George Herbert Wyllie, son of Mary Fleming and George Wyllie of Kilsyth, ON, was another young man of Fleming blood to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the Great War.
Fit, 5 feet 7 ¾ inches tall, 146 pounds, with blue eyes and fair hair, this strapping lad whose only blemish was a scar of three inches on the inner side of his left knee, walked into the Owen Sound recruitment office for the 147th Grey Overseas Battalion. The day was the 13th of May, 1916, four months to the day since he had turned 18 (on 14 January). Under the command of Lt. Col. G.F. McFarland, this battalion recruited 1,000 men during the winter of 1915-1916 and trained at Niagara-on-the-Lake and Camp Borden that summer. On November 14, 1916, Pte G. Herbert Wyllie, No. 839119, shipped out from Halifax on the RMS. Olympic.
Through the CEF Personnel Records and the War Diaries at Library and Archives Canada we have learned more about Herb’s service and experience.
All men were transferred to the 8th Reserve Battalion for further training in England and then assigned to other units. Herb began service in France with the 3rd Entrenched Battalion (3rd Ent. Bn.) on 3 March 1917. Entrenching battalions were trained as infantry but were more often engaged in engineering work, trench repair, road building and other construction labour. These battalions worked behind the front lines, moving forward when needed. The CEF War Diary for the months May to September 1917 recorded the grueling work of the men of the 3rd Canadian Entrenching Battalion in the Pas-de-Calais region: they were laying pipe, wiring lines, digging reservoirs, making roads, laying rail, digging cable trenches and dugouts all the while being shelled, wounded and killed. (1) The entrenchment battalion was disbanded in September 1917 and the men absorbed into Canadian Corps Reinforcement Camp. By 2 February 1918, Herb had been assigned to the 4th Battalion of the Canadian Mounted Rifles (4th CMR) (2).
On 24 August 1918, two days before the Second Battle of Arras, as the Canadian Corps pushed toward the German line, Herb was hit with shell gas, a casualty of the attack south of Arras.
The Second and Third Canadian Divisions went into the line. … The 4th CMR relieved a composite force of Cyclists and Life Guards in front of Feuchy about three miles west of Arras. In the early morning of the 24th , the enemy, evidently suspecting a relief or concentration of troops, shelled the left company in and in front of Feuchy with “yellow-cross” gas shells and H.E. shrapnel. Five officers … and 116 men became casualties from this bombardment.(3)
The 14 Canadian Field Ambulance picked Pte Wyllie up on the 24th of August and he was discharged on 13 September. Three days later, he was admitted to the 20 General Hospital in Camiers for “disordered action of the heart” (DAH) or “irritable heart.” DAH was a common symptom of traumatized soldiers and indicated cardiac exhaustion. It had long been observed in war and was believed to be brought on by the prolonged strain of straps across the chest while carrying heavy loads. Once a soldier had succumbed to DAH, it was noticed that the symptoms returned if he had to ‘undergo any extra exertion or from the excitement or nervousness of going under fire.’(4) Herb continued to be treated for DAH in two convalescent depots, Etaples and Aubenque, for twenty days, before being discharged on 12 October 1918. (5)(6)
Poison chlorine gas – the greenish-yellow cloud that irritated eyes, nose, lungs – was used through much of the war as a weapon. Phosgene was colourless and more deadly; it suffocated its victims. Gases were shot across battle lines in shells and projectiles, hitting trenches, supply lines, batteries – no place was safe. But the gas that caused the most casualties was “mustard gas” (sulphur mustard), first used in 1917, a vesicant that caused skin blisters (vesicles) and burning, especially in moist areas of the body – eyes, respiratory tract, armpits, genitals. The effects could take several hours to present and could lead to blindness and disfiguring.(7) (8)
The 10th of November 1918, one day before Armistice, probably wasn’t the first time Herb encountered mustard gas, but it was the worst. The 4th CMR was west of Mons, working on filling craters on the Valenciennes-Mons Road.
As the companies moved into billets, the enemy dropped a few shells into the town, causing the last casualties in the Battalion; Lieutenant A.E. Griffin, two other ranks, and several civilians were wounded. (9)
He received burns to his face and testicles and was hospitalized in Manchester England from 22 November 1918 to 1 January 1919. In December 1918, he still complained of pain across his chest and shortness of breath, but the doctors found his heart and lungs “normal.” Odd then that Herb suffered from emphysema for the rest of his life. (10)
The war was over. Herb was demobilized on 23 April 1919.
1. War diaries – 3rd Entrenching Battalion, RG9-III-D-3. Volume/box number: 5009. File number: 718. Container: T-10858. Item ID 2004945. Library and Archives Canada.
2. The 4th CMR became part of the 8th Infantry Brigade of the 3rd Canadian Division.
3. Stewart Gordon Bennett, The 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles, 1914-1919 (Toronto : Murray Print. Co 1926) Internet Archive (https://archive.org/details/mountedrifles00bennuoft) p. 126
4. Edgar Jones, “Historical approaches to post-combat disorders,” Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2006 Apr 29; 361(1468): 533–542. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1569621/) During WW1 new theories suggested toxic bacterial infection that could cause heart irregularities.
5. George Herbert Wyllie, CEF Personnel Records 1914-1918, Casualty Record. Library and Archives Canada (https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/first-world-war/personnel-records/Pages/item.aspx?IdNumber=329360)
6. Medical facilities during the war are detailed in Canadian Army Medical Corps, Guide to Sources Relating to Units of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, LAC (https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/military-heritage/first-world-war/Documents/canadian%20army%20medical%20corps.pdf)
7.Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on the Survey of the Health Effects of Mustard Gas and Lewisite; Pechura CM, Rall DP, editors. Veterans at Risk: The Health Effects of Mustard Gas and Lewisite. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1993. 3, History and Analysis of Mustard Agent and Lewisite Research Programs in the United States. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK236059/
8. “A Brief History of Chemical War,” Distillations, Science History Institute [https://www.sciencehistory.org/distillations/a-brief-history-of-chemical-war]
9. Stewart Gordon Bennett, The 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles, 1914-1919. P.147
10. George Herbert Wyllie, CEF Personnel Records 1914-1918, Medical Case sheet, Library and Archives Canada