Where Once They Sailed
Martha’s crucifix comforts her throughout the war
The Great War took a heavy toll on families with several sons serving in the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve.
The constant worrying about the location of their sons and their safety led to many restless nights and brought enormous stress to parents.
Combine this with the loss of a husband and enlistment of four sons who sailed out of St. John’s harbour in 1914, and you have one resilient mother.
Martha Smith of Gooseberry Cove was one such individual. Losing her husband
two months after witnessing four of her sons enlist on Aug. 3, 1914, would have caused many of us to feel abandoned by God. Her granddaughter, Minnie Ryan,
explains her grandmother was a religious woman who would have prayed constantly for the safe return of her sons while holding the crucifix. She took
comfort in knowing three children – James, Isaac and Alice – were still at home.
Luke was the first brother to enlist in March 1906. He completed seven years of service before the outbreak of the Great War. He saw his earlier enlistment as a means of earning extra income during the winter.
John followed Luke and enlisted in December 1910 and completed five years of naval training.
Two more brothers, Ben and Uriah, enlisted when the Naval Reserve requested volunteers at the outbreak of the war. Unlike Ben, Uriah was living in Massachusetts at the time he signed his enlistment papers.
War is never a pleasant experience and the potential for tragedy always lurks in its shadows. For the family, the drowning of Luke onboard the RMS Laurentic off Lough Swilly created an image of horror forever etched in their memories.
The ship struck two minefields and sank within 20 minutes in a raging January storm, taking 354 passengers to their watery graves. – among them, 22 sailors from the Newfoundland Royal Naval Reserve. His wife would never see her husband again and their infant daughter, Viola, would never get the opportunity to have her biological father by her side.
The Great Halifax Explosion occurred Dec. 6, 1917, 11 months after Luke’s death. Martha was unaware that two of her sons, Ben and John, were present at the port of Halifax. Ben had just arrived from Newfoundland after being transferred to the HMCS Niobe on his way back overseas from leave. John was assigned to the naval base at Halifax.
Both brothers narrowly escaped with their lives but witnessed the absolute horror and shock of exploding munitions and the carnage of human life.
For Martha, the final burden of stress was her grandson Isaac’s enlistment with the Royal Naval Reserve on May 3, 1918. She was so distraught, according to oral family history records, that she wrote to the Naval Admiralty at the HMS Briton, St. John’s explaining that Royal Naval Reserve already had four of her sons, one of whom lost his life.
She requested that Isaac be kept in Newfoundland waters. Isaac’s naval records indicate the Admiralty listened to a distraught naval mother.
Isaac was only assigned to the HMS Briton. A notation on his application records that he had three brothers John, Benjamin and Uriah, who were in the navy. Family members of her youngest son, James, also claim that she asked that they not accept any application from her youngest son for enlistment.
The Smith family gave a grand total of 40 years of combined service to the Newfoundland Naval Reserve, making them one of the top naval families of Newfoundland for service to their country. They lost a brother and came close to losing two more at Halifax.
Through it all, Martha kept her faith and lived to see the return of her boys. She witnessed the marriages of her children and saw the births of her many grandchildren. Lest we forget the emotional and physical sacrifices of families during a war.
Next week’s column will feature two articles from the Naval Reservist in the Southwest Arm region. The Peddle family of Hodge’s Cove had an early beginning with the Newfoundland Naval Reserve when their oldest son, Abijah, enlisted with the newly formed navy in 1904 to become one of the first men to join from our area. He was followed by Alexander in 1907 and Archer in 1913.
The other feature will describe the contribution of the Avery brothers of Long Beach. Abraham joined in 1911, followed by Robert in 1913 and their youngest brother Nicholas in 1915. Abraham escaped with his life on Jan. 25, 1917 when the HMR Laurentic sank and he found himself miraculously onshore.
These stories in next week’s Where Once They Sailed.
Martha Smith’s crucifix showing the wear of years of worry, grief and prayers during the Great War. The crucifix is now in the possession of her 91-year-old granddaughter, Minnie Ryan.