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  • Writer's pictureArt Duval

The Men of Penetang Chapter 6 (Summer 1917)

Authors Note: Every time the troops would advance to the trenches the possibility of not returning was there. You never knew if you would be ordered to raid the other side's trenches, if they would raid you, or if this would be the day a shell exploded next to you. So these troops would have to be exhausted, but they would still face fines, as William Elliott did for falling asleep.

Richard Henry found himself on the wrong side of the line and ended up in a German hospital. Just a few moments before, he was probably trying to kill enemies when he received a gunshot wound. We don't know if he was on the offensive, but it must have been a bad day, shot up and in enemy hands. So, here is the story of the Men from Penetang through the summer of 1917. They would be moving through Arras, Vimy and Lens and onto Hill 70.

The 116th travels from Houdain to Arras, through Vimy and on to Hill 70.

I have found a new recruit for our unit. Richard Henry was a recent resident of Penetang who came from Muncey Ontario (South of London Ontario). Richard enlisted on the 28th of February and was witnessed by William Baxter. I was doing a little research for someone looking for their ancestor, and while trying a name variation of Richard Henry found this man's file. In this way, it seems he found me. So I will add his story, and he has quite the story to tell.

Richard was a tall man for the time at 5'10", he was also an older member of the recruits at thirty-seven years old. He was married, with a young daughter, and had a dark complexion and dark hair and eyes. Wounded in July of 1917, he would be captured and taken as a prisoner of war. The bullet that hit him broke his fibula and tibia and he would spend months in a German Hospital, behind enemy lines. In spring 1918, still suffering from his wounds, he was exchanged back to the Canadian side and eventually returned to Canada.

Field Hospital World war 1

Richard spent twenty-one days in a German Field hospital, probably unaware of what was happening in a foreign (enemy) hospital with a very injured leg. He would then spend eight weeks in a Belgium Hospital, again in enemy hands. He then was moved to Mons for 16 days, Mulheim for 55 days and continued to move around to various hospitals before being exchanged in the spring of 1918. I assume during that time he would have very little to do and almost no one to talk to. All this while his injured leg continued to bother him. The horrors of war are not always on the front lines.

His time in the hospital was not finished there. During this entire time, his leg was infected due to a piece (or pieces) of bone that had separated from the living bone and was necrotic.

Makes you wonder what treatment an enemy would get, and if he had been on our side would he have had such problems. Richard would survive the war but would suffer from his injuries until his death.

The men had been through Vimy and were now onto their next objective, Hill 70, but not before they would lose another man working on reconstructing a road.

A tank and it's predecessor the horse and wagon. On Lens Arras road World war 1

The 1st Battalion would return to the front lines in Early May. On May 3rd, they would be employed fixing the Lens-Arras road. Medore Joseph Dubeau would not return from that work party, weeks later he would be presumed dead. Joseph Dubeau was a young man of 18 (almost 19) when he signed up on November 1st 1915. He was unmarried, five foot eight inches tall and had a ruddy complexion, with grey eyes and black hair. He trained with the 157th, travelled with them to England where he would be transferred to the 1st Battalion. The 1st would be sent to France and after spending some time in the hospital with an illness Joseph joined his unit on the 14th of March 1917. He would be in the trenches and involved in raids for about two months before his death on May 3 Work parties were often bombed by planes, or had artillery fire on them, on May 3rd or soon after Medore Joseph Dubeau was lost to the fog of war. His body was never recovered, nor were the circumstances of his death known. He is remembered on the Vimy Ridge memorial as well as on the Cenotaph in Penetang.

The 116th Battalion would be reinforced and would take the place of the 60th Battalion. May and June went by with the men spending time rotating between the front line trenches and back at their billets where they would play baseball and soccer and various other sports.

On the 31st of May 1917, Herman Cordes missed the parade (daily military marching) and would lose a day's pay.

Spring would not come without its casualties, on the 12th of May in the trenches Philip LeMieux would be shot in the abdomen, Arthur Capistrand was suffering from arthritis and would return to Canada. On the 15th, Joseph Bellehumeur would be exposed to gassing by the enemy and would be removed from duty for awhile. He would recover and return to duty by the 19th. On the 31st of May, Dyson Johnston would be shot in both shoulders.

Taking the Offensive

Summer 1917 Lens to Chateau De La Haie

Aerial photograph of Sports grounds complete with baseball field not far from the front lines

On the fifth of July, the 116th would be withdrawn to Chateau de la Haie. For the first time in months, they would have a real shower. They were inspected and congratulated on winning the baseball championship and it was announced they would soon be in the middle of the action. They had mostly been in reserve but now they would be on the offensive. On the twelfth, they would move to Berthon Val Farm to practice for upcoming raids.

In July, Robert Parker was promoted to Sergeant (27-7-17).

Once again the men of the 116th would be practising for a raid, this time on a village close to Avion. There is a coal mine called Fosse 4 and the Germans were dug in around the slag heap and elevated railway line.

Auchel to Avion

The men set up a practice area and practised the raid twice a day. The commanding officers, including Colonel Samuel Sharpe, worked out any difficulties that may be encountered in the raid and when they were satisfied they launched the raid. On the 18th of July, Colonel Sharpe prepared the men for the raid by giving an eloquent speech. That night the 116th took over the trenches. The expectant anxiety of those prepared for battle must have permeated the men.

Men wearing gas masks during World War 1

On the 22nd of July at about 9:30 pm the men were assembled to carry out the raid. Electric lights were provided for the night assault. A white patch was sewn on everyone's respirators to tell friend from foe. Just after midnight, an hour before the men were to launch the assault, the German trenches began to ring. The wind was headed in the Canadian direction so the Germans were preparing to release mustard gas. The bell chimed that warned the German troops that they were releasing gas. The raid would be carried out amid mustard gas.

Soon, the artillery barrage would open and the men would be out of the trenches and crossing, in the dark and gas, no man's land. Command had made the difficult decision, the men would remove the gas helmets and only use the respirators. This would mean the men's eyes would be burning but they could at least see where they were going. The men of the 116th, those from Penetang included, did not flinch. At 1 am the artillery open fire, the assault would soon commence. In the dark, scouts were sent out a little before to cut the barbed wire, the 116th rushed through the laneways and attacked the trenches. Men were fighting hand to hand, Germans were pouring out of dugouts to get into the fighting. The trenches were conquered with many prisoners taken, the other divisions of the 116th were off to capture the slag heap which was still full of German machine-gun emplacements. B and C company captured it but received many casualties along the way. There was considerable trouble dealing with both the prisoners and casualties, but the day(night) had been won, or so they thought. The Germans had reorganized and counter-attacked around 4:30 am. They were fighting hard and casualties mounted on both sides as some of the objectives gained were once again in German hands.

That night they captured 60 germans, along with killing at least twice that much. However, they also lost 5 officers and 25 men, along with 42 wounded. The men from Penetang would not be included in the deaths that day, nor would any be injured.

Next, the Canadian Corps attacked the city of Lens in August 1917 in order to relieve pressure on other Allied troops fighting near Passchendaele in Flanders.

A Strategic Diversion from Passchendaele

Sir Douglas Haig launched a strategic offensive in Flanders, east of Ypres on 31 July 1917. Known as the Passchendaele Campaign, it quickly stalled amid heavy fighting, rain, and mud with diminishing hope for a large-scale breakthrough. To divert German reinforcements away from the Passchendaele battlefield, Haig ordered attacks further to the south. One of these, involving the First Army, would see the Canadian Corps attack Lens.

The Attack on Hill 70

Haig ordered Sir Arthur Currie, who in June had been placed in command of the Canadian Corps, to launch a frontal assault on the city of Lens. Instead of attacking the heavily fortified city directly, Currie, after studying the ground, convinced his British superiors that a better plan would be to capture Hill 70, directly to the north. If this dominating hill could be taken, the Germans would have no choice but to counterattack. Currie planned for artillery and machine-guns to smash these German concentrations, thereby weakening their hold on the entire sector.

The Canadians attacked on 15 August and captured many of their objectives, including the high ground. They then held their positions against 21 determined German counterattacks over the next four days. Canadian probing attacks against Lens on 21 and 23 August were unsuccessful, but Currie’s forces had inflicted severe casualties on the enemy and gained the high ground overlooking the city.

A Canadian Victory

The Canadians lost more than 9,000 soldiers at Hill 70 but killed or wounded an estimated 25,000 Germans. Currie proved an able and innovative commander. His Canadian Corps would soon move north to help Haig and his faltering Passchendaele Campaign.

Canadian War Museum

In August, after a few weeks of manoeuvres, they were granted a break in Auchel. But the rest was short-lived as the 2nd Division, which had been in the Battle of Hill 70, was badly in need of replacement. So on the twentieth, the men were reluctantly off to another spell in the trenches.

Man sleeping in Trench

During August, Wilfred MacMillan would be promoted to Lance Corporal. James Murklin, who was part of the Machine Gun Corps, suffered the effects of a gas attack on the 20th of August.

Through the rest of August, the 116th would be involved in normal trench warfare, and what is known as the Battle of Attrition. Men would sit in trenches and be fodder for high-speed shells delivered on their line from the Germans. At the end of August, William Elliott would find a quiet moment to fall asleep. He, however, was on duty and would receive a fine for sleeping while on duty.

Albert Paul Vasseur was another young man recruited in Penetang for the 157th Overseas on February 10, 1916; 2 1/2 weeks before his 20th birthday. He was born on Penetang on February 27, 1896, to Charles and Mary Jane, who brought him up as a Roman Catholic. He attested as a single labourer (Napoleon Picotte witnessed his signature), and measured up to 5’9”. He was further described as having a 33” chest, fair complexion with light brown hair and grey eyes. He was absorbed into the 116th Central Ontario Battalion. The official death records were accidentally destroyed but Private Vasseur died on August 30, 1917, in the region of Arras. The War Diary states 30th. “The usual working parties supplied. Casualties: 1 other rank killed, 5 other ranks wounded.” He is buried in Aix-Noulette Communal Cemetery Extension on the main road to Arras.

Aix-Noulette cemetary

Isaac Beauchamp was the son of Joseph and Clemence Beauchamp and was born in Penetanguishene on October 28, 1895. Like many other local men, he enlisted in the 157th on February 10, 1916. He was described as being 5'9" with a fresh complexion, black hair, grey eyes and a 37" chest. He was Roman Catholic and was employed as a box-maker. He was later assigned to the 116th, Central Ontario Battalion. Official records state: "Killed in Action. Cite St. Pierre". He died on August 31, 1917, at age 21 (presumably at Hill 70 where St. Pierre was located) and is buried in Aix-Noulettes Communal Cemetery in France. Twenty-seven Canadians died on the same date.

Location of Cemetary with Vimy, Lens and arras all to the east.

Link to Soldiers records

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1 Comment

Dec 25, 2023

My grandfather ( S. Desroches) was in WW1 and he was from Penetanguishene. We have a few of his War Medals. Is he on record anywhere. He survived WW1, but was gased and had to go home. He also enlisted to fight in WW2, but due to his injuries from WW1 did not meet the standard to go to the front in WW2.

Bob Roche (grandson)

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