This blog was conceived as a space for discussion of concepts affecting military operations in the present and near future (hence the name “Battle Space”). Typically, it focusses on big ideas, although it usually strives to keep a human element in perspective. Too often, war is discussed, to its detriment, as a big idea and the suffering and loss that always accompanies it is lost. US General George S. Patton is reputed to have said “Magnificent! Compared to war all, other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance. God help me, I do love it so!” just as his Civil War counterpart, General William T. Sherman said “It is well that war is so terrible, else we should grow too fond of it.” Those of us who study warfare must continually remind ourselves of this terrible attraction for fear of losing our human perspective.
In this week of remembrance, my personal angel whispering in my ear against this occupational hazard is my great uncle Eric Bartle, who died in the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915. The battle is historic for two reasons. First, it was the first ever use of deadly chlorine gas on the Western Front. Second, the Canadian troops held the line despite the terrible conditions and the Army’s inexperience in modern industrialised warfare.
I do not know much about Eric. He is simply a faded photograph in an old album and a set of remarkable letters written from the front lines in the months before the battle. He immigrated to Canada with his family and settled in the Kawarthas at the turn of the last century. According to his attestation papers, Bartle enlisted at the age of 21, but his grave marker indicates that he was in fact only 19 when he died. His body was later found near the village of Passchendaele and re-buried in the “New Irish Farm Cemetery”, however at the time of re-burial, “it was not possible to identify the remains as they were consequently buried in the cemetery as the remains of an Unknown Soldier,” according to a letter to the family from the Adjutant General of the Canadian Militia. The letter is dated February 1st, 1922, which means he was officially listed as “missing in action, presumed dead” for seven years. A special memorial notes “Buried in this cemetery, actual grave unknown” at the New Irish Farm Cemetery. Eric’s remains were identified by personal items found on his body, including the fragments of a letter. I have the fragments but have not tried open them to see what they say for fear of destroying the fragile paper.
What strikes me about Eric’s letters, and why he remains such a presence in my daily studies is the striking ordinariness of his writing, which is filled with as much reflections on life at home, simple pleasures, as well as the madness that is taking place all about him. He was no hero, just someone caught up in the zeitgeist, born at the wrong time. Eric likely died a horrible death in a terrible place, his body unclaimed and unidentified for years. That his mother and sister thought about him in the years that followed is testified in the survival of his letters as well as a tiny Belgian Railways Guide that accompanied them, with passages underlined about the area in which the battle took place. One day, I hope to visit New Irish Cemetery to commemorate the short life of this common man. What follows are his surviving letters from the front.
Please always write to this address
Pte. E. Bartle 7605
Dear Con, Frank & Lois;
I was very pleased to get a letter from you as it makes only the second since I arrived here. I have sent three letters off to you but you say that you have received none. Well the reason that may be through the post office here as it has been blown away several times and all the mail lost.
Well Con, I have been on the Headquarter police for a month but I have been invalided back to my old battalion owing to having been in attendance at the hospital for a couple of weeks with acute tonsillitis, which I am still suffering from and no wonder as the place is one big mud hole. When you walk you are half way up to the knees in mud & water.
I am pleased to see by your letter that you have received my assigned pay as there was a rumour around here that it would not be forwarded until the first of January would have been a very long time to wait.
How did you settle up with Mrs. Adams; would you mind letting me know?
I have had no leave home yet but I have been promised it as soon as the doctor discharges me as well again. I was supposed to have had it this week but the doctor stopped it as he said I was not in a fit state to go on leave and I might land myself in hospital before I got back. This was Dr. Grier of Peterboro; he is attached to the 2nd Batt.
Pleased to hear Frank is getting a new suit and coat and that you are going to do the flash at the R of P with a new costume. Give my best to Lois and I hope that she is still keeping well together with yourself and Frank. I must close now as it is time to go and see the doctor again.
I remain, Your loving Brother, Eric
P.S. Find photo enclosed hope you will not be disgusted.
XXXXXXXXXXXXXX for Lois
P.S. 8 Dec (1914): – In Patient in Hospital.
Pte. E. L. Bartle
1st Canadian Contingent
British Expeditionary Force
1st Infantry Brigade
21 March 1915
I received your parcel of eatables alright & I’ve enjoyed it very much. Thanks very much for putting in some soap, it was just the very thing, & the smokes came in very handy. The next time would you mind sending me some matches as they are very scarce out here.
I also received your parcel of writing materials of which I was very short, especially envelopes. This letter is written on the first day of spring and the weather is ideal. As I sit in the trenches writing this letter, the bullets are flying and we are continually getting covered with mud as the bullets fly strike the other side of the trench. We are all fine and well & have only had (Eric Bartle seems to self censor his letter at this point, drawing two lines below the text before resuming his story) in our company so far.
I am getting quite a hardened soldier. As the bullets fly we take no notice of them but at first one would duck his head every time a bullet went by. We are all in a terrible predicament here with lice. They trouble us thirty times more than the Germans who are only two hundred yards away, who are sniping all day long and their accuracy of aim is excellent. It is quite an interesting sight to watch the German guns shell our aeroplanes. There has been four of them shelled today, but none of them got hit. It is terrible to see good thriving little towns & houses all reduced to ruins, there is one town just at the back of the line of trenches which we are now holding that is just a shell of walls which were once houses and stores, the church is blown all to pieces, all that remains of it is the shell ridden steeple.
You say Claude is in Liverpool, I saw some of them some time ago, but I did not know he was in them as I would have enquired after him & tried to have found him out. I should like you to send me the weekly newspaper. The news of the world would do occasionally as news is very scarce out here. We only know just what is going on around us & that is all. It would make you smile to see us covered with mud & three or four days’ growth on our faces. I tell you, we are a pretty tough looking lot bunch. Quite different to the men who marched in the Lord Mayor’s show.
I hope you are all keeping well of it.
I remain, Your loving son, Eric
April 14, 1914
(The date is written in someone else’s handwriting
and is clearly incorrect: it should read 1915)
Pte. E Bartle 7605
1st Canadian Contingent
British Exp. Force
1st Infantry Brigade
No. 1 Coy
I received your letter dated March 14 yesterday; it is the first one for two months. I have written to you pretty regularly but according to your letter you do not receive them. Well I hope you receive this one all right. I am very glad to hear you are all quite well and I am very pleased to hear you are having the hospital and starting up on your own. Once more, would you mind sending Mrs. Darwin’s address to me as I have forgotten it and would like to write to her.
Well now as regards to myself I am fine and my throat does not worry me anymore. We have been in action five times and we are now back in the country out of the firing line for a rest. It was pretty sad about Peter Victor. I guess his fighting days are over as I think he will be invalided home. He was out in the front of the trenches fixing the barbed wire in a fog and the fog lifted and the Germans opened rapid fire on him and he got in hit the leg pretty bad.
I have been pretty lucky myself coming through so far without a scratch, as we got it pretty hot and strong one night when we were taking rations into the trenches. They opened fire on us fifteen times before we could get a hundred yards. It was a pretty exciting experience. The nearest we were to the Germans was in one part of the trenches only seventy five yards distant.
I am now in what we call a grenade thrower. We have to go out and throw bombs over into the German trenches, a bit of a risky job isn’t it, but I live in hopes of coming through it all without a scratch.
How is Frank getting on? Is he still at Alec Elliots? I hope this letter finds you all safe and sound.
I remain, Your loving brother, Eric.
Eric Bartle died on April 26, 1915, just twelve days after writing this letter.
“New Irish Farm Cemetery was first used from August to November 1917 and was named after a nearby farm, known to the troops as ‘Irish Farm’ (originally there was an Irish Farm Cemetery immediately South of the Farm. New Irish Farm Cemetery is about 300 metres North of the Farm at a crossing once known as Hammond’s Corner). It was used again in April and May 1918 and at the Armistice it contained just 73 burials – the three irregular rows of Plot I – but was then greatly enlarged when more than 4,500 graves were brought in from the battlefields north-east of Ypres
“There are now 4,715 commonwealth servicemen of the First World War buried or commemorated in this cemetery. 3,267 of the burials are unidentified, but special memorials commemorate four casualties known or believed to be buried among them. Other special memorials record the names of 30 casualties buried in four of the cemeteries removed to New Irish Farm whose graves were destroyed by shell fire. The cemetery was designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield.”
The cemetery is located outside the village of Ieper Belgium (formerly Ypres) at 50°52′23″N 02°53′51″E, and is easily visible on Google Earth using those coordinates.
Dr. Paul T. Mitchell is a Professor of Defence Studies at the Canadian Forces College, an alumnus of Wilfrid Laurier University, and a Research Associate of the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies. This is the first of his monthly blog `The Battle Space`. The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the Canadian Forces College or the Department of National Defence.