Posts Tagged ‘First World War’

It was now broad daylight and the situation in Suvla Bay was verging on chaos.”  (Captain Cecil Aspinall-Oglander)

If any question why we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied.
(Rudyard Kipling)

I guess everyone is aware of the horrendous debacle and needless loss of life that was the Gallipoli campaign in 1915. Here I’d like to tell the story, as best I can, of the trip that one young Keswick man called Norman Atkinson Grisdale made to Gallipoli, never to return.

Here dead we lie
Because we did not choose
To live and shame the land
From which we sprung.

Life, to be sure,
Is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is,
And we were young.
(A. E. Housman)

Norman Grisdale was born in Grasmere in Westmorland in 1895, the second child of Joseph Grisdale and Jane Atkinson. Joseph had been working in Grasmere as a shepherd and later gardener, but in 1899 his young wife Jane suddenly died, leaving four year-old Norman and his older brother Joseph without a mother. Joseph soon took the family back to Keswick, where this part of the Grisdale clan had been living and working, mostly as pencil makers, since the 1770s. Before that of course the family had been in Matterdale. Joseph married Eleanor Mumberson in Keswick in early 1901 and a baby daughter christened Mabel soon arrived. Norman went to school in Keswick, but in his early teens he started work as an apprentice with Mr Postlethwaite, a grocer in the Brigham part of Keswick.

norman grisdaleJust after the Great War started Norman and his brother Joseph, like so many other Cumberland Grisdales, joined the Border Regiment. Norman’s battalion was the newly-formed 6th (Service) Battalion. Just before the Keswick brothers left for war they posed with their parents and sister for a photograph. See here.

In what follows I would like to credit Richard Overton whose work on the 6th Battalion at Gallipoli I have rather extensively quoted.

In early 1915 things were going badly for the French and British in France and Belgium while the Russians were doing even worse on the Eastern Front. If Russia collapsed many German divisions would be freed to fight in the West. ‘A Gallipoli expedition remained the only feasible method of directly assisting Russia by means of opening up the Dardanelles.’ A first British division reached Gallipoli in June, but General Sir Ian Hamilton asked for more. ‘At successive meetings of the War Council on 6th and 17th June Kitchener was authorised to offer Hamilton, firstly, the three remaining divisions of the New Army not yet detailed for use on the Western Front, namely the 10th, 11th and 13th and, secondly, urged by Churchill, two Territorial divisions, the 53rd and 54th. To speed up the transportation of these divisions three of the biggest passenger liners were chartered, this despite the scale of the loss that would result if they were sunk by submarines.’

Norman Grisdale’s 6th Battalion of the Border Regiment were part of the 11th Division, so rather than heading for France they were set for Turkey. One of the passenger liners chartered was the Empress of Britain. ‘Thus it came about that 33 Brigade of 11 Div, with 6th Borders in it, sailed from Liverpool on the Empress of Britain escorted by two destroyers on 1st July and reached the base in Alexandria on the 12th. Here it was necessary to carry out reorganisation of stores and equipment – involving much physical work for soldiers unused to the heat.’ The Empress of Britain reached Mudros harbour on the Greek island of Lemnos on 18 July 1915.

EMPRESS_OF_BRITAIN_442

Here is a poem written by Lt. Nowell Oxland of the 6th Border Regiment while aboard the Empress of Britain (with Norman) bound for Egypt and Greece, and ultimately Gallipoli.

Outward Bound

There’s a waterfall I’m leaving
Running down the rocks in foam,
There’s a pool for which I’m grieving
Near the water-ouzel’s home,
And it’s there that I’d be lying
With the heather close at hand,
And the Curlew’s faintly crying
‘Mid the wastes of Cumberland.

While the midnight watch is winging
Thoughts of other days arise.
I can hear the river singing
Like the Saints in Paradise;
I can see the water winking
Like the merry eyes of Pan,
And the slow half-pounders sinking
By the bridges’ granite span.

Ah! To win them back and clamber
Braced anew with winds I love,
From the rivers’ stainless amber
To the morning mist above,
See through clouds-rifts rent asunder
Like a painted scroll unfurled,
Ridge and hollow rolling under
To the fringes of the world.

Now the weary guard are sleeping,
Now the great propellers churn,
Now the harbour lights are creeping
Into emptiness astern,
While the sentry wakes and watches
Plunging triangles of light
Where the water leaps and catches
At our escort in the night.

Great their happiness who seeing
Still with unbenighted eyes
Kin of theirs who gave them being,
Sun and earth that made them wise,
Die and feel their embers quicken
Year by year in summer time,
When the cotton grasses thicken
On the hills they used to climb.

Shall we also be as they be,
Mingled with our mother clay,
Or return no more it may be?
Who has knowledge, who shall say?
Yet we hope that from the bosom
Of our shaggy father Pan,
When the earth breaks into blossom
Richer from the dust of man,

Though the high Gods smith and slay us,
Though we come not whence we go,
As the host of Menelaus
Came there many years ago;
Yet the self-same wind shall bear us
From the same departing place
Out across the Gulf of Saros
And the peaks of Samothrace;

We shall pass in summer weather,
We shall come at eventide,
When the fells stand up together
And all quiet things abide;
Mixed with cloud and wind and river,
Sun-distilled in dew and rain,
One with Cumberland for ever
We shall go not forth again.

The plan was, as it evolved, to enable a breakout from Anzac, ‘where the Australians and New Zealanders had been hanging on since April encircled and overlooked by the Turks’. ‘With this force substantially increased a breakout might be achieved but the beachhead at Anzac was so cramped that there was a strict limit to the number of additional troops that could be brought in, particularly as they would have to be landed secretly and hidden out of sight. Hence it was decided to make a landing at Suvla simultaneously with the breakout so that the operation could be launched on a broad front and the Turks could be attacked from outside as well as from within the circle.’

Mudros Harbour 1915

Mudros Harbour 1915

On the island of Mudros Grisdale’s 33 Brigade ‘was singled out from the other two brigades of 11 Div to proceed to Helles and relieve the Royal Naval Division in the line for ten days from 20th July’ where the 6th Borders  did ‘good work done in improving trenches’.

On 2 August the Battalion rejoined the Division on the island of Imbros, their jumping off point for the Suvla landing, which was scheduled for the night of 6/7 August. (Sooner would have been better but this was the first night for a month to offer suitable conditions, when the attacking troops could approach the coast in the dark but have the advantage of moonlight after getting ashore.) The night attack would be made by 11 Div and would be followed up at dawn by 10 Div who would be leaving from the island of Mitylene.

The few days spent on Imbros by 6th Borders in hot and dusty camps proved to be very trying and debilitating. Dysentery was rife, reducing the strength of the Battalion for the forthcoming landing, and many of those who stuck it out were weakened by diarrhoea. The men were kept hard at it until the last minute but even as late as the day of departure, 6th August, junior officers were in ignorance of the plans and their part in them beyond the landing itself, so insistent were Hamilton and his staff at GHQ on secrecy. For the same reason, maps were issued too late to be studied properly. It was not until midday of the 6 August that the men were told the landing was to take place that night. Secrecy was important but Hamilton and his staff at GHQ seem to have overdone it.

Soon after 3 pm the troops fell in on their battalion parade grounds and an hour later the Division began to embark, some (including 6th Borders) on to destroyers with lighters in tow, some straight on to lighters. These were motor lighters specially designed for landing troops. Capable of carrying 500 men they had armoured sides, drew only seven feet of water, and had a ramp to allow quick, dry exit under enemy fire.

As part of the 33rd Brigade the 6th Border Regiment were set to land at Suvla bay an action that was to turn into chaos. Here is a full report by Richard Overton of the landing at Suvla Bay in which Norman Grisdale and his battalion took part:

The fleet set off from Kephalos Bay, Imbros for Suvla an hour after sunset which was 7.15. Apparently confident and in good heart – trusting in its commanders. This trust, as the Official History show only too clearly, was sadly misplaced. The trouble started at the top with the appointment of a wildly unsuitable person to command IX Corps in Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Stopford. Hamilton had asked for a General who had proved himself on the Western Front, perhaps Byng or Rawlinson, but Kitchener ruled this out. Instead by an argument which had everything to do with seniority and nothing to do with fitness for the post, he settled on General Stopford who was 61 years old, in semi-retirement, and had never commanded large bodies of troops in the field. This combination of disqualifications was evident at the time of the appointment but what was not evident was that he was a weak man who would be dominated by his chief of staff, Brigadier General Reid VC. The latter had a fixation about the importance of artillery in offensive operations, a sound principle on the Western Front against an organised system of trenches but one which did not apply at Suvla where the Turks were few and their trenches negligible. Want of adequate artillery support would become a regular excuse for inaction.

One rung lower down, Major General Frederick Hammersley commanding 11 Div would also prove to be inadequate, at age 57 having lost the resilience of youth. In the letter to Kitchener leading to the superseding of these two officers (when it was too late) Hamilton compared the combination of new troops and old generals to putting new wine into old bottles with results that turned out equally unfortunate.

The voyage from Imbros took less than two hours and the leading battalions of 32 and 33 Brigades were safely on shore at B beach by 10 pm. The troops on the destroyers had to wait for the return of the lighters to the ship and this applied to 6th Borders who landed about midnight with 6th Lincolns. These two battalions were initially in divisional reserve. The landing had achieved complete strategic surprise. The local Turkish forces only amounted to three battalions and their nearest reserves were known to be 30 marching miles away at Bulair.

British troops at Suvla Bay August 1915

British troops at Suvla Bay August 1915

Turkish posts had been located at the two horns of the bay at Lala Baba and Ghazi Baba, also at Hill 10 midway between the two. A battalion of 32 Brigade dealt with the former (though at considerable cost) and the latter was soon knocked out as well, but there was difficulty and delay in dealing with Hill 10, the specific responsibility of 34 Brigade whose landing had gone disastrously wrong. Unlike the other two brigades, 34 Brigade had landed within the bay itself, the lighters struck hidden reefs and could not be got to land, and the troops had to wade ashore through deepish water. Furthermore, by a navigational error, the destroyers had anchored south of the Cut and about 1,000 yards south of their intended station. The battalion charged with the task of dealing with Hill 10 was misled by the wrong landing place and could not even locate the hill.

This was a severe setback no doubt. Yet the best part of two brigades (32 and 33) were standing by at or near Lala Baba, and had either brigade commander taken the initiative an attack on Hill 10 could have been mounted from this direction. The failure to do so may be attributed partly to lack of impetus from above – Stopford had not come ashore and so did not even know what was going on – and partly to poor briefing due to excessive secrecy.

As it was, by dawn the only success achieved was the capture of the two horns of the bay, and the situation was verging on chaos. The beach was under persistent rifle fire and two or three Turkish guns were dividing their attention between the troops ashore and the numerous vessels in the bay. The confusion was if anything increased by the arrival at daybreak from Mitylene of the two brigades of 10 Div.

Sulva Bay August 1915

Sulva Bay August 1915

Hill 10 was finally taken about 8 am, its hundred defenders retiring eastwards, and with the bay safe at last it should have been possible to move against objectives further inland, initially Chocolate Hills. But lack of leadership at the top was again evident. By mid-morning a stream of contradictory orders and reports was being passed between Hammersley and his brigade commanders as he strove to organise the attack on Chocolate Hills. Stopford, nursing an injured knee, was still ineffectually on board the sloop Jonquil, IX Corps HQ to date.

When eventually Chocolate Hills were assaulted that evening 6th Borders was in on the action. They and 6th Lincolns were brought out of reserve at Lala Baba to lead a general attack. To save time as daylight was already fading they wisely ignored orders to skirt the Salt Lake and marched boldly across it and assaulted the west end of the hill, Lincolns leading and Borders in close support, while two Irish battalions from 10 Div attacked the east end. At last Chocolate Hills were captured, not before daybreak on the 7th as intended, but after nightfall.

The Battalion got off relatively lightly in the matter of casualties with two officers wounded, four other ranks killed, three missing and 51 wounded. Next morning it was ordered back into divisional reserve at Lala Baba.

Norman Atkinson Grisdale was one of the 6th’s battalion’s 51 wounded, probably on the assault on Chocolate Hills as the light was fading on 7th August. Norman would have been taken down to the beach for evacuation. While waiting there he wrote back to his parents at 13 Wordsworth St, Keswick, saying that, as the local newspaper, the Carlisle Journal, reported on 31 August:

Pte Norman Grisdale of the 6th Border, who left the employment of Mr Postlethwaite, Grocer, Keswick to enlist soon after the war started, has written to say he is wounded in the shoulder, but does not think his condition is at all dangerous. He was wounded on the 7th at the Dardanelles and is expected to proceed to a Cairo Hospital.

Wounded being evacuated at Suvla Bay

 

Norman was indeed evacuated to a hospital in Cairo, but whether from an infection of his shoulder wound or from other causes he died there on 16th August 1915, before his letter had reached his parents and the Carlisle Journal. Norman’s brother Joseph also served with the Border Regiment in France but survived the war and went on to marry. Norman is buried in the Cairo War Cemetery at Al Qahirah, Plt: D.33.

norman grisdale grave

Grave of Norman Atkinson Grisdale in Cairo

 

The Landing at Suvla Bay

You may talk of Balaclava,
Or of Trafalgar Bay,
But what of the 11th Division,
Who landed at Suvla Bay?

They were part of Kitchener’s Army,
Some had left children and wives,
But they fought for England’s freedom,
And fought for their very lives.

It was on the 6th of August,
We made that terrible dash,
And the Turks along the hillside,
Our boats they tried to smash.

The order came, “Fix bayonets!”
And out of the boats we got,
Every man there was a hero,
As he faced the Turkish shot.

Funnels of the ships got smashed,
Whilst the sea in some parts was red,
But we fought our way through the ocean,
To the beach that was covered with dead.

Creeping, at last, up the hillside,
Whilst shot and shell fell all around,
We made one last desperate effort,
And charged o’er the Turkish ground.

The Turks at last gave it up,
When our bayonets began to play,
For they turned their backs to the British,
And retired from Suvla Bay.

There were the Lincolns, Dorsets, and Staffords.
Notts and Derbys too,
The Border Regiment was there,
The rough and ready crew.

Then we had the Manchesters,
With the Lancashire Fusiliers by their side,
The lads who come from Lancashire,
Who fill your hearts with pride.

The Yorks, East Yorks, and West Yorks,
The Yorks and Lancs as well,
Who fought for good old Yorkshire,
Were amongst the lads who fell.

The fighting fifth were fighting,
The Northumberland lads you know,
Whilst the good old Duke of Wellington’s,
Were keeping back the foe.

And far away o’er the hillside,
Beneath the bloody clay,
Are some of the 8th Battalion,
Who tried to win the day.

So remember the 11th Division,
Who were all volunteers you know,
But they fought and died like heroes,
Going to face the Turkish foe.

—Anonymous

cairo use

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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.

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.

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