Grist for the Mill – Poems on war, labour and progress

By Kelly Anne Griffin

Alex Gibson was an immigrant, a veteran of the First World War, a mill worker and a poet. His experiences are reflected in Grist for the Mill, a book of poetry that he self-published in 1959. A copy of this book was discovered during the processing of the archival records of the Canadian Paperworkers Union.

Gibson was born in 1893 in Scotland, and he immigrated to Canada around 1913. He enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the 10th Field Ambulance Battalion. Many of the poems in his book deal with the challenges of adjusting to the often routine life of working in a paper mill after surviving the horrors of war. Many young Canadian men faced similar challenges when they returned from the war in Europe.

He contemplates the struggles of returning soldiers in “What Shall It Be”:

What shall it be when victory’s won
And our men come marching home;

Shall it mean the same as it always means –
The broken lives and the shattered dreams

And a desolate land to roam?


Answer ye men of the shop and rail –
The mill and the mine – the sea and the mail,

For answer it ye shall?
(pp. 90–92)

A black-and-white photograph showing a crowded war scene: wounded soldiers are on stretchers while soldiers mill around, with destroyed buildings in the background.

The 10th Field Ambulance Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the Battle of Amiens in August 1918. Gibson served in the field, caring for the wounded after battle. This devastating experience underlies his poetry. (MIKAN 3397051)

Gibson worked in the pulp and paper industry for over 38 years and was passionate about labour issues. He served in several important roles within the Canadian Paperworkers Union during his career. He even ran for federal office in the riding of Port Arthur in 1935 and 1940 for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. This party, a predecessor of the New Democratic Party, was dedicated to progressive social and labour issues. Gibson’s socialist stance is clear in nearly all of the poems in the book, which provides an informative first-hand account of working-class struggles. The plight of the worker and the need for workers to come together in a strong brotherhood are recurring themes. In “Hoboes and Heroes,” he writes about the class of society that could be called the working poor:

He said that every place he went
He found that there were thousands such as he;
Who, with the last of all their money spent
Were forced to beg for charity.


And as he spoke I sensed the bitter note.
Of dark despair, the utter lack of hope.
(pp. 77–80)

Working for over three decades in a factory, and being active in union activities, Gibson was acutely aware of the hardships and struggles in a production mill. These come up frequently in his writings. Days were long, pay was poor and conditions were not as regulated as they are today. He continually tried to improve this situation through his work with the union. The vivid picture he paints of what life was like for these men shows his empathy for his fellow workers. In the book’s dedication, he writes:

To ye who toil in the murk;
To ye who swine in the drift

Making an epic of work,
Single or double shift.

Knowing you as I do;
Living the life you live,

This is my gift to you,
All that I have to give.
(p. 3)

A black-and-white photograph of a man leaning over a grinder machine holding a plank of wood in his hands.

Worker in a pulp and paper mill operating a grinder machine. Gibson’s poetry often describes the monotonous and dangerous conditions in mills and the effects on workers. Photo taken by Harry Foster (MIKAN 3196845)

Most of Gibson’s poems cover issues relating to labour and social injustices in Canada, but some provide glimpses into important moments in history. “A Constitutional Crisis” relates the abdication of Edward VIII to wed twice-divorced Wallis Simpson, a huge scandal at the time. “A Note to the Hon. Minister of Justice” is about the jailing of Tim Buck, a leader in the labour movement. Buck’s imprisonment at Kingston Penitentiary caused much public outcry, especially among labourers like Gibson.

This collection of poems, though written primarily about personal conflicts and workers’ struggles, has an underlying tone of hope. Many of Gibson’s poems are still relevant for Canadian readers today. This is one reason why Grist for the Mill is a true treasure in the collection of Library and Archives Canada.

Private John George Pattison, VC

A banner that changes from a black-and-white photograph of a battle scene on the left to a colour photograph of the Vimy Memorial on the right.To mark the second day of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, April 10, 1917, the Discover Blog returns to the First World War Centenary: Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients series, in which we profile each of Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients on the 100th anniversary of the day that the actions took place for which they were awarded the Victoria Cross. Today we present the story of Private John George Pattison, who became the fourth Canadian soldier at Vimy Ridge to earn the Victoria Cross, joining Captain Thain Wendell MacDowell, Private William Johnstone Milne, and Lance-Sergeant Ellis Wellwood Sifton.

A black-and-white photograph of a seated soldier holding a baton and looking directly at the viewer.

Private John George Pattison, VC. (MIKAN 3219808)

Pattison was born on September 8, 1875 in Woolwich, England. He immigrated to Canada in 1906, and at the age of 40, enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Calgary, Alberta on March 6, 1916.

A black-and-white photograph of two soldiers standing side by side in front of an automobile.

Private John George Pattison, VC and Bugler, undated (MIKAN 3219809)

One hundred years ago today, on the second day of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, Pattison and the 50th Battalion were under heavy fire from a German machine gun that was inflicting multiple causalities. Seizing his chance, Pattison went forward alone, moving from shell hole to shell hole, until he came within 30 yards of the gun. His citation for the Victoria Cross reads: “From this point, in the face of heavy fire, he hurled bombs, killing and wounding some of the crew, then rushed forward, overcoming and bayonetting the surviving five gunners. His valour and initiative undoubtedly saved the situation and made possible the further advance to the objective.” (London Gazette, no. 30215, August 2, 1917)

Pattison was killed in action seven weeks later on June 3, 1917, during an attack on a German-held generating station near Lens, France. He is buried at La Chaudière Military Cemetery nearby. The Pattison Bridge in Calgary, Alberta, and a mountain peak in Jasper National Park are named in his honour.

Library and Archives Canada holds the service file for Private John George Pattison.

Related Resources

Lieutenant Frederick Maurice Watson Harvey, VC

The Discover Blog returns to the First World War Centenary: Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients series, in which we profile each of Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients on the 100th anniversary of the day that the actions for which they were awarded the Victoria Cross took place. Today we present the story of Lieutenant Frederick Maurice Watson Harvey, an Irish-born Canadian VC recipient from Medicine Hat, Alberta.

A black-and-white portrait of an officer wearing a Sam Brown belt and looking directly at the viewer.

Captain Frederick M. Harvey, V.C., undated (MIKAN 3216613)

Harvey, born in Athboy, County Meath, Ireland, was one of three Irish rugby union internationals to have been awarded the Victoria Cross, and the only one to have been awarded the medal during the First World War. He settled in Medicine Hat, Alberta, in 1908 and enlisted on May 18, 1916 with the 13th Regiment, Canadian Mounted Rifles, transferring to Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) after arriving in France.

On March 27, 1917, Harvey’s troops advanced on the village of Guyencourt, France. As German machine gun fire inflicted heavy casualties, Harvey’s Victoria Cross citation recounts what occurred next:

At this critical moment, when the enemy showed no intention whatever of retiring and fire was still intense, Lt. Harvey, who was in command of the leading troop, ran forward well ahead of his men and dashed at the trench, still fully manned, jumped the wire, shot the machine gunner and captured the gun. His most courageous act undoubtedly had a decisive effect on the success of the operation (London Gazette, no.30122, June 8, 1917).

A black and white reproduction of a war diary entry showing the place, date, hour and a summary of events and information.

Extract from the Lord Strathcona’s Horse war diaries for March 27, 1917 (MIKAN 2004721)

Lieutenant Harvey was initially granted the Distinguished Service Order but was later awarded the Victoria Cross. He received the Military Cross for his role in the Lord Strathcona’s Horse advance on Moreuil Wood on March 30, 1918 and was also awarded the French Croix de Guerre.

Harvey remained with Lord Strathcona’s Horse and was promoted to Captain in 1923. He instructed in physical training at the Royal Military College of Canada from 1923 to 1927, was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in 1938, and, in 1939, was made Brigadier General. Harvey served as Honorary Colonel in Lord Strathcona’s Horse from 1958 to 1966. He died in August 1980 at age 91.

A black and white photograph of a man pining an award on another man’s pocket. Another man is reading the citation while a third man is carrying a case. In the background, rows of soldiers are standing at ease.

H.M. The King decorating Lieutenant Harvey L.S.H. with the Victoria Cross (MIKAN 3362384)

Library and Archives Canada holds the CEF service file for Lieutenant Frederick Maurice Watson Harvey.

Related Resources

Piper James Cleland Richardson, VC

By Emily Monks-Leeson

Today’s blog post for the series First World War Centenary: Honouring Canada’s Victoria Cross Recipients tells the story of Piper James Cleland Richardson, awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) for gallantry during the Battle of the Ancre Heights on October 8, 1916 at Regina Trench, Somme, France.

A black-and-white photograph of a young man wearing a kilt and sporran, holding a baton in his left hand and leaning on a sculptural shelf.

Piper James Cleland Richardson, VC, 16th Battalion, CEF. (MIKAN 3192331)

Born in Bellshill, Scotland, on November 25, 1895, Richardson immigrated to British Columbia where he served as a piper in the 72nd Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. In September 1914, he enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) and went overseas as part of a large Seaforth contingent of the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish).

On October 8, 1916, Richardson’s company was held up by uncut barbed wire and intense fire as they attacked German positions at Regina Trench. Richardson’s commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Cyrus Peck, later wrote of Richardson’s extraordinary courage. As the unit lay trapped in the shell holes of “no man’s land,” Richardson, a teenager who had played the company “over the top,” sought the commander’s permission to play his pipes again. In full view of the Germans, he marched up and down the wire entanglements playing his pipes where his fellow soldiers lay. His citation for the Victoria Cross states, “The effect was instantaneous. Inspired by his splendid example, the company rushed the wire with such fury and determination that the obstacle was overcome and the position captured” (London Gazette, no. 30967, October 22, 1918).

Amazingly, Richardson survived the attack and was detailed to take a wounded comrade and several prisoners of war to the rear. Realizing that he had left his bagpipes behind, he returned to recover them. Richardson was never again seen alive.

A black-and-white handwritten page describing the daily events leading up to the day of the action for which Piper James Cleland Richardson received the Victoria Cross.

War diary of the 16th Battalion for October 1–8, which describes the days leading up to the attack on Regina Ridge. (MIKAN 2034171)

The remains of James Cleland Richardson were located in 1920 and he is now buried in Adanac Military Cemetery near Albert, France. His bagpipes, long believed lost to the Somme mud, were identified in 2002 as being in the possession of Ardvreck Preparatory School in Scotland, part of a 1917 donation by British Army Chaplain Major Edward Yeld Bate. They are now on display at the British Columbia Legislature.

Black-and-white photograph of a young man in military uniform holding his bagpipes.

Piper James Cleland Richardson, VC, and bagpipes, 16th Canadian Infantry Battalion, CEF. (MIKAN 4922009)

Library and Archives Canada holds the CEF service file for Piper James Cleland Richardson. The James Richardson fonds contains his Victoria Cross certificate as well as an exercise book from his early schooling.

Emily Monks-Leeson is an archivist in Digital Operations at Library and Archives Canada.

Jeremiah “Jerry” Jones

This Black History Month, Library and Archives Canada highlights the service of black Canadians during the First World War. While all Canadians were equally caught up in the patriotism of the early part of the war and the opportunities offered by military service, black Canadians had difficulty enlisting due to the racism of the era. Although there was no official or explicitly stated policy of exclusion, the Canadian military left recruitment decisions to the discretion of individual commanding officers. Black Canadian volunteers along with those from other minority groups were left to enlist in whichever regiments would accept them. A special unit, the No. 2 Construction Battalion, was formed by members of the black community in Nova Scotia. The battalion, whose members weren’t allowed to fight, dug trenches, repaired roads, and attracted hundreds of recruits from across Canada and even the United States.

A sepia-coloured photograph of a man in uniform wearing an officer’s belt and cap holding a baton in both hands across his upper thighs.

Jeremiah “Jerry” Jones, First World War private taken by an unknown photographer, from the personal collection of the Jones family (Wikipedia)

Among those black Canadians who volunteered and served was Jeremiah “Jerry” Jones, a Nova Scotian soldier who enlisted with the 106th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles) in June 1916. Born in East Mountain, Nova Scotia on March 30, 1858, Jones was over 50 years old when he enlisted and lied about his age in order to join the army. Jones was sent overseas, where he transferred to the Royal Canadian Regiment and saw combat on the front lines in France, including the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917. During the battle, with his unit pinned down by machine gun fire, Jones moved forward alone to attack the German gun emplacement. He reached the machine gun nest and threw a grenade that killed several German soldiers. The survivors surrendered to Jones, who had them carry the machine gun back to the Canadian lines and present it to his commanding officer. It is reported that Jones was recommended for a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions, though no record exists to show that he ever received the medal. In the decades following the war, the Truro Daily News and Senator Calvin Ruck highlighted Jones’ bravery and lobbied to have the Canadian government formally recognize his actions. Ruck in particular argued that the racist sentiment of the time had prevented Jones and other black soldiers from being properly recognized for their heroism.

A nominal list showing the regimental number, rank, name, former corps, name of next of kin, address of next of kin, country of birth, and the place and date on which they were taken on strength.

Entry for Jeremiah Jones in the “Nominal Roll of Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers and Men” of the 106th Battalion (MIKAN 2006098)

Jones was injured at the Battle of Vimy Ridge and again at the Battle of Passchendaele. He was formally discharged in Halifax in early 1918 after being found medically unfit. He died in November 1950. Jeremiah Jones was posthumously awarded the Canadian Forces Medallion for Distinguished Service on February 22, 2010.