A Front-line Soldier

March 1, 2003 by Legion Magazine


by Arthur Ament

I joined the war effort in February 1916 while working in Tavistock, a small town located in southwestern Ontario between New Hamburg and Stratford. Myself and 11 other young men travelled to Woodstock, and I have a picture postcard of the group. It is titled Tavistock’s First Dozen.

My mother had not heard from me for several weeks and so she sent someone from our home in Linwood to Tavistock to ask about my whereabouts. She was quite surprised to learn that I had enlisted.

For a while we were stationed at the armouries in Woodstock. Our first march was a full-pack trek to Wolsley Barracks in London, a distance of approximately 40 miles. Our packs weighed roughly 90 pounds each. Fortunately, there was an overnight stop at the halfway point. Myself and another soldier spent the night at a doctor’s home where we were fed a sumptuous meal, complete with a table setting that included crystal, silverware and linen.

After several weeks of basic training in Canada, we were sent overseas and received several more weeks of training while stationed in tents on the Salisbury Plain. I remember that it was always damp and cold. Back in Canada we were used to much colder temperatures, but not the same degree of dampness we found in England.

I spent my early leaves exploring London, enjoying the wax museum, Piccadilly and other popular attractions.

Eventually we crossed the English Channel to France. The water was very choppy and a lot of men got seasick.

Whenever we were sent in fresh from England or from leave, we would be assigned to the front line for three days, then the reserve line for three days, then the support for three days. We would then go behind our lines for a rest. This procedure would be repeated, but it did not always hold true to form. Sometimes we would lose too many men at the front and we would have to stay put because replacements were not always available.

Our rations were another iffy situation. From one day to the next we never knew whether it would be feast or famine. Some days, especially during heavy shelling, our rations did not get through to the front. Other times when we had many casualties and the rations did get through we had double and sometimes triple portions.

Each morning, while in the trenches, we were given a ration of rum that was not much larger than a thimbleful, but if you could down it and immediately say thank you, you qualified for a second shot. However, this rarely happened with me because I could feel the rum right down to my big toe.

A special course in bayonet training taught me to thrust the blade into the opponent and then give it half a turn before withdrawing. I kept my rifle in A-1 condition because it was drilled into me from the beginning that “your rifle is your best friend at the front.”

The noise at the front was deafening, and occasionally a soldier would go berserk and start shooting at anything that moved, including his own comrades. On rare occasions this soldier would have to be shot for the safety of others.

The Salvation Army was very good to the troops, setting up stations in dugouts close to the front. Here you could sit and write a letter home, have some friendly conversation or just relax and have a smoke and a hot chocolate. The Salvation Army also had barrels of chocolate bars and a good supply of dry, woolen socks. The Red Cross also supplied socks as well as food parcels.

My duties varied from mail delivery to rum runner to military police work to stretcher-bearer and machine-gunner. During mail call I would pass out the letters and packages, and this could be a very happy or a very disappointing time. When I was assigned the job of mail delivery I was instructed to withhold any mail to a soldier with a German name. Instead, the letter or the package would be delivered to the censor.

Sometimes during the evenings I and another soldier would be sent to the supply depot to bring up the rum for the following morning. At the depot we were each handed a shoulder yoke with a sealed stone or earthenware jug of rum on each end. These jugs, which were marked S.R.D. for “service rum diluted,” were fairly heavy. On one such trip the seal of one of the jugs broke, so the two of us decided to sample the rum on the way back to the front. It was a very potent drink and needless to say we were feeling no pain by the time we arrived at the officer’s post. After entering the post and announcing the safe delivery of the rum, the officer looked very sternly at me. This caused me to shake in my boots. He then broke the silence by saying with a smile, “Ament, would you like a little drink?”

My duties as a military policeman included bringing the absent without leave back to the lines. Sometimes this would involve a two-day journey each way. Needless to say there was no sleep once the prisoner was apprehended until he was safely delivered back to headquarters.

At Passchendaele I worked as a stretcher bearer. This was a messy, muddy assignment, and due to the miry mud it was necessary to have four bearers for each litter. We were instructed to check the wounded periodically on the way to the dressing station. If the soldier had expired, we were to roll them off the stretcher and pick up someone who was wounded.

While transporting the wounded in the trenches, depending on the degree of turn in the trench, we would have to raise the litter in order to get around a corner. Often the wounded soldier on the litter would be targeted by the enemy and killed. Sometimes there were so many dead it was necessary to walk on the bodies. And depending on the state of decomposition, the flesh would sometimes give way and we would slip and fall while carrying a wounded man on the stretcher.

War was no picnic.

Burial detail was not as dangerous as some of the other jobs, but it was more depressing. We would dig a rather shallow trench, remove the identification and any valuables from the corpse. These had to be catalogued and then sent to the next-of-kin. The soldier was then rolled in his blanket, placed in the trench and covered with dirt. If we were unable to bury the dead at the end of the day, due to continued shelling, we would pile the bodies until we had the time to do that grim job. Our chaplain always presided over the burial services.

A lot of time was spent building duckboards. These consisted of two long pieces of wood with cross boards nailed to them at fairly close intervals. When completed they were placed on top of the mud to facilitate the transporting of supplies to the front. We mostly used donkeys and carts for this purpose.

Sometimes at night our commanding officer would ask for a volunteer party to go into no man’s land, the area between our trenches and the enemy’s. I went on several of these forays. We would form a V, much like the pattern geese make while in flight. One night I was the end soldier on one line of the V. We crawled on our stomachs and had to be very quiet between the lines, often stopping and not moving for several minutes. When we resumed moving, each man was to make sure that the man behind him was following. At one point I went to sleep and didn’t hear the order to move on, which was always whispered. When I woke up I was alone and had lost my sense of direction. I crawled very cautiously, but heard German being spoken and quickly realized I had to reverse my direction to get back to our trench.

The trenches were always wet, with about six to 12 inches of water in them. I usually stood on the firing step. And while this small step near the bottom of the trench had its advantages, it also had its disadvantages. It kept my feet dry and thus protected me from a condition known as trench foot, the result of standing in water day after day. Trench foot could be quite serious and sometimes a soldier’s feet would have to be amputated. The disadvantage of the firing step was that I had to stand in a crouched position so that my head could not be seen by the enemy.

The trenches were also overrun with rats. The rodents were ravenous and they would feed on the corpses. We shot many, many rats and we also said that the function of our puttees was to deter the rats from crawling up our legs.

I clearly remember the night my best friend Harold Fraser was killed. It was Aug. 18, 1917. I wasn’t on burial detail, but I was the one who found his body, which was riddled with bayonet wounds. I removed his watch and Mason ring and personally sent them to his parents. Much later, after returning home from the war, Harold’s parents wanted me to visit them, but I just couldn’t face them and answer the questions they might ask. I suppose they must have wondered what kind of a friend I was.

At intervals we were given a 10-day leave. I would always go to London, but later–starting in 1918–I would go to Edinburgh, Scotland. My first stop was London to pick up my dress uniform, then to Victoria Station to board the train. Food was a bit scarce. I remember always going to two restaurants for a meal, a full course one in each before I felt satisfied. For accommodation, I would book a hotel room, and try to sleep in the bed. I always ended up on the floor because the beds were too soft and I was not accustomed to that type of pampering.

I celebrated my 23rd birthday while on leave in Edinburgh. Soon after I was back across the Channel. When I arrived at camp there were 13 letters and five parcels waiting for me. I read the letters and distributed the packages, which consisted of gum, canned goods, sweets, cigarettes and several pairs of hand-knitted woolen socks. I put one pair on and one pair in my duffle bag and passed the others to those in need.

All that night I had an uneasy feeling. I dozed fitfully, toyed with the idea of going on sick call in the morning, but decided to stand to because I had never gone on sick call before and had just returned from leave.

On that particular morning, March 4, 1918, I was assigned to a machine-gun position. Myself and 16 others were ordered to hold the position. The enemy raided our line at 5:55 a.m., and the shelling was very, very heavy. At one point I looked around and counted only eight men and myself. Some had been killed, while others had left. Next time I glanced around, there was only one man and myself. I remembered my orders and “stayed to”. Not long after that a large shell fell short of the trench and buried itself in the mud in front of my position and then exploded, throwing me approximately 40 feet in the air.

While lying on the ground, I looked at my leg. It was raw, like chopped liver. It was also very elongated but still attached to my body.

It just so happened that a buddy was on stretcher duty and knew the position I had been assigned to. He came along and picked me up and transported me to the field dressing station. I was given first aid and then transported to the coast and back across the Channel to a hospital where my leg was amputated. It was touch and go as to whether the other leg would be amputated or not, but thankfully it was saved.

There were 24 beds in the hospital room that I shared with other wounded men. I occupied the first bed to the left of the door and that usually meant I was the first one served at mealtime. Once all the meals were served all around the room the nurse would ask me if I wanted another plate. More often than not I accepted the invitation.

When I became stronger and could master the art of crutch walking, I was allowed to leave the hospital for several hours each day. The patients had free access to public transportation, so could go sightseeing all over London. Many people would ask us into their homes for meals.

Eventually we embarked for home on a hospital ship. Instead of bunks we were assigned hammocks. I believe this was to minimize the incidence of sea sickness. Some of the wounded died on the passage home. Their bodies were rolled in a blanket, tied and weighted and buried at sea.

When I arrived home I was greeted by a large crowd, complete with a band. I was presented with a gift of money which I used to buy a leather club bag.

After my official discharge on May 15, 1919, I went to school in Toronto to further my education.

Looking back, I believe the war at that particular time was a necessary evil. Experiencing hand to hand combat at the front was horrible. Some soldiers never recovered from that emotional experience.

Editor’s note: Arthur Ament remained very quiet about his wartime service until shortly before his death in 1986. That’s when he felt the need to relate the preceding story to his daughter Myrna who resides in Waterloo, Ont.

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