A Swim Binds Two Soldiers in Time

Two soldiers.

One from Paisley, Ontario, a small town in the Grey-Bruce region of Ontario with rolling hills of trees and farmer’s fields. The other from the urban environs of Toronto. Both were in a technical trade; one being a tinsmith and other a steam fitter. Both men would be bound by the battalion they belonged to but also by a shared personal experience.

One of the challenges with personal and unit history is the impersonal nature of the information related in service records or war diaries. This information, by its official nature, is often succinct and brief in its relating of the details of a soldier’s or a unit’s experience during the war.

Yet, from time-to-time, small glorious nuggets of information are found, often quite by accident[i], that bring a soldier, or in this case, soldiers, to life.

The first soldier, Private Blue[ii], has previously been written quite extensively about. He was an original member of the 18th Battalion and his service reflected some of the typical experiences of a Canadian soldier during that era. Luckily, Private Blue and others saved some of the documents and newspapers clippings of Private Blue, which gives a fascinating look in some detail of the life of one man of the 18th Battalion.

The second soldier, Private Graham[iii], was, at 22 years old, five years younger than Private Blue upon enlistment in September 1915 and was part of the soldiers that joined battalions in Canada to be shipped to England for further training at reinforcement battalions until he joined the 18th Battalion in the field on March 9, 1916. By that time Private Blue had been in active service, except for a short release from service due to a bout of influenza in early January 1916.

They served together in the 18th Battalion and the service records of both soldiers give no indication if the served in the same Platoon or Company so the connection between these two men is somewhat tenuous. One cannot know with certainty if they knew, or even know of, each other.

As soldiers of the 18th they did share the trials, tribulations, small joys and rare comforts of soldiers in active service. They also shared in the risks of war and both Private Blue and Graham would be wounded.

On June 30, 1916, Private Blue suffered a G.S.W. to the chest. Two and a half months later on September 17, 1916, Private Graham suffered a G.S.W. to the face. Both wounds required treatment in England and their wounds were of such a nature that the treatment of these wounds allowed these soldiers to regain fighting fitness and be sent back to the 18th to fight again.

It is here that their respective paths cross. As they both were discharged from England (both soldiers were assigned to the 4th Reserve Battalion in West Sandling though there is no evidence that they were aware of each other) both Private Blue and Graham arrived at the Canadian Infantry Brigade Depot (C.I.B.D.) at Etaples, France on May 28, 1917.

One can assume that by their uniform dress with their shoulder patches and collar and cap badges that the men of the same battalion would congregate towards each other. Perhaps the organization of these temporary units made some allowance to group soldiers of the same division, brigade, and battalion together for not only organization and logistical purposes but to maintain unit cohesion and identification behind the front lines.

Whatever the circumstances the service records of Privates Blue and Graham offer definitive proof that they knew each other in a rather unusual way: They were charged with the same offence that occurred on the same date and location.


Detail of Charge.

Both soldier’s service records offer to history the following entry dated June 8, 1917: Forfeits 2 day’s pay, 8/6/17, for:

When on Active Service, (1) Breaking away from training camp, (2) Bathing in the River Canche (contrary to E.A.D.R.O. 1479 [at] 14.5.17), 6/6/17.

With this entry on both soldiers’ service record we can place them at the same place and time. They both left the C.I.B.D. camp at Etaples for a swim on a summer’s day. Perhaps their status of veterans made the chaff at the rules and regulations of the camp? Or the long recuperation and lack of action led to the need to simply do something outside the bounds of military regulation. Their motivations cannot be deduced with certainty but give that Private Blue was older, a more experienced soldier, and had several demerits in his service record it could the theorized that the older soldier influenced the younger which led to there “skipping” out on the camp for their swimming adventure.


Detail of Etaples Camp map showing the location of the Canadian area to the south of the camp.

The Canadian section of the Etaple’s complex was located at the southern end of the camp. As the detail of the map shows that the distance to the River Canche from the Canadian Camp was very close to the camp, thereby offering an opportunity for Privates Blue and Graham to slip out of the confines of the camp for their swim.


Annotated map of the camp. Note that the hospitals are to the north.

Perhaps the conditions and circumstances of being a soldier at Etaples can be understood in the context that a mutiny occurred at the Camp on September 9, 1917. The poet Wilfrid Owen wrote:

“Last year, at this time, (it is just midnight, and now is the intolerable instant of the Change) last year I lay awake in a windy tent in the middle of a vast, dreadful encampment. It seemed neither France nor England, but a kind of paddock where the beasts were kept a few days before the shambles. I heard the revelling of the Scotch troops, who are now dead, and who knew they would be dead. I thought of this present night, and whether I should indeed – whether we should indeed – where your would indeed – but I thought neither long or deeply, for I am a master of elision.

But chiefly I thought of the very strange look on all the faces in that camp; an incomprehensible look, which a man will never see in England. Though wars should be in England; nor can it be seen in battle. But only in Etaples.

It was not despair, terror, it was more terrible than terror, for it was a blindfold look, and without expression, like a dead rabbit’s.”[iv]

One can get a sense of the bone and brain wearying drudgery of the camp at Etaples. Owen wrote this to his mother on December 31, 1917 as the year turned to the last year of the war. Owen equates being based at the camp as being worse than in battle. That the camp acted like a type of military purgatory that sapped the spirit and life out of the men that were based there, often waiting for the next stage of their military service.

The poet Siegfried Sassoon further expressed a similar sentiment and theme in his poem[v] “Base Details”:

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. ‘Poor young chap,’
I’d say—’I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.’
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die—in bed.

Whatever the conditions Privates Blue and Graham experienced they were willing to risk military justice and punishment by slipping out of camp and taking a swim. One can imagine their disappointment of being discovered by the Provost Marshalls and being processed in the military justice system to receive their loss of two day’s pay. It was, perhaps worth it.

Privates Blue and Graham would be reunited with the 18th Battalion on the same day, June 15, 1917 at Barlin, France where the Battalion was in the rear resting and training.

Two months later, Private Graham was killed in action on August 17, 1917, though the War Diary makes no mention of any casualties on that day. The circumstances of his death are not known and his body was never found. He is memorialized at the Vimy Memorial and his parents suffered a double tragedy as his brother, Private John Wesley Graham, reg. no. 192512, perished September 16, 1916.

Private Blue survived the war and lived to the age of 60 years old, passing away June 2, 1958.

One wonders how Private Blue remembered that summer day in 1917 when he shared a forbidden swim in the River Canche with his fellow soldier and battalion member.

[i] This article was created by the review of the service records of Privates Blue and Graham. The author had written a previous series of articles. When review Private Graham’s service records the entry regarding the forfeiture of pay was reminiscent to a previous soldier of the 18th. Further research found the same entry in Private Blue’s service record.

[ii] Blue, Alexander Edward, reg. no. 54004. Note that there is a series of 5 blog articles regarding this soldier from the materials available at the Bruce Remembers web site. They make interesting reading.

[iii] Graham, Robert Henry, reg. no. 163346.

[iv] Gill, Douglas, and Gloden Dallas. “Mutiny at Etaples Base in 1917.” Past &Amp; Present, no. 69, 1975, pp. 88–112. http://www.jstor.org/stable/650297.

[v] Etaples Mutiny via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%89taples_mutiny

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