Delinquent in Düren: The Tragedy of Private Sherman

Undated photograph. One of these men is Private Dauphin. Is the other Private Sherman? Source: Gathering Our Heroes

“It was cold and dark. The two Canadian Privates from Chatham, Ontario stood on the rail platform momentarily and lit their cigarettes. Drawing deeply from the cigarettes the blew the smoke out and turned to walk up the platform. They could hear murmurings of conversation and the odd metallic click of equipment as the men on the open rail cars shifted for more comfort in the open rail cars. The smokers walked and drew deeply from their cigarettes as they walked, rifles slung, waiting for the train to take them on the next stage of their journey home.

A hiss of steam and then the sharp, hard clunk of the railway car couplings engaging as the locomotive began to pull way. A sergeant called out for the two men to get back on the train and they threw their cigarettes down and began to jog towards their rail car, one hand steadying the buttstock of their Lee-Enfield rifles. The jog changed to a run, the rifles now rocking with the increased pace. The lead man hopped on and there was a smattering of soft clapping as the soldiers that were awake noted their appreciation for the effort made. But they also were acknowledging the act of independence these two soldiers had made at the station because orders stated quite clearly that no one was to get off the train without permission. Their attention turned to getting back to sleep or their conversations and the first soldier onboard turned and saw the second hop aboard. The first soldier had hopped up and slid his buttocks onto the rail car edge, letting his legs dangle over the edge of the car. His legs moved forward and back mimicking continued running and the two men smiled at each other at their shared delinquency and then the first soldier disappeared.”

In this fictionalized account of an accident which involved Privates W.T. Sherman and T. Dauphin of the 18th Battalion. Both enlisted in Chatham, Ontario and were together three years later that fateful day when the one of them perished.

Private William Tecumseh Sherman of the 18th Battalion military service did not quite match that of his namesake from the American Civil War. Perhaps that name was a burden to him with his comrades-in-arms. Since his enlistment with the 186th Battalion at Chatham, Ontario on February 10, 1916, Private Wilson had experienced a frustrating tour of service after his arrival in Europe. His constitution appears to have been subject to the stressors of combat and the sub-standard environment of front-line service as large part of his service career was spent being treated and transferred between medical facilities for range of ailments. His final movement to the Battalion involved leaving the Canadian Infantry Base Depot on November 8, 1918 and finally arriving at his unit eight days later at Ciply, Belgium. Perhaps the increased tempo of operations of the Canadian Corp made this 206-kilometer trip more arduous than usual. The Canadian Corps was moving forward rapidly and the lines of transport and communication during the offensive of The Last Hundred Days may have made transport for a reinforcement challenging.

Private Sherman was re-united with other members of the Battalion from the 186th Battalion and it appears that he was friendly with another member of this unit, a Private Timothy Dauphin. Private Dauphin had joined the 91st Battalion in December 1915 and then was transferred to the 186th Battalion to help complete it complement so it could be deployed to Europe. He had experience a challenging time during the formative months of training with the 186th Battalion having been punished several times for minor offences for being absent from duty. He served stolidly for a year in active duty from November 1917 until November 1918 when he was sentenced to 28 days of Field Punishment No. 1 for being absent without leave for three days that month.

Privates Sherman and Dauphin would share the mutual experience of occupation duty in Germany from the latter part of November 1918 until January 1919 when the Battalion began the long-anticipated journey home January 20, 1919. It entrained at Sieberg, Germany at 18:00 hours and left for its destination, Fosse, Belgium. It arrived at Auvelais, Belgium twenty-four hours later. At sometime after midnight on January 21, 1919 the train taking the 18th Battalion to Belgium stopped a Düren after midnight and the train restarted its journey at approximately 2:45 a.m. when the accident occurred. The 18th Battalion War Diaries make no mention of the tragedy that had befell Private Sherman. Neither does the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade Diaries. This sad chapter in the Battalion’s history would have been forgotten save for the documents relating to it in Private Sherman’s service record.

18th Battalion War Diary January 17 – 24, 1919 showing the routing and timing of the Battalion’s move from the Colonge Region of Germany to Fosse, Belgium. Note that no reference is made to the accident.

Upon falling from the train Private Sherman was horribly hurt with both femurs and his left ankle crushed. He was taken to No. 17 Casualty Clearing Station where he died of his injuries. This tragedy spurred military bureaucratic activity to discover the nature of the accident and to determine blame.

Died – Whist attempting to jump on a train as it passed out of No. 1 Platform, DUREM STATION, at 2.41 a.m. on January 21st, 1919, he fell beneath the train and was seriously injured. He was conveyed to No. 17 Casualty Clearing Station, DUREN, where he died the same day from compound fractures of thighs, right leg, and left ankle.

On January 22, 1919 a Second (British) Army communication from the President of the Sub-Commission, Inter-Allied Railway Commission located in Cologne, Germany issued the following to headquarters, Second British Army stating:

Report from Allied Railway Commssion
Report from Allied Railway Commssion

“The German Railway authorities have today reported the following accident:-

No. 880026 Pte. WILLIAM SHERMAN, 4th Battn. [sic] Canadian Inf., slipped whilst trying to jump on a troop train in motion in DUREN Station at 02.54 to-day. He was severely injured about the legs. The Germans disclaim all responsibility for the accident”

This communique is directed to command headquarters and the occupation forces were concerned about any possibility of German resistance or a re-initiation of hostilities. The 18th Battalion had practiced a defence “scheme” shortly before leaving Germany in case such an event occurred. Also, the British and Canadian Expeditionary Forces had a responsibility for the safety and well-being of the soldiers on active service. The end of the war and the public’s, as well as the soldiers’, desire for the men to return from war whole and safe would have been a priority and any such incidents a public relations minefield if the perception that the authorities were not working proactively for the safety and security of the men.

A Court of Enquiry assembled at Duren on March 3, 1919 to review the incident. The Enquiry was made up of officers of the British Expeditionary Forces and they heard testimony from two witnesses.

Lieutenant-Colonel Roberts, Railway Transport Officer related:

“I was on duty at Duren Station at 2.41 am on the 21st Jan. [1919] as the train conveying the 18th Battalion Canadian Infantry of the 2nd Canadian Division left No. 1 siding. Pte. Sherman of the 18th Canadian Battalion attempted to mount the train while it was in motion. He slipped and fell underneath the train. He was the conveyed to No. 17 C.C.S. at Duren.

So far as I know he was a passenger on the train. [Personnel] had orders not to leave the train without permission.”

Lieutenant-Colonel Roberts’ testimony is succinct. A soldier fell on the track. He was taken to be treated. He was not to be on the platform.

Emile Kallenbach, a Railway Assistant at Duren Station gave a statement through an interpreter:

“On the 21 Jan. [1919] at 2.41 am in the morning I saw English soldiers trying to mount a troop train which was in motion. The end part of the train consisted of open trucks. The two soldiers not able to climb up and fell down. One of them train fell clear. Then second one fell between the wheels. The upper part of his body between the rails and his thighs on the rails. Both legs were run over. He saw the soldier try to draw his left [leg] in. The wheels ran over his ankle.”

Mr. Kallenbach’s testimony has a bit more detail but suffers some in clarity due to the translation. Essentially, two soldiers fell with one falling clear of the tracks and the other falling into the track and being severely injured. The detail about two soldiers falling is not related by Lieutenant-Colonel Taylor’s statement and a later statement by Private Dauphin corroborates Mr. Kallenbach’s statement as he was one of the two soldiers running for the train, though he does not mention falling.

It is interesting to note the differences between the testimony of the witnesses, a common issue even today within the justice system. This testimony would be considered expert as Taylor was a Railway Transport Officer and Mr. Kallenbach worked for the German railway system in some capacity.

The court found that Private Sherman was to blame for the accident and the inquiry was closed on that date.

Statement by Private Tim Dauphin 189632 re accident WT Sherman

On March 8, 1919 Private T. Dauphin of the 18th Battalion gave a statement in response to the inquiry and though the inquiry assigned its finding with the testimony of two witnessed is it interesting to read his statement as he was the other of the two soldiers attempting to get on the train on the early morning of January 21, 1919:

“I was on the Station platform (DUREN) about 1.00 a.m. on 21st January with Pte. Sherman. It was very cold and we were walking up and down to try and get warm. We were warned by Sgt. R.C. Taylor to get on the train. The train started to move and we both ran for it. I got on my car and expected that Pte. Sherman would get on the next. Pte. Sherman had been riding in the same car as me. I have not seen him since.”

Private Dauphins perspective fills in the details. The soldiers ran for the train after being extolled by a sergeant to get back on the train. It also gives context to why they disobeyed orders. There is an odd turn of phrase at the end of the statement which seems awkward and out of place with the body of Dauphin’s testimony, “I have not seen him since.” A statement of regret perhaps in relation to the fact that, perhaps, it was at Private Dauphin’s urging that Private Sherman followed onto the train platform which led, ultimately, to his death.

Report No Man Witnessed Accident

The Report on Accidental or Self-Inflicted Injuries that was submitted one month after the accident had some additional details:

“According to witnesses, (German Railway Officials at DUREN), Pte. Sherman attempted to board a train in motion. He had his arms inside the doorway of the car with his legs dangling down when he slipped, his legs getting under the wheels of the car.

No men of the 18th Battalion witnessed the accident.”

Once again, the information in this report is not definitive. No other witness or testimony corroborates the physical positioning of Private Sherman’s body immediately before the accident. It states that “No men of the 18th Battalion witnessed the accident,” when there is a statement from Private Dauphin. The statement contradicts that of Mr. Kallenbach who has two soldiers falling during the incident. One that falls clear and whose subsequent fate is unknow (did he get on the train or not) and the other that falls under the wheels.

The exact circumstances of Private Sherman’s death will remain a mystery, but his journey home has not quite ended. His body was not repatriated to Canada, but it did not stay interned where he died in Germany. He was buried in Grave 7 at Düren and his body was later exhumed and moved to its final resting place, the cemetery at the Brussels Town Cemetery. He rests with fellow Battalion comrade, Private Anile (Patsy) Pasquale[i] and two soldiers of the Essex Scottish Regiment, which perpetuates the 18th Battalion lie with Privates Sherman and Pasquale. Private W.L. Cousineau and Corporal T.J. Cochrane rest with them. These men rest with a further 120 Canadian soldiers and airmen who sacrificed their lives as well.

Private Dauphin returned to Canada and was demobilized and discharged from the C.E.F. on May 24, 1919 at London, Ontario and planned to reside at 397 St. Clair Street, Chatham, Ontario. He lived until the age of 42 when he died on June 5, 1938 and was buried in the Veterans Plot at the Maple Leaf Cemetery, Chatham.

[i] Private Pasquale died January 18, 1919 of pneumonia.

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