A soldier’s letter published in the London Advertiser in November of 1915 gives a glimpse of the perspective of a new soldier to his introduction to combat conditions. It was written at the end of October or early November by a Welshman serving with the 18th Battalion to a friend residing in the Iroquois Hotel (London, Ontario).
At the approximate time of the composition of the letter the 18th Battalion had been serving in the Ypres Sector starting at the end of September. Its baptism of fire was characterized by scattered events of wounding, illness, and death and had not been subject to significant offensive or defensive operations at the time of its writing. The writer, as we will see, was out of the trenches at the time of penning the letter in a relative safe rear area. From the War Diary this letter was most likely written between October 26 – 31 as the Battalion was La Clytte in Brigade Reserve. It sent a representation to a review with His Majesty King George V; a Battalion Muster Parade; a chance for a bath; a route march; and on the last day, a Church Parade.
During this time, the then, Private John Hamilton Morgan penned this letter that was published in the London Advertiser:
‘“PLAYING THE GAME WE ENLISTED FOR”
This Is the Way Pte. Morgan Describes 18th’s Actions in France.
KIDDING THE HUNS
Threats of Cold Steel Too Much for German Stomach.
Pte. J. Morgan of A Company, 18th Battalion, a London man, in a letter to Jerry McDonald of the Iroquois Hotel, declares that the boys of the 18th are playing the game for which they enlisted.
“Just a few lines hoping to find you and the family all well,” writes Pte. Morgan. “I should have written to you long ago but kept putting it off. We never received the tobacco you sent on to us, but thank you for it, anyway. We are getting tobacco from the Government now.
“I would rather be sitting down in your front room now than sitting in this poor country, for it’s all ruins and the ground is nothing but a huge net of trenches and little graveyards. I am back out of the trenches now for a six-day rest, and then up to the trenches for the next six days. My company has been lucky, considering, for only a few have gone, as you have seen in the papers.
“We are all happy and singing all the time to pass the moments, and playing the game which we enlisted for. I was only 70 yards from the Huns, and had a talk one morning at breakfast time, not a shot being fired until we told them that we would come over the next week and bayonet them without mercy. Then they shouted ‘Hoch’ and fired at us. We ducked our heads.
“We are doing good work, and hope to continue it. Well, I haven’t much news to say. Hoping to hear from you soon. I remain, your friend,
Source: London Advertiser. November 23, 1915. Page 2.
Though short it is ripe with little details that give insight into the values and social attitudes of a typical infantry soldier of this era. Private was typical for the average soldier of the Canadian Expeditionary Force – he was semi-skilled as a railway fireman, young at 24-years old, and born in the United Kingdom of which a large minority of men who enlisted in the CEF shared this demographic detail.
The lament about tobacco brings into sharp relief the importance of this creature comfort to a soldier. One of the possible reasons for his concern about the missing tobacco is not just the loss of it, but it probably was better than the government issued tobacco.[i] Perhaps this short lament was a pointed hint for his friend to send him more?
He briefly outlines the geography of his surroundings and his statement about the losses to the Battalion are reflective of the experience of the Battalion. Between September and October 1915, the 18th Battalion suffered ten soldiers killed due to enemy action. As the unit was essentially cohesive and complete of its original complement when it embarked at Halifax in April 1915, up until this time, these early casualties would have been heavily felt by the men of the Battalion as each death brought the reality of the opportunity of harm into sharp relief with each man killed or wounded.
Yet, the threat of wounding or death does not deter the bravado of a young soldier and his comrade-in-arms. They play a “game” with the German soldiers just 70-yards away by trying to provoke them to the point the Germans shout a phrase, perhaps in an attempt to get the Canadian to raise their heads above the parapet, and fire at them to show their displeasure with the thought of what the Canadian say they will do to them.
This short letter snapshots the feelings of our private. A glimpse of that man at that time.
Private Morgan would survive the war. He would be appointed a Lance-Corporal in April 1916, and then promoted to Sergeant in December.
Shortly after the Battle of Vimy Ridge his leadership was recognized with an appointment to the Canadian Training School at Bexhill-on-the-Sea. After his training he returned to the 18th Battalion a newly minted lieutenant on August 30, 1918. After a 14-day leave to England in January he was attached to the Canadian Corps Reinforcement Camp as an instructor on February 6, 1918. He returned to the 18th just over a month later.
He served with the 18th Battalion with a brief visit to a Rest Camp in June 1918. He was blessed with two 14-day leaves in relatively quick succession, one in August of 1918 and the other in January 1919. He returned to the Battalion in Germany and then returned with them to England on April 4, 1919.
Upon return to Canada, he was transferred to duty with the CEF and was not discharged from service until August 6, 1920.
Upon discharge this man appears to have moved to Drumheller, Alberta but a later notation in his service file indicate that his address is unknown.
Lieutenant Morgan served faithfully for his King and country, and save for this one letter, slides into obscurity.
We do remember him and we thank him for his service.
[i] See When the smoke cleared: Tobacco supply and consumption by the British Expeditionary Force 1914-1918 by Henry Daniels for more information.