Will Knifton v the Kaiser (Round 1)

I reported a long time ago how I had paid for the official records of my Grandad’s service with the Canadian Army during the First World War. In the early part of his military career, which had begun in July 1916, Will seems to have earned some fifteen Canadian dollars per month. This amount appears to have risen eventually to thirty dollars in 1917 and 1918. After his marriage, Will also received a separation allowance of varying amounts, ranging from six to fourteen English pounds. You never know much about your family’s private affairs but I suspect that it was Will’s money from the Canadian Army that allowed him and his wife to buy their own house during the 1920s. Here are their wedding photographs:

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His army documents recorded his leave from the Front after he was given permission to marry on July 15th 1917. There were two other periods when domestic problems caused his leave to be extended. The first of these was a week from October 21st 1918 to November 4th 1918, which was extended to November 9th for “private family affairs”. His service records say that he returned to the Western Front on November 10th, which means that he was probably present when the guns, his own included, fell finally silent the following day. It was too late for many men, though:

The same pattern occurred again with a leave from March 1st-March 8th 1919, which was extended to March 22nd. He had returned to the Fourth Brigade in the field by April 4th 1919. I suspect that both of Will’s extra leaves may have been because of his wife’s miscarriages, when she needed time to recover both physically and mentally from the ordeal. She lost a number of babies before her only son, Fred, was born, whole and healthy, on November 22nd 1922. Here he is, a few years later:

On one occasion when Will was back home on leave from the trenches of the Western Front, he was given a white feather by a woman who accosted him in the street. This was something that happened in the days before conscription had to be introduced, when women, especially suffragettes, would give any man they saw in the street who was apparently of military age, but not wearing military uniform, a white chicken feather as a sign of their cowardice.  Giving one to Will was made doubly ironic by the fact that at this particular time, he had just been given an extra long period of recuperation, because he was recovering from being wounded. Will didn’t get angry with the misguided, stupid, woman. He just laughed, which I suspect may have made her even angrier.

Here’s the caption:

On April 25th 1919 Will finally came back from France for the last time. He sailed for England from the French port of Le  Havre. Will’s journey home was not a particularly rapid process however. He had lingered in the port of Le Havre on his way back from the Western Front since at least Saturday April 19th 1919 when this postcard was posted, via the Army PO1 :

The message on the back of the card reads:

“Dear Wife Trust you are much better. Affectionate love Will  Sig W Knifton 19TH C F A”

“CFA” by the way. means “Canadian Field Artillery”. The following day, Sunday April 20th,  he sent another card:

On the back, he  labelled the card “on active service”.  The message reads “Thoughts of home and you. Sincere love Will. Sig W H Knifton 19TH C F A”

This next postcard was posted on Tuesday, April 22nd 1919, as Will continued his slow return from the Great War.  Perhaps he had important things to think about. He wanted to go back to Canada, but his wife didn’t want to, presumably wishing to stay with her family. Perhaps he was wondering whether they would ever have a child to love. Or perhaps he had just been allocated to a later sailing:

The faded pencil inscription reads “Monday Dear Wife I hope this finds you much better. I hope you enjoyed easter. We are having very cold weather Give my love to all (illegible) my thoughts are of (you ? ) with fondest love to (illegible) leave here Wednesday Sig W H Knifton  19TH C F A

Will’s military records show that he did not leave on Wednesday, the 23rd as he thought. Indeed, he was still in Le Havre on Friday, April 25th 1919, which may just possibly have been the date that he “proceeded to England”. These kind of delays, of course, were enough to provoke mutinies and other serious disorder, most notably among the Canadians in north Wales.

On March 4th and 5th 1919, at Kinmel Park in Denbighshire, north Wales, Canadian troops rioted against their dreadful living conditions, sick of the constant, apparently pointless delays, and longing to be allowed to go home at last back to their families in Canada. The rioters were fired upon by British troops. Five brave Canadian veterans were killed and 23 were wounded. It was one of 13 mutinous riots by Canadian troops, all for exactly that same reason. Here is a picture of Kinmel after the riot:

Will,  listed as a Signaller, seems to have been finally “struck off service on being discharged in British Isles” on May 23rd 1919. From his medical examination, he had put on some sixteen pounds during his time in the army, and now weighed a hundred and forty pounds, a glowing testimony to the quality of the food in the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force. He had also apparently grown half an inch taller.

In later life, of course, Will was to become profoundly deaf. It is tempting to think that the very first steps in this unfortunate process began with the enormous volume of noise he must have experienced in the Canadian artillery during the First World War.


Filed under Canada, France, History, Personal, Politics

20 responses to “Will Knifton v the Kaiser (Round 1)

  1. How marvellous to have all this information, John. And good for us all that they persevered to have Fred

    • And Fred persevered to have me! For some none-too-evident reason, our family has never been one of those with 12 kids and another on the way. Must be something genetic, I suppose. Both my Grandad and Dad left a fair amount of stuff behind, mostly in a drawer in the sideboard that, as a child, I used to go through every time I visited.

  2. Andy Jones

    Another fascinating post John – I can certainly see the family resemblance between you and your father.

    • Thank you very much for those kind words. I think I probably look like my Dad and I have, perhaps, a lot of his character, but I’m sure I have my mother’s brains. She was refused her chance to go to university after the war because the family could only afford to pay for one place and she was a woman and her slightly less talented brother was a man.

  3. A really good post. Love the postcards, who looked after them all of these years?

    • Thank you very much for your kind words. I think that Grandma kept all the postcards she received from France and they eventually got put in a sideboard drawer, the contents of which my Dad kept when he emptied the house after their death. In actual fact, he didn’t keep a lot of what he might have. My Grandad’s army uniform was burnt, and he buried his ‘souvenirs’ in the garden. Otherwise, I’d be writing posts about old revolvers, a long belt of German machine gun bullets and possibly “How not to store your hand grenade”.

  4. Great story, never heard about the white feather! It’s a shame about his hearing, but that artillery would make anyone deaf, wouldn’t it?!

    • I think it would. The bombardments in WW1 were incredible. They could be heard regularly in Kent and the biggest explosions were heard in London. It was something like a ton of munitions fell on every single foot of the front line. Farmers still find unexploded ordnance nowadays and sadly they still kill people, around one a week on average, I was told.

  5. Another absolutely riveting story, John, one that deserves to be told. Anyone being exposed to the level of noise that artillery fire is responsible for, without proper ear protection, will do damage to the ears. Thank you for another very important post!

    • Thank you Amy, you are very kind. I think that in our modern world, perhaps a lot of rock music lovers are one day going to wonder why they too have lost their hearing, just like the soldiers of the past!

  6. After everything these men went through, you’d have thought they would have been treated far better. It was shameful really, especially for those who were shot by the British soldiers.

    • I think that the Canadians, a huge proportion of whom were born in Britain, were, at that point, totally fed up with the attitudes shown to them over the war years by the British Army who were happy to have them, and the Anzacs, doing a lot of the fighting, but then tended to despise them in other contexts. A wait of months was enough to break the camels’ backs.
      It was exactly the same in WW2. My Dad was still in the RAF when his favourite team, Derby County, played in the Cup Final in May 1946, and he didn’t see the match.

      • I should think ‘demobbing’ was a huge issue after both wars, with all nationalities. Getting them home and into civi street was a logistical nightmare, just think about the numbers getting back to the States! I guess at the war’s end these guys were not necessarily a priority anymore. To your father, an avid fan, missing the cup final must have been a real let down!

      • Jan

        I think the widespread strikes in Britain’s docks, railways and mines did not help the Canadians’ plight.

        Even the police went on strike in Liverpool and the authorities were not slow to deploy the kind of force that would be inconceivable today. Tanks on the streets and the battleship HMS Valiant moored in the Mersey; guns trained on the city.

        I well remember seeing a poster from the era with the stark warning “LOOTERS WILL BE SHOT”.

      • I had not realised that that was the case. I watched a TV documentary about the Canadians at Kinmel a long time ago and it concentrated more on the fact that events were kept secret than any strikes. Similar problems occurred with Australian dockers at the height of WW2. The Americans who suffered from them, quite understandably, could not believe such behaviour in a time of national peril.

  7. Fascinating. My father’s parents were married in 1916. My grandmother had been losing her eyesight. During the early years of the 2nd world war my father who was 9 years of age would read to her from the news paper all that was happening at the war front.

    • That is fascinating. Make sure that all the tales you have are written down for your great-great grandchildren to read…..if they still have books and writing in the future, of course!

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