Some time after the Armistice in 1918 and July 1921 a former private of the 18th Battalion wrote a poem and published it in pamphlet form. It is now an obscure document and would be lost to history save for the work of Canadiana Online. Hidden, waiting to be found was the pamphlet with its wonderful cover photograph of Private Thomas standing “On Guard on the Channel Coast.” This poetry pamphlet brings one man’s perspective on his war experience. No shame, but some disappointment, and a wish to share this experience with higher authority.
This is the legacy of Thomas Jenner, formerly of Tunbridge Wells.
Note: The poem is published in its entirety below the main article.
No longer a young lad from Tunbridge Wells, Thomas Jenner of Galt, Ontario, decided to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces with the 18th Battalion on October 25, 1914. He was “48” and had prior military service, but as his service record would later bear out, his age was probably that of an older man. His keenness and experience as a soldier were commented on in his medical discharge papers and it was recommended that he be sent back to Canada to instruct. The medical officers did note, “Age 47. Well built. Slow in speech and movement but fit for duty in Canada as an instructor. Intelligence good and a keen soldier having been for many years in the service.”
Though listed as “Too old for service at front.”, he did return to Canada and served until he was released from service finally on November 30, 1916. Having arrived back in Canada on or about April 1, 1916, he had not had much time to be of value to the Canadian Army during his assignment to No. 1 Special Service Company. Regrettably, the original reason for his medical discharge from active service in Belgium back in the Fall of 1915, rheumatism and shell shock, returned and he was admitted and treated at the Convalescent Hospital (London, Ontario) Militia District No. 1 from April 9 to July 17, 1916.
Upon his discharge, Jenner had determined that his next place of residence was not going to be Galt, but Walkerville, yet there is a note in his record that he resided at 29 Soho Street in Toronto and was to attend the M.H.C.C. Hospital (Spadina) as an outpatient from August 29 to September 7, 1917, and then was an outpatient at this facility. No record indicates the reason for his treatment, but it is likely that rheumatism and shell shock symptoms may have presented themselves and he sought out treatment.
At this point, Private Thomas Jenner is lost to history, but his words live on. After his return to Canada, he published a poetry pamphlet about his experiences in the 18th Battalion and it presents another look at military life for the men of this Western Ontario Battalion.
Entitled “The Freedom of Belgium” it is, as Jenner says, “A condensed account of my experience from Canada, Overseas, to England, France and Belgium by one of the first 50,000 Canadians.” There is an early hint that the poem was written post-war as Jenner refers to “Three score are left who went that day,” referring to the sixty men that were original members of the 18th who were there when the Armistice was signed.
The poem is a biographical sketch about his experiences overseas. We must take it at face value, as his service record does not record any assignment to the Royal Engineers (R.E.) and the Battalion War Diary makes no mention of any soldiers being attached to the Royal Engineers. Suffice to say, Private Jenner arrived with the Battalion in Belgium on September 21, 1915, and admitted to the 5th Canadian Field Ambulance on October 8, 1915, for a sprained ankle. He never returned to active service.
The value of the poem is not so much the veracity of Jenner’s recollection from the short period he was in Belgium, as much as the expressions about his experiences before and after his active service.
Before Belgium the poem reflects the energy and pride of the expectation of an adventure:
“In Moncton, Col. Wigle took us out,
There people, there, how did they shout!
Well received were we, inland to coast.
This we can vouch for with out a boast.”
This vignette occurred and is related in a 18th Battalion Association Memory (circa 1975) with a somewhat lesser sense of pride and excitement, perhaps made opaque by time:
“About the third day out we were told to get cleaned up as were going to get off at the next town and go for a march. We did at a place called Moncton, N.B. We marched up the main street, made a right hand turn and came back on a lesser main street. The people were friendly but not overly-excited as other Battalions had likely done the same. “
Certainly, the two perspectives are instructive. The recent post-war memories of the poet Jenner, full of martial and Imperial enthusiasm for the war, and the memories of 70-year old men with a little more life experience and distance from the event.
There is a wonderful allusion to the changing face of war when Jenner relates “Airships in the air: mines undergound.” He would have experienced several Zeppelin raids at West Sandling in Kent during the Battalion’s training from April to September 1915, while military mining, in existence since the Romans siege of Ambracia.[i] Thus, the new and modern, Zeppelins, and the ancient, military mining, are contrasted effectively giving the reader some idea of the impact of new and old technology on the fighting soldiers.
Jenner expresses the common wounded soldiers’ sentiment of having a “blighty” when he relates, “I ought to Heaven my best thanks give,” after he relates the journey of a wounded man from the front to England.
As reflected in his service record through the notes made by the officers during his treatment and discharge, Private Jenner wants to do more and we find out that he is passed over because of his age and infirmity. But, as related earlier, though suspicious of his true age, it appears that the combination of rheumatism and the effects of shell shock as hampered his ability to contribute to the war effort. Though the poem does not allude to the short time of his active service, there is a tone that reflects this and he is happy to note to the reader that the military heritage of the Jenner’s is carried on by his son’s service.
He does regret that he could not bear “their lot and hardships,” of his battalion comrades.
Of interest are the notations at the beginning of the pamphlet. It appears that Private Jenner privately published this document and sent copies to various people of note, such as King George V, and his mother, Queen Alexandria, as well as the then Governor General of Canada, the Duke of Devonshire, making the year of publishing between the end of 1918 and July of 1921.
Private Jenner was not the only soldier to have short service. The cold, damp and sordid conditions at the front a Ypres very quickly hunted out and selected those men, especially older men (35 – 45), to suffer the effects of rheumatism and other age-related ailments. He does not express shame, as much as a disappointment, and one thinks that his poem is written to reflect his experience as a larger experience of the men with which he served.
FOR THE CAUSE OF HUMANTITY
On guard on the Channel Coast
From LONDON ONTARIO to BELGIUM and Back
By Private “TOM” JENNER 53931
Original 18th Battalion, C.E.F.
Composed and written by an old Tunbridge Wells boy.
LIBERTIE EQUALITIE FRATERNITIE
A condensed account of my experience from Canada, Overseas, to England, France and Belgium by one of the first 50,000 Canadians.
From October 1914 to December 1916
But an old soldier whom can applaud
Fought many battles at home and abroad
The fiercest engagement I ever was in
Was the cause of Humanity and
the conquest of Huns.
Private “TOM” JENNER, 53931 Original 18th Batt. C.E.F.
Accepted with Thanks by His Most Gracious Majesty King George V. Buckingham Palace
Also by Her Most Gracious Majesty The Dowager Queen Mother Alexandria, Marlborough House and the Royal Equerries.
With the Original 18th Bn. Reg no 53931
With the Compliments of Tom Jenner
To Your Grace, The Duke of Devonshire, K.G. Governor General of Canada.
FREEDOM OF BELGIUM
FROM LONDON, ONT.
BELGIUM and BACK
In that Belgium land so far away
Three score are left who went that day.
From Rectory Street we made a start.
Reaching Montreal just like a dart.
In Moncton, Col. Wigle took us out,
There people, there, how did they shout!
Well received were we, inland to coast.
This we can vouch for with out a boast.
Orders then on Sunday, parade for Church.
But with full packs and none in the lurch.
The Gangways to S.S. Grampian looked
Where we really and truly all were booked.
The S.S. Northland also took a load
And kept us company on the road.
The road was watery, the voyage fair.
All in good trim, what did we care?
Our sister ship not far away
We saw each and every day.
Within site of Ireland’s Emerald Isle
The Cruiser Cumberland met us in style.
With two torpedo boats still at sea
At Avonmouth we landed with glee.
On Britain’s shore we were at last.
Not a fear on Canada did we cast.
From West to East, we trained away.
Through London City went that day.
Then to Sandling West where we were stationed.
We were awful glad for our rations.
Trench digging, Bivouacks, fighting sham.
We did it in style, our hearts aflame.
From Folkestone on, one dark night,
To Boulogne in France, what a great sight!
Outside the town we rest at ease,
And see the Francois just as you please.
On the Channel trip, I forgot to say,
A collision our sister boat had that day.
Nine men were absent first French parade,
But eight turned up and never stayed,
The ninth was rescued by a fishing smack —
Still is fighting stern under the Union Jack.
To St. Omer then by train we went
At eleven at night, but no more tents :
Then on by road and no more steam,
Thru Bailleau and Ecke on to Dranoutre.
At last we see the Belgium smoke.
Not five miles from the very spot
The bullets and shells flying real hot.
Up Grainger Street we go zig-zag in hast
To show the Bavarians that we can paste.
They say, “Canadians, we give you hell.”
“Go to it.” We say, and sure they tried.
The music was sweet, but how they sighed.
After our rest, the Saxons came:
Theirs was always a peaceful game.
Headquarter orders then came out,
To the R.E.’s I must turn about.
Underground then I went to mine.
To blow them high and dance to [time].
Airships in the air: mines underground:
The noise of shells bursting around.
Bullets whizz and sine as they reach the earth.
You forget the day you had a birth.
The 4th Brigade to Dickebusch and Loos.
But I stay right where the R.E.’s choose.
Then we follow on to the 18th brave.
Too far cone unconscious I go
With Hospital Train to the coast to show
Camiers, Etaples, LeHarve and Southampton.
Shorncliffe, West Sandling and Folkestone Junction.
On Britain’s shore again to live.
I ought to Heaven my best thanks give.
To Bath and Liverpool; orders “Go Home.”
In Canada now not allowed to roam.
With Engineers again tried to do a bit.
But Ottawa says, “You just sit,
Some younger men must do their bit.”
My son is there now in my place,
And I trust the Huns that he will lace.
My only regret—my comrades fair—
Their lot and hardships I cannot share.
Good old 18th—never a finer bunch:
None could eat a finer lunch!
Gallant Offices and Gallant Men.
Great numbers will never meet again.
“Au Revoir.” say I. “No compre Francais.”
Well, good by all, is what I say.
PRIVATE “TOM” JENNER, 53931
D Co., 18th Battalion.
Enlisted October 1914.
[i] Tunnel warfare. (2020). Retrieved 16 January 2020, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tunnel_warfare#Ancient_Greece