Maine Farmhouse Journal
My grandmother Lena's boy Harry was only four when she fled a bad marriage in 1901, taking her six year old daughter with her and leaving her two boys behind in little village of New Denmark, New Brunswick. She obtained a divorce from her husband Henry in 1902, and then stepped into a self-imposed exile that lasted nearly 50 years (see Sister where are you?). Her family thought her dead all that time. Her ex-husband Henry remarried in 1907, and on his wedding certificate listed himself as "widower".
It is sad to contemplate that Lena never saw her little boy Harry after she left him behind in 1901. She may never have learned that her Harry had enlisted in 1916 in the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force, or when he died in Flanders fields in the Battle of Passchendaele, Belguim, in 1917. Harry was twenty years old when he died.
In 1949 when Lena's brothers in New Denmark, New Brunswick, learned that their sister was still alive, they were overjoyed. The first letters from Canada passed along news of family members who had died, including Lena's mother and father, several brothers and sisters, and Harry.
As World War I broke out in 1914 between Great Britain and Germany, Canada offered to send to Great Britain an infantry division. On August 3, 1914 German forces crossed into Belguim in their offensive on the Western Front, and Britain accepted Canada's offer for troops on August 6, 1914. The Canadian Ministry of Militia and Defence sent out a call for volunteers across Canada to aid the war effort. The response from volunteers was overwhelming, and the First Contingent of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) was formed, trained, and sailed as a convoy to England on October 3, 1914. There were 18 battalions in the First Contingent, each numbering about 1,000 troops. British Columbia and Winnepeg sent battalions, as did Ontario, Toronto, Montreal, Nova Scotia and provinces from the west to the east coast. The 1st Canadian Division was formed from the First Contingent, and consisted of three brigades with four battalions each. They saw service in the early battles of that first, terrible year of the "war to end all wars". It soon became apparent that the conflict would not be easy, nor would it be concluded quickly.
The casualties on the Western Front were staggering in those early war years of 1914 and 1915, and more troops were urgently needed from all over the British Commonwealth. The Second Canadian Contingent was raised in the winter of 1914-1915 with 15 new battalions. Then in 1915 and 1916 another call for volunteers went out. Between then and the end of the war in 1918 Canada would form 227 more battalions and send them overseas in defense of the Commonwealth. More than 600,000 Canadians enlisted in the CEF during the 1914-1918 period of World War I.
Harry William Darkes took the long train ride from New Denmark to St. John, New Brunswick and enlisted on March 11, 1916 as one of those 600,000 volunteers. Harry could not read nor write, but he was fit and wanted to serve his country. He completed the Attestation Paper, made his declaration and took an oath to "honestly and faithfully defend His Majesty, His Heirs and Successors, in Person, Crown, and Dignity, against all enemies..." for the duration of the war. He became Regimental Number 742978 and was assigned to the 115th Battalion.
Harry was described on his enlistment medical examination as 18 years old, 155 pounds with a 31 inch waist, standing 5 ft 11 1/2 inches tall. His chest expansion (girth) when fully expanded was 30 1/2 inches and his range of expansion was 2 1/2 inches. He was desribed as having a dark complexion, with brown eyes and brown hair, with good teeth and 20:20 vision. His religion was listed as Danish Lutheran. Although he had been born Harry William Dierks in 1897, somewhere along the line both he and his brother Carl had adopted the name "Darkes", and were known as such in New Denmark. This is the name that Harry was enlisted under.
The Medical Officer examined Harry and attested that he "does not present any of the causes of rejection specified in the Regulations for Army Medical Services." The Medical Examination Certificate stated that "he can see at the required distance with either eye; his heart and lungs are healthy; he has the free use of his joints and limbs; and he declares that he is not subject to fits of any description." In other words, Harry was a warm body suitable for whatever use his King had for him. For his service, Harry was paid $15.00 a month by the Canadian Army.
Harry's Enlistment was approved on April 6, 1916 by Lt. Col. Weddenham, O. C. for the 115th Overseas Battalion, C.E.F. Harry was assigned to "D" Company and went through a rapid training. He was shipped with the 115th on board the S. S. Olympic on July 23, 1916, sailing out of Halifax. He arrived in Liverpool on July 31, 1916. Once in England, the troops of the 115th were absorbed into the Canadian Reserve Battalions (The laid up colours of the 115th Battalion hang in the chancel of the Trinity Church in St. John, New Brunswick). While stationed at Bramshott, England, Harry was transferred ("TOS - Taken on Strength" of the unit) to the 112th Battalion CEF on October 15, 1916 under Part II, Daily Order #266. He was then transfered to the 13th Reserve Batalion on February 2, 1917 under Daily Order #33.
Harry's service record shows that he was "admonished" by Captain Berry on April 12, 1917 for having "dirty messkit...while on active service" at Shoreham. Other than that one incident Harry's record is clean.
From a medical point of view Harry had a string of illnesses that plagued his service in the CEF. Right after he enlisted in St. John he came down with tonsillitis and was in hospital from April 4 through 16, 1916. Then on May 9, 1916 he came down with the measles in St John and was laid up until May 27 with them. When he arrived in England he had another bout with tonsillitis and was put into isolation at Aldershot from December 27, 1916 until January 23, 1917.
As one of the new troops who were used to fill out the Battalions that had been in action in 1916, Harry was drafted into the 26th New Brunswick Battalion on May 30, 1917. Two of his neighbors from New Denmark were also transferred into the 26th. Harry was shipped to France with the 26th from Shoreham on the same day (Battalion Order 114, Part II).
Harry's medical problems did not cease when he was transferred to the continent. He came down with a bad case of impetigo on his face and arms and spent from July 4 through July 17, 1917 in the care of the 86th Field Ambulance.
For a short while Harry was attached to the 5th Canadian Machine Gun Corps as an ammunition carrier. He was with the 5th from September 15, 1917 until October 13, 1917 at which time he rejoined the 26th.
Harry's rejoined the 26th Battalion just in time to became part of the Battle for Passchendaele. It was there that Harry was reported missing on November 6, 1917 (Part II, Daily Order 112) and believed dead in the hell on earth that was fought in the mud and horrors of Flanders fields. He had been in the army just over 18 months.
We remember Flanders fields largely because of the haunting poem written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. McCrae was a doctor with the medical corps at the 2nd Battle of Ypres in 1915. He was in charge of a dressing-station near Ypres and was overwhelmed at the suffering of the wounded and the rapidly growing number of little wooden crosses marking the dead. He scribbled these words on a piece of paper one evening. Believing the poem worthless he crumpled the paper into a ball and threw it into a corner, where it was retrieved by Lt. Col. E. W. B. Morrison, CO of the 1st Brigade. Morrison send the poem to Punch magazine where it was published on December 8, 1915. It has come to symbolize the place where young Harry was to die and where his body lies today.
Shortly after the First Contingent of the CEF left for England, the government of Canada authorized the recruiting of a second contingent of volunteers. Fifteen new battalions were recruited, trained and mobilized during the winter of 1914-1915. New Brunswick raised a battalion known as the "Fighting 26th".
The 26th New Brunswick Battalion was formed at St. John on November 2, 1914 as part of the Second Contingent of the CEF. The 26th was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel J. L. McAviry. At full strength the battalion had a complement of 35 officers and 996 other ranks. In this 1915 picture the "Fighting 26th" is shown arrayed on a hillside outside St. John, fresh and eager to be "over there" before the war was over.
In the spring and early summer of 1915, the Second Contingent sailed for England. Where the First Contingent had sailed as a convoy the Second Contingent battalions left in separate transports. The 26th sailed from St. John on June 13, 1915 aboard the transport S. S. Caledonia.
Local photographer D. Smith Reid captured on film the boisterous scene that day, as families and well-wishers crowded right to the edge of the docks and the troops milled around in their staging areas. A wooden fence separated the troops from the crowds. As the troops filed onto their transport, they hung from the masts and stays, and lined the railings to take one last look at their home and their families before the long trip across the Atlantic. For many of them, this was to be their last look at home. They lie in graves, some marked but many unmarked, on the battlefields of Europe.
When the 26th arrived in England, they and the rest of the Second Contingent spent the summer of 1915 training at Shorncliffe on the coast of Kent. From the Contingent a new Canadian Division was formed - the 2nd. Like the 1st Canadian Division, the 2nd had three brigades of four battlions each.
The 26th New Brunswick battalion became part of the 5th Infantry Brigade, 2nd Canadian Division. The 2nd Division was commanded by Major-General Henry E. Burstall, a 47 year old artillery officer from Quebec City. The Fifth Brigade was commanded by Brigadier-General J. M. Ross. In addition to the 26th, the Fifth Brigade contained the 22nd French Canadian Battalion, the 24th Victoria Rifles of Canada Battalion, the 25th Nova Scotia Rifles Battalion, and the 5th Trench Mortar Battery. By September the 2nd Division was in action on the front lines.
Harry missed the embarkation of the "Fighting 26th" in June 1915 but he and his friends must have heard about it in the fervor that gripped Canada in those days. We will probably never know what prompted him to volunteer eight months later in March 1916, but the local New Brunswick pride in their own troops and their own battalion probably were important factors. There was a nationwide rally to the calls to arms, and Harry responded.
When Harry joined the 115th New Brunswick Battalion in 1916, several other lads from New Denmark also enlisted in the same battalion, including Freddie Paulsen, Peter Swanson, Ben Hansen, Fred Petersen, Carl H. Jensen and Edgar Brinkman. He was shipped overseas with the 115th on the S.S. Olympic on July 23, 1916. Later, when Harry was transfered to the 26th, his neighbors Ben Hansen and Edgar Brinkman were transfered with him. They joined the "Fighting 26th" in time to take part in one of Canada's greatest engagements in World War I, at the Battle of Passchendaele.
When the German army invaded Belgium on August 3, 1914, Britain rushed troops to stop them. The British were able to hold the strategic town of Ypres and stopped the German advance into France. Ypres was a center of textile weaving, and was noted for its magnificent architecture from medieval times including the Ypres Cathedral and the 1214 Cloth Hall.
While the British were able to stop the German advance, they were not able to move much further north from Ypres. The Germans were able to stop any Allied advance north to drive the Germans from the Belgian coast and capture their submarine bases at the ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge. Both sides dug in, and a bulge in the front lines, or salient, developed.
The British launched the First Battle of Ypres in October 1914 in an attempt to break through the German lines. Fighting continued throughout October and November with huge losses of life and no significant changes in the salient.
The Second Battle of Ypres followed the next spring, during April and May 1915. The Germans used chlorine gas for the first time in warfare and succeeded in driving the British back to the town of Ypres. They were not able to push the British further, however, and the stalement continued for the next two years.
In July, the British commander Sir Douglas Haig launched his disastrous drive in Flanders designed to break through the front and capture the German submarine bases on the Belgian coast. This Third Battle of Ypres is universally known as the Battle of Passchendaele. The offensive had had a successful prelude at Messines in June, but this local success was followed by weeks of delay.
Within a few days, the heaviest rains for 30 years had turned the soil into a quagmire, producing thick mud that clogged up rifles and immobilized tanks. It eventually became so deep that men and horses drowned in it. As the British soldiers struggled in the morass, the Germans inflicted frightful casualties from lines fortified with machine guns placed in concrete pill boxes.
In the next four months at Ypres only negligible advances were made. Early in October, although the main objectives were still in German hands and the British forces were reaching the point of exhaustion, Haig determined on one more drive. The Canadian Corps was ordered to relieve the decimated Anzac forces in the Ypres sector and prepare for the capture of Passchendaele and the German occupied ridge that ran east and south to Ypres (the shaded area on the map).
Canadian Corps Commander General Currie inspected the muddy battlefield and protested that the operation was impossible without heavy cost. He was overruled and so began careful and painstaking preparations for the assault. In a series of attacks beginning on October 26, 20,000 men under heavy fire inched their way from shell-hole to shell-hole. The Canadians seized Passchendaele on November 6, but at a terrible cost.
In little over three months the Battle of Passchendaele cost over half a million lives. The Germans lost about 250,000 lives and the Allies 300,000 of whom 15,654 were Canadian. 90,000 Allied bodies were never identified, and more than 54,000 were never recovered and their graves are not known.
War on the Western Front in World War I was horrible enough, with the miseries of life in the trenches and infantry charges "over the top" against emplaced machine guns, barbed wire, and massed artillery. The Battle of Passchendaele, however, was probably the worst of the Western Front struggles.
Many of these missing and unknown from the battle had been blown to bits by artillery or had drowned in the dreadful mud that was the Ypres - Passchendaele battlefield. Many of the drowned were exhausted or wounded men who had slipped or fallen off the duckboards and were unable to escape the filthy, foul-smelling glutinous mud. They sunk deeper to their deaths as they struggled. Passchendaele became infamous because the huge number of casualties and the mud.
Before war came the fields of Flanders were gently rolling pasturelands. The Flemish had reclaimed a vast marsh stretching for miles with an elaborate drainage system into a bucolic landscape. All the towns and roads were located on high ground as much as possible, and sheep and cattle grazed on the pastures.
When Ypres became a major battlefield in the war, the continual artillery barrages from both sides destroyed the drainage system and any vegetation, and the land began to revert to marsh. The soils were a heavy clay, and with water added became a clinging, pervasive, impossible mud.
Before the rains came, the troops were able to dig trenches like the one shown in this photo. With sumps and wooden duckboards they could be kept fairly dry. When the fall rains began, as they always do in Belgium, the trenches filled with water and the soldiers had to stand for hours in water to their knees. The battlefield became an endless sea of mud deep enough to drown horses and men who were unlucky enough to fall into it.
The rains in the fall of 1917 were unusually heavy and the entire battlefield was transformed into a sea of mud. The soldiers slept in the mud, crawled in the mud, fought in the mud, and drowned in the mud. The mud also clogged rifles, ruined food, and rendered artillery useless.
This account is by a Canadian soldier who lived through the Battle of Passchendaele and had nightmares about his experience for the rest of his life.
The Battle of Passchendaele opened with an artillery barrage of the enemy lines that lasted two weeks, with 4.5 million shells fired from 3,000 guns. When the wind came from the continent, artillery fire at Ypres could be heard as far away as in London! Here is an account from a German soldier on the receiving end of the Allied barrage at the Battle of Passchendaele. He wrote this on August 14, 1917 and died only four days later as the barrage continued.
It was no better on the other side of the line. For the British, Passchendaele amounted to the horror of warfare in a morass, in a surreal world where men and animals simply vanished in pools of mud. Just getting to the front was a horrendous experience: horses and men slipped off roads and disappeared before they could be rescued. The dead were put to use as stepping stones, only to slip out of sight.
The 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions were ordered to the Ypres front on October 13, 1917. They were moved by rail to Ypres and then marched by battalion to the front lines, arriving in early November. At 4:00 a.m. on Tuesday, November 6, 1917 they were in position to charge the German positions at Passchendaele village, about 2,000 yards away.
The weather had improved for several days preceeding the attack, with no rain falling. Towards morning the overcast sky cleared and stars were visible. A bright full moon shown down on Passchendaele. There was a brisk wind, and it was cold.
Zero hour was 06:00 a.m., and for two minutes every Canadian gun fired on the enemy defenses. The artillery barrage began to creep forward at a rate of 50 yards every four minutes. Following closely behind the barrage the infantry went over the top and slogged their way towards their objectives through the mud. The 1st Division was on the left of the advancing line, and the 2nd Division under Major-General Henry Burstall was on the right of the line. He had deployed the 28th Northwest Battalion, the 31st Alberta Battalion, the 27th Winnipeg Battalion, and the 26th New Brunswick Battalion. The "Fighting 26th" was on the far right of the battle line.
The German artillery began firing at the Canadian troops advancing towards the German lines. The noise was deafening. The mud and water was in places knee-deep and sometimes waist-deep, but the infantry continued advancing through the heavy enemy artillery and machine gun fire.
Private Harry Darkes and the 26th moved steadily towards their objective, but with heavy losses. For example, the 26th's A Company started with 130 men and finished with only 30 at the end of the push. Most of the casualties were from shell fire, and very little from German machine gun fire. More than one in three soldiers in the 26th Battalion were wounded, killed, or missing. Sometime during this attack, Harry was hit and disappeared in the confusion, smoke, mud and noise of the battlefield. He was never seen again.
The "Fighting 26th" was successful in their advance. At 07:35 a.m., barely an hour and a half after zero hour, they reached the high ground immediately south of Passchendaele. They fired three white flares to signal that they had reached their "green line" objective.
The other three battalions in the Division also reached their objectives, and by 07:40 a.m. the entire village of Passchendaele was in Canadian hands. Although the high ground on which the village was located was only 165 feet above sea level, the Canadians were able to see the entire Ypres battleground. The high ground had given the Germans a clear advantage.
The rains started during the afternoon. It was only a drizzle at first but became progressively heavier as the day wore on. The Canadians held on during the night through heavy German shelling, with only shell-holes to seek shelter in from the jagged metal that filled the air. They braced for counter-attacks from the Germans, but the attacks never came. When they were relieved the next day, the casualties were staggering.
On that one day, November 6, 1917, Harry's 26th Battalion suffered 300 casualties as they took Passchendaele. All of the company commanders were casualties, either dead or wounded or missing in action. The battalion's casualties were more than 1/3 of their soldiers fighting that day. The other Canadian battalions suffered similar losses. In one day of battle the Canadians suffered a total of 2,238 casualties, including 734 dead.
Harry was among the soldiers that died that day. Harry didn't win any medals for valour or heroism, nor was he mentioned in the dispatches. He was just an ordinary soldier, doing his duty for his country. In that way he was very much like most of the others at Passchendaele.
In the three months of the battle for Passchendaele the Canadian contingent lost 15,654 soldiers. Compare that to the losses at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 that affected our nation so deeply, and the losses at Passchendaele stagger the imagination.
Siegfried Sassoon was one of World War I's most famous (and controversial) poets. He was at Ypres and Passchendaele, and eloquently captured the horror of that battlefield in this 1920 poem.
We will probably never know how Harry died. I hope that it was quick, with a German shell obliterating him instantly. It might have been more tragic, as so many of the Passchendaele deaths were, a slow agonizing death from wounds and the mud of Flanders fields. No matter how Harry died, his death was felt by his family in New Denmark. His youth was snuffed out with his whole life ahead of him.
A channeler we spoke with in Manchester, NH, conveyed that Harry had died instantly, and that he had been committed to doing what he was doing - being a soldier in a great cause.
Harry's body is buried somewhere under the mud of Flanders field. His name is memorialized on Panel 26-28 of the Ypres Menin Gate Memorials along with the names of more than 54,000 Allied officers and men whose graves are not known, including 6,940 Canadian soldiers. The Gate is one of four memorials to the missing of Ypres, and is located on the eastern side of the town of Ypres on the road to Menin and Courtrai. The site of the Menin Gate was chosen because of the hundreds of thousands of men who passed through it on their way to the battlefieds. Each night at 8:00 p.m. the traffic is stopped at the Menin Gate while members of the local Fire Brigade sound the Last Post under the Memorial's arches.
Carved into the granite of the memorial are the words "Their Name Liveth For Evermore". It is sad that all those that knew Harry are now passed on themselves, and he has no one to grieve for him or remember his name. Hopefully this article will help those of us who remain to remember Harry and other brave lads who gave their all for King and Empire in the "war that was to end all wars".
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Last updated February 29, 2004
Copyright © 2003, 2004, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2003, 2004, Allen Crabtree