700031— Patrick Michael McKenna, 41, born in Carlow, Ireland. Single, Machinist.
700032 — Auguste Alphonse De Keruzac, 45, born in France. Married, Carpenter.
700033 — William Harold Gillespie, 19, born in Ontario, Canada. Single, Farmer.
700034 — Arthur Charles Boon, 41, born in London, England. Married, Decorator.
700035 — Alfred Edward Cracknell, 41, born in Norfolk, England. Married, Labourer. Previous Military Service
700036 — Harry Cottrell, 32, born in St Catherine’s, Ont. Married. Decorator. (discharged Med unfit)
700037 — Alfred Hargrave, 41, born in Warwickshire, England. Married, Clerk. Previous Military Service, Rank – Sergeant.
700038 — Harry George Hills, 40, born in Cambridge, England. Married, Cook. Rank – Sergeant.
700039 — Fredrick James H. Johnson, 31, born in Manitoba, Canada. Married, Clerk.
On Friday, December 3, 1915 a total of thirty-four men walked into a recruitment office somewhere in Winnipeg, Manitoba and enlisted to fight overseas. It looks like Harold was the third man in the line that day – a farm boy – probably up bright and early. There is no sign of a friend with him that day, a local sports team or any other kind of brothers-in-arms — just a single young lad among a group of middle-aged men. Most of the enlistees were married, most were returning to Europe to fight for their homelands, some of them had been in military service before. Not one of them had come from the Swan River area; Harold had enlisted on his own.
Every man who enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF) filled out and signed an attestation form. They were assigned a regimental number and became part of the Battalion. Harold became Pte. W.H. Gillespie #700033 of the 101st Overseas Battalion.
It was nearly a year and a half since war had been declared, there must have been some changes from the first days of excitement over enlistment and fighting back in 1914. I wonder if any of the other enlistees that day shared their stories with Harold, told of news from England, talked of politics, made predictions? Or did they sit quietly, lost in their own thoughts, before signing over their fates to the CEF.
Library and Archives Canada has digitised the attestation papers of the men who enlisted with the CEF. Their database is searchable by name and by regimental number.
Harold’s official attestation papers record his personal details like his height, weight, age, eye and hair colour, but it’s what can be inferred from its other details that make this document even more interesting. The date that he enlisted was in early winter, a quiet time for farmers. The papers also show that he travelled a long way (to Winnipeg), alone in winter; I see an element of determination in details like that.
There are also details on this paper that generate questions for me. He listed his mother as next of kin, not his father. Why would he do that; was he closer to this mother than his father? Was her influence perhaps why he didn’t sign up when the first calls went out for enlistment? Was it simply the ‘done’ thing; a way to soothe the heart of the person who would suffer the most if something happened?
Perhaps the most exciting thing about this database is being able to access the records of the other men who enlisted that day (although details were missing for two of the thirty-four at the time of publication). Seeing who they were is as close to being there as one can hope to get 100 years later. Viewing their details collectively convinced me that Harold had signed up alone. They also revealed: he was the only farmer to sign up that day, most of the recruits were still recent immigrants and the army by this stage was readily accepting older and married men.
So all of this information brought me back to the question of why Harold decided to sign up and why he signed up when he did.
It’s important to step back and relate what’s been learned to relevant history sources and any issues that might be found in the wider context of history; things that might have affected Harold’s decision. After some reading, two issues stood out for consideration. There were news reports of chlorine gas attacks in April 1915 on the Canadian First Division at the Second Battle of Ypres and there was a lot of pressure on farmers across Canada to simultaneously boost food production and enlist to fight (Djebabla, 2008).
Big decisions are rarely made because of a single factor; normally it’s the accumulation of many until the scales tip one way or the other. With friends gone, pressure for recruits, news of chemical warfare and potentially affairs of the heart, I’m beginning to see how it would have been difficult not to go.