Percy M. Chiswell in 1945

On November 11, 2019, Canadian chess journalist Wayne Komer, wrote on chesstalk,com:

Reminiscences of Chess in War Time

November 11, 2019

There was a chess magazine that appeared in 1927 entitled “Canadian Chess Review”, published in Winnipeg.

In the December 1927 issue, pages 5-8, there was an article by Percy M. Chiswell with the heading “Reminiscences of Chess in War Time”.

I have long thought it was suitable for Remembrance Day.

December’s Chess Chat

Reminiscences of Chess in War Time

Percy M. Chiswell

When the troop train sped eastwards on the first lap of the great adventure, one evening late in August, 1914, there was included in my kit a board and a set of chessmen. It did not see much use during the period of hard training at Valcartier camp, but there were a few games played on shipboard on the way to England, when the exigencies of military training were relaxed somewhat, and I well remember one particular game played in the wee small hours of the morning in a smoky hut on Salisbury Plain, after everything had been packed up, and we were waiting for the order to fall in for departure to embark for France. This was early in February 1915, and my opponent on that occasion was a private of my battalion destined afterwards to command it as colonel, and to become a respected and well-nigh famous character in the battalion. His aptitude in the field was greater than on the chess-board, however.

After the first few weeks in France, I found the box of chessmen and board too cumbrous to lug around, as our accommodation for such things was limited, and so one day I left it in care of the woman at the farmhouse where we were billeted, telling her that I would be back some day for it. I had ordered, in the meantime, a small folding board with miniature pegged men, which I carried with me throughout the rest of the war, and it was not until many tragic experiences occurred and the lapse of eighteen months that I was again in the vicinity of the farmhouse where I had left the original set. On going there to enquire, I was received as one risen from the dead and was told that, “Le petit garcon jouait avec les echequiers et ils son maintenant tout perdus.”

After the first heavy battle in ’15, there came to my company in a draft, a kindred spirit in the person of one J.H. Smith, a man much older than myself, but an enthusiastic chess player, and we spent most of our spare time in constant communion over the board. There was one particular sector of the line in front of Messines where things were quiet at the time and the demand for working parties had not reached the proportions it did later din the war, and many a game was played behind the parapets on a sunny afternoon. In fact, we were objects of ridicule with some of the boys, and there was one sergeant by the name of Spalding, a rough diamond, whose favorite exclamation as he came around the corner of a traverse and beheld us so engaged, was: “My God, they’re at it again.” The sands of poor Spalding’s life were running out though he knew it not, and he was killed in that very trench. There was another occasion, too, when we were so absorbed in our game, that we had forgotten there was such a thing in the world as a war, and hardly heard the howl of an approaching shell until it was almost too late to duck, and we were rudely recalled to the stern reality of things by the burst on the parapet almost directly over us, and the accompanying deluge of clods of earth and sandbags. Needless to say that particular game was never finished.

I remember another particularly enjoyable game with a chance met enthusiast in a deserted house on the slope of Hill 63 in the same locality. We were both on some working party, though from different units, and had taken shelter from the heavy rain. We never knew each other’s names, as my opponent was called suddenly away just as we finished the game, and I never saw him more.

After my friend Smith went away, it was quite a while before I got any regular games, but I was for a time attached to a special detail where I was associated with a French-Canadian named Guimon, another “rough diamond.” He had a friend whom he said was a great player and who had taught him the moves. He was very enthusiastic but of an excitable temperament and a poor loser, and had no conception of chess strategy. With him one of the essential accompaniments requisite for the commencing of a game was “un mess-tin plein de biere”, and I spent several evenings massacreing him while he massacered the content of the “mess-tin plein.” He used to get very excited and would voice his thoughts aloud and curse the pieces heartily for getting on the wrong squares where he could make no use of them, as though they had intelligence. It was a most amusing performance, but after a few games he began to get discouraged, and I had to give him odds to get him to play. He used to select his own odds, and finally stipulated that it should be a knight, a bishop and four “pauls” (pawns)!!! Truth is stranger than fiction!

Later on when I returned to duty with the battalion, there came some boys to the platoon to whom I taught the game. I was much too strong for any of them, but as beginners they liked to play among themselves. I well remember one occasion when I lent two of them the board and men, and after we had moved out of the trenches to rest billets some miles in the rear, I discovered that they had lost of one of the white bishops from the set. They were conscience stricken, and without telling me of their intentions went back the five miles “up the line” to find the white bishop in the dugout where they had been playing. Needless to say it had forever disappeared in the welter of mud and chalk of the Vimy Ridge, and they came back without it. Poor lads, the grass grows over both of them now. The loss rather spoiled the set for a time, but I got over the difficulty by finding an old composition table knife handle, and by patient and tedious whittling with a penknife evolved something resembling the lost bishop from it. I have that little old set yet. It is still in good condition though the cover of the box shows many scratches. It has seen grim experiences where men had need to summon their last reserve of courage to struggle on in an attack against a counter-barrage, exposing pitiably frail human bodies to the advancing wall of explosion. Shrapnel bursting overhead with ear-splitting cracks and whangs suggestive of grand pianos struck by piledrivers, the downward spray of balls whipping into the earth with vicious thuds, while the same earth gushed up in black spouts of eruption beneath the flail of high explosives, and from still further forward came the fierce rattle of the machine guns.

At another time, I got another large board and set which the machine gun crew of the company used to carry around for me in their little cart, and several of those boys became enthusiastic players. When I received my final would and returned to France no more, this set stayed on with them, and I know not what befell it.

In England, I met in hospital as a fellow patient a Russian who was serving with the British Air Force. He claimed to be an old college classmate of Akiba K. Rubinstein, and said that he used to beat Rubinstein at times in the old days. To do him justice, he was too strong for me. We had several games while I was regaled between times with anecdotes of Rubinstein.

Later on, when I had returned to Winnipeg again, I ran across my old friend, J.H. Smith and we had a game. I was at his house just before he moved, but when he moved I could never locate him again. I made several tries, but J.H. Smith’s name is legion in the telephone gook and city directories. Should he, by any chance happen to read this article, he will remember his old friend, and look him up through the editor of the C.C.R.

Based on Wayne’s post, I replied:

Thanks, Wayne ! When was the last time you encountered the word ‘cumbrous’?
Wayne, you sent me down a rabbit hole – I had come across the name P.M.Chiswell while doing some general research on Manitoba chess. Last night, I decided to learn more about Mr. Chiswell.
The May 17,1915 edition of the Manitoba Free Press, reporting on war casualties, indicates that Lc.-Corp.,Percy M. Chiswell , 90th Rifles, 22 years of age, is missing and apparently suffering from gas fumes.
October 20, 1917, the Free Press announced that he returned from war.
He appears to have been active in the Winnipeg chess community from 1920, including holding many executive positions until his move west to Victoria in 1953. In mid-1943, it was reported that he was to be the new chess editor of the Winnipeg Tribune.
Mr. Chiswell, until his retirement (presumably around 1953) was publications manager of the Canadian Credit Men’s Trust Association. He passed away at age 72 in 1965 in Victoria.
He was also described as an expert on coins and currency.