Recording Charles Smith: Notes on a Diary

Jonathan Locke Hart, a Canadian poet and literary scholar, is launching his new book, Unforgetting Private Charles Smith, at Ben McNally Books tonight. The book is based on a small diary that Hart came across in the Toronto Public Library’s Special Collections Department.  

Charles Smith blog book launch

Last week, Mr. Hart gave a sneak preview of his book at a “Discover Special Collections” talk at the Toronto Reference Library. He provided some background information about Charles Smith, read a few passages from his book, and thanked Special Collections staff for their assistance with his work.  Alan Walker, the esteemed curator of the Canadian Documentary Art Collection, was especially praised for finding an image of Smith for Hart.  

Smith started his diary on June 5, 1915, the day that he enlisted to serve with the Canadian Expeditionary Overseas Force during the First World War. His last entry, comprised of three words - “Back at noon” - was written on May 31, 1916, the day his regiment, the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI), were sent to Sanctuary Wood, to relieve another company. Located near Ypres, Belgium and close to the French border, Sanctuary Wood was where Private Charles Smith was killed in action on June 2, 1916 during the Battle of Mount Sorrel. 

What most fascinated Hart about the diary was his discovery of Smith’s voice, which the book's online blurb notes was “full of life, and the presence of a rhythm, a cadence that urged him to bring forth the poetry in Smith’s words.”


But as a local historian, an amateur genealogist and all-round nosey parker, I wanted to know more about Charles Smith and his family and how the library acquired his war-time diary. I found some of the answers using online resources available at Toronto Public Library, notably as well as Toronto city directories, fire insurance plans and the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star newspapers; other answers were in Special Collections accession records. Of great value was the history of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry 1914-1919; vol. 1 and vol. 2  are available online.

About Charles Smith

Charles Smith was born on July 27, 1893 at New Eltham, Kent, England, a residential suburb that developed south of Eltham, a district of southeast London within the historic county of Kent. His parents, both born in 1860, were Arthur Smith, a police constable originally from Hawkhurst, Kent and Ellen Elizabeth Barnes from Chelsea, London, the eldest child of a printer. The couple had married at St. George, Hanover Square, London in 1883 and Charles was their third son. The first, Arthur, died at age three months in 1884, and the second, Arthur William, was born in 1885.  The family was Anglican and Charles was baptized on October 25, 1893 at Holy Trinity Church, Eltham.  

By 1901, Charles and his family lived in Chislehurst, a suburban district in southeast London within the Borough of Bromley. Seven-year-old Charles presumably was at school, his father was an acting police sergeant, and his older brother, now 15, was a grocery assistant.

Over the next few years, the Smith family left England. Brother Arthur went first in 1904, soon settling in Toronto.  The rest of the family followed in 1906. Twelve-year-old Charles and his parents arrived in Montreal from Liverpool on May 12 headed for Toronto. No occupation was provided for Arthur Smith Senior on the ship’s manifest, except that he was “living on his money.”

In 1909, Arthur Smith Junior, now a steamfitter, moved to the United States. He told border officials at Detroit that his closest relative in Canada was his father at 16 Geneva Avenue, Toronto. By then, Arthur Smith Senior was a painter with the T. Eaton Co.; he continued to do this work at Eaton's for many years.

Geneva Avenue, the location of the Smith home, runs east from Sumach Street to Riverdale Park, one street south of Carlton. Known originally as Locust Street and then as Gildersleeve Avenue, the street was laid out in the 1870s by Patrick G. Close, a Toronto alderman and a land developer. (Close Avenue in Parkdale is named for him.) By 1884, a row of 24 attached houses had been built on the north side of the street. Number 16 still stands in the first third of the block; it is part of the Cabbagetown South Heritage Conservation District, designated under Part V of the Ontario Heritage Act, enacted by City Council on October 28, 2005.


Charles Smith Geneva Ave 1910
Geneva "Street" in 1910.  Detail of Plate 28, Atlas of the City of Toronto, 1910


In 1911, the Census of Canada recorded that 17-year-old Charles Smith lived at 16 Geneva Avenue with his parents. He worked full time - 50 weeks during the year, 44 hours a week - as an invoice clerk at a women’s millinery.

When Charles Smith signed up to serve with the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force on June 5, 1915, his attestation paper recorded that he was 21 years, 11 months and a student in a chartered accountants’ office. This was later documented as being Webb, Read, Hegan and Callingham & Co., Chartered Accounts, which then occupied Room 1302, Canadian Pacific Railway Building, 69-71 Yonge Street.  His attestation paper also recorded several personal details. He was five feet, nine inches tall, with a 36-inch chest when fully expanded. He had fair hair, a fair complexion, grey eyes and a mole on the side of his left hip. (His medical examination conducted the previous day also noted his weight was 125 pounds and assessed his physical development was fair.) His military experience consisted of two and-a half months in the active militia of the Q.O.R [Queen’s Own Rifles].  

Smith attestation 1915
Charles Smith attestation paper, 1915.


On enlistment Charles was assigned to the 2nd University Company, Canadian Expeditionary Force, and given the regimental number McG 173. Charles was taken on strength with the PPCLI (Eastern Ontario Regiment) on August 24, 1915, and he joined his battalion in the field on September 25, 1915.  "The recruiting of an infantry company from university men and their friends, but not excluding others of the student age and type who would find such a comradeship congenial," was suggested in April 1915 by two McGill University graduates, the PPCLI history recounts.  

Between August 1915 and the end of 1916, some 1,200 officers and men reinforced the PPCLI through these University Companies. Popularly known as "the McGill Companies" because of their originators, their official title was "University Companies Reinforcing PPCLI."  They are credited with saving "the Regiment from practical extinction" following the slaughter at Polygon Wood and Bellewaerde Ridge in the Second Battle of Ypres, April-May 1915, and with performing with great bravery and endurance in Sanctuary Wood on June 2, 1916.

Charles's personal war diary records his movements until May 31, 1916, but the war diary of his regiment, published in the second volume of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry 1914-1919, fills in the gaps of the fateful few days between his last entry and his death on June 2.

May 31.Relieved 49th in Sanctuary Wood, Nos. 1 (at the " Loop ") and 2 (at the "Appendix ") in front line, 3 in Warrington Avenue, 4 in Zouave Wood.
June 1. Heavy ranging fire by Germans in the morning. Night unusually quiet. Weather fine and warm.
June 2. General Action : Battle of Mount Sorrel. Enemy attacked soon after 1 p.m. after four hours' intensive bombardment on P.P.C.L.I. and 8th Brigade front. On the Regiment's right the garrison (No. 1) was annihilated and “the Loop” overrun, but the support line held in Warrington Avenue and Gourock Road (No. 3), Lovers' Walk and Maple Copse (No. 4). On the left No. 2 held the Appendix and beat off a bombing attack, ultimately withdrawing at night. The crisis had passed by 5 p.m., but the bombardment continued through the night.

A more graphic description of the horrors of June 2 is provided on Veteran Affairs Canada’s website for Hill 62 (Sanctuary Wood) Canadian Memorial that Hart repeats in his book.

On the morning of June 2, the Germans mounted an attack to dislodge the Allies from their positions at Mount Sorrel just north of the Ypres-Menin road. In the fiercest bombardment yet experienced by Canadian troops, whole sections of trench were obliterated and the defending garrisons annihilated. Human bodies and even the trees of Sanctuary Wood were hurled into the air by the explosions. As men were literally blown from their positions, the 3rd Division fought desperately until overwhelmed by enemy infantry. By evening, the enemy advance was checked, but the important vantage points of Mount Sorrel and Hills 61 and 62 were lost.

The PPCLI continued to fight at Sanctuary Wood on June 3 and 4, heavy enemy firing preventing relief until the latter day. Casualties were high. Lieut.-Colonel H. C. Buller, the commanding officer, and five officers were killed, and Major Gault, the founder of the regiment, and 12 officers were wounded. There were 388 casualties among the non-commissioned officers and men, “about 150 all told lost their lives in the engagement," volume one of the regiment’s history documented, adding “Sanctuary Wood was the grave of the battalion of Canadian university men.”

Private Charles Smith body was not recovered. His death was recorded on his personnel file on June 13, estimating he had been "killed in action between June 2nd and June 4th 1916”. Charles will was entered into the Military Defence Canada Central Registry on December 19, 1916.  Written on August 29, 1915, two days after being taken on strength with the PPCLI, he instructed: “In the event of my death, I give the whole of my property and effects to my mother Ellen Elizabeth Smith and on her death to go to my father Arthur Smith both of 16 Geneva Ave. Toronto, Ontario, Canada and on the death of both my father and mother all my effects to go to the Hospital for Sick children, College St, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.” 

Charles Smith war record p. 37 will
Charles Smith's will written on August 29, 1915

News of Smith’s death was published in the “Toronto Casualties” section of the Toronto Globe on June 20, 1916, his entry stating his address, the accountancy firm where was employed, and that he “was a member of No. 2 Company of McGill University.” His picture was also published in the Toronto Star.  Military officials sent his pay and separation to his father, and his “Med & D” - Medal and diary?? - to his mother.  Charles had inscribed a note of his diary instructing, "Please return to Mrs. E. E. Smith, 16 Geneva Ave, Toronto.".  

An undated card in Charles's personnel file records "Mem cross" to his mother.  The Memorial Cross (more often referred to as the Silver Cross) was instituted in December 1919, and was awarded to mothers and widows of Canadian soldiers who died on active duty or whose death was consequently attributed to such duty. The cross was engraved with the name, rank and service number of the son or husband.

Private Charles Smith’s service during the First World War is commemorated in several places.  He is listed in the Roll of Honour and the Nominal Roll published in the second volume of the PPCLI’s history).  His name is inscribed on Panel 10 of the Menin Gate (Ypres) Memorial, Belgium. The impressive monument, dedicated in 1927, bears the names of 54,604 soldiers of the British Empire, including 6,994 Canadians, who died in Belgian Flanders (which covers the area known as the Ypres Salient) before 16 August 1917 and have no known grave.  The memorial is operated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission whose website includes a page for “Private Smith, Charles G.”. It is the only record that shows a middle initial in his name. 

Charles Smith's name is listed in the Canadian Book of Remembrance housed in the Memorial Chamber, Peace Tower, Ottawa. Completed in 1942, the massive book records the names of those who died fighting overseas during the First World War; Charles page is displayed each April 14. 

Charles Smith memorial page
Entry for Pte. Charles Smith PPCLI on page 64 of the First World War Canadian Book of Remembrance

All of Charles’s immediate family died within 16 years of his death. Brother Arthur William Smith died in the United States in April 1924, leaving a widow and a young daughter. Mother Ellen Elizabeth Barnes Smith died at Wellesley Hospital of pancreatic cancer on April 7, 1927. She was buried two days later in Section 21 267, Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto in a plot that her husband had purchased. Her gravestone recorded “Ellen Smith, beloved wife of Arthur Smith died April 7, 1927 aged 67 years." The names of their three sons who all had predeceased Ellen also were inscribed on the monument. Listed first was “Chas. Smith PPCLI McG 173 killed at Sanctuary Wood June 2 1916 aged 21 years". 

Arthur Smith Senior continued to live at 16 Geneva Avenue for a few more years.  However, the 1930 Toronto city directory recorded that, although he still was a painter, he now boarded at 13 Geneva Avenue. He may have moved back to England. In 1929, an Arthur Smith was listed in a City of London electoral register for Bromley, Kent, and the death of a 72-year-old Arthur Smith was registered at Eltham, Kent in October 1932.

About Toronto Public Library acquisition of Charles Smith's diary 

Initially I understood that Toronto Public Library had no record of its acquisition of Charles Smith's diary. I speculated that perhaps Arthur Smith Senior donated his son's diary around the time that he downsized his household and returned to England. However, thanks to my colleague Alan Walker, I learned that the Library acquired the diary in February 1986 from A. Gordon Keys (1928–1997), who in the 1970s and 1980s donated many family records. These are housed in the Keys family fonds (L 44), Baldwin Collection of Canadiana's Manuscripts Collection

Like Charles Smith, Norman Alexander Keys (1888-1977), Gordon's father, fought for Canada during the First World War.  He was a 27-year-old Toronto lawyer living at 87 Avenue Road when he enlisted for the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force on May 20, 1915. He served from August 1915 until November 1917, and was awarded the Military Cross in the latter year “for conscious bravery and devotion to duty.” 

It was not until I read the PPCLI’s history that I made the connection between Charles Smith and Norman A. Keys, and realized that the two men would have known each other. Their regimental numbers were similar. Keys was McG 133 having enlisted a few weeks before Smith who was assigned McG 173. Both were privates in the 2nd University Company and joined the PPCLI on September 1, 1915. Keys was wounded at Sanctuary Wood on June 2, 1916, the same day that Smith was killed.  Keys was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in the PPCLI the same month.   

After Norman A. Keys death in 1977, Gordon Keys inherited his father’s papers, including the diary. But it remains a mystery how Norman A. Keys acquired Private Smith’s diary in the first place. 

First posted, May 6, 2019. Revised, May 9, 2019; May 13, 2019