Sheet Music from Canada’s Past: The Great War

By Emilie Gin

Did you know that you can view, download and print digitized versions of sheet music from LAC’s collection? A portion of the collection—including pieces from the First World War—has been digitized and can be accessed online from LAC’s library catalogue, Aurora. Here’s how to search special collections using Aurora.

Sheet Music from Canada’s Past provides a rich opportunity to dive deeper into the sounds and lyrics that punctuated the Canadian experience of the First World War or “the Great War.” Canadians at home and those fighting abroad found comfort, courage and a sense of patriotism in music.

What is sheet music?

Sheet music typically refers to individual popular music pieces that were printed on one or more folding sheets of paper. Both professional composers and amateur songwriters published and distributed sheet music for sale. These musical scores were unbound and inexpensive for publishers to produce and relatively affordable for consumers as well.

Sheet music played an important role in the musical lives of Canadians. While some upper class households of the early 20th century had phonographs or gramophones to play recorded music, many could not afford these new technologies. For many, the only way to enjoy music was to hear it live, either at a concert hall or by playing music themselves using sheet music.

Music and the national narrative

While music functioned as entertainment and a form of catharsis during the complicated and tumultuous time of the Great War, it was also a medium ripe for the promotion of a government-approved national narrative.

A colour drawing of a soldier with a rifle standing in front of the British flag, a war medal and a portrait of a H.W. Ellerton in uniform.

Cover art for “The Khaki Lads” (OCLC 25442742)

The War Measures Act of 1914 required that all publications (including sheet music and other forms of media such as novels and posters) be approved by the Department of Militia and Defence. Although it is difficult to assess the true impact of music and its messages, sheet music does gives us a window into the everyday life of Canadians during the First World War.

Canadian identity—The Maple Leaf and Britannia

Expressions of Canadian patriotism and allegiance to Britain were extremely prevalent themes in published sheet music during the First World War. This is no surprise—these types of pieces boosted morale by supporting a national narrative of unity through patriotism among soldiers and those at home. They instilled courage and reminded soldiers in the fray of their duty and purpose. These pieces presented a narrative of Canadian identity that was nearly exclusively Anglophone and still fervently tied to Britain.

A colour drawing of a soldier holding a rifle, with a green maple leaf in the background.

Cover art for “They Heard the Call of the Motherland (The Men of the Maple Leaf)” by Edward W. Miller (OCLC 123910582)

Following Canada’s involvement in important battles such as Vimy Ridge, the Somme and Passchendale, the First World War marked an important shift in Canada’s self-awareness from a colony to a nation. However, the Conscription Crisis of 1917 brought up significant and important questions about Canada’s ties to Britain, as well as about the relationship between French and Anglophone Canadians.

A black and white image where the words The King Will Be Proud of Canada are surrounded in a wreath of leaves and a beaver.

Cover art for “The King Will Be Proud of Canada: Canadian Military Song” by S.G. Smith and Frank Eborall (OCLC 123910650)

Here are a few examples of patriotic sheet music that can be downloaded from LAC’s collection:

Everyone’s doing their bit: The home front

Music was an important part of everyday life on the home front. Volunteerism was an especially common message found in popular sheet music. Knitting garments for soldiers, donating money, buying war bonds or volunteering for nursing efforts were all suggested activities that would contribute to the war effort. Pieces such as “He’s Doing His Bit, Are You?” reinforced citizens’ duties to Canada and the Crown, stating “If we cannot do the fighting—we can pay.”

A colour drawing of a soldier dressed in a tan uniform holding a rifle above his head.

Cover art for “He’s Doing His Bit, Are You? If We Cannot Do the Fighting—We Can Pay” by W. St.J. Miller (OCLC 1007491809)

Here are a few pieces that illustrate messages encountered by Canadians on the home front:

The Duality of Music in Wartime

Sheet music occupied somewhat of a double life in public consciousness in wartime. Acting as both entertainment and a form of governmental subliminal messaging, it is difficult to ascertain exactly how Canadians might have felt about popular music. Music likely offered a welcome break from atrocities and troubling news from the front, however there is no denying that sheet music publishers published materials that supported a government-approved national narrative.

An colour image comprised of a large ship, a dove, a woman welcoming the ship and a portrait of S. M. Hallam.

Cover art for “When Jack Comes Back” by Gordon V. Thompson (OCLC 1007593602)

Nevertheless, this note found on the cover illustration for the piece “The Canadian War Song: When Jack Comes Back,” by Gordon V. Thompson, surely rang true for many Canadians during the First World War:

                “We all need good music these war days. It makes the wheels of life turn smoothly and helps to dry the tears.”


Emilie Gin is a student acquisitions librarian working in the Published Heritage Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Inuit soldiers of the First World War: Lance Corporal John Shiwak

On the left of the graphic, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] in traditional regalia on horse. In the middle, Iggi and girl engaging in a “kunik”, a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide stands holding a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.

by Heather Campbell

A black and white photograph of a young Inuk man in a military uniform staring towards the camera.

Lance Corporal John Shiwak, First Royal Newfoundland Regiment, c. 1915. Courtesy of Veteran’s Affairs Canada

As we remember the sacrifices of the soldiers who fought in the First and Second World Wars, many of us are aware of the First Nations and Métis soldiers who fought for our country. But only a few of us may know about the Inuit soldiers who also fought alongside Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike. My great-great-uncle, Lance Corporal John Shiwak, was one of those men. Due to his skills as a hunter, he became a sniper—“one of the best in the British Army,” according to a fellow officer.

My uncle hailed from Nunatsiavut, the Inuit region in northern and central Labrador, which was part of the British Dominion of Newfoundland in 1914. When the call came for Newfoundland men to enlist, it also made its way up the north coast of Labrador to the Inuit men of these settlements. Inuit culture was, and still is, largely a non-confrontational culture. Many of these young Inuit men were encouraged to enlist by people in positions of authority, such as Dr. Harry Paddon, a physician for the International Grenfell Association. Regardless of their motivations, approximately fifteen Inuit men enlisted and set sail for England in the summer of 1915.

A black and white photograph of two Inuit women and an Inuit child standing beside a wooden house.

Hopedale, Newfoundland and Labrador, 1913. Credit: Edith S. Watson (e010791418)

What a culture shock it must have been for these men who, like my uncle, were all from tiny, isolated communities of a few hundred people at most. In addition to the size, hustle and bustle of European towns and cities, the worldview was very different. Although Inuit hunt for survival, we respect each life we take and are taught from a young age to not cause an animal pain or distress. When we take a shot, we want to be certain it is precise and effective. Especially during the early 20th century, when the cost and scarcity of ammunition meant that every bullet had to count. Sometimes that meant going home empty handed.

I imagine those Inuit soldiers felt exactly the same way when they discharged their firearms in war. It must have been a huge adjustment for them to fire in haste, knowing they may have wounded someone. However, they knew that the men on the other side of the trenches had to be stopped for others to live, just as animals in Labrador had to die for their families to live. I imagine it was the only way to reconcile themselves with the horrors of war.

A black and white photograph of trees and white houses with black roofs. In the background, there is a boat on the water.

Hudson’s Bay Company Buildings, Rigolet, Labrador, September 1926. Photo Credit: L.T. Burwash (a099501)

The story of my great-great-uncle Lance Corporal John Shiwak is unique because in addition to his traditional activities as a hunter, trapper and fisherman, he was also a writer, poet and artist. He wrote many letters from the front lines to his friend Lacey Amy, a journalist and author from Ontario. Mr. Amy wrote the article “An Eskimo Patriot” in the July 1918 issue of The Canadian Magazine, telling of their friendship and some of Uncle John’s feelings during the war.

The duration of the war was wearing on him. He had no close friends, none to keep warm the link with his distant home. In September he lamented: “I have no letters from home since July. There will be no more now till the ice breaks”. And in his last he longed again for the old hunting days. Labrador, that had never satisfied his ambitions, looked warm and friendly to him now… That was in mid-November. A month later an official envelope came to me. Inside was my last letter. On its face was the soulless stamp. “Deceased”.

Every year on Remembrance Day, our family would talk about Uncle John with a quiet reverence, remembering the deep grief experienced when he did not return home. I have yet to meet a Labradorian living elsewhere who does not long to return to Labrador. The connection that we have to the land is difficult to express. We see firsthand how the land provides us with everything that we need to survive. Many generations of history are embedded in not only the community, but also each fishing spot, trapline, woodcutting path, hunting ground and berry-picking spot. This creates a special bond between people and the land. To be away from Labrador is to be disconnected from a piece of ourselves.

When I first visited the Canadian War Museum, I was drawn to the recreation of a First World War trench. Visitors can walk through it and put themselves in the shoes of soldiers on the front lines. As I slowly made my way through the trench, it affected me deeply. Tears streamed down my face as I imagined Uncle John huddled in the mud, writing in his journal or sketching images of the land and animals, longing for the peace and solitude of his ancestral home. A home that he would never see again.

A black and white photograph of a cemetery behind a fence and small leafless trees near Cambrai, France. There is a house and a farm in the background.

Raillencourt British Cemetery near Cambrai. Shiwak was not buried in this cemetery, but was equally far from home. (a004409-v8)

During the battle of Cambrai on November 20, 1917, an exploding shell killed Uncle John and six other soldiers. Eighty-eight years later, in 2005, my cousin, Jason Sikoak (formerly written as Shiwak), took part in the Aboriginal Spiritual Journey. In this journey, a group of Indigenous people travelled to Europe to honour Indigenous soldiers. Jason told me that during this journey, Uncle John’s spirit visited him in a dream. We hope that he followed Jason back to the shores of Rigolet and that he is at peace.

A black and white photograph of ships in body of water. There are trees in the foreground of the photo.

A point of land seen from a distance with Hudson’s Bay Company buildings along the shoreline and boats anchored in the cove. Rigolet, c.1930. Photo credit: Fred. C. Sears (e010771588)

This blog is part of a series related to the Indigenous Documentary Heritage Initiatives. Learn how Library and Archives Canada (LAC) increases access to First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation collections and supports communities in the preservation of Indigenous language recordings.


Heather Campbell is an archivist in  the Public Services Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Recognition and Remembrance: A Métis soldier in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1917–1918

On the left of the graphic, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] in traditional regalia on horse. In the middle, Iggi and girl engaging in a “kunik”, a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide stands holding a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.

By David Horky

The Gabriel Dumont Institute (GDI) maintains a list of over 5,000 individuals whose names are engraved on the National Métis Veterans’ Memorial Monument in Batoche, Saskatchewan. Unveiled in 2014, the monument serves to recognize, remember and honour veterans from across the Métis Nation Homeland who have served Canada throughout history. The list of Métis veterans (PDF) provides the veteran’s name, service number, enlistment (the war or activity), and the location of their inscription on the monument (by column and row).

The GDI list has been invaluable for my own personal research about one of my distant relatives who fought and died in the First World War. I recently discovered Métis branches on my own family tree on the Métis Genealogy section of the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) website, and it was while doing this research that I found the digitized military service file of a distant relative, Private Arthur Carriere.

Searching the GDI list, I was proud to find an entry for a Private Arthur Carriere, confirming that he was indeed among the many names engraved on the National Métis Veterans’ Memorial Monument. I realized in the process that the service number on the GDI list—2293697—corresponded to the regimental number referring to the same soldier on the LAC website. This simple example demonstrates the great value of the GDI list to relatives and researchers interested in identifying Métis veterans from the 600,000 digitized service files in the Personnel Records of the First World War database.

Being able to access a digital copy of Arthur’s First World War service file—a tangible record of his involvement in the war—was a very personal way for me to pay my respects to one of my kin in remembrance of his service and sacrifice to our country. Despite the brevity of much of the information recorded on the various forms and documents in the file, they collectively provide a story, impressionistic to be sure, about Arthur’s brief and tragic wartime experience.

A typed page with the title, Particulars of Recruit, Drafted under Military Service Act, 1917. There are also stamps and handwriting on the page.

The Attestation Paper from Arthur Carriere’s digitized service file. (Library and Archives Canada, CEF 2293697)

Although there weren’t any explicit references to Arthur’s Métis heritage recorded in the file, I thought I could detect traces or clues in some of the records, especially the Attestation Paper, which provides basic information about his background at the time of his enlistment—age, occupation, residence, name and address of next of kin, etc. Born in 1893 in St. Adolphe, Manitoba, Arthur was 24 years old, single, and a farmer living in St. Vital, Manitoba at the time of his enlistment. His next of kin is his mother, A. (Angèle) Carriere, of Ste. Rose, Manitoba. The communities in particular struck my attention—all are Franco-Manitoban with strong and continuing Métis roots. The next of kin information is often very useful to trace Métis roots, as ethnic origin is not usually stated in the file.

The Attestation Paper also indicates the circumstances of Arthur’s enlistment—the most obvious being that he did not volunteer, but was drafted under the provisions of the Military Service Act. He reported for medical examination on November 14, 1917 in Fort Frances, Ontario, and was called up on January 11, 1918 in Winnipeg for active service as a private with the Lord Strathcona Horse (Royal Canadians), a regiment of mounted rifles.

A typed and handwritten form with the title “Casualty Form—Active Service.” The regimental number, rank and name of the soldier is typed underneath in blue ink along with handwritten notations.

The casualty form from Arthur Carriere’s digitized service file. (Library and Archives Canada, CEF 2293697)

The Casualty Form—Active Service record provides us with a very brief outline of Arthur’s activities following his enlistment. Leaving Halifax on April 15, 1918 on the S.S. Melita, the Lord Strathcona Horse (Royal Canadians) arrived in Liverpool, England on April 28, 1918. On August 20, 1918, shortly after arriving in France), Arthur joined the Canadian Corps Reinforcement Centre where troops were held before being sent to reinforce existing units. A couple of weeks later on September 13, 1918, he was transferred to the Royal Canadian Dragoons (RCD), a regiment assigned to the Canadian Cavalry Brigade but that mainly played an infantry role throughout the war. Less than a month after joining the RCD, Arthur’s life was tragically cut short. On October 10, 1918, he is simply reported as “killed in action.” This is one month and a day short of the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918 that ended the First World War.

A few more details about Arthur’s death is provided by another military record, the Circumstances of Death Registers, First World War, which the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF) used to report the cause of a soldier’s death, where and when it occurred, and the soldier’s final resting place. The entry for Private Arthur Carriere indicates that on October 10, 1918 “while acting as a medical orderly at Brigade Headquarters in Troisvilles, he was killed by an enemy shell.” The location of his final resting place is given as Grave 8, Plot 11, Row C in the Highland British Cemetery, recorded in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Register as being one mile south of Le Coteau, France.

Too many to list here, there are other First World War records held at LAC, as well as external sources of information that can provide valuable additional details about WWI soldiers and the various CEF units serving overseas in France and Flanders.

An index card listing the regimental number, rank, surname, Christian name, unit, theatre of war, date of service, remarks and latest address of a soldier. In the top right corner the letters “B” and “V” are written, with a blue checkmark through them.

The medal card from Arthur Carriere’s digitized service file. (Library and Archives Canada, CEF 2293697)

An index card with the name “Carriere, Pte. Arthur,” “649-C25592” and a checkmark written at the top. There is also a large “M” written in blue ink.

The Memorial Cross card from Arthur Carriere’s digitized service file. (Library and Archives Canada, CEF 2293697)

Arthur’s story does not end simply with his death. The medals he garnered, such as the British War Medal and the Victory Medal, indicated by crossed-out capital letters “B” and “V” on the medal card along with the Memorial Cross, Scroll and Plaque, were dutifully given by a grateful nation to his mother in mourning.

The Franco-Manitoban Métis community of St. Norbert also felt the loss of Arthur’s death. Shortly after the end of war, they erected the St. Norbert War Memorial in recognition of the ultimate sacrifice paid by Arthur and 12 other local residents.

In this light, one can see in Arthur’s story a tradition of recognition and remembrance of the services rendered to Canada by veterans of Métis Nation communities that stretches back from the memorial erected in St. Norbert at the end of the Great War all the way to the present-day National Métis Veterans’ Memorial Monument in Batoche. The GDI acknowledges that there are probably many unknown Métis veterans who deserve our recognition and remembrance. Using the GDI form, you can submit the names and military service information of additional Métis veterans to engrave on the National Métis Veterans Historic Monument and ensure that they receive the recognition and honour due them from Canada and the Métis Nation.


David Horky is a senior archivist at Library and Archives Canada, Winnipeg office.

Mighty Indigenous Warriors: From Egypt to the First World War

On the left of the graphic, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] in traditional regalia on horse. In the middle, Iggi and girl engaging in a “kunik”, a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide stands holding a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.

By Elizabeth Kawenaa Montour and Sara Chatfield

When First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation were recruited in 1914 to fight in the First World War, enlistees were not aware of the new reality of 20th-century warfare. As a prelude to the First World War, in 1884, approximately 56 Kanienkenha:ka (Mohawk), 30 Ojibway and 19 Métis men were recruited for Britain’s six-month Nile expedition in Egypt totalling 400 men. The men were chosen for their strength, endurance, and skill in handling boats and rafts—qualities that were needed to navigate up the numerous cataracts and rapids of the Nile River. They did not see active battle, as they arrived two days after the city of Khartoum, Sudan had fallen, and British Major Charles G. Gordon had been killed. The expedition returned with the loss of 16 men and stories of what they had seen. Along their journey on the Nile, they saw monolithic temples and statues carved out of hillsides at Abu Simbel, the Sphinx of Giza, the pyramids, exotic markets and Egyptian life in Cairo.

A black-and-white photograph of a large group of men standing in front of the Parliament buildings.

Canadian voyageurs in front of the Parliament Buildings, a detail from the “Canadian Nile Contingent,” 1884. (c002877)

Three decades later, their next involvement in an overseas military expedition was with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF) in the First World War. It was an opportunity for First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation soldiers to see the world, and to prove their courage and combat skills. Soldiers were facing a major change in combat style and warfare. The new reality of war involved the use of chemical warfare, machine guns, fighter aircraft, armoured vehicles, and trench warfare.

Our latest Co-lab challenge, Correspondence regarding First Nations veterans returning after the First World War, illustrates some Indigenous peoples’ experiences during the war, touches upon how their communities coped during their absence, and gives information about their lives after they returned home. These documents provide us with information that the Personnel Records of the First World War may not. They offer information such as what the solider planned to do after the war, if he owned land or farm animals, or if he was suited to farming. There is also information about whether the soldier suffered any lingering disabilities, who they lived with, and if they had any dependants.

Created by the former Department of Indian Affairs, these records are unique in that an overseeing federal “Indian Agent” included personal information and comments on the returning First Nations soldiers. In contrast, this was not the case for non-Indigenous soldiers, as no similar sets of records exist for the rest of the CEF.

A page from the “Indian Agent’s Office,” Chippewa Hill, Saugeen Agency, February 14, 1919.

Document from RG10 Vol 6771 file 452-30 sent to Duncan Campbell Scott from T.A. Stout on February 14, 1919, providing information about John Besito. (Image found on Canadiana)

This personal information became part of the federal government files in Ottawa. The records are also unique in that the “Indian Agents” delved into the soldier’s post-service life. The information that was collected included gratuitous private information and personal judgements about the veterans and the civilian lives they returned to. For example, the “Indian Agent’s Office” notes dated February 1919 for Private John Besito from Saugeen Agency, Ontario, state, “He has a location of fifty acres in the Reserve. He has a house and some improvements on his location.”

As well as administrative information, such as CEF regimental numbers and membership in First Nation agencies and bands, these records also give us genealogical information. For example, the names of three deceased soldiers are listed in a letter to the Department of Indian Affairs dated February 12, 1919, written by the “Indian Agent” of the Griswold Agency in Manitoba. The letter states that the deceased soldiers are from Oak River and Oak Lake Reserves. The letter also includes the CEF regimental number of one of the deceased, Private John Taylor, and that the Department of Indian Affairs paid a pension to his wife and two children. Other correspondence informs us that Private Gilbert Moore, who was killed in action on March 24, 1918, left behind parents in poor circumstances and that they applied for a pension; and that Private Thomas Kasto left a mother who received a pension.

A black-and-white studio portrait of a First World War soldier in uniform and holding a rifle.

Photograph of Canadian Expeditionary Forces soldier Michael Ackabee. (e005176082)

As well as providing information about the soldiers who fought with the CEF, these files make reference to women in First Nation communities who provided funds to help with the war effort to organizations such as the Red Cross, the Girls Overseas Comfort Club, and the Canadian Patriotic Fund. Women in the communities knitted socks and made shirts to add to the “comfort boxes” that were mailed to the men overseas. They also fundraised by making beadwork, woven baskets, and quilts to sell at box socials and fairs.

Indigenous soldiers who survived the war often returned home changed, both positively and negatively. Sapper Peter Taylor, a Kahnawake soldier, suffered the rest of his life with complications from mustard gas poisoning until he passed away in 1955. Private Tom Longboat, the Olympic long distance runner from Six Nations of the Grand River reserve, returned home from his duty overseas in France to find his wife had remarried after receiving word that he had been killed.

A black-and-white photograph of two men in First World War military uniforms smiling and buying a newspaper from a young boy. The man on the right is accepting a newspaper from the boy and giving him money in exchange.

Private Tom Longboat, the Onondaga long distance runner, buying a newspaper from a French boy, June 1917. (a001479)

Many who returned home were affected mentally and physically. We give our gratitude for their sacrifices and service, and they will be forever acknowledged, honoured, and respected.

This blog is part of a series related to the Indigenous Documentary Heritage Initiatives. Learn how Library and Archives Canada (LAC) increases access to First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation collections and supports communities in the preservation of Indigenous language recordings.


Elizabeth Kawenaa Montour is a project archivist and Sara Chatfield is a project manager in the Exhibitions and Online Content Division of the Public Service Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

The ship Bellas, a prize of war in 1914

By Johanne Noël

The Prize Court in Canada

In 1914, at the outbreak of the First World War, the Prize Court had not sat in Canada since the War of 1812. The Prize Court hears cases in times of war concerning the capture of enemy vessels or vessels belonging to enemy countries. Depending on the era, these cases might require taking into consideration Admiralty Orders, Royal Proclamations, Orders-in-Council, Acts of Parliament, and written and unwritten international treaties and laws pertaining to maritime wars. The objective is to capture enemy vessels on Canadian territory without the country becoming embroiled in disputes with other countries.

The procedure

During international conflicts, the merchant vessels of enemies might be captured. The captain or the first mate, or both, would be interrogated under oath before the registrar. The parties would then be heard before the judge in open court, where exhibits of evidence were read out and recorded on file. If the vessel was proved to belong to British, allied or neutral forces, it would be released or restored to the original owners.

Should the property be deemed as “good and lawful prize,” it would be transferred to the prize master, who would auction it off. An enemy merchant vessel would normally be granted at least one grace day to leave a Canadian port and thus avoid being captured as a prize of war.

The capture of the Bellas in 1914

On August 4, 1914, an imperial decree brought Britain and Canada into the First World War. The Bellas, a merchant ship flying the German flag, had been docked in the port of Rimouski since July 29, 1914, unloading a shipment of timber from Portugal. It was the only enemy ship on Canadian territory when war was declared. In fact, this particular case led the Prize Court to revise its procedures, which dated back to the 19th century.

At the port of Rimouski, a Writ of Summons was served to the ship’s captain by an officer of the court on August 7, 1914. The captain declared that he had seen the original and been given a copy.

On August 10, the ship was brought to the port of Québec by Commander Atwood of the Department of Naval Service, and it was left in the custody of the collector of customs at the port. Atwood had not received the Writ of Summons issued in Rimouski, so he produced a new one upon taking control of the ship. The collector of customs, unaware that a first writ had been issued, took the ship’s papers and sent them to Ottawa, where they were translated from German and recorded on file.

On September 16, the Deputy Minister of Justice issued a Writ of Summons through the Exchequer Court and submitted it to those responsible for the Bellas in Québec on September 22. This writ brought case No. 1 before the Prize Court, under the Exchequer Court. The writ was published in the Montreal Gazette and the Quebec Chronicle by the registrar of the court. The ship was ordered to be detained by the bailiff until further orders issued by the court. On December 15, 1914, a second court order signed by Judge Cassels extended the detention period.

At the time that the ship was seized, the navigation season was closed at Québec. The ship and its cargo would remain docked at the port of Québec, pending a decision.

Typed document with the title “In the Exchequer Court of Canada.” Two $1 and one 50¢ Canadian postage stamps were affixed in the lower-left margin of the document to attest that the fees for this document had been paid to the court.

Writ of Summons for the Bellas, September 16, 1914. The bailiff would go on board the ship with the original writ and pin it to the mizzen mast for a few minutes, then replace it with a duly certified copy before leaving the ship. (e011312628)

Typed document with the title “In the Exchequer Court of Canada” and a red string in the upper-right corner. It features two signatures.

Writ of Summons for the Bellas, September 16, 1914. Note indicating that this Writ of Summons was served on September 22, 1914. (e011312628)

Typed document with the title “In the Exchequer Court of Canada No. 1.” It features a blue ink stamp mark dated September 24, 1914, and a signature.

Writ of Summons for the Bellas, September 16, 1914. Note indicating that this Writ of Summons was served on September 22, 1914. (e011312628)

Was the ship Portuguese or German?

In his testimony before the court, the captain of the Bellas, Conrad Bollen, acknowledged having left the port of Oporto (known today as Porto) in Portugal on June 24, 1914. He received no communication regarding the Bellas between the port of Oporto and Rimouski in Quebec. At the time of its departure from Oporto, the ship was owned by J. Wimmer and Company, a company registered in Germany. On August 7, a telegram from the Wimmer company informed the captain of the sale of the ship. A purchase agreement had been concluded bona fide (in good faith) while the ship was at sea.

Document written in German. The document features a diagonal watermark from left to right that reads Deutsches Reich (German Empire). The document is titled Deutsches Reich, under which is featured the coat of arms of the German Empire and the mention Schiffs-Zertifikat.

The certificate of registration of the Bellas states that its home port is Hamburg, Germany, and that it is owned by German shipowner Johannes Alfred Eduard Wimmer (e011312630)

Document typed and handwritten in German.

The certificate of registration of the Bellas states that its home port is Hamburg, Germany, and that it is owned by German shipowner Johannes Alfred Eduard Wimmer (e011312630)

Document written in German. The document features a diagonal watermark from left to right that reads Deutsches Reich (German Empire). The document is titled Deutsches Reich, under which is featured the coat of arms of the German Empire and the mention Musterrolle der Mannschaft des deutschen Bellas.

The muster roll of the Bellas lists the crew members who boarded the ship at the port of Lisbon as of August 28, 1912. It states that the ship departed the port of Oporto in Portugal for Rimouski in Canada. (e011312629)

Document written in German. The document features a diagonal watermark from left to right that reads Deutsches Reich (German Empire).

The muster roll of the Bellas lists the crew members who boarded the ship at the port of Lisbon as of August 28, 1912. It states that the ship departed the port of Oporto in Portugal for Rimouski in Canada. (e011312629)

The Portuguese consulate in Canada tried to regularize the status of the ship by obtaining documents attesting the certification of the ship under Portuguese flag authority, which would have enabled it to return to Portugal. A document written in Portuguese explained that the sale had been concluded and that the new owner, Orlando de Mello do Rogo, had taken possession of the ship on July 3. The document is dated November 10, 1914, three months after the seizure of the ship. This claim was rejected and the ship was considered German, thus making it an enemy ship subject to seizure.

The Bellas in Her Majesty’s service during the war

On July 17, 1915, the ship was requisitioned for imperial service during the war. On the same day, a requisition notice was issued as well as a commission for the evaluation of the ship and its cargo. The ship was used to transport timber during the war, which it survived. The ship’s initial timber cargo was sold for over £1,000. The former owners did not submit any claims for the merchandise.

References

Prize Court rules

Library and Archives Canada, RG13, vol. 1926, file 1916-244

Library and Archives Canada, RG13, vol. 1925, file 1914-1239


Johanne Noël is an archivist in the Archives Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Hockey and the First World War

By Ellen Bond

In the early 1900s, playing hockey could lead to fighting for your country. The skills that made you a good hockey player—strength, endurance, patience, toughness—were desirable to the army. In its rough-and-tumble way, hockey was seen as a way to prepare yourself for war. The best soldiers were often hockey players and many players volunteered to fight in the First World War.

Allan McLean “Scotty” Davidson was one of those volunteers. Born on March 6, 1891, in Kingston, Ontario, Davidson began playing hockey with the Kingston Junior Frontenacs. As their captain, he helped the team win the Ontario Hockey Association Junior Championship in 1910 and 1911. The next year, Davidson moved to Calgary to play for the Calgary Athletics’ senior team. They won the Alberta Cup in 1911–1912 but lost their challenge to the Winnipeg Victorias for the Allan Cup (Canadian Senior Championship).

In 1912, Davidson started playing professionally for the Toronto Blueshirts (now Toronto Maple Leafs) in the National Hockey Association. Davidson was the team’s captain and leading goal scorer the next year and helped win Toronto’s first Stanley Cup in 1914. In his two seasons with the Blueshirts, Davidson scored 46 goals in 44 games. He could skate backwards faster than most players could skate forwards, according to Edward Allan, a hockey writer for the Toronto Mail and Empire newspaper.

Black-and-white photo of the Toronto Blueshirts in 1914.

Toronto Blueshirts, Stanley Cup Champions of 1914. Scotty Davidson is in the centre of the front row. Photo courtesy of the McCord Museum.

As a star hockey player, Davidson had all the skills the army was looking for. He may have been the first professional hockey player to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF), joining in September 1914. Scotty volunteered to be a “bomb thrower”, lobbing grenades at enemy troops. Some newspapers carried stories about Davidson in the army and described his bravery in the face of danger.

Scotty Davidson died in the field on June 16, 1915. His CEF service file states that Davidson “was killed instantly by a shell falling in the trench. He was practically blown to pieces.” A newspaper account of his death claimed that Davidson would have earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal or the Victoria Cross if he had survived the battle. Fellow soldier and Kingston resident, Captain George Richardson said Davidson was one of the bravest men in his company. He was fearless, willing and ready to save his comrades at every opportunity. Davidson’s name is memorialized on the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France.

A page from the service file of Scotty Davidson describing how he was killed in action.

A page from Davidson’s digitized service file describes how he was killed in action (Library and Archives Canada, CEF 280738)

Scotty Davidson sounds like the type of athlete I would have loved to watch play hockey. He was a smooth skater, a goal scorer and a leader. In 1925, Maclean’s magazine named Scotty the top right-winger in its all-star team of the best hockey players. An opposing coach, Ernie Hamilton, said about Scotty’s shot, “I never saw such hard shooting.” The roots of our freedom are founded on the lives of people such as Scotty. He was a glorious athlete whose life was cut far too short.

Scotty Davidson was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1950. Scotty’s sacrifice is honoured by the Canadian Virtual War Memorial.


Ellen Bond is a project assistant with the Online Content Team at Library and Archives Canada.

1918 Spanish flu epidemic

By Marcelle Cinq-Mars

Toward the end of the First World War, as Canadian troops were involved in Canada’s Hundred Days, a new enemy—even tougher than the Kaiser’s Germany—attacked soldiers and civilians alike, ignoring borders.

In just a few months, the 1918 influenza epidemic spread around most of the world, reaching pandemic proportions. It became known as the “Spanish flu” because Spanish journalists, not subject to wartime censorship, were the first to report publicly on the epidemic in Europe.

Historians are divided on the precise origin of the 1918 influenza outbreak. However, they do agree that the rapid spread of the disease was hastened by the presence of large numbers of soldiers in military camps, which became excellent incubators for the virus. Soldiers returning to their home countries intensified the spread of the disease.

The first serious flu cases in Canada occurred toward the end of summer 1918, while the First World War was still raging. Port authorities in Halifax and Québec, where ships docked bringing home the wounded and the ill, noted the first cases and warned federal health officials about the situation.

Federal authorities quickly carried out medical examinations of passengers on ships travelling from Europe. They quarantined people who showed signs of influenza. Essentially, the officials tried the same measures that were used in the 19th century to deal with cholera epidemics. However, sailing ships had given way to ocean liners carrying thousands of soldiers to the war and back. Canada’s four quarantine stations could not halt the progress of the epidemic, despite the best efforts of the doctors trying to contain it.

By autumn 1918, influenza was racing through the population like wildfire. Hospitals quickly became overcrowded and were hard pressed to receive more patients. Many people were therefore cared for at home or in temporary facilities, such as mobile military field hospitals. Overworked medical personnel were also hit by the flu themselves. This meant that relatives or friends were often called on to care for the sick, which contributed to the spread of the disease.

Sketch showing the various components of a mobile hospital.

Plan of a mobile hospital proposed by the firm I.H. Bogart & Son of Boston in the United States, RG29 vol. 300 (e011165378-045)

However, the number of deaths was soon growing so rapidly that there was even a waiting list for… cemetery burials. Across the country, health officials put regulations in place to try to stop the spread of the devastating outbreak. Schools, theatres, libraries and, in short, almost all public places—sometimes even churches—closed their doors. Many people wore masks to try to protect themselves, and anyone who dared to spit was strongly reprimanded. This was because, despite the fact that the epidemic could not be stopped, people knew it was influenza and the virus spread from person to person through the air.

Black-and-white photo of three men wearing hygienic masks.

Men wearing masks during the Spanish flu epidemic (a025025)

Soldiers returning to Canada at the end of the war found their families decimated. This was the case for soldier Arthur-Joseph Lapointe, father of Jean Lapointe, a retired senator. In his memoirs, Souvenirs et impressions de ma vie de soldat, 1916-1919, he recounts that on his return home, his father, looking deeply sombre, delivered very sad news:

“We did not want to tell you the extent of the misfortune that has befallen us, because we did not know when you might be coming back, and it would have made your life unbearable. A terrible flu epidemic took three of your brothers and two sisters in the space of nine days.” [translation]

Over several tragic months, the Spanish flu claimed the lives of more than 20 million people around the world, including some 50,000 in Canada—almost as many as died in the four years of fighting during the First World War.

Federal health officials were heavily criticized for implementing outdated and inadequate quarantine measures, and for their lack of vision and leadership. After taking stock of its ineffectual actions during the influenza pandemic, the federal government created the Department of Health in 1919.

Records related to this tragedy can be found at Library and Archives Canada. More information is available in our thematic guide on the Spanish flu epidemic.


Marcelle Cinq-Mars is a senior archivist in Military Affairs, Government Archives Division, at Library and Archives Canada.

Soldiers at the Front, Workers in Factories

By Lucie Paquet

In August 1914, countries in Europe started a war that was expected to be over quickly. Like many Western countries, Canada mobilized and sent troops to fight on the Allied side during the First World War. The French army, largely deprived of heavy industry and mining resources, soon ran out of military materiel, which led to a marked increase in demand for all kinds of products. So from 1914 to 1918, Canada took action to address this situation by requisitioning nearly 540 industrial facilities across the country, from Halifax to Vancouver. Steel factories deemed essential by the government were converted to manufacture war materiel. To support the army, their activities were closely supervised by the Imperial Munitions Board, which appointed and sent more than 2,300 government inspectors to factories to supervise, test and evaluate the production of military goods. It was under these circumstances that The Steel Company of Canada (now Stelco) converted a large part of its operations to produce materiel for war.

Handwritten list of orders sent by the Imperial Munitions Board, in black text with some red underlining, listing the number of shells produced by various industrial facilities in Canada.

Handwritten list of orders sent by the Imperial Munitions Board detailing the number of shells produced by various industrial facilities in Canada. (e011198346)

However, this change led to problems. Since the factories were not prepared to manufacture weapons quickly and to ensure consistent high quality, orders were delivered late and, very often, the equipment was defective. Stelco faced this reality and experienced these difficulties.

First page (pink) of a letter written in September 1916 by Montréal plant manager Ross H. McMaster to Stelco president Robert Hobson describing problems in producing and delivering shells.

Letter written in September 1916 by Montréal plant manager Ross H. McMaster to Stelco president Robert Hobson describing problems in producing and delivering shells. (e011198359-001)

Stelco’s biggest challenge involved the supply of raw materials. First, these had to be found and extracted; then the raw ore had to be transported from the mines to the plants; the necessary machinery and equipment had to be acquired and the new blast furnaces put into operation; and, finally, workers had to be trained for each stage of the manufacturing process. With its newly electric-powered mill for making steel bars, Stelco was able to start production quickly. It hired women to replace the hundred workers sent to the front, and it bought mining properties in Pennsylvania and Minnesota to supply coal and iron to its factories. Stelco also renovated and modernized its plants.

Table listing, in blue and red text, Stelco’s capital expenditures for the construction of new plants and the acquisition of additional equipment.

Statement prepared by Stelco outlining capital expenditures for the construction of new plants and the acquisition of additional equipment (e011198354)

Transportation systems were built to carry raw metals to Stelco’s processing plants in Montréal, Brantford, Gananoque and Hamilton. At the time, most major Canadian cities were linked by the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railway lines, to transport soldiers and military goods.

Fall 1916 was a turning point in the steel industry, after two years of experimentation and production. As war continued to rage in Europe, metallurgists and industrialists decided to hold strategic meetings. The first meeting of the Metallurgical Association was held in Montréal on October 25, 1916, to discuss scientific advances in manufacturing military equipment. On that occasion, Stelco held an exhibition to showcase its products.

 

Two printed pages from the Canadian Mining Institute Bulletin with black-and-white photographs of shells produced by Stelco.

Photos in the Canadian Mining Institute Bulletin showing shells produced by Stelco. (e011198345)

In 1917, Stelco built two new plants in Hamilton. In addition to artillery pieces, steel panels were also manufactured for the construction of ships, rail cars, vehicles and aircraft parts.

As the war intensified, the demand for munitions increased dramatically. Production levels rose, prompting a reorganization of the world of work. To speed up production, workers were now paid wages based on the time allocated to manufacture each part. Bonuses were also awarded to the fastest workers.

Table showing the average number of minutes that workers spent on each step in manufacturing a 9.2-inch shell part, as well as the estimated number of minutes normally required to complete each task.

Table showing the average number of minutes that workers spent on each step in manufacturing a 9.2-inch shell part, as well as the estimated number of minutes normally required to complete each task. (e011198358)

Black-and-white photograph showing the interior of a munitions and barbed-wire factory in 1916.

View of the interior of a munitions and barbed-wire factory in 1916. (e011198375)

The war effort created a strong sense of brotherhood and patriotism, and workers put their demands on hold. A message from the superintendent of the shell department, delivered on January 4, 1917, clearly shows the pressure in the factories and the crucial role of the workers.

Handwritten letter written by superintendent E. Frankland to employees of Stelco’s shell department. (e011198367; a French version of this letter is also available: e011198368)

More than a hundred workers from the steel mills would fight in the trenches; most of them were sent to France. This list, dated November 16, 1918, shows the name and rank of each worker who went to fight, the name of his battalion or regiment, and his last known home base.

Four typewritten pages listing Stelco workers who went to fight in the First World War (1914–1918).

List of Stelco workers who went to fight in the First World War (1914–1918). (e011198365)

Fundraising campaigns were organized during the war to help soldiers and their families. Workers contributed a portion of their wages to the Canadian Patriotic Fund.

Cover page, in black and white, and pages 23 and 24, in black and red, of a record of contributions to the Canadian Patriotic Fund.

Cover page and pages 23 and 24 of a record of contributions to the Canadian Patriotic Fund. (e0111983867 and e011198385)

The work of factory workers was very demanding. Although the tasks required a high degree of precision, they were repetitive and had to be performed swiftly on the production line.

Left, a black-and-white photograph of workers on a production line for shells. Right, a blue Imperial Munitions Board form for progress achieved by a production line in a given week.

Left, Stelco workers on a production line for 9.2-inch shells. Right, an Imperial Munitions Board form for progress achieved by a production line in a given week. (e011198374 and e011198362)

The products were heavy and dangerous to handle. The workers melted the steel in the blast furnaces and then poured it into rectangular moulds. With tongs, they removed the glowing hot steel ingots and placed them on wagons. The ingots were then transported to the forge, where they were rolled into round bars according to the dimensions required to form the various shell tubes.

Black-and-white photograph of a worker using long tongs on a glowing hot steel ingot.

Reproduction of a photograph of a worker using long tongs to remove a glowing hot 80-pound steel ingot from a 500-tonne press. (e01118391)

Black-and-white photograph of workers posing beside hundreds of shell cylinders.

Stelco workers pose proudly beside hundreds of shell cylinders made from molten steel. (e01118373)

A large quantity of steel bars was produced to manufacture 9.2-inch, 8-inch, 6.45-inch and 4.5-inch shells.

Black-and-white photograph of the interior of a shell factory in Montréal on May 12, 1916.

View of the inside of Stelco’s shell factory on Notre-Dame Street, Montréal, May 12, 1916. (e01118377)

In 1915, Stelco’s plants in Brantford, Ontario, and on Notre-Dame Street in Montréal forged some 119,000 shells. The combined production of the two plants increased to 537,555 shells in 1917, then reached 1,312,616 shells in 1918. Under great pressure, Canadian factories continued to process millions of tonnes of steel into military materiel until the Armistice ending the First World War was signed in November 1918.


Lucie Paquet is a senior archivist in the Science, Governance and Political Division at Library and Archives Canada

Sergeant Hugh Cairns, VC

By Ashley Dunk

In Library and Archives Canada’s Victoria Cross blog series, we profile Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients on the 100th anniversary of the day they performed heroically in battle, for which they were awarded the Victoria Cross. Today, we remember the last Canadian soldier of the First World War to receive the Victoria Cross, Sergeant Hugh Cairns, for his bravery at Valenciennes, France.

A black-and-white photograph of a seated soldier in uniform.

Sergeant Hugh Cairns, VC, undated (a006735)

Born in Ashington, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, on December 4, 1896, Hugh Cairns and his family immigrated to Canada and settled in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Cairns was a plumber before the war. Hugh and his older brother Albert Cairns both enlisted on August 2, 1915 and August 11, 1915, respectively, in Saskatoon. They both joined the 65th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), which was absorbed into the 46th Battalion on June 30, 1916 On September 10, 1918, Albert died of head wounds caused by a shell.

Hugh Cairns served in France, proving his determination and resilience as a soldier on several occasions. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal on August 25, 1917 as a private. He was promoted to corporal in the summer of 1918, then to sergeant three months later.

A black-and-white photograph of a uniformed soldier, facing away from the camera and standing in the middle of the bricks and rubble of a destroyed building. A cart with a large wheel is on the left.

A Canadian post in Valenciennes, November 1918 (a003355)

Through October and into November 1918, the Canadians continued their assault on the German lines. Despite German efforts to stubbornly defend their retreating lines, the Allies’ persistent offensives resulted in heavy German losses, the capture of thousands of prisoners, as well as dozens of kilometres in ground gained. By November 1, 1918, the Germans were clinging to the city of Valenciennes and maintaining their stronghold near Marly.

The push into Valenciennes from the 46th Battalion’s “A” Company included an assault on a two-platoon frontage with one support platoon. Cairns was leading the support wave platoon. The Canadian barrage opened at 5:15 a.m. and the platoons began to move toward their objectives. After advancing about 500 yards, they were met with heavy machine gun fire from their left. The platoons pushed on, squashing the resistance from the German machine guns, capturing prisoners and weapons along the way.

A black-and-white photograph of abandoned buildings, crumbling and filled with holes. The ground is covered in debris, mud, and rocks. Four soldiers are walking away from the camera, having crossed an expanse on a bridge made of debris.

Canadians entering Valenciennes over an improvised bridge, November, 1918 (a003376)

As the advance inched along, the Company was held up by very heavy machine gun fire. Under a spray of bullets, Cairns and other soldiers moved to outflank the gun. Crawling on their hands and knees, under cover from friendly rapid machine gun fire, the party succeeded in closing in on the battery. They seized 3 field guns, a trench mortar, 7 machine guns, and over 50 prisoners. Cairns went on to lead his men to capture the railway and establish a post.

As Cairns was heading off to examine a nearby factory, a German soldier opened direct fire on him with an automatic rifle from a nearby post. Cairns, wielding a Lewis gun, made a run for the post of German soldiers, and fired. He killed and wounded many German soldiers in his assault as they ran for a nearby courtyard.

A black-and-white photograph of an ornate railway station in the background, crumpled and heaving, with broken windows and missing walls. The ground is cut diagonally with railway tracks, flooded with water, and littered with debris, planks of wood, and assorted rubble.

The flooded railway station at Valenciennes, November, 1918 (a003452)

Later, Cairns and another soldier were patrolling the city when they entered a courtyard and found 50 German soldiers. While in the process of taking them prisoner and confiscating their weapons, a German officer grabbed for his pistol and shot Cairns through the stomach. In retaliation, Cairns opened fire, killing or wounding about 30 German soldiers. The would-be German prisoners, realizing they needed to fight for their lives, descended upon Cairns and opened fire. Cairns was shot through the wrist, but continued to fire his Lewis gun at the enemy. He was again shot through the hand, nearly taking it off, and breaking his Lewis gun. Cairns threw the useless gun in the face of a German soldier who was firing at him, knocking him over. With his remaining strength, Cairns staggered to a gateway and collapsed, where he was carried off by his comrades.

A black-and-white photograph of a group of people standing in front of a building with an open door. Women wearing wide white hats are shaking the hands of soldiers in uniforms. On both ends of the photograph, groups of civilian men and women are smiling into the camera. Someone in the back of the group is holding the French flag.

French nuns and civilians in Valenciennes greet the first Canadians entering the town, November, 1918 (a003578)

Cairns’ heroic maneuvers and self-sacrifice are detailed in the 46th Battalion’s war diaries for November 1918 (pp. 21, 22, 23), where he is mentioned by name throughout the whole account. He is one of several names given special recognition for his actions in Valenciennes. His efforts and bravery helped his company achieve their objectives. By the end of the day, the Canadian Corps captured approximately 1,800 German soldiers and killed more than 800 men. The Canadian losses including Cairns were 80 killed, and approximately 300 wounded.

A black-and-white photograph of a woman in a white blouse with her arms around a soldier in uniform, kissing his cheek.

French civilian woman kissing a Canadian soldier after the Canadians cleared the Germans out of Valenciennes, November 1918 (a003451)

Cairns died of his wounds on November 2, 1918 and was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously.

Cairns is buried at Auberchicourt British Cemetery in Nord, France.

Several dedications have been made in his memory, honouring his gallantry. The town of Valenciennes renamed one of its main streets to Avenue du Sergent Cairns. His parents travelled to France to attend the civic ceremony held on July 25, 1936. Back in Canada, an elementary school is named after him, Hugh Cairns V. C. School, in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The 38 Combat Engineer Regiment armoury in Saskatoon bears his name, Sgt. Hugh Cairns VC Armoury.

His Victoria Cross is on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Ontario.

Library and Archives Canada holds the digitized service file of Sergeant Hugh Cairns.


Ashley Dunk is a project assistant in the Online Content Division of the Public Services Branch of Library and Archives Canada.

Private Thomas Ricketts, VC

By Ashley Dunk

In Library and Archives Canada’s Victoria Cross blog series, we profile Canada’s Victoria Cross recipients on the 100th anniversary of the day they performed heroically in battle, for which they were awarded the Victoria Cross. Today, we remember Newfoundland’s Private Thomas Ricketts and his selfless bravery demonstrated at Ledeghem, Belgium.

A black-and-white copy of a newspaper clipping. “Proclamation!” is written in large, capital letters at the top of the clipping.

Seeking recruits to the 1st Newfoundland Regiment, The Daily News, August 22, 1914 (Source: The Rooms)

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Newfoundland was a dominion of the British Empire. In order to support the British Army and war effort, Newfoundland recruited a volunteer army, garnering enough men to outfit and sustain a battalion throughout the entirety of the war. Two additional battalions were later added: the 2nd Reserve Battalion, mostly stationed at Ayr, Scotland, and the 3rd Battalion, responsible for recruiting and training in St. John’s. In 1917, in recognition of their courageous actions and heroic participation during the battles of Ypres and Cambrai in France, King George V bestowed the regiment with the prefix “Royal”.

A sepia photograph of a soldier in uniform with a Victoria Cross and a Croix de Guerre pinned to his chest.

Private Thomas Ricketts, VC, undated (Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia)

 

Born in Middle Arm, White Bay, Newfoundland, on April 15, 1901, to John and Amelia (Cassels) Ricketts, Thomas Ricketts enlisted with the 1st Battalion, Newfoundland Regiment, on September 2, 1916. He was underage—only 15 years old—when he volunteered, but claimed to be 18 on his attestation papers. His deception went unnoticed and he was accepted. He embarked for England with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and during his service was shot in the leg in November 1917. Ricketts returned to his regiment in the spring of 1918, after recovering.

On October 14, 1918, the 1st Battalion was participating in the advance from Ledeghem, east of Ypres, in Belgium. The regiment had been fighting through rolling smoke and mist to push back the Germans and capture enemy pillboxes and weapons. By mid-morning, the mist had burned off, revealing a stream, the Wulfdambeek. Forced to cross it, the regiment was exposed to enemy fire. They suffered heavy casualties and soon after were pinned down by enemy shelling. Unable to call on their own artillery fire to combat the German shelling, the only solution was to disable the enemy battery and weapons and to kill the enemy soldiers.

Ricketts volunteered to run forward with his section commander, toting a Lewis machine gun in an effort to outflank the battery. They rushed forward in short advances under heavy machine gun fire, and soon ran out of ammunition, still 300 yards away from the battery. The Germans saw an opportunity to move up their gun teams to take out the advancing pair while they were vulnerable. Ricketts realized the situation and retreated 100 yards under debilitating machine gun fire to retrieve more ammunition. Upon his return with additional resources, he adeptly handled the Lewis gun, driving the enemy and gun teams back to a nearby farm. With the threats removed, the platoon advanced without casualties and captured four field guns, four machine guns, and eight prisoners. Later, a fifth gun was intercepted and captured.

A black-and-white photograph of a soldier in uniform, angled away from the camera.

Private Thomas Ricketts, undated (Source: National Defence)

As recounted in the London Gazette:

By his presence of mind in anticipating the enemy intention and his utter disregard for personal safety, Pte. Ricketts secured the further supply of ammunition which directly resulted in these important captures and undoubtedly saved many lives.

London Gazette, no. 31108, p. 309, January 6, 1919

Ricketts survived the remainder of the war and was discharged on June 17, 1919, for demobilization. He was invested with the Victoria Cross by King George V on January 19, 1919, at Sandringham, England, when he was only 17 years old, the youngest Victoria Cross army combatant recipient. He returned to Newfoundland a war hero. Upon his return home, he returned to school and later became a pharmacist. In addition to his Victoria Cross, Ricketts was also awarded the French Croix de Guerre with Golden Star for his gallantry.

He died in St. John’s, Newfoundland, on March 21, 1967.

Rickett’s Victoria Cross and Croix de Guerre is on display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Ontario.

Library and Archives Canada holds the digitized service file for Private Thomas Ricketts.

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Ashley Dunk was a project assistant in the Online Content Division of the Public Services Branch of Library and Archives Canada.