Lest We Forget
On Nov. 11, 1918, the bells at Galt’s city hall began to ring in the pre-dawn darkness, signalling the end to fighting on the Western Front
WATERLOO REGION — The First World War ended 100 years ago. It is still with us every day.
Kitchener famously changed its name from Berlin during the war to fend off anti-German sentiment and show loyalty to the British cause.
Say the city’s name and you’re connecting to a war that killed 62,000 Canadians, including about 500 from this region.
But shedding the Berlin name is just part of the Great War story.
Britain and its Canadian Dominion declared war on Germany in August 1914 after Germany invaded neutral Belgium, on its way to invading France.
The war immediately put this region in the spotlight. People had deep German roots in Berlin and Waterloo. People had strong British ties in Galt. Within the former Waterloo County, north and south were far apart in attitude, sacrifice and politics.
The nation fretted about support for the war among Berliners. Suspicions darkened as Berliners showed themselves reluctant to fight Germans.
Between 1914 and 1918, Galt, Preston and Hespeler rallied to the Allied cause far more enthusiastically than Kitchener and Waterloo. The three cities that later became Cambridge fully shouldered the burden of blood, and all the
anguish that followed. Their effort and the cost they paid leaps from the numbers.
• Cambridge put 1,548 residents or native sons into uniform and 332 of them died, an analysis of library and casualty records reveals. Enlistments represent almost 10 per cent of its pre-war population.
• Kitchener and Waterloo put 595 residents or native sons into uniform and 100 of them died. Enlistments represent three per cent of the pre-war population.
The first local recruits to die reveal much about the war’s conduct at home and overseas. Ross Briscoe perished first. He was 22, from Galt, an educated man working as a bank clerk who had trained for seven years in the local cadet corps and militia. He was killed Jan. 6, 1915, accidentally shot while training at a rifle range in England. If his death seems wasteful, the second local war death drives home the point.
John Thomas McMaster, 33, enlisted as soon as Canada went to war. The Hespeler-born weaver had 15 years of militia training to test in battle.
He’s now a footnote in history — the first soldier to die in France with the Canadian Division.
On Feb. 11, 1915, McMaster stumbled and fell beneath a troop train in Nantes as troops disembarked from England,
where they had trained. His arm and leg were severed.
Combat soon claimed its first local soldier.
Edward Callan, 26, left his carpentry job in Preston to enlist. He emigrated from England in 1913 to follow his brothers. He had served in the British Royal Marines.
Callan reached Armentières, near the Belgian border, as the war was settling into its stalemate. Massive armies were digging into trenches, separated by a thin stretch of no man’s land.
After reaching a trench, Callan was shot within 12 hours, killed Feb. 20, 1915. He was the first local soldier killed in action.
Comrades buried Callan near the trench. The army lost his grave, as it later did with 130 other local men, their remains lost in battle or their burial sites forgotten.
Tellingly, the first three recruits to die came from Galt, Preston and Hespeler. They died honourably but also lamentably, foreshadowing the slaughter to come.
By the war’s end on Nov. 11, 1918, nine million in uniform were dead, among more than 60 million who fought.
Suspicion about Berlin’s enthusiasm for the war erupted bitterly in 1916.
By January of that year, Berlin and Waterloo had sacrificed just four war dead. This compares with 39 dead from Galt, Preston and Hespeler, which combined had a smaller population.
The Stratford Herald put it this way: “The sons of Berlin are reluctant to do their part for the land and the flag under which they have prospered and gotten rich war contracts.”
Worried about lost sales, Berlin business leaders led the charge to change the city’s name. A resolution sent from a public meeting to Berlin council on Feb. 11, 1916, said:
“Whereas it would appear that a strong prejudice has been created throughout the British Empire against the name ‘Berlin’ and all that the name implies,
“And whereas, the citizens of this City fully appreciate that this prejudice is but natural, it being absolutely impossible for any loyal citizen to consider it complimentary to be longer called after the Capital of Prussia,
“Be it therefore resolved that the City Council be petitioned to take the necessary steps to have the name ‘Berlin’ changed to some other name more in keeping with our National sentiment.”
Two public referendums followed and Berlin became Kitchener on Sept. 1, 1916.
By then, Berlin and neighbouring Waterloo had sacrificed 11 soldiers to the war. Towns that make up Cambridge had sacrificed 70.
Berlin almost melted down while stumbling toward its new name.
Desperate for volunteers, an army battalion sent gangs of soldiers into the streets of Berlin and Waterloo, hunting for men to put in uniform. Complaints poured into civic leaders about bully gangs and strong-arm tactics.
A council of tradesmen urged the government to send the battalion away over its “disgraceful conduct.” The battalion commander responded by labelling the council cowardly, shameless and unpatriotic.
Plagued by desertions, low appeal and unhealthy recruits, the local battalion ultimately sent fewer than 300 men overseas. It had been aiming for 1,000.
Berlin council asked a committee of 99 men to propose a new city name. They came up with six choices promptly ridiculed across the nation: Huronto. Bercana. Dunard. Hydro City. Renoma. Agnoleo.
Agnoleo is an obscure Italian boy’s name meaning angel or heavenly messenger. Renoma means famous in Esperanto, an artificial language no country speaks. Bercana mixes Berlin and Canada.
Embarrassed, Berlin council rejected the choices and took over the search for a new name. Then fate intervened.
On June 5, 1916, British war leader Lord Horatio Herbert Kitchener was killed when a German mine sank his battleship off Scotland. His death stunned the Empire.
Elsie Master wrote a letter published June 7 in the Berlin News Record.
“The name of Kitchener would be a heritage to the citizens of Berlin in the generations to come, and will always be typical of splendid patriotism, tremendous energy, great attainments, and a sense of unswerving honour and rectitude,” she wrote.
“The name would be one no citizen need blush for, and one our country and Empire would recognize as standing out in bold contrast to all that is implied in our present name of Berlin.”
The idea caught on. Master helped make history when a public referendum endorsed the new name.
Among the earliest battles in the war was a failed attack on three German trenches at Givenchy in France, June 15, 1915.
Though a small battle by Great War standards, it ranks among the bloodiest for this region, killing 11 soldiers from Galt, Preston and Hespeler.
The dead included labourers, mechanics, a moulder, a printer, a shoe-cutter, and a businessman. All volunteered in 1914 with the first wave of recruits. Eight were British immigrants.
None were from Berlin. This did not go unnoticed by three Berlin soldiers who felt heat after surviving the battle.
“We hear a lot about Berlin not sending recruits and we get chided over it on account of coming from there,” they wrote to a Berlin newspaper.
Berlin’s Givenchy survivors pleaded with their hometown to send more recruits. “The more men we get the sooner the war will be over.”
Their appeal made little difference. Ten local soldiers died more than a year later, capturing the ruined village of Courcelette on the Somme battlefield in France. It was Sept. 15, 1916, two weeks after Berlin renamed itself Kitchener.
Galt, Hespeler and Preston sacrificed eight soldiers. Kitchener and Waterloo sacrificed two.
Suspicion about Kitchener’s war effort persisted. Recruit Ivan Bowman, 20, joked about it in his diary while training in England in April 1917. He was from Kitchener.
“I visited the German Spy camp as the Gun Duty Battalion is called by many of the boys for its members are mostly men of German extraction,” he wrote. Sent to the front, Bowman survived the war, playing with the battalion band.
Galt supplied the region’s two greatest war heroes and the only local woman to die.
George Kerr, 23, rushed forward to single-handedly capture four machine guns and 31 prisoners on Sept. 27, 1918. This earned the Galt Collegiate graduate a Victoria Cross, the Commonwealth’s highest honour for bravery. He survived the war.
Storekeeper Frederick Hobson, 43, rushed the enemy to hold them off with bayonet and rifle, pre-
I visited the German Spy camp as the Gun Duty Battalion is called by many of the boys for its members are mostly men of German extraction. IVAN BOWMAN soldier from Kitchener
serving a machine gun that was temporarily silenced by a shell that killed most of its crew.
The enemy shot him dead but reinforcements reached the machine gun. His bravery Aug. 17, 1917, earned him a Victoria Cross.
Determined to do her part, nurse Evelyn McKay reached France in 1917. Behind the front lines, the former Galt Collegiate student wore a blue dress and a white veil while caring for wounded soldiers. Soldiers called her a bluebird.
She died of influenza Nov. 4, 1918, one week before peace was declared. She was 25.
Hespeler supplied an estimated 127 recruits connected to the Coombe Home, on Guelph Avenue. It was a temporary residence for orphaned or destitute Irish boys, sent to Ontario as migrant labourers.
Casualty records show at least 27 former Coombe Home boys died for Canada.
Robert Ingham, 21, was the first. The salesman was killed by a German shell April 24, 1915, in a dugout in a front-line trench in Belgium.
Farmer Neville Oldfield, 22, was the last. On Oct. 11, 1918, he was helping comrades lay telephone lines when an enemy shell killed him instantly.
Their deaths helped cement Hespeler’s standing among the nation’s most patriotic towns.
Hespeler lost 65 war dead. By population it sacrificed more heavily than Galt and Preston, and five times more heavily than Kitchener and Waterloo.
Waterloo County’s north and south further split in the conscription election of Dec. 17, 1917, regarded as the nation’s ugliest federal campaign.
Canada was desperate for soldiers. Prime minister Robert Borden campaigned for public support to break his pledge not to send men to war against their will.
On Nov. 24, 1917, Borden came to Kitchener to campaign on a Saturday night. About 300 opponents attended at the Queen Street auditorium where he was to speak.
Critics unfurled banners, rained down boos, hooted and hollered. Borden tried to speak. Hecklers drowned him out. Indignant newspapers across the country reported the silencing of the prime minister as an insult, inflaming tensions.
After a furious campaign, Kitchener and Waterloo landed unsurprisingly among a handful of Ontario communities to elect an anti-conscription legislator. Cambridge endorsed a conscription candidate.
Canada backed conscription and it began ordering men to fight, including local men of German descent.
The war claimed 22 local conscripts including Clayton Underwood, 23.
Like many German speakers, the Bloomingdale-born shoemaker did not choose to fight. He played championship baseball for the Kaufman Rubber Company where he worked.
Compelled to fight, Underwood helped spearhead the last 100 days of the war that put Germany on the run. After shrapnel tore into his stomach, he died of his wounds on the final day of the war, Nov. 11, 1918.
In the dark at 4:40 a.m. on Nov. 11, Galt residents first learned the Great War was over. The bells at city hall began to ring, signalling an end to fighting on the Western Front at 11 a.m.
Jubilation followed. People rejoiced and paraded. They showed no fatigue despite spontaneously celebrating four days earlier when premature reporting said the war was over.
It was a “carnival of fun-making” the Galt Daily Reporter said. The Kitchener News Record called it “the greatest day in the history of the world.”
People made noise with whatever they could: bells, sirens, whistles, horns. Fireworks followed at night. In Kitchener, discord was not quickly forgotten. A city councillor was compelled to kiss the Union Jack.
But soon, historians and community leaders sought to move past hard feelings, glossing over the lesser sacrifices made by Kitchener and Waterloo.
To subdue anti-German sentiment, they sought to reframe the region’s heritage as Mennonite. Steps include the opening in 1926 of the Pioneer Memorial Tower, a celebration of Mennonite roots overlooking the Grand River.
In 1939 Canada was at war again. In the Second World War lasting until 1945, three towns that are part of Cambridge again recruited soldiers more heavily than Kitchener and Waterloo.
But the numbers sent to fight Nazi Germany were not nearly so far apart. Unlike two decades earlier, it was everybody’s war.
Go online to therecord.com to remember 486 local dead from the Great War.
Sunday will mark the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War. Local towns gave up their sons to fight in the war, none more so than Galt, Preston and Hespeler. This is the cenotaph in Galt. It was erected in 1930.
Victory Parade C. 1918 from the City of Cambridge Archives.
A peace celebration in Waterloo on Nov. 11, 1918.