The Friends of St. Peter's Berkhamsted

Friends of St Peter's, Great Berkhamsted

Wilfred James Short (1894 – 1916)


 

When one thinks of war graves from the First World War, one normally pictures a vast array of identical white gravestones aligned in neat rows each recording the name of a soldier or the anonymous epitaph “A soldier known unto God”. The war graves are the responsibility of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission which was established by Royal Charter on 21st May 1917. The fundamental principle of the Commission is that each of the dead should be commemorated individually by name, either on the headstone on the grave, or if the man is one of the missing, by an inscription on a memorial. The Commission is responsible for the commemoration of 1,695,156 soldiers who are commemorated in 149 Countries world wide. The practice of non-repatriation of the dead, established during the First World War, meant that Commonwealth servicemen and women, who died on active service abroad, were buried there alongside their comrades. So it may come as a surprise to find that 172,434 Commonwealth service personnel are buried within the United Kingdom in 12,346 burial grounds. There are concentrations of graves such as in Haslar Royal Naval and Tidworth Military cemeteries, and also in public cemeteries, such as Brookwood and Cannock Chase War cemeteries. Individual graves account for the vast majority of the war burials within the United Kingdom and are to be found in every conceivable type of burial ground, from a rural chapel yard, with a single grave, to municipal cemeteries with many hundreds. The majority of these graves are marked by the Commissions’ familiar standard war pattern headstone. Our own St Peter’s (Detached) Rectory Lane cemetery has twenty-seven war graves, of which nineteen have the familiar Commission headstone.

When investigating these markers in the Rectory Lane cemetery one stands out due to the inscription. The service badge is a Maple leaf and the text reads “W J Short Canadian Pioneers 16th June 1916 Age 20: Soon to faithful warrior comes their rest”. So why is a Canadian soldier buried in an English cemetery?

In 1901 James Short is married with a family and is living in Front Street, Ivinghoe, but his two children Wilfred and Cecil show that he had a period of living in Kentish Town, London :-

In the 1911 census we find James and his family. He is a general labourer working for the Grand Junction Canal Company and the family is living in a canal cottage next to lock number 53. The eldest son, Wilfred, is working as a chemical worker for Cooper’s:-

Name Relation Condition

Age

Occupation Parish Born County Born
James Short Head married

38

General Labourer Ivinghoe Buckinghamshire
Florence Short Wife married

37

Cheddington Buckinghamshire
Wilfred Short Son single

15

Chemical works labourer Kentish Town London
Cecil Short Son

13

Kentish Town London
Dorothy Short Daughter

10

Berkhamsted Hertfordshire
Ethel Short Daughter

7

Berkhamsted Hertfordshire
Mable Short Daughter

5

Berkhamsted Hertfordshire
Jean Short Daughter

2

Berkhamsted Hertfordshire

In May 1913 two brothers, Wilfred James and Ernest Cecil Short took passage to Quebec, Canada on board the Cunard liner ‘Ausonia’, they embarked at Southampton. They travelled third class arriving in Canada on the 9th June 1913 where they split up. Cecil went on to Bowmanville, Ontario to work in farming while Wilfred went to Victoria, British Columbia to work as an iron moulder. Whether they stayed in contact we do not know.

Great Britain declared war on Germany on Tuesday 4th August 1914, and a British Expeditionary Force was activated immediately and ordered to France. Although not legally bound to do so, the self governing former British dominions of Canada, Australia and New Zealand joined forces with the Motherland in the hour of the supreme trial. In Canada its Governor General, the Duke of Connaught, declared that the people of Canada would make every effort and sacrifice necessary to ensure the integrity and honour of the Empire.

In 1914 Canada had a permanent active militia of full time soldiers, with an authorised strength of 3,110 men. In addition there were 77,320 men in the part-time militia, their function being confined to home defence, none of these men were expected to serve overseas. The lack of trained men, plus a lack of equipment, meant that Canada was ill prepared to provide immediate assistance to Great Britain. Despite the problems, the Canadian cabinet authorized the raising and equipping of a force for overseas service of 25,000, to be known as the First Canadian Contingent. It is believed that this group of volunteers consisted of 78 per cent of men who had immigrated into Canada from England, Scotland and Ireland during the previous 15 years. All in all, this first batch of Canadian recruits fared well in their first weeks, compared with recruits in Britain, even if their equipment was of a questionable suitability and quality. After very little useful training, consisting mostly of drill and marches, the Contingent began to embark from Quebec on 23rd September. Although the raising of the First Contingent was impressive in terms of speed, the lack of training meant that the contingent was destined to encamp on Salisbury Plain for a long period of further training. The training continued into 1915, and it was not until February of that year that the first men embarked for France, forming the First Canadian Division.

Wilfred was born 31st August 1894 and he transferred from the Victoria Fusiliers militia into the Canadian army on 31st March 1915, at 21 years 7 months. As he was old enough he was placed in the 48th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The Battalion sailed on the 1st July 1915 and arrived in England on the 10th July. At the Medical Board he was described as 5ft 6 inches tall with a fair complexion, grey eyes and brown hair, weight 10 stones 5 pounds. The Medical Officer declared him fit for duty and he continued his training. The 48th Battalion embarked for France on the 9th March 1916. Wilfred is now in the 3rd Pioneer Battalion and the Canadian troops were holding the line from St Eloi to beyond Ypres. The front line was in a deplorable state as a result of the recent continuous shelling, fighting and bad weather. The parapets were broken down and there was no wire. In some places the trenches had collapsed. The Pioneers were sent up to work on improving the defences. This exercise was less than half completed when the Germans opened up a continuous and intense bombardment, followed by an infantry attack on the 6th June. During this assault Wilfred received a gun shot wound to his left leg. He was evacuated to No 11 General Hospital at Camiers, northern France, from where he was taken through Folkestone and then on to the Edinburgh War Hospital at Bangour. General septicaemia set in and he was considered seriously ill by the 7th July. There were no antibiotics available at this time; a solution known as Milton’s reagent was used to keep the wound clean. Unfortunately he died of wounds on the 15th July 1916. Since he died in Great Britain his body was repatriated to where his parents still lived, in Berkhamsted, where he was buried in St Peter’s (Detached) Rectory Lane Cemetery in row 3.

The other brother, Ernest Cecil Short, also joined the Canadian Army and fought in France. Unfortunately he was one of those killed in action on Monday 9th April 1917 during an attack on a strong German position. He is buried in the Canadian Cemetery No. 2 Neuville – St Vaast, Pas de Calais, France in grave 1.C.24.

Another brother Reginald Short was born in 1911 to James and Florence, their seventh child of a total of eight children. He wrote his reminiscences of living in the cottage next to the canal. Unfortunately he was born in 1911 so he did not know his two older brothers so cannot add to our knowledge about them. Florence Ada Short died 30th September 1935 aged 61 and James Short, her husband, died 21st December 1951, aged 78. Both are buried in the same grave, a short distance from their son Wilfred, in Rectory Lane cemetery.

Ken Wallis


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