“Right Off Their Game”: The death of Shoeing Smith Mills

Shoeing Smith Mills joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force March 10, 1916. His residence at 9 Elm Street in Belleville, Ontario shared some geographic similarities with his father’s home in Long Eaton, Derbyshire, England. Both residences were close to water and both residences were on the west side of a water course. But, other than that the similarities between the towns begin to weaken. Belleville representing the colonial new world with its roots firmly established by United Empire Loyalists who founded the town in the 18th Century and was to gain its name from a visit in 1816 by Lady Arabella Gore, wife to Sir Francis Gore.

A century later George Henry Mills, a 20-year-old single fireman born in England and now resident of Belleville, decided it was time to enlist. With his 5’6” 145-pound frame, this brown haired, blue eye man with a fair complexion signed his attestation papers that March, joining the 52nd Battery, Canadian Field Artillery, 13th Brigade. Six months later he was in England for almost a year, stationed at Milford Camp.

Sometime between his arrival in Liverpool on September 25, 1916 and his arrival in France and subsequent appointment as a shoeing smith August 21, 1917 George Henry Mills married Florence A. Mills, residing at 38 Dale Avenue, Long Eaton, Derbyshire. Shoeing Smith Mills’ service record makes no indication of the nature of the romance before the service record entry, other than indicating that the marriage occurred June 29, 1917, just under a month before Mills’ posting to France. Perhaps Florence was an old beau Mills knew before he came to Canada. She lived barely a mile from Mills father’s house.

Report Date

Service Record Notation on Marriage

Service Record Notation on Marriage

Ironically, it is not until July 1, 1918 that Shoeing Smith Mills’ assigned pay to the amount of $20.00 started because, by that date, her husband was dead.

Close up of area 2

Map of the area. Maroeuil is to the lower right corner of the map. Bray is almost in the center of the map to the right of the woods at Bois de Maroeuil. Acq is in the upper left corner of the map. The possible area of the baseball field is the large area to the right and adjacent to the number 30. [Pas-de-Calais, Mont St. Eloi Region, west of Arras : artillery map]. Scale 1:20,000. 1916.

I am hit!

Shoe Smith Hartley witness statement tells the story:

“I was with Driver Mills at the Ball game on the 8th [June 8, 1918]. We were lying on the ground between 1st and 2nd Base in the field facing home plate. I heard something strike as if someone was snapping their fingers together. We both got up on our knees and looked round. We both looked at one another, and I saw he was quite pale. I asked him what was the matter. He said “I’m hit”. I asked him “Where”. I caught him and laid him on his back, opened up his tunic and found a wound about ½ inch to the left of the top button of his tunic. A U.S.A. Doctor was within a few yards and after examination said there was nothing that could done for him. He expired about five minutes after he was hit. I heard no report of any firearm and did not know where the bullet came from”.

[Signed] 644691 T. T. Hartley

This tragedy occurred on June 8, 1918 during a baseball game between the 13th Brigade Field Artillery C.E.F. and the 1st Divisional Ammunition Column (D.A.C.) C.E.F. north-west of the small town of Maroeuil, France in the Arras Sector. The 13th Brigade’s War Diary relates the event in a somewhat macabre manner:

“Brigade Ball Team played the 1st D.A.C. and owing to a very unfortunate incident went right off their game and lost [emphasis mine]. While the game was in progress a stray rifle bullet from a rifle range near Acq hit Dr. [driver] Mills of the 52nd Battery and killed him. This accident naturally spoiled the game. [empahisis mine]”

After the accident, the game continued and the 1st D.A.C. won the game, according to their War Diary. The 1st D.A.C. War Diary also related that Lt.-Colonel Hanson and Major Crerar, who was later to command the 1st Canadian Army in the Second World War, attended the baseball game.

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Accidental death during a war is a serious matter. The loss of men and material through accident was a waste of resources and, in regard to, this the wheels of military bureaucracy went into action immediately. A Court of Enquiry was convened and completed June 11, 1918 with Major E.A. Greene, of the 14th Brigade C.F.A. acting as President with Capt. A.A. Paré, 5th C.D.A.C. and Lieut. Davidson, 13th Brigade C.F.A. as members. The Board took witness testimony from four witnesses.

Lieut. C.A. Cowie, 6th Gordons. 152 Brigade, 51st Division B.E.F. related that he oversaw Lewis Gunners at the Bray Range during the time of he incident. There was nothing to report as each crew had a “capable” N.C.O. instructor supervising the exercise. Lieut. Cowie did not find out about the incident until the next day.

Driver Wilkinson, reg. no. 320954 related that he was 5-yards away from Driver Mills when the bullet struck and corroborated Shoe Smith Hartley’s testimony adding that he reported the incident to Sergeant-Major Elliott, 52nd Battery C.F.A. and the then carried him off the field dead, under the orders of a Major Macauley.

The last witness, Capt. H.W. Johnston, Medical Officer C.A.M.C. attached to 13th Brigade C.F.A. related that he arrived shortly before Mills died and found a “perforating wound of the upper left chest in front.

From the witnesses’ accounts and other reports the Finding of the Court determined that it was unable to definitively determine the source of the bullet and recommended that the safeguards at the ranges “be looked into”. They found that the cause of death was accidental.

A report from XVII Corps, First Army B.E.F. dated July 1, 1918 states:

“If this bullet came from the Bray ranges, it must have been a ricochet, and the distance was 2,300 yards from the butts.

Steps have been taken to minimize the possibility of a recurrence of such accidents on this range.”


Document from an unknown author, First Army, XVII Corp, B.E.F.

The Lewis Machine Gun had an effective range of 880 yards and 3,500 yards was considered maximum firing range. Depending on the type of ricochet (flat angle) it is quite possible that the round from a Lewis Gun had enough energy to cause the fatal wounding of Shoeing Smith Mills.[i]

Shoeing Smith Mills is buried at Anzin-St. Aubin British Cemetery along with 361 fellow soldiers, 61 of them Canadian. His headstone has no inscription.

One can imagine two friends lying on the grass of a sunny Summer in France. The pop of a base hit and the short thud of a baseball caught in a catcher’s mitt. Then pain. Standing and perhaps coming to the realization that death was swiftly approaching. Then dying.

And yet, the game played on.

[i] For a technical review of the science of ricochets see Mohan Jauhari, Mathematical Model for Bullet Ricochet, 61 J. Crim. L. Criminology & Police Sci. 469 (1970). For a less technical overview see Terminal Ballistics: How lethal are bullets or shells after they ricochet off of dirt or buildings? at Quora.



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