One hundred years ago today, Lieutenants Fornerets addressed the Empire Club, a story covered in the Toronto Daily Star. The Empire Club has made the full speech available on their website and it is reproduced below. A riveting first-person account of one man’s journey to the front and back.
WITH CANADA AT THE FRONT
AN ADDRESS BY LIEUT. G. R. FORNERET
Before the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto January 13, 1916
MR. PRESIDENT AND GENTLEMEN,–I was peculiarly gratified at being asked to speak to the Empire Club because that entity-the Empire was to me an outstanding feature, the most noticeable of everything I saw and everything I did. To a Canadian, born in Canada, having lived all his life in Canada, and who had never been across the ocean to the heart of the Empire, it was a revelation. To most native-born Canadians, the British Empire is a great institution, represented visually by large red spaces on the map of the world. We see and meet people in a vague sort of way from different parts of the Empire. We know their statistics–how big various places are–but it is only in a big, vague sort of way.
When we went over to England we met men from every conceivable part of the Empire. In order to give you an impression of what it meant to native-born Canadians to first get into touch with the heart of things of the British Empire, I will read from a letter I wrote at the time, and the sentiments–sensations, shall I call them?–were shared by approximately 30,000 more people as we were crossing the ocean. Our transports went over in three lines and we were convoyed by certain battleships. One of them was the Princess Royal, a magnificent ship, absolutely the last word in battle-cruisers. She had been keeping some distance to our left flank. ” In the afternoon, about five o’clock, the cry went about the ship ‘The Princess Royal’ is coming in.” Sure enough she was. We crowded the rail to watch her as she lazily overtook us. She was paying us the compliment of an afternoon visit. On she came, looming larger and larger. Now we could make out the great guns in tiers protruding from the forward turrets; now we could see the crowded fighting-tops; now the decks, stripped to the steel plates for action. Now we saw the crew, hundreds of them, lining the decks. Now she was up to our stern. Her band was playing ” O, Canada! ” As she started to draw abreast there was a broadside of British cheers from her–crash-crash-crash–with a vibrant human note of patriotism and fellowship. Then we went clean mad. We scrambled to deck, breaking for points of vantage, and cheered and cheered until we were hoarse and dizzy. So she sailed past, proud, rugged, ugly, huge and magnificent. Our ensigns dipped, and the deep-throated greeting crashed and echoed from ship to ship till she passed on and we stood gazing devouringly after her. There wasn’t anyhing to say. It was just British glory on the sea-and we were British. A senior officer clinging to the davit next me, kept repeating hoarsely to himself, his eyes shining through his tears, “My God-My God,” like that.
Acting on several suggestions, I will speak on two subjects. First, I will give you a very brief outline of the organization of the army. Then I will tell you a little about life in the trenches.
People have no idea of the comprehensiveness of an army. All the trades, all the professions, the various arts and crafts are represented; clergymen, doctors, even humble limbs of the law like myself have their usefulness in the army. Then the supplies of an army are something which a good many people do not realize. By applying to the proper sources you can get everything from a safety-pin to a 15-inch, gun, food, clothing, ammunition, building material, fortifying material, all sorts of luxuries–tobacco, cigarettes, even cigars, rum, various sorts of wines. There is practically nothing you cannot get from someone or other in the army.
First, of all, as you know, the army system starts with General Headquarters of the Commander-in-Chief, who is the head of the whole force. No important move can be carried out without his sanction. All information comes back to him, sifted out by the staff, some of -it placed on charts, some of it on maps, some of it filed away, a great deal of it committed to memory.
Next to that is Army Headquarters. When we went over we were in the first Army under Sir Douglas Haig, who is now Commander-in-Chief of the whole of the forces in France we had that good fortune.
Then, next to the Army, is the Division. When we went over to France, we were a complete Division. We had the whole business-infantry, cavalry, artillery, field Ambulance, mechanical transport, engineers, everything. We had only been over there something better than a week, when they moved us up as a Division to take the place of the Seventh Division of the ‘British army, which, to the best of .my knowledge, is something that has not happened to any division, outside of regulars, British or otherwise, since the war started. Usually raw troops are put on the lines of communication-that is, they are allowed to play at active service, so as to get used to it; but, beyond going into the trenches for two very short hours to learn, we had no experience, before we were put in to take the place of the famous “fighting Seventh.” Our divisional Commander, General Alderson, is, I suppose, one of the very, very few men who could take command of a division such as ours and make the success he has. He is a commander of rare distinction and a friend of great personal charm. He has the peculiar faculty of making every officer and man feel that he is their personal friend. One small instance will illustrate his method. When we first got to France, I happened to be in charge of two platoons which acted as rear guard, and consequently were separated from the battalion. I got the men into billets, but they had very little food, none having been issued for a day and a half, so they were naturally rather hungry as there had been a good marching. General Alderson, with his staff, came riding into the court-yard of the farm and asked me how things were going. I said, “very well, sir.” He said “What about rations?” He seems to have an uncanny way of knowing what you want. I told him’ we had not any, and for how long. He said he would see that we were fixed up. He rode away with his staff, and in half an hour a British transport waggon, loaded to the gunwales with grub for those two platoons, turned in and said they had been sent from Headquarters on Gen. Alderson’s orders. That was all right as far as it went. About two or three days after that, late one dull and rainy afternoon, I was walking along the road. Now, the whole place was fairly crawling with lieutenants-they were all over the shop. My cap was pulled down and I was feeling very disgruntled, when Gen. Alderson came along with his staff. I stepped into the ditch, gave a very regimental salute, and prepared to go on, but he stopped, and said ” By the way, did your men get those rations I sent them three days ago? ” There you see his thoughtfulness. It is a small thing, but he had a whole division on his hands; and what is one subaltern among so many ?
After the division comes the brigade. Colonel (now General) Currie was our Brigade Commander. He is now commander of the First Division-a very fine man. We had been in rather a scratch brigade, a lot of surplus troops and people who came late. Finally the Tenth Battalion had the honour of being selected to take the place in the Second Brigade vacated by the Fort Garry Horse which was to be used as cavalry remounts. We had been used to barging along in an ambling sort of way, discipline being maintained -individually to a certain state of happy-go-luckiness. Our new Brigadier, Col. Currie, came along to inspect us one day. A brigade inspection usually consists of the Brigadier moving along in front of the Companies, looking them over with a critical eye, and saying something about being very well pleased with the smart appearance of the brigade. We thought he would do that-but he didn’t. He got the ranks separated and then walked down and examined each individual man. He found twelve cases of no shave and a few cases of dirty buttons, and went over each separate man in that battalion. That is the sort of man he is. Of course there were no more unshaven men, even when they were on field manoeuvres. They all sort of kept the tail of their eye open for Col. Currie. Now he is in command of tile First Division, and he is a very capable man; a very strict man but a very able man. Troops will depend on their leader if they know he is able, and does not sacrifice them, and knows what they can do and knows they will do it. They simply like his strictness all the better, because he knows what he is talking about.
Now I will tell you a little about the trenches–the most difficult things to describe that one can well imagine. I think the description given by Frederick Palmer in his book is the best I have ever read. A trench may be almost anything. It may consist of a pile of sandbags with a six-inch ditch behind, or of an elaborate system of fine positions and dug-outs and observation posts and all sorts of things. The common feature of all trenches is that they are excavated, and therefore lower than the ground, and therefore always wet. To try to make you feel what I felt I will describe my feelings on first going into the trenches. We first went in at “Plugstreet” which is distinguished chiefly by a hill which rises to one side of it. On the top of the hill was a chateau belonging to a certain famous Irish gentlemail who manufactures a decoction emblazoned with three stars. It was dark when we got up to Plugstreet. At first I heard that a guide was coming along and in the dark I had to find him. But to an untrained observer behind the trenches the men all look the same. You have no idea of the sameness of a crowd of troops in khaki without badges. Then I was told that I had to get my platoon into single file and to march very slowly and quietly. No one was to smoke or speak or allow anything to rattle, and we were to go along at slight intervals and not lose touch with each other. We had a sergeant of the Royal Irish Fusiliers to take us in. When we started up the road we were behind the shelter of a hill, and then we rounded a turn and moved parallel to both lines of trenches, Canadian and German. This sergeant kept talking to me in stage whispers. I did wish he would keep quiet because I was apprehensive. No one knew what we were going to do. Presently we came towards a brick wall and were told that this was a target for German machine guns; that “they get the range in the day time and spray it with bullets at night.”
I asked the sergeant how long it was since the last spray. He replied that they had not done it for some time so it was about due. Honestly, I had a very creepy feeling walking along that road about fifty yards from the wall. I asked what would happen if they began to spray just as we were there. The sergeant said “Every one into the ditch.” As I went along I wished they would start and get the thing over. It is astonishing what human sensations you have under those circumstances. You don’t feel particularly soldierly. I have just as much antipathy to a man shooting me in uniform as in mufti.
I was at the head of my platoon. My sensations in walking past that brick wall with one eye on the wall, one eye on the ditch and one eye on the road, were very much the sensations one has in playing musical chairs-only, in this instance, we were waiting for the music to start instead of stop. However, to our great relief, nothing happened at all.
The first thing we saw coming toward us out of the darkness was a stretcher party. They employed six men and carried the stretches on their shoulders, the wounded fellow covered with a blanket to his chin. Then a second stretcher party met us out of the darkness,-and the figure on that stretcher was completely covered by a blanket. That was the first we saw of the ultimate price a man can pay to keep his country clean. Then we turned off the road and saw a poor Highlander, who had been hit, being looked after by a medical party. It was very upsetting. When we got about 25 yards further a bullet sang across, apparently close to my nose. I felt tied up in a knot. Four of my men coming behind me in single file, afterwards came and told me confidentially that this particular bullet had gone between him and the man in front of him. It did not, of course, but it came close enough to be quite uncomfortable. No man who goes to the front is naturally fearless at first. If any man tells me he likes being shot at, I do not think he is brave–I think he is crazy. I don’t mind admitting that the first time we went over that flat country I was jolly well afraid. I wanted to squat down behind something. I wanted to go home-anywhere where those haphazard bullets weren’t. After the first two or three times you do really get more or less used to it.
Well, we kept on going, all the time looking for the trenches. The mud in Flanders is of the most oozy description. They have single boards across the ditches and you invariably slip off them. It had been raining, but by this time a pale moon was struggling to emerge and I saw ahead a long wriggling black smudge. We came a little closer and I saw a light, a very dull glow. Then I heard a muffled Irish voice-it was the Royal Irish Fusiliers’ trench-and that muffled voice under my feet was saying “Who in hell got my pack?” So I knew we had arrived. I could just make out the outline of a man’s cap against this dull light from a brazier. The cap wasn’t military. The uniforms at the front are the most extraordinary conglomeration you ever saw in your life. A platoon going into the trenches looks more like a gang of railway labourerssome with Balaklava helmets, some with tuques, some with waterproof sheets about their shoulders, some wearing rubber boots, some wearing Strathconas, some wheeling barrows and others carrying bundles over their shoulders. It is about as distantly removed as one can imagine, from the ordinary conception of a military performance. We had to stand behind the trench for a while, then we slithered down a sort of crazy bank and found ourselves in the trenches under cover, and very glad to be there. A trench is just a big ditch. In some places it- is shored up. In other places it is built with sandbags and sheets of corrugated iron. There are sketchy floors in some trenches, which are blown up periodically. You work for a week making your trench dry and comfortable, then a shell comes along and blows the whole thing up. We simply have to get along as best we can from day to day. There is not much fun in putting in an elaborate system of drainage when it will inevitably be smashed. A dug-out is a hole scooped out of a mudbank. I have heard of dug-outs with furniture and pianos–but I have not seen them. As a rule they leak. Constant concussion of the shells is bound to loosen the sides. There is always something in the nature of bedding or a bunk in a dugout. It usually consists of a board, standing on its edge, about three feet from the wall. According to regulations you will fill that space with dry straw, but usually there is no dry straw to be had. Then there is a table of sorts and possibly a chair of sorts. Of course, if one’s batman is clever with saw and hammer, he can make quite an elaborate set of furniture. One fellow found a pair of German boots sticking through the wall, with toes turned up, and used them to hang his kit on-the place having been used as a cemetery. It is astonishing how men at the front can get used to what in civil life would be most revolting. I found a new man most violently ill, who had been digging a dugout and had come across a long defunct Hun. They are more of a nuisance dead than alive, for you are always running into them, and they won’t move, so you must.
The most unreal sensation for a beginner in the trenches is when morning comes, you look through the periscope towards, the enemy trench to see the source of danger–and none is visible. You see a field, perhaps a ruined building, see what looks like barbed wire fences with an earth bank behind them–but no sign of life. You are so apt to trust your eyes that one man always has to be the goat to prove to his comrades that there is danger. One of my men, after observing, went back to get his cap which was near a loop-hole that had been left open. I remonstrated with him, but he said nothing was going to happen to him. He took about three steps and crack! he was shot clean through the head from 200 or 300 yards distance through a loophole a foot wide. The German snipers have telescopic sights and you cannot show your head for a minute. You have about one chance in ten of getting down alive and you are almost certain to be wounded.
The ultimate feeling back of every man’s mind as he goes to the front is that he may be killed. Sometimes we talk about it-not very often-but that is the one thing that is above and beyond everything. Many of the good fellows of my battalion are now lying behind the trenches somewhere. There is a quiet spot behind the shoulder of a hill-one of the few quiet spots along the front. And as I stood there in the twilight of the pines, beside the grave of one of my men, I could not help thinking “What better end could a man want? ” At home we are buried with all the dreadful panoply of death. Out there his own personal friends wrap a man in his blanket, and, quietly, at night, lay him beneath the open pines; and there he lies, while the guns and shells are playing the most magnificent requiem that it is possible for a man to have. His name ranks with the heroes and martyrs of all ages. And he was just a common man who was used to going to his office, to tea in the afternoon and to the theatre. By one stroke he has achieved what has been sought for by all the greatest men who had a goal and an ambition-by any man who had any ambition-to do some one thing with that gift he calls his life to make that life worth the living,-to make his own country and his own Empire the cleaner, the better and the freer.
A hearty vote of thanks was passed.