Frank Thorsteinson and the Winnipeg Falcons at War
“Respectfully dedicated to the memory of the late ‘Buster’ Thorsteinson, a sportsman and gentleman.”
On 24 February 1915, the Winnipeg Falcons lost a two-game series against the Winnipeg Monarchs for the Manitoba Senior Hockey Championship. Despite the loss, Frank “Buster” Thorsteinson had played well. In a playoff that featured two future Hall of Famers (Dick Irvin Sr. and Frank Fredrickson), the Manitoba Free Press described Thorsteinson as “the pick of theforwards.” As they put away their gear, the players could not know this was their last game as Falcons for another four years. The Great War in Europe beckoned, and, within a year, almost every player on the Falcons enlisted to serve overseas with the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
For Thorsteinson and his good friend George Cumbers, however, this was their final game. Neither would survive the war.
Falcons War Service
Most of the Falcons (although not Frank Thorsteinson or George Cumbers) enlisted with the 223rd (Canadian Scandinavians) Battalion. Falcons’ team executive Hannes Hannesson commanded the battalion. Through the winter of 1916–17, some of the Falcons continued to play together in the Winnipeg Patriotic League as part of the 223rd Battalion hockey team. Hebbie Axford coached while Gudmundur Sigurjonsson was the trainer; Wally Byron, Frank Fredrickson, Konnie Johannesson and brothers Bobbie and Harvey Benson were also on the roster.
In May 1917, the 223rd Battalion shipped off to England. The battalion was broken up for reinforcements on arrival. Hebbie Axford, Frank Fredrickson and Konnie Johannesson transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, where they trained as pilots. The Benson brothers, along with Wally Byron and Gudmundur Sigurjonsson, were posted to the 27th Winnipeg Battalion in France. Hebbie Axford was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery. Frank Fredrickson was injured in an aircraft crash in September 1918. Bobbie Benson was wounded one month later. All of them survived and returned home to Winnipeg in 1919.
It was a different story for George Cumbers. As a locomotive mechanic, his job was considered essential to the war effort at home. He was finally allowed to enlist with the Canadian Railway Troops in March 1917. Three months later, he was in France with the No. 13 Light Railway Operating Company. For 10 months he serviced locomotive engines operating on the military railways. On the morning on 28 March 1918, his unit was camped at Maroeuil, France, about 8 km southwest of Vimy Ridge. As they gathered for breakfast, a German artillery shell exploded in the centre of the camp, killing 19 soldiers, including Cumbers.
Frank "Buster" Thorsteinson
Like Cumbers, Franklin Oskar “Buster” Thorsteinson died during the First World War. Frank was my mom’s uncle. She never knew him, but grew up hearing stories about him as a hockey player. In 2002, she decided to research his story and share it at a family reunion. Mom had some excellent sources for Frank as a hockey player, including his connections with other Falcons.
Before the war, Frank worked as a clerk at a branch of the Northern Crown Bank in Winnipeg’s West End. His manager there was Fred Thordarson, who was a player and executive board member of the Falcons. The two families were really close — Fred’s daughter Shirley and my mom were life-long friends.
In 1932, Canadian Sport and Outdoor Life magazine published “The Romance of the Falcons,” Fred’s history of the team. The article was “respectfully dedicated to the memory of the late ‘Buster’ Thorsteinson, a sportsman and gentleman.” According to Fred, Buster Thorsteinson was the spirit and inspiration for the 1919–20 Falcons. This source provided a lot of information about Frank’s hockey career, but nothing about his experience during the First World War.
Our family also had access to photos and caricatures of Frank (and the other Falcons). Off the ice, Falcons teammates could be found at the Weevil Café located on Sargent Avenue at Victor Street. A local artist, Charles Thorson, drew many cartoons of the players. (Thorson went on to be an artist for Disney, where he worked on Snow White and Seven Dwarves. He always claimed that Snow White was based on a waitress at the Weevil.)
Frank’s Army Service
Although details of Frank’s hockey career were relatively easy to find, our family knew nothing about his military service except for the fact that Frank had died in France. First World War service files are available on request from Library and Archives Canada, so we requested a copy of his file — which provided some general information, but few details.
Frank was transferred to the Northern Crown branch at Swift Current, Saskatchewan, in the fall of 1915. He enlisted with the 209th Battalion on 1 March 1916. His attestation papers note a “scar on right knee from hockey skate.” He trained at Camp Hughes, Manitoba, during the summer of 1916. His former Falcons teammates were there, too, with the 223rd Battalion. Frank sailed to England with the 209th in early November 1916 aboard the RMS Caronia. (The Caronia was one of the ships that telegraphed an iceberg warning to the RMS Titanic in April 1912.) In England, the 209th was broken up in order to reinforce other units at the front.
Frank was posted to the 10th Battalion and joined his new unit near Vimy Ridge on 28 April 1917. It had taken over a year, but Frank was finally at war. The Library and Archives file contained little information about Frank’s service after he arrived in France. It recorded that he was hospitalized with the mumps in December 1917 and spent the next four weeks convalescing. After rejoining his battalion at the end of February, he was sent on leave to England for two weeks, but returned on 10 March 1918. The last two entries stated only that he was wounded by “dangerous” shell gas on 13 March and that he died of his wounds the following day. What exactly had happened?
While Frank’s service file lacked details, several other sources filled in the blanks. Detailed information about the battalion can be found in the late Daniel G. Dancocks’ Gallant Canadians, a history of the 10th Battalion in the First World War. The battalion war diary, a daily record of events, is available online through the Library and Archives Canada website. The Archives has several boxes of files, including Daily Orders and After Action Reports, which record both the significant and the mundane. Sifting through these, we were able to flesh out the story.
According to battalion daily orders, Frank was assigned to D Company of the 10th Battalion. He saw action at Hill 70 in August 1917 and at Passchendaele in November 1917. Frank was at the relief of the 8th (Winnipeg Rifles) Battalion at Passchendaele, portrayed in Paul Gross’s movie of the same name. He came through unwounded.
Frank returned from leave in time to be assigned to D Company’s eight-man raider section commanded by Lt. Victor Evans. The raid took place on the evening of 12 March 1918 in an area northeast of Lens known as Twisted Alley. The D Company raiders started from Hugo Trench, their objective was to set up a block at a trench intersection known as Humbug Alley. While crossing no man’s land, German mortars fired gas projectiles, nicknamed “pineapples,” at them. The D Company raiders were hampered by the need to wear gas masks, and they had only limited success. However, contemporary accounts record the raid as a success and list only three or four minor casualties; poison gas is barely mentioned. No gas casualties were reported in any accounts of the raid — including post-raid reports by the officers involved, the War Diaries of the 10th Battalion, and Dancocks’ history of the unit. How could Frank Thorsteinson be a fatal gas casualty when, according to most accounts of the raid, there were no gas or fatal casualties in these records?
There is some discrepancy about the impact of gas attacks in the accounts written by officers of the battalion (which were submitted on 17 March). Lt. Col. Dan Ormand, the commanding officer of the 10th Battalion, wrote that he smelled gas and could clearly hear the distinctive sound made by the German “pineapples.” Lt. Evans, who led the raid, wrote that his men encountered gas, but that none seemed affected by it. Another officer, Lt. H.E. Pearson, wrote that seven of eight raiders in Lt. Evans’ party reported ill effects of gas after leaving the front line trenches later that night. Pearson also recorded that he evacuated those affected by gas to a dressing station at Maroc, where one raider died.
Pearson’s report led me to look up casualty records for the war, beginning with the 1st Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) War Diary. According to Frank’s service file, he had been evacuated to the 1st Casualty Clearing Station at Barlin, where he died of gas poisoning. The diary made reference to receiving gas casualties from the trench raid, but included no names. That, in turn, took me to the 1st CCS Admissions and Discharges book, where I found the names of the gas casualties (including Frank's). At about the same time, I reviewed the CEF Casualty Ledger, which included both the wounded raiders mentioned in other sources, as well as the gas casualties.
The Casualty Ledger noted one officer and three other ranks wounded by enemy fire and seven wounded by gas, two of them fatally. The first gas fatality was James Reynolds, who died at the dressing station at Maroc. According to the casualty records, Frank and three others continued to show ill effects from gas and were evacuated to Barlin, where Frank died of gas poisoning. Of the seven gas casualties, none of whom are mentioned in historical accounts of the raid, I have been able to identify five (Thorsteinson, Reynolds, Gordon Thomas Burke, Alexander Burns, and Robert Wesley Maynard).
Frank was buried at Barlin Cemetery. Two weeks later, his friend George Cumbers was buried eight graves away. The two Falcons who did not survive the war are buried almost side by side at Barlin.
In Frank’s Footsteps
In November 2006, I visited France with my mom and my son Matt. We tried to follow Frank’s footsteps, although at that time we still had little information. The location of Humbug Alley and Hugo Trench eluded us. Of course we stopped at Barlin — Matt summed it up best, saying, “Here we are, 6 feet and 90 years apart.”
However, I was determined to locate the area where Frank was fatally wounded. I found a map of Twisted Alley in the Second Infantry Brigade War Diary, which included excellent landmarks that I was certain still existed. A search on Google Earth matched up the landmarks — I had a location.
I returned to Lens, France, on 16 April 2014. Today, Humbug Alley Trench is a roadway and the Twisted Alley battlefield is a shopping mall. Still, just being there was closure enough for me. The stroll back to the car, though, led to an unexpected surprise. To the west of the mall was a farm field, and in the centre of the field was a large wooded area known as Bois Rasé. Bois Rasé was one of the landmarks on the Twisted Alley map. According to the map, Hugo Trench had been located on the edge of the woods. Walking back to the car, I looked across the field and noticed a wide chalky line along the field’s edge. The line led straight into Bois Rasé. I scrambled down from the road, across a wide ditch and walked along the chalky path into the woods. As I stepped into the trees, it was like stepping back in time. While the land around had recovered from the war, the forest had not. Bomb craters were everywhere and straight in front of me were the eroded remains of Hugo Trench. I was standing in the trench that my great-uncle, Frank Buster Thorsteinson, jumped out of on the evening he was fatally wounded.
Returning to my hotel after finding Hugo Trench in Bois Rasé, I went online and checked my emails. The first message I read was from Nicki Thomas of Historica Canada, asking if I could help with some research about Frank and the wartime Falcons for a Heritage Minute.