Road to the Armistice: The Last to Fall, Private Frederick William Joyce

Altogether, 4,310 Rangers served in the 20th Battalion during the Great War; 843 were killed in action or died of their wounds, 91 died of illness or injury.  The very last member to die on the battlefield was Private Frederick William Joyce, an original 20th Battalion member since the days of training on the CNE grounds in Toronto in the winter of 914/15.  He was struck down in action only hours before 1100, November 11.

The war was almost over, an armistice was about to go into effect, but the men of the 20th Battalion were still going forward.   

The battalions of the Canadian Corps were fragile, full of hard-bitten veterans sprinkled with new replacements and returning wounded.  Most of these weary regiments were at about half their full strength after three months of almost non-stop offensive action.  Since dawn at Amiens, 94 days earlier, they had punctured every German defence line on the Western Front and were now pursuing what remained of the Kaiser’s armies into Belgium. 

It was a stupendous achievement, but like the rest of the Corps, the men of the 20th Battalion were tired.  Boots and uniforms were wearing out and it was difficult to keep bringing up rations and ammunition – the Germans had cratered every crossroad and cut every bridge.  Notwithstanding ankle deep mud and the constant rain in the pursuit since the battle at Iwuy, the men also tended to share their rations with the half-starved civilians who had endured four years of German occupation.

It was still important to keep the Germans moving, to keep them from building a new defensive line and catching their breath.  Besides, Mons lay just ahead – the city where, for the British, the war had begun back in August 1914.  Orders came down to continue the pursuit.

At 0615 on November 10th, the 20th Battalion paraded its thin ranks at the village of Framieres and reached their start-line by 0900.  This day would be like so many others in the last month – advance, encounter German rear-guard snipers and machinegun posts, destroy them, and keep moving forward. Even in retreat, Germans are stubborn and have to keep being pushed.

Leaving the village of Framieres and reaching their start-line at 0900, the task for the day was another advance in almost constant contact with the enemy.  By 0300 in the morning of November 11, the Rangers had advanced 10 km and had secured the village of Saint Symphorien, southeast of Mons.  However, 11 more Rangers were killed or mortally wounded during the day’s advance.  The news that the Armistice was to go into effect at 1100 was received with breakfast.

The war wasn’t quite over yet, and it continued to claim its toll.  58085 Private William Frederick Joyce had been wounded in the early hours of November 11th and was brought back down the road to Valenciennes to 1 Casualty Clearing Station… where his death was pronounced on arrival.

At 29, Pte. Joyce was a good-looking man with brown hair and blue eyes, Tall (5’11”) and muscular from his trade as a metalworker.  However, In Joyce’s record there are signs he and the Army life did not agree with each other.  His medical history is crowded with visits to hospital for scabies, laryngitis, boils, and lumbago, and this was coupled with several accounts of summary trials for missing parades and petty theft.  One incident resulted in a pay stoppage in January, 1918 – which implies a spell in Field Punishment.

In contrast to a record as a malingerer and petty crook, Joyce may have resented the records of some of his peers from the first days of the 20th Battalion.  Several of the platoon commanders in the 20th had come up through the ranks, but Joyce had never received any recognition.

Many of the surviving original 20th Battalion members had records studded with medals, promotions and injuries.  Private Joyce received none of these, but then he barely made it to back to the battalion for the Somme, missed Vimy Ridge, and was absent in hospital for both Amiens and Iwuy (although he was present for Hill 70, Passchendaele, and the advance down the Scarpe).

Joyce might not have been a moral character on some other counts.  He sent an allowance home to his mother back at 52 Sorauren Ave. in Toronto, but one wonders at a will where he left the value of his goods in the event of his death to another married woman back at 46 Macaulay Ave.

Regardless, Joyce was there for the weary muddy advance on the 10th and 11th.  Warts and all, he was a liberator and had carried his bayonet-tipped rifle forward on other fields of fire too.  In his death, his faults are shed and he rests with the other honoured dead.

There is one last note.   Many of the injured from the war lingered on in hospitals for years, particularly those with gas-seared lungs.  Some of the returning soldiers never recovered from the mental scars of the war, and hit the bottle, or reacted to their nightmares in other ways.  Ottawa, however, in the interests of saving money on pension benefits, arbitrarily closed the books on war deaths in 1922. 

Many of the officers of the wartime battalions had other views on the subject.  Major J.D. Corrigall, who assembled a comprehensive nominal roll of the 20th as an appendix for his history, took care to add veterans who took their own lives or lingered to a late death in hospital well into the 1920s as war dead of the battalion.