Death in a Trench Bay: A Mystery

On May 13, 1916, a shell landed in a trench bay killing two men of the 18th Battalion. The Circumstances of Death Card for one of the men, Private John Humphreys, relates ‘“Killed in Action” He was with two comrades sitting in the bay of a trench in front of St. Eloi about 1 a.m. May 13, 1916, when a shell burst amongst them instantly killing Pte. Humphreys and one other.’

The other soldier killed was Private William Clark. He would die of his wounds the next day at No. 10 Casualty Clearing Station 2-days later.

But is this the case?

The 18th Battalion War Diary relates on May 12, 1916,

“Position as yesterday. 2 Killed. 3 wounded. 1 o.r. returned from Hospital.”

Per 18th Battalion War Diary

On the 13th it relates,

“21st Can Bn relieved 18th Can Bn. 18th Can Bn moved into Brigade reserve at SCOTTISH WOOD. ‘A’ and ‘D’ coys garrison VOORMEZEELE. 4 wounded. 1 o.r. admitted to hospital. 1 o.r. returned from hospital.”

Per 18th Battalion War Diary

If the Circumstances of Death Card is taken as accurate the War Diary entry for the 13th makes no sense. It is clear from the Circumstances of Death Card and the service record of Private Humphries that he was killed in action. The service file initially indicates the date of death as May 12, 1916, and then there is a corrected entry indicating that this soldier died, in fact, on the 13th.

Private Clark’s service record, at first, is no help as one record shows only that he died of his wounds at 8:10 AM on May 14, 1916, but a Company Conduct Sheet (Army Form B 122) helps clear up the mystery. It states that Clark was wounded on May 12, 1916. Further, it identifies that this man served with the same company as Humphreys – “C” Company. The form is signed by Major E.H. Shuttleworth, though the reason that this information is placed on this form is unknown, but it is as the Circumstances of Death Card for Clark is consistent with the other entries in his service record stating,

‘“Died of Wounds” (Gunshot Wounds Multiple) at no. 10 Casualty Clearing Station.’

Per Soldier Page of Private William Clarke, reg. no. 415552

This apparent inconsistency then opens another question: If the War Diary on May 12 states 2 men (o.r. – other ranks), then who was the second man as we know that Private Clark died of his wounds on May 14?

One man did die on May 12, 1916. His name is Private Archie Turner. We do not have a Circumstances of Death Card for this soldier as the database at the Library and Archives Canada does not extend past the surname “Sims”. Thus, it cannot be determined by this source what the circumstances of his death were as they were recorded at the time. It is interesting to note that his service record and a news clipping both state his date of death as this date, while the Southwestern Memorial Album shows he was killed on May 13, 1916.

This source, in no way, is definitive, as often, in the heat of battle many soldiers died without a witness seeing the death or such witnesses were killed or wounded in combat and not available to fill in the details of these deaths. But, sometimes, the details of these cards can be quite specific and illuminating.

Luckily, the service records of all three men attach them to “C” Company. Turner’s Assigned Pay document links him to this company. As stated previously, Clark’s Company Conduct Sheet clearly connects him to this company and Humphrey’s Grave Registration page shows he was serving with “C” Company at the time of his death.

Three men of empire, one born in Nova Scotia, one born in Ireland, and one England are joined together. Two were replacements while Private Turner was an 18th Battalion original, joining at St. Thomas, Ontario on October 23, 1914. The were pulled together by time and circumstance and though it cannot be proved conclusively that they were the three men sitting in that trench bay when the shell hit, it now is within the realm of possibility.

The accuracy of some of the records interject doubt, while other point a possible, albeit circumstantial conclusion.

All 3 men served and sacrificed all. One likes to think that they are connected in this way and they still stand a watch together to this day.

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