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Bank of Nova Scotia

Three members of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) in the London, England, branch of the bank enlisted in the British Army at the outbreak of hostilities. They kept in touch by letter with their manager, a Mr. Jones. The employees were J. D. Palmer, N. E. Lawson and P. M. Alexander.

(Early December 1914) Letter from J. D. Palmer

Very many thanks for the parcel, the contents of which were most acceptable. Please express my thanks and appreciation to the staff.

We are having a short rest today after a spell in the trenches – Lawson and Dalton [Lawson one of the other two members of the CIBC trio. The identity of Dalton is unknown.] have been in the thick of it but I, being an orderly attached to Headquarters, have not done any actual fighting in the trenches. It is a terrible strain on the men as we have struck a very bad patch in the weather and in some cases the trenches are more than knee-deep in mud and water. In spite of this the spirit of the men is remarkably good and I expect it won’t be long before we take another turn there as the machine gun section has gone up again tonight. I had an exciting experience two nights ago taking rations up to our men in the trenches. Two companies were there, the remainder being billetted at a farm about a mile away. We started away about five o’clock and did not get back to our barn until 12.30. It was pitch dark and raining hard all the time, and what with snipers, shell holed filled with water, numerous ditches and other small obstacles, the task was by no means a pleasant or easy one. One poor chap was shot during the expedition and we were thankful to get back, covered in mud from head to foot and wet through.

I asked father to acknowledge the previous letter from the Bank and to let you know how I was faring, but I should now like to say for myself how grateful I am for the generous treatment accorded tome.

Miller is sick and I think he is in a convalescent hospital at Boulogne. Lawson and Dalton with me wish to be kindly remembered to yourself and the staff. J,.D. Palmer.

8 December 1914 Letter from Pte N. E. Lawson

We have just come through three days of absolute hell. For two days were standing by, just behind the firing line. We had to live in a ditch at the side of a road until the rain came down in torrents and flooded us out. The only thing to do was to walk up and down the road and risk the shell fire. At last they got us into a shattered barn, but we were just settling down when the word came to go up to the firing line. We set off, but the officer guiding us was shot, and we came to a standstill.

Then the Germans opened a heavy fire and we made for some trenches, but found them already occupied, so we had to lie down behind for about two hours and freeze. After a bit all the platoons went off to the firing line except ours: we were to be in support trenches. After a bit the regulars whom we were relieving, filed by. They were in a terrible state as the trenches were waist deep in slush. Lots of them were crying with agony, and others were gibbering mad. We had to take their places – it was a cheerful prospect. Out Engineer officer gave out platoon leave if we liked to take the risk of fire, to dig new trenches for ourselves, but the regulars tried it the night before and had lost a man. However, we took it on and luckily did not lose a man. We simply worked like fiends. It was fine during the day, but later the rain came down again, and everything we had was soaked, our clothes soaked to the skin. The water rose higher and higher, and we had to stand for 24 hours in slush and water: it came up over our ankles, and it was impossible to feel one’s feet.

When we were relieved we had a 10 miles march back to our billets. It was not a march but a shamble, with men dripping down at the side of the road. The other platoons were worse than we were, they had been waist deep in water all the time. Lots of them were absolutely bent double with cramps, one died of exposure. We had one shot and one wounded. I am all right myself now. I think the march really saved me, as I could not stand up when we first got out of our trench.

We arrived home a 3 o’clock yesterday morning and just flopped down in our wet things and slept. We had had no sleep for three nights.


Letter from a third former member of the bank staff to his manager.

21 November 1914 Letter from P. M. Alexander

At last I have time to write a little more than a mere pc. I am afraid so far my news has been of a very scrappy nature, and even now I can’t give much detail.

To begin with, I expect you would like to hear a little of my point of view of our first battle, which caused such flaring headlines and stirring accounts in the newspapers. As far as I was concerned personally I moved forward with my company into action in extended order and came under fire for the first time was we moved over the brow of a hill across (an) open ploughed field and root crops. Here of course we came into the view of the enemy and were immediately met with terrible fire, including rifle and maxim, and above all shrapnel and ‘Jack Johnsons’ or ‘Black Marias’ (as the huge shells are variously called) bursting everywhere. As they seemed to have the exact range the fire simply mowed down our ranks and I should think that quite half of our casualties (i.e. G Company) were caused in the first half hour. All we could do was to lie down flat at once and make use of every scrap of cover we could find, which was more or less nil. This first advance was made at about mid-day. I, with the rest, lay I suppose some 10 minutes, which seemed more like hours, flattened on the ground, bullets whizzing round my ears with a buzzing sound, just like so many wasps and bees. Then the chap on my left was hit through the body and lay groaning and various men around exclaiming they were hit. Well the only thing we could do was to advance, so as the order came, up we jumped and dashed another 30 or 40 yards forward and down again. Our object was to reinforce the trenches some way in front of us, rather on our left flank, from which direction the maxim fire was heaviest. At this time, as one of our officers and several NCOs were hit we could again get no actual orders passed down the line, so we were left to act, more or less, on our own initiative. So up we got again, still under the same terrific fire and made another dash and a few of us reached the trenches were held by the Carbineers. Others had to retire a little to a hedge where they re-formed under an officer and started to dig themselves in.

I was one of the lucky ones, among those who reached the advanced trenches first. I simply flung myself in (the trench was five feet deep with 3 ft head cover in front) and was only too glad to lie down in the bottom for a bit for a breather and to collect my thoughts a bit. The regulars there were simply fine fellows and soon bucked us up with their little jokes and kind attentions and very soon we were up again and blazing away at the German trenches some 400 yards in front, with the best. Well there I remained all day (i.e. 31st October – Halloween) potting at Germans when the showed themselves, and our trenches simply bombarded with heavy shell and shrapnel fire. Part of the trench was blown in by a ‘J.J.’ and we had to dig it out again, and several of our chaps and the regulars too were hit. As it got dark the shell fire slackened and almost ceased and we were able to move about a little to stretch cramped limbs and to fetch water from a farm immediately on our left. We had some of our wounded there and I gave a hand to our medical officer dressing one of our lieutenants who was shot through the cheek and ear and a scalp wound too from shrapnel.

At about 11 p.m. I lay down in the trench to try and get a short rest, sentries being on the ‘qui vive’. At midnight we were suddenly alarmed that the enemy were advancing in great force all along the line and we immediately stood to our rifles. It is at this point that our further doings coincide more or less with newspaper reports. The enemy were swarming into the farm on our left in no time and out we rushed from the trenches we had occupied all day and sprinted into the farm-yard and dodging behind barns, haystacks and outbuildings took pot shots at every German we could see, at the same time fixing bayonets in readiness for emergencies. We were only a handful of men here so couldn’t attempt to hold the advance, merely to check it, so eventually fell back on another line of trenches immediately behind a farmhouse some 50 yards away. The whole farm, barns and stacks were set alight by the enemy and it burst away as a huge beacon, lighting up everything all around all night. The effect of this fire was to break the frontal attack and to cause their lines to advance each side of the farm along hedges, with our trenches in the centre of them and we had no difficulty in checking them here. Simply mowing them down with rifle fire as they advanced en masse lit up by the flames. What rifle fire would not do, we found a little persuasion with cold steel had the desired result. We ourselves unfortunately were suffering pretty badly all this time, fellows falling all around. We held on to this trench until 7 a.m. the next morning (Sunday 1st November) when as we were surrounded more or less on three sides we had orders to retire, which we did down a small valley through copses and across fields for about 2 miles, through an inferno of maxim fire and rifle fire. On our way back we met strong English re-enforcements and it turned out that we had held the German attack just long enough for these to arrive in time to finish the repulse of the enemy.
This account is but an outline of my point of view, but almost every man has a different story to tell. Other companies were in reserve to begin with and saw more bayonet fighting than my company and never got into the trenches, but we all had quite enough and more. The village referred to in printed reports was the centre of attack, but our fighting was in no way limited to it, as it would seem from all accounts.

I find I have already drawn this account out to an awful length and fear the censor will hardly let all this through, so mustn’t give any details now of further 5 days in trenches we have had since. That must wait.

At the moment we are a safe way from (the) firing line although we can still hear big guns rumbling away in the distance. I am in a very comfortable billet in an old farm house. Just 10 of us together and the good people who live here are just kindness and hospitality itself. We are all fast reviving with the aid of plenty of good food and sleep. I am feeling very fit now and enjoying the country holiday.

It’s very cold here and the countryside has been covered with several inches of snow for the last 3 days now and it still freezes hard. I have plenty of clothes, having had lovely warm vest, service shirt and socks served out. P. M. Alexander.
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