Whiz-Bangs and Woolly Bears is a story about a soldier of the Great War and his experiences as an artillery gunner in France. I used to listen carefully to his stories while we worked on his farm in Carleton County, New Brunswick. He had kept a diary during the war, and I later had a chance to look at it.The short entries did not begin to describe the horrors of the Western Front in 1917 and 1918. As I grew older, I began to write him to ask about the details. He responded to questions about major battles in this example: "Passchendaele was just one glorious mudhole. We were there 42 days. Kept 24 men on the guns and lost 42 in the time, an average of one a day." This is the essence of what "Whiz Bangs and Woolly Bears" is about. It is a running discourse between a grandfather, Walter Ray Estabrooks and his grandson Hal Skaarup, now in the army as well.
Although the story is essentially about Walter Estabrooks and his experiences during the Great War, it is also about the fact that he lived to tell the tale. So many did not.
(Estabrooks Family Photo)
Walter Ray Estabrooks, Royal Canadian Artillery ca. 1916.
“I have seen troops coming out of the line tired and dirty after a big push, make their first halt for a little rest. Sometimes a band would be waiting for them. Marching when not weary and with a good band will give some folks a tremendous thrill. But can you imagine a depleted unit coming out of the line from a hard position, tired, dirty, muddy and lousy, stumbling along just after dark, a few minutes halt just out of maximum gun range? “Fall in. Quick March.” Imagine that a band has been waiting for them and what it would feel like as it begins playing “The British Grenadiers.” The men would hunch their equipment up higher on their backs and their shoulders would straighten up. They would all have fallen in line four abreast without an order. No need for left-right. The muddy boots would seem to lighten up, and darned if the feet don’t seem to get the beat of the music. They are old hands, and would soon be disappearing into the night." Walter R. Estabrooks
For the curious, a Whiz-Bang was an artillery shell fired by the Germans. It traveled with great speed, and was fired by a fast action gun. There was not much time to duck as one just heard Whiz. Bang! A Woolly Bear was another type of shell that was used for demolition, and when it burst on impact, it made a big hole and left a tremendous cloud of black smoke. They were slower than a Whiz-Bang and could be ducked by a man with a sixth sense.
Vimy Ridge Memorial. The battle was the first occasion when all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force participated in a battle together and it was made a symbol of Canadian national achievement and sacrifice. A 100-hectare (250-acre) portion of the former battleground serves as a memorial park and Hill 175 is the site of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.