Five Canadian Light Horsemen – The Story of Lionel Grisdale

Posted: November 28, 2013 in Canadian history, History
Tags: , , , , ,

On the 30th of October 1921, the Mayor of the small Ontario town of Thorold in Welland County was unveiling a cenotaph in the new Memorial Park to honour the young men of the town who had died in the Great War. According to historian Alun Hughes, ‘the Mayor was barely able to speak, since his two sons… were among the 54 names of fallen soldiers listed’.

Thorold Cenotaph

Thorold Cenotaph

The Mayor was called Grisdale, to be precise Frederick Gideon Grisdale; his family had been living in Welland County for about a hundred years. Frederick’s Grandfather Gideon had helped build the first Welland Canal and then been one of its lock keepers. His father Robert John Grisdale had won a medal for fighting the Fenian Raiders in 1861. But now Frederick was ‘barely able to speak’ as he saw the names of his sons, Arthur and Lionel, carved in stone in front of him.

Both Arthur and Lionel had been carpenters when they joined up within a few weeks of each other in late 1915. Arthur, aged 21, joined the Canadian Field Artillery, while Lionel, aged 18, enlisted in the Canadian Mounted Rifles; he would later transfer to the 1st Hussars, Canadian Light Horse.

At the start of August 1918, the Canadian army in France was participating in the Battle of Amiens.

‘The Battle of Amiens (8 – 28 August, 1918) would see the start of a string of successes for the allies that would leave the German Army a shadow of its once mighty self. To spearhead the upcoming attack, the strongest and freshest formations were called upon to spearhead the attack and so the Canadian and Australian Corps moved up to the front at Amiens. The Canadians deployed with three divisions forwards… Each division had attached to it a battalion of 42 British tanks. Also deployed was the Cavalry Corps to exploit the expected breakthrough.’

Lionel Grisdale was with these divisions. He was a Trooper with the 1st Hussars, Canadian Light horse, and part of the ‘Cavalry Corps’.

Canadian Light Horse, 1918

Canadian Light Horse, 1918

Lieutenant George Stirrett was a troop commander in the 1st Hussars. He wrote a detailed account of the activities of the Canadian Light Horse throughout the war. When we get to the summer of 1918 he tells us:

At the end of July, 1918, in preparation for the Battle of Amiens, the Canadian Light Horse was ordered to move by night to Saleux, south of Amiens. Here we were broken up and a squadron attached to each of the attacking brigades. LCol Leonard took command of the Hotchkiss Gun Detachment (18 guns) which worked along the Amiens – Roye Road and helped maintain liaison with the French on the right.

During the early part of August I was attached, with my troop, to the Canadian Third Divisional Headquarters. As the attack should be on August 8th, the Brigade Major came to me and said that the first thing they had to do was to get over a small creek about ten feet wide. There were three bridges in the Third Division sector. Our job was to determine as soon as possible after the attack started, whether or not these bridges had been destroyed. As soon as this was determined, my troop would have to deliver messages to the advancing elements of Third Division. That was right at dawn.

By 9:00 A.M., the brigade Major came to me and said, ‘Stirrett, we’ve got so far that they have passed their objectives. Now we have lost our troops and haven’t any communication with them.’ He said that I was to take all the men I had and send them out. They were to try and contact anyone from the Third Division and bring back a message telling where they were and what they were doing. There being not yet any radios and the signals had not yet had time to get out their signal wire. We spent the rest of the day trying to contact advancing elements…

The next day, August 9th, Skirrett tells us:

We got a report that a German artillery unit had disappeared into a hollow about a mile away. A squadron of the Scots Greys was in the area and was asked if they wanted to go after these Germans, who were to the right, on the French side of the road. The Scots officer said that he could not go. Lieutenant Freddy Taylor, a First Hussars Officer, and a bit tight at the time, commanding the 1st troop, took five men and headed out towards where the Germans had been seen…

Germans at Amiens

Germans at Amiens

Trooper Grisdale was one of these five men who headed out with the ‘tight’ Lieutenant Taylor.

They found the Germans about 2000 yards ahead of the advancing French infantry. It was a German artillery ammunition column, hidden in an excavation, and their horses had nose bags on as they were on a rest stop. One man held the horses while Taylor and the others moved forward with their rifles to the edge of the bank. From there, they were able to shoot every horse and a few men so that the German column couldn’t move. Then Taylor said every man for himself, and to get back the best way you can. They went back, losing one man while two were wounded.

I’ll come back to Skirrett’s account soon, but let’s continue with the account of these events written by James McWilliams in his book Amiens: Dawn of Victory:

“On the extreme right flank where the 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles advanced along the Amiens – Roye Road there occurred an incident, insignificant strategically but typical in many ways of the events of Friday, August 9. The 5th had by-passed Arvillers, a town to their right in the French sector, and assisted by four tanks had pressed on to take their own objective, Bouchoir.”

“The French south of the road had been stopped in front of Arvillers despite the support of Brutinel’s Independent Force. Around 5:00 the men of the two motor machine gun batteries fought their way into Arvillers and captured twenty-five prisoners… The 5th CMRs, looking over their right shoulder and seeing groups of the enemy retreating from Arvillers in the French sector, dispatched a platoon and one tank to occupy and mop up the village at 5:30.”

At 5:40, in the words of the War Diary of the 5th CMR.

A considerable number of enemy vehicles (a German ammunition convoy, as it turned out) were noticed retiring South eastwards from Southern outskirts of Arvillers. This was pointed out to a squadron of Imperial Cavalry who had just moved up in close proximity to our H.Q., and we suggested that they could with very little difficulty, make a good capture, but they were either unable or unwilling to seize the opportunity.

The Wrecked Church of Arvillers

The Wrecked Church of Arvillers

“Instead, five volunteers from the Canadian Light Horse offered to tackle the ammunition convoy. Lieutenant F. A. Taylor and his men had been sent forward from Brigade Headquarters to deliver a message. Now Taylor, Sergeant Duncan, and Privates Dudgeon, Grisdale and Hastie mounted and galloped to a line of old trenches south of the road. There they dismounted and worked their way along the trenches.”

Here we can hear what Lieutenant Freddy Taylor himself wrote about what happened:

I decided to rush the convoy and left the trenches. Some resistance was offered so I opened fire and shot the officer and 12 or 15 men. The remainder, about 20 men, surrendered. Heavy rifle and M.G. fire was opened on us from the trenches so we seized the lead horses and rushed them toward our own lines. The enemy advanced some machine guns within 400 yards and as I realized there was no chance of getting the convoy clear, I shot some of the horses and rushed my prisoners into the trench… as a body of the enemy were advancing with the intention of cutting us off.

Canadian Troops at Amiens 1918

Canadian Troops at Amiens 1918

McWilliams continues:

Meanwhile another platoon of the 5th CMR and a tank had been dispatched to help the five Light Horsemen bring in the captured ammunition convoy. But while they were on their way the French put down a belated rolling barrage on Arvillers where the CMRs first platoon was mopping up with the aid of a tank. Both platoons and both tanks were hastily recalled. Taylor and his four men were split up and forced to abandon their prisoners. When they reached Canadian lines, two were missing – Hastie and Grisdale. It is believed that Grisdale stayed with his wounded comrade. That night a search was carried out and the body of Private Hastie was found having apparently died of wounds. There was no trace of Grisdale.

And thus it was that Trooper Lionel Grisdale died: staying behind to help a wounded comrade.

There is one final thing to add. There were several versions of these events, though not regarding Lionel’s death. Lieutenant Skirrett writes:

LCol Leonard asked me to determine exactly what had happened and to determine whether or not Taylor should get a decoration. After I turned in the full story, Taylor was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and the surviving men… were awarded Military Medals (MM). When I had talked to the men involved, each had told a different story, as if they had not all been in the same place at the same time. They all said they had never seen anything so ridiculous or so foolish in the whole war. I conclude that I thought the whole action quote reckless.

Whether Lionel’s father Mayor Frederick Grisdale knew these scanty facts regarding his son’s death three years later when he unveiled the cenotaph in Thorold, I don’t know.

What about Frederick’s other and older son Arthur? As I mentioned, Arthur had joined the 8th Battalion of the Canadian Field Artillery as a Gunner. He died on the killing fields of the Somme, ‘near Courcelette’ on 4 November, 1916. Maybe I’ll tell his story later.

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