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

By Randy Richmond, The London Free Press

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.

The battle changed the war, gave Canadians a reputation and inspired the poem In Flanders Fields.


The Canadian stand at the Second Battle of Ypres as painted in an enormous canvas by Richard Jack in the first of a nearly 1,000 works by more than 100 artists commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Fund. (Canadian War Museum)

The Canadians had arrived in France in the winter of 1915 and spent the first few months in minor skirmishes as both sides in the conflict were dug into the trenches.

But in April, the First Canadian Division was sent to help keep the Belgian city of Ypres, key to protecting Allied ports. The Second Battle of Ypres took place April 22 to May 25. It was the first time the Germans had used poison gas on a large scale. Outmanned and gassed, the Canadians held ground against the Germans, losing about 6,000 soldiers but gaining a reputation as tough fighters.

Leonard was there and described the daily horrors of the battle.


Canadian Lt.-Col. John McRae, who wrote his haunting poem In Flanders Fields after the harrowing Second Battle of Ypres where Canadians endured the first German gas attack of the war.

Diary excerpts from the Great War

April 18, 1915 (Ypres, Belgium)

A very heavy dew and too cold to sleep without coat. German aeroplanes very numerous in early morning and no allies, but later saw a French aeroplane bring one down with machine guns, and field guns smashed it up later . . . Bodies found everywhere . . . and parts showing. I can count over 300 German bodies on wire entanglements and between trenches. They have been there since November mostly, and smell most terrible. It is impossible to bury them as we have no time . . . More or less shooting all day. Some shells burst only a few yards off. Aeroplanes very active over us and much influence shooting at them.

April 19, 1915

Got wire laid to Headquarters . . . Shell burst over (another man) and me on the way up, causing bullets to fall around us. Got telephone wire in after dark and put up sand bags . . . Explained various points to all ranks, concealment at this point and cleanliness around position essential. One whistle from our planes to ‘carry on,’ and three to ‘stand to.’ Boche dropped a big shell into St. Julien in our rear; also shelled our support trenches immediately in our front. Some of the French dugouts very complete, one even having a door bell.

April 20, 1915

Cold and dull all day. A lot of heavy firing in the vicinity last night. Registered right and left of right half sector in the p.m. . . . Boche shells dropping everywhere on and off all day. Rather quiet as regards aeroplanes . . . The men’s dugouts are very comfortable and so is mine, with mess-room, kitchen, etc., more or less bomb-proof, Another attack towards St. Eloi in evening.

April 21, 1915

Dull in the morning, but bright later. Wire to trenches cut early in the day . . . Between 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. fired 60 rounds upon German trenches at various points with considerable damage to parapet, as the shooting was good. Germans set fire to a farm near us and dropped quite a few shells near us without effect. There are four graves just behind us — one marked “unknown English soldier killed on the field of honor Nov. 1914,” and three French soldiers, two of which were unknown.


A photo of the battle-inflicted ruins of Ypres. (Library and Archives Canada)

April 22, 1915

About five p.m. great clouds of smoke arose in the direction of French trenches on our immediate left. We opened fire on our own front, and shortly panic-stricken Turcos (French colonial forces) began coming through our lines and a sulphureous smell became noticeable, which was very hard upon the eyes. The Germans use a poisonous gas and drove the French in, taking the Canadians in flank. We continued to fire hard until ten p.m., when we were ordered to withdraw . . . We only had one man wounded, thanks to good dugouts . . . Dead horses and overturned timbers lying in the road and some dead men . . . How we got clear down that road, with shells bursting as they did, without loss was only by the Grace of God.

(Note: Appended to the diary is a copy of a British newspaper article quoting General Malcolm Mercer, the most senior Canadian officer ever to die in combat: “Major Leonard stuck to his guns and as the Huns advanced, lowered his elevation and ordered the shells to be set for instantaneous explosion, making great holes in their massed formation. This, I consider, was one of the first things to turn the tide of battle. Why all his gun-crews and Major Leonard, himself, were not killed by rifle fire, I have not been able to understand.”)

April 23, 1915

Got into position about 12.30 and fired all night, getting rid of a tremendous number of rounds . . . The Germans shelled us all the time, killing a number of the 9th Battery on our right. How our losses were so low is marvellous. Ammunition came up several times, and nearly 1,200 rounds must have been fired . . . Watched infantry advance . . . despite heavy hits and murderous machine gun fire. They advanced in short laps, falling face flat on faces . . . Quite a few killed as they went and the field was well strewn with bodies . . . I located a house containing a machine gun by direction of spats of dust and help of infantry officers. Hard to find my bursts . . . but finally did so, and blew inside of building out.

April 24, 1915

Spent the night in pit dug to give protection from shrapnel, but could not sleep as so crowded, uncomfortable and cold and itching (lousy). Orders at 4:10 to open fire again, as Germans attacking our trenches. German planes very active. It is funny that they are always on hand when the business is on, and British seldom give us any protection . . . Things now began to look serious, so we decided to move back. Dug-out blown in and equipment scattered everywhere. We left the guns and took cover in a near-by hedge, and by the Grace of God again surely that no one was killed . . . Ypres being heavily shelled. . . Five of us retire in a dug-out but later the rain started and we were more or less in mud. On lying down I found I had been hit with a shrapnel bullet, but field service dressing had saved probably a broken thigh.

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

randy.richmond@sunmedia.ca​


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