The O'Leary Collection—Medals of The Royal Canadian Regiment

477630 Cpl William James McConnell

The Royal Canadian Regiment

By: Capt (ret'd) Michael M. O'Leary, CD, The RCR

William James McConnell was born in Bristol, Somerset, England, on 14 Apr 1893.

McConnell joined The Royal Canadian Regiment on 5 Sep 1914. He was one of a large draft of soldiers sent from the Canadian Expeditionary Force (C.E.F.) forming at Camp Valcartier to bring the Regiment up to wartime strength.

On 20 Aug 1914, the Commanding Officer of The RCR received a telegram asking if he would volunteer his battalion for service at Bermuda. This was to relieve the British Regular Army battalion in garrison on the Island and take over its duties for one year. The request was accepted and The RCR would be the first Canadian unit to leave Canadian shores during the First World War, but not to Europe. There was, however, the matter of bringing the Regiment up to wartime strength before leaving Halifax.

An unattributed officer's diary in the collection of The RCR Museum describes the arrival of the reinforcement draft:

"On 5th [Sep] orders were received for the battalion to stand by for embarkation on 9th. The establishment on embarkation was not to exceed 1030 and 36 married families. … The establishment was brought up by drafting 400 volunteers from 1st Contingent at Valcartier Camp. Two thousand men volunteered, 400 selected, embarked in S.S. Canada at Quebec and arrived at Halifax on 9th under Capt Russell L.S.H. (R.C.). … This draft consisted of raw recruits for the most part and were not properly clothed or equipped, some being in their Militia uniforms, some in red, some even in plainclothes."

On 11 Sep 1914, The Royal Canadian Regiment sailed for Bermuda aboard the "White Star-Dominion" liner S.S. Canada, escorted by the H.M.C.S. Niobe, an ex-Royal Navy Diadem-class protected cruiser that was one of the first ships of the Royal Canadian Navy. On arriving in Bermuda, the Regiment relieved the 2nd Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment, which sailed immediately for England.

McConnell was recorded in the regimental enrolment ledger as a 21-year-old brick maker from Bristol, England. He was assigned the regimental number 16263. The Regiment's nominal roll for Bermuda gives a date of 20 Nov 1914 for McConnell joining the Regiment, however a surviving enrolment ledger records his service as beginning on 5 Sep 1914. The disparities in dates likely have to do with considerations whether the reinforcements were serving "in" or "with" The RCR and their standing between C.E.F. and Permanent Force terms of service (along with related entitlements to pay and benefits). Some of this disparity was settled on 1 Oct 1914 when The RCR was placed on C.E.F. rates of pay, this doubled the pay of Privates to $1.00 per day.

On 12 Aug 1915, The RCR was relieved in turn by the arrival of the 38th Overseas Battalion from Canada. The RCR returned to Halifax for a stay of only a week. During this time, the Regiment was re-attested for overseas service. Although The RCR had just spent a year in Bermuda, there were concerns regarding the applicability of the soldiers' Permanent Force enlistments for wartime deployments. This was, perhaps, prompted by the idea that a man on a P.F. three-year engagement could choose not to re-engage and the Government would be obligated to bring him home. Enlistment in the C.E.F., on the other hand, was for the "Duration of War." Accordingly, the soldiers of The RCR were re-attested, signing C.E.F. attestation papers in August 1915 before sailing for Europe.

McConnell attested for service in the C.E.F. with The RCR at Halifax, N.S., on 23 Aug 1915. A 22-year-old brickmaker, McConnell was described on his attestation paper as 5 feet 8 inches tall, weighing 144 pounds, with good physical development, a 36-inch chest, a fair complexion, green eyes, and brown hair. His religious denomination was Presbyterian. McConnell claimed that he had prior service with the 32nd Bruce Regiment, but dates for this service are not noted. McConnell identified his mother, Mrs. Gregory, 381 Menton, Toronto, Ont., as his next of kin.

On 26 Aug 1915, The RCR sailed from Halifax aboard the S.S. Caledonian, the same ship that had brought them home from Bermuda. Disembarked at Plymouth, England, on 6 Sep 1915, the Regiment went to Shorncliffe for training.

McConnell received a new C.E.F. service number on 28 Sep 1915 to replace the regimental number he was assigned on enlisting with The RCR. While serving in the C.E.F., his service number would be 477630. Since the Regiment received its C.E.F. numbers while at full strength and not as they were recruited, it had the effect that the soldiers of the Regiment at the time were renumbered in alphabetical order.

A month after arriving in England, McConnell had his first brush with the military justice system at Shorncliffe. On 4 Oct 1915, he was awarded a punishment of 14 days Confinement to Barracks (C.B.) and fined 8 days pay for absence from 6.00 a.m. 27 Sep 1915 until 12.30 a.m. 4 Oct 1915. Later that month, on 22 Oct 1915, he went absent again and was fined 2 days pay for absence from 6 a.m. 21 Oct 1915 until 6 a.m. 22 Oct 1915.

The RCR crossed the English Channel on 1 Nov 1915, entering the theatre of war at Boulogne, France. During November and December of 1915 the Regiment prepared for service in the trenches, with companies rotating in the lines for training and a period of providing working parties before entering the line as a battalion at the end of December. The first months of 1916 saw the Regiment in the steady rotation through front line trenches, support trenches, and reserve positions that was the fundamental experience of the infantry in the Great War.

On 17 Aug 1916, a day that the Regiment's War Diary describes as rainy enough to make walking very difficult and punctuated by heavy shelling of the trenches, McConnell was wounded in action. With eight soldiers reported killed and 23 wounded, he was evacuated from the forward trenches and admitted to No. 3 Casualty Clearing Station (C.C.S.) suffering from shrapnel wounds to his arms. Eleven days later, on 28 Aug 1916, McConnell was discharged from hospital and returned to the Regiment.

McConnell was wounded again on 8 Oct 1916 in an action for which "Somme," "Ancre Heights," and "Regina Trench" are all applicable names. The Regiment's "Battle Bar Document" (prepared after the war by the Militia Department in anticipation of the possibility of clasps for the British War Medal) provides the following details for 8 Oct 1916:

"8 Oct 1916
"4.30 a.m. – Bn in "jumping off" position.

The War Diary of The RCR relates a day of severe fighting on 8 Oct 1916 as the battle raged for Regina Trench after which only 140 effective members of the battalion marched from the battlefield, the remainder having been evacuated wounded, or buried. The following day's War Diary entry summarizes the cost:

9-10-16. – TRENCHES. – "Cloudy, not quite so cool. See Appendix No. 4. Total casualties reported to date are Captain SAPTE, Lieuts. SIMPSON, WALSH, SUTTON and PENNIMAN, Missing 8-10-16. Major HODSON, Major WOOD, Lieuts. DICKSON, DWYER, BELL and MURRAY, WOUNDED 8-10-16. Killed 7 other ranks. Missing 207 other ranks. Wounded 68 other ranks. It is expected that most of those reported missing will be located through slips from Casualty Clearing Stations as having passed through dressing stations of other regiments on our flanks."

Private William McConnell was evacuated wounded on 8 Oct 1916 and admitted to No. 12 Canadian Field Ambulance (C.F.A.). Suffering from a shot wound of his left hand, he was transferred to No. 8 C.F.A. three days later and on 13 Oct 1916, rejoined the Regiment.

Over the next few months, McConnell was in and out of hospital with various complaints. In early November he was diagnosed with myalgia, i.e., muscle aches and pains, that put him in hospital for over two weeks. In early December he was laid low with a case of diarrhea. Back in the Regiment's lines by mid-December, he was wounded again on 22 Dec 1916. The War Diary describes a busy front line tour leading up to his evacuation:

20.12.16. – TRENCHES

Clear – hard frost. 8TH. Bde. Put on an attack on one Bn. frontage. A barrage was effected on enemy front line opposite LITCHFIELD and WATLING CRATERS. It consisted of HEAVY and LIGHT Artillery and the 4" STOKES put on a smoke barrage in same vicinity. The object of this barrage was to deceive enemy as to where attack was to be made. The assault was very successful 2 Officers and 55 O.R. taken prisoners. Our casualties 6 O.R. Killed, 18 O.R. Wounded all of which were evacuated. Very little retaliation on part of the enemy.

21.12.16. – TRENCHES

Clear – Hard Frost. Minnenwerfer and aerial torpedo activity in vicinity of ROSS STREET.

22.12.16. – TRENCHES

Weather breaking. Showery. Situation quiet. Pte McFEAT killed while on patrol on right of CHASSERY CRATER.

23.12.16. – TRENCHES

Wet – TRENCHES falling in. Miners report enemy mine between DEVON and ALBANY and 60 feet South of Junction of DEVON SAP and OBSERVATION LINE. All posts withdrawn within 200 feet radius. Consolidating and counter-attack parties held in readiness on both flanks.

On 23 Dec 1916, McConnell was admitted to No. 99 C.F.A. with the effects of a "concussion, shell (W)." The same date he was transferred to the Corps Rest Station, where he would remain until rejoining the Regiment on 2 Jan 1917.

Having been wounded three times in 1916, McConnell made it through the first half of 1917, including the activities leading up to, including, and following the assault on Vimy Ridge. On 7 Jul 1917, he was granted 10 days leave to England.

McConnell's absence from the Regiment after being granted leave is not well described in the notes in his service record. Almost a month after he left the unit for leave, on 3 Aug 1917, he was to be attached to the 26th Reserve Battalion. Two weeks later, on 18 Aug 1917, he is noted as being detained whilst on leave to England. His attachment to the 26th Res. Bn. ended on 5 Sep 1917.

Back in France, it was not until 16 Sep 1917, that McConnell left the 3rd Canadian Base Depot to rejoin the Regiment on 20 Sep 1917. His troubles were not yet over, however, and on 9 Oct 1917, he was awarded 7 days Field Punishment No. 1 for absent without leave from 12 noon 20 Jul 1917 to 6.10 p.m. 2 Aug 1917. In addition to the field punishment, McConnell forfeited 14 days pay by Royal Warrant, effectively losing the pay for the period of his absence.

Despite his disciplinary issues, on 7 Dec 1917, McConnell was appointed Lance Corporal. On 14 Mar 1918, he was promoted to the rank of Corporal.

In the first half of 1918, McConnell was back to the medics a few times for various complaints. In March he spent a week out of the lines with pyodermia, i.e., a skin disease that is pyogenic (has pus). In April, he was away for just over two weeks with a case of impetigo, i.e., a bacterial infection of the skin. In May, he spent another two weeks in hospital suffering from sore feet, rejoining the Regiment on 19 May 1918.

In late August 1918, The RCR was in the front lines at MONCEY le PROUX in the ARRAS sector. On 26 Aug 1918, with tank support, the Regiment moved forward at 0945 a.m. Attacking into firm enemy resistance and supporting fire, they advanced and occupied LONG TRENCH. They held this position against counter-attacks the next day and were the Brigade Reserve for the 7th Brigade's continued attack on the 28th. This day's operations saw all four companies of The RCR engaged in battle once again. The 3rd Canadian Division's achievements included five German lines of defence overrun, and the capture of Monchy, Pelves, Bois du Vert, Bois du Sart, Jigsaw Wood and Boiry-Notre-Dame.

In those three days of fighting, The Royal Canadian Regiment's casualties totalled 196, of which 32 were killed or would die of wounds shortly thereafter, 157 wounded and seven recorded as missing. The RCR was relieved in the early morning hours of 29 Aug, and the Regiment's War Diary record for that day stated:

"Fine and warm. Day spent in cleaning up. Battalion occupied billets in cellars, etc. Band and Drums and remainder of Details moved from "E" Camp to ARRAS. Band gave concert in the evening. Enemy Artillery shelled ARRAS with High Velocity Gun throughout the night. 1 O.R. to C.C.S.

After the Regiment's actions at Moncey, McConnell was reported "Missing, believed taken prisoner." He was one of the Regiment's 196 officers, N.C.Os. and soldiers killed, wounded and missing on 26 Aug 1918.

In the Regiment's Part II Daily Order dated 17 Sep 1918, McConnell was identified as missing after action, 26 Aug 1918, and was struck off the strength accordingly, believed to be Prisoner of War. Effective the date of his disappearance, he was now considered the responsibility of the Nova Scotia Regiment. The Nova Scotia Regimental Depot (N.S.R.D.) was part of the new regionally based reinforcement system, with named Depots taking in troops from battalions raised in those areas in Canada and providing reinforcement drafts to similarly designated fighting units. The RCR, having been headquartered in Halifax in the decade before the War, was associated with the N.S.R.D. These Depots also became the parent unit for any soldiers returned to England from their affiliated battalions in France and Flanders. The regional regiments also took Prisoners of War on their rolls, thus allowing the front line units to demand a replacement from the reinforcement system to fill the ranks.

Documents held by the International Commission for the Red Cross confirm that McConnell was captured at Monchy on 26 Aug 1918. The records note that he was "Unverwundet" (unwounded) and that he had been in "B" Company of the Regiment. McConnell was sent to the Prisoner of War camp at Parchim. Parchim is located in northern Germany, midway between Hamburg and Berlin. The camp, able to hold 25,000 prisoners, was built on a former cavalry drill ground 5 km from the town.

On 11 Sep 1918, McConnell was reported to be at the P.W. camp at Friedrichsfeld Bei Wesel. Notes for a "Map of the main prison camps in Germany and Austria" describe this camp as "Sixty miles north of Cologne near Wesel. Capacity, 35,000. There is an open space in the centre of the camp for football and tennis; also gardens with flower-beds between the barracks; large vegetable gardens and potato field run by the prisoners."

It was not until 6 Dec 1918, nearly a month after the end of hostilities, that McConnell was repatriated to England and arrived at No. 36 Camp, Ripon. The next day he departed Ripon for repatriation to Canada. His intended destination was Walkerton, Ont. McConnell was granted furlough from the N.S.R.D. from 7 Dec 1918 to 7 Feb 1918 (62 days).

A month after returning from furlough, and still waiting for his discharge tio be effected, McConnell was shown as an absentee on 5 Mar 1919. Three weeks later, on 25 Mar 1919, he was charged with "Overstaying leave from Reveille 5 Mar 1919 until 23.35 24 Mar 1919." For his absence, McConnell forfeited 20 days pay and was severely reprimanded.

It was another month and a half before McConnell left the N.S.R.D. On 3 May 1919, he was on command to the 2nd Canadian Discharge Depot (C.D.D.) in London, Eng., pending discharge in the British Isles. On 6 May 1919, William McConnell was discharged in England on demobilization.

For his service in the C.E.F., McConnell was entitled to receive the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal, and the Victory Medal. These were despatched to him at 21 Brixton Rd., Easton, Bristol, Eng., on 2 Jun 1921.

Pro Patria

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