The British Front in the Great Offensive
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 27 Mar 1918, p. 176-187
MacKendrick, Lieut.-Col. W.G., Speaker
Media Type
Item Type
The speaker's experiences in road building, and how he applied that in France. A detailed description of his experiences in France. A description of the roads built, and of what they were made. How materials were obtained. Obtaining and training the men who did the building of the roads. The nicest piece of road building in Avilon. The speaker's feelings about the war being won this Spring. A few words about the Canadian Corps as the finest fighting unit in the world today, and how well they work together.
Date of Original
27 Mar 1918
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Full Text
Before the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto,
March 27, 1918

MR. PRESIDENT AND GENTLEMEN, This is worse than dodging bombs, for one has a chance to get away from the bombs, but I can't see any chance of getting away from this.

The different men who have gone to the front see the front from -entirely different standpoints. Major Massie told you about the gunner end of it, of which I saw very little, and then I got away as quickly as I could, for it is not a healthy spot where those gunners of ours were. My job is supposed to be a very "cushy" job, hence these Salvation Army tabs that they gave me; the blue tab is for what they call the "directorate" who are now handling much of the work of the various armies; the red tab is for the personal army staff, and the "blue tabs" are not allowed to associate too closely with the "red tabs."

When I left here in October, 1914, to see if I could not be of some service over there, I had a persistent feeling, in my boots and elsewhere, that I was needed across the water; and when I got there I saw that I was needed. I looked at things from an entirely different standpoint from anyone whom I had run across. The regular soldier has been taught to do the fighting and the other in


Colonel MacKendrick is well known in Toronto. His services were accepted by the War Office in 1915, and through his skill in road building in France, he has brought great honor to Canada. For his courageous work under fire, the King bestowed upon him the Distinguished Service Order.


numerable things that have to be done in the army, but has never been taught anything about roads; consequently he did not know anything about them. He did not think in road values, and when he got over there he was so busy with what he had to do that he could not -see the very evident things that were necessary on roads. I can best illustrate that by giving you my experience in Flanders. For a few days I was up near the salient, and running around in the car, I saw that the only means of communication we had from our rear to Ypres was on the Ypres-Peronne road, and all that the Bosche had to do to put us out of business, that is, break our front by means of our back, was to put a short barrage on that road and he would have us stalled, as we could not get up supplies or anything. I thought this was a bad situation to be in, and turning the matter over in my mind, I remembered the old plank roads we had built through many of our swamps in Ontario, out in British Columbia and different places, and I thought that would be a good idea to suggest. I went to the Chief Engineer of the Canadian Corps and said, "Now, it is none of my business, but I can see where this corps is going to get into a peck of trouble if you don't get planks,"-and I expatiated on the advantages of planks, which would cost only about half as much as an ordinary road, and you could lay a quarter of a mile of them in a day, whereas to construct an ordinary road would take ten days, and I said that if the Bosche put up a barrage we could run around it and still beat him to it, and get up to our front lines in spite of him. The Engineer listened to me with a smile playing on his face, and said. "That is all right; I suggested that to them three months ago, but they can't see it." There the matter rested; I went on building the kind of roads the army did want and could give us. Things went along until the Canadian Corps were down on the Somme, when I was asked to build a road from the Village of Eillers up past Mouche Farm, up to a cross-road on the line from Poisiers to Thiepval. That was a very unhealthy spot. The newspapers had stated twice that we had taken Mouche Farm, but the Bosche was still there, and I think we took it three times afterwards. I with two younger officers who had been up there before, was sent up this road to reconnoitre it and make up an estimate of time, labor and material to put it through in two weeks. That night, in writing to my wife, I told her that at least three sides of my heart, I was afraid, were swelling as it came up in my throat quite often, and I had to push it down again, though they said that it was a very quiet morning for the shelling. It was the first time I had been up that far to the front, and I assure you it did not listen a bit quiet to me; I thought it was a pretty fair bombardment. Being inexperienced in that direction, I did whatever the two younger officers in front of me did; when a shell went off and I saw them dive for the ground, they did not beat old Willie to it a bit; the little I had learned in my younger days of diving for bases stood me in good stead, and I got down as quickly as the quickest of them. When we got about half way up this road, I saw that the beginning and the rest of it were just the same, and they said they knew it was, so I said, "What the Hell is the good of going up there? This doesn't look a bit healthy to me. I have a wife and family back home that need me fairly badly, and I don't propose to go up there just to be able to say that I had been up the whole length of it." They said they rather thought the Chief Engineer expected us to go over it, but I said, "Let us take for granted that the rest is just as bad as this, and make up our estimate on that basis"which they finally decided to do. I may say that a big Krupp coming about fifty yards ahead right plump in the centre of the road helped us to a decision.

On the way back one of the young officers wanted to stop and get some souvenirs from dead Bosches over on the right about as far as the length of this room, and while I didn't care about sticking around that particular spot I thought a souvenir or two might be all right, so we walked over, and I took a look at the first dead Bosche near me, but I didn't want any souvenir off him, and I have never wanted one since, and have never gone looking for one.

We got back to the quarters of our own machine gunners, just north of Albert, for breakfast, and just in the midst of breakfast they were bombarded and we had to beat it with what we could take in our hands. At Headquarters I reported that we would require 2,000 men to do this job in two weeks if it was dry; if it was wet. God only knew what it would take, because this was a mud track that had been laid on a farm road, and the thing was absolutely torn to pieces and was just one series of shell holes after another, some of them twelve and fifteen feet deep.

We started on the road in two days with 1,000 men working eight hour shifts, and we got about a quarter of a mile of it done in dry weather. Then it commenced to rain, and we knocked to pieces the bit of road we had built in drawing up stone to put in the holes forward, and in two days that whole section of road was absolutely useless; you could not get on it with a lorry. This was in September, 1916, and the army was then expecting to fight right through the winter. I realized that they could not possibly fight because they could not get up their supplies and other necessary stuff. I wrote the Chief Engineer pointing out the advantage of planks. At that time they were sending to the army huge pitprops that we could not handle because they were so large, and I suggested that if we could saw them into three inch planks we would have enough to build the road so that the army would be able to go ahead. The Chief Engineer approved of the suggestion, and it went right to G. H. Q. and it was returned with a minute written on it, "It is regretted that planks are not available."

Just about that time my eldest boy was killed up in front of Creselles, and I was given ten days' leave to go to England-I had not seen my family for some eight months--and while in England I tried to get letters of introduction to Lloyd George, as I believed he was the man who could get planks, which it seemed impossible to I et through any other channel. In London I met my friend J.W. Flavelle--I may say he is still my friend in

spite of his 4% profits-and when he asked me how I was getting along I said I was doing fairly well but that the British Armies were stuck because they did not realize that they must have planks if they wished to go ahead, and there was no one in authority that knew that or they would have secured them, because they were available. He introduced me to Hon. R. H. Brand, of the Imperial Munition Board, and I told him the story, and he said the man I should see was Sir Eric Geddes who had just that day been made Director-General of Transport and good roads, light railways and other railways. The men higher up realized that the roads were getting impassable and that their railways were not doing what was needed, and that their light railways were hopeless as compared with some of the others. The French and Germans had both gone in largely for light railways from the beginning of the war and had been able to transport their units in that way. Hon. Mr. Brand found that Sir Eric was in France, so he made an appointment for me to meet Sir Guy Grant, the second in command, and the next morning Mr. Flavelle and I met him, gave him the story, and he turned me down to a Brigadier-General, and we got him enthusiastic about it, and I left. When I returned to the Canadian Corps, with which I was working, I got word to come down to G. H. Q. and take on these roads in the Fifth Army which at that time was on the Somme. The roads they were using were about 250 miles in extent, and they were hopelessly broken down.

The sub foundation of all those roads is chalk, and wherever a lorry went along you would see the chalk spew up right between the stones, and the stones were going down. The centre of the road was curved down, holding all the water, and the roads were really in very bad shape, so that after going around them for three days in the car I thought the job looked hopeless. I was asked to go to the G. H. Q. for a conference the next day, and there I met Sir Eric Geddes and the Director of Roads. I asked that I should be sent up to the Ypres salient where I had been working for nine months and where I knew the roads and knew what was to be done. As a matter of fact, I had cold feet on this Somme road proposition. It looked so hopeless that I didn't think any man alive could put the roads into shape in time for the spring campaign. I also found that the army were not very well pleased that the Transportation Department had been taken out of their hands. That was very natural; I presume if I had been a regular soldier and the biggest part of my job had been taken away, I would have felt a little bit sore, too, but I suggested that what they wanted down there was a diplomat, and as I had never qualified as a diplomat I didn't think I was fit for the job. However, I was told that really I was picked because that was such a hopeless job and they didn't know anyone else they could load it on with any prospect of getting it done. That being the case, I said I would simply do the best I could with it. At that time there were 12,000 men working on roads in the Fifth Army area, and I found they were working in about five hundred different ways; each officer commanding a small unit worked on his piece of road in what he considered was the best way, and as there had been probably forty or fifty different bosses in two years, there were a good many different methods of road construction, some good, some bad.

My first proceeding was to go to the Roads Officers in one Corps-the Army is made up of Corps, the Corps of Divisions, the Divisions of Brigades. An Army may have one Corps-it may have five-sometimes there have been as many as seven there. I took the Corps as a unit. I met the Officers who were handling the men in the Corps area, and explained to them what I wanted doneand there were very few things I wanted done-and I said, "Now, to make a success of it we must all get working on the one string; you may not agree with my ideas of road building and how I want it done, but I want you to work according to my plan until- I change. I will be very glad to hear at any time any views you have as to improvement, but meantime I want you to work all along the same line. Further, I don't want you to get peeved when I go out on your work and direct your workmen how to do things because I realize that the army system will never get us anywhere on road building." (The method of the army is that if I found any man in any unit not doing what I thought right, I would report his name and his unit to the Colonel of the unit; he in turn would pass it to the Major; the Major would pass it to the Captain of the company; the Captain would pass it to the Lieutenant; the Lieutenant to the Sergeant; the Sergeant to the Color-Sergeant; the ColorSergeant to the man's Corporal; and finally it would get down to the man who had done the thing wrong-by which time he would likely be on another job, and you would get nowhere.) I said, "Now, I am going to get right out on the work, and if you are there I will speak to you; if not, I will speak to the man who is doing the thing wrong, because we must get these roads in shape, and the only way to do it is to get right at it." So I got right at it. I used to get up at seven o'clock in the morning, breakfast at eight, leave my office about 8.30, take two bully-beef sandwiches with me in the car, and I kept going until tea time, about five, sometimes very much later: In the evening we did all our office work, and kept going till eleven or twelve at night. We did that, I regret to say, seven days a week, month after month, year after year. That is a mistake, I think; I felt so right along, but I could not get them to change it. I am quite certain that if we had done as the French did--worked six days a week and given up all work on Sunday except what was absolutely necessary-our men would have been in better shape. The men had their day of rest; we did it this way--15% of the men were off each day. That does not give you what a Sunday off gives you, because those men did not know when they were going to be off, and they could not go to visit their mates, because they did not know the time and their mates would probably be working. This year I endeavored to get the thing changed, and I think by this time it will be changed so that everyone knocks off on Sunday.

We had a lot of men on the Albert-Baupaume road, and I regret to see that our friends the Bosches are now using what we built, and I regret that it is such a good road; I wish it were not so good.

When I saw a man not doing the right thing, I would hop out of the car and take his pick and shovel and show him what to do, and take the time to explain to him what to do. I found the men very human, and very like other men;, if told in a quiet voice how to do a thing, and the reason why,-very often they would get it. Some of them did not; they would be a little bit stupid, and occasionally I used to say, "Damn it, man, can't you see this?"-to men who had been doing it day after day; and that is how I acquired the name. I got that from the night .labor battalion we had in the Ypres salient when I first went there. They were a hopeless unit, reminding me of a big bunch of plumbers who will bring a whole kit of tools to mend a tap, but forget to bring any washers for the tap, and have to go back and make a day's job of it. That had been the training of those men; they had been regulars, and they fiddled around just to mark time. When those men came down on the Somme I gave them a little close attention, and they turned out one of the best units that I have ever seen; they could do any kind of work. It was simply a matter of education.

Right forward of Baupaume, on the road from Baupaume to Arvilliers, where the Bosche has now broken through, we had an ammunition siding along the most of the road, and we wanted to build a plank road ten feet wide along the side. I sent word to have this road started, and at the end of two days went up and found they had twenty-five yards of road done. They were busy adzing the edges of the plank so that they fitted nicely together, and they were sawing off both ends and making a very nice job. I went at them and asked them what the hell they thought they were doing there? Had anyone asked them to build a dancing platform, or what was their idea? I said, "Now, I want you to realize that there is a war on, and that we want to use this road in three days. Now, forget all these frills and furbelows and get the road done so that our lorries can get on it." Then I told the O. C., "I want you to put three separate gangs on this work, one on each end, and one in the middle and give them all the lumber they can use, give them the same number of men, and wire me every night the number of yards each unit has done." In three days the whole of the road was finished. The first day after that, I went up and spoke to the very unit who had been building the dancing floor, and as soon as I got there I could see a good big stretch so I said, "That is what I call doing work; you fellows are doing your bit when you work like that," and they were all very well pleased. Those men became one of the best units I ever had. Being old R.E's they knew how to do anything, and as soon as they got rid of their fiddling around and realized that there was a job for them to do, they did it. This unit went up to the salient about two weeks ahead of me, and I was beating it along the railway track with my junior carrying a big parcel when he said, "I notice that they have a new name for you; I noticed that one of the men turned to the other and said, "I say, 'arry, 'ere's old Damn-it back again." I suppose I had probably earned that name, anyway, it stuck for the rest of the time, both there and when we went down below.

Well, with those 12,000 men all working with one idea, we eventually got the roads in apple-pie order, and the Commander-in-Chief was good enough to tell the Directorof-Roads, that he was very much pleased with what we had accomplished, and the Army Commander did the same thing.

I think the nicest piece of road building that we did was from a little village called Avilon, which was the railhead behind the Ancre valley. It ran up past Hamel, Beaucours, Mourmont, through Ashlante and Ash-le-Grand It is practically on the line where the Bosches are today. That was the most terrific prospect for building a road that I ever saw; it was absolutely hopeless; if we ever got a road through there we could do anything. At that time we were fighting a little forward of Thiepval, up a Grandecourt, and the army wanted a road both on that side of the Ancre and on the other, and we went at it. I said it would take four months to get a road through so that we could run lorries, but we had it done

in two and a half months. When the weather is wet there, everything looks hopeless, but it dries out quickly on account of the chalk, and when it is dry the work can be done very quickly. The Army Commander congratulated us on the way we put that road through. He said he came down at forty miles an hour. I hope they will be able to push the Bosches back off that road.

The roads in the Ypres salient forward of Ypres were the next thing we tackled. That was another area that was absolutely torn to pieces, and it was a real job to get anything done, but we managed to get it and keep it going. The traffic on some of those concentrations is almost beyond belief. At one time the army there consisted of 754,000 rations-that is, men-and 129,000 horses. When you consider what it is necessary to move to carry them along and feed them, you can realize what traffic there is on those main roads, which were never built to stand that kind of traffic, except the paved roads which many Belgian cities have. They were built to keep everything going through.

I have a feeling that this war will be won this Spring. Now, I may say that that is not the feeling of the military men who know; but I am not a military man, only an ordinary road builder who has acquired a few ideas that may be absolutely wrong. This looks to me like the last throw of the Bosche; that inside of a month or six weeks we should have him. According to the papers our reserves have not yet been touched, so they are intact, while the Bosche has run many of his Divisions through the mill; and when once a Division has been used it takes time to get those men back into fighting shape again, for after you have lost from 25 to 60% of your men, the morale of that corps is not good, and nerves of the men are more or less shattered. The one thing that has always been a source of endless wonder to me is, how our men "stick it." You see them going up, especially on a wet day, carrying their packs and all their belongings on their backs, swaying like Turks, dazed, dirty, grimy. When the order is given to halt, those men lie right down on the road. In dry weather you will see the cars come

along, and the dust and horse-manure go all over them; they haven't got enough in them to get out of the way

they just lie there in mud and dust and grime. On a wet day they go slosh-sloshing through this mud for hours at a time; everything is wet; their trenches are wet; they are in there for three or four or five days and never have a dry stitch on them all the time they are there. Yet they "stick it," and they fight, and it is a source of unending wonder to me how they do it.

When the Transportation Department got going, there was no trouble in getting planks and railway sleepers. Our first consignment was half a million of sleepers. They were to be had because the men who were handling that Department knew what was wanted, and knew it was just as important as gun powder and they knew also where to get it and how to get it across. In that way we got everything we needed. The Director of Roads was the ablest road man in Britain,-the Secretary of their National Road Board-and he knew where to get everything. He has quadrupled the output of stone, has opened up gravel pits, and is doing his job in a proper, technical way. We had about 300 motor lorries, about 300 general service wagons, 56 steam rollers, and other things in proportion. The roads of the armies will never be allowed to break down again. It is no wonder they broke down before, because the regular soldier is not trained in roadbuilding and does not know how to handle problems that come up.

Before sitting down I would like to say that the Canadian Corps is the finest fighting unit in the whole world today, because they work together. In this respect they have the advantage over any other Corps in the British Army except the officers of the Engineering Corps. The Canadian Corps fight with their own four Canadian Units. Today the Corps commander is one of the ablest Generals on the British front. The Artillery Chief Brigadier, General Morrison, with whom I had the pleasure of going to school and fighting about forty yeas ago, is one of the ablest gunners in the whole British Army. He was congratulated by Sir Douglas Haig on the Vimy Ridge show, as having put on the best Artillery show that he had ever seen. The different officers commanding the four Canadian Divisions all know one another, they are accustomed to team play, and know the value of co-operation. I think I am not going beyond the bounds of truth when I say that no other Corps could have taken Passchendaele. A good many other Corps tried it, and we should all be proud of our men for the most excellent work they have done.

The papers today report that yesterday the Bosche was shelling hospitals by long range guns. This is absolutely wilful work, done of intention, and is just one more evidence added to the thousands that they have already given us of how impossible it is to do anything with a people like that until they are absolutely smashed militarily. The swine! Deliberately to shoot up hospitals where the wounded are being attended, where it can be of no military value to him! And he has done it right along, for example, on the Ypres-Peronne road last year that was absolutely and directly shot up where the Australians were! today's despatch is another piece of evidence added to the thousands we already have showing how unfitted the Hun is to dominate the world, and how we must keep on until he is absolutely smashed.

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The British Front in the Great Offensive

The speaker's experiences in road building, and how he applied that in France. A detailed description of his experiences in France. A description of the roads built, and of what they were made. How materials were obtained. Obtaining and training the men who did the building of the roads. The nicest piece of road building in Avilon. The speaker's feelings about the war being won this Spring. A few words about the Canadian Corps as the finest fighting unit in the world today, and how well they work together.