Above: Photos of St. Elois Craters.
Captain Frederick Gilbert Newton, late of Windsor, Ontario, was an accountant that had been employed by the Canadian Bank of Commerce, now the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, may not have known that his employer would publish his letter in a pamphlet[i] for its employees and customers of the bank. When he wrote this letter, he had experienced his formative military service with the 18th Battalion having been subject to the results of the Battalion’s initial foray into the trenches from September 1915 to the end of October 1915.
Newton’s letter is a mix of news and prose relating second-hand, the involvement of the Canadian Corps at Ypres at the action of St. Eloi Craters. He pays homage to his former Battalion and the audience does not have any idea of the price he paid from his service and how it shapes his point-of-view.
The letter is part of the first volume of two published by the C.B. of C. post-war and is the only letter in this volume written by a soldier clearly identified as being associated with the 18th Battalion. It is not clear to whom the audience of this letter is intended but there appears to be a feeling of it being contrived for a broader audience than a personal intimate or a business associate as it speaks to general descriptions of events and not specific personal events that Newton experienced. Its perspective is one of an officer writing from first-hand experience yet, at the date of the letter and the action described, Captain Newton was not serving in the front-line but in an administrative capacity and behind the front-line.
There is a very good chance he never saw the things he writes about…
The following is a letter from Lieutenant [Captain] F.G. Newton, formerly of the Windsor, Ont., branch, written in Flanders, on 6th May, 1916. The incidents herein recorded occurred at St. Eloi, near Ypres.
“The war keeps up its everlasting grind and everyone plods unrelentingly on. News comes to us more in the daily papers than of our own manufacture, although every future hour may hold some new surprise.
Flanders has taken on the raiment of Spring. The hedges and tall spreading topped trees are just as green as are the north woods of Canada. Jesamines decorate the shrub clumps and the rhododendrons are in full bloom, and looking on the country on a sunny day from a higher contour, one might pronounce it ‘a picture not artist can paint,’ yet up ahead a kilometer or two the guns are booming and the re-echoing crash of a heavy shell landing somewhere near the famous scene of desolation reminds one that the stage settings are a very superfluous part of a tremendous game.
The morning of the last big show was a memorable one. The time for the blowing up of those huge land mines which are the largest on the British front was set for early in the morning. The still of the night had not yet been broken by the increased crack and ping of rifle fire that comes with every dawn. Seemingly not a gun boomed on the whole Western front and the enemy showed no signs of ‘nerves.’ The clock ticked scarcely two seconds short of the set time. A field gun half a mile away to the left broke the silence, and as one, each officer and man turned his face towards the German line.
With a roar that shook the country for miles, thousands of tons of earth rose as if forced by some unseen hand and falling [earth] showered the place with desolation. The Boche trenches had been blown as timed to one terrific crash, the guns behind our lines put up a barrage absolutely impenetrable to anything human. Then with flashing bayonet and a ringing shout the British ‘went over.’
From that time on the Canadians have fought with an incessant ardour and courage and have shown a determination which one can scarcely conceive. They have faced odds almost beyond the limit of human endurance, and when it seemed that their energy was all but sapped they have proved themselves the better men. The men of the 18th Battalion have won the right to be called the ‘Fighting 18th.’
At present I am acting as Paymaster of the Divisional H.Q. sub-staff, 2nd Divisional Signal Company and 5th Field Ambulance, and so manage to keep busy. The financial system of the Army in the Field is an exceptionally simple one, and I think the pay department will all agree with me that no matter how fast you in Canada will swell the growing army, the pay department will keep up with the pace. There are quite a number of C.B. of C. men in it”[ii]
Newton contrasts the look of the rear-area and that of the front line. In the rear Spring has set out to create a lush area, “…as green as are the north woods of Canada,” while flowers bloom. As one advances to the front, “…the famous scene of desolation,” which he feels, “…are a very superfluous part of a tremendous game.” Taken with the prior paragraph in which he imparts a strong tone of irony one wonders if he is mocking the conduct of the war and he seems to be masking an almost ambivalent attitude towards the conduct of the war because, “News comes to us more in the daily papers than of our own manufacture, although every future hour may hold some new surprise.”
The next section of the letter describes the firing of the mines at St. Eloi on March 27, 1915. This action would lead to the first major action of the 18th Battalion since its arrival on the Continent mid-September 1915. But on that day the units participating in the attack where not Canadian, but British, and given Newton’s assignment to the 5th Canadian Field Ambulance as paymaster, he most probably could not have witnessed the explosions. On that day his unit was stationed at Hoge Voete[iii], just east of Ypres. This location is approximately 4 kilometers St. Eloi (Sint-Eloois) and it is likely that the operational details of this British attack were not privy to a captain of a Canadian medical unit.[iv] The 5th C.F.A. war diary makes no mention of the explosion, an interesting lack of detail – as it did note it was “Raining and extremely windy,” that day.
The “…roar that shook the country for miles” was accurate. Reports show that the explosions were heard as far away as Folkestone the morning of their use[v]. The rest is supposition as Newton was not likely there. No Canadian units participated in this action until they replaced the exhausted British units on night of April 3/4. The 18th Battalion did not engage in the battle over the Craters until April 8, a full eleven-days after the battle commenced.
Newton was correct in is description in the following paragraph. From the time (April ¾, 1916) that the 2nd Division, C.E.F. and its related units became engaged at St. Eloi it had its hardest, most intense, and difficult fighting it had experienced. The Canadian units fought valiantly but where not well used or coordinated. It was considered a “fiasco” and several battalion commanders where replaces shortly after this action.
The final paragraph is a basic outline of his current billet and relates a patriotic pro-enlistment message indicating that the bureaucracy of the C.E.F. is well suited to continued and necessary expansion of military men.
The Man Behind the Letter
The context of this letter is interesting, and the author contends that Newton could not have witnessed the explosions of the mines at St. Elois, nor was he completely honest with his audience as to his statements about the action and that of the 18th Battalion as he relates. His narrative appears that of being first-hand, but it could not be as he was not serving with the Battalion or any front-line unit at the time of the attack. The letter serves a purpose and is not entirely based in fact, but it is not a lie. It serves a propaganda purpose, but it also gives a mixed message that may have been the true intent of the letter.
The reason for this point-of-view was based on Newton’s service experience[vi]. He had enlisted with the 18th Battalion on May 20, 1915 at West Sandling[vii]. This appears[viii] to because he was in England on business during the time the 18th Battalion was formed in Canada (October 1914 to April 1915) and he was informed to report for duty. He had passed a medical by Captain Hale in Canada on November 27, 1914 and later in his capacity as an employee of the Canadian Bank of Commerce, had gone overseas to conduct business.
No. 7 British Red Cross Hospital, Hotel Christol
After joining the Battalion, he served as a lieutenant and is mentioned twice in the War Diaries. In early June 1915 he is assigned to a machine gun course and in October 1915 on October 2 when the medical officer, Major Hale relates: “Lieut. F. G. Newton in a shocking condition as a result of ‘nerves’ + sent to hospital.”[ix] Newton’s service record reflects this but the entry minimizes the impact of his condition as being related to a case of “insomnia”. He was sent on October 3 to the Allied Forces Base Hospital (aka No. 7 British Red Cross Hospital, Hotel Christol) at Boulogne. There are no treatment records and he must have improved as he discharged to the Canadian Base Depot at Etaples six-days later and was back with the 18th Battalion on October 15. It is interesting to note the discrepancy of the description of Newton’s condition. In the Medical Officer’s diary his condition is “shocking”, and the personnel file indicates he has “insomnia”. Of course, there was some sensitivity towards calling his condition “shell shock” and in the interests of reclaiming his services as an officer meant that the official record would reflect a less serious condition.
This was unfair to Newton, and the men he served with and under. Though his role in the Battalion is not confirmed he may have been a Battalion Machine Gun Section Officer leading the section.[x] He would have been responsible for 35 men, 2 crews and the support personnel. It was evident that this time away was not sufficient for recovery as he continued to suffer and was diagnosed with “neurasthenia, slight” on October 29, only 14-days after returning to his unit. The Battalion tour after October 15 comprising of front-line service at Vierstraat starting on October 19 and going into Divisional Reserve at La Clytte on October 27. Evidently enough was enough for Newton and he was sent to England.
He was treated until November 4, 1915 and then transferred to the 36th Battalion. He was slated to rejoin the 18th Battalion as his service records show that on January 7, 1916, he was to join them “in the field” but he is re-assigned to No. 5 Canadian Field Ambulance as its paymaster. He had served diligently in trying conditions in combat and now he would continue to serve an active unit near the front using his peace-time skills, which he did until his demobilization on the January 19, 1920.
Given this biographical outline from his service records the now Captain Newton (he was promoted January 7, 1916, ironically) there was very little chance he was “serving” with the 18th Battalion at St. Eloi March 27, 1916. Coupled with the attack being initiated by British forces and that the Canadian Corps was not engaged until April 3/4, and the 18th Battalion on April 8, Newton’s letter appears to be an amalgam of his experiences, knowledge, and hearsay from sources. Some of this may have come for brother officers of his former Battalion and some of the details may be further garnered from his own experience.
The Value of the Letter
A letter, without context, has very little value. It may not be known the details that initiated the letter, but one can derive meaning from the letter as it stands by itself, but not of much value. Expanding the lens further to the historical actions at the Craters of St. Eloi helps fill in some of the descriptive passages and Newton creates mood with, “…the increased crack and ping of rifle fire that comes with every dawn.” The letter still lies flat and has little life. Men fight with, “…incessant ardour and courage…” He closes the letter, coming clean, as it were, admitting that he is serving with the 5th Field Ambulance but it is the omission that during the time of the action of which he describes he was serving with this unit and not the 18th.
The language and structure of the letter is shaped by his experience. He hates the war.
“The war keeps up its everlasting grind and everyone plods unrelentingly on,” set the tone. Newton attempts to offset the desolation of the front with a description of spring bringing jasmines and rhododendrons to life with the lush, verdant greens rivalling that of a Canadian forest but is “superfluous” to the setting of a “tremendous game.” His rhetoric is resigned and subtle. He is not advocating for the war effort but uses phrases that are establish a tone that is not overtly positive to the cause of the war. He still maintains a connection to front-line service by intimating he was at the battle and witnessed it as there is no direct admission that he has not. The earth “showered” and the bayonets “flashed” lending credence to his description while indicating he observed this. There is very little likelihood he did given his reassignment and the unit’s location at the time of the attack. The timing of the initial attack and the location of the 5th Field Ambulance makes it highly unlikely he saw the mines being blown. The mines were fired at 04:15 AM, coinciding with the opening artillery barrage. Sunrise at that latitude and date occurs at around 6:30 AM, indicating that the light conditions would be dark enough to preclude observation of the explosions from a distance.
The language of the letter has elements of the grandiose:
“From that time on the Canadians have fought with an incessant ardour and courage and have shown a determination which one can scarcely conceive. They have faced odds almost beyond the limit of human endurance, and when it seemed that their energy was all but sapped they have proved themselves the better men. The men of the 18th Battalion have won the right to be called the ‘Fighting 18th.’”
Even with this effort, the tactical outcome for the Canadian Corps was not realized and the efforts of the 2nd Division was, in effect wasted. Hence the need for “…incessant ardour and courage…” It looks like there will be more of an “…everlasting grind…” in the fighting to come.
Newton closes the letter abruptly. He outlines his new role and indicates that the army bureaucracy is well ready to deal with the expanding levels of men from the recruiting efforts at home.
There is no doubt that Captain Newton served his country well. The nature of his debility was common and not well understood and he was able to find, or the military administration worked to find, a role in which he could contribute and be a productive part of the Canadian Corps. He could support the war and fighting in a different way.
His letter was written for a broad audience and he may well have known that it was for public consumption. The letter appears to be carefully crafted to impart information that portrays the war reflecting his feelings. He is not overtly patriotic in his rhetoric and his phraseology imparts a sense of waste and futility. Yet, he does not clearly define that his experiences of the war is now second-hand. His letter gives the impression of observation- that he saw the things he wrote about when there is a very high probability that he did not. He had the benefit of combat experience and he was located adjacent to the action geographically, the 5th Canadian Field Ambulance war diary speaks of German prisoners walking back from the lines on March 28, and he most certainly had interaction and communication with his brother officers from his former unit, the 18th Battalion.
The letter is of little interest on its own though. It is with some understanding of the events surrounding this action at the St. Eloi Craters correlated to Captain Newton’s service record one can see a connection and perhaps the motivation for writing a letter that relates valour but is ambiguous to its value.
[i] The series of pamphlets were later put in a two-volume set entitled Letters From the Front”.
[ii] Foster, C. and Duthie, W. (1921). Letters From the Front. Toronto: Canadian Bank of Commerce, pp.115-116.
[iii] Bac-lac.gc.ca. (1916). 5th C.F.A. War Diary March 1916. Record – Library and Archives Canada. [online] Available at: http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/CollectionSearch/Pages/record.aspx?app=fonandcol&IdNumber=2005069 [Accessed 3 Jan. 2019].
[iv] Note that the War Diary of the 5th Canadian Field Ambulance makes no mention of operations prior to March 27th while the 4th Canadian Brigade had received Order No. 33 classified as “Secret”. It outline supporting actions of the 20th and 18th Battalions on the morning of March 27, 1916 and only indicates that the Brigade will, “…co-operate with a neighbouring operation…”Essentially the artillery and battalions of the Brigade where to interdict German reinforcements for the “neighbouring operation” and no details to that operation were given.
[v] Cook, Tim (1996) “The Blind Leading the Blind: The Battle of the St. Eloi Craters,” Canadian Military History: Vol. 5: Iss. 2, Article 4. Page 25.
Available at: http://scholars.wlu.ca/cmh/vol5/iss2/4
[vi] Newton, Frederick George; RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 7299 – 52 Item Number: 560268.
[vii] It is interesting to note that there are several officers that were allowed to do this. Perhaps their lack of involvement in the Battalion while it was being formed at London, Ontario, had some impact to training and discipline. No other rank or non-commissioned officer was afforded this latitude.
[viii] (1914-18), W., Items, O., Britain, G., Items, O. and CAPTAIN, D. (2019). GREAT BRITAIN : WW1 WAR MEDAL TO CANADIAN INFANTRY CAPTAIN | eBay. [online] eBay. Available at: https://www.ebay.com/itm/GREAT-BRITAIN-WW1-WAR-MEDAL-TO-CANADIAN-INFANTRY-CAPTAIN-/132903902539?oid=391938771399 [Accessed 3 Jan. 2019].
[ix] Edward, E. (2019). Medical Officer’s Diary of the 18th Battalion: October 1918: October 1915. [online] War Diary of the 18th Battalion CEF. Available at: https://18thbattalioncef.wordpress.com/2014/06/26/confidential-war-diary-of-m-o-18th-infantry-battalion-from-1st-october-to-31st-october-1915-volume-no/ [Accessed 3 Jan. 2019].
[x] Appendix III. War Establishment of an Infantry Battalion for Overseas Service, 1915-16.