Face to Face with World War I
Charles Ernest Thomas, private, 3rd Field Company, Canadian Engineers
Charles Thomas arrived at the front lines in Belgium in May of 1915. He would not see the family farm again, just south of Bolton, for four long years. Over this time he was at the centre of everything that made up the Great War, from the death and horror and relentless drudgery of the trenches to the eye-opening experience of a Canadian on leave in London.
In a steady stream of letters home, Charles described his wartime life in a reassuring and almost newsy way, but in a closely held diary he recorded his days with more brutal truth. Both writings reveal a sensitive man coping with his place in a war that involved much of the Western world, and in which he was immersed every day in his dangerous role as a sapper.
RIGHT IN THE THICK OF THINGS
The 1st Canadian division was posted to the front lines of the deadly Ypres Salient on April 1, 1915. Charles was in the trenches in May, by which time Canadians had fought in the battles of St. Julien and Festubert, and faced gas for the first time. On the day Charles arrived, his commanding officer was killed before he could report in.
Diary, May 25, 1915: Put in first night’s work in the trenches, a German communications trench they had evacuated and blown up. Changed this into a firing trench, putting in two machine guns. The Germans still occupied one end of the trench … Could hear the enemy talking and driving stakes … near Festubert.
May 27, 1916: Put in second night … It was near here 48th found two young girls killed in German trenches. Their bodies were still warm … We went on through Richebourg (which has been shelled until not a house is left standing …We waited there during which time the Germans shelled the road … snipers between our lines … Fighting everywhere.
A CATALOGUE OF INJURY AND DEATH
Carnage at the front had moved John McCrae to write the famous “In Flanders Fields” just as Charles was taking up his duties. McCrae’s dressing station was a few miles from Charles’ first trench, which means he and McCrae were reacting to the same general situation. They record their experiences, however, in very different language.
June 15, 1915: Captain Morrison of 1st Field Company killed this night.
July 7: Sergeant Turner shot thro neck today, but missed jugular.
July 13: Three casualties today. Corporal Cook wounded, hit on head by piece of shell … Sapper Davey hit on hip … Sapper Leslie … shot through kidneys.
August 31: Two men hit this night, Sapper Hifle shot through head (is still living at noon next day) and an infantryman who died in an hour.
April 26, 1916: Lt. Morrow killed by bomb early this morning. Sgt. Ward and Spr. Barrett wounded near Hill 60 … Spr. Barrett wounded with bullet thro stomach, died on 28th.
An equally dark inventory continues in the diary through 1916.
February 5: Spr. Whitmet killed at the cutoff at D4. Trenches are only 35 or 40 yards apart here.
April 27: Transports shelled … last night, one horse killed. Sgt. McLean run over, Cpl. Deeve of No 1 Co. hit … Stout wounded.
April 28: Very heavy bombardment during the night. Driver Wilson went to hospital suffering from shell shock.
June 13: Brobyn killed [Brobyn had come to Belgium with Charles]. Wounded – Sgt. Morrison, Spr. Westonholmes. Shell shock – Spr. Gardiner.
June 30: Our company lost 10 men.
TO THE FOLKS AT HOME
The letters to his family, rigorously censored by the War Office, describe a dramatically different experience and show Charles taking great pains to be reassuring. For example, his diary for September 30, 1916 records that of the 50 men originally drafted to the company, only 11 were left, and he was “the last one of our draft in No. 1 Sect.”
But a letter in the same time period told the folks at home, “Have received the package you mailed. Sorry the chicken was spoiled. Rest of it good.”
On October 14, his diary recorded: Spr. McDonald wounded today. But that same day a letter to his mother said, “I am about as bombproof here as one can expect to be.” Many hurried postcards offered such lines as, “Just to let you know I’m okay. Very busy.”
The family was also comforted by frequent references to church services (the diary records these too; Charles was a devout Methodist) and, as typical farmers from in and around these hills, the Thomases must have smiled knowingly at his letter in August 1916 which reported, “I boiled the maple sugar you sent back down to syrup. Today had real pancakes with it.”
DIRT, MUD, LICE, RATS
Not that all Charles’ letters home were sunny. He told his brother about mud. “If you stand long enough in some places in the trenches, you need a derrick to pull you out.” And apparently felt comfortable telling his mother, “I am quite clean [of lice] at the moment. Am a specialist by this time in English, French and German vermin.”
The truly serious rat problem in the trenches, however, Charles confined to his diary. In October 1916 he was posted opposite Vimy Ridge (Canada’s famous conquest was still seven months away), an area he described as: … the worst place for rats yet … [They] ate my emergency rations last night … One fellow had his haversack eaten open last night and three packets of Old Chum tobacco carried away by rats … They also carried two hard biscuits off Spr. Oliver, eating a hole in his overcoat to get them.
A curious feature of Charles’ diary is the steady recording of aircraft activity in the skies above him. The natural human tendency to watch action in the sky was accelerated in the trenches because of snipers. Looking up was safer than standing up. Charles, like his fellow soldiers, watched dogfights in the manner of spectators at a big league game.
August 11, 1915: Several aeroplanes up this afternoon, British and German. One large British biplane particularly daring. One German brought down by our planes and anti-aircraft guns.
March 31, 1916: The German aeroplanes, at least the German Fokker machine, was able to put it all over any we had in the neighbourhood of Bailleul.
March 11, 1917: Very much aerial activity. Saw five scraps, 3 planes brought down, one of ours, one of Fritz, doubtful about the third … The Germans have some very fast machines here.
OUT OF THE LOOP AND IN THE DARK
Of course there were times when Charles and his fellow soldiers did stand safely upright, especially when dignitaries showed up well back of the lines.
July 21, 1915: Reviewed by Sir R.L. Borden, accompanied by General Alderson, General Turner and Prince Arthur of Connaught. [Alderson was the original British commander of the Canadian forces].
August 8, 1915: Engineers were reviewed by Sam Hughes, Prince Alexander of Teck and General Alderson.
October 27, 1915: The King is out here now … The roads were lined with troops cheering him as he passed along.
These visits told the soldiers they were the spear point of a huge event, but frustration rose at how little they knew of the big picture. In September 1916 Charles grumbled to his brother, “So the Canadian papers know all about our journeys before we do.” His diary too revealed a fog of misinformation.
June 1916: A great many rumours in the air … General Mercer taken prisoner [actually killed by shelling]. British fleet badly hammered [Battle of Jutland, actually a victory for the Royal Navy, albeit a shaky one]. And in a letter to his brother, Charles wrote: “Kitchener drowned – or saved three or four times.” [Lord Kitchener drowned June 5, 1916.]
Worst of all for men like Charles was not knowing what happened to their pals.
On September 30, 1916, Charles notes in his diary: Spr. Drake being wounded leaves me the last one of our draft in No. 1 sect.
Six weeks later: Received letter from Drake’s mother today telling me of his death. And Charles added this note to his original entry: Spr. Drake died on Oct. 10 at Rouen Hospital No. 12. He was admitted on 7th. Had most likely been at Contay hospital previously.
ONE OF THE “LUCKY ONES”?
Charles died in Bolton in 1962 at age 78. How had he survived the war when so many of his company had not? Could it simply have been a matter of luck? Was it the nature of his combat role at the front?
He was a sapper, and sappers (also called pioneers or combat engineers) were the workhorses of the army, building, repairing, mining, excavating, and managing the infrastructure of trench warfare. Their work was varied as these typical entries from the diaries suggest, and much of the time extremely dangerous.
June 1915: … building pontoon bridge, knot tying, brushwork, making hurdles … Stayed here 4 days making ladders, barb wire entanglements, and putting bombs and gun cotton in dugouts … erecting an observation tower … Laying out new trenches and strengthening the front line.
October 1915: Working on dressing station with first battalion. Putting in false roof to make it bombproof … working at night deepening a communication trench … Laying double track for handcars.
November 1915: Rain … rain … Working on drain behind C on 4-8 p.m. shift. Dirtiest job have been on yet … Drivers ran wagon I was on into ditch, in eight feet of water … Everybody pretty wet. Fortunately got the horses out, although two of them nearly drowned.
February 1916: Was up at headquarters putting in glass. Some glazier! … Was a sort of brick labourer today, fixing oven at canteen.
March 26, 1916: We are sleeping in a barn. First time back of lines for 10 months.
April 11, 1916: Was up today over the ground. Every man you see says, “Keep your head down.” Wish I was 5 ft. high.
May 1916: Our section is short of carpenters. Sergeant says I am a carpenter, so I guess I am one … The corporal says I’m not a carpenter. Corporal wins.
June 28, 1916: Germans attacked Vancouver trench …Shelled these dugouts this morning – cookhouse which I was in – blown in. Close enough for me!
December 19, 1916: The Germans attacked this morning … Did not notice the weeping gas [at first].We all had sore eyes and some of us wept quite a lot too.
January 29, 1917: Not much work in the trenches, but God help us when it thaws.
Although sappers usually spent a longer time at the front than infantrymen, they rarely went “over the top” in those deadly and mindless charges across No Man’s Land so characteristic of this war. Still, their work was carried out under frequent, massive artillery shelling and ever-present sniper fire. It may well be that Charles Thomas was indeed one of those combat veterans whom survivors of World War I called the “lucky ones.”
BACK OF THE LINES … WAY BACK
At the end of March 1917, Charles was transferred to England. He had been promoted to sergeant (his rank at demobilization) and was selected for cadet school to become an officer. The timing meant he was not exposed to the insanity of Passchendaele in October that year, and he just missed the glorious but costly Canadian triumph at Vimy.
In a letter to his brother in April, days after the battle, he wrote, “I know the place alright, but I would sooner have been in that six days scrap than the four months we had at Ypres last year. Still I count myself lucky to be over here [in London].”
A serious injury in cadet school, caused by a fall from a horse, led to a long recuperation and then reassignment to support duties in England. Charles never returned to the front. Over the final year of the war his letters home continued, but the diary entries decreased and almost disappeared.
On November 11, 1918, as church bells rang out around the world, the weariness of his brief entry speaks volumes: It is finished.
World War I images from the Canadian War Museum show the kind of work undertaken by sappers, or combat engineers, like Charles. They were the workhorses of the army, building,repairing, mining, excavating, and managing the infrastructure of trench warfare.
A mother’s solace
Charles spent October 1915 at Wulverghem, a village in Belgium directly on the front line that was reduced to dust by shelling. It was a site of extremely high casualty rates for both sides. That month he wrote a letter to his mother. You can only wonder how many times it was read late at night and then tucked safely away to be read again.
“My Dear Mother … Somehow I have always expected I will come back, but even if anything does happen to me, you will know I have done it for two reasons. One is my love for our Empire … the other is, I am glad to do my bit on the right side … Of course we all wish it was over. But don’t worry about me. I am only one in millions and do expect to see you again … Your affectionate son, Charley”
Guardian of the diaries
Betty Ward, the youngest of Charles Thomas’s five children (b.1933) is the keeper of his diaries, letters and war memorabilia. A retired teacher, she transcribed the diaries and letters over two years to ensure her siblings and Charles’ 10 grandchildren and 22 great-grandchildren each have a copy. A longtime resident of Caledon East and volunteer for many organizations, including the Caledon East and District Historical Society and United Church Women, Betty was named the Town of Caledon’s 2016 Community Champion. She recently moved to Orangeville.
The lighter side of the war
After eight months at the front, Charles got a furlough to England and over six days in January 1916, his diary recorded a personal blitz of cultural enrichment:
Saw the guard change at Whitehall, up the mall past Buckingham Palace and visited Kensington Museum. Saw Miss Unity More as “Peter Pan” at the New Theatre on St. Martin’s Lane in the afternoon and Phyllis Dore as “Tina” at the Adelphi at night … Visited British Museum in the morning. In the afternoon went to London Coliseum. Heard Sarah Bernhardt … Visited St. Paul’s and Tower of London. Went to Alhambra at night … Visited Westminster Abbey. Saw “Stop Thief” at the Prince of Wales Theatre at night.
There was another aspect to furloughs. Canadian soldiers were considered the randiest in the war (a reputation supported statistically by the highest rate of venereal disease in any Allied army!) Given Charles’ commitment to church services and the intensity of his search for cultural fulfillment (he was even busier on his next return to England), it’s reasonable to suppose he did not indulge in this aspect of wartime activity.
Indeed, in a letter to his brother in June 1917, he comments in a tone that is obviously arm’s length, “Of course you no doubt hear a lot about the ‘girls on the street,’ but nobody can judge the English girls by them.”
When Charles married Isabella Nattress in 1925 in the Methodist Church manse in Bolton, he likely did so with a clear conscience.
A name on Menin Gate
In the city of Ypres (a.k.a. Ieper) in Belgium, the Menin Gate is one of four huge memorials to soldiers who died in the Ypres Salient but whose bodies were never found because of the endless mud and massive shelling. Carved into the walls of the Menin Gate are the names of 55,000 soldiers without a known grave. Of these, 6,940 are Canadian.
On May 13, 1916, Charles wrote home excitedly to report that a local boy, Matt Agar from Nobleton, had been transferred into his company from the infantry. On June 13, his diary records: Attack successful! Whole line regained … Only one not accounted for tonight: Matt Agar.
Then in September, Charles wrote to his parents, “That was quite a paragraph in the Bolton Enterprise about Matt Agar [the newspaper reported Agar ‘missing in action’]. I believe I know what happened to him and find it improbable he was made prisoner for a shell burst where he was known to be.”
Joseph Matthew Agar’s name appears on Panel 10 of the Menin Gate.