|With thanks to Patrick Dennis, Colonel (RET’D), OMM, CD who reached out to me and pointed me in the right direction. His work to inform us about the role of conscription can be best appreciated by his book, “Reluctant Warriors: Canadian Conscripts in the Great War” Without his help and his work my interest and understanding about this important, and often overlooked, part of our military history and heritage would not be as rich.|
On June 10, 1918 the 18th Battalion was engaged in the Arras sector. On that date the War Diary relates its activities, but that entry does not reflect what may be a singular historical moment in Canadian military history: the death of one of the first, if not the first, Canadian conscript who was conscripted under the Military Service Act, 1917[i].
The event marked a new phase in the war for Canada and its military policy that would have effects and reverberations in Canadian politics and history that are still contentious to this day.
Private George Henry Allsop was born in Belper, Derbyshire, England, a textile and hosiery center during the late 1800 and 1900s. He emigrated to Canada and was a “machine operator” with the Oxford Knitting Company residing at 209 Graham Street in Woodstock, Ontario with his father, George Senior and his mother, Netta[ii].
January 4, 1918 found George Allsop called up to register for active service. Prior to that date he, under the terms of the Military Service Act, would have registered in Woodstock and be classified for active service. When called up he traveled to London, Ontario and in short order his form, “Particulars for a Recruit Drafted Under Military Service Act, 1917” was completed and, as part of the recruitment process, signed his will. This document, perhaps, being the most jarring reminder to Allsop of one of the outcomes to an infantry man. Almost all conscripts were to be slated for this role during the war. George Allsop was not averse to military service as his form indicates that he had one year of militia service with the Oxford Rifles. Passing his medical exam Private Allsop moved on to the next stage of his military service.
In short order he was in England, arriving on February 16, 1918 aboard, like so many other 18th Battalion soldiers the S.S. Grampian and assigned to the 4th Reserve Battalion in Bramshott the very next day. There he trained and learned the skills of his trade until he was transferred to the 18th Battalion effective May 10, 1918. He arrived at Etaples, France at the Canadian Infantry Base Depot the next day where, 11-days later he moved closer to the front at the Canadian Corps Reinforcement Camp. After more training, familiarization, and confirmation that his “kit” for war fighting was fully issued and in good order he left this post after 8-days. He was now in the fight having arrived at the Neuville Vitasse Sector on May 30, 1918 and joined the Battalion in Brigade reserve.
The next day, while the Battalion was in Brigade Reserve the War Diary records that 2 other ranks and Lieutenant Harold Leo Scully[iii] were wounded, probably by long-range shellfire. Even in Brigade Reserve, up to 9 kilometers behind the front line, Private Allsop must have realized fully he was in the war now for even being in reserve did not mean you were not exposed to danger from enemy activity.[iv]
The Battalion moved forward from Brigade Reserve to Brigade Support and then moved to Bretencourt after being relieved by the 26th Canadian Battalion on June 4, 1918 and it was involved from June 5 to 9 in Battalion in martial and recreational training with “…games such as Baseball, Football etc. indulged in each afternoon.” Even at Bretencourt the men were not safe as Lieutenant C.S. Woodrow[v], arriving on June 5 with 18 reinforcements, was hit in the head by an enemy shell fragment that “…burst near Battalion Orderly Room…” and was evacuated to hospital that day.
The evening of June 9/10 required the Battalion to relieve the 27th Canadian Battalion in the front line in positions adjacent and part of the village of Henin-sur-Cojeul, a 15-km march from their billet. Leaving Bretencourt at 8:30 p.m. Private Allsop was finally marching off to war with his comrades. Fresh from training and familiarization in England and France he now had to integrate himself with his new comrades, they were certain to be interested in him, their first exposure to a conscript. The relief was completed at 1:35 a.m. the morning of June 10, 1918 and two patrols were sent out to cover the Battalion frontage. It is almost certain a raw soldier, such as Private Allsop, would not be assigned to such a patrol.
Later that day, a scouting patrol under Lieutenant McRae was dispatched to reconnoiter during daylight, a highly risky endeavour. The patrol pushed from their front lines to the bank of the Cojeul River and returned, after dark, at 10.45 p.m. having left at 4.30 p.m. that afternoon. They observed three Germans leaving a hedge and disappearing.
Sometime during that day, the Battalion suffered one other ranked killed in action and one other rank wounded, though the War Diary only acknowledges the wounded soldier. But a soldier did die that day.
Private Allsop was the soldier killed in action. The circumstances, according to his service record and the Circumstances of Death Card do not relate the event in any manner so we cannot know the manner of his passing. He is buried at the Wailly Orchard Cemetery, an estimated 8-kilometers from the location of his death near the French town of Henin-sur-Cojeul.
For all intents and purposes, Private Allsop died the very day he engaged in combat. From his movements from the moment of his conscription to his death he moved to that moment in time where he would perish, and his family would every more reflect on his sacrifice and offer to those that pass by his grave the epitaph “THY WILL BE DONE ON EARTH”. His front-line service with the Battalion was only 11 days. It must have added to the shock of the family when it was informed of his death, so soon after arriving on the Continent.
His death also signalled the beginning of a new stage of the war. The manpower needs of the C.E.F. no longer could be counted on to be replenished by volunteers and the battalions of the Canadian Corps would find that they needed the conscripts to carry on their role as part of the Imperial Forces engaged on the Western Front. Such contributions and sacrifices would be the norm for the volunteers and their new combat brethren, the conscripts, as the war continued to its bloody end.
Private Allsop is buried at the Wailly Orchard Cemetery, along with 7 other comrades of the 18th Battalion. They all were buried between the months of April and June as the Battalion served in the sector.
I strongly recommend reading Patrick M. Dennis’ prior work referring to this soldier: Dennis, Patrick (2009) “A Canadian Conscript Goes to War—August 1918: Old Myths Re-examined,” Canadian Military History: Vol. 18: Iss. 1, Article 4. He further expands upon the important role on conscripts in his book: Reluctant Warriors: Canadian Conscripts in the Great War available via Amazon and other outlets.
[i] Source: “…Private George Henry Allsop, a conscript from Woodstock, Ontario, who had joined in London, Ontario just days before Dennis. It is likely that Private Allsop, serving with the 18th Battalion, was the first Canadian conscript to be killed in action when he fell in battle near Neuville-Vitasse on 10 June 1918 – a full two months before it is generally thought that Canadian conscripts first saw action.” Source: Dennis, Patrick (2009) “A Canadian Conscript Goes to War—August 1918: Old Myths Re-examined,” Canadian Military History: Vol. 18: Iss. 1, Article 4. Pg. 6. Note no. 20 of this work indicates that a Private Frederick Broom of the 20th Battalion was likely the first conscript to be die in France. He perished from nephritis and pneumonia. The claim of Private Allsop being the “first” conscript killed in action was made in Sandy Antal and Kevin R. Shackleton, Duty Nobly Done: The Official History of the Essex and Kent Scottish Regiment (Windsor, Ontario: Walkerville Publishing, 2006), p.647.
[ii] Vernon’s Woodstock Directory, 1916. The 1914 directory had the family living at 289 Admiral Street with another family member, probably a brother, Horace Allsop.
[iii] Lieutenant Scully was to later perish from his wounds on June 7, 1918.
[iv] See the blog post, “…because life in the trenches was less irksome and monotonous and no more beastly than in places like Bouvigny Huts” for an incident in July 1917 where the Battalion suffered significant casualties due to German artillery while in Brigade Reserve.
[v] Later, Captain Charles Sydney Woodrow.