O: “Other Sad Afternoons to Come…”: The Death of Corporal Gehl

18th Battalion Association[i]
Windsor and Detroit Branch
*MEMORIES[ii]*

While we were at La Clyte[iii] [sic], Jack Gehl[iv] and Dick Hamill[v] were assigned to a special work party with the Engineers. While they were away the rest of us went in the M. & N. trenches for our regular turn. Several days later, Dick Hamill came back with the sad news that Jack had been killed the day before[vi]. We were all sorry as Jack was one of the best-liked men in the Platoon, and one of the most popular in the Company. His boyhood chum, Pat Branoff[vii] [sic] was stunned. The following Friday, we were relieved and made the long hike back to La Clyte, in a drizzling rain.

The following day, Saturday, was nice and sunny, and while we washed, shaved, and had breakfast, most of us hung our uniforms out to dry. Pay Parade was at noon and Captain Lamb came over, each man receiving 15 francs. A group, including Pat Branoff, Dick Hamill, Sammy Tooke[viii], and others, decided to go over to La Clyte. After a short stop at one of our favourite Estaminet, we all went to a house near the Hospital to have some eggs and chips. The old lady, who waited on us, has very friendly, and even put some extra rations on the table. Before we left, she insisted that we all have a glass of wine with her, charging us only for the eggs and chips. (A Lance Corp. at the next table intimated she had a married daughter residing in Delhi.)

After we got outside, Pat Branoff stopped and declared he was going to find Jack Gehl’s grave. Although we tried to dissuade him, he as so determined that we decided to go along with him. But how did you find a grave of someone that was killed in another part of the line? We knew Jack wasn’t buried at La Clyte as that cemetery was filled up a long time ago[ix]. I believe one of the group knew someone in the Brigade Office and he went over to see him. He came back with some directions, and we merely followed the leader. We walked about three miles away from La Clyte and after making a couple of right-hand turns, we found the cemetery which was supposed to be planned and set out by the Engineers. It was a barren field with a lot of shell holes, most of which were half-filled with water. There were no markers, no grass, no trees. It was a bleak spot. At the top of the field, there were some fresh mounds of earth and at the tip of the mound, there was a glass jar with a card inside, giving the name and Regimental Number of the soldier who was buried there. We found Jack’s grave, and while Pat and one of the others knelt down and took out their Rosary to pray for the dead, the rest of us just stood around.

We then started back down the muddy lane, but when we had only gone a short way, Pat Branoff broke down and sobbed bitterly. After a while, Pat apologized and we continued to the huts, as none of us felt like celebrating and were glad to get back.

It seems strange that with Death all around us at all times, we should grieve so over one soldier, but Jack was someone special and Death had not touched our Platoon too heavily. That would change. The attack on the Craters at St. Eloi was coming and we would play a prominent part. It was a sad afternoon. There wound be other sad afternoons to come.

The Story

The Battalion is station near La Clytte in Belgium (Klijte, Belgium) when two members of the Battalion are assigned temporarily to another unit. This was common practice to shift personnel between units as the needs of the Brigade and Division warranted. The engineers would be tasked with building and improving roads, trenches, and the similar military infrastructure. Engineers had the appropriate technical skills to address these field problems and sometimes they just needed raw manpower (picks and shovels) to complete their tasks. The nature of this duty must have been of a very temporary nature as there is no notation in either Gehl’s or Hamill’s service record recording to which unit they were assigned.

Several days into the duty Corporal Gehl is killed in action and on the return of Private Hamill to the Battalion the other members of the Platoon to which they belong find out about Corporal Gehl’s death.

The Battalion is in reserve and the some of the men of the Platoon decide to go for drinks and food and take it upon themselves to visit the grave of the recently departed comrade under the insistence of Private Braniff, Gehl’s “boyhood chum”. They begin their trek after securing the location of the burial site and arrive to discover the graveyard. They attend to the grave with some of the men praying and begin their walk back to base. Private Braniff is inconsolable after the grave-side visit, recovers, and they continue back to their base.

The author notes that this death was not the first, or the last, but just one that caused sadness for the men of the Battalion.

Discussion

This “memory” offers a rich tapestry of insight into the lives of the common soldier of the CEF and, specifically, of the named members of the 18th Battalion. Friendship, loss, grieving, and even boredom play parts in this story and it engenders an immediacy and intimacy from its description that spans the century.

Corporal “Jack” Gehl[x] was a Roman Catholic soldier born in Heidelberg, Ontario and enlisted in Galt, Ontario at the age of 26. Gehl travelled from Berlin (Kitchener) to Galt to enlist. He was motivated enough to make the trip to join the Battalion being raised as part of the 2nd Contingent. His service card did not survive so one cannot determine his service experiences, but he was older than the average private soldier (26-years old at enlistment) and he was appointed lance-corporal in December 1915 and promoted again to corporal in January 1916.

Private “Pat” Braniff was a Roman Catholic soldier born in Berlin (Kitchener), Ontario. He was living there when he enlisted in Galt, Ontario on the same day as Gehl. He was 21-years old upon enlistment.

As the “memory” relates they were “boyhood chums”. There is no indication, save for this tantalizingly brief description, of how this relationship was formed or how strong a bond it was. There was five years difference in age between Gehl and Braniff. The did live in the Berlin and joined the Battalion on the same day. This indicates a possible relationship connection and it is likely they did know each other, just how well and how close cannot be determined with this story. Yet, they shared a common background and served in the same platoon and may have other shared common experiences prior to their enlistment. Certainly, being from the same town would increase the bond as they went to London, Ontario for their initial training and then overseas as part of their military experience. The seniority of Gehl over Braniff may have engendered an “older brother” identification for Braniff to Gehl. Gehl’s advancement in rank indicates that his maturity and skills in leading men responsibly was recognized by his Platoon and Company commanders and, perhaps, it was some of these characteristics that strengthened the bond between these two men.

Private Hamill was a recent replacement. He had enlisted with the 36th Battalion in Hamilton, Ontario on April 20, 1915 and joined the Battalion in the field November 10, 1915. He had been with the Battalion for approximately six-months when Corporal Gehl was killed. Ironically, he was appointed a lance-corporal on the same day Gehl was killed. The promotion was not related to the death of Gehl but due to recent promotion of the now Corporal David Norwood[xi].

The “memory” does not relate the manner of Corporal Gehl’s death. His Circumstances of Death Card reveals some of the details:

‘”Killed in action.” Shrapnel – St. Eloi. When on a wiring party near St. Eloi, he was hit in the head by an enemy grenade or large piece of shrapnel, and instantly killed.’

Saturday April 27, 1916 is recorded as being “fine and warm”[xii]. With the news of Corporal Gehl’s death still fresh in the members of the Platoon decide to spend the afternoon in search of refreshments at their “favourite Estaminet”. They had been paid and were flush with cash, so they decided to go for a quick drink and then to a house where a local woman makes them meals. It appears she has relatives living in Delhi, Ontario and furnishes them with some wine in solidarity between her connection with Canada and the Canadian troops she is hosting in her house. Belgian and Flemish immigrants had been coming to Canada (Belgium was designated a “preferred country” in the 1869 Immigration Act)[xiii] and some Belgium immigrants must have been the pre-cursor of the what to be the “third wave” of immigration from Belgium to the sandy soils of Tillsonburg and Delhi.

They begin their trek and with the help from someone from Brigade they determine where he is buried and walk to it. It is not clear from the description where this graveyard is and Corporal Gehl’s available information for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the Circumstances of Death card indicate he was buried at Voormezeele Enclosures No. 1 and 2 and had not been buried at another site temporarily and then disinterred and moved to Voormezeele later.

Map Walking for La Clytte Cemetery to Vorzmeele Cemetery

This is the approximate route the men took from La Clytte (Klijte) to the grave site at Voormezeele.

Their dedication to their comrade and friend was expressed in their efforts to find the graveyard and walk to it. The approximate distance from their base to the graveyard is approximately 14 kilometers round-trio translating to 3 hours walking. They were approximately 4 kilometers from La Clytte when they decided to extend their journey and begin the walk to the grave of Corporal Gehl. Finding the graveyard and the grave the soldiers stop and Private Braniff and another soldier, possibly a fellow Catholic, “…knelt down and took out their Rosary to pray for the dead,” as the other men looked on.

One can imagine the scene. Braniff kneeling beside the stark grave of his chum. The earth beginning to lose that freshly churned and disturbed look as the fine weather dries out the soil around the grave. The grave may have been mounded due to the low water-table in the vicinity. Another soldiers, perhaps another Roman Catholic, joins Braniff and they may have said a prayer or recited parts of the Rosary. The other men, respectful, but unfamiliar with the Catholic practice, waiting patiently for their comrades to complete their prayer(s). Perhaps it was late in the day and sun was waning in the West and the sky was begging to redden, signalling another fine day on the morrow. The sound of conflict would be present as incoming and outgoing artillery fired and the soft crack of rifle fire and the staccato of machine gun was heard over the soft wind of the evening.

Their friend had gone “West” and they had searched him out and honoured him with their visit. The remorse of having survived when his “chum” had not was too much for Private Braniff. As they group left the grave he “broke down and sobbed bitterly” and then apologized for his behaviour. Certainly, his comrades knew his pain and such an apology was need not be uttered. But “Pat” felt he had to and they moved off into the remains of that day to return to their huts for the next rotation of reserve duty before they were to have to go into the line again.

As the author relates, “…Death had not as yet touched our platoon too heavily. This would change.”

The memory of the grave side visit by the men of the 18th Battalion is touching and sad. It speaks to the power of friendship and the need to seek out closure for the dead. Private Braniff was compelled to confront the news of his friend’s death in some tangible way and his comrades were there to support him. The value of tight and intimate unit cohesion and the shared values of men who experienced their ration of trench life with its risks and outcome is illustrated by this “memory.” They support each other.

And prepare to fight another day…

 

To His Dead Body

BY SIEGFRIED SASSOON

When roaring gloom surged inward and you cried,

Groping for friendly hands, and clutched, and died,

Like racing smoke, swift from your lolling head

Phantoms of thought and memory thinned and fled.

 

Yet, though my dreams that throng the darkened stair

Can bring me no report of how you fare,

Safe quit of wars, I speed you on your way

Up lonely, glimmering fields to find new day,

Slow-rising, saintless, confident and kind—

Dear, red-faced father God who lit your mind.

[i] The blog has come into the possession of an exciting and valuable series of documents care of Dan Moat, a member of the 18th Battalion Facebook Group. His Great Grand-Father, Lance-Corporal Charles Henry Rogers, reg. no. 123682 was an active member in the 18th Battalion Association and the Royal Canadian Legion. With is interest in the post-war Association a series of “MEMORIES” in the form of one-page stories relate many of the Battalion’s experiences from the “other ranks” soldiers’ point-of-view.

It appears that the documents were written in the early 1970s by C.S.M. Abbott Ross, D.C.M., a full 50-years after the end of The Great War and are a valuable social history of soldiers’ experiences as told in their own words about the events that happened a half-century ago to them, and now a full century for us.

[ii] The transcription and research of these “memories” is an attempt to connect and identify the people mentioned in the stories with some accuracy. This is, in no way, a definitive identification of the people in the stories but there is high confidence that these are the men mentioned in the “memories”. In some cases, the story may identify people, places, dates, times, and details inaccurately and, where possible, these details are noted. Given that the men relating these memories would be in there late 70s, at the minimum, their errors can be forgiven. The stories related stand on their own as a social history of the experiences of the men of the 18th Battalion.

[iii] La Clytte, near the village of Loker, Belgium, was a familiar place for the Battalion. The La Clytte Military Cemetery is located there.

[iv] Gehl, John Andrew:  Service no. 53916. He was killed in action April 24, 1916 by enemy shrapnel from a grenade while working in a wiring party.

[v] Hamill, Richard:  Service no. 406735. This soldier was a reinforcement and joined the 18th Battalion November 10, 1915.

[vi] He reported the death on April 25, 1916.

[vii] Braniff, Eugene Patrick:  Service no. 53891.

[viii] Tooke, Samuel Harold Leslie:  Service no. 54052.

[ix] La Clytte Military Cemetery has 846 burials. 50 of those are Canadian soldiers with three of those soldiers being members of the 18th Battalion.

[x] For reference to ranks in this article the author is using the rank the soldier obtained during the timeframe of this “memory”.

[xi] Norwood, David:  Service no. 53948.

[xii] 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade War Diary. April 28, 1916.

[xiii] Jaenen, Cornelius J. “Belgian Canadians.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2 Aug. 2018, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/belgians/.

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