Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Lecture: Charlotte County and the First World War

The following was prepared for a lecture that I gave on August 24, 2014 at Anglican Church Hall, 77 King Street, St. Andrews, NB, entitled: "County at War: Charlotte County & the First World War"...

During the first decade of the 1900s, Charlotte County was a prosperous and influential corner of country. Its population steadily increased with a variety of expanding industries in the area. In Milltown, the Cotton Mill was just over 20 years old, and continued to attract new residents with the promise of steady work and fair wages. In the adjacent town of St. Stephen, at Ganongs Bros., Gilbert Ganong, one of the founders of the firm, was still in charge and would soon start selling the first chocolate bars. Both residents of these communities, as well as the town of Calais, Maine, were connected not only through family lines and a common river, but also via a network of street cars that moved citizens around. Towards the east of the county, in St. George, granite was king. There were six firms employing many local men in the numerous quarries in the area. Its principal product was red granite which found its way to not only local and regional markets but also across the country and parts of the US. Also in St. George, the power mill was just constructed. Over in Blacks Harbour, the Connors brothers and their fishing business was growing. Here as well, good employment attracted the attention of workers from around the region but would be a while yet before it attracted the attention of some business men from Saint John. In the Saint Croix Courier, there was plenty of chatter around the development of a major port in the area and news articles gave great praise of the latest product, the automobile.

In the back pages of the Beacon and the Courier, few snippets make mention of the tension growing Eastern Europe. Locals learned of areas such as the “Balkans” and learned of people such as the “Prussians” and “Serbians”. The also learned of a place called “Sarajevo” and of a person called “Franz Ferdinand”. The Archduke’s assassination on June 28, 1914 can be, and should be, viewed as one of the most important events of the world’s history however its mention in the back pages of the Courier likely did not gain the attention of locals who were more interested in what the development of a sea port in the county would mean for the local economy.

On August 4, 1914, Britain, and her Commonwealth, declared war on Germany and its allies. On August 6, 1914, the front page of the Saint Croix Courier read “Britain and Germany at War”. Without a doubt, many locals now pondered what this meant for them, as members of the great Commonwealth and servants to the King. For many of the young men of the county, the possibilities of an adventure, versus a tedious life in the industries of Charlotte County, certainly would have seemed appealing for most; a great experience!

Enlistment of the County’s young men got under way almost immediate. London has requested a Canadian contingent of 25,000 and the Canadian Minister of Militia and Defense, Sam Hughes, was keen to deliver the requested men. By the end of September 1914, over 30 men of this area were in Valcartier, Quebec, which had been established as the primary training center for the First Canadian Contingent. They were only a few of the 32,000 volunteers that Hughes now had gathered at Valcartier Camp, not far from Quebec City. In October, the first Canadian soldiers were sailing from Halifax and by the end of the Fall and into the winter, Canadian soldiers were continuing their training in the rain and mud of southern England.

While enlistments in Charlotte County continued to grow, essentially 125, 250 and 350 over the first three years of the war. However in 1917, only 100 recruits enlisted from the county. This situation was a common across Canada.  Conscription debate occupied the government in Ottawa and was the topic of many articles in the Courier. The Military Service Act became law on August 29, 1917 but it wasn’t until January 1918 that call-ups starting arriving at recruitment offices. As a result, 400 men from Charlotte County “dawn the khaki” in 1918. One of them was my great-grandfather, James McGarrigle. While only less than 32% of those conscripted were added to the Canadian Expeditionary Force, and of those, only 20% made it to the France/Belguim. He was one of the lucky few. But perhaps his luck ran out when he was struck by a truck while in Belgium and spent the remainder of the war in hospital.

Many of the first enlistment from Charlotte County were members of the 12th Battalion, 1st Division but by mid November 1914, most of the new recruits were enlisted via the newly formed 26th Battalion, the New Brunswick Regiment. The “Fighting 26th" formed part of the 2nd Division and was a front line Regiment. The 26th participated in all of the major battles in which the Canadian Corps was involved. Hundred of men from the county served in the 26th.

The 115th Battalion was another principal recruiter of the men from the county. For much of 1916, the battalion recruited in the area. While this battalion was more of a reinforcement or reserve battalion, most of its soldiers would eventually end up being taken on strength with the 26th. Over 230 county men were on strength with the 115th at various points in their soldiering career.
In April 1915, the 55th Battalion, under the local direction of Capt. Smith, was busy recruiting the men in St. Stephen. Many of these men also found their ways to other Battalion, primarily the 14th Battalion, the Quebec Regiment. In total, just over 100 men served in the 55th.

The 104th Battalion, which mobilized out of Sussex, also recruited fairly heavily in the county. Like the 115th, it was a reinforcement battalion and many of its men found their way to the 5th Battalion, the Canadian Mounted Rifles. Over 60 men served with the 104th.

Another well know regiment of local soldiers was the Fredericton based 236th Battalion, the “New Brunswick Kilties”. While the Kilties, also known as “McLean’s Highlanders” or “Sam’s Own”, did sail a group to England in November 1917, many soldiers of the Kilties remained in Canada and served as guards for government installations or key assets of infrastructure. The The Kiltes’ dress was inspired by the Scottish Highlanders. It consisted of a McLean family kilt and distinguishable Balmoral headdress with turkey feather. Its uniform is one of the most recognizable Canadian uniforms of the First World War and very easy to point out in old family photos. Not only did the Kilties recruit in Atlantic Canada, but also in New England, prior to the US entry into the war. Over 1,300 applications were received in Boston alone and one of the Battalion commanders even made a speech at Fenway Park.

While not everyone was able to “dawn the khakis”, either due to age, gender or physical deficiencies, the majority of the residents of Charlotte County wanted to contribute to the war effort in other ways.
In the first month of the war, the “Canadian Patriotic Fund” was established. This fund received monetary donations from the public. List of donors were regularly printed in the Courier, perhaps itself to show resident who was truly “patriotic”. The average contribution was $1-$2 per person with some of the more prosperous residence giving more, such as the Honorable Senator Dan Gilmore who donated $250. By January 1915, the county collected over $8,000 and by March 1917, the national fund collected nearly $23 million dollars from Canadians in every corner of the country. The fund was organized by Montreal businessman and politician Sir Herbert Brown Ames and was established to give financial aid to soldiers’ families.

Church and social groups gathered in various halls in the county to collect items for the boys overseas. These parcels from home contain a wide assortment of items. One article in the Courier, dated July 8, 1915 listed the following items being collected by the ladies of the Women’s Canadian Club: Pound Cake, Candy, Molasses Kisses, Chewing gum, Dental Buds, Chocolate, Cocoa, Combs, Cold Cream, Foot Ease, Handkerchiefs, Headache Tablets, Lead Pencils, Marmalade, Matches, Nuts, Olives, Paper, Envelopes, Writing pads, Safety pins, Shirts, Shoe laces, Soap, Socks, Suspenders, Towels, Tooth powder, Tobacco, Cigars, Cigarettes, Pipes, Vaseline, and Wash cloths.
But it was socks that became the rally item in the county. Women from towns and ridges made sock for the men overseas. Stories of wet and muddy trenches had now reached home and the women of the county were going to see that their boys’ feet stayed dry while fighting the Kaiser’s men. The Courier even ran a number of articles on the proper method to knit soldier socks. As one woman wrote to Courier regarding another woman’s knitting skill: “I hope a poor chap over there will not attempt to wear her well-meant pudding bags. Perhaps he will put them inside of his jacket, next to his heart, a love token from home, and escape pneumonia that way.”

In June 1916, one soldier, Pte. Walter E. Worrell of Dumbarton, writes a letter home to his mother: “My Dear Mother; Received a letter from you this morning and also both parcels, but am sorry to say that some of the pies were a little spoiled.” It wasn’t long before many Canadians understood what they could and could not send via the postal service. Pte. Worrell would be killed in action on August 30, 1918.

Letters homes often contained an update from the soldier that he was “still alive”.  Soldiers asked how family members were and made request for specific items from home. Some asked about the status of friends and whether they have enlisted. But all are wonderfully worded, enough to make them appear as scholars when compared to the grammar skill of today’s young men.
Soldiers also enjoyed copies of the Courier… or so said the articles in the Courier. Yes, the business world realized that marketing a product with a patriot twist was a profitable, yet apparent noble, scheme. From chewing gum to motor oil, from tobacco to soap, companies were getting onboard the war effort for all the reasons.

Regular list of soldiers that “Dawned the Khaki” were published in the newspapers as were numerous “Letters from the Front” which at first were only lightly censored compared to letters towards the end of the war.

There was also rhetoric of the young men that had not enlisted in the service. Letters from the War Department were given to local newspapers to publish. These letters often blasted the “cowardly” men that have not enlisted and questioned their morals around patriotic duty and protecting their family. Yet today, we cannot confirm the origins of these letters since soldiers named in these letters do not connect with any soldier records.

On April 23, 1915, Charlotte County had its first casualty of the war when Private Hector Cameron, of Lepreau, was killed in action in Belgium, at the First Battle of Ypres. Enlisting in September 1914, Pte. Cameron was serving in the 14th Battalion.  In late July 1915, Pte. Cameron’s parents received a letter from a Sergeant who served with him:  “While resting in billets on Thursday 22nd April, (we having just come out from a five day spell in the trenches) the shells started to come thick and heavy. We at once stood to find that the Germans had broken through the French lines on our immediate left. We then went forward to endeavour to check the enemy’s advance and in this we were successful, driving them back a thousand yards or more, in which your son, Hector, played no small part. By this time it was quite dark, so we proceeded to entrench ourselves to await the coming of daylight and supports. Friday (23rd) morning dawned bright and clear and the fire soon started. In a spirited exchange which followed, your son Hector was most unfortunately hit in the head, passing away instantly, therefore, suffering no pain. During one of the lulls in the firing, some of his chums carried him out and gave him proper burial. It gives me great pleasure to say that during the three months or more that Hector was in my section, he proved himself a most efficient and reliable soldier and his loss is sorely felt. Extending to you in your great loss our sincere sympathy. I am Sir, very sincerely Yours, Sgt. L. E. Lock”. Pte. Cameron is buried in Belgium. Yet there is more to consider: Pte. Cameron was only 15 years old, having celebrated his 15th birthday while wearing a soldier’s uniform only 4 months prior to his death.
We were truly losing our “boys”.

The first letters came home regarding the conditions during training and of the poor weather in England. Then letters came home which only hinted at the conditions in the trenches. But when veterans return, mangled and worn, and casualties list include boys from next door, if not your own blood, the public opinion of the war begun to sway.

Some families lost a son while several county families lost multiple boys to the war; the Bradford family of Blacks Harbour lost two boys as did the McQuoid family of St. Andrews. The family of Charles and Mary Fisher of Dumbarton sent two of their sons to the war, neither returned. Of the four Thompson boys of the Blacks Harbour, only two returned. And of the 21 McLaughlin men that served, 4 were lost. No corner of the county was spared, no ridge, no island and no town.
In total, Charlotte County lost 168 of its own in the First World War. 168 out of 1,245 known to have served.  With the population of the county at just over 21,500, that meant that 17% of the population served in the war.

When the war official ended on November 11, 1918, over 9 million combatants had died and over 7 million civilians had perished. For Canada, 66,655 gave their lives and another 172,950 being wounded.

When the county rang in the new year of 1919, it was a much different place than it was five year previous. Canada itself was different. From wartime central control came the desire for Canada to self-govern itself better and efficiently. Canada came out of the war with an identity. Power shifted towards Ottawa and many will say that the glory days of power and prosperity for Charlotte County went with it.

But what of the men that served and came home? Quietly, those veterans tried to resume their lives. They went back work in the still growing industries of the area. These boys were now men. They went on to raise families and saw their own families grow. But it’s what they did not say that we must attempt to understand and respect. Today, we are just understanding, and accepting, terms such as PTSD or “post-traumatic stress disorder”. From the numerous letters home, the hundreds of books written and from the few veterans that were willing to speak on the subject, we learn of the horrors of war. We learn of life in the trenches and of the pain felt by war’s victims and its witnesses, on both sides of “No Man’s Land”. What did we gain? We know our losses. If it was a horrible experience that was gained, should it not have been the “War to End All Wars”.

Many families now have tales of how great-grandfather grew quiet when questioned by grandchildren on his war time experiences. Perhaps somewhere in that tenured body remained a young man that bore witness to violence and death, experiences that changed him forever, and experiences he wished to keep from his innocent grandchildren. He could never forget, and it is Lest We Forget.

No comments:

Post a Comment