‘One of our best’

Let­ters from the trenches of World War I

The Glengarry News - - Front Page - BY RICHARD MA­HONEY News Staff

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.

Gal­lows hu­mour

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.

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