The weather a West Sandling Camp on May 7, 1915, was in the full throws of spring. The famous Kent countryside resplendent with verdant greens and the soft waving grass as the winds from the English Channel played over the lush meadows near Tolsford Hill. The land was being transformed into a camp for the Canadian soldiers of the 2nd Canadian Contingent, more specifically, the units of the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade (4th CIB), the 18th, 19th, 20th, and 21st Battalions.
The weather that greeted the men of the 4th CIB was met with pleasure, making the transition from the cold clime of Canada to that of England most welcome and from this description, almost alluring as Folkstone – a town close to the camp at West Sandling – and its environs was describe as:
“…in the full blush of its spring glory. At the present moment the newly opened foliage is to seen in its most delightful tines. The arboraceous adornment of the roads is a welcome feature through many months of the year, but perhaps the present state is more exquisite than any other. The summerlike weather if the past few days had brought about a transformation scene, and those who wish to enjoy the scene, in its most fairy-like aspect must make their round of the thoroughfares now, with wide-open, observant vision.”
Source: The Reveille. Folkstone, Hythe, Sandgate and Cheriton Herald. May 8, 1915. Contributed to the 18th Battalion Facebook Group by Andrew Taylor.
In this idyllic country environment of the countryside of Kent the men of the battalions that made up the 4th CIB would begin their next stage of training in their journey towards active combat.
Among the over 4,000 men[i], one man was expectantly awaiting his dear and treasured wife’s arrival to England from Canada.
She would never make it.
Sergeant Ernest Vincent Herbert lost his wife, Florence when the Lusitania sank on that day. His grief does not appear to be recorded immediately after the event in the London Advertiser and his service record shows no aberrant behaviour resulting from his grief. He soldiered on, drawing from his experience as a seasoned soldier, having served in the Boer War with 8-years of service and with part of that service as a “drill instructor.”
His military service was also reflected by his tattoos which were described on his attestation papers as:
“Small sail-boat two hearts and letters F.G. [possibly F.C.] Revolver or Pistol on left fore-arm. Pot of flowers, crown with cross-swords underneath and shamrock, thistle, [and] rose; half bracelet [and] heart in centre – right arm.”
The initials may have referred to his wife, the now drowned Florence Miriam (Collett) Herbert. Their intimacy was such that they both worked at the same hotel, the Wellington, in Guelph, Ontario, and they felt the need for her to follow him to London as he prepared for war. And, of course, the added expense of having her join him in England.
Oddly, this story does not end here with the loss of Herbert’s wife. A news story from the London Advertiser of London, Ontario shares some information that appears to have no credence in fact and appears to be a mythologizing of the loss of Mrs. Herbert in the tragedy of the Lusitania. On November 5, 1915, almost 6-months after the tragic sinking a news article (published in full below) with an accompanying photograph of the Herberts is printed. In it the most far-fetched claim made by “A returned member of the 18th [Battalion]…” claims that he was killed in action in an attempt to effect revenge on the Germans for his wife’s death.
This is patently untrue.
Regimental Quarter Master Sergeant Herbert’s service record from September 14, 1915, until his illness due to kidney stones on June 11, 1916, clearly show that he did not die or suffer any wounds or illness after his arrival on the Continent and the news stories publishing on November 15, 1915. How the soldier, the returned member of the 18th, came to this conclusion is unknow, but one suspects a rather large dash of poetic licence and tall-tail telling influenced the soldier to share information that would dramatize this event.
What was true was the fact that there was no immediate family to mourn her and his “passing” as they had no children. The article also claimed that RQMS Herbert was consumed by blood lust:
““He went mad with a Berserker rage of old,” declared this soldier. “His whole aim in life was to avenge the death of the loved wife, and he was willing to take any chances to send to their death any of the race of bloody murderers that sent his darling to a watery grave without the chance of escape.”
It cannot be stated what RQMS Herbert’s state of mind following the loss of his wife. His service record reflects service in these difficult times with the 18th Battalion until his illness pulls him from active service with a combat unit consistent with his level of responsibility and experience. He did recover from his illness, but, once better, he is posted with No. 1 Canadian Ordinance Corps at Ashford, England where love finds him again as there is a record of a marriage being approved on April 9, 1917[ii] in his service record to a Lilian E. Herbert[iii].
He returns to Canada upon demobilization and is discharged from service with the army on March 19, 1919, at St. John’s New Brunswick.[iv] At some point after he returns to England were he hopefully lived and loved well until his death on June 26, 1965, at the age of 85.[v]
The news article makes some claims that are inconsistent with the good conduct of RQMS Herbert. He certainly was NOT killed in action. This does not mean that he sought out opportunities to revenge his wife’s death and there currently is no evidence to indicate otherwise. Yet, as a member of the support and administration of the battalion he served with the headquarters company staff of the battalion. This may have impeded any chance of revenge as his duties would require his attention to administration, not fighting, during his duty hours. Yet, if he were motivated by a “bloodlust” there would be ways for him, especially as an experience soldier, to “get some” as modern-day parlance would express.
It would be fascinating to know the identity of the soldier of the 18th Battalion who made these claims. They did express a consistent attitude towards the enemy by mythologizing the death of an innocent victim of a recent and well publicized and propagandized tragedy – The Sinking of the Lusitania.
Separated by Hun Frightfulness, United Again by German Bullet
“Killed in Action.”
These words have become familiar to Canadians during the present war. They had stood for heartaches and tears from one end of the land to the other. From coast to coast Canadian mothers, fathers, brothers, wives, sweethearts and children have read the ominous words, bespeaking as they do honor [bent] death, with various emotions.
When in the latest casualty[vi] list the name of Sergt.-Major E.V. Herbert of the 18th Battalion appeared under the heading “Killed in Action,” there was no sorrowing wife or family in this country to be affected, but back of the three words there is a story of war’s toll, a story that has few equals in the wonderful annals of the present war.
Though Sergt.-Major Herbert’s home was Guelph he was well-known in London. He trained here last winter with his unit – the 18th Battalion – and his wife followed him here, remaining in London until it was time for her to sail on the ill-fated Lusitania, the boat that now forms her tomb, for she went down with the Cunarder, a victim of Hun frightfulness.
A devoted couple always, Sergt.-Major Herbert and his wife, separated in life for but a short time through the hellishness of the Huns, have again been united through a German bullet that found its fatal billet in the body of the husband-soldier. This then is the story that lies behind the words: “Killed in action.”
An Old Soldier.
An old soldier of the imperial service, Sergt.-Major Herbert was employed as a chef at the Wellington Hotel, Guelph. His wife also was employed at the same institution. When war was declared the sergeant-major, with all the call of service pounding in his veins was anxious to again join the colors. Finally, securing his wife’s consent, he joined the 18th here, under Col. E.S. Wigle, and on the formation of the base company was made senior sergeant. His promotion to sergeant-major followed.
When he came to London his wife followed him here. She remained until the battalion left, then took passage to England on the Lusitania. The shock of her death on that ill-fated liner almost drove her husband insane. It fired him with a hatred of Germany and all things German that was all consuming.
A returned member of the 18th informed the Advertiser that the news of his beloved wife’s death completely changed the strong, stalwart soldier.
Mad With Blood Lust.
“He went mad with a Berserker rage of old,” declared this soldier. “His whole aim in life was to avenge the death of the loved wife, and he was willing to take any chances to send to their death any of the race of bloody murderers that sent his darling to a watery grave without the chance of escape.”
It is believed that this blood lust was the cause of the sergeant-major’s death.
London Advertiser. November 5, 1915. Page 4.
[i] The 4th CIB recorded that the 21st Battalion arrived with 49 officers and 1059 other ranks on May 16, 1915; the 19th with 41 officers and 1076 other ranks on May 24, 1915; and finally, the 20th Battalion with 41 officers and 1081 other ranks. This does not include and ancillary units and the soldiers that made up the brigade headquarter. Per 4th CIB War Diary. May 1915.
[iii] Per Assigned Pay record.
[vi] The reference of this list has not been found by the author at the date of this transcription (May 16, 2022).