“A courageous act…”: The DCM of Armourer Corporal Kelley Revisted

May 26th, 1918. The 18th Battalion was, as part of the 4th Canadian Brigade, 2nd Division, located in the line left of Neuville Vitasse. The 18th Battalion had moved into the line 4-days previous, and this day was “Fine and warm,” according to the 4th Brigade’s War Diary. German artillery was more active than usual and in the morning an act of one man was noted in its War Diary.[i]

It was rare that such an action would be recorded at the brigade level but this action by a single man was notable enough that it was included as part of that day’s narrative. The problem with this narrative is that it was not Corporal “Kelly”. As oft happens during war the information regarding the name of the man involved in this lost due to a bureaucratic error.

The soldier in question was Armourer Corporal David Alexander Kelley reg. no. 213203. And this action would earn him the Distinguished Conduct Medal. It Is a small detail, but his name was not correct, and this error would later be replicated on his citation. Thankfully, we have a more complete record of the action from the 18th Battalion’s War Diary.

Born in Belfast, Ireland October 7, 1884, he emigrated to Canada and appears to have settled in the Detroit, Michigan area with the trade of gun smith. Though he was older than average at enlistment (31-years-old) he enlisted with the 99th Battalion at Windsor on December 7, 1915, and was promoted to sergeant (provisional),and he was also appointed Regimental Armourer, the battalion making full use of his technical skills, on February 14, 1916.

On May 31, 1916, the 99th Battalion sailed for England, and it arrived, aboard the SS Olympic on June 8, 1916. His rank was confirmed also on this date, and Armourer Sergeant Kelley served in England until August 24, 1917, when he his transferred from the 4th Reserve Battalion to the 18th. As was typical in this situation, he was reverted to the rank of private but his skills as an armourer were recognized as he was graded as private but designated in the role of armourer while receiving the pay of a Regimental Corporal on October 27, 1917.

Single at enlistment, he found love in England as he was granted permission to marry on March 2, 1918.[ii] He was granted a 14-day leave beginning on June 6, 1918. Did he have a story to tell his new wife!

For 12-days before he was to depart for his leave, he was involved in the action in which he would earn his Distinguished Conduct Medal. The 18th Battalion War Diary expands on the narrative of the Brigade War Diary of Corporal Kelley’s exploit:

“A courageous act was done this morning by #212203 Arm. Cpl. D. A. KELLEY. At 8.15 Cpl. Kelley with a wiring party left our trench at N.19.a70.89 and proceeded up an old communication trench towards enemy lines to definitively locate positions and defences of enemy post located in this trench. Cpl. Kelley was able to get close to this post and found 3 Germans on sentry duty. He rushed the barrier in front of this post and shot 2 of the occupants and dragged the third across the barrier. Several of the enemy were seen to run back along the trench. An enemy machine gun opened up and bombs were thrown but Cpl. Kelley returned safely to our line with his prisoner. Shortly after Cpl Kelley had returned [to] our line, a party of the enemy was seen to come into and down the trench toward raided post. Party estimated at 15 to 18. Several of them appeared on sides of the trench looking around apparently trying to locate the prisoner we had taken. Capt. Dougall and sentries in A Coy line immediately opened fire and six of the enemy were seen to fall and the remainder disappeared.”

Disposition of the 18th Battalion May 23 to 30, 1918. It is believed that the actions too place in front of “A” Company’s positions. Source: 18th Battalion War Diary appendices.

Between the two narratives (see 4th Brigade entry at endnote) we get good idea of the intensity of the fight that Corporal Kelley had when he took his prisoner. Using stealth, daring, and aggression, he snuck up on a German post and attacked it single-handed. Wounding or killing two German soldiers, he was able to corral a third as his prisoner and while returning to his lines he was under enemy fire that led to the destruction of his revolver and a grazing wound to his ear – a close call indeed.

From this action he would earn the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the action is neatly summed up in the following citation:

“213203 Armr. Cpl. D. A. Kelly [sic], Can. Infy.

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. This non-commissioned officer went forward alone to attack an enemy “pill-box,” which he approached from the rear, crawling through the wire defences. Entering the place, he shot two men and seized another, firing his revolver into a party of six as he emerged with his prisoner, whom he brought back to our lines under heavy fire from the enemy posts, that by now were thoroughly alarmed. He completed his enterprise in an hour’s time, displaying intrepid coolness and gallant determination that were a fine example to all who witnessed his action.

Source: The London Gazette. Publication date: 1 October 1918 Supplement: 30932 Page: 11685”

There is one thing of note that requires a question: Did Corporal Kelley operate alone?

The official record indicates several facts about the action that call this question. First, as part of a “wiring party” this group of men would be assigned to fix or place barbed wire in locations adjacent to the Canadian front line. The wiring party had been organized to do the task during the day. This is unusual as most wiring parties between the lines in No Man’s Land took place at night. It would be odd to assign another purpose to the party. The 18th Battalion War Diary’s narrative then states that the party, “proceeded up an old communication trench towards enemy lines to definitively locate positions and defences of enemy post located in this trench.” “To definitively locate…” This sounds like a reconnaissance party. Was this a error in the narrative of an attempt to obfuscate the real purpose of the men in the party?

There is no record of an organized operation relating to the events of May 26. However, there are operational orders for a trench raid on May 27/28 that did take place.[iii]

This begs a question: Was the daylight operation a tactical reconnaissance? One clue are the coordinates reported in both actions. The action of the 26th has the “wiring” party leaving the trench at coordinates N.19.a70.89 and the action raided two enemy posts at N.19.a.70.80 and N.19.a.90.85. The coordinates are on the same 1,000 yard map sector (N.19.a) and originate at mark 70 (exit for raid and one of the enemy emplacements). The last coordinate (89 and 85) are approximately 200 yards away.[iv]

An interpretation of this action indicates that the action carried out by Corporal Kelley were independent of the intent of the “wiring party”. He appears to have instigated this aggressive action on his own accord and the resulting decoration, 2nd to that of the Victoria Cross, was promulgated as a direct result of his daring.

With this action under his belt, Corporal Kelley proceeds on leave 2-weeks after the action and returns to service on June 27, 1918. He serves with the Battalion until he is wounded on August 8, 1918, during a major attack on the town of Marcelcave. The wound was a severe compound fracture to the left forearm and elbow and he was transported to England for medical treatment. He had 30-day’s treatment in hospital and was released from hospital and returned to Canada to be discharged at London, Ontario on March 8, 1919, with no disabilities from military service.

History appears to have forgotten this brave man. He would reside in the Detroit area and would pass away on November 5, 1960, and is buried beside his wife in the Parkview Memorial Cemetery at Livonia, Michigan.

We have not forgotten

[i] The 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade War Diary noted of Kelley’s action the following:

“26th May, 1918.

At 8.30 a.m. Corp. KELLY of the 18th Canadian Battalion, under cover of a party of riflemen and grenadiers, proceeded to enemy sap by crawling through the grass and underneath barbed wire. He rushed the post killing two Germans and seeing five other reach for their rifles he grabbed the sentry on duty and made for our lines, being fired on continually; one bullet hit his revolver smashing it and another grazed his ear. He returned at 9.30 a.m. with his prisoner, after being out an hour. The prisoner belonged to the 65th I.R., 185th Division and was in charge of the post.”

[ii] Per Government of Canada Order in Council. P.C. 1872. July 6, 1917.

[iii] 18th Battalion War Diary entry for May 28, 1918 describing trench raid:

During the night of 27/28th we raided 2 enemy posts at approx.. N.19.a.70.80 and N.19.a.90.85.

Report No. 1 party of four bombers under Lieut. Sheridan left our trench at N.19.a.71.78, proceeded up old trench to within bombing distance of post located at N.19.73.80, there to await prearranged signal from No. 2 party for starting raid. No. 2 party of 8 Bn. scouts with 2 other parties each of 1 n.c.o. and 4 men (to be left at trench intersections) under Lieut. J.N. MacRae left our lines at N.19.a.84.99 at 11.30 pm & proceeded up old trench to intersection of trenches at N.19.a.88.79. At this point heads of two sentries were seen looking over parapet at entrance of trench. The Scout party got to within 250 feet of barrier when they were seen by sentries who immediately threw bombs which went over the raider’s heads. Lt. MacRae and Scout Sgt. F Manby rushed the barrier, the remainder of the party bombing the post and back up the trench, on climbing the barrier a German was seen dragging another back up the trench and a third running and giving alarm. Unfortunately at this moment our barrage opened up, one shell exploding on parapet in front of patrol and others dropping thickly around causing patrol to retire. Our bombing started at this post, No. 1 party immediately bombed post at N.19.a.73.80 throwing twenty bombs into post and into trench behind, continuous screeching and groaning issued from post but No. 1 party were also prevented from following up by our barrage. Both raiding parties returned to our lines without casualty.

[iv] See Get Squared! Use of a Trench Map by R. Laughton, CEFSG.

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