Portraits from the front lines
From the fields of Flanders to the shores of Gallipoli, more than 640,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders served in the First World War. Here, from diaries, military records and letters sent home, Tu Thanh Ha retraces the wartime journeys of some of these men and women
When the war began, Newfoundland was still 35 years from joining Canada. A British dominion, it raised its own regiment. In St. John’s, James Moore, a 22-year-old longshoreman with a heart tattooed on his right arm, was among those who would be known as “The First Five Hundred,” and he joined the same convoy that took Pearl and Alistair Fraser to Europe.
After a year of training in England, the Newfoundlanders were sent as reinforcements to Gallipoli, in Turkey, where the Allies’ amphibious attack against the Ottoman Empire six months earlier had devolved into a quagmire. Arriving the night of Sept. 19, they came under immediate fire, and for the next three months endured shelling, intense heat and a shortage of drinking water. Unburied bodies drew clouds of flies. “A lot of our boys were stricken with dysentery,” Private Moore wrote in a letter to his mother.
In November, a three-day storm flooded their positions; then came snow and frost. “We were in a terrible state in the trenches and suffered untold hardship,” Pte. Moore wrote in his letter. The day after, while fetching water for dinner, he was hit by shrapnel “as large as grapes.” Severely wounded, he was sent to a hospital in Malta, where the British kept a base, and from there he wrote to his mother that he would try to send her the shrapnel from his leg as a souvenir.
In the spring, he rejoined the regiment as it prepared to join an offensive that became synonymous with slaughter: the Battle of the Somme. Attacking at Beaumont-Hamel on July 1, the Newfoundlanders were blasted by German fire. “The men were mown down in heaps,” reads the regimental diary. Through the night, the survivors crawled back to their lines. The next morning, of the 801 men who had gone into battle, 68 made roll call.
Although he suffered a shell wound, Pte. Moore remained on duty. His regiment, meanwhile, was pulled out, rebuilt with fresh troops and, in October, sent back to the Somme, where the battle continued to grind away. During an assault near Gueudecourt, a shell burst shattered Pte. Moore’s left leg and nearly severed his right foot. He managed to crawl into a trench captured from the Germans. Although in great pain, he was stranded by gunfire for two days before he could be rescued.
Surgeons would have to amputate his right foot and his left leg above the knee. “I have been wounded again. This time I am out of it for good,” he wrote to his mother. It would be two years before he was well enough to return home.
His great-granddaughter Stephanie Furey is now a corporal in the same regiment.
In January, 1916, James Tyo, a 19-year-old labourer, married Bertha Montpetit in Cornwall, Ont. Three months later, he walked into his hometown’s recruiting office and volunteered to join the Canadian army. He was the youngest of five brothers who, by war’s end, would all enlist. Their father, Stephen, was a bricklayer who used to work for the Grand Trunk Railway in Quebec before moving his family of eight children to Cornwall, just across the Ontario border.
The eldest son, Arthur, had been the first to enlist, in July, 1915. Within months, brothers Joseph and Edward also signed up. William was the last to join.
In August, 1917, Arthur, almost 30, and James, barely 20, fought with separate infantry units at the Battle of Hill 70, near the town of Lens, where Canadians suffered more than 9,000 casualties during an 11-day battle. James, in the 21st Battalion, died on the first day of the assault. While the bodies of most of his battalion’s dead were brought back to the rear, he and five other Canadians were buried together in a mass grave near the junction of two trenches seized from the Germans. It would be seven years before their remains were exhumed, and among them, only James could be immediately identified.
Two days after James’s death, Arthur, fighting with the 24th Battalion, Victoria Rifles, was wounded in both legs. He died that afternoon at a casualty-clearing station.
The following year, William, waiting at a Nova Scotia base to be sent overseas, died of the Spanish flu – then wreaking havoc worldwide – just as the war was winding down. Three years after that, Joseph, who had suffered multiple injuries and was gassed while serving in France, died in a hospital in Montreal while awaiting his return to Cornwall.
Edward, the sole brother to make it all the way home, was nonetheless beset with chest pains: He, too, had been gassed in battle.
Of the five brothers, only Arthur had become a father. His widow, Mary Louise Sauvé, died of the Spanish flu in October, 1918. The youngest of their two children, five-year-old Vincent, was sent to an orphanage; he left school at 9 to find work. Vincent enlisted in the army during the Second World War but was not sent overseas because of health problems. He eventually became a civilian cook for the Canadian Forces. His son Gary remembers growing up poor and in subsidized housing in Ottawa. “My father struggled a lot of years,” says Mr. Tyo, a former police officer who is now a realtor.
Both Gary Tyo and his brother Robert have served in the Canadian Forces. “We’ve got,” he says, “a bit of a habit serving in the military in my family.”