“In Ticklish Places…”: A sniper writes to his Reverend.
On December 7, 1915, Private James Parker, reg. no. 54357, having finished having his feet inspected for trench foot, settled down to write a letter to his Reverend, H.H. Bingham while the 18th Battalion was in Divisional Reserve at La Clytte (De Klijte).
His letter relates some of the experiences of a company sniper, a specialist role for an infantry man and one that was evolving as there had been no formal sniper doctrine in the Imperial Forces before the beginning of the Great War. From the letter it appears that the sniper role is divided, at this time, by battalion company, six men comprising a sniper section. Private Parker is a member of “C” Company and his sniper squad is led by Corporal Charles Edwin Finch, reg. no. 54290.
From this letter we can derive several aspects of military life for the men of that unit, and by extension, that of the other line battalions of the 2nd Canadian Contingent, CEF, newly arrived in Belgium as of mid-September 1915. As Parker stated, the Battalion, and by extension, the 2nd Division, had not been involved in any minor or major actions up until the time of the letter, and would be deigned to a relatively inactive role as the winter was setting in and the overall activity of the land war would slow down. It was not until the action at the Craters at St. Eloi where the 2nd Division would truly cut its teeth in an operation.
The 18th Battalion had arrived in France on September 15, 1915 and had acclimated itself to active duty at the front since the beginning of October 1915. It had its share of losses in dead and wounded and the training it participated in at London, Ontario (where it was formed) and West Sandling, Kent would have been assessed for its usefulness, or lack thereof, in the full throat of active, realistic war service. The men of the Battalion had quickly learned and adapted to their new environment and were fast to absorb lessons from others and from their own experience as to what was needed to survive the muck of Flanders. One wonders how much “practical” military skills they kept from their training.
Private Parker’s letter gives us a look into his world and his attitude, at this early stage of the Battalion’s experience at war, and it is representative of other letters’ men would write during this era. It also gives a glimpse of the role religion played in the lives of the men at this time in the Canadian, and by extension Imperial British and Commonwealth nation’s, social experience.
Private Parker enlisted at Strathroy[i], Ontario on January 11, 1915 with the 33rd Battalion. He would have trained at London, Ontario until he was transferred to the 18th Battalion on April 13, 1915, just 2-days before the Battalion left London to go overseas. During this time, it appears that he practiced his faith by attending a Baptist church at London with the Reverend H.H. Bingham being his pastor. He was married even though his attestation papers show him single[ii] and an updated next-of-kin card shows his wife, Adelaide[iii], residing at 3 Prospect Place, Hastings, Sussex, having moved from Canada to England sometime in 1915.
The value soldiers put on parcels from home is evidenced here with Private Parker expressing effusively his pleasure in receiving a package from “Talbot Street” (a possible allusion to the street on which the church he attended was located) and he, “…did feel very grateful indeed, and it is a very sincere soldier that sends his thanks to you all. The parcel is indeed a wonder and one well receiving, the contents being very well chosen.” His words express so well his appreciation for the effort taken to select the items in it seem to hit the mark, indeed.
His connection to his religion is further expressed in his feeling, “…that up to the present Providence [author’s italics] has taken good care of me,” and that he is serving with a fellow Baptist, his sniper section leader, Corporal Finch. The Baptist/Congregationalist sect made up just a a portion of the 11% of the other religions not represented by the four main Christian religions in the CEF. Anglicans (31.9%), Catholics (22.9%), Presbyterians 921.1%), and Methodist (13.6%) made up the four larger portions Christian sects professed by the men who served.[iv] He attributes his success in being, as yet, unscathed, to Providence, though his medical records show he was thrown from a trench some time prior to this letter. This close call, not related in this letter, may have served as an example of one of the “ticklish places” of which he is thinking of as he writes his letter. The War Diaries and other letters of this period relate a certain innocence in the field for the men of the Battalion as they learned the range of what could kill them, be it by enemy action or their own mischance.[v] As he states, “As a battalion we are all getting accustomed to life in general on active service.” One can be sure he had several incidents that would have been classified as “ticklish.”
Given the headline of this news paper story, the letter, conversely, briefly touches on focus of the headline. In two lines Parker gives an account of the section of six men accounting, “…for 47 of the enemy.” By implication this “very interesting work indeed,” has account for 6 victims for each member of the sniper section up until that date.[vi]
A greater part of the letter reflects Parker’s observation of “the spirit of the boys” helps sustain him and that there seems to be members of his unit that can derive humour in the situations to which they are subject to. Given the new and unfamiliar environment Parker and the other members of the Battalion are now experiencing he alludes to the fact that it takes a specific point-of-view or “strain” of humour to find the humour in the situations the men of the Battalion find themselves in and express it to the other men. This socialization and normalization of humour was a necessary outlet from which a soldier could place their experiences and existence in a context that would help them survive their environment.
A good example of this kind of humour can be found by this representation for the 20th Battalion trench newspaper, “The Twentieth Gazette”[vii] from December 1915. The following excerpt gives one a good idea of the tone required to find humour in the squalid, wet, cold conditions of Flanders during this time in this, and her sister battalion’s experience upon arriving in Belgium:
“Extracts from (expected) Brigade Orders[viii].
Commanders of submarines plying in the communication trenches are requested to see that these vessels are not used by pleasure parties between the lines.
€ € €
N.C.O.’s and men are not allowed to use the bathing beach at XZ 50 trench. This if for officers only.
€ € €
Men on duty must not fire at the periscopes of submarines plying between the redoubts and the firing line.
€ € €
Ration and fatigue parties must not participate in swimming races to firing line, owning to the presence of hostile submarines. These events will be swum off during the six days’ leave under the supervision of the Battalion swimming instructor.
€ € €
Owing to the scarcity of material for filling sandbags, any man who consumes more that 10 lbs. of mud per day will be severely dealt with.
€ € €”
This example shows how humour derived from the collective experiences of a unit could be expressed in such a manner as to elicit a laugh. The wet and cold conditions were ripe for humour tinged with irony and this example deals with a ongoing threat to the Empire and the men’s friends and loved ones had to content when they crossed the Atlantic and the Channel. The water and mud up past the soldiers’ waists must have made them feel like aquatic combatants who would have benefitted from the use of submarines. Regardless of the impracticality of this idea, the fact that the issues with the water table and rain where so persistent the irony of the idea of spotting submarines in the trenches cannot be lost for its value in expressing this idea as amusing to the men reading the paper.
Parker addresses this directly in his letter with is reference to the spirits of the men and the value of humour. He is reassuring his audience that the men can adapt, bear it, and overcome it.
Tim Cook relates to the place humour had in the Canadian Army during the Great War:
“The bountiful range of soldiers’ humour indicates that it was a common element in the serviceman’s day to day activities. While this article is not suggesting that humor is, or should be, the dominant trope of memory, historians need to make allowance for soldiers’ pranks, jokes, and laughter. These comedic by-products of the ware became essential tools to battle boredom and ennui, to rail against the system, and are a reflection of how soldiers resisted the dehumanizing effects of the war. The jokes, satire, and all-encompassing irony were one method by which soldiers dealt with death, constructed new concepts of masculinity, and embraced antiheroic sentiments; they are an indication of the wider, every day practices and behaviors of men coping with their surroundings.”[ix]
He is also a bit lonely for news. He lets his pastor know he is looking for letters and makes an appeal to Bingham to offset his “regret” at not establishing regular correspondence with “some of the members” of his congregation and his hoping, by this appeal, to have Bingham make an announcement at a service to the congregation of his church to write to Private Parker. He seems almost contrite and apologetic that he had not done this prior to the letter, and it speaks to the connection of community his faith gives him as a support during his military service.
He ends the letter with a reference to his wife and “the two children,” and they have made it safely to England. The U-Boat menace was very much in everyone’s mind and one of the members of the 18th Battalion had lost his wife during the sinking of the Lusitanian in May of 1915. It was more common for officers to bring their wives and family over, and, as they tended to get more leaves and the occasionally course back to England, they could take advantage of the relative proximity to England to see their loved ones. Parker could feel secure that his family was close and safe, but he had no guarantee he would ever see them during his active military service.
The letter shows a typical soldier relating issues that affect him and his environment. It illustrates the importance of social media, letters in the post at that time, to his well-being and feeling of community. That the letter was addressed to his pastor indicated the level of importance religion – its spiritual and social connection – to this man (Of note, this man was a member of the Church of England before he was married. His wife was Baptist. It appears he accepted this religion as his own.). One cannot wonder if there is a bit more pride and bravado that his Corporal is Baptist as well, fighting the good fight against the tyranny of German Kultur. He is not certain if the letter would be shared to a larger audience, but there is a good chance the pastor would have read it to his congregation as it had news of two members of his flock.
One wonders what Parker felt when (and if) he found out it had been printed in the local paper?
At the same time, Parker feels a need to reassure his reader. Incidents are “ticklish” – not dangerous or life robbing. He further expounds on the “good work” his section is doing, even though the Battalion has not gotten into “any brilliant attack yet,” and further, the “work” “is very interesting indeed.” These common day, almost passive missives, so common and familiar to us now subsume the meaning of this man’s larger experience. Each death, accident, and wounding would be raw and new. Even the Regimental Medical Officer, Major Hale, related early in the war that he found the condition of Lieutenant F.G. Newton “shocking” due to suffering from a case of shell shock early in October 1915. If an experienced medical professional was moved to record such a description in his War Diary, one could surmise the impact on men less exposed to the variety of physical and mental wounds of war.
Humour seems to be the salve. And contact, through letters. Private Parker alludes to the type of humour that the men he serves with is different as it takes a certain type of man with a “strain of humour” to find the funny in war. His relating this concept shows humour’s relative importance as it is one of the themes he touches on, albeit briefly, in his letter.
Like the allusions to violence with “ticklish” experiences and the 47 men that his group of snipers have accounted for since the beginning of October 1915, we can see that there is a mask in front of the rhetoric. As it should be. He is writing to those that are civilians and have no point of reference to bring to bear if his letter was more detailed and intimate. Without being a raw letter stripped of its civilizing veneer and compromising language, it serves as a window into this time of this soldier’s life. He was writing to a pastor after all.
It also appears to be written with the expectation of further active military service. This was not to be.
This would be the last letter he would post from the front as he would be admitted later that day at the 5th Canadian Field Ambulance for sciatica. After recuperating in France, he was sent to England for further treatment on August 3, 1916 and his medical category precluded any more frontline service. He suffered from his sciatica and had other medical issues and was returned to Canada December 7, 1918, eventually being discharged in June 11, 1919, making his home at 229 Hill Street, London, Ontario.
He lived until the age of 58, dying on November 4, 1948 at Brantford, Ontario and is buried at Mount Hope Cemetery, Brantford, Ontario, beside his wife.
This letter, this time-capsule, gives Private Parker new life. And news clippings about his corporal will enhance the history and social experience of these, the men of the 18th Battalion.[x]
[i] Though he enlisted at Strathroy, it appears that he lived in London at this time. From a note in his medical file, he may have been a salesman for a biscuit company and the trade or calling listed, “shipper”, was in error.
[ii] Attestation Papers were generally accurate. It appears that the paper in his docket is a copy of an original and that during the transcription of the data from the original this entry was entered in error. There is another possibility. At enlistment married men needed a letter of permission from their wife. As Parker was not in his hometown of London, he may have lied (the evidence being he put his father, James Parker of Chesterfield, England, as his next-of-kin after stating he was single. As he was not able to obtain his wife’s permission being in a different town, it looks like Parker decided to circumvent the bureaucratic issue of permission, get enlisted, and deal with it later. Obviously, he had no issues as he was accepted and retained for service and his records show properly assigned pay and allowances for his dependants.
[iii] Adelaide Edelfean Gauion Parker, 1889-1974. Married 1913.
[iv] See email for link to source.
[v] The Battalion early in its service suffered from several accidental discharges of Ross rifles; an experiment with jam tins as grenades gone wrong; and several soldiers stealing a shell from a 21st Battalion soldier as a souvenir, only to have it explode and kill them in their dugout. Some soldiers even tempted fate with the Germans by deliberately exposing themselves to rifle fire.
[vi] For context, a later news paper article relates that Corporal Finch accounted for 15 kills in one day.
[vii] The Twentieth Gazette: Christmas Number. Vol. 1, No. 7. Editors: Sgt. W.W. Murray, Pte. R. Williams. December 1915. Page 33.
[viii] The 4 battalions formed a brigade. The brigade, being the superior part of the organization often sent orders to the battalions over a wide range to military issues.
[ix] Tim Cook (2015) “”I will meet the world with a smile and a joke” Canadian Soldiers’ Humour in the Great War,” Canadian Military History: Vol. 22: Iss. 2. Article 5. Page 61.
[x] A future blog post will expand on this theme.