William COTTRELL
Rank: Private
Number: 24926
Unit: 13th Battalion (Royal Highlanders of Canada) Canadian Infantry
Date of Death: 24 April 1915
Age: 37
Cemetery: Menin Gate Memorial, Ieper, Belgium

Very little is known about William, compared with other soldiers who served with the Canadian forces, as his enlistment papers have not yet (in 2005) been released in a digital form by the Canadian National Archives.    However, with the assistance of a Canadian member of the Great War Forum, his service file has been examined at the National Archives in Ottawa and this allows some of his story to be told.

His place of birth is unknown but it's presumed that it was in the UK, perhaps in the Stockport area. He was married to Mary and it's believed that they both emigrated to Canada where they lived at 76A Deboon Court Street, Montreal and later at 150 Denouville Street.

He joined up almost as soon as War was declared and, within a few weeks, left Canada at the beginning of October aboard the SS Alaunia. His file shows that he had a tattoo on his left forearm of a cross and ship and the words "In memory of my dear son Richard". On his right forearm was a star and cross below clasped hands.

Whilst in training in the UK, he found himself in trouble for being absent without leave on 12 November. He forfeited 16 days pay and was confined to barracks for ten days. On 8 Janaury 1915, he again went absent and was confined to barracks for five days and lost two days pay. Shortly after this, he will have gone to Belgium on active service.

Two days before William was killed, the German Army used poison gas for the first time as a prelude to an attack north of the Belgian town of Ypres (now Ieper). French troops had retreated in the face of the new weapon and the enemy infantry attack had been stopped by Canadian troops. There were further attacks throughout next day.

The 13th Battalion, in the apex of the salient north of the village of St Julien, had borne the brunt of the attacks. After dark on the 23rd, they withdrew and dug in on a new line east of Keerselaere. At 4 in the morning on the 24th, the Germans fired chlorine gas once again, at the positions held by the Canadian 8th and 15th Battalions. There were no gas masks (until the following year) and all the men could do was to clamp wet cloths over their eyes and nostrils. They had little effect and the men collapsed on the trench floor with their eyes blinded and their throats burning. Behind the gas cloud, came the German infantry. It was easy for them to break through the Canadian line.

At 8.30am, the 13th Battalion was now vulnerable and received orders to pull back to the Gravenstafel ridge, as an even stronger German attack could be seen advancing. Three companies managed to withdraw in good order, but the company on the left was very exposed to enemy fire and the Official History records that only a dozen men made it back. The attack centred on the positions held by the Canadian 3rd Brigade , of which the severely weakened 13th Battalion was part.

By 11am, it was clear that the position on the ridge could not be held and a further withdrawal of 300 yards  was agreed by battalion commanders who were, by now, out of communication with higher echelons of command. The right half of the line, including the 13th, was able to withdraw with minimal loss. By 12.30, even the new position was becoming untenable and the local commanders now ordered the remnants of their Battalions to withdraw a further 1000 to the Wieltje-Gravenstafel road. The History records "It was a fighting retirement, carried out by small parties falling back in a succession of short bounds while their comrades kept up a punishing fire that caused (the enemy) to temporarily abandon the attack until reinforced."

By dusk, British reinforcing troops arrived and what was left of 3rd Brigade was able to be withdrawn from the fight. The 13th Battalion had suffered more than 670 casualties (about two thirds its strength) killed, wounded, missing and prisoner. William's body was never found and identified.

After the War, Mary returned to England and lived at 72 Great Egerton Street, Stockport.

   
           
   
     
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