Next of Kin: Philip & Carrie Hern, Usborne Township, Ontario
Personal Details: 5 ft. 4 1/2 in., 130 lbs., dark complexion, blue eyes, dark hair, Methodist
Loftus Roy Hern was the youngest child of Philip and Carrie Hern, who were farmers in Usborne Township, close to the hamlet of Whalen Corners. Loftus attended Exeter High School and later took a business course at Canada Business College in Chatham. Like many young men from Southwestern Ontario in the early 1910’s, Loftus Hern left home and travelled West to find employment. He landed a good job as a bookkeeper with the Canadian Pacific Railway in Edmonton, he shared accommodation with a roommate, and seemed to be enjoying his new surroundings.
On August 22, 1914, just a little over 2 weeks after Britain had declared war on Germany, Loftus Hern sent a telegram to his brother Melville back in Whalen Corners. He was boarding a train in Edmonton and heading to Quebec – he had joined the army, and he wanted Melville to break the news to his mother.
Loftus arrived with the 9th Infantry Battalion at Valcartier, Quebec where they received basic training. While there a letter from his sister Bertha arrived advising him that “camp life is rough”, and encouraging him to be careful and to keep his name pure. Loftus responded by saying they “are all doing a lot of unnecessary worrying up there”, “Perhaps it is hard to do anything else, but remember I am a man now, or at least I should be, and it is up to me to do my duty.”
In another letter to his brother Melville, Loftus revealed that he had been chosen as a scout for his Company, “there is no more pay in it but a great deal more danger”. The scout “has to go ahead of the whole army and select grounds, find the enemy, find out their strength and kind of guns they are using, draw maps of surrounding country to get positions, and a mistake on the scouts part may mean the death of the whole army. So you see it is a rather responsible job, but I might as well die as any one else.”
Private Hern left Quebec on the S.S. Zealand on October 4, 1914 as part of the Canadian 1st Contingent. By November 1914, the 9th Battalion was encamped in tents and mud at Salisbury Plain in southern England. Loftus wrote to Melville to let him know “I was in London for five days and had the time of my life. I think you had better come over here on your honeymoon. My chum and I have the fellows going here. We told them we got married when we were in London. In fact, we might as well have. Ha, Ha! Some time.”
Later that month the battalion moved into huts at Bulford Camp, with conditions slightly better than muddy tents. Letters exchanged between Loftus and his sister Bertha show that she was still concerned about his life in the army. Loftus writes “I had to laugh when I read your letter. You would think I was in some prison or something”. In another letter he expressed how anxious he was to get to the front saying “If we had first class officers we would have a far better chance of getting to the front at an earlier date”.
Early in 1915 the 9th Battalion was moved to barracks at Tidworth Camp and broken up to reinforce other battalions. Loftus was transferred to the 4th Central Ontario Battalion and his chances of becoming a scout were dashed. On March 21st the battalion shipped out to France. Just before he left he wrote to tell his brother Melville of a souvenir he had sent home, “I sent a belt home to you to keep for me if I come back. It is covered with military badges. If I don’t come back keep it for your oldest boy. Ha Ha!” The belt was eventually given to Gerald Edwin Hern, the eldest son of Melville Hern.
April 23rd, 1915 was a day of fighting in what became known as the Second Battle of Ypres. It took place outside the city of Ypres, Belgium, and was the first major battle fought by Canadian troops in the war. It was also the site of the first large-scale poison gas attack in modern history.
On April 22nd the 4th Battalion was in reserve positions in Vlamertinghe. At 9:30 pm they received the order to stand by. Ypres was being heavily shelled and French troops were retreating to Vlamertinghe. The battalion was ordered to participate in a counterattack to recapture the Mauser Ridge, south of the village of Pilkem. At 12:30 am, April 23rd, the battalion moved and crossed No. 4 Pontoon Bridge of the Yser Canal at 4:10 am. At 4:30 am they halted at a farm house 1,200 yards west of Pilkem where the enemy were entrenched. At 5:25 am the advance began towards the ridge with “B” Company in the lead. They occupied a portion of the 150-yard front and the other companies followed. The enemy was very strongly positioned on the ridge and the battalion was heavily engaged. The enemy artillery and machine-gun fire was very heavy and the battalion was holding the lower slopes of the ridge and valley but the advance forward was very slow. The advance halted and the battalion entrenched themselves 400 yards away from the enemy. In the middle of the afternoon they again were ordered to advance and they closed the open flank. At 9:00 pm the battalion came out of action, relieved by the East Yorks. Heavy losses were taken, with 505 killed, wounded, or missing, including the battalion commander.
Initially, Private Loftus Hern was reported as “wounded and missing”, which was later updated to “presumed to have died”. After many months of uncertainty, the Hern family received a letter from the father of a soldier that served with Loftus on that day which provided more information about the circumstances of his death. Loftus had been injured in the leg and was evacuated to a dressing station along with other wounded. The station was subsequently shelled by the Germans, killing many of the soldiers awaiting treatment, including Loftus. Although the news was devastating, the suspense regarding his fate was finally over for his family.