Soldier mailed home shrapnel taken from lip
Wounded by piece of enemy shell, young Alberta farmer was sent back to the front

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Russell Watson lived through the fiery hell of the French battlefields and had something to show for it -- a splinter of a German shell embedded in his nose and upper lip.

In the late summer of 1918, he walked to the operating room of a makeshift army hospital in France to have it removed. Just four months had passed since Pte. Watson, a brawny 27-year-old farming lad from northern Alberta, had arrived at the front.

"Many of my friends have been killed or wounded," he wrote in a letter home to his family. "Our colonel was killed about two weeks ago. Our company commander was gassed about the same time, and my platoon commander wounded in the first day of the last fight. The corporal in charge of my section was also wounded. I had many very narrow escapes," not the least of which was this piece of metal that had pierced his nostril, stopping in the bone just above his teeth.

He lay down on a stretcher and waited for his turn under the surgeon's knife, then caught the attention of a passing nurse.

"I should like to have the splinter when it's taken out, if I may," he told her.

"Certainly you can have it," she replied. "When you wake up, you will find it tied to your wrist." When Pte. Watson regained consciousness, the key-sized piece of shell was indeed strapped to his arm. He put it in an envelope and sent it to his family along with a letter detailing the preoperative conversation with the nurse. Although he was feeling better, he thought he would be shipped back to England because of the severity of his wounds. Instead, he was needed at the front. It would be his last tour of duty.

Pte. Russell Watson died on Oct., 11, 1918, exactly one month before the Great War ended. His family doesn't know exactly what killed him, although some surmise he was hit with a sniper's bullet.

They do know that the tall, capable eldest Watson boy never returned to Canada. His body is interred in a quiet, soldiers graveyard near a cornfield in France. And brothers and sisters were left with a tiny bit of shrapnel and a stack of letters to remind them of their loss.

Pte. Watson's niece, Marie Cuthbert of Toronto, contributed the correspondence, and the piece of shell, to the Memory Project organized by The Globe and Mail and the Dominion Institute.

As a teenager, her uncle went with his family in 1907 to clear farm land near the town of Athabasca. Each of the three Watson boys was eventually given his own section.

Russell Watson never married, although Ms. Cuthbert believes he was sweet on a school teacher who lived nearby. Perhaps unrequited love, she said, contributed to his decision to join the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force in June, 1917.

But also, said Ms. Cuthbert, "I think he thought it was the patriotic thing to do."

It was late in the conflict, and Pte. Watson wasn't sure he would actually be sent to Europe. "But an official had come from England to say how desperate they were for people. He was the first one to step into the volunteers' circle," said Ms. Cuthbert.

Her uncle was a tall man and fit from years of farming. He was also an excellent sniper. But even capable men were shattered by the realities of the war that claimed nearly 60,000 Canadian lives.

"A few minutes after we started on the first day, a shell fell in a shell hole about 10 feet from me and hit three men," Pte. Watson wrote his family. "One had both feet shot clean off at the ankles. A stretcher bearer held the arteries just above the knees while another man and myself put on tourniquets."

On another occasion, he and another soldier were lying in a hole when a shell landed an arm's length away.

"I expected an explosion, for I thought the fuse was burning," he wrote. "But it proved to be a dud." In another letter written while recovering from his wound, he said he would be returning to battle after being fitted with a gas mask. The hospital was quite a comfort after sleeping in the cold mud of the war, he said. "When we were in the last 'show,' we carried no blanket or great coat but only our waterproof sheets," wrote Pte. Watson. "I got a German one and used the two for a while and could sleep quite well in them."

He also talked about the rum ration that was used to give the men "Dutch courage," saying "I have always taken it but could never notice that it had any effect."

Pat Brennan, a history expert at the University of Calgary, said giving soldiers a shot of rum each day was a British practice the Canadians adopted.

"There is no question that rum got the army through the war. It's the one drug that they're permitted to use to deal with nerves," said Dr. Brennan. "And the other thing that becomes very common in the First World War in all the armies is smoking cigarettes. Everybody thought it was actually good."

So good, in fact, that Pte. Watson's aunt sent him a pack.

"She would not approve of cigarettes herself but she thought maybe he needed them," said Ms. Cuthbert. "He wrote back to say 'thank you for the cigarettes, I don't need them, I sold them.' Being Scottish Presbyterians, they didn't really go for that kind of stuff."

As he lay in the army hospital, Pte. Watson thought often about the farm, giving instructions to his brothers to tide them over until his return. But, of course, that day never came.

Canadians first arrived in Britain in October, 1914, and after arriving on the Continent, fought continuously until the Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918.

With his death, Ms. Cuthbert said, her mother, Cecilia Barbara Wright, lost her favourite brother. On the night he was killed, "my mother dreamt he was calling her and sensed something had happened."

A telegram arrived a short time later to say that Russell Watson was gone. But he had left a memento, a small piece of shrapnel.

The Dominion Institute co-organized the Memory Project with The Globe and Mail and the Government of France to commemorate Canada's contribution to the Great War.

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