Private William Francis Bent

This is part of a series of essays about the First World War casualties commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Massachusetts.

The Bent family plot

William Bent was a tragic figure, whose war was not how he later made it out to be, and who took his own life some years after he returned home.

William Francis Bent was born on 27 July 1872 in West Hartford, Vermont, the youngest of the three children of Charles and Mary Bent.[1] His father, a Civil War veteran, was a shoemaker but William Bent and his brother George were mechanically minded and both went to work in the early automobile industry. In 1892 his mother died of pneumonia and ten years later his father shot himself with his pistol.

The details of the life led by Bent in the years after his mother’s death are difficult to determine due to conflicting reports and records. It appears that he served very briefly in the United States Army and later spent some time in prison. He later moved to Chicago where he found work in a machinist’s shop. At some time previously Bent had married but his wife died, reportedly of burns in an accident. Newspaper reports following Bent’s death recorded that that they had a child, a son who was killed in the war—no record of this marriage, his wife’s death or his child have been found.

Before the war Bent moved farther west, to Camas, Washington, where he met a widow, Laura Socwell, who ran a boarding house. On the outbreak of war, he attempted to enlist at Windsor, Ontario but due to his age and his nationality he was turned away. Undeterred, he travelled to Lindsay, Ontario where he enlisted under the name Sockwell (mistakenly recorded in some papers as ‘Stockwell’), giving his place of birth as Montreal on 3 March 1915. His pay allotment was sent to Laura Socwell, whom he recorded as his sister.

Private Sockwell joined the 39th Battalion and was allocated the number 412975. He sailed with the Battalion for England on 17 June 1915 aboard the SS Missanabie, arriving in Liverpool on 3 July. The Battalion would not embark for France as a formed unit, but instead provided men in a series of drafts for other units. On 10 September Sockwell was posted to the 20th Battalion in 4th Infantry Brigade, 2nd Canadian Division. He was one of 46 men to join the Battalion at Hythe ranges in Kent, where it was training before embarking for France; Private Sockwell joined ‘D’ Company.

On 14 September, the Battalion sailed for France and it was soon in the line near St Eloi, south of Ypres. Here in early January 1916 Private Sockwell was knocked down by a shell and, suffering from recurrent dizziness, he reported sick on 15 January. He was sent back to hospital in Etaples and then to England and, on 20 January, he was admitted to Netley Hospital and diagnosed as suffering from ‘neurasthenia’. He spent the next six months in various hospitals and convalescent camps until he was finally discharged fit to return to duty in early June. On 7 June, he rejoined his Battalion and on 11 August he was attached to 250th Tunnelling Company.

A few days later, while lifting sandbags in a sap at St Eloi, he suffered a hernia. He reported sick but was returned to duty. After repeating his injury, he was attached for Military Police duties. Working in wet weather resulted in a fever and he was sent to hospital in Poperinghe and then evacuated to hospital in England on 19 October, where, in addition to his hernia, he was diagnosed as suffering from chronic rheumatism. He remained in a series of hospital and convalescent units until February 1917, when he was finally sent back to Canada and admitted to Spadina Military Hospital, Toronto. By now he was known by his real name.

As a result of being no longer physically fit for war service, Bent was discharged on 19 June 1917 and he returned to Camas, Washington. Inexplicably, he re-enlisted in Canada on 10 September 1917 and, somewhat more oddly, was accepted into the Canadian Army Medical Corps; he joined Training Depot No. 11 at Victoria, British Columbia. While on leave he married Laura Socwell[2] on 8 November 1917 in Camus. This second period of service was cut short when he was admitted to hospital in December 1917 suffering from scabies; he remained in hospital undergoing treatment until February 1918. Again considered as unfit for service, he was discharged for a second time on 4 March 1918 and returned to Camas.

William Francis Bent

Reports in the press indicate that Bent then enlisted for service with the American Expeditionary Force but, unfit for service overseas, was assigned to provost duties at Vancouver Barracks, Washington. Following his discharge he and his wife moved to Portland, Oregon but they separated in 1919 and Bent moved into the New Perkins hotel. Their separation was not without trouble, resulting in a court case against him for spousal support. In Portland, Bent became a special policeman, later a park patrolman in Laurelhurst Park and, finally, City Park Inspector. In May 1920, he was hit by a car and slightly injured and in February 1921, he returned to hospital in Vancouver for treatment before returning to Portland. It is evident that Bent remained a troubled man and that he did not have the war that he wanted to. He thoroughly exaggerated his war service in interviews with local newspapers, although some of what was said had a basis in fact. Notably, his 1914-15 Star was referred to as the ‘Mons medal’ and attributed to his ‘distinguished service’. His shell shock in January 1916 became ‘rescuing seven wounded comrades under heavy shellfire, an act for which he was highly commended’. In turn, his shellshock was attributed to his time with 250th Tunnelling Company when, ‘…he and 20 of his colleagues were buried by a shell’s damage. They were rescued 16 hours later, 15 of them dead and the other five barely alive.’[3] His account of an attack on a ‘German machine gun nest’ was pure fiction and his appeal to the reporter to ‘…not put the machine gun escapade in the story…’ was clearly a recognition of his exaggeration.

On the basis of his war service, on 11 July 1921, Bent was elected commander of the a local organisation representing disabled veterans of the World War. He was well regarded, not just for his war service—one newspaper described him as a ‘prodigious worker’, and the esteem in which he was held was added to when he led a group of veterans to a German athletic club, the Portland Turnverein, on 28 July to raise the American flag that had been lowered to half-mast following the death of Henry Albers. Albers, a local German businessman who had been convicted of sedition for singing German songs, had recently died of a stroke. Following the event, Bent wrote to a local newspaper in defence of his actions (see gallery).

The Perkins Hotel

Bent remained affected by his past, however, and was known to have fits of violent melancholy and had threatened to kill himself. Finally, in the lobby of the New Perkins hotel at 11.00pm on 29 August 1921, he engaged three men in brief conversation and then said, “Well, here goes.” before shooting himself in the chest with his revolver. He was taken to St Vincent’s hospital where died twenty minutes later.

His funeral service and cremation took place in Portland on 1 September before his ashes were sent to his brother in Battle Creek, Michigan. His brother interred his ashes alongside their mother in Edson Cemetery, Lowell, Massachusetts on 13 September. His grave is in the centre of the southern portion of the cemetery in Lot 54, Row 100, Grave 3, in the section bounded by 5th and 6th Avenues and Fairfield and Lincoln Avenues. Originally marked with a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone that recorded his unit as Canadian Army Medical Corps, the stone has been replaced and now shows his unit as 20th Battalion. In front of it are two flat markers that record his details and those of his mother; also on the plot is a large family memorial stone. His grave is one of two in the cemetery maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission; see Private Harry James Miller.

The Canadian Book of Remembrance showing the entry for Private William Francis Bent

William Bent is commemorated on page 555 of the Canadian Book of Remembrance; that page is displayed on 25, 26 and 27 November. For his war service, he was awarded the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20 and Victory Medal.

1. (Back) Charles Elbridge Bent (10 Oct 1830-26 July 1902) married Mary Francis Hill (8 March 1840-14 January 1892) on 6 January 1859 in Mendon, Massachusetts: Carrie P. (later McKillop) (1860-19 March 1904), George Henry (12 Jan 1867-29 January 1937).
2. (Back) Laura A. Socwell (née Trout) was born in Tennessee in 1864. She previously married Oliver C. Socwell in Franklin, Illinois in 1895 and they lived in Oklahoma. On 18 October 1907, while drunk, Socwell shot at his wife, hitting her in the arm, and then shot himself in the head. Following her separation from Bent, she lived with her sister. She died on 29 December 1926 and is buried in an unmarked grave in River View Cemetery, Portland.
3. (Back) This incident occurred at 6.30am on 10 June 1916 at Petit Bois, north of Wytschaete, when a German camoflet, or counter-mine, exploded driving in 250 feet of the British main gallery below it. The explosion entombed 12 men of 250th Tunnelling Company. After six days, one man, Sapper William Bedson, was pulled out alive. The bodies of 11 other men were recovered; all are buried in Kemmel Chateau Military Cemetery in adjacent plots (numbers 10-20) in Row D and are commemorated as having been killed on 15 June 1916.

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