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.