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

425464 Sergeant Ernest Watson, D.C.M.

The Royal Canadian Regiment

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

"For conspicuous leadership and good work during the operations from 8th to 15th August, 1918. He commanded a platoon the whole time and handled it with great skill while clearing up White House and the capture of Parvillers. By careful dispositions he outflanked and captured two enemy machine guns without a single casualty to his platoon. His devotion to duty and fine example was an inspiration to all his men."

Ernest Watson was born on 24 Apr 1886 in Darlington, Durham County, England. As a young man he served in the British Army, serving three years with the Durham Light Infantry before emigrating to Canada.

Watson was living in Western Canada when the First World War began. Employed as a gas stoker in Manitoba, he left his employment to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force. On 1 Mar 1915, he enlisted in Brandon, Manitoba, with the 45th Canadian Infantry Battalion for, as his Attestation Paper states, the "Duration of War."

At his enlistment, Watson is described as 29 years of age, 5-feet 5 inches in height, 140 pounds, with a dark complexion, blue eyes and black hair. At his initial medical examination he was pronounced fit for service with the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force. Watson's wife, Elizabeth remained in the Kildonan neighbourhood of Winnipeg while Ernest went off to train with his battalion. She would later move from East Kildonan to West Kildonan and, late in the war, travel overseas to stay in Watson's home town of Darlington to be near her husband while he recuperated from wounds.

As an ex-soldier of the Imperial Army, even Watson's brief three years service as a soldier would have made him stand out among the hundreds of newly uniformed civilian of the 45th Battalion. As a result, after three and one-half months service, on 15 Jun 1915, he was promoted to the rank of Acting Corporal. He continued to demonstrate an aptitude for soldiering and in September his promotion to the substantive rank of Corporal was confirmed as effective from 15 Jun. That same month, effective 1 September, he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant.

The following spring, on 13 Mar 1916, Watson and the 45th Canadian Over-Seas Battalion, embarked in Canada on the S.S. Lapland. Twelve days later, on 25 Mar 1916, the unit disembarked in England.

On arriving in England it appears that Watson must have reverted to the ranks, he must have continued to prove his potential as an NCO because he was again promoted, this time to Acting Sergeant (on Probation), on 17 May 1916, while at South Caesar's Camp. On 2 Jun 1916, Watson returned to the 45th Battalion from a training course at Shorncliffe. He had been On Command with the 11th Brigade Machine Gun Battery, where he obtained a 1st Class Certificate on completion of the Colt Machine Gun Course (Shorncliffe). While still in use with CEF infantry battalions at the time, the Colt Machine Gun would be replaced by the Lewis Gun during 1916 and 1917.

A few days later, on 6 Jun 1916, Watson proceeded across the Channel to France. Arriving at the Canadian Base Depot (C.B.D.), he was effectively transferred to that holding unit on 8 June and subsequently to The RCR. At the time he was taken on strength as a Sergeant, but this was to lead to a new problem. Units in the field preferred to complete their establishments by promoting soldiers who were serving in the unit and known to its commanders and soldiers. This meant that reinforcement drafts called for private soldiers only, except where a returning NCO was joining a draft to get back to his original unit. Because Watson was on the strength of the Regiment, albeit back at the Depot, he could not proceed forward in that rank. Accordingly, Watson reverted to the rank of private, rejoining "the ranks" on 8 Jun 1916.

Two days later, Watson joined The RCR in the field as the battalion proceeded that night from the front lines near Hooge to a rest area at Steenvoorde where they would remain until the 21st of June. During their six days in the lines, which included one heavy German assault on the night of 31 May/1 Jun, the Regiment had lost 24 KIA and 135 wounded. This front line tour would earn The RCR the Battle Honour MOUNT SORREL.

Watson joined The RCR on 14 Jun 1916, when the reinforcement system provided The RCR a total of 195 new soldiers. These soldiers were posted to the Regiment from the 45thReserve Battalion (32 soldiers), the 59th Reserve Battalion (44), the 61st Reserve Battalion (41), and the Infantry Pool (78). Watson was one of the 33 reinforcements from the 45th Reserve Battalion.

All through the summer of 1916, the battle of the Somme continued. But it was not until after the battle of FLERS-COURCELETTE, another 1916 regimental Battle Honour, that Watson would gain recognition for his potential as an NCO and receive a promotion. On 27 Nov 1916 he was appointed Acting Lance Corporal (with pay), and the promotion would later be confirmed as substantive effective the same date.

In April 1917, Watson was away from the unit, "On Command" to the 7th Infantry Brigade — his service record notes "(Bomber)" as the purpose of being On Command but it is unclear if this implies the nature of his employment or his absence on a training course — from 4 to 14 April 1917. Watson's disposition at this time would establish what part he played in, or if he missed, the assault at Vimy Ridge on 9-10 April that year.

Watson's potential to fill a leadership role with the Regiment was matched with an available place in the unit on 22 May 1917 when he was promoted to the rank of Corporal to complete establishment. His proficiency as an NCO did not, however, completely offset his readiness to contravene regulations. On 19 Jun 1917, Watson was charged for absence, his service record notes:

"Severely reprimanded for whilst on Active Service Overstaying Pass from 9 a.m. 17 Jun 1917 to 2 p.m. 18 Jun 1917. Forfeits 2 day pay by Royal Warrant."

Although he had found himself on the wrong side of the Manual of Military law as a Corporal, Watson continued to advance in rank, being appointed Lance Sergeant to complete establishment on 20 Oct 1917. The next day he began a period of 10 days leave in England, rejoining the unit on 4 November. A week after his return, on 11 Nov 1917, he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant. The following July, between the 12th and 26th, Watson attended a course of instruction with the 2nd Battalion, Grenadier Guards. This was possibly an NCO's course to develop his leadership skills.

On 4 Sep 1918, Watson was sent "On Command" to the 1st Army Rest Camp. He remained here for two weeks and rejoined The RCR in the field on 19 Sep 1918 as the Regiment came out of the lines and were billeted in Berneville Village for a period of rest and training until 26 September.

In October 1918, The RCR participated in actions which were part of "The Advance in Picardy" (8 Aug 3 Sep, 1918), including the battle of AMIENS (8-11 Aug), the latter of which became a regimental battle honour. On the morning of 8 Aug 1918, The RCR crossed the RIVER LUCE to an assembly position and jumped off from the edge of HAMMON WOOD in the assault. Clearing VALLEY and JEAN WOODS, the Regiment consolidated its objectives that day.

The RCR moving into Divisional Reserve on the 9th of August, rested on the 10th, and then into Local Support trenches for the 11th and 12th.. The Regiment was ordered forward again on the 13th and engaged the enemy in the capture of PARVILLERS on 15 Aug 1918.

It was during these days of battle in early August of 1918 that Ernest Watson was to distinguish himself. Although his award of the Distinguished Conduct Medal would not be announced in the London Gazette, i.e., "Gazetted", until early 1919, his contribution to the Regiment's battle field success was noted and duly recorded. It was during this period that Watson commanded his platoon, and with skill manoeuvred his platoon to capture enemy machine guns without losses to his own troops.

After the attack on Parvillers, The RCR went into a period of rest and training, not returning to the trenches until the early morning of 26 Sep 1918. The RCR left their billets on 25 Sep 1918, and over the next 48 hours moved back into the lines at BURION WOOD. On the 29 Sep 1918, as part of the battles of CAMBRAI that year, the Regiment began an assault on the MARCOING LINE at 5:30 a.m. with 23 officers and 588 other ranks. This action was the beginning of two days of battle that would cost the Regiment greatly. That first night, the Regiment held positions in the MARCOING LINE and the MARCOING SUPPORT LINE. Casualties were severe enough that the battalion reorganized into three companies that night.

On the 30th, at noon, after receiving confirmation that BLECOURT and TILLOY WOOD were in friendly hands, The RCR again advanced. This intelligence proved incorrect, and machine guns from both locations served to hold up the Regiment's forward movement. Halted by enemy fire, The RCR held their ground until relieved as the 9th Brigade passed through early on the morning of 1 October 1918.

The Regiment's war diary notes that tanks supported the initial assault, but their numbers and dispositions, and their losses to machine gun and gun-fire left their contribution less than satisfactory. Overall, the Regiment's accomplishments can be seen in the tally of captured troops and equipment:

"Estimated Machine Guns captured amounted to 54. Prisoners seen returning 130, captured guns and anti-tank guns 5. Casualties inflicted on the enemy were approximately 700." — The RCR War Diary, September 1918, Appendix 10

Notably, the one weapon mentioned as significant in the assault was not the much proclaimed bayonet, but was instead the lowly hand grenade:

"Bombs figured greatly in clearing the MARCOING LINE." — The RCR War Diary, September 1918, Appendix 10

The cost to the Regiment, however, was significant, with the War Diary entry for 30 September 1918 reporting the following losses:

In total, 312 killed, wounded and missing, from a unit strength of 611 reported only four day previously. Fifty-one percent of the unit strength. And once consideration is given for those who remained out of the battle in transport lines, the percentage of losses among troops who actually participated in the assault is even greater.

Among the wounded was Sergeant Ernest Watson. On 28 September, Watson was wounded by shellfire, receiving a severe shrapnel wound to his right leg. This would be the end of Watson's service in the field and the start of a long period of hospital treatment.

Four years of warfare had, to the benefit of men like Watson, ensured that the medical services were well practiced in evacuation and immediate care of the wounded. At times like this, during major battles, the medical system evacuated men rearward perhaps even more quickly than they might otherwise have experienced, as each facility worked to keep its beds clear for the next influx of patients.

Accordingly, Watson was sent directly to No. 22 Casualty Clearing Station (C.C.S.) where he received his first treatment after the field dressings that would have been applied shortly after his injury. After one night at the C.C.S., Watson continued his journey away from the Front. On 29 Sep 1918, he was placed aboard Ambulance Train No. 30 and the next day he was admitted to 22 General Hospital at Camier.

The next day, Watson's rearward evacuation continued. He crossed the Channel as a patient aboard the Hospital Ship Princess Elizabeth. Ship was a generous title for this vessel, holding as it did a capacity of only 30 cots for patients. The H.S. Princess Elizabeth served through much of the war on the cross-Channel evacuation service between November 1916 and September 1919.

Concurrent with his evacuation to England, Watson was officially struck off the strength of The RCR. This action both cleared the way for a replacement from the reinforcement system to join the Regiment in the field and also passed administrative responsibility for Watson to a base unit in England. As a result, Watson was taken on the strength of the Nova Scotia Regimental Depot in Bramshott on 30 Sep 1918, the same day he crossed the channel.

On 31 Oct 1918, Watson was admitted to the 2nd Western General Hospital Manchester, which had become the base of twenty-two auxiliary hospitals in Manchester, Salford and Stockport. For his continuing treatment, Watson was transferred to the Salford Royal Hospital. Watson remained in hospital through the end of the War the following month, and also past Christmas 1918. In January 1919 he was still not improving and was classified as "Dangerously Ill" on 5 Jan 1919.

It was while he lay in hospital that the London Gazette carried news of Watson's award of the Distinguished Conduct Medal (D.C.M.). The citation for his award was printed in the Supplement to the London Gazette dated 16 January, 1919, as part of Issue No. 31128:

Awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal
LG No 31128 dated 16 Jan 1919.

"For conspicuous leadership and good work during the operations from 8th to 15th August, 1918. He commanded a platoon the whole time and handled it with great skill while clearing up White House and the capture of Parvillers. By careful dispositions he outflanked and captured two enemy machine guns without a single casualty to his platoon. His devotion to duty and fine example was an inspiration to all his men."

A few days after the Gazette of his D.C.M., on the 19th of January, Watson was still classified as dangerously ill. His slow recovery was attended by an equally slow progress toward home. In March, he was transferred to Alexander Park, Stockport. On 8 Apr 1919, he was admitted to No. 16 Canadian General Hospital, Orpington, in a town south of London. The War Diary for No. 16 C.G.H. offers evidence of how busy the major hospitals were at the end of the War. No. 16 C.G.H., for the month of March 1919, had 1327 admission and 1252 discharges, with 2126 patients remaining in the hospital at the end of the month. It is notable that the number remaining in hospital did drop by about 500 each of the following two months, clear evidence of the work being done to repatriate wounded soldiers back to Canada.

It was while he was in No. 16 C.G.H. that Watson's condition started being reported as improving. On 6 May 1919, his medical records not that he has a "Linear Wound, Right Leg, healing slowly", and later that same month he was recorded as "Wound doing well."

But the damage to the structure of his leg had been done and no amount of time in hospital was going to restore him to complete health. On 28 May 1919, Watson' injury was described as "Ankylosis of right knee, superficial ulceration , knee healing." Ankylosis is a stiffness of a joint due to abnormal adhesion and rigidity of the bones of the joint, resulting from injury or disease. Two days later, a more detailed description was recorded: "The knee is completely ankylosed in extension with the absense of any movement. Loss of sensation inner aspect of leg below knee."

With his recovery proceeding, Watson now joined the slow repatriation pilgrimage. On 27 Jun 1919, after travelling the 250 miles from Orpington, he was admitted to No. 5 Canadian General Hospital, Kirkdale, on the outskirts of Liverpool.

It was from Liverpool that Watson sailed on 14 Jul 1919. Listed as "Invalided to Canada," he joined Sailing List 508 en route to Military District No. 10 at Winnipeg, Manitoba. He was taken on strength effective that same date and posted to the Hospital Section.

Watson arrived back in North America when then S.S. Essequibo docked in Portland, Maine. From there he travelled westward, being admitted to Manitoba Military Hospital in Winnipeg on 29 Jul 1919.

On 6 Oct 1919, it was recorded that there was no further advantage to keeping Watson in the Manitoba Military Hospital. He was then recommended for a final board which recorded its findings on 10 Oct 1919:

"Scar on inner surface right knee from midline anterior to mid line posterior is well healed, adherent to bone and somewhat tender in centre. There are numerous scars of incision for T.C.T. (I.C.I.?) of thigh and leg. Inflammation of the leg and thigh has been frequent since wound and yields reluctantly to treatment. Great care has to be exercised else the leg swells up and becomes inflamed. There is 1-inch atrophy of right thigh. No atrophy of calf. Skin sensation normal. Hip joint is normal and ankle normal. Knee is ankylosed firmly and bowed outwards. Can walk ½ mile on leg. Leg then swells up and aches. Great care will need to be taken lest this leg becomes seriously inflamed, and infection will tend to occur readily. Cannot walk without aid of a stick for any distance."

Watson was considered unable to resume former trade because of "weak leg and ankylosed knee interfering" and the Board's recommendations was "Discharge medically unfit."

On 16 Oct 1919, Ernest Watson was transferred to District Depot No. 10, Casualty Company (DDCC # 10) for discharge on account of his wounds. Classified as "medically unfit," Watson was discharged from the CEF on 19 Oct 1919 at Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Sergeant Ernest Watson was discharged by the Discharge Section of No. 10 District Depot. His Discharge Certificate notes the issue of a Class "A" War Service Badge (No. 398836). Watson's service of 28 ½ months with The RCR in France and Belgium is recorded, and the reason given for his discharge is "Medical Unfitness." Under the section for "Marks and Scars", the scars remaining on Watson's right leg are listed, and also in this section of the form his award of the DCM with its London Gazette reference is included.

The official dates of Watson's service, as recorded on his Discharge Certificate are:

On discharge, Watson was entitled to a War Service Gratuity of $420 and a supplementary benefit of another $180. His pay records show the disbursement of these funds, with the majority ($400) being sent to the Manitoba Patriotic Fund which, under the auspices of the Canadian Patriotic Fund, provided benefits to families whose primary breadwinner, on entering the service, resulted in a net loss of family income. This return of funds to the Manitoba Patriotic Fund must have been an expectation placed on soldiers whose families received benefits.

Watson's intended place of residence on discharge: 335 Bowman Ave, East Kildonan, Manitoba. His medal card indicates that his British War Medal and Victory Medal were despatched to Watson on 19 May 1922.

Ernest Watson, D.C.M., died on 21 Jan 1969. he is buried in Brookside Cemetery, Winnipeg, Manitoba, in a family plot beside his wife Elizabeth. The bronze scrolls which bear their names are connected by the words "Together Forever."

Pro Patria

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