“The hardest thing that I have saw is a young fellow from Annapolis valley. I took a liking to him in Valcartier and keep him with me up to the last. We was attacking in a Woods when the poor fellow was shot through the neck. He could not speak but put out hand for me to shake it – certainly did get my nerves unstrung for a bit.”
The wood that Sgt. Charles Herbert Peck referred to was known locally as Bois-de-Cuisinères. The attack that unnerved him took place 100 years ago today and gave rise to its more familiar name of Kitchener’s Wood.
Peck hailed from Bear River, Nova Scotia and served in the 69th Annapolis Regiment before enlisting with the 17th Battalion in September 1914. By December the 33-year old Corporal had been promoted to Sergeant and was encamped at Sling Plantation on Salisbury Plain. From there he penned two letters to his friend ‘Wall’ back in Bear River and described his life in camp and the persistent rumours that the battalion was headed for Egypt. On March 25 a bitter Peck wrote from Tidworth Barracks to say he had been transferred to the 16th Battalion:
“I am separated from Garnet now. I am in the 16th Batt. Wall its to dam bad the way they used the poor old 17th practically all smashed up. Sam Hughes the old son-of-a-bitch swore that it never would go to the front and it seems he has kept his word”
Peck mentioned he was heading for Shorncliffe where he would attempt to join the 26th Battalion so that “he could be with Nova Scotia fellows if possible“. His plans never materialized however because four weeks later, on April 22, he wrote to Wall from the Ypres Salient commenting on both the beautiful weather and how he would rather be home enjoying “a drink of his cider“.
The 16th had just moved into reserve billets near the Yser Canal and were enjoying the beautiful Spring morning. The relative calm ended abruptly at 5pm when the Germans released 150 tons of chlorine gas along a 6km front, signalling the start of the Second Battle of Ypres.
Fierce fighting took place as the Canadian 1st Division attempted to plug a frontline gap that was nearly 3km long. Just before midnight the Canadian 10th and 16th Battalions formed up in eight lines with fixed bayonets and marched towards Kitchener’s Wood. The formation made it halfway before flares and Very lights lit up the night sky. The Canadians were mown down as they advanced through a hail of rifle and machine gun fire but the German defences broke and the enemy was pursued into the woods.
Peck doesn’t name the “young fellow” that died during the attack however I believe it may be Private Robert McLaughlin (#46321) from Wilmot, Nova Scotia. According to the CWGC database 137 men and officers of the 16th Battalion died between April 22 and April 24, 1915. Three of these were former 17th Battalion men, two of whom were from Nova Scotia but only one was from the Annapolis Valley. McLaughlin was 7 years Peck’s junior and also served in the 69th Annapolis Regiment prior to the war.
That attack on Kitchener’s Wood weighed heavily on Peck’s mind and in another letter he spoke of the “cursed gas” and his hatred for the enemy. Surrendering during the First World War was a risky business:
“They either run or get down on their knees and beg for mercy and believe me they get a lot of mercy (nix). The first fellow I stabbed know was in the night and I shut my eyes but I caught him in the neck”.
Peck’s last two letters were written in June while he was convalescing in England after having sustained shrapnel wounds to the head. Aside from terrible headaches one piece of shrapnel “about the size of a pea” was lodged dangerously close to his optic nerve. He may have been wounded in the latter stages of the 2nd Battle of Ypres but I suspect it may have been at Festubert in May. His letter of June 26th mentions being hit by shrapnel at Ypres but not being wounded:
“That night we got all mixed up lost all our officers we was a week getting back those what came. A large piece of shrapnel struck my pack and took it right clear of my back and god knows where it went to.”
Charles Herbert Peck survived the war and returned to Nova Scotia where he married in 1920. He died on March 24, 1945 aged 63 from a cerebral haemorrhage.