Witness to War: Friday August 17, 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 August 17, 1917:

Got our relief rather late but thank God to get out of this Hell – started out all right Got over the worst part and thought we were safe – near Loos in [?] alley a shell exploded near us and I got a lot in the back of the head. Didn’t want to go out but Mr. Weaver told me to go out so went out to the Field ambulance and they sent me down to St. Omer by Borges where I am now in No 59 General [hospital] having the best rest I’ve had in months. Wrote a short note No 38 to Clare so she won’t worry.

Author’s note in 1954: About the middle of July, we left the trenches for a rear area and eventual move to another front and came through Mount St. Eloi again and on to Neuville St. Vaast where we stayed in very dirty billets, but that did not worry us very much as we were very dirty ourselves.

            As always, this period of rest gave us an opportunity of getting cleaned up, getting mail from home, and answering some. Parcels were received and all in all for a few days at least it seemed like a holiday – which ended much too soon. One feature, however, which the troops abhorred and said so – not too loud – was the inevitable inspection by some “Big Shot” or other – too bad they could not hear the comments. We were now moved to the Lens area in a small village, and one evening had the chance of seeing a liquid fire bombardment being put over. It was an awesome sight.

            Also at this time, being out on rest with a large part of the CEF, we took the opportunity to look up old friends, some we had not seen for years, and some we never saw again, but the fleeting visits were thoroughly enjoyed and made happy memories in the future.

            About this time, we went on night maneuvers and attack practice for the coming attack. This consisted – at least at times – in open attack formation with gas masks. In the dark and in broken country this was anything but pleasant, but in spite of this, the boys managed to squeeze [in] some fun at the expense of the training officer, and at this time we had an officer who was not too popular. It was good fun, or so we thought, to get a rise out of him. One night in particular, he was driven to desperation as he tried to put though a whispered message from the rear to the front of the operation. He would give the message, which might be, “enemy preparing to launch attack from the left,” then he would hurry to the front to get the message, which would be so garbled by the time it reached him, that it was just plain nonsense. Of course, when the game started, every man altered the original before passing it on. Finally he would give up in disgust.

            A few days later, we moved up closer to Lens to Maison Garde, and then on to Reserve line in the Hill 70 area. Things were popping plenty here and casualties were again being sustained all too frequently. A spell of rain now started and the trenches in the chalk, which seemed to abound here, became a gooey, sticky mess, making even a short walk a heart-breaking task. In many places the muddy water was up to the knees getting out, which we did in a couple of days. Seemed like going to paradise.

After a short rest, we moved again to the support line for the attack on Hill 70 (Aug 15/17). The 3rd Brigade, of which we were a part, had a major role in this. The 3 other battalions were going over in the first attack with ours in reserve, and about 11am, we were ordered up and over on the double, a very unpleasant chore as our boys were having trouble to hold their objective. When we reached our forward troops, we found the place a shambles. Trenches were literally flattened, and the wounded and dead were lying everywhere waiting to be evacuated. It was a hot day and water was hard to get up from the rear, so that the wounded were suffering from thirst. One of my first assignments was to get some water to a forward post, isolated like an island in a mad sea of shell and machine gun fire, a real pleasant job in bright sunlight. The worst part was a flat space about 40 or 50 yards, absolutely flat and no cover. However, by pushing the two petrol tins (filled with water, 2 gallons] each) ahead of me as I wriggled on my stomach, I managed to get into the post and deliver the water, which was most welcome to those parched men. Getting back was not much better but did not last so long.

During this battle for Hill 70, I saw some great acts of bravery by Canadians, which made me very proud. A young French Canadian Lieutenant was to me especially brave and determined. During the remainder of the day, the Germans put over some 10 to 12 extremely heavy counter attacks, and this young officer with sang-froid, such as I had never imagined possible, encouraged us men not only by word, but by actual disregard for his own safety.

            Some 20 of us were laying on the front side of the almost flattened trench, and he stood in what seemed to me a fully exposed position on the back of the depression. Having picked up a rifle, he blazed away at the hordes of Huns as they came in waves against our position. He seemed oblivious to the dangers. I called to him to please get down, but he did not heed, and finally as I feared, he was hit and I just had time to grasp him as he pitched forward. I pillowed his head on my knee as we were at the bottom of the slight depression, but there was nothing we could do at the moment, no medicos nearby. I saw that the bullet had gone through what I judged must be his lung, and in a short time, he passed away as he cursed the Boche and in his last breath, called for his mother. It was very sad, and left me in a very shaken condition for some time. However, things were moving so ferociously that the incident had to be pushed out of mind for the time at least. Before the day was done some 20 men had been hit – many fatally within a few feet.

The 14th Battalion (RMR) marching to rest billets after the Battle of Hill 70, August 1917

Late in the evening other fresh troops came up to relieve us and those of us left intact were very happy to get going out of that hell-hole. For me it was not what I had planned. We had been on our way only about a half-hour and [were] just nearing the highway, which would lead to billets, when a heavy shell exploded near by and I felt my steel helmet being tossed away. At the instant, I felt no pain and in fact did not feel any later, but my platoon officers called to me that I was hit. On feeling the back of my head I was amazed to find I was bleeding profusely. So I hurried to the field ambulance where in a few moments, I was getting every possible attention.

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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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