Tanner’s Letter: Death of a Comrade

On August 28, 1918, the following was making news in the town of Peterborough, Ontario. The news would be of interest as this town of approximately 20,00 people had, as had many other Canadian communities big and small, given freely of its sons to the war that was currently encompassing the globe.

Sergeant Percy Bertrand

In war news there were articles relating how the progress of the Battle of the 2nd Battle of Arras was proceeding. Thirty German divisions had been identified being involved in the battle, with no fresh division forthcoming. On a more human side, another story related how British soldiers lent care and aid to a German messenger dog that had been captured in the fighting. Also, of import on the first page of this agrarian community was columns relating the performance of the cattle and grain markets.

In the second section of the newspaper one headline stands out – CANADIAN SMASH HINDENBURGH LINE – the deck mentioning specifically that, “General Currie’s Men Overcoming All Resistance of Enemy in His Old Front Line Positions, Capture Cherisy, Vis-en-Artois and Bul-du-Surt, Taking Ground Held by the Huns Since 1914.” This was old territory for the 18th Battalion and may have been familiar to some of the residents Peterborough with family and relatives in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. As the war was in it fourth year, these headlines bode to a possible end of the war if the gains made during this offensive could be held and extended eastward. But as each previous year had furnished predictions of the war’s end by the following Christmas no one was holding great store in making such predictions until the military situation became clear that the defeat of the German Army was imminent.

Just as an aside, below this story was a that Mr. H.G. Webber of North Monaghan had hosted a corn roast and it was noted that several residents had attended and that the party had extended almost to midnight.

Life goes on, even during a war.

On this date the thoughts of two women were probably reaching out overseas to a loved one – a relatively newly minted sergeant by the name of Percy Bertrand. His mother and his wife were sure to have him in their thoughts.

Sergeant Bertrand’s mother, Addie (nee McNaughton) Bertrand lived at 502 George Street and may have read the paper with intense interest. She had a reason to worry as her son was fighting in the very sector mentioned in the deck. Her son had joined the 18th Battalion from the 93rd Battalion in October 1916 as a replacement for all the men that fell from the action at the Somme in September 1916. He served with the Battalion until wounded in right shoulder during the beginning of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. The wound was not too serious, and he was able to recuperate in France and England before being released back to service with the 18th Battalion on May 2, 1917.

Newly married on July 10, 1916, not 5-days before her husband embarked for England at Halifax, the new wife, Lulu, daughter of Albert and Elizabeth Davis lived with her mother-in-law. Perhaps they sat on the porch at her mother-in-law’s house and shared the war news in the cooling evening of that summer in 1918.

Both women had reason to be proud of him as he was appointed Lance-Corporal on the same day of the attack on Vimy. This appointment was further followed up with promotions to Corporal on August 16, 1917, and Sergeant on April 18, 1918.

On top of this, their pride was further increased by him earning the Military Medal in December of 1917.

Unbeknownst to them the son and husband was dead.

The 18th Battalion had been heavily engaged starting on August 26, 1918. From that day until the 28th the Battalion is recorded to have suffered 35 killed and 235 wounded[i], almost a third of the Battalion’s strength. This heavy fighting is described in some detail in the War Diary and specifically on the day of Sergeant Bertrand’s death it relates:

“SENSEE RIVER LINE

Zero hour for this days operation was set for 12.30 noon. Bn. was in support of 20th Bn. Heavy casualties were suffered in the advance to the slope of the SENSEE RIVER, machine gun nests and wire in the German line being equally heavy. Capt. Mackedie was shot through the hand and instantly killed rushing a German gun post; Lieut. Cole, shot through the eye, was afterwards found dead; Major Graham and Lts. Lawrence [sic], Donaldson and Krug were wounded. Under terrific fire the Bn. was compelled to temporarily withdraw and take up a line in the sunken roads fronting the German wire East of the SENSEE RIVER. 52 O.R. arrived as reif. 3 O.Rs on leave. Approx. casualties all ranks, 10 killed & 70 wounded.”

Two officers were killed with double that wounded during that action

In the case of Sergeant Bertrand his Circumstances of Death card relates,

‘“Killed in Action” During Military Operations, this non-commissioned officer was hit by an enemy machine gun bullet, in the body, and instantly killed.’

Having previously been informed of his wounding a year prior to this event one wonders how they received the news of their love on lost on a battlefield in France.

They would not take any comfort in the intensity of the fighting. The 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade encapsulated the dates of this action, unusually, in one war diary entry relating,

“Starting at Zero hour [August 26, 1918] followed a period of prolonged and most bitter fighting for three days, which continued until the Brigade was relieved by the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade on the night of August 28th/29th.”

If further states that a narrative of the operations over the dates of August 26 to 28 are attached in an appendix. It also gave a summary of casualties for the war diary entry of August 31. The Brigade suffered 11 officers and 146 other ranks killed and 50 officers and 999 other ranks wounded, over a quarter of the strength of the Brigade.

But this recounting of the death of Sergeant Bertrand is hollow, save for a letter sent to his wife by a friend.

Three days after Sergeant Bertrand’s death his friend, Corporal Henry (Harry) James Tanner, wrote a letter that related the circumstances of his friend’s death in greater detail. One wonders how much comfort such information would be to Bertrand’s wife but she could take comfort that her husband did not die alone.

How Pte. Percy Bertrand Met his Death

Mrs. Percy Bertrand 502 George street Peterboro has received the following letter from Corp. Harry Tanner concerning the death of her husband who was killed on Aug 28, 1918.

Aug. 31, 1918

Mrs. Percy Bertrand

Dear friend I must tell you some very sad news as I expect you have already heard about your husband being killed and I certainly feel very sorry for you all as he always was such a good fellow and to me he was the best chum I ever had really. I thought as much of him as my own brother[.] We got into a very hard fight and he was killed not more than ten feet from me. I wasn’t near him as both of us were corporals and we had to look after our Platoon but he had one of the boys he knew well with him. Your husband told him to give all he belongings to me and to send them to his dear wife and mother. He lived for about 15-mintues after he was hit. He was shot through both lungs so he did not suffer long and I hope and pray that he is better off in that great home beyond where there are no sorrows or trials. I will send all his photos and his flute military medal ribbons and a few letters which he had in his pockets [and in his purse is a dollar bill which he had carried in his pocket ever since he came out. I must close now hoping that God will be with you all and comfort you in your great sorrow as He has been most merciful to me and I never shall forget my chum. I remain your sincere friend.

Corp. Harry Tanner. No. 195222. 18th Battalion, France

P.S. if there is anything you would like done to his grave I will try and find it if I am near that part of the line.”

Alas, he was not killed instantly as related in his Circumstances of Death card, such information being minimized out of sympathy for the family of the fallen as Tanner relates that he survived for “…about 15-minutes after he was hit.”

This letter must have been difficult to write, but Corporal Tanner was diligent and wrote the letter not days after the death of his friend. The memory of the death certain to be seared into his mind and he felt it was his responsibility to offer some comfort by relating the last minutes of his friend’s life. They shared a common geographic connection as Tanner was from the Township of Chandos located approximately 55 km north of Peterborough and he was also a member of the 93rd Battalion upon his enlistment and he was part of the same replacement allotment that went to the Continent to reinforce the 18th Battalion in October 1916.

It was almost certain that Sergeant Bertrand’s next-of-kin would have been informed by official telegram from Ottawa about his death within a week of its occurrence. Tanner’s letter would have followed up at around the middle of September. Of interest is a news clipping in the Evening Examiner dated September 23, 1918, relating the death of Bertrand. The clipping does indicate the date on which this information was received but it was not uncommon for delays in casualty reporting to be delayed.

As it was, Tanner’s letter would be published in the October 1, 1918, edition of the paper. On the same date a clipping related the Bertrand’s thanks to the community for its support during their bereavement.

Source: Peterborough Examiner. October 1, 1918. Page 12.

For all of this family’s sacrifice, a newlywed wife – now a widow – would have to move on and find comfort in their family, faith, and community. Tanner’s letter published for the community to see would offer some closure for those left and Sergeant Bertrand would be interred at Vis-En-Artois British Cemetery at Harcourt France. He rests with 19 other members of the 18th Battalion who give the ultimate sacrifice.

But for Tanner’s letter, his Circumstances of Death Card would represent a death that lay in the catch all phrase – “Killed in Action” – in all its one dimensionality, giving no context or humanity to Sergeant Bertrand’s sacrifice. Tanner’s letter adds that humanity and ties the connection of family and loved ones to the soldier that died.


[i] The 4th Brigade War Diary shows that the 18th Battalion suffered 13 offices and 297 other ranks dead or wounded in Appendix 31 of August 1918 War Diary.

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