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"This may be my last entry ..."


It is tiny. The size of a woman's hand. It had to be small, to carry into the trenches. Ragged soldiers were already loaded down with gear.

The smooth, brown, leather-bound book is embossed with faded gold lettering that reads "A Soldier's Diary," above a maple leaf labelled "Canada." Inside, there is space for the soldier to write his name, rank, number, battalion and brigade, and the date and place of his enlistment.

The publisher includes a note: "Should this book be found, kindly forward it to the undersigned. To you these writings may not mean much, To others they mean everything that's dear."

James Arthur Jones enlisted as a private in 4th Canadian Division, 10th Infantry Brigade, 50th Battalion. He signed up in Richdale, Alta. on "12/5/16," meaning either May 12 or Dec. 5 of 1916 - his relatives don't know. But the diary begins on New Year's Day, 1917 - six months before Pte. Jones would meet his death.

He wrote in it faithfully each day. There is camp life. Drills, marches, mud. He longs for his wife, Fannie Jane Jones, back home in Calgary. He is funny. He is also prescient. He has a growing dread of war.

But Pte. Jones is no typical enlistee. He is 35, much older than most who fought and died in the war. He is also a minister serving the United Church in Richdale - prairie grassland country northeast of Calgary. It baffles his relatives that he didn't enlist as a chaplain.

With a new family at home, soldier's work means steady pay. He notes each payday in the diary, but his writings also reveal his sense of duty.

James and Fannie met in the Southwestern Ontario town of Forest at the Salvation Army church. Fannie's first husband, John Culley, had died in 1911, after almost 20 years of marriage that resulted in eight children - although two died very young. Fannie was 42 by the time she married James in October, 1914. He was 33. The newlyweds promptly moved with four children to Alberta, while the oldest two stayed in Ontario.

"They were very much in love with one another. He came to her rescue when her husband died and embraced all her kids," said Ray Culley, who lived with his grandmother Fannie for a year when he was young. She died of a stroke on Sept. 1, 1945; after that, Mr. Culley said, his father, aunt and uncles rarely talked about their stepfather, the soldier.

In his first entry, Jan. 1, 1917, Pte. Jones is in quarantine battling a "sick cold" in the kidneys. An outbreak of measles has hit. He looks forward to rejoining the troops. Wherever stationed, he attends church service and bible classes. This camp, he says, has a good chaplain.

He is based at or near Seaford, in East Sussex on England's south coast, a barracks where Canadian soldiers and those from the West Indies are stationed. (At the end of the war, many of them died from influenza while waiting for a boat home. Last year, a maple tree was planted there in their honour.)

Pte. Jones celebrates his 36th birthday on Jan. 9, out of quarantine - "Hurrah!" - with a "glorious free supper at the YMCA." A few days later, he gets a letter. "Fannie appears to feel blue. Wish I was home." The next day, he has a dental exam and learns that four teeth need to be pulled. "Glorious prospect."

Another "lonely letter from Fannie" arrives on Feb. 12. "I am sure blessed with a good wife." Two weeks later, he learns he will head to France.

By Sunday, March 11, the weather clears and Pte. Jones crosses the English Channel to land in Boulogne, a northern seaside town not far from the Belgium border, the western front.

He marches for days. Other troops are being sent to the front line, and he expects his group will be called up soon.

On April 7, he passes medical inspection. "Feel slightly nervous."

On April 9, he learns about Vimy Ridge, where all four Canadian divisions fought together and broke through German lines, a turning point for Allied forces.

His own order to the front comes on April 12. Pte. Jones marches through miserable little towns, spends nights sleeping in dirty stables, stationed in dangerous places. He runs into old friends at Mt. St. Eloi, a place remembered for its underground mine warfare. He finds out a buddy was killed at Vimy Ridge.

On April 25, he is in the trenches as part of a machine-gun company on the front line. Desperation begins to set in.

April 26: Heavy shell fire. "Too bad this thing must continue." April 27: "Fritz [the Germans] dropping heavies [heavy artillery fire] on top of us. ..... Appear to be in danger of death all the time." April 29: "Lord help us."

Three lovely letters from Fannie arrive on May 4. "God graces I may be spared to return to her again." His group moves back to a support role. On page after page, he names men killed around him: Hanson. Turner. Garden.

He returns briefly to camp. May 18: "Feel blue as I think of return to the trenches. I want to see the dear old home again." He learns he will be head back to the front on Sunday, May 20. "They always seem to move on Sundays." On May 23, he notes U.S. Civil War General William T. Sherman's comment, "War is hell." Pte. Jones wonders what Gen. Sherman would have thought if he'd seen this one.

The last time Pte. Jones makes an entry in his diary, it is Saturday, June 2, 1917: "In supports and due to go over the top on Sunday morning. This may be my last entry if among those who fall. I die firm in the belief of a crucified Christ. I want my wife to know that my only regret was on her account and die blessing her with my last breath. May God protect her!"

At midnight, the 50th Battalion becomes engaged in a fight known as the Affairs South of the Souchez River, an attempt to break the German line near Avion and Lens. Allied troops attack a power station near the river, and Pte. Jones's brigade suffers 550 casualties - more than half its strength.

In Calgary, Fannie receives a telegram from the director of records in Ottawa, dated July 19, 1917. It is word from England that 696797 Private James Arthur Jones died of wounds on June 29. There is no "we regret to inform you" or "your loved one died honourably."

Among the effects returned to her is the diary. She flips past 26 days of blank pages. On the page marked June 29, she writes: "The day my darling died. Gone but never forgotten."

Dawn Walton is a reporter in the Calgary bureau of The Globe and Mail.

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