War wounds, beyond the battlefields
Communities across Atlantic Canada were united by a far-reaching sense of grief
William Fry and Donald Lawrence Morine never knew each other.
Yet Fry, of what’s now Summerville, N.L., and Morine, from Bear River, N.S., shared common ground and experience, fighting on one of the bloodiest battlefields in history from the early summer to late fall 1916.
Fry and Morine also shared the dubious distinction of being among 1.1 million casualties of the Battle of the Somme, and having their names etched permanently on war memorials in their home provinces.
Their stories differ, but ring familiar for communities across Atlantic Canada that suffered their own heartbreaking losses. And during the summer and fall of 1916, it was war that united thousands.
“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 history professor Brent Wilson of the University of New Brunswick.
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.
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 801 Newfoundlanders who went into battle that morning, only 68 answered roll call 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, 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 on Sept. 29, 1916, while serving with the 26th Nova Scotia Battalion.
His name is etched on the Yarmouth War Memorial and he’s the youngest soldier listed as killed in action.
Courcelette also brought significant losses for New Brunswick. From that province’s population of 370,000 at the time, about 27,000 soldiers enlisted and 17,000 went overseas as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
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 Wilson.
But it came at 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.”
Wilson says evidence of a shared grief can be seen on cenotaphs across the country, and on 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.”
Bruce MacDonald visits the grave of his father’s great-uncle, Pte. Robert Burns, 20th Battalion (Central Ontario), killed in action near Dickebusch, Belgium, on Nov. 25, 1915.