An unheralded Southwestern Ontario soldier of the First World War, Pte. Frederick Livermore died a century ago. A chance encounter at his grave in Belgium opened a story that tells us about the meaning of remembrance as the centennial of the war’s end dawns.
We came across him by chance, in one of the largest Commonwealth war cemeteries in Belgium, not far from where the horrors of the First World War’s Western Front unfolded.
He was Pte. Frederick Livermore, an unheralded soldier from London. An immigrant, who arrived on a ship named after his new country, he paid the ultimate price for his adopted homeland.
We were there, in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, the final resting place for Livermore and 10,120 other soldiers, on a sun-lit day this spring, chronicling the war’s terrible toll in Southwestern Ontario in the lead-up to the centennial of the war’s end on Nov. 11, 1918, the armistice that brought us Remembrance Day.
The London Free Press had begun examining remembrance and sacrifice in a modern era 14 years earlier, on the 60th anniversary of the Allied invasion of Europe in the Second World War. It’s a series we call If Ye Break Faith.
We went back to Europe in April to focus on an earlier war — and we are back there again this week.
We were looking for the farm boys and store clerks and others from Southwestern Ontario who died, when we came across Livermore.
It would have been easy to overlook him in that sea of beige Portland stone markers quarried in Dorset, England. Except for one thing — a simple slate church roof shingle leaned up against his monument. Inscribed with his name and that of St. George’s Anglican Church in London, the mud-spattered shingle was a sign the young foot soldier was remembered.
But by whom, and who was Livermore?
We went looking, and in Livermore found a man who could have been any of the more than 8.5 million soldiers killed in the so-called “war to end all wars,” including nearly 61,000 from Canada and more than 400 from London, then a small city of about 50,000.
His name lives not in history books or military honour roles, but in one family’s memory. He epitomizes what Remembrance Day is all about.
Even for what was a young nation at the time, not yet 50 years old, it’s impossible to know every soldier’s story. Canada, its wartime population just shy of eight million, punched way above its weight in the First World War. Nearly 620,000 people enlisted. More than 424,000 fought overseas.
For the better part of a century, since 1927, Pte. F. R. Livermore was just another name commemorated on a stained glass window on the south wall of St. George’s Anglican Church in London. Until Nancy Dodman, a congregation member, took an interest in the memorial in the Wharncliffe Road church.
“Livermore was the one that started it all,” she said. “His picture was the first one that I found and it was an excellent photo. Just looking in his face, I just became compelled to put faces to the names of all the soldiers that were in our window.”
She set out to research St. George’s First World War dead and, during a trip with her husband to France and Belgium, took her commemorative project a step further.
“Some of the slate was falling off the church roof, it being an old church, and the slate would have been there when these men were little boys,” she said.
Dodman had several pieces engraved with the names of the church’s fallen and placed them at the soldiers’ graves three years ago, aware their own families may never have been able to visit the graves themselves.
In a war typified by the gigantic, a cataclysmic clashing of empires that fractured Europe, soldiers like Livermore can seem so small.
Unlike Ellis Wellwood Sifton of Elgin County and Harry Miner of Kent County, Livermore, their fellow Southwestern Ontarian, did not win the Victoria Cross, the British empire’s highest honour for bravery. He wasn’t the guy who led the Canadians to victory at Vimy Ridge. That was Gen. Arthur Currie of Strathroy.
Livermore lied about his age when he enlisted in January 1915. He was docked a day’s pay for losing government property the following year. A machinist from a working-class English immigrant family, a first-born son named after his father, he could have been any Canadian soldier.
An ordinary man, living in an extraordinary time, Livermore was part of a generation who never returned home and never started a family of their own. With no direct descendants, only their siblings and parents were left to keep their memory alive.
Lorraine McLeod grew up in London with her uncle’s military portrait hanging in a prominent spot in the family room among a collage of photos. That’s about all she knows about him.
“It was always there, but they never talked about it,” the Strathroy woman said. “My dad never talked about the wars . . . After a while you just think, ’Oh, that’s just Uncle Fred’ and move on.”
McLeod’s father was John Livermore, the second-born son in the family. He was five years younger than his brother Frederick. John Livermore and two of his younger brothers later served in the Second World War.
The Livermores were a family of proud and stoic Brits, McLeod said, who loved their homeland and their adopted home in Canada, too.
It’s that pride that sent four of the five Livermore sons into the military, for King and country, in both world wars.
It’s that stoicism that kept John Livermore quiet about his own service and the death of his older brother at the Battle of Passchendaele — a muddy, bloody months-long fight for eight kilometres of land so infamous, it became a symbol of the horrors of the First World War.
Some things, McLeod will never know about her uncle — what he most enjoyed in life, his romances and dreams. But a great many things can be pieced together about his life — the places where he went, the awful battlefields he saw, the wounds he suffered.
Livermore was born Jan. 17, 1899, two years before Queen Victoria died, in Walthamstow, Essex, England — not 1896, as he put on his papers when he enlisted. He was christened in the Anglican Church on Feb. 26 the same year.
In 1907, Livermore, his parents Frederick Sr. and Alice, two younger brothers and two older sisters left Liverpool, England, aboard a ship named Canada. They arrived March 16, 1907, in Portland, Maine, and eventually settled in London.
Livermore’s two youngest brothers, Henry and William, were born in Canada.
In 1911, the same year the family’s youngest, William, was born, the Livermores were living at 36 Walnut St. The family home was within walking distance of St. George’s Church and Livermore’s schoolhouse, Empress elementary school — now the site of Jeanne Sauve French immersion elementary school, where his name is commemorated on a roll of one-time students who fought and died in the war.
Livermore’s mother worked at D.S. Perrin and Co., a London candy factory, the 1914 city directory shows. His father was a labourer at E. Leonard and Sons, a foundry.
The working-class family also moved around.
In 1914, the year the war broke out, they lived at 2 Argyle St. in the Blackfriars neighbourhood. When Livermore enlisted in January 1915, he put 1025 Mary St., now King Street East, as his family address. By 1916, the city directory listed the Livermores at 1050 Florence St.
They eventually settled at 765 Little Grey St., a modest east London bungalow later inherited by Livermore’s brother John. The house still stands.
Overseas, Livermore moved around, too.
He signed up to fight with the 33rd Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in London on Jan. 23, 1915, and arrived in England on March 26, 1916. He was only 17 years old when he sailed from Halifax aboard the S.S. Lapland. When he landed overseas, he joined the 7th Canadian Infantry Battalion, which mainly recruited out of British Columbia, and arrived in France on May 26, 1916.
By June, his battalion was in the Ypres Salient, a backwards S -shaped section of the Western Front east of the Belgian city that was the site of some of the war’s most gruesome battles. That same month, he was docked a day’s pay for losing an unspecified piece of government property.
By August 1916, Livermore’s battalion was back in France, fighting in one of the largest battles of the First World War, the Battle of the Somme. The Canadians arrived late to the four-month operation begun by the British, but paid dearly — 24,029 casualties by the time the battle ended in November.
The 7th Battalion moved around France through the winter of 1916-17 in the lead-up to the Battle of Vimy Ridge, where the Canadians won a key victory against dug-in German forces during Easter 1917.
The battalion’s war diary from those critical days — an often mythologized moment in Canadian history, and the first time the four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together — records the weather as dull and rainy. The battalion was subjected to “steady rifle and M.G. (machine gun) fire” and met “considerable resistance from enemy strong points.”
“Casualties during attack were heavy,” the diary notes.
The 18-year-old Livermore was one of them.
Shot in the right leg on April 10, he was moved to a general hospital in Etaples, France, then transferred to Lakenham Military Hospital in Norwich, England. He healed and was released on May 29, 1917.
He was sent to the 1st Canadian Reserve Battalion for a short time, then rejoined the 7th Battalion in France on Sept. 6, 1917.
Livermore’s battalion moved north through France in October, from Manqueville on Oct. 19 to the village of Bavinchove where they stayed until Nov. 3.
They were inching closer to Passchendaele, the Belgian village at the centre of a battle that was supposed to last only 72 hours. It had raged for three months by the time Livermore got there in November. In the summer and fall of 1917, enemy bombardments plowed the village into the ground and churned the land into an almost post-apocalyptic landscape of muddy craters so thick and so deep, soldiers drowned.
On Nov. 11, 1917 — a year to the day before the armistice to end the fighting on the Western Front — the 7th Battalion’s war diary recorded the conditions as fine, after days of cold, wet and dull weather.
Then the bombardments began.
At about 9 a.m., three enemy planes bombed the area where the 7th was stationed. One shell landed in the lines where the soldiers were, the log says. One man was killed and five others from the battalion were wounded.
Livermore was among the casualties that day. He was hit in the right buttock and taken to the No. 10 casualty clearing station outside of Poperinge, Belgium. He died of his wounds and was buried at Lijssenthoek, a military cemetery filled with soldiers who died at medical outposts in the area.
His name is engraved on his grave marker in Belgium, and would later be added to his parents’ monument at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in London. If ye break faith . . . It’s a call to action, a solemn reminder of remembrance. It’s the start of the final line of John McCrae’s immortal poem, penned in Belgium two years before Livermore’s death and just 15 kilometres from where he is buried.
Livermore is remembered: a son, a brother, a machinist, five-foot-five with black hair and grey eyes.
Transplant him a century ahead in time, and he could be any young man in London.
“They’re a hundred years before us and a world away, but still you can find enough detail to find a kind of commonality there,” First World War historian and Western University professor Jonathan Vance said.
“They were more like you than you may realize. If you allow for the changes in hairstyles and clothing and cosmetic things, as I tell my students, this is you a hundred years ago.”
They prayed where we pray. They walked streets we walk today.
To paraphrase McCrae, they lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now they lie
In Flanders Fields.