“He would bear himself like a soldier…” : The Service for Sergeant Swainsbury of Chatham, Ontario

Christ Church, Chatham, Ontario. Source: http://christchurchchatham.ca/

An article written in a local Chatham newspaper relates the service at Christ Church in honour of two local men who were killed in action gives us insight into the attitudes of the citizens through the address of Canon Howard. The date that this event transpired was after the death in action of Private Frederick John Watson (Military Medal) of the 1st Battalion, C.E.F. who perished September 23, 1916. The other soldiers, a member of the 18th Battalion, was Sergeant George Swainsbury, who perished at the hell of St. Eloi on June 6, 1916.

The 18th Battalion War Diary relates the circumstances of a German Trench Raid that was sure to result in Sergeant Swainsbury’s death:

“Position as yesterday. Heavy evening bombardment of BEAN and POLLOCK and reserve trenches from 1 to 5 pm. Small party of enemy penetrated right junction of BEAN and POLLOCK consequent upon the destruction of the M.G. emplacement and Garrison at BEAN JUNCTION. Enemy was enabled to do so by means of an old communication trench but were driven out by remainder of Garrison at the BEAN under Cpl. ROUTLEY[i]. They evidently hoped to find trench unoccupied. Garrison of the LOOP were called upon to “Stand To” by the sentry Pte. MONTGOMERY[ii] and rapid fire was opened as the BOSCHES retired. A wounded Hun was secured in front of POLLOCK.   10 o.r.s Killed in Action. 30 o.r.s wounded. 24 o.r.s arrived as reinforcements.”

Born in London, England, Sergeant Swainsbury emigrated to Canada and established his presence in Chatham and he worked as a machinist for the Dowsley Spring and Axle Plant. It is interesting to note that the Plant, established in 1895, still exists and after many iterations still operates in Chatham as MSSC owned by Mitsubishi Steel Manufacturing Company.

Dowsley Works Chatham Ontario
Dowsley Works Chatham Ontario. Source: Unknown.

His relationship with the plant was strong enough to bring fellow workers to the service at Christ Church. Sergeant Swainsbury was quick to enlist having completed his enlistment papers on October 22, 1914, just days after the 18th Battalion was created. He enlisted in Chatham and had prior military experience, first with the “5th Devons” and then in Canada with the local militia regiment, the 24th.

News clipping Circa 1916 from an unkown news source.The top of the clipping has be damaged and the transcription is incomlete due to this. Source: Dawn Heuston.

The article relates:

Honor Memory Of Two Soldiers Who Have Died

Service in Christ Church Largely Attended by Former Associates of Heroes

In memory of the late Sergt. George Swainsbury and the late Private Fred Watson, service was held in Christ church yesterday afternoon at four o’clock. Canon Howard conducted the service, assisted by Rev. R. Lee.

The church was well filled with friends of the bereaved families and representatives of the Sons of England[iii]; the Dowsley employees and the city council. Mayor Kerr was also present.

Rev. Mr. Lee read from Corinthians 1:15, and appropriate hymns were rendered. At the close of the service, which was most impressive, Mr. Scherer[iv], organist, played The Dead March in Saul, and a bugler sounded The Last Post.

Canon Howard, who gave an address, telling of the lives of the two heroes, said in part:

“We are here in memory of two men, Sergeant George Swainsbury and Private Fred Watson.

“Sergt. Swainsbury, as you know, was one of the workers in the Dowsley works and men of these works are here this afternoon to do honor to his memory. It was through some mistake at the time of his death that a service of this kind was not held at that time. George Swainsbury left here, I believe, with the 18th battalion and was in that portion of the battalion that was under the immediate command of Lieut. George Kerr. He was killed at St. Eloi, the 6th of June, 1916, and those who knew him know the kind of man he was and that he would bear himself like a soldier and a man in all his undertakings…[v]and would have received the Military medal the day following his death. Whether or not it will be received by his friends we do not know but we hope so. We have this assurance concerning him, the he deserved it and risked his life for the sake of saving others.

“In regard to Fred Watson, he was well known by the Sons of England, who are represented here today. He went over in the beginning of the war, served for a considerable time and received for honor the medal for the saving of life. The Military medal is a valuable silver medal given by British authorities for bravery. He went out and after all the stretcher bearers where shot down or disabled to rescue some nine wounded men under fire. He and some others were responsible for bringing nine wounded men in under fire, one of the hardest task a soldier can do[vi]. Private Fred Watson had the Military medal given to him and it is now in the possession of his family. He lived some time after to enjoy the honor and distinction for which it was given. Acts of this kind show the real character of the man we should be proud of and to whom we desire to pay honor and tribute today.

“We gather to honor the memory of those men and to express our sympathy for those who are bereaved and by your presence. I take it you intend these things. We know they bravely died in a good cause and distinguished themselves in the work. To show sympathy for those who are left behind in their sorrow we wish to do. We cannot enter in their sorrow and we cannot know the sorrow and darkness of their hearts, but we can show them we do sympathize by an act like this.

“In conclusion, I think the life of a man who does bravely in the face of the conditions that prevail on the field of battle out to help us understand how noble life is. To save others is the highest deed that any man can do for his fellowmen. We do not all have the opportunity to do brave things, but we all have the opportunity to live a good life. Thank God for the memory of brave men. Let us take a lesson from a solemn occasion of this kind.”

News clipping Circa 1916 from an unknown news source.The top of the clipping has be damaged and the transcription is incomplete due to this. Source: Dawn Heuston.

The service is well attended, and appropriate care and organization appears to be applied to this service of remembrance to the two local men. Christ Church is an Anglican church and given the timeframe of the service, coupled with an expected deep solemnity of an Anglican service at the time, one can imagine the attendees dressed in dark suites, perhaps with black armbands on their left arm. Some of the men may have been in uniform having enlisted with a local battalion, no doubt curious to the way they or their comrades may be remembered if the worst was to befall them during their service with the C.E.F. The church fills with the strains of Handel’s music and the congregation reflects on their loss.

Canon Hall gives an overview of the men’s service and the men’s military service is aligned with a muscular and militant Christianity. Sergeant Swainsbury, according to Canon Hall Sergeant Swainsbury “…would bear himself like a soldier and a man in all his undertakings…” and that his actions would warranted the Military Medal, though, as noted earlier in the speech, this medal had already been accorded Swainsbury.[vii] In the case of Private Watson Canon Hall relates that: “Acts of this kind show the real character of the man we should be proud of and to whom we desire to pay honor and tribute today.”, further reinforcing the connection between religion and the performance of valorous duty in the service to King and Country. He summarizes this sentiment further by stating: “We know they bravely died in a good cause and distinguished themselves in the work.” After the speech he reinforces the value of the “lesson” that these men’s lives offer to the congregation.

It is a language not completely foreign to us. Its religiosity and strong patriotic tone is. The Canon’s speech reflects the sentiments of that time and the Canon, being a senior member of the clergy, would be the philosophical litmus test for the community to which he serves and represents. The mourners would look to him to place meaning and value to the men for which they are honouring at the service. The act of such of service acts as a community expression of how this audience would feel. One wonders how well Canon Hall knew these two men. He focuses on their service and relates in summary to Sergeant Swainbury’s life in Chatham. Perhaps he did not mention any details of Private Watson’s life in Chatham out of sensitivity to his widow, Mrs. Annie Watson, who may have been in attendance at the service.

Sons of England Float Circa 1914 to 1919 Paris Ontario
Sons of England Float during a parade at Paris, Ontario. Circa 1914 -1919. Source: Paris Museum and Historical Society.

The article also points to the strong connection between Canada and the United Kingdom through the attendance of the members of the Sons of Empire. This organization, founded in 1876 and lasting until 1971, was an organization offering insurance to its members and to foster the connection between Canada and England and the love for the Empire. It is no coincidence regarding the founding and dissolution year. Nine years after the founding of Canada and shortly after the American Civil War with the attendant fears of American aggression. More pointedly, in 1871 England recalled all its troops from Canada, save for those stationed at the Citadel in Halifax, Nova Scotia. As Canada matured, and each step of its independence was expressed in formal acts of parliament and the changing social and economic make-up of Canada our identification with the United Kingdom and its effective loss of Empire after the Second World War made such an organization obsolete.

The article does leave some questions. One may assume that both soldiers attended Christ Church, as they had listed an affiliation to the Church of England. Were there other speakers offering eulogies to these men and what caused the delay of the service for Swainsbury to be held almost three months after he perished. The Canon makes mention of this “mistake at the time of his death that a service of this kind was not held at that time.” A rather glaring omission explained by a contrite clergyman.

Both soldiers perished thousands of miles from home. Their service was honoured together, and they died at different times and circumstances. Their deaths brought them together at this service and this speech shows the tone of the time. It also offers a focal point in our history of the Battalion recognize this soldier and to honour his sacrifice.

[i] Later Sergeant Chester Elmer Routley, reg. no. 53160 (Distinguished Conduct Medal).

[ii] Possibly Private Thomas Montgomery, reg. no. 54279.

[iii] See the following article for a summary of the Sons of England – Route to the Past: Sons of England Once Big in Ingersoll by Scott Giles.

[iv] Possibly Frederick Whitney Scherer (1889 – 1957) mentioned in this article.

[v] The article is cut off at the top, therefore the transcription is incomplete.

[vi] Private Watson was killed in action at the Somme. The 1st Battalion War Diary for September 22, 1916 is replete with details about the very active attack and action of that day and the following day’s entry reflects a lower level of activity. It does not relate any experiences relating to Private Watson or the event Canon Hall relates, and its origin is unknown.

[vii] A narrative that was consistently related to in two news articles indicated that Sergeant Swainsbury had earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal. His service records do not reflect this, and it is likely this rumour was related to some other article. Note that the 18th Battalion War Diary relates that the day BEFORE Sergeant Swainsbury’s death recorded the awarding of five Military Medals to soldiers of the 18th.

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