The View From Fogo Island

Pte. Maxwell Scott, continued

Benson Hewitt editor@pilotnl.ca
Published on February 23, 2011

Last week in my piece on Pte. Maxwell Scott of Fogo, I concluded that the Court of Enquiry assembled to investigate the circumstances under which he met his death, determined that he had committed suicide. What next now?

Last week in my piece on Pte. Maxwell Scott of Fogo, I concluded that the Court of Enquiry assembled to investigate the circumstances under which he met his death, determined that he had committed suicide. What next now?

One would assume that had he been killed in action, or died from some disease, the proper protocol would have been straight-forward.

We know that shortly after his death a telegram was sent to the Records Office in London, England, to the extent that #3379, Pte. M. Scott had died on July 31, 1917, but that the cause of his death was not given.

On August 21, 1917, Mrs. Elizabeth Scott received this telegram from R. A. Squires, Colonial Secretary, St. John’s, Newfoundland: “Regret to inform you Record Office, London, today reports No. 3379, Pte. Maxwell Scott, died in France, July 31st; no cause given.”

This note was appended for the telegraph operator in Fogo: “This message is not to be sent until receiving office notifies that message to Reverend Mr. Scott, has been delivered and acted upon.” (Note: I am assuming that the Reverend Scott mentioned was the Methodist minister in Fogo at that time. The Scott family was Presbyterian, but it seems that they were worshipping members of the Methodist congregation in Fogo.) 

On Sept. 1, 1917, a Major Timewell sent a coded telegram to the Governor of Newfoundland stating that the finding of the Court of Enquiry regarding the death of Maxwell Scott, was suicide by shooting.

You will notice that in any of the previous reports regarding the death of Pte. Scott, no cause was given. This must have seemed unusual for the family as most likely if someone was killed in action, succumbed to wounds, or died of some disease, the family would have been notified of such. No such information was given to Mrs. Elizabeth Scott, and so her son, Robert, on Aug. 28, 1917, wrote this letter to the Honourable R.A. Squires, Colonial Secretary, St. John’s, NFLD.:

Dear Sir, Your message of August 21st, received notifying my mother, Mrs. Elizabeth Scott of the death of my brother, #3379, Pte. Maxwell Scott. Could you inform us whom we could communicate with for the object of getting more definitive information as regards his death. An answer would greatly oblige his mother and myself.”

 

On Sept. 8, 1917, Robert received this reply:

Dear Sir, I beg to acknowledge your letter of the 28th August, asking for further information on behalf of your mother regarding the death of your brother, Private Maxwell Scott. Any information that may come in will be at once communicated to you, but I do not think that we can obtain the details for which your mother is looking. I really do not know with whom you could communicate with the object of getting more definitive information. Perhaps the better plan would be to write Major Timewell, Newfoundland Pay and Record Office, 58 Victoria Street, London, asking him to send forward your letter to some person in France who would be able to give you more particulars regarding your brother’s death. He would probably forward your letter to the Clergyman, or to some Captain or Lieutenant who possibly would have intimate knowledge of the operation at the time, and could, from some of the men, obtain the further details so much desired. Major Timewell, in the Record Office, forwards to us all information which he receives, so that I am sure he will have nothing new to tell you, but that is the only channel that I am aware of whereby you may possibly receive fuller details.”

I do not doubt the sincerity of this letter, but it is interesting to note that on Sept. 1, just a week or so earlier, the Major Timewell mentioned in the letter above, sent a coded telegram to the Governor of Newfoundland, stating that Pte. Scott had committed suicide. Perhaps the Colonial Secretary was not as yet privy to that telegram.

I do not have any other information as to when the Scott family and the community of Fogo found out the cause of Max Scott’s death. We do know that Stewart Bennett was one of the witnesses at the Court of Enquiry held to discuss the cause of Scott’s death, and that he returned to Fogo after the war. We do know that Mrs. Scott duly received (and acknowledged) her son’s kit-bag which was routine procedure, and that was on June 22, 1918. In this particular letter to her, the writer wrote: “. . . assuring you of my deepest sympathy in your bereavement and in the renewed sorrow which the receipt of these effects must entail.” 

Pte. Scott willed all money due him to his mother which seems to have amounted to a little over $27. He also had had deducted from his monthly pay seventy cents a day for his mother. Missing from any of the documents available was any recognition of war service such as the British War Medal which others who had enlisted were automatically recipients of. Suicide was considered an act of cowardice.

It was common knowledge back then that funerals for anyone who had committed suicide were challenging for Christian churches. In the particular society that I grew up in it wasn’t an unknown occurrence, and I can remember it being said that it was ‘an unforgivable sin’, and because of that the church did not provide funeral services. As little as I know about Holy Scripture, this does not seem to be the teaching of Christ. And did not King Saul of Old Testament fame himself commit suicide?

 

Pte. Scott medical history shows that he was physically fit for war, and it was likely nothing else mattered. There were several revealing comments elsewhere, that he was ‘distant’ and even ‘morbid’.

It is also easy to imagine him back in Fogo in late 1916 at the age of 24 working as a clerk in his late father’s store, (He gave his occupation as clerk and I am assuming that his late father’s business was still in operation.) and almost every able-bodied man in a certain age bracket in Fogo was in some aspect of the war service. There may have been some who wondered, and bold enough to ask, why he wasn’t doing his part. Most likely he wondered himself.

It is very likely that after enlisting and going through basic training and then in the actual war zone, not everyone was mentally able to take the madness of friends and comrades being shot and dying around them. Pte. Scott most likely was one of them. These conditions were just too rough and painful for him to cope with, and as a result he committed suicide.

It is not difficult to imagine him as a content individual, prior to his call of duty. As I write this, I am trying to imagine the loud noises, the huge bangs of bombs, machine guns, the blood and violence, and wondering how anybody could take it. The reality of war is that it is in fact quite horrific, beyond the comprehension of anyone who has not experienced it first hand. Mental depression is now one of the enemies and not everyone was strong enough to handle it.

I am sure there are some of you reading this who have read the poem Suicide In The Trenches by Seigfried Sassoon and I’ll end this with that poem:

I knew a simple soldier boy

Who grinned at life in empty joy,

Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,

And whistled early with the lark.

 

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,

With crumps and lice and lack of rum,

He put a bullet through his brain,

No one spoke of him again.

 

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye

Who cheer when soldier lads march by,

Sneak home and pray you’ll never know

The hell where youth and laughter go.