A “Soldier of Fortune” Returns…

Private Gordon Wellington Wilder, regimental no. 54265[i] of the 18th Battalion, CEF is an enigma.

From his attestation papers on his enlistment he was a 30-year old Anglo-Irish British subject that indicated prior military experience with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and had served 2-years in the Sudan; 3-years in South Africa; and 13-months in China. A lot of military experience for a man purportedly 30-years of age.

He served with the 18th Battalion having enlisted on January 11, 1915, at St. Thomas, Ontario. He was released from service upon his discharge on April 29, 1916, at Victoria, British Columbia.

A news clipping from the Daily Colonist on December 25, 1915, gives an account of this soldier’s service. When compared to his service record, Private Wilder was certainly embellishing the circumstances of his military service.

 

SOLDIER OF FORTUNE RETURNS FROM FRONT

Pte. Gordon Wellington Wilder[ii], a typical soldier of fortune, who saw service in several wars before the present one, and who fought through several engagements in Northern France with three different battalions, returned to Victoria yesterday, suffering from injuries while with a Canadian battalion.

When war broke out he was at Revelstoke and, being a reservist of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, he hastened back to the Old Country to rejoin his old regiment. He was engaged in breaking remounts. Wishing to see some of the fighting, he joined the 18th Battalion, C.E.F. and went to the front. He was with the maxim gun detachment on September 14, when he was wounded by a piece of shrapnel, which struck his right leg. He was riding on a gun limber at the time and when hit he was thrown to the ground and a wheel went over his body, breaking several ribs.

After arriving in Canada for Convalescent treatment, he spent five weeks at Quebec. He intends to report at the Esquimalt Home next week, after spending Christmas with friends in New Westminster.

Pte. Wilder is a veteran of the Sudan War, the South African War, in which he was wounded at Ladysmith, and he was also a member of the force sent to Peking in 1900 to take part in the relief of the cosmopolitan garrison. From November, 1910 to May 1911, he was with Madero‘s army in Mexico, while he later became attached to Pancho Villa’s[iii] forces, leaving them in time to be in British territory at the beginning of war.

Pte. Wilder was to have returned on Thursday afternoon, but missed the boat from the mainland.

Source: News clipping. The Daily Colonist. December 25, 1915. Page 7.

Reading the news article several details appear to be validated from the news story from the service records. Private Wilder claimed on his attestation papers to have served in Sudan, South Africa, and Peking. This may be true, but some of these details, as well as leaving Canada to join his old unit and then leaving it to join a Canadian battalion to fight, is suspect. Some claims, when compared to his service record, are patently false.

The first paragraph overviews the focus of the article and has several details that are inconsistent with the practical aspects of service during the war.

“Pte. Gordon Wellington Wilder, a typical soldier of fortune, who saw service in several wars before the present one, and who fought through several engagements in Northern France with three different battalions, returned to Victoria yesterday, suffering from injuries while with a Canadian battalion.”

The author seems to feel that Wheeler’s experience is “typical” for a soldier of fortune. Perhaps so, but some of the details he offers the reporter writing the story do not match his actual military experience.

He did serve with three Canadian battalions. He was initially assigned to the 33rd Battalion upon enlistment, but many men of that battalion were transferred to the 18th Battalion prior to its embarking for England after its formation and training in London, Ontario during October 1914 – April 1915. He was then transferred to the 48th Battalion after he was removed from the 18th Battalion at Shorncliffe for treatment of tuberculosis. He, did not, however, fight in Northern France and suffer “…from injuries while with a Canadian Battalion.”

His service record shows he arrived with the Battalion in England in April 1915 then suffered from several medical conditions until he was finally diagnosed with tuberculosis on or about September 8, 1915 and admitted to Moore Barracks, Canadian Hospital, Shorncliffe on September 8, 1915. He was released on October 28, 1915. He had been boarded for “Discharge in Canada” on September 26, 1915. At this point the authorities must have discovered his actual age as the admitting card for this hospital notes his age as 38-years old, not 30-years as originally attested when he enlisted in Canada.

The next paragraph offers some interesting details that were certainly not the typical experience of the average soldier serving as a private in the Imperial Forces (BEF and CEF).

“When war broke out he was at Revelstoke and, being a reservist of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, he hastened back to the Old Country to rejoin his old regiment. He was engaged in breaking remounts. Wishing to see some of the fighting, he joined the 18th Battalion, C.E.F. and went to the front. He was with the maxim gun detachment on September 14, when he was wounded by a piece of shrapnel, which struck his right leg. He was riding on a gun limber at the time and when hit he was thrown to the ground and a wheel went over his body, breaking several ribs.”

His attestation paper clearly indicates that Wilder enlisted at St. Thomas, Ontario. It would be unusual for a private soldier to return to England and attempt to join the British Army as a private or non-commissioned soldier. In this author’s experience, no case like this occurred. Most private soldiers of British descent did not have the economic resources to get passage to England, and with the rapid response from the Canadian Government with the establishment of the 1st Contingent, there was plenty of opportunities to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force to express one’s loyalty and military ardour for their home country. This paragraph implies that Wilder, upon being dissatisfied with service with a British unit left, deserted, or was transferred to a Canadian one. As he clearly enlisted in Canada, this was probably not the case. More commonly, British born officers, that served with Canadian units, having enlisted in Canada, would and could request transfer to British Army units. It would be exceedingly rare that a private soldier would make such a transfer and it is acted on by the military authorities.

There is a small detail that is inconsistent about his prior service, which simply could be an error on the reporter’s part. Wilder claimed on his attestation papers he served with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and not the Royal Irish Fusiliers. As he was born in Ireland one wonders if the error was one of transcription on his attestation papers. The service record of the Royal Irish Fusiliers corroborates some of Wilder’s details of service, but do not match exactly his claims. The Royal Welsh Fusiliers were involved in action during the China Relief Expedition which is noted on his attestation papers, further confusing the issue.

Clearly, he was not with the Battalion on September 14, 1915. It had not even left for service on the Continent until that very date. In addition, the Battalion did not use the Maxim gun in battalion service, using the Colt Machine Gun as its machine gun compliment in support of battalion operations. Clearly, Wilder is embellishing his participation in the war for his audience as his service record clearly bears witness to a different set of experiences for this soldier.

The War Diary relates:

“6 pm

Final preparations made for starting Camp. Left Sandling and marched to Folkestone via Folkestone Rd. Sibgate and Lower Sandgate Road.

7:45 PM

Arrived at Folkestone and embarked, three companies on one boat and ‘D’ Coy on another. Left at 9:20 PM followed by ‘D’ Coy at approximately half an hour interval. About 10:55 struck by friendly destroyer. No damage done to us.”

The next paragraph in the news story has a minor issue:

“After arriving in Canada for Convalescent treatment, he spent five weeks at Quebec. He intends to report at the Esquimalt Home next week, after spending Christmas with friends in New Westminster.”

VR1993.334.114-Esq-Hospital-c1914-19

Soldiers relaxing on the grounds in front of the Esquimault Convalescent Hospital. Source: https://onlineacademiccommunity.uvic.ca/esquimaltduringwwl/contact/convalescent-hospital/

Wilder’s service record shows he was not only in Quebec but also in Kingston, Ontario. The service record indicates no dates for which Wilder attended these two institutions. There is a notation that he attended Mowat Sanatorium[iv] at Kingston, Ontario. As Mowat was a dedicated medical resource for tuberculosis perhaps Wilder spent some time there, as well as in Quebec City.

The next paragraph is the most compelling and curious part of the article. It would be some work to track down and verify this amount of service experience, and though not impossible, given the nature of Wilder’s narrative so far – he clearly is misrepresenting the circumstances of his “wounds” during ‘active’ service – that he may have been embellishing his prior military experience, making it more than what it actually was.

“Pte. Wilder is a veteran of the Sudan War, the South African War, in which he was wounded at Ladysmith, and he was also a member of the force sent to Peking in 1900 to take part in the relief of the cosmopolitan garrison. From November, 1910 to May 1911, he was with Madero’s army in Mexico, while he later became attached to Pancho Villa’s forces, leaving them in time to be in British territory at the beginning of war.”

Breaking down his military experience, he has packed a lot of service into a decade.

The British involvement in Sudan was effectively between the years of 1881 to 1899 during the Mahdist War. This service would have been with the Royal Irish Fusiliers, as it appears that the Royal Welsh Fusiliers did not serve in Sudan. This unit also served during the Anglo-Egyptian War in 1888, but Wilder would have been approximately 10-years old during this conflict. The timeline is tight, as this conflict ended in 1899 and the Royal Welsh Fusiliers began their service in South Africa in 1899 when the 1st Battalion transferred there. The 2nd Battalion did not arrive until 1901.

Somewhere in between these Imperial conflicts, Wilder claims to have served in Peking during the Uprising in 1900[v]. The British contingent of the international relief force was composed of British Navy sailors, Royal Marines, and members of the 9th Regiment[vi]. The Royal Irish Fusiliers do not appear to be engaged in this conflict in any manner. Was Wilder acting as a mercenary as a “typical soldier of fortune” during this conflict, or is this claim simply another embellishment to heighten the interest in his story with the audience of the newspaper?

 

However, his claim to have served with Madero and then Pancho Villa is consistent as Villas was a supporter of Madero’s.

It is not clear to what connection Private Wilder had to Victoria, British Columbia. He convalesces there and is released from service on April 29, 1916. His discharge papers show is age as 38-years, which makes his claims of military service with the Fusiliers possible, though one wonders to the veracity of some of his claims on his attestation papers and the in the news article.

He certainly seems to have lived an interesting life and may be classed as a “typical soldier of fortune” who created an interesting timeline to his military and live experience. Consistent with his medical condition he may have lived the balance of his life in New Mexico. He died near Gold Dust, New Mexico sometime before January 29, 1959. His Find-A-Grave profile gives his date of birth as February 20, 1875[vii], making him 83-years old when he died. He may also have died of mysterious consequences as the date of death given was the date his body was discovered, the writer claiming he was found to have died of suffocation, perhaps implying it was the result of a violent act.

white_a_1054

Source: Veterans Death Cards: First World War.

golddust

One of Gold Dust’s two remaining structures. Courtesy Michael Cook.

Private Gordon Wellington Wilder felt compelled to join the CEF. He did so, probably with sincere intentions, but his health deteriorated, and he had his opportunity to “do his bit” taken from him. Upon his return to Victoria someone wanted to share his story. He shared it well. Part truth. Part embellishment. It raises interesting questions to his past and if true, he led a varied and interesting life, fuller than some.

We have the occasion to dig a little and wonder about the man. One thing is certain, regardless of the truth, it is certain Wilder was an interesting man.

[i] Wilder, Gordon Wellington Service Records. Library and Archives Canada. RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 10355 – 32. Item Number: 312826.

[ii] There is no other soldier of this name listed in the Library and Archives Canada database.

[iii] This is not the first 18th Battalion soldier to claim to have served with Pancho Villas. Private C. John Jackson claimed to have served with is forces on his attestation papers.

[iv] See “Borrowed Buildings: Canada’s Temporary Hospitals during World War 1” by Annemarie Adams for more information.

[v] See “The China Relief Expedition Joint Coalition Warfare in China Summer 1900” by Robert Leonard for more information.

[vi] The nature of the 9th Regiment has not been confirmed as to its constitution of this formation.

[vii] This birthdate would have made him 40-years old at the date of attestation.

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