William Henry Fenton was relatively “old” soldier of 32-years when he wrote his uncle, Joseph M. White, in February 1916. His uncle forwarded a copy of the letter to the Walkerton Telescope and they felt that some war news from the front would be of interest to its readers. When it is paired with the information from his service file it gets even more interesting.
As stated in reply, the 18th Battalion was in Brigade Reserve at Ridgewood Farm in the Vierstraat/Dickenbusch sector of Ypres. The Battalion had finished its service in M and N Trenches and had pulled back from the line to rest and refit. The, then, Private Fenton received a letter from his uncle and he took the time to respond to it. This letter offers some insights to the personal attitudes of Private Fenton, who would eventually become an officer and earn the Military Cross.
Fenton opens the letter giving us some idea of the turn-around time the all important and anticipated mail takes to come from Canada and then alludes to the potential of offensive action as, “…probably this affair will not last long as something more interesting will start here before long.” An interesting allusion for a private who only returned to the front on January 15, 1916 after being away for 55 days, and not for “rheumatism” as he claims in his letter. Private Fenton had contracted one of the nastier social diseases and required treatment. Ironically, it was not until later, in May of 1918, that he would be treated for this very condition.
He touches on a larger theme regarding the reasons for the war and expresses a strong nationalistic sentiment about how Canadian feel about their role in the war as “…the Canadians are no mean fighters and that our devotion to our King, to our Country and to those we love is something that is deeper rooted in Canadians than in any other people of the world.”
Local news is important to Fenton as he is receiving the local paper from his home town, Tara, Ontario and passes on news about two local Bruce Boys from Walkerton, Ontario.
LETTER FROM BELGIUM[i]
The following interesting letter was received by License Inspector Joseph M. White from his nephew, Private W.H. Fenton[ii], a Bruce County boy from Tara, who enlisted in the 18th Batt. and is now on the firing line in Belgium. Private Fenton is head carpenter of the 18th Batt. A cousin, Major Nelson of Southampton, was recently wounded and is now in England. Pte. Fenton writes:-
Belgium, Feb 3rd, 1916
Received your most welcome letter dated Jan. 18th, this evening. It was the quickest mail yet from Canada as three weeks if the average time. I will answer to-night as we are on the reserve for six days and not much to do. Well things are going on very quiet on our front just now. A little shelling back and forward is going on nearly all the time but probably this affair will not last long as something more interesting will start here before long. Our trenches here are in very good shape just now as the mud is drying up a little. It has been very wet for some time yet very mild weather for this season of the year, no snow or frost yet.
I can’t give you very much news about what is going on as our mail is all censored. The Bruce Boys of our Battalion are all well so far, for myself, I have spent about eight weeks the hospital with rheumatism but am back with the boys again. I had a good treatment so far as good [may be].
We are looked after in very good shape as well as could be expected under the circumstances. We have no doubt some hardships as well as could be expected under the circumstances which no on can describe, yet we are of good heart and have all kinds of [full?] great experience for any man who will be man enough to come over here and fight for freedom. When one gets in the firing line he gets a feeling a feeling of determination as we know that Britain and her Allies will win this Colossal struggle [and] will feel we stand between personal freedom and militarism. We all that the spirit “What we have we’ll hold” and have taught our enemies that the Canadians are no mean fighters and that our devotion to our King, to our Country and to those we love is something that is deeper rooted in Canadians than in any other people of the world.
I received the Tara papers to-night so am interested in the Bruce Battalion. Well, Uncle, I think I will close for this time. I hope all are well with you. Was pleased to know Russell[iii] had enlisted, be never sorry for his experience. I might say Norm Huck[iv] and Bert Cartwright[v] are with us in this hut and they are well.
In a year’s time after this letter, Private Fenton would proceed to England for commissioning and training as an officer and would return to his home battalion in June 1917 and served with distinction, having earned the Military Cross for “Gallantry and Distinguished service in the field.” He would get ill in January 1918 and not see front-line action again, returning to Canada after the cessation of hostilities in December 1918 and was discharged January 6, 1919.
[i] This letter was transcribed from a letter printed in the Walkerton Telescope. March 16, 1916. Page 4. The format includes the inclusion of paragraphs for clarity.
[ii] Fenton, William Henry: Service no. 53225 (Military Cross).
[iii] White, Joseph Russell, reg. no. 527513. He joined the C.E.F. on September 5, 1915 at Niagara Camp. He survive the war and served with the Canadian Army Medical Corp.
[iv] Huck, Norman: Service no. 54021.
[v] Cartwright, Hebert: Service no. 54005.