Picture of John Thompson, and his grandfather as a 15-year old soldier in November 1916
John Thompson is a Canadian military historian in Toronto. This is an article he wrote about his grandfather in WW1, exclusively for Secrets from the Inside. It is fascinating. John is a virtual encyclopedia of wartime, and will be a regular contributor here
John was one of the first people I contacted when selecting contributors to the Military section of Secrets from the Inside. I have followed his military history accounts and reflections for a few years, and I never get tired of hearing the amazing stories he shares. The story here is an exclusive to Secrets from the Inside, and is an amazing account of his then 15-year old grandfather trying to join the military.
Born to an RCAF family (Royal Canadian Air Force), John Thompson served in the Canadian Army (Reserves) for 13 years and spent over 30 years in defence-related think-tanks. He is also the author of Spirit over Steel: A Chronology of the Second World War and an enthusiastic “semi-pro” military historian, as he describes himself. And most importantly, John is a nice guy, whose mission is to preserve our priceless military history for our younger generations.
What did Grandpa Do in the Great War?
by John Thompson
Veterans are often reluctant to say too much to their own families, or anyone else, and it often takes a skilled interviewer to get past the formulaic responses. If one is looking for candid and explicit memories of combat, you are not likely to get them except, perhaps, when the veteran is well up in years and sees that final muster looming ahead.
I have been a soldier, but my time spanned the most peaceful 13-year period the Canadian Army had known since between the World Wars. Sure, we thought we might have to perhaps duke it out with the Soviets, but it is just as well that we were never fully initiated into the Mysteries of Soldiering. My own personal joke is that I had to wait until I was a civilian again before anyone ever shot at me.
This isn’t enough to get veterans to really open up about what combat is like, but then I got used to that as a child.
As a six-year old boy, I learned that my grandfather, “Papa” John Conn had served in WW1. So, when I next saw Papa Conn I was bursting with questions about heroic adventures. All I got was an incredulous look; he never said much as a rule and even less about his wartime experiences. Many, even most, other Canadian families got the same response to any questions about the war.
Papa died the next year as quietly and carefully as he did most things. He felt a heart-attack coming on while driving in BC, pulled over to the side of the road, told Nana “I’ll be going now”– and did. My mother and her sisters never heard any tales of his WW1 service, although they knew his older brother George died during the war, and they lost another uncle in the RCAF in August 1943.
Likewise, my father had few tales from his older brothers when they came home in 1945. That same year I attempted to quiz Papa, I heard one of my uncles screaming in his sleep (sharing my bedroom on a family visit) when a thunderstorm took him back to that terrible 1944 summer in Normandy. We never knew what that nightmare was based on. With no family accounts, the wartime experiences of relatives quietly faded.
Pat’s only combat story related to my father was a complex one about a shared moment of understanding with a wounded Fallshirmjäger, but that’s another tale for another day. Whatever else befell him between D-Day and VE-Day is something he always kept to himself. But I learned early that my grandfather’s reticence was by no means unusual.
It was a chance remark from my mother that set us on the trail of Papa Conn a few years ago. A written reference in a family filing cabinet to her uncle, George Conn, prompted the comment “Oh yes, he joined the Army and was killed a few months later.” My siblings and I wanted to know more.
We found the Attestation Papers for the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) online through the Archives of Canada. George joined up at the onset of the war in August 1914 and entered the 13th Battalion of the CEF. I knew enough history to know what happened to them at Ypres in April 1915 and resorted to the website that supports our Book of Remembrance in the Peace Tower.
Just to be sure, I made an inquiry about great uncle George through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Sure enough, George fell in 1915 at Second Ypres.
It was a hard day for the 13th. They held against the German’s first massive attack of their Spring Offensive — supported by gas for the first time in the war — but lost over half of their men. That stretch of the Western Front was fought over continually and George Conn’s remains were churned over and over in the next three and a half years. He has no known grave and his name is engraved on the Menin Gate in Ypres with 55,000 other missing men.
I’ve since been to the Menin Gate, which is what passes for George Conn’s resting place, and walked over the lines they held that day, knowing his bones were probably somewhere nearby in that thick fertile soil, a short walk to the north and east of Saint Julien.
Now it seemed time to unravel Papa Conn’s mysteries. The first one was a simple question: ‘What the hell was he doing in France in the first place?” He had been born the very first day of the 20th Century, and in WW-1 (and WW-2), Canadians had to be 18 to enlist and wouldn’t be sent overseas until 19. How did a 15-year old boy get to into the war in late 1916?
Careful reading revealed much. George joined up at the onset of the war in August 1914, and his little brother tried to go with him. He pointed out he was in the band in the local militia regiment, and probably hoped there might be room for a drummer boy. One can imagine the reaction: “No thanks kid, we’re not accepting 13-year old boys, next!”
Two weeks after George was killed Papa tried again. This might have even been his immediate reaction when the ‘Regrets’ Telegram arrived at the family home; by family accounts, the two brothers were close. It didn’t work. In 1916, almost a year to the day, Papa tried again and added three years to his age and got vague about his birth place. Still no luck – for a start, the town they lived in only had one recruiting office.
Papa’s fourth attempt was also phony and it succeeded., it seemed he waited his time until somebody else was running the office and made his attempt. At my elbow, I have a photo of my 15-year old grandfather in uniform on his way to France in 1916. He ended up with the Canadian Forestry Corps – uniformed lumberjacks – and that is all he ever said about his time in WW1.
Still, I ordered a copy of my grandfather’s service record from the Archives of Canada. These are mostly online now, but only a few years ago, one still had to order a paper copy and pay a modest fee for it.
Papa’s service showed things that he had never told his family. John Conn was in the Forestry Corps, but this was #10 company in the Somme Valley. The Foresters did a lot more than cut down trees, and often hauled ammunition and constructed new defence lines or salvaged equipment from battlefields. The Archives of Canada have online war diaries for many of the units of the CEF.
As the crises of 1918 came up, #10 Company spent an increasing amount of time on infantry training and got combed out for replacements. New men coming in included Russians trapped by the Revolution, Chinese labourers, and even German POWs. After two years of being on the edge of the Front, Private Conn finally went (in the jargon of the US Civil War) “to see the Elephant” up close.
On 1st October 1918, Papa Conn got reassigned to the 4th Battalion of the CEF. The new draft was immediately farmed out to the rifle companies. After weeks of virtually ceaseless offensives since the August 8th battle at Amiens, Canada’s infantry battalions desperately needed reinforcements. Papa got sent to a rifle company and found himself going forward in the last weeks of fighting.
The war diary for the 4th reveals gas attacks, shell-fire, and deadly encounters with German rearguards while trudging in ankle deep mud and near-constant rain. Unusually for Canadians in WW1, they also found themselves as liberators, entering village after village of starving French women, children and elderly men. The Germany of 1918 wasn’t feeding French civilians behind their lines. The War Diary notes that despite acute supply difficulties, the 4th shared their rations with the desperate civilians.
Fatigue, cold, dampness, and hunger apparently exposed Papa to the Spanish ‘flu – then making the rounds for a second time. When the 4th Battalion went into reserve, my grandfather was rushed to the rear on the sick list.
In Papa’s records it was a pleasure to note that there was no stoppage in his pay – which is a sure sign of time either spent in detention or in a VD clinic. That suggests that this young soldier was well-behaved. He also only got one only long leave in two years, and headed to kinfolk in Scotland.
There was one mystery to unravel. Most of the Canadian Expeditionary Force was still stuck overseas well into 1919. The Halifax Explosion had left the city with the capacity to rail about 30,000 men every month, so homecomings from Europe were still going on in June. Papa, however, was back home at the end of February 1919. How did that happen?
Two clues emerged from a re-examination of his service records. About a week after the Armistice was signed, John Conn started a rapid repatriation further back from the hospital instead of returning to the 4th Battalion. Within six weeks he was in a transit camp awaiting shipment back across the Atlantic. His release medical contained the necessary clue. It was the only document in his service package with his real birthdate on it.
As far as I can tell, once he was sure that the Germans really had thrown in the towel, he had a conversation with some sergeant somewhere that contained the words “I shouldn’t be here, I’m only 17!”.
Unravelling this story had another lasting effect. You never know what you might find until you start looking; and there are thousands and thousands of families with stories of their own to unlock. My great uncle and grandfather whetted an appetite for WW1 history. Over the years, I have seen many names on memorial plaques and records — some dating back a century and more — and they all have stories to tell.
I hope everyone, especially young people, learn these priceless stories of relatives who served in the military, decades and centuries past. It is often eye-opening, to say the least.