The Bricklayer from London Ontario

Each soldier in the Canadian Expeditionary Force had their own unique experience. When one watches a battalion marching during a parade there is a perception of one-mindedness and that the military ethos involves the sublimation of the individual and their unique personality and experiences. But, no matter how hard an army tries to forge individuals into, effectively, a weapon, each person’s experience is unique and as varied as the pattern of each individual snowflake.

This is one such experience…

A native of London, Ontario, a 27-year-old bricklayer enlisted with the 18th Battalion on 22 October 1914 at his hometown. He was a bricklayer by trade and claimed 11-years’ experience with the 7th Regiment Fusiliers, Canadian Militia. He stood an imposing 6’1.5” tall, when the average height of a Canadian recruit at this time was 5’5”.[i] Having started his military career at the age of approximately 16, he was quickly promoted to Colour-Sergeant effective 4 November 1914.

Thus, Colour-Sergeant Edward St. Clair Walker[ii], a resident of 868 William Street, London, Ontario began his service with a unit to soon see active combat. From the date of his enlistment, to be believed as the first day possible to enlist in the 18th, he, along with his comrades worked towards preparing for war.

The late fall and early winter of 1914 saw the unit being formed with the majority of its men enlisting between October and December of 1914. The minority of men, a close minority, where like the Colour Sergeant, born in Canada but the lion’s share of the men were from the United Kingdom. The training involved the inevitable close order drill that is the bane of all recruits but a necessary precept to the preparation of a soldier to the requirements of soldiering: cohesive obedience to orders as a group.

With each passing day the men of the 18th could sense that they would be heading overseas soon and when the New Year passed it would be certain that betting pools guessing the date and location of their next step in the journey to active combat service. The 18th, like the other units of its brigade and the other brigades of the 2nd Division were to be, like the 1st Division, sent overseas to England as a cohesive divisional unit.

For Colour Sergeant Walker his service card shows service with no significant items of note – it was, in the parlance of the military – a clean record.

As with the other men of the 18th Battalion, Colour Sergeant Walker boarded a train in London, Ontario on x April 1915 and he trained with the Battalion in England from May to middle of September when the 2nd Division began its move to the Continent and Belgium in the Ypres sector near Dickenbusch just to the south-west of the city of Ypres.

He served with the Battalion as it learned the ropes of trench warfare and was present at its first major action at St. Eloi Craters. For Walker he was able to get a respite from combat shortly after this as he was granted 8 days leave to England effective 26 March 1916 with him returning on 6 April 1916.

The Battalion went through its routine of service at the front, then a rest in Brigade Reserve and Divisional reserve getting a chance to get bath and pay parades.

From 9 to 14 May 1916 the 18th Battalion was in the front line and the War Diary relates no action of note and it sustained 14 other ranks wounded during this time. On 14 May 1916 the Battalion was put in Corps reserve at I Camp. It was given two clothing and bath parades and on 18 May 1916 Colour Sergeant Walker reported sick and was sent to No. 5 Canadian Field Ambulance suffering from Neurasthenia. Three days later he arrived at the No 6 Canadian Field Hospital Divisional Rest Station for “Shell Shock[iii]”. It is not clear from the records why there was a change in the condition that invalided this man, but the normal procedure for men who were assessed as not having a serious or debilitating case of shell shock was to go to a Divisional Rest Station for convalescence. By 29 April 1915 Colour Sergeant Walker was considered fit to be discharged for duty.

His condition, however persisted, and a month later he was transferred to No. 3 Canadian Stationary Hospital (Boulogne) for shell shock. It was then determined that his condition warranted more serious treatment and on 22 June 1916 he boarded the HS Jan Breydel for England arriving at Hayle Place, Volunteer Aid Detachment, Maidstone, Kent. His treatment was extended and he to a stay at a convalescent hospital at Woodcote where he was discharged on 4 August 1916.

The notes at the time are hard to decipher but it appears that a course of treatment was recommended but Walker was “still nervous” and there is a notation that part of his symptoms manifested itself with his suffering from diarrhea. This symptom may have belied to a condition that would lead to his return to Canada. The recommendation was for Colour Sergeant Walker to have 12-weeks of light duty.

Eventually he was sent to the 39th Reserve Battalion for 12 weeks and arrived at West-Sandling Camp on or about 6 August 1916. This was familiar ground for him as this was the camp that the 18th Battalion trained at near Folkestone. As luck would have it someone, probably a soldier being returned to Canada for some transgression of military law, needed to be escorted and Walker was assigned to be one of the party to do so, allowing him a chance to return to Canada. Attached to this duty was a furlough requiring him to return by 11 November 1916. This was a real stroke of luck as the vast majority of soldiers, especially those of other ranks, rarely received a furlough home. Most furloughs to Canada were given to men, especially officers, who had a spouse gravely ill.

On his return to London, Ontario he was interviewed by a reporter of the London Advertiser and the news article relates several interesting areas that were of concern to this veteran.


HOME ON FURLOUGH, HE RE-ECHOES PLEA FOR MORE RECRUITS
Popular 18th Non-Com. Declares Need Is For Men
GERMANS AIM TO WOUND
Figure Wounded Allied Soldier Better For Their Cause Than Dead One.

Company Sergt.-Major Ed. Walker, 18th Battalion, one of the prominent London non-coms. who went overseas with Lieut.-Col. E.S. Wigle of the 18th, has returned to the city on sick furlough. He expects to return to the front in November. Dysentery sent the sergeant-major home.

On his return to London he saw for the 1st time a new arrival in his family in the shape of a 15-months-old girl, born since the 18th left for overseas service.

He was reticent as to his personal experiences in the big war, and as he has been invalided in England for nearly five months he could give little news relating to his comrades of the 18th Battalion. He stated what they were all well when he left them, although their number had been greatly reduced.

Men, More Men.

He emphasized the need for “men, more men, and yet more men,” before the war could be brought to a successful conclusion. He stated that the new recruits were much in demand and that although the experience of men who had been on the firing line for months was valuable, their health and constitution could not equal that of the new recruit. The recklessness of the new man, too, aided him greatly, as men who had been wounded and returned to the firing line were over-careful.

This accounted for the fact that casualties occurred chiefly among new men. They were not alive to the dangers of trench warfare and exposed themselves needlessly. The fighting he asserted, had produced many surprises from the standpoint of quality of certain men. Trained athletes had, in many cases, been the first to succumb to hardships where men who were considered weaklings at home were still fighting.

“The knocker in this game are a little different from those you get in other games, and it takes a different type of man to withstand them,” said the sergeant-major.

GERMANS WANT TO WOUND

He explained the reason so many of the men now reported in the casualty lists had received wounds in the legs and lower parts of the body. The Germans were using high explosives to a greater extent than at the beginning of trench warfare. This had brought about more open fighting, and in almost every action German machine-gun fire had been directed low with the object of only wounding the charging men.

“It is of more advantage to the Germans to have a foe wounded than killed,” he said. “in the former case he has to be transported back to the base, receive treatment in the hospitals, utilizing altogether the services and time of nearly a dozen men, and in many cases remaining a source of expense to his country. If he is killed there remains only the cost of burial, and in many cases not that.”

DESIRE CONSCRIPTION

Conscription, he said, was working out well in Great Britain, and nearly all the Canadian boys now in England were anxious to see it passed here.

“They’re close to the fight there and they realize what it means,” said Sergt.-Major Walker. “I wouldn’t want to see any part of the British Empire, much less Canada, in the same condition as the countries in which the fighting has taken place. I have seen whole towns absolutely destroyed. In many cases even the cellars are wiped out by the heavy gunfire.

“One of the latest drafts to our battalion a number of men from the 23rd Battalion. They were as fine men as we ever had and they have made a name for themselves ‘over there,’ although working under many disadvantages.”

Source: London Advertiser. October 14, 1916. Page 2.

The reason for his visit to Canada, as stated by Colour Sergeant Walker, was “dysentery”. This is not born out by his service records. There is an entry in a record when he was stationed at the Canadian Divisional Convalescent Hospital, Woodcote Park, Epsom where he is discharged effective 4 August 1916 as being “Discharged to Unit for Court Martial”. This would appear to indicate that his health was good enough to act as an escort to a soldier who was going through the process of a Court Martial. As Walker has no entries in his service file relating to any charges preferred toward him it can be safely determined that he was not the subject of a Court Martial, but an agent of one – A guard to the man under charges with the Canadian Military Authorities.

Related to this is a medical report from London, Ontario for this man dated 28 February 1917 which states, “Claims to have had Dysentery in France, Treated in Hospitals in England and London, Ontario.” The use of the word “claims” seems to be quite deliberate and from his records he did not serve in France (the 18th Battalion did not serve in France until late August 1916, several months after Walker left the Battalion) and his medical records from 18 May 1916 until his release from the Canadian Divisional Hospital in August clearly state he was being treated for shell shock.

It is understandable that Colour Sergeant Walker did not disclose the reason he was invalided to England as attitudes towards this condition were not generally positive or sympathetic, but it is odd that he attributes his return to Canada as being related to a medical leave when he was released into a duty that required significant responsibilities as, effectively, a military policeman escorting a convict of military justice. His medical discharge recommended 12-weeks of alternate duty, not treatment, therefore the medical board felt that Walker needed a break from combat before returning to active service.

The article relates specifically that, “He was reticent as to his personal experiences in the big war…” and this reticence may be reflected in his statement about his return to Canada. It is possible that the military authorities felt that such a duty would have some aspect of recuperative powers and may very well speak to Colour Sergeant Walker’s reputation as a soldier as perceived by others.

Men, More Men

His observations about the need for “Men, More, Men” are interesting as they reflect the experience of the 18th Battalion during its first 6-months of service. The strain of trench warfare and the exposure to the environment in the Fall and Winter of Flanders was very hard on the soldiers of the Battalion and it was not but days after the Battalion entered the front lines at the end of September that the Medical Officer of the 18th started to related men being removed from active service due to illness. A causal analysis of the reasons would be fascinating, but the sense taken from the war diaries and other sources, such as letters from the soldiers, indicated that many men did not have the fitness and constitution for sustained exposure to such conditions. Be it a general lack of nutrition or fitness, the physical and mental strain of operations, even simply holding the line during static trench warfare, was too much for many men. Additionally, many older men who lied about their age, being past 40-years-old quickly found they could not meet the expectations of this new environment to which they were not adequately prepared for.

Colour Sergeant Walker makes an interesting observation that would be interesting to test:

“The fighting he asserted, had produced many surprises from the standpoint of quality of certain men. Trained athletes had, in many cases, been the first to succumb to hardships where men who were considered weaklings at home were still fighting.”

Perhaps this a reflection of his experience. Was he the athlete of which he speaks?

GERMANS WANT TO WOUND

His personal observation are interesting to note but it was Colour Sergeant Walker’s observations about wounding are of interest as he was correct. It is more costly to wound a soldier than to kill him. As the massive medical system of the Imperial Army was to show – it took thousands of personnel and hundreds of medical facilities to support the wounded. The logistics of supporting the medical system of the Empire’s Forces are almost incomprehensible.

DESIRE CONSCRIPTION

The English Parliament enacted the Military Service Act in January 1916 requiring all single men, with some exemptions, between the ages of 18 and 41 to be subject to conscription. This was later extended to married men in May 1916. The British army had suffered so many casualties that it was incumbent of the Government to make up the losses using conscription.

The same issues were becoming relevant for Canada and the local recruiting drives for the follow up battalions in Canada were having trouble filling the quota necessary to create a battalion. Many towns had experienced a drop of in martial interest and were trying to induce such volunteers they could find to fill the ranks of their local battalions.

His statement aptly reflects this as, “Conscription, he said, was working out well in Great Britain, and nearly all the Canadian boys now in England were anxious to see it passed here.” He also observes that the men of the United Kingdom are closer to the war than Canadian and can better imagine the outcomes if they do not defeat the Germans.

On 5 December 1916 a Morning Sick Report records Walker as reporting of suffering from identified as Osmotic Dysentery and he is posted to hospital.

Perhaps the symptoms Walker was experiencing were psychosomatic. A psychosomatic illness is:

“Psychosomatic disorder is a psychological condition that leads to physical symptoms, often without any medical explanation. It can affect almost any part of the body. People with the disorder tend to seek frequent medical attention, becoming frustrated with no diagnosis. Behavioural therapy and stress reduction may help.”[iv]

This would explain the subsequent treatment and its length. Colour Sergeant Walker’s service record does not include any diagnostic information regarding his treatment at the hospital in London, Ontario but he was boarded several times and the doctors, probably exercising some caution as the symptoms continued to persist, extended his medical leave several times.

Eventually, his condition improved and his last Medical Board at London in his service record on 6 February 1917 records that the doctors wish to keep him in treatment until 15 March 1917. There is a record of another extension of his leave in Canada dated 14 July 1917.

It appears that Walker returned to England and was attached to 18 September 1917 and was attached to No. 2 Convalescent Depot and was to report to the officer commanding at PPCRC Hospital[v], Codden Beach. It is also noted that his rank was now Colour Sergeant Major (CSM).

On 21 September 1917 CSM Walker was boarded again at Bramshott and the following observations were made:

“This N.C.O. is in appearance is in good health. Is a large well developed man, good physique, good color, and well nourished. Circulatory system normal. Digestive [illegible] + urinary systems normal. Shows considerable reflex excitability to noses or sudden movements. Is somewhat emotional due no doubt to his shell shock in July 1916, and other experiences in the trenches.”[vi]

Thus, the original reason for CSM Walker’s removal for active combat service was still present and the symptom of “neurasthenia” as reported in this report began active again for the CSM when he returned to England. The proximity of geography and being exposed to reminders of his experiences in the trenches through exposure to his current environment exacerbated his psychological condition. Of note is the error of timing of the combat exposure that resulted in his condition. He was in England by July of 1916 and this, and other errors appear in his records, though the reasons for them will never be known.

Whatever the case, Walker continued to serve until he was discharged from service on 15 September 1919 at London, Ontario. From his service file it appears that he worked to support the operations of the Canadian Army Medical Corps and his service was valued so highly he was promoted to Quarter Master Sergeant (QMS) per his discharge certificate.

The service experience of QMS Walker was unique as it was rare for a soldier, especially a man of other ranks, to be sent to Canada and returned to England after and it would be fascinating to be able to determine exactly the efforts made by such parties that made this happen. Even though QMS Walker appears to have suffered psychosomatic symptoms leading to persistent dysentery he still wanted to serve and returned to England to be of value to his army. Yet, days after returning to England the stress of being close to the combat that contributed to his shell shock manifested itself and he was stricken with the physical and psychological responses to his fears. Though there is no evidence of his treatment in England after his return to service overseas it looks like he persisted in contributing positively to the army and was recognized with promotions up until he left the Canadian Expeditionary Forces in 1919.

It is but one of the thousands of experiences of the men of the 18th Battalion and each, as this one, is unique. Though this article cannot be a definitive relating of CSM Walker’s war experience it is hoped that it allows one to appreciate and reflect on those that served.

This man lived until 1967 and is buried at Saint Peter’s Cemetery, London, Ontario. His wife, M. Ellen (McAffery) Walker joined him in 1972.


[i] Morton, D. (1992) “A Canadian Soldier in the Great War: the Experiences of Frank Maheux,” Canadian Military History, 1(1). Available at: https://scholars.wlu.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1007&context=cmh (Accessed: November 19, 2022).

[ii] “WALKER, EDWARD ST CLAIR 53071 Service File” (no date). Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Government of Canada.

[iii] For a more in-depth analysis please see https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=9797&context=etd

[iv] Psychosomatic disorder: What is it, symptoms, diagnosis & treatment (no date) Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic. Available at: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/21521-psychosomatic-disorder (Accessed: November 25, 2022).

[v] The reference to the PPCRC Hospital appears to be a hospital created to treat member of the PPCLI. The author could not find any definitive references to this institution though this SOURCE refers to photographs taken at this institution.

[vi] “WALKER, EDWARD ST CLAIR 53071 Service File” (no date). Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: Government of Canada.

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