Public records and family letters allow us to tell nuanced stories about Great War combatants.
How to uncover your family’s Great War story.
Exactly one week before he was killed in action at Vimy Ridge, France, Frank Maynard expressed optimism about prospects for the Allied campaign, and for himself. In his last known letter to family in Victoria, British Columbia, he wrote: “Looks as if I may be home for Christmas yet.”
Maynard was my wife’s uncle — her father’s older brother. I tell his story not because he was a great warrior; he lasted barely three weeks at the front and was a lowly private. Nor was he noteworthy for his social status; he was the son of missionary parents of humble origins and meagre resources. And he had no great accom- plishments apart from school prizes for athletics; he was only a teenager, after all. Indeed, no claim is made here that Frank was more heroic or more deserving of attention than his many trench-mates.
In fact, that’s the point. Even though Maynard was not a prominent person, we know a great deal about him due to the systematic collection and analysis of family memorabilia and military records. If we can evoke a nuanced portrait of him more than one hundred years after his death, it is similarly possible to memorialize many others, perhaps including your Great War forebears. I can assure you that you will value, and may be deeply moved by, the discoveries you make.
Whether Maynard actually believed his bravado about Christmas is hard to gauge. Certainly he supported the Allied cause unreservedly. In December 1915, just four days after becoming eligible to serve on his eighteenth birthday, he enlisted in the newly organized Vancouver Island Timber Wolves, the 103rd Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
After arriving in Britain with the Timber Wolves at the end of July 1916, Maynard spent the next several months scheming about how he might undo his “rough luck” and get to France, despite the reluctance of senior commanders to send teenagers to the front. Having failed to win entry into his brother’s unit, the signallers, Maynard undertook training for the bombing section. It was comprised of small teams of fighters who entered enemy trenches at night, tossing grenade-like bombs and engaging in hand-to-hand combat. Not surprisingly, they were also known as the “Suicide Club,” a fact Maynard reported almost offhandedly in a letter: “Of course it will be pretty dangerous work…, but it is very interesting.” His intellectual fascination with his work must have offered cold comfort to his parents.
Maynard did eventually get to practise his Suicide Club skills. He reached France just before Christmas 1916, having been reassigned to the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifle Battalion (2nd CMR). After much shuffling about, he made his way to the front late in March 1917, and, in a letter to his mother, he described an encounter with the enemy: “I have been in a real scrap for the first time. We made a bombing raid on Fritz’s trenches & … inflicted a great many casualties on him & retired to our own trenches without any difficulty.” This raid appears to correspond to one reported in the 2nd CMR War Diary for the wee hours of March 31, 1917.
The 2nd CMR War Diary also gives a clue as to how Maynard may have died. On Easter Monday the Canadian Corps had famously and efficiently achieved the goals set for it in the attack on Vimy Ridge. The next day, Tuesday, April 10, 1917, was largely given over to consolidating gains, with only one incident explicitly recorded as resulting in casualties. During a heavy snowstorm at 4:00 p.m., the diary
Private Frank Maynard during military training.