Dan Brown – December 3rd, 2015
I was contacted earlier this year by an American historian who had recovered a First World War artifact relating to London.
The historian’s name is Ben Byrnes and he has painstakingly recreated the story of a former Free Press reporter, Jack Doherty.
Below is an account penned by Byrnes about how a simple time piece reminds us of the bravery of soliders 100 years ago.
Take it away, Ben . . .
More than 172,000 Canadians were wounded in the Great War, according to the Canadian War Museum. More that 61,000 were killed.
Living in Tennessee, my biggest introduction to the history of the 619,636 Canadians who enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the Great War was given to me by actor Paul Gross.
Passchendaele, the 2008 movie that touched on both Vimy Ridge and the battle that gave the movie its title, was told through the story of a soldier in the Canadian Corps.
Personal stories of the Great War have always inspired me, as have the artifacts left behind.
Another reason I enjoyed Gross’s movie is that in at least two of the scenes, Great War “trench watches” are prominently displayed. Trench watches are the Great War version of wrist watches — then a relatively new version of time pieces, incorporating a way to attach it to your wrist.
They had become wildly popular during the war with both soldiers and civilians. Basically just period wrist watches that may have been worn in trenches, they are also something I collect when they happen to be inscribed on the reverse with the name of the original owner — allowing me to track down their personal stories.
One such watch, given to a London Free Press reporter before he left for war 100 years ago, has revealed to me a story of frontline sacrifice seldom reflected in the movies.
In the summer of 2015, I initially passed on a seller’s watch when I noticed “London” in part of the inscription on the back. Researching soldiers of the Great War can be nearly impossible. In the United States, the National Archives area holding Great War material was part of a massive 1973 fire, destroying many records.
There are other options to try and overcome this inconvenience of fire, but they can be challenging. Finding records for a British watch from “London,” where over 60 per cent of British records were lost by enemy bombing in 1940, is something even more difficult.
For some reason, however, I spent weeks wishing I had paid a bit closer attention to that “British” watch.
Some time later, I saw the same seller’s watch for sale at another venue. This time, with patience and hindsight as my guide, I took the time to read the inscription more closely: “TO Jno G. Doherty 142nd BATT’N FROM London Free Press Ptg. Co. Dec. 1st 1915.”
A subsequent Google search revealed another example of why one should never assume anything. I quickly realized that not only was the London Free Press from Ontario, Canada — it was still being published.
Not knowing much about researching Canadian records, I found my way to the Library and Archives of Canada, where I quickly located a digital file of the scanned service record for “John Gaskins Doherty.”
The first page of Doherty’s file contained his “Officer’s Declaration Paper” for Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Service.
Two pieces of information on the page immediately grabbed my attention: Doherty’s occupation was listed as “reporter” and his unit was the 142nd Battalion. Within a few months, I was able to piece together the following story of a Canadian reporter-turned-officer who did his time on the front lines at a place called Hill 70, near Lens.
John “Jack” Doherty worked for The London Free Press for two years before he was granted a Lieutenant’s commission in the 142nd Battalion.
He was born on November 20, 1886 in St. Thomas. The grandson of Irish immigrants, his father, William B. Doherty, was a one time Mayor of St. Thomas and a prominent lawyer.
Jack Doherty had worked there for the St. Thomas Times before working for The London Free Press. At present, the search for any of Doherty’s work for either paper is ongoing, but judging from a 1915 article in the “Editor and Publisher,” Doherty must have been well-respected.
The article states that W.J. Blackburn, manager director of The London Free Press Ptg. Co. Ltd., presented Doherty with a “handsome wrist watch” before he took his leave of office.
The watch presented to Doherty is a good representative example of Great War period wrist watches. While their styles may vary, they tend to have fixed lugs for attachment to wrist straps.
Also common for the period, the watch hands and numbers have residual radium paint which had been applied to make them luminescent — something which would have been an advantage to a military officer needing to know the time in low-light conditions.
The story of the ill fated “Radium Girls” who applied this paint to period watches is another sub-story on the subject of trench watches — but though no longer glowing, the paint remains radioactive and should not be ingested, a clue to the multi-layered history represented by Doherty’s artifact.
The 142nd Battalion, called “London’s Own,” began enlisting and commissioning members in late 1915. The 142nd was basically a replacement battalion never serving as a unit on the front lines.
The 142nd left for England in late 1916, where Doherty became part of the 23rd Canadian Reserve Battalion, a unit which organized and prepared replacement troops for active units.
The Canadian Expeditionary Force study group mentions this process as it related to Doherty’s unit: “The 23rd would also absorb the 142nd Battalion, from London, Ontario, which sailed from Canada with 26 officers and 574 other ranks, upon their arrival at Shorncliffe on November 12, 1916. The personnel of 142nd Battalion would be transferred to the 4th Reserve Battalion on January 4, 1917.”
Doherty’s “Casualty Form” in his service file, not actually a “casualty” form per se, but one thoroughly detailing his service movements, shows he was added to the 23rd Reserve Battalion on 21 November, 1916 and by 1 April, 1917 — the 4th Reserve Battalion.
Barely a week later and across the English Channel, the four divisions of the Canadian Corps would fight as a cohesive unit for the first time, but under a British commander, at Vimy Ridge. The battle is referred to as “a defining moment for Canada, when the country emerged from under the shadow of Britain and felt capable of greatness” by the Canadian War Museum.
Though a defining moment for Canada, the loss of 10,000 casualties required large numbers of replacements. Among the many replacements waiting in England to serve at the front was Jack Doherty.
Besides having service files, the Library and Archives of Canada also has the “War Diary” of the 18th Battalion digitized.
The entry for 23 June, 1917 lists three Lieutenants arriving as replacements — including J.G. Doherty.
Whether Doherty kept a diary or wrote letters home detailing his experiences is unknown. However, certain clues about his service continue to slowly emerge.
The War Diary shows the unit spent a majority of time in training and inspections during the early and mid-summer of 1917.
A note in his file states that in July, 1917 he was admitted and discharged back to duty at the 8th Canadian Field Ambulance with “defective vision.”
Although the nature of Doherty’s vision problem is unknown, having such issues at the front does not appear uncommon.
The book, “Historical Records of No. 8 Canadian Field Ambulance” speaks of where Doherty likely attended, stating the officer commanding “. . . continued to hold the eye clinic . . . men from the whole Canadian Corps, including members of British units, attending daily in large numbers.”
The training, drills, and inspections mentioning in The War Diary for the 18th Battalion happened consistently through the summer Doherty was there.
The Canadian Corps rank and file perhaps thought they were preparing for a big event. Unknown to them the battle of Passchaendale, the scene of over 15,500 Canadian casualties, was only a few months away — but Jack Doherty wouldn’t make it there.
Meanwhile to the 18th Battalion’s training exercises, Arthur Currie had been given command of the Canadian Corps in June, 1917. Currie, a highly respected officer, was the first actual Canadian to command the the Canadian Corps.
In the opening weeks of Passchaendale, a British campaign with a goal of driving the Germans away from key channel ports in Flanders, the Canadian Corps was tasked with creating a diversion to pull German resources away from Passchaendale. This was to be done by assaulting Lens. Currie, realizing the unacceptable human cost this would require, convinced Sir Douglas Haig to allow the Canadian Corps to instead incorporate an attack on Hill 70, which overlooked Lens, to help achieve the overall goal.
The Canadian attack in mid-August was successful in gaining the hill, costing 9,000 Canadian casualties vs. 25,000 German casualties according to the Canadian War Museum. The War Diary of the 18th Battalion lists many dramatic entries for this period when Doherty was present.
These entries include field messages requesting immediate relief and troops in shell shock, reflecting a tenuous situation in a battle involving gas shells, regular artillery, and desperate hand-to-hand fighting. Doherty would never return to the front after Hill 70.
This was not because he was wounded or had shell shock, but because he had a stuffy nose. A stuffy nose to individuals in the 21st century may be nothing more than an inconvenience solved by nasal spray. But to a soldier in the trenches of Belgium, an unchecked infection resulting in a “stuffy nose” could have serious consequences.
Doherty’s condition when he was removed from the field and put through the No. 22 Casualty Clearing Station, No. 20 General Hospital in Camiers, No. 24 General Hospital in Etaples, and finally back at the 3rd London General Hospital in England is referred to his service file simply: “. . . this officer suffers from deafness.”
Specifically, Doherty was suffering from catarrhal deafness and a deflated septum from a blockage in his left nostril starting three months prior to the 21 September entry on his medical case sheet.
By 25 September, nearly a month after his removal from the unit, he was operated on and by 9 October his nose was healed and his hearing was expected to “probably slowly improve.”
“Probably slowly improve” unfortunately led to a medical review board, which eventually got him discharged with disability.
His service file’s Medical History of an Invalid from 27 February, 1918 states that “This officer states he has had shortness of breath since operation for nasal obstruction Oct. 1917 and has had pain over precordium [part of body near the heart] on running or severe exhaustion and has not been on full duty since Oct. 1917 . . .” The form continues to state “It is recommended that the Officer be discharged . . . as medically unfit. Hospital care and treatment will not improve the dischargee’s condition…”
Doherty had claimed in his service file that his condition had been “accentuated by the 15th August offensive.” Hill 70, though overshadowed in military history by both VImy Ridge before and the greater Passchaendale campaign after it, was nonetheless a crowning moment for the Canadian Corps.
Matthew Walthert’s article, Neglected Victory, quotes a wounded Canadian soldier at Hill 70, saying on his way to the rear that “Vimy was cinch compared to the Somme; and the Somme was easy compared with Hill 70 . . .” Doherty’s Canadian Corps suffered 8,677 casualties.
But Doherty, who suffered a disabling medical condition not caused by steel or gas, isn’t included in that statistic.
Doherty was back in Canada by the time the Armistice was signed.
While such a detailed record of his life as is shown in his service file is not known — a few things are: Doherty eventually moved to the United States, where in January of 1924 he married Ella Francis Tormey, in a small ceremony at the home of the bride in Madison, Wisconsin.
At the time, Doherty was working as a financial editor at the Detroit News. Doherty’s World War II draft registration card of 25 April, 1942 shows he was still living in Detroit, where his place of employment was “none at present (under doctor’s care).”
More clues on Doherty’s life are still being researched, but The London Free Press reporter and 18th Battalion veteran’s grave marker is shown clearly on the internet’s findagrave.com website.
California records show he died on 10 December, 1953, but the actual grave marker only lists his name and years of birth and death (without the days). There is nothing showing he was a Canadian veteran of the Great War. There is also nothing noting that while he was not wounded or killed for his country, he certainly suffered in an inglorious manner for it.
Doherty’s watch still ticks when it is wound. A hundred-year-old mechanical watch makes a very unique sound – the same one Doherty likely heard if he ever found any quiet moments in the trenches during the summer of ’17.
It is a comforting sound to someone like me, thankful I was lucky enough to find the relic of a forgotten officer’s life, thanks to some simple engraving done 1 December, 1915 by The London Free Press.