Witness to War: Sunday June 24, 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:

Sunday June 24, 1917: Wedding anniversary so as usual wrote to my little girl.  What a wonderful little wife I have and if I can be worthy of her I feel I will have done my bit.

Received four parcels of all sorts of good things in the evening. One from Clare, one from the folks, one form John and one from Helen Lindsay Green (Flint) but as we are going up the line tomorrow had to give most of it away but was stuffed ourselves in our hut.

Church parade and inspection of Brigade by Gen in morning.

Author’s note in 1954: Our training was started first thing in the morning with Reveille sounding at 6:30am. We were now closer to the front; in fact, we could hear the dull roar of the heavy arms almost all the time, and after dusk, a yellow glow in the north, which was almost steady, told all too plainly that men were being killed up there, and soon we would be in that at its source.

The Commanding Officer at this base was a frightening soldier who had long and varied service from the start of the war, having come over in 1914 with the first contingent as a private. Previous to this war, he had served with the British Army in India, and in Aug 1914 when Britain declared war on Germany, was serving with the US army in a fort off New York. With two other English comrades, he deserted this post and managed to get to Montreal on a freight train. Unfortunately, during a heavy thunderstorm, his two comrades were blown off a freight car and killed on the way, but he managed to hang on, and reached Montreal a short time after the war had started. He enlisted as a private, but his advancement was rapid. At the time that we came under his command in early 1917, he had attained the rank of Major and had a string of British and allied decorations. He eventually attained the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and commanded the Regiment when he returned to Canada some 4 1/2 years after he had enlisted as a private. His career should make a fine historical work if it could be written, but unfortunately, he passed away a few months after returning to Canada, when he was stricken with the flu, which raged in America at that time (this outline of our C.O. is given here at the start of my front-line experience, because I served through the remainder of the war in his Regiment).

The training in Burbune was intense and the discipline here was stiffer than we had experienced in previous camps. The real fighting training was done here, as men were sent directly from this final school to [the] actual fighting front, therefore the pressure was really put on. In spite of this tightened discipline, life was not all work; we managed to make fun or get amusement with the local citizens, and have my French become useful. As soon as I went into any home and they noticed that my French was almost identical to theirs, they became very friendly indeed. In fact, [they] were often so kind as to be embarrassing.

One of the first official acts was a thorough inspection by the C.O., and he certainly could inspect. After slowly walking around our draft of about 200 men, he went round to front and gave us the usual talk with a few comments not in RR&O [Rules, Regulations, and Orders). Said he: “Men – you are now in France to fight for your king and country. You are not here on a vacation. So get this in your heads. You are here, and you are going to stay here, and there is only two ways to get out: That is by Blighty wagon (Red Cross) or down in the ground.” Well, this kind of talk shocked us a little, and also riled us. However, later when we got to know the C.O. better under fighting conditions, we learned to respect and admire him. He called his shots every time no make believe.

Among other things, he told us that he had noticed that our puttees were still put on Canadian style, with four V’s. This he stated had to be changed to 2 Vees as required under British Army usage, and he warned us to come on parade next day dressed properly. It was through this very simple order that we really learned that our new C.O. expected to have his commands obeyed. Next morning as usual, there was not much more time than necessary for cleaning up, breakfast, etc., so when we came to the puttees, we found that it was rather difficult to get them on with 2 vees and make a neat job, so most of us just said “oh to H— with this smart guy” and put them on in our usual way. That was where we made a mistake, as we found out very fast when we came on parade. Coming on parade next morning, the C.O. walked around the group as usual, then to our front where he addressed us as follows: “You men listen. I want to warn you that I am the ‘king’ around here, and if I tell you to put your puttees around your neck, you will damn well put them around your neck.” And that was that.

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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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