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Canadian diaries offer vivid views of First World War

A page from Daniel Macmillan’s original handwritten diary.

Goose Lane Editions

With the arrival of its centenary, much is being made of how difficult it is to appreciate the true impact of the First World War. A century later, the carnage (even the survivors were never quite the same) and the toll on those left behind seem like ancient history.

But an eyewitness account can soon revive a flagging sense of immediacy.

Andrew Robert (Bob) Coulter was a 19-year-old farm boy from Manitoba's Swan Valley when he reached the Western Front in early 1917 – in time to serve as a stretcher-bearer at such pivotal Canadian battles as Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele.

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Despite his youth, the diary he kept shows he was a keen observer, chronicling the mayhem with a detachment suggesting none of the demons that were to haunt him for the rest of his life.

He does confess, however, "I do not think there is one man in a hundred that goes anywhere near the front line that is not thankful, and fully realizes that it is a miracle that he got out alive."

Although a farmer as well, Daniel MacMillan was 51 when war broke out and had just lost his father, inheriting the family homestead north of Fredericton. Thoughtful, single and an avid newspaper reader, he comments on everything from geopolitics to the price of apples – but also reveals how deeply torn he is between wanting to fight, like his brother and beloved nephew, for a country that "surely surpasses any other in the world," and having to fight just to stay afloat. "There are bills coming due, and nothing to pay with," he laments. "Something has to be done; what it may be I cannot think."

What the two wrote unconsciously in tandem over the rest of 1917 – a year in the war – captures the essence of life both in the trenches and on the home front.

The war diary of Daniel MacMillan: ‘I have had quite hard living lately’

 

March 1, 1917 – Another of the Cunard liners, the Laconia, has been sunk by a German submarine with Americans on board. I wonder if this will be sufficient "contact" to move President Wilson to action?

March 17 – I had Dan Jaffery call on me today. It seems that Mr. Bell, who owns his farm, is going to sell and has ordered him out of his house. I am not in much better circumstances myself. I might be compelled to give the whole thing up.

March 21 – There has been a complete turnover of affairs in Russia, the Czar himself compelled to abdicate the throne. The Germans have sunk three American transports the other day. Uncle Sam is near the brink of war.

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March 22 – Today makes the 54th time the earth has gone around the sun since I entered this sphere of existence, and really my physical and mental condition are very good, considering how long they have been in use. It is just simply a serious matter to be laid up under the circumstances in which I am living. I am thinking quite serious this spring of making some kind of change.

April 6 (Good Friday) – The address of President Wilson to Congress is being read all over the world. The president urged Congress, assembled in joint session, to declare a state of war.

April 13 – The British are making good progress on the Western front these days. The Canadians took by storm the strongly fortified position of Vimy Ridge and are holding thus far.

April 14 – I had a letter from [his nephew] James today from France. He tells me he has had a turn in the first-line trenches and has escaped so far. He will have had an experience, if he has survived at all. He speaks of Willie Fullarton, says they are well and do not regret going, and are proud to belong to the Canadians who have a great name there.

April 27 – I had another letter from Jim somewhere in France. He spoke of being out for a rest, so I take it that he has had another turn at the front.

May 23 – The government at Ottawa is now considering a conscription bill, which is likely to pass. I hope they succeed – it is what should have been from the start.

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May 30 – Land in a terrible condition with water. Farmers are not half-done seeding. A great number have nothing in so far, and I am one of them.

June 1 – There seems to be a lull in operations on the Western front these days. There is likely to be some trouble in Quebec and other parts on the conscription law talked of.

June 10 – I did not get to Sunday school this afternoon. I cut seed potatoes [for planting] instead. I did so feeling I was performing a national service.

July 26 – Hottest day of the season thus far, terrible! Was thinning turnips when I wasn't under a tree. The conscription bill has passed the Commons with a large majority.

July 31 – Russia has again gone to pieces, and it is my opinion will be of no more importance, in this war at least. Some terrible fighting going on the Western Front lately. The Germans are able to keep a mighty force on that front on account of Russia being out of it.

Aug. 4 – Three years ago this date Great Britain declared war and its end is not in sight.

Aug. 16 – I had an offer of $2,500 for the old farm today. I would like if possible to hang on until after the war, as I consider it my duty. It may be that Jim will be spared and I feel he should have first consideration. He most of his boyhood days here and always thought there was no place like it, and is now fighting to protect it.

Aug. 21 – Had a letter from Jim one day last week. I see the Canadians have been engaged again in a terrible fight around Lens.

Aug. 25 – Word was received here today that Willie Fullarton, age 20, was killed in action at the battle of Lens. Willie went out about a year ago now. Jim always mentioned him.

Aug. 28 – [Brother] Charle and Ella received official word that Jim was wounded at Lens. The report said, gun shot in the hand, maybe in the head as there could easily be a misprint. He has been admitted to the hospital. [Added later] Jim wounded on the 15th, same date Willie killed.

Sept. 6 – I had a few lines from Ella today telling me she had word from the hospital that Jim was doing nicely. It seems he is wounded in the right hand with rifle bullet.

Sept. 12 – Every farmer is now at it for all he is worth. Help is scarce and costly. It seems Lloyd Ward has written home and says that Willie Fullarton is not killed but badly wounded and that Jim is coming home to Canada disabled. I only hope the report is true.

Sept. 17 – We were vividly reminded last night of the uncertainty of life by the shockingly sudden death of Mary (Mrs. A. Blair) while out in the stable milking a cow. I don't know what we are going to do. I have been going up there for dinner and tea now for three years, besides she cooked all my bread.

Sept. 30 – Two weeks have passed since poor Mary was called away. It is needless to say she is terribly missed. Bob has been going hardly knowing what he is doing. They had five cows giving milk, calves and a pig, besides some poultry, to attend, and a number of other chores which the menfolk were strangers to, all left in a moment of time. Last Sunday afternoon there was a memorial service held in honour of Willie Fullarton – the largest congregation in the old kirk I have seen for some time.

Oct. 10 – It seems Charle succeeded in getting into the forestry battalion for overseas service.

Oct. 15 – The proclamation calling out the men in Class 1 as described by the Military Service Act of this year, was published in the press of Canada Saturday the 13th. Every [fit] man is to report himself for military service on or before the 10th of November. It is a dark enough prospect this fall in the war situation. No better signs of peace than this time last fall.

Oct. 25, 1917 – There is quite a rush by the boys of this locality for examination as to their fitness for military service. Most of them, I guess, are filing claims for exemption.

Oct. 28, 1917 – I had a letter from Ella yesterday, she tells me that Charle has started overseas. They have had no word from Jim now for some time. I wouldn't be a bit surprised to hear of his being back at the front again.

Nov. 3, 1917 – Peace seems further away than ever. This time last fall we were saying the Allies will have them on the run before another year. They are certainly on the run, but not in the direction we wish.

Nov. 8 – To tell the truth I have had quite hard living lately, potatoes and carrots for dinner and nothing else for several days, then apples and bread for supper. I am aware there are people who have less, apples would be considered a luxury by many, and I have all I wish.

Nov. 13 – The Dominion election campaign is now on in full blast. There will be a hot time, I think. There is evidence of a bad feeling between the French and English-speaking people. Quebec has not responded to the call to help in Europe; in fact, the French all over the country have not enlisted in anything like proportion to the other. The worst feature of the outlook is that it is not only a racial difference but that of creed.

Nov. 16 – I am going to have a difficult time meeting my payments this season, nothing to sell. What I will do I am not decided. May arrange to cut a few logs. Lumber is a good price.

Nov. 23 – It seems Charle is still in Sussex [N.B.], expects to sail for England any time. Heavy casualty lists are coming in these days.

Nov. 27 – Still clear and cold. The sun shone bright today and the trees are a sight. Surely this country surpasses any other in the world for various and gorgeous scenes of beauty and grandeur. A short time ago the forests were gaudily robed in all the hues of the rainbow, today they are a dazzling splendour of glittering crystal.

Dec. 7 – A terrible catastrophe has overtaken the city of Halifax. A munition steamer was rammed by another vessel and both were instantly blown to atoms. The loss of life is appalling.

Dec. 8 – Today's papers say 2,500 lives were lost in the Halifax disaster. Half of the whole population of the city was injured. A move is being made by the people here to send relief.

Dec. 11 – I am having a difficult time these days trying to decide what is really best for me to do. There are bills coming due, and nothing to pay with. Something has to be done, what it may be I cannot think.

Dec. 14 – It seems the Germans are preparing for a terrible drive on the Western Front. No doubt the first shock will be hard to stand and, if they strike the French section, I fear they will break through.

Dec. 18 – A new feature of yesterday's election was the presence of ladies casting their votes for the first time in the history of this country. It is to be hoped that in future women will enjoy this privilege equally with men.

Dec. 28 – We had a very enjoyable service in the kirk Xmas evening. At the close of the service, I met with the most complete surprise ever. The young girls of the Sunday school thought it would be nice to show that they kindly thought of me and collected enough to buy a real nice silver watch and chain. I was simply speechless.

Dec. 31 – An armistice between the party now seemingly in power in Russia, known as the Bolsheviki, and the Austro-Germans has been arranged – and plans of peace are now under consideration.

For a full account of Daniel's life, see War on the Home Front: The Farm Diaries of Daniel MacMillan (Goose Lane Editions, 2007), edited by Bill Parenteau and Stephen Dutcher, as part of the New Brunswick Military Heritage Series.

The war diary of Robert Coulter: ‘I have been making coffins all day’

 

March 1, 1917 – Saw our guns bombarding a German aeroplane. Puffs of white and black smoke could be seen all around the machine, but it escaped. To go up the line tomorrow.

March 4 – Came across body of dead French soldier. Eight hours too long a shift for men without proper food and accommodation. Several shells burst quite near the dugout, about three feet from me.

March 5 – Things were pretty lucky last night. Bullets were bursting overhead all night and at 10 p.m. Fritz began to throw over whiz bangs [high-speed shells] until 5 a.m. We had to stop work and sit tight.

March 6 – Clear day today and consequently a lot of airplane activity. Counted 40 of our planes. Two of them were brought down by the Germans.

March 25 – Last night I was on a ration party and a large shell hit on Arras Road about five minutes before we arrived. Two men killed and six injured, besides a number of mules.

March 28 – Working today in a trench at the advanced dressing station. Our batteries were just behind and kept going all day, nearly deafening us. Several premature shells going off made work dangerous.

March 29 – Went up near the front line this morning to help carry down wounded, but for some reason did not get any. [They had died.]

March 31 – Last night, for the first time, we were able to see a bombardment. The horizon was a mass of flames. Many casualties.

April 2 – At 8:30 p.m. the ground was covered with a white mantle of snow. This makes the trenches awful. Mud and snow up to waist some places.

April 3, Tuesday One of the most busy nights we have had yet. Car service very poor and therefore a great deal of congestion. About 30 stretcher and 25 walking cases.

April 4, Wednesday Our artillery activities have been increasing day by day. Yesterday our guns opened up at 8 a.m. with one hours bombardment, which many say was worse than Somme. An awful noise and pits one mass of flames.

April 5 – Last night about 60 cases went through our hands. Germans shelled road and wounded 14, killed 2. All ambulances are coming up now in readiness for big push.

April 6 – One shell struck a hut on Mont St. Eloi, killing 15 and wounding 60. Wet and miserable last night.

April 7 – At night Germans sent up a new kind of flare. Large shell which seemed to burst high up in the air and send out a shower of golden rain.

April 8 (Easter Sunday) Heavy artillery bombardment all day. Push supposed to start during night and several tanks said to be up. Many infantry killed on road making journey to the line.

April 9 – Bombardment started and first wave went over at 5:30 a.m. Captured about 1,400 prisoners on our front. Terrible number of wounded. At one time, nearly 500 dying on stretchers. Worked 24 hours steady. Prisoners employed as stretcher bearers.

April 10 – We have taken Vimy. Better facilities for taking out wounded now. Dirty weather. Snow, rain and cold. Canadians not yet relieved.

April 12 – Saw a tank today for first time. Goes about as fast as a man walking, and very steady. Larger than I had pictured it.

April 13 – Germans said to be retiring. Road going past here is now full of traffic in day, where formerly could only be used at night.

April 21 – Went on an exploring expedition and found great many bodies and bones. Also equipment of French and Germans.

April 27 – 19th Canadian Battery, all except one killed or wounded.

April 29 – Germans putting over gas and tear shells and it was almost impossible to walk without a helmet. Think the object was to stop possible attack and it was sucoulteressful.

April 30 – Shell dropped about 15 or 20 feet from a bunch of us, wounding corporal and sergeant, who died on the way to casualty clearing station. Also got two patients lying out for 48 hours.

May 3 – Have been making coffins all day.

May 4 – Three battalions almost wiped out. Had to get cases out in sight of enemy quite often.

May 22 – Stayed in cave practically all day. Am getting about fed up with foul air here.

May 24 – One of the best meals we have had for some time cooked by Scotty, the batman. Get a view of the Duvai Plain and you can see the German guns flashing quite plainly. Also ours bursting on the German front line.

May 28 – We were inoculated against typhoid today. Have developed a large boil on the back of neck which is causing a great deal of inconvenience.

June 3 – Strolled around town. Am not very favourably impressed by French people.

June 13 – Got paid this morning and spent most of the day lying around. Pictures in evening. General Haig sends message of congratulations to all troops on their bravery and devotion to duty.

June 17 Put on officers' mess for a week. Very nice job: Get more eats, which helps. One of our fellows returned from Paris – under escort.

July 1 Had Dominion Day service today. Major-General Sims of B.E.F. spoke to us. Heavy bombardment to our left and party of our fellows standing by.

July 18 – Received the dreadful news last night of Mother's death on June 25. I do not know how I shall ever bear it. All I can do is trust in God that Dad shall bear up.

July 20 – Germans shelled divisional baths and got a number of men. They came into the advance dressing station, some naked, some on pieces of galvanized iron utilized as stretchers.

July 28 – We are having Australian rabbit for dinner almost every day now. [Australia was battling a massive rabbit infestation.] Not much meat.

Aug. 24 – First experience with army dentist. Chinese labour battalion near here. Several in this hospital. They are very hard on the pills especially No. 9 [a laxative].

Aug. 25 – Day very quiet. There seems to be growing enmity between sergeant-major and orderly sergeant, and I can smell trouble brewing.

Aug. 29 – I am beginning to get quite fresh with the red stuff [wine] and must cut it out.

Sept. 2 – Had my first experience with a pipe and was pretty sick for a time.

Sept. 6 – Met [former teacher] Mr. Wallace, now a lieutenant in the 43rd – sure was glad to see him.

Sept. 16 – Marched to Souchez, a very smashed-up place, this morning but was recalled this evening to go on leave tomorrow.

Sept. 17 – Got a ride to Aubigny and there took train arriving in Paris in about eight hours.

Sept. 18 – Visited Eiffel Tower, Great Arch and other places.

Sept. 27 – Did not go out much today as am getting rather fed up with Paris. Am going back.

Oct. 1 – Through some mistake, our rations do not seem to have been sent up, and eats are hard to find.

Oct. 13 – Raining off and on all day and night and also very cold. Rumour that we are to move Monday.

Oct. 18 – We had a short route march this afternoon in full marching order which helped to wake us up a little. Rumours around now that we are not to go to Belgium.

Oct. 23 – Told to be prepared to move off at 10:30 tomorrow morning. Imperials take over camp from us.

Oct. 25 – Detrained at Godewaersvelde and, after an hour's march, reach Caestre pretty well all in. Flemish names in evidence.

Oct. 26 – Almost as many Australians in this town [Caestre, Belgium] as Canadians. Hostile aeroplanes over last night and few bombs dropped.

Oct. 27 – Report to hand that offensive has been launched against Italians and they have lost all their recent gains, 30,000 prisoners and 300 guns.

Oct. 29 – Quite a number of Red Cross trains loaded with wounded passed through. Evidence of fighting somewhere.

Oct. 30 – Italian losses now 100,000 prisoners and 700 guns. Couple of Imperial divisions leave this front for Italy. Situation certainly seems pretty black.

Nov. 3 – Very heavy shelling and two of our men were shell-shocked. Whole country the limit for desolation. Very narrow escape when carrying out a wounded man. Troops from every part of the empire, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Tasmanians, Imperials of every county in Great Britain and Ireland are all in the same front and working shoulder to shoulder.

Nov. 4 – Relieved this morning and went back to Ypres. Dozens of dead horses, men and debris of every description lying around.

Nov. 5 – Ypres has been a very large place but a great deal of it, including the cathedral, is in ruins. Hundreds of graves scattered throughout. Went for a walk in afternoon, visiting ruins of [13th-century] Cloth Hall, cathedral etc.

Nov. 6 – Up at 2.30 a.m. and up the line in motor trucks at 3:30. All objectives vis remainder of Passechendaele village and ridge captured. This is a very hot place. Cpl. Adams killed. Dyer and MacNeally wounded. Very narrow escape myself. Sky black with aeroplanes today. Both sides quiet tonight.

Nov. 7 & 8 – Our casualties lightest through luck only, as some parties lost over 50 per cent. Stretcher squads consist of six men and could do with more.

Nov. 9 – Fritz shelled the place considerable with high-velocity shells. Two more of our men killed. Rumor tonight that in a.m. not to go up the line here any more. Hope it is right.

Nov. 20 – French civilians were inspecting this place today.

It used to be their homes but don't suppose any could recognize it.

Nov. 23 – Billeted in old German dugout, rats here by the hundreds.

Nov. 26 – Couple of patrols met in no man's land, and revolver shooting took place. One of our corporals killed.

Nov. 27 – Rumour that 31st Division on our right to go over, and we are in readiness to do likewise if it is successful. Did not come off. Heavy bombardment on both flanks.

Dec. 1 – Fritz put hundreds of mustard-gas shells and high explosives into Willerval trying to get batteries. Had to wear our gas masks quite a lot.

Dec. 4 – French soldier comes along and digs in ruins for money he had buried in German onrush of 1914. Found 4,000 francs.

Dec. 5 – Still heavy fighting at Cambrai. Germans said to have used 120,000 men in effort to drive us from our position but failed.

Dec. 10 – Sprained my ankle yesterday and it is fairly sore today. Heard about disaster at Halifax.

Dec. 11 – A patrol of our men in no man's land were surrounded this morning by the Germans who got in behind them and started bombing them toward their own men. Eight missing tonight.

Dec. 18 – One fellow actually got a cooked chicken in a parcel today – we are looking for good feed tonight.

Dec. 25 – Turkey and other things supplemented by parcels made up a dandy dinner. Started to snow, and sun coming out bright made a very nice Christmas effect.

Dec. 26 – About four inches of snow on the ground this morning. Majority of men sobering up after yesterday's carouses.

Dec. 30 – Put in for a pass and spent the day in Pernes. A very nice place of fair size with large market square and … I found it hard to return again.

This account is adapted from a 30,000-word transcription of Robert Coulter's diaries compiled by his daughter, Patricia, and her husband Jim Gerry and donated to the War Museum of Canada.

Longer excerpt from the 1917 diary of Private Coulter 

The hottest time I have ever had was on Saturday, Nov. 3, at Bremen House [a bunker near Ypres] – he [the Germans] shelled the place steady all day, obtaining many direct hits.

Artillery man who was counting says he put 135 eight-inch and five nines in the vicinity in l0 minutes. A [stretcher] case came in about 6:30 p.m. and, as he was very serious, we were ordered to carry him down to [a field station]. About halfway down, Fritz put over a barrage, both in front of us and behind us and, as there was no cover, our only alternative was to carry through it.

Shells dropped all around and all of us gave up hope of ever getting through. Several shells dropped within 20 or 30 feet, and covered us with a deluge of mud, debris and water. Only the wet nature of the ground saved us. It was so soft that the shells went in very deep and did not throw much shrapnel. The patient was too bad to take much notice.

After passing through Ypres, everything is utterly desolate. Shell holes without number merge into one another and are so close together that walking among them is almost impossible. Nearly all are full of water of a green colour, or tinged red with blood.

Roads, except those kept in repair to bring up supplies, are completely obliterated. Thousands of dead horses and mules and, as one goes further up, men mutilated beyond description lay everywhere. Guns by the dozen are drawn up alongside the road. They constantly shell the Hun and he shells us in return.

There is absolutely no shelter for anyone except a few pill boxes, and these are all registered by Fritz's artillery. Many are intolerable as they are filled with a couple of feet of water and dead bodies.

I do not think there is one man in a hundred that goes anywhere near the front line that is not thankful and fully realizes that it is a miracle that he got out alive.

What Happened to Them?

 

In the end, the lack of affordable labour and wild swings in the marketplace were more than Daniel MacMillan could manage. He was unable to keep the farm, although a government program for returning veterans allowed it to be sold to his brother – and him to live there when not working as an itinerant logger or labourer. Financial worries notwithstanding, he outlived both his brother and nephew, dying at 97 on June 12, 1960.

Bob Coulter also died that year – not of old age. Inspired by his experience as a stretcher-bearer, he went to medical school after the war, opening a practice in Saskatchewan. But according to an account written by his family, "he had a terrible problem with insomnia and nightmares," becoming "addicted to barbiturates and narcotics."

Although he was treated, and then built a career as a psychiatrist, he battled his demons until finally, just a few weeks after the death of Daniel MacMillan, he took his own life a month short of his 63rd birthday – "another casualty" of the war more than 40 years after the fact.

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