Umty-Iddy-Umty: The Story of a Canadian Signaller in the First World War


59 pages
Contains Illustrations
ISBN 0-919822-47-9





Reviewed by Thomas S. Abler

Thomas S. Abler is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Waterloo and the author of A Canadian Indian Bibliography, 1960-1970.


A personal view of the latter portion of the Great War is provided in the reminiscences of William Ogilvie, who served as a signaller in the Canadian artillery while still in his teens. It is a brief account, covering enlistment, training, combat, discharge, and return home. If lacking in detail or even coverage of the events he witnessed, it presents those aspects of the experience which have etched themselves in the memory of an old soldier. It makes interesting and good reading.

Ogilvie lived in Lakefield, near Peterborough, Ontario, when he enlisted in the spring of 1916. Initially a driver in the artillery, he switched to signals to escape the fatigue duties faced by most soldiers in the horse-drawn artillery. He learned Morse Code (which was called umty-iddy-umty, giving the book its title) and to use flags for signalling. In Halifax in December 1916, he sailed from there to England on the Mauretania. In England he faced more training, but he also provided his Aunt Carrie with a visiting Canadian soldier for social occasions. Finally in France in the summer of 1917, he was distressed to find himself not in signals but a driver in the ammunition column, taking shells up to guns at the front, at Zonnebeke in Flanders. Obtaining a transfer to a signals section of a howitzer battery, he was soon at Passchendale Ridge repairing lines in the dark under fire. Christmas 1917 was spent in a forward gun position. Other names appear — Amiens, Arras, Canal du Nord (where he finally used his wig-wag flags). He was finishing a meal of potatoes cooked in bacon grease on November 11, 1918, when he heard the war was over. However, outside Mons, he caught the flu, nearly dying as a result.

This account, being if anything most understated, gives a view of the destruction and horror of the western front in World War I. The story has the dead and wounded, but it is more vividly a portrayal of the rain, the mud, the debris, and the lice. Ogilvie lost an ammunition mule he was driving as it slipped to its death, drowning in the mud and water in the bottom of a gigantic shell crater. Ogilvie’s words, complemented by photographs from both archival sources and Ogilvie’s own camera, give the reader a graphic impression of what it was like to be a soldier in those now distant times and that horrible war.


Ogilvie, William G., “Umty-Iddy-Umty: The Story of a Canadian Signaller in the First World War,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 20, 2024,