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November 2nd, 2016 ~ Vol. 85 No. 47
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
Attestation Papers- Windows into the Past
Looking Back
The Battalion Park geoglyph
As I dig deeper into the astounding intricacies and logistics of the First World War these days I have come to realize that attestation papers provide an interesting window into some of the logistical history of those who served our country. The Library and Archives Canada (LAC) website has a section devoted exclusively to the digitization of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF) service files which includes these signup papers. There are no less than 640,000 CEF files in 10,646 boxes and as of mid-October just over half of them have been digitized. Their blog indicates they are now on box 5848 and working on the name Mahony.

According to the LAC website: “At the end of the project, Canadians will have unprecedented access to this rich resource and will be able to research high-quality digital copies of the more than 640,000 service files for free anytime and anywhere. Each file contains, on average, 49 images, for a total of over 32,000,000 images or almost 617 terabytes of scanned information.”

Currently there are over 620,000 attestation papers available on line and it is surprisingly easy to get to them. For the Crowsnest Pass there is one particular battalion that is more significant than all others as far as attestation information is concerned. It is the 192nd Crowsnest Battalion which was mounted in the spring of 1916. When all was said and done their strength was a remarkable 23 officers and 424 soldiers of other ranks. Men signed on at recruiting stations (taken in strength) in Coleman, Blairmore, Bellevue, Hillcrest and Pincher Creek. They wound up at what was once called Sarcee Camp and is now known as Battalion Park near Signal Hill in southwest Calgary. There were 10,000 plus men in 13 separate battalions stationed there in 1916.
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There was in fact a small town on the edge of the camp that sprang up back then known as Sarcee City. There a whole raft of stores provided services to this enormous mass of eager recruits. Tailor shops, barber shops, jewelers, cafes, a theater and numerous eateries’. Good Lord, we are talking about servicing a population twice the size of the present day Crowsnest Pass.

Battalion Park has a remarkable feature that is a remnant of that sea of recruits that drilled and exercised on that plateau. Today one can see 20,000 painted rocks arranged at this geoglyph site that spell out, in giant numbers, four of the 13 battalions- the 51st, 113th, 137th and 151st. Eventually over 40,000 men were processed and trained through the Sarcee Camp.

The 192nd eventually sailed on the RMS Empress of Britain on November 1st, 1916 almost exactly a hundred years ago. Many would never again see that hill or the plain below where they trained to be warriors for the British Empire. It seems there herculean effort of hauling all those rocks up there was a message to all. Do not forget us.

Recently, while waiting for an appointment, I engaged retired chartered accountant Alex Wells about his father and his First World War service history. As we sat in that waiting room I was able to bring up on my cell phone the nominal roll, in the form of a pdf document, of the 192nd Battalion and promptly found his father, Alexander Wells, on the list. It was then just a matter of plugging in his regimental number into the LAC site and voila, there was his two page sign up attestation papers. Of course this drew me deeper into his story and using Alex Wells Jr’s feedback and the family history in Crowsnest and Its People I was able to round out the story.
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So attestation papers have such information as date of birth, next of kin, their address, their relationship, “trade or calling” (occupation), former military service and so on. Before signing the document the candidate was asked: “Are you willing to be attested to serve in the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force?”

Page two contains such information as apparent age, height, complexion, eye and hair colour etc. Also included is their religious denomination and identifying marks like tattoos. This information was gleaned by a medical officer who would sign off verifying that the candidate does not present any causes for rejection. Interestingly, page two also lists girth and range of expansion statistics in the candidate’s characteristics. I surmise that range of expansion was an assessment of the physical condition of the potential soldier. Should he not be able to expand his chest to a certain degree it would indicate a respiratory issue or lack of health.

So what say we look at the story of Alexander Wells Sr. and what lies in his attestation document. His listed address was Lundbreck, Alberta and according to his papers his declared birthplace was Edinburgh, Scotland. Alex Wells Jr. tells me his father had a yearning to be a homesteader in the Canadian West and so, with some financial support from his mother, at the age of 19, landed in Halifax in 1901 with one dollar in his pocket.

The Wells family history profile in Crowsnest and Its People shows that Alex came from a well-to-do family and that his father was a ship builder and inventor in Leith, Scotland. Alexander was educated in private schools and graduated from the Daniel Stewart Academy in Edinburgh. Alex Jr. says there home had a carriage barn behind it and that his father was driven to school each day in a carriage with a driver.
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Leith is a port on the northern edge of the city of Edinburgh on the southern shore of the estuary of the Firth of Forth River. My father grew up directly across from Leith on the north side of this estuary at a place called Burntisland and recalled hearing the one o’clock gun being fired from Edinburgh Castle each day. It is a tradition that carries on to this day and goes back to 1861. The gun allowed ships in the Firth to set their maritime clocks.

So living in a log cabin and breaking horses on a ranch south of Lundbreck is quite a leap from wearing velvet suits and having servants in your house methinks. Alex Jr. tells me his father rode from Lundbreck to the Frank Slide two days after it came down and that there was still dust in the air.

His attestation papers show he signed up on March 18, 1916 and listed his occupation as miner. Wells indicated to the recruiter that he had been with the 5th Royal Scots Regiment for 3 years prior service. The Royal Scots is the oldest infantry regiment in the British Army and was raised in 1633. He also signed a declaration and swore an oath on his papers. The declaration indicates he agrees “to be attached to any arm of the service therein, for the term of one year or”, (and this turned out to be a really big or!) during the war now being fought “should that war last longer than one year, and for six months after the termination of that war.”

Alex (Scotty) Wells saw service in the trenches in France at Ypres and his son tells me he recalls looking up from those trenches to see bi-plane dogfights going on above him. He met his wife Nellie, a nurse, in a hospital in Devizes, Wiltshire, England and they married and returned to Canada in 1919. Apparently Nellie refused to live on his ranch in Lundbreck as she felt “there was an Indian behind every tree” so they resettled in Bellevue.

They had four children in Bellevue including Alex Junior and his twin brother Stan. Alex told me his father passed in 1968 and was buried in Edmonton. So naturally I felt bound to use that amazing search engine findagrave.com to track down his marker. I have used this site many times and most times there is a picture of the marker and the text of what is on the marker. In this case the Edmonton Municipal Cemetery is a work in progress like LAC with just over 64% of the 16,584 markers photographed to date. So while I found his location, Alexander’s marker photo has not been posted yet.

The on-line research resources available today are nothing short of astounding and are being added to daily in every aspect of our rich history. Try it out sometime but I should warn you it is somewhat addictive.

Author’s Note: Did you know? For much of the war, married men were legally required to have written permission from their wives before they could enlist.
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November 2nd ~ Vol. 85 No. 47
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