'It was hell, simply hell'

The Packet remembers veterans during Remembrance Week

Published on November 5, 2012
Stead, born at Little Catalina, was just 17 years old when he volunteered to join the Royal Newfoundland's Infantry Unit.
Submitted photo

This story, written by Fred Russell, was originally published in The Packet in 1990. Samuel Stead was 90 years old at the time of the interview.

Though his memories of the First World War have faded somewhat, Samuel Stead will never forget some of the moments of his one and a half years in Europe.

Stead, born at Little Catalina, was just 17 years old when he volunteered to join the Royal Newfoundland's Infantry Unit.

When he enlisted the battle was already in its third year. Stead said, he did not know if he would be away from home for three months, three years of if he would ever return again.

Man to man combat

He completed just four weeks of basic training before being shipped off to Liverpool, England.

He was one of approximately 4,000 soldiers - including the Canadian Navy and Army - who left for England in 1917.

Stead and his comrades arrived in Liverpool on January 28, 1918. They immediately joined members of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in Belgium where they went into duty on the front lines.

Stead said the soldiers were required to stay on the front lines for 48 consecutive hours. After their shift they would retreat to base camp and let another company move in.

Normally, the men would have a couple of days relief to do what they wanted. Stead sometimes went into town but mostly he stayed at the camp.

"The weather at that time of year was very cold, especially when we got a northeast wind. Much like here in Newfoundland."

Letters from home

The wind was not the only thing that would remind the men of home. Stead remembers writing a lot of letters to his family.

"You would usually get a reply every month, or so, sometimes longer, depending on the battle conditions and whether or not it was safe to get mail in to them.

"Letters from home kept us all going."

Stead's strongest memories of the war are of his time on the front lines.

"When I went to the line, we went in and got it over with. Hopefully you came back, some did, some didn't. I was one of the lucky ones and I always thank God for that.

"It was hell, simply hell when you were down in the trenches fighting for your life. Everyday you could expect to see fallen comrades but you had to carry on, you had to keep fighting. The trenches were muddy and dirty and the smell was none to pleasant either."


Most of the battles of the First World War were fought in open fields and it was very difficult for the soldiers. Their only protection was to hide in the trenches.

But sometimes, the trenches did not offer complete protection. Stead can attest to that.

On Oct. 14, 1918, he suffered a severe wound in his leg.

He and 25 or 30 others in his company were doing duty on the front line when a shell exploded directly in front of them.

"There was that much dirt and stuff flying around that we couldn't see nothing for 10 yards in front of us. It was awful," he said.

"My leg got numb and I couldn't feel a thing."

Stead remembers a nurse from the Red Cross examining him and he was thinking how fast they had appeared on the scene.

"The nurse told me I would have to go to the Third London General Hospital in England for care. They wanted me to get on a stretcher but I said there were plenty more men on the ground who needed it worse than I did," he recalled.

Remembering his comrades who died is painful for Stead but even more painful is thinking about the enemy soldiers he may have killed.

"I can't talk about that ... it's like being out in boat. Two or three fellows shooting at the same time at turrs or ducks. You don't know who shot what, all you know is that some fell but who hit them, you don't know. Looking back that's the best way it was. I don't like to think about that part of it," he said.

While the war was difficult and, at times, heartbreaking the men did manage to laugh sometimes. Their humor was sometimes based on gruesome things, but it was a relief for all the pain around them.

Stead recalls an incident that struck him and two of his comrades from St. John's very funny.

The men had been retreating from the front line when German flares went up to signal an attack.

"It seemed like they always knew where we were," said Stead.

Shells were going off all around the men so they jumped down into what they thought was a shell hole. It was actually a grave.

A German soldier had been buried there but he wasn't fully covered and his legs were sticking up.

"We had to stay in that hole for 12 hours. We were reported missing in action but word didn't have a chance to get out because we made it back to camp just in time," he said.


Stead was in the hospital in London recovering from his leg injury when word came of the cease-fire on November 11, 1918.

He said the feeling was something he couldn't describe.

"What a relief, what an experience. I'll never forget that day. There was a big parade and it lasted for more than two hours. I remember two men taking me from the hospital bed down to a taxicab and driving me across town so I could see it."

Stead returned home to Newfoundland in June, 1919. He said his welcome was something he does not remember well because there really wasn't much of one.

"I can't really remember it too well but I was told that I didn't get a very warm welcome home here in Little Catalina. There was only one flag hoisted for me in the town. It was by my own father." he said.

Despite the cool welcome Stead went on to become very active in the Remembrance Day movement. He was a founding member of the 1st Royal Canadian Legion in Catalina and remained a member until he died.

He never missed a Memorial Day Service after he returned from the war. In 1987 he traveled to Ottawa to attend the National Memorial Day Service.

Samuel Stead has since passed away.