LADDIE MILLEN: THE BEST BELOVED BOY IN THE PATS
JOHN ERNEST LYSLE MILLEN
August 12, 1895 - February 19, 1916
“From August 1914 to November 1918, Canada contributed 620,000 men to the war. In the end, 61,000 – about 10 per cent – had been killed. Another 172,000 had been wounded. For a country of not yet eight million, it was an enormous undertaking, and an enormous sacrifice.” (The Storied Princess Pats Regiment)
LEST WE FORGET.
My great-uncle Laddie was the beloved first-born son of Ernest and Grace. He was working as an advertising agent for John Millen & Son, when he joined the 38th Battalion C.E.F. (Princess Pats) in Montreal on March 20, 1915, at 20 years old. Less than a year later, he was killed in action in the trenches in France, a single bullet to the head by a German sniper. Letters of praise poured in to his parents and they give us a very clear image of his character. Laddie's father, my great-grandfather, Ernest Millen, kept these letters, and my grandmother, Isobel, kept the letters Laddie sent to her from France.
This article brings home the horrendous loss of WW I and WW II and reminds us that so many of the men killed were really just boys.
LETTERS FROM LADDIE TO ISOBEL
Wed. Dec. 1st, 1915
Dear Iso – Thanks awfully for your letters. I was glad to hear that your arches were getting better.
We are still in the same place but expect to move early next week. I’m orderly corporal this week and I’m kept busy tearing around from 7 AM till 10 PM. We’re in a barn quite a way out of the town and I have to go down to the orderly room in the town, every night for orders. The weather has been cold as the mischief. Early yesterday it was great. The weather was clear without a cloud in the sky. There is a town built on a high hill a mile or so off and the churches and windmills stand out against the sky line. I’m feeling great so I guess that’s why I think everything is nice. I had some time going down for orders the other night. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a dark night and it was raining like blazes. I got to town alright but coming back I couldn’t even see the road. At one place I had to cut across the field for a half mile or so. I was lucky I had my rubber boots on or more than once I got into water up to my knees.
The battalion was inspected by General A–– yesterday. He pawned of a lot of soft stuff as usual. The fellows didn’t swallow it all though.
While I was in town last night I found what I’ve been looking for for a long while – a dentist. He’s only a sergeant in the Australian transport here but he has his kit with him and the fellows say he’s good. I’m going to make an appointment with him as soon as I can.
I can’t think of anything else to say. I gave all the new in my letter to home yesterday.
Please give my love to Marj and tell her I’ll write soon. Have you seen Dave yet? Give my love to Elsie and Ky too. Ditto to Ruth and Mim. I wrote Ruth a week ago.
In case you don’t get this till Christmas I wish you a very Merry Christmas and wish I were with you.
Your loving brother, Lysle
Tuesday, Jan. 4th 1916
Dear Isobel – I just got your letter of Dec 13th and was awfully glad to hear from you. It’s the latest word I’ve had from home. I guess the mail is upset quite a lot. You know I’d like to write you oftener if I got the chance but I don’t. I try to keep my letters home and to the fellows up to date and believe me, it’s hard to get time for more. I bet you had a whale of a time up at Tremblant. I look forward to hearing about it.
We have a pretty comfortable billet here and expect to move up to the line again on Sunday. We expect to go into the trenches on the fifteenth.
I had a bath to-night. (quite an important announcement) The village blacksmith heated a big chaldron over his forge. The old boy put a couple of bags on the floor or wall as a wooden tab. Then he hung up an old lantern and left me for my bath with the gentle breeze blowing around the half lighted old smithy. “Half a loaf is better than none at all,” is my motto.
Herb Rittenhouse, Bud (?), Harold, & Hue Griffiths and Gordon Virgo (?) and I had supper with Eric Copland on Sunday. We had a darn nice time. On Christmas Day Eric came over to see me and I was out so the fellows asked him who they’d say had called and he said Mr. Copland. They thought that was a pretty funny joke.
The latest war office order is that no commissions will be given to men who have not seen active service in the ranks. That ought to make it easy for some of us.
I’ve thought about your idea of going up to Labrador for a year and honestly I don’t like it. Write me fully about it, will you? Also, I’m glad the other thing turned out as it did. It will take a better man to deserve you (this isn’t slush).
I got a pair of socks from Dot Smart. Quite a surprise. Please give Marj my love, and Reg too. I mean to write them soon. Remember me to Mim and Elsie and B. Reynolds. Don’t worry about me writing D. K. (or H.) I have no time for that. Those cards are convenient but the letter doesn’t always follow. It won’t be long before I get leave. Are your feet really getting better. You didn’t say anything about those pictures of the family in your last letters. When are they coming? This is just the experience I need and is doing me no harm. I’m feeling fine.
Give my love to all at home. Your loving brother, Lysle
THE BEST BELOVED BOY IN THE PATS - Most of this text is in the article: Lake Champlain Treasures in The Knickerbocker Press, Oct 21, 1928, written by Ed E. Herwig. Taken from some of the letters sent to Ernest & Grace.
“Come on, fellows! Let’s get in!” Lysle Millen’s chums often used to hear these words from him at camp or on one of their cruises with Colonel Gerald Birks on his yacht. He was intensely fond of swimming and was a famous diver. When the time came for the morning dip or a plunge after some work or sport, he would often be the first man in. And when the War came, it is likely that he spoke to his friends in about the same language. “Come on, fellows! Let’s get in!”
Lysle Millen – almost everyone called him “Laddie” – was one of the most widely known young men in Montreal, and was extremely popular. Athletic ability, a charming manner and solid worth had won him a host of friends. One of his chums said in France that for years Laddie had been his ideal of Christian manhood. Probably many others might have said the same.
He was an active church worker and an enthusiastic Y.M.C.A. man. His sense of loyalty to the Y.M.C.A. was illustrated once when he attended a convention in Cornwall. The man to whose home he was assigned, together with another Montreal boy, said afterwards that when his pal suggested that they omit a session and go skating with the daughter of the home, Lysle refused, saying that it was his duty as a delegate to go to every session. And the letter continued, “Mrs. G. took him to her heart. He was so open, childlike, pure and considerately kind.”
He was just nineteen and was making a fine start in business when War was declared. He enlisted with the First University Company, P.P.C.L.I. – or Princess Patricia’s, as the famous regiment was known. After a month’s training he decided to change to the Flying Corps and received permission to do so, but in response to his captain’s pleading agreed to remain with his regiment. In May, 1915, he went overseas. As a soldier he gave a good account of himself, and made corporal and twice refused further promotion. He was killed in action on February 19, 1916. Had he lived ten days longer he would have received a commission, for which he had been recommended.
The regiment took his death to heart very keenly for he was enormously popular with all ranks. “There was none in the regiment,” said Capt. H.L. Patton, “who was more exceptionally liked, both by the old-timers of the original Pats, and by the new comers of the University reinforcements, than the ever-cheerful lad who, still cheerfully, paid the price in the Kemmel trenches.” At his funeral, the burial service was read by the Commanding Officer, Lieut.-Col. Buller, the second in command being present also, together with several of Laddie’s Montreal friends from No. 1 Company.
It is seldom that a non-commissioned officer exerts such a wholesale influence for good as Corporal Millen did. As Capt. Patton put it, “On active service the temptations to every man are countless and strong and three-fourths of the men fall to them…. But the most outstanding manly hero in the Pats was Lysle…. He would not countenance anything that was not pure and noble and his example has been far reaching.” One short message of sympathy to his parents said simply this, “Poor old Laddie – the brightest, cleanest, best beloved boy in the Pats. God keep you all.” And a captain wrote:
Six months in France and longer than that away from home, away from those influences that made it less hard to play the game, and yet when I saw him a few weeks ago, he was the same clean, pure, open and lovable character that he ever was. His personality had lost none of its charm. He was just the same Laddie that you knew when he left home. There are not many boys of his age in the war game of whom this can be said. I talked with him for several hours and I was the better for it…. I only trust – and I’m sincere in saying so – that when my call comes I’ll be as ready to meet my Maker as he was … We’ll miss him oh so much. But, say, Laddie in his influence will live forever, the boy who lived a life without a single blemish… Our place now is just to do a little more, to try to make up for his absence in person.”
Some of his comrades still speak of the fine condition in which he kept his physique, of his wonderful diving and of the way he led his men in physical training. They tell of his love for singing, how he would lead in the regimental songs and then, taking from his pocket the hymn-book that he always carried with him, would say, “Come on, fellows! Let’s have some of the good old hymns.” And then, in the dirt and darkness, punctuated by the sound of gun-fire, there would float across the shell-torn fields some of the great familiar hymns, and eyes would grow moist and voices would waver as memories came drifting back of church and home. They speak of how men of the rougher sort were influenced by the clean, wholesomeness of the boy and tell with a smile of the regimental toper. This chap, it seems, had promised Laddie that he would behave himself, and then after a particularly bad outbreak had expressed anxiety that Corporal Millen should not know of it, though he cared not a – whether or not the captain heard.
In Shorncliffe, England, after his death, the “Laddie Millen Hut” was erected as a memorial and in it his picture and a record of his noble sacrifice were placed. The funds were subscribed by Montreal friends “in memory of a native son of the highest character who had been killed in action.” H.R.H. the Duke of Connaught was present and spoke at the dedication service. This hut made possible a large expansion of the Canadian Red Triangle work. It was thrown open with all its facilities, - writing tables, canteen and the biggest auditorium in the Shorncliffe area – for the use of the men in the surrounding barracks. Almost at once it was said to be “the most cheerful, the most popular and altogether the most inspiring place within their camp lines.”
Could anything have been more appropriate? Its record became like Laddie’s own – “the most cheerful, the most popular and altogether the most inspiring.” There as long as Canadian soldiers were needed overseas, he continued to serve; and in the lives of returned men and many others he is serving his nation still. It could not be otherwise in the case of a lad about whom an intimate friend could write words like these:
If ever a man lived a noble, heroic, strong, Christian life amidst awful temptations it was Lysle. Easily the most popular man in his regiment, his loss was felt keenly by all his comrades and friends here. The life here, away from all the finer associations, is such that most men’s ideals are unconsciously lowered somewhat…. One man who stood out different from others was Lysle. Never once did he lower his standard an inch. He lived for the best and only for the best. He was respected and admired by all because of the fine manly Christian life he lived…. His example will live for long, and many of us will be the better because of his strong manly life…. He was buried in a beautiful little soldier’s graveyard, right behind the trench in which he was shot. It is shaded by a grove of lovely trees and already the crocuses and snowdrops are pretty there.”
LETTERS FROM LADDIE'S FRIENDS IN FRANCE AFTER HIS DEATH
Feb 21, 1916 (from the Regent Palace Hotel, London)
Poor old Laddie, the brightest, cleanest, best beloved boy in the Pats. God keep you all.
“In the Field” 20th Feby. 1916.
Dear Mrs. Millen, You will have had, ere this reaches you, the official intimation of Lysle’s death yesterday forenoon, and it is an extremely sorrowful duty I perform in writing to acquaint you with some of the particulars.
We carried him back out of the trenches and a party of his more immediate friends in our company got permission to go back to act as pall-bearers, and see the last offices performed for one of the most universally respected men in the regiment. He was buried in a little military cemetery just outside of one of the prettiest villages in this country. I am told by our Coy. Sergt-Major that the exact locality will be carefully indicated on a plan which will be sent you, so I will not here mention the name of the place, as that is forbidden in letters. Lysle was laid to rest just after sunset. The burial service was read by our Commanding Officer – Lieut. Col Buller, and the service was also attended by the second in command, Major Acheson, together with a number of Lysle’s Montreal friends from our No. 1 Company. We are having a cross made to mark the spot, and on our first opportunity we will see that everything is fixed up as well as circumstances permit, and you may all rest assured that as often as the fortune of war shall take us into this vicinity we will see that his last resting place is kept neat and tidy.
To attempt to enumerate the qualities that endeared Lysle to us all would be altogether uncalled for, suffice to say that he was by long odds the most popular N.C.O. in our Company, and probably in the regiment – in fact I have been rather surprised within the last 24 hours to find how widely he was known and appreciated. As for us who were his fellow corporals, our sense of loss is indeed acute, for we all loved that boy, and after the fashion of a bunch of men living together was usually at some pains to conceal the fact, but Lysle’s good nature was unfailing, and all our jokes and quips were always received with such a good spirit that it was impossible to resist him. A large part of his influence was without doubt due to his well-known, straight, clean, Christian principal life. I have known a man in his section after an over-indulgence in drink the night before, whose only concern in the morning was whether or not Lysle had seen him – and its effects on the habits and speech of his associates was most marked.
As the corporal who had been longest with him – since June last in Niagara – I have taken on myself the duty of re-addressing his mail as far as possible, and any that I cannot send back to the writer I will have sent to you.
Among Lysle’s effects were three snapshots taken when on home leave just before we left Canada and with the consent of the Sgt.-Major, we have kept them, subject to your consent of course, as a momento of a comrade whom we will long remember as a soldier and a gentleman.
That you with his father, brothers and sisters have our most sincere and heartfelt sympathy in the trial that has fallen on you goes without saying, and I fear I greatly lack any adequate terms in which to express myself in that regard, but there is some alleviation in the thought that he died, although without pain, in the faithful discharge of what he conscientiously considered to be his duty.
I am afraid the affair is too recent to permit me to write with any too much coherence or power of expression at yet, but any further information I can give you, I am yours to command to the best of my ability.
Again assuring you of the regret and sympathy of his fellow-comrades on whose behalf I write. I remain, Yours sincerely, Jack Cameron
Flanders, Feb 22nd, 1916
My dear Mr. and Mrs. Millen, I want to write and express to you my deep heartfelt sympathy for you all in this heavy sorrow which has come upon you. It is hard to do so, and it is still hard for us to realize that Lysle has gone from us.
I have not been working very much amongst the PPCLI. My work is with the 5th Brigade, and particularly the 24th Battalion, but I have seen quite a lot of Lysle, and very many of us have grown to respect and love him for his strong manly Christian character.
On active service the temptations to every man are countless and strong and three-fourths of the men fall to them. In fact we have often agreed that almost everyone’s ideals here have been lowered and many do things and use language which are quite foreign to them at home in the days of peace. But the most outstanding Christian manly hero in the Pats was Lysle, who despite awful influences and temptations never once lowered his standard an inch. It was this very characteristic of him hat made him admired by all his comrades and his officers. Lysle wouldn’t smoke, he wouldn’t swear, he would not countenance anything that was not pure and noble and his example has been far reaching.
It is just 3 or 4 weeks ago that we had a re-union of the old Montreal YMCA friends, Eric Copland, Gordon Virgo, Hugh and Harold Griffiths, Herb Rittenhouse and Lysle were present. It was a Sunday after-noon and evening. After supper Lysle drew a small hymn-book from his pocket-he carried it with him-and said, “Let us sing some of the fine old hymns” and for an hour everyone sang reverently and heartily – moist eyes showed that the thoughts of all were back at home. Every now and then Lysle would ask George Virgo to sing the next verse alone, he delighted in Gordon’s rich deep bass voice.
Two weeks ago I spent Sunday after-noon with Lysle, he came into my camp and we had a fine chat. He was going to London on leave in a few days and was looking forward to his well-earned rest. He was always cheerful and happy and was such an example of manliness in the highest sense of the word.
It was in his first tour in the trenches after his return from London, that he was shot. It seems that he was standing in a front line trench talking to a sentry about a German sniper opposite. The sentry was aiming his rifle at the sniper when instead the German fired a shot which came right through he parapet and entered Lysle’s forehead just above the eye, coming out the back of his neck. He dropped and expired instantly, without a second’s pain or suffering. The sentry could see his lips moving as though he tried to speak, but his life had quivered out. Herb Rittenhouse was nearby and saw him immediately and was allowed to be present at the funeral. It has been a shock to all the officers and men of the Pats. Lysle was easily the most popular and most respected man in his regiment and he was to be given his commission so soon.
Herb Rittenhouse spent last evening with Gordon Virgo and me. He is simply broken-hearted and says he intends to write to you just as soon as he can, but at present he is too broken up to do so.
We have all been thinking so much about you and your family. We know how hard a cross this will be to bear, and we pray that God himself will comfort and console you as only He can. We feel too for Lysle’s large circle of friends, especially Ross Johnson and Roy Allen, as they were always inseparable friends.
The hardest part of this war is what you at home have to bear – the awful suspense and anxiety and the sorrow. We here grow to feel increasingly how small a part of our life this is – just the preliminary steps of the larger and fuller life to come, and if we are taken we know that it is merely the curtain falling a little sooner, and the better life coming quicker. Our lives hang in the balance daily and nightly, so that we get to place a bigger value on the bigger life awaiting us.
But after all isn’t dear Lysle far better off now. His was a noble though short life – never did a more thoroughly manly Christian hero live, and never has man earned a bigger and grander reward than has Lysle. Lysle is buried in a peaceful little soldier’s graveyard behind the trenches, in the village of Kemmel (I hope the censor will let that name go through, for I know the knowledge of it will mean a lot to you) Gordon Virgo and I are going to walk along to see the grave to-day. I am trying to get permission from the Graves Commission to erect a special stone and fence on the grave and also to have a picture of it taken to sent to you. It is against orders to do so but I hope to get permission to do so, as Gordon Virgo, Herb Rittenhouse and I wish to provide this small moment as a mark of our love and respect for Lysle. If I succeed I will write you and give you full information about it. The grave is shaded by a grove of very pretty trees, and is a lovely spot.
I wish I could in some way comfort your aching hearts during these dark sorrowful days, but that seems so humanly impossible. I pray that the Great Comforter may be very near to you all though, and that the knowledge of Lysle’s noble, strong and heroic life will mean much to you.
My address is – Capt. G.C. Armour – 24th Battalion – 5th Inf. Brigade – 2nd Can. Div. B.E.F.
Yours very sincerely, C. Gordon Armour
Folkestone 22nd Feby. 16
How can I begin – and what can I say when I do. And so Laddie has been taken away – that boy of all boys, the boy of whom we were all so justly proud. My heart is so full that I just can’t say to you what’s in it. How I do wish thought that I could do or say something that would make your burden just a little easier to bear. I loved Laddie, loved him as a brother. He was my ideal of a young man. Six months in France and longer than that away from home, away from those influences that made it less hard to play the game, and yet when I saw him a few weeks ago, he was the same clean, pure, open, and lovable character that he ever was. His personality had lost none of its charm. He was just the same Laddie that you knew when he left home. There are not many boys of his age in the war game of whom this can be said. I talked with him for several hours and I was the better for it. He left home with a fixed determination to adhere closely to the Christian ideals which he had accepted. He did more. He made his influence count in his own quiet way, and I know that many fellows in his Battalion will be the better for having met him. I only trust – and I’m sincere in saying so – that when my call comes that I’ll be as ready to meet my Maker as he was. Laddie in the flesh has been taken away. We’ll miss him oh so much. But say, Laddie in his influence will live for ever. The boy who lived a life without a single blemish has gone back to the Jesus who loaned him to us for a while. Laddie I know is perfectly happy. Our place now is just to do a little more, to try to make up for his absence in person.
I went down to Dover this afternoon with Major Birks to tell Leslie. Poor boy it was such a blow to him. Like all of us he too worshipped Laddie. After he had recovered a little from the blow, he said, “Why couldn’t they take me and leave him.” And he said it in a tone of passionate meaning.
I believe you have in Leslie a boy who will do all he can to measure up in an endeavor to, in part, make up for Laddie’s going. If only for Laddies’ sake, he’ll answer with the best that’s in him.
If there is anything I can do you will use me won’t you – I’ll consider it a real privilege to be used by you in any way possible. If you’d like anything done for Leslie just tell me.
This is a badly constructed letter. I can’t help it. I do however want you to know that I sincerely sympathize with you. I can enter in part on your sorrow because I too loved Laddie. Yes – loved him as a brother. It was only yesterday I received a letter from him, written on the Thursday before he was taken away.
(Captain) Dave Evans
Excerpt from a speech read to the Men's Club, at Daytona Beach, Fla.,
23rd of March, 1949 by J. Ernest Millen (Laddie's father)
The first world war brought its burdens to us for our eldest son "Laddie" enlisted early in 1915 and Leslie, our second son, in September of the same year. Laddie sailed the 30th of May 1915 and we saw him off with sorrowing hearts, but I never knew until the news of his death in action came on the 19th of February 1916 that his mother never expected to see him again. What occurred was this – returning about midnight, my dear wife felt very sad and read the page for the day from “Daily Help for Daily Need” and this is what she read from II Mac.VI:31, “And thus this man died, leaving his death for an example of a noble courage and a memorial of virtue, not only unto young men but unto all his nation.”
Just think of her fortitude in keeping this added sorrow to herself – truly, she was a Spartan mother. God helped us through this valley of sorrow for the many letters from his comrades and officers testified to his happy Christian influence with his company and we knew he was at home with his Saviour. When the British Graves’ Commission wrote asking what inscription we desired on the stone marking Laddie’s last resting place, we were limited, I believe, to 150 letters including spaces, and when I visited our son’s grave in Flanders Field in June 1930, this is what I read: Corporal J. E. L. (Laddie) Millen, 12 Aug. 1895-19 Feb. 1916, This man died, an example of a noble courage and a memorial of virtue unto young men.” I may add that the sight of that beautifully kept Military Cemetery was a great comfort to me and to my dear wife when I told her.