Kitchener’s Wood: Pte Denholm’s Curious Keepsake

Souvenir

A curious keepsake from John Denholm’s scrapbook

Private John Denholm‘s First World War scrapbook contains an unusual piece of ephemera, a postcard written to a German soldier named Robert Kirchner. Denholm went to the trouble of having the postcard translated but provided no clues as to why he chose to preserve it.

Unteroffizier Robert Kirchner served in the 1st Company of Reserve Infantry Regiment 233. The field postcard was written by his uncle, Sergeant-Major Otto Hess on March 24, 1915 from a hospital in Jena, a university town in the German Empire duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Otto was undergoing treatment for his eye and was wondering why he had not heard from his nephew recently.

Kirchner’s regiment was part of the 51st Reserve Division and in mid-April they were positioned on XXVI Army Corps‘ left flank, just northeast of Langemarck. During this time the Canadian 1st Division relieved French forces and Pte Denholm and the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) entered the trenches just north of St. Julien. They were relieved by the 15th Battalion several days later and moved into billets on the outskirts of Ypres.

When the Second Battle of Ypres began in the late afternoon of April 22nd the German 51st and 52nd Reserve Divisions were under orders to push forward south along a ridge of high ground that ran roughly in line with the road from Poelkapelle-Langemarck and in the direction of Boesinghe. Canadian reserves, including the 16th Battalion, were moved forward towards St. Julien. The 16th arrived in the area near Mouse Trap Farm at 9:50pm.

Pte John Denholm, 16 Btn CEF

Pte John Denholm, 16 Btn CEF

By this time Kitchener’s Wood was firmly in German hands and the 10th and 16th Battalions were ordered to prepare for a counterattack. The battalions formed up in eight lines, with the 10th in front and Denholm’s No. 4 Coy taking its place on the right of lines 5 & 6. At 11:45pm the Canadians began their march towards “a dark blur” on the horizon. Soon flares lit up the night sky and rifle and machine gun fire tore through the ranks of men until they reached a trench that ran along the southern edge of the wood. The Germans fell back and fierce hand-to-hand combat ensued in the wood. The fighting continued throughout the night but as dawn approached the Canadians withdrew to the trench on the edge of the wood.

It’s unclear if RIR 233 occupied part of that trench prior to the counterattack. Most accounts of the battle refer to RIR 234 defending Kitchener Wood that night however RIR 233 was on their immediate left. Could some RIR 233 units have defended the German left as Denholm advanced on the Canadian right?

KirchnerMIA

Robert Kirchner from Gotha “vermisst” (missing)

German casualty list reported on May 26, 1915 that Utffz. Robert Kirchner from RIR 233 went missing sometime between April 22 and 30. Had Denholm and Kirchner crossed paths that evening or did the Canadian simply find the postcard lying in the bottom of a German trench? We’ll never know for sure but one wonders why he chose to preserve the keepsake throughout his life.

This is the eleventh in a series of articles highlighting photos and ephemera from a scrapbook compiled by Private John Denholm of the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish) during the First World War.

2 replies

    • Hi Margaret,

      Thanks very much. It’s the comments, emails and other feedback I get from readers like yourself that keeps me blogging. Thanks again,

      Steve

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