Not “Killed in Action”

In the early 1970s the last members of the 18th Battalion Association, purportedly the first post-Great War battalion association formed in Canada, was winding down. The number of members had declined due to age and many of these men, now in their 80s, wanted to put together a series of memories to share amongst themselves.

One such memory relates the first Christmas in the trenches for the 18th Battalion and makes note of a part of the area in Ypres, La Brasserie, where a Sergeant Spooner was killed. For this brief mention in a document published privately almost 50-years ago this would be the only notice of the death of this man. Even Sergeant Spooner’s service record only states that it was “Reported from Base” that he was “Killed in Action”. The story relates that the road in that area “…was usually under fire…” and save for that information our knowledge of the death of Sergeant Spooner would be sadly incomplete.

Now, a letter, written shortly after his death on November 14, 1915 sheds some light to his passing.

On December 8, 1915 the Galt Daily Reporter published a letter from Private James Edward Petty to his wife, Harriet Rebecca Petty. Private Petty had some news he wanted to share with his wife and his wife must have felt that publishing the letter in the newspaper would be something the town of Galt would want to know about. This news sheds some light into the circumstances of Sergeant Joseph Spooner’s death are illuminated by the letter and expand far beyond that of the official record and that of the memories of some old men. He was not “Killed in Action” as Reported to Base and recorded in his short service record – he actually died of wounds and his passing gives a window to the important and entrenched social structure and bonds these men held with each other. What is surprising is the letter appears not to be edited. It relates the precise circumstances of Sergeant Spooner’s wounding and death in some detail. Enough detail to be potentially distressing to Sergeant Spooner’s wife, Alice S. Spooner, of 14 Lowell Street, Galt, Ontario[i].

The Galt Daily Reporter published the letter on December 8, 1915, 3-weeks after Spooner’s death and it relates that during an assignment where the platoon Spooner was a non-commissioned officer of was tasked with taking rations from the reserve lines to the front lines. He is hit by a bullet, most probably a machine gun bullet from a machine gun pre-sighted to lay down interdicting fire on know lines of communication, in the stomach and is given aid by Petty and a lance-corporal and taken to the rear by some attending stretcher-bearers. Approximately thirty-minutes transpire from the time Spooner is taken away and Petty returns from delivering the food to find Spooner has died of his wounds.

Petty relates, “We were talking and laughing and all of a sudden a bullet came—bang—and Joe said, “I am done; I’ve been shot, boys.” I asked him, “Where did you get hit and he said, “In the stomach.”

The social connections from this sad event are represented by several salient inter-relations between the survivors and another family member.

The letter relates how Petty was to later find Sergeant Spooner’s brother, Bombardier W.S. Spooner serving with the 16th Battery, 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade (the same brigade the 18th Battalion served in), was searched out by Petty to inform him of his brother’s death so he could attend the interment. Attending were senior officers of the Battalion, and two chaplains (one of them undoubtably the Rev. Carlisle), perhaps due to the seniority of this soldier’s rank and reputation. Though death was not foreign to the Battalion, but it was still new as Sergeant Spooner was the thirteenth man to die because of enemy action. Another man, Private James Patient, assists.

The connection illustrated by Spooner, Petty, and Patient relates not only to their town of enlistment, Galt, Ontario, but to their age. They were all over 40-years old and represented a different era and generation of men compared to, such as in Private Petty’s case, his son, Private James George Petty, who at 20-years old represented the younger generation. It is speculation that the Patient is referring to the elder Patient but Spooner (44-years old at enlistment but shown as 47 at his death), Petty (40-years), and Patient (41-years) were all contemporaries. They lived in a town where they may well have been aware of each other before they enlisted and their enlistment and service together insured they would be comrades. Their loss is expressed in their need to not only attend the service, but seek out Spooner’s brother so he can be present and then to obtain a wooden cross to mark the grave with the assurance in the letter as, “When they make the cross we are going over there again and fix it up and make it look nice.”

This seems to be a contrary comfort to the newly widowed Alice Spooner at the letter does provide details of the moment he is hit, and, perhaps, his last words. There are no expressions of comfort in the letter, and this does make sense as it is a letter from Petty to his wife, but it would appear that his intent was not to have this information shared, particularly given the circumstances of death. It is; however, a frank and direct relating of the events and it is not couched in any sentimentality or expressions of valour. Spooner was, “…so good a man,” as the presence of the officers, chaplains attest to and the attention to his grave site after his interment his comrades give.

Spooner was such a good man and his death so marked an occasion that the danger of the road at La Brasserie is remembered by aged veterans 60 some odd years later. These memories also relate in another story the death of a comrade later in the war with the same sense of the need to honour and remember the dead and acknowledge their passing with appropriate demonstrations of the interment and marking of the graves of the fallen of the 18th Battalion.

Lance-Sergeant Spooner lies with 38 other men of the 18th Battalion at Ridge Wood Military Cemetery. His epitaph reads: He Lay Down His Life for His Friends.

60 odd years after his death he was being remembered. Perhaps not by friends, but comrades-in-arms that knew of the sacrifice such men made.

PLACE CROSS ON GALT MAN’S GRAVE[ii]

PTE. PETTY WRITES REGARDING DEATH AND BURIAL OF SERGT. SPOONER[iii]

Mrs. E.J. Petty, 78 Chalmers street[iv], has received the following letter from her husband, Pte. E.J. Petty[v], well known in the city, who is on the firing line with the 18th Battalion:

I guess by the time you get this letter that you will have heard of the death of Joe Spooner. I was with him when he got shot. He fell into my arms and myself and a lance-corporal on examining him found he was shot below the right breast. The stretcher-bearers came up and we left him in charge of them. When we were coming back from the trenches we were told he was dead; he died about half an hour after he was shot. That was on Sunday night about six o’clock, the 14th of November.

The next morning I found where young Bill Spooner[vi] was and told him where the body was lying in the dressing station. We were just in time to see him before he was buried. Burial took place in the Canadian cemetery[vii] and when we arrived there with the body our Captain and Major and two chaplains were waiting. Tell Mrs. Spooner that I had charge of the interment and was assisted by Mr. Patience[viii] [Patient] (also of Galt). When they make the cross we are going over there again and fix it up and make it look nice. Our captain, major, and the chaplains shook hands with Bill Spooner before they went away and told him how sorry they were at losing so good a man.

This is a dangerous job, carrying rations up to the trenches to our A and C Company men. It is our turn, D company, this week and we all take our turns. We were all marching up a road to get the rations, No. 13 platoon leading and No. 14 platoon about 20 yards to our rear. Spooner was leading No. 14 and I was right behind him. We were talking and laughing and all of a sudden a bullet came—bang—and Joe said, “I am done; I’ve been shot, boys.” I asked him, “Where did you get hit and he said, “In the stomach.”

A Soldier’s Poem[ix].

Enclosed with the letter there was the following piece o poetry that had been clipped from some periodical:

My little we home in the trench,
Where the rain storms continually drench.

There’s a dead Turk close by,
With toes turned towards the sky,
And he gives off a terrible stench.

Underneath, in the place of a floor
There’s a mass of mud and straw.

And the Jack Johnsons tear
Through the rain-sodden air
O’er my little wet home in the trench.
There are snipers that keep in the go,
So you must keep your “napper” down low,

And the star shells at night,
Make deuce of a light,
Which causes the language to flow.

We’ve biscuits and “bully” to chew,
For it’s months since we tasted a stew,

But with shells dropping there
Yet not place can compare
With my little wet home in the trench.

[i] A later document shows her at 4 Jarvis Street, Galt, Ontario.

[ii] The Galt Daily Reporter. December 8, 1915. Page 1.

[iii] Spooner, Joseph:  Service no. 53878.

[iv] Most likely now 78 Chalmers Street, North given the era of the homes at this address. The homes on Chalmers Street, South, are from the 1950s-60s era of construction.

[v] Petty, Edward James:  Service no. 53951.

[vi] Spooner, William Samuel, reg. no. 84187.

[vii] Ridge Wood Military Cemetery, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium.

[viii] Patient, James:  Service no. 54040.

[ix] The significance of the addition of the poem to the letter, let alone its inclusion into the news story, is not known.

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