William Hay

Canadian Author

"The author has captured the characters and added personalities to them, giving considerable insight into their thoughts and actions, all based on his research into each of them. I enjoyed reading this book, and recommend it without reservation. "

Al Lloyd - Webmaster 21st Battalion Website; Princess of Wales Own Regiment Historian;

 "For anyone with an interest in Canadian history and biography, Hay does an excellent job of putting flesh on history's bones."

 John Sergeant - Moderator 21st Battalion Discussion Group and The Currie Journal;

With Firm Hearts

 

  

Released Spring 2010

 With Firm Hearts is the first in a series of creative non-fictions William has written about historic events regaling the story of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First World War. From modest beginnings in the summer of 1914, the CEF became, arguably, the most feared corps on the Western Front by November 1918. The characters are based on real people who played an important role in the creation, development and reputation of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The story will include not only the military side of Canada’s war effort, but the politics behind it.

Throughout the story, lesser characters, both real and fictional, and events of lesser importance were occasionally introduced in order to ensure that all views of the story were being brought forth. The point of view shifts frequently in the story among characters to accomplish this. Embellishments or assumptions pertaining to some events and to certain character traits were required in order to bring the story to life and make it flow. Real facts and real people set the stage to tell the remarkable story of the creation and performance of the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the Great War.

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Read an excerpt:

February 1915

Ploegsteert, France

 

      The trench wasn’t a term Major Victor Odlum had heard much about back in Canada to describe what was essentially a fortified ditch, elaborate in places, but still a ditch. The 7th Battalion’s second-in-command joined one of the companies for their forty-eight-hour indoctrination at the front line outside of Armentières in a small hamlet called Ploegsteert.

      “Okay, lads, straighten up!” a British Army Major barked as he and several NCOs prepared to escort the raw Canadians into the front line. “I’m Major Wilkins. Forget your earlier training, your training starts here. Your enemy is not to be despised, he’s to be respected. He’s not only cunning, he’s patient and waits for you to slip up and make you pay with your life. There’s no second chance in Flanders.”

      Odlum’s exterior demeanour covered a rising fear and tension.

      The impressive British major continued. “Lesson one – keep your head down.” He looked around the group with an intensity and alertness that could only have come from months of living in these conditions. “All these trenches are joined with communications trenches. It’s the only way to access the other trenches, but they’re almost as dangerous as crawling out in the open; so we try not to use them until dark. No one moves around here during the day, certainly not out of the trenches.” Wilkins looked around at the fresh, clean-looking Canadians. “All right then, stay close and do what we tell you.”

      The company marched forward, escorted by the battle-hardened British. No one spoke as they closed in on the war. Mule trains were passed, their flimsy wagons rocking slowly at the side of the road, carrying a variety of material to the front line. Wagons on the opposite side of the road were coming back from the front. The Canadians received their first shock when they saw the lifeless, bloody hands and legs hanging out the sides and back of these wagons.

      Ahead lay the labyrinth of trenches they were to call home. Explosions sporadically struck along the line intermixed with the odd crack of a rifle or rapid report of a machine gun. As the fresh-faced Canadians marched along, a weary-looking highland regiment passed them, heading away from the front. Hollow, blank stares peered out from behind tanned, weathered faces.

      “Hey, lads!” A cheerful voice bellowed from the column of Canadians. “Which way to the front?”

      The highlanders marched wearily along, ignoring the remark, and then a voice from among them called out. “Follow the smell! That’ll get ya’s thar quick e-newf.”

      Like a train rolling into a tunnel, the company marched down a small grade and became suddenly enveloped by walls of dirt and sand bags. They snaked forward into what Wilkins had earlier described as a communications trench and headed toward the support trench. Once in support, the Canadian company, almost two hundred strong, sat up against the dirt walls.

      “Mudder of Jesus,” an Irishman in their company mumbled. “What a fookin’ reek.”

      “What the ‘ell is that smell?” another commented.     

      “Rotting corpses, lads,” a British Corporal appeared among them. “Don’t dig too deep – ya’s might find the poor gent who’s causing it.” Without hesitating the corporal continued. “I’m looking for second platoon, three company.”

      Hands went up around him.

      “All right then, two section?”

      “Right here. McPherson, section commander,” a smart-looking Canadian responded.

      “Weatherby.”

      The two corporals shook hands.

      “You’re on me for the next forty-eight hours. My lads are getting ready to ‘ead up to the firing line. I’m to take you blokes up with us. We’ll introduce ya ta Fritz.” As Weatherby turned about he spied Odlum standing off in the dimming light. “Ah, pardon me, sir. Didn’t see ya standing thar. Would you be joining us tonight?”

      “If it’s not to much trouble, Corporal.”

      “No trouble at all, sir.” Weatherby started back to the front of the group. “All right then, gents, this way.”

 

      As dusk fell, the shell fire increased, alarming the Canadians, but their British cousins, with stiff upper lips, continued with their duties without hesitation, paying the frightful barrage little heed. Orders echoed about, Odlum couldn’t tell from where; his perspective had narrowed to trenches etched out in the earth, held together with dirt, sandbags and bodies. 

      “Stand to!” came a shout from the forward trench.

      Weatherby appeared. “All right lads, up on the firing step ya’s geet, but keep your bloody ‘eads down. No sightseeing ‘round ‘ere! It’ll geet ya killed!”

      The inexperienced Canadians climbed off the duckboards lying over top of the drainage ditches and got up onto the firing step. Their first instinct was to poke their heads over the top of the parapet and prepare their rifles for a possible attack.

      As if to discourage this notion, a voice bellowed out. “Keep your bloody ‘eads down befur Fritz picks ya’s off, one at a fookin’ time!”

      Major Wilkins appeared, pacing down the duckboards. “We stand to at sunset and sunrise. It’s the most threatening period of the day; Fritz may come, or he may not! But keep your heads down!” Wilkins and the NCOs continued to spout off advice to keep the Canadians alert and alive.  

      The sporadic shellfire continued for over an hour. The whistle and rush of air as the shells hurled through the sky thundered about them and was always the prelude to any shell exploding nearby. The barrage kept coming, closer and closer. Several shells exploded within yards of Odlum. Suddenly the concussion from an explosion sucked the wind right out of him and he was thrown up against the trench wall, where he crumpled onto the duckboards, dirt raining down all about him. He was pulled up by his collar. It was Wilkins.

      “You all right, Major?”

      Odlum felt embarrassed to be in this state in front of his counterpart in the British Army. Brushing off the dirt, he tried to appear casual, but the truth was he was shaking like a leaf. “I’m fine, Major. Thank you.”

      “Fritz likes to buzz us once in a while, jus’ to remind us who’s boss.”

      Odlum continued to absently brush off the dirt and laughed nervously. “What would’ve happened if they’d hit the trench?”

      Wilkins’s tired eyes regarded him for a moment. “We’d be dead.”

      The battle-hardened major offered him a cigarette. Odlum looked at it. He didn’t smoke cigarettes, but suddenly the thought of having one appealed to him. He took the cigarette and held it up to his lips as Wilkins lit it with a silver-plated lighter.

      Wilkins extended his hand in greeting. “Didn’t meet you earlier. Ian Wilkins.”

      “Victor Odlum.”

      Shells shook the ground once again, but farther up the line this time. Odlum looked about him warily, but noticed Wilkins didn’t flinch. Instead he was watching Odlum as though sizing him up.

      “You were militia, then?” Wilkins inquired.

      “Yes. For many years in Vancouver.”

      “Another civilian soldier? What do you do back home?”

      Odlum still glanced around him nervously as the shells hammered the firing line ahead of them. “I own a newspaper.”

      Wilkins eyebrows rose up. “I say, what’s a chap like you doing here? Shouldn’t you be back home writing about this fiasco, not in it?”

      Odlum found he could smile. “The mother country beckoned. I couldn’t sit at home.”

      Wilkins nodded in appreciation and looked around at the Canadians up on the firing step. “They’re a fine-looking bunch of blokes; sturdy lot, they are.”

      “We’ve all got much to learn.”

      “As did we.” Wilkins expertly knocked off a lengthy heater on the end of his cigarette. “Don’t you worry, Victor; we’ll set ya’s all straight – and in a hurry.”

 

      Little activity occurred during the afternoon, but when night came they could move about more freely. Supper, in the form of bully beef and crackers arrived. Odlum, still shook up from the near miss of the explosions, picked at his crackers and stuffed his uneaten bully beef into his rucksack for later.

      A man came around with a barrel marked “SRD.” “Grab your cups, lads,” the man instructed them.

      The Canadians received their first ration of army rum in the trenches.

      “Holy shit!” A voice commented in the dark. “Sir Sam’s going to have a heart attack when he hears about this!”

      Odlum was offered the ration but turned it down. His staunch religious beliefs prevented him from partaking in the tradition. He watched on in disgust as the men thirstily scarfed down their ration. The first reaction he had was to force them to pour it out of their cups, so adamantly was he against the issuing of rum, but as they were guests of the British unit, he decided to enforce his beliefs another time.

      With night enveloping the countryside, the Canadians followed Weatherby and Wilkins down a communication trench to the main firing line. They zigzagged along, with the odd shell blasting huge spouts of dirt over them. Odlum realized that German artillery was doing their best to disrupt the night-time activity they knew was occurring in the British lines.  

      These communication trenches, closer to the actual front line, were more makeshift than those they’d passed through heading up to the support line. Odlum found them to be soaked with water; it spilled over the drainage ditches. They walked on the duckboards, but the ditches were so flooded that the duck boards were completely obscured by muddy sludge. The odd curse was heard as men slipped into the filthy water. Odlum kept both hands rubbing the sides of the trench trying to maintain his proper alignment. He rubbed against a hand sticking out of the dirt wall and hauled back in revulsion.

      “We call him General Jerry, sir,” Weatherby was behind him and noticed Odlum had come across the hand. He pointed to the grey uniform at the wrist. “He’s a Jerry, alright. Been there since last fall, I expect, and we can’t get the poor bloke out for a proper burial. Some of the lads shake it for good luck.”

      The shelling intensified the closer they got to the front line. A curse erupted again from ahead; men had fallen into a large water-filled shell crater. The German artillery had landed a direct hit after all. As Odlum continued to follow the line of men blindly, he carefully stepped around the edges of the same crater, almost slipping. He was forced to place his foot inside the muddy water and was relieved to discover his foot only sunk to his calf instead of his waist. There was no firmness to the platform, but whatever it was had saved him from an uncomfortable night. A corpse’s mangled face appeared several feet away, explained what had provided him the footing.

      Without much conversation, the company holding the front line disappeared quickly and headed back the way the Canadians had come. While the section Odlum had accompanied found a dugout to make themselves comfortable with Weatherby’s section,           Odlum remained with Wilkins outside.

      The sky shimmered from the light of flares and artillery on both sides. British guns responded to the German attacks and hammered enemy troops not more than three hundred yards east of them. The flares kept the landscape lit up like the morning sun. The images of the front line were an unnerving spectacle. For the first time since offering his services to the Canadian Contingent last August, Odlum was frightened.

      He looked at the major beside him; so much for the weak, soft-handed Brits he’d been told to expect. The men he’d met over the last day were some of the toughest he’d ever known in his life. Death surrounded these lads from Britain each moment of their existence. There was nothing weak or soft about these men; he only hoped to be their equal one day.

      The sky whistled with more incoming shells. Following the example of Wilkins and other British soldiers, Odlum dove for cover quickly. One of the Canadians on the parapet was slower to respond and landed with a grunt, having been assisted down into cover by a nearby British NCO.

      The absentminded Canadian was grabbed by the British NCO. “You ‘ear a whistle like that, you grab a piece of earth bloody fast, see? Those whiz-bangs blow with shrapnel; cut your bloomin ‘ead clear off, so they will.”

      “Ok…thanks,” the dazed-looking private replied. “I thought I had more time.”

      “There’s no time; you ‘ear it, ya dive for cover.”

      The ground shuddered and dirt dumped on them. Odlum’s stomach flipped and turned with anxiety, wondering if they were under attack. The hammering seemed to be all along the line and was caving in parts of the trench walls as some shells hit their mark. After each explosion, there was a tremendous silence all around, only interrupted by the distant sound of enemy artillery firing off another salvo.

      “What’s going on?” Odlum shouted in the din.

      “Fritz is giving us a taste, is all. It’ll be over in a jiff,” Wilkins said with confidence.

      Farther down along the trench, several shells struck. The silence which followed was interrupted by a high-pitched wail from someone. There had been four or five people past the last traverse in the trench, just like the group in front of him. Odlum felt suddenly nauseous and weak. The wail became lower in the sudden stillness until it faded off into silence. Odlum spun his body around quickly and puked into the drainage ditch. He coughed several times and puked some more. Hands grabbed his shoulders and hauled him onto his feet.

      “You’re okay, sir. Up you get, thar’s a good gentleman,” Corporal Weatherby and another tough British soldier stood nearby.

      “Are they...?” Odlum pointed in the direction where the crying had come from.

      Weatherby looked back at him with a hard expression. “Most likely, sir,” he replied matter-of-factly, as though he spoke of a broken piece of machinery.

      The heavy shelling eventually ceased to a dribble, just like Wilkins said it would. But still it persisted off and on throughout the evening, as the ground shuddered with periodic strikes. The British men and their Canadian novices stood at their posts with a wary eye to the sky. Odlum risked joining some of the men on the firing step to look over the landscape. He glanced occasionally through the small observation hole, barely big enough to stick a rifle through. The first thing that caught his attention was the huge amount of barbed wire rolled out in front of their trenches. They had been instructed on its use briefly at Salisbury, but what he looked at was literally mountains of the sharp-edged wire, stretched out, not only along the length of the trench, but forward some fifty, even a hundred feet or more. A formidable obstacle indeed for attackers trying to move across the field quickly.

      “Bill, look over there,” one of the Canadians motioned to his partner.

      Odlum quickly glanced in the direction the two privates were looking. At first he just saw vague forms, almost like large rocks or stones; then the stones started to move about. Odlum recognized the uniforms.

      “Holy shit! It’s Fritz!” someone whispered harshly.

      Excitement gripped him. It was that same feeling one got when doing something against the rules, hoping you wouldn’t get caught. He pulled out his pistol in preparation while the soldiers carefully poked their rifles through the observation hole.

      A hand reached up and grabbed the two Canadians about to shoot the enemy. “What the bloody ‘ell are ya at then?” A British corporal remarked.

      “It’s a bunch of Germans. I’m going to shoot at them,” came the reply.

      “No mate; ya can’t shoot at them.”

      Odlum looked at the corporal curiously. “Why on earth not?”

      “It’s a working party, see?” The young corporal pointed to the German soldiers, repairing and setting up more barbed wire along their front. “And we’ve got a working party out too. If you shoot at their lads, they’ll ‘ave to shoot ours, right?”
      Odlum stared at the Englishman.

      “We’d never get anything done otherwise, sir.” The look in the corporal’s eyes was almost pleading when he looked at the inexperienced Canadian major.

      Odlum caught the eyes of the two Canadians on the parapet for a moment. Both were equally confused. They’d traveled thousands of miles and endured untold hardships to kill Germans; now they were told they couldn’t? Odlum decided this was indeed a strange war. The next hour was spent watching the enemy going about their business in plain sight, unmolested. Again Odlum decided not to change any habits among their hosts, but planned on running matters differently in his own battalion, if given the opportunity.

      Later, in the early hours of the morning, after an extensive tour of the parapet, Odlum was escorted back to the cramped officers’ dugout. Men around him snored, but he couldn’t rest. The shelling never ended; no longer heavy, according to their British hosts, but relentless. Dirt shook out from between the plank ceiling and floated down on them; a fine layer of dirt lay over top of everything, even the soldiers taking shelter.

      Between the incessant explosions above them, sounds of scratching and squeaking stirred Odlum from the few moments he did manage to doze; he looked about and saw nothing. Odlum slowly began to fade off again, but shortly after woke up again, roused by more of the strange sounds. He lit a match and, looking around for the cause of the racket, found himself staring into the eyes of a huge rat!

     “Aaahh!!” Odlum jolted up and kicked the small-dog-sized rat aside, but the big rodent squealed and stood his ground. Odlum dropped the match in his frantic manoeuvring. Quickly he lit another and searched for the beast, but couldn’t see him. He heard the rat and his friends scurrying about, digging and eating their spoils, but couldn’t see them anymore.

      How could a man find rest in this place?