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

London Free Press

, Last Updated: 1:51 PM 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.


Training for battle reflected many of the conditions soldiers would experience in the trenches along the Western Front — rain, cold and confusion.

After arriving in England in September 1914, Leonard and about 30,000 other Canadian soldiers spent the fall and early winter training in Salisbury.

It was one of the soggiest seasons on record, as Leonard’s diary frequently reflects.

The diary also suggests many of the changes that were to come with the war — from the dominance of the airplane and the end of the horse artillery, to trench warfare.

Despite the hardships of basic training, officers of means had opportunity to socialize in the nearby towns on the Salisbury Plain and occasionally in London.

Other soldiers drank when and where they could, which Leonard considered a problem he had to solve.


Members of the 1st Canadian Division line up before a drill on England’s Salisbury Plain, where troops went to train before shipping out to the Western Front. (Library and Archives Canada)

Oct. 24, 1914 (Salisbury, England)

Slept well for the first time. Rain all night and all day pretty hard. Got horse lines changed and paraded before Lord Roberts, who was in a motor car, between the lines . . . Everybody got soaking wet. Aeroplanes passing overhead all the time, and a battery of heavy artillery firing live shell just east of us.

Oct. 25, 1914

Rain again intermittently . . . Had a chat with Col. Planet, who seems to think that this war will end horse artillery. All now seems to be a question of digging in.

Oct. 26, 1914

Sun shone occasionally, with a high wind which dried things and allowed use to clean our horses. Received some more wagons, harness, saddlery and other equipment. Issued grooming kits and spent an hour at it myself.

Oct. 27, 1914

Got 13 new men and had to put one, a Russian, in guard tent at once for refusing to work.

Oct. 28, 1914

Paraded for review at 9 a.m. Half mile away, and waited over an hour, when generals . . inspected us. On account of shortage of equipment, it was a farce as far as we were concerned.


Canadian Lt. Harry Colebourn, training on the Salisbury Plain, plays with a bear cub he smuggled into Britain on his way to fight in Europe. The bear, which he named Winnipeg, lived out its life at the London Zoo and became the inspiration for author AA Milne’s classic children’s tale Winnie-the-Pooh. (Archives of Manitoba)

Oct. 29, 1914

Went to Salisbury with Cols. Simpson and Greer and their wives. Motor lorry hit us, compelling the ladies to get a lift home by Col. Greer and I walked home.

Oct. 30, 1914

Rain in the morning and afternoon . . . decided to start regular defaulters’ drills . . . Am much bothered with swollen fingers, due, I suppose, to damp weather. Row in canteen in evening caused by a few drunks. Will close the place up.

NEXT WEEK: Ypres, The City of the Shadow of Death.


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