On 24 October 1915 Charlie Ross Francis, a 26-year-old insurance adjuster, joined the 90th Canadian Infantry Battalion in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Like nearly 55 per cent of his fellow Canadian soldiers, he was born in Canada, not Britain. In fact, on his mother's side he was descended from fur traders and native Indians. His father, however, was born in Kent and he had numerous relatives still living in Britain.
Charlie never questioned why he should join up; it was simply his duty to go to France and fight in World War One. Throughout his service, Charlie kept a diary as well as writing frequent letters to his 'Dearest Mother' and other family members back in Manitoba. The following extracts are taken from both sources.
6 September 1916 (letter from England): 'The news that you have no doubt been expecting is that I am going over to France... I feel great and am looking forward to it.'
15 September 1916 in France (diary): 'We have had a number of lectures from the various NCOs and officers and they are very blood-thirsty... have no mercy at all on the enemy, but kill every German that is possible. It is a teaching which we will no doubt put to a practical use in the near future, but at the present stage I really do not feel as if I could run a man through with a bayonet in cold blood. It is a good preparation for what is coming tho' and seems to inspire the men or perhaps rather it gets them more familiar with the thought of it, and they speak quite callously of killing men or "gouging their eyes out".'
26 September 1916 (diary): 'We are at least 12 miles [about 19km] from the firing line and perhaps more, but last night we could clearly see the shrapnel and the star shells flaring in the horizon, and being the first sight of the actual war I stood some time and watched it.'
29 September 1916, the Somme (diary): 'The 8th Battalion passed on their way out of the trenches. They were badly smashed up but had had a successful innings in the trenches.'
Charlie later learned that the 8th Battalion had just lost 525 of 750 men who had gone into action the day before he was meant to join them.
Baptism of fire
Canadian troops going over the top in 1916
7 October 1916 (diary): 'This night I received my baptism of fire. We were on a working party and it was our duty to carry bales of wire up to the second line of trenches. Never, I think, shall I forget that carry. The bales weighed about 180lbs [about 81kg] and were carried by two, through slippery trenches, in and out shell holes, over broken wires, all making the worst roads possible. I thought my back would break many a time. Add to this the sight of dead bodies seen in the half light, shells falling, which although not close were near enough to green men, it was, to say the least, not a pleasant night.'
9-17 October 1916 (diary): 'After a few hours rest we went on a working party digging a communication trench... We had little or no water brought to us in the front line and only about half a pint when we got back and it was mostly petrol as it had been brought up in petrol tins. My mouth dried up and I couldn't swallow. I chewed a little tea and it helped temporarily but it was awful. Our work finished about 2am and we returned to the trenches... A hot supper (or breakfast) was served to us... I picked up the first utensil I could set my hands on which happened to be the common mess tin. I don't know what it had been used for, I scraped as much of it out with my fingers as possible and got my tea in it and a chunk of cold ham and never did anything taste so good. I could feel the slime on my lips but it didn't matter, it was alright...
'About noon we began to get some heavy shells put over at us. About the second one got a direct hit on the trench, lighting in a dug-out. It blew one of our boys to pieces, wounded another and temporarily buried two others. That was the first casualty in our company; in fact Kennedy, who was killed, was on my section. Shells were dropping all around us and a number of fellows had their dug-outs cave in and were buried but they were rescued. We could hear the shells coming for miles, and when they were within a few hundred yards I could actually see them drop. They were falling on all sides of me and I really expected to have one drop beside me. I resigned myself to death at that time...'
While experiencing the 'nerve-wracking wait for the next shell' in his dug-out, Charlie wrote what he thought would be his final letter home. He said how thankful he was to have 'the best mother in the world', which he was afraid he hadn't shown enough. Then, after apologising for the awful state of the letter, he finished with, 'You would laugh if I walked into the house plastered from head to feet with mud and with a three-days' beard on. I am a funny sight, I know, but there's no one to see...'
Charlie's company was fortunately relieved the following day, then spent a brief period in the reserve trenches before returning to the front line, this time near Vimy Ridge.