Last year I wrote about the WW1 experiences of my great grandfather Harry Underwood, a POW, and his older brother Harold, a recipient of the Military Medal who was killed in action in 1918.
In honour of Remembrance Day 2022, I’d like to tell the WW1 stories of two of my husband’s great uncles, brothers Algernon and Sidney Saword. Their experiences couldn’t be more different from each other: Born in England, they were recent immigrants to Canada when war broke out; Algernon (‘Algy’) was quick to sign up with the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) and soon found himself back in Britain and on the battlefields of Europe, while Sidney, whose religious beliefs made him a non-combatant, served with the CEF in Canada on the railways.
Growing up in Southend
Sidney James Saword (b. 1894) and Algernon Leslie Saword (b. 1895) were the two oldest surviving sons of James Saword, a builder’s clerk/agent/merchant, and Jennie Saword (née Read). Their first baby boy had died in 1892. James and Jennie’s oldest child was Daisy, and their younger children were Edith (‘Edie’), Edward (‘Ted’), and Alfred — my husband’s grandfather.
Daisy, Sidney and Algy were born in Thornton Heath near Croydon, but the family moved to Prittlewell, Southend-on-Sea in about 1897. From 1901 until 1912, James, though not trained as an architect, designed several local buildings, eventually taking an office in Council Chambers. By 1904 the family had moved into a brand new home that James Saword had designed himself. He named 53 Bournemouth Park Road ‘Saxted Villa’. Next door were Jennie’s parents, retired detective inspector George Read and his wife Mary Ann, in an identical house called ‘Alpha Villa’.
In 1908, Sidney and Algy (aged 14 and 12) were in court charged with letting off fireworks in the streets! They were cautioned and discharged. By 1911 the boys had become young men, and embarked on careers: Sidney, 17, was working as a clerk and Algy, 15, was an Architect’s Pupil.
Algy had artistic flair from a young age. Alfred recalled that when the family moved into Bournemouth Park Rd (before Alfred was born), Algy ‘persuaded my parents to let him paint a frieze all around the front living room, between picture rail and ceiling. They agreed on condition that he restricted it to rural scenes, with no soldiers or battles.’ Two of Algy’s cartoons, which were pasted into family photograph albums, are treasured possessions.
It seems that life in Southend was good for the Saword family. However, in 1912, they decided to up sticks and emigrate to Canada!
James left first, followed by Algy (who traveled from Southampton to Quebec, in July, on the Cunard SS Ascania). Finally, the rest of the family followed. According to one account, Jennie sold their furniture to pay for their passage, but Sidney paid for his own ticket. The Sawords settled in Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba. They owned a house at 953 Banning Street, which still exists today (the photo below is from Google Maps). A photograph from c1914-16 shows James sitting on the porch step; above him are other family members, a dog and two Union Jack flags.
One possible reason for their emigration was religion. James and Jennie were stated to be Baptists in 1916, and may also have been associated with the Plymouth Brethren, which Sidney had embraced in his youth. I would like to research that aspect of their lives, to find out if there was a mission movement within their church community that might have led them overseas. Alternatively, they might have moved for economic opportunities. Jim Blanchard, author of ‘Winnipeg 1912’, describes a boom period in the city:
At the beginning of the last century, no city on the continent was growing faster or was more aggressive than Winnipeg. No year in the city’s history epitomized this energy more than 1912, when Winnipeg was on the crest of a period of unprecedented prosperity. In just forty years, it had grown from a village on the banks of the Red River to become the third largest city in Canada. In the previous decade alone, its population had tripled to nearly 170,000 and it now dominated the economy and society of western Canada. As Canada’s most cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse centre, with most of its population under the age of forty, it was also the country’s liveliest city, full of bustle and optimism.
Sidney soon found work with the railways, and Algy pursued his ambition to become an architect, working for Icelandic architect Paul Clemens. Clemens designed numerous structures in the Winnipeg building boom from 1908-1914. In 2019 I was contacted by Christian Cassidy, a blogger of historical Winnipeg who has researched Clemens’ work and architectural legacy (which he describes as ‘strong, middle class buildings’) and also researched Algy’s life as part of a series on Manitobans in WW1. He lives just a block from Algy’s former home, and told me that Algy would have worked at the Argyle Building, designed by Clemens, which is a landmark historic building in Winnipeg.
The Saword family photograph album shows them enjoying summer picnics and a winter tobogganing party in Winnipeg. However, they apparently found the winters very hard; on average, January days in Winnipeg don’t get above -10 celsius.
Canada at War
When Britain declared war on Germany, Canada, then a British dominion, was automatically at war with Germany as well. Sidney and Algy were both old enough to enlist. However, as Alf tells us, although just 19 months apart in age, his big brothers were ‘very different. Sid became religious when in his teens, and joined the Plymouth Brethren. Algy liked the outdoor life, first in the Scouts, then the Canadian Territorials, and finally volunteered for war at the age of 18.’ The brothers who had once set off fireworks together in the street now embarked on very different journeys with very different outcomes.
*I believe I have identified them correctly but all four Saword brothers looked so alike that in family photo albums it is hard to be certain who is who!
Digitised service records for Canadians who served in WW1 are available to download for free from Library and Archives Canada. Algy’s service record comprises 32 pages, beginning with his Attestation Paper when he enlisted at Valcartier, Quebec on 23 Sept 1914. Valcartier was the primary training base for the first Canadian contingent. His medical exam reveals that at 18 years and 8 months old he stood 5 feet 7 inches tall, with light brown hair and grey eyes, and smallpox scars on one arm.
As Alfred had said, prior to the war Algy had been volunteering with the territorials. He joined the 90th Winnipeg Regiment (founded in 1883) in 1913, and took part in regimental sports days, including a boxing match and 200-yard footrace.
Christian Cassidy told me that Algy ‘likely would have taken the streetcar [from home] down to the Osborne Barracks which is long gone. Camp Hughes is just a field now, but I think there are tours of it and some virtual mapping is being done.’ According to the Canada Parks website, Camp Hughes ‘contains the most intact First World War battlefield terrain created for training purposes in Canada.’
When war broke out, Private Algernon Saword was assigned with many other volunteers from the 90th Regt. to the 8th Battalion (also known as the 8th Canadian Infantry Battalion). They were nicknamed the ‘Little Black Devils of Canada’ because of their distinctive dark rifle green uniforms, which looked almost black. Their cap badges featured the Devil holding a cup. Algy was in E Company; reflecting emigration to Canada in that period, a list of soldiers in E Company revealed that many of them had been born in England, as well as in other British and Commonwealth countries.
Altogether, 30,000 Canadian volunteers sailed for Canada in October 1914. Algy’s company left Quebec on 1 October on the Franconia and arrived in England on 14 October. They trained for combat on Salisbury Plain, where they practiced bayonetting with sacks of straw. At Christmas, Algy sent a portrait of himself in uniform as a postcard to Sidney with a note: ‘have spent a proper good time in London and Southend – I could not get leave for xmas. Best love – Algy’. In January 1915, the 8th Bn. had a church service and parade at Stonehenge. It must have seemed quite an adventure.
The 8th Bn. were shipped to France in February 1915 and from there travelled to Belgium, where they remained, literally entrenched, until the Armistice. The Canadian Expeditionary Force Research Group 1914-1919 (CEFRG) has published details of the 8th battalion’s movements on their website. I found it particularly moving to see photographs of groups of ordinary soldiers sitting by their tents and playing cards. There are even photographs of the battalion’s ‘trench hound and regimental mascot’, the latter being a small monkey. A slideshow of photographs set to soldiers’ songs, ‘8th Battalion, 90th Winnipeg Rifles in the Great War‘ can also be viewed on YouTube.
Algy, no. 900, was a Signaller. Signallers were close to frontline troops, providing communications back to the Company and Battalion HQ. They sometimes used wired telephones, and at other times sent messages by morse code or using lights. ‘Signallers were also used in forward positions to assist the artillery and provide information on their enemy targets. In these positions, often isolated, the signaller became vulnerable to enemy shelling and attack, and many signallers lost their lives.’1
In May 1915 Winnipeg newspapers reported that Algy had been wounded. That report was followed by others in July that he was missing, and then a POW.
Algy’s service records show that there was indeed considerable confusion over his status. He was ‘unofficially reported to be a prisoner of war’ and although he did have a POW record, which stated that he was ‘Blessé et fait prisonnier avril 1915 combat d’Ypres.’ (wounded and taken prisoner April 1915 while fighting at Ypres), later records show that he could not be found: ‘Originally reported missing and subsequently unofficially P of W. Every effort has been made to locate as P of W, but without success’. Finally, records stated that ‘for official purposes [Algy was] presumed to have died on or since 24-4-15’.
In other words, by the time news reports appeared in Winnipeg listing him among the wounded/POWs, he had already been deceased for three months.
Canadian Unit war diaries have been digitised and are available to download for free from Library and Archives Canada. The CEF 8th Battalion’s war diary is very faint and difficult to read, but records that in late April they were fighting at Gravenstafel. Their actions were part of what would later be known as the 2nd Battle of Ypres.
There, on the 22nd April, the Germans employed gas (chlorine) as a weapon on a large scale for the first time in the war (learn more about this terrible milestone at the Canadian War Museum’s website). The battalion diary states that evening that ‘Reports reached Headquarters that trench on left of [3rd brigade?] had returned from the trenches overcome by gas’.
On the morning of 24 April, 1915 [Battle of St. Julien], the Germans released another cloud of chlorine gas, this time directly towards the re-formed Canadian lines just west of the village of St. Julien. The diary states that they saw a ‘bluish cloud’. On seeing the approach of the gas cloud, word was passed among the Canadian troops to urinate on their handkerchiefs and place these over their noses and mouths. The unit’s popular commander, Lt. Col. Lipsett, earned credit for quickly suggesting this primitive form of protection, though it has also been attributed to the Head of the CEF’s Field Laboratory. Either way, it was insufficient; ‘after the Germans had retired most of our men collapsed from the effects of the gas’. Overnight, another attack filled the trenches with gas and as you can see in the diary excerpt below, ‘all the men in the trenches except the reserves were dead from fumes.’2
The CEFRG website describes the terrible impact of the attacks on 24 April: ‘in a few moments the 8th had its first experience of this ghastly new weapon of modern warfare. The effect was paralyzing. Half the Little Black Devils succumbed to the poisonous fumes.’ Chlorine gas destroyed the mucus membrane and caused soldiers to cough and spit blood. After death they immediately turned black. A soldier arriving at Ypres on the 22nd was haunted by seeing the aftermath of a gas attack: ‘When we got to Ypres we found a lot of Canadians lying there dead from gas the day before, poor devils, and it was quite a horrible sight for us young men. I was only twenty so it was quite traumatic and I’ve never forgotten nor ever will forget it.’
Although Algy had died on (probably) 24 April 1915, his family continued to receive monthly salary payments for him until 1916 and it was not until November 1916 that his official status was changed to ‘presumed dead’. The family’s hope of his survival must explain the very poignant census record taken on 1 June 1916. Algy was listed with his other family members at his home address in Winnipeg. The ‘O’ next to his name indicates that he was serving Overseas. However, in fact he had died more than a year before.
Registers were made of death and initial burial information for CEF soldiers who were killed in action in WW1 and WW2. These have been digitised and are available for free from Library and Archives Canada or via Ancestry.ca. Algy’s entry in this ‘Circumstances of Death’ Register provides scant details, with no burial information.
Later in life, Alfred knew that his brother had died of gas poisoning, so somehow this fact must have been reported to his family. Perhaps, as was often the case, a surviving officer wrote to Algy’s mother. I hope that this insight gave the family some closure, though it cannot have brought them much comfort.
When Algy was killed in such a terrible way, he was only 19, a creative young man with a promising career ahead of him. Returning to Christian Cassidy, he wrote: ‘Had the war not taken place, I think Algy would have received a decent education in the “bread and butter” projects a working architect or draftsman would need to do to earn a living. Clemens seemed to stay connected with the architecture community through his involvement with the architecture association and I think the University of Manitoba’s School of Architecture was in operation by that time, so that would have bode well for him completing a formal education in the field.’ Perhaps, without the war, there would be Saword-designed buildings in Winnipeg today.
Algy has no known grave and is commemorated at the Ypres (Menin Gate) memorial, Belgium and on the Canadian Virtual War Memorial.
He was eligible for the 1914-15 Star, which was sent to his parents in England (they returned there in 1916), along with a memorial cross, and a plaque and scroll — which were not despatched until December 1925.
Algernon Leslie Saword (1895-1915)
Due to his religious beliefs, Sidney didn’t volunteer for military service, and halfway through the war, in the 1916 census, his occupation was a stenographer for CPR (Canadian Pacific Railway).
In October 1916, the Saword family sold their house in Winnipeg, and all of them except for Sidney left Canada, traveling third class on the Andania from New York to Plymouth. The passenger list stated that their future intended residence was in ‘British possessions’ (ie Canada), but in fact, they lived in England for the rest of their lives.
Although I don’t know for sure why they returned to England, I feel it’s likely that they wanted to find out what had happened to their missing son. Canadian Military HQ and hospitals were in the UK. In England they would also be in a more familiar setting, with wider family on hand for support.
They could not immediately move back into their home in Southend (wartime rules prohibited renters from being evicted) but in 1917 James Saword was awarded government contracts building aerodromes in Dymchurch, Hythe, and Folkestone, so the family lived for a while in Kent.
I assume that Sidney stayed on in Canada alone because conscription had been introduced in Britain in January 1916, but hadn’t yet come to Canada. It is also possible that Sidney stayed for work. However, I do wonder if his refusal to fight due to religious principles, in the light of his brother’s service and death, made family relationships deeply strained. Having lost one son, were James and Jennie relieved, resentful, or ashamed of their other older son’s unwillingness to sign up? Was it easier for everyone at that time to put an ocean between them? Or, conversely, did he offer to stay in Canada in case any news was sent there?
Plymouth Brethren, like many other non-conformist denominations in Canada, had hoped for exemption from conscription, but above all that conscription would not be implemented at all. This was not only due to a pacifistic stance but also an unwillingness to accept government authority versus divine authority. My knowledge of Brethren doctrine is minimal, but I was struck by the letter that two Plymouth Brethren in Canada wrote to the country’s Prime Minister in 1916. The writers reminded the PM that conscientious objection had been permitted in Britain, and asked for the same ‘liberty of individual conscience’ to be protected in Canada. At the same time they emphasised their patriotism.
Despite their efforts, conscription did arrive in Canada in August 1917 and Plymouth Brethren were not exempt. Sidney, then 23, was not in good health — he had taken time off work due to anemia — but he was declared fit for service and was drafted in October 1917. The attestation paper states that he was a rate clerk, 5’7.5”, 126 pounds, with brown hair and grey eyes — almost identical to Algy.
When Sidney refused the draft, he was taken to court. However, ‘The Brethren took the ground of being recognized as non–combatants as distinct from conscientious objectors.’ Sidney therefore joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force like Algy, but rather than fight the enemy directly, he would help with the war’s administration.
Nevertheless, when Sidney wrote about his stance decades later in his autobiography, he thought of himself as a conscientious objector:
‘When World War I broke out and conscription was put into force, a number of us young Christians had prayer together to determine what the mind of the Lord was and most of us applied for exemption as conscientious objectors. Proving God in those trying times was a great help to me spiritually and many opportunities of witnessing for Christ were presented.’
In March 1918 Private Sidney Saword was assigned to the 1st Depot Battalion Manitoba (DBM) Regiment, working as a railroad employee. Despite his non-combatant role, Sidney’s digitised service record still contains 26 pages. Unfortunately, it reveals nothing of the nature of his work, or where he was posted. However, it does reveal that throughout Sidney’s short service he suffered from some nasty skin problems, diagnosed as impetigo, scabies over acne, and furunculosis (boils). He received medical attention until he was ‘much improved’. Within three weeks of the end of the war in November 1918, Sidney was discharged.
After the War
Sidney Saword stayed in Winnipeg, working for the CPR, until 1920. In March 1919, he placed an ad with the Winnipeg Tribune; he was ‘anxious to get information’ about the fate of his brother Algy, who ‘was considered killed in action’. It suggests that he still hoped that Algy might have survived. Algy’s regiment was welcomed back to Winnipeg on 6 May 1919. The men left behind them 1,633 fallen comrades. Perhaps it was Sidney who was finally able to find out some details of his brother’s death from those who returned, and could put his family’s minds at rest.
From about 1920, Sidney felt a calling to become a missionary. ‘After Armistice, I was reinstated in my former office and although I was being prospered materially, I had great exercise about discerning the Lord’s will for my future.’ He had been interested in ‘outdoor work’ (mission work) since learning about it in Sunday School. However, I wonder if the untimely death of his brother also spurred him to leave his commercial day job in Canada and take on this spiritual quest.
Sidney travelled back to England in 1921 to operate a Gospel tent in Essex (Sidney is pictured left next to a large tent, place and date unknown). He considered mission work in Japan, before deciding to go to Venezuela. He arrived in Puerto Cabello a week before Christmas, 1922. Four years later he married Eleanor Christine Scott in Canada and the couple became missionaries together in Venezuela. They welcomed five children by 1936.
Sidney’s autobiography, Fifty Years with the Gospel in Venezuela (1975), recounts his life as a missionary. Many of his descendants still live in South America and Canada. Sidney Saword died in 1988, aged 94.
Very sadly, Algy was not the only Saword brother to die fighting for his country. Algy and Sidney’s younger brother Edward, known as Ted, died at sea serving with the RASC near Greece in WW2. Ted’s official date of death was 26 April 1941 — exactly 26 years and 2 days after the death of his brother. Like Algy, he was missing for a long period before being presumed dead, which created a period of financial hardship for his widow and children.
Just as Algy and Sidney were close in age and shared a strong brotherly bond, Ted was very close to Alfred, (‘Alf’), who was just 14 months his junior. And in another parallel, while Ted was deployed on active service, Alf didn’t see combat due to his protected work as a Sanitary Inspector. Instead, he volunteered on the home front as an APR Warden. Had Alf not returned to England in 1916, and had he been called up in WW2, my husband might not be here today.
On this Remembrance Sunday, I think especially about the bravery and sacrifice of Algy and Ted Saword, while also reflecting on the courage of Sidney’s convictions.
I’d like to end this post with a poem. Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae was a Canadian physician who volunteered for service at the age of 41. He treated the wounded in the Second Battle of Ypres, during which his friend was killed, about a week after Algy. The day after burying his friend in a makeshift grave with a wooden cross, McCrae sat on the back of a field ambulance, looking out at a field of crosses, among which poppies were blooming, and he wrote the poem that would forever link WW1 remembrance with the poppy. In 1918, while commanding the Canadian Field Hospital near Boulogne, McCrae died of pneumonia.
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead, short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
–John McCrae, 3 May 1915
- A signaller in World War One, worcestershireregiment.com
- Second Battle of Ypres, Wikipedia
- Amy J. Shaw, Crisis of Conscience: Conscientious Objection in Canada during the First World War (UBC Press, 2009, via Google Books)