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The World is a Stage

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The World is a Stage - Laurel Beechey

He was a very handsome young man. His complexion was dark, perhaps from the sun, as he was a farmer. His hair black and meticulously trimmed. You could loose yourself in those deep brown eyes, which seemed so inviting, steady and assured. That was perhaps because he was a steadfast Methodist, confident of himself and his life, even at 24 years of age.

Robert Stanley Curtis, known as Stanley, was not a big man at five-feet, six-and-half-inches, but he stood tall on January 27, 1916 when he was declared fit and signed his name to joined the war.

Men, and even some of the women, had been going off to the war to end all wars for over a year, but the Germans were still strong. So a big recruitment drive was started in the winter when people were not as busy. There were flags and bands playing. Oxford County was true to Britain and formed the 168th Battalion. The C Company, known as Oxford’s Own, was organized, recruited and trained in Tillsonburg from January to May 31, 1916. That same month photos were taken of the whole battalion.

On that last day of May, Thomas and Annie Curtis, would have stood at the train station in Tillsonburg, with all the other parents, wives, children and sweethearts, to wave good by to their son. The men spent the next five weeks in London beginning their training, then on July 9th they left for Camp Borden where they had three months of intensive but mind-boring drills.

The excitement level escalated on Oct 27th when once again by train, the men left for Halifax. Few of these recruits had ever been so far from home, or seen so much of the country, they would be fighting for. But one thing they thought they had was each other, for these men and boys knew each other and if they were not from Tillsonburg, they would have been from other parts of Oxford County.

Nov. 3rd hundreds of men boarded a ship to cross the rough, cold and dismal Atlantic Ocean, arriving in England on Nov 11th, 1916. Once again the men drilled and drilled in cold wet weather, but within a month they discovered they would lose the support of their friends and neighbours, when the 168th Battalion was broken up on Dec. 5.

Stanley was transferred to the army’s Canadian Infantry (Eastern Ontario Regiment) 21st Battalion. This unit had been formed back in 1914 and had been fighting in France from 1915 and they needed replacements. These were seasoned soldiers having lived many battles, including the battle at the Somme for months in the fall of 1916. It is not known when or if Robert joined the 21st BN at the front. We know the 21st were in Belgium at Vimy Ridge, April 9th, at Zero Hour. They were also at the Battle For Hill 70 from Aug 13-18.

“On August 31, 1917, Lieut General Sir A.W. Currie, visited the Battalion during the instruction this morning. He spoke very highly of the work the 21st in the action North West of Lens.” This quote is from a marvelous website on the 21st Battalion, where you can follow their movement on a map and quotes from some of the diaries that have survived.

Until Stanley’s service records are purchased from the archives in Ottawa, we won’t know exactly where he was wounded. It could have been in one of the battles mentioned above. In which case he would have followed a medical evacuation chain all the way back to England, where most Canadians ended up at the Ontario Military Hospital in Orpington, Kent Co. We know many of the Tillsonburg soldiers and Nursing Sisters who went there.

We do know that Stanley died from wounds on Sept. 29, 1917, and was buried in the Canadian section of the Brookwood Military Cemetery, a Commonwealth War Cemetery in Sussex covering 37 acres. (Once the largest cemetery in the world). This was not Oprington’s cemetery, this was the cemetery used by Millbank’s Military Hospital for war-wounded by munitions, trench fever, frostbite, shell shock and gas gangrene. Stanley could have been wounded while still in England or brought here for specialty treatment after one of the battles.

Robert Stanley Curtis was one of the names listed in the advertisement taken out by the Rotary Club and Legion, who wish to list the names of Tillsonburg’s Fallen Heroes on our cenotaph. If you know of anyone who lived in town before enlisting in the First or Second World Wars, please contact the Legion immediately at branch153@rogers.com. As you can see from Stanley’s story, they are so much more than just a name.

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