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One hundred years after the end of the First World War, a family mystery endures
By Reg Sherren
Special to The Telegram
What’s in a name?
He was never talked about. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention (that’s possible), but for the life of me, I can’t remember a single conversation about him as a child. And yet, there was his name, Nelson.
My father is named Nelson. My older brother Ken’s middle name is Nelson, as is my nephew Rhys’s. But until recent years, this Nelson was a bit of a mystery to me. Once I started paying attention, however, the more I discovered, the bigger his mystery grew.
Great-uncle Nelson L. Sherren’s lot was cast long before any of us were even born, back in the spring of 1917. If his picture is any indication he was a handsome, imposing looking fellow when he signed on to serve King and country.
Newfoundland, in the years leading up to World War One, was coming into its own. After rejecting Confederation with Canada in the later 1800s, it — along with New Zealand — was granted Dominion status in the British Empire in 1907. It was its own country, with its own prime minister, and with timber and fish, it was a prosperous country as well. But it was small. With a population of just 230,000, it did not have an army of its own, certainly not even a regiment.
So when war broke out in the summer of 1914, at first it looked like those wanting to volunteer would have to join up with the British or Canadian military. But the government of the still relatively new country of Newfoundland had other ideas. It sent Britain notice that it could raise a regiment of 500 volunteers to step forward and serve. There would be many more.
One of them was my Great Uncle Nelson. He was the son of my great-grandparents George and Sarah Sherren of Point Leamington, Notre Dame Bay. Great-grandfather was a timber cruiser and logger, employed by the Anglo Newfoundland Development Company.
And when Great Uncle Nelson signed up in April of 1916, he listed lumberman as his occupation as well. At five foot nine inches tall, he was just 18 years and eight months old according to his attestation papers. These are important details that will get lost on his journey from lumberman to soldier to prisoner of war and, finally, another one of the fallen. Almost all of the details I have learned of Great Uncle Nelson’s service come from military records and letters, including a mystery surrounding his fate that lasted close to two years.
A tragic and now infamous battle in the fields of France must have been in Nelson’s thoughts as he trained in St, John’s. The Newfoundland Regiment had been all but wiped out in a few short moments near the village of Beaumont Hamel. Close to 800 had gone over the top. Fewer than 70 were able to answer roll call the next morning. The regiment was devastated, but determined to carry on.
And just weeks after that terrible loss, on July 19th, that’s exactly what Great Uncle Nelson did. As he and his comrades set sail, imagine how young Nelson must have felt, farther away from little Point Leamington than he had ever been in his18 years, and headed for battle. Few of the young men who originally stepped forward to serve had any idea what they were about to face. But now, after Beaumont Hamel, the grim realities of modern warfare had to be playing on his mind, along with thoughts of home. I found the first glimpse into his new life in a letter home while he was training in Scotland:
Dear Father and Mother,
How are you all? I have not heard a word from you since I left St. John’s. I suppose you received my letters alright, I have written 5 or 6. Lou Saunders told me that you had one from me when he was home on leave but they have been there over a fortnight now and still no answer. We came up here last Saturday for a fortnight’s shooting on the range. A company has been here and gone back again. They fired away 32 thousand rounds of ammunition so you see there is some shooting done here.
I have been promoted to corporal since I came over here. Am Sargent of the G Ward 18 days. Came on at 7 last night and won’t be relieved until 7 tonight. I am kind of sleepy so I thought I would try and keep myself awake by writing a few letters. This is an awful cold place in the night but warm in the day. I think it is as cold here now as it is in Newfoundland the first of November. Oh never mind...we will be going back to Ayr (Scotland) again Saturday after next.
Remember me to everyone I know. How is John and George? Will see you all again some time. Had a letter from Steve Thompson. Answered me. I am not going to close this until 5:30 mail comes and see if there is a letter for me.
Take care of yourselves and don’t worry about me will you.
Bye Bye, your loving son,
Great Uncle Nelson’s family was never far from his thoughts. He asked the army to hold back 50 cents from his wages each pay to be sent home to his mother, Sarah. Training continued. Spring was coming, and a big offensive was planned to test the Germans in northern France. Great Uncle Nelson would find himself in the middle of it.
The battle of Monchy le Preux began at 5:30 a.m., April 14th, 1917. The Newfoundland Regiment, serving under the British 88th brigade, would attack a German strong point known as Infantry Hill along with the 1st Essex Battalion.
Under the command of Lt.-Col. James Forbes-Robertson, Great Uncle Nelson and his fellow soldiers pushed forward. They would not get far. The 1st Essex Battalion reached its initial objective, but the Germans mounted a powerful counterattack from the high ground against the Newfoundlanders. Torn apart by machine gun fire they still managed to make it to the enemy trenches in front of infantry Hill and take cover. But the Germans sent battalion after battalion. Surrounded on three sides, small pockets of Newfoundlanders fought valiantly, but were soon killed or wounded.
When it was all said and done, over 450 members of the Newfoundland Regiment were dead, wounded or taken prisoner. Cpl. Nelson Sherren was missing. But in his records are found several eyewitness accounts:
2968 PTE MJ O’Brien: “I saw 2458 Cpl Sherren on the 14th of April lying face downward with three bullet wounds in the neck. He was bleeding very much and I do not think he would recover. He was moaning badly. That was about 500 yards from the starting off place. (signed 18th of May, 1917).”
So, at this point, he was still alive. Dead men don’t moan. A second accounting was recorded from the same commanding officer who faced destruction at Beaumont Hamel, Lt.-Cmdr. A.L. Hadow (dated June 2nd, 1917) referring to Cpl. Sherren:
“Lance Corporal Twiner also saw this man badly wounded.”
But there was no body, and no sign of my great-uncle. As of April 14, 1917 Nelson was officially declared missing.
The summer passed with great uncertainty. Unknown to the military, another Newfoundland soldier, captured during the same battle, had written home as a POW, saying he had seen Cpl. Nelson Sherren in enemy hands. Seemingly unaware of this news, in November the military registered Cpl. Nelson Sherren as presumed dead. But Nelson’s father, George, wrote to the sergeant who had sent condolences, and asked him to check on this new information.
Nov. 17, 1917
I received your letter of the 13th with much thanks for your sympathy would like to inform you that we have been living in hopes of our boy being in Germany. Pte. Abraham Roberts, from this place was taken prisoner on April 14, and was wounded he wrote his mother on April the 29, and he said that he saw our boy the first day they were in Germany. He said there were seven other Newfoundlanders dressed in the same room with him and our boy was one of them, but Roberts did not say how our boy was wounded only said that he was very bad, they were separated after being dressed and he was left there alone. Roberts often speaks about him when writing home he is anxious to know if we get any letters from him, he don’t know anything about him now.
This is the only information we have of our boy. We feel sure that Roberts saw him as they were boys together at home. Please Sir will you seek for further instructions as we are most anxious to hear, and oblige,
Yours truly, (Sgd.) George Sherren
It appears Great-grandfather George’s letter caused quite a stir. The military did indeed know Roberts was a prisoner of war, as on one document they noted where he was being held. But there was no indication that they had attempted to contact him to inquire about Nelson.
Instead, Great-grandfather’s letter, sent to the Ministry of Militia, was replied to by the Colonial Secretary on Nov. 21st, with what can only be described as a terse and doubtful response, even questioning the validity of the statement made by young Pte. Roberts. But the very next day, it appears the minister of Militia himself, the Hon. J.R. Bennett intervened, instructing that any new information be relayed as quickly as possible to his worried parents.
For weeks and months, letters and telegrams flew across the Atlantic and around Europe, trying to figure out what became of Great-uncle Nelson. In December a query was even sent to Geneva, Switzerland and the headquarters of the Red Cross.
In the meantime, the bravery of other young Newfoundlanders in battle was attracting attention. Because of its valour in battle at Ypres and Cambrai, never mind the devastating sacrifice at Monchy Le Preux or at Beaumont Hamel, in December King George V granted the Newfoundland Regiment the honour of adding the designation “Royal” as a prefix to it’s name. This was the only time in the First World that this honour was granted.
What could it have meant meant to George and Sarah Sherren? Perhaps it gave them some swelling of pride to learn that the sacrifice their son made helped lead to such a “Royal” honour. Perhaps not. There could be no doubt every day brought personal turmoil, not knowing the true fate of their Nelson.
Newfoundland had lost so many sons at this point. The original 500 hundred had swollen to thousands. Commerce was affected as the captains of industry and their sons were lost. War debt was piling up as well for the young country, a situation that would eventually end with Newfoundland’s demise as a nation.
On Jan. 12, 1918 word came from the Red Cross. There was no Cpl. Nelson Sherren in the German prisoner of war records. In June, now over a full year since their son stepped onto the battlefield, Nelson’s mother signed to receive his returned personal effects. There was only his kit bag, left behind in the trenches, as he went over the top. I’m sure most hope that they would ever see their son again had faded by now, and the receipt of some of the last personal things he touched would surely have brought renewed grief.
At the end of July 1918, Pte. Abraham Roberts, now a repatriated prisoner of war, finally made an official statement regarding Cpl. Sherren:
“On April 15th, 1917( one day after the battle at Monchy Le Preux) I saw Cpl. Nelson Sherren in 1st field ambulance at Douai, Captured territory, France. He was wounded badly about the face and was unconscious. I having spoke to him to which he (unclear) did not? Reply. He was taken to the hospital, Douai, laid on the floor, and that was the last I saw of him.”
Still there was no definitive understanding of Uncle Nelson’s fate. We live in a world where information/communication, is almost instantaneous. Can you imagine living in a world where, not only has your child stepped forward into battle, he has done so on the other side of the ocean and has disappeared for approaching two years? The war to end all wars was now over.
Over 60 pieces of correspondence, words of war, are in Cpl. Sherren’s file. Both mom and dad were writing everyone they could think of to find out what became of their son. They did not give up hope for a long time. But as weeks turned into months, and now years, with no communication, you had to think all that was left was to wonder where his final resting place was. It turns out, that too was not an easy question to answer.
In April of 1919, two years after Uncle Nelson’s disappearance, a receipt was signed for family to receive his final pay.
Seventy one dollars and 91 cents. What must George and Sarah Sherren have thought about that money? Less than $72 for their son’s life? Of course, they probably didn’t think that at all... it was the finality of it all.
He was never coming home.
And the reality was that in post-war Newfoundland, times were tough and quickly getting tougher. Any amount of money was a help. One last gesture from their son to help Mom and Dad.
But where were Cpl. Sherren’s remains? Where did he now rest? There seemed to be nothing but confusion. It had been established that, although badly wounded, he had indeed survived the battle of Monchy Le Preux. Spotted behind enemy lines, in desperate condition as a prisoner of war, his survival as such was likely marked more in hours than in days.
Then word came from the Newfoundland Contingent pay and records office in London that Cpl. Nelson Sherren may have been mistakenly buried under another name, along with a soldier of the Essex Regiment, in the communal cemetery at Douai, France. The burial site made sense as it was the last place anyone had seen him. The Regimental number was correct, 2458, but somehow the name attached to it was one “J Oinge.” You can see on this Graves Registration Report form received July 31st, 1920 where they have scratched out the name “Oinge” and replaced it with Sherran.
Most of these documents and, indeed, his grave stone, contain mistakes. The first is the spelling of his surname. This is not surprising as there are no fewer than half a dozen different spellings of the name “Sherren” in these documents. The second is his age, listed as 22. If only Great-uncle Nelson could have been granted those three additional years. But when he signed on in April of 1916 he was 18 years, and eight months old. He died a year later. So he did not live to see his 20th birthday, let alone his 22nd.
The other surprising note about this final piece of documentation is that it puts his date of death as May 7th, 1917. Given that the battle took place on April 14th, does this mean that Uncle Nelson lived almost a month as a prisoner of war? Where was he all that time? Did he ever regain consciousness? Given the severe nature of his observed injuries, it also seems unlikely that this date of death is accurate.
We will probably also never know why he was buried together with George Hurrell, age 33, of the Essex Regiment. Perhaps it was because, according to the headstone, they both died on the same day, May 7, 1917... now forever comrades in death after the battle that claimed both their lives.
Three years ago, I finally made it to his graveside. I looked all over the city for the cemetery and had almost given up. Then, driving along, something told me to look to my left. There it was — he was — as if he had called to me.
I have to take it on faith that this sunny corner of the Douai Communal Cemetery, among the well-kept graves near the wall, is where he is truly laid to rest. The truth I will never know.
What’s in a name? Quite a lot, as it turns out. A story of one family’s love, service and loss.
— With contributions from my father, Nelson J. Sherren, CD
Reg Sherren is a Newfoundlander and a freelance writer who spent his career on television and radio with CBC. He lives in Winnipeg and has a summer home in N.L.