What we learned from the First World War
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.