Robert Hunter Duff, born 7 Feb 1888 in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, was the fourth of six children born to my great-great-grand-uncle William Menzies Duff and his wife Elizabeth Harriet Hunter. Robert was the nephew of my great-great-grandmother Annie Prescott Duff.
[Photos are courtesy of Catherine Duff.]
Robert and his brother Prescott Blagdon Duff both served in WWI. Prescott was a Captain in the 5th Battalion, and Robert was a Private in the 2nd Canadian Pioneer Battalion.
Much like my great-grandfather Oscar Krueger and his brother Arthur, only one of the brothers would make it out of the war to return home to their families. Robert was killed in action on 15 Aug 1917 near Lens, France. His official death and burial record says he was “Struck in the head and knee by enemy shrapnel and killed” during military operations near “Hill 70”. He was 29 years old.
This is as much detail as I’ve seen on an official document, but it still scarcely tells the real story. As genealogists it’s easy to see “died on such-and-such date” and get very used to it without thinking too much about the real emotional toll of these events. I was fortunate enough to receive a copy of a letter sent by Capt. Prescott Duff to his Uncle William Hunter. It goes into more detail about Robert’s death and the events which followed. I present it as a valuable historic document, but also a reminder that each death date on the family tree had deep emotional and logistical repercussions.
[Transcription follows to allow search of text.]
Dear Uncle Will: –
You will have heard of Bob’s death befor(e) this reaches you, am sending a short note to Annie, Billy, Gordon, Jean and Father, but cannot settle down to giving all details to each now as am too upset, so will write Gordon fully and you can give details to others. I wrote Sheila [Florence Sheilen Nielsen, Robert’s wife] first of course.
He went out as a runner with Lt. Tremblay and Sgt. Maj. Clements, the morning of the show when his Company “A” went out. Tremblay and Sgt. Maj. had got men to work and the three were about ready to go around looking over work. A shell lit on trench, Tremblay and Sgt. Maj. were wounded but able to walk out, Bob was wounded in knee, arm and back of head. They got him back to dressing station as quickly as possible but he became unconscious on way and died at dressing station. My Company was in reserve and were at “A” Company Billets. Maj. Allen, 2nd in Command, telephoned me from forward Battn. H.Q. [Battalion Headquarters] that Bob was hit badly and was at dressing station and men who brought him out were on way down and would give me more information. Later he telephoned Bob had died, so I got the two men who had come back and went up and got the body on light railway on a push car, sending the men right on to our H.Q. with it while I dropped off at my Company’s location. This was yesterday, today I went down and he was buried at Aix Noulette Cemetery. Maj. Tate, who used to be 2nd in Command of “D” Company with me on Somme, went to funeral with me and will write Sheila. Jack Leets of our Company went down also and helped me through the ordeal. Some men, some “D” Coy. [company] and H.Q. men were there. Harry Corkum was there. Maj. Moffatt, a Pres. [Presbyterian] Chaplain, buried. him. An “A” Coy. Sgt. told me that he was awfully cool under fire and though he was only with Pioneers short time was though a lot of, but knowing Bob you can guess that. Had only seen him once since he joined us as our Companies were separated, but one day walked to “A” Company to see him and he was telling me of his week in line with 25th.
There is best of us gone, the one that mattered so much, it seems the best go. It will break poor Sheila’s heart and you can guess how it has hit me. Well, can’t write any more as have to go to work, but oh, Uncle it’s cruel, old Bob the whitest and finest with a fine wife and little Bob, to have to go, and I worked and tried to save him as much as possible, and, fate seemed bound to beat us. Our Battn. [Battalion] got the hardest day for a long time that day, though thank God the killed were light, most being wounded. Had two officers wounded, so came off well there.
My cousin Catherine had some additional information about this letter which better puts it into context:
My grandfather ultimately became a Captain in the Canadian Engineers 5th Battalion. However, at the time of Robert’s death and his writing of the letter to his uncle, he was a Lieutenant in “D” Company and Robert was a Private in “A” Company of the 2nd Canadian Pioneer Battalion, 2nd Canadian Division which served in many locations on the Western Front. The Pioneers were merged into the Engineers in 1918 which would have been after Robert’s death in 1917. According to John Cunningham, the picture of my grandfather which was taken Sept. 1, 1917 in Camblain les Abbe (as written on picture, perhaps today Camblain L’Abbé), France, would have been “just out of line at Hill 70 and about to be sent on to Passchendaele. It was taken four days after Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, resplendent on horse back, conducted a late morning inspection of the entire 2nd Canadian Division lined up along a road not far from the Canadian Corps headquarters at Camblain les Abbe.”
The Canadians took Hill 70 at some cost to the Germans and ultimately in November, took Passchendaele. The picture would have been taken very soon after Robert’s death. I also note that there is a sad footnote to the story in that Robert’s son fought in WWII and came back home with problems that resulted in him having a lobotomy and living out his life in an institution in London, Ontario. Robert’s wife Sheila died prematurely as well. I could send you some additional information about the sorts of tasks undertaken by the Pioneers as these are all documented in the War Diaries. Off the top, I know they built light rail lines, trenches, repaired bridges, roads, often going out at night to work. Passchendaele is notorious for the mud – both men and horses were lost drowning in the mud. In Canadian history, Passchendaele has a very significant place.