Lest We Forget
 
11/11/2020
 
John Hutcheon
 
On this Armistice, this writer wishes to draw your attention to a Great War soldier laying at rest in a countryside graveyard.  Nothing really distinguishes him from any of the hundreds of thousands of others found in kirkyards across the country: he didn’t win a Victoria Cross, he wasn’t tragically young, he didn’t leave behind a wife and children.  But that in no way should diminish the sacrifice he made for peace, no way lessens the bravery and grit he showed, and it would in no way have ameliorated the loss his family and friends would have felt back home.  For a few moments of your time I wish for you to think of John Hutcheon, a farmer’s son from just outside Barthol Chapel.
 
John was born at North Bethelnie, in the parish of Meldrum, early on the morning of April 28th 1875 to John Sr. and Christina Hutcheon.  His father was a 31-year-old cattleman hailing from Methlick while his mother, from Oyne, was 28.  They had married in Inverurie four years previously.  John Jr. would be one of seven siblings, a brother to: Christina, Ann, George, Charles, Elizabeth and James.  The family would eventually settle together in a tied house on Balgove Farm about a half-mile south of Barthol Chapel.  There, John Jr. lived till his mid-teens.  By 1891 he was away, less than two miles north as the crow flies, but away.  He was 16 and was working as a farm servant at Bogside for a Mr. Robbie Shepard (probably not the one you’re thinking of).  
 
John had grown into a fit young gentleman, albeit he was of average height at 5’7”.  He had a pair of blue eyes, which he could perhaps use to catch the eye of someone at a dance in the halls of Tarves or Fyvie.  Whether he ever found love isn’t clear and he remained a bachelor for years to come.  In those years he lost his mother, who died aged just 45 due-to complications in pregnancy, and when he next appears in the records, he is 26 and had made the move into the city.  He’d found work as a grocer’s warehouseman, and he was boarding at 75 Chapel Street, Aberdeen, living the life of a single turn-of-the-century man.  Of course, the early portion of this century was not destined to be kind to young men.  A great war, the likes of which the world had never known, was on the horizon.      

As it was, John Hutcheon enlisted to serve in the Great War in summer 1915, a year after the death of his father.  Perhaps he was spurred on by the sight of Lord Kitchener imploring men like him that his country needed them.  Though it was not necessarily a British banner he was to fight under, it was one of a dominion far across the seas, Canada.  In August 1915, John was in Vancouver, British Columbia, enlisting in the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force (CEF) which was significantly made up of British born men - nearly half.  This included over 47,000 Scots. John’s CEF records begin with his medical in Vancouver.  He was noted as being 40 years old (on the older side for recruits during World War 1), 149lbs with a 37-inch chest and with “good physical development”.  He bore no small-pox marks and showed no “congenital peculiarities”.   A clean bill of health.  
 
On September 9th 1915, John officially enlisted with the 72nd Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada), swearing an oath to;
 
“bear true Allegiance to His Majesty King George the Fifth, His Heirs and Successors” and that he “will as in duty bound honestly and faithfully defend His Majesty King George the Fifth, His Heirs and Successors, in Person, Crown and Dignity against all enemies… So help me God”.

  
It would be well into the following year, however, before this oath was put to the test.  In the meantime, John had months and months of training in Hastings Park, Vancouver ahead of him.  The first highlight of his time in the 72nd Battalion was an inspection by the Duke of Connaught, Queen Victoria’s third son Arthur.  John would have been one of the 660 overseas ‘Kilties’ who marched in review on the 16th of September.  By the end of September, the Battalion was at full strength and intensive training began in earnest.  Over the winter of 1915/16 the snow fell unusually deep for the Pacific Coast and the men of the 72nd Battalion were put through their paces, with instruction in use of weaponry, in tactics, in trench digging and in explosives, all in fairly challenging conditions.  Characteristically of their time training in Vancouver, their final inspection prior to their departure to Europe took place in a blizzard.  Notice of the off, when it finally came in April, was something of a surprise, as it came when the men were away on five day’s leave.  Hasty cables were sent out and the men raced back to Vancouver, ready for departure on Sunday the 16th of April 1916.  A crowd of 30,000 cheered the Highlanders off as they embarked by train for a cross-country journey to the East Coast, stopping off along the way for marches in some familiarly named towns to the Scots; Fort William, Ontario and Campbelltown, New Brunswick.  Their final destination in Canada was ‘New Scotland’.


On the 26th of April 1916, John and the men of the 72nd Battalion were embarking aboard the H.M. ‘Empress of Britain’ from Halifax, Nova Scotia (in a blizzard once-again) making their way back to the United Kingdom.  They arrived at Liverpool eight days later after a crowded but uneventful Atlantic crossing, and travelled by train to Liphook, Hampshire, a village famous for hosting Admiral Nelson on his last night in Britain before for sailing to Trafalgar.  The men were put up in Bramshott, a comfortable camp of 30-man huts surrounded by pleasant gorse-grown moorland.  The Battalion was due to train here for three months and a week, but John was to be plucked out from the wings rather sooner and was to be heading towards the theatre of war.

 
On the 18th of June, John was amongst the 150 men of the 72nd who were selected to be drafted into the 16th Battalion ‘The Canadian Scottish’, and whom would travel immediately to the Continent.  The 16th Battalion was something of a unique entity; a Canadian Highland battalion composed of four companies drawn from four Highland regiments, including John’s Seaforth Highlanders of Vancouver.  The men would still retain the identity of their parent unit, including wearing their distinct tartan.  The 16th Battalion had only recently been relived from its position outside Ypres, having only days before been participating in the ‘Battle of Mont Sorrel’ where the British lost almost 8,500 men.  The Battalion was now based at corps-reserve near Poperinghe (“Pops” to the British soldiers), eight miles distant from Ypres.  Here, the battle-weary men rested and reinforcements, including John Hutcheon, were absorbed.  What John made of the scenes greeting him in Flanders one can only imagine.  At 41 years old, John wasn’t a boy, but it’s doubtful anything in Aberdeenshire ever prepared him for this.  Fortunately, this would have been a position relatively isolated from the mud, deprivation, chaos and death of the front-lines, however, there was the constant danger of aerial bombardment; a Sword of Damocles forever threatening.  Life in reserve wasn’t all rest and relaxation: writing letters, reading, card games, football and cricket matches.  The men were also expected to participate in marches and drills, maintain their kit, attend lectures, and offer their labour to improving trenches, camps and roads.  The men of the 16th remained at Pops for nearly a month before on July 16th they were moved to the front-line.  
 
John Hutcheon would first experience life on the Front at Hill 60.  The “Hill” was in fact an 18-meter-high spoil-heap formed from soil excavated for a railway cutting, three miles south of Ypres.  Before the War, the hill was dubbed ‘Côte des Amants (Lover’s Knoll)’ by locals, but it had since been the scene of horrific bombardments, gassings, and bloodshed.  Indeed, in a span of just 39 days the previous year the British had lost nearly 60,000 men fighting for the hill.  For John, it would very much have been a case of out of the frying-pan and into the fire.  During his first five days on the front line his Battalion was “subject to more than the usual punishment which the enemy took care to inflict upon the garrison… the trench-mortar bombardments were terrible”.  The enemy trenches at this point were a mere fifty yards apart.  The Hill was undercut with extensive mines and counter-mines with each side attempting to blow up enemy positions from below.  It was the mines which would provide the first great loss of life in the Battalion during John’s time.  
 
In early August, British mining officers discovered the German mines had now reached a point where they posed a direct threat to the British lines.  It was therefore decided that the mines, of both sides, must be destroyed.  Two camouflets - small mines, would be placed on the surface which would explode downwards.  These mines were expected to direct their energy into the earth and disturb the surface very little.  The blasts were meant to concentrate in no-man’s-land and enemy lines.  The men of the 16th Battalion would be tasked with entering, occupying and consolidating the craters.  At 10pm on August the 3rd the “blow” happened.  Unfortunately, a miscalculation in the size of the explosions and failure to consider the looseness of the soil resulted in calamity for the men of the 16th.  The blasts threw up “junks as big as pianos” which blew back raining down on the trenches of the Canadians and the men of the bombing party.  Chaos ensued.  Some of the uninjured men raced to extricate their comrades, while others raced for the craters to try and salvage the mission.  Expecting to peer from the crater and find an obliterated German line they instead were confronted with an undamaged enemy front-line, with alert defences.  Forcing entry into German lines was now out of the question, so all that remained was to hold and consolidate the crater.  At midnight the men of the 16th repulsed a German patrol, and by daybreak the consolidation was compete and the men retreated to Canadian trenches.  For John Hutcheon this would have been his first taste of combat; coming under enemy fire at close quarters and seeing men around him maimed and killed.  In total the 16th Battalion lost 37 men on the night of the blasts and a further 23 who succumbed to injures in the following days.  If he didn’t realise what he was involved in before, he no doubt had a good idea now as he stumbled exhausted back into the Canadian trenches, under the coming dawn.   With quiet restored to the hill, relief would arrive in the days to come and the Battalion would leave Hill 60, presumably hoping to never to have to see the place again.  However, not before a final farewell from the Hill.  On their last evening the Battalion was ushered out by a gas attack.  The men, no doubt were relieved to find themselves back at divisional reserve.  
 
The relief to be away from the front-line was to be short lived.  It was eleven-thirty on their first night back in reserve; a hot, still night.  Out of the darkness came the sounds of gongs and horns; letting the men know that a gas cloud was imminent; perhaps a sound John Hutcheon was fast becoming accustomed to.  The men roused and hurriedly put on their gas helmets.  Those that couldn’t get them on fast enough began to cough and splutter as the heavy odour arrived.  All told, it was 45 minutes the men would have to wait till the cloud dissipated to a safe level.  However, it was a restless night for the men as they slept with ears open for further gongs.  Fortunately, the 16th suffered no casualties, but the next day the reality of the attack was driven home by the rows of dead bodies from other units.  A stark reminder, that even away from the front-line, the War was never too far away.  The disturbed rest would have weighed on the men the following morning of the 9th of August as they sleepily marched to another rest camp en route to distant battlefields.  John Hutcheon was on the move after seven weeks in The Ypres Salient.  The Battalion pounded the Belgian countryside singing their march song, happy to be leaving the area after four and a half months during which they had lost more than 200 men:
 

“Far, far from Ypres I long to be,
Where the Allemand cannot get me;
Think of me crouching where the worms creep, 
Waiting for Sergeant to sing me to sleep. 
Sleep? Sergeant—sleep? 
Does anyone sleep? 
They certainly sleep; everyone sleeps, 
But not—surely not, Sergeant! 
Not in the Yeep-pres Salient.”

For the men of the 16th Battalion the relief of leaving Ypres was tempered by rumours swirling of inconclusive battles with catastrophic losses of life in the region they were marching towards, the Somme.  The marches around the rearward of the Somme were made in stages through relatively peaceful farms and villages, where ad-hoc accommodation for the men had to be hastily found.  Often this meant the dreaded billets.  The regimental magazine ‘The Brazier’ pointed out these fell into two categories: the “objectionable” and the “still more objectionable”.  It was a two-way street however, locals often rejected any advances to house soldiers owing to bad behaviour of previous billeted British men.  For the men of the 16th Battalion, their being ‘Canadian’ worked in their favour.   Their interpreter was able to open doors by pointing out they weren’t from the same country as the previous troublemakers.  Some nights the men were billeted in barns, whilst the Battalion headquarters were a chateau “with beautiful grounds, tennis courts and a countess”.  In contrast, one unfortunate officer of the 16th had his bedroll wrestled from his arms and thrown onto a manure heap by a disgruntled old Frenchman over some unknown grievance.  However, these days in the countryside provided the men with a much-savoured vision of freedom after Ypres;

Above the road were the wooded parklands of a ruined chateau; below it, stretching away from the foot of the steep slope, where the column was resting, to the horizon, as the sea from the shore, lay a wide countryside of beauty; to the left and front a rolling landscape of wooded parks and meadows, fields of green and ripening grain, with turreted old grey chateaux, red-tiled farmhouses, and villages peeping out from bowers of trees; to the right a carpet of green, the historic hunting preserve. The Forest of Eperlecques. Somewhere in this haven of peace was hidden the area where the troops were to recuperate and train for the great battle.”


Owing to the fine weather and questionable billets the men often abandoned French hospitality in favour of sleeping in orchards.  It is a romantic notion to think of John Hutcheon, there in a cool orchard, mercifully isolated from the summer heat and the mayhem that was coming.  Did he lay on his back at night, with his comrades by his side, looking up into the cloudless skies contemplating the largeness of the cosmos and the smallness of all that was around him; officers, marches, artillery, trenches, gassings, the Kaiser.  Fighting for what? Did he cast his mind back to the halcyon days of the previous century, when the concept of a world at war would be totally foreign.  When he didn’t have to consider a world much beyond his parish.  How many men like him were there at that very moment dreaming away the situation, dreaming of England, dreaming of Canada, dreaming of New Zealand, dreaming of Barthol Chapel.  On the evening of the 27th of August, the 16th Battalion began a march towards St. Omer to catch a train bound for the Somme.  In all, it would take four days of slow train journeys and marches through pleasant, forested countryside bearing no scars of War, before the men would reach Albert in the Somme, and the war honed back into view.

By the time the 16th Battalion reached the Somme on the 1st of September the battle was two months deep.  After an initial bombardment on the morning of July 1st, the German lines had remained steadfast.  British senior commanders then took the disastrous decision to advance on the Germans in long, close-formed lines, believing the “new men” of Kitchener’s army would not be capable of following complex tactics.  The German machine gunners would make light work of it.  The first day of the Somme stands as the darkest and bloodiest in British military history; 57,470 men wounded and over 19,000 killed.  Thereafter, a battle of attrition ensued.  British attack followed by German counter.  Neither side gaining much of an advantage.  Wave after wave of attack had rained down on the German line, attempting to break, what was naively thought, a foe there for the taking.  But the Germans had dug in and thrown everything they had in attempting to stave off destruction.  The result was a battlefield “as far as the eye could see… a troubled sea of brown earth with the wreckage of houses and villages derelict on its surface”.  It was into this stalemate the 16th Battalion had entered.  They reached the Brickfields, just outside Albert, and waited for the call.  

This came in no time at all.  On the morning of the 2nd of September, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade (which included the 16th Battalion) was attached to the 4th Australian Division of the Anzac Corps.  Collectively they were given the task to capture the farm at Mouquet.  The attack was scheduled to take place at dawn on the 3rd of September.  It was decided to send two battalions, one of which being the 16th, to forward positions close to divisional headquarters at Tara Hill.  On the morning of the 3rd the Australians assaulted the farm.  Initially, word filtered back to the men of the 16th that the mission had been a success, but there followed an ominous silence.  Then began rumours that some misfortune had befallen their Antipodean comrades, before an eventual confirmation that the farm had indeed been captured, but then swiftly lost.  At 10am the 16th Battalion was ordered to La Boisselle (or the ruins of La Boisselle), where they were told that at any moment, they could be sent to the battle line.  The men of the 16th were now on the very same ground on which the British launched the first assault of the Somme on the 1st of July.  Late that afternoon, assignments were given to four companies of the Battalion.  One company was to relieve Australian troops at the front line, two were to support efforts at Tom’s Cut and Box Lane, and another was to remain at La Boisselle.  Company Four, after great difficulty and danger throughout the night, found the Australian’s position at the Front, but found little sign of a trench or of the Australians.  When dawn broke, there was illuminated a scene of carnage and death.  Evidently the previous day the Australians had engaged in a ferocious skirmish.  What was left behind was “a mass of shell-holes bearing no resemblance to a trench”.  One soldier of the 16th stated, “bodies were lying everywhere.  Some partly buried, others above ground in various states of mutilation.  One body close to me was absolutely naked, covered in wounds”.  The Company from the 16th had unfortunately arrived too late to assist the Australians, but the large number of German dead attested to their fallen comrades giving as good as they got.  The Germans having witnessed the arrival of new men feared this was a harbinger of fresh attacks and commenced heavy bombardments.  The handover between the 16th and the surviving Australians was evidently carried out under great duress.  However, some Australians selflessly remained with the 16th at the Front for hours attempting to stem the German attack.  We cannot be sure John Hutcheon was amongst the men of the Fourth Company.  But the experiences paint a picture of the dread, the bravery, the toil that was universal to the heroic and stoic soldiers of the Great War.

For the men of the 16th Battalion, conditions on the front at Mouquet Farm were chaotic to say the least.  The Germans were regularly sweeping the area with field-gun barrages and the former pastures and fields were a mess of pockmarks and mounds formed from the continual shell fire.  The physical stresses they were under were exacerbated by a general confusion amongst command as companies were moved here, there and everywhere, and knowledge of who exactly was at the front and at what position became somewhat muddied.  Information from the Front was very difficult to come by and often proved unhelpful.  Promised relief didn’t materialise, and the Battalion were left in desperate circumstances.  Company Four had been so depleted by deaths and woundings that one officer stated, “We had stretches of line forty to fifty yards long and not a man in them, and our posts consisted of but two to three men”.   As rain poured incessantly, and shelling continued unabated the men could be forgiven in becoming demoralised.  Those who were fortunate enough to be below ground and sheltered from the rain were hardly better off.  The description of the dug-outs paint a grim scene of squalor and deprivation;


“On entering the place the first whiff of the vitiated atmosphere, heavy with the vapour rising from the damp clothes of the runners and linemen, who were resting between spells of duty, and the odours from the dressing station, which was separated from headquarters by only a blanket, made any newcomer shiver.  The air was so bad that the candles burned with but a faint glimmer.”

Things were not much better for the men of the other companies, still as they were hamstrung by confusion, depleted numbers and under constant artillery fire.  Those in command at Headquarters decided sending further men to the front was merely to invite further casualties.  However, fate intervened.  Just after midnight on the 5th/6th of September there came a desperate call from Company Four at the Front for reinforcements.  A message was to be relayed back stating the command’s position on the matter, no reinforcements.  The message would never reach the Company as the runner overshot the Front and stumbled into no-man’s land.  Two hours later those at Headquarters received an intelligence report, and suddenly the desperate situation of the men at the Front became clear.  The report stated that owing to a lack of personnel, the Battalion was attempting to hold down a Front far greater in length than it was supposed to be.  Immediately the Command instructed the 68 men of Company Two to advance to the Front.  Throughout the next day, the 6th, the Front continued to be bombarded by shell fire; men were being hit in large groups.  Of the 135 men who went to the Front in Company Four there was less than 20 remaining alive or unwounded.  With the reality becoming clearer to Command it was decided to abandon plans for an attack by the Battalion and relief was to be sent in.  The relief effort wouldn’t be completed until the following day owing to the fragmented nature of the Front and the constant shelling.  Day and night, the men of the 16th Battalion had suffered all the horrors of war, and in a state of great uncertainty with a Command that initially seemed reluctant to come to their aid.  The sheer number of casualties, however, had forced the Command’s hand - the surviving members of the 16th Battalion needed to be withdrawn and allowed to rest and recuperate.  For John Hutcheon, he perhaps thought he had suffered the worst war could throw at him.  He would have endured the cold, the mud, the rats, the bugs, the stench, the sleep deprivation, the hunger, the thirst and above all, the constant dread of life at the Front.  He perhaps thought being away from the Front he was out of danger.  It wasn’t to be.  

The circumstances of his wounding aren’t made explicit in records.  All that is discernible is that by the 9th of September, two days after the 16th left the Front, John Hutcheon was in the Number 9 General Hospital near Rouen.  The casualty form notes that John had suffered gunshot wounds to his face, right shoulder, left arm and hand.  The severity of his injuries necessitated more specialised treatment than hospitals on the Continent could manage.  The following day he was evacuated back to Britain, to the Canadian Casualty Assembly Centre (C.C.A.C.) at Folkestone, where he would have undergone assessment.  Men at the C.C.A.C. deemed unlikely to become fit again within six months were usually repatriated to Canada or released to other units in Britain.  For John, he was dispatched back to Scotland, to the Edinburgh War Hospital at Bangour, a requisitioned psychiatric hospital.  During the War the patients had been moved to other asylums to make way for injured servicemen.  At its peak, this hospital was treating over 3,000 patients.  John Hutcheon was to spend over three months in treatment here. 

John Hutcheon’s medical notes from this treatment speak clinically of his injuries.  In addition to the four separate wounds he had suffered, he was also severely impaired in his right eye - he is noted as having 6/36 vision in this eye.  This meant that only at a distance of 6 metres could he read a row of letters that a fully sighted person could read at 36.  This is well on the way to being legally blind in said eye.  On a more positive note, on the 30th of September, about three weeks since his wounding, it was noted that his wounds were “doing well” and were “practically healed”.  Three days later, he underwent a general anaesthetic and the foreign bodies were removed from his arm.  He didn’t appear to be totally out of the woods just yet, as it would not be until December 22nd before he was well enough to be transferred to the Canadian Convalescent Hospital (C.C.H.) at Epsom.  Following the Somme offensive, the C.C.H. had become the largest convalescence hospital in the United Kingdom, at its peak housing 3,800 beds.  John Hutcheon would remain in convalescence until well after the New Year.  Life in the C.C.H. would have involved physiotherapy, marches which gradually increased in intensity, and sports like football and cricket.  In an evening the men could enjoy West-End entertainment in the hospital’s 1,500 capacity recreation hall.  If the men were able, they were also permitted to pay a visit to Epsom itself.  It was not until the 6th of March 1917 that he was finally discharged, almost six months since his wounding.  The following day he was posted to a reserve Battalion in Dibgate, Kent.  About six weeks later he was taken back into his old Battalion, the 16th.  And by the on the 26th of April he was back in France, joining a Battalion still buzzing from their part in the Canadian success of the capture of Vimy Ridge.

In early May, the 16th Battalion were away from the field of battle and were resting and training.  For John it would be a gentle easing back into the life of a soldier.  For the Battalion, the month of May 1917 would be a time of medical check-ups, parades, baseball games, horse shows, and good food.  Amongst the improved rations the men enjoyed at this time were:  fresh vegetables, rice, sauces, curries, cocoa, coffee and biscuits.  The men had access to bath houses, clothing was cleaned and fumigated, and if they wished they could attend film screenings and concerts.  Of course, in time of War, luxuries like these could not last.  Even in their position in the rear, they were beginning to come under attack from long-range artillery and air raids and on the 1st of June the 16th Battalion were returned to the forward area, back to the realities of War.  

As it was, life at the Front that summer was far from being uncomfortable.  The weather was warm, and the men were in high-spirits.  Hearing the loud explosions as German ammunition dumps were destroyed, glowing in the night sky, the men believed the Germans to be a foe on their knees.  They were keen to attack the enemy, sensing an opportunity.  During the summer, there were very few casualties in the Battalion.  On July 1st, Dominion Day, the Battalion celebrated with a thwarted raid on the enemy trenches.  On the following two days, the Battalion easily fought off German attempts at retaliatory incursions, further buoying spirits.  On the 14th of July the 16th Battalion began a journey from Vimy Ridge to a new battle area at Hill 70, near Lens.  Over the rest of the month the Battalion spent considerable time running through attack scenarios in anticipation of a mission to retake the Hill from the Germans.  The attack was set for August the 1st, however, the weather broke, and the advance had to repeatedly be postponed.  The change in the weather and the frustration felt at not being able to put their training into practice wore heavily on the men; days and eventually weeks passed.  Finally, a day was set for the off, the 15th of August.  On the evening of the 13th the Battalion moved forward to take up positions at the battle front.  By 2:30am on the 15th, the men were all in place on Hill 70, in attack positions.  

At 4:25 am on the morning of the 15th of August, zero hour arrived.  Supporting artillery opened, and en-masse the Battalion climbed from their trenches and following their pipers crossed into no-man’s land.  On reaching the German’s wire the men of the Battalion were heartened to see Germans fleeing back from their front line.  Swiftly, the advanced party of the 16th were able to take possession of the enemy trench.  The Germans who remained put up little resistance.  After a pause to consolidate, sporadic and half-hearted German counter attacks were swiftly put down.  The threat of a larger counter was still present, heavily outnumbered as the Canadians would be.  However, as one officer noted, the Germans “appeared to be satisfied to stay where they were”.  The fight was over before breakfast.  The calmness of the operation is exemplified by a story relayed by one of the non-commissioned officers, who, in rushing towards the enemy line caught his kilt in barbed wire and fell face down into the mud.  On getting back to his feet, he noticed a fellow Canadian had suffered the same fate and was left muddy and bloodied.  The man looked him up and down and said “Well, Mac, I guess if you and I were hung for beauty now, we would be innocent men.”  While the Germans were happy to hang back, it is not to say they remained quiet. 

Throughout the 16th of August and over the ensuing night the shelling was relentless.  For John Hutcheon this was to be his last day in Battle for a short while.  At some point during the day it appears John was wounded.  Once again, he received wounds to his face and his right arm.  The night of the 16th/17th the Battalion were due for relief and early on the morning of the 17th the Battalion were able to leave the Front.  For John, rather than the billets at Mazingarbe, he was taken to the Number 4 General Hospital at Camiers, on the English Channel coast.  He would be at Camiers for four days, before being transferred to the British Red Cross hospital at Etaples.  He was here for only one night, before the next day being transferred once again to the Number 5 Convalescent Depot at Cayeux.  He would remain at Cayeux until the 7th of September before being despatched back to Base.  John had dodged death for the second time.  Would he be so lucky next time?

John arrived back to a Battalion in something of a holding pattern.  Much of September and into October was spent miles from the Front, aside from a week in trenches near Lens.  Then the 16th received word that they were heading back to Ypres.  On the 20th of October the Battalion began its long march back to Flanders.  Its third and final spell of duty in the Ypres Salient.  What greeted the men as they returned to those fields bore little resemblance to what they had met on the first of their deployments;

“What complete ruin had overtaken that spot! Wherever the eye roamed, in place of a landscape beautiful with spring verdure, as the Battalion knew it during its first tour in the Salient in April 1915, there was now utter dreariness. The plain, crowded with human activities, was devoid of any sign of nature’s life: bare trees, no blade of grass, brown ribbons of roads, and a waste of water-logged shell holes. November bleakness, the tread of hundreds of thousands of troops, the grind of wheels and the deliberate destruction of man had done their worst”

The 16th Battalion had arrived at Passchendaele.  The forthcoming scene of hundreds of thousands of casualties in three months’ time. Here they would supply work-parties and carrying parties, however, the 16th did not take part in any major attack.  The highlight was the capture of a ruined house near the Front.  On the 12th of November the Battalion left Passchendaele and moved south to Merville, back on the French side of the border.

Towards the end of 1917 and into 1918, unbeknownst to the men of the Battalion the War was entering its final act.  It was a time marked by fierce German attacks when victory seemed theirs for the taking, stemmed by brave Allied counter attacks.  Both sides were throwing everything they had in a final effort to crush the enemy.  The attacks reached further and further back from the Front.  Artillery was reaching into areas in the rear, into: rest billets, training depots, headquarters, and casualty stations.  Air power was becoming more of a threat as bombers roamed the skies dropping their hideous cargoes onto helpless villages and camps below.  At the Front, gas attacks were a constant menace and the men were having to live almost continually in respirators.  As the War reached towards its denouement there was to be found less and less safe havens.  The men at the rear were in as almost as much danger as those at the Front.  Relatively, however, the close of the year 1917 was fairly quiet for the men of the 16th.  Their main foe was the cold, which even the hardy Canadians in the Battalion were struggling with.  The Battalion would spend Christmas 1917 at Canada Camp at the Château de la Haie.  Festive it was not, the accommodation was described as “the rottenest, coldest bare camp we have ever been in” by one diarist.  Hogmanay afforded some celebration despite the “dreary” surroundings.  Celebratory dinners were had in shifts, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ was sung followed by the sounds of the mass pipe band.  Fortunately for the 16th it was not long into 1918 before they left the accursed billets at Canada Camp.  On the 7th of January the Battalion marched six hours to Bruay in wintry conditions.  On the following day a great blizzard blew in, dumping four inches of snow.  There followed a rapid thaw which flooded the town.   They were to be in Bruay for a fortnight.  It was not an area famed for its beauty being a mining region “with the griminess usually associated with such places” as one critic noted.  John Hutcheon would not have to spend the full two weeks there as his immune system would throw sand into the gears.

On the 13th of January, John Hutcheon was hospitalised for the third time during his service, this time however, not as a result of gunshot wounds, rather the result of Human alphaherpesvirus 3, better known as shingles.  He was placed in the care of the Number 12 Canadian Field Ambulance and would remain away from duty for 12 days as he recovered.  Stress can be risk factor for developing shingles, as the immune system struggles to ward off an infection which was hitherto under control for many years following chickenpox infection as a child.  It would be understandable after everything he had experienced thus far that he would succumb to this opportunistic infection.  By the 25th of January he was out of hospital and joined up with the Canadian Corps Reinforcement Camp at Aubin St. Vaast where he would remain here until well into spring.  On the 6th of April he was called back to his unit.  In the intervening months, the 16th Battalion had been in trenches at Hill 70, Loos and at Lens.  By the time of John Hutcheon’s rejoining, the Battalion was based near Arras in reserve positions, and before long they were back on the Front at Gavrelle.  

At Gavrelle on the 27th of April, the Battalion was to enjoy its most successful raid of the War, whereby a raiding party was able to capture 28 Germans, including one officer, with the loss of only five Canadian lives.  Buoyed by this, the Battalion were relieved and retreated into brigade support near Vimy Ridge.  Six days later they moved further into reserve to Anzin St. Aubin, near Arras.  Even at this point, safely back from the Front, the bombardments were hammering at the door to the town.  The air was heady with alarms and tension.  It was expected, coming into May, that the Germans were due to make a strong attack on the Arras front.  Intelligence even placed a date, May 11th, for the attack.  The bombardments continued relentlessly leading up to this date, each one the men feared heralding the German onslaught.  Fortunately, the 11th came and went with no attack.  The men began to make the most of life at Anzin St. Aubin, participating in sports, wild swimming, and Battalion dinners.  After a fortnight at Anzin St. Aubin, on the 19th of May, the Battalion moved on to army reserve at Izel-lez-Hameau, about fifteen miles back from the front.  Here the Battalion engaged in further training, in particular in tank warfare and with the fearsome Lewis guns.  This was in anticipation of a Canadian effort to take place at the Hinges front, the so-called “Delta” scheme.  

Although training could be demanding in army reserve, again, the men were able to make the best of the situation.  The training ground was five miles distant from the billets so in the cool of the early morning the men would march up.  Throughout a morning of bright sunshine, the men engaged in “moderate” exercises.  By lunchtime the training was over, and the men decamped to bivouacs in nearby woods to shelter from the scorching heat and here lunch would be served in the open.  In the afternoons, sports would be held, and in the evening, there would be Brigade singalongs.  After, the men would repair to their bivouacs and sleep amongst the cool trees.  The following morning mock battles would take place, and once passed the men would rest back in the woods.  Once evening fell and the day had cooled down the men would march the five miles back to Billets.  In all, this pleasant exercise was more like a Scout’s camp than a war for the men of the 16th Battalion. On the 25th of May the Battalion moved on to Monchy Breton, arriving “In fine form, fit for anything.”  Here they would remain till mid-June engaging in further training.  Fortunately, the training was just as enjoyable for the men as it had been in the previous week at Izel-lez-Hameau.  One member of the Battalion commented that training was “great fun, like a game a crowd of school boys would play.”  After the horrors the men had encountered over the previous years, and with the further horrors they would face in the coming months, it is hard to begrudge the men this pleasant interlude in the sun soaked French countryside.  The various companies of the Battalion would take it in turns to host parties running into the wee small hours, where strawberries and pastry were served, and a huge crowd of ‘brass hats,’ nurses and civilians were present.

“The weather keeps fine, hot sun every day.  The crops are turning golden and the country around us is beautiful — so quiet and peaceful.” 

On June 16th moved to Corps Reserve at Ecoivres.  Up to this point the training had been a roaring success; the men’s morale was at an all-time-high.  The Battalion kept on the move in the beautiful French summer weather: Ecoivres to Ariane Dump to Cambligneul to Tincques.  Dominion Day, July 1st, the Corps held a mass sports event at Tincques attended by 40-50,000 men.  In the grand stand were H. R. H. The Duke of Connaught and Sir Robert Borden, the Prime Minister of Canada.  From the polished brasses in the grandstand to the men in their khakis in the blistering sunshine, the day had the true feel of a holiday.  The Canadian Corps had never felt more vital.  Six days later, again at Tinques, the 3rd Canadian Brigade ‘the Highland Brigade’ held a Highland Gathering.  Highland regiments from across the British army descended on tiny Tincques, swelling the population of the village enormously.  Again, the weather complied with blue skies and sunshine.  In all, 22 pipe bands competed in competition, and all the traditional events were held: Highland dancing, shot putting, caber tossing and tug-of-war.  The day ended with 264 pipers and 48 drummers beating the retreat.  The frivolity had to end eventually, and on the 13th of July the Battalion headed back to the front, to Telegraph Hill near Arras.  John Hutcheon, however would not be long at the Front.  He was headed home on leave.

On the 20th of July, John Hutcheon was granted fourteen days of leave to head back to Britain.  What John did on his leave could only be speculated.  Having lost both his parents, if he wished to visit family, he would be visiting his brothers and sisters.  Perhaps he visited his brother James who was living in Govan, Glasgow, or if he wished to be a bit closer to home, he could have stayed with his sister Annie in Inverurie.  From Inverurie he could easily have cycled back to his old haunts around Barthol Chapel.  For first-hand accounts of leave from the War we can look to a project ‘Voices of the First World War’ from the Imperial War Museum.  Collected are accounts of soldiers who would spend days travelling back to Scotland, spend three days at home, before having to start the long journey back to the Front.  John was fortunate that he was afforded two weeks leave; perhaps well-deserved not having had leave up till this point of the war and having been seriously wounded twice.  Wherever he went, readjusting to civilian life may come as a bit of a shock as this testimony from one Charles Quinnell of the Royal Fusiliers attests;

The first night I came home, I got into my old bed and do you think I could sleep? No. Sleep wouldn’t come. It was the first bed I’d laid in since I’d joined the Army and when mother brought my cup of tea up in morning she found me fast asleep on the floor. Now that’s true. I’d got so used to sleeping hard that I couldn’t sleep on a soft bed.” 

Charles goes onto a detail how he would spend his days of leave, and certainly it is something it could be imagine John partaking in as he rediscovered the scenes of his youth;

“I’d always been a great lover of the country and before the war I used to do a lot of cycling – pretty well every weekend in the summer I’d be out cycling. And one of the first things I did was resurrected my old bike; pumped the tyres up; oiled it; cleaned it; and I rode round the old country, visiting the old scenes that I knew in peacetime. And that to me was the most enjoyable thing."

Inevitably there would be the questions from curious friends and family back home; “what was it like?”.  How could it be answered? One Private, Thomas Baker, explains;

“And I told them it was some kind of hell. Which it was.  And it was impossible to tell them really just how it was.  You told them the story of how men were at one moment were alive, and the next moment they were dead.  You know, it was just like that.  People didn’t seem to realise, you know, what a terrible thing war was, they didn’t.  You couldn’t convey the awful state of things where you lived like animals and behaved like animals.  They just didn’t understand it…”

Probably all too soon for John, the fourteen days would be drawing to a close and he would have to make the long journey back to the Continent.  The journey time to and from where you chose to spend your time away from the Front, of course, came out of your allotted leave.  On the 3rd of August John was back with the Battalion, who were at Lattre St. Quentin, ten miles west of Arras.  At 8am the following morning, the unit would board a train headed for somewhere they were not made aware of.  Clearly where they were headed, and the nature of the mission was of great secrecy.  Twelve hours later the Battalion disembarked from the train at Vieux Rouen-sur-Brise, before an overnight march took them to Dromesnil just before daybreak.  This was an area unused to the sight of massed soldiers, and kilted ones at that, and the Battalion’s arrival excited a great curiosity amongst the locals.  At 10pm on the 5th of August the men began a night march; passing Hornoy, through the deserted streets of Amiens, on to St. Fuscien and finally to the town of Boves where they rested the day of the 6th.  Still, the men were not any clearer as to where they were headed or what they would do once they were there.  Such was the secrecy surrounding the mission, false rumours had been spread stating the Canadians were on their way to Ypres, maps had been issued to further fuel speculation, and decoy bands of men were marching to that vicinity to confound spies.  At Boves, where the majority of the Battalion were, there was no sign of anything on the horizon.  This was not to last long.  

On the night of the 6th and into the morning of the 7th of August, as if emerging from the ether, masses of troops materialised in the area, along with tanks and heavy field guns.  The Germans were three miles away, and presumably now well aware something was afoot.  The following day, the 8th of August would be the beginning of the Hundred Days Offensive, which would ultimately bring the War to an end.  The offensive was to begin with the four day ‘Battle of Amiens’.  For John Hutcheon, it is difficult to know how he would have felt going into this battle, being as it was just another in a long line of engagements in a War that had gone on a lot longer than anyone had anticipated. 

The morning of the 8th of August was misty, making final preparations difficult for the men.  Indeed, by zero hour, 4:20am, not all the men of the Battalion were in place and companies were too far spread out, but it was too late.  When the barrage came down, the men of the 16th raced across a no man’s land untouched by shell fire, easily negotiated the enemy wire which had been cut previously.  Unfortunately, as they neared enemy positions progress slowed.  Fumes from the explosives mixed with the smoke screen which mixed with the damp mist.  This fog into the men’s eyes and throats and disorientation ensued.  The arrival of tanks, “lunging around in a disconcerting way” did little to ease the confusion.  Despite this early stumble, the morning proved very successful for the Canadians.  By the time the mists had cleared, and a hot sun was beating down the Canadians, along with Australian allies, had punched a hole 3 miles deep into the German lines.  So rapid was their ingress that some German officers were captured while at their breakfast.  In total, German losses on the first day of the Battle of Amiens were estimated at 30,000.  The 8th of August would later be described as the “schwarze Tag des deutschen Heeres” (“black day of the German Army”).  By the end of the 8th of August, the Canadians had advanced 8 miles into enemy territory, the furthest of all the allied forces.  Unfortunately, there was the inevitable casualties; nothing ventured, nothing gained.  On the 8th of August the 16th Battalion lost 46 men, killed in action, and a further 106 wounded.  Unfortunately, John Hutcheon would be amongst the latter statistic. 

At some point during the first day of the Battle of Amiens, John Hutcheon received a gunshot wound to his left buttock.  The wound was large and penetrating, about four by three inches in size, severing his sciatic nerve.  John was taken to the No. 5 Canadian General Hospital, where he was noted as being “very ill and running a temperature”.  The foreign body was removed via his thigh and the wound would be debrided.  There naturally would have been concerns that the wound would become infected.  The wound was serious enough for John to be evacuated once again from the Continent, and on the 14th of August he was admitted to HRH Duchess of Connaught Hospital, the Canadian Red Cross hospital at Taplow, Buckinghamshire.  Upon examination at Taplow, the doctor’s fears would have been realised when it was evident his wound had become infected.  John was noted as being “nervous and fidgety” and his wound was packed with gauze.  On the 16th of August results came back from the laboratory showing the presence of Clostridium perfringens bacteria in John’s wound.  Complications of infection with C. perfringens include tissue necrosis and gas gangrene.  Most likely, the bacterium found its way into the wound on the battlefield.  For centuries manure would have been used to fertilise the fields of Northern France, the anaerobic bacteria despite being buried deep still was able to thrive.  When war arrived and disturbed the soil with shelling and trenches, long isolated but proliferated bacteria was brought to the surface where it could easily infect open wounds in injured soldiers.  In the days before the discovery of penicillin this was a serious complication.  By the 22nd of August the notes paint a succinctly, bleak picture; “seriously ill”.

On the 29th of August it was noted that the wound had grown in size from four to nine inches and was “discharging freely”.  It was evident that John Hutcheon was suffering from the effects of gas gangrene.  The pathophysiology of gas gangrene sees toxins produced by the bacteria being absorbed into muscle fibres, progressively killing the cells.  In extremis there may be compression of the blood vessels, restricting the oxygen supply to the extremities resulting in toxaemia and death.  Unfortunately for John gas gangrene in the buttocks carried with it the highest rates of mortality in terms of location, as high as 30%.  In cases of extreme gas gangrene limbs would be amputated, but this was not an option for John and his wound.  John was very unwell indeed, with a temperature of 101º and a pulse of over 100.  A week later on the 6th of September the wound was noted as being “clean”, though John’s temperature was still high, 103º.  He was given 30cc of an antibacterial known colloquially as ‘Dakin’ after its developer.  This sodium hypochlorite solution would be administered to the wound via tubes and initially this seemed to improve John’s condition.  

Over the following week John’s temperature fluctuated wildly as his body fought vainly to ward off the infection.  One day he was noted as being weaker only for the following day for doctors to find improvements in his condition.  But generally, he was trending towards deterioration.  He was developing pressure sores and suffering from chills.  On the 16th of September he was no longer taking nourishment and his wound was discharging foul smelling fluid.  The following day he was noted as being “very much worse”, his temperature jumped from 99º to 105º and his breathing had become shallow.  Throughout the day, John grew weaker and weaker until finally, at 4:22pm he slipped the bonds of his suffering.  

Entering the little graveyard, in the shadow of the hamlet’s first school, at the cross roads of Barthol Chapel, John Hutcheon is not hard to find.  In a cemetery of around one hundred graves, his is one of the only Commonwealth war graves.  In simple granite, bearing the Canadian maple leaf, the stone lists his rank and regimental number; Private 129030.  His death date is noted, the 17th of September 1918.  He died within two months of the end of the Great War.  

Out of the 5,491 men of his battalion, John was one of 3,271 who would be wounded, and one of the 1,346 who would be killed.  John was unfortunate to be in the 1.3% of the battalion’s men who would suffer a third round of wounding, after two previous recoveries.  Only around 400 men of the near 5,500 men of the battalion made it to the end of the war unscathed; untouched by wounding, disease, or capture by the enemy.  In all, John was merely one of 900,000 deaths the Empire suffered.  A near million sacrifices; so many hundreds of thousand bereavements.

Having left no children to sire his descendants, it is difficult to know whether John has many visitors these days.  He died fighting under the banner of a distant Dominion and he is but one of thousands of Commonwealth graves to be found across the North-East of Scotland.  But on this Armistice Day, this writer’s mind will wonder along the overgrown back roads towards Barthol Chapel, down the little path by the old school, through the gate in the hedge, into the small graveyard by the crossroads.  There, at John Hutcheon’s grave, reflection and gratitude will be proffered for his deeds.  An offering to a cause that is far from clear in today’s world of black and white.  Today, when we parcel causes into the righteous and the perverse; us and them.  What John died for isn’t as clear-cut as it maybe once seemed.  But that in no way should detract from his bravery, his fortitude, his indefatigability and his sacrifice.  And there, by the little stone, in the little graveyard, in the hamlet so insignificant that its name rarely is heard beyond its acres, this writer will pause and remember the name, John Hutcheon.  

Andrew Collins 

2020

 

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