Captain Alan MacKenzie Gammell

A Soldier's Diary
The Letters

Alan Gammell, brother of Norman Gammell, was born in Montreal, Quebec on December 30th, 1892. Of the two Gammell brothers Alan enlisted first, signing up with the McGill First University Company on March 2, 1915. The university companies were recruited to reinforce the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, which had suffered terrible losses in the first six months of the war.

When he enlisted, Alan was 22 years old, 5 ft. 8 inches in height. On his attestation paper, Alan said he had served with the 3rd Victoria Rifles before enlisting, and gave his current occupation as "office man." And while he was employed as an assistant accountant by the Laurentide Pulp and Paper Company of Grand-Mère, Que., in fact, he spent the winters playing right wing for the hockey team sponsored by his employer. So, although Alan described himself as an "office man," he was in reality a semi-professional hockey player.

Not only a fierce hockey player, Alan Gammell was an experienced outdoorsman and hunter, used to portaging canoes and travelling in the bush. On one canoe trip, he paddled from Montreal, to Kingston to Ottawa and back to Montreal. When Alan enlisted he was in superb physical shape.

Reinforcements were so urgently needed, that after only two months of training in Canada, Alan's company was ordered to sail for England. After a brief stay in Shorncliffe, they joined the Princess Pat's at Armentieres on July 28, 1915. On August 8, Alan and the other raw recruits were ordered into the forward trenches, and his baptism by fire began. His diary entries tell the story: August 15: "We are real worms as we [live] beneath the surface most of the time." Aug. 17: "Mud, mud, mud everywhere." Aug. 21: "While digging a trench we came across an old skeleton of a man, kind of gruesome." Aug. 28: "Big day today: I am a real soldier now -- discovered a bunch of lice in my shirt."

Alan quickly decided that this was a nightmare he wanted to survive. He saw others being killed when they peeked over the top row of sandbags to look at the German front lines. He learned to keep his head down. He was a good soldier with a deeply ingrained sense of caution.

Between August 1915 and the end of 1916, some 1,200 officers and men like Alan and Norman joined the Princess Pat's through the McGill and Toronto university companies. Historians note that they saved the regiment from extinction; and it was they who beat the Germans in Sanctuary Wood on June 2, 1916. In October 1916, Alan Gammell was commissioned a lieutenant in the field during the Battle of the Somme. Three months later, on January 16, 1917, he was wounded at Vimy Ridge.

His diary records the events which led to his injury; "Jan. 10: In charge of working party; had to go thru mud up to my waist to get to my two parties. Jan. 16: At about 3 p.m. on my way up Birk in trench, Bosche were putting over rifle grenade. One landed very close to me hitting me on the arm and back."

The official history of the Princess Patricia's notes: "The eighth tour in the La Folie sector, which began on January 4, 1917, was more lively than the preceding one. The two German heavy trench mortars, "Josephine" and "Ananias" required special attention, and an increase of bombing brought heavier casualties, among the wounded in this and the next tour. . . being . . . A. M. Gammell."

Alan was invalided out of France and sent for surgery to a Canadian hospital in Britain. He was unable to regain full use of his right arm, and was ordered to report to Ottawa to assist with the conscription effort. By the war's end, he was promoted to Captain.

When he was discharged in 1919 a medical exam revealed that a "large foreign object," probably shrapnel, was still lodged in his back. Due to malnutrition during the war his teeth were so decayed they all had to be pulled. His vision had deteriorated and because of free cigarettes supplied to the soldiers throughout the war, he became a chain smoker, which contributed to a massive heart attack he suffered in 1959, forcing him to retire early.

In World War I, 5,086 Canadians served in the Princess Pat's, and of those 4,076 were either killed or wounded. Like so many who served overseas, Alan wanted to forget the horror of the war. On June 9, 1916, he writes from Flanders: "You will be glad to know that I came through our engagement without getting laid out. I was very lucky as we suffered heavy causalities. I am not going to write any description of it as it was too awful and I want to forget it, but I can't forget all the fellows of our bunch who are gone."

Alan only talked about the war when prompted. Having survived the mud, rats and the horror of the trenches, he created for himself and his wife Ethel a life of comforting routines based on the postcard perfect world he discovered in the English countryside he had travelled - a world far from the brutality of war. His grandson, Ian Darragh, recalled Alan saying that the two worse things he remembered from those days were the fear of getting gassed, and of sitting out alone in a listing post in No-Man's Land, when your imagination turned every sound into a German patrol.

Alan Gammell died in Montreal, Quebec on Nov. 24, 1969.

This account was contributed by Alan Gammell's grandson, Ian Darragh.

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