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‘The trenches will be beautiful, mud to the eyebrows’
On April 19, 1916, Fred Harwood vanished. A private in the Canadian army, the 25-year-old was fighting in Europe on the front lines of the First World War.
The night he disappeared, Harwood was sheltered in a crater at St. Eloi, a shell-pocked wasteland of mud and the scene of intense fighting between Canadian and German soldiers. He regularly wrote letters and postcards to family and the love of his life Lilla, but Harwood hadn’t been heard from in a month.
Then on May 16, a letter arrived in the hands of his anxious mother. It was from her son.
Harwood, who would become well known in Richmond, was one of thousands of young Canadian soldiers who fought in the brutal four-year war—a war that claimed the lives of 66,665 soldiers from this country. On Sunday, Remembrance Day, they’ll be remembered.
Off to war
Fred Harwood was born in Kirkby Stephen, a small town in northwest England in 1891. He emigrated to Canada in 1913, settling in Vancouver. That’s where he met Lilla, but their blossoming relationship was about to be put on hold.
War broke out and young men across the country signed up to serve overseas. Beliefs and family tradition drove some of them, others simply sought adventure or employment. But this surge of patriotism felt by so many young men—death and destruction be damned—led them to war, and Harwood was one of them.
Harwood enlisted in the 29th battalion, sixth brigade, 2nd Canadian Expeditionary Force. He would be paid $1 per day, plus a field allowance of 10 cents.
On May 14, 1915, after seven months of training, Harwood said goodbye to his girlfriend Lilla, took what he could and left Vancouver on an eastbound train. He joined other soldiers on a ship bound for Europe.
In his pocket was a simple brown diary. Laura, Lilla’s sister, must have understood the cost of war and wrote a message on the diary’s first open page: “If good wishes good can bring; Mine are with you in everything.”
Opening the diary would become a daily ritual for Harwood, who chronicled his experiences and often summed up an entire day in a few words.
The ship anchored in Plymouth, England on May 29. That night, Canadian soldiers got a stark reminder that war was real. Another Allied ship just a few kilometres away had been sunk overnight.
Deep in the trenches
Rain, military training, the army’s church parade—Harwood dutifully noted the routine days of a soldier. Things changed Sept. 17 when he arrived in France by ship and made camp inside a barn. Eight days later he was at war.
“First night in trenches; front line, very quiet, a little shooting,” he wrote.
Rain was heavy, mud was thick in the trenches and German soldiers were dug in just 100 metres away.
Trench warfare defined the war, but army commanders hadn’t planned for it. Machine guns and other modern weapons proved too dangerous for soldiers to remain in the open, so both sides dug in. When attacks were made, heavy casualties were the result, reducing the war to a stalemate.
Despite the gloom, Harwood’s messages from the trenches were largely void of emotion: “Had first good sleep for a week,” “Had a good hot bath,” “Fine dugouts with fireplaces,” “Attended burial service.”
He noted days of heavy bombardment—that wounded him at least once—and the tiring work of digging trenches under heavy rain. Soldiers spent most days on guard, improving defences, writing letters or just waiting for something to happen.
When an attack was ordered, soldiers ran from their trenches across a landscape full of craters. Mud slowed their movement and made them vulnerable to artillery and machine gun fire, and entire units could be wiped out in a few hours.
Soldiers were sometimes captured on night raids in efforts from both sides to gain information. Harwood kept a list of key German battlefield phrases that could help in capturing enemy soldiers—”Give yourself up,” “Come out”—but as it turned out, Harwood himself was taken prisoner.
‘An unmitigated disaster’
Harwood was fighting in a battle that author Tim Cook described as “an unmitigated disaster” for Canadian troops. The firefight was at St. Eloi, near Ypres, Belgium, an area with massive mud-filled craters and little cover that marked the first major battle for Harwood and the 2nd Canadian Division.
Canadians relieved British troops on the night of April 3, 1916, but found few trenches to take cover in, and most were waist-deep in water. Moreover, the Germans had the entire front under constant fire.
Despite the conditions, Harwood found the time to write a letter to his love Lilla, or “Lil,” as he called her.
“I dare say you’ll see a casualty list in the papers, don’t worry dear. I’m alright.”
He reminded her of the moment they met, at a youth group at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in downtown Vancouver.
“I’ll never forget the first night I attended the Endeavour meeting. I felt quite at home. As soon as I entered the room I believe Lil, you were the first girl to welcome me and ask me to come again. Am glad I joined up Lil, or I would not have been the happy man I am today.”
Something Lilla said in an earlier letter made him go further.
“I could never have entered your life dear, without telling you all, it would not have been fair. You speak of your unworthiness, Lil. Please dear, don’t say that again because I could never be really worthy of you. I am trying hard though.”
He might have a chance to go on leave in the next two months, he told her. Two go from each platoon every week, and he was due.
He signed off: “Well dearie, it’s still pouring with rain, the trenches will be beautiful when we go in again, mud to the eyebrows.”
Through two weeks of hard fighting, Canadian commanders were often unclear as to the location of their troops at St. Eloi, according to an account from the Canadian War Museum. Once aerial photos helped reveal true Canadian and German positions, the battle ground to halt on April 16, with enemy forces holding most key points.
On the night of April 19, 1916, Canadians—with weapons jammed by mud—were again under intense artillery bombardment and driving rain. Of those who survived, some surrendered, others crawled away through machine gun fire to escape. The Canadians suffered 1,373 casualties during the confused fighting at St. Eloi. But Harwood wasn’t among the dead. He was taken prisoner.
Good news by post
Harwood was taken to a prisoner of war camp at Giessen, Germany.
“I cannot tell you how we were captured but we were taken prisoners,” he wrote in a letter to his mother. “A lot of my pals were killed, and only God knows how the rest of us escaped. However, there are a few of my pals with me, and a few more in hospital who will join us later when well enough.”
The wooden huts at Giessen would become Harwood’s home for the next two-and-a-half years. “The authorities are strict, but we are quite used to military discipline, being in the army so long.”
He was allowed to write two letters and four postcards per month. Prisoners were allowed to receive parcels, but spirits, fuel, matches, candles and medicine were forbidden.
Soup was the main menu item, so he asked his mother to send a few things: bread, raisin bread, cheese, margarine, dripping, jam, biscuits, tinned meat or a little cold roast. He also needed a razor, brush, soap and toothpaste. He offered to send his mom some prison tobacco—he couldn’t smoke it.
“I don’t like putting you to all this bother, mother, but I know you will willingly do it for me.I’ve the best home in the world—God bless you all,” he wrote. “God saved my life a dozen times last week, and He will look after me here.”
The Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918 marked the end of the war, a true world war with 65 million men from 30 nations involved. At least 10 million men were killed and 29 million more were wounded, captured or declared missing, according to Veterans Affairs Canada.
The war was a coming of age for Canada. From a nation of eight million people, 619,636 men and women served in the Canadian forces during the war. Of those, 66,655 gave their lives and another 172,950 were wounded.
Nearly one in 10 Canadians who fought in the war didn’t return.
In 1918 Harwood stayed in Germany to bury a close friend who fell victim to a new threat: the flu pandemic. He left for Yorkshire, England first to visit his family, and then, in March 1919, to Vancouver to see his bride-to-be.
On Aug. 20, Harwood married Lilla at the Vancouver church where they met.
“Mother and father’s loyalty and devotion to each other had stood the test of their long engagement and the separation of the war years,” remembered Bob Harwood, one of four children.
The family moved to Richmond in 1931, first living on General Currie Road, and then in a home on Bridgeport Road. The family was active in local church and community life.
Two of Bob’s siblings became well known for their work in the community. Don had a career as a recreation administrator for the municipality while Marion was a teacher at Thompson Elementary.
Five years after moving to Richmond, Fred Harwood returned to Europe for the unveiling of a memorial in Vimy, France that paid tribute to Canadian soldiers. Vimy was the site of a major victory for the Canadians, but it came at a high cost, with more than 10,000 casualties in six days.
Harwood died in 1979 at age 88, predeceased by Lilla. His diary lives on at the City of Richmond Archives, so too do the memories of the letters the couple exchanged during a brutal war. Son Bob remembers them as a moving tribute to the depth and tenderness of their commitment to each other—and the future they hoped to have together.
They had a 51-year marriage because Harwood made it home. Others did not. Lest we forget.