War wounds

What we learned from First World War

The Packet (Clarenville) - - Editorial - BY BAR­BARA DEAN-SIMMONS SALTWIRE NET­WORK Barb.Dean-Simmons@thep­acket.ca

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 on one of the blood­i­est bat­tle­fields in his­tory from the early sum­mer to late fall of 1916.

Fry and Mornie 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 — from 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 roll­call 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.

Don­ald 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 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 pro­fes­sor Wil­son.

He says 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.

“To me that shows the depth of the im­pact — the so­cial im­pact — the war had. And I don’t think we fully un­der­stand still to­day how wide­spread that feel­ing was; and how long it took for peo­ple to come to grips with the ex­pe­ri­ence and move on with their lives.”

Con­sid­er­ing such sig­nif­i­cant losses, the ques­tion af­ter a cen­tury of con­tem­pla­tion about the First World War re­mains “Was it worth it?”

There is no easy an­swer, says Prof. Wil­son.

All his­to­ri­ans can do, he says, is ex­am­ine the se­quence of events, in try­ing to un­der­stand and doc­u­ment the war.

He says re­search shows that, over­all here 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. Cana­di­ans still felt a very close con­nec­tion to Bri­tain and the Em­pire and be­lieved that serv­ing and help­ing Bri­tain in its war against Ger­many was the right thing to do.”

The sim­ple thing we take from the First World War, then, is pure knowl­edge.

“It helps us un­der­stand ways in which our so­ci­ety has changed and how it has evolved in the way that it has,” says Wil­son.

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.

He notes the news­pa­per writ­ings of that day in­di­cate clearly the so­cial elite were very much be­hind the war, as were the pro-Con­ser­va­tive news­pa­pers.

“You gen­er­ally tend to find this very jin­go­is­tic, pro-war tone, main­tained through­out the years of the war,” he says.

And that, in it­self, is a les­son to take away.

“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.

From a pop­u­la­tion of 100,000, Prince Ed­ward Is­land, sent 3,000-4,000 soldiers — some vol­un­teers, oth­ers by or­der of the gov­ern­ment.

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.

“It’s as­ton­ish­ing to think of that hap­pen­ing now. And the Guardian (ar­ti­cle) didn’t say any­thing about hu­man rights or civil lib­er­ties; it was a kind of fin­ger-wag­ging con­clu­sion say­ing this drive should have a good ef­fect on ed­u­cat­ing young men to have the proper pa­pers on them at all times.”

The pa­tri­otic fever and rhetoric is pe­cu­liar mea­sured against modern Cana­dian so­ci­ety.

To­day, Lloyd points out, the me­dia (and cit­i­zens) are more apt to be crit­i­cal and ask ques­tions; and there is greater willing­ness and free­dom to do that.

Pro­fes­sor Brian Dou­glas Ten­nyson (re­tired) taught his­tory at the Uni­ver­sity of Cape Bre­ton, and has writ­ten sev­eral books on the sub­ject of Nova Sco­tia in the First and Sec­ond World Wars.

He says there were harsh lessons from the First World War.

“There was a tremen­dous dis­il­lu­sion­ment,” he says, at the end of the war. “Peo­ple be­gan to re­al­ize the whole thing had been a ter­ri­ble mis­take, and a bloody costly one.”

Yet it was such a hor­ri­fy­ing thought — to think that the soldiers, the boys from the fish­ing vil­lages and farms had died in vain — that no one wanted to say it.

Still, there were reper­cus­sions, po­lit­i­cally, and so­cially.

With so much money in­vested in the war, Canada had lit­tle left to help soldiers rein­te­grate.

Re­turn­ing At­lantic Cana­dian soldiers found lit­tle em­ploy­ment in a coun­try head­ing into De­pres­sion.

They moved away from the Mar­itimes, head­ing to the United States and West­ern Canada to live and work the rest of their lives.

“Peo­ple lost faith in politi­cians and it was af­ter the First World War that the two-party sys­tem breaks down and you have a third party en­ter the scene.”

And it was be­cause of the First World War that Bri­tain, and its al­lies, hes­i­tated so long be­fore be­ing drawn into a war against Ger­man in 1939.

“That was the rea­son our politi­cians kept mak­ing con­ces­sions to Hitler,” says Ten­nyson. “Pub­lic opin­ion was ‘No more war; don’t’ sell us any more bull­shit about stand­ing up for free­dom’.”

Cana­dian and New­found­land soldiers, and their fam­i­lies, had paid a tremen­dous price.”

The lives of William Fry and Don­ald Lawrence Morine and their fel­low soldiers.


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.


Posters like these, pub­lished across At­lantic Canada, en­cour­aged young men to en­list.

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