Last year in London, 888,246 ceramic poppies were gradually installed in the moat of the Tower of London, one hundred years after the start of the First World War. Each poppy represents a British life lost in the war, a family shattered. The installation caught the global imagination, and became a place of pilgrimage for people from around the world – a place where individuals and their families were remembered, where people reflected on the nature of war and the nature of service.. Each evening, 200 names of those who died were read.
Remembering each person who served, each life lost – that is the kind of commemoration I had hoped for when I first began to read about the plans for four years of commemoration of the first world war. A series of other projects also are focusing on individuals and their families and communities – many of them effectively crowd-sourced.
Remembering Canadian soldiers in Wolrd War One means remembering people who came from around the world. It was not just Canadian-born men who served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, which was 619,636 strong. The Canadian Great War Project, which is slowly entering data on all of them, shows us that Canadian soldiers hailed from all around the world.
They were born in England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Isle of Man, Guernsey, and Jersey; the United States; Newfoundland (then a separate country); Russia; Norway; Sweden, Finland, and Denmark; India (and East Indies, as it was once known); Australia and New Zealand; France; Ukraine and Galicia; Italy; Japan; Austria; Belgium; Netherlands; South Africa; Poland; Antigua, Barbados, Jamaica, British Guiana, Trinidad, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Bahamas, and Bermuda; Serbia; Montenegro; Iceland; Switzerland; Romania; Germany; China; Greece; Malta; Bohemia; Argentina; Turkey; Hungary; Bulgaria; Ceylon; Luxembourg; Spain; Grenada; Syria; Gibraltar; Brazil; Egypt; Mexico; Burma; Latvia; Hong Kong; Armenia; Chile; Herzegovina; Macedonia; British Honduras; Hawaii, Netherlands East Indies; Channel Islands; Falkland Islands; Cuba; Madagascar; Portugal; Singapore; St Pierre and Miquelon; Cyprus; Dutch Guiana; Mauritius; Saint Helena; Algeria; Ascension Island; British Arabia; Danish West Indies; Estonia; Lebanon; Netherlands Antilles; Nevis; Palestine; Persia; Puerto Rico; Tobago; Turks and Caicos; Bechuanaland; Bolivia; British Virgin Islands; Cameroon; Central America; El Salvador; Fiji; Greenland; Guatemala; Korea; Montserrat; Morocco; Nepal; Nicaragua; Nigeria; Panama; Peru; Philippines; Reunion Island; Rwanda; Siam; St Martin; Straits Settlements; US Virgin Islands; Venezuela; and Zanzibar.
The website grew from Marc Leroux’s research into his grandfather’s war service. I got the term ‘citizen soldier’ from Marc’s moving tribute to his grandfather, Thomas O’Connor, who served in the CEF. I like the term because it shows that most of the CEF were not professional soldiers. Rather, they were young men who left farms, lumber mills, factories, government service – even a career as an American concert pianist – to fight on Canada’s behalf. Many First Nations men also signed up, even though they were not allowed to vote unless they gave up their status. Lloyd Clifford Curley, from Six Nations reserve, was killed in Europe – but his granddaughter is ensuring his memory is kept alive.
At enlistment, their ages ranged from 10 (Reuben Rosenfield, born 1905, who enlisted as a bugler with the 101st Regiment) to 83 years old (Robert Sherrington, born 1833, a carpenter born in Ontario but who enlisted in Edmonton).
The youngest who died was 14-year-old William Paul Stuttle, steward’s boy, whose ship was torpedoed off Kinsale, Ireland; the oldest were aged 71 – private Edward Evelyn Robbins, a master mariner born in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and Major-General Samuel Benfield “Sam” Steele, a professional soldier born in Simcoe County, Ontario who died of influenza in England in 1919.
They ranged in height from 4 feet to 7’1″. They were Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Wesleyan, Jewish, and adherents of other faiths. They were single; married; single parents; sole supports of mothers; grandfathers; grandsons. The CEF also included chaplains and nurses. Not all of them volunteered; some were conscripted, despite initial political pledges not to introduce such a draft..Not all of them went to Europe or Africa or the Middle East – some went to Siberia.
In short, they were us – a reflection of a country that was diverse then as we are now. It would be nice if we, too, could have a poppy installation on Parliament Hill to remember all those who did not return home, or some similar activity that focused on the individuals who served rather than the war itself. You can get a sense of what life was like for them at the front by visiting the Imperial War Museum site.
What you can’t often get from the records that exist is a context for each individual, and that is where I believe the family history community can help. In one English school and church, the students choose the name of a Canadian soldier, research his life, and pay tribute to him on November 11th. Family history researchers could do something similar for schools near us – find a soldier from the area, research his life and family, and then share that life with the next generation.
If you are researching an ancestor who was part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, you will probably be able to view his or her attestation paper online, as. Library and Archives Canada is digitizing the CEF records and expects to be finished all 620,000 of them by 2018. Their attestation paper,which is two-sided, will give you a birthdate, a birthplace, an occupation, and a next of kin. The papers completed by officers, and those drafted after 1917, are only one page.
If your ancestor died during the war, you will want to visit the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. The search engine allows you to look for a specific person, or for all Canadians if you wish to. The CWGC’s mandate is to ensure that the 1.7 million people who died during the two World Wars are never forgotten; it cares for cemeteries and memorials at 23,000 locations in 154 countries. Often the record of a soldier’s death will list next of kin, although not all records have a date or place of birth. The CWGC record information also shows up in Find A Grave, where people can leave messages and virtual remembrances, as well as adding information about date and place of birth, relationships, and even pictures.
On Wednesday, when you attend a Remembrance Day service or view the service in Ottawa on your computer or television, do take time to think of those who fought for Canada during the Great War – and those who never returned. And know that in other countries, such as England and the Netherlands, people will be paying tribute to individual Canadian soldiers as well as to Canada’s participation in both world wars.