DIARIES OF DOOM
JOHN TEAHAN was my uncle. To me, born 15 years after his death, he was the sepia portrait of a grave, handsome soldier, three medals under glass and a formal letter of condolence from the King, hanging in a row in my grandmother’s front hall. I never heard her speak of him. No one ever spoke of him.
John Patrick Teahan was bom in Southampton, Ont., in 1887, son of Dennis Teahan, who owned the Commercial Hotel. In 1906, at the insistence of his mother (who said, “I do not want my boys growing up in a saloon!”), the family moved to Windsor, Ont., where his father opened a furniture store, which John was managing at the outbreak of the war.
A talented musician, he was in great demand as a singer at weddings and concerts throughout southwestern Ontario. And he was an amateur boxer, with something of a name in sporting circles. His diaries are larded with sports slang and metaphor. A lieutenant in the First Hussars (Reserve) prior to the war, he was one of the first men in the Windsor area to answer the call to colours on Aug. 14, 1914. He was not married, nor did he leave a sweetheart behind.
His diaries, smuggled to his family during the war to avoid censorship, begin with his arrival in Plymouth as a corporal with the Royal Canadian Dragoons in November 1914, just days before his 27th birthday. First a military policeman, John was later selected for officers’ training, after which he was assigned to the British Sherwood Foresters regiment. John was wounded in March 1916, spent some time in military hospitals in France and England and travelled home to Canada to spend a one-month convalescent leave before returning to light duties in England. By September, he was back in the trenches.
His descriptions are vivid: from sightseeing in London to training on Salisbury Plain, the tedium of the trenches, horrors of the front, mayhem and death. He records drunkenness, incompetence, stupidity and waste with surprising detachment as he evolves from a keen recruit to a critical, cynical candidate for inglorious death in the mud, a fate he foresaw with resignation.
A soldier’s uncensored journals convey the tedium and horror of the trenches
The last entry we have was made just a week before his death on Oct. 9,1916, near Thiepval, France. One shabby handsewn army pouch and a passenger list from the M.M.S. Metagama, which carried him home for recuperation, are all he left behind—except for these remarkable diaries, which are more than an account of his war. They are the portrait of a man who could and did believe that the supreme sacrifice was worth making.
Grace Keenan Prince
Nov. 15, 1914 Pond Farm, Salisbury Plain. Canadians are the only troops under canvas in England; our tents often leak. Without wooden floors the rain would soon have swamped us. For the first month it rained every day.
We were addressed one Sunday by an archbishop, a distinguished old mutt who talked about the “Powah of prayah” and other useful dope. It is astonishing that on our only day of rest they make us listen to a sermon.
Dec. 16, 1914 Many soldiers go on pass, meet their affinity the first day, marry her the second and return to duty the next day. One of the squadron toughs is to be married tomorrow to a girl he saw for half an hour when he deserted. They had a touching interview in the guardhouse where he was doing cells. I saw her myself, as I was provost that day, and she is very good-looking.
Dec. 20,1914 London. Yesterday, scouting around Westminster Abbey, by accident I got into one of the main chapels while Lord Morley something or other was in the act of getting married. The assemblage was certainly a swell turnout. Eight bridesmaids, military uniforms, silk hats, furs and flowers. When the bride and groom marched down the aisle to where the public waited, I tagged along trying to look like a poor cousin. Street hawkers outside sold souvenirs, so it must have been quite an occasion.
Jan. 28, 1915 How many months can a man go without one change of underwear and socks, and still feel clean? This subject caused much discussion last night on account of the small kit we will be allowed to carry. Ericsson is going to wear two suits of underwear and socks. Charlton will rob the dead and loot houses for clothing. On one point all are unanimous: “Keatings Insect Powder must accompany the troops!”
May 1,1915 Dr. Todd, regimental physician, gave the entire regiment a very cursory examination this morning. He looked at each man who stood naked beside his bed, and then passed us all.
May 14, 1915 France. It rained hard last night and there was heavy firing. I had no groundsheets or blanket in my bivouac, but I managed to pinch a few bread sacks and a slimy, wet, stinking horse blanket which, with my overcoat, made a very good covering and I slept well.
May 16,1915 Contraine. We are billeted in a farmhouse. In the yard is an immense manure pit while five yards from the door is a drinking fountain and a brick cistern, a regular cesspool, for the cattle. Our men refused to let the horses, even if they would, drink the slimy, green, oily liquid (like thick soup infested by black beetles).
There is an artillery duel in progress. We witnessed prisoners go by this morning, about 300 in all from Bavarian regiments, strapping fellows, all 16 or 17 years old. One poor fellow had his face dented where someone had lammed him one with the butt end of a Lee-Enfield.
We have been issued with respirators to guard against the gas. They are squares of absorbent cotton filled with certain chemicals, about six inches square—sufficient to cover nose, mouth and eyes.
May 18, 1915 Morant has become the most unpopular man on the staff as the rum had been issued to him in gallon jugs to be divided among 35 men. In the dark, he tripped and prostrated himself in the mud, breaking the Sacred Vessel and drenching himself with the contents. Our lamentations were heart-rending, and a couple ran over to see if any pieces of the jar might not possibly contain a few drops of the joyful fluid. Alas, the wreckage had been complete.
May 21,1915 Long Cornet. Since Ypres, we have come into our own, and are no longer looked upon as a wild mob of savages from the colonies. The fire was very heavy about 2 a.m. when the German assault was repulsed with great loss—to the Germans.
The barn was crawling with vermin and, as we are still finicky about such things, Cleary, Burch and I slept under a tree. About midnight, Sgt. Foster and Burley joined us. They had been driven from their dugout by the rats. Foster was delirious as he shook like a leaf and his teeth chattered.
We are very short of hay and I often surreptitiously take the horses out to graze the comer of some field. The farmer here charges us a penny per pound for oats. When this present little fracas is over, we really should come back and make an example of some of these tightwads!
7:10p.m. Our “A” Squadron returned from their first time in the trenches without a single casualty. Yesterday was quiet, just sniping which the boys found interesting. They are looking forward to their next turn.
May 26, 1915 Cannonading is heavy and continuous and the shells sound like an express train or scream like huge sheets of heavy wrapping paper being torn apart. The machine-gun fire is irregular as is also the rifle fire.
2 p.m. Yesterday, I saw one poor fellow taken from the dressing station. He was unhurt, but was alternately sobbing, loudly crying like a child and then laughing fiendishly. Some may eventually recover, but death would likely have been more merciful.
7:30 p.m. The 5th Western Cavalry Battalion just pulled in. There are only about 300 left, as tough and rough a bunch as you ever saw outside a jail. Some carry nothing but a rifle and bandolier. No one has an overcoat. Of all the undisciplined crews I ever saw, this rabble has them beaten. But if you think by their appearance that they cannot fight, why just ask the Prussian Guard. These men are fighters!
May 27, 1915 Long Cornet. Glad to get out of the danger zone, although even here we are liable to long-range fire. At 9 a.m., shells tore up the dirt in front of our field. The last one dropped on the road near us and then the bombardment ceased. Just after this display, I walked up toward the firing line. It was a fine sunny morning; birds sang in the trees—just a peaceful country scene, until a heavy ambulance wagon rumbled up bearing groaning and crippled soldiers.
Soon, I came on the advance dressing station. A water cart was drawn up on one side. Men with stretchers stood near the door. Just then shrapnel started to scream and burst behind us with an awful crack. The stretcher-bearers leaped for a dugout and I ran straight ahead, not daring to look back as the bursting of shells became very rapid, each falling shorter than the one before.
June 14, 1915 The 1st Batt. lost all their officers but one. Col. Beecher of London was standing beside the bomb throwers when some idiot, idly swinging his detonating bomb from side to side, struck the back of the trench and the blast tore off the Colonel’s legs. He begged the men to shoot him, but his mind soon went and he died calling for his mother.
June 18,1915 At Vauxhall Bridge last night, I saw many wounded walking back. They had lost two-thirds of their number and the survivors drank their fallen comrades’ share of the rum issue.
June 27, 1915 Now, a few words about the baggage which Gen. Seely [of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade] and his staff carry with them. One fauteuil carries table supplies, cooking utensils, dinner service, wines, champagnes, cigars, fruit and all sorts of delicacies. On the wagon are their kits, mattresses and bed clothing; many coats, changes of clothing, saddlebags, swords and walking sticks, folding bathtubs and boxes of junk which may come in handy. Five officers have 12 body servants and grooms.
‘ONE poor fellow was sobbing. Some may eventually recover, but death would likely have been more merciful.’
July 1, 1915 If I were in Windsor today, we would be taking the good ship Papoose from Bois Blanc and arranging for dinner in Amherst House. After that, “cruise up the walks” for an afternoon’s tango and hesitation [a dance step] in the pavilion. Return to Windsor to gorge on pie and a dixie of cocoa. Instead, I am in a stable in a strange country, and we will be lucky to get back for Dominion Day next year, as we are deadlocked on the front with neither side able to advance a yard.
In the estaminet [bistro] in Merriss, some boys entered singing and looking very pleased with themselves. They were conscripts and will serve for a penny a day. They were off to camp before being hurried to those uncovered graves—the trenches. This is not war at all, but a series of long-distance murders.
July 13,1915 When the trenches are quiet, time passes as slowly as a jail sentence. Cooped in a hole two or three feet wide, the men pass the time writing (letters short and few are the rule); reading (books are scarce and thumb worn); cards (no more than a couple of hands). It would be a relief to be attacked or even shelled.
July 22, 1915 Canadians who were reviewed by [Prime Minister Robert] Borden received him very coldly and marched back to their billets in silence. As one man put it, “They were tired of hearing the same old bull.”
Nov. 16,1915 St-Omer. This [officers’ training] course is rather— peculiar. One point of the utmost importance is personal appearance. Maj. Willis says the care of fingernails marks an officer and a gentleman! Now, finger inspection is a regular parade and the students have to shove their lunch hooks out for the officer to inspect.
Dec. 5, 1915 I became a 2nd Lieutenant with the Sherwood Foresters at midnight, so today I wear an English officer’s uniform.
Dec. 14, 1915 London. As soon as I join the new regiment, my pay (about 10 shillings per day) will be put to my credit. The British Army wants its officers to live like officers, and not eat their meals at Beefsteak Tony’s, or board at Sloppy Eliza’s! All transportation must be first class on railways, but it seems alright to ride in the tube or on buses in town.
Jan. 14,1916 France. I was greatly amused by A company in their trench. As soon as they were safe from a shell, their heads appeared over the parapet, and they would wait patiently for coming events. When whizzing from the oncoming shell was heard, they would cry “Here she comes” (like fans at a racetrack), and then all heads would duck until the burst was heard when they would immediately bob up again. It is marvellous the number of shells which the enemy wastes to get one of our men, yet they do get them sometimes.
Jan. 22, 1916 All along the line lie dead British soldiers covered with a thin layer of mud. I ran across some seven or eight bodies facing down. Their clothing was almost rotting away as were also the bodies. Many had no heads.
St Patrick’s Day, 1916 Duchess of Westminster Hospital, France. You see, it was like this. Going to the trenches, I took the Gunners Walk, of which I have always been suspicious as being a bullet-swept area when we are going in or coming out, and I also have felt that the enemy have discovered our days of relief. About halfway up the trench, which was only waist deep, one of the bullets whizzing overhead stopped on catching sight of me and I felt a smashing blow on the cheek such as a boxer might deliver. My face was covered with blood, and yet no particular part of me seemed more stunned than another. However, as soon as I had got my bearings and allayed all the excitement among the men behind me, I ordered them to go on, with the exception of one man whom I left lying in the trench with instructions to warn all other relieving parties that they were in a danger zone.
4 CAME across seven or eight bodies. The clothing was almost rotting away as were the bodies. Many had no heads.’
Aug. 5, 1916 London. Recruiting goes merrily on. In Trafalgar Square immense crowds gather at the Nelson column while sergeants and officers harangue them from the steps and soldiers pass through the crowd urging men to Come up to the Colours, like a Salvation Army revival where people are pleaded with to come up and be saved. Every once in a while, some civilian who can no longer stand the pressure mounts the steps and accepts the King’s shilling while the band plays and exhorters testify: “Join now, boys, and spend a delightful winter in the trenches!”
Sept. 22,1916 Calais. About noon, we were given instruction in the new gas helmets, run about the grounds, then locked in a chamber with the thickest possible gas, followed by lachrymose gas; then another run with gas helmets on.
Teahan was reported missing in action on Oct. 9,1916. The Sherwood Foresters’ War Diary describes that day’s battle:
There was no artillery preparation. In accordance with orders, the Battalion made an attack on the Schwaben Redoubt. The assault was carried out at 4:30 a.m. under cover of darkness. The assaulting waves had not gone more than half the distance across No Man’s Land before enemy machine gun and rifle fire was opened. Our casualties were heavy, numbering 13 officers. Other ranks: 26 killed, 134 wounded and 64 missing. I?îl
(Some of this material has been previously published in Diary Kid, Oberon Press, 1999. The original diaries reside in the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa.)