by David Borys, PhD
For Walter Draycott, 1916 was a harrowing year of close calls, lost friends and hellish experiences. In many ways, the tone for Walter was set only days into the new year when he was caught in a random shelling near the Belgian village of Nieuwkerke. The spot he had been standing in only seconds before was struck directly by a shell, pieces of shrapnel ripped all around him somehow completely missing him. He wrote in his diary, “I am the luckiest man alive!” This entry would prove prophetic, as this was the beginning of an incredible and terrifying period of close calls. Early in February a piece of shrapnel from a German shell narrowly missed Walter’s head. Later that month one of Walter’s patrols took him out into no man’s land to go ‘sniping.’ Walter was able to “bag 4 Huns” but the Germans retaliated when they spotted Draycott’s patrol returning to the trenches. Half of his patrol was shot and killed and Walter’s jacket was pierced in several places by enemy bullets. In March, his steel helmet saved him from certain death when a piece of shrapnel from a German shell deflected off of it. Later that same month Walter was “standing outside the dugout. A shrapnel bullet passes by my neck and buries itself deep into the sandbag.” In May, a sniper’s bullet careened past Walter’s nose while at the same time another grazed his chin. Several days later Walter recorded how “a bullet whizzes past my head. Very close.” At the end of this unusually traumatic month Walter was standing on a firing trench when a sniper’s bullet struck his steel helmet, the second time his helmet had saved him. “There was considerable noise caused by [the] ring of [the] steel helmet. Felt very nervy afterward.” In November, Walter got caught in an artillery barrage, “one shell bursts on opposite side of a wall where I take cover. Am covered in brick and chalk dust but escape with only a shock. Another bursts over my head…bullets are whizzing past in fine style.” It is no surprise that after all this Walter succumbed to the stress of life in the trenches and on November 8th had a nervous breakdown. He wrote, “I feel as I am going mad. Get into open air and try to walk it off. Tis’ raining hard, my limb stiffen and I lay down in a disused dugout in agony.” Eventually Walter was able to recover, but so many like him were unable to come back from this paralyzing state.
Walter’s experience was, shockingly, not unusual. 1916 was the most active and violent year to date for the Canadians Corps. In the first months of 1916, Walter and his regiment, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, were stationed outside of the town of Kemmel. This was an extremely active part of the Ypres salient, a salient the Patricia’s had helped protect since their arrival on the continent a year earlier.
By the end of February Walter was fortunate enough to have been given leave to England where he was able to celebrate his 33rd birthday (on February 24th) with family and friends. His time in England was spent visiting, writing letters and even spending one evening huddled in a shelter during a German Zeppelin (airship) raid.
Immediately upon return to his regiment he set about the one task that he had become well known for, cutting hair. Almost a week was thus spent trimming the locks of the men of his regiment. By late March, however, Draycott was back in the routine of trench rotation. Serving on the front line for a week followed by short periods of rest in the rear area. For the Canadians in the Ypres salient, constant artillery duels, sniper fire, patrols and raids characterized March and April 1916. The Canadians conducted no major combat operations during this time, yet steady streams of casualties were inflicted in the monotony of day-to-day life on the western front. As Walter summarized it, “What a hell! Believe me.”
Another skill of Walter’s was eventually noticed by his superior officers, the ability to draw. By 12 April Walter was appointed regimental topographer and tasked with sketching and drawing not only maps, but also accurate representations of enemy trench systems and positions. In recognition of his new role he was also promoted to full corporal. From here on out Walter’s diary talks of sketching and drawing every day, often while under fire. “Make panorama sketches of German trenches and lines. The sketch takes one and half hour and all [the] time exposed to enemy snipers.”
On 2 June, Walter and his regiment faced the brunt of a German offensive known as the Battle of Mount Sorrel. His sketching was put on hold and Walter became a dispatch runner during the battle, delivering written messages under a murderous fire. Mount Sorrel lasted until 13 June by which time the Canadians had stabilized the line and Walter was able to go back to his job as regimental topographer. His work was well recognized by his superiors, his own brigade commander, General Archibald “Batty Mac” Macdonell, complimented him on several occasions. General Macdonell, in fact, loaned Walter out to other units to help with topographical work.
In September, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry were shipped south with the rest of the Canadian Corps to participate in the ongoing and bloody Somme offensive, raging since 1 July. Here, Walter witnessed a number of Canadian operations. The battles of Flers-Courcelette, Thiepval Ridge and Ancre Heights all stand as a testament to Canadian ferocity but also to the horrors of true industrial warfare as casualties were astronomical. On 2 October Walter wrote, “A shell burst not far from us and fragments cut a piece out of a man’s head, others are wounded. Many men on verge of madness and crying thro’ [sic] shell shock.”
The Canadian contribution to the Somme offensive essentially ended with the conclusion of the battle of Ancre Heights on 11 November. It is a hardly a surprise that only days before Draycott, like so many of his fellow soldiers, succumbed to the stress of combat. Walter spent several days resting in his dugout only getting up to finish another map for General Macdonell. By the end of November, Draycott’s work was recognized further when he was informed of the probability of a promotion. As he put it, “What a difficult path for promotion!” The rest of 1916 was spent drawing and preparing sketches for his superior officers. His final entry for the year writes, “My assistant and one of the observers go to Mont St. Eloy [sic]. I am busy making maps.”