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WWI History with Author Dan Black at the BCHS: 20,000 of Canada’s Underage Youth Went to War

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--September 6, 2014.

On June 21, The Brome County Historical Society (BCHS) in Knowlton held a special event with author Dan Black of Ottawa, organized by BCHS Board member Joanne Croghan. He spoke to a local audience about the underage soldiers of the First World War, based on his recent book: ‘’Old Enough to Fight: Canada’s Boy Soldiers in the First World War’’.

Mr. Black is Editor of Legion Magazine and co-author of this unique book with John Boileau, a retired army colonel in Halifax, Nova Scotia. These two Canadians wrote about the forgotten Canadian youth who bravely enlisted and fought as soldiers in the trenches during the Great War.

Black described the process by which the authors brought the stories to life through access to letters written by the boys themselves and by their parents, which depicted their emotions and experiences of war. Some 15,000 to 20,000 underage boys were part of this Canadian military and social history, and many never returned home.

Black quoted English essayist William Hazlitt, “no young man believes he shall ever die” and the book is written in memory of the boy soldiers who fought and died for Canada.

Black went on to highlight specific soldiers and their memoirs. On the question of what motivated youth to enlist, he read, “I was just a young boy. But we knew what we had to do so we just went ahead and did it”.

As many under-aged sons enrolled against their parents’ wishes, one wrote “goodbye Mother, forgive me.” Lying about their age got them past the recruitment process, often despite their height, as birth certificates were not required. Nor did parents have the right to take these boys out of the army, once enlisted after mid-1915.

Recruitment posters were also influential, asking young men to fight with their chums and emphasizing the need for more men on the front, “won’t YOU answer the call.” “Men wanted at once” read the poster for Montreal’s Black Watch, which had three battalions.

Roy Henley enlisted in Toronto at age thirteen as a trumpeter and was known to have said, “they were looking for bodies..if they looked in one ear and could not see through, then you were in.”
Young soldiers even known to be only eleven-years old fought in all the major battles on the Western Front and including Second Ypres, Festubert, Givenchy, Mount Sorrel, the Somme, Passchendaele, Vimy Ridge and Cambrai.

Black recounted the news about Private Willie Dailey who at fourteen-years enlisted with the army and left Gananoque, Ontario in 1915. Besides writing letters home, he had a gift for sketching what he saw. He was a bugler at the bloodiest Battle of the Somme in 1916 and was killed instantly near Contalmaison by a sniper when he was only fifteen-years old. He was buried in a nearby cemetery with the engraving “Mother’s little darling”.

Private “Winnie” McClare of Nova Scotia, joined at age seventeen and luckily lived through his experience on Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917. Black read from a letter Winnie wrote to his mother about the capture of Vimy Ridge which said, in part, “I was in the whole of that battle and it was Hell…it will be one of the biggest things in Canadian history.”

He also spoke about the use of pack horses for transporting artillery ammunition, which was put into canvas sacks and loaded onto the backs of the horses for dangerous trips to the gun lines. At the BCHS museum there is such a pack from WWI on display in the Martin Annex, along with photographs from the front.

Joanne Croghan, a BCHS Board member, brought some local history to the talk, citing stories about a few of our own underage soldiers. Leland Stanford Westover from Sutton enlisted at age seventeen, only 5 foot, 4 inches tall and was killed at Vimy Ridge at the age of eighteen. His name is on the Vimy Memorial. His fabric scrapbook is on display in the BCHS museum collection.

George Gilman of Mansonville also signed up at seventeen-years and sadly died in action at age twenty.

Alvie Skinner Shepard of Iron Hill enlisted in Knowlton at age fifteen, died the day after his eighteenth birthday and is buried in France.

There were many home children among the youth, as they usually did not have any proof of age documents. Albert Hapgood, such a British homechild had just turned sixteen when he enlisted in Mansonville and was tragically killed in Fresnoy on May 3, 1917 at age seventeen. His name is also on the Vimy Memorial.

Over 620,000 Canadians served in the armed forces, with an estimated average age of twenty-six. Some 66,000 died in the war, with another 170,000 being wounded. As Black explained the highest losses were to Canada’s women who would never see their young sons or husbands again. The Memorial Cross which is unofficially called the Silver Cross was awarded to mothers and widows of Canadian soldiers who died due to active duty and known as “the medal no mother wants.”

The “Dead Man’s Penny”, the name attributed to the memorial plaque given to the next of kin of all service personnel who were killed, can be viewed in the WWI collection at the BCHS museum.
Donations received for the event will be used for framing one of the museum’s large WWI recruitment posters. Visitors can purchase a signed copy of Dan Black’s book at the BCHS, 130 Lakeside Road, Knowlton. Information at 450-243-6782.