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  • Writer's pictureHattie Hearn

His Better Does Not Breathe Upon This Earth

9th March 1917. 9pm. Bramshott Military Hospital, Hampshire.

Patient name: Private Alfred William Manning.

Pulse rate: 110 beats per minute. Temperature: 104 degrees.

Days in hospital: 47.

Alfred Manning's medical notes for March 1917

Bramshott Canadian Military Hospital in Hampshire

Jean's hands shook as she opened Alfred's will, sent to her by the medical officers at Bramshott Hospital, where her husband lay feverish and critically ill. Jean Manning had followed Alfred to England from the Canadian town of Virden only weeks earlier. The pair had married the previous October, a rushed affair, brought on by Alfred’s imminent posting overseas and Jean’s discovery that she was expecting their first child.

Now she found herself living with Alfred's parents in the damp Suffolk countryside, burdened by the news that her husband may not live to see the birth of their first child.

For Alfred, his long-awaited homecoming had swiftly turned into a disaster, starting almost as soon as he stepped off RMS Olympic – the troopship that had carried him and his battalion from Halifax to Liverpool, England. Complaining of muscle pain and burning up with fever, Alfred was admitted to the 12th Canadian General Hospital in January 1917. While his comrades in the 226th Battalion practised bayonet drills in the English countryside, Alfred would spend over a month tossing and turning in a hospital bed.

RMS Olympic - The Titanic's sister ship was converted into a troop ship during WWI

The experience of sharing a ward with battle-weary, hollow-eyed and broken men, ravaged by the effects of bullets, shrapnel and gas, was a wartime education in its own right for the 27-year-old private. There was no part of the body or mind that war couldn't maim.

The hustle and bustle of the overworked doctors and Red Cross nurses in the Canadian hospital were drowned out by a cacophony of brash English accents: Cockney, Geordie, even a few familiar Suffolk drawls. Perhaps unsurprising when you consider that over 60% of the soldiers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force had been born in Britain.

Like thousands of others, Alfred had left England in the short years before the war for a new life in Canada. Tempted by the offer of land on the Manitoban plains, the farm labourer moved to the small Western community of Virden with little thought of returning to his Suffolk birthplace. But even the best laid plans go to hell when the recruiting sergeant rides into town.

Alfred's home of Virden, Manitoba

The motherland called and Alfred answered. He downed his tools, hung up his hat and left his little patch of prairie on 26th February 1916 to volunteer for the newly formed 226th Battalion, the ‘Men of the North’. Training at Camp Hughes followed, where the 226th gained a reputation ‘for being physically superior’ to any other battalion. Manning’s own service papers describe him as standing at 5ft 9 with a chest size of 38 inches, above average for the time.

In 1916, 27,754 troops underwent training at Camp Hughes, making it the largest community in Manitoba outside of Winnipeg. A practice trench system was developed that same year to prepare recruits for what lay in store for them once they reached the front. The battalion completed their training in December and promptly travelled to Nova Scotia, the final stop on their journey to serving the Empire. A fever of expectation, excitement and anxiety must have hung in the air as Albert and his comrades stepped onto the Olympic for the two week voyage to England.

Camp Hughes, 1916

Soldiers of the CEF parade in Winnipeg, Manitoba

The hopeful anticipation of that moment must have felt like a lifetime ago for the bedridden Albert. But at least the army doctors had diagnosed the cause of his unrelenting fever: tonsillitis. On 10th March, the same day that Alfred’s last will and testament was sent to Jean, the offending tonsils were removed. His fever quickly receded but the virus had done its damage. Alfred went on to spend the next nine months in various military hospitals with rheumatic fever – a direct result of his long battle with strep.

During this time, the 226th Battalion were disbanded and absorbed into the 14th Canadian Reserve Battalion. Over the next few months, Alfred’s old friends and comrades were posted to the Western Front as reinforcements for Canadian divisions, many of which had been ravaged by the bloody battles of 1917. In November these men would fight in the cold, stinking mud of Passchendaele - a battle that would become a vivid symbol of the horror, madness and senselessness of the First World War, embedded into the collective memory of generations of Canadians.

Woodcote Park Convalescent Park. Alfred spent time recovering here in 1917.

As the war entered its fifth year, Alfred may have wondered if he’d ever see frontline service. His answer came in March 1918 when word arrived of his imminent posting to the Western Front. Before long, he was making the rough journey across the channel to join up with the 27th (City of Winnipeg) Battalion at Chateau de la Haie, west of Vimy, France. The veteran battalion were billeted in corrugated nissen huts, unequipped to deal with the harsh late-winter cold. On 7th March 1918 the battalion's war diary notes the arrival of three other ranks ‘as reinforcements’. Alfred was among them.

The private’s first experience of trench life came two days later when his new battalion moved into the front line near Arras. Just a few hours after their arrival, a pungent cloud of gas swept over no-man’s land, filling the shell holes and seeping into the barren earth. ‘Gas, gas gas!’ – the call went out. Alfred’s training must have kicked on as he pulled on his mask. No doubt he'd witnessed the cruel effects of gas in his months spent in hospital back in England, and now he’d got his own bitter taste. He survived his first encounter with this most ruthless of weapons, and on 12th March the battalion was relieved.

Over the next six weeks 27th Battalion rotated between working parties, frontline service, training and rest – a familiar cycle for an infantryman on the Western Front. Further down the line, in Arras, the Germans had launched their biggest offensive yet – a last ditch attempt to break through the Allied defences and win the war. The Spring Offensive of 1918, as it became known, saw mobile warfare return to the Western Front after four years of stalemate. Despite sweeping early gains, the Germans exhausted themselves during the fighting, setting the scene for the Allied counter-offensives of the summer and the final defeat of Germany.

Alfred would never get to hear the guns fall silent. On the night of 24th April his battalion entered the front line near Arras. During the the next two days they dug ‘funk holes’ into the side of the claggy trench walls and carried ammunition up from the rear. At night, patrols were sent into no man’s land in an attempt to eavesdrop on German whereabouts.

Two Canadians from the 22nd Infantry Battalion rest from working on draining their trench

For two days 'all was quiet on the Western Front'. That changed on the 27th April when German artillery barrage fell on the battalion's trench, putting a stop to the day's working parties. The injured were moved back to the field dressing station - 12 in all. The day's action had claimed one life. The unfortunate victim was Alfred William Manning, who died on 27th April 1918, aged 28.

By the time the news of her husband's death reached Jean, she was living in Plymouth, Devon. Another telegram was sent to Alfred's parent in Stowmarket, Suffolk. Alfred and Jean's son, Earl Maurice Manning, was a month shy of his first birthday.

Alfred was initially buried in a small battlefield cemetery before being reinterred in the concentration cemetery at Bellacourt. Below the maple leaf of the Canadian Expeditionary Force reads a poignant inscription, written by Jean.


These are the words I read as I kneel in front of my Great-Grand Uncle Alfred’s grave – a hundred years to the day that he lost his life. For a century he’s rested in this tranquil corner of northern France, surrounded by fields of barley and flanked by swaying sycamores. The Cross of Sacrifice sits at the crest of the hill, casting long shadows in the warm afternoon light. A robin hops between the headstones. A century since the guns fell silent and this place is the epitome of peace. As it should be.

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