My grandfather David Lee Wetmore was a Trooper with the Royal Canadian Dragoons during World War One. He wrote a number of vignettes about his experiences which I would like to share.
War is a Dirty Business
(this is a bit gruesome)
We were under orders this morning to scout forward to a small village and if we found it occupied by Allied troops, to scout ahead to make contact with the Germans, if possible.
I was riding ground scout, a hundred yards or so ahead of the Squadron looking for wire, shell holes or anything that might make trouble for the horses.
We ran into heavy machine gun fire on crossing the top of an exposed ridge and the Squadron retired under cover of a small wood.
I had located the gun on the edge of a small crescent of wood that made down toward us, and entirely on my own, decided that if I could get into that wood, and found no reinforcements there, that I could get in behind the emplacement and pull a fast one on them, depending on the element of surprise.
I found no reinforcements in the wood, came in behind the gun and, yelling like a Comanche Indian, jumped my horse into the small gun-pit, my sword swinging like a pump-handle.
A young German officer was in charge with six men as a gun crew. He was wearing a gun, but just for a second was too much surprised to think of it. Had I hesitated for a fraction of a second, he would have remembered the gun and used it. And at that range, my wife would still be waiting for me to come home.
I struck at his eyes, the feeble of my sword, honed to a razor edge, cut through both eyes and the bridge of his nose.
I don’t like to remember that I cut a man’s eyes out, but it was him or me and there’s only one rule you play by…Get the other fellow before he gets you. If nothing else, bite him to death with your teeth.
That’s the first thing they teach you in the army.
On another occasion, again doing ground scout, we ran into a small patrol.
A hundred yards ahead of the Squadron, I could see the muzzle-haze rising and it looked like a dozen rifles in the party.
On looking back, I saw the Squadron had broken for cover and I was alone, and those bees were buzzing round my head plenty.
I dropped on the mare’s neck, “Little hoss” I told her “This is no place for us”
And we got out of there and joined the Squadron, But Fast!
Another Danny Deever*
There were a couple of clowns in “A” Squadron who were always horsing around, playing jokes on themselves and the other members of the Squadron.
One was always the fall guy, the butt of the joke, and it looked as though he had taken just about all he could stand of it.
Coming on this evening, after the other was asleep in his bunk, he walked over to the arms stand and got his rifles.
There were twenty men of us in the room, any one of which could have stopped him. But we thought he was playing a prank again and paid him no attention.
He shot his friend sleeping.
Another Danny Deever, but unlike Danny, who was hanged, he was shot, which served the purpose admirably for nobody has much sympathy for the man who will shoot another sleeping, especially a friend.
* Danny Deever is a character in a Rudyard Kipling “Barracks Ballard”. Kipling was my grandfather’s favorite author.
Note: Historical records of the Royal Canadian Dragoons state that a Trooper Alexander Butler shot to death Trooper Edward Mickleburgh on June 8, 1916. Butler was convicted of murder by Court Martial and executed by firing squad on July 2, 1916. Link…..http://www.army.ca/wiki/index.php/Trooper_Alexander_Butler
I'D HAVE TAKEN THAT BULLET
I was riding a little mare that had a most annoying habit of throwing up her head and many a time I have had to explain a mouse under my eye where she had almost knocked me out with the top of her head.
This day we were scouting out in front of the regiment when we ran into rifle fire.
Riding, as usual, ground scout, I was watching for shell holes, wire, etc, anything that might make trouble for the horses when up came the mare's head, just in time to take a German bullet right between the eyes, going down like a poleaxed steer, while I described a flying parabola over her head.
If she had not thrown up her head at the exact moment that she did, I would have taken that bullet right in the middle of the belt buckle.
Me That Saw Festubert* Took
It is a strange thing, but although I can remember perfectly little unrelated happenings, I have no recollections of the larger engagements we took part in or supported the units who were in action at that particular place.
Memory plays strange tricks on all of us and I think more so with the soldier, who never can be prevailed upon to relate any of the happenings that he must have seen, simply because he remembers only the small parts that happened to his own person or so close to him that he was able to see it. But the man who runs off at the mouth about his war experiences, usually didn’t have any and was probably awarded any medals he may show for turning out more loaves of bread at a base camp than any of the other bakers.
We used to say of the Military Medal that it came up with the rations and I have known a sergeant to be awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for ‘saving’ his troop officer’s map-case when the detachment was not even under fire at the time.
* During the Battle of Festubert, May 1915, the RCD was dismounted (Infantry) and attached to the First Canadian Division.
A Close One
We were quartered in the outbuilding of a farm and the cook was about to call the men to their breakfast, when a German shell burst in the door of the cook shack.
I had gone to a neighboring house for a can of hot water for my morning shave, when I heard a burst, which had that crackling detonation that tells the expereineced man that the burst had been very close.
I hurried back, but everything had been taken care of by the time I got there.
Surprisingly, our only casualty was a stretcher-bearer, who had taken a small fragment in the knee. It turned septic and he died at a base hospital a few days later.
You’ve Got A Clean Sword
I was in charge of a small party grazing some of the horses who were considered below par physically.
Coming in one morning we were informed by Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) that we were to be inspected by a ‘top brass’ officer in ten minutes.
We had time to do no more than brush the dust off the outride rifles, bayonets, swords, etc, which had been hanging on ports while we were not using them.
My sword was brand new, just out of Q. M. stores and after I had laid my equipment on my blanket, it gleamed like a silver ribbon. My rifle was clean on the outside, but I hate to think of the condition the bore must have been in.
Down the line came the ‘brass’, getting madder by the minute at each layout he stopped at. And his grouch was, in each case, at the condition of the swords.
Stopping at my layout he barked “How long have you been in the army?”
“Four years, sir” I answered
“Cavalry all the time?” “Yes, sir”
“Thought so” he grunted.
“You’ve got a clean sword”
I always said that sword saved my life that day.
The Man’s Right
I was on sentry duty in an approach trench one night.
We had been having considerable trouble with Germans infiltrating behind our lines and appearing dressed in Allied uniform.
Our orders were explicit, even though we believed we recognized an approaching party, allow no more than one man to approach your post to be recognized.
A party of four came single file up the communication trench. The first two I recognized as our R.S.M. and the Colonel, but in the dim light, could not identify the other two.
I challenged with the usual “Advance and be recognized.” The R.S.M., in the lead advanced, but the Colonel, following him, failed to halt, as he should have done until passed forward.
Throwing the point of my bayonet almost against his breast, I thundered “One only!”
“Wetmore, Wetmore” said the Colonel, “Surely you know your Colonel”
“I do, sir” I answered “Also, I know my orders.”
A thunderous “Haw. haw, haw” burst from the third man in the line. It was the Brigadier General.
“The man’s right, Colonel” he chuckled, “The man’s right”
Next day the R.S.M. stopped me as I was coming down the trench.
“Wetmore” he said “That did me more good than a feed of oats last night”
“But the Colonel didn’t feel so happy about it.”
A Midnight Rendezvous
We were billeted in a small outbuilding attached to the main farm building one evening when there was a particularly liberal issue of rum passed out.
We bought a quart of milk from the farmer and the house having a conveniently provided fireplace, proceeded to hold a Kipling Night.
We hung Danny Deever, carried water to the parched infantrymen with Gunga Din and thundered into action with Snarleyow.
We whooped it up until the wee sma’hours and next morning the patron informed us that there were to be no more midnight rendezvous.
We assured him there would not be, and everyone was happy, except for a slight headache due to the imbibing of rum and hot milk.
“My Cap Blew In Here, Sir”
We had a character in the Squadron by the name of Duff.
We had a saying in the army “Old soldier, old shit”, and if that be so, Duff, except for his age, might have landed in Britain with the legions of Julius Caesar.
I had him as a partner on stable picket one wet, windy night and he, at once proceeded to pile the bales of hay to make a snug little cave, into which he crawled and went fast asleep, leaving me to mind heel-ropes, pursue loose horses or whatever emergency might arise, alone.
When the orderly officer made his visiting rounds, Duff, hearing me talking to him, came crawling out of his cave.
“What are you doing there, Duff"?” asked the officer
“My cap blew in there, sit, and I went in after it.” he said
If nothing else, he was quick witted.
On another occasion, when my section was billeted in a small outhouse attached to the main farm house, we caught him one morning in the act of stealing a loaf of bread from our provision locker.
Now Duff had had his daily issue of bread, just as we had had ours.
When remonstrated, he said, “It’s a pretty small thing when you begrudge a comrade a piece of bread.”
He never stopped to think how equally small it was to steal a piece of bread from a comrade.
A Badly Frightened Man
Shortly after the Armistice, we were following up the German retreat when we received word one afternoon that a German straggler was hiding in a barn a few miles away.
I was sent with a small detachment to bring him in and turn him over to the authorities.
When we reached the village, we found an excited mob of villagers milling around the door of a barn.
We went in and after a short search, found the man cowering behind stacked bales of hay at the back of the barn.
We took him out, formed a hollow square with the horses ad placed him in the middle of it. He was the most badly frightened man that I have ever seen and well he might be.
If those villagers, armed as they were, with pitchforks, axes, clubs, any weapon with which they could do damage (one woman had even brought along an iron ladle) had they ever got their hands on him, they would cheerfully have torn him limb from limb.
We had moved into a small village and the troop officers were busy getting the men settled into suitable billets.
Finding a small building, which would accommodate half a dozen men, the troop officer, on examining it, found the door blocked by a cage or pen containing four rabbits.
I feared his French had been sadly neglected, for, calling the good lady of the house he asked “Voulyvous movay the bunnies”
“Comment, Mes’ure” asked the good lady, her eyes round with amazement, as never in the course of her life had she heard such French spoken.
Now, my own command of the French language was nothing to stand up and cheer about, but I thought that I could do better than the troop officer had done. At least I couldn’t do worse.
“Civous lais, madam, voulievou change le lapin?”
“Oui mes’ure” she answered, seizing one end of the cage. “Tout suite”
I took the other end of the cage and we moved into the billet with no further incedent.
The men being all away at the front, the were obliged to perform a great portion of the work.
At the farm where we were quartered the first winter after getting our horses again, there was a farm hand extraordinary, Blondie.
She was a natural blond, with tremendous capability for performing the chores about the barn and around cattle.
In addition, there was a man whose occupation, on the passports everyone was obliged to carry, was given as ‘tramp’. But he never tramped far during the time we were there.
Blondie was as good as any man at working around the cattle and the barns, but never cared a great deal about working the horses, nor, I suppose, would the ‘patron’ have cared her to.
But when it came to milking, feeding and tending stock, Blondie was tops.
I heard a year or so afterward that she was in hospital and recovering very slowly, but I never heard what was her trouble.
Mitigating a Nuisance
We were quartered in an old brick yard in the Somme district.
We were painting the wagons a brilliant green, as customary.
Across the street was a row of tenement houses where there were living at the time half a dozen ‘ladies’ who were known as Displaced Persons, usually referred to as DP’s.
They were continually under our feet interfering with our work, begging for rations, chocolate, etc., until they were making unmitigated pests of themselves.
This morning one of the men, something of a practical joker, tiring of the attentions of the ‘lady’ who had attached herself to him, flipped up her skirts and applied a liberal coat of green paint to the exposed portion of her anatomy, and, with textiles as merely unprocurable as they were at the time, I doubt whether the ‘lady’ was wearing much in the way of underwear.
She rushed home to clean herself. I don’t know what she used, but, if my guess is right as to where the paint was applied, I wouldn’t have recommended turpentine.
Picardy was a great cider producing region and while I have heard the cider of Picardy highly spoken of, I never cared for it myself.
Each farm had its large, well tended orchard and in the spring, the blossoms, with the delicate pink and white, combined with the tender green of the leaf, made a sight worth going miles to see.
Coming down the road through the village one morning, I met a peasant on his way to work.
Just as he reached me, he emitted a tremendous rush of wind from his bowels.
“Vous casse le que, Mess’ure?”[sic] I asked
“Non” he replied without cracking a smile and continued on his way.
Shortly after leaving the village where we had spent the winter, I was taken sick with flu and was shipped to hospital.
The train on which I went down to the base on must have had a flat wheel, for never have I known such a jiggling and jolting ride.
In my condition, it did me no good and I arrived at the hospital a very sick man.
But the nurses took excellent care of me, and I continued to improve to the point where I was sent to a distribution centre, where, after a few days stay, I was put on a boat for England.
I never saw the Regiment again, nor did I shed any tears over the fact, for I was so heartily disgusted with the senseless regulations that we were obliged to live under drove me to the point where I didn’t care if I never heard the word army as long as I lived. I vowed that should war ever break out again, I would stay at home and send the boys cigarettes.
How well I kept my vow was demonstrated during World War II. I had moved to the United States during the interval and tried to bring my boys up to believe America to be a country worth fighting for, dying for, if necessary, and how well I succeeded in doing this was demonstrated when war broke out with Japan and the three boys at once joined the Marines.
But I found out that the real worry was not the boy at the front who did it, as the waiting for a letter, and the continual worrying as to whether the boys had been in any particularly tough engagement, was much worse than actually being at the front.
But all three boys came safely home.
Met My Brother
After the paymaster had attempted to pay me with my brother’s pay sheet, I knew that he must be here, as his pay sheet would never have been sent here otherwise, so I went immediately to the orderly room, where I was at once told where to find him.
I found him in a wheelchair.
Being something of an athlete, he had sprained an ankle rather badly in attempting some stunt and, as the slightest injury, now that the war was over, meant shipment across to England,and to England he was sent.
We had a very pleasant visit, but the ways of the army being what they are made no plans for the future, letting that take care of itself.
I never saw him again until after I had returned to Canada.
Seeing the hedgerows of England in bloom made me wonder why I had ever thought the apple orchards of Picardy were beautiful.
Never have I seen anything to compare with the pink and white, combined with the tender green of the new leaves, and it is said that there is nothing in heaven to compare with them.
Every time I looked out the window, I thanked God that that mare had thrown up her head just when she did.
Had she not, my wife would have waited a long time for that kiss.