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This article was published 5/11/2016 (1379 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The war was three months old when the 44th Manitoba Battalion was authorized in November 1914. The Winnipeg Free Press commented the 44th only wanted Winnipeg’s fittest men, so a local hockey hero, Lt. Charles Belcher, was assigned to find sportsmen and athletes for the battalion.
Edgar (Ed) Russenholt, a 25-year-old farmer from Bowsman, Man., was one of the new recruits.
In a letter written in late December 1914, he reported he had just seen a military parade and all kinds of dignitaries. It was all impressive, and perhaps the élan of military life momentarily stirred him to action.
Russenholt claimed later in life a friend had convinced him to enlist; however, in a January 17, 1915, letter to his sister, Drusilla, Russenholt wrote:
Folks in these parts all nominate yours truly as foolish and I ‘spose you will too when I tell you your little brother is drilling for the third contingent; …You know I didn’t do this without thinking about it. We get $1.85 per day so that I will be able to get out of debt by spring.
So, it seems, there were several reasons why he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). During the war, Russenholt wrote many letters home; haunting memories of a soldier in the Great War.
He became the battalion historian and his book 6000 Canadian Men (1932) is a day-by-day account of the 44th Battalion’s war.
The poignant words of Russenholt and his comrades recall the time, now 100 years ago, when they trained in Canada, faced the realities of the trenches and fought in the Battle of the Somme.
The new soldiers trained at Minto Armory on St. Matthews Street.
In June 1915, they set off for Camp Sewell, later renamed Camp Hughes, located near the town of Carberry in southwestern Manitoba. During the war years, 38,748 soldiers from 18 battalions trained in the art of trench warfare and lived under canvas in Manitoba’s "White City."
The camp is a quiet place 100 years later. Before the prairie grasses grow in the spring, it is possible to see the remnants of the camp’s 10-kilometre network of trenches, where the 1,000-man battalions trained.
This is the only authentic trench system remaining in North America. The complete site can be explored; the only dangers being tree roots, cow pies, hidden holes and wood ticks.
Camp Sewell was a windy, dusty place. A young soldier named Roy Armstrong, among many others, wrote home complaining the sand seeped into his bed, his eyes and the food, and that the average man ate a pound of dirt a day.
The 44th began five months of training. James Barkley, who was later wounded at the Battle of Cambrai in 1918, wrote, "he liked sleeping and living in a tent and the companionship was great."
Along with farmer’s sons and some other Winnipeggers, he was given time off to help during harvest season. The men worked hard and soon city boys became hard and healthy. Armstrong, who hated the sand, described the training as "beastly hard work."
In a letter to his sister, Russenholt described a Saturday inspection and aspects of military life. The letter portrays a youthful innocence, exuberance and an excitement at playing war.
I wish you could have been here to see all the different battalions and squadrons marching in and out of their lines each to the blare of brass bands, each to the screech of bagpipes, call of bugles and roll of drums; over the hills to a level plain north of the railway. The cavalry and the artillery were there before us and when it started to rain and we turned for home the batteries came hammering past as one after another at the gallop. No wonder men lose their nerves and often their minds in the roar of battle...
When you see over 8,000 boys here in the move you can form some idea of what a battle between millions must be…
A further realization of what a battle really is and how men conduct themselves resulted from our two days’ sham battles… [Our companies] attacked a position where C & D were strongly entrenched on the hills. Today the attack was carried out under a driving rain…. But we forgot it was raining when we were able to creep up to within 25 yards of the defenders’ trenches & blaze away some of our blank shells….
The battalion practised the daily routines of trench warfare for 24-hour periods: establishing listening posts, setting sentries, eating meals, cleaning and practising frontal assaults across no-man’s land into mock enemy trenches.
Fixing trenches was a regular job, wrote Boissevain’s Pte. James Bowes, because the area’s sandy soil caused the trenches to cave in at the slightest provocation. James and his two brothers were later killed in 1917, two on Vimy Ridge and one at Passchendaele.
As winter approached in October 1915, the 44th headed east. Many left home forever. Six thousand men passed through the ranks of the 44th: 1,300 were killed and 4,000 more were wounded in body and mind. When the battalion arrived in England, the British NCOs told the men to forget everything they learned in Canada.
In May 1916, the battalion was attached to the new Canadian 4th Division. The training intensified as they prepared to embark for France. On Aug. 12, their ship, HMS Viper, docked in France.
As the men marched toward the war, they met up with old comrades in the 8th Winnipeg Battalion (90th Winnipeg Rifles), heading toward the Battle of the Somme. Forget everything you learned in England, the men of the 8th yelled.
The 4th Canadian Division troops snaked toward the Ypres salient to be "seasoned," before taking their turn on the Somme. As the 44th battalion marched toward the front, Captain Charles Belcher told the soldiers: "I feel that I am going in to the biggest game I’ve ever played. I feel, too, that I am going in with the biggest and best team I ever played with."
The big game turned deadly on the battalion’s second night in the trenches. On Aug. 21, 27-year-old Cpl. Allen Lyne was shot in the head by a German sniper.
In one of his first letters home, Russenholt gave his impressions of life on the front lines. It’s confident and, perhaps, a bit cocky for someone who had been at the front for only a few days.
Dear Sister mine,
This part of the line is very quiet just now the old timers tell us, and our trip in wasn’t too bad at all. In the afternoon Heinie started in to stage a little entertainment with his heavy stuff. When he became annoying our batteries talked back to him and persuaded him to keep quiet…
Life in the trenches quickly became routine. In a letter written after the battalion’s first tour of the front line, Russenholt is markedly more acerbic and sarcastic about the life of a soldier in what he calls Sand-bag City.
And as soldiers are prone to do, he generates a laundry list of gripes creating a fine portrait of trench life.
Dear sister mine,
Sit me down in our lovely sand-bag dugout to write this long delayed epistle… we are more or less comfortable and enjoying existence. If it wasn’t for the rain and mud & alarms & biscuits & bully beef & Heinie’s rum jars and sausages and the noise and lugging a cart-load of household goods on your spine & feeling a bit home-sick once in a while and longing for a chunk of lemon pie & the rats & the wee companions & having clothes on for a week or so at a stretch and one or two small items, this would be the ideal life. The life humanity has been searching for ever since the dawn of time…
Up at the line things are a bit more civilized, tho’ not exactly a continual round of pleasure. But one knows what one has to do, more or less. We stay in our back yard and Heinie behind his fence & listen to the artillery banging at each other over our heads. Tho’ even this life has its spicy moments…
One evening after dark yours truly was strolling along the line to see how the gun crews were getting along when the sound of conflict in the bay ahead came floating through the air. Hunted around the traverse with a bomb in one hand and a six shooter in the other. Here was a lad holding a rat pinned to a sandbag with his bayonet while the other practiced the "long point" "short point" and "jab" on before mentioned rat. Ah we have some fun at our house all right.
In September, the 44th marched out of Belgium towards the great battle raging on the Somme in France. The men carried a full pack: all their clothes, a great coat, rubber sheet, blanket, haversack, iron rations, a full water bottle, 170 rounds of ammunition, rifle, bayonet, entrenching tool and gas respirator.
Fortunately, the weather was good that day, the roads were dry and the men moved steadily along to the tunes of the battalion band.
On Oct. 8, the 44th reached their billets in Albert, France. The men plowed through a sea of mud to set up their tents and found friends from the 43rd Winnipeg (Cameron Highlanders) were there. The Camerons had just fought in a battle for Regina Trench, a heavily fortified German position near the village of Courcelette. The Camerons had taken heavy casualties when the artillery barrage failed to cut the German barbed wire. Canadians attempted to take Regina Trench throughout October, but were only partially successful.
In a letter dated Oct. 17, 1916, Jack Quelch, a sniper in the 44th from Beulah, Man., wrote his parents about his battalion’s recent doing. The letter is light-hearted at times but is also tinged with horror at what he has seen and a fatalistic resolve at his situation. It takes Jack a few days to write the letter because, as he says, "I am out of luck with this letter writing. We have to go out and build dugouts"
Then, of course, when the battalion gets back from the trenches there’s washing, shaving, bathing and trying to "rid one’s self of some company, but this job is mostly a waste of time as you have just as many in a day or two."
He writes that he has just read an article from the Free Press reporting on Manitoba’s autumn scenery and he wishes he could be there to see it. The scenery on the front, he jokingly writes, reminds him of the illustration cut out of the Graphic that hangs in the dining room, except that there are no trees, only stumps and the area is covered with tents as far as one could see.
He goes on to describe a village the British had been fighting over but was now only a heap of debris. He couldn’t explore too much because it was dangerous.
There were some gruesome sights there, which showed what must have taken place. You could smell the place half a mile away. They were mostly Hineys, but there were some of our own chaps among them. If I see this through I shall not forget that place…
He thanks his mother for the parcel and the cake, but, unfortunately, the cake was moldy so he suggests it might be more practical to send candles, writing paper and envelopes and chocolate. The sardines and Oxo she sent, he said, made for a "jake" snack when mixed together.
Russenholt was also writing about this time. In a letter to his father, dated Oct. 20, Russenholt asks about the condition of the family farm, life and stock prices. He off-handedly remarks that a family friend had got a bomb-proof job and that another had just gotten a Blighty and was off to England. However, Russenholt seems torn in his thinking about these two friends.
On one hand, they were lucky to be safe but on the other, bloodying the enemy was why they were here. He writes:
I want to go through the whole thing and go back as usual, and I would like to see one good rough and tumble hand-to-hand with old Fritz would be better methinks than sitting tight in the little hole you have dug for yourself in the back of the trench.
He describes the sounds of the constant heavy bombardments. When big artillery shells fly overhead it sounds like an express train crossing a bridge. The smaller shells, called whiz-bangs, come six at a time in the trenches and the sound they make reminds him of the swish of a whip on a frosty morning.
Russenholt writes that the continuous noise and shock of the blasts is worrisome. Soldiers knew when they, or a comrade, was beginning to lose their nerve. They called it being windy and they were not ashamed to say they had been afraid. But Russenholt has a technique to cope with his fears — he fills his head with thoughts of anything but what was happening around him.
So that you don’t listen, you keep your head so full of other things there’s no room left for him…. So you keep Fritz and the noise out of your head and sometimes when you’re thinking of something pretty hard and one bursts pretty close you feel like poking your head out of your hole (when the dirt has settled again) and hollering "for the love of Peter, so stop that racket.
In a letter to his sister, also dated Oct. 20, Russenholt doesn’t dwell on his fears. Instead he keeps the tone light. He thanks her for the parcel of toothpaste, shaving cream and the "sox" that "saved my life" and all are worth their weight in "good homemade bread." However, he says, not to send Lux [soap] because "we dabble but little and at long intervals in the washerwoman trade."
Perhaps he reveals his fears in a different way. Russenholt always signed off with Sincerely Edgar; however, this one ends uniquely — Now Sister mine, by by. Sincerely EdR
The fall weather on the Somme was hellish and the shelling incessant. The 44th’s war diary entries on Oct. 19 and 20 described the conditions:
19th 6 p.m. Showery. Trenches almost untenable. In many places from one to two feet of water in them. They are almost constantly shelled.
20th 10 p.m. Showery clearing towards evening. Sickness is very prevalent owing to state of trenches.
On Oct. 23, the battalion took its turn at attacking Regina Trench. The heavily loaded men carried 4mm grenades, 220 rounds of ammunition, rations for 48 hours, water bottle, five sandbags and a pick or shovel. They trudged for miles through mud and water to reach the front line and waited for the order to attack. The weather was so bad the operation was postponed for 24 hours.
The exhausted men remained overnight in the cold, water-logged ditches with little protection from the hammering of rain and the bursting shells, enfilading enemy machine gun and shell fire. At 7:30 a.m., Oct. 25, the 118th day of the battle, the battalion attacked but the artillery barrage failed to keep the Germans in their trenches and prevent counter-attacks.
The Battalion War Diary’s laconic entry for the day stated: "Battalion attempted to capture portion of REGINA TRENCH under Operation Order No.9. The operation failed owing to insufficiency of Artillery Barrage. The Battalion suffered heavily."
Death came suddenly. As the battalion moved out of their trenches, the Germans opened up with machine guns, forcing the men to try to crawl back to their trenches or take cover in shell holes.
The Germans counterattacked but the 44th held its line. By evening, gunfire had slackened and battalion stretcher bearers began to bring out the wounded and carry them to the aid stations.
However, as Victor Wheeler wrote, in The 50th Battalion in No Man’s Land, volunteers from the 50th battalion went over the top to help rescue many of the 44th men whose lives were ticking away in No Man’s land.
Not all the stretcher bearers and their bloodied comrades, however, reached the field dressing station. They were tempting sweetmeats for hungry Heine snipers.
The 44th took almost 200 casualties and was pulled off the line to recuperate. The Oct. 26 war diary entry reported the condition of their clothes and equipment was deplorable and shows the hardships they had to endure. Many were suffering from exhaustion and exposure. The war diary reported on Oct. 28 morale was somewhat shaken.
On Nov. 4, they returned to the frontline trenches with orders that Regina Trench was to be taken. The horrible weather continued and, because of the continuous shelling of the roads, working parties had to carry all supplies for miles up to the front. As Russenholt wrote in the battalion history:
Rations must be carried up front from far back in the line. Bread, in sandbags, is water soaked and mixed with mud; water is brought up in tins tied in pairs with strips of sand bags — these tins have previously held three gallons of gasoline each, and a goodly portion of it apparently, remains in the solution with the water.
Finally, for three days no rations can get through the sustained shell fire with which the enemy rakes the roads, trenches and paths. Men subsist on biscuits and cheese.
On Nov. 11, Regina Trench was taken by other battalions of the 4th Division. The barrage successfully kept the Germans in their dugouts and prevented counterattacks. However, the battle continued as the battalions consolidated positions and attempted to take and hold the next line of trenches.
Many men were sick from exhaustion. And the men from the 44th continued to suffer, until the Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig called a halt to the Somme campaign at the end of November.
As 1916 neared its end, Russenholt is a changed man. His final letter from the Somme reveals how his views on the war have evolved from those of a callow young man to one who has seen and experienced too much suffering. In a tortured letter to his sister Russenholt wrote:
Am not sure just what day or date it is — but think it must be around the 26th or 28th. A Wednesday or a Thursday. But I ‘spose it doesn’t really matter a day or so more or less. One only knows that we’ve been here part and parcel of the greatest battle in history, for seven or eight weeks...
And the whole thing seems like a long, long nightmare — one almost forgets that he ever knew anything different than this it all seems so far away — the scenes of the peaceful days seem like a succession of "movie" reels is realistic but far away...
I imagine that everyone of this generation has learned that war has nothing for man but useless waste and suffering. Yes, the war has served its end — to teach us its own uselessness. So we all hope it’s near an end...
All told, 8,000 men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force were killed and 16,000 others were wounded on the Somme, twice the number of those who fell at Vimy Ridge or Passchendaele.
From the death of Cpl. Allen Lyne on Aug. 21, 1916, until the deaths of Lt. Charles Bowring and Pte. Joseph Doucett on Dec. 29, 1916, the battalion suffered more than 500 battle casualties and many men were evacuated for nerves, shell-shock or died from illness or accident.
Many of these men are counted among the 1,072 Canadians resting in the Adanac Military Cemetery along-side Regina Trench.
Disillusioned or not, there was still a war to fight and win. Russenholt, Belcher, Quelch, Barkley, the Bowes brothers, and the men of the 44th marched toward Vimy Ridge, where they would again face the enemy and win a reputation for being one of the finest fighting battalions in the CEF.
Ian Stewart is a Winnipeg teacher and local historian.
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