‘Death Penny’ a re­minder of soldier’s war ser­vice

The Southern Gazette - - Front Page - BY GLEN WHIFFEN

Grand Bank res­i­dent Ralph Dou­glas said it was a nice sur­prise re­cently to learn that Cana­dian sol­diers and provin­cial Fish and Wildlife En­force­ment of­fi­cers train­ing on Brunette Island had cleaned up the grave marker of his un­cle, Aaron Keep­ing Dou­glas.

Pte. Aaron Keep­ing Dou­glas was a mem­ber of the Royal New­found­land Reg­i­ment who died in 1918, just months be­fore the First World War ended.

Though his body lies in Europe, the lit­tle com­mu­nity on Brunette Island at the time erected a head­stone there in his hon­our. Brunette Island — a large island in the mid­dle of For­tune Bay — was re­set­tled in the 1950s and 1960s.

Over the years, the head­stone had fallen over and was nearly cov­ered in moss and grass.

Ear­lier this month, 16 sol­diers from Cana­dian Forces Sta­tion (CFS) St. John’s, along with 10 Fish and Wildlife En­force­ment of­fi­cers, cleaned and re­stored the head­stone.

Ralph Dou­glas said that years ago, he of­ten cleaned it when he vis­ited the island dur­ing the sum­mer months. Now, at age 81, he doesn’t go there any­more.

“That was nice, to see the head­stone all cleaned up and them all gath­ered around it,” Dou­glas said, re­fer­ring to an ar­ti­cle and pho­tos about it in The Tele­gram.

“The head­stone was over there ly­ing on its side in the grave­yard be­hind where the church use to be. I’ve been over there some­times and cleaned it off and stuck it up, me and a buddy of mine, when we’d go over there for a boil-up. But I no longer have a boat now.”

Ralph said there were five boys and five girls in his fa­ther’s fam­ily, but he only got to know — other than his fa­ther — one of his un­cles. He said his fa­ther was al­ways away from the island work­ing on schooners, and they never spoke much about Pte. Dou­glas.

“The Keep­ing part of his name is af­ter his mother. When he died, they tell me, he was with an­other feller who was from Har­bour Bre­ton some­where I think, and they were in this old shack hav­ing a snack when it got shelled,” Dou­glas said. “Other than that, the only thing I can tell you is I heard he rowed from Brunette Island in a dory when he de­cided to go and en­list.”

To row the dis­tance from Brunette Island to Grand Bank in a dory may seem a near im­pos­si­ble task, but Pte. Dou­glas was no slacker.

Ac­cord­ing to doc­u­ments on the Royal New­found­land Reg­i­ment web­site, Dou­glas was 22 when he en­listed at St. John’s.

While he stood just five feet, five inches tall, his record shows a man of strength and courage. Months af­ter join­ing the reg­i­ment in the field in De­cem­ber 1916, he was gassed and sent to hospi­tal.

He was re­leased from hospi­tal and re­joined the reg­i­ment in the field on Sept. 3, 1917. About a month and half later — on Nov. 20, 1917 — he suf­fered a se­vere gun­shot wound to the arm and was sent back to hospi­tal.

He was re­leased from hospi­tal and re­joined the reg­i­ment again on April 13, 1918. Records in­di­cate he was ad­mit­ted to hospi­tal once again on Aug. 10, 1918, but it’s not clear what it was for at that time.

He was dis­charged from hospi­tal Sept. 1, 1918 and soon re­turned to the reg­i­ment.

On Sept. 29, 1918, Pte. Aaron Keep­ing Dou­glas was killed in ac­tion. He was 24.

Ralph Dou­glas says the only thing he has of his un­cle now is his “Death Penny.”

Ac­cord­ing to great­war.co.uk web­site, in Oc­to­ber 1916 the Bri­tish Gov­ern­ment came up with the idea for a com­mem­o­ra­tive me­mo­rial plaque to be given to rel­a­tives of men and women whose deaths were at­trib­ut­able to the First World War. It is a cir­cu­lar plaque with the words “He died for freedom and hon­our” writ­ten on it, with the fig­ure of Britannia hold­ing a lau­rel wreath over the fallen soldier’s name. A lion stands in front of Britannia. A very small lion can be seen un­der­neath the larger lion’s feet, bit­ing into a winged crea­ture rep­re­sent­ing the German Im­pe­rial ea­gle.

Dou­glas said that af­ter his fa­ther died in 1963, he found his un­cle’s Death Penny in a box in his fa­ther’s at­tic.

“It’s too bad we didn’t know more about him,” Dou­glas said.

Ac­cord­ing to the great­war web­site, a scroll was also to be sent with the Death Penny, but Dou­glas has no idea what hap­pened to that.

The word­ing on the scroll would have been: “He whom this scroll com­mem­o­rates was num­bered among those who, at the call of King and Coun­try, left all that was dear to them, en­dured hard­ness, faced dan­ger, and fi­nally passed out of the sight of men by the path of duty and self sac­ri­fice, giv­ing up their own lives that oth­ers might live in freedom. Let those who come af­ter see to it that his name be not for­got­ten.”

Restor­ing mark­ers

Bruce King, projects of­fi­cer at CFS St. John’s, said re­pair­ing the grave marker on Brunette Island was some­thing the group had wanted to do for the past few years while go­ing to the island for train­ing.

It’s not the first time CFS St. John’s and the provin­cial Fish and Wildlife En­force­ment had teamed up to re­store a mon­u­ment to a First World War soldier.

In June 2015, they made an overnight trip to the re­set­tled com­mu­nity of Lit­tle Bona in Pla­cen­tia Bay, where they re­stored a fallen mon­u­ment to Pte. Michael John White.

White left the tiny, iso­lated out­port and en­listed with the New­found­land Reg­i­ment in St. John’s on Nov. 15, 1917. Though he was only 16 and still un­der­age, he wrote “19 years, eight months” on the doc­u­ments — a trick em­ployed by many young men of the time and usu­ally over­looked by re­cruit­ment of­fi­cers.

The last bat­tle of the Royal New­found­land Reg­i­ment in the First World War came near the Bel­gium town of Ledeghem on Oct. 3, 1918 — the day White was killed in ac­tion.

The war ended just over a month later.

Af­ter the war a tall mar­ble mon­u­ment was erected on an out­crop­ping of rock on the hill­side in Lit­tle Bona, over­look­ing the cove.

Years af­ter all the res­i­dents left Lit­tle Bona dur­ing the re­set­tle­ment years, the mon­u­ment tum­bled over, which was no­ticed by Fish and wildlife en­force­ment of­fi­cer Doug Hayes, who con­tacted King at CFS St. John’s. They put a team to­gether and went to Lit­tle Bona, where they cleaned and re­assem­bled the mon­u­ment in hon­our of White.

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF BAR­BARA BARNES

Ralph Dou­glas holds the “Death Penny” of his un­cle, First World War soldier Aaron Keep­ing Dou­glas, who was killed near the end of the war. Dou­glas found the plaque in a box in his fa­ther’s at­tic years ago.

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