THE 54th’s FIRST BIG SHOW

NOVEMBER 18,1916
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Sargeant Alec Jack’s own words of what he called “The Fifty Fourth’s First Big Show” are as follows:

Following our initiation in the Ypres Salient, where we did four weeks of duty in the trenches, the 54th Battalion got orders to proceed by route march to Aybert in the Somme area. We marched ( about 140 km.*) because there was no motor transport for infantry in those days, and the baggage and field kitchens were hauled by horses and mules.

The Battle of the Somme had started on July 1, 1916—on which day the British Army alone suffered 60,000 casualties—and it petered out about the end of November. The mud, the shell fire, the fatigue will never be forgotten by those who went through it and the first appearance of tanks was memorable.

In the Somme fighting we of the 4th Canadian Division joined the rest of the Canadian Corps who had preceded us from the Ypres Salient under General Sir Julian Byng, later Governor General of Canada. The 54th Battalion did four holding tours of duty in the line under pretty tough conditions and then on November 13 we moved up to the line again preparatory to the attack on Desire Trench. Tramping the miles up the Aybert-Baupaue Road from Aybert of the leaning Virgin(a reference to a church tower statue that hung precariously from it’s spire due to shell fire. Allied soldiers and locals thought as long as the Virgin did not fall they would win the war. Allied engineers even secured the statue to keep it in place.*), to the sunken road near Courcelette then across country in the dark, traversing Death valley of evil memory, and so on through the mud, laden with equipment, machine guns and ammunition, we eventually arrived in the line and took over from our predecessors who the departed for the back country without regret.

For reasons unknown to us, the attack was postponed day after day while the rain descended and the sides of the trenches slid in and the mud got deeper. There were no dug-outs nor other shelters and so everybody had to stick it out for the five days and nights in the utmost misery. Then on November 18 at dawn our creeping barrage and bombardment started and officers and men of the 54th climbed out of their ditches and assembly trenches, where they had been lined up, and went forward in extended order and in four lines about 25 yards apart. The weather was bad, snow falling all morning. I recollect noticing that one of our 18 pounders firing in the creeping barrage, was falling short and I saw several men fall as a result of this.

We didn’t have a great deal of trouble with the Germans except for snipers who caused a lot of casualties. All officers in our company were killed or wounded and the senior Sergeant took charge.( This Sergeant was Alec as he confirmed in his Chapell interview. Captain King, referenced earlier, was shot through the head while standing beside Alec! *). We advanced some distance past Desire Trench— our objective– and dug in on a new line, hoping that the German artillery would not have our range. Two half-hearted German counter attacks were broken up by our Lewis Gun fire and we had little to worry about, apart from snipers and the weather. The Battalion lost 12 officers and 200 men in this action(*The Battalion went in with about 900 men).

The 72nd Seaforths ( Vancouver) arrived the night of the 19th to relieve us and the exhausted troops stumbled through the mud and under shell fire the two miles to the Aybert Bapaume road, where the transport Limbers (*horse and mule drawn!)were waiting to give them a ride back to billets. And it was well that they were for everybody was in the last stages of exhaustion.

The 54th had done a good job taking their objective as laid down—their first show a success.