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“An Exemplary, Fine Gentleman” Defying the Odds: Arthur Roy Baxter, Veteran of World War I

Part I: Enlistment and Early Struggles

 

By Michael Saad

Arthur Baxter of the 25th Battalion, Nova Scotia Rifles, c. 1915. (Used with permission from Mrs. Marilyn [Baxter] & Mr. Gordon Brown)

Lying in the infirmary of New End Hospital in Hampstead, England on August 17th, 1917, Private Arthur Baxter of the Nova Scotia Rifles was faced with the harrowing reality—not uncommon for soldiers in the Great War—of life without a limb. His left leg was amputated from sepsis, a common yet serious anti-inflammatory reaction the human body generates in response to harmful bacteria that infects a major wound. He had already gone through two amputations that saw his leg cut five-and-a-half inches below his thigh. The real culprit responsible for the loss of this 20-year-old fisherman’s leg was a German bullet that struck Arthur behind his kneecap, shattering his patella and exiting out the front. With that near fatal wound that occurred on the afternoon of April 9th, 1917, Arthur became one of the 10,602 Canadian casualties of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the prognosis of which would garner him a medical discharge from the war. It would also leave Arthur with the stress of having to cope with the uncertainly of life with a major handicap, as well as the jarring memories of the horror of the conflict that killed thousands. Lying on that hospital bed in New End, Arthur was perhaps destined for a fate like so many wounded veterans of the Great War – one that would involve the trauma of life as an invalid, filled with emotional turmoil and disillusionment, compounded by the haunting, unbearable anguish of undiagnosed PTSD, which in the early part of the 20th Century was known as ‘shellshock.’   Only that would not become Arthur Baxter’s fate—instead, through a devout Christian faith focused exclusively on family, recreation, and a love of what would fast become Canada’s national sport – hockey – Arthur would emerge from the turmoil of the ‘Lost Generation’ and live a venerable life, remembered by family and friends who knew him as a loving husband, father, community member, and above all else, an ‘exemplary, fine gentleman.’

Arthur was only 17 years old, four months short of the minimum age allowed for Canadian recruitment, when he enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force on April 5th, 1915. He was born on August 6th, 1897 in Digby, Nova Scotia and lived on Carleton Street under the care of his father, George Willard Baxter. Arthur had three natural brothers and one sister. Tragedy struck the family in Arthur’s formative years. His second oldest brother Harry, age 18, was a railway worker who, while laboring in the rain one day in 1908, slipped off the top of a boxcar and fell to his death.[1] Three years later, Arthur’s mother and George’s first wife, Sarah Rawding, died from pneumonia at age 43, an illness that developed suddenly and swept the household, plaguing each child along with their mother. The illness took Sarah’s life but spared the children, though it was reported they had only “somewhat recovered” by the time of her funeral.[2]

As a child growing up, Arthur attended the now demolished Digby Academy, opened in 1891 and known affectionately as the ‘Red School.’ Arthur had an especially fond memory of a teacher named Bessie Turnbull, a longtime educator for 50 years at the school who would one day teach Arthur’s own children. The British declaration of war against Germany in August 1914, brought about by Germany’s refusal to adhere to the British ultimatum to withdraw their troops from Belgium, a country Britain had sworn to protect during the Napoleonic Wars, compelled young Canadians to serve. In his military attestation paper to join the “Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force,” Arthur listed “fisherman” as his occupation but conspicuously offered up no month or day in response to the explicit question, “What is the date of your birth?” He simply wrote ‘1895’ on the handwritten form,[3] – a lie, given that his birthday was officially August 6th, 1897, clearly suggesting his resoluteness in joining the cause. In later years, Arthur would tell his family that he enrolled with the ‘greatest of enthusiasm.’ He immediately became a member of the 40th Battalion, the Halifax Rifles, and given the rank of Private.

Upon arriving in England with the 40th Battalion in November 1915, Arthur, then only 18 years old, was transferred to the 17th Reserve Battalion. From there, he spent five months at the Canadian camp in Shorncliffe, Kent, where he underwent combat training, including fencing and bayonet practice. As it had done for many young soldiers, Shorncliffe tested Arthur’s temperament. He was confined to barracks for five days for insubordination, then was admitted into hospital over the Christmas holiday that year for tonsillitis. Transferred to the 25th Battalion in February of 1916, Arthur embarked for France the following month, where he immediately spent recurring stints at the No. 9 Stationary Hospital in Havre, France, having contracted inflammatory skin lesions and sores, a viral infection that kept him out of action for 76 days. He returned to the 25th Battalion on June 12, 1916 in time for a baptism by shellfire as the 25th reinforced the Allied front in the aftermath of what had been the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s largest and most dangerous mission in its young history: holding off a pressing German army at the tenuous positions of St. Eloi and Sanctuary Wood, during the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium.

The previous year’s Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915 represented the Canadian army’s coming of age, but it had come with a steep price for the First Canadian Division deployed there.   The success of the Allied objective—securing the town of Ypres by preventing German forces from penetrating the maligned Ypres Salient—was a precarious one. Meeting this objective only continued the ‘No Man’s Land’ stalemate that characterized the entire Western European front, from Flanders to Alsace. Unfortunately for the Allies, the Ypres battle lines, for the remainder of 1915 and well into early 1916, remained vulnerable along positions to the east and south of the town. Situated just four to five kilometers from various positions along the Front, Ypres remained a coveted prize for the German army, as it would have allowed them to achieve what Baron Von Schlieffen had first devised in 1905 with his infamous plan: a full-out sweep of Belgium, allowing the Germans complete access into Northern France. The Allied success of the Second Battle of Ypres allowed the Western Front to remain inside Belgium’s borders, albeit in a cascade of trenches, hilltops, and broken forest that the Germans would spend the next year trying to win back.

Arthur Baxter, far left, on crutches, leaving the hospital in England, 1917 following the second amputation of his left leg. The other people in the photo are unknown. (Used with permission from Mrs. Marilyn [Baxter] & Mr. Gordon Brown)

 As Arthur struggled to recover from his skin ailments in Havre, France, the 25th Battalion, part of Second Canadian Division, was ordered to occupy a position south of Ypres near the village of St. Eloi. There, the entire Division was tasked with the job of defending a series of large, British-made shrapnel craters from the Germans, an operation riddled with costly communication errors by British and Canadian commanders, an impossible task that turned into an unmitigated disaster for the Division, one that decimated its numbers.[4]

The subsequent months following the St. Eloi debacle prompted a fierce German bombardment of the newly deployed Third Canadian Division’s hold on Mont Sorrel, Hill 61, and 62, attacks that saw the Germans regain the hills, giving them a view of the Ypres church towers eight kilometers away. The immediate focus of General Julien Byng, appointed British Commander of the Canadian Corps in response to St. Eloi, was to regain that ground, and he tasked the replenished First Division to accomplish. After two vicious German assaults on June 3rd and 4th, in which the Canadians held off further enemy advance, the subsequent Allied counterattacks needed to be better coordinated. Placed between Sanctuary Wood and Hill 60, the Second Canadian Division, to which the 25th Battalion of the Nova Scotia Rifles belonged, was assigned to hold the line, thereby allowing the First Division unfettered access to that vulnerable section of the enemy’s position. It was here that Arthur Baxter, reassigned to the Canadian Base Depot in Havre, France after his April hospital discharge[5], would see his first action in the War, in what was to be the largest coordinated Canadian counter-assault in military history to that point in time.

The author wishes to thank Gordon & Marilyn Brown, Roger Mullen, and Bruce MacDonald for their invaluable help & assistance in writing this article.  

[1] Typewritten notes found in ‘Surname Binder,’ Baxter Family Information, Digby Family Histories Collection (Date Unknown), received in correspondence with Admiral Digby Museum, January 2016.

[2] [Death of Mrs. George Baxter], Digby Courier Newspaper (Digby), 28 January 1910

 

[3] Attestation Paper for Arthur Roy Baxter, Regimental No. 415534, Canadian Expeditionary Force, Personnel Files, RG 150, Accession Number 1992-93/ 166, Box 517-14; LAC.

[4] Tim Cook, At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1914-1916 (Penguin Canada, 2007), pgs. 332-334.

 

[5] Arthur had to forfeit 50 cents per day of his 76 day hospitalization for his skin ailment. Arthur Baxter Service Record (Regimental Number 415534), Library and Archives Canada, RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 517-14.

 



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Kyle Falcon

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