Fred Atkinson

Fred Atkinson was born on June 6, 1887, and at the age of 27 enlisted in Victoria, BC. His hard work and strength quickly singled him out to superior officers, and in 1916 he was transferred to the Third Tunnelling Company of the Canadian Engineers. His work with this company lead would lead to chronic debilitating illness, a life in sanatoriums and eventual death.

Tunnel warfare was an important facet of trench warfare. As armies dug trenches and fortified them, their enemies would dig below them in order to compromise the structures and plant explosives. While trench warfare may have characterized the Western Front, tunnels and mines were an unseen yet critically important part of defeating the enemy.

When Fred enlisted, he was described as healthy and of a stocky build, which made him perfect for the hard labour below ground. His fellow soldiers remembered him as always being at the “faces” of the tunnels, clearing muck in dank tunnels with little light except for weak electric lamps. There was barely enough oxygen for the soldiers to breathe, let alone for candles to stay alight. The close quarters, frightening conditions and lack of sanitation that characterized the mines and tunnels led to near constant colds and infections, and Fred remembered losing the hearing in his right ear, which he would never recover.

Stationed at Hill 60 for much of the war, the Company would prove integral to the efforts at the Battle of Messines. Up to 10 000 Germans were killed by explosives planted throughout the tunnels, relieving pressure the French forces were facing and allowing the British to reclaim the ridge.

German trenches destroyed by mine warfare during the Battle of Messines.

By 1917 Fred was experiencing what many of his compatriots working underground were also feeling—intense fatigue. Admitted into a field hospital in late 1917, he was advised by doctors to not return to the mines. However, a visit by a superior officer convinced him to continue his service underground, where he would remain until discharged in 1919.

Fred returned to Canada to his wife, and quickly found work as a miner. This was cut short by what his former employer described as wheezing, coughing and general exhaustion. Fred was unable to climb mild inclines, and was keeping his fellow miners up at night with his persistent wheezing and coughing. An x-ray of his lungs revealed a diagnosis of pulmonary tuberculosis, a disease his closest friend had died from in 1917 with the Company. This led to stays in various hospitals and sanatoriums, with Fred unable to work. In 1933 he returned home, which meant that his wife was also unable to work due to him requiring constant care. A doctor’s visit found him undernourished and unable to leave the house or even do simple tasks like dressing himself without loss of breath, leaving him “totally and permanently unemployable”.

Despite the conditions that one Major of the Third Tunnelling Company described as wet, with little to no ventilation, as well as testifying that he had no doubt that the conditions in the mines were instrumental in undermining his health, the Pension Board did not recognize Fred’s condition as being caused by the war. The $40 a month awarded due to the loss of a finger barely kept his wife and two children afloat.

Fred died in December of 1933 at just 46 years of age. His wife contested the ruling that his tuberculosis was not caused by his work throughout the war, but the Appeal Court stood fast that the condition was pre-war and therefore not eligible for further pension. The man once described as stocky, strong and one of the best men in his regiment wasted away quietly, unrecognized amongst the many soldiers that lost their lives due to TB and other deadly diseases.

Click here to access Fred Atkinson’s Military Service File at Library and Archives Canada