Joseph Bell Stage, my grandfather, joined the Canadian Expeditionary Forces 2nd Contingent in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan on Oct. 27, 2014 at age 35. He was assigned to the 28th Battalion and trained first in Winnipeg, Canada
Joseph Bell Stage – top row, 2nd from left
and then near Shorncliff, England. My grandmother, with my uncle and mother, followed him, first to Winnipeg and then to England. The Battalion left for the Front on September 17, 1915, four days after my mother’s 7th birthday.
“September 18, 1915. Arrive at Boulogne (France) just prior to 5 AM after rough crossing and little sleep. A British N.C.O. announces that revile will be at 0600, and breakfast at 0700. The Battalion entrains for the Front area at noon. Entrained to St. Omer at 1500, proceed to Cassel by train 1915 and Billets at St. Sylvestre Cappel, Bn.Hq at Drouleux Farm.” 28th Battalion History, First Winter at the Front 1915-16.
In our mother’s written recollections she stated that her mother “insisted on taking us over to Calais, France to be near him…Since we were not allowed to see Dad or to stay in France, we returned to England and our apartment.”
Ever since we discovered two sources of records for our grandfather’s Battalion (1100 men and 35 officers) in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces, my sister and I had longed to visit the area where he had fought and been injured. On our recent trip to the Flanders area of France and Belgium, we set out to follow in his footsteps and learn more about what he experienced, using, the 28th Battalion History, a War Diary of Intelligence Summary, Stewart A.G. Mein’s, Up the john!: the story of the Royal Regina Rifles, and our grandfather’s medical records to plot our route, as well as our mother’s written recollections of that period of her childhood.
While our grandfather had not been near Arras, where a major battle in 1917 wiped out much of the town, our introduction to commemoration of WWI on our trip began with the photo exhibit around the town square in Arras on the first night of the trip. We viewed some of the photo signs the day we arrived and I spent an hour the next morning viewing and reading each of the 100 photos.
One panel of photo exhibit
Our actual pilgrimage began 5 days later near Dunkirk, not far from Boulogne-sur-Mer where he landed. Armed with the logs and maps, we wound our way along country roads to St. Omer, which was along the train route to Cassel. At first we envisioned the Battalion walking along the same roads we were traveling, until we realized that over 1100 men would have marched across field and not followed the roads.
When we approached Cassel, we followed the signs – looking left and right for a railroad station. As the road headed up the hill, we noticed that it still retained its brick construction.
We quickly realized that the train station would not have been on top of a hill!
“I can find the railroad track,” Chris, a train buff, informed us. “It will be south of the hill,” and she directed us down the opposite side of the hill and through some farms and soon spotted the railroad track, but no station.
Upon reflection after our visit, it seems likely that the train stopped at some point and all of the soldiers disembarked and then marched the approximately 4 miles to Saint-Sylvestre-Cappel where they set up camp.
September 25 – “Marched to Kemmel where we relieved the 15th bn (battalion) trenches about midnight.” War Diary Intelligence Summary
We continued our route, following the D933 through Caestre,
near Ballieul, France
Locre to Kemmel.
Soldiers that died at a specific location were buried there together. At some points we passed small roadside cemeteries with a few rows of crosses marking the burial sites of fallen soldiers.
While most of the blossoms were gone, a few bright red poppies dotted the road sides – very fitting.
As we passed through the countryside, we were cognizant of the fact that most of the trees and buildings were less than 100 years old.
There were no remnants of war-time trenches. While I had seen trenches depicted in movies, it was a real eye-opener to see an actual reconstruction of one at the Musee de la Grande Guerre in Meaux that we visited on our last day,
as well as a ‘no mans land.’
diorama of ‘no mans land’
September 26 – “The trenches were bombarded…by German trench mortar. 1 man was killed. Another man was killed by a sniper.”
28th Battalion History, First Winter at the Front 1915-16.
Mein describes conditions in the trenches “..the Batallion packed itself into its allotted front line positions, so full of men that at times movement was almost impossible.” And, “The first tour in the front line for the 28th was relatively uneventful. It was devoted chiefly to shaking down, getting adjusted to the dank trench life, and acquiring a taste for army issue rum.”
The Battalion remained in the trenches until September 30 when they were relieved and went to nearby shelters in the village of Kemmel. The following evening at 11 PM, the Battalion was moved to Locre, 2.5 miles away. From there they worked in shifts day and night building articles to be used in the trenches and then transporting the items to the trenches.
“A large number of men being sent to the Div baths and a large percentage suffering from colds and rheumatism due to wet and exposure.” War Diary Intelligence Summary
It’s hard to imagine the conditions under which the soldiers lived and worked.
The Battalion returned to the trenches on October 6,
“leaving Locre at 4:30 pm marched to the trenches where we relieved the 31st Bn…being completed by 10:30 pm.” War Diary Intelligence Summary
The October 12 log reads “…in trenches most of the day, artillery duels in the afternoon, enemy shell buried a number of our men killing two and wounding nine…” War Diary Intelligence Summary
October 12 is the date that our grandfather’s medical records indicate that he was buried by a shell explosion. According to oral family history, he was initially considered to be dead and was one of those buried by an enemy shell. A telegram was sent to our grandmother letting her know of his death. The following day when a party went to retrieve the dead, they discovered that our grandfather had been ‘buried alive’ and was still breathing. Our grandmother received another telegram informing her that her husband was injured. Her immediate reaction was that the order was reversed.
The medical records indicate that he suffered a contusion and was initially treated in the field and then transferred to Mont des Cats, where a casualty clearing station had been set up in the abbey. On October 29 he was returned to duty, only to be hospitalized again on November 5 suffering from pain – duh. He was returned to duty after two weeks and served until April 1916 when he was transferred back to Shorncliffe, England with ‘slight’ shell shock.
He was a man who never complained, just stoically did what needed to be done. It was humbling to realize just what he endured.
While the Battles at Ypres happened before and after our grandfather fought in the area, we had planned to visit Ypres – not far from Kemmel – in hopes of attending the daily Last Post ceremony. Unfortunately, it was too late when we arrived.
Town Square, Ypres, Belgium
The crowds were streaming away from the Menin Gate, so we ducked into a restaurant to assure ourselves a table before everything filled up. As we ate, I realized that everyone in the restaurant was about our age – the last generation to know someone personally who had served in the Great War. We pondered whether subsequent generations would care and visit.
Our cousin Kam stated, “This should be on everyone’s bucket list that had family fighting in this area. Peter and I have been to the ceremony three times and it was just as moving the third time.”
After dinner we walked over to the gate where the ceremony is held nightly – rain, snow or shine.
Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium
Everything came together on our last day in France when we visited the Musee de la Grande Guerre
As we walked up the front path, a motion sensor triggered a variety of recordings – first of horses’ hoofs, then boots marching, and further up the path gun shots.
walkway to museum
After a historical overview that refreshed us on the events that led up to the war, we entered the main gallery.
I was reminded not only how vast the war was, but that soldiers from European colonies were conscripted.
It has been war that has led to the development of devices to assist ‘wounded warriors,’ which in turn, has benefited other people with disabilities – who previously had not been a priority.
Dioramas depicted soldiers marching – and very cleverly includes those who died with uncolored figures.
I was wandering in a side gallery when I came upon this photo and called Chris over to look at it.
“Oh my God,” she exclaimed. “It’s grandpa.”
For both of us, the reality of being ‘buried alive’ and then struggling to gradually work part of his face to the surface was staring us in the face.
Our journey through Flanders had enabled us to better understand not only our own grandparent’s experiences, but hopefully will be a legacy for our children and grandchildren.