Soldiers letters do not stand on their own. They impart small, discrete, often obscure, snippets of information that connect the writer with the people of his hometown, unit, and his social circle. They can often give clues that lead to a broader understanding of the writer and his experiences during his service. The letters also give the reader an insight into the activities of other soldiers, usually acquaintances, friends, and families This would particularly be the case for soldiers that grew up and enlisted in the rural areas of Canada, such as Bruce County.
Private Joseph Edgar McAfee, regimental number 651738[i] was from Glamis, Ontario, 15 kilometers from Paisely, Ontario. The Paisley Advocate covered the news locally and published, at least, two articles relating to the McAfee family. On October 16, 1918 it published a letter from this soldier to his mother where he relates the circumstances of his wounding.
Letters from the Soldiers
IN HOSPITAL IN WALES
Mrs. H. McAfee of Greenock, received the following letter recently from her son, Pte. Edgar McAfee:
Just a few lines to let you know of my whereabouts, and hoping you are fine and everything O.K. as it leaves me at present. This is the fourth hospital I have been in since I was wounded. Thinks this place is on the coast of the Irish Sea. What I have seen of the country appears to be very pretty.
Did you get the letter I wrote from the hospital in France? I was sorry I did not get to the hospital Bertha was in, but maybe I will get a chance again. I was sound asleep a week ago to-night about 12 o’clock when the nurse came and said, “Hi Canada, do you want to go to Blighty?” Imagine my surprise, as I thought I would be going back up the line in a day or two. So we took the train down to a seaport on the English Channel, got on the boat from there and came up through Chatham and the outskirts of London to a hospital in Cardiff city, stayed there in bed till yesterday and then came down here. I like this place fine. I am up now and able to get around well only I cannot wear my boot on my left foot yet. We get good rations here, lots of sleep and a free concert in the hospital every few nights given by the local town. And a couple of days ago a woman came around and gave me a kit from the Canadian Red Cross Society, consisting of writing material, shaving outfit and teeth cleaning powder.
The worst of is I will likely have to go back to the reserve at Witley, but its is a good rest anyway. I haven’t heard anything about the fellows around home fared out. N. McDermid got wounded in the leg.
Did I tell you how I got hit? Don’t believe I did. Well, every time we go in the line there are always so many left out of the machine gun courses, etc., and if they are going into battle these men have to act as stretcher-bearers. Well I was left out of the trip to the battle in front of Arras, but followed up and took in wounded. Everything went along O.K., was on the go practically all day and night. The second day I, along with three other chaps, was scouting over the previous day’s battle ground for any wounded, and there was a bunch of reinforcements passing us going into action, and all of an instant a German aeroplane swooped dow[n] and fired on us with a machine gun. I heard the bullets swish down and felt my toe sting, so beat it back and put my field dressing on, then went back to the ambulance and it was not time till I was miles away from the din of battle.
Our platoon sergeant was hit in the same way on the Amiens front, only he was in a trench. Let me know in your next letter if Jack Dobson is still living. I helped to carry him out of a shell hole. A dud shell had struck one of his legs. A dud is a defective shell that does not explode.
I have a few German souvenirs to send home. They are not much, but would be nice to keep.
Have you lots of wood cut for the winter? It’s one thing [for] certain, the war won’t last any more than a year, but I expect there will be a lot of hard fighting yet. It sure has been swaying our way lately. The German soldiers are getting very disheartened. If there had been lots of fight in them they sure would have got me in the Amiens battle.
Think that is all for now.
Paisley Advocate. October 16, 1918. Contributed by Jim Kelly.
Above: Paisley Advocate. October 16, 1918. Contributed by Jim Kelly.
The letter is full of details relating to the experience of McAfee’s wounding and from an examination of his service records we can correlate the events and people to which he relates with dates and locations.
Having enlisted with the 160th Bruce Battalion at Tiverton, Ontario on February 11, 1916, McAfee stayed with this battalion until it was used for reinforcing battalions in active service on the continent. Having arrived in England on October 17, 1916, it was not until March 28, 1918 that McAfee started his assignment with the 18th when he was shipped to France and passing through the Canadian Infantry Base Depot at Etaples to the Canadian Corps Reinforcement Camp he joined the 18th Battalion “in the field” on April 13, 1918.
The activities of the Battalion had been terribly busy during the latter part of August 1918. It was operating at Telegraph Hill, south-east of Arras and the War Diary relates in some detail the activities on August 26, 1918.[ii] An attack began at 3:00 AM that day which met with mixed success, resulting in 10 men killed in action with 15 wounded.
The following day was not as active but resulted in 15 men killed with 150 wounded. The 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade (4th CIB) compresses their War Diary for the 3 days of August 26 to 28, 1918 into one brief entry, with the telling statement, “Starting at Zero hour followed a period of prolonged and most bitter fighting for three days, which continued until the Brigade was relieved…”[iii] This entry gives some idea of the tenor of the combat the units of the Brigade was experiencing. The War Diary states that from August 26 to 31, 1918, the total casualties incurred by the Brigade were 11 officers and 146 ranks killed and 50 offices and 999 other ranks wounded.[iv]
On August 27, 1918 McAfee is wounded. As he went over the rear area of the battlefield he is attacked by a German Air Force fighter. He offers specific details showing how the German Air Force was used tactically to interdict troops on the ground. It was, perhaps, attracted by the large group of reinforcements moving up into action on the line and McAfee becomes a victim of its efforts to kill and wound the troops on the ground. It succeeded in wounding Private McAfee’s left foot hitting, luckily, the flesh and not the bone. The 4th CIB War Diary expressly relates on how the use of enemy aircraft was used to interdict the ground forces at this time stating, “The enemy aircraft [was] active at times, and hindered the advance or our Supports by Machine Gun fire and the use of light bombs.”[v]
This wound begins the process of casualty evacuation beginning with McAfee putting, “…my field dressing on, then went back to the ambulance and it was not time till I was miles away from the din of battle.” His initial medical treatment occurred at the 4th Canadian Field Ambulance. From there he is transferred on August 28, 1918, to No. 18 General Hospital, Camiers, France, and by the August 31, 1918, he is being treated at the 3rd Western General Hospital at Cardiff, Wales. On September 27, 1918, he is transferred to Woodcote Park Military Convalescent Hospital at Epsom.[vi]
He relates some of the details of his treatment and care and expresses that, “The worst of is I will likely have to go back to the reserve at Witley, but its is a good rest anyway.” Witley Camp was used for reconstituting and the convalescence of soldiers in preparation of a return to fighting. This camp had an organization that assessed the medical status of a soldier and, depending on the severity or nature of the wound or illness, a soldier’s classification may result in a return to Canada for discharge. From McAfee’s tone it sounds like he wants to return to active service.
His letter relates some of the news of the soldiers he served with. Private Neil McDermid[vii] was also from Glamis, Ontario and had enlisted with the 160th Battalion and enlisted in March 1916. They were both the same age at the time of enlistment (21-years) so they probably knew each other well. He was wounded on the same day as McAfee, suffering a gunshot wound to the right leg and hand. Though McDermid would survive the war and be discharged on May 31, 1919, he died of heart failure on September 8, 1919 at the age of 25-years.
Above: Farm Record Card of death of McDermid and news clipping about his death. Source: Walkerton Telepscope. September 18, 1919. Contributed by Jim Kelly.
He also mentions John (Jack) Dobson[viii]. This soldier was also wounded August 26, 1918, in unusual circumstances. It appears he was hit by an unexploded shell, which shattered his leg. Dobson apparently effected his own amputation in the field, and it is not clear if this occurred before or after McAfee rendered aid to his comrade. Dobson, also, was a member of the 160th Battalion. He had enlisted in January 1916 at Chesley, Ontario. He was 25-years old at enlistment, but these men may have served in the same company or platoon and became familiar with each other.
Above: Photograph of Dobson, John: Service no. 651436 (Military Medal) and clipping relating to his wounding. Source: Hopkins, J. (1919). Canada at War: A Record of Heroism and Achievement 1914-1918. 1st ed. Toronto: The Canadian Annual Review Limited, p.386.
One wonders what McAfee felt when he found his comrade with his shattered leg, harmed by the passage of a large, heavy, rapidly moving projectile, and not from the effects of an explosion. This type of wounding may have been rare, but not unheard of.
McAfee ends the letter relating that he has a “few German souvenirs” and that, in his estimation, the collection does not amount to much. Given the letter is written in the fall, he is looking to winter and wonders after how the wood supply is like at his home. Finishing off with a prediction of the outcome of the war, he reflects that is the German army had higher morale he would not have survived combat, a bit of an unusual correlation to make, but perhaps a bit of reassurance and bravado to buck up the spirits of his parents to offset the news of his wounding.
This letter gives details that reinforce the idea of community and connection. All three men in the letter, the author and the men mentioned, were from the same area of Bruce County and had been further connect by their initial service and training with the 160th Battalion. Their connection extended into active service together with the 18th Battalion CEF in France. Their connection was further cemented by their wounding occurring close at had on August 26 for Dobson and August 27 for McDermid and McAfee. They were connected by three distinct characteristics and with McDermid and McAfee being from the same rural town their connection was probably closer, perhaps friends. Regrettably, McAfee’s letter does not give any intimation or details as to the nature of his relationship with McDermid.
The letter illustrates the speed and efficiency of the Imperial medical services with McAfee in England approximately 4-days after his wounding. It also illustrates the secondary support of organizations, such as the Red Cross, with it giving him items of comfort and value so he can be comfortable and communicate with his family and friends.
Even after his and his comrades wounding, McAfee is eager to go back and fight again, apparently afraid of the delay a visit to Witley Camp would cause. As he notes at the end of the letter, “It’s one thing [for] certain, the war won’t last any more than a year, but I expect there will be a lot of hard fighting yet.” He may be worried he will not make back into the line to assist his comrades when they are wounded or as a combat soldier.
The McAfee family, however, must have been highly relieved. The had already lost one son, their eldest, Private John McAfee, was killed in action at Hill 70 on August 15, 1917 while serving with the 2nd Canadian Machine Gun Company. Having lost one son to the war, they must have been thankful to hear such news from their other son. McAfee’s letter gives them the information they need to be reassured and gives us a glance at the life and experience of one man from a small town in Ontario.
[ii] August 26, 1918 18th Battalion War Diary Entry: At 3:00 a.m. following intense 5 min. barrage Bn. jumped off TILOY [sic] TRENCH in front of TELEGRAPH HILL in support of 21st Cdn. Bn. The artillery preparation was good. Owing to getting lost in the darkness, the tanks detailed to go over with the Bn. failed to turn up per schedule, so the Unit was without their assistance in the initial kick-off.MINORCA TRENCH, a difficult nut to crack, was set as the first objective, and SOUTHERN AVENUE TRENCH as the second objective. Both positions were won by 8.00 a.m. “D” Coy. holding the last named defence line in conjunction with the 21st Cdn. Bn. “A” Coy. remained in GORDON TRENCH, and “B” Coy at the first objective, MINORCA TRENCH.
Up to this time the casualties had been far smaller than anticipated, although Lieut. McHardy had gone only a short distance from the Assault trench when he sustained mortal shrapnel wounds.
The German resistance had been slight but at this point was considerably strengthened. At 1. o’clock, the Bn. was ordered to capture the village of GUIMAPPE. Personal reconnaissances in broad daylight and under sever fire by Major C.M.R. Graham and Capt. D.A.G. Parsons, M.C., O.Cs respectively for “D” and “C” Coys. were first conducted. Waiting until artillery support, inadequate as it was to meet the situation, had been obtained, “C” & “D” Coys at 4.00 p.m. advanced and captured the ruined town. Casualties in the face of both terrific machine gun and artillery barrages laid down by the enemy were fairly heavy.
Lieut. Brackin [sic], who had done brilliant work up to this moment, was instantly killed by a shell and Capt. Parsons and Lieut. Edwards sustained wounds that resulted in their immediate evacuation.
Resultant of the progress, “C” and “D” Coys occupied and consolidated STAG TRENCH, and “A” and “B” Coys moved forward to RAKE AND GORDON TRENCHES respectively. At. 11 p.m. “A” Coy under the fine leadership of Lieut. Spence, went forward, despite most stubborn opposition, and captured CALVARY TRENCH. Unfortunately, the achievement went for naught, as the Unit on their immediate left was held up and the Coy. at 3.00 a.m., 27th, after 4 hours of desperate fighting was compelled to withdraw temporarily to RAKE TRENCH. Approx. all ranks 10 killed & 15 wounded. 1 O.R. ret. from leave & 1 O.R. on leave. 2 O.Rs ret. from army rest camp.
[iii] 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade’ diary entry for August 1918 War Diary, p. 15.
[iv] 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade’ diary entry for August 1918 War Diary, p. 16.
[v] 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade’ diary entry for August 1918 Appendix 31, p. 5.
[vi] McAfee must have written the letter before his transfer to Epsom, though, but the time of its publishing, he was in Epsom, south of London, England.