ALISTAIR, PEARL AND LAURIER FRASER
On Aug. 5, 1914, the day after Canada, along with the rest of the British Empire, went to war against Germany, Alistair Fraser, a 28-year-old barrister, volunteered to serve. Just weeks later, his 29-year-old sister Pearl signed up to be a military nurse. They were two of the five children of the late Duncan Cameron Fraser, a former lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia. Reporting as Lieutenant Alistair Fraser and Sister Pearl Fraser, the brother and sister joined the first Canadian contingent that set sail for Europe from Gaspé, Que., on Oct. 3.
Also on board Sister Fraser’s ship were Minnie Follette, 29, from Port Greville, N.S., and Alexina Dussault, a 39-year-old Montrealer who had lied about her birth date because nursing sisters could not enlist after age 38.
Sister Fraser was under no illusion about what lay ahead. “General impression seemed to be that war will be long and hard,” she wrote in her diary, two days after shipping out.
While Alistair Fraser and his fellow troops trained in Britain, Sisters Fraser and Dussault joined No. 2 Stationary Hospital, the first Canadian unit on French soil. As fall turned into a wet, grey winter, they treated shrapnel wounds, bullet wounds, chest wounds, frozen feet. “The men who have come in during Jan say the ground is covered with the dead and that during December and this month very few have been buried,” Sister Fraser wrote in her diary in early 1915. “Some are swollen as big as horses.”
Though the sisters were not on the front line, their work exacted a brutal toll. Sister Follette had to be admitted to hospital for what her personnel file described as “nervous exhaustion” – what today might be deemed post-traumatic stress disorder. "This nursing sister is suffering from the strain of constant duty,” a medical board concluded.
For Sister Fraser, anguish came from worrying about Alastair, at the front with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. “All day it is OK but at night I can’t sleep,” she wrote in her diary in June. “My mind is on him all the time. If the night is wet I wonder if he is under cover … if his life is spared … nothing else will matter.”
Alistair Fraser would indeed be wounded, slightly, the following month. Promoted to captain by the end of the year, then to acting major, he was put in command of a company of the 48th Highlanders, and was twice wounded leading his troops in battle at Vimy Ridge in April, 1917. Struck by bullets through an upper arm and a thigh, he was put on sick leave after a medical board found that he was “much debilitated.”
He returned to France in the spring of 1918, with a prestigious appointment as aide-de-camp to Arthur Currie, the commander of the Canadian Corps. The post started on March 3. At dawn the next day, Alistair and Pearl’s younger brother, Lieutenant Laurier Fraser, 22, was killed when the Germans shelled his unit, the 16th Battalion. Alistair relinquished his post and went on leave.
By June, Pearl Fraser and sisters Dussault and Follette were among the nurses on HMHS Llandovery Castle. Carrying wounded soldiers back to Canada, the hospital ship was southwest of Ireland when a German submarine torpedoed it on the night of June 27, killing 234. One survivor, Sergeant Arthur Knight, recounted that he had made it onto a lifeboat with the nursing sisters but it was then sucked under by the sinking ship. “I saw some of the sisters pitched out and that was the last of the boat as far as I am aware,” he told reporters afterward.
A British navy officer, Kenneth Cummins, was on a troopship that sailed by, days later. In a 2004 interview with historian Max Arthur, he recalled seeing “bodies of women and nurses, floating in the ocean, having been there some time. Huge aprons and skirts in billows, which looked almost like sails because they’d dried in the hot sun."
When the war began, Newfoundland was still 35 years from joining Canada. A British dominion, it raised its own regiment. In St. John’s, James Moore, a 22-year-old longshoreman with a heart tattooed on his right arm, was among those who would be known as “The First Five Hundred,” and he joined the same convoy that took Pearl and Alistair Fraser to Europe.
After a year of training in England, the Newfoundlanders were sent as reinforcements to Gallipoli, in Turkey, where the Allies’ amphibious attack against the Ottoman Empire six months earlier had devolved into a quagmire. Arriving the night of Sept. 19, they came under immediate fire, and for the next three months endured shelling, intense heat and a shortage of drinking water. Unburied bodies drew clouds of flies. “A lot of our boys were stricken with dysentery,” Private Moore wrote in a letter to his mother.
In November, a three-day storm flooded their positions; then came snow and frost. “We were in a terrible state in the trenches and suffered untold hardship,” Pte. Moore wrote in his letter. The day after, while fetching water for dinner, he was hit by shrapnel "as large as grapes.” Severely wounded, he was sent to a hospital in Malta, where the British kept a base, and from there he wrote to his mother that he would try to send her the shrapnel from his leg as a souvenir.
In the spring, he rejoined the regiment as it prepared to join an offensive that became synonymous with slaughter: the Battle of the Somme. Attacking at Beaumont-Hamel on July 1, the Newfoundlanders were blasted by German fire. “The men were mown down in heaps,” reads the regimental diary. Through the night, the survivors crawled back to their lines. The next morning, of the 801 men who had gone into battle, 68 made roll call.
Although he suffered a shell wound, Pte. Moore remained on duty. His regiment, meanwhile, was pulled out, rebuilt with fresh troops and, in October, sent back to the Somme, where the battle continued to grind away. During an assault near Gueudecourt, a shell burst shattered Pte. Moore’s left leg and nearly severed his right foot. He managed to crawl into a trench captured from the Germans. Although in great pain, he was stranded by gunfire for two days before he could be rescued.
Surgeons would have to amputate his right foot and his left leg above the knee. “I have been wounded again. This time I am out of it for good,” he wrote to his mother. It would be two years before he was well enough to return home.
His great-granddaughter Stephanie Furey is now a corporal in the same regiment.
Original documents: See the personnel file for James Moore.
After emigrating to Canada from England as a teenager in 1906, Percy Argyle tried his hand at farming in Manitoba and Saskatchewan before making his way eastward, working in lumber camps and sawmills. Out of a job at the end of 1915, the 25-year-old was in Rainy River, Ont., when he met a fellow English immigrant, Kate Connor. He fell for her – only to enlist, weeks later. “Although Dad would have denied it, the Union Jack must have still meant something to him,” says his youngest son, Ray.
But so, apparently, did Ms. Connor. Private Argyle kept in touch with her, and before long she booked her own passage across the Atlantic, despite the threat of German submarines. “She must have been awful badly in love with me,” he would say to their children, years later.
By December of 1916, Pte. Argyle got leave to marry Ms. Connor, after which she moved in with his parents while he headed to the front with the 1st Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles. In a letter he wrote years later to his children, he recalled that, “It was cold and damp and mud up almost to your knees, shell holes full of water, a wounded man if he fell into one almost always drowned.”
Then, on April 9, 1917, he took part in the assault on Vimy Ridge.
Just before heading into battle, the sergeants came with a jug and poured each man a shot of rum. When the artillery fired at 5:45 a.m., Pte. Argyle would later remember, “It seemed as if the heavens opened with one huge crash, it became light as day, and after, only one thought, press on, get going.”
The men charged up the slope, following a creeping artillery barrage. Many German dugouts had survived the bombardment, and so the Canadians inched their way closer, tossing in mortar bombs. “Lots of Germans were buried alive this way,” recalled Pte. Argyle, who suffered wounds to his face and right hand, and was hospitalized.
By the time he returned to action, his unit had been sent to another of the muddiest, bloodiest battles of the war: Passchendaele – by now a vast bog of muck, barbed wire and enemy machine guns. The battalion was not initially involved in the fighting, but Pte. Argyle was nonetheless wounded in the legs by shrapnel from a can of mustard gas fired by the Germans. He spent the rest of the war in Britain training recruits in the use of bayonets.
“Dad was never again the man he was when he enlisted,” says his son Ray. “He’d lost his entrepreneurial edge, was impulsive, quick to temper – but never violent – and compliant in accepting authority.”
For the rest of his life, trickles of blood and bits of shrapnel would ooze from his shins.
Original documents: See the personnel file for Percy Argyle.
MASUMI MITSUI and TOKUTARO IWAMOTO
A diminutive waiter and labourer, Masumi Mitsui was among the many Canadians of Japanese origin who ached to join the war effort. The 29-year-old son of an Imperial Japanese Navy officer, he had once hoped to follow in his father’s footsteps. But he failed the entrance exam in his home country, and so, emigrated to Canada. In 1916, his military dreams were bolstered by a broad eagerness on the part of Japanese Canadians to prove their patriotism in an era when they could not even vote. Simply offering to enlist was an uphill battle: Turned away in Vancouver, many headed to Alberta, where recruiters were more open-minded.
Once in France, the Japanese-Canadians faced additional burdens. Some officers believed them to be lazy and untrustworthy. But the men fought hard.
“The battle has been fierce,” Private Mitsui wrote in a 1917 letter sent home in the wake of the battle of Vimy Ridge and of a follow-up operation in nearby Arleux, where he suffered a wounded finger after a bullet struck his rifle’s bayonet. “I am glad to report that the Japanese Canadians have a good name as soldiers," he said in the letter, later translated by the Japanese Canadian author Roy Ito.
Four months later, in August, the Japanese Canadians would distinguish themselves even further at the Battle of Hill 70, most notably during an assault on a fortified quarry known as the Chalk Pit. Private Tokutaro Iwamoto, a carpenter from Calgary, was praised in the 10th Battalion’s diary for his “remarkable keenness and fearlessness,” attacking several German dugouts by himself and capturing 20 prisoners. Pte. Mitsui, meanwhile, salvaged one of his battalion’s Lewis machine guns after its crew became casualties and, to quote the unit’s diary, “put the gun into action, causing the enemy many casualties. He afterwards did excellent work in mopping up and assisting the wounded.”
He was promoted to sergeant and both he and Pte. Iwamoto were awarded the newly created British Military Medal for bravery.
The following year, Pte. Iwamoto was killed in action, on Sept. 2, during the final offensive of the war. Later that month, another comrade, Corporal Joe Kimakuchi Oura, a B.C. fisherman, was killed by machine-gun fire – a casualty that, even amid the relentless carnage, hit Sgt. Mitsui hard. “Since his death I have been very depressed,” he wrote. “Of the original volunteers, 16 have been killed; 17 have been wounded or become ill and returned to Canada. Five or six are in hospital in England. There are only seven left.”
After returning to B.C., he campaigned for Japanese Canadian veterans to get the right to vote, which they did not gain until 1931. Still, during the Second World War, his farm was confiscated and, like thousands of other Japanese Canadians, he was interned. The family eventually moved to Hamilton.
"He did not discuss anything about the war," says his grandson David. However, every Nov. 11, his grandfather would put on his uniform and medals at home, to honour the memory of his comrades.
THE TYO BROTHERS
In January, 1916, James Tyo, a 19-year-old labourer, married Bertha Montpetit in Cornwall, Ont. Three months later, he walked into his hometown’s recruiting office and volunteered to join the Canadian army. He was the youngest of five brothers who, by war’s end, would all enlist. Their father, Stephen, was a bricklayer who used to work for the Grand Trunk Railway in Quebec before moving his family of eight children to Cornwall, just across the Ontario border.
The eldest son, Arthur, had been the first to enlist, in July, 1915. Within months, brothers Joseph and Edward also signed up. William was the last to join.
In August, 1917, Arthur, almost 30, and James, barely 20, fought with separate infantry units at the Battle of Hill 70, near the town of Lens, where Canadians suffered more than 9,000 casualties during an 11-day battle. James, in the 21st Battalion, died on the first day of the assault. While the bodies of most of his battalion’s dead were brought back to the rear, he and five other Canadians were buried together in a mass grave near the junction of two trenches seized from the Germans. It would be seven years before their remains were exhumed, and among them, only James could be immediately identified.
Two days after James’s death, Arthur, fighting with the 24th Battalion, Victoria Rifles, was wounded in both legs. He died that afternoon at a casualty-clearing station.
The following year, William, waiting at a Nova Scotia base to be sent overseas, died of the Spanish flu – then wreaking havoc worldwide – just as the war was winding down. Three years after that, Joseph, who had suffered multiple injuries and was gassed while serving in France, died in a hospital in Montreal while awaiting his return to Cornwall.
Edward, the sole brother to make it all the way home, was nonetheless beset with chest pains: He, too, had been gassed in battle.
Of the five brothers, only Arthur had become a father. His widow, Mary Louise Sauvé, died of the Spanish flu in October, 1918. The youngest of their two children, five-year-old Vincent, was sent to an orphanage; he left school at 9 to find work. Vincent enlisted in the army during the Second World War but was not sent overseas because of health problems. He eventually became a civilian cook for the Canadian Forces. His son Gary remembers growing up poor and in subsidized housing in Ottawa. “My father struggled a lot of years,” says Mr. Tyo, a former police officer who is now a realtor.
Both Gary Tyo and his brother Robert have served in the Canadian Forces. “We’ve got,” he says, “a bit of a habit serving in the military in my family.”
He claimed that he was 17. But though he was tall for his age, Cecil Gillespie was still just a 16-year-old Toronto high-school student when he enlisted in April, 1916. His parents, David, a blacksmith, and Louella, a tea-shop owner, didn’t find out about his ruse until after their only son had left for Europe, in the same convoy that carried James and Edward Tyo. By Christmas, as part of the 78th Battalion, Private Gillespie was in the field, where, he later told his children, large rats would crawl over him as he tried to sleep at night.
At 5:30 a.m. on April 9, 1917, Pte. Gillespie and the other men of his battalion emerged from tunnels and dugouts and attacked the German lines at Vimy. Fighting bayonet to bayonet with a German, he plunged his weapon so deeply into the body of his foe that he had to fire his rifle in order to excise the blade.
Back in Canada, his mother was writing to prime minister Sir Robert Borden in an effort to get her son home. Ultimately, authorities checked the private’s birth certificate, and in October he was returned to England and discharged. A note in his record read: “Ineligible. Under Age. Discharged at the request of his parents.” He also had to reimburse $20 he had been overpaid.
He later became an accountant who shared little with his family about his wartime experiences. “He didn’t want to burden them,” says Eliane Labendz, of Toronto, who married Mr. Gillespie’s youngest son, Don. Or, perhaps, burden himself. He once told Don that he couldn’t help thinking that, in another time, another place, he and the young German he had killed could have been friends.
Original documents: See the personnel file for Cecil Gillespie.
When David Charlton was growing up on the family farm in Pine Lake, Alta., in the 1960s, his grandfather, Humphrey Charlton, would receive an annual phone call from a man in the United States, thanking him for saving his life during the First World War. "Grandpa never talked about the war,” says David, who wonders to this day how, exactly, his grandfather had saved the man’s life. But he knows it wasn’t Humphrey Charlton’s only heroic wartime act.
The son of an Anglican rector from the West Midlands village of Tatenhill, Humphrey Charlton studied agriculture before emigrating to Canada in 1910 in order to homestead in Alberta. When the war broke out, he sailed back to England to enlist as a private in the Army Veterinary Corps.
Later, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and was subsequently promoted to captain with the North Staffordshire Regiment, with whom he fought in key engagements in the final months of the war. Among them was an assault against the Hindenburg Line, a German fortified position on the Western Front that would be breached, through a series of attacks, by Canadian and other Allied divisions. One of those involved the Battle of the Saint-Quentin Canal.
At dawn, on Sept. 29, 1918, despite a heavy fog that made it hard to locate enemy machine guns, the North Staffordshire troops were able to capture German positions and then cross the canal equipped with lifebelts, ladders, collapsible boats and rafts. At the same time, Captain Charlton, using a compass to find his way through the fog, led a group of nine men onward to the Riqueval Bridge, a crucial span for moving troops and supplies forward.
Despite coming under machine-gun fire from a German trench, they charged forward, and killed the German crew with bayonets. Reaching the bridge at 6:20 a.m., they shot the German sentries, and Capt. Charlton and a sapper cut the cords to explosives that had been set up to destroy the bridge. They then crossed – and rooted out the remaining Germans.
“His prompt action in cutting the leads and disconnecting the charges saved the bridge, upon which depended the whole success of the operations, not only of the whole division, but of the division which was leap-frogging us to a distant objective,” read the recommendation letter by Brigadier-General John V. Campbell.
Capt. Charlton was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and in Britain his name is familiar to history buffs and military authors, who praise him for his role in a decisive moment leading to the end of the war. But because he served in the military of his native Britain rather than with a Canadian unit, Humphrey Charlton is virtually unknown in his adopted country. "There are still so many things we are learning about him,” his grandson David says.
A paper-mill timekeeper in the company town of Grand Falls, George Goudie was 18 when he headed to St. John’s to enlist in the Newfoundland Regiment in March, 1916. By the following spring, just a few kilometres south of the fighting at Vimy Ridge, Corporal Goudie’s unit attacked the German lines in the Battle of Arras – and were met by a brutal counterattack. The regiment had gone to battle with 521 men; it suffered 487 casualties. Cpl. Goudie was reported missing.
A month later, a glimmer of bittersweet news arrived at his parents’ door: He had been captured – after being hit, in both legs, by shrapnel and bullets. According to later reports by other captured Newfoundlanders, injured prisoners were treated roughly, and sometimes even robbed. And food was scarce. “We had just enough to keep us alive,” recalled Private Fred Diamond, a fisherman from Flat Island, in Placentia Bay, who was taken to the same German hospital as Cpl. Goudie.
At the end 1917, Cpl. Goudie was among thousands of prisoners transferred to neutral Switzerland, under the auspices of the Red Cross, to wait out the war. Just after Christmas, he arrived at the resort town of Interlaken, and for the next 10 months he recovered enough from his wounds to take up sports, including rowing, with interned soldiers from across the Commonwealth.
By late October of 1918, hopes were growing that the war would soon end, when another calamity struck – the Spanish flu, a pandemic that would ultimately kill up to 100 million people worldwide. Interlaken was quarantined, and Cpl. Goudie and four of his rowing mates would succumb. The first was a private from New Zealand; then an Australian soldier; and soon after, the Newfoundlander.
In early November, a letter from a healthy Cpl. Goudie had reached his family in Newfoundland. Then, on Nov. 9, two days before Armistice, a telegram followed, announcing his death.
In photos: Colourized images offer new perspectives on last days of the First World War
Based on original black-and-white photographs from battlefronts, liberated towns and elsewhere, the following images depict soldiers in many facets of active duty. Swipe through all 15 images below, or visit the gallery page here.