On the night of July 26/27 men of the 18th Battalion carried out a “minor trench raid”. The weather was “Fine but dull”[i] on that day. In that raid were two men, originals with the Battalion, who both have quite different stories.
Private Alfred Forrester, reg. no. 53648[ii] war service started out rather shaky. Having enlisted at St. Thomas on the 26th of October 1914. He was an early recruit which may have indicated his willingness to service his King and Empire by joining the 18th Battalion so early in its recruitment drive. But, as things turned out, Private Forrester would cause a significant bit of trouble for the Battalion during its sojourn of training at London, Ontario.
On, or about, February 15, 1916 Private Forrester deserted. He was captured on February 16 and a headline in the Galt Reporter stated dramatically in a clipping on the 17th that Forrester “May Be Shot”[iii] referring to his escape and the apparent pursuit of him by “Col. Wigle’s mounted policemen” because, as the article claimed, that during his escape attempt Forrester had “nearly” murdered his guard.
The day prior to this dramatic announcement the London Free Press[iv] was to go on record in an article on the 16th that Forrester had recently received a letter from his mother stating how proud she was of his service:
“I was more than proud to know that my son had joined with the Canadian troops to fight for old England. I cannot tell you with how much pleasure I am looking forward to seeing you when you arrive in England.”
The article had not been able to determine the reason for Forrester’s desertion but emphasized how seriously Lt. Colonel Wigle was taking the desertion at the Battalion level quoting him that if Forrester was found guilty he would spend the rest of the war at the Kingston Penitentiary. He further elaborated that deserting after all this training made this type of desertion “worst of all” and that the Battalion had suffered “very few desertions.”[v]
The plot was thickened when The London Advertiser [vi]reported in a short article that Forrester claimed that he had been “doped” and “stripped” of his uniform in a local hotel and was afraid to go back to his unit in this state.
After his arrest he had escaped and had hidden in a shanty belonging to the Grand Trunk Railway. The manhunt for Forrester extended so far as Sarnia with a complement of soldiers from that area entering the United States to search and apprehend him, if found. The London Advertiser[vii] shared that the contingent of soldiers had to surrender their arms at the Canadian Immigration office and that it was, perhaps, the first time in 100-years that Canadian uniformed troops had entered U.S. soil. The detachment took a ferry over as it had been reported that Forrester was heading to Sarnia and they extended the search to Port Huron, Michigan.
Forrester had not made it that far.[viii] He was discovered in a Grand Trunk Railway shanty in East London and a Grand Trunk employee, Felix Fenny, was being investigated as he was under suspicion of aiding Forrester with his escape by shielding him from his pursuers. Detectives investigated and found that Fenny and his co-worker were assisting the authorities in the apprehension of the deserter as he hid in the oil house.
Forrester’s court martial occurred on March 23, 1916 with Lt.-Col. Wilson, and Captains Spry and Folder presiding.[ix] The outcome was announced on April 7, 1915. Private Forrester was not guilty of desertion but was guilty of being absent without leave. His sentence was recorded in the news clipping as 28-days hard labour.[x]
With that, the Battalion, along with Forrester, headed off to England, and the next stage of war.
Enlisting on February 2, 1915, at London, Ontario his service record gives not indication of what kind of soldier he was before the Battalion went overseas in mid-April. Private Martin’s service record is missing documentation from his enlistment to his embarkation to England so there is no point of comparison to make between the two soldiers. However, his service record overseas has several entries illustrating he, too, was not a model soldier. In November 1915 he is charged and convicted with the sentence of Field Punishment No. 2 for theft and damaging private property. Six months would pass, and he was convicted of being absent without leave for 10 hours and elicits a 14-day stint of Field Punishment No. 1. Not 20-days pass and he is charged with being absent from a fatigue and is given 5-days of Field Punishment No. 1.
He was not able to get in too much more trouble after that, for, on July 26, 1916, it is reported that he is wounded by “bomb[xii] fragments to chest”.
The Raid with Forrester and Martin
Though these men were different in age, martial status, occupations, and status of their service records, they both served together on the raid the Battalion instigated on the night of July 26th and 27th. We know that they participated in the raid as the report specifically mentions them by as a report submitted to the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade identifies Privates Forrester and Martin specifically as scouts.
Being so designated gives one an idea of the value of these soldiers to the Battalion.[xiii] Scouts were an elite component of a Battalion, given separate accommodations and other privileges in recognition that their duties required an additional risk for the soldier:
“Scouts should be picked men, selected for their character, physique, intelligence, and education. They should have good sight and hearing, and be expert shots.
Scouts should be men who volunteer for the work, which is often hard and dangerous. They should, therefore, receive encouragement, being excused from other duties when possible, and helped in the matter of changing clothes, and obtaining hot coffee or rum or something extra on return from a hard night’s work. The fact of a man being a Scout should never stand in the way of his promotion; rather it should help him towards promotion.”[xiv]
Forrester and Martin would have volunteered or been selected in the role of scout, clear recognition of their skills as soldiers, and the confidence the scouting officer had in them as soldiers.
In this raid Forrester distinguishes himself as reported:
“Patrol left crater at 12.15 a.m. and proceeded about 60 yards down valley towards enemy line. On being fired on by enemy patrol moved NORTH about [ten] yards. A German listening post occupied by two men was discovered in a shell-hole, both men disappearing when patrol appeared. SCOUT FORRESTER followed enemy into listening post and found it to consist of [a] shaft leading apparently from an old mine gallery.
The shaft had been recently entrenched as the timbers were new and this spot had previously been reconnoitered. The walls were shored, an excellent shaft-head having been built. Six feet from surface was a small platform head and from the platform [illegible] the shaft was a ladder. Bombs where thrown down shaft [in an] endeavour made to induce enemy to come out but they had fled alarming the garrison”[xv]
From this description Forrester displayed aggression and initiative in a difficult situation. The patrol was in enemy territory, unfamiliar ground by any standard, even with preparation, and to add more difficulty, the action was in the dark. Venturing off to investigate a tunnel, trench, or gallery could result in some unpleasant surprises. But Forrester forged forward into the unknown to learn about the enemy environment.
From the description of the reports made by the officers involved in the raid Forrester’s actions appear to have been significant enough to warrant the awarding of the Military Medal. He was gazetted with the medal on September 1, 1916.
The outcome for Martin was different.
During the action he was severely injured by a German grenade. From the War Diary and the three post-action reports we can deduce the circumstances of the wounding. The War Diary states simply, “Position as yesterday. 2 o.r.s. sick 6 o.r.s. wounded admitted to hospital. Scouts and bombers made raid on enemy trench.”[xvi] One of the reports is more explicit:
“The party, having been discovered, and not being able to do any further business in the front line, made a concerted dash on the 2nd line, bombers covering the charge. The party were brought to a sudden stop by heavy wire entanglements and it being impossible to make further progress returned under a heavy bombing defence. The enemy appeared to have the range from support to the front trench very accurately, because most of the bombs fell there, our casualties were 1 severely wounded – Martin – 6 wounded of which 3 are slight and 2 missing.”[xvii]
Martin was wounded somewhere between the 2nd and 1st (front) line of the German trench system. He may have been wounded on the ground above the trenches, or in a communication or main trench. In his state he was most likely a stretcher case and the report mention the important role the stretcher bearers and the support complement had in supporting the riad as they “…rendered valuable service.” No doubt by helping to retrieve Private Martin after he was wounded, along with the other soldiers what were noted as wounded.
Martin was in a bad way. On July 28, 1916, the officer commanding No. 3 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) reported that he was “DANGEROUSLY WOUNDED”. A most detailed log of his care war kept. This document, in the author’s experience, is unique. The care at a CCS was to be brief. Give immediate surgery or care to stabilize the cases that needed further medical attention with further shipment to hospitals in France or to England for the seriously wounded. In the case of Martin, the entries outline relates the care for this soldier from July 28 to August 8, 1916. The medical authorities wanted to stabilize him for the trip to another hospital. His condition was so dire and complex that the dare not move him until it was safe to do so.
He was transported, initially, to No. 13 General Hospital in Boulogne, and then forwarded to the 4th Scottish General Hospital in Stobhill, Glasgow, arriving on August 13, 1916. His wound was reported as suppurating and was packed with gauze. Martin also had a fever that was reported on August 14 to range for 99.6 degrees to 103.4 degrees. His condition was not improving and on August 25th the medical records indicate that his temperature ranged from 101 and 107[xviii].
Private Martin’s condition became dire, and the medical authorities decided to operate, but Martin, “Died under influence of chloroform before operation proposed for drainage of pleural cavity,” on August 26th, 1916, a month, to the day, of his wounding.
Forrester and Martin were both scouts. Elite soldiers of the 18th and were tasked with being involved in a complex raid with other supporting troops of the Battalion, along with coordination of other arms, such as machine guns and artillery. They carried out their assignments and the report specifically shares one of the courageous, if not fool hardy actions, of Private Forrester. The men of the raid engage the enemy in with rifle fire and bombing which provoked the quick reaction of the Germany forces gives a clear indication of their doctrine regarding counterattacking opposing forces that were engaged in raiding. The officer’s comments about the accuracy of the German bombing is indicative of the organization and practice the Germans may have implemented to ensure that the use of grenades would be effective, even in the case of darkness. The moon was a waning crescent that night, which would offer little illumination (11%) but as reported the weather during the action was, “…dark and extremely misty.”
Forrester would earn the Military Medal, possibly for the action of this raid.
Martin would die from his wounds and be buried in his native Belfast.
Forrester would survive the war. But, again, he was a problematic soldier. A good fighter maybe, but his indiscipline would continue, and his case would continue to be unusual and unique.
After the trench raid he served until he was wounded on September 17, 1916[xix], at the Somme. He was transported to England for treatment and discharged early in November. At some point after that he is admitted to the Canadian Military Hospital, Hastings, for psychasthenia[xx] in February 1917 which appears to be related to a head wound. He also appears to have suffered issues with his memory as well, and the military authorities release him from service due to his psychasthenia.[xxi] He signs a “Statement On Discharge” form at Buxton on April 29, 1917 and then returned to Canada via the S.S. Grampian on May 4, 1917. Upon his return to Canada he was assigned outpatient status and attended an M.C.H. facility and, on or about June 12, 1917, was declared illegally absent.
Private Alfred Forrester was actually Alfred Reginald Ermekeil and a news article that appeared in the Sherbrooke (Quebec) Daily Record on May 11, 1931, tells the story:
“VETERAN SERVED IN WAR UNDER DIFFERENT NAMES
One Name Assumed to Conceal His German Ancestry and Others Taken During Lapses of Memory Caused by Head Wounds
OTTAWA, Ont., May 11.-A veteran who served in two armies under three fictitious names on Saturday was given an honorable discharge here as Alfred Reginald Ermekeil. Mr. Ermekeil, who now lives in Cleveland, Ohio, enlisted in the expeditionary forces of both Canada and the United States during the war and was given the military medal for bravery by Canada. One name was assumed to conceal his German ancestry and the others were taken during lapses in memory caused by head wounds received overseas.
Ermekeil’s military career contains all the incidents of sensational motion picture. Although born in Staffordshire, England, he feared his German ancestry might be a bar to his enlistment and when he joined the Canadian Expeditionary forces at St. Thomas, Ont., in October, 1914, he took the name of Forrester. In France he received the military medal for gallantry in action. During the second Somme offensive he was struck in the forehead by flying shrapnel and was invalided home to Canada.
Placed in the military hospital in London, Ont., he suffered a loss of memory and unaware he had already served in Frances, enlisted as Alfred Morgan. One day an officer in his military unit chanced upon the military medal. After and investigation, the veteran was identified as Forrester. In recognition of his services he was made a sergeant and later went to the United States to encourage recruiting.
Another lapse of memory occurred and again Ermekeil obeyed his instinct for army life. This time he joined the 17th United States Calvary at Columbus, Ohio, and was sent to Fort Sherman as bombing instructor. When he was able to piece the past together he got in touch with the Canadian authorities and was discharged from the Canadian forces in 1920 with a pension of six dollars a month. In the meantime, he had married.
He eventually decided to have his right name established in the Canadian Records. He is now listed at the National Defense Department under that name and the Canadian authorities have decided to raise his pension from six dollars to twenty-five a month, retroactive to 1920.
Ermekeil’s military experience is not confined to the Canadian and United States armies. In 1912 he served under Pancho Villa in Mexico and escaped across the border into Texas when the tide of battle turned against Villa’s army.”
A Reginald Ermekeil arrived via the S.S. Canada at Quebec on August 7, 1910. He age was 20-years old and his country of birth was England. This circumstantial evidence indicates this is Private Forrester/Ermekeil as his date of birth on December 1, 1889 would make him 20-years old if he arrives aboard the Canada. The 1911 Canadian census has no record of anyone with this surname lending to credence to his Pancho Villa adventure. We cannot be certain he was not in Canada and simply was not recorded in the census. But we cannot say he was not having his military adventure in Mexico.[xxii]
The now Ermekeil continued to live in Cleveland, Ohio, until his death in 1973.
From the report of a raid the world of the two men mentioned is expanded into a story rich with detail and interest. One, a butcher, is horribly wounded and is retrieved from certain death by brave, and often forgotten, stretcher bearers to be treated in a forlorn hope that he would recover. His injuries were too much, and he was to die during a last, and futile, effort to save his life. He is not a model soldier, but he has earned the designation of scout, indicating that his martial skills were above average than the other soldier of his battalion. Perhaps his behaviour was part of a rebellious spirit that reflected on a recognized conception that, as a scout, Martin was putting his life at higher rate of risk than the average soldier of the Battalion. A little leeway could be given if he was insubordinate, as he was more likely to be wounded or die, compared to his compatriots.
Regardless, he served and gave the full measure of devotion to duty. A small consolation was him being buried in his hometown, near his bereaved family.
Forrester, on the other hand, seemed to err on the side of testing the very limits of military justice before the Battalion is shipped out to England. His involvement in the circumstances leading to him being stripped of his uniform in a hotel room led to a series of actions that almost resulted in serious repercussions. The Battalion meted out military justice considering his circumstances and was rewarded with a soldier who expressed a documented expression of soldierly aggression and initiative during the trench raid, as recognized by his Military Medal.
Forrester’s behaviour is good, save for a notation of receiving 10-days of FP No. 1 for “malingering” on December, 20, 1915, his military record is clean of demerits or charges of any type, until he returns to Canada after his last wounding. There is a note of him having a medically recognized cognitive impairment, his psychasthenia, but this notation is the only mention of this condition. It is not until he arrives at London, Ontario that his behaviour leads to his desertion leading to the fantastic story of him taking on another alias when he enlists, again, with the CEF. His military record is recognized as valuable enough to have him assigned to recruiting British Nationals in the United States, where, he again, disappears again and joins the United States Army. All this occurs under the actual or simulated loss of memory resulting from the head wound (an possibly concerns of his behaviour due to his psychasthenia) that led to his discharge.
Reginal Ermekeil lived to 80-years old and died in his adopted city of Cleveland. One wonders what his reminisces were about regarding his service with the 18th Battalion. Obviously, the resolution of his rank in relation to his pension was important to him and led him to revisit his desertion and ask the Canadian Military to assist him to receive the pension due a sergeant. A soldier who served with previous battalion; who deserted its regiment; rejoining the CEF to serve in another country; deserting that duty to serve in another country’s armed forces.
Not necessarily the stuff of legend, but most unusual and colourful.
[i] Record – Library and Archives Canada. (2020). Retrieved 12 September 2020, from https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/CollectionSearch/Pages/record.aspx?app=fonandcol&IdNumber=2005800
[iii] Galt Daily Reporter. February 17, 1916. Page 1.
[iv] The London Free Press. February 16, 1916. Page 1.
[v] The blog article, The Bryant/Drouillard Wedding Mystery, delves into one of the more interesting desertions to occur to the Battalion before it embarked for England. The mystery is solved at this article.
[vi] London Advertiser. February 18, 1916. Page 1.
[vii] London Advertiser. February 18, 1916. Page 7.
[viii] London Advertiser. February 19, 1916. Page 13.
[ix] London Advertiser. March 22, 1916. Page 3.
[x] London Advertiser. April 7, 1916. Page 3.
[xii] “Bomb” and “bombing refer to the use of grenades.
[xiii] For more information about scouts in the 18th Battalion see the blog post “Scouts should be picked men…” Note that Forrester and. Martin are not identified as scouts in the article for August 4, 1915 while the Battalion was training in England.
[xiv] US Army War College. (1918). Scouting and Patrolling: A reprint of and Official British Document (p. 7). Washington, D.C.
[xvi] Edwards, E. (2020). War Diary of the 18th Battalion: July 1916. Retrieved 18 September 2020, from https://18thbattalioncef.blog/2015/07/03/war-diary-of-the-18th-battalion-for-july-1916/
[xvii] 18th Battalion War Diary. Volume II. July 1916. Library and Archives Canada. RG9-III-D-3. Volume/box number: 4926. File number: 398. Container: T-10721. File Part 1=1915/04/29-1916/12/31; 2=1917/01/01-1918/02/28
[xviii] The image of medical record indicates to the author a temperature of 107 degrees Fahrenheit. The way the writer pens their one (I) – a straight line with no horizontal like to the left – indicates that the digit on the right is a seven (7). It is possibly 101 but the previous entry of the number 1 is not similar.
[xix] He had previously suffered an incised head wound on New Year Eve 1915.
[xx] This term, no longer in use, describes someone who subject to phobias, obsessions, compulsions, or excessive anxiety.
[xxi] There are indications of a tension between this soldier and the officers, representing authority, in several documents in the service record. On the discharge form dated January 10, 1918, the officer filling out the form indicates that the attitude of this soldier is “indifferent”. Another officer indicates that Martin used “excessive tobacco.” These comments are rare and may give a hint to this soldier’s overall attitude to authority. Certainly, his escape from custody after being charged with desertion in 1915 and his desertion before discharge in 1917 indicate a rebellious and cavalier attitude to military discipline.
[xxii] This is not the first member of the 18th Battalion to claim military experience in the conflict in Mexico Circa 1910 – 12.