Witness to War: Friday Oct 12, 1917

Private Raymond Duval, MM, was a soldier of the 14th Battalion (Royal Montreal Regiment) CEF who served overseas during the last two years of the First World War. He participated in some of the fiercest fighting seen by Canadians during the war and was decorated for bravery at Passchendaele. Determined to preserve his memories of the First World War, he maintained a daily record of his experiences. Here is what he wrote precisely 100 years ago today:

Friday Oct 12, 1917: Still at Bouchez Huts Received Reg[istered] letter with 275 frncs so had one big feed at YMCA Nothing much doing Wrote to Clare in afternoon.

Author’s note in 1954: The time went by very quickly now. I had reached the time when the newness of war life was past, and looked at each day with a feeling of know-how and what to expect. In other words, I now felt like an “old-soldier.”

            A summer resort town (Paris-Plage) was close by and offered a fair amount of gayety of a sort and the boys from the camp were there in hundreds every evening. To me, the pleasant part of this time was meeting many of my old companions of Montreal days, and one or two from my own hometown. Our days were spent in various fatigues, training, and concerts, etc. (One of the best concerts was given by a New Zealand Concert party.) The weather at this time was very hot, making the training very hard, and it was plenty tough without the heat. The food at this time was very good. In fact, very much better than three months before when we found it “lousy.” I became very friendly with the Rgt. Cook, whom I found was a fraternity brother, and I had some good snacks in the evening. A few days later, we were warned to leave for the front, and my friend made up a wonderful lunch, which was certainly enjoyed while traveling in our side door Pullman (40 hommes, 8 chevaux).

            We detrained at an old familiar place Colonne Riquart, where I was billeted in a hayloft. Next day we marched to another old spot (Gauchin Legale), and here I noticed another familiar feeling. The crawling dirty lice had welcomed me in the same old way, by invasion of my underwear as usual. What is a soldier’s life without the lice?

From Gauchin Legale, we marched to Villes-au-Bois, and next day had a very tiresome, tough, hot march to Gouy Servins, where we joined our old unit at last. It seemed good indeed to meet the old corps, but also sad to learn of old friends “gone west”. At this time, I also met seven old town friends in a siege battery located close by, so all in all, had a grand time meeting old friends and getting caught up on the news, but still I was not getting my mail, which was somewhere along the line, slowly following me as I traveled from camp or hospital.

            A few days later, the Battalion marched to St. Pierre in the Lille area, where after a hard march, we were located in support (this being cellars pretty close to the front line). I was now put on [as] a regular Company Runner, which I liked because it got me out of regular line work, and I felt more independent on this job. Had a good coat here and being close to Co. Officer’s mess, we were able to get some extras. In fact, the food here was excellent.

            One feature I did not enjoy at this time was the all-too-familiar and never forgotten bombardment, which was extremely heavy and getting heavier all the time. It never stopped. The air seemed to be kept in continual vibration and at night this was accompanied by [explosions] of every imaginary color, which kept the night bright with a continual blaze of fireworks.

            My mail now started to reach me, and letters from home were devoured, and I had many be each mail. Parcels of cakes, sweets, and smokes, etc., also started to arrive in large quantities. I was very popular at this time, as I received more than I could take care of, so I passed the cakes and sweets with a generous hand.

            After a few days more or less uneventful, the battalion was marched out to an old familiar village called Estree Cauchie, on the main road to Vimy and only a few miles back of the old Vimy battleground. This was a hard march – full pack and pretty fast. While at this village, I received a draft for £10-0-0 from my wife – wow what a surprise that was, I sure lived the life of “Reilly” for a while. In fact, I felt like a millionaire.

            At this time, the weather being so fine it was natural that much aerial fighting occurred, and sometimes we had quite a show as hundreds of planes tangled in deadly combat high up in the skies. And whenever a Fritz plane made the fatal dive, it was greeted with hurrahs from our men. Life was very pleasant in Billets, except the lice, which seemed to be eating us up – they never left us no matter what. While scratching himself, one of the boys said, now I know why all pictures of Napoleon show him with his hand inside his chest; he was doing like us, getting at the lice. On another occasion, this same chap – who generally saw the humor of every situation, made us laugh. In replying to a question, as to what he thought of France, he replied as he angrily picked off his shirt, “think of it? Say if I had my way about it, I’d give this country to the Germans if they want it so bad, and apologize for the lousy condition it’s in!”

            The days and many nights were spent in the open, practicing over the tapes for the coming big battle. It was hard work, but the men were in fine fettle, and most of us enjoyed ourselves. But all of us knew that we were getting ready for a big battle, and quietly, we mentally braced ourselves for the ordeal which we now know faced us. However, it was with confidence. It was remarkable that in serious talk, no one ever thought of or discussed defeat. Generally, it was when the Hun would fold up and how, etc. It was a matter really amazing and showed the wonderful morale of the troops. Everyone was sure of victory, only the date was uncertain. As a common saying was, oh don’t worry, “the first seven years are the worst, after that you get used to it.”

            We spent the next 3 days in the front line and 2 days in support in front of Gouy Servins. The continued rain turned the trenches and, in fact, the entire landscape into a quagmire, making life most miserable. The most exciting part of this trip was an incident [that] occurred one night when our company commander sent us two runners on a message, and gave us the wrong directions. The two of us were only a few yards from a German outpost before we got wise. In fact, we were so close that we could plainly hear them talking in German. We decided that was much too close for comfort and retreated as fast and silently as possible. From this point, my running partner and I came out alone through several miles of muddy trenches to Souchez. We were fortunate to run across 2 advanced YMCA posts where we obtained Hot Tea, which was a real lifesaver. We finally got to our billets and got our mail, which as usual, was what we needed to buck us up after a very hard and miserable week.

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The RMR Foundation thanks Natalie Dyck for generously sharing her publication of “The Diary and Memoir of Private Raymond Duval” in order for us to be able to share his story with you 100 years on. You can learn more about Private Duval here.

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