Wagon Lines near Bourlon, September 29, 1918

Sunday        Fritz kept us awake last night bombing I was on piquet, the night was cold, today passed wet and cold, lots of packing amm these day[s] tis very stiff fighting for Cambrai but we will get it. Some Imp[erial] tried to beat us out of our dug out (officers) but it didn’t come off

Bourlon Village MIKAN 3403983.jpgThe wagon lines are in Bourlon Village, not very far behind the guns. The bombing, says the Battery Historian, was the “forerunner of long series of night raids on guns and horse lines, which made sleep a luxury and greatly increased the strain on everyone. If we were to take Cambrai, it was clear that the enemy intended to exact payment to the to the limit.” (1)

The Canadians have a rough-and-ready reputation, as men who don’t take kindly to arbitrary exercises of authority, and it seems as if the officers who felt entitled to Percy’s dugout would only confirm that reputation today. Officers, it seems, are often disgruntled about their accommodation. Joseph Clearihue, himself a lieutenant, described his coffin-shaped hole in the ground last night as “nice,” but tomorrow, having moved to a different location, he will complain that his batman “has failed me. He measured my hole with his own length and dug my bed too short.”(2)

No one is complaining about the post: ‘The army certainly has a great mail system,” Bertie Cox told his brother; “no matter how many miles we move in a day, we get our mail that night just the same.” (3) And indeed, Percy receives four letters from Janie today (one of them as recent as September 5) and one from her sister Claire. He finds time to return to the letter he began a few days ago.


Quite a long wait since I started this letter I cannot say I’m sorry or anything because not being my fault, in any way, I cannot be blamed for not writing, the fortunes of war again …

Annie Laurie Vail Libbey.jpg

Annie Laurie Vail Libbey (4)

This is Sunday, my, the time has gone and we often lose track of days, very often one hears ‘what day is it’ – I don’t know – Wed or Thurs or maybe Fri I forget –”1

He thanks her for a pair of socks (“they will come in very handy no doubt”) and makes another request: “I don’t know if I’m asking too much or not or whether I’m putting my self forward, but I would very much like to have a picture of your Mother, that is if I can conveniently carry it being not too large.”

Janie and Percy have some oddly forthright yet oblique conversations across the miles: “In one of your letters you spoke of girls remaining in ignorance after reading many or some of the present day magazines, you said t’would keep them guessing – that’s the great trouble  they are not able to read between the lines they are not plain spoken enough hence the trouble – Yes and some times the school of experience is a very bitter one, what some people have paid a great price for, and given away as a gift to others – more often than not they are laughed at and their advice unheeded however time will not permit me to carry on with this I must get on, No I don’t think you write too freely at all.”

Perfect DayShe has quoted some verses: “I like them very well,” he says, “and I wish I could be with you to discuss them from every angle I cannot make much time on these subjects now, when I get to Eng on my leave I will write you many letters and probably speak on some of these subjects.” One of the phrases reminds him of a popular song, “A Perfect Day.”(5)

While Percy is packing ammunition or writing to Janie, the battery continues its support Canal du Nord SD Sept 29 001of the ongoing attack on Cambrai.  A barrage at 8 this morning supports the 8th Canadian Infantry Battalion as it crosses the Marcoing Line and attacks the edges of Cambrai as far east as the Canal de l’Escaut. (6) The battery’s guns are now behind Raillencourt, whence they are firing on “targets supplied by the infantry, clearing out a machine gun
nest in Saint Olle.” (7) By mid-afternoon  Sainte Olle is reported taken, (8) so that Cambrai is “now practically surrounded on the right and left, though the enemy still occupied it, filling its towers with machine guns and retiring only after stiff fighting.” (7)  “Our casualties were terrible,” the Battery Historian remembered; “the dead lay thicker than we had ever seen before, and the battalions ahead were worn out and cut to pieces.” (7)

With the infantry this morning, Scott the chaplain holds a service for men in their funkholes dug into the sides of a trench. “Going down the trench later on, I came to a place from which I could see, with my glasses, a German machine-gun emplacement and its crew. I went back and asked for a sniper. …I showed him the enemy and then directed his fire. … To snipe at the enemy seemed to be a curious way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but it was a temptation too hard to resist.” (9)

Not long after that, he is wounded in both legs by shellfire, falling down “with a  feeling of exasperation that I had been knocked out of the war.” (10)

1 Remember the Punch cartoon of Vague Tommy writing his letter?

The photograph of Bourlon Village comes from Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3403983.

(1) MacArthur, D.C. The History of the Fifty-Fifth Battery, CFA. 1919. 62.
(2) Clearihue, Joseph B. Diary. Transcript. September 30, 1918. Joseph Badenoch Clearihue fonds, University of Victoria Archives.
(3) Cox, Bertram Howard. Letter to Carl and Mabel, October 3, 1918. Available from the Canadian Letters and Images Project.
(4) The photograph of Janie’s mother paddling her own canoe was taken by Maynard Parker, who married Janie’s cousin Annie before moving to California where he became a celebrated photographer for House Beautiful. The scene is Lower Trout Brook, Brockway, New Brunswick.
(5) Carrie Jacobs-Bond’s song was published in 1910. The sheet music and this image are  available from Connecticut College Digital Commons.
(6) War Diary of the Fifth Canadian Divisional Artillery. Vol. 20: 4 September 29, 1918. 10.
(7) MacArthur, 63.
(8) War Diary of the 13th Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery. Vol. 20: 12. September 29, 1918.
(9) Scott, F.G. The Great War as I saw it. Toronto, 1922. 315.
(10) Scott, 316.

Copyright 2018. See “More about this project.”

One thought on “Wagon Lines near Bourlon, September 29, 1918

  1. That picture of Annie Laurie was taken, I was told, the summer before she died that coming December . So that’s a bit of a mystery, isn’t it…MLM


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