During the Autumn of 1916, an attempt was made by the American President Woodrow Wilson to mediate between the European nations, when he invited them to state their respective aims for the war. The Allies spoke of ‘national self-determination.’ No one, wrote A.J.P. Taylor, had contemplated such an aim when war started in 1914. The man in the street was bewildered to be told that this was what he was fighting for. The Germans simply refused stating that they had already offered to negotiate. In later years, added Taylor, men would often look back and lament the lost chance of ending the war before old Europe perished.
GEORGE BALL was admitted to King Edward VI School in May 1892, joining Alan Moray-Brown, Percy and Raymond Fisher, and Herbert Cavis Brown. Frank Byrd had arrived the year before, and James Yelf came the following year. They arrived at a time when the whole structure, tone and ethos of the School was changing. The rise in the number of boys made innovation possible, and money was also provided by the Warwickshire County Council. There were seven masters teaching ‘modern’ and classical subjects. The arrival of Ball and the others coincided with the restoration and extension of the buildings provided by a benefactor and Old Boy, Charles Edward Flower. It was also the time when the Headmaster, Robert de Courcy Laffan, initiated and instituted the procession by the School on Shakespeare’s Birthday to his grave in Holy Trinity Church, in which all the boys would have taken part.
Ball became a member of the Stratford-upon-Avon Boat Club, taking part in one of the regattas on the Avon. These were great social occasions, described by William Collins in his short history of the Boat Club. The whole programme was leisurely with ladies in picture hats and gentlemen in boaters, blazers and white flannels, listening to the Town Band. ‘After the regatta there was usually a promenade concert in the Memorial Gardens in front of the old theatre, followed by dancing under the glow of fairy-lights as dusk fell.’
The Dominion Land Act of 1872 offered pioneers an opportunity of owning 160 acres of land in Western Canada for a $10 filing fee, and in response to an advertisement in the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald George Ball emigrated to Canada in 1903. Settling in Saskatchewan at the time when agriculture was becoming more mechanised, for the next twelve years he successfully farmed alfalfa, barley and wheat.
Following the outbreak of war and Canada’s growing commitment, George enlisted at Saskatoon on March 18 1916 ‘for the duration of the war,’ joining B Company, 46 (South Saskatchewan) Battalion of the Canadian Infantry. It was to become known as ‘The Suicide Battalion. ’He was five feet ten inches in height with a fair complexion and good health. Following training with 65 Battalion of the Canadian Infantry, George embarked on SS Empress of Britain at Halifax, Nova Scotia and crossed the Atlantic, a voyage of nine days. By the end of June he was at Bramshott, a major army camp in Hampshire, where he transferred to 46 Battalion and underwent further intensive training before crossing to France on August 10.
His new battalion, together with other battalions that were already overseas, had become part of the newly formed 4 Canadian Division on April 16 – 46 Battalion being allocated to 10 Brigade. George Ball was with it as it took up 113 position on the French-Belgian border at Steenvordeto, south-west of Ypres, on August 14. Almost immediately 10 Brigade was attached to the more experienced 2 Division in order to learn the arts of trench work and defence against gas attack, but its first casualty occurred on the very first day, and two days later its first man was killed when a wiring party came under machine gun fire. During the last week of August, 10 Brigade occupied a sector of the front line near Vierstraat.
At the beginning of September George had a further period in the trenches during which, on the night of September 15/16, seven raids were mounted on the ‘Sugar’ and ‘Candy’ German trenches. A sniper was bombed and a machine gun destroyed. The Germans were securely entrenched and the Canadian support artillery regularly bombarded their positions in an attempt to destroy their wire and trench defences, and to disrupt communications and movements. There was the inevitable retaliation, with artillery duels and intensive patrol activities in no man’s land.
The raid by 46 Battalion was carried out by an officer and thirty-one men who had orders to examine the extent of a supposed strongpoint that turned out to have absolutely no strategic significance. However, fifteen Germans were ‘accounted for’ and a prisoner taken. George Ball was not involved.
Two days later the Division transferred to 9 Corps and moved into reserve and to the training area at St. Omer. Although it felt that most of this ‘new’ training had already been covered in England, it conducted trials of the new Lee- Enfield rifle, trained runners, and practised contact patrols with aircraft and 114 advance under creeping artillery barrages. After a day’s break for everyone, the Division Headquarters moved in stages to Tara Hill, outside and to the east of Albert, where it remained for some months.
Almost immediately however on October 11, 10 Brigade was in the firing line when following heavy bombardment a force of one hundred Germans attacked. Although British artillery caused the Germans severe casualties, the attack set the pattern of warfare in that sector, with heavy artillery duels – some with gas shells, snipers and night-time reconnaissance patrols. But close fighting was comparatively rare and much of the defensive wiring remained uncut. Atrocious weather continued, and with no dugouts the Canadian trenches were very bad. Fatigue parties, of which there were always a small number of casualties, worked hard repairing trenches damaged by heavy rain and extending saps from the front line at Courcelette – for future attacks. A sap-head was a short trench that was dug from the front trench into no-man’s land, usually about thirty yards forward of the front line and used as a listening post.
On October 25 the battalion had a very uncomfortable experience, when amidst great confusion as it was moving into the narrow trenches of the front line it came under sustained heavy machine gun fire. But worse was to come later in the day. Three officers were killed and fifty men became casualties in an unsuccessful operation, when eight platoons advanced in two companies and were exposed to heavy shelling and machine gun fire.
On November 10/11 the 4 Canadian Division suffered further large casualties during an attack on the longest trench built by the Germans on the Western Front, known as Regina Trench on the Thiepval Ridge. It was a formidable defence. Led by 50 Battalion, with A Company and half of George Ball’s B Company in support, the men formed in waves in the front trenches and crept forward. It was frosty and misty, with low cloud. The first wave was unable to penetrate the German line. The heavy Somme mud made the problem of the attacking troops heartbreakingly difficult. The second wave passed through and captured Desire Trench, which was the German support line. It mopped up the resistance and consolidated at once, setting up machine gun posts and digging new trenches. When help was needed by 47 Battalion on the right, working parties with bombs were sent up. Then disaster. ‘Friendly fire’ fell heavily on the captured German trenches. Seventy men were killed or wounded and three officers killed and one wounded. It was a situation that deteriorated as the month wore on.
Digging parties were continually disrupted by enemy fire, and in the cold, wet trenches many men developed swollen legs and feet. The battalion was drawn into an attack with inadequate artillery support and very heavy casualties were taken by hostile artillery and machine gun fire. Each of the actions against Regina Trench had taken place on a Saturday!
When the Somme fighting stopped in the later part of November there was little to celebrate. The Canadian Corps had sustained 29,029 casualties for a mere three and a half miles of mud.
There was some relief in December with George and the battalion undergoing two weeks training behind the line at Bruay, and Christmas Day was celebrated in their billets.
George’s 1917 began on New Year’s Day in the front line with B Company successfully driving off a German raid on its trenches, but on January 3 German artillery mounted a colossal barrage for eight hours that completely obliterated the Canadian trenches and caused almost fifty casualties.
The cause is unknown, but given the intense fighting that the 46 had experienced between October 21 and November 18, it is hardly surprising that George, now in his mid-30s was on January 8 admitted to 22 Casualty Clearing Station suffering from ‘debility’ (probably battle-fatigue). By January 26 he was deemed ‘fit to return to the trenches,’ when the Battalion was in the front line and in an aggressive mood to regain the initiative. It is very doubtful whether George was really fit enough to take part in either of the two raids on German trenches and 117 mine shafts, and he fell ill once more. While undergoing treatment at 6 Casualty Clearing Station, he died of bronchitis on February 21.
He was buried in the Barlin Communal Cemetery, Pas de Calais, and is commemorated on the memorial and the Roll of Honour in Marysville, New Brunswick, on the Stratford-upon-Avon War Memorial, the Memorial Screen and Reredos in Holy Trinity Church, on the KES Boat Club memorial in the Garden of Remembrance, and in the Memorial Library at King Edward VI School.
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Fields.
The Canadian soldier-poet James McCrae.