Witness to War: Friday June 1, 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 June 1, 1917: Nothing doing all day wrote a few letters – My Little Girl’s birthday today wish I was with her Saw a Bosche [Boche] aeroplane getting bombarded over Camp but did not see if they got it.

Author’s note in 1954: Etaples was probably the largest base camp in France for British Empire troops. At the time referred to, there was something like one million troops there from all parts of the Commonwealth. The area covered by this camp was tremendous. It was in fact a very large city, with many of the amenities of such a community.
On arrival, we were checked and re-checked, and after considerable marching to and from, were assigned to a section in the Canadian area. Our home consisted of circle tents with wooden floors. Each tent could lodge in fair comfort about four men, but space being at such a premium, we were assigned sixteen to a tent. It can probably be pictured what that would mean when so many men with full equipment were squeezed into such a small space. [We] were pushing and shoving rifles, bayonets, entrenching tools, and all the impediments of 16 infantrymen into a jumble. [The humor in this] is almost indescribable. It was enough to drive the most sane and phlegmatic individual into hysterics. After the long and gruelling march from the Sea Port, the men were ready for a good sleep, but when at about midnight we finally bedded down in a circle, with our feet criss-crossed at the centre, it looked rather dubious at that time (later, such a problem and often worse was taken in stride, and caused no confusion). However, by the light of a single candle stuck on the tent pole, we did get down somehow, but the night was not yet over by a long, long ways. About 2am, a terrific rain and thunderstorm came up. What a storm, and what a night.
 Water started to leak through the canvas, and soon everything was getting soaked. I was suddenly awakened by a solid stream [of water] pouring into my ear, as I lay on my right side. In a few moments, the entire crew of the tent woke up trying to get something done, which was very little. Eventually, after much swearing and useless [squabbling], we packed up our belongings (or at least what looked like ours), and dashed for a Y.M.C.A. hut a couple of hundred yards away, which fortunately was built on wood posts about 4ft above ground. In this space, we managed to install ourselves in dry if not too comfortable quarters. All in all, our experience at Etaples was not a picnic, but it was all part of the training, paid off later.
We stayed at Etaples for some ten days, and were put through some very intense training, which was long overdue, as up to that time the training in Canada had been rudimentary, and that in England while better, was too short. This of course could not be helped, as the Canadian overseas forces, up to that time, [were] still being supplied by volunteers, [so] the replacement pools were having a hard time keeping up with the drain on their manpower

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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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