Con­scrip­tion ar­rives in sum­mer of 1917

Is­land sol­diers find com­fort in hu­mour and mu­sic as war’s fourth year nears

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - LIFESTYLES - Si­mon Lloyd Si­mon Lloyd is li­brar­ian re­spon­si­ble for the P.E.I. col­lec­tion at the Uni­ver­sity of Prince Ed­ward Is­land Robert­son Li­brary’s Uni­ver­sity Ar­chives and Spe­cial Col­lec­tions. This is part of a monthly se­ries of look­backs at the First World War he w

Although pre­pared to ac­knowl­edge the hor­rors of the First World War in the ab­stract, The Guardian – like most Cana­dian news­pa­pers – was gen­er­ally in­clined to put the best face pos­si­ble on strate­gic de­vel­op­ments and progress. So a July 14, 1917 edi­to­rial was note­wor­thy for its bleak as­sess­ment of the cur­rent mil­i­tary sit­u­a­tion: “[T]he stale­mate ap­pears to be un­bro­ken, and … suc­cess and re­verse still suc­ceed each other with sick­en­ing per­sis­tence.”

The rapid ap­proach of the war’s fourth year may have oc­ca­sioned some of the edi­to­rial’s grim­ness, but it was also no co­in­ci­dence that the same col­umn then went on to at­tack Lib­eral op­po­nents of the re­cently in­tro­duced con­scrip­tion leg­is­la­tion. Although op­po­si­tion would prove fiercest in Que­bec, forced en­list­ment was not an easy sell any­where in Canada and es­tab­lish­ment fig­ures – in­clud­ing news­pa­per ed­i­tors – who sought to jus­tify the mea­sure could hardly pre­tend that the war was go­ing swim­mingly, while at the same time point­ing out the des­per­ate need for more men.

On P.E.I., the ap­proach of con­scrip­tion was in­cor­po­rated into a lo­cal re­cruit­ing drive to se­cure a draft of “rail­way troops,” spe­cial­ist sol­diers ur­gently needed over­seas to ex­tend and main­tain the rail links feed­ing the in­cred­i­ble lo­gis­ti­cal de­mands of the vast armies fight­ing on the Western front. To help fill the re­cruit­ment quota, large ad­ver­tise­ments in mid-July in­voked the pend­ing im­ple­men­ta­tion of con­scrip­tion, urg­ing prospec­tive en­lis­tees to “Be A Went, Not A Sent!”

Along with rail­way troops, an­other in­no­va­tion of the war was mil­i­tary avi­a­tion. By mid1917 The Guardian had been able to re­port on a hand­ful of Is­landers who had signed up for Bri­tish Army’s Royal Fly­ing Corps – or its even newer Cana­dian train­ing branch, which had be­gun op­er­a­tions in Fe­bru­ary. On July 9, The Guardian car­ried a front-page re­port, with a pho­to­graph, on one of these pi­o­neer­ing avi­a­tors. Lieut. Hugh Ron­ald Ste­wart of Char­lot­te­town had ar­rived home on fur­lough, “unan­nounced and con­se­quently with­out the usual wel­come ac­corded to re­turned sol­diers.” Hav­ing en­listed as a sig­naller at war’s out­break, for which ser­vice he was sub­se­quently dec­o­rated, Ste­wart joined the nascent Royal Fly­ing Corps in Septem­ber 1916 and rapidly won pro­mo­tion to lieu­tenancy. The Guardian’s ev­i­dent ea­ger­ness to run a “re­turn­ing hero” pro­file on Ste­wart was, how­ever, frus­trated by his res­o­lutely tac­i­turn mod­esty: “He ad­mit­ted he had been in pretty tight places and had seen some ‘scraps’ in the air as well as on land, but he pos­i­tively re­fused to be quoted.”

While Ste­wart’s de­ter­mined si­lence was some­what un­usual, most Is­landers who had seen com­bat were lim­ited in what they could share, es­pe­cially in a pub­lic fo­rum like a news­pa­per. Quite apart from of­fi­cial cen­sor­ship, there were also the feel­ings of anx­ious loved ones to con­sider, to say noth­ing of the lim­i­ta­tions of lan­guage in de­scrib­ing a type of war­fare un­like any the world had seen be­fore. Not sur­pris­ingly, then, many sol­diers’ ac­counts, whether in let­ters from over­seas or in in­ter­views upon re­turn­ing home, of­ten had a stilted, pro forma qual­ity, at least as printed in The Guardian.

Dif­fer­ent peo­ple coped in dif­fer­ent ways, how­ever, and re­mark­able ex­cep­tions some­times ap­peared, as in a July 5 let­ter from Jack MacVar­ish to his mother in Har­mony Junc­tion, printed on July 31. Un­der the vivid head­line, “Bat­tery Boys Dance As Shells Fly Over­head,” MacVar­ish re­counted how one of his com­rades had re­cently found an old vi­o­lin, lead­ing to an im­promptu dance in a cel­lar, de­spite the shrap­nel bursts above. As for the noise of an ar­tillery bar­rage, MacVar­ish de­scribed it thus: “It sounds some­thing in a small way like the most ter­rific storm on record; a dozen thresh­ing mills; two dozen der­ricks; fifty out­side wed­ding cel­e­bra­tions; and a cou­ple of hun­dred shoe­mak­ers shops at work … .” Des­per­ate though the times were, mu­sic and hu­mour could still of­fer some com­fort.


This is Lieut. Hugh Ron­ald Ste­wart, as he ap­peared on the front page of the Guardian on July 9, 1917.

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