battlefields in depth with

George Palmer

served with

1st Battalion

rank

Private

promoted to Lance Corporal in 1918

Age upon enlistment: 39

Place of Birth: Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, England

Previous Occupation: Electrician

Diary covers: April 1917

[Photograph] “Private George Palmer”, 1916-1919, Collections CCGW.

Private George Palmer introduces his diary as though it were a heroic epic. Still a newcomer on the Western Front in April 1917, he carried some of the misconceptions about battle that pervaded the homefront. In his brief journal we find a more intimate view of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

[Diary] ‘Lance Corporal George Palmer’, 1916, Collections CCGW

"For Home. For King & Country Remember Your Wife & Children... I Carried this Book through the Great Battle For Vimy Ridge. Please keep same as a [souvenir]."

Lcp. George Palmer

Private George Palmer was a 39-year-old electrician when he enlisted on January 3rd, 1916. He left behind a wife and five children, two boys and three girls, to whom he dedicated his diary.

Palmer is notably older than most soldiers who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (C.E.F.). As the number of volunteers seeking to join the C.E.F. shrank over the course of the war, recruitment standards became increasingly lenient.

[Map] Maps based on ‘The Battle of Vimy Ridge: April 9 to 12, 1917.’ in Cook, Tim. Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1917-1918, (Penguin Canada: Toronto, 2008), 95. Reproduced with permission from the author, modified from the original.

Vimy

An "Easy" Battle?

At Vimy, Private George Palmer fought with the 1st Battalion in what historians often describe as an “easy-going” section of the battle. By examining his diary, we gain insight into the hardships soldiers faced even when a battle was “easy.” We also learn that the narrative of an event changes depending on the perspective we take. When we look at the past, it is important to adopt as many points of view as we can and compare and contrast them to build a fuller understanding.

Artillery was crucial to the Canadian success at Vimy and is often at the centre of narratives about the battle. Canadian and British guns destroyed German artillery and bombarded their fortifications ahead of the battle. At the start of the attack, the artillery began a creeping barrage: artillery fire gradually moved forward to suppress the German positions while Canadian soldiers, following close behind this bombardment, advanced in relative safety.

Sadly, we do not have Palmer’s account of the initial advance as the first page of his diary, which would have covered this period, is torn. However, his entry on April 11th — two days into the offensive — speaks to the hardship he had endured up to that point.

Having taken their objective and dug in, Palmer wrote that he and his section (a synonym for squad used in the British military) were “shelled heavily” such that their trenches were “all blown in.” Palmer also wrote that his section, which had started the battle with twelve men, had only four left.

[Diary] ‘Private George Palmer’s Diary’ April 11, 1917, Collections CCGW.

It's a Long, Long way to Blighty

Evacuating the Injured

In anticipation of the many casualties sure to follow a battle, a complex medical network would be established behind the front line before an offensive. Once they had reached this network, an injured soldier had a good chance of surviving all but the most severe of wounds. Getting there was no simple task, however.

The heavily cratered and often muddy terrain greatly slowed down this process — it was often hard to move oneself, let alone carry the additional weight of a wounded man and his equipment. As well, despite great efforts to prepare ahead of battle, stretcher bearers could never keep up with the number of men who needed help. Many men, the “walking wounded,” had to make their way back on their own or, if they were fortunate, with the help of a prisoner of war or another soldier. After receving a knee wound from a shell explosion, Palmer proceeded to the rear under his own power.

[Photograph] ‘Collecting the wounded at a light railway on the battlefield of Vimy Ridge ‘[Seton label] , April 1917, Collections CCGW

Because of limited resources, medical staff practiced triage: they would identify which of the wounded could survive with immediate aid, which could wait longer, and which could not be saved and act accordingly.

Palmer’s wound, while not doubt painful, was not severe enough to warrant immediate intervention. According to his diary, once he reached the Main Dressing Station, he “got [his] wounds dressed & something to eat” before waiting for an ambulance which took him to a Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) several kilometers to the rear. At the CCS, he would have been operated on. According to Palmer, his arrival at the CCS on April 13th was the “first time Since the 9th of April” that he had the opportunity to rest.

While his wound would heal fully, his recovery was estimated to take several months and so Palmer was evacuated to a hospital in England. This type of wound, which would leave little to no lasting damage to a soldier but which nevertheless required their evacuation to England, was known as a ‘Blighty,’ a name which was derived from a soldier’s nickname for England. Many soldiers, yearning for time away from the front, hoped to receive such a wound.

[Diary] ‘Private George Palmer’s Diary’ April 13, 1917, Collections CCGW.

From Enemy to Prisoner

[Photograph] “Arras-Cambrai Road near Vis-en-Artois / What a German shell did on night / Sept. 1-2, 1918” (Proctor Title), Collections CCGW 2020.02.1-25

German prisoners of war evacuating a wounded Canadian. 

"On My way down [towards a medical post] I saw hundreds of the Enemy prisoners going down [towards the rear]. They were a [sorry] Bunch, but I had to laugh at them[.] [If] I was half Dead I was so glad we had drove him back."

A Delicate Transition

Successfully becoming a prisoner of war meant overcoming a number of hurdles. First, one had to survive the bombardments and the Canadian advance.

Second, aspiring prisoners had to surrender to a Canadian soldier. Battle left men on edge, fatigued, and often resentful of their enemies and so surviving this interaction was not guaranteed and the outcome often depended on the good-will of the first soldier they came across.

Aspiring prisoners could also improve their odds of survival by proving their utility. For example, captured Germans frequently helped to evacuate injured Allied soldiers.

[Photograph] “German Prisoners carrying back Canadian wounded” [ASE label], October 1918, Collection CCGW 2016.3.1.1-204

Canadian “walking wounded” march alongisde German prisoners acting as stretcher bearers during the advance east of Arras in October 1918.

Palmer's Journey During the War

Palmer spent three months recovering in England at the Lord Derby hospital before returning to the front.

He continued to serve for the rest of the war, receiving a minor foot injury in 1918 and being promoted to Lance Corporal in June of that year. In 1919, he returned to his wife and children at Iona Station, Ontario. Fortunately, the scar on his knee, from the wound he received at Vimy, was the only lasting damage from his time in Europe.

[Photograph] Naval gun firing over Vimy Ridge behind Canadian lines at Night, 1917, Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada, ECOPY NUMBER a001879.