Sergeant Austin’s Accident: The Tale of Two Emerging Modern Weapon Systems

Normally the entry after “…oath before me at…” the name of the town or city is entered, not the time.

Robert Wallace Austin reg. no. 113067 joined the Canadian Army at 8:45 a.m.[i] on July 23, 1915 in the city of Ottawa.[ii] He was just shy of one month past his twenty-first birthday when he joined the 8th Canadian Mounted Rifles (8th C.M.R.) and he was to be transported to England in October 1915 to eventually be assigned to the 18th Battalion on September 27, 1916. During this service, he rose from the rank of private to sergeant and obtained his rank on April 29, 1918 while the Battalion was stationed in the Berles aus Bois sector, south-west of Arras, France.

On August 1, 1918, he took part in a “Tank demonstration”. The Battalion was in General Headquarters Reserve at Pissy. The tank was a new weapon of war, being introduced during the Battle of the Somme during the action at Fler-Courcelette. Such a new weapon system would garner the attention of the military establishment and the imaginations of the public, but, as this weapon system was in its infancy, there was a need to establish a doctrine and means of employment to achieve the tactical goals of combined arms.

The Battle of Amiens was about be launched on August 8, 1918 and General Rawlinson’s plan incorporated the use of tanks in large-scale, now that numbers of this new weapon were large enough to potentially make a decisive contribution to the battle-space. In preparation of this the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade was tasked by the 2nd Canadian Division to be involved in an exercise involving this new weapon.


The 18th Battalion makes scant mention of working with this new weapon of war but the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade War Diary states:

At 1.30 a.m. a letter was received from Division, ordering the Brigade to carry out an attack exercise in co-operation with Tanks. The Training Ground was situated North of BOIS de CAVILLON, necessitating a march of 7 miles for some units. One Company of each of the 20th and 19th Battalions carried out the exercise in the morning, and in the afternoon the 18th and 21st Battalions carried out the exercise after watching a demonstration of a Company from the 19th Canadian Inf. Battalion.[iii]

The 19th Battalion War Diary outlines the demonstration:

In RESERVE at BRIQUEMESNIL, scattered billets. The Battalion marched to the neighborhood of CAVILLON under command of Major H.C. Hatch D.S.O.[iv] Ref. Map AMIENS 1/1000 to attend Tank demonstration, which clearly illustrated the co-operation between tanks and infantry in the attack. “A” Company under Capt. M.C. Roberts M.C.[v] took part in the demonstration which was very interesting and instructive.[vi]

For the 20th Battalion the day started at 4.30 a.m. with reveille and then the march to the 9th Tank Battalion training grounds. They noted that the cookers arrived in time to serve lunch.

The 21st Battalion’s War Diary offers the best insight into the exercise. After marching 6.5 miles from FLUY to PICQUIGEY [PICQUIGNY] they attended a lecture and participated in the exercise:

At 2.00 p.m. a lecture was given by the officer Commanding, No. 14 Tank Battalion[vii] giving general description of co-operation between Infantry and Tanks in Action. Following which, “D” Company 18th Canadian Battalion, and “B” Company, 21st Battalion, co-operated with one Section of the Tank Corps, three with attacking waves and one in support, in carrying out a practice attach which clearly showed how targets were given to the tanks by the infantry by the use of smoke-bombs (No. 27 Grenades)[viii] and the use of green and white flag by the tank denoting that opposition had been cleared up and the advance could be resumed; also the use and read and yellow flag denoting that tank is out of action, which is replaced by tank in support moving forward; also use of the tri-coloured flag denoting the withdrawal of the tank after completion of the operation[ix].

What would Sergeant Austin think of this demonstration?


In July 1915 Sergeant Austin joined the Canadian Army and the idea of the “tank” was only an idea, not to be realized in prototype form until December of that year. His enlistment led him to England and eventually to the 18th Battalion on September 27, 1916 where he joined the 18th Battalion during its service on the Somme, no doubt hearing about the recent action on the 15th of that month where the Battalion had experienced heavy casualties and the advent of the new tank, used in that attack. The then Private Austin moved up the ranks being promoted Lance-Corporal on June 5, 1917; then Corporal on April 4, 1918; and finally, Sergeant on August 6, 1918, five days after his accident involving the training exercise and demonstration on the 1st.

During the afternoon of August 1st, the 18th Battalion Company led by Lieutenant Gerald Thomas began its exercise and demonstration of infantry co-operation with tanks. During the exercise, Lieutenant Thomas fired a smoke bomb and, hidden by a rise in the ground, it landed among a group of 18th Battalion soldiers watching the demonstration. Sergeant Austin was unlucky enough to be burned by the white phosphorous agent of the grenade.


The report that followed stated that he suffered 1st and 2nd degree burns to his right arm, forearm, hands and fingers. These burns were severe enough that he was posted to No. 4 Canadian Field Ambulance, then to No. 5 Casualty Clearing Station, and then on to admission to No. 5 General Hospital in Rouen. On August 10, 1918, he finally was transferred to England via the hospital ship S.S. Guilford Castle were, at last, on August 11, 1918 he was sent to Graylingwell War Hospital in Chichester.  Sergeant Austin was discharged from this hospital September 23, 1918 and transferred to the Military Convalescent Hospital Epsom. He convalesced until October 11, 1918 and was released with the notation: “Not healed. Healthy.”

His active war service over he proceeds to Kinmel Park for dispatch to Canada for discharge which takes place in Kingston, Ontario on February 11, 1919. Sergeant Austin is examined at Kinmel Park and, even though he has left the hospital with his burns unhealed he is classed as being in “good” condition an released to be transported to Canada for discharge. He is examined upon return to Kingston and his burns are noted on his medical discharge under the following statement: “No complaints what ever. Feels as well in every way as when he enlisted.”

Sergeant Austin’s experience is interesting with the involvement with the new weapon, the tank, but also the use of smoke and its implication for future uses of white phosphorous. As illustrated the exposure to the white phosphorous[x] led to 1st and 2nd degree burns which resulted in Sergeant Austin being invalided to England and after 2 months of treatment he was “not healed” though he was fit enough to be released from hospital. We will not know the time it would have taken to heal his wounds completely to allow him release back to active service. From the notation of his medical examination in February 1919 one could deduce that, finally, after six months, Sergeant Austin would be fit for service again, though he would surely bear the scar of his physical injury for the rest of his life.

This accident is also instructive in regards to the importance that the Canadian Army put on the accidental or self-inflected injuries a soldier experienced during active service. As noted in the report reproduced below the report passed through the Medical Officer of the 18th Battalion then to his superior, the Officer Commanding the Battalion, and finally to the Brigade Commander, Brigadier-General Rennie of the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade. Note also the relative speed the report is generated and passed on to each officer. The accident occurs on April 1 and the report is signed at Brigade Headquarters on April 5, 1918. Accidents and self-inflicted injuries were of such a concern to the Canadian Army the report was eventually endorsed by a General officer.

Report on Accidental or Self-Inflected Injuries[xi]

Date of Casualty: 1.8.18

  1. Number, Rank, Name, and Unit of injured man. Sgt. Austin R.W., 18th Canadian Battalion.
  2. Nature, Location, and Severity of injury (N.B. Field Ambulance to be notified at once if wound is believed to be self-inflicted.) Multiple small first and second degree burns over[outer] aspect of right arm and forearm and back of hand. Several blisters over hand and fingers. [Signed} M.O. 18th
  3. Short statement of the circumstances of the case. (Signed statements of witnesses to be attached to this form.) While manouvers were being carried out on with tanks on afternoon of August 1st a smoke bomb fired by Lieut. G. Thomas, 18th, who was in charge of the demonstration party fell amongst a party of spectators of whom Sgt. Austin was one. This party of onlookers were obscured by a rise of ground at the time of firing of bomb.
  4. Commanding officer’s opinion as to whether the man was: –
    1. In the performance of military duty. Yes.
    2. To blame. No.
    3. Whether any other person was to blame. No.

Date: Aug. 4, 1918

L.E. Jones, Lt.Col.
18th Cdn. Bn.

  1. General Officer Commanding Opinion
    1. Opinion of G.O.C. Brigade. (a) Accidental.
    2. Disciplinary action taken or proposed, whether against injured man or another. (b) Nil.

Date 5/8/1918

[Signed] R. Rennie Brig. Genl.
Commanding 4th Cdn. Inf. Brigade

[i] His service records indicate a time of enlistment. This is the first example seen by the author.

[ii] The time notation on this soldier’s attestation paper is unique and not seen before, to the best of my recollection.

[iii] War diary, 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade. Page 2.

[iv] Major Harry Cecil Hatch was the 19th Battalion. He had been temporarily assigned to the 18th Battalion in May 1915.

[v] Captain Roberts was to die on November 10, 1918. The nature of his death is unknown at this time.

[vi] War Diary, 19th Canadian Infantry Battalion. Page 1.

[vii] It is not clear if there are two tank battalions involved in the exercise or the war diary of one of the Battalions is in error.

[viii] The No. 27 Grenade was introduced in 1916 and came in rifle and hand versions. The hand thrown version has a percussion igniter which had to be struck against a hard surface and then thrown. After 6.5 to 7 second delay the white phosphorus would ignite and smoke would be generated. White phosphorus is a very effective smoke generating chemical but it is dangerous for contact burns and smoke, oral and fume inhalation.

[ix] For more information regarding World War 1 United Kingdom Tank Doctrine see “First World War British Tank Doctrine” at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom for a series of PDF files relating to the use and implementation of tanks during the latter part of the war.

[x] For more information regarding the legality of white phosphorous in war see this link.

[xi] Source: PDF Service Record of Sergeant R.W. Austin.

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