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.

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