War wounds

What we learned from the First World War

Annapolis Valley Register - - NEWS - BY BAR­BARA DEAN- SIM­MONS SALTWIRE NET­WORK Barb.Dean-Sim­mons@thep­acket.ca

Wil­liam Fry of what’s now Sum­merville, N. L. and Don­ald Lawrence Morine of Bear River, N.S. never knew each other.

Yet Fry and Morine shared com­mon ground and ex­pe­ri­ence, fight­ing in one of the blood­i­est bat­tle­fields in his­tory from the early sum­mer to late fall of 1916.

Fry and Morine also shared the du­bi­ous hon­our of be­ing among the 1.1 mil­lion ca­su­al­ties of The Bat­tle of the Somme and hav­ing their names etched per­ma­nently on war memo­ri­als in their home prov­inces.

Fry, a fish­er­man from a small New­found­land com­mu­nity, was among the 12,000 New­found­lan­ders — of a pop­u­la­tion of 240,000 — who went to war.

He was 23 when he was killed in ac­tion on July 1, 1916, dur­ing the Bat­tle of Beau­mont-Hamel, the first day of the Somme of­fen­sive.

The Bat­tle of Beau­mont Hamel con­tin­ues to live in the col­lec­tive psy­che of New­found­lan­ders and Labrado­ri­ans as a dark day that im­pacted not just that gen­er­a­tion, but gen­er­a­tions to come. And while July 1 is a day of cel­e­bra­tion for other Cana­di­ans, it’s a solemn morn­ing in New­found­land and Labrador as peo­ple gather around war memo­ri­als to mark the dev­as­ta­tion at Beau­mont-Hamel.

Of the 800 New­found­lan­ders who went into bat­tle that morn­ing, only 68 an­swered roll call the next day. More than 700 mem­bers of the reg­i­ment were killed, wounded or miss­ing.

The Bat­tle of the Somme raged un­til Novem­ber.

In early fall, the Al­lied forces were try­ing to gain ground against Ger­many near Courcelette, France.

Morine - one of the 35,000 Nova Sco­tians who en­listed - was just 13 days past his 17th birth­day when he was killed Sept. 29, 1916, while serv­ing with the 26th Nova Sco­tia Bat­tal­ion. His name is etched on the Yar­mouth War Me­mo­rial. He’s the youngest sol­dier listed as killed in ac­tion.

Courcelette also brought a sig­nif­i­cant loss for New Bruns­wick. From that prov­ince ( pop. 370,000 at the time), about 27,000 sol­diers en­listed and 17,000 went over­seas as part of the Cana­dian Ex­pe­di­tionary Force (CEF).

On Sept. 15, 1916, the 26th New Bruns­wick Bat­tal­ion had helped cap­ture the vil­lage; the Somme was its first ma­jor bat­tle of the war.

The Septem­ber ac­tion was seen as a ma­jor suc­cess for the Cana­dian Corps at that point, ex­plains His­tory Pro­fes­sor Brent Wil­son of the Uni­ver­sity of New Bruns­wick.

But it came with a price.

“It was also the costli­est bat­tle for the bat­tal­ion,” he says. “They lost 500 men (killed, wounded and miss­ing) — about half the strength of the unit — in less than three weeks.”

Dur­ing the sum­mer and fall of 1916, the war united thou­sands of At­lantic Cana­di­ans through grief.

“It’s hard to gen­er­al­ize, but I think there was a pro­found sense of grief … and it took many fam­i­lies, and re­turn­ing sol­diers, a long time to come to grips with what they had gone through,” says Wil­son.

The ev­i­dence of that grief is in the ceno­taphs across the coun­try and the hon­our rolls put to­gether by churches and schools to com­mem­o­rate the loss of a com­mu­nity’s sol­diers. Was it worth it?

Con­sid­er­ing such sig­nif­i­cant losses, the ques­tion af­ter a cen­tury of con­tem­pla­tion re­mains, “Was it worth it?”

There is no easy an­swer, says Wil­son.

All his­to­ri­ans can do, he says, is ex­am­ine the se­quence of events in try­ing to un­der­stand and doc­u­ment the war.

Re­search shows that, in Canada, most peo­ple came to be­lieve their loved ones did not die in vain; that some good came out of the sac­ri­fice.

“I think, prob­a­bly, the aver­age sol­dier and their fam­i­lies felt that what they were do­ing was the right thing; they were sad­dened by the ex­pe­ri­ence but it was a pe­riod of pa­tri­o­tism in Canada.”

Si­mon Lloyd, ar­chiv­ist the Uni­ver­sity of Prince Ed­ward Is­land, has spent con­sid­er­able time ex­am­in­ing and con­vert­ing print copies of the Char­lot­te­town Guardian from 1914-1919 to dig­i­tal.

“You gen­er­ally tend to find this very jin­go­is­tic, pro- war tone, main­tained through­out the years of the war,” he says.

“It’s one thing to love your coun­try, but to be un­crit­i­cally sup­port­ing of the vast ma­jor­ity of what the govern­ment is do­ing … means a lot of those hard ques­tions don’t get asked,” Lloyd says.

One thing that fas­ci­nates Lloyd is the pe­riod in 1918 that fol­lowed Canada’s 1917 in­tro­duc­tion of con­scrip­tion. Un­til then, en­list­ment had been vol­un­tary. How­ever, fol­low­ing ma­jor Al­lied losses through 1916 and 1917, young men did not ap­pear as ea­ger to sign up.

The Cana­dian govern­ment de­cided to take that choice away.

On April 1, 1918, Lloyd says, a “very jaunty” Guardian ar­ti­cle head­lined “Mil­i­tary Roundup” re­ported mil­i­tary po­lice had gone into the Prince Ed­ward The­atre in Char­lot­te­town as the night’s per­for­mance ended to search for mil­i­tary-aged men who had not en­listed.

“Women and chil­dren were told they could leave first so ev­ery man who was there could be stopped by the mil­i­tary po­lice and have his pa­pers ex­am­ined, to show he was ei­ther un­der-aged or he had con­scrip­tion ex­emp­tion pa­pers.

To­day, Lloyd said, the me­dia ( and cit­i­zens) are more apt to be crit­i­cal and ask ques­tions, and there is a greater will­ing­ness and free­dom to do that.

“It’s hard to gen­er­al­ize, but I think there was a pro­found sense of grief … and it took many fam­i­lies, and re­turn­ing sol­diers, a long time to come to grips with what they had gone through.”

— His­tory Pro­fes­sor Brent Wil­son


Bruce Mac­Don­ald at the grave of his fa­ther’s great-un­cle, Pri­vate Robert Burns, 20th Bat­tal­ion (Cen­tral On­tario), killed in ac­tion near Dicke­busch, Bel­gium, on Nov. 25, 1915.


Si­mon Lloyd is ar­chiv­ist with the Uni­ver­sity of Prince Ed­ward Is­land.

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