William Elliott in battledress, 1914 or 1915.

Elliott family tree

This is the story of William's involvement in the First World War, drawn from family histories and official records.

William Elliott (born 1890 in Paisley, Scotland; died 1949 in Olds, Alberta) was the eldest son of John Elliott (born 1859 in County Fermanagh, Ireland) and Margaret Milligan (born 1869 in Ayrshire, Scotland). (More in-depth genealogical information about William's family can be found here).

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 Frank's WWI career.

Quartermaster Sergeant William Elliott in Calgary, Alberta, 1944 or 1945.

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 military histories can be read here.