The most vivid and memorable story of a family member involved in the first World War was an account of my maternal grandfather, Ralph Stockwell Walker. According to records I have, Ralph emigrated from Folkstone, England in 1909 and settled in Brandon, Manitoba. In 1914 he married my grandmother, Clara Louise Hogben. They had two daughters, Dorothy (born in 1915), and Edith (my mother), born in February, 1917. Ralph probably enlisted the month before my mother was born, went overseas in the Chums Battalion and later transferred to the Machine Gun Section of the 8th Battalion. He went to fight in France in September, 1917.
In the period he was overseas, he wrote many letters home, some of which I still have. The most poignant one was dated September 15, 1918, from somewhere in France, which reads in part as follows:
“I received a letter from mother today enclosing one of yours written on the 25th of Aug. in which you say I was reported missing. Well, darling, you don’t know how grieved I was that you should have had that report. It’s a funny thing but as soon as I heard that there was a Walker missing it struck me that they would make a mistake, so I went to the orderly room to see and sure enough they had. So I made quite a noise so they knew I was still kicking around and had taken my name about a dozen times to prove that I was still there, and I asked if the report had gone to Canada and they said no, so I expected everything would be alright. I could not cable anyway as it was very hard to get letters away at that time everything was kept so secret that we could not write and if we did they would not send the letters, so that will explain why you did not hear more than you did, but it makes me mad to think that after seeing me kicking around for about 7 days then send the report in as missing, well I would not have that go through for anything as I know how you must have felt, but you can take it from me that up to Sept. 15, 1918 I am quite well and getting on alright. Mother tells me she cabled you to tell you this and I hope you got the cable alright and also had some letters from me.”
It might have taken two weeks for my grandmother to receive this letter from her husband, so you can imagine her reaction when she received the following night lettergram on October 11, 1918 as the war was drawing to a close:
“Deeply regret to inform you Pte. Ralph Stockwell Walker Infantry officially reported killed in action Sept. 25”
Although the date was later corrected to Sept. 29, the records, including one letter from the Canadian Minister for Militia and Defence, explained that while he was reconnoitring during the Battle of Cambrai, in the vicinity of Bourlon Wood, he was crossing some wire and was killed instantly by a sniper. Someday I would like to go to the Haynecourt Cemetery near Cambrai to look for his burial plot.
I never knew my grandmother as a young person, but I can picture Ralph’s young bride in those days, and two young daughters, who would never know or even remember their father. I often wonder how life would have turned out if Ralph had survived those closing days of the war. But I am grateful that Grandma and her parents raised the two daughters very well, and that Mom met Dad when she did, and that I, my brother, sister and cousins are here to ponder upon those family events during W.W.I.
Bryan Wilson, October 23, 2011