‘One of our best’
Letters from the trenches of World War I
One line from a World War I diary, dated April 25, 1917, confirmed the fate of John “Fergie” Ferguson.
Between a summary of weather conditions on April 25 and 26, there are the words “1 OR died of wounds, L/Cpl Ferguson.” OR stands for “ordinary recruit.” Yet there was nothing ordinary about this soldier, who died 100 years ago, after surviving the Battle of Vimy Ridge, constant bombardments, rats, trench foot and untold horrors from “Hell on Earth.”
While he was five foot three inches tall, Private Ferguson stood tall among his peers. That fact became evident as his nephew, Gordon A. Ferguson, of Williamstown, and Mr. Ferguson’s wife, Elizabeth, spent two winters deciphering and transcribing his letters from the front.
Correspondence from a lieutenant in L/Cpl Ferguson’s unit lauded him for his cheerful demeanour and quiet bravery.
“I read that letter often,” says Mr. Ferguson.
The family has an assortment of the hero’s personal effects -- his medals, his dog tag, Bible, cigarette holder, a watch. He is remembered on a headstone where his sister, Grace, is buried in St. Andrew’s United Church Cemetery in Williamstown, and on a plaque in Knox Church in Cornwall. The thick file of personal letters and war service records includes a note from Buckingham Palace, “in memorial of a brave life given for others in the Great War.”
But the most precious items are his letters, written from the trenches.
“Fergie” enlisted at the age of 20, following his older brother, George, who was a major and was wounded at Passchendale. They spent their last Christmas together in England.
The family thought that John had been killed at Vimy Ridge because no letters arrived after that iconic battle. Word of his death would arrive two or three months after he was killed.
“Reading those letters, it really sunk in...how those people suffered, the sacrifices he made,” says Gordon Ferguson, 86.
Covering two years, the letters home are at times heart-breaking, relating the change in a gung-ho recruit, who was initially eager to fight Over There, but who would later decry the “slaughter” and wonder why he was still alive.
He writes of rats, lice, fallen comrades, the delight of receiving socks and apples, of
dreaming of walking upright in the sun. He longs for home and peace. L/Cpl John Albert Ferguson, of the 8th Canadian Machine Gun Corps, was born April 23, 1895 in Cornwall and died April 24, 1917 in Arras, France.
The son of Alexander and Mary Jane Ferguson, he originally joined the 5th Canadian Mounted Rifles, likely because the young farm boy loved horses. He was later transferred to the 8th Canadian Machine Gun Corps.
He died at the age of 22, after being wounded the previous day, on his 22nd birthday, while standing guard at the entrance to a dug-out. OR Ferguson is buried in the Lapugnoy Military Cemetery in France.
Here are some extracts from his letters.
Somewhere in France
November 7, 1915 We were right up in the first line trenches. They have them fixed up very good and very comfortable. They are quite safe from bullets. I would like to describe them and tell you all about it, but I cannot. Mud and rain are “fierce,” making him hope for some good Canadian frost to harden the mud up.
They have seen some awful sights.
November 18, 1915 Letter from the trenches He had received four pairs of socks and had given away two. My feet have not been so warm since I came over here. We had a bath last night there was only 725 men in it before we were, so we had to skim the water... February 5, 1916 Shells dropping all around We have had two casualties in the Gun Section the other day Feb. 2. One shot through shoulder and one got shrapnel through the wrist. They were both fine fellows and everybody felt sorry for them. The companies have had quite a few casualties this time in to. I suppose you see them in the papers. We get some heavy bombardment where we are now. I am sitting in here and the shells are dropping all around. I keep good and close to the door of the dugout so if it caves in I shall get out all right. We have a big shell in our dug-out one that did not explode. It weighs about 100 lbs.
Shells, rats and blighties February 14, 1916 To his sister, Grace
I can hear the shells coming screaming through the air some of them just sound like a whistle of a train in the distance. But the whizz-bangs you don’t have time to duck for them all you hear is when they strike there is one place in our trench here we call it whizz bang corner, this is where I am now and I tell you it is well named. I don’t know if you will be able to make this out or not I am writing it on the floor of my dugout. You should see the rats here...there are millions of them, the size of muskrats. They crawl all over your face at night and our dug-out is called the rat pit, but they do a lot of good around the trenches they help to keep them clean. I hope I get a pass before I get a blighty...”
Too nice for a war
March 20, 1916 My it is nice weather over here now, it seems queer that there should be a war going on over here. April 14, 1916 There is pretty heavy bombardment on today and they are dropping pretty close just now so I think I will get under better cover. I will close for now with all my love for mother dear. Do not be anxious about me dearest mother I will be OK. J.F.
‘Somebody was watching over me’
Letters to his mother and his brother, George, after a June 1, 1916 battle where the battalion lost 600 men in three days. John was taking training in gas warfare but his best friend Art Stoddart, from Cornwall, was killed.
June 9, 1916 Dearest Mother: Just a few lines to let you know I am still all right. I suppose you will have heard by the time you get this about our big battle. I cannot tell you much about it but you will see by the casualty lists how we suffered. I was in the third reserve. I had just come back from the gas school and did not get to the front line. I guess someone was watching over me for it was the first time I had missed the front line since I came over, but the first and second lines suffered terribly. I think the only way to describe it is to say that it was Hell on Earth. You cannot imagine what it was like. Poor Art has gone under. He just left the Salvage and went up with the regiment and he is missing. I do not know if he was killed or a prisoner, but he never came back. We are all away back from the lines now and it is a sad looking bunch. There will be sore hearts in Canada when the casualty lists come out. I will write to Mrs. Stoddart when I hear if Art is dead or a prisoner but there are lots they will never know I suppose but you can tell her he died a hero's death and she may be proud of him and you never saw a nobler lot of heros that died in that battle, officers and men alike. I hope you are all well at home. I will write soon again. With all my love I remain your loving son.
July 25, 1916 We are having lovely weather over here now it is too nice to be fighting it makes a fellow feel more like going out in the long grass under a tree and have a good sleep instead of sleeping in a lousy old dug-out. I never told you of all our nice little visitors we have over here, did I? But it is rather unhealthy to go out in a field around here.
Game of chance
September 18, 1916 George was saying you were worrying about me, now don’t worry too much Mother dear it is a game of chance over here and I have stuck it so long I may be able to stick through it all.
Sick of the slaughter
France, October 4, 1916 I am getting heartily sick of this whole business, it is awful the slaughter of men. I think the whole world is crazy. I often wonder why I am left so long.
October 28, 1916 A soldier named John Copeland lost a leg.
It is pretty hard to to lose a leg...but life is sweet with one leg that’s what we say over here and a fellow is lucky to get out of it all... I often wonder how long this war is going to last. I think a fellow who gets wounded is lucky; he gets a few holidays; that is if he is not too bad. It has been a year since I came over to this country and I have not had a pass yet while there are others been out the same time and had two. I am not kicking but I like to get treated Square... I would like to have some of those apples you were telling me about. I would like to have a good piece of your apple pie just now. I wonder if a pie would keep to come over here from Canada. I don’t suppose it would. November 24, 1916 I guess it will take more than re- cruiting officers to get some of those fellows over there to enlist I would like to see conscription just to get some of those fellows who are coining money while the other boys who should have it are lying over in France. Every family who has lost a loved one has “something to be proud of.” I would rather see my best friend killed on the battle field than see him stay back in Canada when he is needed. March 22, 1917 Well, Mother, you could send me a suit of underwear. I would be very glad of it. Sometimes over here it is a long time between baths and you know how those little friends like you, but I will never joke any more on lice. They are awful. I don’t think I ever mentioned it before but you cannot get rid of them they are the worst thing in the army I think.
Last letter from France
April 3, 1917 Just a few lines to let you know that I am still on the map...
He wrote of the disagreeable weather, and a parcel from home. He was wounded April 23 and died April 24. Letter dated April 30, 1917 addressed to Major George Ferguson from a lieutenant in John’s unit.
Dear Major, It is with the deepest regret that I have to advise you of your young brother's death. He was wounded on the morning of the 23rd and died in the evening. At first he appeared to be only slightly wounded and his comrades, of whom he had many, were congratulating him on his “blighty.” His loss to the company is one which is sadly mourned and his place will be hard to fill. He was one of our best "no. 1 s" and was one of the most likable of all the boys in the unit. “Cupid” as he was affectionately termed was beloved by all who knew him. Personally, the point about him which always struck me most forcibly was his utter disregard of personal safety and have never known him to show the slightest trace of fear. Even during the heaviest hostile bombardments he was the most casual of persons. I only regret that your letter had not been written some time sooner. Then circumstances might now be altogether different. I should have been indeed pleased to have endorsed his application for a commission. His section officer has written his mother acquainting her of the circumstances of his death. WiII you please accept on behalf of the officers and men of this company our deepest sympathy in your bereavement?
Every reason to be proud of him
Following is written to Mrs. Alex Ferguson by Lieutenant James Dickinson, John’s section officer. It came in an envelope marked “Opened by censor,” postmarked Montreal May 15, 1917.
France 26th April 1917 Mrs. Alex Ferguson My Dear Madam, Last night I received a most unfortunate piece of news and it is with deep regret that I have to write to you just to try to tell you of how sorry we all were in the company to learn that your son had died from wounds received in action on the 23rd. I am the officer of the section he was in and though I find it difficult to express my thoughts on paper I want to write you a few lines to tell you that your son “Fergie” (as everyone called him) was one of the best boys I have ever had anything to do with. He was the favorite in my section and a favorite too throughout the whole Company. This was due to his cheerfulness at all times and under any conditions, to his quiet bravery and to his clean-living and honest manly habits. Personally I found out long ago that he was perfectly trustworthy and always felt pleased when I had him with me on any little odd jobs and I am very very sorry to be without him. On the morning of the 23rd about 5:30 he was hit with a piece of shrapnel while doing his turn at guard. The piece of shrapnel passed through the extreme right side of his body not far below the shoulder and we dressed the wound immediately. We thought at the time that the wound was not very serious but we had him out to a dressing station inside of two hours. The Casualty Clearing Station reported to us yesterday, that he had died of wounds the night of the 23rd. I know what a loss this will be to you, or at least I think I appreciate a little but I should Iike to ask you to remember that he died the death of a soldier and you have every reason to be proud of him. James Dickinson Lieut. 8th Can. M.G.Co. France
John Albert Ferguson
BUDDIES: John Ferguson (standing) with his buddy Art Stoddart. Both were killed in action.
PRICELESS: Some of the medals earned by John Ferguson.