Family in WW 1
My interest in the First World War began while doing this family history. Quite a simple search generated a list of 14 men who enlisted and 4 (so 28%) of these died from their service or were killed in action. Then quite by accident I began to read Wade Davis’ book, Into the Silence (2011), which is really a biography of George Mallory who was among the first European group to climb Mount Everest and to die there in 1924. Davis sets the book against the backdrop of the War, arguing the horrors of the war itself and the experience of dozens of family and friends being killed left nations stunned by the stupidity of the war and the inhuman fighting conditions. A world gone mad and nothing made sense anymore. This despair drew people to return to an appreciation of nature and the outdoors and for many a wish to escape the nations affected by war. Thus for Mallory and others Mount Everest presented the perfect escape opportunity.
Here is a list of “family” members, mostly from the Simpson family.
1. Harold Ray Simpson (1889-1921). Died from war injuries. Grandson of George Simpson (1834-1921).
2. Joseph S. Pritchard (1895-1953). Joined in 1918. Grandson of George Simpson (1834-1921)
3. George Lorne Monford (1896-1917) Grandson of Jane Simpson (1836-1917). Killed in action.
4. Roy C. Pritchard (1892-1969). Grandson of Jane Simpson (1836-1917). File incomplete.
5. Lorne Stepney Hutchison (1894- ). Joined in 1918. Grandson of Jane Simpson (1836-1917).
6. Arthur Fraser Patterson ( -1923). Died due to gas poisoning. Husband of Frances Parkinson (
7. Robert George Ard (1880-1945). Joined in 1916. Grandson of Margaret Simpson (1833-1911)
8. Frederick H.Morton (1889-1920). May have died as a result of war injuries. Grandson of Margaret Simpson (1833-1911).
9. William Albert Thornton ( ) Grandson of William Thornton.
10. Frank Edward Dowson (1896-) Signed up in 1918 so probably saw no action. Grandson of Sarah Thornton
11. Ralph Roscoe Dowson (1897-) Also signed up in June 1918, so saw no action. Grandson of Sarah Thornton.
12. Howard Delbert Thomas (1892-) Grandson of Margaret Simpson (1833-1911).
13. Henry Wilton Thompson (1897-1979). Grandson of Jane Simpson (1836-1917). He also joined in 1918 so probably saw no action.
14. Robert Ernest Otto Coatham (1895-1980). Grandson of Margaret Simpson (1833-1911)
I have been unable to check any Kirby or Parkinson family members from the UK.
Now let’s look briefly at some statistics on the war. There were a total of 35 million casualties and of this number 25 million were killed and of this 10 million were soldiers. If we look at the nations most directly affected we see that the United Kingdom suffered 886,939 death and 1,663,435 injured. Approximately 2 of every 8 (25%) soldiers never returned. The deaths amount to 2.19 % of the total population. In France the situation was even worse with 1,397,800 death (4.29% of the population) and 4,266,000 injuries. In Germany there were 2,250,897 deaths (3.2% of the population) and 4,247,143 injuries. In Canada there were 65,000 dead (0.92% of the population) and 150,000 wounded. I find these numbers staggering.
Never has there been a war as brutal, so filled with inhumanity and so hopeless. The Allied troops (the good guys) didn’t really defeat the enemy, they just ran out of food and were unable to carry on any longer. The troops themselves believed the fighting could go on forever. In the most recent war – in Afghanistan – Canada suffered approximately 150 death. How do you cope with almost 1 million dead? Or even 65,000?
The British army was extremely unprepared for war with generals who harkened back to a previous era for models of warfare. They eschewed the machine gun until late in the war, had 1000s of men ready to present a horse front to the Germans, and believed that you walked into battle with 75 pound packs. Troops on both sides fought from trenches in the wet and cold mud and when ordered the British side went over the edge of the trench and walked towards the enemy. Of course they were killed by the 1000s before they had gone very many steps. Davis refers to diaries kept by a German soldier who said after hours of machine gun fire at the British – why are they walking? If they ran they could have overrun us. There was also the use of poison gas which burned the lung of its victims or left them impaired and ready to die. There were also flame throwers which engulfed the troops and left them impossible to find or to identify. Also, a never ending array of bombs, grenades, mortars, and firearms of all sorts.
A few lines from Davis: “Defending the Ypres Salient, never larger than four miles deep and twelve wide, would over the course of the war cost the British 90,000 men killed and 410,000 wounded. Another 89,880 simply vanished, swallowed by the mud or vaporized by shell fire.”
Refering to a diary kept by Geoffrey Young, a journalist turned medic: “This horror was too monstrous to believe at first …the sight of men choking to death with yellow froth, lying on the floor and out in the field, made me rage with an anger which no later cruelty of man, not even the degradation of our kind by the hideous concentration camps in later Germany, ever quite rekindled; for then we still thought all men were human.”
And finally a reference to the assault on the Somme in 1916, a battle that was a year in the planning: “ … until the passage became so choked with the their own dead that the following troops had to clamber over mounds of the corpses simply to reach no-man’s-land. … Men writhing with wounds, whimpering and crying like children. Headless torsos, faces on fire, blood shooting out of helmets in three-foot streams, bodies cleft like the quartered carcasses in a butcher shop, splinters of steel in brain, shattered backbones and spinal cords worming and flapping about in the mud”.
It is difficult to read this even after the passage of 100 years. How did they cope? The same way we now do– half-truths and myth. Although communication was very primitive there was also intentional withholding or distortion of facts. Although London was only 160 miles from the worst of the battles and armaments could be heard in the distance, the general public did not understand what was going on. Perhaps if they had known change would have resulted. Even after the worst of the battle loses the public was repeatedly told that all was going well and that progress was being made. Very little progress was made for the duration of the war. If they had been told the truth generals would have had to go and perhaps the government would have changed its strategy. In Canada a positive spin is put on the war when we claim that the battle for Vimy Ridge represented the birth of the Canadian nation. 65,000 dead and countless injured and we talk about nation building.
We can see the shifting attitudes towards war, and the creation of memories, in the Vimy memorial opening in France in 1936 – although approved by the Canadian parliament in the 1920’s. After the war even many of the troops saw no particular importance to Vimy. It was the site of the first Canadian controlled battle and resulted in a victory against the Germans, but the battle did not make any lasting effect on the war. Vimy was selected as the site for the memorial not because of its military importance but because of its geographical value. A little piece by John Pierce on the Vimy memorial is instructive:
“Vimy, which began as a monument to the valour, the heroism and the victories of the Canadian Corp, also had to serve as memorial site to the 19,000 soldiers of the Canadian Corps who, missing in action, knew no marked graves. Allward [the architect] agreed to inscribe the names of these men on the base of the monument, transforming Vimy into hallowed ground, an empty tomb, a place of pilgrimage. Allward had also been influenced by the general revulsion from war that characterized the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. … By the mid-thirties the Vimy memorial would have to serve as a protest against war as well as a monument to heroism, sacrifice and victory.” Constructing Memory: The Vimy Memorial, (1992) Available online.
The official unveiling of the monument occurred in 1936 attended by Kings and politicians galore; all in attendance knew that a new war was on the immediate horizon as the peace plan that resulted from the earlier war had been ineffectual.
So one must now ask: How is the War imagined today? What does the monument means for Canadians today? A memory of a war well fought? A war in which particular individuals died? A war that should not have happened? Or, more broadly, should we ever trust politicians to take us into a war?
Any additional information on families in this war is welcome.