|Date of Birth||March 29, 1883|
|Place of Birth||Polperro, Cornwall|
|Marital Status||Single (married in December 1915)|
|Next of Kin||Mrs. Thomas Oliver (mother), Polperro, Cornwall, England|
|Trade / Calling||Salesman|
|Service Record||Link to Service Record|
|Force||Canadian Expeditionary Force|
|Enlisted / Conscripted||Enlisted|
|Place of Enlistment||Camp Hughes, Manitoba|
|Age at Enlistment||32|
|Theatre of Service||Europe|
|Prisoner of War||No|
|Date of Death||11/05/1917|
|Age at Death||34|
|Buried At||No known grave; commemorated on the Vimy Memorial in France|
The First World War saw the use of massive amounts of artillery, the first tanks, and chemical warfare such as chlorine and mustard gas. The Germans also developed new models of the flammenwerfer, a terrifying anti-personnel weapon that could throw a flame of burning oil more than 15 meters. Lieutenant Moses Oliver served with the 44th Battalion and he was killed by a flammenwerfer in France in May 1917.
England and Canada
Moses was born on 29 March 1883 in Polperro, Cornwall, a small fishing village on the southwest coast of England. His parents were Thomas Oliver and Sarah Snell. Thomas was a fisherman and he and Sarah were married in 1869. They had nine children, five daughters (Jane, Ethel, Ida, Susannah and Eve) and four sons (Thomas, Richard, Moses and Aaron). At the time of the 1901 census Moses was 18 years old, living at home and working as a fisherman like his father. His oldest brother served in the Royal Navy and Moses apparently spent six months in the Navy and five years in the Naval Reserves. He immigrated to Canada in 1906, arriving in Quebec on 14 September on the Empress of Britain. He was listed as single, age 23, a seaman from Cornwall, England and his destination was Winnipeg, Manitoba. Moses made a trip back to England and returned to Canada in October 1910 on the Empress of Ireland. Before he enlisted he spent some time living in Kenora, Ontario and the local newspaper later referred to him as ‘a former well-known Kenora resident.’ Moses studied at Wesley College in Winnipeg and he planned to work in Christian ministry after the war.
Enlistment and the War
The war started in August 1914 and Moses enlisted on 22 September 1915, signing up at Camp Hughes in Manitoba. During his time in Kenora he had trained with the local militia unit, the 98th Regiment. At Camp Hughes he joined the 44th (Manitoba) Battalion and less than a month later he was on his way overseas. The 44th and 46th Battalions passed through Kenora by train on 18 October and an article in the Kenora Miner and News noted, ‘There were several former Kenora boys with these battalions and they were warmly greeted by many friends here ‘Moses Oliver, who formerly resided here as agent for the kitchen cabinet was another on his way to the front.‘ Both battalions embarked from Halifax on 22 October on the SS Lapland and arrived in England about eight days later.
Moses trained in England for almost ten months, from late October 1915 until August 1916. During the holiday season he had a period of leave and he was married in a Wesleyan chapel in Cornwall on 28 December 1915. His wife, Mary Holten, was born and raised in the Polperro area like him and her father was a fisherman too. Moses had arrived in England as a Corporal and on 10 August 1916 he was promoted to Sergeant. That same month his unit was sent to France and they became part of the new 4th Canadian Division. In October and November they took part in the Somme Offensive, where the Canadian Corps suffered 24,000 casualties in less than three months.
In February 1917 Moses was sent to Officers’ Cadet School for two months and he rejoined his battalion on 13 April, just as the Battle of Vimy Ridge was ending. The following day, 14 April, he was given a commission as a Lieutenant. Over the next few months the Canadians were involved in operations in the Avion-Souchez River sector, north of Vimy, and the 44th Battalion went into the trenches there on 6 May. On the night of 9-10 May they captured a portion of the enemy’s front line but they faced severe counter-attacks and a barrage of rifle grenades and gas shells. At 3:00 am on 11 May the Germans attacked using flammenwerfer (flamethrowers), gaining back part of the front line, but later that day the 44th Battalion was able to retake it. The battalion was relieved on 12 May and during their six days in the front line the unit suffered 260 casualties. Lieutenant Oliver was one of three officers who were killed during the heavy fighting on 11 May. Captain George Farquhar, the battalion’s chaplain, said Moses died instantly as he bravely led his men against the German flammenwerfer.
Moses’ final resting place is unknown. He is commemorated on the Vimy Memorial, which bears the names of more than 11,000 Canadians who died in France and have no known grave. He is also commemorated on the 44th Canadian Infantry Vimy Ridge Monument in Winnipeg; on War Memorials in Polperro and Talland Bay in Cornwall, England; on the Cenotaphs in Kenora and Fort Frances, Ontario; on the Kenora Legion War Memorial; and on a marker erected by Gold Hill and Minnetonka Lodges of Kenora and Keewatin. The marker, in Lake of the Woods Cemetery, is in memory of Lodge members who died in the Great War. Later in the war the 44th Battalion was moved from Manitoba to the east coast and Moses is also commemorated in a Book of Remembrance in an Anglican Cathedral in Nova Scotia.
Moses and his wife Mary had no children. Mary continued to live in Polperro after she was widowed and her husband’s medals, scroll and memorial plaque were sent to her when the war ended. She never remarried
and she died at age 62 in April 1945, as another world war was coming to an end.
By Becky Johnson
Book of Remembrance in Halifax Cathedral
Names Heroes from Prairieland:
Stories of Charlie Belcher and Moses Oliver Are Recounted
In the Anglican cathedral of Halifax, N.S., the people have a Book of Remembrance. It is the book of Nova Scotia’s dead in the Great War.
On Armistice Day of this year the book was well thumbed. Many names of men well known to westerners who played a great part in the campaigns of the 44th battalion, appear in this book, and in the evening of the memorable anniversary, in the quiet of the home, diaries were reproduced and some of the sacred incidents of the campaign recalled.
In a recent issue of the Chronicle, of Halifax, a writer recounts one or two incidents of the campaign in which two members of the 44th, Charlie Belcher and Moses Oliver, had a heroic part. The 44th was organized in Winnipeg, and when it got overseas received from time to time recruits from Nova Scotia, and that is why the people of Nova Scotia reverence the memory of the men of the 44th.
One Fearful Week
The Halifax writer records what befell the battalion on one memorable week. General Byng’s latest message had said: ‘It gives me the opportunity of expressing to all ranks the pride I feel in commanding the Canadian corps.’ That was after the Canadian troops had captured Vimy Ridge. The consolidation which followed was the most critical period. Tremendous efforts were made by the Germans the recapture the lost positions. For several days after May 7 during the German counter-assaults, streams of men came back to the Canadian casualty stations.
May 13 tells the story of a fearful night. In six days the 44th had lost half their men and officers.
May 10, General Byng had sent this message to the Canadians: ‘Yours is the finest work that has been done by any brigade in the British army. You have made three attacks and repelled seven counter-attacks.’
The battalion had gone in up to strength and had come out with only a handful of officers and with every company shattered. The Halifax writer goes on:
‘Let us recall two deathless incidents of our comrades. May 11 takes us back to the time the enemy had been driven from Vimy Ridge. The Canadian lines ran far out in the plains below. Reinforcements had been sent up for the enemy was stiffening. The Canadians were in their own hastily-made trenches and in those deserted by the Germans, only protected by sandbags. In front there was no defence. There had been no time to put up any.
Met Liquid Fire
‘But what was coming was something nobody in this battalion had ever seen.The flammen-werfer – the dreaded ‘liquid fire.’ The guards broke and fell back. Moses Oliver, a young lieutenant, saw the danger. He drew back the stragglers. Encouraged by his example, they turned and faced the enemy. The safety of the line was at stake. He did not know how the meet the fire, but snatching up some bombs he flew along the trench to meet it. The liquid fire struck him. The fire came on. It drove everything before it. Soon a stretch of trench was in their hands. A sort of salient. When later the ground was taken back, where Moses met the flame was just a blackened shadow stretching up the trench’s side, like lamp-black. His life was burned to nothing in a moment.
‘Another lad, Charles Belcher, lad or man of twenty-six, second in command, the idol of the battalion, saw the danger. With marvelous skill he withdrew his men, took up position in the trenches farther back, blocked the passage-ways, and stayed the advance. That was all in the early grey of dawn. There had been rain that night. Through the long day the sun was beating down above. But from among the debris of the blackened shell holes here and there burst up a little fern, coaxed by the rain, the first sign of coming spring. We had almost forgotten that green things ever grew.
‘At four o’clock that afternoon, a wonderful thing happened. Charlie Belcher was an athlete. He had captained the footballers. He had made his name in hockey. He had the confidence and devotion of every last man he had. And at four o’clock in the broad daylight, without a barrage, without warning of any kind, at his bidding the men leapt the trenches, spurted across the sixty or seventy yards between, and were upon the enemy before he knew. It was a complete surprise. The enemy ran back through the trenches, over the parapets, anywhere, everywhere, in any direction they could get away. And we were back exactly where we were before.
‘A few hours rest and then a terrible ordeal. The German artillery opened fire. The enemy counter-attacked but was beaten desperately back. The wounded came walking in. Stretcher cases came. Then the guns got range of the c.t. Stretchers could not come down the trench. At last came silence. The colonel was just sixty or seventy yards behind. Charlie Belcher talked to him on the telephone. He told him all was well. He had the O.C.’s implicit confidence. He went on to tell minutely how his men were placed. Impatiently the colonel said, ‘Yes, yes. It’s all right. That’s alright.’ But he insisted on telling exactly how things stood. This was strange. He said he was slightly wounded.
‘When at last the fire died in silence the stretcher brought him down. With a smile the doctor ran his fingers through his hair as he lay upon the stretcher, with a caress gentler than a woman’s, saying, ‘Well, Charles,’ the next minute he staggered back – ‘My God, he’s dead.’ Shot through the stomach, telling nobody he was mortally hurt. Dying as he lived, but dead – and for almost the first time the whole battalion felt that nothing mattered now. What mattered whether school kept or not – Charlie Belcher was dead.
‘We buried him next day, with what was left of the battalion gathered round. They didn’t weep in France, but there were no dry eyes round his grave. They wept brokenly and openly, for he was one of the whitest souls that ever breathed.
‘Why tell the story here? Because his name is not known in Nova Scotia. The name of Moses Oliver is unknown here. But there men belonged to you and me. There was no east or west – no battalion, brigade, division or army then – just men, men welded into one, with one soul, one spirit, one ambition, one objective. And in his grave lay one who enshrined the tenderest and best of all.’
Moses Oliver was a student at Wesley college when he enlisted and decided to study for the ministry when duty called him overseas.
From the Manitoba Free Press, Thursday, November 24, 1927, page 11.