From the Diary of a Regimental Soldier
A few years ago, I was handed the diary of a soldier by his son, Ed Greening. His father, George Garland Greening of Musgravetown, was 18 when he sailed off to war on June 20, 1915, a proud member of âFâ Company of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. His company was first sent to the Dardanelles in Turkey and then to Egypt, before being sent to France to fight in the trenches in 1916.âWent in the trenches, April 22,â Greening wrote in his diary. âGot wounded the 24th. Admitted into the hospital the 25th.â Greening recovered from his wounds and on June 1, 1916, he was again at the front, digging trenches. âThat was our job for several days, making shell-proof dugouts, â he wrote. âWe went back to Lowencourt for a rest, or what was supposed to be a rest. But the next day we were hard at it, training for the big advance we were going to make. We trained for eight days before we went to the trenches again.âLife in a trench was no piece of cake. The soldiers slept in mud, using their kit bags as pillows. Sometimes they awoke to discover rats had eaten their lunch. But life in the trenches was nothing compared to what the soldiers were going to have to face several weeks later, in an attack that became known as the July Drive.Greening was among the first soldiers through one of the small gaps in the barbed wire on that fateful morning of July 1. It was at these small gaps that many soldiers fell, one atop the other, as enemy machine-gun fire mowed them down. âThey were falling just like someone was mowing hay,â Greening told his son, Ed, some years later.Greening was lucky enough to get past the gap and onto âNo Manâs Landâ without being hit. But then he was hit with a burst of machine-gun fire that spun him around like a top before he fell, seriously wounded, into a bunch of stinging nettles. The first thing he did was try to throw his hand grenades as far away from himself as possible, lest an enemy bullet cause one to explode. Greening was acutely aware of the fact that he was wounded, though he didnât know that one bullet had creased his skull only a fraction of an inch from where it would have killed him, or that five bullets were embedded in his chest. All soldiers carried shell dressings, and Greening tucked all of his inside his tunic to try to stop the bleeding. He lay there all day, losing consciousness several times. Those wounded around him, who were able, made their way back to their own lines, leaving behind the dead, the dying - and George Greening.Back in Musgravetown, meanwhile, Greeningâs mother Sandra was having a dream about her son. She dreamt he had been in a big battle and was badly hurt. So real was the dream that in the morning she sent another son, Chesley, to the telegraph office. Sure enough, there was a message waiting. It read: âMissing in action - presumed dead.â It was just before daylight at Beaumont-Hamel, France, and George still lay on the battlefield, but he was feeling better (which he later attributed to the coolness of the night). He decided to try and make it back before it got too light, lest the enemy spot him and shoot him again. He dragged himself to his feet and started to make his way back toward the barbed wire. As he neared the fence he heard someone with an English accent calling out and asking if he were a stretcher-bearer. He told the man that he wasnât a medic. The man replied he had a broken leg and was wounded in the back. Would Greening help him return to their side? Taking the manâs ground sheet, Greening elevated the manâs leg and tied the sheet around the manâs neck to hold the leg up. He picked up two rifles that were lying on the ground and used them as crutches - one for himself, and the other for the English soldier. Using his best arm (his left arm) he held onto his charge and started to help him back out of No Manâs Land. Finding the openings in the barbed wire wasnât difficult; all they had to do was look for piles of dead soldiers.Once past the barbed wire the two made their way to the nearest trench. Part way up the trench was a ledge, known as the firing step. Greening helped the man down onto this step and into the trench. Greening then blacked out and fell into the trench himself. When he regained consciousness, medics had arrived and he was being carried out on a stretcher.Greening spent 17 months in a hospital before being discharged. The five bullets had broken into 12 pieces, but they were never removed. When he returned home to Newfoundland, Greening went fishing on the French Shore with his father and brother. Of course, fishing in those days meant a lot of rowing. This rowing caused his wounds to open up and he had to give up fishing and other strenuous work.âDad had all his faculties, and was alert right up until a half hour before he died,â his son Ed told me, âbut during the three or four days before he died he kept asking, âIs it the first of July yet?â It was almost as if he was waiting for that day to arrive before he would allow himself to die.âThen July 1, 1985, arrived and at about 2:00 a.m., 69 years to the day that he cheated death the first time, Pte. George Garland Greening, No. 1506, âFâ Company, 7 Platoon, Royal Newfoundland Regiment, passed peacefully away. He is buried in the Field of Honour at Mount Pleasant Cemetery, St. Johnâs, with the pieces of five bullets still in his chest. - By Ron YoungRon Young is a retired policeman, published poet and founding editor of Downhome.