A diary of discoveries…

Ralph Thistle, centre, gathers with his family and their beloved Collie in Canada, early 1940s.

Ralph Thistle, centre, gathers with his family and their beloved Collie in Canada, early 1940s.

Sylvia Thistle-Miller pulls on a pair of tight white gloves, before carefully picking up a palm-sized journal of red, worn leather.

“I was raised with the stories of my past told to me as I sat on my grandmother’s lap,” she says, while turning the yellowed pages. “But with many people who fought in the wars, they don’t share everything. There was a lot of quiet.”

Three years ago, Thistle-Miller was cleaning out her mother’s house when she came across a box of tiny, pocket-sized diaries. As a child, she was given several of them by her grandmother, and upon rediscovering them she set about throwing them out.

“But I noticed that one of them was so much more worn than the rest,” she says. “I don’t usually check these things, but I ended up opening it.”

Written in barely legible cursive were the carefully pencilled notes of her grandfather’s experience fighting in France and Belgium during the First World War. Thistle-Miller was shocked to find detailed day-to-day accounts of his time spent in the trenches at Ypres, where he wrote of being gassed in what is known as the world’s first chemical warfare attack on April 22, 1915.

Thistle-Miller was three-years-old when her grandfather died, and says the only knowledge she has of him lies in black-and-white photographs, stories passed down from family members, and the journal.

Her grandfather, Ralph Thistle, was born in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in 1889, to a family of ship builders and printers who had called the province home since the 1500s.

 “Prior to World War One breaking out, my grandfather had been a member of the 48th regiment of the Newfoundland Highlanders for seven years,” says Thistle-Miller. “He already knew how to shoot, and perform autopsies, and he had medical and survival experience.”

When the First World War was declared in September 1914, Thistle’s involvement with the local militia proved valuable. He volunteered in early September, when he was 25 years old. Given his military background, Thistle was sent to England just 12 days later to begin formal training as a Private.

The first of his several entries, starting on Dec. 17, 1914, detail Thistle’s account of preparing for battle:

January 2nd, 1915:… Breakfast at 7:00. It is a fine day but a little cold.

Though simple, Thistle-Miller says readers must keep in mind what the soldiers would have been doing. Barely a moment would have been afforded to write in a journal during training.

As the entrues progress into February, a young Thistle begins to write about travelling with his regiment to France, with the goal of reaching the battleground outside of Ypres. The journey was cold, long, and never ending. 

February 16th, 1915: …Still in cars no room to sleep, he writes, referring to the exhausting journey to the Western Front.

February 19th, 1915: …Can hear guns from the front….writes Thistle of the German shelling and enemy fire far in the distance.

“Entries through February and March 1915 are him talking about lying in fields of mud and sleeping in barns,” says Thistle-Miller.

It is at this point in the journal that a tone of frustration is palpable in his journal entries, as Canadian soldiers were given little guidance to their final location.

“You can tell he’s upset because he isn’t sure where he and the men are being led,” she says.

Nearing Ypres, the soldiers rode about 24 km on motor vehicles, and walked the remaining 11 km, where they arrived to be billeted in the town.

Went through town…by cathedral…the city is in a mess…, he writes. Very sore.

Though difficult to make out, it is estimated that Thistle reached the trenches of the Western Front by the end of February 1915.

Raining a little…no shelter…trenches.. hints at the start of Thistle’s days spent crawling in the freezing mud of Ypres.

He writes of men around him wounded by enemy fire, of the bombing of the town of Ypres, and the death toll of civilians. Numerous entries reveal that his feet were troubling him in the long hours spent ankle or knee deep in the mud – what we now understand to be “trench foot,” the literal rotting away of flesh immersed in water for long periods of time.  
“I don’t think you could ever truly imagine the carnage and how they were living,” says Thistle-Miller.

Late February 1915: Bullet struck me in the head, writes Thistle. But not bad. I have it for a souvenir. I was the first of the 48 Highlanders to get struck by a German bullet.  

In-between sleeping in dugouts, Thistle and his regiment found lodging in barns, convents, and chapels outside of the battleground.

March 6th, 1915: …slept on stable floor made of bricks very hard but welcome, writes the fatigued soldier.

By the first week of April, Canadian troops were moved from what was termed more of a “quiet” sector on the front lines to a bulge in the Allied line directly in front of the city of Ypres. Thistle and his men fought alongside French and British troops in an attempt to gain control of the city and push the German troops back.

But on April 22, the Germans introduced a new weapon to the battle: poisonous chlorine gas. Following an intense artillery bombardment, 160 tons of gas was released into the air. The soft northeasterly breeze blew thick clouds of yellow-green chlorine into the Allied trenches.

It is estimated that numerous allied soldiers died within 10 minutes of inhaling the gas, from asphyxia and tissue damage to the lungs. Many others were blinded. When combined with water, the chlorine gas formed hypochlorous acid that destroyed the moist tissues in their bodies.

In Thistle’s journal, his writing two days later is barely legible, except for:

April 24: …trenches with gas. Hard to breathe…

His final note on this day scrawls lightly off the page. Three days in the journal after remain blank.

“They were left in the trenches for dead,” says Thistle-Miller.

On April 27, Thistle awoke on a stretcher, to find himself en route to a hospital in Versailles, France. Entries after this date were heartbreaking for Thistle-Miller to read, as they detail her grandfather’s struggle to regain his health after the gassing.

May 7: …am feeling very sick…

Later on throughout the month: …can hardly walk…pains across my chest…same today…not as well…

Two months after the gassing, Thistle’s health was still suffering. His doctors marked him “unfit for service” and he was assigned to clerical-type work for the Allied forces in France. The last entry in his diary is marked on Dec. 4, 1915, when he visits the Cathedral of Notre Dame for the first time.

“He just drops off writing after that,” says Thistle-Miller, flipping carefully through the blank pages. “But we do know that he never fully recovered from the gassing.”

Thistle was sent from France to a convalescence centre in England, where he met nurse Violet Rodda, who would later become his war bride. The two married eight months after they met, says Thistle-Miller. The newly married couple lived in England for the next four years, where Thistle continued to fight in the war, and was even present for the infamous battle at Vimy Ridge. When the war ended in 1919, the two moved to Newfoundland to work for the Hudson’s Bay Company.

“My grandfather remained dedicated to the service upon his return to Canada,” says Thistle-Miller. “He never let that part of himself go.”

Thistle enlisted with the Canadian Scottish Regiment (Princes Mary’s) while working for the Hudson’s Bay Company. When World War II broke out, he worked at the rank of Captain in intelligence and communication services in Canada, even spending time training U.S. soldiers on war survival skills.

“My grandparents were together until 1959, when my grandfather died of heart complications at the age of 69,” she says. “He survived the war and stayed committed to the forces, but he suffered. We know his story thanks to the journal.”

For Thistle-Miller, the journal has become one of the only means of uncovering the secrets of the stern, serious man in photographs she wondered about as a little girl. 

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