In 2012, I visited the Vimy Memorial in France as part of a battlefields tour. The view from atop Vimy Ridge was breathtaking; it was easy to see how the capture of this ridge in April 1917 was considered a crowning achievement for the Canadian Corps.
Equally staggering was the sight of the 11,285 names etched into the memorial’s walls, each representing a Canadian soldier killed in France but whose body was never found. Little did I know at the time that the name of one of my own ancestors was carved in that white stone.
I had grown up thinking that no one in my family had served in the First World War. Our photo albums contained no images of men in uniform, and we had no war medals to display.
However, in recent years, I discovered that at least three of my relatives enlisted.
Jeremiah O’Connell, my grandmother’s uncle, volunteered in September 1915. He died barely a year later, his body shattered by a German shell and lost amid the ruin of the Somme.
Jeremiah’s younger brother, Martin — my great-grandfather — volunteered in March 1916, only to change his mind in late July, on the eve of his battalion’s departure for Europe. Why did Martin refuse to go overseas? I suspect it was related to his fiancée Viola’s pregnancy. Martin returned to Apple River, Nova Scotia, and, on July 31, 1916, the army declared him a deserter. He and Viola were married nine days later.
Rufus, the youngest brother, was drafted late in 1917. Just a couple months later, while still in training, he contracted the Spanish flu and spent months in hospital convalescing. The war ended before he could reach the front.
The Great War cost the O’Connell family dearly: Jeremiah lost his life; Martin likely lost his reputation; and both Martin and Rufus lost their brother.
Sadly, my great-grandpa had only a brief time with his young family. Viola died of tuberculosis in 1922, and Martin himself died of cancer just seven years later, leaving my Granny Dorothy orphaned at the age of twelve — another child of the Great War generation who faced heartbreak and loss.
This November marks the one hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War. A century later, the conflict continues to affect us — even if we don’t fully realize it.
In this special issue, award-winning military historian Tim Cook explains how the Great War profoundly changed both Canada and Canadians. Elsewhere, we explore how the war impacted children; we recall the deadly Spanish Flu that erupted near the end of the war; and we profile the last Canadian soldier to die in combat — his death came mere minutes before the armistice was declared.
As for the O’Connell brothers, I don’t recall any mention of them as I was growing up. After Martin’s death, my Granny was taken in and raised by a family living near Truro, Nova Scotia. By the time I was a child, the story of the O’Connell brothers was ancient history.
As far as I know, there are no photos of Jeremiah, Martin, or Rufus, nor any letters from them that might reveal their feelings about what transpired during the war.
What little I do know about them comes as fragments of facts found in their attestation papers at Library and Archives Canada. I know, for instance, that Martin stood five foot six and had blue eyes and a “florid” complexion. Thanks to his medical files, I even know that he was missing two toes on his left foot. But I’ll never know whether Martin regretted his decision to go AWOL or know the depths of his grief upon learning, just a month after his marriage to Viola, of Jeremiah’s death.
Perhaps he told my Granny — but, sadly, I never thought to ask her. We lost her in 1999, and her stories of the Great War remain unspoken and unknown.