In January the weather became very severe. Snow fell and then frost came and froze it all. This lasted for about six weeks. Immediately on the thaw coming the trenches began to fall in and a great deal of hard work had to be put in on the job of upkeep of trenches. This work, on which the Battalion was complimented, was carried out under the supervision of Lieut. C. J. Mackenzie, our works (engineer) officer.
Towards the end of February, 1917, preparations were commenced for a gas attack on the Hun. Gas cylinders commenced to make their appearance in Snargate, our support trench. The idea was for the gas to be released in large quantities on our front and then after a period of time, for the 54th and 75th Battalions to go over and raid the enemy’s lines. There were two distinct objects in this raid: (1) To test the efficiency of our new type of cylinder gas; (2) to destroy the enemy’s trenches and dugouts and inflect maximum casualties and loss on him. No artillery preparation or protective barrages were included in this plan, the wire being dealt with by ammonal tubes carried by the troops. Two clouds of gas were to be sent over, with an interval of two hours and forty minutes between each cloud. After some two hours to allow for the gas to take effect the infantry was to raid while it was still dark. After waiting some days for the wind to become favorable it was at last decided to put it over on the 1st of March. Unfortunately after the first lot of gas was liberated the wind shifted, and instead of drifting across to the Hun lines opposite to us the gas went down No man’s Land and entered the Hun lines opposite the 3rd Division on our right. Consequently, when we came make our raid the Bosche was ready for us and managed to prevent us from getting across to his lines. Added to this the Bosche shelled our lines very heavily and numerous casualties were caused. Among the killed must be recorded with deep regret the name of our gallant colonel. Colonel Kemball died a true hero.
Colonel Kemball, foreseeing the failure of the gas cloud, personally led the Battalion over the top in an endeavor to carry out the orders as laid down.
We advanced through a heavy barrage up to the enemy wire, but were unable to penetrate his trenches in the face of the terrible machine gun fire and hand grenades.
Colonel Kemball was instantly killed in the centre of the enemy wire. The four company commanders displayed great courage and led their men until killed or wounded. Major Lucas, O.C. “C” Company, killed in the attack, was recommended for the V.C. Capt. Tooker, O.C. “D” Company, was also killed. Capt. Cameron, O.C. “A” Company, was severely wounded while Capt. Moffat, O.C. “B” Company, was also wounded. It is impossible to describe the great loss of Col. Kemball to the Battalion; as a very gallant gentleman and soldier he will be remembered by all, and his loss will be mourned long after we are all dispersed.
One of the most memorable and pleasant features of our fighting record occurred on this day, which showed that a few of the Bosche at least had decent instincts. Realizing the sacrifice made by Col. Kemball and recognizing in him a valuable and noble opponent, they proposed to stop all fighting on our and the adjoining fronts in order that we might obtain his body. This was agreed to and they immediately brought his body over to near our lines, treating it with all due respect and tenderness. It was a fitting recognition of Col. Kemball’s brave and gallant action. He was buried in the Villers au Bois Cemetery in company with the men who fell with him on that day.
Other officers in the casualty lists that day were: Major Lucas, Capt. Tooker, Lieuts. Jackson, Reddock and Evans killed, and Capt. Cameron, Lieuts. Foote, Graves, Hosie, Johnson and Letson wounded.
The total casualties of the Battalion in this action were:
On the 2nd of March the Battalion was relieved by the 87th Battalion and moved back to the Music Hall Line.
During this month moves were made between the forward area and Bouvigny Huts and the Chateau de la Haie. Towards the end of the month preparations were getting into shape for the attack on Vimy Ridge. Reinforcements were received, plans and orders were out and every advantage was taken of giving all ranks practice over the miniature tapes at the Chateau de la Haie. On the 3Oth of March the Battalion relieved the l02nd Battalion in the line and commenced digging their two jumping-off trenches in No Man’s Land, between the front line and those dug by the l02nd Battalion. This was successfully accomplished and on the 4th of April the l02nd Battalion again took over the line, we moving back to the Chateau de la Haie.
The plan for the attack on Vimy Ridge was for the 102nd and 87th Battalions to attack and take the first four lines of German trenches opposite the brigade front, and for the 54th and 75th respectively to pass through these two battalions and take the next four lines of trenches, which would bring them well over and down the slope on the other side of the ridge. This attack was to be part of a very large attack known as the First Battle of Arras. Easter Sunday, April 8th, was the date originally fixed for the attack, but this was changed at the last moment to April 9th.
On the 8th the Battalion moved up to Berthonval Wood, remaining there all day, and at night moving forward to their jumping-off trenches. Headquarters were established in Cavalier Tunnel.
At daybreak on the 9th the attack started under cover of a heavy barrage. The weather was most unpropitious, snow and rain falling most of the day. The 102nd Battalion, under the command of Lieut.-Col. (then Major) A. B. Carey, went forward in good shape, and quickly, in spite of heavy opposition, took their objectives, closely followed by the 54th. Unfortunately the attack on our left, of the left half brigade, was held up for some time by the resistance of the Hun. This caused serious damage to us and it was found impossible, until the situation on the left was cleared up, for us to go farther than the second of our objectives. However, the 85th Battalion, just over from England, had been attached to the brigade as reserves, and they were put in on the front of the left half brigade. Advancing in open formation they overcame the Bosche resistance and when this was done we again advanced and took the remainder of our objectives. It was a wonderful sight, when, for the first time, we looked over the other side of the ridge after gazing at the top of it from our side for so many months. We were amazed to see a flat, open plain, and in the distance the city of Lens and the spires of Douai cathedral. During the night of the 9th-10th we remained in our positions and the next day the 10th Brigade went through our lines and advanced down the hill. The 85th Battalion relieved us on the night of the 10th-llth and we moved back to Cavalier Tunnel.
Our casualties in officers in this action were: Lieuts. Ascroft, Banfield, Harrison and Johnson killed, and Major Black and Lieut. Ingram wounded.
Our total casualties in this action were:
On relief by Imperials we moved back to Camblain l’Abbe and stayed there until the end of April, when we again went to the Chateau de la Haie. Two companies were sent up from here under Major H. B. Hicks to Zouave Valley on salvaging work, the remainder of the Battalion carrying on training.
About this time the 67th Pioneer Battalion was broken up and half of them allotted to the l02nd Battalion and half to the 54th, so that on the end of May we received a draft of four officers, including Major G. S. W. Nicholson and Major B. McDiarmaid, and 225 other ranks from this battalion.
Training and salvaging were carried on until the 12th of May, when the Battalion moved forward into reserve in Zouave Valley, going into support near Givenchy the following night, the brigade taking over the La Coulotte front. Large working parties for the front line and C. T.’s were supplied. While engaged on these working parties the Battalion was frequently billeted on the eastern slopes of Vimy Ridge, on the edge of La Folie Wood. This area, full of old German dugouts, was reclaimed by us and christened “Kootenay Kamp,” and doubtless it is still there looking out over the plain to the city of Lens. These working parties were continued until the 20th, when we were relieved by the 38th Battalion and moved back to the Chateau de la Haie.
Lieut.-Col. (then Major) A. B. Carey, D.S.O., reported to the Battalion to take over command on the 21st of May. Training was again commenced and carried on daily. Sports were also freely indulged in, and on the 27th brigade sports were held in which the 34th easily carried off the honors, both in football and track events.
On the 28th of May the brigade again moved forward into support and we took up our residence in Zouave Valley, now a spot of comparative ease and comfort.
Eight days were spent here, during which many working parties were supplied. On the night of the 3rd of June we moved forward into the Vimy-Angres line, going into the front line the following night and relieving the 44th Battalion there. Nothing of incident occurred during our holding of the line. On the 7th we were relieved and moved back into support in the Vimy-Angres line. Our commanding officer, Col. A. B. Carey, D.S.O., was wounded by a 5.9 shell next day, the 8th, and had to go out, the command being taken over by Major H. B. Hicks. On the night of the 8th a big successful raid was put on by the 11th Brigade in which this Battalion did not take active part.
On the 12th the Battalion was again relieved and moved back to the Chateau de la Haie, where we remained until the 19th, when a move was again made to Zouave Valley. Lieut. C. B. Scott was killed while on a working party on the 21st of June.
At the beginning of July, 1917, the 4th Division came out for a “rest.” It was found, however, that most of the members had not previously grasped the proper definition of this term. Hard training was the order of the day. The 11th Brigade was in billets around Gouy-Servins, brigade headquarters, the 54th and l02nd Battalions being in Gouy-Servins.
Col. Carey returned in the first few days of this period and seemed to have got over his wound satisfactorily and also to be in much better health than he was before being wounded. Major J. B. Bailey was transferred from the102nd Battalion as Second in Command, and the company commanders were:
“A” Company Major B. McDiarmaid
“B” Company Major G. S. W. Nicholson
“C” Company Lieut. H. C. Green
“D” Company Lieut. W. J. Fisher
with Captain F. M. Raphael as Adjutant, Captain W. G. Foster as Quartermaster and Lieut. R. H. Preston as Transport officer.
Sports were freely indulged in, this Battalion winning the brigade championships and being in the divisional finals in both football and baseball, losing the former but winning the latter.
Towards the end of the month the corps commander, Lieut.-General Sir A. W. Currie, G.C.M.G., K.C.B., paid the brigade a visit and inspected the Battalion in training.
On the 11th of July His Majesty the King drove through the area and an opportunity was given for all ranks to see him.
On the 25th of July the period of “rest” came to an end. In spite of the hard work done this was a very pleasant three weeks and was the first real rest the division had had out of the line during its sojourn in France.
A new front, Lievin, was allotted to the brigade, and the Battalion took over the right front line on the night of the 26th, relieving a unit of the 2nd Division. This was in Ague Trench, on the outskirts of the Cit du Moulin.
Nothing of very much interest transpired during this tour, with the exception of the Battalion was subjected to its first dose of gas shelling, sustaining a certain number of casualties.
On afternoon of the 29th the Battalion, after a considerable amount of “scrapping,” made an advance in the direction of Lens and getting a foothold in the Cit du Moulin. This was a new and marked episode on the western front and signified a definite move toward the capture of that city, and was a smart minor operation, being in the nature of a daylight surprise attack, the desired position being occupied and some prisoners taken without loss to us.
On the 1st of August the Battalion was relived by the 75th Battalion, moving back into brigade support and taking up its abode in the cellars of Lievin.
During the months to follow we were to become acquainted very intimately with this town of Lievin, more especially its cellars and underground passages, also its many dangerous spots, such as Napoo Corner, The Square, Crow Dump and such other places where the persuit of our profession called us. Memories to be associated with our stay in this town will be chiefly composed of Hun gas and 5.9’s, flying bricks and salvaged fruit and vegetables from the old French Gardens.
About this time Capt W.G. Foster, who had been our Quartermaster since the beginning, took over the duties of Adjutant.
On the 10th of August the Battalion again moved to the front line. During the whole of this period large working parties were called for, many new trenches being dug and preliminary arrangements made for the taking of Lens.
The month alternated between front line tours and tours in reserve and support. A hurry up call was received on the 21st to go to Lievin from Zouave Valley (where the Battalion then was) to support the 10th Brigade. This was successfully accomplished in a very short time, in spite of heavy shelling by the Bosche.
Capt. H. A. Holmes a Court and Capt F.D. Smith reported back during the month, having recovered from their wounds received on the Somme.
The Transport Section, under Lieut. R.H. Preston, were now very busy building winter standings at Carency; excellent horse lines were made, all out of material salvaged from Lievin.
September, 1917, was memorable in its first week for a period of hard fighting and strenuous work, strong and successful efforts being made to advance the line nearer to Lens.
During the nights of the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th of September preliminary scouting and patrol work was successfully carried out in order to obtain a satisfactory jumping-off position in front of our line. This consisted in exploring a great number of ruined houses and cellars over a large area and also locating the exact position of enemy strong points and wire.
On the evening of the 5th the Battalion was distributed as follows: “C” Company on the right, “B” Company centre, “A” Company on the left and “D” Company in support. “C” Company was not involved in the actual operation. “A” and “B” Companies operated independently, “B” Company commenced operations at 9 p.m. and under a hot supporting fire from grenades advanced and took their objectives, which were held in spite of frequent counter attacks. “A” Company kicked off at 3:30 am on the 6th in a violent thunderstorm and took their objectives across the Lens-Arras Road as laid down In the resulting counter attacks “D” Company was also called upon and was heavily engaged.
Lieut. R. L. Geddes was killed during this action after performing his duties in the attack most gallantly.
From the point of view of inflicting casualties on the Bosche this will always be considered as one of the most successful of our minor operations a conservative estimate of their casualties being in the neighborhood of 150, while our losses were comparatively light.
This period was marked by a great deal of heavy hostile shelling, both ordinary and gas.
Our casualties for this period were:
On the night of the 8th, the 8th Battalion relieved us and we moved back into reserve in Gouy-Servins for three days, then moving up to Zouave Valley, where we remained until on the night of the 18th we relieved the 78th Battalion on the Avion front. Nothing very much of interest occurred during the few days of this holding. A large amount of enemy trench mortar activity was displayed. Much work on trenches was accomplished and numerous observations taken with a view to the projected attack on Lens in October, particulars of which had been issued.
On being relieved the Battalion moved back to Chateau de la Haie, where hard training was indulged in, practice over the tapes, etc. Capt. D. A McQuarrie rejoined the Battalion here after being wounded on the Somme in 1916.
All the details for the attack on Lens had now been received, and attention was concentrated on this, when orders cancelling same were suddenly received on the 3rd of October, and we were warned that a move was to be made immediately up to the “Salient.” After a strenuous few hours spent in getting rid of surplus stores, etc., the Battalion commenced their trip north on the 4th. The journey was made partly by road and partly by train, and
Terdeghem, in Flanders, was reached on the 12th, where a halt of six days was made preparatory to the operations for the taking of Passchendaele. Early in the morning of the 18th word was received that the Battalion was to be ready to proceed in busses to the front by 10 a.m. All was bustle and confusion, as time was short and the busses were to be picked up some distance away. However, all companies and headquarters arrived on time and after a quick embussing started off for the new scene of operations, which was learned to be at Podijze, just east of Ypres. The transport proceeded independently.
Ypres was reached about midday and there the Battalion had to wait until guides were forthcoming to act as conductors to the destination. While waiting at Ypres we were given the first taste of Hun bombers, a fleet of big bombing machines flying over but luckily not dropping any of their “eggs” near us. After a long wait our guides arrived and we reached Podijze about 4.30 p.m. and were shown as our billeting area a very muddy field with a few tents pitched about. We were also informed that the bombing was very bad, 40 men in an adjoining camp having been killed that day, and that all tents had to be struck at reveille and not put up again until dusk – a pleasant prospect with all the mud and rain.
It may be mentioned here that the Battalion had been sent ahead of the remainder of the division to furnish working parties and was for a few days under the orders of the Australian Corps, whom the Canadian Corps were relieving. We were, therefore, the first Canadian unit to arrive on the scene of operations. The following day all hands turned to, even including the C. O., who partially built his own shanty, and in an incredibly short space of time had constructed comfortable little dugouts, mostly roofed by salvaged corrugated iron from the old trenches around. The weather at this tune, and during the whole tour, was very wet, and all the new hands in the Battalion had a good breaking-in to the Flanders mud.
Large working parties were ordered out, the work chiefly consisting of laying bath mats to the front line. Great credit is due for the carrying out of this to the skillful organization of Major B. McDiarmaid, our Works Officer.
After a few days of this the Battalion was relieved and moved back to huts at Brandhook for a short time, again moving up to Podijze on the 27th of October for more working parties. During this tour the camp was bombed several times and some casualties were suffered.
On the last day of the month a reconnoitering party was sent out to look over the forward area, as the brigade was to relieve the 12th Brigade. This was afterwards cancelled.
During this period the Battalion laid almost all the bath mats right up to the front line. This meant very large working parties and very strenuous work on the part of all ranks, and also numerous casualties. It was a fine performance. We also furnished several large stretcher parties, which had to work all over the front line.
On the 3rd of November the division was relieved and we moved back to billets near Hazebrouck, carrying on training and reorganization. We all thought we had finished with Passchendaele, but at a sudden inspection by the Corps Commander it was announced that we had to go back and hold the line there, which we accordingly did, moving away on the 10th and relieving a battalion of the 2nd Division on the night of the 12th. It is impossible to describe adequately the hard conditions of this tour, and those who had to undergo the few days forward will always remember them as some of the worst days of their lives. Terrible mud and rain; very heavy shelling from three sides and no accommodation in the line. Rations were always successfully delivered, although the C. O. lost his cigarettes one day, much to the benefit of one of the companies. It was always a hard trip for the pack mule section, under Lieut. Thomas and Corp. MacMahon, delivering rations along the shell- swept Zonnebeke Road.
After five days the Battalion was relieved, having suffered fairly heavy in casualties, and finally landed up at a tent camp at Watou, near Poperinghe, where three days were spent.
Our total casualties for the period at Passchendaele were:
This time it was a real move from the rotten old Salient, and partly by bus and partly by marches Ourton was reached on the 23rd, where it was announced that a welcome stay of a month would be made.
The good people of Ourton were very pleased to see their old friends again and the Cinquante-Quatre were made as comfortable as possible.
Little of interest is to be recorded here, with three exceptions, one being a visit by the Corps Commander to inspect the training of the Battalion, another an aerial flight over the village by Col. Carey, and the third the voting for the Dominion elections. Games were freely indulged in, and, of course, lots of training, and several concerts, in which “B” Company particularly distinguished itself. It was hoped that we should be able to spend Christmas Day out of the line; but orders were received that we were to move on the 18th preparatory to going in on the old front at Lievin. At the last moment the front was changed and the Battalion relieved the 26th Battalion in support on the Merricourt front on the night of the 2Oth of December. The weather at this time was very wintry, snow being on the ground and hard frost. The trenches were, however, in excellent condition, with a quantity of good dugout accommodation, and this, combined with quietness on the part of the Bosche, made a fine contrast to Passchendaele.
Christmas Day, 1917, passed off quietly, the divisional and brigade commanders paying us a visit. Ten days were spent in support by arrangement with the l02nd Battalion, we having Christmas in support and the 102nd the New Year, and on the night of the 20th we moved forward and took over the front line from the 102nd Battalion. The passing from the old to the New Year was thus spent in the front line.