‘This Place is a Sure Hell’

Private Clarence Booth and his experience at Saint Eloi

By Canadian Centre for the Great War

Canadian Centre for the Great War

Just Plain Buster 
On October 25th, 1914, Clarence ‘Buster’ Booth enlisted with the 24th Battalion (Victoria’s Rifles) as a drummer. On May 11th of the next year Private Booth set sail for Europe, leaving behind his sweetheart, Lily Finlay, his sister, Gertie, and his mother, but taking with him a diary. While often curt, Booth’s diaries nonetheless effectively portray the stresses of war, and the effects that those stresses could have on a young psyche.

“Don't forget I am waiting to hear from you. Lily xxxxxxx always”

Pte. Booth seated in first row, far right.

“Group Photo of Booth’s Band, ‘Bomb Proofs’”Canadian Centre for the Great War

[Inside Cover of Private Clarence Booth's Diary] (1916) by Clarence BoothCanadian Centre for the Great War

Songs of War 

Booth opens his 1916 diary—a little over a year since he joined the 24th—with a chipper summary of his war experience so far and a tongue-in-cheek version of the song, “Sing me to Sleep”. A very popular song in 1915-1916, “Sing me to Sleep” was written by Edwin Greene and performed by Alma Gluck. Booth’s version, combined with the Shakespeare reference, hints at the type of dark humour that could be expected in the trenches, and the kind of stresses that inspired it. 

Sing Me to Sleep. Performed by Alma Gluck. Music by Edwin Greene, Lyrics by Clifton Bingham.
00:00

[Diary Interior, Memoranda and Saturday January 1st] (1916) by Clarence BoothCanadian Centre for the Great War

"The Bluff. Looking Towards St. Eloy (Eloi)"Canadian Centre for the Great War

The Front 

After arriving at the Western Front, Booth was transferred from stretcher bearer to a machine gun unit and then to serve as batman for Captain Amphlett. In early 1916, while stationed near St. Eloi, he was buried in his dugout by a shell. A day later he received news of the death of the entirety of his old machine gun crew. This marks a major shock to Booth’s psyche and the beginning of his mental descent. He would have trouble sleeping for days afterward. 

K1 [Trench location]

Bombardment heavy. Shell 5.9 hit my dugout & God only know how I came through it ok

[Diary Interior, Saturday March 18 and Sunday, March 19] (1916-03-18/1916-03-19) by Clarence BoothCanadian Centre for the Great War

[Aerial Map] “Cross Roads at St. Eloi” (1916-03-16) by National Library of ScotlandCanadian Centre for the Great War

Battle of St. Eloi

March 27, 1916, 4:15 a.m.: Near the Belgian village of Sint Elooi, otherwise known as St. Eloi, just South of Ypres, the British had spent months digging mines underneath The Mound—a tactically significant 30m tall hill that the Germans controlled. 

Monday, March 27

K1A

Morning Bombardment all day & Day. expect to attack Enemy.

Night Bombardment still on heavy.

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Don Torrance - Killed 1.45 AM”

[Diary Interior, Sunday, March 26 and Monday, March 27] (1916-03-26/1916-03-27) by Clarence BoothCanadian Centre for the Great War

[Aerial Map] "Mine Craters at St. Eloi" (1916-03-27) by National Library of ScotlandCanadian Centre for the Great War

In the early hours of March 27, the British opened fire with their heavy guns and detonated the explosives that had been packed into the mines. The hill, and its occupiers, were obliterated and replaced with seven massive craters. The explosion caused nearby trenches to collapse and could be heard as far away as England. In bad weather and with no accurate maps, the British 3rd Division charged into battle.  

[Hand drawn map] “War Diaries—Report on St. Eloi, 3rd Division” (1916-03-31) by Library and Archives CanadaCanadian Centre for the Great War

Booth’s decay

From March 27th to April 3rd, Booth—with the 24th Battalion—held the line at the Kemmel Front, near St. Eloi, holding off a rash of German probes and barrages. At St. Eloi, the battle was in complete disarray, the bad weather and harsh conditions in the craters made communication and organisation incredibly difficult. The British 3rd Division had exhausted itself fighting in the craters and needed relief. Without rest, the Victoria Rifles were transferred to the craters of St. Eloi. Behind the lines, they waited for the signal to head up. 

Thursday, March 30

K1A

Morning. Bombardment
Afternoon My Dear old Pal Jack Beaton wounded in elbow he saved my life by falling over me 4 others got it in same dugout but I didn’t get a scratch.

[Diary Interior, Thursday, March 30 and Friday, March 31] (1916-03-30/1916-03-31) by Clarence BoothCanadian Centre for the Great War

[Diary Interior, Thursday April 13 and Friday April 14] (1916-04-13/1916-04-14) by Clarence BoothCanadian Centre for the Great War

"Dante's Inferno"

The 24th moved up to the front lines on April 12th and Booth—after seeing Lieutenant Amphlett off—joined them in the craters April 14th. For the next 5 days heavy bombardment continued as Booth was forced to travel from the front to the rear and back again.

"St. Eloi Craters: Kemmel in Background" (1919-04/1919-05) by Library and Archives CanadaCanadian Centre for the Great War

End of the battle?

Officially the battle ended on April 16th. The confusion, chaos and inability to perform aerial reconnaissance resulted in a loss for the Entente forces. On the ground, fighting continued for days, accompanied by ceaseless bombardments. It started to overwhelm Booth. 

Wednesday, April 26

S. Wood

Morning. Heavy Bombardment in Wood. Continued all night Expect Gass. Germans advance but We Repulsed them

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Nerves start going bad

[Diary Interior, Wednesday April 26] (1916-04-26) by Clarence BoothCanadian Centre for the Great War

[Diary Interior, Friday May 19 and Saturday May 20] (1916-05-19/1916-05-20) by Clarence BoothCanadian Centre for the Great War

Booth at the hospital

As the Victoria Rifles were rotated back onto the front line, Booth’s mental state began to decline once more. Twice in a three-day period, he got lost on the front and spent the night in a shell hole. On May 20th, he was pulled from the line. 

[Cookbook Cover] "Pte Buster Booth 2nd CANADIAN DIV H.Q.S. 3rd Army School of Cookery" (1916/1919) by Clarence BoothCanadian Centre for the Great War

After St. Eloi 

In a hospital, far from combat, Private Clarence Booth slowly recovered from his shell shock. They would try and return him to the front on May 31st, but frequent relapses made it obvious that Booth was no longer fit for front line duty. 

Booth would spend the rest of the war serving as a cook for the 2nd Division’s Divisional Head Quarters.

[Cookbook Interior] “Pte Buster Booth 2nd CANADIAN DIV H.Q.S.: 3rd Army School of Cookery” (1916/1919) by Clarence BoothCanadian Centre for the Great War

Credits: Story

Exhibition Text and Development: Cain Doerper

Bibliography

Ministry of the Overseas Military Forces of Canada fonds, R611-371-2-E, “War diaries - Report on St. Eloi, 3rd Division,” 1916/03/27, Online MIKAN no. 2006042 (58 items).

Alma Gluck and Efrem Zimbalist, Clifton Bingham, and Edwin Greene. Sing Me to Sleep. Victrola, 1916. http://archive.org/details/78_sing-me-to-sleep_alma-gluck-and-efrem-zimbalist-clifton-bingham-edwin-greene_gbia0115186a.

“Battle of St. Eloi Craters | The Canadian Encyclopedia.” Accessed February 19, 2020. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/battle-of-st-eloi-craters.

Cook, Tim. At the Sharp End. Toronto, ON: Viking Canada, 2007.

———. The Secret History of Soldiers: How Canadians Survived the Great War. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Canada Books, Inc, 2018.

Fetherstonhaugh, R. C. The 24th Battalion, C.E.F., Victoria Rifles of Canada, 1914-1919. Montreal: Gazette Print. Co., 1930.

Credits: All media
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