This story first appeared in my book All The Dead Voices, which was published in 2002. Based on his diary and letters it tells of how a young Canadian soldier (and his comrades) could hardly wait to get to France and the front, and his experiences of battle.
At dinner on Sunday afternoons some light music from other eras which suit the mood and my love of nostalgia play in the background. Last Remembrance Sunday many of the songs and melodies on the radio were from the two world wars: As Time Goes By, White Cliffs of Dover, Over There, My Sweetheart is Somewhere in France, and It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary.
As we finished eating, Billy recalled receiving the news of his older brother Alex, who served in the Royal Horse Artillery in the First World War, being wounded in action, albeit not seriously. And he remembered the day that he, aged seven, was playing in the backyard when his mother suddenly startled him. ‘She was pealing potatoes and heard the news. She threw her knife and the potato into the air and squealed, “The war’s over! The war’s over!”’
My wife, Leslie, went upstairs and returned with some old photographs, one in particular of a handsome young man, Private Bob (Robert) Conklin, her great uncle from Toronto, who fought with the Canadian Corps in France in 1918. She told us that her mother Sheila and Aunt Nancy still had Bob’s letters and one of his diaries.
A few months later, on holiday in Toronto, I asked to see Bob’s papers, including many photographs of him and his comrades, postcards he had sent home and newspaper clippings which his family had gathered and cherished. Again, as with going through the relics of the dead in Altaghoney, I felt honoured and handled with care these precious documents. I could hear Bob’s filial voice addressing his parents, Laura and James, and his gentle advice, that of a ‘big brother’, to his younger siblings, Veny (Evelyn), Alfred Norman, Isabel and Dorothy. ‘I try to make my letters interesting when I have something to talk about or describe,’ he says in one.
Bob was the eldest child in the family. He won a scholarship every year from 1910 to 1914 and at the end of the final year headed his class. He could speak some French and quote Browning, and wrote a few pieces of light-hearted verse about army life. He worked for the Merchants Bank in Toronto before enlisting in 1916 at the age of eighteen.
He was in love with Isobel Howes, to whom he was engaged, jokingly referred to her as his ‘wife’, and pasted photographs of her into his diary, creating a little picture gallery. Through the Toronto Star newspaper I tried to discover if Bob’s many letters to Isobel – from Camp Borden Training Camp, from England and the western front – were still extant but learnt from one of her relatives, Alan Welch, a nephew, that Isobel’s last surviving and youngest brother, Edwin, had died just a year earlier, aged eighty eight. Alan had no recollection of any of Bob’s letters and so the trail went cold.
Much of Bob’s correspondence expressed his frustration at the delay in going over to England and the monotonous training and endless drilling and marching. Then, in his diary in February 1917 he writes: ‘Lt-Col. Cooper announced to the Buffs [Canadian Buffs, 198th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Forces] that we would leave Friday. Great was the rejoicing. Wednesday will be our last free day. Home for dinner. Down town and bought a Vanity Case for Isobel… To Isobel’s for supper. We went out for a walk. A very mild night.
‘(Sunday) Isobel and I went to church and heard a good sermon. Left about 11.45 and came back to camp. Our time grows shorter.
‘(Monday) Isobel was in for supper and the evening… One hears nothing these days but our departure. We are beginning to realise that we are going.
‘(Tuesday) Isobel and I went to Shea’s in evening and saw a dandy show…Went home from Isobel’s and had a good bed. Rather tired and could not sleep for a time.
‘(Thursday) In camp. Visitors allowed in. Father and mother, Evelyn Minnie and Hubbie, Rubie and Isobel down. Two bright spots in our good-bye. Mother acted like a trump and we parted all serene. Saw Ben Cameron’s aunts. The friendship between Isobel and I entered on a stage, at least from my viewpoint and feeling.
‘(Friday) After a lot of deliberation I phoned Isobel and had a nice talk. Our train left at 3 o’clock. Father carried my two kit bags – one filled with kit and one with eats. Also had a big box from home. Sorry to leave home but it is time we went.’
He is among two thousand troops who board The Metagama in Halifax bound for Liverpool. Even before they leave they suffer their first casualty.
‘A most unfortunate accident occurred to-night. Steve Kerr, one of the men in Seven Platoon, fell down a hatchway and broke his neck. He died very soon after. Just how the thing happened nobody appears to know definitely. A boxing match had gathered a crowd and he either tried to pass the crowd or attempted to get a better view by getting on the railing around the hatch. At any rate, he fell in. He was a dandy chap – a real gentleman and well liked by all the boys.’
They watch as other boats set sail for England.
‘We were peacefully eating our supper when the “Lapland” steamed slowly down the harbour past us. We lost no time in finishing our meal and getting out on the deck. The “Southland”, with decks lined with troops and bands playing, passed soon after. They cheered and we answered heartily. About 5.15 we began to turn our nose towards the sea and then we knew we were off.
‘Slowly we steamed down the harbour, cheering as we passed a small boat, or in answer to a crowd on a dock… Our band played “Rule Brittania” as we passed and we got a great cheer. The echo was none the less hearty…
‘Gradually we gained speed and the land grew dim until about seven o’clock when we saw the shores of Canada melt into the horizon. It made me feel a bit homesick, but that soon passed away. We all began to survey our new surrounding and to encounter the dead roll of the ocean.’
In England they faced almost another year of constant preparation and training. Units were broken up and friends separated. One day he writes to his mother that he was going through his Bible when he came across a particular passage. ‘I was reading my Testament and ran across Verse 13, Chapter 16 of 1st Corinthians. It was marked. Did you do it, mother? I always try to live up to it.’ [The verse reads: ‘Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong.’]
On one of his leaves in April 1917 he and his comrade Brock take a train to Bristol and visit the parental home of their friend Jack Pope. He writes:
‘We spent the time at Jack’s mostly listening to his brother Henry who is attached to the Imperial Service, doing YMCA work at one of the camps. He came over on the “Laconia”, the boat sunk by a sub that really brought USA into the war.’
On 25 February, 1917, the S.S. Laconia, sailing from New York to England, was sunk off the coast of Ireland, with the loss of twelve lives. Among its passengers was Floyd Gibbons, the soon-to-be famed headline hunter and war reporter of the Chicago Tribune. His published account of the sinking of the Laconia helped change America’s isolationist sentiment and pushed it into the declaration of war against Germany that would follow in less than two months.
Bob’s letter continues: ‘Henry Pope was in one of the reading rooms when the torpedo struck the stern about ten o’clock on a Sunday evening. He went to his cabin, got his overcoat (he was a civilian then) and went to the lifeboat assigned him. They loaded it and commenced to lower it when one of the other boats got beneath theirs and the boat was stopped until the one beneath got clear. When they recommenced lowering, the ropes fouled and one end refused to move, with the result that the boat gradually tilted and the men began to gradually drop off. When Henry saw this he took hold of a rope and climbed about forty feet onto the deck. He went over the whole deck and the only one left was an old sailor who had decided to go down with the liner. Henry persuaded him to come along and they both looked for some means of saving themselves.
‘Near the stern they saw a boat slowly moving away. The strong light from the moon made the boat quite visible. By shouting at the top of their lungs they attracted the attention of the sailor in it and it turned back. The next job was to get into the life-boat. Henry saw a rope hanging from the davit and by a lucky roll of the sinking ship was able to grasp it. Handing it to the sailor he watched him slide down and be hauled in. Then Henry started his slide. It was a drop of sixty feet. His hands were terribly burned but he was hauled into the life-boat safely.’
In his account Floyd Gibbons refers to, perhaps, the same old sailor: ‘Seeking to establish some authority in our boat, I made my way to the stern and there found an old, white-haired sea captain, a second-cabin passenger, with whom I had talked before. He was bound from Nova Scotia with codfish. His sailing schooner, the “Secret”, had broken in two, but he and his crew had been taken off by a tramp and taken back to New York. He had sailed from there on the “Ryndam”, which, after almost crossing the Atlantic, had turned back. The Laconia was his third attempt to get home. His name is Captain Dear.’
Bob continues: ‘For eight hours they tossed about in the open sea with waves towering above them. [A German] submarine rose to the surface and after a few words the commander bid them Good Night and told them the destroyers would pick them up soon. Henry was so sick he could not straighten out. Must have been a terrible eight hours. They, along with nearly all the passengers and crew, were picked up by a destroyer and after twenty-four hours, during which time they were packed so tight that nobody could sit down, they reached a port in Ireland. It must have been a terrible experience.’
In the summer of 1917 the closest Bob gets to action is taking part as an extra in a propaganda film aimed at the USA public:
‘Wednesday we carried on with a new part of our training – movie acting… We fell in at 8.30 in full marching order and proceeded down the Portsmouth Road when we were photographed by the movie man as we swung along (Scene I). Then we halted, while the scene changed.
(While the film is being changed I will tell you of the coming reel. We are an English regiment leaving our home town on the way to the firing line)
‘The battalion swings around the corner and passes through the village – the streets lined with people (mostly girls collected from the neighbourhood and transported by motor trucks) who wave frantically with hats, handkerchiefs and ferns, and are most liberal with thrown kisses and appealing and entreating glances. (End of Act I)
‘We then stopped for dinner and waited while the scenery was arranged for the next act. We went back to the Trench area.
‘The scene: a low ridge to the North: an intervening space of four hundred yards and a high ridge to the South.
‘The actors: The Germans (Buffs behind the North ridge and wearing hats reversed and advancing in mass formation): the British (the remainder of the Brigade advancing on us in waves).
‘The action: About thirty mines; gas bombs, smoke bombs – everything that made smoke.
‘The spectators: half the countryside; Griffiths (the producer of “The Birth of a Nation” and the one we were assisting in), Lillian Gish, the leading lady in the aforementioned movie.
‘It was a very realistic scene and only needed the bullets and shells to make it real. That night it was after six when we got back so we were allowed out until 11.30 in compensation.’
In September he writes again about their frustration: ‘My dearest Mother, Another week has rolled by and here we are still in Witley with no signs of a departure in the near future. The possibility is that we are better off here but the training does get monotonous and we do get weary of it…On the route march, Friday, one of the boys asked the Colonel, “Will we be in France for Christmas?” and he replied with a grin, “Either in France or in a lunatic asylum.” Speaking further he said it was the Conscription Bill that was holding us back and that if a sufficient number of men were quickly raised in Canada that we would not be long in going over…
‘Raining again… The wind gradually increased until at midnight it was blowing a gale and for a short time then the rain stopped and for about two minutes the moon came out from behind the dark clouds that were rushing in a wild mass of confusion across the sky. Those short and faint moonbeams revealed a most desolate scene. In even rows lay the shelters, shiny and wet and flapping and tugging on the ropes. The ground was netted with streams, large and small, winding their meandering ways down to the road where they collected and formed a torrent that was carrying sticks, papers and pebbles along in its current. But far more desolate looking than the wild sky or the muddy earth were the drenched groups of men that clustered together in an endeavour to revive drooping spirits by a song or two…
‘What’s the use of worrying?
It never was worth while. So
Pack all your troubles in your old kitbag
And smile, smile, smile!!!’
On another day his unit plays the part of the Germans: ‘Half our men were in German uniforms and the 145th were all dressed in French costumes of light blue. Smoke bombs, mines and blank shots made the fighting seem very realistic. The Scouts and Signallers made a raid and we nearly all died beautifully in all manner of fashions on the way to the French front line. It was my place to try and run back and get shot in doing so.’
In December 1917 he learns that a friend of his father has offered to help him take out ‘a commission’, which might have allowed him avoiding going to the front. Bob wrote back to his mother: ‘Please have Father convey to Mr Moore my appreciation of the interest he has taken in me and also of the generosity he has shown in offering to help me take out a commission. Having come so far I would not like to make any move in that direction now. I would sooner have a try at the life in France and then consider the matter. I understand that after a few months active service it is not a difficult matter for a good man to take out a commission – if the O.C. will recommend it. Thank Mr Moore very sincerely for me.’
On Christmas Day he writes: ‘Hello Everybody. A Merry Christmas? Yes, I’ve had a good time – not as pleasant as I had last year, or as good as I hope to have next year – but I managed to enjoy myself…
‘One box came on Christmas Day and that from Isobel. It was a beauty – all tied up with white paper and decorated with red tabs. It contained socks, wristlets, handkerchiefs, cake, gum, maple sugar, pork and beans and a silk handkerchief from Eva Sexton… I spent the afternoon quietly, writing to Isobel.’
He describes the scene in the camp as 1918 begins: ‘Very few went to bed before the New Year came in. At 11.55 pm, December 31, 1917, the bugle band sounded the Last Post, ushering out the Old Year; and at 12.01am, January 1, 1918, they played Reveille to awaken the New Year. Then, after exchanging best wishes amongst the boys of the section we crawled under the sheets.
‘Thus entered 1918 with us in Witley Camp. I wonder where the incoming of 1919 will find us? We know where we would like to be and here’s hoping our wishes and desires will come true in that regard…
‘Tell the kiddies I send my love.’
Then comes the day: ‘Mother and Dad, The news this letter will convey is not very cheering to you but the inevitable must come. The 5th Canadian Division is no more. R.I.P.! The Buffs have been called upon for a draft of 400 men – 100 from each Company… I have been transferred to B Coy along with the original 201st boys… Ben and I and all the boys mentioned are in the first draft to the 19th [Battalion, 4th Brigade, 2nd Canadian Division] and we expect to move inside a week…
‘Everybody is on the move and we’re all worked up fit to kill. Those inclined are celebrating in a manner that does not help them to walk straight and the hut has been a case of “Bedlam let loose”… Our kits were carefully examined this morning and we were supposed to carry on with our Lewis gun work, but the “draft fever” was too high and we did very little. Everyone is happy as a lark… Don’t worry now, I am on the same job as the rest and am taking the same chance as the rest of the boys…We are all pleased to think that we are going to do our bit.’
In another letter he writes: ‘My dear Father… I expect that we will leave the day after next from Milford for service in France. After reveille this morning we are on a minute’s notice and I expect tonight will be our last free night… Hereafter, I suppose I’ll have to think over each sentence I am to write for fear I say something which will offend the censor…
‘I don’t want you to begin worrying now that I am going out to do my bit. The majority of my friends and acquaintances who have seen service have gone through it safely and I see no reason why I should be less fortunate.
‘I realize that all the anxiety rests with those at home, for, while we all long to be back again, we all have a duty to perform and the cost matters not.’
His battalion is transported to France and he writes that he is in the rifle grenade section of the platoon. ‘Today, Sunday, I am on guard and am writing this on my knee. I am wondering if you will ever be able to make it out. The pen is dry and I have no ink handy so I’m obliged to use indelible pencil… News (that may pass the censor) is scarce and I only wish I could tell you all I want to about what I have seen.’
He was moved up to the front in early April and writes about the German bombardment that greeted them. They sleep during the day and work at night, ‘carrying rations, digging trenches and generally improving our own line.’ Bob was only ten days at the front when the Conklins received a telegram regretting to inform them that he had been wounded. Due to the delay in the post from France it was some weeks before they heard from Bob himself, to say that he was hit by shrapnel and was recovering in hospital. As he improved he helped out on the ward and then was placed on guard duty. However, he was anxious to get back to the front: ‘This may seem foolish with me having a ‘bomb proof’ here, but, you know, misery loves company, so we may as well face the music together. At any rate I’ve had a good trip down the line, and I can have another try at my luck… Can you send me a clipping from the Telegram or Star telling about my casualty? Or have you already and it hasn’t reached me? I’d like to see my picture in print.’
In the spring of 1918 the German General Ludendorff, who determined the strategy on the Western Front, staked all on a massive offensive, which was initially successful but then began unravelling. In July, Bob wrote: ‘The news these last few days has been very encouraging and everybody is quite confident that the Commander-in-Chief, Foch, will be able to give the Huns the drubbing they deserve. With the Yanks coming over in such large numbers the allies should soon be able to force the issue. There isn’t much to report. All is quiet on our front and the spirit of the troops is excellent.’ Later, he says, ‘Surely Kaiser Bill can see that it is useless for him to go any further. I don’t think it will be many months longer before the Hun decides he has had enough.’
On 8 August, nine days before Bob was posted back to the front, the Canadian Corps, 100,000 strong, attacked the enemy and drove the Germans back a distance of 13 kilometres. Ludendorff described 8 August as ‘the blackest day of the German Army in the history of the war’. He offered his resignation but the Kaiser refused it, though the Kaiser had by then made the decision that ‘the war must be ended’.
On 26 August, the 4th Canadian Brigade, including Bob’s unit, took part in the Battle for Arras, at the northern edge of the Somme salient. The assault was launched at 3 am and the 4th Brigade moved rapidly through the enemy’s outpost zone and reached the outskirts of Guemappe where they came under heavy shelling. At an unknown hour, somewhere between Guemappe and Monchy, Bob was wounded again and removed to a casualty clearing station. In three days of fighting the 2nd and 3rd Divisions lost 254 officers and 5,547 other ranks.
On 6 September, Bob’s twenty-first birthday, his mother received a telegram from the Director of Records: ‘Mrs Laura Conklin, 418 Euclid Ave Toronto Ont. 3331 Deeply regret inform you 228305 Pte. Robert James Davidson Conklin infantry officially reported died of wounds 1 casualty clearing station August 29th gunshot wound back.’
Eerily, two days later they heard from Bob. It was a letter, dated 11 August: ‘Our cushy job is finished and I am taking another trip up to fire a few more rounds at Heine… We are all pleased at the recent news, especially as the Canadians have figured in it. We seem to have Heine on the go now and perhaps we can keep him that way…
‘Give my love to all, and don’t worry on my account… I am enclosing a bit of white heather from Bonnie Scotland. It’s lucky – let’s hope for both sender and recipient.’
Another letter arrived, dated 15 August: ‘This morning we did some salvaging and I found this pad – and the ink (which, I may say, is of Heine manufacture and was found in one of his old dug-outs)… I received a few letters yesterday… None came from Isobel but it is very likely down-the-line looking for me there…’
After his death, three more letters arrived, his last to his sister Veny [Evelyn], dated 22 August: ‘It is a scorching hot day, but I am thankful to say that I am stretched out on the grass “in the shade of the old apple tree”. There is a faint breeze blowing at times, and it is much enjoyed I assure you.
‘Now my dear “kid sister, who is Eighteen”, I have written you a letter, but there is one thing lacking that is essential for a good letter and that is news, and just as you have meatless, heatless and eatless days, we have our news-less days. But some day I’ll be able to say what I would like to, I think, if all goes well, and then there won’t be any need to close as follows: “Well, my news is finished, so I’ll ring off.”
‘P.S. I will write Mother in a few days. Love to all. Bob.’
He never got to write that letter.
Bob Conklin, along with 632 Commonwealth soldiers and 46 German soldiers, is buried in Ligny-St. Flochel cemetery, France. Five weeks after his death Germany sent out her first peace note and World War One ended with the armistice on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918.
Two photographs were found on Bob when he was killed and were returned to the family. One is of his mother and his sisters Veny and Isabel, feeding some chicks, taken in June 1918 at their holiday home at Rosebank on the shore of Lake Ontario. The other is of Isobel Howes. On the back of the photo she has written: ‘How do you like my “wedding” clothes?’
A year after his death a sympathy notice appeared in a Toronto newspaper:
CONKLIN – Sacred to the memory of Pte. R.J.D. Conklin, who enlisted with the 201st Battalion and was transferred to 198th Buffs Battalion, died Aug. 29th, 1918, at Battle of Arras, buried at Ligny St. Flochel.
Not now, but in the coming years,
It may be in the Better Land
We’ll read the meaning of our tears
And then, up there, we’ll understand.
We’ll know why clouds instead of sun
Were over many a cherished plan.
Why song had ceased when scarce begun
’Tis then, up there, we’ll understand.
In 1919 Bob’s fiancée, Isobel, broken-hearted since his death some months earlier, but continuing her work as a nurse, perished in the ‘Spanish’ influenza epidemic that killed 50,000 Canadians and millions worldwide.