This summer, retired Major Ian Newby passed through Nelson as part of a tour by the Military Vehicle Preservation Association and appeared in a front-page photo in the Star.
Not long after, at an auction house in Aldergrove, he discovered at the bottom of a box of junk a World War I officer’s leather mapcase with the hand-lettered inscription:
Orderly Room Outfit
Captain A.E. Dalgas, RE
177 T Company RE
(RE stood for Royal Engineers and T for Tunneling.)
Newby bought the mapcase and started looking into Agner Emile Dalgas, whom he soon learned had lived in Nelson.
According to Sylvia Crooks’ Homefront and Battlefront: Nelson BC in World War II, Dalgas was born and raised in Denmark, where he graduated from officers’ training school at 19. He then served in the Danish army for five years before coming to Canada with his family in 1910 and settling at Crescent Valley.
Capt. Dalgas worked as a civil engineer until World War I began, then went overseas with the 7th Battalion and transferred to the Royal Engineers of London, where he became commander of the 177th Tunneling Company. He received the Military Cross and Italian Silver Medal for valour in the field.
Afterward, Dalgas and his wife lived in Nelson and he worked as an engineer for the BC Department of Public Works. In the 1930s, Crooks writes, he “ardently advocated revival of the organized militia and formed a military institute of former officers who met regularly.”
When World War II began, Capt. Dalgas was promoted to major and commanded the 111th (Nelson) Field Battery, overseeing its recruitment and training. The 111th was among the first contingents to go overseas, and Dalgas, “pointing to two flags on the wall, one representing the Legion and one the 111th, declared that one was already covered with honours, and the 111th would follow in that tradition.”
Dalgas accompanied his men to Edmonton where he was assigned to training duties, but was determined to go overseas himself. Told he was too old, he waived rank, travelled to Ottawa, lied about his age and joined the 4th Field Artillery as a gunner.
Once in England, the army learned his real age, so he was promoted from private to sergeant and made an instructor with the Canadian School of Artillery.
Many men who served under him in Nelson before the war and during its early days made a point of looking him up, Crooks says. One wrote: “There never was a finer man than he, and I am filled with admiration for his indomitable spirit and moral courage and determination.” He added his hope that Dalgas would return to Nelson with his old rank of major.
Dalgas did become a captain again before finally reaching the front in early April 1945.
However, nine days before the war in Europe ended, as the Canadian 2nd Corps advanced into northern Germany, Dalgas’ jeep ran over a mine. He died aged 57.
His wife Alicia learned of his death on the same day she received a letter from him, in which he told her he was “way past the Rhine.”
Dalgas was buried in Holten Canadian War Cemetery in Holland.
MORE LAYERS TO THE STORY
The story doesn’t end there. Newby, who acquired Daglas’ mapcase, had “one of those experiences that literally raises the hair on the back of the neck.”
He knew he’d heard Dalgas’ name somewhere before, and remembered an instructor at artillery school in Shilo, Manitoba who taught him a trick handed down from World War II.
“We had a plotting board which was essential for the accurate shooting of our guns, and which had to be kept dry and legible despite weather or environmental conditions,” he says.
Over these plywood boards they placed paper targets marked with grid squares, and on top of this clear cellophane covers sealed around the edges with tape.
“We then were supposed to pin a pivot and range arm with large tacks, which of course resulted in many holes which let in water and ruined the paper beneath. We were told to file off the points and use adhesive tape, which preserved the integrity of the waterproofing.”
The invention was credited to Agner Dalgas of the Canadian School of Artillery in England.
Newby has since spoken to Dalgas’ granddaughter Corinne, an instructor at BCIT. She didn’t know about her grandfather’s illustrious history, but when she cleaned out the basement of the family home in Nelson, she found his medals and uniform, and still has them.
A couple of summers ago, Sylvia Crooks also discovered Dalgas’ World War I diary in the Touchstones archives, part of the H.H. Currie fonds.
“It’s very interesting,” she says. “It’s a diary from the 7th Battalion, which was the first contingent of men that left Nelson in August 1914. They were among [the victims of] the first gas attacks. Something like 17 of them lost their lives.”
The diary also mentions Dalgas’ transfer to the 177th Tunnelling Company: “He recorded how sad he was to leave the 7th, and the men he’d been with.”
It’s not clear how the diary found its way to the archives, although the Currie fonds are a collection of World War I items, and Crooks speculates Dalgas’ widow donated it.
Nor is it clear how the mapcase ended up in the auction house.
Newby has also been in touch with English author Iain McHenry, who is completing a book about the 177th. He sent McHenry a copy of Crooks’ book, pages from Dalgas’ diary, and other information.
An archaeological group known as the La Boiselle Project has been excavating tunnels left untouched since 1918, and just last week Newby watched a TV special called The First World War From Above.
“Amazingly, there was major coverage of the tunneling war and the La Boiselle crater in particular,” he says. In one shot, you could see a memorial to Dalgas’ 177th. The original was knocked down during the final German offensive in 1918, so Dalgas made an impassioned plea for permission to return after the armistice and rebuild it.
This was granted and the new memorial stood until it was replaced by a permanent stone marker in the 1920s. A wooden plaque and copper plate inscribed with the names of the tunnelers hung in a London church until recently, when it was moved to the Royal Engineers’ Museum.