Monday, December 13, 2010

The Story of My Life Volume 3

The following story was written by my grandfather David Lee Wetmore. While his title indicates this is Volume 3, I do not have Volumes 1 or 2. Also, this story seems to end abruptly and I’m not sure if he just ended it or the final pages are lost. Even so, it is still an interesting look into his life at the a time when World War One broke out and he transitioned form civilian life to military life.


The Story of My Life Volume 3 - David Lee Wetmore

I was born in a small village on the banks of the Kennebecasis River on the twelfth of September in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and eighty four, in the reign of our good Queen Victoria.

In the summer of 1914 my plans for the super hunting camp in the Riding Mountains was rudely interrupted when all hell erupted in Europe.

We were putting up hay on the meadows fringing the lake on the shores of which I had planned to build the camp.

Arnold, the hunter of the party, was playing around with a moose call that he had made from a piece of rolled birch bark, and every evening would go into the willows at the margin of the lake, grunting and coaxing, but as far as a cow moose was concerned, he might as well have been blowing on a tin whistle.

But I, believing that I would soon be host to a party of sports, thought that it behooved me to learn everything I could about the business of seducing the coy bulls to my call.

I used to go along after him, and watch intently as he did his best to imitate the call of the cow moose, who knew that the long, cold winter was approaching, that she had not found a boy friend, and that it was definitely up to her to do something about it.

On my last day at the camp, I, as unqualified cook for the party, had gone into camp early to get dinner started for the men.

Tearing the paper from a loaf of bread, I saw the scare headlines plastered across the head of the paper. England declares war on Germany. I looked at the date, August 15th, 1914. When the men came in to dinner, I told them of my decision.

Arnold was inclined to 'pooh-pooh’ the entire matter. “It would be foolish”, he declared, “as we would never leave Canada”. I would be much better off to stay where I was assured of steady work for the balance of the summer.

But I couldn't agree with him, and stuck to my decision.

After dinner and the dishes washed, I packed what stuff I had with me and started out the trail to town.

Halfway in, I met the boss, Billy coming into camp with a load of supplies. “Where are you going”, he demanded, pulling up his team. "I'm on my way to Berlin" I answered. Like Arnold, he was sure that I was making a mistake. No troops would ever leave Canada. I would be much better off to stay where I was.

He gave me quite an argument, but I stuck with my guns, and finally, he said "Well, if you’re determined to go, wait till I go out tonight and I'll drive you into town."

This I did, contacted my C.O. and found that he had had his orders to recruit for overseas duty.

Wearing two stripes with the local militia regiment, the 32nd Manitoba Horse, I believed it my duty to set an example for the others to follow, and be one of the first to volunteer.

For a few weeks we hung round marking time. We used to swagger up and down the streets of the little town in the evenings, spurs jingling, slapping our gaiters with our riding whips, believing that we were God's own gift to the ladies.

And the ladies, the glamour of our uniform already in their eyes, were inclined to believe us and many a budding romance was begun in those days.

The fact that most of them finished later with a Dear John letter made no difference to us at the time. We were IT in capital letters, and had a big edge on the local swains.

Finally one day, we had "been alerted for a march to lake Dauphin, to make an overnight camp, and we were about half way there when a car came tearing up the road behind us. Our orders for entrainment had arrived. Cars were on the way, and we were hauled back to town, where feverish preparations were soon under way for our leaving.

A big rally was held in the Town Hall that night, when we were extolled as the super heroes of the century, flattering speeches were made by the Town fathers and the local clergymen, and the local Red Cross presented us with the tradition Bible supposed to be carried by every serviceman.

Early next morning, we were sent off with a tremendous ovation from the citizens and a 'Hip-hip-hurray' from an engineer, who 'played with his whistle’. That is the first time I ever heard a cheer sounded from a locomotive whistle, but we took it as a compliment, as it was intended.

We spent the night in a school auditorium in Brandon, Manitoba, then in the morning, entrained again for our last leg of the trip to Camp Valcartier.

During the afternoon we stopped at a small tank town for water. Directly across the street was a bake shop, which soon was jammed to the rafters with soldiers. We were carrying the 'unexploded portion’ of our day’s rations, but show me the soldier who wouldn't seize the opportunity to eke these out with civilian fare, and I'll show you the soldier who isn't worth the powder to blow him to hell.

I had fought my way through the mad crush, made my purchases and returned to the car. I was sitting at the window, when a man I had never seen in my life before came walking down the platform. "Corporal” he asked "Have you lost your wallet”? “Isn’t this yours” he asked, holding up my wallet. "Not to my knowledge" I answered, “but that does look like my wallet." "You dropped it in the bakeshop” he answered.

Our breeches were very tight-fitting and it was only with great difficulty that we could get our hand into our pocket. "Never mind" he said "A soldier never has anything to carry in his pocket anyway". I had apparently believed that I had put the wallet in my pocket, but in the crush I must have slipped it down the outside of my breeches. We had just been paid the day before and all my worldly wealth, between fifty and sixty dollars was in that wallet.

I tried to force five dollars on him, but he walked away, refusing to take anything. There are a few honest men left in this world.

When the train pulled out, our Regimental Sergeant Major (R.S.M.) was not on hand, for some reason, and we pulled out without him.

He hired a taxi and followed after, frequently passing us, then falling behind again, overtaking us as we 'nipped against an up-grade’, waving his hat at us as we went by. He was at the platform when we stopped again for water and took his place aboard.

We arrived at Camp Valcartier late in the afternoon and here we stayed for a few days waiting to be classified and assigned to one of the units waiting for shipment overseas.

Almost to a man, we joined the Royal Canadian Dragoons. We fancied the "spurs that jingle, jangle, jingle".

And then began what to us seemed a useless and derogatory period of training.

Almost to a man, we were experienced and efficient horseman, but the R.S.M. refused to take anyone’s word for that.

Each of us had to undergo an intensive period of training, had to prove himself complete master of his mount under all circumstances. Woe betides the unlucky wight who bobbled, or allowed his horse to bobble a command. I have heard a Nova Scotia mate blister the barnacles off the schooner's bottom, but never in my life have I heard any man with so complete a vocabulary of the English language as a cavalry Regimental Sergeant Major.

I was fortunate to be assigned an old trained horse. He was the answer to a cavalryman's dream. That little beggar knew the drill far better than I did, and it was never necessary for me to touch a rein. He would watch for the troop officers signal, and was executing the movement before the other man of the squadron knew what it was all about.

It was soon seen that I was not in need of the intensive training being given the other men. I was taken out of the troop and assigned to permanent stables, a punishment, as a rule, reserved for any of the men who were slack in taking care of them­selves, their horses or their equipment.

It was a piece of cake. An hour’s work after the troop had left for maneuvers and we could sit in the sun, smoke our cigarettes, or yarn until the troop returned and we were turned-to for noon stables.

Only on regimental parades, which were few and far between here, was I asked to ride.

I remember one day when we were being reviewed by the C.O. of the camp. We were coining past the reviewing stand at the trot, with drawn swords when we got the order, "Return Swords"

Now, at the trot, the mouth of the scabbard is bouncing round like a moored dory in a gale and sometimes it takes some trouble before you catch the tip of the sword in the mouth of the scabbard.

After a few tries, I got the tip entered, and we waited for the troop sergeants tossed shoulder which would signify that everything was in readiness to complete the movement.

But one man was having trouble. He poked and punched to no avail. He just couldn't find the hole. The Colonel, a little peeved that the entire regiment had completed the move, let a roar. "Put it in! Put it in!” “If there was a little hair round that hole you'd put it in fast enough”.

“Yes sir” answered the man, “But I wouldn't be putting it in at the trot”.

A motion picture operator moved into camp and set up a marquee. Each night he promised a chance of program and seats and each night the same picture and no seat. But he promised us that tomorrow the shortage would be rectified.

This night, after he had given his usual spiel, somebody tossed a lighted match into the barrel of used film. The celluloid film took fire with a 'Whoosh', the fire quickly spread to the tent walls.

With one accord each man drew his knife and went out through the nearest part of the tent wall. In ten minutes all that was left of that motion picture tent was a charred area on the ground and a few smoldering rags of canvas.

We were kept at the interminable drilling until we were afraid that war would be over before we got there. But one night we got the joyful news that we were to embark the following day.

We rode to Quebec early next morning where we found the luxury liner "Laurentic” of the White Star Line waiting for us.

The horses were loaded aboard a freighter and we began the process of loading our gear.

It seemed that bad luck was to be my portion that day. As one of the loads were going aboard and we watched from the dock, an end sling let go, dumping several of the kit bags into the river. It developed later that one of them was mine.

We settled quite easily into life aboard, about the only happening out of the way occurred as the supper gong was rung the first night.

"First troop to the dining salon” called the troop sergeant, which call was willingly obeyed. But when we got there, we found the first troop of B Squadron already there and seated.

A little argument developed between the two troop sergeants, each insisting that he was right, until our sergeant major appeared in the companionway.

"Are we right, or wrong, Sergeant major" I asked "Wrong to hell" he responded "That's good enough for me," I said and at once went back on deck, where we waited until our turn at the tables.

Naturally, our drilling was curtailed to the very rudiments. About the only thing there was to do was running round the deck, led by a troop officer, and calisthenics, which we called “physical jerks ".

These physical jerks gave rise to a rather amusing incident later. A young troop officer took the calisthenics one morning.

We started the jerks from a sitting position, squatted on our heels.

Not being to find an order in the Manual of Arms suitable to the occasion, he sang out "Squatting position——— TAKE" in his best drill field voice. We ‘took’ but it was plainly evident that something was radically wrong.

Ever afterward, when we were paraded for calisthenics, someone was sure to shout from the rear, “Squatting position——— TAKE" which was always good for a hearty laugh.

Off Newfoundland we were joined "by the Newfoundland contingent, in the old 'Florizel' a lumbering old freighter, capable of no more than a top speed of eight knots.

As there had been persistent rumors of submarines in the Atlantic, we slowed the entire fleet down to accommodate her. We were not about to see one lone sheep of the flock pulled down by these Atlantic wolves. But we encountered no subs during the entire voyage.

Time dragged slowly. We ran concerts in the evenings in the dining salon, mature boxing contests etc. and it was in connection with these that I gave the entire regiment a hearty laugh.

I was scheduled to go on following the main event, but the main event ended very abruptly, when the referee stopped the bout in the second round. We were sent for in a hurry, and when called to the centre of the ring for our instructions, and I tossed my bathrobe to my second, a roar of laughter almost took the deck off the cabin.

In my haste, I had forgotten to put my shorts on, and stood there with nothing but a jock-strap.

But “be the day weary or be the day long, at last it ringeth to evensong"

After a trip that even Columbus would have struggled to avoid, we sighted the 'white cliffs of Dover’.

We landed at Plymouth and disembarked our horses, and gear. We led our horses through a long night march to camp on the West Down South on Salisbury Plains put them on picket line and settled into camp.

It took us a little while to get ad­justed to our new surroundings, both man and beast. My little No.13 tried to take a bite from a furze bush. Seeing this nice green bush at a convenient distance, he reached out for a mouthful. If there is anything more prickly that a furze bush, I don't know what it is. He never repeated the mistake

A flight of birds that I took to be crows flew overhead. “What manner of crows are these” I asked “That chirp like blackbirds”? A Wiltshire man, riding next to me laughed “Those” he said “are rooks”.

We had returned from maneuvers, one cold wet morning, when a man with notebook and pencil came strolling down the horse lines. Taking him to be a reporter from a local paper, we paid little attention to him, but next morning in a London paper, there was an article that unmistakably described what had taken place the day before, when the article appeared that had been written from the notes made by the ‘local reporter’

“It is not a contingent that Canada has sent” read the article “It is an army, fully equipped, even to their own artillery, fully trained and ready to take the field”. It was signed by Rudyard Kipling.

The immortal Rudyard Kipling, creator of Gunga Din, Danny Deever and the inimitable Soldiers Three, Otheris, Learoyd and Mulvany.

Had I known who he was, I would have broken an arm to have shaken his hand. Many a pleasant hour I have spent poring over his Barrack Room Bal­lads, etc., but I let the chance slip because I didn't recognize him.

The weather, if possible, got worse. One morning, with a cold North east wind driving a sleety rain before it, the horses refused to go on watering parade. Something must be done and that without delay.

In the afternoon, we moved, bag and baggage into the neighboring town of Tillshead, where the horses were quartered in barns, sheds or what have you, being, at the worst, a vast improvement over the lines on the plains.

The local scavenger hunters must have had a field day with the kerosene stoves that we left in the standing tents, but we were glad enough to get out of the horrible Plains so that caused us no concern.

We were reviewed by the King and Queen, the Prince of Wales and the Queen-mother Alexandra.

Riding, as I was, in the front rank, they passed close enough to me that I could have spit on their boots, had I so desired. They looked like ordinary people to me and the glamour of royalty never registered.

I got a much greater thrill from the day we were reviewed by old Lord Roberts, The immortal hero of the Indian campaign. The man who wrapped India in a gunny sack and presented it to Queen Victoria as a birthday present. Bobs, of Kandahar.

Here was a man who was not born to the high rank he held. Here was a man who had won his spurs by the toil of his own hands and the brains in his own head. I paid him far greater homage than royalty ever stirred in my breast.

It was only a short time before he died. He reviewed the Canadians from the back seat of a limousine on his knees on the cushions, looking for all the world like a wire-haired terrier, looking out the window.

Bobs, who would infinitely have preferred to have reviewed us from the saddle of the tallest, roughest horse they could have found for him.

"If he bucks, or kicks, or rears, he can sit for twenty years, with a smile round both his ears, can't you, Bobs".

A small statured man, he always tried to compensate by riding the tallest horse that could be found for him. There, my friends, was a MAN.

The men, amorous as ever, found the women of the village pleasant dallying, and the women ,with the glamour of the uniform in their eyes, were nothing loath to accommodate them.

This led to several faux pas when the aggrieved husband complained to the orderly room that the men were trying to “get I drunk and take advantage of she” but things went along fairly quietly.

The main business of the village was pastoral, and the wide grazing afforded by the plains was admirably suited for the raising of sheep.

I talked to one old codger who claimed to be eighty three years of age and had never done anything all his life but take the sheep out in the morning and bring them in at night. He had heard the whistle of the train, he said, but had never seen one.

Day followed day in sleepy leisure. The boys went to the local pubs at night and had their few pints of locally brewed ale, but nobody stepped out of line.

Those who were so inclined pursued their amorous affairs without causing a scandal, and we were beginning to think that we had been forgotten by the top brass.

So much time elapsed with nothing happening that we began to feel the British Army had forgotten about us.

A story began to circulate through the squadron concerning a regiment who had been billeted in a small English village and forgotten.

A 'top brass’ brigadier, riding through the village one morning, was struck by the ragged and dilapidated uniform worn by a captain coming down the street. Seeing the brass, the captain snapped to salute. "What's your regiment" demanded the Brigadier. "I have the honor, sir" replied the

Captain "to command a company of the Hundred and Twentieth Lancaster Fusiliers"

"The hundred and twentieth Lanks" mused the brigadier “I was under the impression that they had been disbanded following the Crimean War"

“Oh, no, sir” said the captain “We are still very much operative"

"Will you parade your company, said the Brigadier" I would very much like to look them over"

It will take a little time, sir" said the captain. Turning to the houses, he roared "Trumpeter". A bent old man with a white beard to his waist hobbled out of the cottage, leaning heavily on a cane. He raised the trumpet to his lips, and the golden, mellow notes floated out across the fields. A call that was entirely strange to the ears of the brigadier.

"Would you mind telling me what that call was" he demanded, “I don’t seem to recognize it”. “That sir” replied the captain “was Reapers in”.

The men, forgotten and long unpaid, had been obliged to take work with the local farmers in order to obtain the few pennies for their pint of ale at the local pub.

We were moved to Maresfield Park in Sussex where we were quartered in barracks and the horses in stables. The English spring moved into early summer and still we were held at the interminable grind of the drilling.

But then came the welcome news that we finally were being shipped to France. But with the good news came a little bad news as well. We were to go across dismounted as reinforcements for the First Canadian Division, who had been badly decimated at the Second Battle of Ypres. Now a cavalryman without his horse is a more disconsolate being than a captain on the beach without a ship.

But, there’s not to make reply! So we adjusted our shoulders to the detested infantryman’s pack and prepared to entrain for the seaport where we would embark. After a night train ride, we reached the port of Southampton and were loaded aboard ship.

The trip across the channel passed without incident and we offloaded at Le Harve. France at long last!

A great many of our men were French Canadian and these believed that they would have a tremendous edge over us in the matter of language, but they found themselves no more able to talk to the natives than we were. The Canadian French is a guttural patois, largely sprinkled with words and phrases that have crept in from Indian language and is no more French than our English was.

As a matter of fact, English was taught in the schools and the younger folks could speak English as well as we could.

Our trumpeter, going out to sound reveille in the morning, met a very attractive girl walking down the road. He was about to greet her with the customary “Bon jour man’zelle [sic]” when she greeted him, “Good morning, trumpeter”.

And some of the boys were not so fortunate in the way of making conversation. Thinking himself perfectly safe believing the girl to speak no English, a fresh young squirt walked into a cafe one evening, walked to the bar, behind which a very attractive young lady was operating the levers.

Prefacing his remark with a crackling oath, he told her, in no uncertain language what he would like to do to her. Much to his surprise, and his embarrassment, she replied, in perfect English, “Yes, there are a great many who would like to do that”.

It never happened to me as the story is told, of the poor guy who couldn’t make the madam understand that he wanted an egg, but for a long time, if I wanted an egg, I had to draw a picture of a hen with the egg in the nest, and an arrow pointing to indicate that it was the egg that I wanted, not the hen. But it was not long before I learned enough of the language to get along fairly well.

Up and down the cobbled roads of Flanders we marched. We were reminded of the five hundred men of the King of France, who marched up the hill only to march down again.

We moved mostly at night and every night we would be fallen in full kit, we would express the fervent hope that this was it. Anything would be better than this continual marching through the long, dark nights only to end in another billet so like the last that it might have been cast in the same mould.

Very early in the War, none of the flyer’s were equipped with parachutes. A German pilot was in a dogfight with an Allied pilot over the town of Ypres. His plane was hit and as they always do, started to fall, nose first. Gasoline, running over the hot engine, set fire, and the pilot, rather than stay in his plane and burn to death, jumped from twenty two hundred feet with no parachute.

I have always thought that the nerviest thing that I have ever seen done.

But finally we made the trip that ended all our trips, landing us in the trenches in front of Messines Ridge.

As usual the Germans were entrenched on the high land at the top of the ridge, where the town of Messines is located and could look down on the Allied trenches on the low land, giving them always a tremendous advantage over us.

We made several attempts that summer to dislodge the Germans from the town, but they all ended in failure.

A line of trees ran out from the German lines toward ours, and the Germans had dug a trench behind these so a man could approach in perfect safety to within fifty yards of our lines.

Here a German sniper had taken his post and proved somewhat of a nuisance to us. We called for artillery fire on the post, and it was reduced to a heap of rubble.

Half an hour after the shelling stopped, the sniper was again in the post and from our trench we saw he was replacing the bricks that had been knocked down by the shelling. Some of our marksmen tried rifle fire, but he simply got out of sight and waited ‘till the firing had stopped, then went calmly on with his job of replacing the bricks.

Finally we called on the Royal Engineers. They sapped under the ridge, placed a huge quantity of TNT under the ridge and blew it completely off the map.

Shortly after this we were moved to the Somme front, where we continued to go in and out of the trenches at regular intervals.

It was here that the Germans captured a set of my false teeth. I had had a full set of uppers and lowers made, but had not got enough used to them yet to keep them in my mouth as night with a degree of comfort.

It was cold and wet and the trenches were ankle deep in mud. Coming off sentry duty one night I lay down in my bunk and pulled my cloak over my blanket for extra covering. My teeth were annoying me, so I took them out and put them, as I supposed, in the pocket of my great coat. Next morning there were no teeth in the pocket.

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