In Memoriam: Soldiers of the 58th Bn CEF

An Address delivered by Gordon MacKinnon at the Church of the Transfiguration

Manor Road East, Toronto, on 6 November 2005.

Veterans Affairs Canada has declared 2005 The Year of the Veteran and it is fitting that we should take some time to think about the veterans who have defended Canada in the First and Second World Wars, Korea and in Peacekeeping. In particular, we should concentrate on over 4000 men who served in the 58th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force from 1915 to 1919 because of this church’s unique connection to the 58th.

The founding vicar of the Church of the Transfiguration, Canon C. W. Hedley, served as a chaplain to the 58th, the battalion flags were deposited here after the disbanding of the battalion, and a plaque commemorating the 851 dead of the battalion is on the wall. The Boy Scouts and Wolf Cubs that meet here took 58 as their number. After the disbanding of the 58th Battalion in 1920 the church was for many years the place that the veterans of that battalion held their Remembrance Day services. The year 2005 also marks the ninetieth anniversary of the creation of the 58th.

My uncle, Corporal Archie MacKinnon, twice came very close to being on the list as one of the 58th soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice. Once near Ypres he was completely buried by an exploding shell and was saved by his comrades who dug him out. The second time was at Courcelette on the Somme battlefield when he was so severely wounded that after six months in a hospital in Wales he was shipped back to Toronto as ‘no longer fit for military duties.’ He, the other wounded, the dead, and those who survived unwounded, are all men whose memory we should keep and honour today and always. Veterans rarely spoke about their experiences because the horror of the memories was too intense for words. Archie was the same, according to his family, but his few surprisingly frank letters to his sister which have survived give us a rare glimpse of an ordinary soldier’s reaction to the carnage .

Uncle Archie was born in Toronto Junction in July 1895, the second son and third child of a Scottish immigrant also named Archie, and his wife Annie, an immigrant from County Armagh, Ireland. Two more sons were born to this couple, my father Neil in 1899, and his brother, my namesake, Gordon, in 1903. The first-born was the only daughter, Jean. It is because of Jean that we are able to know about Archie’s short traumatic time as a soldier because Jean preserved as a memorial the letters that Archie and his older brother Ronald sent to her from the trenches. Father Archie was a blacksmith and machinist in the CPR Shops in the Toronto Junction. Three years after mother Annie’s premature death at the age of 35, he remarried and moved his family of five children to a farm in Proton Township, Grey County, near Dundalk, Ontario.

Uncle Archie was single and boarding with his married sister Jean and her husband in the Junction when he volunteered for the new 58th Battalion in July 1915. He was only 19, a couple of weeks short of his twentieth birthday, but added a year to his age so he could be sure to get overseas before the war was over. Even though the Canadians had already suffered heavy casualties in history’s first use of poison gas, the first ‘weapon of mass destruction,’ at Ypres, Belgium in April of 1915, there was still the optimism that the war would be short and one should do his duty before it ended. We do not know the personal motives that the Archie had for volunteering. The economic recession of 1913-14, loyalty to the British Empire of these men who were either born in Britain or had British born parents, young men wanting adventure, anti-German war propaganda, have all been suggested as general reasons for the eager response to the call. Historians agree that what kept them going in the brutal conditions of the trenches was loyalty to their few immediate fellow sufferers in the front lines. In Archie’s letters we can see the rapid change from brash youth seeing war as a great adventure to a person who wanted no more of death and horror. These horrors for him included being buried alive, being hit five times by shrapnel balls without serious injury, and a permanent ringing in his ears from artillery explosions, in the short time the battalion spent in the trenches after its arrival in Flanders in March 1916. On June 13 1916 the battalion was in the attack at Sanctuary Wood near Ypres to regain the land lost in the Battle of Mount Sorrel from June 2-9. “Nobody can imagine what kind of night it was June 12th,” he wrote. “When you see five acres of bush going up in the air, there is something doing. Big trees and everything in the air at once. I got a letter from home wanting me to send a souvenir but believe me if I come back it will be souvenir enough.” Shortly thereafter, when his older brother, Ronald, who joined after Archie, was wounded in Sanctuary Wood, Archie’s letters became less exuberant. “Ron didn’t last long. Well there are lots who get it without ever seeing the Front Line.” Ronald had been in Flanders only three weeks and was destined to be killed at Vimy Ridge later.

The next correspondence that has survived was a telegram that stated that “Corporal Archie MacKinnon 452657 has been admitted to No.3 Western Hospital, Cardiff, Wales suffering from ‘gunshot wound arm and leg’.” He had been trained as a Lewis machine gunner and promoted to corporal, the soldier in the crew who fired the gun. On the first day the Canadians fought in the Battle of the Somme, September 15, 1916, near Courcelette, a shell explosion killed the others in the crew and Archie himself was hurled into the air. When he landed his leg was twisted around his neck and blood was dripping down his arm but stretcher bearers got him out after dark to a first aid station. His first letter from the hospital shows a return of his youthful enthusiasm. He had a Blighty, the army slang for a wound that was serious enough to require treatment in Britain. “O,” he wrote, “I am a hundred times better off now! Just imagine-a broken leg- a person couldn’t wish for a better Blighty! Six weeks or so in bed and then limp for the duration is my motto! I don’t want to be called a brave soldier. No more of France for me if I can get out of it,” and later the anguish again “I was wishing I would get hit so I could get out of it.”

It was during his long convalescence in the Cardiff hospital that he wrote the only letter to my father that has survived. My father, Neil, was born in May 1899 and so when this letter was written by Archie, Neil was sixteen and a half. “You say you want to enlist when you become of age. You are crazy, kid. There ain’t many fellows that go to France that don’t get hit. Look, I was hit not so bad and have been lying on my back eight weeks on Saturday. You never see any Germans of any account but you see all kinds of shells exploding, killing and wounding fellows… You sleep with your clothes on, lousy as hell, and nothing to eat. If you seen five minutes of it that would be enough. You don’t get a meal ever in the morning. The sergeant will throw a quarter loaf and a tin of bully beef and that does for 24 hours whether the rats eat it or not. You are foolish to join. I know now cause I have been through the mill and this is straight. I wouldn’t go back if I can get out of it. The war will last a good many years so don’t be in a hurry!”

When the medical authorities decided he was medically unfit for service because an infantry soldier with a bad leg cannot march 20 miles a day with a 30 kilogram back pack as the infantry often had to do, he was exuberant. “I am a sporty corporal now with a game leg. My girl is longing for my return to Canada which will only be a few weeks now. Well I have just had my dinner and am going down to Earley this afternoon by train. So you can see I am having a fairly good time.”

Archie arrived back in Toronto late in March 1917. His father met him at the station and wrote to his eldest son Ronald in the trenches. “Archie is not the boy he was when he went away.” That letter was never delivered but came back marked “Return to sender. Killed in Action April 9 1917”

These men and the men of the Second World War did not think of themselves as heroes. Indeed those who won medals for bravery were reluctant to tell of their exploits but preferred to jest that the medals and decorations had “come up with the rations.” Nor did they think of themselves as victims of incompetent generals as some historians have alleged. They saw themselves as men who had a duty to protect their country no matter the personal cost. Let us honour them for that. We will remember them.