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

Randy Richmond, The London Free Press

, Last Updated: 7:14 AM ET

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

More than 30,000 Canadian volunteers arrived in England in the fall of 1914 to begin training before heading across the English Channel to the battlefields of the Western Front. The chaos upon their arrival foretold the confusion of the trench warfare they were about to endure.

Among the men was Major Woodman Leonard of London, Ont., with a background in the military and business.

Leonard ended up leading an artillery brigade through some of the most harrowing battles of the war, but first came the hard work of getting men and horses ashore. Sometimes, more than once, he was also called upon to feed or pay for supplies for his men.


Canadian soldiers march passed the ancient Stonehenge monument while training in England in 1914. (Library and Archives Canada Photo)

Diary excerpts from the Great War

Oct. 14, 1914 (Aboard troop ship nearing England)

Still blowing and raining . . . with the convoy much scattered on account of the wind. Issued cap, collar and shoulder badges . . . Saw several torpedo boats and a cruiser at target practice. She was doing some good shooting. Paraded the men and made a few remarks about disembarkation . . . Had a final toot with the Captain, who has been more than decent all the time

Oct. 15, 1914 (Plymouth, England)

Made for Plymouth and entered outer harbour, where we anchor. Forts and camps all over the place and every imaginable species of war ship. Also saw trawlers steaming in pairs fishing for submarines. After lunch a naval officer came aboard . . . He states we should have docked at Southampton, but German submarines were located in that vicinity . . . Very hot between decks and no way of getting more air. Got goods and chattels packed up.

Oct. 16, 1914

Could not sleep on account of water from condensers of both boats just under cabin. Tried to get . . . report on conditions, but failed. Got some newspapers . . . Capt. Went ashore and posted all letters. Antwerp has fallen into German hands.

Oct. 17, 1914

We have lost two horses since we docked. Weather somewhat cooler, but flies almost a plague. At 6 p.m. a tug came alongside and took us, after many delays, to a berth at H.M. coaling dock . . . We worked from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. unloading horses and got nearly 500 off, including my Peggy, who looks well.

Oct. 18, 1914

Apparently everything in hopeless confusion on account of Canadians coming here in place of Southampton. Embarkation officer nice enough in a way, but seemed to have no influence in getting working parties or transport . . . Had to shoot two horses on account of weakness . . . One horse got away, however, from working party and jumped off quay. He swam to the other shore and we got him later.

Oct. 19, 1914

Up at 5 a.m. and got the rest of baggage and men off . . . We all had a snack of grub amongst great heaps of coal, but found the majority of the men worked like Trojans . . . Later took them all to a restaurant and gave them a good meal at my expense . . . Our camp is at West Down North . . . Passed the famous Stonehenge on the way up, one of the pre-Saxon monuments from about the Christian era and said to be where the early Britons made their sacrifices.

Two weeks in the war

Oct. 16 to Oct. 31, 1914:

Battle of the Yser: Belgian force manages to stop German advance, but the aggressors now control 95% of Belgium.

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: Basic training on England’s soggy Salisbury Plain

randy.richmond@sunmedia.ca


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