by David Borys, PhD
On June 28th 1914 Walter Draycott’s journal pointedly read, “Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophia, Duchess of Hohenberg, are assassinated.” This assassination was a catalyst plunging the entire world into war. A war that witnessed the clash of traditional military tactics with advanced weapons technology causing unprecedented death and destruction. A war that resulted in over 60,000 Canadians losing their lives and saw Walter land on the shores of northern France. As one of the earliest Canadian arrivals, he fought his way through mud, blood, trenches and torrents of metal. In the warm summer months of 1914, however, in the small town of North Vancouver, the violent and destructive nature of this war was only yet to be discovered.
At home in Lynn Valley, and suffering from mushroom poisoning through late July and into August, Walter tracked the developing tension in Europe. The forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire invaded Serbia in late July, blaming Serbian officials for orchestrating the assassination of the Austrian Archduke. In defence of their Slavic brothers, Russia began mobilizing its massive military. Germany, already allied with Austria, anticipated that it could quickly defeat France and then turn its attention to Russia’s slow moving military. Germany invaded France, through the neutral countries of Belgium and Luxembourg, thus bringing Britain into the war to defend the neutral powers. Thus, by the end of August 1914 this confusing pattern of alliances resulted in the central powers, Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, squaring off against the Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia. Eventually numerous other countries, dominions, colonies and protectorates would join in the continental melee.
Walter Draycott was eager to fight. His brother Charles had enlisted in the British Aviation Corps and his best friend had left for Victoria to serve with the Royal Canadian Navy. Walter and other members of the community of Lynn Valley, in preparation for eventual military service, formed a home guard in early September. In the early months of the war thousands of Canadians, most of British descent, flocked to recruiting stations. As a Western Canadian of British origin, Walter was just as eager to enlist. Yet the population hubs of central Canada provided such a significant number of recruits for the first Canadian overseas contingent that he was forced to wait. Impatient, Walter sent a letter to Ottawa offering his services for overseas military service and spent his time “instructing the members of the Lynn Valley home guard in military drills.”
In early November Walter finally received his transportation papers from Ottawa. He was to make his way to England via Montreal and join up with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), a regiment that had already received the distinction of being called “the finest battalion I have ever inspected” by none other than King George V himself.¹ With a tearful goodbye to his friends in Lynn Valley Walter began the eighteen-day journey arriving in northern England in late November. He spent some time visiting with his family in Liverpool before joining his regiment in training on Salisbury plain. Beautiful rolling hills in the summer contrasted with wet, cold and miserable conditions in the fall and winter. Although the Canadians had trained at Valcartier in Quebec before departing overseas, it was on Salisbury plain where they received the bulk of their training in preparation for service in France. Walter, however, spent an entirely too brief period, about a week, training with his regiment, before departing for France. The PPCLI arrived in Le Havre on 21 December 1914, the first Canadian combat troops to arrive in theatre. As Walter writes, “Get splendid reception, nearly mobbed for souvenirs, they sing the Marseillaise for us.”
By late 1914 the western front had degenerated into a static line of trench fortifications as French, British and German soldiers made numerous unsuccessful attempts to dislodge each other. The trench system of the western front ran almost continuously from the borders of Switzerland to the North Sea. With the advent of the machine gun, and significant improvements in artillery, it became impossible for soldiers to live safely above ground. Thus, to mitigate the effects of these deadly weapons soldiers on both sides began to dig deep into the soil of France and Belgium. Shallow trenches turned into complex defensive fortifications that housed millions of combatants. Although never entirely safe from artillery shells, snipers or machine gun fire (and later poison gas), living underground provided some relief. Yet it also introduced the soldiers to new threats. Trench foot, the slow decay of ones skin due to constant exposure to cold and wetness, became a persistent concern for soldiers spending most of their time in wet and grimy trenches. Disease was an ever-present spectre. Lice infested every piece of clothing and every scalp all along the front. Large rats gorged themselves on the thousands of decaying corpses that littered no man’s land. The world of the front line had truly degenerated into a mass of death and filth.
This was the world Walter was marching to in December of 1914. Draycott and his regiment eventually boarded trains headed to the front, “packed worse than sardines, some standing, some sitting, sleep is impossible in these conditions.” As he got closer to the front he recalled, “Many a hundred woman draped in black and lots of shops are closed. What old dilapidated houses, a stark contrast to the English farmers homestead.” By this point the men of the PPCLI were wet, tired and hungry from a long train ride and days of marching, “many men fall out. Booming of distant guns heard, the enemy have broke through on our right and captured a village. We are put up at a barn, I slept in the hay loft.”
After months of deadly, unproductive combat the western front had descended into a relatively peaceful winter, interrupted by brief periods of shelling and sniper fire. Walter and his regiment spent Christmas around the village of Dickebusch (today’s Dikkebus) in Belgium approximately five kilometers southwest of Ypres, digging trenches and acclimating to life on the western front. “Our Christmas breakfast consists of bully beef, biscuits and tea.” As Draycott writes of this time, “Agony of agonies with being wet, cold and suffering from cramped sore and wet feet. At night we get an issue of rum about 2 ounces.” The conditions of the western front were now starting to wear on even the stoutest man as Draycott recalls seeing a British soldier shot for desertion. For Walter and his regiment, they had yet to experience full combat. The rest of the Canadian contingent was on its way but the environment was already taking its toll. On New Years Eve Walter was able to find some sheltered space in an abandoned wagon where he poetically summed up the end of his first year on the western front, “sore feet, sore head, and sore hearts.”
¹Canadian military heritage society. http://www.cmhslivinghistory.com/ppcli1_ww1.htm