Late in life Laurie Cunningham prepared a few biographical notes which he called Laurie’s Thoughts on Life at 80. Here is an excerpt in which he describes the battles of Lens, Amiens and Passchendaele; the day he got wounded near Arras; and the trip to the French coast.
……”During June, 1917, we had lectures on a plan to try to advance on the Lens front, so the 6th of July we jumped over the top but for some good fortune I was asked to be on the Gas Guard that 24 hours at Battalion or company headquarters so maybe my life was saved again. I took up a position in Lens 18 hours after the advance and the barb wire was filled with our dead hanging on it. The area smelled of something awful. It was just a week since it was fought over by other units. I gave a wounded man all my water, he had been lying on the ground for 24 hours shot through above the heart and below the collar bone. I was nearly finished before I got any more water.
“We spent the rest of the summer on work parties between Vimy and Passchendaele area. We went over the top in a drenching rain on October 26th or thereabouts. Some parts differ and say November 1st, at the first hour at day break. I worked on that front for ten days carrying out wounded and carrying iron posts and barb wire. Then we went back of the lines a distance and did work parties and took 27 new men, in my platoon of 30 men, we lost during the ten days.
“My next time over the top was July 6th, 1918, when the mounted infantry led off at daylight south of Amiens and there was not one horse that did not get shot down before it got to the first machine gun. I was in the next to the last relay of the plan that carried on with two or three advances each day, daylight, noonday and before dark. I was in the noonday advance and had direct machine gun turned on me twice but was not hit. One of my best friends was killed from shrapnel struck in the groin, his heart was very weak. I had helped him by carrying his rifle when he was hardly able to carry on. Then my friend MacDonald from Kincaid got shot through the leg at his knee. I was crawling through the high weeds looking for my wounded corporal when I thought I might be able to walk. A burst of machine gun fire was put on me. I dropped down for a while and tried again, but got a second burst. Then I crawled and found him and got him onto a stretcher. He was shot by machine gun fire under the collar bone and out low on the shoulder blade. I met him after the war, recovered in Moose Jaw, I cannot remember his name.
“One night at Passchendaele four of us were sleeping in two shell holes about 15 feet apart. A shell came and blew Taylor and the other boy right out of the shell hole and killed them both. When I got up at daylight, I saw them and took their identification tags from their necks and put them back in the shell hole and covered them over with a foot of soil. I afterward wrote their next of kin and Mrs. Taylor or the Taylors sent me a box of socks and food every month until I was wounded in September.
“The next time over the top was in August. A very large raid for prisoners was planned at midnight. It was a very dark night heavy downpour of rain as we stood ready to jump out of the trench the minute the barrage of shells would open up. I can feel the water running down my legs and into my shoes. I felt very cold but that may have been because of tension. I cannot recall how many times I experienced the chilliness. But I have been awfully cold when spending the nights when the temperature froze ice on the water of the shell holes and the snow was on the ground. I would try to sleep and in fifteen minutes I would be so cold I would have to get up and jump around and clap my arms around my body the cold seemed to go right through my great coat and a lining vest of sheep skin. I gained weight under these experiences. When I got to London on my eight days leave I was with Dan Griffin and I weighed 154 pounds.
“The next advance was Sept 2, 1918 south of Arras along the Cambrai – Arras road, we advanced three and half miles with very heavy casualties. We were mopping up when I got wounded about 9:00 a.m. I think it was Etaples, 9 miles south of Arras. It was a bright sunny day I was dressing a boy shot through the abdomen and out his back, a bullet went through my right hand, through the joint of the second finger and cut the cord of my third finger and broke the bone between the palm and the joint of my little finger. Then I asked another soldier to take care of the wounded boy and to put a bandage on my hand and I said if I can get out of here I have a chance to live so I started to run on an open field dirt road, the machine gun bullets were kicking the dirt along the road like the first drops of rain on a dry soil and the artillery were dropping shells on both sides of the road to stop trucks from bringing up supplies on the road.
“I ran along for 2.5 miles there was a YMCA tent giving hot chocolate and cookies to the wounded like myself. He put more dressing on my hand to stop the blood from dripping on my clothing and I ran along again. I came to a truck unloading shells I asked if I could ride with him and away we went and covered the 9 miles to Arras. There was a nice woman there in the ruins of Arras writing cards to the next of kin.
“There was a double decker London bus there taking the wounded back to the Channel. I got on the top of the bus the happiest man in the world and threw my helmet away and got to Boulogne to a hospital. They gave me a bath and clean pajamas and hospital bed with good springs and mattress. I will always remember the feeling of that bed after serving 15.5 months lousy and wet and dirty often and sleeping in shell holes and dugouts or just on the mud. By midnight I had another bus ride to Calais and crossed the Channel and got to a military hospital in Mile End, London. After a month there I changed to Buxton Hospital, the next stop was Liverpool and a week in Scotland, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness, and Glasgow. I was in Liverpool on the 11th of November Armistice Day. The streets were so crowded that you could only move with the crowd. I think I arrived in Canada by December lst and oh how good it looked to me. I spent most of the winter in the Regina hospital having treatment on my hand.
More comment on the battles:
“At midnight on the first day of Passchendaele we lined up to get food and my mess tin that I carried with an oil sheet and great coat rolled up on my back had been shot through so it would not hold soup in either top or bottom, no trouble, there were hundreds within the area where boys had fallen all around.
“One time I might have lost my life in Passchendaele. I was detailed with a runner named Butts, he was a trapper from northern Sask., one of the men who took most of the gambling money from the best three in our platoon, we had to go to the front line in mid-afternoon, we were on higher sandy ground, so we had a good sandy path to follow. Butts was senior man and leading, I was scout for my platoon officer. Without any explanation Butts left the path about 25 feet, I thought – “What is getting wrong with you?” – but I made no comment but followed him. By the time we were 100 feet further on, a shell came into the path right beside us, in the sandy ground it went deep before exploding, we were covered with flying soil but not hurt, no remarks and Butts led gradually back to the path and on our way.
“During the advance when the barrage opened up, I was following our company officer about fifteen feet to the left of him and the same distance behind him Sargent Davis was about 15 feet to the left of Blair, one of the thousands of shells lit directly between the two of them. Blair was blown about eight feet into the air. Blair seemed to almost bounce as his body settled to never move again and Davis was killed instantly, his arms, head and legs were blown off and the only identification upon his clothing was his South African medal ribbon and Sargent’s stripes, I could not do anything but keep on advancing. Blair showed no fear when he jumped off, he gave me confidence on many occasions, he was a miner in his thirties. Someone asked me later who got Blair’s watch but I did not remove anything from either body. The closest I came to dying in my whole experience was in a smoke screen barrage, a shell hit so close to me that the breeze brought the smoke right around me and I went right down on my knees gasping for breath and I seemed as though I could not get air past my throat, but a change of air current and density of the smoke screen lessened and I was able to breathe again.
“When we first jumped off, Mitchel Burns, my friend and neighbour from Hazenmore went ahead of me I saw him go down and went to him and said – “Mitchel where are you hurt?” He said – “Who wants M.D. Burns?” I could see blood but had to go on, I was a scout at the time not a First Aid man. He was reported missing and I suppose the shells covered his body”.
Researching the Military Service History of Regimental Number 782373 Private Laurence Dunbar Cunningham
Research by Justin Tate, Lieutenant Colonel, Royal Australian Engineers
(Husband of Sarah Shteir, Grandaughter of Laurence Dunbar Cunningham)
In late December 2014 to early January 2015 we were preparing for Griff’s memorial service and going through documents, photos and other records to select items to display. Among these records was an envelop with two hardened cardboard like objects that perplexed most of the family. As an Army Officer, I recognised these immediately as military dog-tags. The details on the dog tags were for Griff’s father, Laurence Cunningham. I was aware that Griff’s father had served in the Canadian Army during the Great War, but I did not know much beyond that. There had been dinner table discussions about Laurence being a pacifist and seeking a role as a stretcher-bearer or medical orderly during the
war. The dog-tags provided a key clue to investigate Laurence’s war history further – they detailed his regimental number which was 782373.
The 128th Battalion came to be known as the Suicide Battalion, as they suffered 91.5% casualties.
Laurie Cunningham became a strong advocate of peace, and a committed pacifist. He joined the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament; sent money to Dr. Alcock to support his Peace Research Institute; belonged to the United Nations Association of Canada; and frequently marched or walked for peace in the 60’s and 70’s, carrying his own handmade placard.
December 7, 2015