Monday, August 25, 2008

Company Sergeant Major John Alexander


The story of John Alexander, father of David M. Alexander (a Grandfather of William Patrick Alexander - for whom this summary was prepared) is a bit different than most of those told here on the Great War Soldier Blogs. This blog tells the tale of an older man who had already served the British Empire in two other theatres of war prior to the 1914-1919 conflict. John Alexander served in the British Royal Artillery for 18 years, first in India and then in South Africa (The Boer War). While in India in 1895 he was hospitalized for 5 weeks with Dengue Fever, a terrible side effect of the mosquitoes, yet unlike Malaria, one that had no inoculation or antidote. If that was not enough, he suffered from dysentery while serving in South Africa.

John's medical records also report that he had suffered from scarlet fever and acute nephritis in 1890. With his advancing age (he lied about his age to get in the CEF) at the start of the Great War, and these past complications, his file reads much more as a "case medical record" than it does a "military service record". As such, his wife Annie was at home in Winnipeg, not knowing whether to be more concerned about her son David (whose blog is a military service record) fighting in the trenches of France and Flanders, or her husband John, battling ongoing medical complications in field ambulances, casualty clearing stations and hospitals in England, France and Canada.

Regardless, John Alexander stood as a seasoned veteran to proudly attest to the Canadian Expeditionary Force, not just once but twice. After being discharged as medically unfit in England (Bronchial Asthma) after his first try of 1914, he returned to Canada to recover, and then signed up again in 1916.

John Alexander lists his place of birth as Tralee, County Kerry, Ireland. He lists his wife as Annie Alexander and his residence as 378 Chalmers Avenue, Winnipeg Manitoba. He listed his occupation as a Cooper (a barrel maker). We know from the 1911 Canadian Census he had two sons, David and John. Son David Alexander, summarized on his own soldier blog, served with distinction in the 10th Canadian Infantry Battalion, the 14th Trench Mortar Battery and the Railway Troops, surviving 4 years of front line service in France and Belgium.

At the time of the 1911 Canadian Census, so before he would have anticipated further military service in Canada, John listed his birth date as June 1868. In 1914 that would have meant that John Alexander was 46 years old, a year older than the maximum allowed for voluntary enlistment. As a married man, with two children, John was certainly not the person that the CEF was looking for or expecting to enlist in 1914. However, he did posses the past military experience in the British Royal Artillery, so he was certainly a valuable person - they just might have looked past his age. To beat the system, John Alexander lied on his 1914 attestation papers and put his birth date as June 22, 1872 so he quickly dropped to 42 years 4 months of age. It would not stop there, for when he re-attested in 1916 his birth date had changed to June 22, 1873, so he was still acceptable at 43 years 2 months of age. Just in case none of these are correct, his detailed post-war service medical records give his birth date as June 22, 1867 - and those might be correct as by then he wanted his pension.

John Alexander passed away in Winnipeg, Manitoba on January 16, 1951.

Private John Alexander Joins the CEF in 1914

John Alexander first enlisted on November 7, 1914, some 3 months after the outbreak of hostilities in Europe. He was assigned the service #86354 which was part of the number block 86001-8660 assigned to Head Quarters (H.Q.) 5th Artillery Brigade, Military District #10 (Winnipeg), 17th Battery& 5th Brigade Ammunition Column. Library and Archive Canada records show that he 5th Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery was part of the 2nd Canadian Divisional Artillery of the 2nd Canadian Division. The brigade included the 17th, 18th, and 20th Field Batteries and the 23rd Howitzer Battery. That is confirmed in the CEFSG Matrix Project for the 1915 ORBAT (Order of Battle).

John Alexander's first set of attestation papers indicate that he embarked for England on July 10, 1915 but that he did not proceed to France. It lists his return date to Canada as March 16, 1916. It may be that he left Winnipeg on July 7, 1915 as the transport ships records show that the 5th Artillery Brigade and the 17th Howitzer Battery left for England on August 9, 1915 aboard the Metagama arriving in Plymouth England on August 18, 1915.

Alexander's service records for the first period show that he was taken-on-strength (TOS) to the 2nd Reserve Brigade from the 5th Artillery Brigade at Shorncliffe England on July 10, 1915. That has to be an error, as he was not yet in England? The next entry shows a transfer to the 8th Howitzer Brigade at Shorncliffe on October 1, 1915, with an immediate transfer that day to the 29th Battery at Otterpool. David Love's text "A Call to Arms", which details the Canadian military structure in the Great War, shows the 29th Battery to be an Unbrigaded Battery, Canadian Field Artillery. Private Alexander's discharge records after his first attempt to serve in the Great War show that he was promoted to Sergeant Alexander on September 18, 1915. That would have been while he was in England. The rank noted at the top of this file is shown as Sergeant Major John Alexander. At that time he was listed as serving with the 6th Howitzer Brigade (records existed but in the print Archives only). His service record states that the 29th Battery was to be known as the 21st Battery, 6th Howitzer Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery.

On November 3, 1915 John Alexander was admitted to the Red Cross Hospital at Whitehall, England. It was reported that he was suffering from a dilated heart but was discharged on December 15, 1915. He suffered an asthmatic attack the night he was admitted to hospital. He had two subsequent attacks the next week. The medical report of Sergeant Major Alexander of December 20, 1915 noted that the disability was Bronchial Asthma that originated at Otterpool on September 18, 1915. Otterpool was a training camp for the Canadians in England during the summer of 1915 (located at Kent, to the west of Folkestone near Hythe). The medical report states that the health problems arose as of active service, from wet and exposure:

Was always healthy before onset of this disease. Symptoms complained of where shortness of breath, coughing at night, and inability to breathe properly during attacks while in the recurrent position. Was in Moore Bks. Hosp. from Sept. 24 until Oct. 1, when he entered Barn House, Whitstable, where he remained until Dec. 15 when he entered the M.H. to be boarded.

His military records also note that he had two sisters that died of phthisis, an archaic name for tuberculosis. Other records state that a brother and two sisters died of consumption, yet another name for tuberculosis. His mother and father were also recorded as sufferers of asthma. There are also a number of notes in his medical records stating that he had a weak or faint heart beat.

The opinion of the Medical Board was that he be assigned "Permanent Base Duty in Canada". As a result, Sergeant Alexander was struck-off-strength (SOS) from the 6th Brigade in England on January 16, 1916, when the rest of the unit proceeded overseas to France. He was subsequently taken-on-strength to the Reserve Brigade for the purposes of Pay, Rations and Discipline. There is a note in his file that he was admitted to the Shorncliffe Military Hospital on November 14, 1916, however since that entry appears before his release notice of March 7, 1916 we have to assume the November date is an error. On that date he was struck-off-strength from the Reserve Brigade and taken-on-strength to the C.C.A.C. (Canadian Casualty Assembly Centre) at Folkestone, England. Shortly thereafter, the records show that Sergeant Alexander was struck-off-strength from the CCAC for transfer to Canada on March 16, 1916.

Company Sergeant Major Alexander travelled home to Canada on the S. S. Empress of Britain on March 27, 1916.
His Transfer of Clothing and Necessaries Statement shows that he "signed out" at the Discharge Depot in Quebec City on March 31, 1916. He reported his age at that time as 47 years 6 months.

Sergeant Alexander Joins the CEF in 1916

Although a Company Sergeant Major at the time he left the CEF earlier in the year, John Alexander held the rank of Private from August 18, 1916 until January 5, 1917. He regained his Sergeant's stripes on January 6, 1917

It appears that it was less than 6 months later that John Alexander re-attested to the Canadian Expeditionary Force on August 16, 1916 in Winnipeg. On July 28, 1916 he had gone before a Medical Board, based on his past discharge, at which time they found that he had completely recovered from the Bronchial Asthma and had no symptoms for the past 2 months. It is interesting that they report that he was deemed fit to resume civil duties, the report did not say military duties.

This time his records show that he joined the Special Service Battalion, attached to the 190th Overseas Battalion. Stewart's text shows the 190th as being organized in Winnipeg in 1916 for the purposes of providing reinforcements to the field. It had an initial strength of only 373 men. The top of this attestation paper shows that he had been assigned a new regimental number 2756004 which would be in the series 2756001-2757000 assigned to Military District #10 (Winnipeg) No. 10 S. S. Coy (Special Service Company). Below that number is another regimental pre-stamped number 894996, which is within the number sequence assigned to the 190th Battalion in Military District #10. Lastly, all of those are stroked out and his initial service number 86354 from his 1914 attestation is added.

At the time he attested in August 1916, he reported that he had served 18 years and 141 days in the Royal Garrison Artillery (British Army - India and South Africa) and an additional 588 days in the 5th Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery. At his medical on August 18, 1916 in Winnipeg he was deemed fit for the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force. As noted earlier, he fudged his age to re-enlist, now showing he was 43 years 2 months old, when he was at least 49 years old. He lists his dependant as his wife Annie and also reports that he has two sons, David Maitland Alexander age 20 years and John Alexander age 14 years. (see also blog for David Alexander, who also lied about his age and name to join the CEF - a family tradition).

He was promoted Acting Sergeant on December 31, 1916 and Sergeant Major on January 6, 1917.

The summary document for this time of service reports that John Alexander enlisted on August 1, 1916 and left for England on April 4, 1917, with subsequent transfer to France on July 11, 1917. This time he made it to France! Once again, however, it shows that he was returned to England "sick" on January 9, 1918 and sent back to Canada on June 3, 1918. The note says that on December 29, 1917 he was found to have albuminuria (damage to the kidneys resulting in the discharge of excess albumin to the urine - a protein that controls blood osmotic pressure). This could be related to earlier reports that he suffered nephritis (inflamation of the kidney) while in the Royal Garrison Artillery in India in 1895.

When we look at the details for this second enlistment, it shows that he arrived at Shorncliffe England on April 30, 1917, so too late for participation in the Battle of Vimy Ridge. The records show that he reverted to a lower rank on that date, so he was no longer a Sergeant Major, but it does not clearly show to what rank he reverted. On June 22, 1917 he was stuck-off-strength the the 2nd Reserve Brigade Artillery, taken back to the 10th Special Services Battalion 6 days later on June 28, 1917 and then struck-off-strength again on July 4, 1917 to the 2nd Reserve. On July 11, 1917 he was struck-off-strength 2nd Reserve to allow him to proceed overseas to the 4th Siege Battery. On July 12, 1917 he was in the field in France and had been reverted in rank to that of "Gunner". There is no further mention of his action until January 9, 1918, at which time the records say that he was "sick" and posted to the C.A.R.D. (Canadian Army Reserve Depot) in the field. The next entry shows Gunner Alexander being struck-off-strength and invalided to Canada.

Medical records for that period show that Gunner Alexander had been sent to the No. 13 Field Ambulance on December 29, 1917 suffering from Albuminuria (kidney disease). He was transferred to the No. 8 Canadian Stationary Hospital at Camiers, on January 5, 1918 and to the Fusehill W. H. Carlisle on January 10, 1918. He then progressed through a series of other hospitals (Wood Park March 9th, Military Convalescent Hospital Epsom March 12th, and Canadian General Hospital Bushey Park April 12th) prior to being marked for discharge to Canada. It had been determined that he had Nephritis (kidney disease) and that further treatment was not warranted. It was also noted he had dyspnoea, a serious disease of the airway, lungs or heart. There was no history of this prior to December 1917.

Travel documents show that John Alexander left England for Canada on June 3, 1918 aboard the Neuralia, sailing out of Avonmouth. He was transferred to the Hospital Section, Tuxedo Park on June 4, 1918 and then the the Casualty Company of October 21, 1918. The final discharge papers for Gunner John Alexander show that he was discharged because he was medically unfit for further was service. The discharge was dated November 2, 1918, just 9 days before the signing of the armistice.

John Alexander is listed for Campaign Medals and Decorations as "South Africa 1900-1901", signed at King's Canadian Red Cross Convalescent Hospital, Bushey Park, England - dated May 24, 1918. On his Proceedings on Discharge papers it states that this was the "Queen's South African Medal with Four Clasps".

John Alexander's War Service Gratuity papers summarize his service during this period as follows:
  • 3 years, 11 1/2 months

  • 17th Battery: November 17, 1914 to September 10, 1915

  • 21st Battery: September 10, 1915 to September 25, 1915

  • 21st Battery: discharged medically unfit on August 12, 1915

  • 76th Depot Battery, CFA: December 16, 1916

  • Hospital: September 25, 1917 to August 12, 1916

  • 190th Battalion: August 18, 1916 to December 18, 1916

  • 76th Depot Battery, CFA: December 18, 1916 to July 12, 1917

  • 4th Siege Battery: July 12, 1917 to January 9, 1918

  • Hospital: January 9, 1918 to November 2, 1918

Gunner John Alexander's Action in France

During his second tour of duty with the CEF, John Alexander did make it to France to serve close to 6 months in the 4th Siege Battery, Canadian Garrison Artillery. What we do know of the 4th Siege Battery is noted on-line at Library and Archives Canada (details here):

The 4th Canadian Siege Battery was organized in October 1915 as No.4 Overseas Siege Battery under General Order 151 of 22 December 1915. It was redesignated the 131st (Canadian) Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA) on 7 May 1916 and became the No.4 Canadian Siege Battery on 29 January 1917. The battery arrived in France on 31 July 1917, becoming part of the 1st Canadian Heavy Artillery Group and, on 12 January 1918, part of the 2nd Brigade, Canadian Garrison Artillery. (note: assume error here as could not have arrived 31 July 1917)

David Love states in his authoritative text that the Canadian Siege Artillery was technically Field Artillery but were more like garrison and heavy artillery, so they were used for targets at long range where greater accuracy and more destructive power was needed. You will recall that Gunner John Alexander had prior experience with the British Army Royal Garrison Artillery in India and South Africa, so he would be familiar with this type of unit. There were no Siege Artillery units in Canada at the start of the war.

The action of the unit is detailed in the on-line war diaries for the 4th Siege Battery, however they do not provide any detail on the actions directly related to Gunner John Alexander. They do show the change from the 131st Siege Battery to the 4th Siege Battery in January 1917. The pages mainly report on the daily report of shells fired and a month end status report on the strength of the unit. There was no reference to Gunner Alexander joining or leaving the unit. A number of pages are referenced for interest:

  • War Diary Page of July 1917 showing unit strength

  • War Diary Page of August 1917 showing location and details in Lens Area, coinciding with the Battle of Hill 70 (Map 36E SW Ed. 10A)

  • War Diary Page of November 1917, no mention of John Alexander in transfers

  • War Diary Page of December 1917, shows location as Thelus but no mention of John Alexander transfer

  • War Diary Page of January 1918, in Souchez area, no record of John Alexander

One now has to wonder, where was Gunner Alexander and why is his arrival and departure in the 4th Siege Battery is not reported in the War Diaries?

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