One of the most famous photographs of World War One shows a section of stretcher bearers up to their waists in the appalling mud of the Ypres battlefield.
It would not be exaggeration to credit this revealing picture which encapsulates the slime, filth and putridness of combat with iconic status. It also tells us a great deal about the nature of human compassion, a quality which was obviously a major part of the character of a Ballymena man, serving with the Canadian forces.
Private Arthur Holmes, of the Canadian Scots, had left his job as a farm labourer for a new life in Canada in the years just before the outbreak of war. On April 9, 1917, during the epic Canadian attack on German positions at Vimy Ridge, Arthur won the Military Medal while serving as a company stretcher bearer.
The particular act of bravery which merited the award was described as follows:-
“This man went forward as a company stretcher bearer. He displayed conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty in dressing wounded men under shell fire. This work was so remarkably done that the most serious cases did not require a second dressing at the aid post.”
Just a few days after his exploits, Arthur Holmes was killed in action whilst tending more wounded men.
The Holmes family later received a letter from Captain J. P. S. Cathcart, Medical Officer to the Canadian Scots:-
“Dear Mr. Holmes, you have no doubt before this received notice of your son Arthur’s death. He was killed during the operations of April 28th while at his duty tending to the wounded. We had his body removed and buried along with some of his comrades in the left of a small village. His grave is marked and I think as soon as they receive the particulars the Record Office will inform you of the map location.
“Arthur was without doubt the best boy in my medical section. It may be of interest to you to know that he was recommended for a decoration for his wonderful work under heavy fire in the battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9th. Unfortunately he was killed before he received it. We all feel his loss keenly and I myself feel as if his position cannot be filled. I extend to you my heartfelt sympathy in your sad bereavement and also that of my section.”
And the Observer recorded:-
Mr. David Holmes, Hugomont, Ballymena, has received intimation that his son, Private Arthur Holmes, Canadian Scots, has been killed in action on 28th April 1917. The information came by a letter from a friend soldier stating that Private Holmes had been killed in action by shell fire.
“We did all we could for him but he only lived a few minutes. It is very sad news but it is my duty to inform you of his death. We all feel the loss of him very much and God help you to bear the sad news.”
He enlisted in Winnipeg and came over with the first Canadian Force. He had been previously wounded and on three occasions was buried in shell holes. His last leave was spent at home 12 months ago. His young brother Private David Holmes (later killed in action), is on active service at the front with the Ulster Division.
Ballymena Observer, May 11, 1917