New Hampshire WWI Military: A Tale of Two Castonguay

Two sons of New Hampshire with the surname Castonguay served during WWI in the Canadian Army. They died in service 3 days apart. Their names are engraved on New Hampshire’s Roll of Honor in Doric Hall of the New Hampshire State House.  These are their stories.

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Postcard view of Gorham NH before WWI.

The first soldier, only shown as “N.P. Castonguay” on the Honor Roll in the NH State House was Napoleon Paul Castonguay. He was born 10 April 1892 in Cookshire, Quebec, Canada, son of Alfred “Fred” & Virginia (Lepage) Castonguay. He had siblings Marie Louise (1887-1974; m. 1905 VT Ludevin Joseph Gregoire Bourbeau); Eugenie (1886-?); Joseph Alfred Castonguay (1888- 1978); and Levi Oliver Castonguay (1894-1978, married Alma A. Davis).

Napoleon Castonguay’s Canadian military card
showing his cause of death.

Napoleon P. Castonguay completed his WWI Registration form on 5 June 1917 in Gorham, Grafton County NH. At that time he was living in Gorham, working as a laborer on the Grand Trunk Railway Company in that town. He listed his mother as a dependent, and described himself as being single, of medium height, slender build, with brown hair and brown eyes. It is unknown what caused Napoleon to shift his focus. Was he refused by the local draft board? Did he feel a greater connection to Canada?  At any rate six months later on 28 January 1918 Napoleon Paul Castonguay  completed Canadian Attestation Papers where he stated his residence was Island Pond Vermont. His next of kin was his mother, Virginie Castonguay of the same location. A physical examination stated he was fit for service and his physical description was 5″4′ in height fair complexion with grey eyes and brown hair. He was Roman Catholic. [Editor’s note: today one would think 5 feet 4 inches in height was short, not medium as shown in his American WWI form.  Research shows that the average height of recruits back then was 5 ft 5 inches with 5 ft 7 inches or taller being a rarity. The second disparity in the two forms is brown eyes vs gray ones. Perhaps his eyes were dark gray or one of the form takers was in error that day.]

Napoleon P. Castonguay was assigned as a Private in the 1st Depot Bn, 1st Quebec

Canadian soldiers at the Battle of Canal du
Nord. Description: “On the run! In hot
pursuit we cross the Canal du Nord by
immersed bridge raked by shell fire.

Regiment, Serial #3081736. He was shipped overseas arriving in England on 3 April 1918 aboard the SS Saxonia. In Europe he was transferred 20 June 1918 to the 14th Battalion, at Camp Bramshott [a temporary army camp set up on Bramshott Common, Hampshire, England]. From there he was sent to the battlefront in France. The History of the 14th Canadian Battalion shows that from 27 September through 2 October 1918 the 14th Battalion and Napoleon P. Castonguay was part of the Battle of Canal du Nord (that began one day after the American Meuse-Argonne Offensive).

It was probably in the Battle of Canal du Nord that Napoleon Paul Castonguay received a deadly gunshot wound to the abdomen. He died on the same day 1 October 1918 at Emergency Evacuation Post #13. His body now lies buried at Duisans British Cemetery, France. His family added a CENOTAPH at the family plot in Lakeside Cemetery, Island Pond Vermont.

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Birdseye view of Greenville NH pre WWI.

The second soldier of this story is Henri Oswald Castonguay who was born 7 June 1896 in Greenville, New Hampshire, son of Henri and Adele (Robichaud) Castonguay. He grew up in and attended school in that small town with his parents and siblings Beatrice Delia (1889-1941, m. Robert Wilson Smith); Oran/Orande (1895-?); Florence (1900-1989, m. Harry G. Tidd); and Orlando (1901-1978, m. Beatrice Haines). By 1910 the family had moved to live in Lowell, MA where the father Henri was a weaver in the cotton mill.

At this point I need to add an important caution and explanation for readers  to keep an open mind for what follows.  The soldiers of WWI were imperfect human beings, just as we all are. During the World War ordinary people were faced with horrific situations and they did not always act nobly or bravely.  Fear is a survival mechanism that soldiers were expected to overcome–not all succeeded. The diagnosis of battle exhaustion or fatigue was little known and rarely treated.  In addition the 22nd (French Canadian) Battalion aka the “Van Doos” [see photos] to which Osward Castonguay was assigned had intermittent morale and discipline problems [as studied by several historians]. Please keep this all in mind as you learn Oswald Castonguay’s story.

On 1 September 1915 at the age of 19 years 3 months, Oswald Castonguay completed his Attestation papers [large PDF file] at Quebec Canada. He described himself as being 5’7″ tall, fair complexioned with blue eyes and auburn hair. He considered fit for service. His Service ID Number was 417112. Oswald Castonguay was assigned at first to the 69th Battalion C.E.F., and as all Canadian soldiers were required to do, he made out his will. He was quickly transferred to the 22nd Battalion, arriving in England with his battalion on 28 October 1915.  For several months his battalion was involved in training exercises.

One of the large craters on the St. Eloi
battlefield where [Canadian battalions were]
engaged in heavy fighting in April 1916. This
photograph was probably taken some time after
the battle. In the foreground craters, the water
has dried up, the battlefield dead have been
cleared and buried, and the road, visible in the
distance, is fully functional. Canadian War
Museum, George Metcalf Archival Collection.
CWM 20020045-2465.

According to one source, prior to his (later) court-martial for desertion, Castonguay illegally absented himself twice, on November 12, 1915 and January 8, 1916. I have no details of these events (whether they were AWOL or desertion) nor how he was punished.  Studies show he was not alone among his fellow soldiers in this absenting behavior, and that many others in his battalion did the same thing.

Oswald Castonguay’s first real battle experience occurred at St. Elois Craters 27 March – 16 April 1916.  The battle is considered an “unmitigated disaster,” but not due to the bravery of the soldiers involved.  Lack of leadership, poor decision-making, and a loss of communications all contributed to great loss of life.  [Read “The Blind Leading the Blind“].  One of the Canadian soldiers wrote describing what he saw when the sun rose on the first day in the trenches: “”When day broke, the sights that met our gaze were so horrible and ghastly that they beggar description. Heads, arms and legs were protruding from the mud at every yard and dear knows how many bodies the earth swallowed. Thirty corpses were at least showing [in] the crater and beneath its clayey waters other victims must be lying killed and drowned.”  The trenches in which they stood and fought were from two to three feet deep in cold water and mud. Oswald survived this battle, and a month later he was hospitalized. No doubt the battalion was now allowed some “rest time.” From 20 May 1916 to 27 July 1916 he was treated for VDG.

Medical orderlies tend to the wounded in a
trench during the Battle of Courcelette in mid-
September 1916. The medical orderlies wear
non-combatant red cross armbands. Canadian
War Museum. George Metcalf Archival
Collection
. CWM 19920044-639

The next battle that Oswald participated in was The Battle of Flers–Courcelette (15–22 September 1916). What history books and stories usually relate is that this was the first time tanks were used in battle.  What is often glossed over is that the Canadian Corps fought here with great bravery and skill, but at a terrible cost–7,230 casualties. This battle is often called a “slaughterhouse.” Those who survived suffered battle exhaustion.  Replacements were sent from other battalions to fill the gaps left by the dead.

18 March 1917–Oswald Castonguay deserts the 22nd Battalion at Bois des Alleux.He is absent without leave for almost 2 months, arrested by the French police while he was working on a farm at Saint-Brice-en-Cogles [about 46 miles from where he left his battalion (map)] and returned to his battalion on 5 May 1917 where he faced a court-martial.  Teresa Iacobelli in her book, From “Death or Deliverance: Canadian Courts Martial in the Great War,” 2013, describes Oswald’s situation.  “Although not enough to convict a man, being apprehended in plain clothes was considered to be circumstantial evidence of some importance. Soldiers were aware of this fact and often brought it up at their trials to sway the court martial panels. Oswald Castonguay deserted from the 22nd Battalion in March 1917 after leaving his billets at Bois des Alleux and failing to return by the time his battalion had left for the front-line trenches. As stated by Castonguay during his defence, ‘I left my company billets on 18th March last, after breakfast…I went to the village close by to purchase some cigarettes with the intention of returning the next morning…When I arrived there i found that the battalion had gone and I was told by a soldier there that it had gone to the trenches. Seeing the battalion was in the trenches I decided to wait until they came out so I returned to the village and not having money I decided to get some for that purpose went to work on a farm. I worked there for four days. I then decided to see if the battalion was back but put it off from day to day as I was afraid of being punished.’ Rather than turning himself in, Castonguay was arrested by the French gendarmerie on 5 May 1917. He was quick to point out in his defence that “when I was arrested I was properly dressed.”

A Sentry, 22nd Infantry Battalion (French
Canadian) July 1916. Canada Dept of National
Defence, Library and Archives.

Because of this documentation we know that Oswald Castonguay did not participate in the Battle of Vimy Ridge 9-12 April 1917 with the 22nd Battalion.  On 5 May 1917 Oswald was in confinement waiting trial. His official records show: “On 12 July 1917 convicted by trial . . . for deserting his Majesty’s service on 18 March 1917 at St. Eloy, absented himself from trenches until apprehended by French police at St. Brice en Cogles on 5 May 1917. Sentenced to 15 years and committed to No 1 Military Prison, Rouen.”

[Editor’s note: The first two Canadian Military Prisons in France were opened on ships moored in the harbours of Le Havre (500 Prisoners) and Rouen (700 Prisoners). By 25th January 1915 they were full. The prisoners worked 12 hour shifts unloading ships, supervised by MPSC personnel armed with revolvers. There was also a prison on land near Rouen: No 1 Military Prison, Abancourt,Blairgies North Camp,ROUEN. This last prison is where Oswald Castonguay was confined].  [Info from “Great War” forum]

Oswald’s sentence was commuted from 15 years to 2 years on 12 July 1917. Because he was incarcerated, we know that Oswald Castonguay did not participate in the Battle of Cambrai, 20 November 1917 with the 22nd Canadian Battalion.

Then, having served a year and two months of hard labor, Oswald Castonguay was released from prison 11 August 1918 with the remainder of his sentence suspended. He was re-assigned to 22nd Battalion and rejoined his unit on 15 August 1918. Two weeks later he was dead.

Sign at the cemetery at Ligny-St. Flochel where
Private Castonguay is buried.

On 26 August 1918 the Battle of Cherisy began. Oswald Castonguay as part of the 22nd Battalion participated. The history, “The Need to Advance: The Battle of Cherisy and the Massacre of Quebecois Troops” (August 1918) as published in the Canadian Military Journal states: “The battles on 27 and 28 August were terrible, and the 2nd Canadian Division suffered such alarming losses that they were forced to stop, and even to retreat in certain places. One of its battalions, the 22nd, was annihilated while attacking Cherisy, a village at the heart of the Hindenburg Line….Cherisy was hell on earth for the men of the 22nd. Of the 650 men and 23 officers who had launched the attack on 27 August, only 39 remained at the end of the next day. All the officers were killed, injured or reported missing. In the absence of commanding officers, the 39 survivors who reported for roll call after the battle were put under the command of a company sergeant-major. Subsequent reports established losses for the 22nd Battalion at 53 dead and 108 injured on 27 August and 52 dead and 92 injured on 28 August.”

It was here at the Battle of Cherisy that Oswald Castonguay was fatally injured during battle. He died one day after receiving shrapnel wounds in his leg and foot at No. 7 Casualty Clearing Station on 29 August 1918. He is buried in Ligny St. Flochel British Cemetery, 4-1/2 miles SE of St. Pol. Plot 3, Row A, Grave 24.  [Youtube: Cimetiere militaire de Ligny-St Flochel]

On 12 September 1918 the Fitchburg Sentinel published an obituary [Editor’s note: I have used the overstrike (cross out) option to show the portions of the story that are not true according to Oswald’s official military records]: Oswald Castonguay. Killed in Action. [actually died of wounds]. The first Greenville boy to give the last full measure of devotion for the cause  of democracy is Oswald Castonguay, son of Mr. and Mrs. Castonguay , word having been received Sunday morning by telegraph that he had been killed during the present British drive, falling at the battle of Courcelette, [he fell at Cherisy] which his regiment captured. Long before his own country found it necessary to bear arms young Castonguay went to Canada and on Sept 2, 1915 enlisted in the 22nd Canadian regiment. He drilled two months at Camp Valeartier near Quebec after which he sailed for England where he trained for nearly a year. His regiment has seen hard service. He fought at Vimy Ridge nearly lost his life. in the battle of Cambrai last November and had seen continuous service since last Spring. The official communication came from Ottawa, Canada and stated that the information from across came from No 7 casualty clearing station, death occurring August 29 from shrapnel. Mr. Castonguay was born in this town on June 5, 1897 and attended the public schools. His parents received a letter from him about two months ago in which he stated that he expected to be home the coming Christmas. He is survived by his parents, two sisters and two brothers.

In October of 1919 Oswald’s parents were honored in the Greenville NH parade when they rode in a car that included other immediate relatives of those who had “paid the supreme sacrifice.”

From Nashua Telegraph, August 12, 1924, page 6–The Obscure and Faithful,
What we call illusions are often, in truth, a wilder vision of past and present realities–a willing movement of a man’s soul with the larger sweep of the world’s forces–a movement toward a more assured end than the chances of a single life. We see human heroism broken into units and say this unit did little, might as well not have been. But in this way we might break up a great army into units; in this way we might break the sunlight into fragments, and thinking that this and the other might be cheaply parted with. Let us, rather, raise a monument to the soldiers whose brave hearts only kept the ranks unbroken, and met death–a monument to the faithful who were not famous, and who are precious as the continuity of the sunbeams is precious, though some of them fall unseen and on barrenness.– George Elliot.

**IMPORTANT READING**

Shot at Dawn: Cowards, Traitors, or Victims? (BBC)

Lest We Forget: the 306 ‘Cowards’ we Executed in the First World War (Guardian)

[Editor’s Note: this story is part of an on-going series about heroic New Hampshire men and women of World War I.  Look here for the entire listing].

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10 Responses to New Hampshire WWI Military: A Tale of Two Castonguay

  1. Amy says:

    To me, it is remarkable that so few soldiers desert. I doubt I would have been able to endure seeing what happens in war.

    • Janice Brown says:

      Amy, I agree with you, and I hope that I wrote this story carefully enough so that people can understand and empathize with the situation of these soldiers. Thank you for reading and commenting.

  2. Pingback: New Hampshire World War I Military: Heroes of The Great War | Cow Hampshire

  3. David Keough says:

    I volunteered to go to Vietnam. It’s like waiting in line for the roller coaster. Your scared silly yet the challenge is an exhilarating rush. Of course the people that were drafted had no choice.

  4. Pingback: New Hampshire WWI Military: Heroes of Greenville | Cow Hampshire

  5. treeklimber says:

    The horrors of war are difficult enough to read about let alone endure. It is difficult to imagine how one might feel if they faced the circumstances Oswald did. I think your story does justice to the service of this young man and others like him.

  6. Nancy says:

    What an impressive set of sources and research on a heart-breaking story.

    • Janice Brown says:

      Thank you. I went through an exhaustive list to make sure that I had enough information to tell this story, and then was boggled at how I could possibly present it without the person being lost in the data. Thank you for making me feel I succeeded.

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