EXPERIENCES OF AN INFANTRY
MAN AT THE FRONT
AN ADDRESS BY MAJOR WILFRID MAYOR, M.C.
Before the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto,
January 31, 1918
MR. PRESIDENT AND GENTLEMEN,--Speaking is not my profession. When Dr. Abbott asked me to come down to speak to you, the only tip he gave me was not to prepare a speech; so I committed myself to God and came down to lunch. I feel that I should have done more, as both my father and my old schoolmaster are here.
I thought that what you would like to hear best would be what we do in a definite period from one big event to another. I am going to sketch the period in France from the time of Vimy Ridge until the Canadian corps was again allowed to go over the top.
During the offensive at Vimy Ridge, we suffered a great manly casualties, and we were pretty well disorganized when we were sent out to train again for the next offensive. The Vimy Ridge operations were twenty-one days, all told. During all that time we were getting reinforcements. What we do with these reinforcements is to attach them temporarily to units until we get out. I am going to describe the time from when we got out, after we have had our 48 hours' rest. We have had our battalion dinner and have drunk the toast to absent friends,
Major Mavor is a son of Professor James Mavor of the University of Toronto. Since 1914, when he went overseas with the 15th Battalion, Major Mavor has been through St. Julien and Festubert, where he was wounded and won his decoration; the Somme, Vimy Ridge and Hill 70. The Military Cross which he has received and his consistent advance as an officer, both point to the quality of his service.
and turned over a new page of the law with the new men. We line the men up and have a look at them; tell them the Canadian corps is the best corps in France; tell them that they come to the best division in France; that they come to the best brigade, the best battalion, and they are going to be in the best company, and if it is not the best company it is their fault. Then we look them up and down, and tell them that soldiering in France is not the same as soldiering in England. You tell them there is no more barrack-room square-and you laugh up your sleeve because they are going to get it next day. You tell them that if they do anything wrong out here, there is no patting you on the shoulder and saying, "All right, young fellow, don't do it again, you may get shot for it." Then you get hold of your company clerk; you get a table and a box, and get out in the field somewhere so that nobody can disturb you and line up those men and start to take down the particulars for your company books. You get your clerk to do this, and you wander around and talk to those men, find out what they are like, and you order the company clerk to pay special attention to what their trades were before they joined the army, and what they have been doing since. Then you catechise those men under four different headings. Out of some of them you are going to make bombers; out of others, riflemen and bayonet men; out of others, machine gunners; out of others, rifle grenadiers. Thus you work out your company on paper. This will take you about a day. On the next day you order your sergeant-major to have those men put in different platoons, and get four platoons of equal strength. I should say that the Canadian corps is working at present on the French system of organization. We have four companies to the battery, four platoons to each company, and four sections to each platoon. Each platoon is a self-composed unit, comprising a bombing section, a rifle grenade section, a rifle section, and a Lewis gun section, so that any platoon has all the arms of the infantry with it, and can be sent on any detached job.
So we put those men into the branch of the infantry for which we think them most efficient. A baseball player is put in the bombing section; he may be able to throw bombs pretty well. If he has been some sort of a machinist at some time, he is placed in the machine gun or Lewis gun section, as he will be more adept in fixing stoppages and that sort of thing in the Lewis gun. Then you put the husky fellows in the effective fighting section, and fellows that are good shots in the rifle section. You put all the boobs in the rifle grenade section. The reason for that, I think, is that we do not yet know the full value of the rifle grenade; it is the howitzer grenade of your platoon.
After you have all those fellows lined up and decide what you are to do, you begin to train them as specialists, and you go in for what is called individual training. You don't know how long you are going to be out of the line, so you carry on as though you were going to be out indefinitely, and try to teach those men thoroughly their job. After two weeks of that you go in for collective training, and give those fellows little jobs to do. You get your platoon and line them up, giving them a machine gun emplacament to take, and all the rest of the company sit around and watch them. You teach by example like that, one platoon doing it after another, and you get the men interested in it, and they get more keen on their job.
After you have done collective training in that sort of way, you will probably be getting towards the time when you have to do another little job, and you are sent into the line. You are told that some day somebody is going to take the Ridge which you can see across the way there. That is all you are told, and you start scouting around, trying to get as much information as you can, and this is probably narrowed down to the statement that your brigade is going to attack on the frontage which your battalion is at present holding. So the first night you are there you and your orderly go out, and get to know No Man's Land, wander around and find out if there are any old trenches out at the front, and what the wires are like, and you take a couple of officers and go out afterwards. Then they will go out and take somebody else like that out, and after three or four nights all the officers have been out to No Man's Land, and been across, and know pretty well what it is like. That is at night. In the day-time you study the back-country--Hunland; pick out particular land-marks; try to pick out those that will be there always. Sometimes it is very hard to find such, because the artillery have the capacity for shelling almost any place in the country.
Then you come out of the line, and you begin to get down to brass tacks. You call at Battalion headquarters, and the colonel tells you that your battalion is going to take a certain definite objective, and you are told all about it. The colonel tells you absolutely everything he knows, and you take down notes on the thing, study your map carefully with him, go through the whole thing, go back to your billet, get hold of a barn, get all your men in it, and tell them everything you know-don't care whether there are any German spies or not. Everybody knows there is going to be a push there. You can see by the military and guns and ammunition and everything driving up and down the roads, that there is going to be a "show," so there is no use keeping it dark. You get airplane photographs and tell your men all about it; they are risking their lives as much as you are, and the more you tell them about it the keener they will be to go into it, and the better to co-operate with you.
After you have told them all about it, you will probably be told that in a certain place a little distance from the village in which you are located, there is a map laid out on the ground, with tapes showing the exact German trenches over which you are going to advance, and you go out and walk over those tapes, and wander around. They are set out by the real engineers, and they are all named; and you wander around and find your way in the country that you are going to go over. That is what you do the first day. Your men wander around, and you talk to them, show them on the map where they are on the ground, and then talk the thing over, answer any questions; they will all come up and ask you questions, some of which you cannot answer at all, and you will be greatly surprised how some men that you think have no brains at all, will come up and ask you ticklish questions about what you are going to do. One thing you always tell them-that is exactly how much artillery you have behind, so as to give them a great deal of confidence going over.
Meantime you have prepared exactly what you are going to do. You are allotted a definite company front and a definite job, and you go out into this map of the country and you work out your job. You tell each platoon exactly what they are to do, and where they are to go; then each platoon officer works out his little particular job, and tells each second commander where to go, and the second commander tells each man where he is to go. You work that out two or three times-stay out there all day. The next day you go out, and you will do it as a battalion; the battalion commander will be there. The next day you will do it as a brigade. Then start over and do the thing again, until your time of rest is up, until the artillery is ready for your offensive.
Then they number the days-X. Y. Z. -Z day being the day on which you either get wounded, killed, or come back safe. Suppose on Y day you go into the line, you will be taken over the battle front, you will man your particular company front with one or two, attacking perhaps on a 2x2 front. The rest of your men you will supposedly leave out for rest, leave back in the separate lines, but as a matter of fact they will be working just as hard as your men in the front line. They will be bringing up bombs, rum, ammunition, and everything that is needed for going over the top. You establish a dump of bullets, a dump of small arms and ammunition, and then you distribute your rum amongst the officers, and they look after the extra issue of rum, which is a very essential thing to go over the top.
In the night before you are going over you are not told the exact time; the zero hour is not given out for probably half an hour before you are going to jump off. On the night before you are going to jump off, you get your men thoroughly equipped with bombs, and lead them into their jumping-off trench, which in most cases is in front of your original front line. It may be an old trench that has been unoccupied for some time because it was badly shelled at some period of operations, or it is filled up with wire and used as an obstacle, and you may have to clear it out a little.
In the Somme, Vimy Ridge, and the Hill 70 "show," we had our jumping-off trench in front of our front line, and in each case we fooled the Hun by getting in front of his barrage. He put his barrage down on our front line, and we were away ahead of it, and we did not have so many casualties as if we had to go through his barrage. On the Somme we did not even dig a trench; we simply lay in shell-holes and that sort of thing in front of our original front line, and we jumped off on the 26th September at noon, and nobody saw us. It was more luck than anything else, but we fooled them, anyway.
The jumping-off trench, then, is in front of our original front line, and at night we line up all the men. Every man should know exactly where to go as we planned the thing out, and there should be no noise, no confusion at all; and about half an hour before zero hour every man is in his correct place, and what the infantry call auxiliaries to the back come along, such as artillery observation officers, and people who are going to dig the trench along No :Man's Land, the Lewis gun people, the brigade machine gunners, and so on. As a matter of fact they are not accessory after the fact, because you are darned glad of them when you get to your objective.
Then you walk around the line. Your company commanders walk through the line and see that everybody has his extra drink of rum; tell them about the "show," and jolly them all along. Then you get your zero wire; pass the word along that zero hour is at such and such a time. Then zero hour arrives; hell breaks loose, and all the old iron in the world seems to be flying around, and you walk along behind the barrage, and walk in and occupy the trenches which the artillery have shelled. Then you either get killed, wounded, or you come back alive, and turn over the log-book and start in again.