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Frank Swannell Diaries: Part I

Diaries of Frank Cyril Swannell Learn more.

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BC Archives MS-0392 - Box 1, Volume 4-5

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Writer Lay in Shell-Hole While Machine Gun Bullets Whistled Over His Head--Soldiers Comrades.

T.A.L. Leach of this city, but formerly of Toronto, Canada, has received another letter from his friend and former school-mate, Frank C. Swannell, who is now at the front with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Some weeks ago, Mr. Leach received a letter telling of the use by the Germans of asphyxiating gas. Few communications yet from the front tell as vividly of the actual fighting as the present letter does. The writer tells of the shooting down of men at his very side. Mr. Swannell was before the war a successful civil engineer in Canada, and he left a successful business to serve his country. The letter follows:

In France, June 4th, 1915. My Dear Lorne: Have been in billets now three days, but have been pretty busy as I have been detailed to the machine gun section "for instructional purposes." It is interesting but murderous work. Today, also, there was a call for volunteers for the Engineers. I have volunteered, as there is double pay in the job and another $30 a month will help a lot at home. Maybe there will be a chance for me to get ahead, but I expect most the work will be of the pick and shovel variety. The other night, though, thirty of us were sent ahead of our front line to dig a shelter trench, and I was told off to lay out the traverses. This was interesting work as the Germans were equally busy hammering in stakes for barbwire entanglements. You could hear them talking occasionally, and the rumble of their transport wagons.

Did I tell you about our attack on the orchard on May 20th? We went in 800 strong and came out 384. (I can write these figures now as the casualty lists are out.) My company got it bad--major, captain, lieutenant, sergeant-major, three corporals, and eight men, out of 124. My sergeant was just ahead of me when we climbed the German parapet. He was killed instantly. Then the sergeant-major fell beside me, shot through the thigh. The Boches had five machine guns in a sandbag redoubt in the corner of a ruined house, and these mowed us down. I lay for five minutes in a shell crater with the machine gun bullets beating like hail in the clods at my head. We got the German trenches. They didn't wait for the bayonet--but the platoon that charged the redoubt numbered five men at dawn.

Things still seem a jumble. An hour before the charge, the sergeant-major was crouched in my dugout telling me how my old boss Mcgregor was killed in April. Poor Sergeant Milburn had shared a little ditchwater with me that morning--and both went down together shot through the head. When we did get back at 4 a.m. to the reserve trenches we were a woeful sight--dazed with the strain of two days' shelling, weak from want of sleep and water, and totally exhausted from frantic trench digging all night under shrapnel and rifle fire. Few of us could sleep, we were so utterly down and out.

Our next four days in the trenches we had an easy time. Went back to a billet two miles behind the reserve trench. Another blunder occurred here. We should not have been along the main road in a barn already shelled and of which the Boches knew

BC Archives, MS-0392 Box 1 Volume 4 / FRANK SWANNELL PAPERS / Diary and enclosures, 1915.

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