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Capt. Conn Alexander: A man of mystery


Past Imperfect Columnist Ed Roberts

Wars are times of conflict and tumult, and they often produce strange stories and unexplained happenings. The Great War of 1914-1918 — the First World War, as it is generally known today — has left us with many of these. But none is stranger nor more mysterious than the story of Capt. Conn Alexander, late of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.

Alexander was a man of mystery. The official records reveal only a sketch of his life and career. On Sept. 8, 1914, he came to Government House in St. John's to see the governor, Sir Walter Davidson. That was a fortnight after the first of the Blue Puttees signed up. He wanted to join the newly-raised Newfoundland Regiment.

He told Davidson he had just arrived in St. John's, in the company of Adolph Bernard and Arthur Raley, all three of whom, in Davidson's words, "have come out [from England] to join the corps." (Bernard and Raley were Englishmen living in St. John's, where they taught at Bishop Feild College; they had been on holiday in England.)

Alexander told Davidson that he was 31 and he was living near Halifax, Nova Scotia. He had been at Harrow, one of the elite English public schools. (We call them "private" schools in Canada.) He had served with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers during the South African (Boer) War and subsequently with the Grenadier Guards. Davidson promptly offered Alexander an appointment as a lieutenant in the regiment. Alexander, just as promptly, declined the appointment.

Experienced officer

The next day, Davidson reported, two prominent citizens of St. John's told him that Alexander refused the lieutenancy because he had no other income, and needed "sufficient pay to cover his expenses." Davidson then wrote to W.H. Franklin, the camp commandant at Pleasantville, where the Blue Puttees were training.

"Captain Alexander," he said, "is experienced both as a regular officer on war service and as an instructor of musketry and will, I have no doubt, be of value to the Newfoundland Regiment." He was to receive a captain's salary, with a daily allowance of $2.50 "to cover his incidental expenses."

On Sept. 21, Alexander was duly appointed a captain, one of the first 12 commissioned officers. By early October, when the first Newfoundlanders sailed for England, he had become commanding officer of "B Company" as well as the officer commanding the troops aboard the Florizel.

Sydney Frost, then a private in the Blue Puttees and one of the regiment's acknowledged heroes, wrote in later years that Alexander was better informed regarding military affairs than any other First Five Hundred Officer and very soon won the admiration of everyone in the battalion. His military bearing, dress, commands, etiquette and concepts of discipline would do credit to any officer of the [Brigade of] Guards.

He continued: "On route marches in England and Scotland of as long as 25 miles, Alexander's groom rode his company commander's mount while the latter marched with the troops, and if a private soldier showed signs of fatigue and inability to carry on, Alexander would bear his rifle and equipment for a spell ..."

Relinquished commission

Alexander was with the Newfoundlanders when they landed in Gallipoli in September. Again Frost praised his conduct.

"During the violent storm and flood followed by heavy frosts on the Gallipoli Peninsula in November, 1915, which inflicted 5,000 casualties at Suvla Bay alone, mostly frozen feet, he proved a tower of strength in constantly circulating among the men, encouraging, exhorting and assisting them in measures to prevent trench feet and frostbite and in severe cases, ordering them transferred to the beaches for evacuation."

He served throughout the Gallipoli campaign, and returned to Egypt and then to France with the regiment. But then, suddenly and without apparent cause, Alexander's career ended on June 20, 1916, 10 days before Beaumont Hamel.

Many years later, Frost asked rhetorically: "How did it happen that an officer of this calibre was suddenly removed from our midst shortly before the Beaumont Hamel tragedy of July 1st, 1916? ... It forever remained a mystery, as far as the troops were concerned."

The First Five Hundred, the Newfoundland government's official record of the Blue Puttees, recorded only that Alexander had "Relinquished [his] commission, June 20, 1916."

Frost, by then a captain, records that he subsequently encountered Alexander, in a bar in London in March 1918, among a group of Canadian soldiers. Frost exclaimed, "'I'll be damned, Capt. Alexander.' With his usual composure and correct military bearing and discipline, he sprang promptly to attention, saluted and said: 'No, Trooper Alexander presents his compliments to Capt. Frost.' At once, I had the feeling he had no desire to enter into conversation ..."

The official records offer no explanation of Alexander's sudden decision to leave the regiment. Indeed, they deepen the mystery. But it is clear that whatever caused Alexander to do so was serious and came to pass quickly. On June 7, 1916, a coded telegram from the War Office in London to Davidson asked for approval of Alexander's decision to resign his commission.

On June 12, permission having been received, the Military Secretary of the War Office so informed the Newfoundland Regiment's paymaster, in three short sentences: "Capt. Alexander has been reported on by his superior officers as being unfitted to command troops either in the field or at home. He was accordingly ordered to proceed to England [and has done so] ... I am to add that Capt. Alexander has been informed of the above decision."

Official notice of his resignation was published in the London newspapers for June 20. On Aug. 12, Alexander, still in England, joined Lord Strathcona's Horse, a Canadian Regiment, in France.

Conn Alexander — captain become private — survived the war. He lived near Halifax, but nothing more is known about him. There's a story there, but what is it? And will we ever know it?

Edward Roberts has had a lifelong interest in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. He was an MHA for 23 years, and served as the province's lieutenant-governor from 2002 to 2008.

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