David Bluestein (Edited by David P. Whithorn)
42nd Battalion Royal Highlanders Of Canada CEF
Killed in Action September 15, 1916
I was recently privileged to acquire the Great War service medals attributed to an Acting Major of the 42nd Battalion Royal Highlanders of Canada, killed in France during the Great War. They were the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal. In addition, was the Canadian Memorial Cross awarded to mothers and wives of fallen soldiers. Each medal tells a story, and the secrets that this unassuming group revealed was one that may be representative of thousands of Canadians who were killed in the Great War. The original owner was all but another name on a casualty list, until I began the task of researching the man behind the medals. This is his story.
|Charles Blair-Wilson was born at Clerkington, Haddington, Scotland on December 18th, 1894 - an early Christmas present for parents Ethel Maud and Dr. Charles Blair-Wilson. Young Charles entered Harris Hill private school during the summer term of 1904, at the age of 10 years. In 1907, he left to continue his education at Winchester, a well-known public school in the south of England. In May 1914, at the age of 19, (archival sources show that) Charles Blair left England for Canada. Sadly the reasons for his move will never be known. Charles settled somewhere in eastern Canada or Montreal, his exact location has never been determined.|
On the outbreak of war in August 1914, Charles having been in Canada for only two months immediately joined the 5th Royal Highlanders at Montreal, gaining a commission as a Lieutenant, probably due to his 'public school' background. The 5th RH's were partly absorbed into the newly formed 42nd Battalion Royal Highlanders of Canada, (Canadian Expeditionary Force). Lieut. Charles Blair-Wilson was posted to the 42nd as a company officer, initially attached to 'D' Coy.
On June 10th 1915 the Highlanders were ordered to embark for overseas service in England. The final parade in Montreal was ordered for 4:30am and it was an inspiring sight as the 42nd, 1043 strong stood smartly at attention awaiting in the dawn of that June morning the order which would start it on the march away to war. The order was given and the battalion marched off into streets crowded with thousands of citizens who, despite the hour, turned out to give the Highlanders a send-off. (42nd Battalion Regt. History)
The 42nd embarked at the docks, aboard the S.S. Hesperian at 9am. They arrived at Plymouth England on June 19th after an uneventful voyage and encamped at St. Martin's Plain, Camp Shorncliffe becoming part of a Canadian Training Division. They practiced musketry at Hythe, and were inspected by His Majesty the King on September 2nd 1915. On October 7th 1915, the battalion began its journey to France, arriving at Boulogne the same evening, now being attached to the 7th Brigade, 3rd Canadian Division.
The battalion quickly began its service in the front line, experiencing the many harrowing realities of trench warfare. In December 1915, Lieut. Blair-Wilson attended a machine gun training school, becoming for a short time, the battalion Machine Gun Officer. The 42nd saw it's first major action at Mount Sorrel (Hill 62) a few miles to the east of Ypres from June 2nd to 13th 1916. The 42nd played a critical role, along with other British & Canadian units, in saving Ypres from massive German attacks.
'Blair', as he was known to friends at this time, was now regarded as a dependable and keen officer, who led his men with great distinction. He attained the rank of Captain after the actions at Mount Sorrel, and Acting Major on July 13th 1916 'while in command B Company in the field' It is recorded his men greatly admired their 'young' Captain, and would follow him anywhere. (De Ruvigny's Roll Of Honour). His Major would later write of him:
'From the day he joined he took hold of his work in a serious way, and as the months went by we learned more and more how capable he was and absolutely reliable. During the last months he has had a great deal of very responsible work, which he always undertook and carried out well and quietly. 'Blair' had a wonderful quiet, cool courage with the power of doing the right thing at the right time and set always a splendid example to all.' (De Ruvigny's Roll Of Honour)
The Battle of the Somme opened on the 1st July 1916. This was to be a disastrous day for the British (and Newfoundland) units involved, losing nearly 60,000 men on this first day alone with only minor gains of territory to show for this sacrifice. Throughout July and August 1916 a war of attrition developed where ground gained became less important than numbers of enemy troops killed - for both sides. Due to increasing British losses, more Empire troops became involved, these units being given tasks that proved to be particularly difficult. Initially, this would involve the Australians and South Africans at Pozieres and Delville Wood respectively, in July. These actions have become part of the national heritage of these countries. By September 1916, New Zealand and Canadian units, including the 42nd, had been moved to the Somme to participate in the already 3-month-old offensive. The 42nd Battalion's first action at the Somme would be part of the major offensive on the German trenches on the line Flers-Courcelette on September 15, 1916. This day would become an important day in world history and also my own family history. The day would see the first successful use of modern tanks in warfare and the death of my own uncle, serving with a British battalion as part of the same attack. The actions at Courcelette would also become part of the national heritage of New Zealand and rank alongside the capture of Vimy Ridge, in 1917, as part of Canada's proud achievements.
The 42nd Battalion Royal Highlanders went over the top at 6:00pm on September 15th from their designated jumping off point of 'Sugar trench'. They moved steadily forward toward 'MacDonnell Road', following a bombardment laid down before them, which lifted shortly after Zero. Their first objective was seized with virtually no resistance. The 42nd reorganized in 'Sunken Road' and continued their advance toward 'Fabeck Graben Trench' across 600 yards of rising ground with the heavily fortified enemy position on the crest of the hill facing them. Heavy enemy fire was being brought down on the advancing Highlanders. The two leading companies entered 'Fabeck Graben Trench' to find that the garrison had been largely demoralized by the continued bombardment. The 42nd began to dig in and consolidate their new position, Capt. Blair-Wilson and men worked on nearby 'Mouquet Road', under heavy enemy artillery and machine gun fire. It was at this stage in the operation, that B Company's commander, 21-year-old Charles Blair-Wilson, was killed, gallantly overseeing and directing his men.
The 42nd Battalion (Official) War Diary records for September 15, 1916:
'The attacking companies went over the parapet exactly at Zero Hour. The first objective Sunken Road was reached - also the 2nd, Frabeck Graben Trench without heavy casualties, and immediately steps were taken to clear the trench, reverse the parapet and consolidate.'
'Without heavy casualties' is the description given, devoid of emotion, simple and clear. Between the operations of September 15th and 17th 1916 the 42nd Battalion Royal Highland Regiment suffered: killed 73, wounded 290, missing (presumed killed or captured) 66. Total casualties, all ranks 437 i.e. practically 50% of those taking part.
'Killed In Action' is the official circumstance of death recorded on official casualty lists compiled after the battle for Capt. Blair-Wilson. Reading the letters of condolence to his parents from both fellow officers and his men, at his side when he made the supreme sacrifice, reveals further details of events, the high regard in which all held him and the genuine humanity of those taking part in that war, long ago.
Captain Royal Ewing, a fellow officer and friend of Charles Blair-Wilson's wrote:
''Blair' died gloriously on the parados of the German trench which the battalion captured on the afternoon of the 15th, after a magnificent charge in which we suffered heavy losses. Blair was killed instantly by shell fire.' (De Ruvigny's Roll Of Honour)
Another 42nd officer wrote (Identity unknown):
'He was tremendously keen, and when we started he was the very first over the parapet; though the shelling and machine gun fire was fearful, he moved forward as calmly and steadily as though he was on the parade ground, directing the advance with his stick. We successfully reached our objective and just after we had occupied it 'Blair' was hit I wish you could read some of the letters written by the men about Blair. His splendid leadership example was an inspiration to all.' (De Ruvigny's Roll Of Honour)
One of those letters was written by thirteen men in his company to Charles Blair-Wilson's mother, stated:
'As NCO's of B Coy. We wish to express to you our sympathy on the death of Capt. Blair-Wilson. Knowing him as we did, it was a terrible blow to us all, and we realize how much more so it would be to his family. While lamenting your great loss, we hope in these few lines convey to you something of the spirit and admiration with which the conduct of our youthful Captain imbued to all those who were with him before he fell. It is no exaggeration to say that the pages of British history or the canvas of our most eminent artists never portrayed an incident more worthy of record than the gallant way in which your son led his men to the charge. It seems almost incredible that, with shells of all calibres bursting around and rifle and machine gun bullets whistling like a hailstorm, a man could lead his boys with nothing in his hand but a walking cane. Nevertheless that is exactly what happened, and the influence of such splendid courage could not fail to inspire his men with confidence and cause them to set their minds only upon the object of attack. The effect was marvelous. Each time the Captain gave an order to advance, he signaled the command by first climbing the parapet or shell hole, where we had all taken temporary cover, and waving his cane and shouting, "Come along boys". Not a man wavered and no soldier can ever wish to see a more beautiful sight than the coolness displayed during the steady advance over 700 yards of shell racked and bullet torn ground which lay between us an the enemy's trench. Men were killed and wounded but it did not stem the tide, and with a feeling of pride we reached our objective. It was a trying ordeal, but we felt that the result was worth the strain. Captain Wilson was delighted and wore the flush of victory, but alas! Even in the moment of triumph he was stricken down by machine gun fire. We have spoken to many of the boys in the company, and they all express great admiration for their company commander; In fact one of them said, "It was glorious, and that he would have followed the Captain to Berlin if possible." We feel we cannot pay too glowing a tribute to your son's gallantry and we hope the knowledge of the way he died will, in some measure compensate you for your loss so great. Capt. Blair-Wilson died a soldier and a man. A hero of the Somme is no flattery.' (De Ruvigny's Roll Of Honour)
The 42nd Battalion War Diary of September 30th reads:
'I (Officer commanding the 42nd) have reported the distinguished services rendered to my Battalion throughout our whole time in France by Captain C. Blair-Wilson. Killed in Action while gallantly leading his company on September 15th.'
As a result of this recommendation, Captain Charles Blair-Wilson was 'Mentioned In Dispatches' by Sir Douglas Haig, commander-in-chief of the British Army in France, 'For gallant and distinguished service in the field' (London Gazette 4 Jan. 1917).
Looking at the medals before me as I write, I realize that there is something missing. One honour that does not consist of metal and ribbon, one that can only be given having won the respect and the love of both fellow officers and men. Only further research would reveal this, and provide a fitting end to this story.
As in any war, the remains of the dead at the scene of an action suffer many outcomes depending on circumstances. In quiet periods, the bodies might be brought out of the line for proper burial. During continuous actions this would be impossible. Many bodies were left exposed, later blown to pieces by subsequent shellfire; others were buried in nearby shell holes and the graves marked as best as could be achieved. Only fate would determine whether these would someday be recovered to be re-buried as 'named' graves in neatly laid out military cemeteries. By 1916, the numbers of 'missing' and 'unknown' graves was such that soldiers often purchased their own metal identity bracelets, believing that if killed, they would stand a better chance of having a 'proper' burial, someday. Following an action, the wounded would be taken from the battlefield by their comrades either under their own power or by stretcher. Given the numbers of killed and wounded of the 42nd in the action on the 15th September, it would not seem possible that such tired and wounded men would exert themselves further to bring back the dead body of one officer to a cemetery many miles behind the front line for a formal burial and thus ensure his named grave would survive for all the generations to come. And yet these men did just that, and gave him this final honour, which would be denied to many there in future actions.
At 8:30 in the morning of September 18th the Battalion paraded to attend the funeral of Captain Charles Blair-Wilson whose body had been reverently carried out of the line by the surviving members of his company. Captain Blair-Wilson was a debonair young officer whose life was full of promise and his loss was very keenly felt by all ranks. His funeral service at the cemetery in Albert, conducted by Captain Kilpatrick in the pouring rain while trucks, limbers, ambulances and the endless traffic of war moved unceasingly along the nearby road, was deeply impressive. As the pipes swelled with the mournful strain of the Lament and as the notes of the Last Post rang out, the little company of survivors sorrowed not only for the gallant officer then being buried, but also for the others of their comrades who had given up their lives during the preceding days. (42nd Battalion Regimental History)
Today, Charles Blair-Wilson can be found at Plot 1, Row M, Grave 2, Albert Communal Cemetery Extension, Somme, France. There, amongst close to 900 of his comrades who fell in the same battle, he now rests peacefully for all eternity.
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Copyright © David Bluestein, June, 2002.
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