In Flanders Fields – Canadians in World War One

Canadians in WWI, 1914 to 1918

When Britain declared war on Germany in August 1914, Canada, as a member of the British Empire, was automatically at war. Canada’s troops were called the Canadian Corps and they fought on the Western Front in trenches that stretched from the Belgium coast, through France, to the frontiers of Switzerland. 65,000 Canadian military personnel lost their lives when they ventured beyond the trenches and into No Man’s Land. One of those men was my Grandfather’s brother, Henry William.

It is said Henry joined the military because a woman approached him on the street and presented him with a White Feather, signifying she thought he was a coward. He was only 17 years old, too young to enlist, but he wasn’t about to be called a coward.  He lied about his age, and signed his Attestation Papers for the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force on September 8, 1915.

Henry arrived on the front in France on March 26, 1916. He was wounded in  June and again in September of that year. His next encounter with the enemy was his last. He was reported missing after action on The Somme on October 4, 1916. His body was never found, making him one of just over 20,000 Canadian soldiers with no known grave.

My Grandfather, Victor fought in France too. Only two weeks after Henry was killed, Victor was wounded in the face and neck. One eye was removed, and he was sent home,  forever scarred by the memories of life in the trenches.

IN FLANDERS FIELDS
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

John McRae, December 8, 1915

Post 252

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32 thoughts on “In Flanders Fields – Canadians in World War One

  1. Awesome, I went to a Flanders Field memorial a few years back. I watched those Belgians of WWI hobble on their canes and walkers to the front to be recognized by the King. It was amazing,
    My dad, he was at the Battle of the Bulge.
    Salute to your grandfather and his brother.

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  2. I just checked your blog, now I have a streak down the cheek. I so wish I would have met my Uncle Henry, I feel like I knew him. He looked so much like Aunt Grace, he had her eyes. Trench warfare was a slaughter, running men into machine guns for god’s sake. Wonderful blog cuz, I have to stay in my office for a minute.

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    • Hi G – You were much closer to so many of the family than I was! I know what you mean by the brutality of trench warfare – our trip to the WWI battlefields and cemeteries was quite an eyeopener.

      I was just going through that package of Henry’s belongings – put them in a nice glass case. I didn’t donate them to the museum yet – can’t quite let them go! I’ll take a photo, and send it to you.

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  3. I remember when we found his name on the Vimy Ridge Memorial. A very emotional moment and I didn’t even know him. I still think of it as one of the highlights of my European travels. I thought of him today when I put my poppy on.

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  4. My Grandmother also lost one her little brothers in France (Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Forces 19th Battalion) and I just completed a write-up about him on my family history blog. Have you seen the virtual war memorial? You would probably find your great-uncle on there and can post pictures of him if you’d like. And then there’s British Book of Remembrance that would have his name. It might help everyone in the family to see these.

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    • Hi JSD – I have a Family History blog too. Yes, I’ve seen the information on The Canadian Virtual War Memorial and it certainly is a helpful resource! When I originally researched Henry William, most of the information was only available by mail!
      In 2000, my husband and I did a World War I Battlefield tour throughout Belgium and France. It was a wonderful experience.

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  5. This left a lump in my throat. I’d heard of the white feather before, but never in such a sad, personal story. It just doesn’t make sense. To be cut down, when life is so fresh and there’s so much ahead. Thanks for the tenderness.

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  6. A very thoughtful piece, Margie. Nostalgia is a difficult tone to convey without over-sentimentality. I wonder if that woman who approached Henry had seen the 1915 film of The Four Feathers, which came out in May of that year? Otherwise it’s a pretty odd gesture to make toward someone.

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    • This story from Canada History.com explains what kind of pressure was used to recruit men: ” Many approaches were used in recruiting men for the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The clergy and women were asked to help in persuading men into the ranks. In many cases, clergy preached sermons designed to boost recruitment and allowed recruiters to use churches for their work. Some women went overboard, issuing white feathers to young men not in uniform on the (usually unfair) assumption that they were “cowards.” Posters appealed directly to women to use their influence to coerce their men folk to enlist: “Do you realize that the one word ‘GO’ from you may send another man to fight for our King and Country? When the war is over and someone asks your husband or your son what he did in the Great War, is he to hang his head because you would not let him go – Won’t you help and send a man to enlist today?””

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  7. You’ve brought a historic and distant war close to home..and to heart here with your story of your grandfather and his brother. I can’t hope but wish for an end to all wars everywhere..peace for all on this small earth.

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  8. Extremely moving, Margie. In a few short paragraphs you managed to convey both the horror of war, and what is truly noble and fine in the human character.

    Loved the poem, had never come across it. I was struck by the line “Take up our quarrel with the foe”– it’s so understated, no real trace of vindictiveness. It speaks to not letting their ultimate sacrifice be in vain, rather than a cry for vengeance.

    Awful story about the white feather. Men find it hard enough to be brave without guilt and coercion. There’s a lesson there, too. Great post.

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  9. Moving, of course. The white feather reminds me of how many southern women shamed their men into fighting in the Civil War. They had no idea what fate they were sending their sons and husbands toward. HF

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