Private Ira William Sumner had been, in peace time, a clerk for the London Life Insurance Company. With the advent of the war in August 1914, he felt that is duty was bound to a different path and enlisted with the 18th Battalion on April 10, 1915. This was very close to the departure of the Battalion for overseas duty, as it embarked two trains in London, on April 14. Perhaps his prior militia experience with the 7th Company, Canadian Engineers allowed him to delay his enlistment as he was a seasoned trained soldier as the bulk of the Battalion was recruited between October and December 1914. His service record card indicates he was “Taken On Strength” per Part II Order No. 152. This indicates that he was in active service with army at this time and that his “enlistment” in the guise of his attestation papers was a necessary bureaucratic action to assign him a regimental number with the Battalion. He may have been part of another battalion before is assignment to the 18th.
The picture on the left includes a young Ira Sumner at work as an accounting clerk at the London Life Insurance Company. The image on the right was taken circa 1914-1915. Source: Topography of Grief. Mapping the Great War Dead in London, Ontario (1914-1921). The Royal Canadian Regiment Museum.
Standing a tall 5’10” this 21-year-old man became a member of the 2nd Contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces. One wonders what his mother, Minnie, thought of all this, especially after the Battalion left for England and the reports of the actions of the First Canadian Corps started to come in after the 2nd Battle of Ypres[i] in April 1915. The $15.00 a month in pay her son assigned her was small compensation for the worry she would have experienced as her son went off to war.
Private Sumner’s service in England was marked by some typical events for a soldier of this time. August was a busy month for Private Sumner as the Battalion trained at West Sandling, Kent. Not only was he actively training with his comrades in the Battalion but on August 8, 1915, he forfeited one day’s pay for being Absent Without Leave, perhaps visiting family or friends. Records indicate that Private Sumner’s parents where both born in Canada so the motivation for being absent without leave is not known but was an action quite common in the Battalion during its service in England. On August 18, he was transferred to “D” Company as the Battalion administered such necessary personnel placements in expectation of going overseas to combat assignments. The Battalion had been training since May 1915, and the drill and exercises were working up to a successful training cycle that would allow the 2nd Canadian Contingent, of which the Battalion was part, to embark for active duty.
On September 14/15, the Battalion embarked for France for duty in Belgium and Private Sumner, along with the men of the 18th Battalion started their active service at the front by the end of September. The pace of the conflict in that sector during the months of September, October, and November was not particularly active with no major actions by the Canadian or German forces. The Battalion was active in keeping guard of its section of line as it was rotated from the front-line, to brigade reserve, divisional reserve and back to the front.
On November 26, 1915 at Vierstraat, Belgium “D” company was in support of “A”, “B” and “C” Companies located in “M” Trench. At 10:00 AM Private Sumner was hit in the head with a German bullet. As related in the letter below, he was attended to by the Medical Officer of the 18th and succumbed to his wounds at an aid station 11-hours later. The news clipping relates the incident in some detail:
CAPT. HALL [sic] RISKED HIS LIFE TO AID PTE. IRA SUMNERS
Official Letters Telling of Hero’s Death Received By Mother.
SIR SAM HUGHES SENDS MESSAGE OF SYMPATHY
“A Lad To Be Proud Of, Who Died For King and Country,” Writes Comrade.
The first official letter giving details of the death of Pte. Ira Sumner, of 18th battalion, have reached Mrs. Sumner, of 909 Princess avenue. In a letter received from the captain of D company, he states that Ira was a young man of faultless habits, and not one black mark had been registered against him. He was exceptionally well liked by the men with whom he associated. Reverend Arthur [Carlisle], chaplain of the 18th, writes to Mrs. Sumner offering his heartfelt sympathy for the loss of her highly esteemed son.
It was also stated that Captain G.C. Hale, of the city, medical officer of the 18th battalion, had, at the risk of his life, stayed in the trench with Sumner, who was shot in the forehead, from 10:00 o’clock in the morning, The time that he was wounded until dusk, when they were able to convey him to the field hospital in the rear, arriving with the wounded man at about 9:00 PM, shortly after which he died
SIR SAM HUGHES WRITES
A letter from Sir Sam Hughes, dated December 8, is as follows:
Dear Mrs. Sumner: will you kindly accept my sincere sympathy and condolence in the decease of that worthy citizen and heroic soldier, Pte. William Ira Sumner.
While one cannot too deeply mourn the loss of such a brave comrade, there [is] consolation in knowing that he did his duty fearlessly and well and gave his life for the cause of Liberty and the building of the empire.
Again extending to my heartfelt sympathy. Faithfully, Sam Hughes, Major General, minister of militia and defense for Canada.
SHOT IN FOREHEAD
Another letter, dated November 27 [Ed. Note: There appears to be some confusion or a typographical error about the date. Private Sumner’s records indicate he died of wounds on November 25, 1915.] , acquainting her with the results surrounding his death, is from Peter Flaynor [Traynor][ii], a friend of Ira’s, attached to C company of the 18th who writes:
Dear Mrs. Sumner: by the time you receive this letter you will have been notified of the death of your son, Ira, by the government. He was shot in the forehead yesterday morning about 9:00 o’clock while out with a working party at —. I saw him last night at the advanced dressing station, just about half a mile behind the firing line, his death taking place at 9 o’clock. Wrapped in his blanket, we laid him at rest besides several other heroes of this battalion.
I have all his personal belongings, his watch, ring, regimental badges and several other things I will send them to you. Do not grieve too much, Mrs. Sumner, Ira was a lad to be proud of, well liked by all the boys in his company, above all he died for his King and country, a soldier and a man. Your friend Peter Fraynor [Traynor].
UNCONSCIOUS UNTIL DEATH
Still another letter, received from Leslie Bolton[iii] [Boulton], of C company, also dated November 27 [Ed. Note: see note re. dates above.], bears out the above letter both in the manner in which he was killed, and the time and place, he having been about 300 feet up the trench when he heard a call for the stretcher bearers and upon inquiring who was hurt, he was informed that it was Sumner, of D company, and he immediately hastened to his side, but Ira was unconscious from the moment he was struck until he died.
Source: The London Advertiser. November 1915. Page 1.
The letter, thankfully, expands on this event in the Battalion’s history as the official record is bereft of detail. The War Diary simply states on that date “Ditto” from a prior entry from November 22 (“In Vierstraat + “M” Trenches”); his service record summates that he “Died of wounds received in action.” The war diary of the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade, of which the 18th was a part, only indicated that one soldier of the 18th Battalion was killed. The news clipping offers so much more context and detail of Private Sumner and speaks some measure to the man.
At this time, the Battalion was made up almost entirely of men that enlisted with the 18th Battalion upon its inception in October 1914. The officers of the Battalion, especially that of his platoon and company would have known him very well and such officers as the Battalion Chaplain and Medical Officer would have known of him in their roles in the Battalion. Captain Hale, M.O. of the 18th is recorded to have done the physical for Private Sumner after his transfer to the Battalion. The Battalion had not suffered many casualties during September to November 1915 (18 soldiers killed due to action).
The letter from Sir Sam Hughes is of note in its inclusion into the news article. As it may have been a matter of course for certain echelons of command to send out letters of condolence to the members of the deceased family, this letter appears to be formulaic in content as it does not have any specific or personal reference to the deceased soldier. It also expresses a very popular jingoistic reference to the motivation for fighting and rationalization for sacrifice of the dead man – Empire.
Private Traynor’s letter is more expansive and offers details that mirror those from the letter from the “D” Company Commander. It can be noted for its brevity and it also expresses a similar sentiment as General Hughes’ letter, expressing, as it does, the sacrifice made by his friend, “…for King and country.” He also adds a chilling observation, “…we laid him at rest besides several other heroes of this battalion.” This detail is not necessarily born out as the Battalion suffered casualties during that tour with the deaths Privates McMillan, Ryde (November 23), and Goodier (November 24). McMillan and Ryde were interred on the date of their death, as was Goodier, so this observation may have been an attempt to assuage the grief of his mother by indicating he did not die alone. He did, and he was the last death the Battalion would suffer that month. In all, 9 members of the Battalion perished during November.
Traynor was a native of Armagh, Ireland with prior service with the 4th and 2nd Battalion Scottish Rifles. Regrettably, he was not to survive the war, being killed in action during intense fighting at Marcelcave, France on August 8, 1918, with the rank of Company Quartermaster Sergeant and a Meritorious Service Medal.
Without this news clipping, the tragic wounding and death of Private Sumner would have gone virtually unnoticed to history. The letter fleshes out some basic details of the cause of his death and the circumstances around it.
The news clipping had an impact. As to how Mrs. Sumner reacted to the news in the paper, there is no record, but Private Sumner’s father, Ira Senior, worked at the Grand Truck Railway Car Shops and his son’s death motivated 13 men to enlist. Of the men mentioned in the news clipping it would be interesting to note the outcome of their service and the sacrifices they made to mete out their “vengeance”. It would not be the first- or last-time recruitment increased due to the loss of a member of London’s pre-war community.
Private Sumner’s death affected his family. Two of his friends took the time and effort to write letters of succor to his mother, emphasizing his loss as an aspect of duty to a higher calling. His Company Commander, and the Battalion Chaplain extended their condolences as well, and as an official representative of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces, General Sir Sam Hughes sent a basic letter of condolence. Thirteen residents of London joined in response to the death of Sumner and the outcomes to Messrs. Brewe, Haynes, Littlefair, Wood, Knowles, Skeggs, Hill, Goodwin, Martin, Osborne, Doughty, Devereau, and Madley (all so very strongly Anglo-Saxon names) of the 135th Battalion would be a direct result of the death of one man. This man would shape the lives and outcomes of those men’s lives in untold tangles of chance and circumstance that would subtly, or not so subtly, shape our country and the history that is and future that will be.
Private Ira William Sumner is buried at Ridge Wood Military Cemetery in Belgium on the day of his death, November 25, 1915. He is one of 42-men of the Battalion to be interred there between October 9, 1915 and August 16, 1916. He rests in good and valiant company.
[i] The 2nd Battle of Ypres was fought from April 22 to May 25, 1915, with the initial German attack heavily engaging the Canadian Corps. It was also noted for the first use of poison gas in this conflict, which was deployed by the German forces of the first day of battle.
[ii] Private Peter Traynor, reg. no. 54054. The connection between these two men has not been verified. It is not clear if they knew each other pre-war. Private Sumner’s, father, Ira Senior, worked at the Grand Trunk Railway shops in London, and it appears that this is the connection between the men. It is also possible that Sumner, Traynor, and Boulton all served in “C” Company until Sumner’s transfer to “D” Company.
[iii] Most likely Private, later Lieutenant Leslie Ernest Boulton, reg. no. 53542.