They did what they knew they had to do
The men of the 13th Platoon left Haliburton to fight in the trenches of France
By Len Pizzey
Originally published in the Haliburton Echo Nov. 7, 1979
Wes Baker was three months short of his 18th birthday when he signed up for duty in the Great War. The date was Dec. 3, 1915, and in far off France, the war that many thought would end three months after it began was still raging in the muddy “no-man’s land” between the German and Allied lines.
In communities around the county, platoons were forming that December of 1915.
Mr. Baker, and dozens of others like him joined up to form the 13th Platoon, D. Company, 109th Battalion. Platoons in Gooderham, Kinmount and Minden made up the rest of D. Company.
When he told a white lie about his age and signed up for duty, Mr. Baker wasn’t filled with a sense of adventure or patriotic fervor. It was just that signing up seemed to be the thing to do.
“I felt that that was the place for me, because everyone else seemed to be getting in on it,” he recalls. The reality of the trenches, the appalling slaughter that was to take millions of lives in “the war to end all wars” was remote from the men and boys who formed the 13th Platoon in Haliburton.
“We knew at the time that there was going to be a lot of things ahead of us,” Mr. Baker says, “but that was the last thought.”
Once they had signed up, training began, and there wasn’t much time to worry about where the training would lead.
Throughout the winter the men of the 13th Platoon trained in the town hall. There was a good deal of marching and an equal measure of conditioning, but no real combat training was possible that winter.
In April, the entire battalion moved to Barryfield, north of Kingston, where they trained through to July. Again they marched, Mr. Baker recalls, but there was also time to practise on rifle ranges “to get used to the guns.”
By July, the battalion was ready to move overseas, and the men of the 13th Platoon came home to Haliburton for one last leave. They were to take the train back to Barryfield early in the morning, July 12, Mr. Baker recalls, which would have meant missing the Orange Lodge parade scheduled for that day.
So strong was the local feeling that the boys in uniform should march in the parade that W.R. Curry, who was reeve at the time, sent a telegram to the commanding officer in Barryfield asking if the men could have one more day of leave.
Yes, was the reply, if the reeve was prepared to guarantee that every man would be on the train at 6 a.m. the next morning. The 13th Platoon marched proudly in that parade, and when they boarded the train July 13, Mr. Baker recalls, half the town was on the platform to see them off.
From Barryfield the battalion travelled to Kingston and then by train to Halifax on route to England.
“The boat we got on was the old Olympic,” Mr. Baker recalls. “It had been a cattle boat before the war.” The pens were removed and hammocks strung up in every available space so close together that when the boat rolled in the North Atlantic seas, hammocks swung against one another, jolting sleepers awake. The passage took five and a half days.
They landed in Liverpool and travelled inland to Bramshot to undergo further training. At that point the 13th Platoon was split up, some men going to the 20th Battalion and some to the 21st. In November, almost a year after they signed up, Mr. Baker and the men from Haliburton moved across the channel “in little boats like washtubs. Talk about sick men,” he recalls.
“We were just a real mess when we got off on the other side.”
They landed at Le Havre, spent a few weeks there, and then went forward to begin “holding the line.”
The war was largely a stalemate, except when offences were staged, and along many of the trench lines, it was simply a matter of holding your own territory and watching for German raids across the shell shattered and barb wired “no-man’s land” between your own lines and the enemy’s.
For six days at a time, you’d be on duty in the trenches, sleeping in caves carved out of the earth, eating tinned food and trying to stay dry. Then it would be six days of rest away from the front line, time for a shower and a change of underwear, Mr. Baker says, and time to test the gas masks on which your life might depend.
There was little real action that first winter in France, but sniper fire could be vicious, and it paid to keep your head down.
He recalls a sergeant who continually moved up and down the trench warning “greenhorns” like Mr. Baker who were new to the war about the danger of peeking over the top to catch a glimpse of the enemy.
He chuckles as he remembers the day the sergeant forgot to heed his own advice. His head rose a little too high and a sniper’s bullet crashed through his helmet and followed its rounded contour, creasing the sergeant’s head from front to back.
He lost some hair, spent a few days in hospital, but was soon back in the trenches, a living example of what could happen to a man if he didn’t keep his head low.
The first real action the men from Haliburton saw was at Vimy Ridge. At dawn, April 9, 1917, almost everyone who had signed up in the village more than a year before went over the top.
“That was our first initiation,” Mr. Baker says. Despite the din of battle and the smell of death that filled the air that day at Vimy Ridge, the men felt little fear. “It didn’t seem to bother us a bit.”
Mr. Baker recalls what happened that day.
“They laid down a barrage of ‘wiz bangs’ in front of you, and when the officers said ‘carry on’ you moved ahead until the next barrage, when you’d lay flat on the ground again. That’s the way we’d carry on until we got as far as we had to go.”
“When we got to our objective, that was it for the day.”
The men from Haliburton were lucky. On their part of the ridge, the shelling had been so heavy that the barbed wire had been blasted away and the going was relatively easy. The barrage had so devastated the German ranks that the Haliburton men met little resistance.
The offensive progressed quickly and the Germans were taken by surprise. Mr. Baker remembers reaching an enemy trench and finding German officers huddled beneath a bunker, apparently meeting to plan strategy.
The officers were captured without a shot being fired, and Mr. Baker confiscated a small revolver from one of them, a souvenir of the battle that he eventually had to forfeit when he turned in his equipment on the way to a leave.
At the end of a day’s battle, the men went out for a few days of rest before moving back to the front. The pattern repeated itself for the rest of the war. Mr. Baker saw action at Lens, Arras, where he lost a brother, Amiens, and Passchendaele, where the mud was knee deep and the living conditions among the worst of the war.
On Nov. 11, 1918, the men of the 20th battalion marched throughout the day, arriving in Mons at about 4 p.m. It was strangely quiet, Mr. Baker recalls, but none of them had an inkling that the Armistice would be signed before midnight that day. On Nov. 13, they crossed the Rhine and were billeted in Seigburg, Germany, to become part of the army of occupation.
“All we had to do was answer parade every day, keep our equipment clean and be on call 24 hours a day,” Mr. Baker says. They remained in Seigburg until April 1919, when the men from Haliburton began the journey home. Mr. Baker was ill with pneumonia and pleurisy however, and was left behind, spending 31 days in hospital.
He arrived home June 4, 1919, and was met by W.R. Curry, who arranged transportation from the station to home for all the returning veterans.
After a week’s rest, he went to work, surprisingly unmarked and unchanged by almost four years of army life.
Though he doesn’t dwell on the war, Wes Baker still likes to mull it over in his mind once in awhile, just to keep the dates and the experiences sharp in his mind in case anyone wants to know a little about the Great War.
“It was tough at times,” Mr. Baker says. “But you knew that’s what your job was. That’s why you got in there so you might as well make the best of it.”
“It’s just senseless for those things to happen, but that’s what it was, and that’s what we had to do.”