada, foreseeing problems in the transport of supplies over a broad front, offered to raise railway units for service in France. The offer was rebuffed by the Imperial General Staff. However, when they learned, slowly, that their motor transport was not capable of the job, they condescended to let Canada raise two railway battalions complete with rails for service in France.

The Canadian Overseas Railway Construction Corps was composed of 540 selected volunteers from the Canadian Pacific Railway. Recruiting was completed by May 15, 1915. All the men were experienced construction workers. Each had to pass a test as to his technical ability. This nucleus was to grow to thirteen battalions of Canadian Railway Troops, three battalions of Skilled Railway Employees, Railway Bridging Companies and Railway Company drafts and depots. In the last year of the war, there were 8,000 men in active construction work and another 4,000 on repair duties. These soldiers were responsible for the construction and maintenance of railways of all gauges, including light railways, in France and Belgium. Some were formed as Royal Engineer units but after the formation of the Corps of Canadian Railway, they became the responsibility of the Officer Commanding the Royal Canadian Engineers, although there never part of the Canadian Engineers military structure.

The equipment these troops brought with them had never been seen in Europe. Steam shovels, graders, cement mixers and thousands of specialized construction implements helped the corps lay 1,169 miles of heavy track and 1,404 miles of light track during one six-month period. They also built cement gun emplacements that could not have been constructed with manual labour. The expedited the delivery of supplies and manpower and eventually controlled all railway marshalling yards in France and Flanders. [1]

One of these railroaders, a man from Carleton Place, was Sapper William Fraser. The railroad troops adopted the rank structure of the Canadian Engineers, hence the rank of sapper.

WILLIAM FRASER

William Fraser joined No. 1 Section of skilled Railway Employees (SRE) in Ottawa on January 4, 1917. This was a railway construction battalion. He gave his trade as “roundhouseman” and his qualifications as a machinist’s helper. On enlistment he gave his address as Pakenham and his next of kin his wife, Laura Elizabeth. He was assigned the regimental number of 2124809.

William was born in Dundee, Scotland, on September 2, 1872. At age forty-four, like most of the SRE, he was considerably older than the infantry enlistees. Being Scottish, he was also a staunch Presbyterian. At his enrollment medical examination he was found to weigh 121 lbs, stand 5’6” tall with a dark complexion, light brown eyes and dark hair. He wore a full mustache.

These specialized troops needed no trades training. Nor was there a requirement for them to practise or perform rifle drill. They needed only to endure some military foot drill. They were paid their normal civilian working pay plus military pay of one dollar a day for engineers and yardmasters, 80 cents for firemen, 90 cents for conductors and mechanics and 70 cents for brakemen. The men of No. 1 Section SRE were transferred to No. 2 Section and on March 1, 1917, Spr William Fraser was given a credit balance of $10 as a uniform allowance for the months of January and February.

No. 2 Section of the SRE, along with No. 13 Light Railway Operating Company which had been mobilized in Montreal on January 27, 1917, boarded His Majesty’s Troopship, the S.S. Grampian in Halifax on April 16, 1917. They sailed two days later, and arrived in Liverpool on April 29. They were sent to Burfleet but, by May 7, 1917, were residents in camp at Aldershot. The entire unit was sent on leave from 4:00 p.m. on May 11, 1917, to 9:00 p.m. on May 17. When they returned for duty with the Royal Engineers of the British Expeditionary Force, there were credited with six days allowance of one shilling, nine pence, in lieu of rations.

At home, William’s wife moved. On June 1, he officially changed her address to Carleton Place. On June 9, the Operating company went to France aboard the S.S. Viper, but William was transferred to the Railway Troops Depot to take instruction in the operation, maintenance and repair of petrol-electric locomotives and petrol tractors. These courses were conducted at the school in Apple Pie Camp, Longmoor, Hants. Fraser went to France on July 9 and caught up with his unit on the 10th.

To follow William’s activities in Flanders, reference is made to the War Diary of the No. 13 Light Railway Operating Company. They were at Coxyde, Belgium at the time of writing in August 1917:

23.8.17 – Things running smooth. A game of baseball was played today between our boys and the 1st Canadian Casualty Clearing Station and we lost to the tune of 15 to 3. The first game of amusements since landing in France.
25.8 – track blown up
26.8 – Engine 1276 derailed. Track in bad condition … shelled very badly this date. 14 cars ammunition moved up to Coxyde for safety.
27.8 – heavy shelling at Coxyde. Track blown up.
29.8 – Enemy shelling Coxyde very badly at 10 p.m.
30.8 – Everything very quiet.
31.8 – Still no broad gauge train in. engine 1214 over on its side near aerodrome … shelled. Derailed one repair car and engine 1300 – one shell dropped in front of the tents.
1.9.17 – 1:30 a.m. Month started very badly for this unit. A shell struck a dug-out at Oost Dunkirk where there was four of our men in. killing three and the fourth was badly shell shocked … Rained during the day. The three men were buried in the afternoon at Coxyde.
2.9 – Fine day. Quiet as regards work.
9.9 – 125 men sent to XV Corps rest station and they need it for there wasn’t much sleep to be had in the last camp owing to the continual bombardment each night.
10.9 – men ordered back from rest camp owing to us having orders to move out to another area.

The Almonte Gazette of September 21 noted that, “Mrs. J.A. McIntosh received word last week that her brother, Pte. Wm. Fraser, had been killed in action. Pte Fraser was living at Packenham [sic] previous to enlistment.”

Spr. William Fraser was listed as killed in action on Saturday, September 1, 1917, at Rouen. The official commemoration has him belong to the 13th Canadian Light Railway Operating Company, Canadian Railway Troops. He would not have recognized the name since the unit was reorganized in September, after his death, and the word “Canadian” was added only in November 1917. Fraser died while asleep in a dugout at Oost Dunkirk. He and two comrades were instantly killed when an enemy shell made a direct hit on the dugout.

Coxyde was about ten kilometres behind the front line. The cemetery had already been begun by French troops when they were relieved by the British in June 1917. The village was used for rest billets and was occasionally shelled, but the cemetery was found to reasonably safe. It was used at night for the burial of the dead from the front line. There were over 1,500 1914-1918 war dead commemorated at this site.

After his death, William’s widow and five of their six children moved to 171 Frank Street in Ottawa and it was so that address his medals were sent. By then the oldest boy, Lawrence, was in England with a signals regiment training for action at the front. Laura received a special pension bonus of $80 and a gratuity of $100 for the loss of her husband.

[1] Stewart, Charles H. “Overseas” The Lineages and Insignia of the Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919.  Toronto: Little & Stewart, 1970. p. 149

Larry Gray served twenty four years in the Royal Canadian Air Force as a navigator. During that time he had an interest in Military History and has had the opportunity to tour World War I battlefields, including the Vimy Ridge Memorial.

The book “We are the Dead” is still available from the publisher General Store Publishing House  http://gsph.com/index.php?route=product/product&path=60_64&product_id=278

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WWI Veternas of Guysborough County

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Bruce MacDonald of Antigonish, Nova Scotia has a blog “World War I Veterans of Guysborough County” (http://guysboroughgreatwarveterans.blogspot.ca/). The goal of the blog is to compile a biographical sketch of each WWI veteran who was born and/or lived in Guysborough County.

With 38 posts to date, he has the story of 19 individuals and a side story providing information of the unit/corps/situation. As a bonus, Bruce has provided references for each post, including online sources.

The Canadian Military Engineers are well represented with the following stories:

Pte. James Leo McDonald – A Canadian Forestry Corps Soldier’s Story / The Canadian Forestry Corps – http://guysboroughgreatwarveterans.blogspot.ca/2012_02_01_archive.html

Lance Cpl. Frank Burton ‘Burt’ McLane – A Sapper’s Story / BEF & CEF Tunnelling Companies – http://guysboroughgreatwarveterans.blogspot.ca/2013_01_01_archive.html

Sapper Francis ‘Frank’ Stewart Manson – A ‘CRT’ Soldier’s Story / Canadian Railway Troops – http://guysboroughgreatwarveterans.blogspot.ca/2013_02_01_archive.html

THE SECOND CANADIAN TUNNELLERS AT MOUNT SORREL

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KLEIN ZILLEBEKE, SEPTEMBER 1916.

By Peter Barton – Parapet Productions

By the beginning of 1916 German forces dominated every ridge on the arc of the Ieper and Messines Salients – except one. At Mount Sorrel between the Menin Road and Hill 60 allied troops had repeatedly held out against persistent attempts to capture a bastion which had become a thorn in the German side. The stalemate at Mount Sorrel typified the attack and counter-attack nature of the Western Front where complex fortifications were proven time and again to be either unbreakable or untenable. Here on the sandy knolls adjacent to Armagh and Sanctuary Woods, as in many other locations, the deadlock on the surface was also mirrored in a bizarre and highly secret conflict fought deep beneath the killing fields of no man’s land.

Mine warfare in the Ypres Salient had been growing in intensity since the early days of the war. Its origins in ancient siege warfare were replicated on a grand scale in the stasis of trench warfare, and military mining flourished. By the middle of 1916 it was widespread along the full length of the Western Front and vast labyrinths of underground galleries had been driven by British, German, French, Australian and Canadian engineers. These men were engaged in a private war, a war which was largely divorced from that being waged on the surface, and one which contained almost unbelievable drama and heroism – yet it remained almost unreported for many decades after 1918. In September 1916, the Mount Sorrel tunnels hosted one of the most extraordinary underground incidents of the Great War. What happened beneath the surface was overlooked by diarists and historians at the time. It would be almost 40 years later that the story was at last retold by Lieutenant John Westacott of the 2nd. Canadian Tunnelling Company – who had seen more than enough of the affair.

It was not uncommon for a section of tunnellers to struggle cold and wet from their shaftheads at the end of a night shift to find a different battalion holding the front line trenches to that which had been in possession the previous day. On the morning of September 16th. 1916 Lt. John Westacott and his sergeant emerged blinking from the cramped and sodden depths. Vibrations from heavy shelling had shuddered down into their subterranean workings during the night and Westacott wanted to check for shell damage to his mine entrances on the surface. In their heavy rubber boots the two men began to negotiate the narrow traverses of the front line trench; from the battered state of parapet and parados it was clear there had been artillery action.

When his 80 man section had dissappeared into the depths six hours earlier the front lines had been garrisoned by British and Canadian troops, but as Westacott began his reconnaissance and turned into the very first firebay he found it was no longer occupied by the usual grubby and disgruntled khaki-clad Tommies, but by men in field grey – Germans! Unknown to the tunnellers working 10 metres below, the line had been lost during the night – the shelling they had heard and felt had been the precursor to a successful enemy raid. Westacott had almost collided with the German soldiers – the surprise and disbelief was mutual – both parties glared at each other for a moment before the Canadians turned, ran, and leapt into the nearest shaft, shouting for the alarm bell to be rung.

The Germans soon followed. Clambering into the narrow shaft they came singly at first, and man after man was sent down the ladderway into the galleries beneath. As each arrived at the bottom they were grabbed by the tunnellers, dragged around a corner, and shot. The Germans tried dropping two men at a time – with the same result. A dozen men had been killed when Westacott decided to blow the shafthead, and many other entrances along his half-mile tunnel system. Only one, which had been camouflaged with sandbags, was to be left undisturbed. Posting sentries at the bottom of each shaft to warn of any German attempts to dig through, he ordered all candles to be extinguished and electric torches to be checked. The Canadians prepared themselves for a fight.

Most of the tunnel galleries at Mount Sorrel were built in the ‘offensive’ style, just a metre wide and little greater in height – impossible for even the smallest of men to stand upright. A full section of tunnellers were now trapped inside the labyrinths beneath the hill, with all but one of their entrance shafts blocked; no pumps were working at the surface and it would not be very long before air quality began to deteriorate. Any underground fighting would make things infinitely worse. But Westacott had had personal experience of such a battle only a few months earlier and advised his troops carefully.

For the Germans, capture of the British mine system was matter of pride. They had at last seized Mount Sorrel after many attempts and many losses, and now commanded every ridge in the Ypres Salient; they were fiercely determined to hold it – and take final control of the underground battlefield as well. They decided to dig out a number of shafts to attack several tunnels at the same time. Below, Westacott spread his men out so that any point of entry could be swiftly reinforced. It was a game of cat and mouse – with no second place for the loser.

The Canadians were armed with revolvers, grenades, and a special kind of dagger with a short blade called a knuckle-knife which was strapped to the wrist by leather thongs and was devised so that when the fist was
clenched the blade projected at right angles to the hand – more like a claw than a knife. Everyone hoped they would not have to use them but, as Westacott had expected, the German troops broke through and began to advance down the tunnels. The Canadians waited in the darkness – and in silence – around barricaded traverses until the enemy drew close, and then opened fire:

‘ They kept rushing us, two or three men, with bayonets, and they were throwing grenades too. The place was smoky and the grenades were bringing a lot of the sap ( tunnel ) down with it. We were managing to hold them for three or four hours around the traverse, but then they kept smashing so much stuff in, the smoke was bad, we kept pulling our own men out – they got a lot of us you know.’

The Germans penetrated Westacott’s defences in several places and eventually the dreaded hand to hand fighting broke out. In close combat the beam of a torch was an easy target for a revolver so they had been extinguished – the fighting continued in impenetrable darkness. It was in these conditions that the knuckle-knife came into it’s own as it was light, easy to wield, and impossible to lose as it was tightly strapped to the fist. But the problem was now one of recognising friend from foe in the blackness – knowing who to kill and who not to. The mundane solution lay in the design of military uniforms – the German troops wore epaullettes on their shoulders, the Canadians had none. This meant that any potential foe had to be felt before he was stabbed :

‘ The only thing was to put your hand over quick, to feel if the man had any epaulettes. It was murder down there – I’ve had some shocking nightmares since. We lost a lot of men; in the rough and tumble and in the darkness they’d rush us and we’d lose two or three men. We got so jammed up that I decided to pull back, and I went back 50 yards or so to a sort of cross-roads where I could work from two points. We held that right up to the afternoon. We had a terrible scrap down there; he had a lot of men, he seemed to push them through just like a sausage machine. I’d never seen anything like it – as fast as we got them down, there would be somebody on top of you again. The corpses blocked the place right up, we had to drag them out before we could do anything. But we knew our mines, knew our own workings – they didn’t. The German infantryman was always at a disadvantage not knowing anything about tunnels, and it must have been frightening for them fighting in that small dark area.’

The struggle continued through the afternoon and parts of the galleries became choked with dead. The Canadians were exhausted, and sick from gas fumes from grenades and the smell of blood. The constant German pressure meant that it had not been possible to open a shaft entrance to clear the air and Westacott had been forced to give the only order possible : ” Fight it out until the end.” Towards late afternoon the enemy was still pressing :

‘We did our dressing where we could. We’d pull the men back round the corner and down to my own headquarters – we’d turned that into a dressing station. I got my own injury from a grenade. A few sappers and myself were in D Section  when the Germans blew out a corner of our barricade and started throwing grenades at us. I put my left arm up to protect my head from the blast and my elbow was shattered. I was blown off my feet by the explosion and then dragged out. Many of my men were gassed by the grenades – carbon monoxide.’

Westacott lay on the tunnel floor unaware that 60 of his 80 man shift had already become casualties. It was only a matter of time before the final debacle. But unexpectedly the German attacks began to dissolve :

‘ We could tell something was going on….the Jerries pulled out late in the afternoon – they sort of gave it up – something we were very thankful for. Those sappers fought well and never gave their ground. It was ‘no surrender’ with them, and they would have fought till the last man dropped. We could not have lasted more than a few hours longer before we should all have been gone as we had such a small number of men left, and these totally exhausted. ‘

But as time passed the silence became worrying – what were the enemy planning? More hours passed without further incident. On the morning of the 17th. September the tunnellers summoned the courage to creep from
their shafts to assess the situation on the surface. As they gingerly peered out into the trench they would experience one of those moments of supreme irony for which the Great War above all other conflicts is renowned – their first glimpse into the front line revealed a group of grubby Tommies making tea. During a night counter-attack the infantry had retaken their original positions and Mount Sorrel was once more back in British hands.

This counter-attack received great attention – the glorious pluck and spirit of the infantry was paraded across the front pages of every newspaper in the British Empire – whilst the endeavours of the Canadian tunnellers went unoticed and unsung. No decorations were received – not even a mention in despatches – as far as the rest of the world was concerned it had been another trench raid gallantly repulsed by the infantry.

Lt. John Westacott spent a year in hospital and was sent back to the Western Front in September 1917 on demolition and booby-trap detection duties. He never regained the use of his left arm.
‘ Tunnelling!! All the tension all the time – it was terrible. Because of the strain underground….. and the darkness. It did get you down a bit. Do you know – I’d send the batman for a mug of rum before I got out of bed in the morning!’

John Westacott
February 1960
With thanks to the Royal Engineers Museum

*********

Peter Barton is an established First World War historian, writer, filmmaker and consultant well-known for devising and leading archaeological excavations on the Western Front, especially those connected to tunnel warfare. His first venture underground was on the Somme in 1984.

He currently is involved in the La Boisselle Project, which is a detailed long-term archaeological, historical, technological and genealogical study of a battlefield in the village of La Boisselle, Somme. http://www.laboisselleproject.com/

Published with permission

Robert Service and the Canadian Engineers

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I’ve come across reports of an incident involving the poet Robert Service (The Cremation of Sam McGee, Shooting of Dangerous Dan McGrew) and the Canadian Engineers.

In the book Robert Service – Under the Spell of the Yukon, page 173, it is mentioned that Service was with the Engineers Oct 1918. This includes being with a recce party, which accidentally liberated Lille France.

From the web site http://www.RobertWService.com

” He returned to the war with a chauffeured Cadillac and an officer guide, to write about the Canadian Expeditionary Force for their government. In the course of his work he accidentally liberated the town of Lille. He wrote another book, with the manuscript title War Winners, a file of prose reports on the support operations working to keep the Allied forces in the field. He wrote it furiously to promote the war effort, and tore it up on Armistice Day, in disgust with everything about the whole conflict.”  http://www.robertwservice.com/modules/smartsection/item.php?itemid=4&page=2

Basically Service and the recce party entered Lille France before the official liberation of the city on 17 Oct 1918. Thus were seen by some of the local population as liberators.

However other than these two references, I have not been able to locate any other mention of Robert Service and the Canadian Engineers. The Engineer unit is not identified in either reference.