This post has been a long time coming – and I should probably warn you I’ve turned it into a 2000-word saga – but I think I’m finally ready to present my account of the soldier I received for the Kingston Frontenac Public Library’s “Home Town, Home Front” project, which marks the centenary of the First World War. The idea of the project was to send postcards to older homes with the name of a soldier or nursing sister who once lived there. Then, the library provided resources for the current residents of the home to research their subject.
The house I live in is a 1986 bungalow so I obviously wasn’t counting on receiving a postcard. However, a request to the library gave me a name to research, after I specified I’d like someone from the area around Queen’s. (I didn’t care where the person lived in Kingston, but considering how much time I spend at Queen’s working and going to school, it seemed like a good option). After a short wait, the name I received was…
Charles Hibbert Donnelly, of 195 University Avenue!
The first thing I did was to research into Donnelly’s family history in Kingston. His father was Captain Thomas Donnelly, who had been a steamboat inspector; secretary for the family business, Donnelly Salvage and Wrecking Co. Ltd.; and was also involved with something called the Masters’ and Mates’ Association. He was alderman for Victoria Ward and a school trustee during the 1890s, and also ran in the mayoral election for 1901.
Thomas Donnelly died around 1909, leaving a complex family situation behind him. His first wife Henrietta, mother of most of his children, had died some time before 1902. That year, he remarried to Florence Chapman, a woman some twenty years his junior and only three years older than his oldest child, Ruby. The other children were Harold, a cadet; Charles, a student; and Florence’s son, James. (Ruby eventually became a nurse.) Except for Harold, who disappears off the scene no doubt into military pursuits, the whole family plus their servant Ethel Lucas was packed into the house on University Avenue. The original owners of the home, the Donnellys also lived in it for at least thirty years.
Charles Donnelly, probably after attending Kingston Collegiate Institute, entered Queen’s University in the class of Arts 1914. After getting his BA, he entered Science 1917 with the aim of becoming an engineer. But of course, the war was ready to derail these plans.
Donnelly enlisted on November 1, 1915 into the 46th (Queen’s) Battery. His previous military experience was stated as the No. 5 Co. Depot Engineers, which was the portion of the Fifth Field Company Engineers – Queen’s company of engineering militia – on Home Service. They remained in Canada recruiting for the Second Canadian Contingent in 1914-15, while the other portion of the company had already sailed with the First Contingent. I wonder why Donnelly didn’t stay with the engineers, choosing instead to enlist with the artillery.
The 46th Battery was comprised almost totally of Queen’s men, and trained in Kingston from November 1915 until February 1916. Their barracks were located close to campus in the Sydenham Public School building on Clergy St., but members of the battery often had to forgo classes for training. I went over some of this material in a previous post focusing on Robert Gordon Brown, a member of the 50th (Queen’s) Battery, a unit formed from excess members of the 46th. However, here I want to re-post his account of the 46th leaving Kingston on February 3, 1916, because I think it’s a great bit of description:
On Thurs. forenoon there was quite a time in Kingston. It was bitterly cold but a very large crowd was out to see the four batteries of the 9th Brigade entrain for overseas. At a quarter to 10, the Queen’s Battery was out beside the barracks loaded down with kit bags, bandoleers, mess cans, water bottles & haversacks – just about all they could carry. A large crowd of people lined the sidewalks, nearly all the students were there – walking up & down the ranks bidding their friends good bye. They marched down to the Tete du Pont barracks. The other batteries of the 9th Brigade also marched there and after quite a wait, the whole brigade marched over to the train and boarded it. Our Queen’s Battery was in the 1st, 2nd & 3rd cars. There was fourteen cars altogether I think. People crowded alongside all the cars bidding friends good bye and giving them things to take with them. I heard someone say that one or two of our fellows were in tears – parting from relatives. I didn’t wait to see the train pull out. I think it went about noon. It was rather sad to see the fellows going – I know so many of them real well.
What follows is my Whiplash History of the 46th Battery. Not much has been written about the battery and it makes nary a mention in the Official History of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (even though the author was a Queen’s grad, wouldn’t you know) so I’ve bravely taken it upon myself to track its broad movements until it was dissolved on March 24, 1917.
The 46th arrived in England on Valentine’s Day 1916, where they joined the 11th Artillery Brigade, 3rd Canadian Division. In mid-July the brigade departed England for the Ypres Salient, where they remained for about two months until moving to the Somme in September. At the end of November, the brigade finally moved to a quieter sector west of Arras. The December 1916 war diary describes the new position:
The numerous deep dug-outs will enable the men to be very comfortable and to get much needed rest and recuperation after the trying 7 weeks which they went through at THE SOMME. There is hardly any hostile shelling here . . . and the relief of seeing green grass and live trees in place of a desolate waste of shell holes and tree stumps is very real.
However, the men still had to wait until January to get a proper bath and change of underwear, the latter of which some had done without for two months!
In March 1917, the artillery brigades of the 3rd Division were reorganized, and the 11th Brigade was dissolved. Corporal Donnelly became part of the 45th Battery, 9th Artillery Brigade, which was also originally a Kingston unit. Within the next few months, Donnelly would have been involved in battles like Vimy Ridge in April and Hill 70 in August.
However, life on the Front wasn’t always about slog, struggle, and going without bathing for weeks on end. Soldiers could make time for fun. For example, while resting at Magnicourt in September 1917, the 9th Brigade held a sports day, enlivened by a visit from some Indian Cavalrymen. The war diary noted:
Their horsemanship and other feats were magnificent and filled our men with surprise and admiration.
Later on, a performance by the Dumbells, the 3rd Divisional Concert Party was enjoyed. These concert parties were comprised of soldiers with a dramatic flair who put on vaudeville- or operetta-type shows, never without a female impersonator or two.
The 9th Brigade also held a Gymkhana – this is a new word for me – on December 12, 1917. Some of the events were: an artillery driving competition, a “saddling up mule race” (how fast can you saddle your mule?), several jumping competitions, wrestling on horseback, and a jumping competition open to officers mounted, once again, on mules. (“This event caused much amusement.”) It was a fun day for all, although our particular unit, the 45th Battery, didn’t win any of the events! In fact, they’re hardly ever mentioned in the war diaries. It’s always the 31st and 36th, who must have been the brigade golden boys. They were always the ones praised at inspections and winning the horse show events, darn them. Anyway, the Gymkhana programme came with a cute cartoon:
We now have to back-track a few months, because before the 9th Brigade could saddle up their mules they first had to deal with the matter of taking Passchendaele Ridge. In October 1917, the brigade marched back to the area around Ypres, where months of fighting and heavy rain had turned the ground into a morass clogged with stuck equipment, corpses, dead horses, and whatever else could get lost in the mire. The mud was often described as being “indescribable.” The unit diary said:
Our batteries started to move their guns forward, amid the worst conditions as to weather and mud that has ever been experienced by this brigade in FRANCE. In many cases it took from 50 to 100 men and 12 horses to pull out one gun.
Although the Canadians took Passchendaele in November 1917, the conditions were morale-sapping and much of the ground gained had to be abandoned later on. The next month, 9th Brigade moved south to around Loos and had a relatively restful December.
The German Spring Offensive caused things to pick up again in March-April 1918, and although the 9th Brigade were only involved in “minor operations and harassing fire” during these months, they still claimed to have experienced a “particularly strenuous time.” Corporal Donnelly must have done something fancy that spring, because at the end of June he was mentioned in dispatches. His name is nicely misprinted in the Canada Gazette as H.C. Donnelly.
The next major event the 9th Brigade took part in was the Battle of Amiens beginning on August 8, 1918. This was an extremely important battle as it re-opened mobile warfare on the Western Front, which meant that troops relied less upon trenches and could capture ground at a faster and more effective rate (just like they thought they’d be doing back in 1914). It led in part to the imminent end of the First World War with the Allies as victors. Thus, the brigade was very active throughout the summer and fall of 1918 in battles which moved increasingly eastward. (The Canadian Corps, considered an elite force within the British Army, often took a major role in these battles.) When peace finally came the brigade was still very busy, and I imagine the reality of the situation took a while to set in.
At least the 3rd Division was exempted from the march to the Rhine, when the other Canadian divisions (along with the rest of the Allies) marched – the whole way – to Germany to occupy the Rhineland. After being stationed for a time in Flanders, the 9th Artillery Brigade left for England on February 18, 1919. On March 17, 1919, the S.S. Olympic departed England for Canada with now-Sergeant Donnelly on board. He had been away from home for just over three years.
After the war, we can assume Donnelly finished his engineering degree at Queen’s, because the 1921 census finds him living in Niagara Falls as a civil engineer. In 1922 he married Mina Donnelley of Leeds County; they had at least two children, one of whom likely died as an infant. Donnelly continued to live in Southwestern Ontario until his death in 1960.
I should wrap this post up quickly, because it has gotten quite long (and I have homework to do!). There is so much more to a life than the basic facts of birth, death, and residence, and with my insatiable curiosity about people, the lack of more information can be frustrating. But I hope I’ve done an adequate job of sketching out Charles Hibbert Donnelly’s life and some of the experiences he would have undergone as a member of the Canadian Field Artillery in the First World War.
195 University Avenue, Donnelly’s childhood home, is now Le Centre Francophone at Queen’s, where you can take French conversational courses. This information is helpful to me, because I’ve often thought about improving my French this way. Now if I ever do it, I’ll certainly have something to think about while I’m there!
Biographical information on Charles Hibbert Donnelly found via familysearch.org and ancestry.ca
Bindon, Kathryn M. Queen’s Men, Canada’s Men. Kingston, ON: Queen’s University Contingent, Canadian Officers’ Training Corps, 1978.
The Canada Gazette, July 6, 1918, p. 20 (mentioned in dispatches)