Museum exhibition highlights the Swift Current area’s contribution to First World War
The current exhibition at the Swift Current Museum reflects on the contribution of the Swift Current area towards the First World War through the history of the 27th Light Horse and the 209th Battalion.
The exhibition also includes individual histories of soldiers who enlisted with these two units to serve in the war.
Museum Director and Curator Lloyd Begley said the exhibition is important for two reasons.
“First and foremost, it's the centenary of the end of the First World War and secondly, it serves as a reminder to the community this is partly where we've come from and these are the chaps who helped us live the life that we live now,” he explained.
One of the challenges during his research for the exhibition was to find images of soldiers to use with their biographical detail.
“The image in the exhibition is so people can identify with whom they're reading about,” he said. “There of course were 2,000 more names. The problem is that finding images of each of these fellows was a difficult challenge.”
Men decided to enlist for various reasons, including a sense of duty and patriotism.
“Of course, then there was this thing called jingoism gone mad,” he said. “This whole thing about anticipating war, being excited about it. It was adventurous, I'll be home for Christmas and I got to enlist so I can see it, I can partake in it, I can experience it. So it was a rush to enlist.”
There was a sense that the war will be over soon and few anticipated the terrible human toll as the conflict dragged on for four years. One of the reasons men enlisted was to get a free trip back to Britain.
“It sounds silly, but lots of them were Brits and then lots of them were Boer War veterans,” he said. “They came to Canada as an opportunity to have a better life. A lot of them were what they called remittance men who were sent here by their families of wealth. A lot of them were fourth or fifth sons of well to do British families and they sent them an allowance not to come home because there was no future for them. So the one reason was to get a trip back home.”
The exhibition includes information about the Dumbells, a popular Canadian comedy stage troupe that was established during the war.
“I did a lot of interesting research on the comedy troupes and the concert parties and just how many there were, and the fact that one of the members of the Dumbells was from Swift Current,” he said.
Albert Edward (Red) Newman was the only original member of the Dumbells who was not born in Canada. He was from Dover, England, but emigrated to Swift Current. He was working as a clerk at the Empress Hotel and enlisted as a soldier. He was originally a member of the Y Emmas, another concert party, and was recruited by the Dumbells.
The Dumbells bolstered the morale of Canadian soldiers with their shows. Their motto was “Any place, Anywhere” and they even performed near the battlefront.
“There's some descriptions that I was able to find,” Begley said. “During one performance, a German shell actually flew over the stage. So they were up there.”
Private Andrew Hay, one of the soldiers featured in the exhibition, is the grandfather of Swift Current resident Barb Parchman. She provided some of his items for a display, including a photo of him in uniform, a small tobacco container, medals and his 209th Battalion button, which appears to be damaged.
“It made me wonder was it from his time at war that it all got bent up like that,” she said. “I imagined it was.”
Private Hay was born in 1891 and enlisted at the age of 24 with the 209th Battalion in 1916. He served six and a half months on the battlefields of France before he was injured at the Battle of Passchendaele with a gun shot wound to his right arm. He convalesced in Redding and he was eventually discharged on Jan. 1, 1919 at the age of 27. He returned to the Swift Current area, where he farmed until his death in 1952 at the age of 62.
“It was May, and he was combining,” Parchman said. “So they must have had an early snow or something, because he was combining in May. He homesteaded at Duncairn Dam and he had a heart attack on the combine. ... My mom told me that he had been exposed to mustard gas and that he had problems with his lungs after the First World War.”
Stephanie Kaduck, the museum’s education and public programs officer, researched the military units that were formed in Swift Current and the First World War battles where soldiers from these units fought.
The 27th Light Horse was already formed in 1910 as a reserve force with headquarters in Moose Jaw and additional squadrons in Maple Creek and Swift Current. Soldiers from this unit was attached to different Canadian contingents on the battlefront in Europe.
The 209th Battalion was formed in Swift Current in early 1916 and 1,050 men from the area enlisted. Soldiers from this battalion were also absorbed into different units in Europe.
Initial training of recruits took place in Swift Current. The Imperial Hotel was used as a barracks, the basement of the Lyric Theatre was converted into a gymnasium and drill hall, and drilling maneuvers were practised at various other locations in the city.
Swift Current was used as a location to create these military units because it was the largest community in southwest Saskatchewan and men were recruited from the entire region. A unit with men from the same area was considered to be more cohesive.
“That's why a lot of the 27th, when they were given the opportunity to go into the 209th, went together, because they liked being with people that they knew,” she said. “This didn't remain something to be done when families started losing like three sons. .... So they started to want to split people up, particularly family relations, so that that kind of horror wouldn't happen.”
The 209th Battalion suffered 167 casualties and 429 were wounded, while 51 members were decorated. Battalion members had a reunion in Swift Current in 1934, and the exhibition includes a large photograph of them at the cenotaph in Memorial Park.
Kaduck felt this exhibition is relevant to local and area residents for a number of reasons.
“Many of them have family histories that reflect this kind of thing and that a lot of people don't know about,” she said. “It's relevant to everyone, newcomers included, because there were a lot of different countries involved in the wars, a lot of countries and lives impacted, and it set up the unfortunate circumstances which led to a subsequent war. We live in scary times. It's good to know our history in order to comprehend our present.”
This exhibition, Swift Current at the Front, will be at the Swift Current Museum until Dec. 30.
The museum is open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Saturdays from 1-5 p.m. Admission is free.
The exhibition includes a display of items that belonged to Private Andrew Hay, who enlisted with the 209th Battalion in Swift Current in 1916.
Barb Parchman with the display about her grandfather, Private Andrew Hay, who enlisted with the 209th Battalion in 1916.
Swift Current Museum Director and Curator Lloyd Begley speaks during a Lunch and Learn presentation about the current exhibition, Nov. 14.