WOOD, Private George Herbert

George Herbert Wood was born in Birstall in about 1875, to George and Jane Wood. George (snr) was listed as a ‘Master Dyer’ in the 1881 census, employing three people. The family were obviously doing quite well, as they were able to afford to pay for a live in servant. The family were seven children strong at this time and George was recorded as a scholar. The Wood family lived in the Brownhill area of Birstall.

George Herbert would probably have been a scholar at Batley Grammar School in the second part of the 1880s. By that time the family had grown to eight children and were living at Popeley House in Birstall.

George Herbert Wood was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps when it came to work choices, and by 1901 he was working as a dyer himself, and had married Emma Bricheno in Dewsbury in 1898. His wife’s name was Emma, but her middle name was Arradine, which she later adapted for use in censuses it seems. The Wood’s had a young son by 1901, Harry, was born in 1900 and with Emma (Arradine) and Harry, George Herbert was living in Kirkgate, Birstall.

The next few years certainly saw a change of scene for the whole of the Wood family, as by 1911 George (snr) and his wife and several of his children had moved to become boarding house keepers in Blackpool. George Herbert Wood and his family moved somewhat further than that, emigrating to Canada. George Herbert Wood travelled on board the passenger ship Dominion to Quebec on 27 June 1910, and by the next year his wife and son had both joined him. Harry and Emma were both shown with him on the Canadian census of 1911, though by this time Emma was known as ‘Arradine’. Their address in 1911 was 1134 Scarth Street, Regina, which is today a mixture of light industrial units. By the time of their move to Canada George and ‘Arradine’ had three children.

George Herbert Wood appears on official documents again in Canada in 1914, when he filled in his attestation forms for the Canadian Infantry at the start of the First World War. Despite being nearly forty years old he enlisted in the army in order to return to Europe and fight for Britain and the Empire. The Canadian Expeditionary Force was mostly volunteers, as conscription was not enforced until the end of the war when call-ups began in January 1918 . Ultimately, only 24,132 Canadian conscripts arrived in France before the end of the war.

Canada was the senior Dominion in the British Empire and automatically at war with Germany upon the British declaration. According to Canadian historian Dr. Serge Durflinger at the Canadian War Museum, popular support for the war was found mainly in English Canada. Of the first contingent formed at Valcartier, Quebec in 1914, ‘fully two-thirds were men born in the United Kingdom’. By the end of the war in 1918, at least ‘fifty per cent of the CEF consisted of British-born men’. Recruiting was difficult among the French-Canadian population, although one battalion, the 22nd, who came to be known as the ‘Van Doos’, was French-speaking (“Van Doo” is an approximate pronunciation of the French for “22” – vingt deux). Posters asking for recruits to join the Canadian army were placed in Canadian cities and in America, asking for volunteers to go to Canada to enlist.

The first recruiting camp for Canadian soldiers was Valcartier Camp, Quebec, which sprang from a wilderness into being. It was an amazing feat of organization that saw the camp built to take 35,000 men in less than three weeks. On 24 August 1914, as soon as it became known that Canada’s offer of men had been accepted by Great Britain, recruiting offices for the 10th Battalion were opened in Lethbridge, Edmonton, Calgary, and many other towns throughout Alberta. The response was instant and enthusiastic. Eager volunteers flocked to enrol in ‘Alberta’s own Battalion’, and practically every profession, trade and calling in the province was represented in the first five hundred attestations.

George Herbert Wood joined the 10th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force on 28 December 1914. The battalion was organized in Valcartier Camp on 6 August 1914 under the official authority of Camp Order 241 dated 2 September 1914. The unit drew its recruits from Calgary and Winnipeg, as an amalgam of drafts sent to Valcartier from the 103rd Regiment (Calgary Rifles) and 106th Winnipeg Light Infantry.

The draft of soldiers which George Wood joined in December 1914 was sent to Europe in late January 1915. After an eleven day voyage he arrived in Plymouth on 4 February, and spent some days in barracks on Salisbury Plain before embarking for France on 10 February. On his attestation papers George gave a date of birth of 23 March 1876. It may well be that he had to lie about his age in order to enlist, as this age made him thirty eight years old and not thirty nine and therefore touching forty! Indeed, on one form in his file his age was to be shown as twenty eight years old, but this was qualified by a note saying that the age was wrong on the form. George was shown as being employed as a ‘cleaner and presser’ at the time of his joining the army. He was noted as 5’10” tall, a fairly tall man in comparison with some of his colleagues at the time. The forms show that he had grey eyes and ‘medium hair. Under religion he was shown to be ‘Church of England’.

The 10th Manitoba Regiment moved to France as a component of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade of the Canadian Division (later 1st Canadian Division) and participated in every major Canadian battle on the Western Front. The unit eventually drew reinforcements from the 9th Canadian Reserve Battalion, and was affiliated with the 56th and 82nd Battalions. George Wood and his fellow Canadians were soon to be involved in the Battle of St. Eloi Craters in Belgium.

The Battle of St. Eloi Craters in April 1915 was the first major engagement for the 2nd Canadian Division after their arrival from England. It was to end in disaster. British forces had previously blown a series of underground mines to destroy the sector’s German defences, but the effort had left massive, mud-filled craters for the attackers to occupy. When the Canadians relieved British troops on the night of 3 April, they found few actual trenches in which to take cover, and most of those were waist-deep in water. The entire front was also under observation and incessant fire from the Germans.

After two weeks of difficult fighting a series of German counter attacks on 6 April 1915, drove the Canadians out of the muddy craters and sewed confusion throughout the division and at higher headquarters. For two weeks the Canadian commanders were often unclear as to the location of their troops. Most soldiers dug in under heavy fire and divided by the shell-pocked terrain, could supply their commanders with little accurate information on the progress of the battle. After aerial photography helped reveal the true German and Canadian positions, the battle ground to a halt on 16 April 1915, with enemy forces holding most of the key points.

The War Diary of the 10th Canadians for April 1915 showed that the regiment had gained intelligence from captured German prisoners that the enemy were to attempt to explode further mines underneath allied lines. Working parties were therefore sent out by the Canadians to repair their defences and to locate the mine itself. An Operations Order sent out in secret by the commander of the 10th Canadians in April simply stated that ‘information’ was that the ‘Germans are mining under our trenches’ and that the intention was to blow up the German attempts to do so.

The 10th Albertans had moved from divisional reserve trenches to the front line on 8 April 1915. By 10 April, the battalion diary showed that German aeroplanes and observation balloons were seen above the front lines. The 10th suffered thirteen casualties on that same day when a heavy German artillery barrage opened fire on the railway cutting near the trenches, attempting to disrupt the mining operations on the Canadian side.

By 16 April, the 10th battalion had received casualties in the trenches and on the 17 April they moved to be in  reserve in huts near the town of Dikkebus, colloquially called by the British and Canadians, ‘Dickibusche Huts’.

Headstone of Private George Wood. Image supplied by Philip Wheeler.

Headstone of Private George Wood. Image supplied by Philip Wheeler.

Even though they were in reserve positions the battalion still furnished men for the nightly working parties. The war diary reads ‘No parades, working parties furnished by night, to total of 290 men. Some casualties to one party’. On 18 April 1915, George Wood was sent on one of those working parties. His party were the only one to receive casualties and he and three of his colleagues were wounded. It seems that Wood was the only one to die of wounds and died two days later. The names of the wounded men are recorded in the column to the right of the main war diary entry. George Herbert Wood’s name is last on the list.

His body was buried in what was to become ‘Railway Dugouts Cemetery’ near the Belgian town of Ypres. Railway Dugouts Cemetery is 2 Kilometres west of Zillebeke village, where the railway runs on an embankment overlooking a small farmstead. This was known to the troops as Transport Farm. The site of the cemetery was screened by slightly rising ground to the east, and burials began there in April 1915. They continued until the Armistice, especially in 1916 and 1917, when Advanced Dressing Stations were placed in the dugouts and the farm. Graves were made in small groups, without any definite arrangement; and in the summer of 1917 a considerable number were obliterated by shell fire before they could be marked. The names “Railway Dugouts” and “Transport Farm” were both used for the cemetery.

There, under a war grave commission headstone bearing a maple leaf and a cross, lies the body of George Herbert Wood, latterly of Batley Grammar School, 1880s intake.