By Michael Sasges
November 11, 2014
In the spring I “knew” fewer small stories about the Great War than big stories. Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August was probably the biggest because the first I knew; Margaret MacMillan’s Paris 1919, probably the best remembered because the latest I read. The deaths, in 1917 in France, of two men from “my” street was probably the smallest, and only, Great War story I knew.
In the fall, at this Canadian Remembrance Day, I now know that the cenotaph which memorializes Alexander Hogg and David Hogg is short at least one name, Tommy Charters, and the “roll of honour” hanging in one of the local churches is short many names.
I also know the man whose name tops one of the cenotaph’s faces was a middle-aged bachelor who got married on his way to the Great War.
His name is John Foster Paton Nash, and I know about him because since the spring, and on behalf of the Nicola Valley Museum, in Merritt, in the British Columbia, Canada, hinterland, I have been profiling, or attempting to profile, the 45 men from the valley who died in First World War battle.
“Jack” Nash was 48 years old on his wedding day, Aug. 17 1914; his bride, Eleanor Flora Wilson, 29. He was a widower and she was a “spinster.” Both were English by birth, she in Derbyshire, and a clergyman’s daughter, and he in London.
Their marriage was solemnized in a Church of England ceremony in St Paul’s, Kamloops, in the British Columbia Interior.
“Jack” Nash had been a resident of British Columbia since at least 1897. He was a rancher, in Grande Prairie, later Westwold, in the Henderson’s British Columbia Gazetteer and Directory . . . for 1898.
He and Eleanor Wilson probably first met in either the spring or summer of 1914, while she was visiting her sister in the Nicola Valley, inevitably and conventionally identified in the local newspapers as “Mrs. V.H. Harbord.”
Eleanor and Jack Nash passed most of their married life apart. He was either in battle, in Belgium, or training for battle, in Canada and in the United Kingdom. She was either in Canada or the U.K.; she returned to the U.K. in October 1914.
They may have had 10 days together in Kamloops, as his military duties permitted. The special train organized by the Canadian government to take B.C. volunteers to the Valcartier training camp in Quebec left Kamloops on Aug. 27. (When he left valley and province in the summer of 1914 Nash left as a member of the 31st Regiment, British Columbia Horse. He was the militia regiment’s signalling, or signals, officer.)
They may have kept each other’s company between the arrival, in the fall of 1914, of his battalion in the United Kingdom and its departure, in the winter of 1914/15, for the continent. Each member of the first Canadian contingent who trained in the Salisbury Plain camps was allowed up to six days’ leave while there.
They had three opportunities to be together after his battalion left the United Kingdom for the continent. He was granted three leaves. Canadian officers serving in Belgium and France routinely passed their leaves in the British Isles.
The couple passed the first anniversary of their marriage apart. He was in Belgium on Aug. 17 1915, in the trenches in the vicinity of Ypres. She was in the United Kingdom, in Whitchurch, outside Tavistock, in Devon, and had been since he wrote his will in February 1915. (She was his sole beneficiary. She also received half his monthly pay from October 1914.)
Jack and Eleanor never celebrated a second anniversary. John Foster Paton Nash was killed on April 23 1916 in the trenches outside Ypres, circumstances not recorded. He died one day after his 50th birthday.
At his death Nash was the 5th Canadian Infantry Battalion’s signalling officer, and had been since it left Canada. The battalion’s circumstances on the day Nash died have been recorded, and they were desperate.
In the 5th Battalion war diary, Nash died seven days after it entered the trenches and one day before it left them. (It had relieved another battalion on April 16 and was relieved by another on April 24.)
Further he died on the third of four days of heavy German bombardment of the battalion’s trenches, and on a day that the intensity of shot and shell forced battalion headquarters to find another position.
He may have died in the presence of a visiting general officer. Louis Lipsett, officer commanding the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade, “was badly shelled where Capt Nash was killed,” the brigade’s war diary reported.
Jack Nash was a Distinguished Service Order recipient, an acknowledgement of battlefield gallantry demonstrated 11 months before he was killed.
The London Gazette Aug. 25 1915 report of his award, the official notice of Royal favour, reads: “For conspicuous gallantry through the action at Festubert 22 – 24 May. He repaired the telephone wires personally under very heavy fire. Capt. Nash was again brought to notice for excellent work performed under fire at Fleribaix and at Gravelstafen.”
What Jack Nash did as a man in the Nicola Valley before the Great War he did out of doors. He was a rancher, according to his attestation, or enlistment, form. He was a fire warden, according to his marriage certificate. Ironically, Jack Nash went to war in a year in which “the fire season was one of the worst in the history of the West,” according to the annual report, for 1914, of the forest branch of the provincial lands department.
In 1900 he volunteered for Strathcona’s Horse, on Feb. 8, in Kamloops. (He reported his occupation as “cow-puncher.” For an English public school “Old Boy” – King William’s College, Isle of Man – that profession of a knockabout life may have been made either with pleasure or in pain, or both.)
On March 16 1901 he was discharged, probably in England, his rank that of private.
When he took up residency in the Nicola Valley is not known. He was in the valley at the end of 1901. On Dec. 2 of that year he asked the military authorities in Ottawa to send his Boer War campaign medals to Quilchena, Nicola Lake, “my address.” (He entered the valley either on foot or on or behind a horse. The CPR only installed its line up the valley from Spences Bridge in 1906.)
He probably passed his years in the Nicola Valley agreeably enough. Association with B.C. Horse meant his closest companions were more likely than not older men like him who had experienced military life and younger men who wanted to be like them. Employment with the provincial government, as a fire warden, probably meant a regular income, at least seasonally. He had property in the valley since his return from the Boer War, but whether he worked it or sold it I do not know. And he met, in the valley, a woman who would share his life, always an agreeable experience.
Except for his nativity Jack Nash was a Canadian Expeditionary Force anomaly. He was an officer. He was older than the average CEF soldier, computed after the war as 24 years of age at enlistment. He was taller than the average soldier, at 5 feet, 10 ¾ inches. The average, again computed after the war, was 5 foot, 5 inches. He had soldiered previously, in South Africa. Few men had before they volunteered for First World War duty. And he was married when he joined. Most men were not when they joined.
Capt. John Foster Paton Nash is buried in Railway Dugouts Burial Ground, in Belgium.
Copyright Michael Sasges 2014
Library and Archives Canada has published, on the Internet, John Foster Paton Nash’s Boer War and Great War service records. They are here:
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