Every Soldier has a Story: Hercul Bureau
As an avid collector of medals and badges of my own Regiment, I often scan the offerings at ebay to see if anything matching my collecting theme has shown up. In doing so I always review the newest offerings of medals awarded to Canadians. Among these, the Military Medals, awarded to soldiers for bravery on the field of battle, always catch my eye and cause me to look at the recipients regardless of their unit. Sadly, the specific act or acts for which a Military Medal has been awarded is seldom recorded in accessible documentation, but sometimes this examination leads to a soldier with a story that goes far beyond the answer to that query.
One such recent auction listed, now completed, was for the Military Medal awarded to 144743 Private Hercul Bureau of the 14th Canadian Infantry Battalion.
The auction listing, describing a medal with damage to the rim, did not even provide the soldier's full details:
A search of the CEF Soldiers Database at Library and Archives Canada revealed that two soldiers had been given that service number (a rare error, but not unusual in itself), and the one whose personal details matched the medal was 144743 Private Hercul Bureau.
With a surname sufficiently early in the alphabet that his file has been digitized (27 Mb pdf) and uploaded by Library and Archives Canada (in a project that is starting to look like it will last longer than the Great War itself), we find some interesting notes about the military service of young Hercul.
Hercul Bureau, standing all of 5-foot, 2 and ½ inches in height, enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force on 16 August, 1915, at the age of 18. On enlistment, he joined the 77th Canadian Infantry Battalion at Ottawa. After the 77th Battalion sailed to England, it was broken up to feed the reinforcement stream. Young Hercul found himself serving in France with the 14th Canadian Infantry Battalion, joining his new unit in the field on 8 June 1916.
Bureau's record of service demonstrates clearly that following rules was one of his weaker attributes. He becomes fully acquainted with the military justice system, as shown in these entries in his service record:
- 20 March 1916 – 15 days detention for disobedience.
- 20 June 1916 – 7 days Field Punishment No. 1 for being in town without a pass.
- 17 August 1916 – 1 day F.P. No. 2 for being improperly dressed on parade.
- 26 August 1916 – 1 day F.P. No. 2 for absence from parade.
- 15 January 1917 – 7 days Field Punishment No. 2 for late for parade.
On 7 July 1917, Hercul Bureau was admitted to hospital with a severe bayonet wound in his left thigh. The battalion War Diary reports seven casualties that day, one killed and six wounded, the result of a German raid on the front trenches.
But Hercul's performance was clearly not always such to keep him in the Sergeant Major's crap list. On 7 November, 1917, the entry was made in his service record that he had been awarded the Military medal in the field. Private Hercul Bureau was not just the recipient of the Military Medal, he was actually awarded the Military Medal and Bar, which means he was decorated twice for bravery, each time being the deserving recipient of the Military Medal. The Bar to his Military Medal was recorded in his service record on 26 August 1919, catching up to him long after the end of the War as the backlog of paperwork and recommendations for awards were being cleared away.
In addition to his awards for bravery, Bureau's abilities as a soldier were clearly supported in his appointment as an Acting Corporal in October 1918 and the promotion to substantive rank in January 1919.
After the War, Bureau remained overseas with the CEF. This, unfortunately, led to his worst offences. His service records records the details of 5 August 1919:
"Joining in mutiny in His Majesty's Forces in that he, at South Camp, Ripon, on 17th of June joined in a mutiny by combining with soldiers of 23 Reserve Battalion to obstructing a fire picket in the execution of their duties in case of fire in Camp and to loot a canteen and maliciously to destroy public property namely building in said camp by fire and otherwise and to release by violent means prisoners lawfully confined in the guard room of said Battalion."
The result of Bureau's participation in the mutiny are also recorded:
"Tried by District Court Martial at Ripon 5 August 1919, and sentenced to be Reduced to [the] Ranks and two years Hard Labour, and discharged with ignominy from His Majesty's Service. In arrest 17 June 1919. Sentenced 5 August 1919. Confirmed 7 August 1919. Promulgated 8 August 1919."
On 12 September, 1919, Hercul Bureau's service record notes that the remaining portion of his sentence would be remitted on his discharge with ignominy. This was effected with his return to Canada in December, 1919.
If you only heard the story of Bureau's battlefield valour, you might call him a hero. But if you only heard the story of his role in a mutiny, you might call him a reprobate. Each soldier of the Canadian Expeditionary Force has a story. Each of these stories is worthy of being researched and brought back to light, and the work being done at Library and Archives Canada is enabling researchers to do this much more easily than ever before. Rediscovering the stories of soldiers like Hercul Bureau, both hero and reprobate, emphasizes that each soldier was as complex an individual as we like to perceive ourselves, and simplistic labels do not capture the depth of their characters.