James Cordery Coles

Regimental number: 
Unit at enlistment: 
Canadian Engineers Training Depot
Volunteered or conscripted: 
Survived the war: 
Commemorated at: 
Brantford Congregational Church, Independent Order of Foresters
Birth country: 
Birth county: 
Birth city: 
Address at enlistment: 
208 Chatham Street, Brantford, Ontario
Next of kin address: 
208 Chatham Street, Brantford, Ontario
Trade or calling: 
Religious denominations: 
Marital status: 
Age at enlistment: 

Letters and documents

BX September 8, 1916

Sapper J.C. Coles On Life at Front – Tells Interestingly of His Training with Canadian Engineers’ Corp – Base Depot in France

Sapper James Cordery Coles of the Canadian Engineers who was a member of the Board of Education here before enlisting forwarded the following letter to the board. It being read at the meeting last evening:

August 11, 1916
Somewhere in France

A.K. Bunnell, Esq.,
Sec. Board of Education

Dear Friend,

I think another letter is due to the board, and as I’ve a little time I’ll take advantage of the opportunity. We are resting in our huts after a night’s work, with probably a 12 mile march. As a result of the work I’ve a nasty blister on the right hand which burst soon after it formed. It wasn’t a saw or plane that caused it. It happened to be a pick axe, and we were never real good friends.  When I wrote before I told you of our journey to Shorncliffe. While there we had infantry training to quite an extent. We also did our musketry practices. This was at Hythe and was quite an experience. I did not make much of a score, but as the rifle had been somewhat roughly used I blamed it on the rifle.

Excuse is Ready

Soon after enlisting I was told to be sure and always have an excuse, and though I may be unimaginative, I mostly always got one. Since last writing all of us who were made N.C.O.’s have had an Irishman’s promotion. I am again sapper. This is as it should be as over here only those with experience are capable of handling men in a satisfactory manner. Seventy-one of us lowered our stripes at one order. Up till then I’d had an easy time, being for some time an orderly corporal, which under some conditions means a good share of sleep. Mrs. Coles is in England, and I had six days’ leave with her. Friend Gamble was not here, so could get no two extra days.

Went to France

Well, one day about 35 men were wanted for various trades and I stepped out as a carpenter. In less than a week we sailed from an English port to a French one, and after a rather trying march, reached the Canadian base depot, where several thousand men were already assembled.

It was, or rather is, in a lonely valley. Such beautiful woods all around, far away from the hideous sounds of battle, and supplied with a bountiful supply of the nicest water one ever drank. The Canadians were by no means alone, as the Imperial camp joins and here there are thousands upon thousands of troops, mostly smart, clean young men of Kitchener’s army, some of the best of all time. Being in the Canadian army, it is up to me to allow others to say what we are. We arrived on a Thursday and I was on a fatigue with men of the Imperial Royal Engineers on the Sunday. The following Sunday saw us pull out for this, a place well known by all Canadian soldiers, and one which will be always mentioned in the future when Canadian history is recorded.

Fair Fertile France

Coming to this place by train is an experience to be remembered. France is a fertile country, and the fields are wonderfully stocked with crops, mostly ready to be harvested. Wheat, oats, barley, mangolds, potatoes, beans and all sorts look fine and show a high standard of agriculture. The town looks fine, with such splendid churches. The villages are quaint and one is struck with the crucifixes that are erected in prominent places. It was quite a march here again from where we left the train, and a tired body of men turned into their huts that early morning.

A Gas Attack

I think no objection will be taken in relating one experience. We had been turned in about 2 ½ hours one night, and those of us whose consciences were either stilled or hardened were fast asleep, and dreaming of Canada, England and other beautiful places, when we were aroused and ordered to stand to with gas helmets. Many men say they had previously been awakened by the heavy bombardment that was proceeding, but I did not hear it till a kick or a push awakened me. The Germans were using one of their methods of frightfulness, and fortunately we had protection, or maybe I’d not be writing you. The bombardment was fierce, and no words can portray it. It has to be experienced. We were not in the way that night, but it was close enough to be unpleasant. The gas must be a fearful thing, but as we belong to the British Empire, we are protected as far as science can protect us. Since then we’ve been close to big guns when they’ve been fired, and though at first one’s heart beats a little fast, one soon gets used to it, and one feels glad he is at the beginning end of the line the shell takes, instead of at the finishing end.

Tribute to Major Panayoty Percy Ballachey

I’ve met men of the 58th who were under our friend Major Ballachey and we, who served in other capacities than soldiering with him, feel proud that we have associated with such a man, and while feeling for his good wife and young family, can feel assured that he has earned a reward in the sphere he now occupies which unselfishness and self-sacrifice merits.

Nature at Her Best

We have lovely weather here now. Nature is at her best, and when one sees the havoc wrought by war in ruined villages, houses demolished, large holes in the ground, acres of encampments, one wishes mankind was in the same humor as the vegetable and solar parts of the universe seem to be.

Peace Time – When?

However, there is a day coming, when it must all finish, and though it may be far distant when “spears will be turned into pruning hooks,” yet I think the feeling generally is that a few more months will suffice for ending the present world-wide catastrophe. We all hope so. Duty is not always pleasant, but it is always pleasant to feel conscious of having done one’s duty. I believe that feeling keeps many hearts up and many hopes buoyant. Sometimes I lay and wonder what peace day will be like. Shall we have paid such a price that so many hearts will be well night broken, too much for thankfulness, or shall we face everything as men and women should, calmly, quietly and sincerely, or shall we let ourselves go from under our control, as so many of us did, when Ladysmith, Mafeking, and other names became famous?  Time will prove, and the sooner that time comes the better. Till it does come and we probably may meet again, I send my kind regards and best wishes to all those connected with the education Department of the City of Brantford.  I often think of you, and even though it is a short time since I left, I wonder how you are progressing. Yesterday I had such a charming letter from one of Miss Colter’s pupils, whose father is a friend of mine. There is evidently some difference in the entrance exams, from last year. I hope this letter will find everything and everyone O.K. Let us all feel glad that we are so much nearer the time when “the war drum throbs no longer, and the battle flag is furled,” and we can all join again in progressive and altruistic nation building work. With every good wish for the future, and with the assurance that right will triumph.

I am sincerely yours,

James C. Coles

9th Canadian Field Co.
Canadian Engineers,
B.E.F., France

BX January 30, 1917
Christmas Night in the Front Line – Sapper J.C. Coles Writes a Chatty Letter From Dugout in France – Christmas Rations
Extremely interesting is Sapper James Cordery Coles’ description of his life at the front as penned in the following letter to the Expositor. He says in the letter, which was dated Jan. 11.
January 11, 1917
I am at present attached to another unit for work purposes. A large tin of tobacco and the Christmas Expositor reached me today. I had to stay away from a lecture to read the paper and of course, have used some of the tobacco. I congratulate you on your production. Coming as it does in these days things military are about the only things that can be written about. I’ve enjoyed the various articles – Capt. Jeakins’ story of the 58th Battalion; Capt. Lavell’s story of the 125th; Harris Walsh’s of life in the trenches and Lt. Preston’s story of the 125th. We are part of the brigade which Capt. Jeakins mentions and I’m afraid my comrades who were in the company previous to me could not have sought his advice or he would not have forgotten them. I never shall. Lieut. Walsh says they have a service every three or four weeks. Well, they need it. We have them less frequently. We had one last Sunday, though and it was fine. We chose our own hymns, I chose “Rock of Ages,” the cook chose “Lead, Kindly Light,” and another fellow “Forever With the Lord,” while the padre “Jesus Shall Reign.”  You will have some idea of our feelings knowing this. The sermon was short, but it came from a man.

Our section spent Christmas and New Year’s in the trenches. I was in the firing line on those occasions. It was unique on Christmas night. I had the privilege of watching a bombardment on another section of the front. I was glad it was not ours. On the afternoon of that day we had Christmas dinner, having added to our rations to some extent. We had goose and pork, fresh vegetables and plum pudding, while we were as temperate as the people of Brantford have to be, as we had not rum rations. Considering the circumstances we had a happy time.

The rain of late has been somewhat depressing. It means so much hard distasteful work. Soldiers like the rifle and hate the shovel and here we use the shovel most. The big gun is the thing except at the moment of advance. The mud in places was very deep. I had one nasty experience. While along in a communication trench a “whizz-ban” “busted” nearby just as I got stuck in the mud. When I did get free I did not climb up on top to see where it came from.

As I read the Brant County honor roll tonight and thought of some things I was grateful that Mrs. Coles still has her first husband living. Among those names are some I know and I also know that some little kiddies have lost a good father and my heart goes out to them. Yesterday I passed a cemetery and a hero was being laid to rest, I felt sad. But a little further on there was a junction of the roads and the usual crucifix was there, and then I knew again that it is all worthwhile, and the blue fit passed away.

We know what the near future will bring forth. We read the papers for many things, and we read our surroundings for few things, and we hope that what we read will do something towards bringing victory with honor this year. Then may we be spared to meet friends once more and to take up work that will help humanity in the march to perfection.

BX May 8, 1917

Send The Letters

Writing from France, Sapper James Cordery Coles, formerly a member of the Board of Education here, remarks that he is kept well posted on Brantford, as friends send him papers, but he urges that all having relatives or friends in the trenches forget them not with regard to letters, which are always appreciated. He comments that the old men and women, and the children of France are doing all the farm work, even cultivating fields well in the danger zone. He compliments the Canadian postal service for its efficiency, he having received several wrongly addressed letters with little delay.

BX August 21, 1917

Fighters Enjoy Hours of Leisure – Sapper J.C. Coles Tells Interestingly of “Off Duty” Times

A picturesque description of an evening with the Canadian soldiers at the front while they are off duty is given by Sapper James C. Coles, formerly of this city, in the following letter to The Expositor:

“This is a lovely country just now. Even the savages of war in some instances add to it picturesqueness. We, when not working, manage to enjoy ourselves. When one is only living for the present he can enjoy himself and much is done to help by various organizations. The Y.M.C.A. is the central body for that and where we are at present a real live wire is in charge. I’ll let you spend an evening with me. Not being on duty, as soon as we have swallowed our supper, off we go across a flat field where a flag with the Red Triangle is waving. It is on the crest of a hill. Already a number of men are congregating and sitting on the slopes. Near the bottom is a platform with ropes fixed. An officer takes his place on the platform and a B.S.M. announces that some boxing bouts will take place. The seconds take their places and two lightweights step on the stage. The time keeper and judges take their places on either side of the stage. A whistle blows and hey presto, the lightweights go at it as though each fancied the other was a Hun. A good thing those are not too light. All it is a red stain appears under the nose of each. The three, two minuet rounds are finished and the award made the cheering of the crowd showing the verdict to be popular. Eight or nine such counts bouts are pulled off and an amateur concert in the large tent is announced. Some rush for the tent, others for a hut where moving pictures are shown. The Y.M.C.A. chief soon gets the crowd in hand, and while his assistant digs up [?] leads off popular choruses, at least seven or eight budding music hall stars are ushered on the stage and show their abilities. Everything is harmonious and in good taste. After a time the second house is open for the pictures so we leave the concert and take them in. The first is a sketch full of absurdities. The next is a home fire, of a pretty Irish girl and is much enjoyed. The third is Charlie Chaplin. It is then time to close. The football parties outside have finished their strenuous games. The baseball fans have hollered their throats dry and the more [?] players are just lighting their cigarettes as they leave the tennis courts. As we come out of the hut we hear the Y.M.C.A. man invoking the [?] aid and the night and the evening is closed with a verse of “Abide With Me” and the national anthem. This is a typical evening behind the lines where Canadian soldiers recuperate for a few days after leaving the trenches and prepare to enter them again.” 

BX September 13, 1917

Longing of Khaki-Clads for Letters – Sapper J.C. Coles Voices Desire of the Men in France – A Pastoral Idyll

The ardent longing for news from home as felt by the khaki clad Canadians in France is voiced by Sapper J.C. Coles, 9th Field Company, Canadian Engineers, in writing to a friend in the city. His letter follows:

August 16, 1917
On Active Service

Have you, I wonder, felt the need of letters the same as we do here?  We get lots and yet we are hungry for more. The question of mail is a great one for the transport people to think about. The figures in the statistics are colossal. Even for a company such as we are, great bags come in almost daily. And when distribution takes place every one is on the alert. The delivery of mail causes a greater commotion than reveille. Word has just come that no mail is in today. Such things do not often happen.

Some of our fellows have had the unique experience of voting for a candidate for the legislative assembly while on active service. It doesn’t look as though Ontario men will have that experience. Well, your letter spoke of Russia, but since then a relapse seems to have been suffered. Have you ever thought what would happen in Canada if a revolution occurred?  We have a very cosmopolitan population and the ideals of such countries as Russia are still the ideals of a large number of our fellow citizens. I think myself that is the cause of many of our political troubles. But let us leave Canada till we meet there. Suppose we talk about France. Twelve months or rather more are gone since I had the pleasure of seeing the rich fertile fields, all ready for the reaper. I remember telling you of them. Since then we have passed through the storms and trying times of a bad fall. Have blessed a day’s sunshine and cursed a three-days’ rain more than once. We have weathered the bitter damp cold of winter and longed for the Canadian winter, which knows how to be decently cold. We have left the joys of the early days of spring and felt the joys of the early days of spring and felt and acted like new men as summer days came along. And the year has passed. Last year many of us thought we would be back by now, but we are still here and most content to stay till liberty is again made secure. Last night, not being on duty, I was out with a comrade a distance for a walk. We rested on a high bank and could look over a large valley stretching a distance to be measured in miles. On our left lay a little village, so far as I know unharmed by the barbarous Hun. The church spire stood erect in the center of the red roofs of the adjoining cottages. All around, the fields were showing signs of harvest time. In some the grain was shocked, in others fit to cut, and in a very few a faint tinge of green showed itself. In patches, making a delightful contrast in color, were fields of mangold-wurzels, their rich green showing up splendidly amid the dark golden grain. On our right was a thick wood sheltering a large chateau. Along the roads a few children strayed and greeted us with the now well-known greeting – “Bonsoir monsieur.”  In one of the fields I noticed that now the grain was shocked, the gleaners were busy. I thought of the story of Ruth and then wondered if it was the fault of the Massey-Harris Company that we saw no gleaners in Canada. But I wondered more about what the country would have looked like had the barbarians come a little farther. If the “contemptible little army” of Britain had been found wanting three years ago, what might have happened by now?  And I thought of the fields in Southern England, which look so much like these French fields and wondered what they would have been like, had the War Lord had his way. One can at times imagine himself in Hampshire, Sussex, Wilts or Dorset in many a place, and if he gets dreaming, he is there, the prattle of the children soon reminds him he is not in the land where he first learned to speak.

As sunset drew near, we began to retrace our steps and one of the first things we met was an ambulance with a Fritz sitting beside the driver. He was young, probably 20, and well set. His face though, showing signs of having passed through an ordeal was intelligent. And I noticed how he was taking in the scenery, looking from right to left, and I though it may be the first of a wonderful disillusionment for him, for though it wasn’t far away from where great deeds are done, yet there were but few things to remind one that the greatest war of history was being waged. May the time soon come when all France and Belgium shall be as peaceful as this little bit of country looks and when Germans having paid the price of the misdeeds of their ruins, shall endeavor by honest labor to make amends for the havoc they have caused to be made. When that time will come we cannot tell, but I trust before this time next year we shall be well on our way to getting things settled down once more. To bring about that time is largely our duty here. To prepare for it is largely your duty at home and may we all play or parts as they come to us.

BX December 27, 1917

Sapper J.C. Coles Writes a Chatty Letter From France 

Sapper James Cordery Coles, Canadian Engineers, formerly a well known labor man here, writes to The Expositor:

December 5, 1917
On Active Service

Dear Expositor,

I intended writing you sooner but a Blighty intervened and upset my calculations. Can you conceive what such a leave is like after 12 to 18 months in France?  I doubt if anyone can. Some say that realization is a less pleasure than anticipation is, but I did not find it so in this instance. Moreover it came when our unit had spent three weeks in a place that will always be famous in Canadian history. I cannot give you details of the trip, but one of the most pleasant experiences was to listen to the flattering remarks of the folks in the Old Land. Not because I’m in the Canadian army, for I’m an Englishman at heart, after all but because I knew that nothing is too good to say about the boys who go over the top and those who keep the guns well fed, and those who care for the sick and wounded under very trying conditions. One of the battalion colonels of the brigade in which my unit is a fellow citizen of ours and was a near neighbor of mine. He will have some wonderful stories of bravery and powers of endurance to relate when he returns. The individual in the ranks has little opportunity of seeing many great things. He is usually pretty busy when they are done, but he hears of them after, and one doesn’t have to feel ashamed of a certain unit we called “ours,” and now, besides the war there seems to be a feeling of uncertainty at home.

It is a great pity the election was forced upon us. Personally I feel we should all be big enough to sink personal and political differences at such times as these, but I am glad we had the opportunity of registering our opinions. As to the result I’ve no prophecies to make. We are the same men who brought about unexpected results in peace times, and we may do so now. But it is to be sincerely hoped for, that nothing that breeds delay will happen. The name of Canada is revered and may it remain so. That is fine sentiment in the poem “Horatius.”  “Then none were for the party. Then all were for the state,” and I wish that all in the Empire felt that way. Since coming back from leave we have fared fairly well. We had our general visit us and compliment us on our recent work. He is I think from the west, and is thought very highly of in our division, and “our division” means, one that was specially mentioned by the G.O.C.

Well, Christmas draws nearer and the end of the year is coming. One is apt to take a retrospect at this time and on doing so I am glad I enlisted. I would not like to be among the fit who held back. And much as I have disliked militarism in the past, I have enjoyed the army life since the “rookie” stage. I hated it in Ottawa and England but it is so different here. The spirit of true comradeship that exists is splendid, and the discipline that one has to submit himself to is beneficial. The training improves ones physically and some other things help to enlarge ones horizon. I’ve met some fine men here, whom I would be sorry to have missed if that were possible. And one here gets a different viewpoint on authority. Here everyone has to submit to it. We sometimes say the King is supreme, but events have shown that there is a people who can test that supremacy. No, we have learned the supremacy. No, we learned that supremacy is not so great a thing, but that authority wisely exercised, and the co-operation of all concerned is invincible. 

Well, I set out to write a Christmas letter to you, but it is a strange one. When one starts writing, he goes on to state what he would say at present, and the paper soon fills up. I hope you will have a happy Christmastide and that the New Year will be a prosperous and a pleasant one for you. I extend this greeting to all the folks, and remain.

Sincerely yours,

J.C. Coles

BX January 25, 1918

Christmas in France – Sapper J.C. Coles Tells How He Spent the Yuletide – Was Guest of Different Sections of Engineers in France

December 26, 1917

Canadian Engineers,
On Active Service

Today your papers, I suppose, will be full of news of Christmas in the trenches and yet I doubt if many of you will begin to form any conception of what it really is. To me it has been a great time, bringing a wonderful change of spirit in all I’ve come into contact with. For weeks we have been looking forward to it and in some measure making preparations. And now it is to be written down as one more Christmas spent in France. I will tell you how I spent mine. A little while before Christmas I had instructions to proceed to ---- on a certain duty, and while there was attached to men of another section. Owing to the conditions prevailing, these men celebrated Christmas on the 23rd, and I was one of the guests. They certainly did the thing in fine style. We had duck and turkey and lots of vegetables and plum pudding. This was washed down – I think that is the proper term – by a fair amount of national French beverages. Were I to mention the names of some of the drinks, at least a few of my friends in dry Brantford would wish themselves in the C.E.F. We sang songs and recited poetry and had a good time generally till “lights out.”  That day I saw a Brantford man in the person of James Withers and had a nice chat with him in his billet which was far superior to mine. But Jimmy hasn’t got his head turned by holding a commission. The next day I rejoined my own comrade’s and they were making preparations for a feast. On Christmas Eve three of us shared parcels in a wee little dugout and smoked cigarettes and pipes until near the dawn of Christmas day. On Christmas day we had our party. It is known in the army as a “wiring” party and the war correspondents have been permitted to let you know all about wiring. It was a cold night and two heavy snow storms came on while we were at work which did not improve the Christmas spirit existing. But the job was done and we trooped home. Yes, home, for wherever our billets are, barns, dugouts, cellars or bivouacs, is home for the present. Thank goodness we can retain the word.

On arriving we are told diner is ready and we find our way to the cookhouse. Our cook is a marvel. We’ve never gone without a meal, yes but we’ve had some narrow shaves, but this night he surpassed all previous efforts. We had secured turkey, duck and pork and vegetables and puddings. This Christmas dinner will remain in my memory as one of the finest meals I’ve had. We had a small but good supply of liquid refreshments and a few songs finished up the evening. Do not think this happened in Paris. No, shells were flying and bursting in the neighborhood and it wasn’t many miles from Fritz’s lines, and was in a place, which if he – but there as Service says in the Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, “what the ‘ell Bill, what the ‘ell.”  We had a good time even though we had steel helmets and gas helmets and other stuff on.

During the evening our O.C. came into the cookhouse and gave us a few remarks. He’s a man who thinks a lot more than he says. One wonders how others have fared this Christmas. I don’t know. We bought our Christmas fare and I have no idea what our rations were for the day. But today my duty for several hours lay in the trenches and the men I met were all cheerful and looking fit. Nobody can grumble so well as a soldier and yet I heard no grumbles today and the snow was in the trenches. A little while ago, lying here in my bunk I read the Courier of November 14 in which were some remarks made by a farmer at a certain meeting in the city. The men I saw today and who endure hardship and suffering and fatigue, who carry hourly their lives in their hands stand between the Hun and his liberty, his wife’s and daughter’s honor. Yes the future progress of civilization. It is Christmas and I won’t swear, but presently, perhaps, I’ll pray that his heart works a little more and his tongue a little less. Brantford friends have been very generous to me and have helped us to enjoy the season in a way something like we used to do. We have though, talked and dreamed of home and probably many have prayed that before another Christmas dawns “Peace on earth, goodwill to man” will be an accomplished fact. To that end we must serve ourselves, whether at home or overseas, to withstand any shock that may come. There is a law unchangeable and true, unalterable by God or man, that right must eventually triumph over wrong, love must succeed hate, and progress destroy the forces of reaction. That we are on the side of righteousness and justice we have no doubt and therefore can go into the New Year hopefully, courageously and determinedly. Trusting that during the year, the clouds that now cover the sun of peace will have fallen away and that once again we shall enjoy peace in our homes and amid our friends, with no fear of further interruption. 

Every good wish to you and all friends

J.C. Coles

BX March 6, 1918

Confidence in Allied Win is Contagious – Sapper James C. Coles Writes Home Brimful of Optimism – Allies Will Win

February 11, 1918
On Active Service

I sometimes wonder when we will be able to change the above address. One is pretty optimistic who looks for it before the end of the year. Two years ago many of us feared the war would end before we got into it, plainly showing how little we are able to peep into futurity. But that the end will come there is no doubt, and that it must end in favor of the Allies is almost as certain. I do not like to think hard things about the writing propensities of some of my Brantford friends, so I am content at present to think that either enemy action or dislocation of traffic is causing a dearth of Canadian mail at present. I am indebted to comrades at present for the following news:  A new technical school is to be built, a man is to be hung, and a Brantford man is food controller. I await Canadian papers to verify these statements. I saw in Jack Canuck that one of our fellow-citizens had a job under the minister of war, or whatever he is called. Recently we received gifts from the Government of Ontario, sent in the name of the citizens of the province. Such action was greatly appreciated. So far as we are concerned, life here for some little time has been somewhat ordinary. Eating, working and sleeping taking up our time. Work has been plentiful, of course, and occasionally Fritz has enabled us to vary our program. Once he hit our cookhouse just previous to lunch being served, and though we were for some time in a certain amount of danger, it was all taken good-humouredly.

Men vary almost daily in their way of meeting unpleasant things. Sometimes one feels as nervous as a cat, and the next day he doesn’t care a hang. I guess it is all to do with his stomach. Personally I like mine to feel full when anything is on. We have read in the daily paper of the severe weather you have had and sympathize with all sufferers. It has not been too bad with us. We’ve had fairly good billets, and as for fuel, well, perhaps we are not quite as scrupulous as when on civil life. In critical times, doing and getting are the main things, theorizing will come after.

We have had opportunity to see how some things are done in France, and in comparison with Canada, we can see how feudalism has left its impression on the people. One would think that in a democracy such as this everything would have progressed far more than in a country less democratically governed. But it is not so. As far as I can discern, in comfort of home life, in agricultural development, and in cleanliness of cities and towns and in building, etc., France is far behind England. And that is taking into consideration the fact that a war is on, and affects this country more than most are affected. The people work harder than we do in Canada, but much slower. There is less system and labor-saving is not a studied science. When one sees the methods employed, he sometimes wonders at nature’s bounty. For truly this Northern France is a fertile land. How long I wonder, will it be before the shell-torn miles of battle are again become as rich as they used to be?  One of the saddest sights here is to see miles of land, all shell holes and craters, white chalk mixed up with rich soil, avenues of trees that were once beautiful now with trunks standing erect like grim skeletons. And wherever the time of battle has passed, where once stood picturesque villages and small towns noting but ruins remain. I have read the war correspondents descriptions of some places I have seen and they are never exaggerated. And yet, with all this, so far as we can see, the spirit of the French people is still high.  There are evidences of sadness at times, but I think it will be many a day where the spirit of France is going to cause subservience to a foreign power. The Allemagne has something to reckon with yet, and when the day of reckoning does come, he will not be the dictator.

As usual my letter runs along one line. There is so little to write about out here. Stories of narrow squeaks, close shaves, big shells, heavy bombs and all that sort of thing, must wait till “après la guerre,” when I hope those of us who return will soon forget all about them. At present we are having mild weather, with little sunshine and some rain. Good spirits are existing and I guess if the much written-about push comes, we will all be found at home.

J.C. Coles

BX March 27, 1918

A Sapper’s Soliloquies – Sapper J.C. Coles Writes Interestingly of Dreams of the G.W.V.A., of Chinese Gangers and Hindoo Troopers of French Water Camouflaged as Beer and of the Work of Reconstruction Coming

February 22, 1918
On Active Service

My wife sent the Christmas Expositor as yours has to date failed to arrive. I congratulate you and all concerned on its production, and I can assure you it passed away several evening hours very pleasantly for me. I think the most impressive thing in it was that little poem, “A prayer before going into action.”  Probably most of us, if not all, have felt the same as the author, but unfortunately we are not able to express our feelings so admirably. Another pleasant experience was to read of the “Returned Soldiers’ Home,” and doings of the Great War Veterans Association. I’m interested in that organization. I hope to become a member for more than a selfish reason. Naturally one wants to live if it is at all possible, but in living after the war, a lot of responsibility will fall on the shoulders of all and the G.W.V.A. should be a powerful instrument in bringing about conditions wherein the good of all will be the chief concern. Who have a greater right to say what shall be done in the empire than those who have risked everything for Empires’ sake?  Of course that argument doesn’t apply alone to soldiers, but I have an idea that the soldier in the war has been able to see things in their true perspective and to take them at their true value more than any body of men before.

A Change of Viewpoint

Hitherto, our education, training, work in fact, our whole development has been centred on things material. A man’s success has been judged to be in proportion to the dollars he has accumulated, and the power he could wield over his fellows as the result. Sometimes after somebody has died, the public have taken not of his good points and lauded him in the press, but very seldom has it been done to a really great man in his life. I hope in the years of reconstruction that will follow all this will be changed. This war has shown that the high and low, wealthy and poor, learned and illiterate, are all necessary to the nation in its emergency, and they all fill similar offices with about equal results. And when thrown together there is but little difference. When we all get a private’s khaki on and have been out shoveling mud, it is hard to distinguish the man who pays the footman from the footman who receives the pay. And we get to respect each other. We are finding out the good points and the bad ones we find were largely illusionary, or the result of misunderstanding. Are we to believe that with all this clearing up done, we shall go back to the old way of things?  I think not.

On Their Own Legs

Another thing is worth considering. Men have to a large extent been standing on their own legs out here. The man in the army who can’t look after himself soon dies. I think none die for that reason. Discipline does not take away all initiative. I have proved it to develop a fine spirit of co-operation, and most of us will think for ourselves when we return, and the future of social and industrial conditions are some of the things we shall think about.

A Wonderful Opportunity

I see a wonderful opportunity for the G.W.V.A. if it is carried on in a democratic manner, allowing no patronage, nor receiving any. I trust it will be kept clean of all party or denominational cleavages, but be a body of men joined together as a memorial of the past, to bring about in the future a condition as near perfection as possible. I’m thinking of that nice Soldiers’ Home tonight. I’m in my billet with several comrades. Outside the wind is very rough and the rain is falling. Not far away the guns are booming, and in the Soldiers’ Home there is a billiard room, easy chairs, good books, warmth and comfort. God bless the G.W.V.A. and the “A.R.’s” and all others concerned. I suppose with the return of so many men from France people at home are beginning to realize what war really is. Most of us, I think had a wrong conception of it previous our experiences here.

The Chinese Gangers

But after all there are a lot of things which break the monotony and relieve the dullness of military life. To get near a large number of Chinese for a little while is to have some real good fun, if horseplay isn’t started. The Chinese are great on watches and the larger they are and the louder they tick, the more they are appreciated. Recently when near some, one man came to us about three times an hour to see if his watch was keeping time, and each time he had to look at each one of ours. Another was proud of having been a soldier in China and he took great pains to show us a scar where he was wounded with the trouble with the Boxers. He must have been running away at the time to get it in such a place, and I’m sure he wasn’t sitting down. Then the Hindus are interesting when we see them, with their customs differing so much from ours. Kipling, I thing, said, “West is west and east is east and never the twain shall meet.”  He wasn’t altogether correct in his statement. Sometimes, but not often enough, we are apt to think we get to a little village where we can sit for two hours in the evening and talk and smoke in the estaminets and drink French beer and wine when we have the money. Do not think because of this we are gluttons for the booze. Some of us might be if it was less like water. We call the beer “penny dicks,” as it is sometimes a penny a glass. I saw recently a worthy bishop of the Anglican Church call it “camouflaged” water and I think he was about right.

Soldiers at the Plough

Many interesting things are being done in this country. One is the ploughing up of the land by the troops not engaged in actual fighting. If the war lasts long enough we shall be a self-supporting army. Then education is not lost sight of. Somewhere in France I saw an advertisement, very tastefully done, to this effect, “The University of Vimy Ridge gives free tuition in science, economics, civics and agriculture, with a view to preparing men for the period of reconstruction” following the war.

The Church and the Grave

Some no doubt will take advantage of such wonderful opportunities. We are optimistic alright. Even the past is not forgotten. I’ve seen in places the reclamation of graves going on and little wooden crosses, painted white with black lettering, erected so that as few as possible shall be missed. Our cemeteries look very nice and show that great care is taken of them. Last evening some of us had a walk through one, and there English, Canadian, and French are all quietly resting. On one cross I read “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”  And that, unfortunately, is about the only consolation many poor wives and mothers have.

Today is Sunday and we had the pleasure of a church service. It must be nine months ago when last I saw the padre who was in charge this morning. Since then his oratory has improved and he wears the M.C. ribbon, which shows that he is of the stuff men are made, I’d like to write his address in full, but cannot. It was an appeal to the higher and best in man to assert itself in view of the struggle that everyone seems to think must take place some day. Have you ever heard a large gathering of men sing in unison well-known tunes?  It is sure a pleasing experience and we had that this morning.

This afternoon, as far as duty allows, will be spent in writing letters and reading and having rest up. Sometimes when I write you I wonder if you think we are away back somewhere out of harm’s way, because our letters contain but little news which would indicate we are on active service. We all take our share out here. Sometimes in the line and sometimes not, but wherever we are and in whatever unit all do their part, until we bid fair to become a splendid machine, and yet, machine is not the word, for after all each man retains his individuality. The weather here has not been too bad of late. Not long now to spring. I hope you are still well and that conditions in Brantford are improving.

It must have been a trying time for many with such intense cold and so little fuel to be had. If this letter is very patchy I know, but it has been written at several different times and when in various moods.

J.C. Coles

BX May 30, 1918

Brantford’s Problems Solved by Men Behind Firing Line – But the Future of the City Hall was so Heartrending a Question that the Conference Dissolved in Tears – A Real Tribute of the Womanhood of France Paid by a Local Soldier

Were we allowed we could tell you stories of things seen and heard, which would almost cause you to remain on your knees in thankfulness for having been born an Anglo-Saxon, and above all, a Britisher. But I’ve really some good news that I can tell. Yesterday a large parcel of splendid eats and smokes arrived from friends in Brantford. A little later on sampling mine, I went to see Arthur Tooke and he had just opened one from home full of good things. Wasn’t that luck? When his parcel had shared the fate of mine we both went for a walk, and on our way dropped into a nice little quiet estaminet, where we discussed and solved many of the problems of our city. The necessity of an extension of the Collegiate Institute came in for first consideration, and as we are patenting our ideas I hesitate to give them even to you. Next we decided that a new and fully equipped technical school is an absolute necessity and must be preceded with subject, of course, to those men at Ottawa who are at last attempting to curb any undue waste of money. In view of the flooding of cellars recently we have decided that swimming pools be placed in the basements of all houses lying on ground lower than Brant Avenue. We also decided that for the duration of the war all males over 16 and under 60 years be compelled to attend church parade each Sunday in the forenoon, and so be placed on the same footing spiritually as their fellows in preparatory camps and other military places. Then I think the last thing was the question of the city hall, and we parted in tears. I take it that such news is good news and I can assure you it comes from the western front.

Then there is good news to be told of the French civil population, and their heroism. Of their catering to our needs in shaving soap, button polish and little souvenirs. Nearly every house is a little store with a stock five dollars would buy. Sometimes we can buy French beer with a specific gravity so low they have got to invent new instruments for measuring it. Arthur Tooke and I drank some last night and it cost us 8¢ a glass. The other night we bought eggs at 10¢ each and we don’t grumble at the soaring prices of food even then.

But above all the things I’ve seen in France, the patient heroism of the women workers in the fields, has impressed itself on my mind. One day not far behind the lines we had to interfere with a middle-aged woman planting potatoes. When one of our numbers tried to express regret, she just laughed and said “c’est la guerre.”  And so they take it – working, working, working in the sure and certain faith that France will yet again be the France she used to be, and peace and prosperity will yet abound. Yes and I’ve seen troops just out from hard fighting, who though worn, are not downhearted. No, a day’s rest and they are fit again. It is amazing. Fritz might push us to the Mediterranean if France reached so far, and then he couldn’t lick us. But there is a sad feature to this. Unless women and children are to suffer the indignities only the Boche can perpetrate, they have to be moved back and leave their homes. I have watched them till a big lump came into my throat. Here a woman with five or six children; here an old lady who should be resting in ease; here a young mother with a fretful baby; here a young girl shortly to become a mother. If the men of the world who have not taken part as soldiers so far, were to see these sights there would be no conscription acts. Laws would have to be passed to hold them back. All the preaching in the world wouldn’t change the spirit of revenge. It all has to be seen to be believed in. People say that overseas service in any capacity enlarges one’s horizon. It is true.  I have altered some opinions I held. I always though the U.S. men were great fellows to blow brag. Well, once I met some and found them to be of the finest stuff men are made of. They have just the same virtues and faults as the rest of us and are real good-natured fellows, ready to go in and lick Fritz for fun, money or marbles any day. Some noble sentiments have been recently expressed by ministers in Blighty, U.S.A. and Canada, concerning the future of our race, but I think the intermingling of the men of the many countries will do more to ensure solidarity than the most lofty of sentiment expressed. I spent several hours recently with a young-man from Florida. He was tall and erect, with a face just like the ones seen in pictures, and he told me about a wonderful girl he had found somewhere in France. I think I know where he will go for leave if it ever comes his way and he is a rich man. The best news of all that I know is the way nature is helping us. The weather is now warm and moist, and everything seems leaping into activity. Grass, wheat, oats, rye and barley look fine. The trees are breaking into leaf, birds are busy, insects are humming and buzzing around, and it all makes everyone feel good and fit, and that is how we want to feel to win the war.

J.C. Coles

BX May 14, 1918

Brantfordites with Fighters at “Somewhere” – Sapper J.C. Coles Tells of Brantford Men He Met Recently

April 19, 1918
On Active Service

It is a great struggle now, but whatever happens first, I am confident that Right will win in the end, and I know who is fighting for it. Had I not seen some things I might have lapsed into that state where one wishes for the end, no matter who wins, but, I have seen some things that almost make men hate, without pity. Some day there will be a reckoning, and some one will have to pay. I note what you say of the probable opportunities of meeting fellow citizens. I have been more or less associated with one for some time and we did not find it out till two days ago. He is a plumber who used to work for Tom Minnes, and for several days I’ve eaten my food in his billet. Recently a sergeant was outside my billet with his party, and proved to be Pte. Stanley, who left with the First Contingent. That day he took tea with me (drawing-room style) and said he wondered what my wife would say if she knew how dirty my mess tin was. I had no further opportunity of seeing him.  At another time when on some business in the orderly room of a noted battalion I men young Ryerson from William Street. On going outside I met a lad who used to be in the industrial class at the B.C.I., and found that the little hair on my upper lip, which I am so proud of prevented his making my acquaintance 20 months ago, when we served in the same unit. If it wasn’t for the other fellows I’d cut that hair off. I’ve just missed meeting Arthur Took several times. He is not far away now, but I cannot get there. So you see how one has to behave himself, or fall in the good opinion his friends may have of him.

No Profligacy

I hear someone has said something about our drunken habits?  Sensible people will compare the deeds of the Canadian Corps with the doings of drunken men, and I know will judge us right. Such silly and wicked slanders hardly need contradiction. I know this to be true. The French civil population has faith in us, and they would not, were we given to too much profligacy. When one sees the photographs of home friends being looked at day after day, and shown to comrades. It shows to him where thoughts are wending their way, and men who treat their absent friends in such a way are not going far wrong. The mothers, wives and sisters can rest contented we are safer in some respects here, than in crowded cities at home, even though we may be less comfortable.

The weather lately has not added to our comfort, April so far having been colder than March. We had a slight snow fall yesterday, but each day brings us nearer summer, and perhaps with summer the days will be brighter in more ways than one.

I was glad to hear Mr. Lavell is improving. He had quite a lot of experience in a short time. The old city hasn’t done so bad, has she? Taking all things into consideration. Fancy too, the industrial reform. Perhaps, when “the boys come home,” there will be further reforms. Men are realizing their worth these days, and may that event not be as far off as it sometimes looks. Well, I think this is all the news. In conclusion, I ask you to have faith in the future, and sometimes when thinking of us, to think of the civil population of France and Belgium, especially, when prices seem high, commodities scarce, and home a little cold. If one is inclined to grumble, such thoughts will fill him with a sense of thankfulness that the horrors of war have not as yet reached our fair land in any great degree.

J.C. Coles

BX October 4, 1918

Women Who Follow in the Wake of War – Sapper J.C. Coles Recalls Some Incidents in His Trip to Hospital – Slightly Wounded

September 13, 1918
In Hospital

A Scotchman once said, “The best laid plans of mice and men gang oft aglee.”  He was one of that sort of Scotchmen who speak the truth, because I’ve recently proved the truth of that statement. On Labor Day the Canadians were in it and our particular bunch were in it, too. We were following up a battalion of Imperials, but what I could see of it, and our job was to put a Boche narrow gauge track in repair for our own use. About 9 a.m., after we had been working three or four hours, Fritz landed some lovely hits right on our job. With the first he just bruised one man, and the fool went and got me with the fifth. I was just getting tired of “flopping” and I guess that time I didn’t go as flat as I ought. Anyway I felt something sting my forehead and a lump of something heavy hit my shoulder. On examination by the S.B. it proved to be a small piece of metal in the forehead and a piece had gone right through the fleshy part of the arm near the shoulder. Of course that settled my career as a soldier for a time at least. My captain brought me out and I felt a little less groggy. Then on a stretcher across a light railway track, with a number of other cases, I reached the main dressing station at Arras. After being dressed by a Yank doctor, we reached the C.C.S. at another town. Another examination and dressing took place the, and we waited till next morning for the hospital train to take us to the base, where I went into hospital and was bathed and dressed and operated on.

A Woman Doctor

In the C.C.S. were all manner of cases, and a number of surgeons were kept very busy. Among them was a lady, and for some little time I laid and watched her. She was quick with instruments and dressings and she had a wonderful face. It was noble and refined, and yet deep lines showed plainly what she had suffered herself in ministering to the sufferings of others. I watched her bend her head close to rough men covered with mud and blood and the remains of black explosive, and take messages and listen to their complaints. A mother would have done no less. Yes, and I heard men call for their mothers, more plaintively than ever child has done. In the evacuation ward of that station was an elderly lady going about soothing the sufferers almost like an angel would do. On board the train was an Australian sister. She was in charge of the ward I was in. Opposite to me laid a badly wounded Boche, and she tended him with as great care as any of us. I wondered of it. Even the R.A.M.C. were tender to him, although he was an Iron Cross man of the first class. I just tell you this to let you see what women are doing amid all the horrors that follow in the wake of war. In the base hospital we were treated fine and the sisters did all possible for us, and they are the girls Fritz comes over and bombs as often as he can.

In Blighty

We arrived in Blighty on the 6th inst., and I have been improving ever since. If it wasn’t for the pain of dressing time it would be like heaven. I am at Herne Bay, on the S.E. coast, and having a good time. Soon I hope I’ll be allowed out and then progress will be more rapid. The doctor who took the shrapnel out of my head said I should be thankful it didn’t go any farther. I don’t take that view myself. I would have been thankful had it not got there at all. Still humanity ever was ungrateful. The Canadian Red Cross people behave wonderfully well to us, and the gifts we receive through them help us along fine. A lady visits us, under the auspices of the Canadian Red Cross almost daily and we would be hard hit for matches if she failed to come. There is also a Canadian padre attached here whose family reside in Goderich. He doesn’t attempt to frighten us into heavy by any means. The food is good and fairly liberal, but, oh lord!  I have an awful appetite; I eat twice as much as I did in France and then could do some more in between meals. Must be the sea air. The day before I was hit I went to visit Bandmaster Bartram, late of the 125th and the day previous to that I met Jack McHutchion and a bunch of other fellows from Brantford. I promised to go and see them later, but have got no leave left. They were all well and having a fairly good time by the look of things. I hope all is well in the city. It won’t be many years before we’re back now.

J.C. Coles

BX November 9, 1918

Brotherhood Meeting in War Times – Sapper J.C. Coles Tells of Uplifting Gathering at Epsom – War Nears End

October 14, 1918

Dear Expositor,

A man in hospital has much time on his hands, and that accounts in some measure for this letter. But another reason is that yesterday was the first time anything definite had been officially made known of the enemy’s defeat. It was the first Sunday I’ve had opportunity to attend a “Brotherhood” meeting since leaving Canada, and I took that opportunity. It seemed to me a coincidence that the news and the opportunity came the same day. I thought of the Brantford “Brotherhood.”  I think it wrong to speak in the plural as we are all one in the city, only we are hitched on to different wagons, as it were. The meeting here is held in the Congregational Church at 3 o’clock. About 50 were present, and it speaks for what the towns of England are doing when I say the majority present were either bald or gray, and some of the few young men wore ribbons and badges as tokens of duty done. The service is much the same as ours. Besides the organ, they have a grand piano, a cornet, a clarinet and two violoncellos. Some orchestra, eh!  They opened with a selection on the organ, then followed a short prayer, and a Bible reading consisting of four verses from Isaiah. A wounded Tommy, who in pre-war days was a member of Wakefield Cathedral choir, sang three solos. The first was of “England, God’s Land,” and somehow, though I claim to be a Canadian, my heart beat faster at the noble sentiment expressed in the son. Maybe one who has left the land of his birth for other climes appreciates the historic associations of his land more than he who never leaves it does. The second song was the “Watchman” and the last “Hills of Donegal.”  The men, so the secretary notified us, were sending parcels to 11 men who are prisoners of war in Germany and also fellow members of theirs. They had recently held a successful concert to raise funds for that purpose. The speaker claimed my attention greatly. He was I think, over 50 and looked sickly. I did not expect much from him, but I was surprised. He had a man’s voice, if his frame looked weak; a man’s head, and above all a man’s heart!  His subject, “What is Religion?” seemed a commonplace one, but he handled it in such style that I expect every one present felt like myself, uplifted, cheered, encouraged and inspired. I cannot attempt to write down what he said, but service, stripped of all superficial trappings, was the main theme. You know that in France, away from our wives, sisters and the finer things of life, we get a little coarse, and such a message as we had yesterday brings us back a little nearer to the place where we left off, when the war drum claimed our attention. I am glad I went. It has set in motion a yearning to get back to the things that were, and, in the reconstruction that must shortly take place, will be. I hope you are keeping the “home fires” of Brotherhood and all progressive movements burning “till the boys come home.”

Perhaps now in conclusion I must tell you how I am here. I left Herne Bay a week ago last Friday, and am being finished off in Epsom, Manor War Hospital. From here, in a day or two, I go to the convalescent camp, and then on leave. I guess the development of the war or peace will be a deciding factor in future movements. Anyway I am OK now for whatever form the call takes.

J.C. Coles

BX September 26, 1918

A card was received today from Sapper James C. Coles of the Royal Engineers stating that he had been wounded, but was doing well and was going down to the base. The card was dated Sept. 4. Sapper Coles has been a frequent contributor to the columns of the Expositor since his departure overseas, and has seen a lot of service with the engineers in France, his letters proving most interesting.

BX February 17, 1916

J.C. Coles to Go on Active Service – Will Join the Royal Engineers for Active Service Shortly

James Cordery Coles, well-known labor man of this city, formerly actively connected with the Trades and Labor Council, at one time correspondent here of the “Labor Gazette,” and a member of the Board of Education, will shortly leave for Ottawa, there to join the Royal Engineers for overseas service.

He has been particularly active here in school matters. Before the amalgamation of the public school and collegiate boards he was a member of the industrial advisory committee and did valuable service there. He ran for the Board of Education when it was first formed and was elected. Last year through a misunderstanding his nomination was not technically correct, but he was appointed by the board recently to fill the place vacated by a member leaving on overseas service. He is married, and a carpenter by trade. He will act as chairman of the recruiting rally on Sunday next in place of Mr. J.J. Hurley.

BX March 5, 1919

Sapper Coles Home

Sapper James Cordery Coles of the Canadian Engineers, returned to this city yesterday after having seen much overseas service. He was twice wounded and was under fire on many occasions while carrying out military engineering work. Previous to his enlistment at Ottawa he was prominent in local labor and education circles, being labor correspondent for the Labor Gazette (official) and a member of the School Board. He intends to take up his residence again in this city. Sapper Coles’ letters from the front, published on many occasions were much appreciated by the readers of The Expositor.