A hundred years ago yesterday my great grandfather was killed, on 9 August 1918, in a wheat field near the French town of Amiens, outside the village of Caix during the Hundred Days Offensive which made up the last battles of the First World War.
Lt-Col Thomas Head Raddall DSO was assigned to the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Canadian Army, and was the only commanding officer of the unit to have been killed in action. He was my mom’s grandfather, from the Canadian side of our family having settled in Halifax, Nova Scotia during his years in the military spent on this side of the Atlantic.
The Winnipeg Rifles remain a proud unit in the Canadian Army. The unit publishes a chronicle once a year called “The Devil’s Blast”, and the following article talking about Lt-Col Raddall’s death appeared in their 2012 publications:
“Thomas Head Raddall was born in Cornwall, England in 1877. At the age of 14 he enlisted in the Royal Marines as a drummer in 1891. He became a rifleman in the Royal Marine Light Infantry in 1895 and served on the China station from 1896-1900. Raddall transferred to the British army’s School of Musketry at Flythe, Kent as an instructor in small arms, including machine guns. An expert marksman, he was a member of army rifle teams in competitions at Bisley and elsewhere. He was a member of the British rifle team at the 1908 Olympic Games in London. He inevitably transferred to the Canadian army in May 1913 for the purpose of being an instructor in rifle and machine gun practice. He and his family settled in Nova Scotia.
When war was declared with Germany in August 1914, He was ordered to Valcartier Camp, where he joined 8th Battalion (the Winnipeg Rifles) as lieutenant ofthe machine gun section, then to overseas deployment in September of 1914. At Ypres, in April of 1915 he was wounded in head and arm. He convalesced in Canada at Halifax (his adopted home city). Upon recovery, he rejoined the regiment with the rank of captain, and was adjutant during the Somme fighting in 1916. While engaged at Vimy Ridge in the spring of 1917 he was wounded for a second time. He recovered in time to rejoin the regiment for the battle of Passchendaele, where he served as a major and was second-in-command. For his services during the battles of 1917 he was three times mentioned in Field-Marshall Haig’s despatches.
He took command of the regiment, after the brutal decimation at Passchendaele, as acting Lieutenant Colonel and was confirmed in this rank in August 1918. During this period he rebuilt and retrained the 8th battalion, and the 8th was acknowledged in First Division as being one of the best to wear the famous “old red patch”. On the 3rd of June 1918 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Interestingly enough the award was given in honour of King George V’s birthday. The criteria for the award were to have been in active combat as well as having been mentioned in despatches.
The opening day of The Hundred Days Offensive was on August 8. Beginning with a swift attack east of Amiens the regiment reached and occupied Caix Wood and the village of Caix. Their objective for the next morning was the village of Rosieres, but owing to circumstances on the 1st Division’s right, several of their units had to change front, and during the night of August 8, the regiment was moved to Hospital Wood, on their right, with orders to attack towards Warvillers in the morning. This meant storming Hatchet Wood, on a prominence in the rolling Picard grain fields, commanding a wide field of fire on all sides. It could not be by-passed for that reason.
Matters on the Canadian right remained uncertain until after noon on August 9, when Colonel Raddall received orders to attack. The wood was held by about 400 fresh German troops, with numerous machine guns. The regiment had no tank support, and the lone field battery behind them was under orders for its part in a general barrage scheme, with no shifting to particular targets of opportunity. He sent one company to circle and attack the wood from the left, another to do the same from the right. The attack from the front had to be pressed hotly, to keep the Germans’ attention away from the flanking companies, and Raddall went forward with the front attack.
The Colonel, while kneeling in the wheat was hit and knocked down by a bullet in the right arm, which was bandaged by his runner. He then rose up again and put up his field glasses, seeking signs of progress by the flanking companies. While doing so he was hit by a burst of machine gun bullets in the chest and collapsed, and gasped to the runner, “Tell Bug (Major Saunders) to take over”. In a few brief moments he was dead.
The regiment stormed into the wood from all three sides. Many of the enemy had been killed or wounded on the way that there were actually fewer than 400 Germans in the woods but after a fierce scrimmage among the trees with bomb and bayonet they killed about 100 and the rest surrendered. The regiment was in Warvillers, their objective, that night. After the battle the regiment’s padre, J.W. Whillans, brought parties to seek out the dead among the wheat and gather the bodies on the lip of the draw where the 8th began their rush towards Hatchet Wood.
They buried Colonel Raddall and 7 other officers and 59 men there, which was to become named the Manitoba Cemetery.
Total losses of the engagement also included 309 wounded and 52 missing. Amid all the carnage on the afternoon of August 9, 1918 2 VC’s were awarded. One VC was awarded to Cpl Frederick Coppins shortly before Raddall was killed and another to Cpl Alexander Brereton shortly after Raddall’s death.”
Having visited a number of those European and North African war cemeteries during my own military deployments to those areas, I am still struck and honored by the love, the attention, the care, and dedication the local citizenry pay to these resting places. The Winnipeg Rifles family still honor their war dead, as evidence of this visit to the cemetery as recalled by these members of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles Museum:
My Mom and Dad had the opportunity to track down Great Grandfather Raddall’s grave in France during a visit there in the early 90s, and his grave, indeed the entire cemetery, as evidenced by the previous note from the museum, was well tended with obvious love, attention and eternal appreciation.
His headstone reads:
LIEUTENANT COLONEL T H RADDALL, DSO
8TH BATTALION CANADIAN INF
9TH AUGUST 1918 AGE 41
GOD BE WITH YOU
UNTIL WE MEET AGAIN
A hundred years ago today. A life of service to his God and country and family ended in the last months of the first Great War. Our great grandfather’s legacy is carried on, though, through his son and daughter’s sons and daughters.
The accompanying pictures are of the Lt-Col in the later stages of his career and a shot of his headstone in the Manitoba Cemetery, Caix, France. There is a photo of the then-Sergeant Raddall holding my grandmother, Nellie Raddall Cassidy, in the early years of the 1900s.