The Men of Penetang Winter Looms: Chapter 7
So with Remembrance
Day coming up I have decided to return to the First World War. I had put the Men of Penetang on hold until after this virus thing passed, but I can't wait that long!
So to recap...although some men joined at the beginning of the war travelling to Niagara Falls, Quebec or joining out of University, recruiting didn't start in places like Penetanguishene until a little later when the need for men became evident.
In 1916, when the need for men meant that the Simcoe and Grey Foresters would add a Battalion, the 157th, followed a little later by the 177th. Recruiting was often done by a surprising group, the ladies of various churches. In Penetanguishene, enlistments were made approximately once a week at a place I have not yet confirmed. (Although Armory building were supposed to have been built in Penetang and elsewhere, these buildings are now lost)
All the men volunteered who enlisted in 1916. It wasn't till 1918 that the draft was made and those that qualified were enlisted. My Grandfather, John Beausoleil, was drafted, but seen no action, as it was very late in the war. I have only found a handful of men drafted, so it wasn't the majority who were drafted, still I will get to their story in time.
Those men were still living lives of horses and wagons and did mostly manual labor. Some who were not mere laboureres said they were so they would not be used in administrative capacities. (I wonder if they regretted that?) Two men were probably underage, only one was rejected as too young after making it to Europe. The other was put under investigation but was not found to be wanting. It is rumoured he used anothers id and was in fact underage. He did not return however, being lost a short while later sadly.
Some recruits, with war on the horizon married hastily, one to the daughter of a fellow recruit, leaving widows who were much too young... Some recruits found love in Europe and returned with brides. Horse knowledge was also something the recruits had, one had knowledge in shoeing them, as he held the rank of ------ and the other had knowledge of being thrown, and how that felt.
The bourgeoisies of our small town were not exempt from serving. Becks, Thompsons and McGibbons, early lumber and fur baron's our our area sent sons. The McNamara's had a pair of hockey playing brothers go. Seems they may have won a cup had the war not needed them. They would go on to professional hockey. I like to believe that our boys had a hand in inventing Bull riding in Restaurants, as the 116th was in trouble for bringing a heifer into a pub. I can't imagine anyone other than our boys pulling that live cow into the pub in France, but at least I know they were there. I also imagine them on the baseball field, as Mr. Beck had a baseball field in Penetang long before the war. I know one man was there, as his record shows injuries sustained in the ball game.
Another Winter Looms (Fall 1917)
On the sixth of September Robert Beaulieu was injured by an exploding shell. Previously in May, he had spent time in the hospital with trench fever. Long periods in the damp trenches was a breeding ground for many ailments, soon it would be winter and it would just get worse.
In late August and early September, Napoleon Picotte and Thomas McFadden were granted leave. Thomas McFadden, did not find his way back immediately after 14 days and was fined.
On the 15th of September the 116th relieved the 58th in the Totnes trench. Two days later, on the evening of the 17th of September a barrage opened up on the trenches which precipitated a raid. The men successfully repelled the raid. And the 116th would be relieve and returned to St Eloi the next day.
Later in September, Walter Cornelius would see his time in the war come to an end. Walter signed up in Penetang on February 10th. He was born in Kent England twenty six years earlier, and had a fresh complexion, Brown eyes and Black hair. Before the war, he was an engineer. On September 11th 1917, Walter would have a plane fly over him dropping a bomb very close to him. The explosion would blow his right arm off, 5 inches below the shoulder, injure his left eye so it had to be excised (removed) and would receive injuries to his forehead as well. Walter would not recall anything before the occurrence and would only remember waking up and having his arm amputated and his eye missing. It would seem as though Walter was lucky enough to be left handed as his signature on documents after the injury did not change. He would spend 31 days in Liverpool Hospital, 109 days in a Red Cross Hospital, returning to Liverpool for another 16 days, then onto Buxton for a hospital stay of 54 days. He would eventually be discharged and returned to Canada.
In the fall of 1917, the 116th was once again training for a mission. They had captured Vimy Ridge and were unto Passchendaele. There was a salient around the city of Lens. A Salient is a bulge in the front lines, this gave them the advantage and the commanders wanted to take this advantage and launch a raid. Avion through Lens, again! This was the third battle of Ypres, the soldiers had advanced to close in on Belgium, though whether in the fog of war if this occurred to them is unknown. Life in the trenches in that hellish location would not give you much of an idea as to where you were. Letters home could only be addressed somewhere in France. They would soon be in Belgium, but may not have known.
The entire Canadian Corp was to be engaged, attacking through Avion and Mericourt in the South of Lens and an attack on the north side which would force the Germans to abandon Lens. Added to the men of the 116th, was a division of tanks. The men trained with the tanks and learned the peculiarities of fighting alongside them..
The Canadian Corps, a 100,000 strong fighting formation, was ordered to the Passchendaele front, east of Ypres, in mid-October 1917.
Launched on 31 July 1917, the British offensive in Flanders had aimed to drive the Germans away from the essential Channel Ports and to eliminate U-Boat bases on the coast. But unceasing rain and shellfire reduced the battlefield to a vast bog of bodies, water-filled shell craters, and mud in which the attack ground to a halt. After months of fighting, Passchendaele ridge was still stubbornly held by German troops. Sir Douglas Haig, the commander-in-chief of the British Expeditionary Force, ordered the Canadians to deliver victory.
Deliberate Preparation and Attack
Sir Arthur Currie, commander of the Canadian Corps, objected to the battle, fearing it could not be won without a terrible expenditure in lives, but Haig was desperate for a symbolic victory and insisted on the effort, believing that even a limited victory would help to salvage the campaign. Having no choice but to attack, Currie prepared carefully for the fight, understanding that deliberate preparation, especially for his artillery and engineers, was the key to advancing over this shattered landscape.
The Canadians arrived in Flanders in mid-October to relieve Australian and New Zealand troops and were shocked by the terrible battlefield conditions. Currie ordered the construction of new roads, the building or improvement of gun pits, and the repair and extension of tramlines (light railways). Horses and mules transported hundreds of thousands of shells to the front to prepare for the artillery barrage that would prepare for the infantry’s attack. The Germans atop Passchendaele ridge fired continuously on these efforts, killing or wounding hundreds.
His preparations ready, Currie launched a deliberate or ‘set-piece’ attack on 26 October, the first of four phases in a battle he estimated might cost 16,000 Canadians killed or wounded. By mid-November, having captured the ridge, his estimate proved eerily accurate, with 15,654 Canadian fallen.
The Legacy of Passchendaele
The British lost an estimated 275,000 casualties at Passchendaele to the German’s 220,000, making it one of the war’s most costly battles of attrition. The more populous Allies could better afford the losses, especially with the recent entry of the United States on their side, but the battle had delivered a blow to the collective morale of the British Expeditionary Force. Passchendaele, often remembered as the low point of the Canadian War Museum
On the 14th of October the men were moved to a location near Ypres in Belgium. Godewaersvelde, a town where the New Zealanders and Australians had been locked in a battle with the Germans. Here the Germans had “Pill-boxes” thick cement gun emplacements the artillery could not take apart. To the Australian and New Zealanders glee the 116th relieved them in the area of Ypres.
Harold Trousel Sproule was born to William and Eve of Penetanguishene on July 7, 1896 and was raised as a Methodist. He enlisted in Penetanguishene on February 10, 1916 at the age of 19. He was described as being a single farmer, 5’6” tall with a fresh complexion, light brown hair and blue eyes. Initially enrolled in the 157th Overseas he was later drafted into the 116th Central Ontario Battalion. The 116th were moved from the Vimy area to the Belgian border on October 15, 1917. Private Sproule’s death on October 23, 1917 was the result of being shot in the thigh's and buttocks. He was killed in the Passchendaele area, only 21 years of age, and the 116th War Diary records the following: 23rd. “X Camp: Officers and N.C.O’s. went forward to Banks farm Area, to reconnoiter location and accommodation. The whole Battalion engaged on working parties. Casualties 3 other ranks killed, 1 O.R. wounded. Strength: 34 Officers, 806 other ranks.”
This small note in the diary shows how dangerous life was in war time. Not actually a battle, these "work parties" still encountered gunfire that resulted in death. Barely a day went by, near or on the front lines, that didn't result in at least a trickle of killed and wounded.
Harold Trousel Sproule rest in Belgium. He is buried in Brandhoek New Military Cemetery in Belgium.
On his tombstone is written poetically: REST IN PEACE THY WORK IS DONE WE WHO LOVE YOU ARE COMING ONE BY ONE
On the 27th of October the 116th supported the 9th who attacked the Bellevue Spur (Ridge).By the morning of the 27th the German Garrison had been destroyed. On the evening of the 27th the 116th took over the front lines. By the 29th of October they were relieved and on November 7th they were removed to Watou where they would finally rest. 45 men would be dead, 100 wounded and 12 gassed in that action.
Herman Desroches would be one of the dead. Herman was born in Lafontaine and list sailor as his occupation. He stood five foot six inches tall and had a dark complexion with Brown eyes and dark hair. He had made it through the war relatively unscathed, having run into trouble only by cutting his great coat with so many others. Herman had left the lines in July to attend a course to become a “bomber”. He would learn the intricacies of the different types of bombs (Grenades, rifle grenades etc) and be a specialist. He would sling grenades at the enemy until, on the 27th or 28th of October he was killed in action.
He is buried on Oxford road cemetery in West-Flanders Belgium and is remembered on the cenotaph in Penetang. He died during the Third battle of Ypres, also known as Passchendaele.
Canadian commander, Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie had protested that too many men would be lost in the offensive, history would prove him right. Herman Desroches, Harold Sproule would lose their lives and Walter Cornelius would return a broken man.
From November 24th till December twenty second the 116th was off the lines. On the 22nd they would return to the trenches and would re familiarize themselves with the knee high water. Even off the lines it is likely the war could be heard, and probably smelt. They had only pulled back within a day or two's march.
Whether on the lines or off, it must be remembered that their lives were not easy. Shelter was hard to come by. You were lucky if you had a solid roof over your head. Canvas and bivouacks were often your only shelter. The fall weather, with it's rain and cold must have made trench life, even without flying bullets, an extreme hardship. Add flying bullets and falling shells and that just makes it that much worse. At this point the men would know what winter would bring, and despite letters that came to and fro occasionally, very little contact with friends and loved ones was made. Many couldn't read or write, so would have to depend on others.
Each day on the line would mean casualties. The war diaries always record a smattering of deaths and injuries so that shells were often dropping in your midst and snipers were always on the lookout. By now it had been over a year when these men had been together, so that many were like brothers, which also meant losing such close friends regularly would not be pleasant.
For clarity, those who had been assign as sappers or railway men were not any better off. Wereas on the front line your only tasks often was to not get shot, sappers were asked to build shelters and such on the front lines, and not get shot, or bombed etc. Railways were an essential job as well, the front lines were bogs, and to get things in and out, rails were built right over those bogs...
This chapter illustrates the oddity of the situation. Blown apart Walter Cornelius survives, while shot in the legs, Harold Sproule does not
The men however had seen battle and been successful, Hill 70, Ypres, Passchendaele are some of the biggest victories of the First World war, OUR men were there. OUR men fought and OUR men were successful. And some of OUR MEN are still there, for over a hundred years they lie in graves surrounded by their new found brothers.
Harold Sproule's records can be found at:https://central.bac-lac.gc.ca/.item/?op=pdf&app=CEF&id=B9208-S050
Herman Desroches Records can be found at:https://central.bac-lac.gc.ca/.item/?op=pdf&app=CEF&id=B2476-S070
Art Duval Pipesmoke of the past