This is the Essex Farm First Aid station where Dr John McCrae served at the 2nd battle of Ypres. April 22 - May 18th 1915) His close friend Alexis Helmer was blown to pieces nearby on May 2nd 1915. Elmer's friends bagged up the pieces and McRae said the service that night over the grave. This experience and the weeks of dealing with thousands of wounded at Ypres broke him.
Many of my family and their friends were to experience tragedy in these 3 weeks. All, somehow, pulled themselves together, but none were whole ever again. But on April 7th, this was all unknowable and in the future. Like a play, the next few weeks were a time when all the main players in my family were moving into position for the events of the end of the month. Let's have a quick look at who is who and what they are doing.
Alexis Helmer (see above) and Jack McRae were in the 1st Brigade Canadian Field Artillery. They were billeted in early April near Poperinge with the 2nd Brigade where my grandfather Alec Paterson was a Lieutenant in the 5th Battery.
McRae had been a serving gunner in the Boer War (middle of the back row) but was now attached to the 1st Brigade as their Medical Officer. The hospital that he would serve the war in, the 3rd, was then preparing to sail from Montreal.
The Canadian Division had played a minor role in the Battle of Neuve Chappelle and was now "resting". On April 16th they would take over from a French Division a few miles East of Ypres. Here is a map showing their movements by date.
Meanwhile, in Montreal, the "McGill" Hospital was in the final stages of preparation. They were to sail to England on May 7th on the Metagama. Much more on the 3rd here.
Second in command was my Uncle Montagu's best friend Lt Col Henry Brydges Yates. His wife Alice was equally close to Aunt Marguerite and was the head of the IODE in Montreal. Aunt Marguerite was planning to join her in England to work with her and Julia, Lady Drummond for the Red Cross.
Martha, Aunt Marguerite's eldest daughter, had this picture taken just before she too left for England and France. She had bobbed her hair to make it easier to live and work as a nurse. She had failed to be accepted by the 3rd Hospital - she was too young and untrained - and so planned to go to war as VAD. She also planned to spend a lot of time with her wounded fiancé, the gallant Lieut. Thierry Mallet who had been wounded.
She had booked passage on the Adriatic that would leave on April 21st. She was going over in the company of another close friend of her father, Dr John Lancelot Todd. Todd was going to join the 3rd Hospital and later in the war join Uncle Montagu in setting up the War Pensions organization. Todd was a close friend of Jack McCrae and had given him the horse Bonfire.
Uncle Montagu's son, Hugh, was already in England where he was in his last term at Eton. He was in Pop and had planned to go to McGill. But after the Lusitania he changed his plans and joined up.
The other Allan children, Gwen and Anna, (This is an earlier picture of the two with their mother) had been taken out of English boarding school at the outbreak of war but now were going to return with their mother to go back to school there. In the interim they had lived in Toronto with relatives and had attended Havergal. Nearly all the children of this group went to boarding school in England. It helped to own a shipping line too! There was even a kind of "School Run" crossing where they would all go over together. It must have ben fun.
Accompanying the Allan girls was Robert Holt, aged 15, the youngest son of Sir Herbert Holt who was the President of the Royal Bank of Canada. Robert too had been taken out of school in England at the outbreak of war but was now going back to return to Marlborough. He was to be seated at the Allan table and I have to assume that Aunt M was officially in charge of him. Slingsby would have likely had the day to day duties of care for the boy who fortunately was an excellent swimmer.
Aunt Marguerite was closing up her home, Ravenscrag. She would not return until 1920 and then it would be filled with the ghosts of her dead children. Emily Davis and Annie Walker, her maids, were packing 18 steamer trunks. They planned to be in England for the duration.
Nearly all the Allan line ships had been booked solid by the government as troop ships. So, Aunt M had booked passage on the Lusitania for a May 1 departure. She had the Regal Suite. As the owner of the Allan line, this may have been a complementary trip.
Chattan Stephens, my great Aunt Frances' father, was in France in the same unit as Guy Drummond, the 13th Battalion - the Royal Highlanders of Canada (Black Watch). His wife, Hazel, had left the rented house near Salisbury Plain and, based at Earles Hotel on Grosvenor St, was house hunting with her daughter my Great Aunt Frances. He was to avoid the 2nd battle of Ypres as he came down with trench fever on April 13th and was hospitalized. The trench fever developed into a very serious heart disease and he was invalided back to the UK on May 8th.
On hearing of her son's illness (the authorities did not expect him to live and their letter to his wife hardly obscured their fears - "In confirmation of my telegram of this date, I regret very much to inform you that Lieutenant F C Stephens, 13th Battalion, Canadians, is dangerously ill at No 2 Red Cross Hospital Rouen, suffering form Endocarditis......") - Mrs Stephens, his mother in Montreal, decided to come to England and took with her, his son John who had stayed in Canada. Hearing that her friend, Marguerite Allan was taking the Lusitania, she decided to join her on that sailing.
Chattan's sister, also called Marguerite, had come over to England with her husband Hamilton Gault on the troopship carrying the PPCLI. Here she is surrounded by men. The PPCLI had left England for France in early January. Ugly rumours were now circulating about her and a brother officer. This was to bubble up and destroy their marriage and become a huge scandal.
Uncle Hammie had already been wounded on Feb 28th and returned to the unit to take command on May 5th. Just in time to see his regiment nearly wiped out on May 8th. Only 150 men remained.
Julia Lady Drummond was now getting into her stride in London where she was running the Information Bureau. She spent the war at Browns Hotel and had spent Christmas with her son Guy and his best friend Trumbell Warren. Trum was in the 48th Highlanders and Guy in the 13th Battalion, Royal Highlanders. Both were in the 3rd Brigade. Both were married to sisters. Guy to Mary and Trum to Marjory Braithwaite. Both girls conceived that Christmas leave. I would think it likely that by mid April, Julia would have known that she was to be a granny. Their sister, Dorothy was still in Canada. When she learned on April 23rd that both her sisters had been widowed, she too booked passage on the Lusitania. Knowing that Lady Allan and Mrs Stephens were on board must have made her mother feel safer. Dorothy also joined the Allan party on the same table.
Uncle Montagu was still in Montreal. He had been instrumental in getting the Number 3 Hospital set up and still had extensive business interests that he had to tidy up before leaving to join the family in England. After Aunt Marguerite recovered from her injuries and her loss, he, aged 55, enlisted in the active armed services in April 1916.
So here we are, at the edge of the abyss. Act 2 of the drama is about to start and the destiny of my family will be changed forever in the next 6 weeks. All the fantastic privilege that they enjoyed will count for nothing as they pay the price of war.