Tuesday, 8 November 2011
Remembrance Week Special Collection: Pte W J Conder
We continue our Remembrance Week Special Collection with the biography of Pte W J Conder, written by Richard Liu.
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William Joseph Conder, Private
5th Battalion, Saskatchewan Regiment
2nd Infantry Brigade 1st Infantry Division
Canadian Expeditionary Force
William Joseph Conder was born on October 28, 1895, in Aurora, Ontario. He was the son of Joseph William Conder Sr. and he worked as a tinsmith before his call to action in World War I.
Military Movements: William Joseph Conder was one of the first Canadians to serve in World War I. When war broke out in Europe, the British Empire (along with Canada) declared war on August 4, 1914. Conder enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force on September 23- a little over a month after the war began.
During his time in World War I, Conder was a member of 5th Battalion of the Saskatchewan Regiment in the 1st Infantry Division of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Upon enlistment, Conder along with other members of the 5th Battalion were organized in Valcartier, Quebec, which would later become Canada’s largest military camp. The division arrived in Great Britain in October 1914, and received military training until its deployment in January under the command of Lieutenant General E.A.H. Alderson. The division consisted of a Cavalry Squadron, a Cyclist Company, four Infantry Brigades, three Artillery Brigades and Divisional Engineers. The training in the winter of 1914 was painstaking and rigorous due to the heavy rain and snow on the Salisbury Plains. After Royal Inspection of the division in 1914, the division moved off to France to fight in the war.
In April, 1915, the First Division was deployed to Ypres Salient, where they would be stationed for the next several months.
The Final Days: On April 22, the First Division encountered its first offensive by the German forces. What would later be known as the Second Battle of Ypres commenced in the afternoon of April 22 when German Forces released over one hundred and fifty tons of chlorine gas over a 6km stretch of the Allied front. This is widely considered as the first major use of chemical warfare in history. The chlorine gas dropped by the Germans killed approximately 6,000 French troops within the first few minutes, and forced the rest to retreat leaving a 6km gap in the frontline (the figure of 5-6000 fatalities is a generally accepted, but erroneous figure. More recent investigations estimate French Colonial casualties for the dates of 22-24 April 1915 at 1500 of which it is supposed 200 were fatal [from research by Simon Jones, King’s Regiment Museum]-CJH Ed). Fortunately, the German High Command failed to realize the effectiveness of the gas attack, and did not mobilize enough troops to take advantage of the French retreat. The British and the Canadian forces quickly moved in to defend the front, and held the line against further attacks.
On the night of April 22, the Canadian 10th Battalion were ordered to counterattack into the gap left by the Germans in the gas attack. The counterattack would be known as the Battle of Kitcheners’ Woods, which would be recognized as the first major offensive by the Canadians in World War I. The battle took place in a heavily forested area to the front of the Canadian positions. At 11:46pm, the Canadians advanced into forest and charged at the unsuspecting Germans. The clash mostly involved hand‐to‐hand combat as the night was too dim and shady for the use of firearms. The melee resulted in success as the Canadians were able to throw out the Germans. However, 3 out of 4 Canadians were wounded or killed in the clash, and the aftermath of the battle would leave the 1st Division with a 60% casualty rate.
After the Battle of Kitcheners’ Woods, the remaining soldiers of the 1st Division resided in the town of St. Julien. On the morning of April 24th, German forces released another cloud of poison gas toward the Canadian forces in St. Julien. The cloud of chlorine gas was clearly detectible as it was green and grayish. Seeing the cloud approaching, the troops were commanded to damp their handkerchiefs and hold it over their noses and mouths. This was done to avoid inhaling the poison gas, but it was ineffective and the Canadians were forced to retreat. The Germans took advantage this time and captured the village. Several countermeasures were taken by the British and the Canadians to recapture the village. However all of the attacks failed and on May 24, the Germans released another cloud of chlorine gas, which ultimately destroyed any hopes of recapturing the village.
By May 8th, the Germans had already moved their artillery to opposite the Frezenberg Ridge. The Germans began heavy bombardment on the Canadian trenches, and advanced their troops to the front. Although the British and Canadians were able to hold off the first two German assaults, they were running short of men and ammunition and were forced the retreat after six days of fighting. The battle ended with the Germans gaining 2000 yards of front.
Despite the heavy losses during the Second Battle of Ypres, the victor of the battle was indecisive. The Germans failed to achieve their primary objectives but still managed to make good progress. But the most memorable accomplishment during the battle was the Canadian 2nd Brigade and 10th Battalion pushing back the Germans in the Battle of Kitcheners’ Woods. The battle was the first time a colonial force was able to defeat a major European power in battle.
(This summary of the 2nd Battle of Ypres is fairly well researched and written, though the actions of 22-24 April, particularly the attack of Kitchener's Wood, only involved the 5th Battalion peripherally. We can be relatively certain that Pte Conder was present for these events. CJH Ed.)
Medical Records: Little is known about the background of William Joseph Conder’s death on the battlefield. On May 21st, 1915, his body was found on the front line, and he was pronounced dead. The most probable cause of death was shelling by German artillery. (The War Diary of the 5th Bn for 21 May 1915 indicates that a "bombing party" was detached to support the 10th Bn in their attack along the line Illies-Voilaines-Festubert. The subsequent diary entry reports 22 casualties, of which five were fatal. As these are the only casualties reported; it can be reasonably assumed that Pte Conder was a member of that party. CJH Ed.)
Lest We Forget: William Joseph Conder left his possessions to his father, W.J. Conder Sr. At the time of his death, he was 19 years old.. For his war effort, Conder was awarded the 14/15 Star, the British War Medal, and the Victory Medal.
Written by: Richard Liu