“He was a Canadian to the fingertips…”

Private William J. Bartlett was a wizened 35-years old when the letter transcribed below was published. He was a journalist by profession and the object of his letter was 13-years his junior. The former survived the war, the latter did not.

“HE DID HIS BIT”[i]

[BY W.J. BARTLETT.]

Pte. W.J. Bartlett of the 18th Battalion, the author of this story, is a former member of the Advertiser editorial staff. His letters from the front, and from England, have appeared from time to time in this paper.

What a simple phrase, but oh, how deep its meaning! He did his bit for King and country, and then passed away.

What tales of great human struggles this bloody war are wrapped up in this simple sentence. What pain and suffering these brave heroes suffered [where] they passed to the great beyond.

Go where you will in France and Flanders, you will come across cemeteries, and on the wooden crosses you will often find the simple epitaph: “He Did His Bit,” and as I have gazed on the little mounds of earth in a vision, I have seen them fighting in the grim battles, fighting for their very existence, for their King and country. Often I have muttered if only the people at home knew the full significance of the saying “He did his bit.”

Many of the lads who have fallen have performed great deeds of gallantry, but their names have never even been mentioned in dispatches, simply because their heroic acts were not witnessed by the “higher ups.” Every battalion, English and colonial, had had such heroes in their ranks, and their memories will live forever in the minds of their comrades who are spared to pull through this grim war.

The 18th Canadian Battalion has had many brave comrades fall on the battlefield, and though their gallant deeds have never been blazed in the papers, they have never picked out for  a D.C.M.[ii] or a V.C.[iii], their comrades who fought side by side with them, midst crashing shells and weird whistling bullets, will always speak with pride of their daring acts.

One of those 18th heroes who hell in action, who did his bit, was Pte. H. Drinkwater of Galt, Ont., and a braver man never donned the King’s uniform.

But I said “man.” In reality he was only a boy, not long out of his teens. He was a Canadian to the fingertips, keen and alert all the time, and full of optimism.

No, he did not have the appearance of a soldier. His featured belonged to the feminine type, and his smile must have been born with him.

photo of private harry drinkwater

Young Drinkwater did not seem to know what fear was. No matter how dangerous a task he was given on the battlefield, he was always ready, and looked on the humorous side of things, even when the hellish shells burst near him and the shrapnel played on his steel helmet.

But it was the at the Battle of St. Eloi[iv], where Drinkwater distinguished himself most, when the terrific struggle for the crater was in progress. It was a night long to be remembered by those whose mission it was to add further honor and glory to the good old Union Jack.

About an hour after midnight, the Canadians set out on their difficult task. From the German line flare after flare went up to search for attacking parties. The deadly machine guns of the enemy occasionally swept the battlefield , and a few shells would whistle through the air and burst with a thunderous roar. But the boys pressed onward to their goal.

Now the hellish sounds of crashing bombs rent the air. Fritz was getting his iron rations. Then it was hell let loose. The enemy opened up this artillery, and huge shells raced through space, high explosives and shrapnel burst among the Canadians. The sky was now lit up with hundreds of flares of many colors. Our artillery was more than equal to the Germans and the guns poured forth murderous volleys. While the battle was at its highest, young Drinkwater, who was in the think of the hellish destruction, was called upon as guide for an officer. From place to place he led the way unflinchingly. The shells falling all around and the very earth quivering from the might explosions. Yet he accomplished his heroic task. Then again he went back to the crater, and this time he volunteered to bring in one of our bombing parties just before daybreak. Again he was successful, bringing back every man safely. It was, indeed, a plucky daring deed, and the hero came through unhurt.

But the fortunes of war are very strange. About a month after he was again in the trenches. Some seven comrades were with him. Young Drinkwater was talking of the good old days he spent in Galt and of the good times that were coming. Some dozen shells had fallen near when the merry conversation was in progress. Then in a few seconds the scene was changed. A big explosive shell fell amongst them with a terrific, deafening explosion. The laughter, the merry conversations were silenced, and the groans of the wounded rent the air. Young Drinkwater, the fearless Canadian lad, was among the wounded. Quickly his wounds were dressed, and he was carried on a stretcher to a dressing station. He was still conscious when carried out, and  his chances seemed good in pulling through. But some hours after he left the suffering clay. The cruel ordeal was too much for him. Life’s curtain was rung down on the brave warrior’s life. He had done his bit.

The letter speaks eloquently to the actions of Private Drinkwater and this soldier obviously had an impact emotionally on Bartlett as he writes with keen direction and purpose to his audience in order to convey and portray the heroism and youth of his subject. The letter also expresses, at a soldier’s level, the intensity of the combat at St. Elois Craters, the 18th Battalion’s first blooding during battle.

As can be seen from his photograph Private Drinkwater did look young, and at 5’ 3.5” he was shorter than most of the men in the Battalion. He needed permission from his mother, Mary Drinkwater, who duly gave permission to her then 20-year old son to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force with the 18th Battalion. He enlisted at Galt (now Cambridge), Ontario on October 28, 1914. Drinkwater must have been eager to go to war as enlistments had only started with the 18th Battalion on October 22 of that year.

Bartlett, as mentioned, was part of the editorial staff at the London, Advertiser and he had enlisted with the 18th Battalion at London, Ontario. He was not as quite as eager, joining on December 2, 1914, but he joined early enough to become one of the “originals” to form the Battalion before it went overseas.

It is not clear from their service records how these men were connected. We do not know if they served in the same platoon or company. Perhaps Drinkwater’s actions were widely known to the men of the Battalion, the stuff of martial legend. What is apparent that during the morass that was the action as St. Eloi Private Drinkwater kept his head and was able to guide an officer through the confusion of the mutilated and mis-numbered craters to help that officer in some constructive fashion. Drinkwater further distinguishes himself getting a party of bombers that are outside of contact with the rest of the Battalion back to the relative safety of the main line of resistance, such as it was during St. Eloi.

Bartlett establishes vividly the crucible in which Drinkwater distinguishes himself. St. Eloi was an introduction to the hell of intensive trench operations, that was exacerbated by poor execution at the divisional level.

Tragically, as young Drinkwater speaks of the future, his is brought to am moment that would lead to the conclusion of his life. He would die of his wounds at the No. 6 Canadian Field Ambulance on April 25, 1916. Ironically, on that day, the 18th Battalion War Diary states, “Battalion in Trenches. Very quiet day, nothing unusual occurred[v]. LIEUT. H.A. COLTER arrived as reinforcement.” The irony does not appear to be lost on Bartlett. Part of his message about his comrade is about how the actions that merit recognition are not, and he does take a swipe at the process of nominating awards as, at that time, only officers who witnessed acts of valour could put those acts forward for consideration of recognition.

The letter offers a glimpse into the admiration of one soldier for the valour and duty of another. Bartlett is a journalist and a wonderful instrument of expression towards this end. He gives a look back at the feelings of a soldier – a mixture of imperial nationalism and pride (“For King and country”) mixed with a hard-bitten scepticism of knowing that the public will never know the sacrifice, in part because of the “higher ups” and the military bureaucracy that prevents soldiers like Private Drinkwater to be recognized (he never was except for the standard war medals, scroll, plaque, and Silver Cross for his grieving mother) for “Doing Their Bit.” Bartlett helps his audience to understand a bit of at what cost this service comes.

As a further testament to Private Drinkwater, a letter from Captain Samuel Monteith Loghrin, the Company Commander for “B” Company of the 18th Battalion wrote of some of the experiences he shared with Drinkwater. It was Captain Monteith that was led by Drinkwater during the St. Eloi action:

“”I regret very must to inform you of the death of your son. He was killed when on duty with our company. A heavy shell struck the trench where he and two others were standing, and all of them were wounded. Your son was conscious when being removed on the stretcher. I thought he would recover, but found the next day that he had died in the ambulance between the first dressing station and the field ambulance. He was buried in a cemetery close to our rest camp where I am writing this letter, and I intend to go up to the cemetery and arrange for marking his grave with one of our regimental crosses. Your son died doing his duty and gave his life in a noble and honourable cause. He was a bright, cheery boy. I remember before leaving England he had appendicitis and was to be left behind. He came and pleaded with me to be taken with the 18th Battalion. I spoke to the doctor and we arranged it, and for a time I lightened his duties until he was strong and well. He was a very brave young man, and acted as a guide for me one night in a grenade attack.[vi] Not the least sign of fear did he give, but was joking all the time, even when the metal was flying like a snowstorm. His humorous disposition made him very popular with the boys and he will be much missed by all of us. As a father, I can partly appreciate your sorrow. If I can be of any assistance in giving further information I will be pleased to do so.”[vii]

[i] Submitted to the author by Allan Miller, curator of the 149th Battalion CEF – Lambton’s Own Facebook Group. Original article from: The London Advertiser. June 6, 1916.

[ii] Distinguished Conduct Medal.

[iii] Victoria Cross.

[iv] It is strongly recommended to reference 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.

[v] Author’s emphasis.

[vi] Author’s emphasis.

[vii] Galt Weekly Reporter, May 11, 1916, Page 1.

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