‘The Music of Those Voices Lingers’ – Manitoba University to Regina Trench

Posted: January 15, 2013 in Family History, History
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

It was probably in March 1916 that a young former Manitoba University Arts’ student called Percy Grisdale boarded a troop train in Winnipeg for the journey across Canada to Halifax in Nova Scotia.  Percy had decided to abandon his studies and follow the call of ‘King and Country’. On 8 September 1915 he enlisted in the 61st (Winnipeg) Infantry Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Some training followed before the battalion was to make its trip to Europe and the horrors of the trenches in France. This is the story of one year in Percy’s life.

Manitoba University

Manitoba University

Percy John Grisdale was born in Winnipeg on 20 March 1896, the first of four children of English-born Joseph Grisdale and his Anglo-Métis wife Annie Bunn. Percy’s father Joseph was a bank manager in Selkirk, Manitoba. I will tell his family’s story at a later date. I know nothing about Percy’s early life, but he must have been a bright boy because in 1914 he was admitted to the Arts Faculty of Manitoba University. His parents were very likely proud of their son’s achievement – as I guess would have been his uncle, John Grisdale, the retired Bishop of Qu’Appelle.

Why Percy chose to abandon his studies and voluntarily join the Canadian Expeditionary Force we don’t know. We might today question, or better lament, the call of ‘King and Country’, knowing how, at least on the British side, the young soldiers were destined to be ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ in a completely unnecessary imperialistic war that had nothing to do with them. But thousands upon thousands of young men did in fact respond to this patriotic call, not just in the English-speaking world, but in Germany and France as well.

On his Attestation to join the Expeditionary Force in September 1915, Percy gave his height as 5ft. 8.5inches. He had brown hair, blue eyes and a fair complexion. He had a scar on his right knee.

Halifax Harbour in 1916

Halifax Harbour in 1916

Once the troop train carrying the 61st Battalion arrived in Halifax, the soldiers had to wait a while until their transport ship was ready. One report of a similar arrival reads: ‘As they waited their turn to board the vessel, the restless soldiers were marched around Halifax, given leave, and sometimes accommodated in local barracks.’

In fact the 61st’s troop ship was to be the magnificent RMS Olympic, the sister ship of the ill-fated RMS Titanic. It was to be the first of many voyages the Olympic was to make ferrying Canadian soldiers to the war and bringing back casualties.

RMS Olympic in prewar days

RMS Olympic in prewar days

Soldier Harold Allen wrote on a post card: ‘Have arrived here at last after some trip, this is a glorious boat the name of which you may know. We hope to sail soon along with several other Bn (battalions). This is a rotten town & it is raining like the devil.’

Much of what I will tell about this ship and its role as a Canadian troop ship during the war is taken from an excellent article by David R. Gray called Carrying Canadian Troops – the Story of RMS Olympic as a First World War Troopship, published by the Canadian War Museum. Gray writes:

As the Canadian commitment to supplying troops for her European war effort grew during the course of 1915, a consistently available means of transporting them was considered essential. Hence the Canadian Government requested from the British Admiralty the use of Olympic as a troop transport. The Admiralty responded favourably and in February 1916 assigned Olympic the job of ferrying Canadian troops across the Atlantic to Europe. As one of the largest and fastest ships afloat, she was perfect for the role. Olympic left Liverpool for Halifax, on the first of what would be many trips, on 22 March 1916, arriving six days later.

The RMS Olympic was: ‘The first of three similar sister-ships, that included the Titanic and the Britannic, the Olympic was built by Harland & Wolff in Belfast and launched as RMS Olympic in 1910, a year earlier than Titanic, with her maiden voyage taking place in 1911. As the newest and largest of the trans-Atlantic liners, Olympic was described with all the superlatives later applied to Titanic: “Ocean Greyhound,” “Finest Steamer Afloat,” “Largest vessel in the World,” and “Queen of the Ocean.” At 882 feet in overall length, with a gross registered tonnage of 45,324 tons and a total of nine decks.’

RMS Olympic as a troop ship

RMS Olympic as a troop ship

The Olympic had been refitted as a troop ship in 1915 and had already carried many troops to the Mediterranean and elsewhere. When she arrived in Halifax she was already camouflaged: ‘Painted grey, dark grey for the hull and a lighter grey for the superstructure.’ With 5,737 soldiers aboard, including the 61st (Winnipeg) Battalion and Private Percy Grisdale, the Olympic departed Halifax on 5 April 1916 bound for Liverpool. The ship’s captain was Sir Bertram Hayes. The departure was not without incident:

As the pilot who had guided Olympic out of the harbour was transferred by small boat from Olympic to the armed yacht HMCS Stadacona, the much smaller vessel had difficulty manoeuvring in the wind. As the two drifted together, Stadacona’s masthead caught and carried away two of Olympic’s lifeboats. Fortunately, damage to both vessels was minimal, and Stadacona was able to retrieve the two lifeboats.

Most of the many thousands of Canadian soldiers who were to travel to war on the Olympic were amazed at the ship and their accommodation. Private Gray, who made the same voyage later in the year, wrote:

… I’m pleased to say the good fortune, or special providence or whatever it is, which has followed me ever since joining the army was with me still. I have a lovely little stateroom with 3 beds in it and the men with me are all right… and we have lots of room, a nice mahogany wardrobe to hang our clothes and drawers for small things. Electric light switch at the bed side, mattress & pillows white sheet & blanket, a fan blowing fresh air through a ventilator under my bed and so on, everything lovely. After a stroll round the deck and she is a big one, I began to think of a bath, but all bathroom(s) were locked and no hot water, but where there’s a will there’s a way. I found a steward and a quarter did the rest. I got a cold salt water bath and got some clean clothes on and went to bed about 11 o’clock and in 5 minutes time I opened my eyes and it was 6 am next morning.

The soldiers had to enjoy such luxury, it wouldn’t last long.

Canadians at Bramshott Camp

Canadians at Bramshott Camp

When the Olympic arrived in Liverpool on 11 April, the 61st Battalion boarded trains for their camp in Bramshott, Hampshire. It was a place that was to be home to countless Canadian soldiers in both the First and Second World Wars. Another Canadian soldier, Kenneth Foster, who also arrived in England in 1916, describes part of the journey:

So…. we experienced our first train ride in England. And believe me — they sure could travel for the size of them. We arrived at our destination about 8 o’clock in the evening at the village of Hazelmere, in the county of Hampshire. It was raining hard when we got off the train. I remember only too well how we were stalled at the station for an hour or more, for there seemed to be some mis-understanding as to where the camp at Bramshott really was. Eventually we got away, and after a march of about two miles we arrived there, tired, wet and hungry; so after partaking of a little nourishment we all hit the floor, and although it was mighty hard we soon fell asleep.

On awakening the next morning I found the camp to be large, with hundreds of huts capable of housing from forty to fifty men—a regular war village with Post Office, stores, theatre, etc., like hundreds of others which were scattered all over different parts of the British Isles.

More Canadians at Bramshott Camp

More Canadians at Bramshott Camp

Training was rather desultory it seems and ‘consisted mostly of long route marches, plenty of drill, and the usual turn at guard.’ Like Foster, Percy Grisdale would probably have found some time to get out of camp. Foster had visited ‘several villages and towns in Hampshire; for instance, Grayshot, Godalming, Guilford and others, the names of which I have forgotten’.

During the First World War, the Canadian Army authorized the formation of 260 infantry battalions to serve in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Of these battalions, ‘only a small fraction…  ever reached France to serve on the front lines. The remaining battalions, most often upon arrival in England, were broken up and primarily absorbed into a reserve battalion.’ This is what happened to the 61st (Winnipeg) Battalion. On 7 July 1916, it was absorbed into the 11th Reserve Battalion which formed part of the Canadian Training Depot at Tidworth Barracks on Salisbury Plain.

It’s probable that Percy Grisdale was still with the 61st battalion when it was absorbed and moved to Tidworth. From there soldiers were quickly transferred individually or en masse to units serving in France. Percy was transferred to the Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR), which had already seen action at Ypres and on the Somme.

Most likely Percy arrived as a reinforcement for the RCR in July or August 1916. Without seeing his full service record it’s impossible to know. Of course it is also possible that he had been transferred earlier as an ‘individual augmentee’, as had Private ‘Pete’ Thompson, also of the 61st, who had travelled to England with Grisdale on the Olympic and joined the RCR in early June 1916.

Royal Canadian Regiment Soldiers on the Somme

Royal Canadian Regiment Soldiers on the Somme

In either case, Percy would not have been with his new regiment during its first major battle of the war, the Battle of Mount Sorrel, which took place on 2 June in the Ypres salient in the Flanders region of Belgium.  With the arrival of spring in April 1916, the Germans had made new offensive attacks. Before the Battle of Mount Sorrel, the RCR was involved in skirmishes throughout the Mount Sorrel area but was mostly involved in trench line duty.

In 1917 an RCR officer who was there wrote:

Our first fight of any importance was the 3rd Battle of Ypres on the 2nd June 1916 when, after a four hours intensive bombardment from a large number of guns of all calibres, we were heavily attacked three times in succession by the Enemy. We repulsed all three attacks by our rifle and Machine Gun fire with heavy loss to the Enemy. Our losses were approximately 250 all ranks… After this battle we had to go back to a rearward area to refit and reorganize.

On June 6, 1916 the regiment was relieved by the 28th Battalion. On June 7, 1916 four mines that had been underneath the RCR’s position the previous day exploded and almost obliterated the entire 28th Battalion. It was probably not very long after this that Private Percy Grisdale joined his new brothers in arms.

Between June and August some extremely gallant trench raids and expeditions were carried out by the Regiment. One raid carried out was discovered by the enemy before starting, and came under the intense fire from rifles, bombs and machine guns at close quarters. In spite of this the party rushed forward and inflicted heavy losses upon the enemy, but every man except one was wounded. Two officers and some men came out into the open and worked for two hours under fire collecting and bringing in the wounded.

Canadian Soldiers on the Somme

Canadian Soldiers on the Somme

On September 8th the RCR, ‘owing to the high state of training and discipline… performed a very difficult feat on September 8th, when it came up from reserve and occupied a line just after dusk over absolutely strange ground, made unrecognisable by shell fire, and in so doing was obliged to change front twice. They occupied their position on time.’ And on September 16th ‘two companies went forward to attack an enemy trench over open ground, in full view of the enemy, in face of deadly rifle and machine gun fire, starting at a distance of over 800 yards and being practically wiped out when less than 50 yards from the enemy’s trench’.

We know that Percy Grisdale took part in all these engagements and had survived. But then, after a brief rest in the latter part of September, on October 8th the 7th Brigade, of which the RCR was a part, was ordered to attack Regina Trench, a well-defended German trench line on the Ancre Heights, 1.5 kilometres north east of the small village of Courcelette. The whole battle, which lasted more than a month, was to become known as the Battle of Ancre Heights.

A map of the Regina Trench

A map of the Regina Trench

The Staufen Riegel was a German trench along a ridge running from north-west of the village of Le Sars, south-west to Stuff Redoubt (Feste Staufen) close to the German fortifications at Thiepval on the Somme. It was the longest such trench on the German front during WW1. The Canadians called it Regina Trench after the town of Regina in Saskatchewan.  It had been repeatedly attacked for two months, without much success and with great causalities. It was briefly captured by the 5th Canadian Brigade on 1 October, and again on the 8th October by the 1st and 3rd Canadian Divisions – including the Royal Canadian Regiment. One historian of the Royal Canadian Regiment wrote this about its role in the attack of 8th October:

A, C, and D Companies were to lead the assault.  Although much uncut wire was encountered, they were able to drive swiftly to the trench were they proceeded to occupy the German lines.  Unknown to them, was the fact that the rest of the attacking battalions had not reached the trenches, leaving The RCR alone in the German Trenches.

The Regiment, unaware of their current circumstance, attempted to begin consolidation of their position.  Shortly the Germans began a counter-attack from three directions, and despite this, The Regiment continued to make gains in the trenches.  As the Germans had a great advantage in numbers, they began pushing back The Regiment.  The Regiment realized immediately that they had to withdraw promptly because of a high rate of casualties.  A covering force of 81 men allowed the remainder of The Regiment to withdraw as well as possible in the daylight.  As the covering force made their way back, they told horror stories of men buried in mud, and of several wounded men whom it had been impossible to rescue.  At night three strong work parties went out and after working for hours reported that no wounded man from The Regiment remained on the battlefield.

Private Percy John Grisdale (1896-1916)

Private Percy John Grisdale (1896-1916)

In fact the Canadian casualties had been horrific. The RCR lost ‘12 Officers and 277 other ranks’. ‘We were’, wrote a RCR officer, ‘the only regiment in the Division which got to their objective from which, however, we were eventually blown out, returning at 5.00 p.m. the same night with a trench strength of 81 by actual count. “A” Company having only 5 men left.’

When the regiment had arrived on the Somme it had 719 men in total. By the end of October 8th they had lost 648! One of those who died while attacking the Regina Trench on the 8th of October was former Manitoba University student Percy Grisdale.

One soldier, Charles Douie, who had fought at the Battle of Ancre Heights, wrote in The Weary Road in 1929:

… here above the Ancre lie many of the most gallant of my regiment, men who were my friends, men whose memory I shall revere to the end of time. Some of them were soldiers by profession; others had turned aside from their chosen avocations in obediences to a call which might not be denied… they have passed into silence. We hear their voices no more. Yet it must be that somewhere the music of those voices lingers…

Given Percy’s bishop uncle, perhaps this poem by Siegfried Sassoon, called They, might also be apt:

The Bishop tells us: ‘When the boys come back
They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
In a just cause: they lead the last attack
On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
New right to breed an honourable race,
They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.’

‘We’re none of us the same!’ the boys reply.
‘For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.’
And the Bishop said: ‘The ways of God are strange!’

Percy Grisdale is buried in Vimy Memorial Cemetery, France.

Canadian War Memorial at Vimy

Canadian War Memorial at Vimy

  1. Thank you for the article, Stephen. My grandfather, John Manners Johnson (58th Btn CEF), was wounded and taken prisoner in the same October 8 attempt on Regina Trench. He survived, but was held as a prisoner of war for more than a year before being sent back to England and eventually home to Toronto. His October 8 injury, a gunshot wound, cost him his leg and pushed him towards his career as a limb fitter at the Christie Street military hospital in Toronto. He also spent the rest of his life advocating for amputees as an active member of the War Amps.

  2. […] ‘The Music of Those Voices Lingers’ – Manitoba University to Regina Trench […]

  3. […] ‘The Music of Those Voices Lingers’ – Manitoba University to Regina Trench […]

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