9 days in No Man’s Land: The survival story of Stanley Harcourt Warn

Mt. St. Eloi, Mary Ritter Hamilton, c.1919-1920, oil on plywood. Courtesy Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1988-180-53; item level R5966-53
Mt. St. Eloi, Mary Ritter Hamilton, c.1919-1920, oil on plywood. Courtesy Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1988-180-53; item level R5966-53

I was researching the battle of St-Eloi for centennial activities coming up next year when I found this anecdote in Tim Cook’s At the Sharp End, which had in turn been found originally in Will Bird’s collection of articles on the Western Front, called The Communication Trench: Anecdotes & Statistics from the Great War 1914-1918. At St-Eloi, nine days after the first German attack on the Canadian 2nd Division that had been moved into relieve the British in early April 1916, members of the 2nd Canadian Pioneers where sent on patrol in No Mans Land shortly before the Division was pulled out.

St-Eloi had been a horrible battle for the 2nd Division; their first real fighting engagement on the front and they had been sent in as emergency replacements to relieve the British 3rd Division after a week of exhausting fighting around 7 huge mine craters that had been blown on 27th March. The Canadians had very little intelligence provided to them and by the time they took over the trenches at St-Eloi, most of which were shell holes strung out opposite the German lines, the terrain had changed so dramatically that their maps were worse than useless. In the days that followed, the 2nd Division found itself fighting a series of small, nearly suicidal engagements along the craters; battalions were broken up and whole companies disappeared in the mud, never to be seen again. By the night that the 2nd Pioneers were on patrol, the division was on the verge of pulling out.

Hearing a faint call coming from a shell hole, they found Private Stanley Harcourt Warn of the 29th Battalion, wounded multiple times with his feet nearly rotted through from the damp water in the bottom of the shell hole. Private Warn had been lying in No Mans Land with no medical attention for 9 days and had survived by scavenging rations and water from the dead surrounding him. This is the end of the anecdote and the end of Private Warn’s moment of fame, but I wanted to know more, specifically if there was a photograph of him. It turns out that Private Warn’s war is has even more drama in it than his 9 day stint in No Man’s Land.

Stanley Warn was an immigrant from England and worked in Nanaimo at a travelling salesman.  He was unmarried and at the time of his enlistment in November 1914 was 29 years old. Warn’s battalion, the 29th was known colloquially as “Tobin’s Tigers”, after its first Lt-Colonel, and had been raised officially on 7 November 1914. Warn joined two days later. The battalion embarked for Britain the next spring and arrived in France with the rest of the 2nd Division in September 1915, after the 1st Division had been mauled at Ypres earlier in the year. St-Eloi was the Division’s, and Warn’s, first battle and neither fared well. On 6 April, the day Warn was wounded, the 29th Battalion was attempting to relieve the 27th Battalion but could not because of heavy shell fire; they were then ordered to try to take the craters through a bombing party of about 100 men, in combination with the 18th Battalion. The bombing party was largely killed, though it is unclear when exactly Private Warn would have been wounded.

At some point that day, he was shot in forearm, thigh and scalp, and reported dead by his comrades; this report was officially filed and Private Warn was listed as KIA in the Daily Colonist, the local Vancouver newspaper, on 2 May 1916. By this time of course, Private Warn had actually been found by the 2nd Pioneers and was on his way to hospital. Warn was later awarded the Order of the Cross of St. George and discharged as medically unfit in 1917. He returned to Vancouver where he married Miss Alice Eldrige, a British nurse who had nursed him in hospital in England after his ordeal. Stanley Warn would live to the ripe age of 90 in Kelowna, BC and died of pneumonia after complications from a broken hip. So there you have it! Private Warn immigrates to Canada, fights in a brutal war where he is seriously wounded and accidently reported as dead, but survives through sheer will. From there he is awarded a military honour, marries the woman who nursed him and returns to Canada to live to a ripe old age!

If anyone reading this post today knows of the Warn family, or where there might be a picture of Private Warn please email me at curator@greatwarcentre.com

NB A previous version of the post listed Pte Warn as having received an MM, this was an error and has been corrected.

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