Saturday, August 23, 2008

Lance Corporal David Melville Alexander

Private Alexander Joins the CEF

David Melville (or Maitland) Alexander decided to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) in August 1914, just days after the start of hostilities in Europe. His service records appeared to have conflicting reports as to whether he attested in Winnipeg, Manitoba or at the main CEF training base at Valcartier, Quebec. The information contained in his War Veterans Allowance, Pay Records, and Medical Records confirm that he first joined in Winnipeg on August 13, 1914. It is stated that he received his medical examination at Valcartier on September 21, 1914 and that his Attestation Papers were formally signed on September 25, 1914. His regimental number 20168 was in the assigned 10th Infantry Battalion number block of 19501-21000, which was known as the 10th Western Canadians / Calgary Highlanders, organized August 6, 1914 in Winnipeg and Calgary. David's Medical History Sheet shows that Regimental Number 20168 was initially assigned to him when he signed up with the 106th Winnipeg Light Infantry (a militia unit) on August 13, 1914 and that shortly thereafter he was transferred to the 10th Infantry Battalion CEF (a regular army unit) on September 1, 1914. You will find his attestation papers here:
David Melville Alexander # 20168

It would appear that Private David Alexander was just 19 years 8 months old (or younger) when he signed up with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in August 1914. The war had only been ongoing in Europe since August 4, 1914, so David was one of the early volunteers to join in support of the British Empire. The Attestation Papers, as shown in the image (click to see full scale) tell us that David was born on January 2, 1895. The
1911 Canadian Census tells us that David was born in July 1896 and the family records show his birth date at July 2, 1896. The Census and Family records also show his name as David Maitland Alexander. The records confirm that this is the correct David Alexander, who resided with his parents John and Annie Alexander, as well as his brother John Alexander, at 378 Chalmers Avenue, Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was common for volunteers to the Great War to alter their names and birth dates so that they would be approved for service. David's father (John Alexander Sr.) altered his age as well, so he was young enough to join the CEF.

David was born in Edinburgh Scotland and moved to Canada with his parents sometime after the 1901 Census but prior to the 1911 Census. He reported that he was a member of the Active Militia in Canada at the time of attestation, but that he had not previously served in a Military Force. Further examination of the military service records showed that his Militia Experience was with the 106th Winnipeg Light Infantry, formed in April 1912. In 1955 the Winnipeg Light Infantry amalgamated with The Royal Winnipeg Rifles, which to this day perpetuates the 10th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. At attestation, David listed his occupation as that of a Driver.

David M. Alexander (Maitland or Melville) survived the Great War, after serving for four years on active duty in France and Flanders. Lance Corporal Alexander returned to England on January 29, 1919 and was "Struck Off Strength "(SOS) at Kemel Park Camp, England, on February 22, 1919. David left Liverpool, England on February 23, 1919 on board the
S. S. Belgic, arriving in Halifax on or about March 12, 1919. He was discharged from the Canadian Expeditionary Force on April 8, 1919.

On September 7, 1921 David Alexander married Winnifred Bridget Mary Hughes in Winnipeg. Their son, William Patrick Alexander, for whom this site was prepared, was born on December 5, 1933, as was twin brother Ralph. The other children were Frances, Hugh, Doris, David, Jeanne and Judith. David M. Alexander died on February 15, 1960 and is buried with his wife in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Service Record of David Melville Alexander

The Military Service Record of Private (subsequently Lance Corporal) David Alexander was retrieved from the archives of
Library and Archives Canada Ottawa, Canada in July 2008. His records show that after his enlistment in Winnipeg on August 17, 1914 he travelled to Valcartier, Quebec where he received his medical examination and basic training. The 10th Battalion sailed to England on September 30, 1914 aboard the Allan Line along with the staff of No. 1 Canadian General Hospital. The 10th Battalion trained briefly on the Salisbury Plain in the United Kingdom, until they entrained on February 7, 1915 and thereafter proceeded by ship to France on February 10, 1915. The war diary for the 10th Battalion on February 10th shows that the men arrived by train in Avonmouth, England and then boarded the S. S. Kingstonian for their trip to St. Nazaire, France.

That was a very quick transition for a young soldier in 1914/1915 and suggests little or no time for training in Canada and limited training time in England. His pay records show that he was with "D" Coy (Company) of the 10th Battalion.

As early as May 15, 1915 Private Alexander was admitted to the 6th London Field Ambulance at Couvey, after having suffered a concussion and contusion as a result of front line action. Private Alexander was buried as a result of an artillery shell explosion. He spent a short period of time in the No. 2 Canadian Stationary Hospital at Le Havre, where he remained until discharged to active duty on June 28, 1915. On release, it was reported that he had a good recovery and there was no permanent disability. Just days later he suffered an injury to his back, having dislocated his coccyx (the small bones that form the tailbone), requiring treatment at the No. 3 Canadian Field Ambulance and the No. 20 General Hospital at Etaples. He was discharged to the No. 3 Canadian Base Depot on August 15, 1917, rejoining his unit on October 3, 1915.

Private Alexander was granted a 7 day leave of absence on November 10, 1915, which saw him return to England for a quick visit. As his service records show, he overstayed his pass by 4 days for which he forfeited 4 days pay and was confined to billets for 8 days.

On January 2, 1916 he was sent on a week long "Trench Mortar Course", returning to duty on January 9, 1916. He was then attached to the
14th Trench Mortar Battery where it appears he served until he was once again wounded. This time, Private Alexander was admitted to the No. 2 Canadian Field Ambulance on May 15, 1916 having been wounded and reported to have suffered a "shell shock". He was discharged after only 6 days, returning to active duty on May 21, 1916. (It was not until many years after the war ended that the seriousness and long lasting effects of shell shock were properly documented.)

On August 18, 1916, Private Alexander returned to the 10th Infantry Battalion, having completed his attachment to the 14th Trench Mortar Battery. The service records indicate that he was attached to the Divisional Guards from October 25, 1916 until November 17, 1916. He was granted his second leave to go to England on December 29, 1916 returning on January 9, 1917.

On February 4, 1917 he was struck-off-strength from the 10th Infantry Battalion and taken-on-strength by the
Railway Troops Canadian Light Railway Construction Coy. For the 3rd time he was wounded at duty on July 9, 1917, having received a slight shrapnel wound to his left foot. He remained on duty and was treated at the Field Ambulance without any disability.

Private Alexander was promoted to Lance Corporal on November 24, 1917 and he was subsequently granted leave of absence on December 20, 1917 to Paris, rejoining the unit on January 3, 1918. Upon return it would appear that he took up his new position as a Lance Corporal with the 2nd Tramways Coy of the Canadian Engineers.

There is little mention of Lance Corporal Alexander's service in 1918 until the Armistice had been signed and he was awarded the Good Conduct Badge on November 29, 1918. After 14 days leave in France. L/Cpl. Alexander rejoined his unit on December 16, 1918 but was soon admitted to the Field Ambulance on December 21, 1918 suffering from Trench Mouth (a bacterial infection of the mouth causing acute necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis). On January 29, 1919 David Alexander was transferred to England for demobilization.

The 10th Canadian Infantry Battalion

The 10th Canadian Infantry Battalion first entered the line on February 22, 1915 as part of the
2nd Brigade of the 1st Canadian Division. If we look at the time that Private David Alexander served with the 10th the key periods to be checked in the on-line war diaries are as follows:

  • February and March 1915: Entering the trenches in France, the Baptism of Fire
  • April and May 1915: in the front line in France at the 2nd Battle of Ypres, the Gas Attacks
  • May 1915: at the Battle of Festubert
  • January 1916: in training for Trench Mortar Battery and service with the 14th Trench Mortar Battalion
  • May 1916: wounded and admitted to hospital suffering from "Shell Shock" (the aftermath of the Battle of St. Eloi)
  • July 1917: wounded, shrapnel in left foot, remained on duty (subsequent to the heavy action at the Battle of Hill 70)
  • November 1917: transferred to the 2nd Tramways Coy, Canadian Engineers

The War Diary for the 10th Canadian Infantry Battalion details the action that Private Alexander would have experienced during these periods. The highlights of these battles are summarized here, and great detail is provided in a number of reference documents. Maps, sketches and battle details are provided in our Nicholson Matrix Summary.

The 10th Battalion first moved into the trenches in the Ypres area of Belgium in late February 1915. The war diary shows the placement of each of the 4 companies of the 10th Battalion for the period from February 22nd to 27th 1915. In these early days "D" Company was often attached to the Royal Dublin Fusiliers or the Royal Irish Rifles, where they obtained their indoctrination to life in the trenches. The unit was still stationed in France, having moved from Strazeele to Romarin, near the French-Belgium border south of Ypres. Life was relatively quiet for the 10th Battalion in March 1915, then the move began to relieve the French Corps at the Ypres Salient in Belgium. The relief took place between April 14th and 17th, during which time they were heavily shelled by the German forces. The placement of the 10th Infantry Battalion moving east from just north of Ypres, through St. Jean, Wieltje and Mouse Trap Farm, can be followed on Nicholson's Map 1. It was in this area where the 10th was located when the German's launched the First Gas Attack of the Great War, with the release of 160 tons of asphyxiating chlorine gas. The Second Gas Attack followed on April 24, 1915, leading to the isolation of the 2nd Infantry Brigade, of which the 10th Battalion was an active unit. The 10th Battalion withdrew from the front lines on April 26, 1915. Private Alexander is lucky to still be alive after these horrendous attacks.

The Canadians moved out of the Ypres Salient in late April 1915 at about the time the British 1st Army was commencing it's offensive along the Artois Plateau in northern France. The Battle of Aubers Ridge, near Fromelles and Neuve Chapelle, commenced on May 9, 1915. The British suffered immensely, suffering in excess of 11,000 casualties. It was here at Festubert in May of 1915 that Private Alexander was first wounded. The advance of the 10th Battalion at Festubert has been referred to as "suicidal".
Nicholson Map 2 shows the 10th Battalion advancing east of Festubert, very close to the German front lines. On May 20, 1915 the 2nd Brigade moved forward, with the 2 companies of the 10th Battalion taking the lead. As Nicholson reports, the attack was doomed to failure before it started. Private Alexander survived the attack of May 2oth, perhaps because "D" Coy was not one of the two units involved. The war diary for May 20, 1915 and May 21, 1915 are not clear on that matter. The war Diary for May 22, 1915 reports casualties at 18 Officers and 250 Other Ranks (killed, wounded and missing). Total losses for the Canadians was 2,468 casualties, just after having lost half their fighting strength two weeks earlier on the Ypres Salient!

Private Alexander did not return to serious action in the front lines until after he completed his training with the Trench Mortar Battery in early 1916. The end of 1915 and the early months of 1916 were reported as "uneventful", where surviving the cold and wet became more of a challenge than surviving the enemy. Trench raids and sniping was continued to wear down the enemy. The major actions during the first half of 1916 were the
Battles at St. Eloi Craters and Mount Sorrel. During this time, Private Alexander was on loan to the 14th Trench Mortar Battery, however little information on their activity is provided, perhaps as this was a period of major reorganization of the CEF. We do know that Private Alexander was wounded on May 15, 1916 and that he suffered "Shell Shock" (associated with continual exposure to enemy artillery shelling). This would have been after the action at St. Eloi and before the June 1916 Battle of Mount Sorrel.

Private Alexander returned to the 10th Infantry Battalion in August 1916 and so he would have been back with his primary unit during much of the
Battles of the Somme that covered the period of July to November 1916. The Canadians activity in the Somme started on August 30, 1916, as they relieved the ANZAC Corps (Australian / New Zealand). Private Alexander would have been present for the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. Most notably, the 10th Battalion was augmenting the 5th and 8th Infantry Battalions attack of September 26th on Thiepval Ridge (west of Courcelette). During September 1916 the 10th Battalion War Diary shows the unit moving between action on the front line, with considerable time also in Brigade and Divisional Reserve. The last major action for the 10th Battalion would have been at the Battle of Ancre Heights, as the newly formed 4th Canadian Division relieved the 1st and 3rd Divisions on October 10, 1916.

In late December 1916, Private Alexander took leave to England and then returned to serve with the Railway Troops (Canadian Light Railway Construction Coy). Unfortunately, these records are not yet available on-line at Library and Archives Canada. As such, we can not determine the roll of Lance Corporal Alexander in the April 1917 Battle of Vimy Ridge or the August 1917 capture of Hill 70. We do know that Lance Corporal Alexander received a shrapnel wound to the foot on July 9, 1917 at Auby, France (Auby is north of Douai and east of Lens).

The last placement we have for Lance Corporal Alexander, after his promotion on November 24, 1917, was with the
2nd Tramway Coy, Canadian Engineers. The war diaries for the 2nd Tramway Coy are on-line, starting in November 1917. They show that the unit was formalized on November 23, 1917 so it is quite possible that Lance Corporal Alexander's promotion was directly tied to the creation of that new unit. It was previously known as the No. 2 Section of the Canadian Corps Tramway Coy. There are no further reports in the Military Service Record of Lance Corporal Alexander unitl after the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. We can only assume that he continued to play a crucial roll in his new position, as the Canadian Expeditionary Force swept across France in Canada's Hundred Days, taking the Canal du Nord and Cambrai and then the final advance from Cambrai to Mons.

Great War Medals for David M. Alexander

For his service during the Great War, Lance Corporal David Alexander would have been granted the British War Medal and the Victory Medal (medal details from Chris Baker's "
The Long, Long Trail"; images of medals from "Veteran's Affairs Canada"):

  • The British War Medal 1914-1916:

    It is impossible to set out all the details of qualification for this medal, but briefly, the requirement was that a member of the fighting forces had to leave his native shore in any part of the British Empire while on service. It did not matter whether he/she entered a theatre of war or not.

    The medal is silver, and circular. A truncated bust of King George V is on the obverse, while there is a depiction of Saint George on the reverse. There is a straight clasp carrying a watered silk ribbon. This has a central band of golden yellow with three stripes of white, black and blue on both sides. The blue stripes come at the edges. An attempt was made to draw up a list of bars, but it was found to be an overwhelming task and was abandoned. Some 4,700,000 of these medals were struck for distribution at home, and another 600,000 in the Dominions and Colonies.
  • The Victory Medal 1914-1918:

    This medal was awarded to all those who entered a theatre of war (and presumably took part in the fighting, logistics or medical services). It follows that every recipient of the Victory Medal also qualified for the British War Medal, but not the other way round. 300,000 fewer Victory Medals were required than British War Medals. All three services were eligible. It is not generally known that Victory Medals continued to be awarded after the Armistice, for the British forces who saw action in North Russia (up to October 12th, 1919) and Trans-Caspia (up to April 17th, 1919) also qualified.

    The medal was struck in bronze. On the obverse is a full-length figure of Victory. On the reverse is the inscription "The Great War for Civilization". There is no clasp, but a ting attachment through which the ribbon is passed. The official description of the colour of the ribbon is "two rainbows with red in the centre". An oak-leaf emblem was sanctioned for those who were mentioned in despatches.

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