Witness to War: Saturday, March 23, 1918

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:

Saturday, March 23, 1918Got up pretty late and came to Barracks then had a few eats don’t know what we will do this afternoon It was afterward found out that bombs referred to were shells thrown by Fritz’s mystery gun.

Author’s note in 1954: On March 6th, we moved to Cite St Edourd where we were installed in cellars. These were considered good billets, and as I had to do some considerable work on the Coy books, I was able to fix up a fairly good work place. While here, I was able to get down to the town of Le Brebis, where there was a good canteen, and purchased a considerable amount of groceries, among which were some eggs, a plum pudding, etc., and on returning the C.S.M. and I had a wonderful dinner cooked on a Tommy Cooker in a deep dug-out.

            I was now looking forward to a leave as I had put my name down for Paris some time ago, and by the names of those who had already gone, I knew I must be pretty close to getting mine. I was praying hard that no battle would develop in the meantime and hold me up otherwise.

            On the 8th of March, we were relieved and marched to Bois de Grenay, and were located in huts (not too bad). We spent the time here in the usual training until March 18th, when my leave came through and left for Paris via Nous-les-Mines and Amiens. My old pal from home also had a Paris leave at the same time, so we went together. Arrived at our destination the same evening feeling like a couple of kids as happy as loafs. After the usual routine of reception in the various Centres set up by the Army, where we were supposed to be prepared for the temptations of the “Big City,” we finally located in a double room in a very pleasant Hotel on Rue St. Hyacinthe, not far from the Luxembourg Gardens and the Place de la Republique.

            The days in Paris went by all quickly spent in the usual sight seeing and theatres. My most vivid memory of Paris was a climb to the top of the Dome of the Palais des Invalides, right above Napoelon’s Tomb. This meant a climb up the steep sides of the Dome, which was a hair-raising experience, but the view from this vantage point was breathtaking, being over 300 feet above the street level. Naturally, such a venture was not on the list of visiting places, but as my friend and I wished to get a good view of the Centre, and the Eiffel Tower being closed to visitors, we thought the next highest spot was the Invalides. So, being able to speak French fluently, we called on the Palace Fire and Police Chief, whom we found very cooperative. Sent one of his constables along to show the way, which he did as far the base of the Dome, where he left us to go the rest of the way.

After a spell of drinking in the beauties of this marvellous city, we climbed down. I’ll admit in my case with shaking knees. The distance to the ground seemed tremendous, and the climb down seemed much worse than up. We again visited the Chief, where we were received in a most cordial manner. After some talk with him over a few glasses of wine, we thanked him and said good-bye. In wishing us god-speed and a safe return to Canada, he said, “Bien mes garcons, when you get back home you can tell your folks you were in one place where no other Canadian went.”

            Among the many places visited which I will remember is the Palace at Fountainbleu built by Francis I, a most beautiful building set in wonderful gardens. The building itself is a marvel of architectural beauty, both inside and out.

A Paris building after the bombing in March 1918

            While here in Paris, the Huns started to bombard the city with his wondergun known later as Big Bertha. At first it was thought that bombs were being dropped by high-flying planes. These shells were dropped indiscriminately as the aiming of this gun was not very accurate, and we were informed that many missed the city altogether. Some slight confusion was noted but after the first day, the people were taking it in stride with the usual comment “c’est la guerre”.

            Although the bombardment did no worthwhile damage, it had a very sad effect on my pal and myself, as all troops on leave were recalled to their units at once, and we still had a few days leave left. So we entrained late one night, and landed in the big base camp at Etaples, which we found crowded with soldiers from all over the Commonwealth, and again we met many old friends from various points in Canada.

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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