Apparently, it is an actual hell out there at times: The Letters of Sergeant Wallace

Wallace Bayonet Practice
A photograph of 18th Battalion soldiers training. These soldiers are are members of “C” Company. Sergeant John Wallace stands at the ready with a Ross Rifle and Bayonet with other members of his company. He is stading front row, 3rd from the right. Lance-Sergeant Sifton, VC, is standing to the extreme right with the tip of his bayonet almost touching the frame of the photograph. This rare photograph was definitely taken from between October 1914 to August 30, 1916 (the date the Lee-Enfield SMLE was issued to the Battalion). It was most likely taken in England at West-Sandling May – September 1915. The Ross rifle had a shorter bayonet than the SMLE and there was a gap between the forward part of the barrel and the attachement points of the bayonet and handle. Source: David Wallace via the 18th Battalion Facebook Group.

A series of four news articles from the St. Thomas Times-Journal illuminates the career of John A. Wallace who was an original member of the 18th Battalion[i]. The articles span from November 1914 to October 1915 and offer insights into the life of Wallace, and by extension, the other non-commissioned men of the Battalion. The articles cover four quite discrete parts of an 18th Battalion soldiers’ service and allow the past to become part of the reader’s present.

John Wallace enlisted on October 26, 1914 in St. Thomas, Ontario. Initially a Private, he had earned the promotion to the rank of Corporal[ii] by the time the 18th Battalion embarked for England in April 1915. He must have been a capable leader and soldier, for being only the age of 22 years old, he had claimed experience with the 2 years with the  Heavy Battery Artillery, Edinburgh, Scotland; 2 years with the Lothian and Border Horse; and a further 2 years with the 25th Regiment[iii]. Certainly, his promotion to corporal was indicative of his abilities and eventually he would earn the rank of Sergeant with the Battalion as it trained in England. He later would obtain the rank of Lieutenant and serve with the 58th Battalion, C.E.F. and sustaining wounds serving in the field.

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The first article, dated November 5, 1914 outlines the activity of recruitment of the men to form the 2nd Canadian Contingent. St. Thomas’ sons appear eager to join and the allotment of 100 enlistments has been obtained. It relates how five recruits went to London, Ontario on that date which meant that only three more enlistments had to be completed before the allotment was filled from that city. Wallace figures prominently in the piece having his name listed first among the five going to London. It appears that his stature in the community, and as will be seen later, in business and golf makes the news of his military experience noteworthy to the town of St. Thomas.

Several of the named men would be members of the 18th Battalion (see endnotes for links to their Soldiers Pages), with Lewis, Green, Beeson, and Haller being clearly identified through their service records.

Bertram M. Haller is an interesting case as he travelled from Preston (Cambridge), Ontario and appears to have been interviewed as part of this article as it is recorded he “…is eager to get away as soon as possible.” It is further interesting to note that all five men identified in this article that served with the 18th Battalion survived the war.

The war was into its fourth month and during that time the 1st Contingent had been formed and it had left for England for further training and acclimation only three weeks prior to this story. The enthusiasm of joining up was evident with the ability to fill this draft.

FIVE MORE MEN OFF FOR CAMP

John Wallace, James Grant[iv], Fred Lewis[v], Harry Green[vi], and Cecil Robertson[vii]

LIEUT. BEESON[viii] HEARS OF HIS APPOINTMENT

St. Thomas Contingent of One Hundred Practically Complete Now.

Five more recruits went to the camp at London Thursday morning marking ninety-seven in al that have gone from this city. As Private J. Aldrich is to be returned home owing to the serious illness of his mother, four more are required and three have passed the doctor. The other man comes up for examination before the doctor this evening.

The five men who went to London on Thursday morning were: John Wallace, James Grant, Fred Lewis, Harry Green and Cecil Robertson. The former, a member of the local Dominion Bank staff, was presented with a wrist watch by the members of the staff prior to his departure to the mobilization camp.

Lt. Beeson Accepted.

Lieut. James Beeson, Collegiate Institute physical instructor, had been notified of his appointment as an officer with the second expeditionary force and had been notified to report at London Friday morning. Lieuts. W.J.Y. Hardy and J.G. Coyne have not as yet been notified to report.

The following are the names of the additional three men who have passed:

William Hill, city, aged 28, chef, no service.

Percy Hill, Tillsonburg, married, aged 37, eight years with the Third West Surries.

Robert Howse, aged 33, married, four years First Tar Hamlet Regiment.

Burt M. Haller[ix] also applied for enlistment on Thursday afternoon and he will be examined for the final man of the 100 allowed from here. He came to the city for the purpose of enlisting[x] at noon and is eager to get away as soon as possible.

Source: St. Thomas Times-Journal. October 19, 1915.

The second letter appears to be written in late May 1915. As the Battalion had only arrived in England in April and established its presence in West Sandling, Kent on the 29th. The War Diary is not overly specific to the activities of the Battalion during that month and it appears to be a time of re-organization and preparation for training. It appears that the non-commissioned and commissioned officers had time allocated for training with units with more experience, as is related in this letter. Sergeant Wallace is attached for temporary duty with the battalion connected with the training and recuperation of the men of the Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry (PPCLI) and it there seems to be a touch of pride from the tone of Wallace’s letter as he relates his connection to this storied unit that had suffered so much at 2nd Ypres during the first use of gas by the Germans during an offensive action.

The letter to Dominion Bank Manager E.S. Anderson is reprinted in full and does not appear to be subject to censorship. It gives a good account of the news that was sure to be on all the 2nd Contingent troops’ lips as they prepared for active duty at the front. The war had been active for almost a year and the casualties witnessed and conversations had by Wallace with veterans would dispel any myths about combat for him and his fellow soldiers. He represents his experiences in a matter-of-fact method without undue sentimentality or exaggeration. One can read between the lines what the effects of combat had to the members of the 1st Canadian Contingent and, particularly, the PPCLI.

Sergeant Wallace then relates his experiences about his course in musketry and from the very early start he has to make from his billet to the training location it appears that he may be attached as an instructor-trainee. Most musketry training sessions appear to last between thirty minutes to an hour (and it is surprising to note the total lack of musketry training of the Battalion during it time in England. The Battalion spend more time on bayonet training, perhaps for physical training and esprit de corps) so it would be reasonable to surmise that Sergeant Wallace was instructing if he had to start so early in the morning.

Sergeant Wallace also gives us a idea of his sense of humour relating, as he does, about his propensity of sleeping in late when he was a civilian and relating how strong his appetite is.

PTE JOHN WALLACE of ST. THOMAS TELLS OF HIS VARIED EXPERIENCES

Former Member of the Dominion Bank Staff Here Writes Interesting Letter to E.S. Anderson – Stories of Fighting in France

Sgt. J.A. Wallace, ledger keeper at the local branch of the Dominion bank at the time of he enlisted with the 18th Battalion, 2nd Canadian Contingent, at present in Shorncliffe camp in England, writes[xi] interestingly of the strenuous training being given there, and of the large number of the wounded who are convalescing at Shorncliffe hospital in the following letter to E.S. Anderson, manager of the Dominion bank:

Dear Mr. Anderson:

I have just returned from furlough. I had five days which I spent at home[xii]. I think I had the happiest holiday a man could ever had, but the time was much too short.

I have been with my own battalion very little since coming to England, most of my time being spent with the Patricia Pats [Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry], which regiment[xiii] I was attached to for a bayonet fighting course. At the base in England where I was, the only men who are there are the wounded and maimed, who are either waiting for their discharge or being trained, that is those of whom are able for further service.

Stories of Awful Fighting.

In the Sergeant’s mess where I was all the sergeants of course had been out in France but where invalided home, and of course I heard a few things while with them about the actual conditions at the front. Apparently, it is an actual hell out there at times[xiv]. All the sergeants in the Pats had practically seen some kind of active service before, some of them having five or six medals but the mention of previous campaigns[xv] and contrasting them with the present big job, only caused laughter. I had a severe course of physical training and bayonet fighting while here[xvi]. The instructor seems to know the limit of human endurance – – I don’t think — because he just about finished me, we had eight hours a day of it. I managed to pull through, however, with an additional three or four inches on to my chest, and a feeling also that I can play my part in the game, and take any hardships that may come my way.

Off to the Front Soon[xvii].

I understand that we won’t be here for very long now, as the Canadian casualties must now be around seven thousand[xviii] now and the gaps have to be filled some way. I heard to-day that three or four hundred of this battalion have to be drafted over the line next week to replace the losses of the Pats, which practically a new regiment now, there scarcely being a single man of them on the field now, that is of the original regiment. I noticed from the casualty list that Hugh Somerville of St. Thomas had gone under[xix]. The Canadians got into two terrible cut-ups at Hill 60 and Ypres[xx], but they made a great name form themselves on this side, as fighters.

I am stationed at the present near Folkestone, at which part some of the wounded come in and they do roll in there – by the boat load. The other morning I counted inside of about three hours five trainloads go past. It is a sad thing to watch – boys who, some of them, can’t be more than sixteen or seventeen, carried on the train absolutely all in; but never a murmur of pain or anything else.

Reville at 3:45 a.m.

I am at present taking a course of musketry at Hythe, in Kent. I have to be there on the range at 6 a.m. which is more than an hour’s walk from where I am stationed. The please part of this business is, that at the very pleasing time in the morning – 3.45 a.m. to be exact – Sergeant Wallace, the one-time nine o’clock riser, jumps out of bed. Reville [sic] in ordinary times here has always been 5.15 for me, which to say the least as early enough, but this ‘ere new change of time fixes me. Since it came in I have curtailed my social engagements at Folkestone considerably. If I stay up at night until nine o’clock in fact, I get the idea that I am dissipating and out to be in bed. The weather here since I came with the exception probably of the first week, had been terribly warm. We go everywhere with our full pack now, of about 60 pounds, and it is all the time a case of sweating, sweating, sweating, and them some more sweat.

I beg to state that I am not losing any weight either, as I have as a precaution of future shortage, take the trouble to but a double degree of horse power into my eating strength.

Well, Mr. Anderson its getting around seven o’clock and this ‘ere three-forty-five reville [sic] is starting to prey on my mind. Knowing your strict observance to the virtue of punctuality, I know you don’t want me to be kept up too late or something might happen to my lethal senses in the morning. I must therefore cease fire.

To all the boys my salaams, and with kindest personal regards,

Sincerely yours,

JOHN WALLACE

Source: St. Thomas Times-Journal. June 12, 1915.

The third letter is brief, possibly due to the increased tempo involving the preparations for the Battalion to move to the Continent and action at the Front. Sergeant Wallace had a relationship with the Elgin Golf and Country Club (now the St. Thomas Golf and Country Club) with the Golf Captain, a Mr. R.W. Johnson, and Sergeant Wallace is responding to a letter from Johnson. He pokes fun at the Kaiser, intermating that the war will be over for the next golf season and that the Kaiser may find fit employ as a golf caddy or greenkeeper.

Wallace then relates one being involved in creating improvised explosive devices as a substitute in expectation for the newly developed Mills Bomb. These temporary field expedient explosives were a stop-gap measure and had their own dangers, being locally manufactured and having variable quality control.

Sergeant Wallace ends the letter asking to be reminded to the other members of his golf club. It is interesting to note that as a bank clerk he had a membership to a golf club, probably in expectation of promotion and the club would offer a means for social mobility with the social and business contacts he would make from this membership.

KAISER MAY BE CADDYING OR GREENKEEPING AFTER THE WAR

John A. Wallace, Former St. Thomas Banker, Now at the Front, Suggests That His Impertinent Highness May be Looking for a Job When Fighting is Done

The following letter from Sergt. John A. Wallace, formerly of the Dominion Bank, will be read by his many friends with interest. Writing from Sandling Camp, England, just before leaving for France to R.W. Johnson, captain of the Elgin Golf and Country Club, he says:

“I must thank you sincerely for your kind letter, without forgetting, of course, the large hamper of tobacco which it will furnish. I deeply appreciate the kind sentiments expressed by you on behalf of the members of the club.

I am sorry to hear that the war had dampened golfing enthusiasm, but I think you can safely expect an open season next year. The Kaiser is such an extremely versatile creature that it is not unlikely he will be found at a job of caddying or greenkeeping somewhere when the war is over.

Training Completed[xxi]

Our training in England is now completed and we are packing up ready to leave. The first contingent has left us a reputation hard to live up to but if physique, training and spirit count for anything it well be done.

I have of late been learning the gentle art of making bombs out of jam pots, salmon tins, and gas pipe[xxii]. This home-made grenade business, particularly when we are practicing with live bombs, is not quite so peaceful by any means as the times I formerly had at the bank or on the golf course.

I often see James Ritch, although, generally I see more of his dust as he goes buzzing around on his motorcycle.

I hope I will again have the pleasure of meeting my friends at the golf club. Remember me to them all, as they have helped so much in making my stay in St. Thomas enjoyable and cherished.

With kindest personal regards I am yours very sincerely,

JOHN A. WALLACE”

Mr. Wallace is with “C” Company, 18th Battalion, 2nd C.E.F.

Source: St. Thomas Times-Journal. September 23, 1915.

The fourth, and last letter, is from Captain Charles Percy Ermatinger to is father. The letter completes the collection with a mention of Sergeant Wallace. The editor and journalists of the St. Thomas paper maintained a story consistent in its approach in making the news of the local men in the C.E.F. important and maintaining a “flow” of information.

This letter and story is short but gives an indication of the connectivity of people in a geographic area. Captain Ermatinger joined the C.E.F. at St. John, New Brunswick February 1915 and though he may have lived a thousand miles from his home town, he is cognizant of what news may be of interest to his father, a prominent judge and politician who may have been aware of a prominent insurance business man from London, Ontario. Captain Hallam had an involvement in the Canadian Militia and may have served with Captain Ermatinger as he “…makes a feeling reference…” to Hallam in his letter to his father.

A LETTER FROM CAPT. ERMATINGER

Has Been Transferred to Another Company; Meets John Wallace in England.

Judge C.O. Ermatinger has received an interesting letter from this son, Capt. Percy Ermatinger, who enlisted at Montreal with the Army Medical Corps. Capt. Ermatinger is now with No. 6 Company of the A.S.C., having recently transferred from No. 5 Company. His duties are much the same as a transport officer.

Capt. Ermatinger makes feeling reference to Capt. Arthur Hallam[xxiii], London, Ontario, who was killed in action September 18, and with whom he was well acquainted. Capt. Ermatinger mentions meeting John Wallace of the 18th Battalion, former teller of the Dominion Bank here, and other St. Thomas boys on the firing line. He enclosed in the letter some handkerchiefs worked on by a Belgian refugee.

Source: St. Thomas Times-Journal. October 19, 1915.

With the last letter Sergeant Wallace moves of with his men of “C” Company, 18th Battalion, 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade, 2nd Division to fight and survive the war, eventually obtaining the rank of lieutenant and serving with the 58th Battalion C.E.F. He would eventually achieve the rank of major and earned a discharge from the C.E.F. in November 1918[xxiv].

The letters offer the reader an insight into the influence of a man, not a native of Canada, who was engaged in the commercial and mercantile life of his community. Wallace’s efforts in this regard are reflected by the newspaper’s interest in telling his story, in part because it was relevant, and because it related to the social and business interest of the community in which it served. At 23 years of age John Andrew Robertson Wallace had established himself in his new community. He appears (very likely) to be a member of the local militia regiment, the 25th Elgin Regiment, to which he would be exposed to the other men of community, from the labourer to the lawyer. This experience, coupled with his prior military experience in Scotland, appears to have established his martial reputation and led to a promotion to Sergeant some time between his enlistment in November 1914 and the Battalion’s departure for England April 1915. In addition to his obvious banking and business interests, he joined the local golf club with all its social and sporting benefits.

Lt. Wallace
Lieutenant Wallace in an undated photograph. Source: David Wallace via the 18th Battalion Facebook Group.

These connections were so strong that he maintained correspondence with the business and social members of the St. Thomas community, as shown by these letters. Wallace corresponds with his superior at the bank – a prominent business person. He maintains a relationship with the Golf Captain of his club. This position is a central one for the social and organizational aspect of the club and the captain would have had some credible social and political skills to become the captain. He further is sought out socially by Captain Ermatinger while in England. The connection between these two men is not fully realized from Captain Ermatinger’s letter but if the meeting was not a casual one it shows that Sergeant Wallace had the interest of some of the scions of St. Thomas society.

Death Notice Barrie Examiner Page 11 1937
Death Notice, Barrie Examiner. August 12, 1937. Page 11. Source: David Wallace via the 18th Battalion Facebook Group.

After the war Wallace’s career as a banker took him to manage a Dominion Bank in Orillia. He died at the age of 45-years old, August 11, 1937.

His bond with St. Thomas was still so strong he was buried there.

[i] Special thanks to the Wallace Family for sharing these news articles and photographs, the basis for this article.

[ii] The 18th Battalion Nominal Roll, April 1915, records John A. Wallace with the rank of corporal.

[iii] Possibly the 25th Elgin Regiment, St. Thomas, Ontario.

[iv] There is no record of a James Grant in the 18th Battalion April 1915 nominal roll. There is a recorded of a James Grant being a rejected volunteer. The LAC resource does not give enough information to make a definitive determination at this time.

[v] Lewis, George Frederick:  Service no. 53699 enlisted St. Thomas, Ontario November 2, 1914.

[vi] Green, Harry Arthur:  Service no. 53027 (Military Medal) enlisted St. Thomas, Ontario November 2, 1914. The attestation papers indicated London, Ontario but the Nominal Roll indicated St. Thomas.

[vii] Not found.

[viii] Beeson, James: Lieutenant enlisted November 4, 1914.

[ix] Haller, Bertram M.:  Service no. 54023 enlisted November 5, 1914 at St. Thomas, Ontario.

[x] Haller’s appears to be from Preston (now Cambridge), Ontario and, as stated in the news article, travelled to St. Thomas for a chance to enlist. Perhaps the allotment for Galt/Preston/Hespeler was full. My Grandfather, William Robb Dewar, reg. no. 53902, enlisted October 26, 1914 at Galt. It appears the goal to fill each town’s enlistment quota was to be done by the first week in November. The Kitchener Public Library index card for Bertram Haller indicates he enlisted in Preston and returned to Preston after this service.

[xi] It is estimated that this letter was written in the last week of May 1915. The 18th Battalion had arrived at West Sandling April 29, 1915 and had a rudimentary course of training. The War Diary for this month is not helpful here as it lacks detail.

[xii] Sergeant Wallace was born at Edinburgh, Scotland and listed his mother, Mrs. M. Wallace as living at 35 West Preston Street, Edinburgh, Scotland. It was quite common for soldiers from the Home Country to go on leaves to their families but it also caused a significant problem with soldiers from the 2nd Contingent going absent without leave (A.W.L.). The battalions and the Assistant Provost Marshall had to allocate a fair number of effort and resources to finding, collecting, charging, and punishing these men. For information see the Our Boys Were Certainly No Angels.

[xiii] This is possibly the 23rd Battalion, C.E.F. The soldiers of that battalion did reinforce the PPCLI with 125 men. Some would have been fresh soldiers and some may have been soldiers of the PPCLI that had convalesced and were fit for duty. It would make sense to affect a “train the trainer” strategy by sending soldiers who would be leading training drills to more experienced units for this training.

[xiv] The PPCLI was heavily engaged as recently as May 8, 1915 at Frezenberg. The battle resulted in 8 officers and 392 other ranks as casualties with 4 offices and 108 other ranks killed.

[xv] This may be a reference to the Canadian involvement in South Africa Boer War (1899 – 1902).

[xvi] See the 18th Battalion June 1915 War Diary for examples of training syllabus.

[xvii] The Battalion embarked for the Continent on September 14, 1915, a full 3 months after this letter was written.

[xviii] 6,000 replacements every three months were required as replacements during this part of the war.

[xix] Private Hugh Somerville was killed in action April 22, 1915.

[xx] Known also as the Battle of Mont Sorrel and the 2nd Battle of Ypres.

[xxi] The Battalion left for the Continent from Folkestone on September 14 arriving in Boulogne, France on September 15, 1915. The Battalion had been filling the trenches at Tolsford Hill in preparation for departure.

[xxii] This relates to the timing of the development of the Mills Bomb. The use of grenades for trench fighting was a key component of the weapons needed for the soldiers of the trenches. The bombs to which Sergeant Wallace is referring to are fused bombs that required a friction fuse or one that would be lit by a cigarette or another source of ignition. There is an example of the use of this type of grenade from the 18th Battalion was related in the 18th Battalion Medical Officer’s War Diary for October 3, 1915 in which he relates that Private Aikenhead, reg. no. 54160 was hit in the head when someone was testing a catapult to fire off bully beef tin grenades.

[xxiii] This name may be an error. There is no record of any soldier of that name being killed or dying of wounds during September or October 1915. However, Captain Ernest Walter Hallam of the 18th Battalion was killed in action on September 29, 1915. It is likely this soldier that is being referred to. He may have been known to the Ermatingers as he was the Manager of Continental Life Insurance Company in London, Ontario.

[xxiv] Wallaces service records have, as of the date of this article, not been digitized.

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