Saturday, 8 November 2014


As the 100 year anniversary of the first World War is upon us, I started to research where my grandfather Joseph Henry Down had been stationed during the War.  The Canadian government is digitizing all the service records for the soldiers of the first world war.  This is good and bad news.  Good news that the files will be available for free online.  Bad news because they are not available to the public while they are being digitized.  Because my grandfather's surname starts with a "D", these records are unavailable at this time.  So, I have taken much of my information from the Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914 - 1919 book, by Colonel G. W. L. Nicholson.

Joseph was born  September 23, 1889 in Toronto.  He was married to Bertha Snider (nee Busby) in 1911.  Bertha was a widow with 2 girls, Mildred and Marjory.  Joseph and Bertha had 3 children:  Charles, Geraldine "Dolly" and Joseph.  It should be noted that his son, Joseph, was born in December 1914 and his father probably didn't see his son.

On August 4, 1914, England declared war on Germany.  Shortly after that Samuel Hughes, the Canadian Minister of Militia and Defence ordered that a recruitment settlement be established at Valcartier, Quebec.

Accordingly, Joseph, felt the call of duty and left his family behind to sign up.  He was deemed fit for duty on September 1 at Valcartier and then signed his Attestation paper on September 25, 1914.   He was assigned to the 1st Division Engineers, 2nd Field Company.  He was a Sapper in the army and he had been a linesman before entering the service.

The new recruits were sent from Valcartier to Quebec City by train in October to board ships for England.  Apparently there was too much equipment for the ships that had been procured and loading appears to have been a shambles.  On October 3, 1914, the 2nd Field Company left for England aboard the "Zeeland" bound for Southampton.  During the 11 day crossing there was a rumour that the Germans would intercept them at Southampton and so at the last moment, the ship was directed to dock in Plymouth. 

Plymouth was not ready for such a large contingent of ships, machinery and people.  It took 9 days to unload the cargo and send everything and everyone to Salisbury where the training camp was located on Salisbury Plains.  The Divisional HQ was established at "Ye Olde Bustard" 3 miles north west of Stonehenge.  According to the war diaries for the time at Salisbury it rained almost non stop and outdoor training had to be suspended.  As well the contractors who were building the barracks for the soldiers were well behind schedule and many men were still living in tents as the winter approached. 

Joseph Down, seated left.  Photo taken in Fisherton Street, Salisbury, circa 1914

In February 1915, the soldiers started to move to France.  On February 2, 1915 an advance party left Avonmouth, Bristol for St. Nazaire, France.  The Southampton to Le Havre route unavailable to them, because of fear of a German attack.  It was then a 500 mile journey to the Front.

On February 15, the Division arrived in the Hazebrouck Strazeele area, where they commenced training with the British Troops until the beginning of March 1915.  From March 10 -12 they fought in the battle of Neuve Chapelle and then were assigned a tour of duty in the Fleurbaix sector.

Between April 14 - 17, the 1st Division relieved the French 11th Division in the Ypres area in Belgium.  They found the area very wet because they were close to the Yser canal.  The trenches were shallow and needed to be reinforced.  Some of the shallow trenches had been used as latrines and others used to store dead bodies.  The Canadian soldiers had to dig deeper trenches and repair the others.

On April 22, they were engaged in the Battle of Gravenstafel.  This battle was the first battle where the Germans used chlorine gas attacks as part of the battle strategy.  The Canadians had no gas masks for protection. 

The second gas attack occurred at the Battle of St. Julien took place between April 24, and May 5, 1915.  There were more gas attacks by the Germans with the Canadian army supplied with wetted handkerchiefs to combat the gas.  Sadly this is where Joseph Henry Down's war ended.  He was not felled by a gas attack, but by a bullet.  He was killed in action," shot through the head and killed instantly about noon on the 24th of April 1915, whilst on duty with a working party in the Ypres Salient, near St. Julien." according to his service record.

On May 3, 1915 the army withdrew after losing over 5,000 Canadian Soldiers. Joseph Down's body was never recovered and his name along with 55,000 other soldiers is commemorated on the Menin Memorial Gate in Belgium.