What would say if you were asked what you can recall learning about Canada and the First World War? Perhaps you may remember hearing about the trench warfare that occurred in Europe. You may be able to recall Vimy Ridge, mustard gas, or In Flanders Fields. These tragic events seem long ago and far away when we study them, yet their effects were felt both globally and locally by the people who called St. Catharines home.
It may be easier to appreciate the local impact of both the First and Second World Wars if we look at the details through the lens of a person who shopped on St. Paul Street, went to school at St. Catharines Collegiate, or enjoyed the beach in Port Dalhousie. The museum’s collection contains artifacts that add detail to the impact of war on St. Catharines citizens. For example, John “Jack” Hardy transcribed his diaries after the war to ensure that his experience fighting in Europe wasn’t lost.
For King and Country
Jack’s wartime narrative begins in August of 1915 with his enlistment with the 7th depot Field Battery at the age of seventeen. At the time the troops were a year into the First World War and the belief that the conflict would be over by Christmas had been disproved. Jack and several “Merritton men” enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF) knowing this was not going to be a swift defeat of the central powers. Prior to enlisting Jack had been working at the Lincoln Paper Mill as an apprentice to the printer. He enlisted without knowing if he could regain that position on his return. This was unlikely since there was no certainty regarding his return.
We wonder if these young men know what enlisting in the CEF really meant? Jack’s diary detailed his experiences in the first months after enlisting. Reading the diary, it becomes clear how young the recruits were and how unfamiliar they were with army protocol. Some of the first details Jack provided of army life was the delay in uniforms. The troops enlisted in August but did not receive their uniforms until November. Their first ten dollars was withheld by the CEF to pay for the recruits’ uniforms. The daily pay rate was $1.10. The withheld ten dollars would have represented nine days of work, just to be outfitted. This deduction may have seemed excessive at the beginning of their training since they were drilling in St. Catharines and living at home.
The initial St. Catharines training was described by Jack as enjoyable. They attended lectures and drills. The weather was fine throughout September and their marching routes were often to Port Dalhousie and back. It wasn’t until November that the troops boarded the Dalhousie City bound for Toronto.
While training in Toronto at the Exhibition Grounds Jack received a pass to go home for Christmas. During his leave, he fell ill with bronchial pneumonia and as a result, his return to camp was delayed. On his return, he was placed under arrest and charged with being absent without leave. This point in the narrative highlights that the recruit was only a teenager. He was unaware that he was supposed to notify the nearest medical officer that he was unfit to return at the end of his leave. For the oversight, Jack was sentenced to thirty days of confinement to barracks and extra chores.
By the end of the summer of 1916 Jack’s training was complete. He wrote, “we were well trained and ready for active duty.” It is difficult to imagine how any amount of training prepared the recruits for the realities of trench warfare. The commandant’s speech to the men appeared to be the first indication in the entries of the realities that were to come. Colonel Lereau told them, “Men you are leaving to fight for your country, many of you will never return, your wives, sweethearts, and mothers will weep over your graves.”
Life on the Front
Reading further we learn that Jack’s job in France was to lay communication wiring and move supplies to the front. It was dangerous work that required driving horse-drawn carts to specified destinations at the front. The work meant that Jack was stationed outside the trenches, however, there was nowhere that was immune from what was happening at the time. Jack describes:
“We could now hear the guns quite plainly. We were fourteen hours on the road and reached our destination Bully Grenay, a city about the size of St. Kitts in 1915. Bully Grenay was about three-quarters in ruins.”
In this description, Jack emphasized that the places where the war was being fought were communities like our own. It is easy to perceive how soldiers like Jack could have imagined it was their home that lay in ruins.
Jack’s division received orders in November 1917 to relocate to the south. He explained that while they were moving south the rest of the Canadian army was heading North to Belgium, where there was to be a push at Ypres. Just days later he wrote, “We hear Canadians are in a big scrap at Passchendaele and are suffering heavy losses.” This entry was followed a few days later by, “the Canadian Corps are now moving back to the Lens Front again. They captured Passchendaele but lost many thousands of troops.”
Despite the news of heavy losses of men, some of whom he had befriended in the CEF, Jack continued to deliver supplies to the trenches. He described the difficulties he encountered doing his job. His description dispels any belief that delivering supplies was a safer job during the First World War. Ultimately the delivery drivers were more exposed to danger.
“The night shelling seems a little more severe, especially on the roads. The fellows in the dugouts don’t relish leaving their safety to come out and help unload the supplies. We don’t have it too easy getting their supplies to them. When the shelling was heavy, I had to stand at the horses’ heads and hold them”
For those who have never been in combat, it is difficult to understand how this may have affected the men. In Jack’s words he and others found themselves in situations where they were scared, but to get their tasks done, they had to rely on the men they worked with. Jack continued his journal, chronicling his return home.
When the news came that the war was over Jack was working in a new position as an instructor at a field school in England. His motivation to become an instructor had been to move away from the front, however, his frontline experiences had provided real-world knowledge that enriched his role as an instructor.
On November 11, 1918, he wrote that the day had been declared an unofficial holiday. Troops were making plans for making their way back to Canada. One might expect that this is where the journal entries would end. However, they continued for a few more months while Jack awaited an opportunity to return to Canada.
Repatriating the Canadian Expeditionary Forces at the end of the war found the government unprepared. Resources were not readily available to move the large volume of returning soldiers and many spent time waiting for passage home. Jack detailed that it was during this time that the Spanish Flu was also running rampant globally. Many soldiers at the training school were falling ill and dying.
By the time Jack made his way to Canada and managed to get a train back to Toronto his thoughts had turned to his future. He was happy to be home and see his family and friends but was at a loss for what to do. Work was scarce and there was no program for easing veterans back into civilian life. Jack’s diary closed with these last thoughts of uncertainty. We, however, know that there was a post-war recession and things were hard. It was for this reason that the government, during the Second World War, began the preparations for returning service personnel within the first few months of the war.
Jack’s experiences put in context how the people in St. Catharines were part of a larger global history. It reminds us that the names on the cenotaphs were real people who lived their lives here and were members of the local community before going to fight. These pieces of the past remind us why we must never forget.
This post is part two of our Stories from the Front series. Catch all four parts of this series using the tag or category ‘Stories from the Front’.
Abbey Stansfield revised the Stories from the Front program and is a Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.