Witley, June 7, 1917

Thursday        Very hot today. Stowed away all our munitions t’was warm work handled about 21 tons of shells Ans[wered] letters last night We are now supposed to be the last Division[.] I am in the pink wrote for money last night

Manhandling shells is the only way to get them where they needed to be: unloaded from ammunition USa train at Milford Station onto wagons to be taken to camp, and stowed away in limbers or stores. William Calder complained to his mother some months ago that a planned excursion to Guildford was “up the muck as we have been hauling 18 pounder shrapnel & lydite from Milford & storing it in our stables, we have about 20,000 rounds hauled now & have to go & unload another train at 7 P.M. – of course that is an Eng. Train – two C.P.R. cars would carry as much. We unloaded & hauled away (with two waggons) fifteen carloads this morning!” (1)

Percy rarely shows an awareness of the larger organization of which he is a part. “We are now supposed to be the last Division” suggests that something has filtered down the ranks of the decisions — some of them political rather than military — that will affect the Fifth Canadian Division.  Early in the war, Sam Hughes had boasted that Canada could field six or more divisions, but recruitment is slowing in Canada while the casualties continue to mount. A reluctant Borden has raised the prospect of conscription in order to maintain the strength of the Canadian Corps, but conscription is still months — and a general election — in the future. The British are pressing Canada to send the Fifth Division to France, rather than keep it in Britain as a local defence force and a source of reinforcements for the four divisions already on the Western Front.  The Canadians reply that it is better to have four up-to-strength divisions on active service, than five under-strength ones.

Moreover, the Fifth Division under Sam’s son Garnet is struggling to be ready for service. Though it passed the state of emergency test set it by the British War Office in March, the general sense is that the Fifth Division — at least its infantry — is still in need of training at every level above the individual. Then in late May, the decision was made to “gut” the Fifth Division to provide trained replacements for the divisions in France. (2) Those who wear the purple patch might well feel that they are the last division — not only because there would be no sixth, but because the fifth might disappear through attrition.

(1) Calder, William. Letter to his mother, December 20, 1916. Available from the Canadian Letters and Images Project.
(2) Stewart, William. “Frustrated Belligerence: The Unhappy History of the 5th Canadian Division in the First World War.” Canadian Military History. 22: 2 (2015)

The image shows American soldiers with trench mortar shells. Note that they have motorized vehicles to transport the munitions — but they still have to be loaded and unloaded by manpower.  The image comes from Volume 3 of History of the American Field Service in France: Friends of France, 1914-1917 (1920).

Copyright 2017. See “More about this project.”



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