Remembering the WWI Service of Lester Edgar Ince

The wait for Lester Edgar Ince's military service file has finally ended! I downloaded it and have done my preliminary examination to its contents. If you're waiting for these records to come available, you'll know when they have for your ancestor when this link appears on the page for their previously published attestation papers.

The compiled service file is published as a PDF, so you'll need Adobe Reader or some other PDF software to view it. They're free to download, but the process of doing so can take several minutes because the files are quite large. Lester's service file was a total of 180 images, and took between 3 and 5 minutes to download completely.

What you find in your ancestor's service file will depend completely on what their World War I service was like. What you'll find in the file of a decorated officer will vary greatly from what you find in the file of an enlisted man. Because Lester was a black man serving in a predominantly white unit, at a time when whether black men should participate in Canadian military service was hotly contested in society, it shouldn't have surprised me to see no awards of any kind in his file.

Instead his file consists predominantly of medical records. I can see that piecing together his military service will likely rely on creating a timeline of his injuries and hospital stays, and then filling in the action that would have caused them. For the average enlisted man, this process will likely be identical, and tell much of the same story.

The first of his injuries are reportedly shrapnel wounds on his thigh and leg, that were superficial in nature according to his treating physicians. Lester spent time in France, and was at Ypres, where a shell landed approximately fifteen feet from him. As a result he experienced prolonged "shell shock," which caused him great distress throughout the rest of the war. He struggled with noises, was easily irritated, had nausea and loss of appetite, and dizziness. He had disturbing dreams and woke frequently from sleep. He was unable to ride in vehicles without becoming incredibly uneasy, and encountered a great deal of anxiety now associated with post-traumatic stress disorder

Based on his treatment records, I'm also postulating that he experienced first-hand the chemical weapons engaged by the Germans. Lester was treated for severe conjunctivitis, likely the result of contact with poison gas. He also was tested and treated for syphilis, a common ailment among all participants in the European theater. Venereal disease became such a crisis among the British armed forces in Europe, state sponsored prostitution began. After the introduction of this program, all soldiers were required to use contraception. Those who developed any type of preventable disease faced disciplinary action. I'll be interested to take a closer look at the timing and implementation of those measures, to see how they coincide with the enforcement (or lack thereof) within his unit.

I am endlessly glad that I watch Jan Peter's Great War Diaries docu-drama while it was still on Netflix. Even though I watched it several months ago, the thoroughness with which it handled the subject of World War I is incredible. The context includes each of the fronts of WWI action, and civilian life with respect to each, as told through the words and diaries of those who lived there. By the time I finished the documentary, I had the distinct notion that the only way I could have gotten better insight into the war would have been to have spoken to Lester Ince myself. 

I look forward to studying his service file in the weeks and months ahead, especially in relation to a book I'm still reading on his unit.