Welcome back, I’m glad you’ve decided that the past is worthy of a few more minutes of your present. Today, we commence our journey. Our subject is Lieutenant (and acting Captain) Arnold Colton Matthews, a great-grandfather on my father’s side. Born on September 8, 1889 in Toronto into the affluent family of Wilmot DeLoui Matthews, Arnold’s war experience couldn’t have contrasted with his home life in a greater way.
I grew up in California and although I visited Toronto frequently, it was still a foreign place until I moved to the GTA in 2008. Understandably, a great-grandfather from Toronto, dead for decades seemed even more foreign. Over the years I had only brief encounters with his legacy. His former house, now annexed into the University of Toronto campus, was the site of a family reunion. He was president of Canada Malting Co., a company founded by his father, whose derelict grain elevators still adorn the Toronto waterfront. In 2010, my family donated a parcel of land to Georgina Township to become the A. C. Matthews Nature Reserve. If you haven’t caught my drift yet, this man, though a respected ancestor, meant very little to me.
Of all the relatives that I’ve researched, however, Arnold’s pre-war life more resembles the life of a young adult in the present day. He lived in downtown Toronto in a comfortable home. He holidayed at a house at Roches Point (Lake Simcoe) on weekends and in the summers. He had a regular school career at Upper Canada College, never having to drop out of school to support his family or work a farmer’s field like thousands of those who joined the Canadian War effort. In many ways, he found himself on a similar path to the one I’m now on, choosing to study at the University of Toronto and, like many of my friends, pursued a career in engineering after a short stint at the Royal Military College in Kingston.
This engineering degree was probably the reason that he didn’t rush to enlist in the war effort. He signed his attestation papers a day before his 26th birthday in 1915, just months after graduation. He may have justified his year of waiting, a time that saw Canadians gassed at Ypres where he would later serve, with the knowledge that his degree would be useful to the military. All the same, I can only imagine the pressure which he must have felt to enlist during that year. It was common for men of his age to be chastised if they were not overseas. In this regard, his experience may have even been like that of Robert Ross, main character of The Wars.
As soon as he arrived overseas, however, we can guess his thoughts with more certainty. Amo Matthews, Arnold’s sister-in-law, kept the dozen or so letters he wrote to her during the war. But the greatest treasure from his war years is the illegal war diary he kept from April to August 1916, also safeguarded by Amo.
He arrived in England in November 1916 and was set-up for training near Aldershot. Like many others, he was raring to cross the channel, but also seemed to see the benefits of being held up, remarking that “the country around [Aldershot] is very pretty and some of the marches are consequently very interesting. We have no definite word as to how long they intend to keep us in England….”. However, after months of waiting and having the British break his unit up, Arnold decided that his situation “couldn’t be much worse”. Soon after, he transferred to the engineers.
By April, 1916, he was on the front lines at Ypres. Here we begin to see a fascinating divergence between events recorded in letters home versus those in his private diaries, mirroring the gap between the public experience and soldiers’ personal experiences of the War. His section of the front at Ypres was as horrific as any other. Of course, Arnold appreciated the more delicate sensitivities of those back home and he would sugarcoat certain facts. The Ypres salient, in his letter to Amo, was “not a quiet sector and is probably one of the liveliest that there is.” What he did not relay to her was the death and horror that he came face to face with every day. The “man cut open in the middle with a rifle grenade—the thing [hitting] him pretty fair,” was reserved for his personal, illegal diary. These diaries were classified illegal by the army because they might give away positions or strategy if they fell into enemy hands. The ban also served a double purpose: keeping the more gruesome side of the war from those supporting on the home front. Even without intervention from army censors, many soldiers did not report their more gruesome experiences of the front so as not to alarm or disturb family and friends.
The bloodshed and horror of the Great War had a numbing effect for men like Arnold, so that an event that could be ranked as the most traumatic in a person’s life became a common occurrence. Arnold was not a cold-hearted or uncaring man. His affectionate letters to Amo Matthews prove as much. But when on Tuesday, May 19, 1916, Arnold’s Commanding Officer, a man named Ross, was picked off by sniper fire, his death is not marked with reminisces of his bravery or feelings of shock and devastation at his passing. Rather, it is accompanied by a dispassionate assessment of the mistakes that led to his death: “Poor Ross was caught by a sniper about 5 P.M. going around a trench on the outside lip of a crater; a little careless, did not keep low enough, got it right through the head, killed instantly.” That is all.
Two weeks before Arnold’s journal ends, the increasingly terse nature of his entries hints at his growing distaste with the exercise of feeling or remembering. On Thursday, July 27, 1916, the Germans set off an underground charge that buried an Allied tunnel. Most men got out all right but one was “blown to bits.” The following day, Arnold finds the man’s hand. “Found Redfern’s hand and finger nail in a gallery about 15ft. from [German] shaft so no doubt about it he is dead. Not very much doing in afternoon. Went out at night and had a quiet ride down.” A relative of mind once found a human skeleton in the forest behind his house. It had been dead for several years, and there had been no emotional connection – all the same, he was traumatized for months. Arnold had worked with this man and had maybe even trusted him with his life. But finding his severed hand ranked right up there with a quiet night out.
Arnold’s war continued after his diary ends. There are no more personal accounts of his experiences, but I can guess at some of the things he saw. He became a 2nd Lieutenant and even acting Captain of the 3rd Canadian Tunneling Company. He would very likely have been part of the historic Vimy Ridge offensive, possibly helping build the tunnels that ran towards the German lines and provided an advantage on that nation-building day. He also served at the Somme, Courcelette, Cambrai, and Bourlon Wood, the latter being his final engagement. The Bourlon Wood offensive involved the first-ever Allied use of tanks in battle, with mixed results but a sight to behold nonetheless. It also saw Arnold fall victim to a gas attack that would end the War for him and ensure coughing and wheezing for the rest of his adult life. I will look into the effects of poison gas in a few weeks when I introduce you to Hugh Lawson of the Medical Corps.
All soldiers in the Great War made extraordinary sacrifices. History class and Remembrance week help us understand that. But Arnold’s diary and experience suggest how difficult it is when one hasn’t experienced war to imagine how regular people felt or what they thought when thrust into and immersed in the Great War. Post-War, Arnold married, had a family, became a successful businessman and, ultimately, President of the Canada Malting Co. He enjoyed his family and friends, and farming, and fishing… Yet all the time, he carried around inside him memories, thoughts, feelings (or lack thereof) that he shared with his entire generation, and that we can guess at but never understand.
As I move into adulthood, I wonder how I might react in similar circumstances, just as I pray that I will never have to. I am floored by how Arnold, my five other relatives, and so many Canadians faced up to their challenge just because that’s what was expected of a citizen at the time. Most Canadians back then were immigrants, or children or grandchildren of immigrants, and all of my relatives were no exception. But so many of them signed up under the flag of their new country and, in doing so, they took part in an exercise that helped Canada define itself, and helped all citizens develop a sense of shared experience. 45% of Torontonians were born outside of Canada, and large population of relatively new Canadians can be found from coast to coast. I wonder what will be our generation’s shared nation-building experience, what struggle will help our Canada continue to define itself.
That’s all for this week. If you have any questions about Arnold or anything else or would like to see some of the sources from which I’ve drawn information today please do not hesitate to ask me.
All the Best,
Reid Dobell is a first year International Relations student at the University of Toronto, Trinity College, and an alumnus of the 2010 Beaverbrook Vimy Prize. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.