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The Last Foursome

"All the old boys are going"


By Lisa Smedman - staff writer, Vancouver Courier, published on November 6th, 2005

August, 1916, somewhere near Ypres, Belgium. Private John F. Frost, a stretcher bearer, sits in a dressing station just behind the front-line trenches. Things are relatively quiet for the 29th Vancouver Battalion, compared to the fierce fighting it faced at St. Eloi four months previously, but the casualties continue to trickle in.

One of them is Frost's friend, Bob Currie, a man he often sat drinking tea with on night shift. Frost sews Currie's body into a blanket, preparing it for burial behind the lines, then pulls out his diary and a pencil.

Aug. 12, 1916: "[Currie] was wounded three times before and now he's gone for good. This is a funny war. Here am I sitting writing this. Two bodies are lying just over the edge. A couple of men are busy making crosses. Some are making souvenirs and the guns are working a little and so the war goes on."

Frost was one of the lucky ones-one of the few, out of approximately 1,100 "originals" who joined the battalion in Vancouver in 1914, who survived. During his stint in the trenches, he witnessed the battle for the St. Eloi craters and the first use of tanks at the Battle of the Somme.

Years later, he typed out the entries that he'd made in his pocket diary during the war. Those diary entries, published here for the first time, cast a light on the day-to-day experiences, feelings and reflections of the men who fought and died in what was then known as the Great War.

Frost was out of the action before the 1917 Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge, but his diary records the horrors of 18 months at the front-such as the time, as he poked around a former no-man's land, Frost found the scant remains of a French soldier, reduced to two arms in a blue greatcoat and two feet in a pair of boots. It also records the war's more mundane trials: mud, lice, rats, the numerous close calls Frost survived, and the good times he and his friend Ned enjoyed while out of the lines. Most of all, it illustrates the intense bonds that formed between the men of "Tobin's Tigers"-bonds that lasted for the battalion's alumni until well into the 1970s, when old age claimed lives war had spared.

Frost was a North Vancouver resident just a few days shy of his 26th birthday when he mustered with the other members of the 29th Vancouver Battalion at Hastings Park on Nov. 1, 1914. The battalion's commander was Lt-Col. Henry Seymour Tobin, a veteran of the RCMP and the Boer War.

For seven months, the men trained. They learned to shoot rifles and fight with bayonets, marched frequently, practised digging trenches and mounted mock attacks. To keep the men entertained, officers organized relay races and tug of war contests. A 30-piece brass band and a pipe band formed.

On May 14, 1915, the 29th Battalion got the call. Reveille sounded at 5 a.m. on a "cold and dismally wet morning" and the men shouldered their kitbags and marched through Vancouver to the trains at Hastings Siding.

Two trains carried the men east, stopping in towns and cities along the way. In Mission, they were handed cigarettes and cigars and were showered with bouquets of apple and cherry blossoms. In Moose Jaw and Winnipeg the battalion marched through town, its band playing. In Smith's Falls, Ontario, soldiers were treated to a picnic lunch in the park.

The battalion sailed from Montreal to England, where the men spent another four months training at Shorncliffe. They got their first taste of bully beef and of air raids, when a German dirigible made a night bombing raid on a nearby town.

In September, the men were issued new uniforms, Ross rifles and 150 rounds of ammunition. They were told to fill in their practice trenches and sharpen their bayonets. They were on their way to the front.

The 29th Battalion first entered the lines of the Kemmel Front, near Ypres, Belgium, on Oct. 7, 1915. Here, Frost's diary begins.

Oct. 13, 1915: "Things were pretty lively and a heavy bombardment. Getting quite used to it. More the merrier."

The men remained in the trenches for six days before being relieved and sent behind the lines for six days-a typical rotation. During each stint at the front, Frost recorded the names and regimental numbers of the men who had either been wounded or killed, or who had gone missing or been captured. The cases he treated were many and varied: gunshot wounds, shrapnel wounds, broken bones and shell shock. One entry reads "police killed"-perhaps referring to a deserter who had received the death penalty.

Frost worked in a dressing station just behind the lines-sometimes as close as 100 yards from the front-line trenches. Shells from German artillery often landed close to the dressing station, and German planes bombed it. Medical supplies were brought up by horse-drawn cart; often the carts would get stuck in the mud, forcing the men to carry the supplies the rest of the way.

When not on duty, Frost slept in a nearby dugout. Often these had nicknames: "Stagger In," "The Bum's Rest" or "Crummy Home."

Frost spent his 27th birthday at the front, hunkering down to avoid German artillery fire.

Nov. 24, 1916: "My birthday. There is a very heavy bombardment. The worse since coming over."

On Christmas Day the men in the trenches received a special dinner of sausages, a boiled egg, and pudding.

Dec. 25, 1915: "Ned and I went up to the front line today, a place they call the Bull Ring. Had a water bottle full of rum and the few boys that were there had a mouthful. Sure enjoyed it. Not supposed to do things like that, but the Dr. McDairmid looked the other way...

"The weather has certainly been grand today, and no one has fired a shot from either side. So I think we'll all take it easy and rest in peace."

When it was their turn to be relieved, the men of the 29th Battalion would return to "camp" behind the lines. When not taking part in work parties, soldiers attended concerts and movies. Films starring Charlie Chaplin were always a big hit. Battalions would challenge each other to games of football or cricket. Poker and quoits (a ring-toss game similar to horseshoes) were popular.

In February 1916 the 29th Battalion moved to St. Eloi, a short distance from Kemmel. At first, it was relatively quiet.

March 13, 1916: "Nobody felt like scrapping today, raining hard all the time. Most of boys in their dugouts, just a few sentries at the bays."

But things heated up after Allied miners dug two tunnels under the German lines. The mines were packed with explosives and blown at daybreak on March 27, doing "considerable damage" to the Germans. Frost records 150 prisoners were taken, most of them in their teens.

The resulting craters were the scene of fierce fighting. On April 5, Frost wrote that the trenches were filled with dead and wounded and that no one could get out due to heavy shelling.

April 6, 1916: "A young fellow got killed right at the dressing station door, and quite a few wounded today. We are very busy now. A young fellow [from the 7th Kings Shropshire Light Infantry] has just been brought in with two terrible wounds, one in his arm and one in the leg... He had been lying out there two days before our boys found him. He wants me to write his mother as soon as I can..."

Things were even worse for the men trying to hold the craters.

"The Germans had the fire down to a fine point on those craters, and it certainly fixed us, but the boys stayed with it."

Frost estimated that his dressing station had treated 375 cases over a three-day period. "I hope we shall never see it again."

He did, just a few days later, when the 29th Battalion returned to the craters. On April 19, the Germans attacked, capturing the crater and taking numerous prisoners.

April 19, 1916: "[The German artillery] must have thrown over everything they had. They threw their shells in the crater every time. Our boys could not get out because you can only get in and out at night. You have to go overland so the boys had to take everything that was coming. Poor boys, they had a hard time and only about six came back to tell the tale... Many of our wounded lay there helpless, then another shell would come over and finish them."

The crater the men were trying to defend was about 200 feet long and filled with water, in some places 20 feet deep, wrote Frost.

"Many of our poor boys fell back and drowned. Many of the boys are still lying out there, and I guess remain there."

April 21, 1916: "Everyone is covered with mud. To look at us now you would think everyone was buried and just dug up."

During his stint at St. Eloi, Frost had several close calls. In March, a piece of shrapnel knocked a container from his hand as he was filling it from a water cart in the open. He ran for cover-a flight that was made all the more difficult because he was wearing high rubber boots.

March 29, 1916: "Over comes a couple of wisbangs. So close that a piece went through the tin we were filling. Over came a couple more, but you couldn't see us for mud. We were gone."

A month later, a shell just missed Frost's dugout, hitting another dugout about 20 feet away. Of the four men inside it, one was killed and two wounded.

More close calls followed.

May 24, 1916: "One big shell pitched about 50 feet from here this morning. I was just outside having a wash. I heard it coming and I was inside before it went off. Another boy standing near me never made it inside and was wounded in the arm."

By July 1916, Frost was yearning for a minor wound that would send him home. He wrote about one man who received a bullet through the hand in an accident at machine gun school. Another accident with a rifle put a bullet through the legs of two men standing nearby. "A fellow is darned lucky to get a nice wound in the arm or leg around this part," Frost concluded.

Others weren't so lucky. Frost was once helping to unload a ration cart when the man beside him collapsed.

July 13, 1916: "[His wound] didn't bleed at all and as it was under his arm it was hard to find... The poor kid only lived about two minutes."

Death was all around Frost. Several times in his diary he commented on the ironies it could produce. In May, at St. Eloi, he was sent out for rations on a drizzly night. He paused at a graveyard to watch the burial of a soldier.

May 25, 1916: "The shells were going past each other overhead and the flare lights were going up from the German front line which made it look like day."

By the time he got to his destination, the rations had run out. "That's what you get for hanging around watching another chap buried."

Other times, he watched as men mourned lost brothers. At a dressing station near Ypres, he recalled sewing three dead men into their blankets.

June 10, 1916: "The poor fellows were torn to pieces with shrapnel. One of them, his name was Campbell, well, his brother just arrived with the draft from England and he was going to give him a surprise. Only to see him in his blanket. Poor fellow, he is upset."

After a while, the process of getting corpses ready for transport to the behind-the-lines graveyard at Reninghelst became almost routine.

June 27, 1916: "We also sent the boys out who were killed the night before last. It was just like loading sheep."

Yet some deaths still stood out, like those of men Frost had been talking to "[just] a few hours before" and that of a "young fellow" named Herringshaw who was shot as he was bringing rations up to the front line.

July 20, 1916: "[He had] only been in the trenches for a few hours for the first time. This is a worse spot than I thought it was... I sewed the poor fellow up, will send him down tonight."

By the middle of 1916, less than a year after their arrival at the Western Front, many of the 1,100 "originals" who had joined the 29th Battalion in Vancouver in 1914 were gone. Frost recalled one moonlit night when three bodies were carried into his dressing station, one after the other.

July 18, 1916: "I guess by snipers as each of the poor fellows got it through the head, and in each case the back of their heads were blown clean out. I knew them well. Came from Vancouver with us. Seems like all the old boys are going and it makes you sick to see them all going like that."

Worse was to come, however. That month, the Battle of the Somme began. One of the bloodiest attacks of the war, it cost the Allies more than 620,000 men over four and one-half months. It was a slaughterhouse-and the 29th Battalion was about to be tossed into it.

The 29th arrived on Sept. 7, 1916 in the French town of Albert, a staging ground for the troops that were pouring into the battle that had begun July 1. Frost saw "thousands of soldiers" and heard heavy shelling. The air was thick with planes.

Frost worked at a dressing station behind the front lines. While there, he visited Contalmaison, a village that had been captured from the Germans on July 11.

Sept. 9, 1916: "All around Contalmaison there are graves of British and German. At the head of the grave there's just two pieces of box nailed together. Some have the name, others have unknown heroes. The smell around the place was fierce."

He also visited the former German front line, and noted how much better equipped the German dugouts were, compared to those built by the Allies. One was 30 feet underground. Another had a spiral staircase and wood-panelled walls.

"It's a marvel they were ever got out of it... They had tunnels everywhere, nice beds, kitchens, boilers to wash clothes. I guess they thought they were there forever."

On Sept. 15, it was the turn of the 29th Battalion to attack. When they set off at 6:20 a.m. they were accompanied by tanks-a new weapon that was making its first appearance in the war.

Frost had gotten a glimpse of this new weapon behind the lines, as preparations for the attack were being made.

Sept. 13, 1916: "[The tanks] are going to surprise the world in a few days. They are more like an armed battleship on land, and I believe they can crawl anywhere."

The attack went well.

Sept. 15, 1916: "We tried out the land ships... and they worked great. It's a big armour-plated thing. The ugliest thing you ever saw, and when Fritz saw it, that was enough... poor old Fritz beat it in all directions. Some toward our lines and others back over their own way."

More than 1,000 German prisoners stumbled past the dressing station, "half dazed." The Canadians put many of them to work carrying stretchers.

"It was great to see our boys helping the wounded Germans and the Germans helping our boys. It makes our hearts jump to our throat. Fancy trying to kill one another, then helping each other out. Some smoking, chatting and smiling. Others too badly wounded or shell shocked to talk or laugh. I have seen some awful cases of shell shock. I will always remember them."

On Sept. 26, 1916, Frost and his friend Ned were given a new job. They would travel from place to place, testing the army's drinking water.

"I don't think it will be such a bad job. I've seen enough nasty sights. This last while men torn to pieces, etc. It's time we had a change."

Meanwhile, the 29th Battalion was attacking once more in another "big push" that left the trenches filled with German dead.

Sept. 26, 1916: "[The Germans] have white flags all along the line, but no attention is being paid to it... The boys took little prisoners."

The Somme, Frost wrote, had become a "slaughter house." The men were no longer able to bring out the bodies of the dead.

Oct. 1, 1916: "Now we are lucky if they are found. All we do now is just dig a big grave and those we find are put into it, no more sewing them in blankets. If we had to do that [sew them in blankets]... I would be doing nothing else." Frost estimated that more than half of the battalion had been lost at the Somme.

Nov. 2, 1916: "Hardly any old timers left. What there is are like myself. Got an easy job behind the line."

The Battle of the Somme ground to a halt a few days later. On Dec. 20, 1916, while sewing a dead man up in a blanket, Frost was told he would be going on leave. He spent Dec. 22 to Jan. 7 on leave, then returned to the front. In January and February of 1917, he was at various towns in France, ending up at Mont St. Eloi near Vimy Ridge in mid-February.

The final entry in the diary is dated March 18, 1917. It reads: "Wounded." It was less than a month before the Canadians attacked Vimy Ridge.

According to army medical records, Frost was wounded by shrapnel in his left thigh, right buttock and right hand at St. Eloi, France. His wounds healed, but he was unfit for further military service. He left England by ship Nov. 17, 1917 and was discharged from the army in Victoria May 20. He married in May 1918 and lived in North Vancouver. He worked as a carpenter until his retirement in the 1960s. He died in 1966.

The 29th Battalion fought on, at Vimy Ridge, Hill 70 near Lens - where Company Sergeant-Major Robert Hill Hanna earned his Victoria Cross - Passchendaele, Amiens, and the Hindenburg Line. The soldiers eventually sailed for home in March 1919 and reached Vancouver on May 23. Like the day they'd set off to war, it was raining. They marched as a battalion for the last time to the arena on Georgia Street, heard an address by Colonel W. S. Latta, turned in their weapons, uniforms and equipment, and became civilians once more.

29th book

29th Book, 1919