A Letter Between Comrades-in-Arms

Those who have not served will never experience that bond developed by soldiers in a military unit, especially one involved in active combat operations. A letter has come to light that offers a glimpse at this bond and gives illuminating insight into the maw that was Passchendaele. Thanks to Michael Ritchie[i] the experiences of the men of the 18th Battalion is further illuminated by a transcription of a letter between two comrades who suffered at Passchendaele.

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BACKGROUND

The 18th Battalion was engaged in the action at Passchendaele in a support role at the beginning of the month helping from their positions in support the evacuation of wounded of the 19th Battalion at Hillside Farm and the 21st Battalion at Tyne Copse. This was a priority message from the brigade command and the Battalion despatched 2 platoons of “A” Company and 2 platoons of “B” Company to assist at these locations, respectively. The 19th and 21st Battalions were heavily engaged and the conditions in their sectors with the 21st Battalion reporting German “Storm Troops” attacking[ii] at 5:10 AM and an action ensued that continued with another German attack at 5:40 AM. This action was costly, resulting in casualties from 48 hours of being in the line of 1 officer killed, 2 officers wounded, 41 other ranks killed, and 89 other ranks wounded. During the same timeframe the 19th Battalion suffered 1 officer killed, 1 officer wounded, 10 other ranks killed, and 51 other ranks wounded[iii].

The need to call upon another battalion gives a good indication of the intensity of the action and the conditions of the battlefield with the mud and water creating the oft-mentioned quagmire that characterized the battle environment at Passchendaele.

The 18th Battalion war diaries are not very specific about the events of that month, particularly the dates covering November 9-12. In fact, the very brevity of the war diary entry for that date gives some idea of the horror the Battalion experienced. By its brevity it shows that the intensity of action was so confused and the combat with the German troops and artillery was so active that the diarist for the Battalion was not able to make any cohesive narrative about the action and focuses on the “severe conditions” of the action:

“During the whole of this tour the Officers and men held this part of the line under the most severe conditions possible. Great difficulty was experienced in the evacuating of casualties from the front line to R.A.P.s and dressing stations. Front line trenches were subjected to frequent barrages and the rear country [area] was also heavily shelled and bombed. The supports on this front were reached by a series of tracks, being trench mat walks, and rations had to be carried by mules up these tracks. Each track being subjected to continual shellfire, the transport and ration parties where fortunate in escaping with the loss of 3 men killed and 1 mule which fell off the duckboard track and owing to the depth of the mud had to be shot. Splendid work was done by the Battalion Stretcher bearers in tending and evacuating the wounded.”[iv]

The Battalion suffered, according to the War Diary, 45 men killed in action with 6 officers and 60 other ranks being wounded and an additional 25 men gassed during these four days in the front line giving another indication of the violence of the front-line action.

THE LETTER[v]

During this action two members fought together at Passchendaele. Lieutenant Vincent McCarter Eastwood (M.C.)[vi] and Sergeant Albert Henry Jones (M.M. with Bar)[vii]. Lieutenant McCarter was wounded November 10, 1917 with a G.S.W. to his back while Sergeant Jones developed trench feet from the continuous exposure to the mud and water of Passchendaele. His debility gives some idea, as well, of the continuous nature of the action for these men. The incidence of trench feet would decline as the war progressed and by 1917 a very good idea of the prevention of this condition existed and was practiced:

“The condition known as “trench foot” caused great distress to the soldiers, and embarrassment to the medical service on account of its novelty and resistance to treatment. In the winter of 1914-15 the disease was common; in the following winter, the first spent by the Canadians in the line, it was of only occasional occurrence. What was once a disease had now become a “crime”; but it was the unit as a whole that was penalized by stoppage of leave, and not the man. Measures had been discovered for preventing the conditions, and they were rigidly enforced.”[viii]

Officers were required to inspect their soldier’s feet daily and report any cases for treatment. The concentration of action during these four-days appears to have precluded the opportunity for Sergeant Jones, and others, to attend to preventative foot hygiene of his men to prevent this condition and he also contracted a case of trench feet and was removed from active service for treatment on November 12, 1917.

It is apparent that these two men have maintained a correspondence as Sergeant Jones is, “…certainly glad to hear from & to learn that you are on the road to recovery,” From this letter Sergeant Jones’ writing gives insights to the relations between the men of the Battalion, and by extension Eastwood’s Company as he was a company commander during this action.

“I was certainly glad to hear from & to learn that you are on the road to recovery, for the first reports we had of your wounds were not good. Quite a few of the boys that where in Passchendaele with us have passed & are still coming in the C.C.D.[ix] It’s good to see the fellows again, for at one time it seemed as if none of the boys would get out of the line. After you left us, Mr. Bracken[x] took charge of the company as I had to send Perkins[xi] out as soon as it got dark, for he was badly Shell Shocked early in the morning & I had rather a rough time until it was dark enough to send him out to the Dressing station, & then when I found out you had got wounded, well, believe me, we pretty near decided to leave the blinking old shell holes for [Fritz], to have, for they [were] dear, at a gift.”

The first paragraph shows the level of connectivity between the men of the company. Sergeant Jones appears aware of the medical condition of Lieutenant Eastwood. He was severely wounded in the shoulder requiring months of recovery, and, even though Eastwood minimized his conditions in letters to his family, the medical records indicate a more serious condition. The letters between soldiers were probably frank in their assessment of Eastwood’s wounds and prospects for recovery. The letter also offers a continuity of experience from the outcomes of the action at Passchendaele. Jones as assigned to this unit from February 11, 1918 until May 10, 1918. He observes, “Quite a few of the boys that where in Passchendaele with us have passed & are still coming in the C.C.D.,” clearly illustrating the process of medical recovery during the war and reuniting of comrades as they recuperated after being wounded or sick during November 1917.

It appears that command of the company devolved to Lieutenant Perkins upon Eastwood’s wounding and evacuation but a shell concussed Perkins badly and he now required evacuation with Sergeant Jones being concerned for this officer’s well-being and safety as to hold him at the front-line for fear of him perishing in the mud and water of the battlefield. It was only safe to do this under the cover of darkness. Lieutenant Brackin took over the company with Lieutenant Eastwood and Perkins gone and Sergeant Jones’ sentiment, “…we pretty near decided to leave the blinking old shell holes for [Fritz],” gives strong opinion, even months after the battle, to his frustration at the fighting conditions he experienced. A battle-hardened non-commissioned officer was frustrated to the point of admitting this.

This paragraph establishes the intimacy of soldiers by illustrating that they continued to maintain contact after serving in combat together and it is readily evident that Jones and others from the 18th Battalion communicated by letter about the men and happenings of and about the battalion well after their active service with it.

“Anyway we hung on until we were relieved at midnight on the Sunday night. As regards my platoon, ten [were] killed, five I had to let go out on the second evening, because of been buried etc. about ten others [were] wounded & the rest that did come out of the line with me went to Hospital, with Trench [feet][xii], after we got back to the transport lines I stayed till the evening & then my feet got too painful & so I went to Hospital. I was particularly pleased in the way Chapman[xiii] & L/C Laughlin[xiv], Lewis Gun, worked while in the Line, & I sure needed their help. We got pretty well of Rum up their [there], but as usual, it was responsible for a few of our troubles, though the fellows needed all they got. You probably remember the bottle of rum I lost, I found it all right again & was glad for was able to make good use of it, later on. Anyway I guess it’s just as well to forget our troubles Etc. in Passchendaele.”

The next paragraph continues the narrative and expands on the cost and intensity of the combat. Almost in reflection of this Jones’ writing becomes less clear and disjointed. In essence, his platoon of approximately 30 to 50 soldiers, had suffered approximately 50% casualties and an unknown number of men with trench feet. The number of men suffering from this further reinforces the experience from the previous paragraph – the conditions of Passchendaele increased the incidence of this condition to the point that it appears that the balance of his platoon suffered from it. His praise of Chapman and Laughlin gives some indication of the value of a platoon equipped with a Lewis Gun and it appears that these men used it to some effect, protecting the platoon with suppressive fire.

Jones’ reference to rum[xv] and making “good use of it,” is another indication of the conditions at the sharp end. Rum was strictly rationed and controlled by the Battalion officers and non-commissioned officers, but it appears that the unit Jones was with lost, and then found, the rum and imbibed to the point that they forgot “their troubles”. This was clearly outside the realm of military regulations as rum was rationed and served at after “stand-to” during dusk and “stand-down” at dawn and his concern for losing the rum is evident that he was responsible for it and may be subject to military justice of not able to account for it.

Jones helps give Lieutenant Eastwood an update about the condition of the platoon he was leading and some of the circumstances relating to his men and his well being. He explains the reason for the nature of his debility and relates a bit of dark-humour in relation to his ability to “manage” the rum ration and how it reinforced the men during the action of November 9-12.

“Don’t forget to make the most of your stay in Hospital its the only place you don’t have to form fours Etc. Quite a large draft, 450 all ranks went to the 18th last Thursday. Q.M. Vivian[xvi] sent over as escort to Etaples. The 4th Res. now reinforces the 1st 18 & 47 Battalions also the 2nd Pioneers so I guess they will need all the 4000 men I hear they have up their [there]. I will probably be up in the Reserve in a couple of weeks. It does not seem so bad their as it used to be, for Casuality [sic] Officers [run] most of the Companies. I see on Order that Sgt. McGanly[xvii] [sic] is due here this week from Hospital furlough. Sgt. Bayliss[xviii] is taking the seniors N.C.O. course at Bexhill, two months it lasts for. Lt J. Spriers[xix] [sic] is supposed to report to the Reserve here this week. As regards me going to Bexhill for that commission business, I guess I shall have to wait till I go to France again for as you know, I did not fill any papers up before I left the Battalion & I understand that only thru the Battalion can a fellow get a commission. But we should worry, I guess the war will last long enough for me to go over a couple of times yet. I see that Sgt. Harper[xx], Cpl. Mandy[xxi], Pte. Sullivan[xxii], got the Military Medal, also that Sgt. McGanly & myself where awarded a “Bar” to the M.M. I believe S.M. Campbell[xxiii] is figuring on getting his discharged at the Medical Board. Some people sure have lucky mids. By the nature of your wounds I can see a trip to Canada for you, I sure wish you the best of luck. I guess in about umpteen years more time we will get back to Canada. Don’t forget any time you have a few moments to spare to let us know how you are getting along.”

The last paragraph is dense in detail, rich in military jargon and the bureaucracy of promotions and medals.

He relates that a large draft of replacements from England is leaving England for the front in the care and supervision of Quarter Master Sergeant Vivian. He relates how this draft would be sent from the depot as a draft to the Canadian Infantry Base Depot at Etaples, France. This is the first reference the author is aware of that a soldier in active service would be released from active front-line service to shepherd a draft of replacements. Perhaps the size of the draft necessitated the inclusion of men from the battalion being reinforced to supervise the process and help establish the values and traditions of the Battalion in an effort to acculturate these men replacing such a large contingent of men. It is likely that more than just Q.M.S. Vivian would be part of this party from the Battalion, though he is the only soldier mentioned.

Sergeant Jones reviews some of the latest information on their comrades giving Lieutenant Eastwood an idea of how some of the men in his company are doing. It is apparent that the battle at Passchendaele was instrumental in the awarding of the Military Medals and the Bar to Manby related here and that he is up for promotion but believes he will need to return to active service with the 18th Battalion before he can be promoted. His service record shows that he was transferred to the 4th Reserve Battalion at Bexhill (August 5, 1918) and gazetted as a Temporary Lieutenant on the next day.

In this one paragraph he relates the situations of eight of his comrades, an amazing testament to his ability to remember and related the details of comrades he has not, perhaps, seen for several months. Yet, the ties that bind this man to the others are strong enough that he has the ability and motivation to include these details in his letter.

The last paragraph gives a clear illustration of the power of comradeship created in the crucible of combat. Sergeant Jones takes the time and effort with paper and pen to relate details that would have been of interest to his former company commander and one suspects that Lieutenant Eastwood would appreciate being kept informed of his former men.

CONCLUSION

This letter is a wonderful testament to comradeship. In its short, concise paragraphs the letter gives a window on the socialization of the men of the C.E.F., and, more specially, the men of a Company in the Battalion. Their four-days in the front-line was beyond frenetic and impacted the men in body and soul. Those serving imbibed, at the risk of courts-martial, in alcohol, while in combat. The intensity of the battle led to a large proportion of the platoon Jones served in being killed or wounded with 50% of his men suffering this fate. And, to add to the horror of Passchendaele, the balance of his men suffered the agony of trench feet and were not able to find relief until after being relieved from front-line service. Sergeant Jones’ duty and care for his men did not end with their relief as he continued to serve until the pain from his feet got to the point where he no longer could do his duty and had to report to the medical officer this condition that would lead to his release from active operations for a long 2 and ¾ month recuperation from this condition.

He would become an officer and return to his battalion. Lieutenant Eastwood would not, being invalided to Canada due to the severity of his wounds, but the now Lieutenant Jones would return to the 18th Battalion on September 11, 1918, just two-months before the end of the war. He did survive the war and returned to Canada in May of 1919. He passed away on May 1, 1948 and is buried at Avondale Cemetery, Stratford, Ontario.

His epitaph simply states: Who Lived By The Golden Rule.

[i] With thanks Michael Ritchie makes this material about Lieutenant Vincent McCarter Eastwood (M.C.) of the 18th Battalion available to the author. Michael transcribes and interprets the letters of his Great-Grandfather making our understanding of the people involved in the Great War completer and more compelling. Please see his blog at https://www.lettersfromvincent.ca/ .

[ii] RG9-III-D-3. Volume/box number: 4931. File number: 410. Container: T-10731<->T-10732. 21st Battalion CEF War Diary. November 1917. Appendix D.

[iii] RG9-III-D-3. Volume/box number: 4928. File number: 405. Container: T-10726-10727. 19th Battalion CEF  War Diary. November 1917. Page 6.

[iv] War Diary of the 18th Battalion. Transcription. November 9-12, 1917. http://bit.ly/2QI4QFs

[v] Referenced from Ritchie, M. (2018). April 1, 1918 – Sgt. A.H. Jones 53815 | Letters From Vincent. [online] Letters From Vincent. Available at: https://www.lettersfromvincent.ca/single-post/2018/12/18/April-1-1918—Sgt-AH-Jones-53815?fbclid=IwAR053nDl3gqsvsdJdQ7AespwhB03nvvALVmnG80OaLO15-_6cZyg7pJpuzU [Accessed 19 Dec. 2018].

[vi] Eastwood, Vincent McCarter:  Lieutenant (Military Cross).

[vii] Jones, Albert Henry:  Service no. 53815 (Military Medal and Bar).

[viii] Macphail, A., & Canada. (1925). Official history of the Canadian forces in the Great War 1914-

  1. Ottawa: F.A. Acland. [WorldCat] Retrieved from

http://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2009/forces/D61-20-1925E.pdf

[ix] Canadian Convalescent Depot. Currently Sergeant Jones was at the 2nd C.C.D.

[x] Brackin, Garnet Garfield: Captain (M.I.D). RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 990A – 2

Item Number: 59574.

[xi] Perkins, James Franklin:  Service no. 112113. This soldier was concussed at Passchendaele and required treatment. Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 7735 – 7. Item Number 576184.

[xii] Note that Lance-Corporal Laughlin was one of the soldiers that contracted trench feet.

[xiii] Soldier no identified.

[xiv] Laughlin, John Walter H.:  Service no. 407058.

[xv] For an article about the culture of rum in the C.E.F. see Cook, Tim (2000) ““More a Medicine than a Beverage”: “Demon Rum” and the Canadian Trench Soldier of the First World War,” Canadian Military History: Vol. 9 : Iss. 1 , Article 2.  Available at: https://scholars.wlu.ca/cmh/vol9/iss1/2

[xvi] Vivian, Harry Ballantyne:  Service no. 53864.

[xvii] McGinley, Hugh:  Service no. 63628 (Military Medal).

[xviii] Bayliss, Benjamin:  Service no. 53886 (Military Medal).

[xix] Spyer, James: Lieutenant (53857).

[xx] Harper, Reginald:  Service no. 409135 (Military Medal).

[xxi] Manby, Frederick Ernest:  Service no. 54274 (Military Medal with Bar).

[xxii] Sullivan, Christopher:  Service no. 775177 (Military Medal).

[xxiii] Campbell, David:  Service no. 53002.

3 thoughts on “A Letter Between Comrades-in-Arms

  1. Thank you for this. It was good to see mention of my father-in-law L/C Laughlin. One always knows that things were pretty horrific because the men didn’t talk about it, but it has given us a little insight to what he, and a lot more like him, was experiencing..

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