Private Robert Mitchell Armitage was a little out of his element when he was transferred to the 18th Battalion. Private Armitage enlisted in London, Ontario but was originally born in Montreal, Quebec and listed his “current address” upon attestation as Charlestown, Ohio. This Canadian man who joined initially the 1st Depot Battalion, Western Ontario Regiment filled out his Will on the same day as he enlisted. On December 10, 1917 he assigned his personal estate to a friend, Martin Roitier of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
At 36 years old Private Armitage was above average age for a private soldier to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force and he served and trained in Canada until January 22, 1918 where he was shipped to England and taken on Strength with the 4th Reserve Battalion at Bramshott February 6, 1918 where he trained until assigned to the 18th Battalion on May 10, 1918 and was shipped to France passing through the Canadian Infantry Base Depot in Etaples, France until his arrival at the 18th Battalion on May 30, 1918 in the Arras sector where it had been heavily engaged.
Private Armitage had selected his friend to receive the proceeds of his estate and he had listed Martin Routier as his next of kin on his attestation papers. He left Canada in the belief that he had no one else to leave his estate to that was a significant as Martin Roitier was to him.
But, while Private Armitage was in Etaples, France momentous news came to his attention and he actioned this news on May 15, 1918 with a letter on Canadian Chaplain Service stationary:
May 15th, 1918
Chief Paymaster, Canadian Overseas Forces
I have lately heard from my mother who I had heard had died and I would like to have my will changed so as she would receive my personal property and effect in case of my death. I have made no previous will, my will page was taken out[i]. The name of my best friend is Martin Roitier of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.A.
Your Obedian [sic] Servant
Pte. Armitage, Robert M.
18th Batt. Can. W.O. Reg. B.E.F.[ii]
Private Armitage then includes a will on another sheet of Canadian Chaplain Service stationary:
France, May 15th 1918.
In the event of my death I give the whole of my property and effect to my mother, Mrs. Theoda Armitage, Masonic Home, Douseman, Wisconsin, United States.
[Signed] Robert M. Armitage
Private, No. 2355841
18th Canadian Battalion
Private Armitage enlists with the belief his mother is dead. He now knows that this is not longer true and actions this knowledge by changing his will, indicating his stronger familial affiliation than that to his friend, a perfectly natural expectation. One can only imagine his thoughts at realizing this information and perhaps it was is friend in Milwaukee that found this out for him.
There are a number of mysteries that come to light. Private Armitage mother is living in Douseman, Wisconsin, which is only 33 miles from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the residence of Private Armitage’s best friend. The connection of this soldier and his family and friends to the United States is unknown, yet he displaced himself from his life and job in Ohio to join the Canadian forces and serve. It is hard to fathom that he lost touch with his mother to the point of believing her dead and he obviously was convinced that this was fact having named Mr. Roitier in his original will. It is also not clear as to how he came to the knowledge that his mother was now alive but he acted on this information.
One can imagine him at the busy Canadian Base Infantry Depot, a collection area for the training and acclimation of new troops being sent to the front, looking for help and finding advice and solace from the Canadian Chaplain Service. This conclusion is made, in part, because of the prevalence of Y.M.C.A. facilities in the camps and it appears that Private Armitage made a decision to go to another resource to write his letter and the Chaplain Service would perhaps be a better resource for him in this case. The signature on the letter is consistent with that of page 1 of his attestation paper so these documents are in his hand.
It was prescient for this soldier to revise his will as he was killed in action August, 27, 1918 at Guemappe, France by an enemy shell. He apparently did not suffer as his Circumstances of Death register indicates he died instantly.
Yet, having been born in Canada, as he claims in his attestation papers, his family’s heritage is American. His parents were married in at Milwaukee, Wisconsin on December 19, 1872. Something compelled this 36-year-old man secure from war in Ohio to come back to Canada and serve. He rests with 1107 other identified casualties at the Wancourt British Cemetery and the 22 other members of the 18th Battalion that rest with him.
[i] This statement is not completely accurate. Private Armitage did fill out a will on December 10, 1917 and it is available to view in his service record.
[ii] Consistently one will see correspondence from Canadian sources indicating the B.E.F. (British Expeditionary Forces). It is interesting to note that in the next note Private Armitage indicates the C.E.F. This “duality” is interesting as the Canadian forces, though a cohesive unit, served under Imperial command.