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The ‘Suicide’ Battalion’s Chemist

WWI experiences of UM’s Henry P. Armes

November 7, 2022 — 

In the Armes Building at UM’s Fort Garry campus hangs a plaque commemorating Henry P. Armes, for whom the building is named. The inscription summarizes his career at the University of Manitoba: Professor of Chemistry, Dean of Arts and Science, Acting President, and finally, Dean of the University, a position created specially for him to advise the new president in 1945.

When the First World War began, Armes joined the 196th Universities Battalion and attained the rank of captain in UM’s Canadian Officers’ Training Corps (COTC), which was formed to prepare students for active service.

Soon after its arrival in England, the 196th was disbanded to reinforce units in France. Wishing to get to the front faster, Armes accepted a temporary reduction in rank to lieutenant and in June 1917, he joined the 46th Infantry Battalion in France.

At the start of October 1917, the 46th Battalion was among 20,000 Canadian troops sent to Flanders to relieve Australian and New Zealand forces that had tried and failed to capture the Passchendaele Ridge. The fighting conditions were appalling—the constant shelling and torrential rains had reduced the area to a quagmire of mud, shell craters, and corpses.

The Canadian offensive against Passchendaele began at 5:40 a.m. on October 26. Infantry advanced behind a curtain of artillery shelling into withering German machine gun fire. The 46th Battalion suffered horrendous casualties on the first day, earning it the nickname, “The Suicide Battalion.”

The following morning, Lt. Armes led a group of 25 men forward to bury the dead. After he returned, a report came in that there were still wounded on the battlefield, so he and two battalion runners went forward to investigate. On their way back, they were hit by a high explosive shell and all three men were seriously injured.

Armes was evacuated to the No. 3 Australian Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) near Poperinge, Belgium. The CCSs received casualties from field ambulance units and were the medical facilities closest to the front lines that could perform major surgery. They faced constant danger from aerial and artillery bombardment.

Lt. Armes received shell wounds to both legs, with his left limb badly shattered. After two days at the CCS, his left leg developed gas gangrene, due to anaerobic bacteria from the heavily manured farmlands where the battles were fought. The infection caused rapid tissue death and produced gas bubbles that swelled the flesh terribly. Doctors were forced to amputate Armes’ leg above the knee.

From the CCSs, the seriously wounded were evacuated to base hospitals in France, and then to England. Following six weeks in Abbeville, France, Armes had hospital stays in London, Buxton and Derbyshire. Towards the end of his nearly year-long recovery, he was fitted with a prosthetic limb at the IODE Hospital in London.

Armes was invalided out and returned to Canada in October 1918 aboard HMHS Neuralia. He resumed his teaching duties at the University of Manitoba, where the students and faculty warmly welcomed him back. In 1922, Armes married Clare Simpson and they made a home together on McMillan Avenue in Winnipeg. He retired in 1949, after forty years of service to the university. Henry P. Armes passed away two years later at the age of 66. Classes were cancelled for the afternoon of his funeral, so that the entire UM community could attend.

The University of Manitoba Libraries, Archives & Special Collections has many collections related to WWI:

  • View our collections and their finding aids related to World Wars.
  • Interested in digitized material? We have some of the COTC collection digitized, as well as Walter Eggertson’s transcribed diaries of his war experience.
  • During WWI students, staff, and faculty from the Manitoba Agricultural College (M.A.C) sent letters back to the college throughout the war. These letters were then bound, and titled Letters from the front [from] M.A.C. Students, 1915-18 and it is now in the rare book room at the archives.
  • A UM M.A.C. student, A.E. Blake (A2013-144) was involved in the battle of Passchendaele and you can view his small collection at the archives.
  • View the From the Somewhere blog about Frederick D. Baragar’s experience in WWI. The blog provides more information about the COTC in a blog post and there is a scan from the Manitoban about the COTC.

Contact the Archives for any questions about WWI records in the archives.

 

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