St. Catharines suffered in silence
Hundreds of local men killed in First World War, but few records exist of community’s reaction
By Nov. 11, 1918 St. Catharines was a city that suffered in silence.
At least 1,000 men shipped off to fight in the First World War. Like many men across the country, the first troops that left in 1914 boarded ships with notions of adventure and glory for king and country. It would all be over by Christmas, they said.
Four years later, at least 324 of those soldiers from the municipalities of St. Catharines, Port Dalhousie, Grantham and Merritton had been killed in action. How many of the survivors were wounded remains an open questhe tion.
“The numbers are a little hard to pin down,” said Kathleen Powell, curator at the St. Catharines Museum. “Those numbers (1,000 shipping out and 324 killed) are probably low.”
Powell said the museum pulled together estimates based on passenger manifests from ships transporting troops from Canada to Europe. But because enlistment records show where a person enlisted, not necessarily where they were from, a person who was from the area who enlisted elsewhere isn’t included in the figures.
For those for communities — now all included in the urban boundaries of St. Catharines — losses must have been deep, she said.
For the average Canadian community, one in five men who fought in the war were killed. In the St. Catharines area, that ratio is one in three, she said.
“It hit everywhere in the country,” Powell said. “But no one talked about it.”
Powell said she hasn’t been able to find records of how St. Catharines reacted to the loss of so many young men.
“The newspaper wasn’t looking how the loss of life impacted the community, people were not really writing about it. There really don’t appear to be stories about the men suffering from what we would call posttraumatic stress disorder.”
Powell said veterans and citizens alike appear to have just wanted to move on from the horrors of the war, which claimed the lives of nearly 620,000 Canadian soldiers.
Nevertheless, clues to how Canadians felt in the aftermath of the war can be found in literature.
“You will find books before the war about, for example, the Boer War. And those books are about going to fight for country and honour and fighting for something larger than yourself,” Powell said. “Postwar books are about ‘Why did we do this?’ and has a much more somber view of war.”
While there may be few local documents that record how St. Catharines was impacted 100
years ago, Powell still found a way to drive the point home.
In 2014, she was part of a group that produced a Google map marked with pins for each of the 1,000 soldiers who fought in the war. The green pins are for servicemen. The reds one for casualties.
“It is very striking when you can see it all visualized like that,” she said. “You can see how entire neighbourhoods were wiped out.”
She points to the neighbourhood around Yates Street, which would have been home to more affluent young men who became part of the junior officer corps.
“These were the men leading the charges in battle,” she said. “They had a much higher causality rate than other groups in the armed forces.”
The annual Remembrance Day service is being held Sunday at 11 a.m. at the St. Catharines cenotaph in Memorial Park on Veterans Way (formally St. Paul Street West) by the Burgoyne Bridge.
The map can be found online at stcatharinesmuseumblog.com
The front page of the St. Catharines Standard from Nov. 11, 1918. Details about local reaction can be found in Yesterday & Today on page D3.