“Looking around the dugout at the fellows sitting and lying around, one couldn’t help wondering who was to come back and who wasn’t.”
By Dieter K. Buse and Graeme S. Mounti
Rain and snow. Mud, hunger, fatigue, cold. Enemy bullets, poison gas, deaths of buddies, the risk of one’s capture. Survivors’ lives cut short. These were the realities for thousands of Canadians who are remembered this year, the centennial of the outbreak of the First World War.
Historians debate whether this war was avoidable, even whether it was worth fighting. Many judgments will be based upon information from the records of contemporary political and military leaders. Whatever the verdicts, the war’s outcome depended upon those who did the fighting.
For the Canadians, the First World War meant years of living in the trenches of northeastern France and Belgium, aware death or serious injury could strike at any moment. Interspersed were horrendous battles which cost tens of thousands of lives in exchange for minimal territorial gain.
Training and retraining for the new type of warfare of machine guns and endless artillery barrages, as well as transmitting precise information quickly, took up as much time as the fighting.
Claude C. Craig of Sudbury, 20 when he went overseas, left a wartime diary. Born and raised in Ottawa of Irish Protestant background, Craig moved to Sudbury with his father, stepmother, and half-sister in late 1913. His father, Rufus James Craig, served as coal superintendent for the CPR. The young man worked at the CPR’s telegraph office, then the most common means of rapid communication.
What else is known about Claude Craig? He’d been found fit medically on April 14, 1915, according to his Attestation papers. Those papers exist for nearly every soldier in the Canadian forces during the war.
In the case of Craig, like all other recruits signing Attestation papers, he pledged allegiance to the Crown and he promised to obey all orders. As next of kin, he identified his father in Sudbury. For occupation he wrote “telegraphist.” He claimed to have served two and a half years in the 43rd Regiment of the militia. The Attestation papers described him as five feet six inches, of dark complexion, with grey eyes and black hair. His chest expanded to 34 inches and he had two marks on his left arm.
Craig modestly dedicated his diary “to whoever will read it”, beginning with a poem:
I never wrote nothing before
I’ll never write nothing no more.
There won’t be no second edition
For, you see, the war it is o’er.
So please don’t be hard on the writer.
I did the best that I could.
I can’t get ideas into my head.
You never can into wood.
Nevertheless, Craig provided a vivid description of his experiences. He joined the Algonquin Rifles late in December 1914 but did not go overseas for another 12 months.
The diary provides no hint of lack of faith in the cause, no doubts about the merits of the struggle, even as it vividly portrays the horrors of war. Nor does it provide his motives for enlistment, whether patriotism, adventure or advancement because the military offered opportunities for someone in his trade.
Signaling information proved crucial to the war and he became attached to a signals unit. He trained first in Canada, and then trained other signalers for nearly two years in England.
A letter by Craig to his father illustrates the inadequacy of war preparations. In September 1916, Claude asked his father to send him his raincoat. The rainy season was approaching, and he would need it.
In February 1917 he made it to the fighting front in France. On the front, he found mud. On April 4 he “went into a couple of nasty shell holes full of mud and had to be pulled out of one.”
Four days later he described what he had to carry: “Battle order consists of the skeleton equipment with the haversack strapped to the back, rifle, ammunition, water, iron rations and all the grub that one can carry. Then there are bombs, flares, shovels, phones, flags, flappers and a host of other things.”
Craig participated in the Battle of Vimy Ridge (April 9-14, 1917), in which 3,598 Canadians died. (Total Canadian wartime fatalities numbered 60,661.) For days in advance, the enemy bombarded the troops with shells, while somebody had to run back and forth with food and other supplies.
Craig could see some humour in this. He wrote on March 29, “The officers…were shelled out of their dugouts at 1 am and the Brigadier had to stay in the muddy ditch in his nightclothes for two hours. I would have liked to have seen him.”
On April 8, the day before the battle began, the Canadians headed towards what would be the battlefield:
“We left about 9:30 pm and we were carrying an extra water-bottle, which, by the way, is a sure sign that one’s battalion is going over the top [confronting the enemy] or are going into a ‘dirty place.’
On April 9, Easter Sunday, the soldiers reached their destination at 3 am. “Looking around the dugout at the fellows sitting and lying around, one couldn’t help wondering who was to come back and who wasn’t.”
Canadians were victorious at Vimy Ridge, and on April 14, Craig and his friend Herbert found themselves in a German dugout. Seven dead enemy soldiers lay there. “As we couldn’t move them out, we slept with them in the same place. It wasn’t nice smelling, but it was much better than in the mud, which was very bad.”
Craig survived Vimy Ridge and went on to fight at Passchendaele (Oct. 26-Nov. 7, 1917). The British Army had launched the offensive there, and when ordered to finish what the British had begun, the Canadian commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Currie, warned that doing so would cost the lives of 16,000 of his 20,000 soldiers. The estimate was accurate. At Passchendaele, 15,654 Canadians died.
Craig noted on Nov. 6 that his unit had, “100 casualties in 20 minutes.”
On Aug. 26, 1918, he described another battle. “The Fritzies [Germans] were sitting on top of a ridge and I guess they thought that we couldn’t put them off. We did, in half an hour, killing about 70. I got one, wounding a hundred and taking about 150 prisoners.”
As fall approached, he and a buddy became lost during a night reconnaissance ending close to the enemy trenches and eventually discovered that they had wandered three kilometres in no-man’s land. The war ended a few weeks later.
Craig was fortunate enough to return home. Unlike many veterans, he had a job, working again in telegraph offices of the CPR’s Sudbury Division. He married Virginia Leclair of Espanola in 1926 and lived long enough to sire a daughter. However, he too appears to have been a casualty of war. Early in April 1928, while still in his early 30s, he suffered a stroke and died. The obituary said his death resulted from “overseas service.”
Sometimes it is forgotten that although the war may have officially ended on Nov. 11, 1918, its consequences continued long afterwards.
Dieter K. Buse and Graeme S. Mount are historians, authors, and retired Laurentian Univerity professors. They write: Thanks go to “our man in Ottawa,” Leo Doucet, for providing copies from the Craig C. Claude papers [MG 30 E 351] in the National Library and Archives of Canada. He commented aptly on the collection as showing “typical boring soldier life and then sheer terror.”
For those interested in Canadian soldiers’ experiences in the Great War, see At the Sharp End by Tim Cook or When Your Number’s Up by Desmond Morton. For the effect of the war on Sudbury see the chapter ,The 1910s in Carl M Wallace and Ashley Thomson, eds. Sudbury: Railtown to Regional Capital.
Photographs from the George Metcalf Archival Collection
© Canadian War Museum