Saturday 25 April 2020

A Remarkable Life: R.C. Royston, Part 1

One of the things I am thankful for is the work done by archival teams around the world to capture history and move it online.  In Canada, tremendous work has been done by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) to move information online and various provinces and municipalities have done likewise.  I'm most familiar with the work done by the Vancouver archives, which has captured a rich visual portrait of life in the city over the past two centuries. Private organizations, like and are also a valuable resource to researchers, often providing the means for governments to bring more material online that they could not afford to publish themselves.  I'm of two minds when I have to pay so much to view our national heritage, but I understand there's a price to make it accessible, although sadly only to those who can afford it. I think every Canadian should think about the family heritage that might be kept in boxes in their basement and where appropriate - where it might be valuable history or offer a narrative - donate it at the right time to an archive. 

A few weeks ago I came across a picture of a young man, Richard Cuthbert Royston, in Archives Canada.  He was a soldier in the 16th Battalion Canadian Scottish and an escaped Prisoner of War; there was no other information about him. Ancestry was the natural place to start but it provided little more than tombstone information - a disjointed family tree with no substantive data. But it was a place for me to start my research that took me deep into archival sources and, as always, new personal connections with others around the world.   

So here's the story - the first of two parts - of Private Richard Cuthbert Royston.

Private R.C. Royston, May 1918
If I had to write the obituary upon his death in 1958 what a colourful story it would be: an inventor, a farmer, a soldier, a prisoner, a war hero - winner of the Military Medal for bravery - a landowner, a man who loved sports - cricket and rugby - a magistrate, husband and father; someone who lived life to it’s fullest, willing to take on new challenges and adventures; a very good friend - “extremely intelligent and well educated. . . a very fine type of man”.  He died at 68, in his prime, to be outlived by his wife by twenty-eight years, and his only son Toby, a big game hunter, who died in Zimbabwe in 1993. 

Richard Royston, standing next to his friend Louis Speirs, the man he’d been with in captivity for more than three years and had served alongside since they’d enlisted in Valcartier four years earlier, listened as they once again recounted the story of their escape to the reporter from the Metropolitan Press. The reporter hit the facts that would appeal: their narrow shave when they approached a farmhouse for directions, only to be told they were still in Germany; a little Hun-bashing about the prison guards who would deny them their parcels and then would empty the contents on the ground when they did hand them over - apparently a source of great amusement for the Germans. 

The Brattleboro Daily
Reformer, Vermont
April 20, 1918

Royston had read a story written by a reporter who interviewed them in Holland just a day after they crossed the frontier. The story had mixed up some of the facts - the date of his capture for one, writing 1916 instead of 1915. 

God wished it had been ’16: one less year in Dietersheim digging canals along the river for thirteen hours a day in all kinds of weather, in only the clothes they stood up in; the rolling mills at Wetzlar or the twelve hour days in the iron foundary near Brockenheim.  He’d spent a year at the American shoe factory in Rödelheim, near Frankfurt, that ended up making breach blocks for guns.  And in the periods between the work camps and factories he and Spiers returned to Giessen, the big prison camp about fifty miles north of Frankfurt-am-Main; but conditions there were not much better. There was one man - a man from the 13th Battalion - who boshed the job of trying to cut his own throat and was sent away and not seen again.

The stories of their escape, published in papers across Canada and the United States, captured the highlights: how they started out from a farm near St. Evor on the Rhine with two other prisoners who went off on their own after two days to better their chances; wearing a canvas waistcoat under their sweaters and carrying sixty biscuits to last them on their trip; the Dutch gendarme at the border who made them empty their pockets to make sure they weren’t smuggling gold to the Germans after a man was caught the week before with 20,000 florins in gold. 

But the stories bore little resemblance to the detail the two men had provided to their examiner, Captain Theodore Byard. He’d been appointed by the Committee on the Treatment of British Prisoners of War to debrief them when they got to England at the beginning of May, 1918. 

Giessen POW Camp - located on a slight hill just
of town, flanked on one side by the main highway
and the other side by pine woods

It would have been hard for a reporter to capture the true horror of the prison camps: how they were forced to labour for the Germans in conditions so bad that men were driven to maim themselves to escape the work: smashing a hand with a 15 lb hammer; giving themselves blood poisoning; scraping an arm or leg with a razor and covering it with a mustard poultice so the limb swelled, and then poisoning the wound with a rusty nail; pouring boiling water on legs, or putting a gloved hand into scalding water and pulling the glove off so it would remove the skin from the hand.  Even some Germans questioned conditions that would drive men to do such things: the soup with a few potatoes in it that could lead to a form of Bright’s disease that caused massive swelling in the joints; the  random acts of violence.

Royston and Spiers were captured during the second Battle of Ypres, on April 22nd/23rd 1915, along with 1400 other Canadians - the largest number of Canadians that would be taken prisoner on a single day in the War.  

16th Battalion disembarking in St. Nazaire, 
Feb 15th 1915. 
Photo courtesy of Jakealoo, "Doing Our Bit

The two men had arrived in France with the Canadian Scottish on February 15th - H.M.T. Maidan - docking in St. Nazaire after a stormy three day voyage from England.  A severe gale had hit them on the second night out and many of the men, unaccustomed to the sea, were violently ill.  Others were injured from the rolling deck and one man was washed down into the hold, while the starboard horse shelter and two horses were washed overboard. A number of other horses suffered injuries and had to be killed.

The troops disembarked at dawn and by late morning, to the sounds of the pipe band and carrying their overcoats with the new goat skin coats and mitts that had been issued to them earlier in the day, they marched through the streets of the town on their way to the train.  It had turned into a beautiful day, warm and bright.

The battalion boarded the train later in the afternoon - thirty-eight men to a cattle car, nine junior officers in a separate one, and the senior officers in the first class car - and at 5:08 the 16th Battalion headed towards the battlefields of France.

Entraining at St. Nazaire,
Feb 15th 1915.
Photo courtesy of Jakealoo, "Doing Our Bit"

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