Continuing my explorations of women in the medical services, in War-Torn Exchanges: The Lives and Letters of Nursing Sisters Laura Holland and Mildred Forbes, and Your Daughter Fanny: The War Letters of Frances Cluett, VAD. Both books bring to life women’s war service close to the front. Continue reading
This past Saturday, July 1, marked the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation, a day for the country to rejoice, reflect and reconcile. In Newfoundland and Labrador, it was also Memorial Day, a solemn day of remembrance of the single greatest disaster in Newfoundland history. At Beaumont-Hamel, the Newfoundland Regiment was virtually wiped out in half an hour on the first morning of the Somme Offensive, July 1, 1916. Of the 780 men who went forward, 233 were dead, 386 wounded and 91 reported missing (later assumed dead). While the casualty rate for many battalions was over 50%, for the Newfoundland Regiment it was 90%. All the officers were killed or wounded. On one of the bloodiest days of the war, only one other battalion had a higher casualty rate. Continue reading
Memorial Day, July 1, is a solemn day of remembrance of the single greatest disaster in Newfoundland history. At Beaumont-Hamel, the Newfoundland Regiment was virtually wiped out in half an hour on the first morning of the Somme Offensive, July 1, 1916. Of the 780 men who went forward, 233 were dead, 386 wounded and 91 reported missing (later assumed dead). While the casualty rate for many battalions was over 50%, for the Newfoundland Regiment it was 90%. (Some reports say more went over the top, with a result of 85% casualties. But still …) All the officers were killed or wounded. On one of the bloodiest days of the war, only one other battalion had a higher casualty rate. Continue reading
Each soldier tells a story.
Tommy Ricketts left his birthplace, an isolated fishing hamlet, to answer the clarion call of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in September 1916. He claimed to be 18 years old. He was 15.
Two years later, a seasoned soldier and still underage, Ricketts’ action in battle earned him the Victoria Cross. As described in the citation: Continue reading
This Celtic cross was erected at Queen’s Rd and Cathedral St (now in a traffic island) by the sergeants and warrant officers of the second battalion of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. The original monument marks WW1. Brass plaques were added to mark later wars. You can see a newer peacekeeping monument is in the background.
From The Fighting Newfoundlander, Gerald WL Nicholson (1964) ch XV:
The earliest monument to be erected in St. John’s, other than tablets in the churches and schools, was the Sergeants’ Memorial, a fine Celtic cross of Scottish granite on the base of Newfoundland granite, standing on Queens Road at the foot of Garrison Hill. … The Memorial was unveiled by Sir Alexander Harris on July 1, 1921, and for the next two years it was the centre of the Commemoration Day ceremonies.
This plaque honours Canadians (including Newfoundlanders) awarded the Victoria Cross during the First World War. It was unveiled by Princess Anne on 10 Nov 2014, on the wall of the British High Commission on Elgin Street in Ottawa.
According to a UK government press release:
Bronze plaques were commissioned to recognise 175 Victoria Cross winners in total from 11 countries. Canada has the highest number of overseas recipients with 70. Other countries for whom plaques have been commissioned are Australia (66 Victoria Cross winners), New Zealand (16), South Africa (14), India (6), USA (5), Pakistan (3), Nepal (2), Denmark (2), Belgium (1) and Ukraine (1).
In the UK, a commemorative paving stone will be laid to honour each person in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland awarded the Victoria Cross during the First World War – 469 in all. Ceremonies will take place in the birthplace or hometown of each recipient on the anniversary of their winning the VC. Paving stones for overseas-born recipients will be unveiled at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire on 5 March 2015.
The Victoria Cross is the UK’s highest award for gallantry. It is given for most conspicuous bravery or a daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy. Medals are made from cannons captured from the Russians during the Crimean War.
“Women were not bystanders in the Great War, quietly knitting for the duration: in a multitude of ways they were actively engaged in wartime society and deeply affected by the vagaries of war.” (p 2)
“The war, in short, affected many people who never wore a uniform.” (p 196)
A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland during the First World War is a step toward reinserting women into the story. Editors Sarah Glassford and Amy Shaw bring together twelve historians to explore how women fared in WW1. The title comes from a message from Queen Mary to the women of the British Empire in December 2018: “we have been united in all our work, whether or head or hands, in a real sisterhood of suffering and service during the war.”
The authors examine Canadian and Newfoundland women’s war experiences under four themes. Two chapters in Mobilizing Women focus respectively on Aboriginal women on the Six Nations Grand River Reserve and Newfoundland women in the Women’s Patriotic Association. Their shared experiences in rallying energies to raise funds and provide support and supplies for their troops were marked as well by class and ethnicity. The Six Nations women faced discrimination by the dominant culture. The WPA morphed into a group to push for women’s suffrage after the war.
The chapters in Women’s Work? ask whether the expansion of women’s options in the paid workforce was transformative or temporary. New jobs for women were as likely to be seen to conform to conventional views of feminine as to be legitimate expanded roles. Propaganda of the day could exploit women’s mothering role or define women as soldiering, both in the name of patriotism and sacrifice. Either way, “home front” was coined to highlight the importance of women’s work to the war effort.
There were few chances for women to serve overseas. Professional nurses were part of the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) or British nursing units. Some women were trained as practical nurses or aides through St. John’s Ambulance Associations and assigned to Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD).
Family Matters and Creative Responses round off the themes of the essays.
An issue running through the book is the impact of women’s war work (paid and voluntary) on the fight for suffrage. Two laws adopted in 1917 enfranchised some women for federal elections. The Military Voters Act gave the vote to men and women (British subjects) in active military service. The Wartime Elections Act gave the vote to wives, widows, mothers, daughters and sisters (again British subjects) of soldiers serving overseas. At the same time, it disenfranchised “conscientious objectors, male and female members of pacifist religious groups like the Mennonites and Doukhobors, and all men and women born in enemy countries … who had been naturalized after 1902.” (p 16) The Act was a political manoeuvre to gain support for conscription.
I have, of course, vastly oversimplified the information and analysis presented in the book. It is well worth delving into the details to learn more about the ways that women’s experiences of the war were diverse and distinctive. It starts the conversation and opens the door for further research.
Each soldier has a story.
Samuel J Harding was born in Greenspond, Bonavista Bay, Newfoundland in 1897. He enlisted in the Newfoundland Regiment in February 1916 at age 19. His trade was listed as a school pupil. He was wounded in action and discharged as medically unfit in May 1917. A March 1917 medical report from the third London General Hospital states:
He was on a fatigue party when a shell exploded near to him and damaged his right eye. He did not go sick. Later on he was hit in the left foot by a pick, accidentally. He went sick in August 1916, and was admitted here in August and discharged in October 1916. He rejoined Depot in Ayr(?) and did light duty until December 1916. He went back to General Services in France, but had to report sick on 2nd Mar at Combles, after he had been blown up by a shell. Then taken to 5th General Hospital, Boulogne and thence here.
Harding died in October 1943 and is buried in Forest Road Anglican Cemetery, St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Rooms (Newfoundland and Labrador’s Provincial Archives, Art Gallery and Museum) has an online database of the military files of over 2200 soldiers* from the Royal Newfoundland Regiment who served in WW1. The files are searchable by name or by community.
* August 2016 note: The Rooms is currently updating its database. Files previously found online may be temporarily unavailable. Names previously not included will become accessible. They advise researchers to revisit the site over the coming year to determine if the file they seek has been uploaded.
The Fighting Newfoundlander stands in Bowring Park, St. John’s, NL, as “A Tribute to the Undying Memory of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment 1914-1918.” British sculptor Captain Basil Gotto also sculpted the Caribou Monuments. Corporal Thomas Pitman posed for the statue. A survivor of the 1916 Battle of Beaumont-Hamel, Pitman received the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) and the Military Medal (MM). The statue was unveiled in 1922.
Click on any photo to view the gallery.
Scroll down in the history of Bowring Park for the story of how Pitman came to pose for the statue and the lifelike details that Gotto captured.
The Caribou Memorial in Bowring Park, St. John’s NL is one of six. The other five caribou mark sites in France and Belgium where the (now) Royal Newfoundland Regiment fought: Beaumont-Hamel; Gueudecourt; Masnières; Monchy-le-Preux and Courtrai (Kortrijk). The caribou is the emblem of the Regiment. A brass cross below the St. John’s caribou lists the major arenas of the Regiment’s battles.