Private Alger’s letters from the front
When the first world war broke out, young Corporal Tom Alger had already had a few years of experience in the 20th Halton Rifles. Just before the annual camp in 1911, he had been repairing a revolving shaft at the Acton Tanning Company. A bolt caught on his pocket, and dragged him to the shaft, but he was saved by a fellow worker. The shaft tore off all his clothes but his boots and stockings, and left him bruised and lacerated. He went to camp despite the accident. There weren’t as many there as in previous years, perhaps because of the steady work and good wages that wooed young men to other jobs.
Along with a number of men from Acton, Tom volunteered as soon as the war broke out, and they became part of the 4th Battalion, CEF. His attestation papers say he was an electrician.
They went to Valcartier, to England, to France. In March, before they had seen much action, he wrote a letter to his mother.
Just a line to let you know I am all right. We are still doing our turn in the trenches. When the weather is good it is not bad at all, but when it is wet and cold, it is horrid. Our feet are wet all the time. They have places there to rest; they call them dugouts. They are in the earth dug out in the sides of the trenches. You lie down in them at night, fully dressed, with all your ammunition on, while there is a sentry placed on duty. If there is anything wrong, he gives the order to stand to, and everyone jumps to his post at a moment’s notice.
About the … part of the business; we are all first-class cooks. We turn out some of the finest dishes you could wish for. I suppose it it’s the mud that falls in it that makes the flavor. Everybody is getting their hair clipped off short in our company. The Germans will wonder what is coming a them when we make a charge.
We have a great time here trying to talk French to the people. They understand us better when we talk in English to them. The damage some of the shells have done around here is horrible, whole villages are … of ruins. One place we were in the Germans started to shell and all the people were seen to leave their houses with bundles and make for the next town. One of our guns started sending souvenirs over to the Germans, and the French people, hearing the firing, jumped out of their houses. One of the civilians had an alarm clock, another had a glass and everyone had something different. They made one leap across the road like so many rabbits, and dived headfirst into the cellars of a big building opposite.
All over the country you will see little wooden crosses which mark the place of soldiers’ graves–of our own soldiers. On some of the crosses you will see hung the soldier’s cap. Some of the English soldiers told me of a certain place where such a lot of Germans were killed they didn’t have time to bury them properly, and often when you are walking along you will see an orm or a leg, and sometimes a head sticking up out of the ground. The first time we entered the trenches we were just in time to see them carrying out two poor fellows who had been hit by rifle grenades. It was an appalling sight in the moonlight.
Sincerely, your son. Tom.
The Trenches, March 10th 1915.
When he next wrote, a few months later, the violence had become almost routine.
Another letter from T. Alger
Written in the Trenches on the 24th
May, with Shrapnel Flying
IN TRENCHES TAKEN FROM GERMAN
Dear Mother: I am writng this letter from a place like the burrow of a rabbit or ground hog, buried in the ground with the shells schreeching overhead. Every now and then a big piece of shrapnel will bury itself in the sandbags we have piled in front of us, or rush by and hit some poor fellow further back. Still the Germans can say the same about our shells, as we can see them bursting right over their lines. Someone is yelling now for stretcher-bearers, so another of our number has been hit.
We are in the trenches we captured from the Germans. They keep on making counter-attacks to try to take them back. Every time they try we mow them down with our machine guns.
When we got those trenches they were full of dead Germans. There were also some of our Canadian boys and British soldiers among them.
The wind is in the wrong direction today for them to use their gas. We are all supplied now with pads saturated with solution to keep us from inhaling the poisonous gas.
I have a German helmet for a souvenir.
Good-bye, with love to all, Tom.
The Trenches, May 24th, 1915.
He wrote a third letter, just after Christmas, 1915.
Dear Mother:- I want to thank you for the parcels I have received since Christmas. The channel was closed on Christmas Day, and no mail came over, but I got a big pile last night. We were in the trenches for three days before Christmas so our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day were spent there. We will have New Years in our billets.
It fell my turn to cook breakfast in the trenches on Christmas morning. I assure you it was under difficulties. We had nothing but water-soaked wood, but with the aid of a tin of dubbin and some candle grease I got the water boiling for coffee. As I was going to put on the coffee the tin tipped over and put the fire out. Then I had to start all over again, and when I got it going the second time a big rain storm came up and put out the fire. After the rain I got the coffee made and put the bacon on to fry when one of the fellows slipped in the mud and upset the stove and our half cooked bacon. We rescued the baon and ate it as it was. Just after this we hear the Germans yelling across at us. I got up and started to signal them, but in a second a bullet came across and struck right in my side. I jumped down and we began firing at them.
That night I went back to battalion headquarters, about half a mile behind the line for rations. We can only go out after dark. I had only gone a short distance back of the trench when I tripped over a piece of barbed wire and fell into a shell hole full of water. I went in headfirst and was soaked. I finally reached headquarters and the fact there was no mail was most disappointing to me and to the boys in the trenches. I finished up Christmas day by going to sleep in my wet clothes and shivering for a couple of hours, when I was aroused to relieve another man on guard.
The next night when I went for rations I received three parcels, including the Christmas pudding and the tins of cocoa. I also received the photo of Rosy, Winnie and Kitty. I hadly knew them they had grown so much. I did enjoy the Christmas pudding.
Your Loving son, Tom.
Tom was wounded 16 June 1916, and was admitted to hospital in Boulogne. He returned to the front, and was promoted to sergeant. Though he was one of the first Canadians to go overseas, he stayed behind to serve in the army of occupatin on the Rhine. Here he met a young woman in the Royal Flying Corps, and they were married before returning to Canada.