Westmount, Quebec – 26 October 2020: This is a story about ‘the kindness of strangers’.
Private Clarence B. Denman, son of Walter Fredrick and Amelia Mary Fryer Denman, lived at 1836 Esplanade Avenue in Montreal (a four-minute walk from St-Viateur Bagel, for those looking for a contemporary local reference). Born in London, England, he had emigrated to Canada with his family as a child, and in early August 1914 he was 21-years old, unmarried, living with his parents, and working as a salesman. When war broke out, he eagerly joined up – likely as much out of a quest for adventure as for any patriotic duty. We know that when he joined he was 5 feet 8.5 inches tall, weighed 140 pounds, had several vaccination scars on his left arm, and two (unexplained) scars on his right buttock. Sadly, like so many of the original RMR’s, he would never see his 23rd birthday, and would never return to Montreal.
Our comrade went through all of the usual experiences as an ‘original 14th’ RMR man. Hasty training & equipping in Valcartier, the heady experience of being part of the largest troop carrying armada in human history when the Canadian Expeditionary Force sailed for England in late September 1914, and then enduring the horrendous cold, wet, muddy conditions of a hastily erected camp at Salisbury, UK – where the first RMR deaths were from meningitis resulting from poor living conditions, and not enemy action.
It would appear that our comrade suffered through the horrors of the first gas attack on the Western front, where the RMR helped to hold the line and earned its first Victoria Cross in April 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres. His casualty form list him as first being admitted to hospital on 29 April 1915, which means he was most likely wounded at the same battle which raged for more than a week. We don’t know the specifics, but we do know that he was wounded by shrapnel in the ‘back and arm’. The next entry on his casualty form is 06 May 1915, when the regiment was behind the lines and recovering in “Billets Bailleul (Nouveau Monde)”, with the official RMR war diary describing the day as “all ranks rapidly recovering from strain and fatigue of last two weeks. Men beginning to organize sports. Large draft of about 275 men arrived from England.” So while the RMR endeavoured mightily to reconstitute itself as a fighting unit, hundreds of wounded men like Clarence struggled to stay alive.
Clarence was eventually evacuated to England, which meant that the medical staff were hopeful for his recovery, otherwise he would have been left in France to die and thus not tax an already overburdened medical supply system. It sounds cold to us in 2020, but hard decisions had to be made in a total war where several million men had already died in the first nine-months of an eventual four-year war.
We don’t know the precise circumstances, but we do know that our comrade Clarence was declared dead on 26 May 1915. We have to assume that he was treated by the ‘kindness of strangers’ all along his final journey, and that he must have made a significant impression upon the hospital staff that when he died, as they paid for his tombstone out of their own pockets. In their eagerness to do the right thing, they interpreted ‘RMR’ as the ‘Royal Montreal Rifles’, which is quite forgivable – and certainly not the worst thing we’ve ever been called!
The legacy of care and ‘random acts of kindness’ continues today. In October 2020 the RMR Museum was contacted by a Jill Scahill, a volunteer at St. John’s Parish, where our comrade Clarence Denman is buried. She had been cleaning his gravesite and was sufficiently intrigued at how a young Canadian ended up buried in Upperthong, Metropolitan Borough of Kirklees, West Yorkshire, England, that she wrote the RMR Museum looking for more information on Clarence B. Denman. Our museum’s curator, Ron Zemancik, and our star volunteer researcher, Captain (ret’d) Hamilton Slessor, dug up all the information they could on Private Clarence Denman and sent it to her.
Jill was most grateful and reported that she “put a plant on Clarence’s grave and speak to him every time I go to the graveyard”.
As we head into a new Covid reality Remembrance Day and poppy campaign, please take a moment to say ‘Thank You’ to everyone who volunteers to honour the memory of our fallen. Private Clarence Denman certainly didn’t want to die at the tender age of 22-years old. And 105 years after he died of his wounds, he has fresh flowers being placed on his tidied grave, and his story is still being told. Thank you, Jill Scahill, that is the essence of “Lest We Forget”.