by Robert Condie
My Grandfather was born in the Marylebone area of London in 1877, one of eleven children – his father a fireman died in a fire in 1888. Only the youngest children stayed with the mother some going to the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. My Grandfather came to Eastern Ontario to work on farms at the age of eleven through the Bernardo Foundation.
When of age he returned to England and joined the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, a mounted regiment, where his Attestation Papers stated the occupation of a farrier which is a blacksmith who shoes horses. He saw lots of action in South Africa and was seriously wounded, when shot between the heart and the lungs, so he had no misconceptions about what lay ahead. After the Boer War he stayed in South Africa for a few years before returning to Canada to marry an army buddy’s sister.
His service with the 54th Battalion follows.
Prior to the war he was employed at Roberts and Godson in Vancouver as an iron pipe moulder living with his wife Louisa and their three children Alfred, Edith and Thomas at 2263 – 46th Avenue East, South Vancouver, BC.
On June 30, 1915 Henry Woodnutt enlisted and on August 7, 1915 signed up for overseas service with the 62nd (Vancouver) Battalion CEF. His Attestation Papers indicate he had 8 years of prior military service in the British Army with the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry.
His Attestation Papers include Distinctive Marks for future identification. Other than a scar on the left thumb there is a detailed though difficult to read list of multiple tattoos on both arms. After preliminary training in Canada he embarked at Halifax on April 1, 1916 on H.M.T. Baltic and arrived April 9 at Liverpool. The Battalion was stationed at Bramshott Military Camp in Surrey where further training took place.
On May 12, 1916 he was transferred to the 54th (Kootenay) Battalion Company D along with others from the 53rd, 65th, and 71st Battalions in order to bring the Battalion up to battle strength. The 54th were to form part of the 11th Brigade of the 4th Canadian Division. Part of his time at Bramshott with the 54th was an assignment to the Brigade Military Police. The Battalion received marching orders on August 13, 1916 and by the next day they had landed at Le Havre. After a few days in Le Havre they travelled by train and bus to the Ypres Salient and made it to the trenches by midnight on August 21. During the next few weeks they alternated between tours of the front line and tours in support. On the 15th of September the 54th and other battalions of the division made a successful raid on the German trenches with one officer killed, 5 wounded and 18 other ranks killed, 38 wounded as well as 7 missing. This raid coincided with the Haig’s two army assault on the Somme on September 15 with the start of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette which included the other three divisions of the Canadian Corps.
Over the next month the Battalion regrouped and received additional training in preparation for a move to The Somme. On the 14th of October the Battalion moved into the line in front of Courcelette and relieved the 75th Battalion (Great Uncle Richard Pether’s Battalion – he did not go to France until February 16, 1918 – killed in action midway between Arras and Cambrai Sept. 2, 1918). Again they alternated between the front and in support but on the 13th of November they took over the line and made preparations for an attack on the Desire Trench.
On the morning of the 18th of November the Battalion advanced under a creeping barrage and a severe snow storm but after heavy fighting the trench was taken with two officers killed and 10 wounded and 69 other ranks killed and 124 wounded as well as 8 missing. The 75th suffered 99 killed and 142 wounded. The 54th and the 75th held on until they were relieved on the 20th by the 72nd and 102nd Battalions respectively. Henry Woodnutt’s Casualty Form indicates that he received shrapnel (other forms show gunshot) wounds in the back on the 18th of November though it is not clear how serious these were other than he remained in hospital at Le Treport and in recovery until he left to re-join the Battalion on the 15th of December catching up to them on the 23rd. By this time, the Battalion who had been regrouping at Burton near Bruay had joined the Canadian Corps. at Vimy Ridge on the 20th . The Battalion was in a very weakened state as all new reinforcements received at Burton stayed at Gouy Servins where a Brigade School had been established. Here he received additional training including the NCO course. During the ensuing months at Vimy they rotated on and off the line and were involved in a lot of heavy work building and repairing trenches, and in much active patrolling in no man’s land. Towards the end of February 1917 preparations were commenced for a gas attack and raid on Hill 145 ( this is the site of the Vimy Memorial which is the highest point on the 14 mile long Vimy Ridge) by 1700 troops of the 54th, 72nd, 73rd and 75th Battalions.
At 3am on March 1, 1917 the first cloud of gas was sent over the German lines with little effect. The second cloud which was to be released at 4:45am did not go due to unfavourable wind conditions. No artillery support was planned. In spite of this the assault by the 54th and the 75th Battalions began at 5:40am under heavy rifle, machine gun fire as well as artillery. Taking part in the assault for the 54th were 15 officers and 390 other ranks; they made it across no man’s land but were unable to get past the barbed wire entanglement in front of the German trenches. Eight officers including their Lieut. Colonel were killed as a result of the raid and 5 other officers were wounded. Ninety three other ranks were killed and 89 wounded as well as 7 missing. The 75th with 481 all ranks did receive some artillery support and had some limited success but they too suffered heavily; 3 officers including their Lieut. Colonel were killed and 8 wounded. Sixty-eight other ranks were killed and 31 wounded as well as 112 missing. Henry Woodnutt was one of those wounded. His discharge papers indicated he had been struck by shrapnel from a high explosive shell but his casualty form indicated the injury was from a gunshot wound. Either way he suffered a compound fracture of the femur penetrating the right knee with further complications due to infection. He spent the next 20 days at Bruay in the #22 Canadian Clearing Station where shrapnel and bone fragments were removed from his leg and he was placed in an extension spling. From there he was moved to the Red Cross Hospital at Etaples and eventually to England on March 31, 1917. On arrival at Fulford Road Hospital, York his condition is noted as being “seriously ill”. He spent seven months here at which time his leg was re-set and he had two operations for drainage. The leg was kept in extension for four months. The wound had healed then broken down again on two occasions before it finally healed in September 1917. From there he was moved to the #4 Canadian General Hospital at Basingstoke for six weeks then on to the #5 Canadian General Hospital at Liverpool for a month before being invalided back to Canada on November 19, 1917 aboard the Hospital Ship Araguaya. He arrived at a convalescent home in Esquimalt, BC on December 12, 1917.
At the time of his discharge on May 29, 1918, it states that his knee movement is limited to 10 degrees and that his femur is now 3 inches shorter. No weight can be placed on his right leg and he requires crutches to move but he slowly does one mile each day. In the present condition the leg is worse than an artificial limb. Character awarded in accordance with King’s Regulations – VERY GOOD
1/ Service Records – H. Woodnutt – Provided by National Archives of Canada
2/ War Diaries of the 54th and 75th Battalions
My Grandfather did recover for the most part and led and active life until his death due to stroke in 1954. He did walk a mile each day with the aid of a cane and a specially built boot that compensated for the loss of length in his one leg.
The 1 March 1917 Raid continues to attract attention.
The map shows you the Cavalier (54th Battalion) and Tottenham (75th Battalion) tunnels which sheltered the raiding force until they assembled for battle. The four battalions went from S.9.c.2.5 to S.21.d.7.9. about 2 km.
The Vimy Foundation Centre of the Great War wrote – The Raid: Fighting Around Vimy Ridge, March 1917 The Raid: Fighting around Vimy Ridge, March 1917 – CCGW (greatwarcentre.com)
Tim Cook’s book “No Place to Run” on the results of a failed attack on the Germans on March 1, 1917.
The Bickersteth Diaries, 1914 – 1918. John Bickersteth, Pen and Sword, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, 1995: pp 165-167.
For the last few days we were in the trenches as we were forever waiting for favourable conditions for the gas attack. It is an important affair since the gas was of a new and particularly deadly kind, guaranteed after a few minutes to penetrate the German respirators. The first discharge was to be let off at Zero hour, then there was to be a wait of about two hours, then another discharge of the ordinary poisonous gas followed by an attack by two battalions. It was therefore almost more than a raid it was a small attack, though the features of the operations were really those of a raid, as no ground was to be held. The two battalions were to be ‘over’ for an hour and a half, do as much damage as possible and then return.
Everything depended on the wind; and Eaton and I, who were living at Villers-au-Bois in reserve, daily examined it; indeed a score of times we went out into the open fields with compass and handkerchief or cigarette smoke or wetted finger and tried to gauge the wind’s exact quarter. We were to go up directly it was certain whether it would come off, but from the nature of the case we could not be certain till about two hours before. Zero was at 3 am. Every night we sat up till 12.30 waiting for a message from the Brigade. DOG was the code word meaning the show was off, and CAT meant it was on. The evening of Feb.28, or more accurately, at 12.30 am on Thursday morning March 1st, we were waiting for our message as usual. For three nights DOG had come regularly. But today the wind had seemed favourable. At about a quarter to one the orderly came. I glanced at the message and saw CAT. In twenty minutes we were off.
From the first I think some of us had harboured a few doubts about the success of the scheme. The gas had been in the front line a whole week. It was there blocking the narrow trench when I went up to view ‘the Pimple’, and considering how information gets about, this fact could hardly have been unknown to the Germans. Add to this two things:
(1) a raid had been made by the Ist Canadian Division on our left on the night before, and they had found the Germans ‘standing to’ in their gas helmets, though no gas had been used;
(2) an officer and a sergeant of the Gas Company had been going round our line the night before, had mistaken their way (a very easy thing to do, though of course they should have had guides), had walked into the German trench, had met six Huns, and had put up a good ‘scrap’, the officer getting away but the sergeant being captured. Members of the Gas Company are not allowed in the front line unless gas is about. However, we hoped for the best and waited.
At 3 am the first discharge of gas took place. We saw it rolling in a thick bilious-looking cloud towards the German line. Almost at once a fusillade of rifle fire began. Owing to the nature of the ground you will understand how this came straight across the valley at us. A good deal of it passed overhead, but a good deal also spattered up the ground all round and pinged against our very low parapet. At 3.15 am we began a moderate bombardment for twenty-five minutes, the artillery and ourselves. At 3.25 every one shut off, and we went to our dug-outs.
You must understand that this whole affair was an experiment of our new gas – it was a bigger raid than had ever taken place before, and that interest in the business was widespread. Had it been a success there would have been much writing up in the papers by war correspondents and so forth. The English official statement said, `We discharged gas this morning east of Souchez. Our men subsequently raided the enemy trenches and took some prisoners`. The German official statement ran thus: ‘East of Souchez a strong attack was repulsed’. Of the two the German gives far the truer statement.
The whole thing was unfortunate, and in my humble opinion (and it is shared by many) gas as an effective fighting ally is played out. The average private soldier hates gas. He would far rather go ‘over’ without it. The Canadians had never failed to make good in a raid before, and their failure on this occasion was entirely due to the gas being totally ineffective.