Joseph James Foster-Part 2

Joseph James Foster, 1916.

By January of 1919, Joseph had been away from his family for two and a half years and had been in France and Belgium for some very brutal parts of the war. There was no record of him ever having been injured or sick, not even the very common ailment of scabies.

In the months after armistice, the armies found themselves with a tremendous amount of personnel, equipment, and animals scattered throughout Northern France and Belgium that needed to be reorganized and reassigned, and in several cases there was also a great deal of infrastructure that needed to be repaired in order to facilitate that level of movement of people and machinery.

In the case of troops from overseas, there was also a tremendous backlog in terms of determining how and when to get men home.  This resulted in battalions with a lot of time on their hands, attending dances, organizing sports activities, parading, and then performing light duties as needed.

The entry for the 12th Engineers on January 27, 1919 in the war diary is almost identical to the days that preceded it and the days that followed it.  They had been in Belgium since armistice, and there was no sign of them moving significantly anytime soon.  The Battalion built a boxing ring that day… this is the only thing of note. But for my great-grandfather, that day was the start of a dramatic few months that would precede his returning to his family in Toronto.

He went missing from his billet that evening, and would not return until January 31st, nearly four full days (3 days and 22 and a half hours to be precise), at which point he was arrested by the Regimental Sergeant Major for being absent without leave, and, more seriously, for stealing a horse belonging to the government and selling it.

The stable master had discovered a horse missing on the night of January 27th, and quickly organized a search party to look for the animal.  They found the horse in question that same night, and woke the man on whose property the horse was found to piece together what had happened.  According to the statement provided by one of the men who had been part of the search for the horse and who was present when the civilian who had bought it was describing the events, the civilian stated that he had been sold the horse by two Canadian soldiers:

He described one was being French-Canadian and the other as a short, dark man who he thought was a cook.

This short, dark man matched the description of Joseph James Foster. Although there is no direct mention of cook’s training in his service file, there are several mentions of men being sent for cook’s training after the 124th disbanded and was dispersed.  Unfortunately the parts of the court martial file with Joseph’s verbatim statements are too faded to read, but the word “cook” is legible on one page.

He was held in confinement for 29 days before his trial on February 28, 1919.  He and another soldier, Dvr. A. Jobin, a French-Canadian soldier, were accused of stealing a horse from the stables of the battalion on the evening of January 27th, and then selling it for 700 francs to a nearby civilian. Both men pleaded guilty to being absent without leave, but not guilty to the charge of stealing the horse.  Evidence against him included the statements of all the men who had assisted in finding the horse, as well as his previous punishment from October of 1917 when he had been found drunk on active duty, and had been given 14 days worth of “field punishment No.1.”  This punishment, nicknamed “crucifixion” by many soldiers, entailed labour duties and attachment to a fixed object such as a post or wheel for two hours a day.  According to the Canadian War Museum’s page on discipline and punishment, this was considered a particularly humiliating and degrading practice.

Despite their plea, both men were found guilty on both counts and were sentenced to four months in military prison.   The convictions and sentences from the field court martial were upheld on review by a judge, and Joseph was sent to military prison in March of 1919. It appears that he served his full four months sentence, as it wasn’t until July of 1919 that he finally boarded a ship for his return to Canada, landing in Halifax on July 23, 1919, just a few days under three years from when he sailed for Britain.  Three days later, he was back in Toronto, where he was officially discharged from the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Joseph went to work as a postal clerk, and by early 1920, he and his wife Mary Alice, were expecting their third child.  This baby, a boy, was born in November of 1920, and he was named Joseph James after his father.  This baby was also my Grandfather. Six years later, another baby, a daughter, was born.  Joseph was 41 at this time.

By late 1937, 51-year old Joseph was in sales with a dairy.  At least one of his sons was also working as a dairyman.  His two older sons were 26 and 23 respectively.  The eldest was married with a son of his own, and the younger was engaged. Joseph’s two younger children were 17 and 10 respectively.  On November 10, 1937, Joseph took some sheets and tied them to a bannister, then around his own neck.  He was 51 years old.

Family lore says that it was my Grandfather, Joseph James Jr., who found him.  His record of death states that he died of strangulation by way of suicide. My Grandfather’s oldest brother was on record as the informing party.

Soldier suicide after the great war has not been widely studied, but it has been fairly universally acknowledged that this war had a profound effect on the mental health of many of the people who participated.  This is a phenomenon that we recognize much more broadly today, and supports and treatment are available. I have no way of knowing what specific series of events or state of emotional health contributed to my Great-Grandfather’s death in 1937.  All I know is that he passed away in a very sad manner, and that it is very possible that he had been deeply impacted by what he experienced between 1916 and 1919.

My great grandmother, Mary Alice Pickering, married again in 1938 to widower Elias Williams. The following year, the world was engulfed in war again, and the pattern I have been tracing for the past year began to repeat itself.  My Grandfather, Joseph James Foster Jr. enlisted in 1941, soon after marrying my Grandmother, Florence Elizabeth Miller.  My Grandmother’s father, John Russell Miller, had also been in the Great War.  Her brother, Samuel, was already overseas in the RAF when she married my Grandfather. In 1942, Samuel was shot down and killed. My Grandfather, however, did make it through the war, and returned in 1946 ready to resume his life as a salesman with CIL paints, and begin his family life with my Grandmother in earnest.

Tomorrow, I look forward to being able to share this story and the stories of the 51 other men in this series at the Armistice 100 events here in Edmonton, Alberta.  It has been an honour to share these stories over this past year.  I am looking forward to the next evolution of this project, which I will share more about in the weeks and months to come.

 

 

 

Update: Edward Clinton Biccum and Nellie Richmire.

One of the most rewarding parts of this project has been connecting with distant relatives, and making connections across the country and the world about our common relatives.  This past week, the great-grandson of Edward Clinton Biccum and Nellie Richmire reached out to me to ask if I would add some additional information to the story of his grandparents that I first wrote about last February.

My post ended by referencing Nellie’s remarriage after the war to a man named Frank Brant, and that Nellie, her and Edward’s son, John (Jack), and Frank settled in Michigan.

Nellie’s grandson wrote to me that Frank Brant was also veteran of the Great War, having served as a private in the United States Army with the 42nd Infantry Division from November 1917 until the end of the war.  He survived the war, but it clearly had it’s impact.  As my distant cousin wrote to me last week, “when the United States entered World War Two, Frank strove to find my grandfather a war-essential job, so that Jack wouldn’t have to experience war as he did.”

This week, leading up to Remembrance Day, I am so honoured to remember the men in this project through events such as the anniversary of armistice, but also to remember the families of those men and the impact that the Great War had upon them well after November of 1918.  We are still feeling the impact of all of these families’ experiences today.

Joseph James Foster-Part 1

Joseph James Foster was my great-grandfather, and the 52nd citizen soldier I am profiling in this series.  On his mother’s side, he was descended from the Langton and Bishop clans, both of which arrived in then Upper Canada in the early 1840s. This is a line of my paternal family I have documented in 6 other posts this year.  His father George Whitfield Foster, along with his parents William Foster, a draper from Manchester, and Jane Kirkman immigrated to Canada from England in 1871.  George, who became a painter (I assume of buildings) married Ada May Langton in 1880 in Peterborough, ON.  By 1891, George, Ada, and their 6 children (their 7th and youngest child was not born until 1896), including my great grandfather Joseph, were all living in the same home in Toronto.

By the 1901 census, William and Jane were no longer living with the family, and 16-year old Joseph is listed with the occupation “driver.”  In 1910, he married Mary Alice Pickering, the second youngest of 10 children in the Pickering clan.  He was 24, and she was 18. Joseph and Mary Alice had two sons before the war, Gordon and Earl Edwin, who were five and three respectively when Joseph signed his attestation papers in January of 1916.  He was a short man, 5’2″, with dark brown hair and blue eyes. Thelittle finger on his right hand had been amputated in 1909 after being severely burned in an accident when he was working at a brick yard, but this did not prevent him from being considered fit for duty.

Joseph enlisted in the 124th Battalion (later the 124th Pioneer Battalion) of the CEF which trained in and around Toronto before finally sailing to Britain in early August of 1916. Training continued in England between August of 1916 and March of 1917.  On March 9, 1917, the battalion sailed for France, landing in Boulogne. Their first month was predominantly spent digging trenches, laying communications cabling, and working on ammunition dumps.  On April 9, 1917, after only one month in France, the war diary for the unit states:

Weather continues unsettled and condition of ground very muddy. Parties are very fatigued but are continuing work uncomplainingly, and cheerfully.

Not only was the work being done through difficult environmental conditions, but the battalion was also under fire or being shelled during much of their work, with members of the battalion being injured or killed on nearly a daily basis. This work must have seemed thankless, though we now recognize that all this digging and cable laying in the spring of 1917 in this part of Northern France was instrumental to success of the Canadian troops at the battle of Vimy Ridge from April 9-12.

By the fall, it can be imagined that this level of work would be taking its toll.  Joseph had only had one break from the field on record in this time: 7 days at the 1st Army Rest Camp where he was still on duty, but could have been participating in other activities.  At some point in early October, he was caught drunk while on active duty, and punished. By mid-October, the 124th battalion was in Belgium at Ypres. The account of the autumn there is brutal: continual attempts to build and rebuild roads and shelter just to have them shelled when they are nearly complete.  By late November, the battalion had moved back to Northern France further back from the front lines to engage in training. On December 22, Joseph was granted 14 days leave to Troyes, which is where he spent Christmas of 1917.

Joseph returned to the unit on January 5, 1918. At the end of May, 1918, the battalion was broken up and dispersed among the 10th, 11th and 12th battalions of the Canadian Engineers.  Joseph landed with the 12th battalion.

Joseph’s first few months with the Engineers does not seem to be as intense or dangerous as his time with the 124th. By mid-August, however, the battalion was in full support of the final push of the war. By November 11, 1918, the battalion was close to the border between Belgium and France, and was ordered to march east toward Germany.  Joseph was granted leave to England from November 23 to December 14, and he rejoined his unit at Ransart, Belgium, and they continued their march east. By Christmas, they were at Longueville, Belgium, and there they had a Christmas dinner consisting of “turkey, vegetables, plum pudding, fruit, nuts, tea and beer, and afterwards a substantial issue of rum.”

In January, the battalion moved in to Brussels, and seemed to be in a holding pattern, spending a great deal of time playing football and practicing football.  In was in this environment that Joseph found himself getting in to trouble.  I will continue with his story in my next post in a couple of days.  Until then…