Almost left for dead during the First World War

Lake Manitoba’s marshlands prepared Jim Olafson for the muddy trenches in the First World War. He shares how he was almost left for dead.

Jim Olafson, from Eddystone, Manitoba shared how he was almost left for dead. His account was published in the Eddystone local history book Patience, Pride and Progress. Here is an excerpt of his account:

I came out of darkness into a world of devastation. The memory of my last moment of consciousness was so vivid I was sure I was dead – looking back. The darkness was complete and there was stillness around me, although I could hear noises far off, harmless noises to me. I was dead. A blinding flash and it was all over, no pain.

Then I realized that I could see, the darkness was not all the same. I could move my eyes. Mounds and bumps, and I remembered we were in mud. I knew I was somewhere in France, and I knew I wasn’t dead. I could feel the cold air on my face. Something was on top of me and I couldn’t move. Nothing would move, only my eyes.

I wondered how long I had been there. My last memory, clearly my mind brought back the words of the sergeant as he had handed me the rum can: “Here, Jim, and take a snort yourself before you start off. You need it if anyone does. How you find your way about it in the mud I’m sure I don’t know.” But this was the very reason I had been chosen for this task – to take the rum ration to the boys out there somewhere in the swamp.

A headshot of Jimmy Olafson in his military uniform. He was almost left for dead in the First World War.
Jimmy Olafson

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I was known as something of an expert on swamp travel, by night or day, for I had spent my boyhood in the marshlands of Lake Manitoba but here I was, at age 17, flat on my back, my swamp lore at an end. But I thought about it lying there in the mud, I even felt some pride in my craft. I was a scout, often sent out into No‐Man’s‐Land to creep within listening distance of the enemy trenches. I always came back. My comrades said I had charmed life.

The words came back to me. I remembered somebody saying: “Jim, neither a bullet nor a German will ever get you, for a bullet will just slip off you, and you will always slip away from any German.” Maybe he was right but there are more than bullets and Germans in the front line. It must have been an artillery shell that got me, maybe the first one to come over the night. It had been quiet and then suddenly nothing more to remember.

I could hear voices. I couldn’t hear the words. Were they Germans? They were coming closer. Would it be the bayonet? Then I heard English words, men talking in subdued voices, stretcher‐bearers; I could see their flashlights. I tried to shout and couldn’t speak. But I could hear them – “I don’t think there is anyone alive here . . . They’re piled up on top of each other – poor fellows, they’re out of their misery.”

A tall man pulled the body from on top of me, and then another took a close look at me. I could see him but there was no recognition in his eyes.

“Let’s move on,” somebody said, and suddenly I was afraid. They were going to leave me.

I could never tell you the agony and fear I felt – to be left in the mud alone. I had no way to express my frustration and desperation. I lay there in disbelief that it was all to end this way. Then another voice said: “Look, this chap moved his eyes!”

They gathered around and put a flashlight on my face. Now I was paralysed – I couldn’t move my eyes, and I just stared straight ahead into the light. Then hope within me died. They could see no movement. But I heard the same voice again, “I saw him move his eyes.”

And then another voice added, “Let’s take him anyway – we’ve got an empty stretcher.”

For more Manitoban stories from the First World War, visit the Archives of Manitoba’s online collection.

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