Past, Present & Beyond – Pt. 4: When the Blighters Started Shelling

Barbara Roden continues on with World War I as remembered in Ashcroft.

An intermittent series looking at Ashcroft and area during World War I.

A wave of soldiers forming part of the second Canadian Expeditionary Force had passed through Ashcroft in February 1915; but unlike their counterparts in the first contingent, who ended up training on England’s windswept Salisbury Plain, these men were bound for Shorncliffe, 250 km to the east on the coast of Kent. They arrived on April 18, cheerful and hoping to get a taste of battle in a war that many still thought would be over quickly.

Sobering news was starting to filter through from the front, however. A report in the Ashcroft Journal of March 12 1915 stated that 58 Canadian soldiers had been killed in action (with another 101 having died of disease or accident). Local men were still enlisting, however; in the same issue of the paper it was noted that “George Munro left Ashcroft for Kamloops on Tuesday last where he is enlisting for the front. We wish George every success in his hunting expedition.”

On March 27 The Journal ran a lengthy article with the headline “Letter From A Cariboo Boy At The Front”. The article is unsigned; in a personal letter to editor R.D. Cumming the author wrote “Whatever you do don’t let anything be published as coming from me, as my letters are not really censored. I am merely on my honour not to say anything I should not say. I don’t think I ever do; but opinions differ, and I might get it in the neck if some of what I have said were published over or under my name.”

The piece paints a vivid picture of what life was like for the writer, who operated as part of a Field Ambulance at the front. He had been there since the end of October 1914, “doing my bit”, but by February 1915 was desperate for leave. To his disappointment all he got was a “rest job” about five miles behind the firing line, not the home leave he had hoped for: “they could not spare me or any other medical men away from work.”

Of his duties he writes, “One part [of the Field Ambulance] goes out to points close behind and sometimes in the trenches to collect the sick and wounded and bring them in to the dressing station about three to five miles behind the firing line. My duties were with the advance or bearer party. All collecting of wounded has to be done by night in pitch darkness, no lights of any kind being allowed as the Germans have no respect for the Red Cross and their snipers fire on everything they see or hear by night. . . . When there is any scrapping we have lots of bullets singing, mostly over our heads I am glad to say, but the absolute worst touch of all is when the blighters start shelling.

“You can hear [the shell] coming, and ten to one it comes when you and your bearers are yards from any sort of cover. You hear it coming closer and closer and you wonder when the blasted thing is going to bust. Nine times out of ten it bursts a couple of hundred yards away at least, but the suspense till it does go off, is awful, and the relief when you find you are still untouched is correspondingly pleasant. . . . Have you ever sat in a dentist’s chair with his infernal drill in a tooth, and feeling that any moment he is going to hit the nerve? Well, if you have, exaggerate it a hundred times and you have the sensation caused by a shell.

“Since early in December the weather has been of the most poisonous description. Rain and snow ad. lib., till the whole country is just one huge quagmire. The trenches were knee deep in slush and water and in some places waist deep.

“Heaven alone knows when I will get back to B.C. If I come through all right I’ll be back as soon as the war is over. Some say it will be over by May. I have no opinion on the subject as I know nothing of internal conditions in Germany. We will never lick them by May, but they may be beat for want of food, etc.”

Local residents continued to respond to the need for help. The ladies of the Ashcroft Red Cross Society were busy providing items to be sent overseas, while donations – many of them from First Nations residents in the area – continued to come in for the field hospital Mrs. Stobart was operating near Cherbourg, France. Doubtless the war seemed very far away to most people in the region; but on May 7, 1915 the entire world was shocked to hear of the torpedoing and sinking of the British passenger ship RMS Lusitania. In firing on a non-military ship without warning the German navy breached what were known as the “Cruiser Rules”, and ignited a storm of protest around the world at the attack on civilians. In this area the disaster hit very close to home, as Soda Creek resident Donald Kerfoot was thought to be among the passengers; however, he telegraphed after the event to say that he was safe. George Smart of Quesnel, who had been an agent there for the B.X. Express, was not so fortunate; he was one of the 1,198 people on board the Lusitania who did not survive.

Only a day later Private Lawrence Scanlon Shields, aged 22 and the youngest son of John Shields of Ashcroft, was killed in action. His was the first local war death recorded in The Journal; there were many more to come.

Barbara Roden