Monday, 16 March 2015

Visitors: Canadians & Kings

The early months of 1915 were quiet ones for the 1st Battalion, still in Ploegsteert Wood, the sector remaining peaceful after the dramatic events of December 1914 and January 1915 (see previous posts)

The Battalion, did, however, play host to a number of significant visitors. In February The Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII visited the Ploegsteert sector as part of his tour of the Western Front, he inspected the defences, including the Moated Farm, pictured below a little later in 1915 - this was very close to the German Position of the Birdcage and matches the comments in the Telegraph article here that mentions how worried his people were about the risks he was taking. Shortly after his visit the Somersets popular Medical Officer - Lt Waddy MC ,was killed by a stray bullet in this location

Map showing the Ploegsteert area and the Moated Farm


The Moated Farm later in 1915 - IWM Collection


The same day the Prince of Wales visited some more significant visitors arrived, the 8th Battalion CEF (Canadian Expeditionary Force). The aim of their visit for them to familiarise themselves with trench life before they took over their own sector, to this end they were involved in working parties, spent nights in the line and took part in trench raids. Their time was recorded by Frank Iriam, whose memoirs were published in 2012. He left us with a vivid picture of life at that time with the Somersets and in Ploegsteert, which he describes thus:

"Ploegsteert Wood in winter time is a swamp. Standing in pools of water with a thick growth of good-sized hardwood timber, oak, elm, beech, willow and several other kinds of hardwoods. A glimpse here and there was all we got of the German trench owing to the density of the timber at that time."

He also tells the following story of his night spent with a member of the 1st Battalion during a listening patrol:

"As soon as dusk thickened towards dark in the swamp we crept over the parapet and along a footpath crossing pools on a plank laid in the mud. You took a ground sheet with you to lie on. The listening post turned out to be a semi-circle of filled sand bags laid down to make a spot high enough to be just above water level. Here the two of you spread your ground sheets and lay quietly to listen and watch for two hours. There is a sort of cuckoo bird in that swamp that keeps up an incessant and never varying monotone Co-o, Co-o, and another swamp bird with a one-note whistle of a dreary mournful kind."

The night ends in an unpleasant fashion for his Somerset companion:

"A few yards to the right front I could see two dead Scottish Kilties lying on their faces in the swamp. I got chilly after a bit and not being where I could have a smoke I took a chew of MacDonald Plug as a substitute. My mate requested a chew and bit off a generous hunk. In a few minutes he started to roll around groaning and grunting appearing to be in pain or feeling very sick. I asked what was the trouble "Mon" he says, "that is an awful twist ye have." I gathered that twist meant tobacco and apparently he had swallowed some of it. He was a sick Somerset.”

He describes the defences the Somersets had constructed and the Battalion in glowing terms:

"a fine body of men they were. They used us first rate, doing all they could to help us out and show us around. We had two days and nights in the line with them. Their breastworks and dugout shelters were in good repair, and their communication lines also, and every thing else was as clean as a new pin. There seemed to be a community feeling in that outfit and no wrangling among the rank and file with no excess show of authority and abuse of same by their officers."

During their time with the Somersets one of their men, Private Walsh is injured while trying to rescue L/Cpl Jenkins. He had been sent out under cover of fog to cut the German wire but was spotted by a sniper and shot. In a letter to his local paper Frank Iriam describes the event (middle column). L/Cpl Jenkins was from Peasedown St John, near Bath and I am working with the local paper to find out more about him.

The War Diary of the 8th Bn CEF showing Pt Walsh injured on 26 Feb during the attempt to rescue L/Cpl Jenkins

Letter from Frank Iriam CEF published in Kenora Miner & News

After their time with the Somersets the CEF men spend time with the London Rifle Brigade, they do not compare well with the Somerset Light Infantry:

"After two nights here we were sent in again with some of the London Rifle Brigade. Here was a contrast. Their breastworks were poorly built, there were no board walks in the bottom of their trench, and they slopped along through the water and stood ankle deep in it. Their shelters from the weather were very poor, leaky and wet. The men stood humped up shivering with wool scarf’s wound around their necks on sentry, snapping and snarling like husky dogs. The officers and sergeants prowled up and down steadily, every time they passed you could hear some poor private being browbeaten, lectured savagely always ending up with the old refrain. “Take that mans name sergeant, and the poor devil was put on the crime list ending up in the orderly room next morning for more browbeating or worse. They sure did love one another in that outfit. Holy Mackerel! It was all discipline and no brains there, with a vengeance."

Much of the information here has been gained with help from members of the CEF Forum, especially Marika Pirie - link here:

The memoirs of Frank Iriam can be bought here:


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