Elliott Military Service

Several members of the Elliott family volunteered for military service in the First and Second World Wars.

William Elliott (1869-1920)

William Elliott (1869-1920) and his wife Grace (née Milligan) (1871-1931) c.1916.

Elliott family tree

William was the brother of John Elliott (1859-1915, the father of another William whose Gallipoli adventure will be told shortly). As a younger man William served with the King's Own Scottish Borderers. We're not positive, but this service probably took place before 1890 when, at the age of 22, he married Grace Milligan, the younger sister of his brother's wife Margaret. He worked at various jobs such as coal miner and fireclay worker and raised a family of at least 5 children. When World War One broke out he was too old for the infantry so he volunteered for the Army Service Corps (ASC) and they took him in October, 1915, at the age of 46, at a rate of 3 shillings per day (which was three times the daily pay of an infantry private). We don't know much about his service but his shoulder titles, which you can barely make out in this photo, read MT which means he was in Mechanical Transport. We also know (from his medal card) that he was sent over to France on December 6, 1915.

We get another clue about his service from his regimental number: SS/19052. The first S means he worked in the Supply section, while the second S stands for "Special", meaning he worked in a particular field on account of his civilian trade. We're not entirely sure which of his many trades qualified him for the "Special" designation, but in 1915 when he joined the ASC, he simply put down "labourer" as his trade.

William's discharge papers

His wartime career was brief— after just 16 months he was discharged (on January 17, 1917) for being "no longer physically fit for War Service." His discharge papers indicate, however, that his military character was "good" and further that he was "A good labourer. Sober and reliable." He received the Victory Medal, the British War Medal, the 1914-15 Star, and the Silver War Badge.

After his discharge William went to work at the Paisley threadmill which employed so many of his extended family; he died of tuberculosis three years later at the age of 50. He was buried with military honors in the Paisley Woodside Cemetery. Grace, his widow, lived on another decade and died of bowel cancer in 1931.

Although we don't know much about what William did during the war, the Long, Long Trail website has a fascinating article about the role of the Army Service Corps in WWI.

The following William was this William's nephew.

William Elliott (1890-1949)

William Elliott in battledress, 1914 or 1915.

Our main source of information about William's military service comes from his eldest son John's memoir, written in 1988:

My next memories are about the start of World War I, from which time they have been continuous. We had just returned from our holidays on the coast at Saltcoats; when the house door was opened there was a long envelope lying on the door mat where it had dropped from the letterbox slit in the door. This was a notice for my father to report for active duty with the army; he had been a member of the old Territorials, "Militia," and of course they were called first. Great Britain and Germany were at war. My father was posted to the county regiment, The Fifth Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Naturally these happenings caused considerable consternation in the family and as a result were fixed firmly in my mind.

Together with my mother I visited my father at various camps, notably Greenock and Dunfermlin. I remember when my father shipped out and he went to Egypt for a time, then to the first landing at the Dardanelles where he was wounded. After that he was discharged with poor prospects for a continued life.

While my father was away I used to go with my mother to the factory counting house every Friday where she received an envelope with my father's pay, still paid by the company. One week when she went she received the envelope with only a single penny as a make-weight: my father was missing in action, therefore his pay was stopped and we had to leave the company house.... He later turned up in hospital in Egypt.

On being repatriated to Scotland and discharged from the army with poor prospects for continued life, he was advised to find employment in the open air. Not long after his discharge our whole family were walking down the street when Mother noticed a man across the street looking at us. When Father turned to look, the man across the street rushed over exclaiming, "My God Elliott, I thought you were dead." This had been my father's company major who had seen him being carried off for dead. They had covered my father's face with a tropical pith helmet, evidently belonging to another soldier, as the regimental number was not my father's (2061). I had the helmet for years and played soldier with it.

We have been able to augment and in some cases correct these recollections using records from the U.K. National Archives and regimental histories.

William joined the Territorial Force (the reserve component of the British Army in the early 20th century) sometime before 1914. He was a member of the 5th (Renfrewshire) Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders ("1/5 A&SH"), based in Greenock, about 16 miles from his hometown of Paisley.

Britain declared war against Germany on August 5, 1914, and on the following day the Territorial Force was mobilized. William probably received his activation (or "embodiment") orders very shortly after this date, so the Saltcoats vacation that John refers to would have taken place in July, 1914.

For the rest of 1914 and the first half of 1915, 5th Battalion training took place in Greenock and Dunfermlin, as John correctly remembers. 5th Battalion did not, however, complete their training in time to participate in the initial Allied land assault on Gallipoli, which means that John's recollection that his father was in the first Dardanelles landing is incorrect. Perhaps some historical detail is in order...

After a failed attempt by the Royal Navy to force their way through the Dardanelles Straights in March 1915— the goal being to capture Constantinople and "knock Turkey out of the war"— Allied troops landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula on April 25 and began moving north and east, with the objective of capturing the heights of Achi Baba near the town of Krithia and then continuing on to capture the Turkish forts whose guns protected the Dardanelles Narrows. The Allied command believed the campaign would be swift and relatively painless; it turned out to be anything but. The initial phase of the assault was mired in confusion and inadequate leadership, ending with the bloody Battle of Gully Ravine, June 28 to July 5. William was part of the wave of reinforcements brought in towards the end of this phase to help break the gathering threat of stalemate in the form of prolonged trench warfare, such as had already developed on the Western Front in Europe.

[1] Stephen Chambers, Gallipoli: Gully Ravine (Barnsley, South Yorkshire, Pen & Sword Books, 2003) p.188.

[2] The Allies gained 400 yards in this attack and suffered 4,000 casualties. The Turks suffered 10,000 casualties. Alan Moorehead, Gallipoli (London: Aurum Press, 2007) p.219 footnote.

This map of the Gallipoli Peninsula, showing the front line on July 12, is from The Fifth Battalion Highland Light Infantry 1914-1918 by F.L. Morrison

5th Battalion A&SH, now part of the 157th Infantry Brigade of the 52nd (Lowland) Division, left Britain on June 1, headed for the Mediterranean theatre. After brief stops in Alexandria and the British base on the island of Lemnos, William would have arrived at Cape Helles on the Gallipoli Peninsula on July 3. Whether he saw action immediately is unclear, as the 52nd Division does not appear in the order of battle for the phase of the Battle of Gully Ravine that ended on July 5[1] . We do know that William's battalion took up position on the front line on the afternoon of July 11 and took part in the Allied attack on July 12[2] . As we read in one relevant Wikipedia article,

The plan was for one brigade to attack in the morning and the other to attack in the afternoon so that the full weight of artillery support could be lent to each brigade. The 155th Brigade would attack at 7.35 am and the 157th at 4.50 pm. Bombardment began at 4:30 am, from land, sea and air. 14 Allied planes participated in softening up the Ottoman defenses, one of the first such combined actions in military history.

[3] From Battle of Gully Ravine. (2017, March 24). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 00:19, May 14, 2017.

A more detailed description of the events of that day can be read in Chapter III of The Fifth Battalion Highland Light Infantry 1914-1918.

Both attacks began well with the capture of the first Ottoman trench but descended into chaos and confusion as, in a repeat of the April and May Helles battles, the troops advanced too far, lost contact and came under artillery and machine gun fire. The next morning [July 13] confusion and panic resulted in a disorderly retreat which was eventually halted but Hunter-Weston ordered the advance to resume and sent the battered Royal Naval Division in again. The line was stabilised.

By the end of the battle, one third of the 52nd Division had become casualties. General Egerton was temporarily dismissed from his command of the division for protesting at the treatment of his troops.[3] 

[4] See timeline at 1/5th (Renfrewshire) Battalion Territorial Force

On August 1, 5th Battalion was evacuated to the base on Lemnos due to the heavy casualties they had taken, and saw no further action until 1918, long after William's discharge. Given what we know of 5th Battalion's movements[4] , it is entirely possible that the action on July 12 was William's first and only taste of battle, and it would have far-reaching consequences for his family's future.

[5] In accordance with Army Council Instruction 17 of 1916, a soldier's pay was stopped when he was declared missing. If he later turned up alive, the withheld pay would be restored to him. Since many soldiers opted to have a portion of their pay sent to relatives at home, this policy of "a man is entitled to pay while he is alive and no longer" could be devastating for his family's economy. More information on this practice.

What actually happened to William in that battle? As we saw above, his son John (who would have been 5 years old at the time and therefore had to rely on what he was told at a later date) relates that his father was "buried alive" and was reported missing in action until he turned up in a hospital— indeed, he was missing so long that his pay was stopped for a time, leading to some financial distress for his family back home.[5]  Whether William was actually buried alive is unknown, but on July 13, the day of the "disorderly retreat" referred to above, we find him mentioned in 149th Field Ambulance records being admitted to the clearing hospital on "W" Beach, treated for "Bullet splinter, left hand", and then transferred to another (unspecified) hospital that same day. He probably spent time in a hospital in Alexandria, since that is where 5th Battalion went after their evacuation from the battlefield on August 1. He was back home by November 11, because he acted as witness at his sister Mary's wedding on that date in Glasgow. He received his army discharge on December 31, 1915.

William's medal card, courtesy of the U.K. National Archives.

William's medal card tells us he received the Victory Medal, the British War Medal, the 1914-15 Star, and the Silver War Badge. It also tells us the reason for his discharge: 392 XVI, which is shorthand for King's Regulation 392, Subsection XVI: No longer physically fit for war service. Unfortunately, this tells us nothing about the nature of his injuries. John reports that his father "had poor prospects for continued life" upon his discharge, but does not elaborate except to say that his condition required that he retire from his engineering job at the threadmill. Two of William's other sons (whose memoirs can be read here as Bill's Story and Bob's Story) report that their father had been "gassed" and this led to his poor health and necessitated his leaving the threadmill.

But these second-hand reports raise some puzzling questions... what was it about his injuries that compelled William to leave a (presumably) white-collar job? Why did he then pursue a career as a gamekeeper, that required vigorous physical activity outdoors? What qualified him for such a career, given his city-bound, factory-oriented upbringing?

And furthermore, did the Turks actually employ chemical weapons in the Gallipoli campaign? The short answer to this question is no. However, because the events of July 12, 1915 had such a great impact on William's future (and our family history, because these events ultimately led to his decision to uproot his family and move to Canada), the issue of poison gas at Gallipoli deserves some careful analysis.

[6] Historian Alan Moorehead states without reservation or further discussion that "gas was never used at Gallipoli". Gallipoli (London: Aurum Press, 2007) p.189 footnote.

[7] Yigal Sheffy, "The Chemical Dimension of the Gallipoli Campaign", War in History 2005 12(3), p.316.

[8] Sheffy, p.282.

[9] Sheffy, p.289.

[10] Sheffy, p.293.

[11] Sheffy, p.292.

[12] Sheffy, p.303.

The consensus among historians is that chemical weapons were not used by either side during the Gallipoli campaign.[6]  Post-war research has shown that while the Germans offered to provide the Turks with such weapons, the Ottoman government refused the offer.[7]  However, is important not to let our hindsight dim the panic that the mere idea of chemical weapons brought to the conflict back in those days. The first successful use of chlorine gas was by the Germans at Ypres on April 22 of that year, 3 days before the initial Dardanelles landing— fear of gas attack was therefore on everyone's mind. British authorities began large-scale production of poison gas around that time, and debate raged at the highest levels about whether to use it in a first-strike against the Turks at Gallipoli.[8]  Meanwhile the front-line troops were issued with primitive gas masks and trained in anti-chemical countermeasures (such as lighting fires in the bottom of trenches to neutralize gas, and spraying the sides of trenches with gas-neutralizing compounds). While we now know these measures were unnecessary, they surely had a profound impact on the soldiers' minds. In May, Turkish soldiers were reported to be seen wearing respirators,[9]  which put the Allies on alert for a gas attack that never arrived. Early in July (as William was arriving at the front) a captured Turkish officer told his captors he had been issued with gas cannisters and that there was a functioning poison gas factory just behind the front lines (it turns out he was lying, perhaps to curry favor with his captors, but the story must have made an impression for a while).[10]  Meanwhile, on the other side, Turkish soldiers reported that the British were using gas shells against them, and the reports were taken so seriously by the Turkish command that the Ottoman government lodged a formal complaint against the British (for violating the norms of civilized warfare) via the American embassy in Constantinople and this was widely reported in German newspapers. The British thought that this was just a propaganda ploy in preparation for a Turkish gas attack, and redoubled their vigilance.[11] 

Fear and rumor were rampant on both sides. Nonetheless the British— who deployed teams of chemical experts at Gallipoli to follow up on the soldiers' repeated reports of gas attack— could find no chemical traces beyond the normal noxious residue that accompanied any shell explosion.[12]  The fear, however, was very real, and it was within this context that William fought his first and probably only battle.

When we talk about "gassing" it is important to differentiate between the various meanings of that term. There were asphyxiating agents such as chlorine gas, which created tissue-dissolving acid in the lungs that ultimately caused a soldier to drown in his own mucus (more lethal chemical compounds like phosgene and mustard gas did not come into use until after William was out of combat); lachrymating agents— tear gas— which could temporarily debilitate a soldier but were not generally lethal by themselves; and finally there were the gasses given off by any exploding artillery shell, which could cause asthma-like symptoms. Given what we know now, it is highly likely that the soldiers at Gallipoli who thought they were being "gassed" were in fact being affected by this third phenomenon, if at all.

[13] Read more about these lost records on the National Archives website.

Nonetheless, William apparently believed he had been victim of a gas attack, and that was the story he handed down to his sons Bill and Bob. It is interesting, though, that the story told by his oldest son John, who was alive at the time and doubtless remembered his father's return from the war, did not make any mention of gas. It would help if we knew more about the nature of William's hospitalization on July 13, beyond the shrapnel wound we see in his medical records. Complicating matters, the building containing War Office records was bombed during World War Two, and many personnel files from World War One were lost in the conflagration, including, it seems, most of William's war records.[13] 

We can surmise that William, suddenly unemployed at the age of 25, with 3 small children and a fourth not far off, and the war continuing to rage on with no end in sight, must have spent a very restless year from the time of his discharge at the end of 1915 to the time he took his first job as a gamekeeper at Loch Libow in late 1916. It must have been a further blow in May 1917, shortly after starting the new job, when news of his younger brother Frank's death reached home. More on that follows.

Some 25 years later, after emigrating to Canada, William resumed his military service in World War Two by serving as a quartermaster sergeant in the Canadian Army reserves in Calgary. He was granted military honors at his funeral in Olds, Alberta, in 1949. All five of William's sons served in the Canadian Army, either during World War Two or immediately thereafter. Their histories will be told in a moment, but first, a bit about William's brother Frank.

Frank Elliott (1897-1917)

Frank Elliott in Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders uniform, 1914 or 1915.

Frank (Francis M.) Elliott was 7 years younger than his brother William. When war broke out at the beginning of August, 1914 and William was called up, Frank didn't join immediately— he waited until mid-September and then joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (A&SH), the same regiment as William. Assuming he didn't lie about his age to the recruiting officer (the Elliott boys had a history of doing that), he was a little over 17 when he joined. We know very little about Frank except for a brief mention his nephew John makes in his memoir:

After we moved from the house, we lived on the top floor of a six-floor apartment building. Father's young brother Uncle Frank used to come Saturdays to carry Mother's baby buggy down the six flights of stairs for her to go shopping. Uncle Frank enlisted in the army although only 17; the last Saturday before going to France he helped Mother as usual, went straight over to France and was killed in the First Battle of the Somme.

Fortunately, Frank's service records survived the fire that consumed those of his brother William when the records office was bombed during WWII, and we have been able to piece together the main elements of his military career, which was somewhat more lengthy than John remembered.

[14] What do these numbers mean? A regiment was composed of an indefinite number of battalions, some of which being Regular and some being Territorial Force. The Territorial battalions had one or more "reserve" battalions attached to them: the first-line battalion was the one to see action, and would be resupplied by men from the second and third-line reserves as the need arose. Hence William's battalion, 1/5 A&SH, was the first line of 5th Battalion. Frank's battalion, the 2/6, was the second-line reserve of 6th Battalion. Frank would have to transfer up to the 1/6 before being shipped over to France.

Whereas William was already a member of 1/5 Battalion A&SH at the start of the War, Frank joined the 2/6 Battalion[14] , which was stationed "at home". He received regimental number 3661. The 2/6 was stationed at Bo'ness, about 50 miles east of Paisley near Edinburgh (and just across the Firth of Forth from Dunfermline, where William was training with the 1/5). William shipped out for Gallipoli in June 1915, and Frank's nearness to Paisley probably meant he was able to come home on leave frequently to help his sister-in-law, which explains five-year-old John's vivid recollection of Frank helping his mother with the baby buggy on Saturdays.

The 2/6 was a reserve battalion and never saw action for the duration of the war. We know nothing of Frank's aspirations or feelings about the war at this point, but one gets the impression he was restless and eager to see action. In February 1916 we see he requested a transfer from the 2/6 Battalion to the 3/6, another reserve unit that never saw battle. This would have been about the time that William returned home from the disastrous Dardanelles campaign, unemployed and despondent, and likely suffering from shell-shock from his ordeal. Then 5 months later, in June 1916, Frank got another transfer, this time to the 1/6 A&SH, which had already been fighting on the Western Front for over a year. He embarked on Friday, June 9 and joined his new unit in the field on July 1, which means that June 3 would have been the last Saturday that John remembered seeing his uncle alive.

[15] "Proficiency Pay" was awarded to a soldier who demonstrated aptitude. A line infantry private received 1 shilling per day according to 1914 British Army pay scales, and "additional proficiency pay is payable if the soldier fulfils certain conditions as to service and qualification: rates 3d or 6d per day, according to proficiency". See longtrail.co.uk.

[16] Pioneers were specialized groups of soldiers who performed hazardous building, digging, and entrenchment tasks, often under fire.

[17] Read more about this administrative change on longtrail.co.uk.

The timing of Frank's arrival on the Western Front was no accident. The Somme Offensive was launched on July 1, and the 1/6 was in the thick of it. We have few details of Frank's participation and can only make inferences based on his pay and medical records. We see in his dossier that he got a 3 penny per day raise for "proficiency" on September 17.[15]  On September 22 he was wounded "At Duty" but no details are given and the injury did not require hospitalization. By October he was working with a Pioneer battalion[16]  and received another 2 penny per day raise. The Somme Offensive came to an end in November and Frank was still alive, so John's recollection that Frank went straight over and got himself killed is incorrect.

The 1/6's history shows no major actions through the winter of 1916-17. On January 9 we find Frank listed as "sick" and presumably got a day of rest out of it; on January 10 he is "returned to duty". Early in 1917 he received a new regimental number, 251361, on account of the restructuring of the Territorial Force that took place that year.[17]  When spring came, 1/6 was involved in the Battle of Vimy (April 9 to 12), the Attack on La Coulotte (April 23), and the Third Battle of the Scarpe (May 3 to 4). We can only assume that Frank was active during many or all of these engagements.

[18] Some of the handwritten annotations in his dossier actually show that he died on May 19, but other records show he wasn't admitted to hospital until May 21, and died that day. It seems likely to infer from this that he was shot on May 19 and failed to have the wound treated since it didn't seem life-threatening. It got infected, and by the time he got to the field hospital it was too late. This reconstruction of events is speculative, but not unlikely.

[19] That is, twelve pounds and ten shillings: about USD $650 in modern currency. See Eric W. Nye, Pounds Sterling to Dollars: Historical Conversion of Currency, accessed Friday, August 11, 2017.

Frank was wounded on May 19: "Gunshot wound buttocks and thigh right" was the terse casualty report from Casualty Clearing Station No.8 in Agnez-lès-Duisans near Arras, France. We can find no record of a battlefield action on that date, but he died, apparently of tetanus, two days later.[18]  He had 2 years, 8 months of active service at the time of his death, and received the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. He was 19 years old.

A year after the war ended, Frank's mother (now a widow— her husband had died in April, 1915) received a "war gratuity" of £12 10/-[19]  as compensation for her son's service.

Frank is buried, two miles from where he died, in the Duisans British Cemetery near Étrun, France, Grave III. N. 30.

World War II

All five of William's sons volunteered for service in the Canadian Army, four during WWII and one just after.

John Elliott, circa 1942.

John, the eldest, had a lifelong fascination with army life mixed with a strong stubborn and insubordinate streak. He joined the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders in 1924 at the age of 14, lying about his age. He was released from service two years later when his mother arrived at the barracks in Inverness one day with his birth certificate, allowing him to emigrate to Canada with the rest of the family. Later, at the outbreak of WWII, he joined a Canadian infantry regiment, The Calgary Highlanders, but transferred to the Provost Corps shortly after arriving in Britain and spent the early part of the war as a policeman, patrolling the pubs of London and rounding up Canadian Army deserters. His ears were damaged in a bomb blast and he was discharged early. His adventures and difficulties with authority can be read in his long and rambling memoir, which is reproduced here as John's Story.

Bill Elliott, June 1940.

Bill joined the RCASC (Royal Canadian Army Service Corps) in May 1940. Being one of the few recruits who could drive, he was sent overseas immediately and took part in the evacuation of Dunkirk, delivering trucks to the Canadian troops there. He was being considered for an officer's commission but was invalided home early, in April 1944. Bill tells the story best in his own words.

Matt enlisted in about 1942 and was a driver for the Engineers. He hasn't left us with a written record of his exploits, but we know that he took part in the Allied invasion of Italy.

Bob Elliott, circa 1941.

Bob, feeling left out and eager to follow his brothers overseas, volunteered in early 1941, still too young to join but lying about his age. He easily handled added responsibilities and trained intensively with tanks, driving a tank onto Juno Beach in the early hours of D-Day. Later he took part in the Canadian liberation of Belgium and The Netherlands. His fascinating adventures are the subject of The Little Coat: The Bob and Sue Elliott Story by Alan J. Buick. You can also read about it in his own words here as Bob's Story.

Chuck Elliott, 1952.

Chuck was only 13 when the war ended, but when he was old enough he joined the RCASC and served with the Allied occupation force in post-war Europe. Here we see him in a group photo from October 1952, 2nd row 4th from left.

Timeline of the Elliott brothers in WWII

Date History John Bill Matt Bob
1939: September 10 Canada declares war.
1939: September 13 John joins The Calgary Highlanders. Starts training in Calgary.
1940: March Bill joins the RCASC.
1940: May 26 - June 4 Evacuation of Dunkirk. John and The Calgary Highlanders move to Camp Shilo, Manitoba. Bill delivers trucks to the troops at Dunkirk.
1940: August 21 - September 4 John and The Calgary Highlanders travel from Camp Shilo to Greenock, Scotland.
1940: October 1 Kitchen explosion at Guillemont Barracks. John is blown out of bed from the blast.
1940: December 16 John and The Calgary Highlanders move to the Talavera Barracks near Aldershot.
1941: February 11 Bob enlists in the Canadian Army and is sent to Debert, Nova Scotia, for training.
1941: Summer John transfers to the Canadian Provost Corps.
1941: November 3 - 11 Bob travels from Debert to Greenoch on the Louis Pasteur, then to Aldershot to continue training.
1942: exact date unknown. John's ear damage makes him a "category man": unfit for field action.
1943: September Allied invasion of Italy.
1943: Christmas Bill, Matt, and Bob have leave and meet in Paisley, Scotland to celebrate the holiday with family. John doesn't have leave but joins them anyway.
1944: January John is arrested on the streets of Paisley for being AWOL. He eventually accepts a reduction in rank and transfer to the Auxiliary Service Corps.
1944: February 23 The Guinness Trust buildings in Chelsea are flattened by German v-bombs. John and his girlfriend Kathleen, who are living nearby, witness the devastation.
1944: April Bill breaks his leg playing football, receives a medical discharge and returns to Canada. He marries his sweetheart Esther on June 1.
1944: June 6 D-Day: Invasion of Normandy begins. Bob drives his tank onto Juno Beach.
1944: July Matt is fighting with the Canadian Army in Italy.
1944: August John receives a medical discharge and returns to Canada.
1944: September John joins the Merchant Marine and returns to London to live with Kathleen.
1944: November John's wife back home begins divorce proceedings against him.
1944: Christmas Bob and his tank crew, stationed at Alphen, give Sussie Cretier the famous Little Coat.
1945: February 8 Start of Operation Veritable near Nymegen. Bob and his crew are on the forefront of the attack.
1945: May 8 Germany surrenders. Japan surrenders on August 15.
1946: February Bob is repatriated to Canada and receives his discharge on March 12.
1946: March John's divorce is final. He marries Kathleen on April 6.