My great-grandfather, Ernest Henry Blackwell, was born in Sussex, England. As a young boy his family emigrated to Canada where he would spend the rest of his days. He met and married my great-grandmother, Annie Ellis, whose family had also made the move across the pond. They had five children: three sons and two daughters.
His eldest child, George Ernest Blackwell, was my grandfather. I have recounted some of his life in earlier posts, particularly his World War One experiences. Only recently did it come to my attention that Ernest Blackwell, like his son George, also attested to serve overseas.
I suspect that since wars have existed there have been those who have lied to get out of going to fight in them. The Hawkeye Pierce character played by Alan Alda on the television version of M*A*S*H, summed it up best when he pointed out that when the authorities came to get him to go to Korea he was “hiding under the front porch trying to puncture my eardrum with an ice pick”.
Conversely, during the first world war, many young men lied about their age in an attempt to actually join up. The cut-off point was supposed to be 18 years of age, but those in charge seemed to look the other way when a fine fit 16 or 17-year-old lad presented himself for duty. Then there’s the case of my great-grandfather who tried to turn the clock backward, not forward, so he could join the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) and go overseas to fight.
In August of 1914 his son, my grandfather George Blackwell volunteered to join the CEF in Montreal. He had opted to stay in Montreal when the rest of his family moved to Hamilton, Ontario some years before. He was accepted and spent the next four years or so in the trenches of France and Belgium and in several hospitals in England. He also managed to meet and marry my grandmother, a strong woman who, no doubt on occasion over the next sixty years or so, made him long for those trenches.
In 1915 his father, Ernest Henry Blackwell, my great-grandfather, decided he was not too old to help out. So on November 19th, 1915 he went down to the local recruiting office and, well, lied through his teeth about his age, stating he was born in 1872, thereby making him 43. In fact, he was born in 1865 and was a mere eleven days shy of his 50th birthday.
This was not all that uncommon, according to War Museum Canada, “Most Canadian soldiers were between the ages of 18 and 45, as per regulations, but thousands served who were younger or older, lying about their birth date to enlist. The oldest recorded member of the CEF was 80, while the youngest was ten. The average age of the Canadian soldier was 26.”
The need for men being what it was, and he being fit enough to pass the very cursory medical examination, on May 19, 1916, after some training in Canada, he left for England, arriving on May 30. His training continued in England and on March 18, 1917, he was taken on strength with the Canadian Machine Gun Depot at Crowborough. His son was also attached to this group; a postcard shows that at one point father and son were housed together in Shorncliffe. All was going along swimmingly, but not for long.
During his time in England, he was training. It was during this physically taxing process that his Achilles heel came to be exposed: arteriosclerosis and a heart murmur. He couldn’t run or exert himself without collapsing. Not the kind of soldier one wanted in the trenches. Once it was determined he had lied about his age, he spent a year as a batman or personal servant to a commissioned officer, before being shipped back to Canada.
On June 5, 1917, he arrived at Canadian Discharge Depot, Buxton, which was used expressly for the married men and those returning on compassionate grounds. Alas, my great grandfather’s overseas venture was ending. On June 9, 1917, he departed Liverpool for Canada.
But he re-attested and indeed served by keeping the home fires burning as it were.
I find it interesting that on one medical assessment signs of “senility” are mentioned, considering he would live to be a ripe old age and would augment his salary as a dry goods clerk by composing crossword puzzles for newspapers. Did they just figure he was mad for trying to fool people?