By Major Peregrine Acland
From Pearson’s Magazine, October 1918. Pages 326-330.
I was born in Toronto, Canada in 1891. My father is an Englishman who came to America as a young man and who, after twenty-five years of newspaper work and magazine journalism partly in the United States but chiefly in Canada, entered the service of the Dominion Government, in which he is now Deputy Minister of Labor for Canada. My mother is Canadian, of Irish parentage.
As a youngster I was a disgustingly pasty-faced little bookworm, quite unable to keep my nose out of books of adventure, and equally unable to hold my own in the real life of childish sports. I was educated at an elementary school in Toronto, at University College School, London, England, and at Upper Canada College, Toronto, from which I matriculated into University College, University of Toronto. I spent five years at University College, attempting nearly every course in the Calendar, and either reading assiduously on the courses I was not taking, or else not reading at all. I ultimately graduated, in 1913, with indecently mediocre honors in Modern History.
Fortunately for me, when I was fifteen years old I had gone to Alberta for a few months as the guest of a school-chum whose father owned a big cattle-ranch. Being forcibly dragged away from books for a time (though I used to go on round-up with a copy of Poe’s poems in my pockets), I gradually came to learn that literature is less interesting than life. I was still, however, very much of a loafer, liking better to look at things than to do them. Subsequent short experiences of cow-punching on the prairies and tramping through the mountains effectively weaned me from the library drug-habit and gave me a taste for attempting adventures instead of merely reading about them. I even dabbled a bit in sports and out-of-door pastimes, becoming a first-rate pedestrian, a second-rate oarsman, a third-rate boxer and horseman and an infernally bad shot. All the while I was writing a little, though not at all industriously and I accomplished nothing more than sketches for Toronto newspapers, a few short stories and some trifles of verse. Between times I had some training in newspaper work, first as a cub-reporter on the Ottawa Free Press, later, on graduating from the University, as editor of a little newspaper in Northern British Columbia.
I was comparatively lazy and decidedly dreamy and lacking in definite aim until, in my last year at college, I became first acquainted and then intimate with the writings of Bernard Shaw. From these I fashioned myself a religion of sorts with sufficient power over me to be a very real driving force. I have been more strongly influenced by the Third Act of “Man and Superman” than by anything else in literature except the Sermon on the Mount.
As I have said, after graduating from the University, I took a position as editor of a little two-man newspaper in the remote West. As I found little opportunity in this for development along the lines which I wished to pursue, I soon threw up the post, tramped three hundred miles across northern British Columbia, took train for Ottawa and secured a position in the Civil Service which gave me less money and less interest but more time for reading. Nine months later the war broke out and I volunteered, first enlisting as a private but soon securing a commission as a lieutenant in the 48th Highlanders of Toronto.
We proceeded to England as the Fifteenth Battalion of the First Canadian Division in the early autumn of 1914 and spent a miserable time on Salisbury Plain, where we were perpetually wet and muddy. Our chief amusement came from occasional week-ends in London, infesting the Savoy, the Piccadily Grill, Frascati’s the Empire, the Alhambra and the other usual places for knocking about. My most memorable week-end included a call on Mr. Bernard Shaw at his home in Adelphi Terrace. He greeted me in his characteristically amusing fashion. It was at a time when the newspapers were all giving their reasons why the Canadians had come to England –“to fight for the Motherland,” “for the Empire,” “for Democracy and the freedom of Europe,” and so on. Mr. Shaw, who had had other Canadian callers, said, as he welcomed me, “At last I know the real reason why the Canadians have come to Europe. They have come here to see me.” As I gave him a little Irish blarney about being able to die happy now that I had seen him, he soon dropped his mask and treated me quite humanely. His pose, icy and with a shade of the sneer about it, damages him, though he assumes it as a protection. It is as incongruous as the comic mask on the face of tragedy. I have seen no eyes which can show greater depth of feeling than do his on occasion, and for all his flippancy, I have net no one who realizes more intensely the essential horror of war and who yet so vigorously appreciates the necessity of fighting our way out of it.
At the beginning of January, 1915, I was one of a number of Canadian officers detailed to be attached for training to reserve battalions of British regiments. I spent the next three or four months with the Third Wiltshires, who were billeted in Weymouth. There I had a delightful time, learned a little of the army and more of the English people, and trained myself into superb physical condition. The First Canadian Division had meanwhile gone to France in February, 1915, and we who were left behind were disgusted at our luck in not being with them. It seemed a dishonor not to be taken. But we were, most of us, more fortunate than we realized in missing the first German gas attack at Ypres, in April. From this none of the junior officers of the Fifteenth Battalion (48th Highlanders) came out undamaged, and very few came out at all, on our side of No Man’s Land. Nineteen officers out of twenty-one and 670 men out 1,000 represented the loss of that unit alone.
Those of us who had been left in England were shot across to France at the end of April and rejoined our battalions early in May, when they had just come out of the trenches. After a few days of rest and reorganization we marched south to the La Bassée region and took part in the battle of Festubert, towards the end of May. An awful muddle that seemed to be –little artillery support, bad staff-work, much confusion amongst half-trained officers and men who hardly knew each other. But the army was in the making in those days. We were hard pressed, and our commanders had to do the best they knew how with the material at their disposal. I didn’t take this calmly philosophic view at first. It was only with more soldiering and more reading about other wars, that I learned that this waste is incidental to all wars, and that the good soldier has to be prepared to die cheerfully not only for his country, but for his general’s blunders.
After Festubert we were moved to Givenchy, where our brigade (the Third) was in reserve during the fight in June. From July, 1915, to March, 1916, our division occuped comparatively quiet trenches in the neighborhood of Ploegsteert (Plug-street) and Wulverghem, a few miles south of Ypres, and opposite the Messines Ridge. Here, with a moderate amount of shelling by day, and regular working-parties or scouting and patrolling by night, we learned the rudiments of trench-warfare. With that solid foundation for our schooling we were sent in March, 1916, to the Ypres salient for six months for the finishing touches –and most of us got them.
I had received my captaincy in October, 1915, when I was acting as battalion intelligence officer and doing a little scouting. In December I was posted as a company commander and given some invigorating responsibility. In the Ypres salient the responsibility became very real. We were invariably expecting to be attacked, to have to attack or to be blown sky-high by a mine. Most of us had our expectations realized, wholly or in part, before we were through with the place. I myself had experience of two mines, one sprung on the battalion to our left, the other on my own company; luckily we were prepared and few were caught by the explosion; and I was in a counter-attack in which we lost heavily and over half the men in my company were casualties.
In the counter-attack, June 2nd to 3rd, 1916, at Observatory Ridge (Zilleboeke) we had to cross over a thousand yards of open ground in daylight, pass through four barrages of German artillery fire and come under an enfilade of machine-gun fire beneath which our advance rapidly withered. It was ten days later before the trenches which were our objective were retaken –by fresh troops with quintupled artillery support. We were sacrifice battalions, sent in with next to no artillery support (there was at the moment none that could be given us) to stop a gap and so to prevent further German inroads.
Hell on Earth
This we did, and later were proud of it, but at the time it was unpleasant and disheartening. I never so wanted to run away in all my life, and only stopped myself by reflecting that certain shame and necessary self-destruction lay behind and that, while it would be better to blow out one’s brains than to yield to cowardice, it was more sensible to stay in the lines and carry on. I was so dazed with lack of sleep, over-fatigue and the monst’-ingens-horrendous din of the shelling that I soon felt myself to be of little use as an officer, and all I can say is that I stuck it out. Of course, lying in the open in that inferno, I had numerous narrow escapes. One of the closest was when, being blown over by a shell which had smashed up a man beside me, I rolled into a ditch on to the point of the bayonet of one of our men. The bayonet ran through the clothes at my waist and nearly gutted me, but “nearly” was all. Another shell had given me scratches in the face and a slight wound, of no importance, in the hip. Altogether I was exceedingly fortunate, more fortunate than I deserved, for after-wards, to my surprise, to my outward pleasure and inward uneasiness, I received the Military Cross for my part in the action. I tried to earn in later.
In late August we went to the Somme and took over a section of front on which theAustralians had been fighting. During our second tour in the line there, on September 26, 1916, we were engaged near Courcelette in the attack which took Thiepval and the Thiepval Ridge. We went “over the bags” at half an hour after noon. After a few minutes of fierce and costly fighting we took the first German trench and a swarm of prisoners. We sent these to the rear without escort, and proceeded to advance on the enemy second line.
See part II for the remainder of the text.