Emma Maud Law and George Harris

CalltoWomen

Poster directed at Canadian Women

At various points throughout this year, the soldier I will profile will not be my relative, but rather the spouse of a relative.  Given much of my initial interest in the Great War was based on homefront life and how the war was being communicated through popular media of the time, it’s important to me to examine at least a few of these stories through the perspective of the women who were left behind when their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons left home for extended periods of time.

To date, all the relatives I have profiled have been from my maternal grandmother’s side of the family, a branch of my lineage that are 20th century transplants to Canada, having arrived in a post-confederation dominion already joined coast to coast by rail.  On the other hand, my paternal grandfather’s family arrived in an early colonial Canada still being shaped by conflicts between France and England on the other side of the Atlantic, and where the European settlement west of the Hudson’s Bay was largely focussed on the fur trade.

Emma Maud Law is the first of the relatives from my this side of my family I will be profiling. We are both descended from Francis Joseph Langton (1814-1888) and Sarah Bishop (1821-1887). The Langtons arrived in Upper Canada (later Ontario) sometime before 1825, and the Bishops sometime before 1847 which was the year Sarah married Francis in Newmarket.  This couple later settled in Peterborough (which interestingly continued to figure prominently in my family’s history, as it was here that my parents met and married a century and a quarter later). Francis and Sarah had 11 children, one of which being Emma Maud’s mother, Martha Jane (born 1852), and another being my 2nd Great Grandmother, Ada May Langton (born 1858).  

Emma was the youngest child of Martha Jane Langton and John William Law making her my 1st cousin 3x removed. Born in 1888, Emma was born into a largely industrial town that was Ontario’s largest producer of timber at the time. By 1901, the family was living in Cardinal, Ontario, a small industrial community east of Toronto where Emma’s father was listed in the census as a machinist. By 1910 the family had moved into Leslieville, a largely industrial east-end part of Toronto with a concentration on tanneries and metal working. 

Made by Samsung DVC

Badge of the 83rd Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force

It was here that Emma married George Harris in 1910. George was a recent immigrant to Canada having arrived only four years earlier from England. His sister and her family had also recently immigrated, and they all settled in the east of Toronto.  In the 1921 census, George ‘s trade or calling is listed as “bricklayer.”  George attested to the 83rd Overseas Battalion in August of 1915, and his brother-in-law, Charles Pentney did the same in November of 1915.

The 83rd was broken up soon after arriving in England in the spring of 1916, and used to reinforce other CEF units.   George was one of 498 men from a variety of reserve battalions sent to reinforce the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles. This unit was part of the Canadian effort at the battle of Fleurs-Courcelette as part of the 1916 Somme offensive, the April 1917 Vimy Offensive, the October 1917 Passchendaele battles, and many more with the 4th CMR becoming one of the most celebrated battalions in the CEF.

Meanwhile, in Toronto, Emma was living in a city consumed by the war effort. As a main transportation hub, thousands of soldiers were coming through the city as they were on their way to ports like Montreal or Halifax for transport to England.  Thousands more were based out of Toronto for their training, and the city transformed to accommodate this reality.  University campuses became camps, the Canadian National Exhibition Grounds became a recruitment and training centre, parks were used to simulate battlefield conditions, and parades to drum up recruits and financial support for the war in the form of Victory Bonds became commonplace on major streets.  Industrial business owners transformed their operations to support the war effort.  I have very little information on Emma’s life during the years George was overseas other than the record of her separation allowance being paid.  She and George had no children, but with George’s sister nearby whose husband was also overseas, and a sister of her own outside of Toronto with a husband overseas, I like to think that she was not utterly alone.

The 4th CMR finally returned to Toronto in March 1919.  The Toronto Star described in detail the scene as these men were received home including how the “YMCA lady helpers never had an idle moment.  They were busy all the time preparing the eats for the boys. When the boys did arrive, the ladies stood at attention and made a pretty picture in the glare of the electric lights.”

In the 1921 census, George had been unemployed for 12 months, not an unusual state for returning soldiers, as the immediate post war economy had high unemployment and inflation (both of which contributed to labour actions such as the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919). In February of 1923, Emma died due to complications from Influenza.  It appears that she had been ill for a long time as there is a list of chronic conditions also listed on her death certificate. George passed away in Toronto in 1968 at the age of 82.

William Jack Gill

William Jack Gill, brother of David and Ezekiel Gill, was the third son of David Gill and Louisa George. He attested on December 1, 1915, 102 years and one day ago.  By this point, his brother David was in France, and likely also his brother Ezekiel.  What is certain is that David and Louisa had three sons in the western theatre of war at the same time while also supporting seven other children at home with another to arrive in 1917.  The stress of it is deeply difficult to imagine.

Piecing together William’s war service is a combination of close reading, interpretation, and guess work.  Although his military file is available, the condition of it makes it very difficult to read. We can discern his original regiment, the fact that he was wounded at some point in 1916, and that he was later transferred to serve the final part of the war in England.

William Gill file

Sample of the state of the some of the pages in William Gill’s military record.

William initially attested to the the Duke of Cambridge’s Own (Middlesex) Regiment. Although both his record and the available war diaries make it difficult to completely discern, it appears he was posted to one of the “football” battalions, which were 2 battalions formed to encourage professional footballers (soccer players to those of us in North America) to join the war effort.  I have found no evidence to suggest that William was a footballer, and this is consistent with the fact that the units were supplemented with men from other walks of life.

He sailed for France in May of 1916 which is consistent with the timeframe of the 23rd (second football) battalion which was part of the 41st Division. William’s records tell us that he was in France from May to October of 1916 which meant he was likely part of two of the largest battles of the Battles of the Somme 1916: Fleurs-Courcelette, and Le Transloy.

The Battle of Fleurs-Courcelette, September 15-22, 1916, marked a general regrouping and renewing of the offensive at the Somme, including the entry of Canadian troops into this part of the campaign.  As an aside, this is the first specific WW1 battle I was ever conscious of, as it figures prominently in L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside.

The war diary for the 23rd battalion states that at 6:20 am on September 15 the “attack [was] launched–124th bgde on right–122nd bgde on left–tanks leading.” This is significant as it was the first time tanks were used in battle. This was a gamble, for as the Long Long Trail states, the tanks were “few in number, mechanically unreliable and as yet without proven tactics for their best use.” By the end of the day on September 16th, the Ordinary Ranks (non-officers) of the 23rd battalion had suffered many casualties: 22 killed, 129 wounded, and 32 missing.

The battle of Le Transloy is one that is characterized by the muddy and miserable conditions that have become synonymous with WW1. The 23rd Battalion was charged with kicking off their participation with a reconnaissance mission:

October 1, 1916 War Diary

Excerpt from War Diary of 23rd Battalion of the Duke of Cambridge’s Own (Middlesex) Regiment, October 1, 1916, Battle of Le Transloy.

Whether it was at Courcelette, Le Transloy, or any of the other myriad of places a Private could be injured in the fall of 1916, at some point William was shot in the left shoulder, and he was returned to Britain by October 10, 1916.

At some point in 1917, William was transferred to the Royal Army Medical Corps, serving at the Reading War Hospital in Berkshire. A wonderful tribute to the Reading hospitals was done in February 2014 through the the local news, GetReading.

There is not much I can discern from William’s file about what his role was at the hospital.  There is a sense that at some point in 1918 he found himself in trouble as there is a misconduct form in the file, but its contents are illegible.  William was formally discharged as part of demobilization in September 1919.

I have found no evidence that William married or had children.  He died in 1986 at the age of 89.

 

 

Alfred Charles Perring

Alfred Charles Perring was born in Edmonton, UK in early 1894. Like his brother, Edmund Alfred, he was my first cousin, 4 times removed on my maternal grandmother’s side. Where his brother’s service began with conscription and was drawn out over several years, Alfred was an early recruit and his service was brief: he died in June 1915 of wounds.  I am beginning this post with his death rather than the story of his service because his personnel file is “burnt.” It is one of the 60% of WW1 personnel files that were destroyed in the 1940 bombings on London.

From the medal rolls, listings of war dead, and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) records, we know the date of his death, the unit with which he served, and where he was buried. We are left to piece together and fill in the rest from regimental diaries and general histories of the war.  Unless there are personal family records existing that I do not have, there is very little in the way of record left for this very young man who died at the age of 21.

CWGC cemetary listing

UK Commonwealth War Graves Listing detailing grave location in the Etaples Military Cemetery in France.

Assuming he enlisted in late 1914, as a member of the 1st Battalion of the Welch Regiment which was (part of the 28th Division), he would have sailed for France in January 1915 and made his way with the regiment to Belgium. This Division took part in the Second Battle of Ypres in the spring of 1915, a month-long, deadly battle during which the German forces used poison gas for the first time.

Whether he was wounded as part of this battle and later died of wounds or was wounded in one of the myriad of other ways that a person could be fatally hurt in the month that followed second Ypres is unclear.  But thanks to the meticulous records of the CWGC, we do know that he was buried in Etaples Military Cemetery.

I am honoured to share the CWGC commemorative certificate for my cousin here.

 

Edmund Alfred Perring

Edmund Perring was born in July 1892 in the urban district of Edmonton (UK) to Joseph Perring (my 4th Great Uncle) and Sarah Elizabeth Oliphant, making him my first cousin four times removed. Sarah is listed in 1881 census as a servant, specifically a domestic nursemaid to the children of the middle-class Pallett family of Edmonton. She was 16 at the time.  Two years later, she married Joseph Perring who I will write more about in a future post.  Together they had thirteen children, the fifth of which was Edmund.

In the 1911 census, Edmund is listed as living with his family and working as a “carman” or someone who drives goods for a business.  There is no other mention of him in any of the records I have found until his military service papers where his trade or calling is listed as a “bender of sheet metal.”

His military papers also reveal that he had been conscripted into the British Expeditionary Force under the Military Service Act (MSA)  of 1916. Under this legislation, every British male subject (not including those living in the Dominions such as Canada) who, on 15 August 1915, was ordinarily resident in Great Britain,  had attained the age of 19 but was not yet 41, and, on 2 November 1915, was unmarried or a widower without dependent children, was deemed to have enlisted.  This was effective Thursday 2 March 1916.  There were a series of exemptions that applied to this, but none of of these applied to Edmund, and on November 10, 1916, he was “called up” to begin his service.  He was 24 years old.

MSA Calling up

Portion of Edmund Perring’s Service Paper upon being “called up.” 

He was initially assigned to the the Gloucester Regiment, and served the duration of 1916 and all of 1917, and the first part of 1918 on home soil. In January 1917, he was assigned to the 17th Battalion which was formed  1 January 1917 from what had previously been the 82nd Provisional Battalion of the Territorial Force.  It is difficult to say what filled Edmund’s days during this time; the only clear point in his service record was that he was punished for “being asleep whilst on duty” on March 30, 1918.

Whatever was occupying him with the unit, he must have had some time for considering personal matters as on April 28, 1918, he married Amelia Groves in St. Peter’s church in Edmonton.

On June 10, 1918, he was one of 160 men from the 17th Gloucester transferred to the newly formed 33rd Battalion of the London Regiment. They embarked for France on July 3rd. The summer was spent training and working behind the lines before the battalion was moved with the rest of the 14th Division to Belgium in late August to take part in what would be some of the final battles of the war.  That said, for better or worse, Edmund did not take part in these battles. Prior to the battalion being sent to Belgium, Edmund was treated by a field ambulance unit then admitted to hospital with diarrhea on August 24, 1918, four days before his battalion was moved.  He remained in hospital or at convalescent depots for over two months, not returning to his unit until the 29th day of November–18 days after armistice.

The remainder of 1918 and the first part of 1919 were spent in Northern France engaging in ceremonial drills, physical training, recreational games, and educational opportunities for the men as, bit by bit, parts of the battalion were demobilized.  On March 16, 1919 Edmund was one of 120 men who left the unit by train to be transferred to the 2/17 Battalion of the London Regiment in Boulogne on the western coast of France.  In November he returned to England for demobilization.

Edmund and Amelia went on to have two sons, Edmund Henry (born 1924) and Alfred (born 1926). Alfred did not live to see his first birthday, passing away early in 1927.  Although Edmund Henry lived to adulthood, he died in 1953 at the age of 29, with the National Probate calendar stating that the administration of his estate was left to “Edmund Alfred Perring, sports groundsman.” Edmund and Amelia outlived both of their children.  Edmund died three years later, still living in Edmonton, UK.  His wife lived another 14 years, passing away in 1970.

Like many of the men I will profile over this year, Edmund was not the only member of his family to serve. Next week I will profile his brother, Alfred Charles Perring, whose journey in the war was quite different than his brother’s.

 

David Gill

It is only fitting to begin this series with someone who is actually named “David.”  David Gill was born in 1893 to David Gill (Sr.) and Louisa George in the urban district of Edmonton (now part of Greater London in the north-east borough of Enfield). I’ve often found it interesting that my home town, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, is named after this region, and that so many of my ancestors, particularly on my maternal Grandmother’s side, hail from this region.

Gill Brothers

Assumed to be David Gill and one of his brothers (either Ezekiel or William). c.1917.  Based on the lanyard on the seated soldier’s uniform common in RFA uniforms, it is likely this is David. 

David Gill and I are both descendants of John Gill (1816-1891) and Elizabeth Munns (1816-1896).  John and Elizabeth were my 5th great grandparents, and they were David’s Great Grandparents, making David my 2nd cousin 4 times removed.  Although Elizabeth died when David was 3 years old, it is unlikely that they met, as Elizabeth and John both died in a particularly Dickensian manner while inmates at different institutions: John at the Caxton and Arrington Union Workhouse, and Elizabeth at the Fulbourn Lunatic Asylum, both in Cambridgeshire.  What brought them to these places at the end of their lives is hard to say though the records I have found, except to say that, as early as 1871, Elizabeth was living with her son Jack (David’s Grandfather) and his family in Orwell, Cambridgeshire, but that by the 1881 census, she was no longer living there.

In the 1891 census, David Sr. is listed as still living with his family and working as a “labourer” which, of course, could mean any number of things.  By the following year, he had relocated to Edmonton and had married Louisa George, daughter of an agricultural labourer from Edmonton.  David Sr. and Louisa had 13 children of whom I could find record, and of these children, their three eldest boys all served in the war.

David was the oldest of these 13 children. In the 1911 census, when he was 18 years old, he was listed as a blacksmith’s labourer at the gas works in Edmonton. David was 21 years old in the summer of 1914 when Britain gave Germany an ultimatum to get out of Belgium by midnight on August 3.  When Germany did not comply, Britain declared war on August 4.

David signed his attestation papers on September 2, 1914.

DG Attestation

Portion of David Gill’s attestation papers. British Army WW1 Service Records 1914-1918. 

He joined the Royal Field Artillery in the 106th brigade of the 24th division of the British Expeditionary Force as a blacksmith with the rank “Driver”–a specialist in horses who would drive and care for the animals pulling the heavy equipment to the regiment’s appointed locations.

David is an interesting case, as his service in Belgium and France was one of the longest-running of all the men I will profile over this next year, and both his service record and the war diaries for his unit are rich with information.  After joining up only days after war was declared and training in Britain for nearly a year, David and the 106th embarked from Southampton for France on August 29, 1915.

The brigade was initially comprised of four batteries with each armed with four 18-pounder field guns.  As an example, “A” battery was comprised of four officers, 130 non-commissioned officers and men and 126 horses. After landing in Le Havre, France the 106th travelled by train northward toward Beaurainville.  The war diary from the 106th for this period describes some disarray with the horse lines; in fact calling them “rather frightful” after all the rain that had recently fell, and there was mention of the horses nearly stampeding due to wasps. As new arrivals in France, and with so many horses to manage, one can imagine Dvr. Gill and his compatriots being very busy.  They did not get to rest for long, as by September 10 they were on the move north-east, arriving in Vermelles by September 17.  And so, 20 days after leaving England, the 106th found themselves in their first significant battle–The Battle of Loos–the first major British offensive of the war.

The 106th bombarded the German lines consistently for four days from September 20 to 24 in an attempt to cut communications and weaken their machine gun defences.  In all reality, it was difficult to see how successful this bombardment was, as chalk dust from the terrain and  then torrential rain made visibility difficult. The attack began on the morning of September 25.  For the first time, the British army used poison gas, releasing a cloud at 5:50 am, gambling on the wind to carry the gas to the German lines.  The infantry were scheduled to attack 40 minutes later.  The 106th diary recorded that “the infantry assaulted and were successful though the extent of the success cannot be reckoned at present.”  In reality, the wind had not been strong enough to carry the gas to its target, and in some cases was sitting stagnant in the positions where the British were to launch their attack. The infantry of the 24th Division was already exhausted after several days of marching to their positions, and by September 28 were all but shattered after three days of very little gain. At this point the 24th was pulled from the fray to regroup.  There were more than 50,000 British casualties (7,766 killed) in this battle. The estimates of German casualties vary, but seem to have been much lower–approximately 25,000–less than half of the British numbers.

This was the first month of 45 months that David Gill spent in active service in France and Belgium.  Though he had some leave time interspersed in that time, and two stays in hospital, once for pyrexia (fever) in 1916, and another time for scabies (number 6 on the top 20 medical ailments for soldiers in the great war) in 1917.

The 24th Division took part in many other significant battles in the war including the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917 and the Battle of St. Quentin in 1918. After armistice, David was in France for another seven months as the 106th helped local farmers in Belgium by lending them the horses that had pulled the guns, and by working to sell the livestock rather than return it to England.  The 24th Division even held a football competition in January 1919–one of many activities to help cope with the frustrations of demobilization.  On June 13, 1919, David sailed for England, and his unit was dispersed on June 17.

David married Gertrude Watson on February 29, 1920 when he was 27 years old.  They had two children, Gertrude Louisa Rose born in 1921, and David (Sonny) Gill born in 1923.  David died in 1967 in Enfield, Greater London, at the age of 74.

I would like to thank David’s Great-Granddaughter for her help and enthusiasm in sharing David’s story.

David Gill

David Gill later in life

Gertrude Watson 3

Gertrude Gill (nee Watson) c. 1920s

On the eve of 52 Davids

Before tomorrow and posting the first of 52 profiles of my ancestors, I want to reflect a bit on what has brought me here and clarify my own expectations of what this year will and won’t bring.

I’m not a professional historian. I’m not a professional genealogist. My methods in assembling this blog will probably make professionals from both those fields roll their eyes.  I was an academic briefly–long enough to know that my lack of secondary sources,and avoidance of historiography/critical theory is more than enough to not take this effort seriously as a contribution to any major discourse in Great War history.  And that’s fine. I’m ok with that. If any of my old profs from Waterloo ever read this, I haven’t forgotten what you taught me, I just decided not to do it that way.

I know that there are gaps in my family research too.  I have not aggressively sought out birth certificates or other documents through direct contact with archives, I have let my subscription to a genealogy service do that for me. I have reached out to distant family members, but I haven’t hounded them, and I have no intention of doing so.

I also have no intention of digging for secrets, scandal, or intrigue in these stories. I do not want to invade the privacy of the families of these men–men who in many cases their families still think of and remember. When family members have shared personal stories with me, I consider that a great privilege and am humbled to be trusted with that information. Such stories are only shared in these posts with express permission.

In many ways, each profile of each ancestor is like a thought experiment for me.  A jumping off point to consider the “what would that have been like” of a given situation. A way to reflect on my own life and how I would face a situation as a parent, a spouse, a daughter, a sister. It provides greater context for my life.

And then there is the commemorative aspects of this blog. I have a complicated relationship with acts of remembrance.  I deeply distrust the  “support our troops” rhetoric that has been rampant since 9-11, while also having profound respect for the armed forces and what they do. My mom is from a military family.  Her father, RSM Albert Rajotte, to whom this entire effort is dedicated, had a long career in the Canadian military. He was is one of my greatest heroes in many ways–and I am fully aware that he was, like all of us, not perfect. Tomorrow, although the posting of my first “David” profile is important, going to visit my grandfather’s grave is my first priority. He is my guidepost as I write each profile–I think about how I would want my grandfather to be written about. I wouldn’t want his story to be embellished or sugar coated–but I would want it to be respectful, honest, and placed in the context of where he was from and what the world was like for him. Hold me to that if at any point you don’t see me living up to it.

There was much written at the time and since about how a veil was lifted in the summer of 1914–that time was measured by “before” and “after.” In literature this is often described as a stripping away of innocence, in patriotic histories it is described as a crucible through which stronger national identities were forged.  I am fascinated by this idea of this kind of line in the cosmic sand, the crossing of which changes everything.  It bears a lot in common with 9-11.  Everything from the way we travel to discourse on race relations changed that day.  That bright September morning as people headed to work in the moments before the first plane hit is often described in the same language as the final summer days in 1914 before Germany attacked France and Britain declared war on Germany.  A charmed moment before all hell broke loose.

I’m grateful for the support of my husband Terry (who actually is a legitimate historian and public history advocate) who has been bearing with me as I squint at records on my computer screen and click clack away on the keyboard for the past two years. I’m grateful for anyone taking  a moment to read a bit of this effort. I hesitate to say that I’m grateful that my or anyone’s ancestors were involved in this conflict.  It was brutal and ugly, and over time spawned more brutality and ugliness.  I would rather that it hadn’t been a situation that anyone had to face. They did face it, though.  So I do want to commemorate it, and I want to learn from it. So that’s why I’m here.  We’ll see you tomorrow for the first post.

 

 

 

 

How Records Shaped the List of Davids

One of the biggest differences between researching this project and researching for my MA Thesis in 2002 is the complete lack of paper involved in this process.  In 2002, although I could see attestation papers of Canadian WW1 soldiers through Library and Archives Canada (LAC), in order to see a full military file, I had to file a request to have it copied and mailed to me.  The time lag between wanting to see the record and actually seeing the record was weeks, and there was a cost involved for the retrieval, copying, and mailing of the records.  As part of LAC’s Great War commemoration activities, they are working on completing digitization of all WW1 service files by the end of 2018.   They are working on them in roughly alphabetical order, and new batches of files are added to the database every two weeks. As of their last update, they are up to the last name “Russell.”  The scans are beautiful high quality colour images, allowing for a very detailed examination of the documents.  The files contain information about the attestation, service, medical treatment, action, pay, medals, and next of kin of the soldiers, and read in conjunction with the soldier’s battalion’s war diary, can provide at the very least a chronology of the soldier’s service, and in some cases, even a sense of what their experience of the war may have been like.

A similar experience can be had with the British Military Service files.  The scans are lower quality–they look more like what one would expect in scrolling through microfiche–but the biggest challenge with these records are the condition that they were in when they were imaged due to their physical history.  Whereas the Canadian files are largely in good shape and can be handled relatively easily by archivists and conservators, the British files, like the British capital, were victims of the bombings in London in WW2. In September 1940, a War Office repository where the records of WW1 soldiers were stored was hit, and up to 60% of the records were destroyed through fire and water damage.  These are referred to as “burnt” records.  Those records that do exist can sometimes be very tattered and difficult to read.  As such, there is not always a full record available for a British soldier, and one has to rely on other records such as military honour rolls or war graves records to learn more about the units in which they served.

As I’ve mentioned in the project description, I am quite certain that I have American ancestors who took part in that country’s efforts in the Great War.  Unfortunately, the American records were also largely destroyed, in this case affecting files from WW1, WW2, and the Korean conflict, as in 1973, a devastating fire at the National Personnel Records Centre in St. Louis destroyed 80% of service records of men discharged from American military forces between 1912 and 1960.

There are many more Davids in my family tree than I will ever know, as my list of 52 men was shaped by the availability and quality of records available.  The stories that get told are the stories that can be uncovered in those boxes in archives and shown the light of day through careful conservation and, certainly in the case of this project, digitization.  Bless the archivists and conservators and those who fight to fund them–they are the best defence against more stories being lost.