Archive for November, 2006

Lest We Forget…

Saturday, November 11th, 2006

Frederick Cole, born Feb.4 1895. He enlisted as soon as war was declared and was already serving with the militia (10th Regiment Royal Grenadiers now known as the Royal Regiment of Canada). He enrolled in Toronto on August 12, 1914 and was moved by rail along with the thousands of men who also joined that summer to Valcartier Quebec. From here he traveled by ship to England.

He spent the winter months of 1914 with the 3rd (Toronto) Battalion on the soggy cold Salisbury plain. Like the rest of the Canadian Expeditionary Force he was moved to France in early 1915. Soon he learned the routine of the trenches that had by now taken over the method in which the war was fought and to be fought. The Canadians didn’t get a chance to settle in very long. On April 22nd the Germans effectively unleashed, for the first time in modern warfare, poisonous chlorine gas on the French troops holding the line to the left of the Canadians. The French Algerian forces soon broke and ran. The Canadians held the line in what was soon to be known as the Second Battle of Ypres.

The Second Battle of Ypres was nothing short of insane for the most part. The 3rd Battalion was initially in reserve at the start of the German attack but due to the situation was quickly moved into prevent a further break in the line. It was here that Pte. Cole had to endure a poison Gas attack, getting shot at by advancing Germans and hoping not to get hit by the shrapnel that was flying by the many German guns that opened up to assist in the attack or rather attacks, in the many times the Germans tried to advance during the course of the battle. The battle itself was quite wild and in the end, the Canadians did prevent the breakthrough of the Germans. They received many accolades form their commanders and from the King of England himself. But the cost was terrible, over 6,000 casualties. One in every three was either killed, wounded or captured… Pte. Cole was among them.

The war diaries of his unit, the 3rd (Toronto) Battalion which listed him as missing as of April 30 1915. In fact Pte. Cole was wounded by shrapnel on April 25th in one of the fiercest attacks conducted by the Germans. He was hit in the left leg and was no doubt evacuated to a field hospital. I can’t help but think that he might have crossed paths with Maj. J. McRae, the Canadian surgeon who wrote the defining poem “In Flanders Fields” at that very battle as he tended to the hundreds who poured back from the shattered front.

He was sent to a hospital in England. He arrived there very shortly after on the 27th. He was granted some time off after recovering in Britain from his shrapnel wound. He went on leave July 6th 1915. He obviously enjoyed his time off but it seems he wasn’t careful enough. He was admitted to hospital again on July 22nd with a case of gonorrhea?!?! He spent the rest of 1915 and most of 1916 with the 23rd Res. Battalion until late September of 1916 when he was transferred back in to active service again in France. This time he was posted to the 14th Battalion (the Royal Montreal Regiment).

He had just missed the grim clash known as the battle of the Somme but being transferred into the 14th Battalion it wouldn’t be too long that he would see action again. On Easter of 1917 almost 2 years to the day that he was wounded at Ypres he would be wounded again as he was in the leading wave of the assault that is largely credited for being a defining moment in our nations history. Although officially stating that he was wounded in the Arras offensive, Canadian history knows it better as the battle for Vimy Ridge. I won’t go into the details of this terrific fight but suffice to say there had been at least two attempts to take the superior ground that resulted in disaster for both the French and British. The Canadians, however took their objectives that Easter weekend displacing the German forces from the ridge. if you would like to know more about it I would recommend the book “Vimy” by the late Pierre Berton. This time he took a piece of shrapnel in his left hand and was off to hospital again.

That following October he was once again with the 14th Battalion just in time for the bloody but successful battle known as Passchendaele. During the next year he went up and down in rank. Being promoted to Lance Corporal and doing something or other ‘prejudice to the good order and discipline’ one that I have been charged under myself I have to admit, he was broken down again to private. Soon the 14th went along with the rest of the allied forces into the period that was later known as the ‘last 100 days’. Unfortunately for Private Cole, it wasn’t an easy end to the war. He was wounded his third and final time in October 1918 just prior to the end of the war in November. This time a bullet went clean through his arm! They labeled it a flesh wound!

After being evacuated again to England, he remained there until disembarking to Canada and demobilizing with the rest of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Sept. 1919.

Private Cole heeded the call when the war started. Fought in three of the most terrible actions of the war that he was wounded from. In the end, he came out of it all in 1919. He was just 21 when he joined and lived the next 4+ years in the hell that was the Great War. He went on to get married after the war. Had a daughter who in turn had my mother. He died in 1962.

We cannot even appreciate now what the men like Private Cole went through during those years. Trench life is nothing short of horrible unto itself without the constant shelling by artillery, worry about being picked off by a sniper as you pick the lice from your hair. All about you in the trench is the remains of men who had died before you with a hand or foot sticking out of the earthworks. The mere stench of the battlefield would be enough to make us sick let alone the sights. It was never suppposed to happen again. Lest we forget…