The Toms Brothers of Bayfield

This is an imagining of the lives and experiences of two brothers who enlisted with the 161st Battalion and were transferred to active duty with the 18th. I have always been struck by the loss of one, or both brothers that served together and this short story is my expression of what it would have been like for the Toms brothers or Bayfield, Ontario.
Men of the 161st Battalion from the Town of Blyth, Ontario. Source: https://huron.getarchive.net/media/blyths-own-ed6bf0

My brother was impetuous. Never mind that I was the older, bigger brother, as he would constantly compete with me to attempt things to show that even though I had 3” of height over him and 4-years his elder he would always try to push his limits to show that he could match or beat me.

And he did. He joined the 161st Battalion at the age of 18-years on February 8, 1916, at Clinton, Ontario. He came home and surprised me with the fact that Mother had signed his consent form so he could join at that age. Not to be out done by him I took the opportunity to enlist with the 161st on February 29, 1916. Being the leap year that date compensated for the fact I joined 21-days after my brother Hugh. I used to tease him that I joined on a day that only occurred once every 4-years. He would counter that his regimental number was lower than mine (654440 vs. 654530).

After we joined, we were put in the same Company, and we adapted to military life quickly. Drawing our uniforms, we chomped at the bit to be issued rifles and be given tactical drilling as opposed to the parade bashing, we would do as we marched about learning commands like “RIGHT WHEEL” and “BY THE LEFT MARCH IN COLUMN OF TWOS!” We love the camaraderie of joining with the other boys from Clinton and we were able to adapt to the close quarters of being with men as we had crewed a schooner that traversed the waters of Lake Huron looking for fish for weeks at a time. Hugh and I were connected by being brothers but also shipmates and we had learned to rely on each other during the trying times onboard our schooner when we ran into trouble with gear or foul weather.

There was a comfort to know your brother was beside you and we would often step outside before lights out and share a smoke looking at the stars and talk about the things, we, and only we shared.

Hugh was restless in camp. He wanted to get overseas, and he was missing our mom and dad, so he took a little trip for 4-days in June 1916 and then repeated his transgression again being absent for 2-days in July. That time they docked his pay, but he told me it was worth it.

My record was clean through March, April, May, June. But in July I was Absent Without Leave for 3-days starting July 1, 1916, Dominion Day. For some reason the Colonel took pity on me and I did not lose any pay, but when Hugh went AWL on 3-days after I got back, the Colonel, as noted, docked him his pay to the amount of $2.00. Hugh felt a bit put out by that and vowed he would not go AWL again but as we got close to embarking for England, we both went AWL for 3-days on October 10, 1916, and went home and visited our parents. We had a feast though we missed Thanksgiving by one day. Mom laid on the leftovers for us and we enjoyed her peach preserves with a gusto that we could never show for army food the entire time we served.

Hugh was reflective during that time and wondered out loud as we lay in our beds in our room at our home what was in store for us. I shared with him my hope that when the war ended, we would crew our own schooner and fish together and grow old and wizened, but never wise before our end came from natural causes in our sleep, preferably dying on the same day to save both of us from being unduly melancholy and sad by the other brother’s demise.

When we left home to return to our battalion there was that hint of cold as Autumn was about to set in. I imagined the harbour with the boats pushing out to fish in the crisp, cold air of the morning, signaling the coming winter that would envelop Bayfield and Lake Huron in its cold, harsh grip. The air was clean, and the intake of my breath was sharp and distinct as the cold, pure air of my home nourished me as we walked to the train station to catch the train for the next stage of our military service.

Our Battalion mounted a train and arrived in Halifax on November 1, 1916. Only 20-days had past and our future and prospects were radically changing. Some of the bombastic comments made on the train by some of our comrades were now muted as we approached the dark side of the hull of the ship that would take us one step closer to combat, and possibly death. No one thought they would be the victim of a shell, or bullet, or some other ghastly way to die. Hugh was constantly the optimist and we hoped that the 161st would distinguish itself along with such storied regiments as the RCR, PPCLI, Blackwatch, and others. The boys from Huron would prevail, and the Toms would be in the forefront! Or so my brother would say.

Being older, I was tempered in my thoughts of glory. Many lads from home were returned wounded. Some quite stark in the horribleness of their physical scars and mutations of their bodies. But this, and the death of friends and acquaintances, seemed so distant. So far from us for many of our chums, that the possibility of death was remote. So remote that it happened to the other. The other man. The other family. The other battalion. We acknowledge we were not invincible, but we did not believe we were not so.

We arrived in England on November 11, 1916. November 11. That day two years hence that would be many a man’s salvation.

Two years passed. Well, not quite 2-years, but on February 28, 1918, 2-years less a day since I enlisted, the Toms brothers pushed off for active duty in France!

Honestly, Hugh was the enthusiastic one. Being both Canadian born we had little connection with the Home Country. The social mores and attitudes of an Englishman was of little consequence to us. Though we would have identified with any fisherman from England, Scotland, or Ireland, we felt no real connection to the people of the British Isles. We did, however, had an abiding respect for the institutions of our Empire and the value of is supremacy over the Hun. Imperial Germany was our enemy, and we were bound to defend our Empire, of which Canada was a constituent member.

We both were itching for action and in just over 2-weeks we joined the 18th Battalion. This unit was part of the 2nd Contingent and was raised in our area. There were men from the original roll from our area and there were replacements from Huron County, so we felt somewhat at home. What we did not expect was the change from what we knew from training to what we were to know as active duty.

The problem was, we did not arrive at the 18th at the same time. We got our transit orders and we both arrived at the No. 2 Canadian Infantry Base Depot (CIBD) on February 28, 1918. For some reason I was dispatched directly to the 18th Battalion on March 15, 1918, while Hugh was left at No. 2 CIBD and directed to the Canadian Corps Reinforcement Camp (CCRC) on March 2, 1918. He would catch up to me at the 18th on April 3, 1918. I always considered Hugh a better soldier than me, but some sergeant found him wanting and directed him for hardening and correction at the CCRC.

The good news was the officers put us in the same platoon and I was reunited with my brother. Mom and Dad sent us letters and kept us appraised of the goings on in and around Bayfield but now we were in it for good.

We banged around a bit during March, learning our new trade and differentiating between the training we got and the training we needed. The Old Salts let us know right a way when we fucked up. We learned how to “stand to” and how to distinguish in coming and outgoing artillery and machine gun fire. What to report and what to ignore. What to fear and what is safe and distant and not a threat.

Hugh seemed to take to this new life well. He always had a keen sense of his world and environment and could suss stuff out and predict the future of some connected events.

On Dominion Day, 1918, my brother and I were on of 150 men of the Battalion that were able to go to the Canadian Corps Dominion Day Sports Day at Tinques. We were so excited and boarded the omnibus at 7:45 AM, returning at 7:00 PM.

It was an oddly magical day. We queued forever for food and drink and missed most of the events. But I was with Hugh, and we moved with the flow of the day and recognized that the Canadian Corps, of which we were justly proud, was our Corps. We were Canadian. And so where those men who were born in other parts of the Empire but made their homes in Canada, to which they would return, and to which they would commit their lives and future to.

I remember. I remember the sun shining and reflecting off the face of my brother. He looked perfect. Vibrant. Alive. Whole. And my love for him was as if struck in stone. That moment would live in me forever.

We returned to our billets and our interminable routine of frontline, brigade reserve, divisional reserve wound its way in our service experience until the world of rumour and circumstances seemed to indicate that things were about to change.

On August 8, 1918, something big was up. We relieved the 50th Australian Battalion, but it was the extra ammunition that was issued the day before that was the give away. Instead of the normal load of 150 rounds of .303 for each man, we had 200. We had practiced over tapes at Pissy and knew that zero hour was to commence at 4:30 AM.

Hugh and I advanced with our Platoon. We had decided to stick together, as brothers are apt to do, and as I rose to advance a shrapnel shell burst above me, making that foreboding swishing noise as the deadly balls of death released from the shell travelled through the air to the ground. I was hit in arm and chest and called out to Hugh. Falling forward into the earth I called out for Hugh again.

“Mate, he’s gone,” a stretcher bearer offered.

I rolled onto my side, the pain searing and vivid orange in my brain, and looked to see my brother.

I will never forget that sight. I will never share what I saw. My mother and father do not need to know. You do not need to know. All I saw was his chest was no longer moving and he was no more. His essence, save for the memories of his family, his friends, and his comrades-in-arms, no longer existed and that he would be lain to rest in France, never to be reclaimed by Canadian soil would be the short and swift outcome of his military contribution to our Victory.

The stuffing was knocked out of me. I recovered and returned to Canada medically unfit for service. But I never was the same. I never owned my own schooner. I never was able to have a simple smoke with my brother and comment on the night sky. I never was able to tease him about his height, his age, or his aspirations.

I never learned to live with loss.

On April 13, 1968, I died. At Clinton, Ontario. I joined my brother gladly and he welcomed me with the others that had gone before. I was home now. I was beside my brother. Where I belonged.

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