If Ye Break Faith

This blog is dedicated to the promotion of educating about the Canadian experience of World War One. To discover who we are as a nation in the 21st Century, we must understand our past.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Even the Bravest Among Us

“I cannot give an estimate of our casualties, but
 I believe they are severe”-Capt. TW MacDowell,
O.C. ‘B’ Coy, 38th (Ottawa) Battalion

Kingston, Ontario, January 1918

The young officer appeared a great deal more settled.  A recent medical board, convened to assess his condition had noted that he had begun to show much improvement.  Three months’ rest and observation in hospital seemed to have been sufficient to regain emotional control and his sleep had gone from frequent insomnia to being practically normal.  Although it seemed he was of good physical condition, he did complain of being more easily fatigued.  Well, that could be overlooked.  After all, the gentleman was only requesting a return to a staff position in England, not duty in France.  Other doctors had made note of the progress the patient had made, and now it rested with Major Russell, Canadian Army Medical Corps to make the final decision.

            “You’ve seen a fair bit of this war.  It wouldn’t be ill thought of if you remained at home.”

            “Thank you, Sir, but I must get back.  Surely I can be allowed to do what I can.”  He spoke evenly, and at a sedate pace.  The infrequent stammer seemed to have gone.  His hands rested naturally, the tremor also having diminished.[i]

            “It’s very admirable of you,” the Major admitted, “you’re certain about this, Captain MacDowell?”

            “Captain MacDowell!”  Only feet away, Kobus had to shout as he pointed towards the redoubt, the barrage overwhelmingly crashing down, taking over all sound.  Formed by staggered sandbags slightly raised from the trenchline, not ten yards away, two machine guns within it were hammering away at the advancing troops.  MacDowell looked about and could only account for Kobus and Hay, his company runners.

            “You two, follow me!” he ordered, “make ready with bombs.”

Vimy, France, April 1917

The first bit had gone famously.  ‘D’ Company had gained possession of the enemy’s front line.  Springing from a tunnel which led out into No-man’s Land a stone’s throw from the German trenches this first rush came directly behind the creeping barrage and these forward positions “had been taken with practically no opposition, and the other waves swept on after the barrage to their objectives further into the enemy’s line.”[1]  ‘A’ and ‘C’ Companies fanned out to the right; en route to clear out a series of fortified craters and gain touch with the left-hand battalion of the 11th Canadian Infantry Brigade.  Captain MacDowell and his ‘B’ Company were tasked with securing the “Main Line of Resistance,” a tangled intersection of trenches beyond the front line which was where the Germans were expected to stand firm.  Lifting and dropping sequentially, the barrage worked well to shield them on approach, but its protection was fleeting.  Once in, ‘B’ Company would have to clear out this position on their own while the artillery concentrated on BLACK Line targets in preparation for subsequent waves from the 78th Battalion.

Soon after breaching the MLR, a “nest of German Machine Guns were encountered near the junction of CYRUS and BABY”[2] trenches.  Once pointed out, Captain MacDowell knew exactly what to do.  Luck would have it, this wasn’t his first dance with a prepared MG emplacement.  “He led his company against an enemy position with great courage and initiative, capturing three machine guns and fifty prisoners,”[3] was the substance of his citation for the Distinguished Service Order he’d been awarded for actions at the Somme last fall.  Now, he’d have to do it again, and with only Kobus and Hay to assist him.  ‘B’ Company had become scattered, working in isolated groups.  The line, pummeled over a week’s heavy bombardment was no longer contiguous and now resembles a mess of disjointed, shallow ditches rather than a formidable defensive line.

“Captain MacDowell DSO 38 Bn. with his two runners bombed up BABY Trench and dislodged two of the guns, killing some of the crews and capturing on of the guns.”[4]  The men pursued the other gun and crew which had made haste to a dugout at the junction.  It turned out to be teeming with enemy troops still sheltering from the barrage.  Far more, it seemed, than was wise for the three men to face up to on their own.  All the same, the three here were all there was to work with.

“By a judicious amount of bluff, Capt. MacDowell fooled the enemy into thinking he had a large party with him.” Brought out in batches of twelve at a time between his runners, they were “dispatched towards our lines with a few parting shots.  The capture of this party was admirably carried out and it is due entirely to the bravery of Capt. MacDowell.”  Taking what turned out to be seventy-seven prisoners with just himself and two privates, MacDowell wasn’t able to accomplish this feat entirely clean.  “Some of the prisoners showed fight when they found out the smallness of the party.  This was promptly and effectively prevented from spreading by immediate and drastic measures.”[5]

When the last of them had been sent off, Captain MacDowell began work to organise his position into a strong point.  Very quickly, he scrawled out a report and sent it back to Battalion HQ.  It was now eight o’clock in the morning.

“A report came in,” Battalion logs note, 45 minutes later, “from Capt. TW MacDowell by runner, timed 8 a.m., that he was on his objective at BABY Trench.”[6]  Of that MacDowell had written “I am afraid is not fully consolidated.  The mud is very bad and our machine guns are filled with mud.  I have about 15 men near here and can see others around and am getting them in hand slowly….I cannot give an estimate of our casualties but believe they are severe….The 78th have gone through…The line is obliterated.”[7]  Suggesting Brigade machine guns would be well suited to the fields of fire he had, Captain MacDowell prepared to defend his position with what men he could muster.  “This is all I can think of at present,” he closed, “Please excuse writing.”[8]

Battalion HQ had no ability to help MacDowell for the time being.  The C.O. was wounded and ordered out of the line by the Medical Officer.  Major Wood had taken over operations, and ‘B’ Company wasn’t in the worst state.  No one was in contact with ‘A’ Company, and it was unknown if the right flank was secure at the craters or if contact had been made with 11th Brigade.

Claiming the large dugout which he had slyly wrested from the enemy as his headquarters, Captain MacDowell sent back another dispatch at half-past ten.  “There are only 15 men with me,” he reminded Battalion HQ, “of whom two are stretcher bearers.  The rifles are one mass of mud.  I have two Lewis guns and only four pans.  Both guns are out of action on account of the mud.”  He also couldn’t observe anything from the 78th Battalion which had moved beyond his post, except that there appeared to be wounded men out there.  Also out there were more German machine guns, pouring sporadic, grazing fire on his isolated outpost, keeping him pegged.  “I have no Subalterns or N.C.O.’s, and unless I get a few more men with serviceable rifles I hate to admit it, but we may be driven out.”[9]

Situation at Battalion HQ had settled in the hours between Captain MacDowell’s reports.  ‘A’ Company had lost most of its officers, so Brigade reserve troops had been sent to reinforce the right.  As MacDowell’s runner was relaying his own urgent need for more men, “Pte. GJP Nunney who had come in to get a wound dressed…volunteered, if he got a carrying party to go out again, get the ammunition and go over to Capt. MacDowell.”[10]

Such a party was pressed together, mainly from ‘D’ Company men.  Led by Lieutenant Kelty, they found Captain MacDowell and his band of fifteen still holding firm, using captured German rifles, which, having been in the dugout, were not stopped with mud.

Early in the afternoon, Captain MacDowell sent back a third note.  It had, aside from occasional bursts from those German guns out and to the left, quieted down a great deal.  He and Lt. Kelty had a chance to make a good survey of this dugout.  “I cannot impress upon you,” he told Major Wood, “the strength of this position and the value of it as a strong supporting point to the left flank.”  From this point, he could see Lens and other villages as well as enemy battery positions.  Taking the dugout intact had been a tremendous boon.  It had been home to troops fresh to the line and fully accoutered.  “The cigars are very choice,” MacDowell informed Wood with a slightly cheeky coolness, “and my supply of Perrier water is very large.”

“Tell Ken to come up for tea to-morrow if it is quiet.”

The room was quiet.  “Captain MacDowell?”

He shook his head, returning to the time at hand.  “Sorry, Sir?”

Major Russell smiled, thinly.  “I said that as to your request to return to duty in England, I’m recommending that there is no medical reason why you should not do so.”

            “Thank you, Sir.  I was hoping to be of some good use.”

            “I’m pleased you feel so well about it.  We’ll get you back as soon as can be arranged.”

Thain Wendell MacDowell was awarded the Victoria Cross for his extraordinary efforts on 9 April 1917.  In July, a bout of trench fever put him in hospital and thence to Canada for a month’s medical leave to recuperate.   While home, the strain of his time at the front pushed past his resolve and he was readmitted to hospital in Spetember, suffering a nervous break from “stress of service and shell fire.”  Symptoms of this had first begun after he was wounded during the action at the Somme for which he was awarded the DSO.

Severely debilitated with tremors, physical exhaustion, profuse sweating and palpitations underscored by frequent “attacks of crying,” Thain MacDowell spent three months under medical care.  The man he was came through to the surface and by January of 1918 was returned, by his own request, to a staff position at Canadian Forces HQ in London.

He demobilised in 1919 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and went on to a productive private life.  Lt Col. TW MacDowell VC DSO passed away at 70 years of age in 1960.

None could question the courage of a man with such decorations for valour, but perhaps the bravest thing he did was seek help for his invisible wounds.

No one need suffer alone.  If you or a loved one is affected by emotional or mental health concerns, it is a great strength to reach out for help.

In Canada:                 Veterans Affairs Crisis Line:
·        1-800-268-7708
·        TDD 1-800-567-5803

United States:            Veteran’s Crisis Line: call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1

United Kingdom:      Veteran’s UK Helpline: Freephone:0808 1914 2 18
Telephone (overseas):+44 1253 866 043
Normal Service 8.00 am to 5.00 pm Monday to Friday
When the helpline is closed, callers will be given the option to be routed to Combat Stress or The Samaritans 24hr helpline.

[1] 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade “Report on Operations on Vimy Ridge” War Diary, April 1917, Appendix 5
[2] 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade, ibid.
[3] Supplement to the London Gazette, No. 29898, 10 January 1917, pg. 454
[4] 12th Canadian Infantry Brigade, ibid.
[5] ibid.
[6] 38th (Ottawa) Battalion “Report on Operations of 38th Canadian Infantry Battalion” War Diary, April 1917, Appendix 2
[7] MacDowell, TW, Capt. “Battle Report, 8 a.m. 9 April 1917” 38 Bn. War Diary, April 1917, Appendix 3
[8] MacDowell, TW, Capt. Ibid.
[9] MacDowell, TW, Capt. “Battle Report, 10:30 a.m. 9 April 1917” 38 Bn. War Diary, April 1917, Appendix 3
[10] 38th (Ottawa) Battalion ibid.

* This narrative was compiled with information contained in the medical records of TW MacDowell. The conversation between MacDowell and Major Russell is dramatized.

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