ROYAL MONTREALS’ BAPTISM OF FIRE in 1915

Tuesday, March 30, 1915

In billets, Estaires

The Battalion War Diarist wrote for this day: “Estaires bombed by German ‘planes.  No casualties in the battalion.  Training begun, special attention being paid to bombing and entrenching.”  [1]

PRIVATE C. D. B. WHITBY`S LETTER – PART 1

ROYAL MONTREALS’ BAPTISM OF FIRE

Graphic Description of Trench Fighting by Pte. Whitby of Gazette Staff –
Praised by Gen. French – Battalion Has Already Seen Plenty of Heavy Fighting and Mud –
Casualties Not Unduly Heavy

THIS DAY IN RMR HISTORY: “Mr. C. D. B. Whitby, of The Montreal Gazette business staff, now Private Whitby, with the Royal Montreal Regiment, in the First Canadian Contingent, writes from somewhere in Flanders that mud and blood are the reigning features of the campaign, so far as he has seen it. The mud he especially emphasizes, from personal knowledge, after having on many occasions stood in several inches in it while enemy machine-guns made it unsafe to raise his head from the stuff.

‘There was nothing spectacular,’ says Pte. Whitby, ‘about the march of the Royal Montreal Regiment on Feb. 24 to make its debut in the trenches with a British Regiment then at the firing line. They trudged away at midnight, each man loaded down in heavy marching order, with great coat, fur trench coat, rations, blankets, rubber sheet, personal kit, ammunition, rifle, accoutrements, mess tin, fire-wood, etc., ingeniously hung about his person, the collection making each of them look like an animated Christmas tree.

Communication trenches, being water-logged, are seldom used. As we plodded through the mud the Germans sent up numbers of star shells, just like fireworks, but each one will light an area of several hundred yards. Soon we got within sound of the scattered rifle firing, with a new sound, very much like a pneumatic riveter on a sky-scraper, which our guides explained were machine-guns.

Bullets now began to whizz across the road, droning like angry hornets. ‘Much further through this?’ asked someone. ‘About 20 minutes,’ answered the guide, and it seemed long enough. It certainly was a busy highway, though by no means a safe one. We heard later that seldom a night passed without one or more wayfarers paying toll with their lives. A little further on we met a lone regular who said he ‘was going to come back to the ruddy trenches to get a bite to eat. I’m blooming well starving – the food is better in the trenches than anywhere else.’

Then came a party of soldiers, pushing a cart of supplies, and cursing its weight. The last thing a veteran seems to think about is the bullets humming all around. Soon we saw lights, and the front ranks in hushed whispers descended out of sight. The Germans tried a machine-gun on us debutants, but without effect.

INTO THE TRENCHES – Entering the trench we saw by dim moonlight a little grave yard to the rear, where wooden crosses marked previous defenders. I suppose there is not a trench in all Flanders without its extempore graveyard, the most pathetic evidence of this unholy war. Generally a cross made of packing box wood, with a pencilled line ‘Bill Jones, No. ,’ and perhaps the epitaph ‘One of the best,’ probably fixed under a hot fire. That is the last of many a good man.

Our trench was an excellent example. Parapets head high, sleeping quarters dug into the walls, small, but marvels of ingenuity, some timber shored, brick floored, and even fire places and chimneys – the results of months of occupancy. It had frequent traverses and sharp turns, to prevent enfilading fire, and planks were laid along the bottom, knee deep in mud. With heavy barbed wire entanglements in front, and sniping pits at intervals, it was very well appointed.

Later we experienced another variety. Instead of excavations there were sandbags, with lean-to shelters, covered with earth to make them ‘splinter-proof.’ This is necessary because water is struck at so shallow a depth.”[2]

Private Charles Douglas Barry Whitby, No. 26022 – Private Whitby was a former member of the Montreal Gazette’s staff, and his letters from the front published in The Gazette from time to time, gave most interesting accounts of the experiences of the Canadians. Born at Bath, Eng., on Nov. 13, 1886, he was an old boy of Clifton College School, near Bristol, Eng., and was engaged in construction work on the C.P.R. before joining The Gazette. Immediately on the outbreak of war he enlisted in the Victoria Rifles for active service, and was subsequently enrolled in the 14th Battalion, Royal Montreal Regiment.

Private Charles Douglas Barry Whitby, No. 26022 (RMR) - Menin Gate  Memorial, Ypres

Private Charles Douglas Barry Whitby, No. 26022 (RMR) – Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres

The Regiment’s voyage to England in October 1914 was marked by the appearance of a Regimental paper, “The Fourteenth Battalion Bugler.” The two issues of this journal, edited by Private C.D.B. Whitby, with the assistance of Private H.G. Brewer [later Lt.-Col.], late of the Montreal “Star,” were creditably produced and enjoyed a flattering circulation. In view of the talent displayed in producing The Bugler, Private Whitby was requested to act as Regimental Historian and to preserve an unofficial record of the Battalion’s adventures and vicissitudes on active service. Much to the Regiment’s regret, Private Whitby died, a prisoner of war at Keerselaere, as a result of wounds received on April 24th at the Second Battle of Ypres, the history he had so faithfully compiled being destroyed by shell fire during the same engagement.

The actual date of his death seems to be in some doubt since the Commonwealth War Graves Commission records and Canadian records indicate the date as July 13th, 1915, while the International Red Cross Prisoner of War for him says “died on about 8th or 9th May.” His name is inscribed on the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres.

[1]    War Diary, 14th Canadian Battalion, The Royal Montreal Regiment, March 30, 1915.  Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, http://data2.collectionscanada.ca/e/e044/e001089702.jpg
[2]    “Royal Montreals’ Baptism of Fire,” The Gazette, Montreal, Quebec, Tuesday, March 30, 1915, pg. 4, col. 4.

 

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