“…not likely to become an efficient soldier.”

not likely

On the 22nd of September 1914, the war was in its 39th day[i]. A young man, all of 20-years joined the 1st Battalion CEF which had only been created 20-days before. This soldier, reg. no. 1288904[ii] served with that battalion with a clean record, but it was determined that on October 2, 1914 at Valcartier, Quebec that he would be discharged as he was, “…not likely to become an efficient soldier.” This must have been particularly galling for this man with 3-years of militia experience as this battalion, along with the other units comprising the 1st contingent CEF embarked for England on the very next day.

This experience would not dissuade this man as he would join another unit and become a sergeant. Something that you cannot do in a line battalion without being efficient.

Arthur Riley was a Liverpool born British subject living in Goderich, Ontario. He was a finisher[iii] and had 3-years of Canadian militia experience which makes one wonder as to why he was designated as being inefficient by the non-commissioned soldiers and officers that commanded him when he was an experienced member of the militia with a clean record with the 1st Battalion.

This did not deter Arthur Riley for 22-days later he would enlist, and be accepted, in the 18th Battalion, a unit being raised with others to form the 2nd Contingent.

Private Riley, reg. no. 53962 enlisted at Clinton, Ontario, and would serve as a private until his first promotion to Acting Lance Corporal on October 12, 1915.[iv] His service in Canada was clean, but on arriving to England during the Battalion’s training and work up at West Sandling (May-September 1915) he forfeited 12-day’s pay for being absent without leave (AWL). Perhaps being close to his hometown was tempting and he took advantage of his proximity to visit family and friends. This was all too common a problem for the units of the 2nd Contingent as it was made up of a large proportion of men who were born in the British Isles.[v]

graph-2-number-of-absentees-by-unit-2nd-cdn-div-reported-july-15-1915

Data analysis by author.

As a year passed and L/Corporal Riley experienced with the 18th Battalion its baptism of fire as it first manned the trenches at Ypres in the Fall of 1915 and then fought its first major engagement at the craters at St. Elio.[vi] The Battalion then moved to the Somme in August 1916 and was ravaged by its involvement at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette on September 15, 1916. In part, because of losses, Riley was promoted Sergeant on November 26, 1916.[vii]

He was also present when a well-known fellow resident of Goderich perished in combat:

“Pte. Frank Riley of the 161st Battalion has received word from his son, Pte. Arthur Riley of the 18th Battalion, now in France, stating that he is keeping well and in splendid condition. He says he was about twenty-five yards from Major Sale[viii] when the Major received the wounds from which he died.”

The Signal. February 17, 1916.

He was to serve dutifully and without pause for leave though the actions at Vimy, Hill 70, and Passchendaele until he was wounded on or about March 31, 1918. The War Diary relates on that day:

“Position same. Enemy artillery active, shelling support and rear country. 1 o.r. killed in action. 2 o.r. wounded. 53631 C.S.M. Williams appointed to temporary commission as Lieut. In 18th Canadian Bn. Battalion H.Q. moved into an old British trench about 100 yds down the railway cutting.”

It is likely that Sergeant Riley was wounded that day and is one of the two other ranks listed as being wounded. He wounds were debilitating, and he would relate in a letter home the nature that they took.[ix]

“Lost Eye and Part of Nose

Mr. Frank Riley of Goderich has had the following letter from his son, Sergt. A. Riley, No, 53962, of the 18th Battalion Canadian, who was recently wounded. He is in Ward A G, South General Hospital, Dudley Road, Birmingham, and writes [undee] date of April 10th[x]:

My Dear Dad, — Just few lines to say at last I have landed at Blighty, a  pretty bad one though on the face, and sorry to say my loss is one eye and three parts of my nose. I have got about twenty stiches in my head. Believe me it does not feel out of the way with only one eye, but I supposed I will get used to it in time. I happened to get it April Fool’s Day. I guess he fooled me alright. Well, dad, how are you getting on? Have you got home yet? I had a visit from Amy and cousin Mary to-day. Lucky I got so close to them. Well, Dad, I will write more when I feel a little better. Give my love to all at home. Please let Frank know.

Your loving son.”

The Wingham Advance. May 09, 1918. Page 1.

There are a couple of aspects to the content to the letter that are of note.

First, it appears that Sergeant Riley is not aware that his father, Francis Bolton Riley, reg. no. 654084, had been returned to Canada some time in January 1918. He embarked for Canada from Liverpool on November 6, 1917, and was medically discharged in Guelph, Ontario on February 3, 1918 after suffering from neurasthenia in August of 1917.[xi] Yet, the efficiency of the postal system was able to direct the correspondence to his father sometime in April/May 1918.

Second, the frankness of the description of the wounds in the letter may have been as a result that the son was writing to his father, a fellow soldier, and he did not want to minimize the results of the wounding. One would suspect that if the letter was directed to a wider audience the tone of the letter would regarding the description of the wounding would not be so frank and direct.

Last, Sergeant Riley’s claim of having been wounded on April Fools Day may have been an attempt to be ironic. Though we cannot verify that this claim is not accurate, the War Diary relates no casualties on April 1st. It does, however, relate casualties on March 31 with one soldier killed in action and 2 other ranks wounded. It is possible that the War Diary entry relates to something that happened in the early morning of the 1st and not the late evening of the 31st. Riley can be excused for any license he took in regards to the circumstances of his wounding. They were, after all, his wounds and his story.

His medical care took then him through several facilities. The initial part of his treatment appears to be stabilizing his medical condition and letting the surgery that was done in France immediately after his wounding heal. He was recommended for a “Plastic Operation” while attending the 2nd Canadian General Hospital. He was moved to Queens Hospital at Sidcup for analysis of his wounds, but he would develop VDS (venereal disease, syphilis) and required a course of treatment that delayed his restorative operation. He was discharged to Canada aboard the S.S. Araguaya and landed in Quebec on May 31, 1919.

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Then began a long course of treatment. From January 6, 1919 to December 1, 1919, he was a patient at Ste. Anne de Bellevue Military Hospital and upon admission was given 2-weeks furlough. A procedure was completed on June 14, 1919 under general anesthesia done with doctors Captain Grant and Major Waldron[xii] attending. The notes indicate that the operation was able to make a socket for an artificial eye though there was some complications dues to the manner of the way the initial surgery was done in France in 1918 and also there was some necrosis evident in the wound found during surgery which had to be addressed. He was given a month’s furlough on September 21, 1919 and returned to Ste. Anne de Bellevue until he was transferred to the Dominion Orthopaedic Hospital at Toronto, Ontario on December 1, 1919.

Regrettably all the effort to improve Sergeant Riley’s physical looks came to naught.

On February 1, 1920 he was admitted to the Base Hospital at Toronto, Ontario with scarlet fever. This illness can affect the heart, kidneys, and other parts of the body. Sergeant Riley developed a further complication, pneumonia, and he died on February 5, 1920 at 10:20 AM from “heart collapse.”

He was 24-years old. He was treated by one of the pioneers of plastic surgery only to succumb to the complication of what is considered a childhood disease.

The family had his body transported to Goderich, Ontario and he was buried with full military honours at Maitland Cemetery, Goderich Township, Huron County, Ontario. The newspaper relates:

“The funeral of Sergt. Arthur Riley, son of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Riley, of Goderich, whose death took place in hospital in Toronto on Thursday of last week, took place on Sunday afternoon from St. George’s church, Goderich, and was well attended. The services were conducted by Rev. A.L.G. Clarke and Capt. Archdeacon Jones-Bateman[xiii]. A large number of the members of the G.W.V.A. were present, including a firing party, the funeral being a military one. The Goderich band also was in attendance and plate the “Dead March in Saul” as the cortege wended its way from the church to Maitland cemetery, where the remains of the departed soldier were laid to rest. Sergt. Riley saw over three years’ active service in France, being one of the original 18th. His death was due to pneumonia, which, no doubt, was caused by the condition of his health, as he was wounded and gassed in April 1918, and has been undergoing hospital treatment since.”

The Huron Expositor. February 20, 1920. Page 4.[xiv]

The death of Arthur Riley must have been a bitter pill for the family. The father, returned after having suffered the psychological cost of his service to have his son mutilated by shrapnel and to be treated and on the mend to be suddenly and irrevocably struck down as his treatment was coming to an end. The men how assessed him as, “…not likely to become an efficient soldier,” could not have been more off the mark. Sergeant Riley was to fight with his newly adopted unit with such distinction that he was promoted in the field to command men in combat.

He certainly proved he was an efficient soldier.

[i] England did not declare war (August 4, 1914) until the day after Germany broached Belgium’s neutrality by invasion.

[ii] Library and Archives Canada. RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 8280 – 29. Item Number: 618336.

[iii] Possibly referring to the task of putting on the final touches or components as part of a manufacturing process.

[iv] “Appointed Lance-Corporal, vice, 53983, L.Cpl. W. Wiltshire, promoted.” Service Record. Riley, Arthur, reg. no 53962.

[v] The 18th Battalion had the highest number of soldiers reported absent for the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade as reported in July 1915. See blog post Our Boys Were Certainly No Angels for more information.

[vi] Strongly recommend Cook, Tim (1996) “The Blind Leading the Blind: The Battle of the St. Eloi Craters,” Canadian Military History: Vol. 5 : Iss. 2 , Article 4.

[vii] “Promoted Sergeant, vice 54145, Sgt. C.J. Jackson, granted a commission.” Service Record. Riley, Arthur, reg. no 53962.

[viii] Major Charles Edward Sale was a dentist from Goderich, Ontario and one of the founding officers of the 18th Battalion. He was to die of wounds on January 19, 1916. He was killed from wounds received from a German rifle grenade.

[ix] The Battalion moved to a different part of the line and does not record any casualties until April 2, 1918.

[x] This letter was written 4-days after arriving at this facility.

[xi] Service Record. Riley, France Bolton, reg. no. 654048.

[xii] Carl William Waldron, MD. One of the pioneers of plastic surgery.

[xiii] Chaplain Wilfred Jones-Bateman served with the CEF.

[xiv] Note that this is a reprint of an article originating from February 12, 1920. Thus, the dates related need to be taken in that context. The funeral occurred on February 8, 1920.

One thought on ““…not likely to become an efficient soldier.”

  1. Wow. Such an amazing story Eric – and well-told. Seems to capture alot about the courage and stoicism of the ordinary infantry soldier. We will remember them. pd

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