Midlothian Canuck’s heroic deeds are honoured

Canadian stretchers bearers carrying a gas casualty away from the battle.
Canadian stretchers bearers carrying a gas casualty away from the battle.

In the years before the Great War, many Scots, especially young men, decided to up sticks and seek their fortune in another part of the Empire, writes John Duncan (Newbattle at War).

One such man was David R. A. Campbell from Polton. He emigrated to Canada and found employment as a paper maker.

In August 1914, war was declared and Canada immediately entered the conflict. A Canadian Expeditionary Force was established and a call went out for able bodied men to enlist. David responded and enlisted in the 72nd Battalion CEF, the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. After training he was sent over to England, arriving on April Fools’ Day, 1916 where he and his comrades undergo extensive training before sailing for France in September.

On November 18, 1916, at the end of the Battle of the Somme, David experienced his first taste of battle. The Seaforths took over a section of the front known as Regina Trench. Another battalion had been in action that day and a patrol was sent out into No Man’s Land to assess the strength of the Germans. The patrol came under shell fire and David was bowled over by a near miss. Although not apparently injured, he was in severe shock, shell shock, and was sent back to a field ambulance for treatment. Fortunately for him, his shell shock was not as severe as some men suffer, and a week later he was back in the trenches with his comrades.

During the winter the Seaforths moved into the Arras sector and took up positions overlooked by the imposing Vimy Ridge. The Canadians experienced many poison gas attacks. They had a detrimental effect on morale and caused a number of casualties. By the end of January, they’d had enough and decide to conduct a huge raid. Taking part would be around 1700 men in total. Backing them up there would be a deluge of poison gas.

For weeks before the attack men carried forward heavy cylinders of poison gas. It was back breaking work which “reduced some men to tears” such was the effort required to carry them. It was decided that they would attack on March 1. At 3am that morning, the stop cocks on the gas cylinders were opened. A deadly cocktail of phosgene/chlorine gas started drifting towards the German lines. The Germans, however, had just been issued with new gas orders and fired off flares. Artillery and machine gun fire was poured into the Canadian trenches, hitting gas cylinders ready for the second wave of gas. They ruptured and many men were overwhelmed by the escaping gas. The allied artillery was inadequate. The Germans stood to, ready to fight in their front-line trenches, bayonets fixed.

The raiders were to go into No Man’s Land at 5.40am, 40 minutes after a second discharge of gas. However, the wind dropped and orders were given cancelling the release. Some units did not receive the order and their gas settled in their own lines, causing great confusion. Despite these setbacks, the Canadians went over the top. The Germans were packed in their front line and decimated the Canadians who were pushing on, peering through the glass of their respirators. It was utter carnage, snipers were picking off officers, men sought shelter in shell holes only to find them full of gas. Any attempt to look out over the lip resulted in a bullet in the head.

Despite this they charged forward and occupied a section of enemy trench about 500 yards long. The fighting which took place there was vicious, savage and at close quarters. No mercy was given or expected. It was a scene from hell. Casualties were severe, particularly amongst officers. Orders were given to attempt a break out, back to Canadian lines. However, large parties of Germans could be seen heading along the trenches. If they got to the front line the Canadians would be slaughtered in the open.

David Campbell volunteered to hold up the Germans with his Lewis gun, and as he poured fire into them, his comrades escaped back to their trenches. David escaped at the last second and made it back unscathed. He was recommended for, and received, the DCM for his heroism. Nearly 700 of the 1700 men attacking were casualties.

A few weeks later a shell exploded and a tiny piece of shrapnel pierced David’s left foot. He shrugged it off, but deadly bacteria had entered his system, slowly poisoning him. A few days later he was ‘dangerously ill’ and it was decided that his only hope was the amputation of his leg below the knee. Miraculoulsy he survived the procedure and was invalided home to Canada. His war was over.