The First World War: Excerpts from the diary of Woodman Leonard

Randy Richmond, The London Free Press

, Last Updated: 7:20 AM ET

Londoner Woodman Leonard commanded an artillery unit in the First World War and kept a diary of life on the Western Front and during several major battles. Sun Media is following excerpts of the diary each week.

Major Woodman Leonard knew his horses.

He rode in Canadian horse shows, in fox runs at the London, Ont., Hunt Club, and on the Canadian team for the Olympic Horse Show in London England in 1909. It was only natural he spent much of his time preparing for the First World War by getting horses. In August 1914, Leonard bought about 200 horses at about $200 a head and gathered about 170 men. On Aug. 29, after a parade down the city’s main streets, he and his men left for training at Valcartier, Que. A month later, he was aboard the steamer Montezuma in the St. Lawrence, crammed in with men, horses and equipment for the voyage to England. Horses loom large in Leonard’s diary entries of that period. So does his acerbic take on Col. Sam Hughes, the controversial Canadian militia commander who rushed to get men trained in Valcartier, leading to many problems and complaints.


Horses pack ammunition to the front with Canadian soldiers. Horses paid a heavy price during the war. Of the more than one million alone sent overseas for the allied war effort, less than one-tenth returned. (Government of Canada)

Diary excerpts from the Great War

Sept. 25, 1914 (Quebec, aboard the steamer Montezuma)

Ship lay all day waiting for four signallers who came off late in p.m. . . . Lifted anchor at 8 p.m. and ran 20 miles below Quebec, where we anchored again. This embarkation has been badly handled all through, and is only a fitting climax to the reign of incompetence under which we have lived ever since we came to Valcartier.

Sept. 26, 1914

Lay at anchor all day not far from Grose Isle, with several other ships quite close. Horses seem to be doing well, but eat the wood work of their pens, which caused the boatswain, a funny little chap, to paint tar upon the headers. Capt says he “works like a mule.” The signallers are busy on semaphore work between ships under “Admiralty Rules.”

Sept. 27, 1914

Weighed anchor at 8 a.m. and steamed down the river all day. Lost our first horse, a fine chestnut, to-day. He just dropped dead in his stall.

Sept., 28, 1914

New orders received by mail changing point of rendezvous to Thursday. Swore in a likely bunch of men. Lost our second horse from abscesses.

Sept. 29, 1914

Held office and gave a few extra stable work. Swore in another lot. Got hold of some newspapers, but no important war items. The tars are doing some grumbling, but my men are apparently satisfied. We now have 974 horses, 8 officers and 134 men aboard. Got a bulletin saying that (German army commander Von Kluck) practically surrounded.

Sept. 30, 1914

Got under way about midnight and steamed all day along the south shore of the St. Lawrence. A perfect day, with a bright sun and a blue sky. Got nearly all the rest of the men sworn in. Encountered one free thinker and one who did not want to serve for six months after termination of war.

Oct. 1, 1914

Admiral (Rosslyn) Wemyss visited us in the morning with his paymaster and had a talk with Capt. and me. He wears a monocle, but seems a very decent old sport . . . The Minister of Militia (Sam Hughes) passed in a tug and threw aboard copies of his farewell speech — a bombastic and lurid composition.


The SS Montezuma, a steamer used to ferry Canadian soldiers and supplies to Europe for the First World War.

The week in the war

Sept. 25, 1914: The Battle of Albert begins, part of the Race to the Sea that eventually led to the establishment of trench warfare. Franco-British and German armies tried to reach the North Sea first to outflank their opponents. Neither gained a decisive victory in the many battles during the race or after, and dug in for a long war in the trenches.

Sept. 28: The Siege of Antwerp begins. German troops bombard the fortified city, held by Belgian, British and French armies. The city surrendered to the Germans Oct. 9

Sept. 29: Turkey enters the war on the German side.

Woodman Leonard

  • Born: Nov. 23, 1883
  • Graduated Royal Military College: 1903
  • Major, 12th Battery: 1914-1916
  • Distinguished Service Order (DSO): Jan. 14, 1916
  • Promoted to Lt. Col., 3rd Brigade: June 1916
  • Died: April 7, 1917 (killed at Vimy Ridge)
  • Battles fought: Ypres, The Somme, Vimy Ridge

Next week: Rain and confusion. Welcome to England.

randy.richmond@sunmedia.ca


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