Jesse Butcher helped treat the wounded during the battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917 — a battle that claimed the lives 3,598 Canadian soldiers.
He wrote about his experiences in a small black diary, one of several that he filled, in defiance of military secrecy regulations.
Many years later, his great-niece, Langley resident Doreen Smithson Annala, came into possession of the diaries and transcribed the cramped, hard-to-read entries.
“He never spoke of what was in them,” she said.
Butcher (pictured standing with pipe next to brother-in-law Thomas Smithson) was a seminary student at St. Chad’s College in Regina, studying to become an Anglican minister, when he and many of his fellow students enlisted.
He did not approve of smoking, drinking or cursing and he would not carry a gun.
Annala describes her uncle as a “man of peace,” whose conscience would not allow him to fight, but still wanted to serve.
Butcher worked at the main “dressing station” during the battle of Vimy Ridge, a military field hospital, when four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force launched an attack on German-held high ground.
“Canadian Troops went ‘over the top’ at 5:30 this morning,” Butcher wrote .
“Wounded began to pour in abut 10 a.m. About 1400 cases up to 4 p.m. I went up the line at dinner time as guide to No. 13 Imperial Field Ambulance. ‘Twas an awful sight to see our wounded men lying in fields & on roads awaiting clearance by Motor Ambulance. Bitterly cold.”
He returned to work all night treating the injured.
“Some very bad cases, blinded, nose & eyes off & out, legs & feet off, arms & legs smashed. Lots of chest & abdominal cases,” Butcher wrote.
On April 12, the Canadians reached their final objective, a fortified knoll located outside the village of Givenchy-en-Gohelle, forcing the Germans to retreat.
The Germans continued to fire shells day and night at the road leading to the dressing station.
“Dead horses and men laying all over the road,” Butcher wrote on April 17.
“I made five trips with stretcher cases this evening. Road congested with fallen horses, overturned guns, timbers, service wagons.”
The diaries are full of matter-of-fact descriptions of the horrors of war like this entry for Nov 13, 1918:
“Yesterday a shell burst amongst a bunch of men, tore arm off one soldier.
“I helped bandage him & also cut off the arm with my pocket knife.
“Quite a number of civilians hurt also.”
When Butcher returned to Canada, he became a priest and eventually Rector of St. Michael and All Angels Church in Moose Jaw.