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Remembrance Day 2016: A portrait of soldier Herbert Hayes

Canadian soldiers man the trenches at Vimy Ridge in 1917 during the First World War. Herbert Hayes was wounded near Vimy in the fall of that year.
Canadian soldiers man the trenches at Vimy Ridge in 1917 during the First World War. Herbert Hayes was wounded near Vimy in the fall of that year. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Files

Herbert Clarence Hayes was 30 years old on Sept. 24, 1914, when he walked into a military station in Valcartier, QC, and signed up to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

The Irish-born farmer with hazel eyes and dark hair had no wife waiting for him back home in Toronto, and no children to worry if their father would ever be back.

By all appearances, the young man was fit and healthy, with the exception of a scar on one side of his neck and the marks from three vaccinations on his left arm.

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His signature, at the bottom of his attestation form, was written clearly, with bold slashes across the “H”s and the “T.”

About 10 days later, he was on a ship bound for England, becoming one of the tens of thousands of Canadian men and women who fought in the First World War.

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Digitizing history

Global News was able to piece together much of Hayes’ wartime experience through the aged and sometimes illegible documents that ended up in his personnel file.

READ MORE: More than half of First World War records now online

Until recently, the century-old papers sat in a cardboard box in Library and Archives Canada’s Gatineau preservation centre.

But in 2013, archivists began digitizing the records linked to the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and uploading them to the web to mark the 100th anniversary of the Great War.

The project is expected to be finished in 2018.

An employee at Library and Archives Canada sorts files from the First World War at the archival centre in Gatineau. Monique Scotti/Global News

Because his name falls in the first half of the alphabet, Hayes’ war service record — along with those of more than 300,000 other soldiers — is already online.

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It tells the story of a man who left behind everything he knew to serve his country. He tended to the wounded in France for nearly three years before his body finally gave out on him.

Like many soldiers, Hayes began his overseas service with a brief stint in England before he was transferred to France on Nov. 4, 1914. He then became part of the Canadian Army Medical Corps, and the service number assigned to him was 34291.

The first two years were relatively uneventful, according to his file — at least in terms of Hayes’ health and well-being. He got into trouble twice in mid-1915 for being absent without leave, and ended up losing a few days’ pay in each instance.

Hospitalization and recovery

But in 1917, Hayes’ luck ran out. A few months after the historic battle at Vimy Ridge, he was wounded by shrapnel in action near Vimy on Oct. 10, 1917.

His hospital and medical records trace a long and painful recovery from the injury, which ripped open his left thigh and left him unable to stand.

By Oct. 18, 1917, Hayes was lying in a bed at the British 22nd Casualty Clearing station, part of the long evacuation chain that got injured soldiers away from the front.

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Oct. 31, 1917, was Hayes’ last day of active service in France. He would undergo three operations in the months that followed to repair his mangled leg, leaving him with four distinct, linear scars.

Remarkably, a piece of the shrapnel doctors pulled from his thigh was found stuffed in his file.

A piece of shrapnel removed from the leg of Canadian soldier Herbert Hayes. Monique Scotti/Global News

By January 1918, the wounds had been declared “healed” but Hayes still couldn’t walk.

“He states he was kept in a wheelchair for four weeks without crutches,” noted one doctor in a hastily scribbled note.

Apparently Hayes was expected to be moved, the doctor wrote, so the previous hospital didn’t think it “worthwhile” to give him crutches.

On Feb. 25, 1918, Hayes was admitted to the newly-opened Granville Canadian Special Hospital in Buxton, England, which specialized in orthopedic injuries.

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By March, doctors were noting that his leg was “stronger, can go a few steps without crutches.”

There was, at that point, nothing to suggest he couldn’t return to duty. And on May 15, 1918, a doctor declared in writing that he did not need to be discharged permanently.

But all that changed as the summer arrived.

End of a military career

Near the end of June, Hayes came down with a bad nighttime cough, and was treated for what doctors thought was influenza. It had been just 18 days since he had been discharged following the leg injury.

By late October, he wasn’t improving and the doctors were noting the “strong suggestion” that Hayes had tuberculosis. In November, the news got worse as the soldier was diagnosed with serious hearing damage “caused by active service,” with no improvement ever to be expected.

“Chronic catarrhal and nerve deafness, possibly concussion,” read the matter-of-fact medical report. “Tires easily, weak, loss of weight.”

Hayes was indeed very thin. At 5-foot-5, he weighed just 116 pounds.

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With the list of medical issues growing by the week, he was finally granted a discharge from any further military service on Nov. 29, 1918 by officials in Canada who agreed Hayes was unfit for duty.

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The thigh injury and “pulmonary tuberculosis” were listed as the reasons.

Upon his return, Hayes was “entitled to wear one gold wound stripe,” but received no medals. His profession on release was listed as stationary fireman and in a box marked “conduct and character while in service,” someone stamped a single word in bright red letters: “good.”

From the time he signed up to the day he was dismissed, records say the farmer from Ontario served a total of four years, 95 days.

He was released just a few weeks after the war officially ended on Nov. 11, 1918.

Library and Archives Canada

Hayes died more than a decade later, on July 29, 1930, at Toronto’s Christie Street Veterans’ Hospital.

Officially, his cause of death was listed as “bronchiectasis” — a lung condition in which the airways are damaged. He left behind a wife, identified as Mrs. Annie Crawford, and was buried at Prospect Cemetery.

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For more information on how to access Library and Archives Canada’s records of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, click here.

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