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Charms of Life in the Trenches

Posted By on April 21, 2015

George Samuel Ager in the uniform of the 50th Regiment (Gordon Highlanders).

George Samuel Ager in the uniform of the 50th Regiment (Gordon Highlanders).

Lieutenant George Samuel Ager, 16th Battalion CEF

As time advances from one Great War anniversary to the next, I engage my grey cells in an exercise to find connection with  the Canadian Expeditionary Force of April 22 – 24, 1915. Specifically I search for something personal, a familar name to speak to the area northeast of Ypres, the first German gas attack and the battle of Kitcheners’ Wood.

When searching for these deeper connections I attempt to discover new information, something previously unknown to me, and perhaops something seemingly unrelated yet a twist brings the connection together. This time perhaps a name – a face to highlight when the 16th was beginning its experience that was to be their initial entry into the Great War.

I turn to a familiar resource, the University of Victoria, and begin the steady plod through a Victoria newspaper of the time. As I near April 1915 I discover an image and one name to focus upon, George Samuel Ager, a veteran of the Second Boer War (1899-1902). Ager served with Lord Strathcona’s Horse of the Canadian Cavalry and after the Boer War Ager was employed by Beaumont Boggs as the managing director of the Canada Mosaic Tile Company Ltd. (Victoria, B.C.).  The firm manufactured and imported mantles, tiles, grates and art stone and for a city, such as Victoria, which today takes great pride in its built heritage I wonder how much of the firm’s work remains in situ and what the works they created and brought into the country may have looked like.

At the time of Ager’s enlistment in September 1914, we learn from his attestation papers that he was married to Maud and that on his left arm there was a tattoo, the initials “S.H.” possibly for “Stratchcona’s Horse”. In pre-Great War Victoria Ager served as a Captain with the 50th Regiment (Gordon Highlanders) but with the 16th Battalion CEF served in a lower officer’s rank as Lieutenant.

Returning to the grey cells it is while reading through the pages of the Victoria Daily Times that I find a page four 31 March 1915 article related to George Samuel Ager entitled, “Fighting in Mud and Blood of Trenches”. The article, in effect a summarized 9 March 1915 letter from Captain Ager to his wife Maud, is a “vivid description of Life in Letter from Captain [sic] Ager”.

“The Canadian contingent has now been initiated into the charms of the life in the trenches…The trenches we occupied were in a wretched condition, very muddy and wet…At our part of the line the trenches are about 250 yards apart, but to our right a little they are within 40 yards of each other. Both sides have a maze of barbed wire entanglements in front of their trenches…the Germans…place their rifles in and keep them stationary sighted to shoot immediately over the tops of our parapets, thus getting a direct aim in our trenches at night…Every day we have an artillery duel, and the men seem to thoroughly enjoy hearing the shells screeching through the air…as long as the men remain in the trenches below the parapets they are safe, but the men will take chances, do foolish things and so get picked off occasionally. During the night the Germans turn on big searchlights at various intervals and if they can locate troops moving in or working parties immediately turn on their machine guns…During the four days I was in the trench I had only three hours sleep…Of course the whole time you are in the trenches you do not remove any of your clothing and four days with practically no sleep and continually ploughing through mud is not conducive to the most cheerful spirit…The weather is very cold at the present time and at this moment I am shivering. Every time it rains it raises the very mischief in the trenches, making them slide in in various places, and of course creating more mud. The mud here is the stickiest I have ever seen…It is sometimes impossible to pull your feet out…It creates havoc with your socks…”

However, there would be no more letters from the good Lieutenant George Samuel Ager as on 22 April 1915 Ager was reported wounded, then wounded and missing and some time later “for official purposes presumed to have died on or since April 22, 1915”. Having no known grave Lieutenant George Samuel Ager is commemorated on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, Ieper, Belgium.

Together with friends I have wandered the area of the first gas attack, Kitcheners’ Wood, the surrounding area and Ager’s footsteps. Taking in the lay of the land, standing and observing where Canadians many years previously had stood within a torrent of fire, shellburst and mayhem I recall the feelings we all shared as we thought back upon this place in which our feet were now grounded but from which we could all move forward to the next site of memory.

It was while wandering to another of these sites of memory, Ploegsteert Churchyard, that we came upon the graves of some Canadian soldiers killed during training and where the son of Beaumont Boggs, for whom Lieutenant Ager worked, is buried. Lieutenant Herbert Beaumont Boggs of the 7th Canadian Infantry Battalion was one of the first Canadian officers killed during the Great War having lost his life February 26, 1915 while in training for front line duty on the Western Front.

For this observer of history it is these twists of fate, these historical mazes of the implausible that continue to intrigue me to seek connection. Exploring the twists and turns lets me find the stories that once lingered by the fireside but now retold for today’s generation of remembrance.

James Prinsep Beadle – War Artist

Posted By on March 11, 2015

Battle of Neuve Chapelle

Battle of Neuve Chapelle by J.P. Beadle. Maidstone Museum and Art Gallery.

Battle of Neuve Chapelle (10 – 13 March 1915)

J.P. Beadle was an English painter who was interested in historical and military subject matters. His interests included the Peninsular War (1807 – 1814), the Boer War (1899 – 1902) and the Great War (1914 – 1918). Beadle’s painting of the opening day of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle (10 March 1915) depicts the 2nd Rifle Brigade and the 39th Garwhal Rifles clearing the town. At this time of the centenary of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle we remember the Scottish units who received Battle Honours for Neuve Chapelle and to introduce J.P. Beadle, the artist, who also painted Piper James Cleland Richardson at Regina Trench (8 October 1916) in the action that led to James receiving the posthumous award of the Victoria Cross.

Piper J.C. Richardson VC by J.P. Beadle. Officer's Mess, Royal Scots, Edinburgh.

Piper J.C. Richardson V.C. by J.P. Beadle. Officer’s Mess, Royal Scots, Edinburgh.

Battle Honor Neuve Chapelle and Scottish Units

The Royal Scots Greys (2nd Dragoons)
Scots Guards
The Royal Scots
The Royal Scots Fusiliers
The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles)*
The Black Watch (Royal Highlanders)
The Highland Light Infantry (City of Glasgow Regiment)
The Seaforth Highlanders
The Gordon Highlanders
The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders*

*Emblazoned on the Regimental Colours

London Scottish Film Stars

Posted By on March 5, 2015

London Scottish InsigniaActors and the Great War

Seemingly one just has to ferret about the internet and much will be revealed simply by coming up with the right combination of search terms. Recently I was reviewing none other than Basil Rathbone’s Great War service, with the Liverpool Scottish, when I learned of three actors who served during the Great War with the London Scottish (the 14th London Regiment). These fine fellows include Ronald Colman, Herbert Marshall, and Lawrence Rains all who qualified for membership in the London Scottish Old Comrades’ Association.

Ronald Colman

Ronald Colman. Wounded 1914.

Ronald Charles Colman (Private – 2148)
Silver War Badge (Honourably discharged due to wounds)
Wounded 31 October 1914

While attending boarding school in Littlehampton he discovered acting. Prior to the Great War he was a member of the West Middlesex Dramatic Society and made his first stage appearance in 1914. He joined the London Scottish, a unit of Britain’s Territorial Army, in 1909 and went with them to the Western Front in 1914.  Colman was seriously wounded during the “Race to the Sea” between the river Douve and the Comines–Ypres Canal, Battle of Messines (Flanders, Belgium), 31 October 1914, being hit in the ankle by shrapnel. The injury left him with a limp that he tried to hide throughout his acting career. As a result of the wound he was invalided out of the British Army in 1915 and received the Silver War Badge. Colman returned to stage acting in 1916 appearing in The Maharani of Arakan, and The Misleading Lady. In 1917 his fortunes continued and he appeared in Partnership and Damaged Goods, and in 1918 The Little Brother and Bubble. His first film appearance was in 1917. Colman received an Academy Award and a Golden Globe Award as Best Actor in the 1947 film, A Double Life.

Colman appeared in several classic films including A Tale of Two Cities (1935), and The Prisoner of Zenda (1937). In 1956 he appeared with David Niven in the frequently replayed film, Around the World in 80 Days. Apart from receiving an Academy Award he was nominated on three other occasions for Bulldog Drummond (1929), Condemned (1930) and Random Harvest (1942). Apart from these honours and two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (one for film and the other for television) his distinguished contributions to the art of film were honoured with the presentation of the George Eastman Award. (see http://www.eastmanhouse.org/museum/awards.php)

Herbert Marshall

“Bart” Marshall. Wounded 1915.

Herbert “Bart” Brough Falcon Marshall (Private – 8426 / 514221 )
Silver War Badge (Honourably discharged due to wounds)
Leg amputated during the Great War

Born into an acting family his parents, Percy F. Marshall and Ethel May Turner were stage actors. His godfather was the comedic Shakespearean actor Lionel Brough. Although Bart was not at first interested in theatre, after University graduation, he became involved in working backstage in theatre productions eventually trying his hand at performing before live audiences.

The Great War led Bart to the Western Front and at Arras, France in 1915 he was shot by a sniper in the right knee.  After several surgical procedures the leg could not be saved and Doctors performed an amputation whereby the leg was removed near to his hip. After more than a year in hospital he chose to return to acting having learned to walk again with a prosthetic limb. Similar to many who have undergone similar procedures Bart suffered from “phantom pain’ for the rest of his days as well as discomfort from the prosthetic device itself.  During the Second World War, Bart dedicated himself to the rehabilitation of injured soldiers especially those who had suffered similar injuries.

Bart’s stage acting career began in 1911 when he made his debut in The Adventure of Lady Ursula and continued to act until the Great War. Following the Armistice Bart’s success continued and in 1927 he appeared in the silent film, Mumsie. Hollywood was to follow two years later and in 1930 he appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Murder, following up the next year with a performance for Paramount Studios. Bart became a Hollywood leading man appearing in several romance films with Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Katherine Hepburn and many others. In all he appeared in some 75 films and in 1960 received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Claude Rains

Claude Rains with Humphrey Bogart. Casablanca (1942)

William Claude Rains (Corporal – 6842 / 512891)
Gassed (Date unknown)
Commissioned Bedford Regiment 1917

A four time Academy nominee for the Best Supporting Actor Claude Rains starred in many classic films including The Invisible Man (1933), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Wolf Man (1941) and Casablanca (1942).

Claude first began acting at the age of 11 in Nell of Old Drury (circa 1900) and later taught at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art where his students included the legendary actors Lawrence Olivier and John Gielgud. During the Great War Rains was nearly blinded during a gas attack, an injury that continued to plague his affected eye throughout his life.

Rains’ first Academy Award nomination occurred for the 1939 film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Other nominations were to follow including, Casablanca (1942), Mr. Skeffington (1944) and Notorious (1946). Like his fellow London Scottish veterans, Ronald Colman and Bart Marshall, Rains also received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In addition Rains received a Tony Award (Theatre) in 1951 for the best performance by a leading actor for Darkness at Noon.

Rains also appeared in two David Lean’s films, Passionate Friends (1949) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). His last role was in 1965 when he played Herod the Great in The Greatest Story Ever Told.

London Scottish War Memorial.

London Scottish War Memorial at Wytschaete, Belgium.

Mons, Marne, Verdun and Somme

Posted By on February 17, 2015

HMS Somme

The Royal Navy’s H.M.S. Somme (1918 – 1932).

The Royal Navy’s Great War Battle Commemorations

Recent research into the Royal Navy fleet that Admiral Sir Jacky Fisher, First Sea Lord of the Board of the Admiralty, built has led to some interesting discoveries. Fisher was instrumental, or rather was the powerhouse, in re-developing the British Navy. In October 1905 the Dreadnought program commenced leading to the February 10, 1906 launch of HMS Dreadnought.  Although Fisher’s Dreadnought program is the impetus of today’s discoveries it is four other vessels launched during the Great War that filled my spinnakers with wind and let me take heart in the comforting breeze of writing.

In 1915 two vessels were launched named for battles of the Great War, these two ships were HMS Mons and HMS Marne. A third ship followed in 1917 when HMS Verdun was completed and followed in 1918 by HMS Somme. Each vessel played its part during the Great War, though the Somme being competed a week before the Armistice did not see the service of the others.

HMS Mons
“M” class Destroyer
Launched May 1, 1915
Completed July 1915
Built by John Brown and Company, Clydebank, Scotland
Battle of Jutland May 31 – June 1, 1916
Sold to the Slough Trading Co and scrapped in Germany, 1921

HMS Marne
“M” class Destroyer
Launched May 29, 1915
Completed September 1915
Built by John Brown and Company, Clydebank, Scotland
Battle of Jutland May 31 – June 1, 1916
Sold to Cohen and scrapped in Germany, 1921

HMS Verdun
“V” class Destroyer
Motto: They Shall Not Pass
Launched August 21, 1917
Built by Hawthorn Leslie, Tyneside, England
Carried the remains of The Unknown Warrior home to Britain, November 8, 1920.
Also served during the Second World War
Scrapped at Granton, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1946
Verdun’s bell now hangs on a pillar at Westminster Abbey, London, England near to the tomb of the Unknown Warrior.

HMS Somme
“S” class Destroyer
Launched September 10, 1918
Completed November 4, 1918
Built by Fairfield Govan, Clyde, Scotland
Scrapped Ward, Pembroke Dock, Wales, 1932
The official ship’s crest comprised a laurel wreath with a tin hat (helmet) in the center of the wreath. The crest was approved in March 1926.

HMS Somme Image: Courtesy of John Ward~McQuaid via Stuart Cameron
http://www.clydesite.co.uk/clydebuilt/viewship.asp?id=870

THE LIGHT AND THE DARK

Posted By on January 31, 2015

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo. Winner of the John Newberry Medal.

The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo. Winner of the John Newberry Medal. Illustrated by T.B. Ering.

The Tale of Despereaux

As I wander through the day thinking upon what next to write about I cannot help but feel astonished by what presents itself. Though I continually search for stories with a Scottish Great War base it seems lately that I have been, wanting to continue upon the path towards creative thought from unlikely inspiration. Recently I happened upon a children’s book sitting upon the table. Drawn to the mouse on the cover holding a needle and seemingly fitted in red thread, I picked up the account and started to turn the pages of “The Tale of Despereaux”. If ever there could be a tale to bring message to my being I have now found it in the unlikeliest of sources. Despereaux is a mouse, in search of the light whose nemesis is a rat Roscuro who haunts the dark. The tale continually plays upon the theme of light and dark, not an unfamiliar quest and one only has to turn to other tales and recall, “May the force be with you”, or something about “Turn to the dark side”. It seems we have a fascination for this search, this quest and it is one I am certainly familiar with.

Malta. Building erected in 1915 by the Australian Branch of the Red Cross Society for the benefit of the soldiers of the Empire.

Malta. Hospital building erected in 1915 by the Australian Branch of the Red Cross Society for the benefit of the soldiers of the Empire.

My interest in the lives of the Great War is not without its interest in the dark and the light. Seeking as I will the goodness no matter how desperate the history. There are tales to be told as I wander these sites of France and Flanders, or climb the cliffs or follow the ravines of Gallipoli. So too in Malta, an Island nation that called to me years ago, I have made my way across the landscape in search of the light, perhaps the regeneration or the peace from within the conflict. Though it may be that I have had to wait for the time to pass to seemingly heal these landscapes my wanderings make me feel the heartbreak of lives lost, the sad words of love and grief. Still I continue throughout these injured places and happen upon sites that remain testimonies of healing, the wounded that may stand unrecognized, but through research we find the good, the light in what was done here. And so it will continue, as I gaze across the horizon and walk upon this well experienced ground I will stop to admire the obvious and seek the finer things of today in contrast. It may simply be the green of new growth, flowers within a place of row upon row markers, bees or butterflies, and all the while I hold a camera in my arms waiting for that subtle message of light to appear before my eyes.

 Thank you Despereaux I can hardly wait to turn the next page.