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The First World War: Excerpts from the diary of Woodman Leonard

By Randy Richmond, The London Free Press

Londoner Woodman Leonard commanded an artillery unit in the First World War and kept a daily diary of life on the Western Front and during several major battles. Sun Media is publishing excerpts of the diary each week.

Detailed planning and a massive artillery barrage helped Canadian forces, working together for the first time, to victory at Vimy Ridge in 1917. Two weeks before the attack, Lt. Col Woodman Leonard spent hours each day meeting with other commanders, and preparing artillery brigades for the bombardment that would cut the wires and smash the German, or Boche, trenches. He scouted out the territory, fought off the cold and endured swollen fingers. At one point, Leonard marvelled at the skill of an enemy pilot in a small red plane, likely the fighter ace who months earlier painted his plane and became known as the Red Baron.


The red-painted German fighter plane noted in Woodman Leonard’s diary was almost certainly that of Manfred von Richtofen, shown above after a landing. Known as the Red Baron, von Richtofen was one of the war’s highest-scoring fighter aces. Canadian pilot Roy Brown shot him down in April 1918. (Imperial War Museum)

Diary excerpts from the Great War

March 22, 1917 (Aix-Noullette, France)

Heavy firing to the south in early a.m. Commander of Royal Artillery called in about 9 o’clock and fortunately I was dressed, owing to almost a sleepless night. Bright and cold, with more snow. Made another allotment of alternate positions, for coming battle . . . Issued orders to 2nd Brigade to register and gave them assistance to do so. They will remain silent after it is completed. Quite a heavy snow storm at dusk. 2nd Brigade got their mess during the day, but are still living with us.

March 23, 1917

Heavy firing to the south about daylight. Slept very, very poorly . . . Bright, but very cold. My hands very swollen. A_____ came over in p.m. Had dinner and I put him up in our dug-out for the night. The brigades now have thirty-five officers. We went again over details for tomorrow and the next day.

March 24, 1917

A very cold night. Ground frozen, but a wonderfully bright day. The 2nd Division raid came off, but I did not hear the result . . . Boche planes very active. They have a small red one that can fly rings around ours . . .


Large naval guns behind Canadian lines fire at German positions in April 1917 in the lead-up to the Canadian capture that month of heavily-fortified Vimy Ridge in northern France. (Library and Archives Canada)

March 27, 1917

Trenches in bad shape. Some forward salient batteries are already in position. The brigades are firing upon wire obstructions. We met all brigade commanders in p.m. and went into barrage table and other details of attack . . . The barrages will last nearly eight hours. The infantry advance is over 4,000 yards to the final objective. The above is a big undertaking, and the part to be played by the 3rd Brigade is harder than any other Field artillery unit.

March 28, 1917

Slept in new dug-out, which is more comfortable than the other. Clear and cold, with little sunshine. The Boche brought down one of our planes in flames to the east and forced down another in the rear. The latter made a good landing, as I could see the crew climb out and walk away, one evidently wounded, as the other was supporting him. Quite a lot of shelling by our heavies all day.

March 29, 1917

Rai all day, with strong wind. E_____ and I went up to the valley as far as the mill to see what prospect there would be for batteries getting forward, and found good road up to 200 yards in rear of mill, but from there it is impassable. Passed several old sunken roads which have been heavily shelled and evidently an old Boche barrage line. Looked at one of our planes that was brought down yesterday. Pilot and observer must have been killed, as machine was pretty well telescoped and engine partly buried in the earth. We were both drenched.

March 30, 1917

Some rain in morning, but turned out rather nice day later. Boche shelled near headquarters yesterday and got one pioneer in the abdomen . . . went to Ecurie route. It gives a road practically to front line. This road is much cut up and in view most of the way. Came back by way of tunnel and front line, which was all soup and porridge and very bad going. Went over to St. Aubin ditch route and found it feasible, except for forward batteries. How to avoid this line of fire is the problem. They are dug in, which does not give a driver very much chance passing in front.

Woodman Leonard

  • Born: Nov. 23, 1883
  • Graduated Royal Military College: 1903
  • Major, 12th Battery: 1914-1916
  • Distinguished Service Order (DSO): Jan. 14, 1916
  • Promoted to Lt. Col., 3rd Brigade: June 1916
  • Died: April 7, 1917 (killed at Vimy Ridge)
  • Battles fought: Ypres, the Somme, Vimy Ridge​


Canadian artillery shells fall and explode on barbed wire protecting the German lines before the Canadian advance in the epic battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917. (Australian War Memorial)

Vimy Ridge

  • A seven-kilometre ridge in northern France, heavily fortified, held by German forces
  • French had failed to capture strategic ridge and suffered more than 100,000 casualties
  • First time all four Canadian divisions united for a battle
  • detailed planning included early use of aerial photographs, weeks of simulation training
  • Deep tunnels dug to bring infantry safely to front
  • Weeks of heavy artillery barrage to destroy German trenches and wires
  • Artillery barrage during battle to keep Germans stuck in trenches and away from machine guns

Source: Canadian War Museum www.warmuseum.ca


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