Wednesday, May 31, 2017

World War Wednesdays: "Fine and Dandy:" Letters Home from Ellis Sifton

Postcard sent home by Sifton showing soldiers in their Recreation room, which he captioned "Our Recreation rooms look alright don't they," Elgin County Archives
     This week's post was intended to be a follow-up to last week's look at H. W. Cooper's drawings, with a focus on some of the letters in his First World War correspondence. Unfortunately, I was unable to clearly view the letters in order to transcribe them, so we'll have to get a rain check on that one, but I did come across some other correspondence in Elgin County Archives that became another jumping off point. While Ellis Sifton's letters home were in a similar hard-to-read format, they are summarized and contextualized quite nicely by Ted Barris in his book Victory at Vimy: Canada Comes of Age: April 9-12, 1917. I thought I'd include an excerpt from that and intersperse it with some fascinating images that aren't often shared from Ellis's life.

"Unlike many of the others in the 18th Battalion, Ellis Sifton had not received much mail during that first week of April. In fact, when he wrote to his sisters a few days before the attack, he noted that 'there have not been any letters from you people for about ten days.' L/Cpl. Sifton had written to members of his family several times a week from the moment he enlisted in October 1914 and left the family farm near Wallacetown, Ontario, right up to his arrival at Vimy. In training at Wolseley Barracks in London, Ontario, he proudly announced to his sisters, Ella and Millie, that he'd scored twenty-six of thirty-five in target practice, 'third place in our company' and that army life 'seems more a dream than anything else.' He dashed off fourteen letters and six postcards during the battalion's transatlantic crossing, posting them when he arrived at Sandling Camp. 'If the people of Canada realized how serious it is over here,' he wrote, 'they would wake up and do about three times what they are doing.' And he applauded his British hosts because they 'all have a smile for the boys from the maple leaf.'

Photograph from the Sifton family album with handwritten caption on back, "Flash Lawrence Ellis took it," Elgin County Archives
By the fall of 1915, L/Cpl. Sifton was return-addressing his letters according to regulation 'Somewhere in France' or 'Somewhere in Belgium.' He began most letters saying he was 'fine and dandy,' even when the cold, mud, and lice from living in trenches and dugouts could barely be tolerated. He even sugar-coated his references to battalion casualties with 'but we must expect that.' Most of the following year, his 'C' Company of the 18th Battalion worked in reserve in Belgium and France, as Sifton himself helped with the transport horses, wash wagon detail, handling ammunition, and running rations to the forward battalions- what he called 'bomb-proof jobs.' 
A group of people with Ellis Sifton identified in the front row,Elgin County Archives
Sifton's letters reflected his own experience and that of the Canadian Corps soldiers around him. One moment he chafed at Prime Minister Robert Borden's delay in legislating conscription and the next entreated his family to send a coat, gloves, and boots to fend off the elements. Naturally, when the young lance corporal saw French farmers seeding or haying behind the lines, he longed to be doing the same at home in southwestern Ontario. But most of all he hoped 'that the courage will be mine at the right moment if I am called upon to stare death in the face.'
Ellis Sifton's New Testament, with a photo of St. Peter's Anglican Church, Tyrconnell, Elgin County Archives
In the new year at Vimy (he didn't identify where he was), Sifton explained he had suddenly been returned to his old company and had rejoined 'a few of the originals that are left. There have been so many changes.' As gently as he could describe it, the winter weather had turned severe, the regimen more strenuous and despite his hopes of getting a respite in England or Scotland, all leave had been cancelled. The 18th Battalion had served eighteen months in Europe, and though his sisters did not know it, their brother was about to go over the top for the first time against the enemy. In the letter he wrote lamenting no mail just before Easter, as he waited for final assembly in the Zivy Subway, Ellis signed off with the best news he had. 'Do not be anxious if you do not receive any news, as it is not always convenient to write. This is a very short scribble... Good night. Love to all from your loving brother Ellis W. Sifton.' And he added, 'P.S. They have promoted me to sergeant.'..."
Postcard sent home by Ellis Sifton with photo of World War One soldiers in uniform at the changing of the guard. Ellis Sifton is in the photo. Verso: "The old and the new guard. I am in the old guard. This is a picture of my first guard at this camp. June 3rd, 1915. Can you find me? I have forgotten if I sent one home or not," Elgin County Archives
Sifton went over the top with his Western Ontario Battalion in the 2nd Division sector not long after the opening barrage. His commanders had received a call for relief from their sister regiment- the 21st (Eastern Ontario) Battalion at the Black Line. It had taken 106 prisoners, but had also sustained 215 casualties in reaching the next German line of defence. Buoyed by his field promotion to sergeant just days before, Sifton advanced quickly to help reinforce the 4th Brigade's push to Les Tilleuls. But even the fresh troops of the 18th began taking casualties from the German strongpoints. Just 100 yards from the objective, a leading officer in 'A' Company, Lt. W. J. McLean, was killed. Soon after, Lt. P. Jordan had to take over 'B' Company when it lost a commanding officer. Meanwhile, a hidden machine gun had pinned down the men in 'C' Company, including Sgt. Sifton.
Letter from King George V accompanying 1914 - 1915 Star, Elgin County Archives
Between gun bursts, Sifton decided to act alone. He suddenly dashed forward into the enemy trench and overthrew the gun, before its crew could react. He turned on the gunners with his bayonet, killing or wounding every one of them. When a group of Germans charged Sifton from further down the trench, he fended them off by wielding his bayonet and rifle as a club. Sifton was soon supported by other 'C' Company infantrymen. Together they beat back the German counterattack. In the hand-to-hand fighting, however, a wounded German soldier managed to pick up a rifle and shoot Sifton dead.
The twenty-five-year-old farmer from Western Ontario, who had brooded over his own fate, wondered in letters home whether 'courage will be mine at the right moment if I am called upon to stare death in the face,' had found the courage. And though he had died in the rush, Sifton had, in the words of the Victoria Cross citation, 'saved many lives and contributed largely to the success of the operation.'" (76-121)
Photograph from the Sifton Family Photo Album. Photo of family members visiting Memorial at Vimy Ridge bearing the name of Ellis W. Sifton, Elgin County Archives
I hope this post provides a bit of a different glimpse into Sifton's life as we honour the hundredth anniversary of his death this year. Barris's research and book lends some unique insight into his personality and the details of his final weeks, and I recommend checking out this and his other work.
     Thanks for reading, 
Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)

No comments: