Osprey to Mesopotamia and back: a WWI story

·5 min read

William “Bill” Grummett was born in Osprey Township near Dundalk in 1891 to a farm family.

He interrupted his first year at law school at Osgoode Hall to enlist on February 11, 1915. After the war, he returned and after graduation, practiced for a short time in Toronto, before moving further north to the Parry Sound area.

What lay in between was service in two armies and thousands of miles, travelled the hard way on ship, on train in stifling heat in India and across limestone foothills in Persia.

Bill was known as Will when a boy and young man. He was the eldest of the nine children of John and Elizabeth Ann Grummett.

His story is lovingly told by his grandson, John Snell, on a fascinating website. You can find it by searching for his name and First World War. The exact address is:

wjgrummettphotosandhistoryww1.blog/

Will had been a Captain in the cadet training program of the 31st Regiment when in high school, and at University of Toronto was a member of the Officer Training Corps.

After enlisting as a private, he trained at places including Camp Niagara and was deployed to England with the Eaton Motor Machine Brigade. When his brigade was still at camp in England, Will asked permission to apply for a commission in the British army, and began officer’s training. He received his commission as 2nd Lieutenant, Norfolk Regiment, in July, 1916.

His grandson John Snell of Calgary, who compiled the history comments that at that time he would no doubt have expected to be sent to the Western front and the long engagement of the Battle of the Somme.

Instead, it was Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) where the British army retreated before the Turks and took up a position on the Tigris southeast of Baghdad. There, 13,000 British soldiers were to surrender in April, 1916 after a long siege.

Mesopotamia became a priority for the British. It was there he would eventually be sent, but he first went to India on Oct. 11, 1916 to join the British Indian Army – “as far away from the fight in Europe, the fight he committed himself to, as could be imagined,” Snell writes.

“His fight would be with Germany’s ally, the Turkish empire.”

Two other men travelled with him to the port of Karachi, Lieut. G.F. Boddy and Lieut. LG.B. Sacre.

In Karachi, he bought a vest pocket Kodak and took many photos which tell the story of his service.

On arrival, the three men travelled to the British Garrison at Quetta and then to a training camp for three months, as the British carefully re-built for the next campaign in Mesopotamia. They were determined to be successful, and the thorough training included language as well as military training.

The men then travelled 1,200 miles by train to Belgaum, South India, the embarkation point for the Mesopotamian front. But after weeks after his arrival in April, 1917, Will developed malaria.

When he recovered in June, he travelled by train to Bombay (now Mumbai) and then by ship to Basrah, the main Mesopotamian port on the Persian Gulf.

From there, it was north to Baghdad and then north-east to the Persian front. The region was experiencing an exceptionally hot season, with temperatures during the day never lower than 110 to 130, bringing military action to a standstill, as more soldiers would fall from heat than were wounded.

When things cooled, the 2nd Norfolk Battalion was pressing the Turks, who were now the ones retreating through the steep, rocky foothills. They were blowing up bridges on their way, so that the British were building pontoon bridges in pursuit. This action continued until the rains came in December.

By the following April, the Regiment was in a new operation, marching north to drive the Turks further, but there would be no engagements. The heat then would stop operations until October, so in May, 1918, Grummett was sent to the School of Musketry in India, at a hill station (where weather is cooler) in Madhya Pradesh.

In the latter part of 1918, they were sent up into Persia to assist refugees who were being sent south into Mesopotamia, after the men were conscripted into service.

Will wrote in a letter published in the Globe and Mail in 1923, “the death rate per day was very heavy on the 60 miles of route over which I had charge.” There was famine in the land and there was little aid to offer the travellers except military protection on their journey by foot, camel and donkey.

“The memory of it will stay with me long after details of the military campaign in Mesopotamia have passed away and been forgotten,” he wrote.

On Oct. 30, 1918, the war in Mesopotamia officially ended with the Peace of Mudros. The Armistice was signed Nov. 11.

The last of the refugees made their way in November and December. Will Grummett chose to de-mobilize after almost four years’ service and left for England on Dec. 28, 1918. He was officially de-mobbed in May 8, 1919, and having served in the British army not the Canadian, made his own way home.

When he left Toronto in the early 1920s, Mr. Grummett moved to Ansonville in the Parry Sound area, where he started a practice, married and eventually served as MPP for Cochrane South for four terms. He was first elected in 1943, as a member of the CCF (Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, from which the NDP was to emerge). Bill and his wife Marie had five children. He died in 1967.

M.T. Fernandes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Dundalk Herald

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