Patrick Parnell Welsh was a 34-year-old clerk when he enlisted with the 186th Overseas Battalion at London, Ontario in June of 1916. A little older than average for a soldier of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, he felt the need to leave the security of his job and join the army to be of service to his country. With no prior military experience, he would not have had a valuable point-of-reference regarding what he was to expect from serving in the army. The war had been grinding on for almost 2-years when he enlisted and as might be expected, he probably followed the news of the war and had read local accounts from soldiers already serving at the front in his local newspaper. Now enlisted, he joined thousands of other men who moved through the process leading to active service with a battalion in the field. For him it would be with the 18th Battalion.
One experience during his service would probably stand out to him for the rest of his life.
On August 21, 1917, the 18th Battalion was relieved from the front lines near Bully-Grenay (Grenay, France) located to the North-West of Lens, France. They had just come off a busy month of activity. Most recently, the 18th had been involved in division sized operations starting the morning of August 15 with the initiation of an attack that began operations that ended on the 18th of August with the Battalion being released from service for rest at billets at Bully-Grenay. After 3-days they were marching further to the rear to the huts at Bouvigny Wood.
As the Battalion marched to the rear a German shell landed on the road at Aix-Noulette and its explosion resulted in a total of 52 casualties, of which 23 were fatal. The short entry from the War Diary does not portray the shock, horrors, and the valiant efforts of the surviving men to help the wounded and the dying.
Private Welsh witnessed this and his letter, written 3-days after this horrific event reverberates now, over a 100-years later, with its simple statement about the loss of four of his comrades from his former battalion.
“Somewhere in France.
August 24th 1917.
Dear Mother and Father:-[i]
No doubt you will be expecting to hear from me sooner, but if you knew what I have gone through since the 15th of August. I know you would excuse me for not writing sooner. Suppose you have read the papers about the terrible battle we went through, and lost so many of the 186th boys killed and wounded. I was right among them and it was sad to see your chums falling so fast. The battle lasted for a week and you may be sure I was all in., for it was a case of no sleep, and very little to eat, but I am thankful for escaping so far.
I got a slight shell shock and was lost from the battalion for 3 days, and I think I was reported missing, but I am safe and real well now. I helped to bury Delahaunty[ii], Ivan Wilson[iii], David Aitkin[iv] and Jack Dyer[v], they had a very nice burial in a cemetery back of the lines. I cannot see for the life of me how I escaped for the shell killed and wounded many, and I was only 10 feet away from the men were killed.
I never want to witness such a sight again. The officers say it was the worst battle in the war, even worse than the battle of Vimy Ridge and the Somme. If you had seen me after the battle was over I was a sight my clothes all in rags and my self scratched.
But I am all right now and fitted up with new clothes. I helped to capture two Germans as prisoners.
Hoping you are well.
From your loving son, Parnell.”[x]
The simple statement “I never want to witness such a sight again,” speaks volumes to the impact of this event had to Parnell. He, thankfully, does not go into gruesome detail that resulted from the carnage of this artillery strike, but as he had to bury four of his friends from one incident, especially as he had seen others perish during the recent week’s fighting.
His sentiments illustrate the tight bond the men had during their service and how they literally clustered together in the line and during a march so that they were victims of the shell due to their relative proximity to each other when it exploded.
From an analysis of the casualty record for that date there was six soldiers of the 186th Battalion that were killed on that date or died of wounds because of this event. Missing from Parnell’s letter are Privates Willian[xi] and Lane.[xii]
It is also interesting to note that 2 men of the 93rd and the 126th perished from that shell and a further three from the 124th indicating that they are in proximity with each other when the shell fell.
With this letter Private Welsh would continue to serve, even after admitting so suffering shell shock and appears to have wandered off from his unit for 3-days. There is no record of him missing from his Battalion. He was attached to the 4th Canadian Trench Mortar Battery as part of a carrying party starting September 10, 1917, and returned to the 18th on October 13, 1917. He was granted a 14-day’s leave to the United Kingdom on January 24, 1918. Returning from leave he served with the Battalion until being wounded on October 10, 1918, suffering a GSW to his right arm from the fighting at Iwuy.
The men he buried would all be interned at the Aix-Noulette Communal Cemetery Extension. They are buried close together, a poignant testament to their service to Canada, but for them more importantly, their comradeship to each other.
Welsh would live with his memories until his death on November 5, 1951, at the age of 63.
[ii] Private Jeremy Delahunty, reg. no. 880096.
[iii] Private Ivan Chester Wilson, reg. no. 189302.
[iv] Private David Aikin, reg. no. 880497.
[v] Private John Clements Dyer, reg. no. 189746.
[vi] Captain Garnet Garfield Brackin.
[vii] Lieutenant Douglas Robertson Oliver.
[viii] Lieutenant George Johnston Spencer.
[ix] Lieutenant James Nathan Mowbray.
[x] Welsh, Patrick Parnell – Gathering Our Heroes – Chatham-Kent’s WWI & WWII Veterans. (2022). Retrieved 25 March 2022, from https://www.gatheringourheroes.ca/hero/welsh-p-p/ Note that some spelling errors have been corrected but the names of the soldiers have not been altered. There are several spelling mistakes with the men listed.
[xi] Private Clifford Charles Willan, reg. no. 880490.
[xii] Private Stephen Jacob Lane, reg. no 880705.