By: Captain Michael M. O'Leary, The RCR
British War Medal awarded to 1033010 Private Philip Aubrey Elston.
Philip Aubrey Elston was born on 26 Feb 1894 in the Somerville area of Boston, Massachusetts, USA. How would be one of estimated 35,000 American citizens who would cross the border during the First World War to serve in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
On 16 Nov 1915 Philip Elston would attest for overseas service with the 97th Overseas Battalion and given the regimental number 207004. A clerk by trade and 22 years 10 months of age, Elston is described as 5' 9" tall, with a fresh complexion, light blue eyes and fair hair. Living in Peterborough at the time of enlistment, Elston was examined at the Toronto Recruiting Depot and pronounced fit for the Canadian Over Seas Expeditionary Force. He reported no prior service at this time.
The 97th Canadian Infantry Battalion would be authorized by General Order 151 of 22 December 1915 and be raised in the Toronto area. Once recruiting and initial training was completed, the Battalion would sail for England on 19 September 1916. It would remain in England until being absorbed by the reinforcement system on 31 October 1916 when the men of the 97th Battalion would be absorbed by the R.C.R. & P.P.C.L.I. Depot.
Elston's service with the 97th Battalion would only last until March of 1916, but a few incidents are recorded in his service records.
On or about 25 Jan 1916 Elston was charged with "Absent without leave" while serving at the Exhibition Camp in Toronto.. The dates of his absence were recorded on his Company Conduct Sheet as 17 to 20 January 1916. Witness to the offense was 736309 Sgt Kenneth Nix of the 97th Battalion. The charge was heard by Capt. Albert Burton Mason, another American who described himself as a professional soldier on his Officers' Declaration Paper. Mason had served 6 months in the U.S. National Guard and 3 ½ years at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He was an officer of the 13th Royal Regiment in Hamilton when he made his Declaration for the C.E.F. For reasons that were not recorded on his Charge Sheet, the charge against Philip Elston was dismissed and no punishment was awarded.
Not quite two months after his charge parade, Elston met with another internal institution of the CEF, the medical world. On 18 Mar 1916, following hospitalization, rest and a medical board held at the Exhibition Camp, Toronto, a "Medical History of an Invalid" form was completed on Elston. He was described as having "good" habits, "good" conduct and a "temperate" temperance. With a diagnosis described as "chronic bronchitis, lung capacity insufficient, nasal obstruction", Elston would be discharged from the CEF in Canada after about five months of service with the 97th Battalion.
The completed History notes in his Medical History would detail that Elston "has been troubled with cold and shortness of breath since early childhood". Apparently, he had suffered from "one attack of Bronchitis after another since he joined the unit", and he was "unable to double or take part in route marches on account of shortness of breath [and] chronic cough". Interestingly, the completed form also indicates that Elston was "discharged from [the] 2nd Bn C.E.F. for [the] same disability" in September 1914.
On 25 Mar 1916, Philip Aubrey Elston would be discharged from C.E.F. service with the 97th Battalion. Thus ended his second enlistment with the Canadian Army.
Three months after being discharged from the 97th Battalion, Philip Elston would present himself before a CEF recruiter for a third time. On 8 Jun 1916, he would be attested for overseas service once more, this time with the 237th Battalion. The 237th Battalion was authorized by General order 69 of 15 July 1916, its recruiting headquarters was in Sussex New Brunswick and was considered an "American Battalion", thus defined by the origin of many of its recruits.
His medical examination for this enlistment describes Elston as 22 years 3 months of age, 5' 9 1/4" in height, 141 pounds, 34 1/2 inch chest. On this third attempt to join the Canadian Army, Elston does admit to his five months prior service with the 97th Battalion. With the 237th Battalion, Elston is given a new regimental number from the number block assigned for that unit's recruiting efforts: he would now be known to the Army as 1033010 Private P.A. Elston.
The next highlight of Philip Aubrey's career as a soldier would be one of those instances of irony that only seem to happen in the service. The 237th Infantry Battalion would only exist from 15 May 1916 until 12 Sep 1916. And then the 237th would be absorbed into the 97th Battalion.
Philip Aubrey would sail from Halifax, once more a soldier of the 97th Canadian Infantry Battalion, on 19 Sep 1916 and disembark at Liverpool, England, on 26 Sep 1916. Like many soldiers of the CEF, Elston would cross the Atlantic aboard the liner turned troop ship, the S.S. Olympic. The Olympic, a four-stack liner, and the largest ship in the world when launched, was a sister ship to the ill-fated Titanic. A White Star liner, the Olympic was launched in 1910 and would make her last voyage in 1935. She was taken into service as a troopship in September 1915 and served in that capacity until July 1919.
One month after arriving in England, Philip Elston would be struck off the strength of the 97th Battalion again on 27 Oct 1916. This time it would not be for a medical discharge and he would start his journey to the trenches.
Elston was moved forward as the reinforcement system worked to make up the losses of the campaigns of the late summer and fall of 1916. Elston landed in France, arriving at the Canadian Base Depot, and was taken on the strength of The RCR on 3 Nov 1916.
Finally, on 22 Nov 1916 Elston would begin the last stage of his trip to the front and on that date he departed the Canadian Base Depot to join The R.C.R. in the field.
Philip Elson's first mouths with the Regiment would include his next experience with the military justice system. On 28 Dec 1916, as a result of a Summary Trial, Elston was awarded seven days Field Punishment No. 1 for "Disobedience of Orders, etc."
Two weeks later, on 14 Jan 1917, he was sent On Command to the 172 Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers. Three days later on 17 Jan 1917, Elston was reported "wounded in action". He would be admitted to No. 10 Canadian Field Ambulance with a gun shot wound (G.S.W.) of his right leg, noted as an accidental shooting. On 18 Jan 1917 Elston would be transferred to No. 32 Casualty Clearing Station Special Hospital.
Unfortunately for Private Elston, the circumstances of his accidental wounded were being questioned.
On 12 February 1917, Major C.M. Gates, Commanding First Army Troops, signed a Form for Assembly and Proceedings of Field General Court Martial on Active Service convening a FGCM to try 1033010 Private Philip Aubrey Elston of The Royal Canadian Regiment. Elston's Court Martial would take place at Lillers on 13 February 1917.
Because there were insufficient officers available at the time to name a president and three members, the FGCM would be convened with a president and only one member. Major A.J. MacPherson would sit as President, and Captain G.F. Aylward as the sole member of the Court. Both officers belonged to the 50th Canadian Infantry Battalion.
Elston's charge read as follows:–
No. 1033010 Private P.A. ELSTON, The Royal Canadian Regiment
"Conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline
in that he
in the trenches on or about 17th January, Thomas1917, negligently wounded himself in the right leg"
Private Elston pleaded "Not Guilty" to the charge laid against him.
Evidence in the case of No. 1033010 Pte P.A. Elston, Royal Can. Regt.:
1st Witness – 432168 C.S.M. Lee, 49 Can. Inf,. sworn, states:-
"On the afternoon 17th Jan about 5.30 p.m. I was resting in an R.A. dugout about 1500' behind the F[ront] line. I heard some cries for help and went to what was the matter and found the accused at the bottom of the stairs of the other entrance to the dugout. The accused was shot through the calf of the leg. I dressed the wound and asked him how it happened, he replied that he was about to clean his rifle and while going up the stairs he slipped and the rifle went off. I found the rifle near the bottom of the stairs, pointing up the stairs. I examined it and found an empty cartridge in the chamber and live rounds in the magazine. I asked the accused did he usually have a round in the chamber and he said "no" and could not account for it being there."
The accused, sworn, states:-
"The day this occident happened, I was sick in my dugout and about 3.30 p.m. I thought I would clean my rifle, as I was feeling better, and I got out of my bunk and took up my rifle, but as the dugout was in complete darkness, no candle, I could not tell the condition of my rifle but when I saw it before, it had no round in the chamber, this was long previously. When I was going up the stairs I slipped because I felt faint and the rifle went off."
"I was going upstairs in order to take the rifle into the light to clean it. The rifle was in the dugout all the time. I was carrying the rifle under my arm pointing downward as I went up the steps. I used to be subject to these fainting spells but had not had one for 6 months."
After finding; Capt H. O'Neill, sworn, states:-
"I cannot produce any testament as to character."
Punishment awarded by the Court:- 40 days Field Punishment No. 1Thomas
The results of the Court Martial were subsequently dealt with by the Commanding Officer as follows:
"Confirmed, I commute the sentence to 21 days Field Punishment No. 2"
(signed) Maj.-Gen. P.E.F. Hobbs, Major General
Coincidentally, the previous year a regimental officer, Major E. W. Pope, prepared for publication The Canadian Officer's Guide To The Study Of Military Law, (Methuen & Co. Ltd. 36 Essex Street W .C., London, 1916) which contained a detailed description of Field Punishments No. 1 and No. 2.
RULES FOR FIELD PUNISHMENT AND THE KEEPING OF CONDUCT SHEETS
(See M.M.L. p. 721, and F.S.R. Pt. II, chapter on "Discipline")
109. I. For any offence committed on active service an offender may be sentenced, by his commanding officer, to twenty-eight days' Field Punishment, and by a Court Martial to three months' Field Punishment.
Field Punishment is of two kinds:
(a) Field Punishment No. I.
(b) Field Punishment No. 2.
2. Where an offender is sentenced to Field Punishment No. I, he may, during the continuance of his sentence, unless the Court Martial or the Commanding Officer otherwise directs, be punished as follows:
(a) He may be kept in irons, i.e. in fetters or handcuffs, or both fetters and handcuffs; and may be secured so as to prevent his escape.
(b) When in irons he may be attached for a period or periods not exceeding two hours in anyone day to a fixed object, but he must not be so attached during more than three out of any four consecutive days, nor during more than twenty-one days in all.
(c) Straps or ropes may be used for the purpose of these rules in lieu of irons.
(d) He may be subjected to the like labour, employment, and restraint, and dealt with in like manner, as if he were under a sentence of imprisonment with hard labour.
3. Where an offender is sentenced to FThomasield Punishment No. 2, the foregoing rule with respect to Field Punishment No. 1 shall apply to him, except that he shall not be liable to be attached to a fixed object as provided by paragraph (b) of Rule 2.
4. Every portion of a Field Punishment shall be inflicted in such a manner as is calculated not to cause injury or to leave any permanent mark on the offender; and a portion of a Field Punishment must be discontinued upon a report by a responsible medical officer that the continuance of that portion would be prejudicial to the offender's health.
5. Field Punishment will be carried out regimentally when the unit to which the offender belongs or is attached is actually on the move, but when the unit is halted at any place where there is a provost marshal or an assistant provost marshal the punishment will be carried out under that officer.
6. When the unit to which the offender belongs or is attached is actually on the move, an offender awarded Field Punishment No. 1 shall be exempt from the operation of Rule 2. (b), but all offenders awarded Field Punishment shall march with their unit, carry their arms and accoutrements, perform all their military duties as well as extra fatigue duties, and be treated as defaulters.
110. Method of carrying out Field Punishment. Although it has not been considered advisable to allow Field Punishment No. 1 to be administered in the United Kingdom, it is the punishment most frequently met with in the theatre of war. It is easily carried out, if the proper procedure is understood, and has been administered with excellent results. It must be remembered for obvious reasons that a man undergoing Field Punishment does not thereby miss his tour of duty in the trenches. No punishments are carried out when the unit is actually on trench duty, and since the sentence runs con currently with this duty due attention should be paid to this point by the Commanding Officer in making his award. Many officers have an idea that Field Punishment No. I consists in merely tying a prisoner to a fixed object for a certain length of time each day. This is quite wrong. The proper system is to make a man sentenced to this punishment do all the fatigues and sanitary work possible in the vicinity of the billets which his unit is occupying, with a view to relieving well-conducted men there-from. Then when there is nothing left for him to do of that nature, he can be tied to a fixed object for a period not exceeding two hours daily. When it is decided to tie a prisoner to a fixed object, it has been found advisable to carry out this punishment in as public a place as possible.
As soldiers are often well aware of the range and natures of punishments awarded for various crimes neither Elston nor the NCOs who would have administered his punishment would have had cause to review Major Pope's book to confirm the requirements of Field Punishment No. 2. It was no doubt to Elston's relief that his punishment was reduced from 40 to 21 days, and from F.P. No. 1 to No. 2. Any sense of relief probably was not sufficient to reduce the physical discomforts of his punishment while it was being executed.
Elston's wounding, with its period of hospitalization, court martial and punishment were typically recorded in his service record in the following succinct manner:
13 Feb 1917 - "In arrest awaiting trial 17.1.17 Tried and convicted by F.G.C.M. of "Conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline and sentenced to 40 days F.P. No. 1., commuted to 21 days F.P. No. 2 by D.A. & Q.M.G. 1st Army 13/2/17"
We don't know exactly when Elston served his punishment, but it most likely would have waited until the doctor's pronounced him fit enough.
On 20 Feb 1917, he was transferred to No. 20 Ambulance Train and the next day admitted to No. 18 General Hospital at Camiers. By 21 Jun 1917 he was transferred again and admitted to No. 4 General Hospital at Camiers. While his main injury remained the gun shot wound in his leg, his Medical Case Sheet also reads, in part: "T[hrough] and T[hrough] rifle bullet wound of leg. Healed. Not much scarring. History of several pleuristic (?) attacks and of pneumonia … complaining of pain in chest." Philip Elson would not be discharged from hospital until 17 Jul 1917 when he was released to the Base Depot and taken on the strength of No. 3 Canadian Infantry Base Depot. He would be administered by the C.I.B.D. while he convalesced and waited to be returned to his unit once healthy enough for the front lines once more.
But Elson's health issued would not be resolved quickly and on 30 Jul 1917 he was admitted to No. 7 Canadian General Hospital at Etaples for a complaint of constipation. While it may seem unlikely to require hospitalization today, such events emphasize the state of medical care of the period and the slowly emerging science of medication that had not yet addressed many such complaints. The next day, Elston was again struck off the strength of No. 3 C.I.B.D.
A few days later, on 03 Aug 1917, Elston was transferred to No. 6 Convalescent Depot at Etaples to continue his recovery. The next day he was transferred again to No. 11 Convalescent Depot at Buchy, from which he was discharged on 21 Aug 1917 with a medical category recorded as Class "A".
On 23 Aug 1917, Philip Elston was once more taken on strength of No. 3 C.I.B.D. And three days later that unit was reported that Elston left the 3rd Division Training Centre on route to No. 3 Entrenching Battalion. Elston arrived at the Entrenching Battalion on 29 Aug 1917.
The 3rd Canadian Entrenching Battalion existed between 6 Aug 1916 and 30 Sep 1917. It provided a reserve of labour for the Division in support of engineer units and works. Each of the Canadian Infantry Divisions had a numbered Entrenching Battalion under command.
On 29 Aug 1917, the 3rd Entrenching Battalion was in the process of moving from Villers au Bois to Ferfay. They were carrying on with standard work parties as described in their War Diary for 20 Aug 1917, described as:
"4 Officers and 170 O.R. Under 215th A.T. Co. laying Pipe Line in the Forard Area from NEUVILLE ST VAAST THEUS to PETIT VIMY. 2 O.R. Working for No. 2 Forestry Co. BOIS DES ALLEUX. 1 Officer and 74 O.R. Construction Light Railway from CITE DE GAUMONT to LEIVEN. 1 Officer and 54 operating Light Railway in the Canadian Forward Area, covering SOUCHEZ, NEUVILLE ST VAAST, THELUS, LA CHAUDIERE, AGIERS (?), AIX NOILETTE, HULLY GRENAY. 1 Officer and 54 Other Ranks maintaining track in the vicinity of CITE DE GAUMONT. 10 Officers and 300 Other Ranks ballasting road and laying track for the Canadian Corps Tramway Company at the following places, FOSSE 11, near LENS Post Office, LOOS, ST PIERRE, CALONNE. 2 Officers, 104 Other Ranks working for No. 2 Forestry Co. at CHATEAU D'ACQ at LE PENDUE. 2 Other Ranks killed in action, 5 O.R. Wounded."
Elston would serve briefly with the 3rd Entrenching Battalion and on 11 Sep 1917 he departed for the duty with the 7th Canadian Machine Gun Company. Elston joined the 7th M.G. Coy while the unit was in billets near Mount St Eloi. He served with the Company until 22 Oct 1917 when he went sick and was admitted to No. 3 Australian General Hospital at Abbeville.
A few days after his admission to the No. 3 Australian Hospital, Elston was posted to the Nova Scotia Regimental Depot, Bramshott, on 24 Oct 1917. He was again suffering from constipation and made his journey to hospital in England via the No. 25 Ambulance Train and H.M.H.S. Warilda.
His Majesty's Hospital Ship Warilda was a single stack liner able to carry 546 casualties. Requisitioned first as His Majesty's Australian Troopship, and then as a Military Hospital Ship, serving between 25 Jul 1916 and 3 Aug 1918. As a hospital ship the Warilda served on the Southampton Le Havre route. The Warilda was torpedoed on 3 Aug 1918, at 1.30 am, while on a voyage from Le Havre, she was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine UC 49. Of the 471 sick and wounded on board, 439 were cot cases. 115 patients, one nursing sister, and an RAMC orderly were lost when the ship went down.
By 29 Oct 1917, Philip Elson was admitted to No. 15 Canadian General Hospital at Taplow. His transfer from The R.C.R., on whose regimental strength he had been held while serving with the Entrenching Battalion and the Machine Gun Company, to the N.S.R.D. was also recorded as occurring that date.
Elston would have a lengthy stay in hospital, not being discharged until 17 Dec 1917. From the hospital he wound be attached on command to the 2nd Canadian Command Depot where he would remain until 21 Jan 1918 when he was again hospitalized.
On 21 Jan 1918, Elston was admitted to the No. 12 Canadian General Hospital at Bramshott with tonsillitis. His medical problems continuing, Elston was operated on for appendicitis a few weeks later on 4 Feb 1918 after which he was in hospital in Bramshott and then in the Canadian Convalescent Home at Bearwood for three month. He arrived at Bearwood on 6 Mar 1918 and was discharged on 25 Jun 1918 when he was again attached to the 2nd Canadian Command Depot.
A few weeks later, on 9 Aug 1918, Elston would cease to be on command at the 2nd C.C.D. and struck be off the strength of the N.S.R.D. to the 17th Reserve Battalion. Not long afterwards, on 20 Sep 1918, he would be medically boarded and awarded a category of B2.
The Official History of the Canadian Forces in the Great War, 1914-19; The Medical Services, by Sir Andrew McPhail, provides the following explanation of the "B" medical category:
"Category B was likewise subdivided into four groups, to include men who were fit for employment in labour, forestry, and railway units; men who were fit for base units of the medical service, garrison, or regimental outdoor duty; men capable of sedentary work as clerks; or skilled workmen at their trades. In Category C were placed men fit for service in England only."
At the time of his Medical Board, Philip Elston would be posted from the 17th Res. Bn. back to the Nova Scotia Regimental Depot on 20 Sep 1918. From there Elston would be attached to the Depot in Bramshott for a matter of days before returning on command to the 17th Res. Bn. on 1 Oct 1918.
Elston's time with the 17th Res. Bn. would be brief, on 15 Nov 1918 he would cease being on command to that unit, and a week later, on 22 Nov 1918 was struck off the strength of the N.S.R.D. on transfer to the C.E.F. in Canada.
It was also on 22 Nov 1918 that Elston boarded the R.M.S. Aquitania en route to Canada. Launched in 1913 to sail for 36 years, the Aquitania had a varied career throughout the war. She was variously employed as an armed merchant cruiser, as a troopship then hospital ship during the Dardanelles campaign, and again as a troopship in 1916 and 1918 (being laid up during 1917). In 1918 the Aquitania was on the trans-Atlantic run, conveying troops from Canada to Britain, and later on their journeys home to Canada.
Elston's voyage on the Aquitania ended with his arrival in Canada on 28 Nov 1918. After his arrival processing in Halifax he was on his way to the Casualty Company of No. 3 District Depot in Kingston, arriving on 2 Dec 1918. He immediately started two weeks of pre-discharge leave which would last until 15 Dec 1918.
Before departing on leave, Elston was subjected to his pre-release medical examination. The "Medical History of an Invalid" completed during his leave (dated 12 Dec 1918) provides the following synopsis of his medical condition at the time:
With an intended address after discharge of Walkerfield Ave, Peterborough, Ontario, 1033010 Private Philip Aubrey Elston was discharged at Kingston Ontario on 3 Jan 1919. He applied the following June for a War Service Badge, his application being submitted for both Class "A" and Class "B" badges. He was approved for a Class "A" badge, being issued badge number 59738.
A Class "A" War Service Badge could be worn by "members of the CEF who served at the front and had retired or relinquished their commissions, been honourably discharged, or returned to or retained in Canada on duty."
Philip Aubrey Elston died on 7 Apr 50.