Walter began the year as a member of the Canadian Forestry Corps (CFC). It was common for soldiers who had been wounded severely, or received multiple wounds, to convalesce in England and serve their remaining time within the CFC. Walter had been wounded on several occasions, including his most recent exposure to poison gas, and although fit for active duty was deemed not ready for a combat role. Although technically part of the Canadian Forestry Corps Walter rarely saw any work within the forests of England. He spent most of his days travelling the country, sketching and finishing maps, visiting family, participating in rabbit shoots, and compiling a genealogical history of the Draycott family (Walter even visited a 300 year old home of one of his ancestors). His diary during this period offers a fascinating glimpse of life in England during the final year of the war.
He wasn’t entirely out of danger, however. On a couple of occasions Walter had a front row seat to German air raids on London. The Germans launched a number of bombing raids against England throughout the war, most, thought not all, aimed at London. These raids were carried out by large air ships, or ‘Zeppelin’s,’ as they were commonly known. In one particular instance Walter watched the air raid from an embankment on the Thames River, a “great spectacle” as he put it.
In another interesting incident, certainly reflective of social prejudices of the era, Walter mentioned how he and his unit received a draft of eighty “coloured gentleman” from Canada and the United States. In 1916 the Canadian government created the first all-back battalion in Canadian history. This battalion, the No. 2 Construction Battalion, was formed in Pictou, Nova Scotia and was meant for a non-combat role. If not part of this battalion, many blacks served within the Canadian Forestry Corps. However, It is estimated that two thousand African-Canadians made it into Canadian combat units and fought in the front line while the Americans, in fact, created two all-black combat divisions. Walter speaks quite highly of these men, “The coloured gentleman prove to be a most respectable and disciplined party. They show the white man how to behave.” Walter befriended one gentleman in particular, taking him to London and showing him the sights. “His first visit to London and England. We visit Victoria and Alberta Museum, Natural History Museum, United Services Museum, St. Paul’s Cathedral and Crypt and other places….to Aunt Rhia’s at 7pm till 9:30pm. She is much impressed with my black friend.”
Walter’s diary during this year comments on a number of interesting aspects of what life in England was like during the final year of the war. The Americans had declared war on the Central Powers in 1917 and by 1918 thousands of young Americans were in England preparing to go over to France. Walter visited several American camps on different occasions; “We take a walk around the American camp. English girls twitter around the camp forgetting their own poor Tommy in France.” A commonly held grudge by many British was the relationship between British women and American soldiers while so many British men were overseas. Although a Canadian by residence, Walter’s British blood seems to prickle at this very issue. Yet he celebrated a Canadian sporting achievement when he proudly wrote, “the Canadian forestry Corps play Americans at Baseball and result was Canadians 6 – Americans 5!”
By spring of 1918 Walter pined to return to Canada and began a long, arduous application process fraught with bureaucratic red tape to secure a 3-month leave back to North Vancouver. Walter underwent a number of interviews, most asking him the same questions over and over again about where he was wounded, how he had spent his convalescent time, and where he intended to return. In fact, Walter was officially given his discharge papers only to have the decision reversed a month later. As a result of this reversal, Walter was forced to go through the process all over again commenting, “How much more damned fooling around!?” A week later he was back in front of a medical board answering the same questions, “The whole thing is a farce…more waste of time!” Finally on 14 August the medical board officially cleared Walter, he was given his discharge papers and marked to return to Canada. Later that month, as he prepared to return home, he was invited to Windsor Castle to meet King George and Queen Mary, “March slowly past King and Queen in Royal Banqueting Hall where King George and Queen Mary stand midway in Hall. I salute and Queen Mary says, ‘Princess Pats,’ I reply, ‘Yes, your Majesty.’” As he toured the rooms he noticed swords studded with diamonds, priceless treasures and most notably, “a great bear shot in British Columbia by the late King Edward VII.”
That same month the war turned inexorably in favour of the Entente powers. A massive German spring offensive had failed to split British and French forces on the western front and the Entente powers responded in August with their own massive offensive. Launched from the city of Amiens on 8 August the offensive forced the Germans into a headlong retreat all the way back to the Belgium city of Mons, first captured by the Germans in 1914. The offensive only ended when the Germans officially signed the armistice on 11 November. The Canadian Corps spearheaded this operation, known as the 100 Days Campaign, and Walter proudly recorded in his diary, “The British, Canadians, Australians and French have within the last 3 days captured 40,000 prisoners and over 300 guns on the Amiens front.”
Walter finally returned home later that year. In many ways his survival seems miraculous. He had endured the trenches from the earliest days of Canadian participation, survived some of Canada’s most epic battles. Walter had been shot at and shelled, had countless near death experiences, suffered numerous bouts of sickness, and been wounded by shrapnel and poison gas. He returned to North Vancouver a different man, like thousands of others returning to Canada, wounded physically, mentally and emotionally. Walter, like so many of his generation, took up the mantle of leadership upon his return, becoming an important community leader like so many veterans who played a significant part in the development of a young Canadian nation.