Tag Archives: WWI



On the home front: Toronto in WWI, Toronto Star [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

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.

chlorine-attack-1915-newsIt’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.

Dec 3rd, 1915

William Harold Gillespie
Height — 5’7”
Chest Measurement — 36” (Range of expansion — 4”)
Apparent age — 20 years, 7 months
Next of kin — Mrs William Gillespie (Mother)
Religious denomination — Church of England
Declaration date — Dec 3rd, 1915
Regimental Number — 700033

signature of recruit





Home Again

Within three months of Britain’s declaration of war, Walter left his calling in the Lethbridge area and enlisted. He travelled to Regina and on October 23rd, signed up with the 28th Battalion (Northwest), one of the battalions that formed the Second Contingent of the CEF (Canadian Expeditionary Forces).  He recorded on his attestation papers that he was a student and received the rank of private.

As part of the Dominion, Canada was automatically at war when Britain declared war but Canada’s government was free to decide how many men to send overseas. The Prime Minister originally offered 25,000 men and ended up sending 30,000 + (making up the 1st Contingent) in October 1914. Formation of the second  contingent was underway before the first had even made it to the shores of England.

In the spring of 1915, the Second Contingent including Private Cripps and the 28th Battalion followed.

No 5 Platoon No 2 Company 28th Battalion

Private W Cripps stands on the extreme right in the second row. I found a commemorative booklet of their whole Battalion on the Internet Archive – digitised and uploaded only 6 months ago.

Walter likely joined as soon as possible because England was his homeland; perhaps he also thought he could serve God best among the troops in the battlefield.

Written on the back: Mr & Mrs Cripps & family. Croydon, Surrey, England.

Written on the back: Mr & Mrs Cripps & family. Croydon, Surrey, England.

Harold was not so quick to enlist.


While many young Canadians rushed to enlist when war first broke out, it was interesting to find out that the majority of early enlistees were not Canadian-born. I wondered why that was (especially in comparison to Australia’s figures). It was good to step back and gain a wider picture of what was happening in Canada in this early phase of the war.

In the summer of 1914, there were large numbers of single male immigrants in Canada, many of them from Britain. They came over looking for work/adventure, maybe with vague dreams of settling. But times were tough; there was a depression on, and a long cold winter was only months away. For many of these young Brits, enlisting must have looked like a paying job and a ticket home – at least for a visit.



Walter’s Regimental number was 73645. I spent some time last year looking through the attestation numbers to see if any of the other clergy from Lethbridge had joined with him. None of the names or details matched. But I did find someone familiar.

Also enrolled on the day into the 28th Battalion was Private #73634 James Allen, my great uncle from England (Edith’s brother). He had received a scholarship to study theology at St Chad’s in Regina in 1912.

So it was he that Walter had come to enlist with (October 23, 1914).

I went back to the photos my mother’s cousin shared with us some time ago. Her father, Jim is sitting on the steps of St Chad’s. And there is Walter sitting right next to him, his elbow slung over his mate’s knee.


Jim Allen (right) and Walter Cripps (centre) plus others on the steps of St Chad’s after enlisting in the 28th Battalion.

I still don’t know how Walter and the Allens knew each other, but the evidence is strong that there was some connection via theological study. Walter did not become a minister until the war was over (1920 in Canada) and family stories say that James abandoned his religious convictions during the  War. We have many pieces of memorabilia from Durham Cathedral and I now wonder if there was a St Chads, Regina connection with Durham and the theological colleges there (including a St Chad’s).

The Battle Ships are Fine

Portsmouth Harbour from the Ramparts

Postcard #4 – Portsmouth Harbour – dated Croydon June 28th, 1914

Dear Ray,
I’ve been in the dockyards. It is a very nice place to go to see some nights. The battle ships (sic) are fine. Well I guess you will have my letter by this time I have many to write, Solong (sic) with love, H

One small sentence written on the last postcard from Harold’s trip abroad is probably the most interesting of all. He wrote the postcard the same day Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg were assassinated in Sarajevo, an event we now view as the catalyst for the start of the war. I wondered how things were seen at the time, whether Harold and Walter might have had any inkling of what was so close on the horizon.

Manchester Evening News – Monday 29 June 1914 Image © Trinity Mirror. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

Manchester Evening News – Monday 29 June 1914
Image © Trinity Mirror. Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.

Many of Britain’s historic papers are locked behind paywalls but the Daily Telegraph has digitised and released its WWI archival papers. Its June 29th, 1914 edition has a whole series of articles detailing the Archduke’s assassination (see pp 11-16).

I also found an article from the Manchester Evening News available on the British Library’s newspapers site. Both reports fail to grasp the ramifications of  the Duke’s death.

Back in Canada the assassination was also in papers such as The Globe.  There was no interpretation of the events there either, only details.

Media coverage of the Archduke’s death continued for most of the week, but looking through the papers is is obvious that there were plenty of other things happening, other events that might be as just as interesting and relevant to two young men abroad.

The suffragette movement was gaining media attention for their increasingly radical actions, the Irish Home Rule Bill was back in the House of Lords,  Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition received a generous donation from Sir James Caird (see p. 13). On the same day as the assassination, there was also news of a commercial liner, the SS California running aground off the coast of Ireland on its way from New York to Liverpool. There was even mention of a heatwave (p.11) during the last week of their time abroad.

It seems the average man (like Harold and Walter) may not have been aware of what was to come. But as I continue to dig through the digitised papers and news of the time, I notice there is a constant atmosphere of military/naval activity. Portsmouth (the Royal Navy’s main harbour) in particular seems abuzz. Some of the details that grab my attention are:

And what about the battleships Harold wrote home about?

They may have seen some battleships in the dockyards being outfitted or repaired. It is just as likely they saw ships from the Grand Fleet arriving in harbour. The King had called for an assembly of the Grand Fleet at Portsmouth (see p. 11).  Over 200 ships assembled at Spithead for review from July 16th – 20th, just a fortnight after Harold and Walter sailed for home.

Grand Fleet for the King's Review July 18th 1914. Available public domain

Grand Fleet for the King’s Review July 18th 1914. Available public domain

The fleet would remain in near Portsmouth until late July when they would be ordered North in readiness for war.


The days leading up to the declaration of war against Germany were interesting times and it is possible to get a clear idea of the news, the emotion and atmosphere from sites online. BBC Radio has a series of podcasts: 1914: Day by Day and there are many newspapers now digitised and online such as the Daily Telegraph. The papers are especially useful for zeroing in on local areas, to see how the news was reported to small towns, rural areas and big cities.

Reading papers from 100 years ago can be a frustrating experience. Front page news hadn’t taken off as a concept in many publications (altho’ Canada’s Globe seemed to grasp the concept) so you may have to wade through a dozen pages of advertising first to get to the news.