How a Canadian PoW survived: Letters, diary help grandson tell First World War sergeant's story
Published Thursday, November 9, 2017 10:00AM EST
Six years ago, an Ontario man inherited several boxes from his father containing photos and letters from his grandfather -- a First World War sergeant. After going through the contents he highlighted some of the fascinating details about Sgt. William A. Alldritt -- an athlete, a hero and a prisoner of war who used his wit, and even humour, to survive.
The story of a heroic Canadian machine-gunner in the Great War isn’t just being remembered today, it’s becoming even more vibrant, thanks to his grandson’s efforts poring through a diary and hundreds of letters written from inside German prison camps.
In April 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres in defence of the Belgian town of Saint-Julien, Sgt. William A. Alldritt held off German soldiers for three days with his Colt machine gun after a chlorine gas attack. That battle is believed to be the first battle where chlorine gas was used as a weapon to asphyxiate soldiers on the Western Front.
Alldritt was ultimately captured on April 25, becoming one of more than 1,400 Canadian PoWs taken at Ypres. A prolific journal writer, he kept a daily diary and wrote nearly 400 letters over a period of 35 months while interned in German camps.
This excerpt from Alldritt’s diary captures the chaos of April 24, the day before he was captured.
A transcription of the above text:
The letters and diary survived and are today considered to be among the most comprehensive collections of a First World War soldier’s correspondence.
The sergeant’s grandson, Robert Alldritt, wasn’t sure what to do when he inherited it all from his father, six years ago.
“A few months before my father died he said, ‘When I go, you’re going to inherit a problem,’” Robert said in an interview with CTVNews.ca in Toronto.
“Dad knew the collection was important but had no clue what to do with it all.”
The “problem” weighed about 50 pounds and came packed inside four plastic tote boxes. And there weren’t just letters. There were photos and news clippings as well. As for the diary, it wasn’t part of the collection and it remains a mystery as to how it ultimately ended up in Canada after being found on the battlefield by a German soldier.
An inscription added to Sgt. Alldritt's diary, detailing its return to Canada. Go through Robert Alldritt's fascinating interactive Story Map below for more on that mystery.
Robert and his wife, Danielle Giroux, rolled up their sleeves and arranged the material. They combed through the letters and a digital copy of the diary (the actual copy is at Library and Archives Canada) in a painstaking process that is ongoing. And the more they dug, the more they could see a 3D model of W.A. Alldritt taking shape.
“He enjoyed language play and had a cutting sense of humour.”
What they’ve found so far is a fascinating record of a soldier who used his wit and humour to survive.
He also proved to be somewhat unlucky. He attempted four escapes – calling himself “one of the most persistent runaways in the country” – but was recaptured each time. There are stories of him “tunnelling out of one of the camps using a teaspoon, and references of him escaping from a salt mine or iron mine after forging a key to a door,” said Robert, citing documented stories as well as some passed on by family members.
'Mr. Whirely Kuttersby'
There are legendary stories of PoWs evading German censors by using hidden messages and code words in letters home to request contraband supplies. A March 31, 1916 letter addressed to his future wife, Agnes, is a great example of one, in which Sgt. Alldritt appears to ask his brother Harry for wire cutters:
"Please tell Harry that I expect to receive parcel No. 13 in a few days and am looking forward to the canned salmon as it will be a change to the tinned beef. I wish he would give my regards to Mr. Whirely Kuttersby, who was my best friend the year I spent up in the north Klondike in the old Gold Rush of 1897."
“He enjoyed language play and had a cutting sense of humour,” said Robert Alldritt, adding that his grandfather’s ploy was successful. He pointed to a May 6, 1918 letter from Holland in which his grandfather suggests the request not only made it past the censors, so did the response in the form of contraband from Harry:
"In 1916 I had from Harry three tins of salmon that helped me a great deal and I cut lots of wire with the cutters he sent me."
But not only did W.A. Alldritt provide a vivid account of what it was like to be a PoW and a soldier on the ground in Ypres: “We also matched up his personal story with what was going on in the bigger world,” said Robert. “He had a lot of references, footnotes in history, and he became to us an Edwardian hero sort of character.”
William Alldritt in a sweater bearing the YMCA logo
Aside from his military life, W.A. Alldritt was a dedicated athlete: A YMCA director, a leader of the feared Winnipeg Toilers who won three national basketball championships, and a mountain climber who led the Alpine Club in ascents up the Rockies and B.C.’s Selkirk Mountains.
"After he was captured, newspapers reported him as dead."
He died of a stroke in Winnipeg at the age of 51 in 1933, his health compromised by exposure to the chlorine gas he endured in the attack in Ypres 20 years earlier.
Robert, however, found news clippings from May 8, 1915 that erroneously reported his grandfather “killed” in battle.
“After he was captured, newspapers reported him as dead,” said Robert.
The next day, on May 9, his grandfather was honoured as part of the annual Decoration Day parade that was repurposed to honour those killed in the war, followed by an outdoor church service.
“His family thought he was dead and a month later the first letter shows up saying, ‘You might have heard I was a prisoner…’” said Robert. “What must that have been like? It was a voice from the dead at this point.”
As his grandfather’s story further takes shape, Robert is chronicling it in multimedia form.
In the interactive story map below, Robert, who is a human resources manager at Esri Canada, shows us 10 months in the life of William A. Alldritt.