Tuesday, July 17, 2012

“Crumps” The Plain Story of a Canadian Who Went – Louise Keene


This narrative published in 1917 provides a series of inter-connected vignettes written by Louise Keene a Captain in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). Although not dated the vignettes cover the initial creation, training and deployment in France of the CEF, they finish sometime, probably late 1915 when Keene was injured and returned to Canada. In 1917 when the USA found itself in the same position as the Canadians had in 1914 the vignettes were published, with a forward written by US Major General (Leonard Wood), and made available to the newly recruited US soldiers. The intent as Wood stated was that as ‘many young Americans are about to undergo experiences similar to those of Captain Keene … a perusal of this modest and straight-forward narrative will help in the great work of getting ready’ . As it did in 1917 this narrative continues to provide an insight into the realities of the Western Front as can be evidenced by this sample of vignettes taken from the book:

A trip to No Man's Land is an excursion which you never forget. It varies in width and horrors. My impression was similar to what I should feel being on Broadway without any clothes--a naked feeling. Forty-seven and one half inches of earth are necessary to stop a bullet, and it's nice to have that amount of dirt between you and the enemy's bullets. The dead lie out in between the lines or hang up on the wire; they don't look pretty after they have been out some time. It's a pleasant job to have to get their identification disks, and we have to search the bodies of the enemy dead for papers and even buttons so that we can know what unit is in front of us. Flowers grow in between, butterflies play together, and birds nest in the wire. When the grass becomes too high it has to be cut, because otherwise it would prevent good observation. In some places grass doesn't have a chance to even take root, let alone grow. The shells take care of that.

Enemy snipers give us a great deal of trouble. It is very difficult to locate them. One of our men tried out an original scheme. He put an empty biscuit tin on the parapet. Immediately the sniper put a bullet through it. Now thought the Genius, "If I look through the two holes it will give me my direction,"--so getting up on the firestep he looked through, only to roll over with the top of his head smashed off by a bullet. The sniper was shooting his initials on the tin.

We are all used to dead bodies or pieces of men, so much so that we are not troubled by the sight of them. There was a right hand sticking out of the trench in the position of a man trying to shake hands with you, and as the men filed out they would often grip it and say, "So long, old top, we'll be back again soon." One man had the misfortune to be buried in such a way that the bald part of the head showed. It had been there a long time and was sun-dried. Tommy used him to strike his matches on. A corpse in a trench is quite a feature, and is looked for when the men come back again to the same trench.

This place isn't somewhere in France, it's somewhere in Hell! It has been the scene of a great many encounters; decayed French uniforms, old rifles, ammunition and leather equipment and bundles of mildewed tobacco leaves are strewn all over the place. I found the chin-strap of a German "Pickelhaube" in the grounds, the helmet of a French cuirassier, and the red pants of a Zouave, close together. When digging in the trenches or anywhere near the firing line you have to be careful: corpses, dead horses, and cattle are buried everywhere. I'm building a trench to my emplacement and we have a stinking cow in the direct line; this will have to be buried before we can cut through.’  “Crumps” The Plain Story of a Canadian Who Went – Louise Keene

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