Happy Lunar New Year! This photograph shows “Chinese Labour Battalions in France celebrating the Chinese New Year on 11th February, 1918.”
#DYK – The British Army recruited about 100 000 men from China during the First World War to perform heavy labour on the Western Front. They were not part of the military force, but worked in the same conditions as the soldier labour battalions. Chinese Labour Corps transports passed through Canada on their way to Europe; these transports happened under strict secrecy and the recruits were not allowed to leave their trains, for fear that the local population would protest. At the time, Chinese immigrants to Canada were suject to a strict quota and a head tax.
Today is National Flag of Canada Day, marking 15 February 1965, when the “Maple Leaf” was raised for the first time on Parliament Hill. The new flag replaced the Red Ensign, under which the country had fought both the First and Second World Wars. Today’s image is a Red Ensign carried through the First World War by Private James Davidson.
Credit: Canadian War Museum, “Flag, Red Ensign”, Object Number 20040039-001.
On this day in 1918, a secretly formed force of 350 hand-picked Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and British soldiers set sail for the Middle East. Known as “Dunsterforce”, they were sent to fill the void after the collapse of the Imperial Russian Army, by organizing, training and leading local resistance against the Ottoman forces. A total of forty-one men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force would join Dunsterforce (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force – 1914-1919, p. 494). To maintain secrecy prior to embarking, the men of the “Hush Hush Party” (a name stemming from the rumours during its recruitment) were kept within the vicinity of the London Tower. Some sources claim they were locked in the Tower, others say that they only had to report to the Tower daily – (See CEW Bean, “Appendix No. 5 – Australians In Mesopotamia”, in Volume V – The Australian Imperial Force in France during the Main German Offensive, 1918).
One hundred years ago today, John McCrae dies of pneumonia and meningitis. He is buried with full military honours at Wimereux Communal Cemetery in a procession led by his beloved horse Bonfire, with McCrae’s empty riding boots reversed in the stirrups. Ironically, despite his contributions to remembrance in verse, McCrae’s headstone bears no epitaph. Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, the soldier, physician, teacher and poet was just 45 years old.
19 January 1918 – “Left Marble Arch at 5:30 a.m. took underground to Victoria and got kit [from Maple Leaf Club]… Got the boat and arrived at Boulogne at 1:30 p.m… Wrote Lucy and posted a green envelope at the YMCA in Boulogne.” (Cane, It Made You Think of Home – The Haunting Journal of Deward Barnes, Canadian Expeditionary Force: 1916-1919, p. 150).
Did you know a “green envelope” was a specially coloured envelope, meant to indicate that its contents would not be censored by superior officers? The letter writer had to sign a declaration on the outside of the green envelope, swearing that the contents within were only personal or family matters. The premise was to allow soldiers to write home without concern of their private matters being read by their superiors within the battalion. However, “green envelopes” were issued sparingly and the letters were still subject to censorship further in the rear at base. (See Pegler, Soldier’s Songs and Slang of the Great War, p. 103 & Brophy & Partridge, Dictionary of Tommies’ Songs and Slang, 1914-18, p. 129).
Following the many battles of 1917, the winter months of 1918 provided a brief respite for the Canadian Expeditionary Force as it settled into the “relatively quiet Lens sector” (Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914-1919, p. 338). Without scheduled attacks, save for the nightly raiding parties, some Canadians took the time to step back and reflect on what they had just experienced. On 18 January 1918, one soldier’s letter home was published in a local newspaper :
“Any person who went through that Passchendaele Advance can safely say we went through more mud and shell fire, than was ever experienced in this God-forsaken hole called Europe… it is impossible to imagine what the Germans had to contend with… One prisoner who was captured said the Germans thought the Canadians were superhuman, and would not face them at all. It certainly looked like it, the way they disappeared when we started after them.”
– Lieutenant D. Lynn Dudley, 4th Canadian Trench Mortar Battery, private letter published in The Cobourg World, Friday, 18 January 1918, Page 5:3. (Climo, Let Us Remember – Lively Letters From World War One, p. 269).
Epitaph of Private John Derry, Service Number 2005364, of the 78th (Winnipeg Grenadiers) Battalion. John Derry was married and working as a teamster when he enlisted in Regina, Saskatchewan with the Canadian Engineers in January 1917. On 29 December 1917, he joined the 78th Battalion in the field as a reinforcement. He died of shell wounds to both thighs just 18 days later on 16 January 1918 and is buried in Anzin-St.Aubin British Cemetery, France.
Epitaph of Sergeant Reginald Bayly White, Service Number 3048, of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. Reginald died on 9 January 1918 of tubercular meningitis and is buried in Etaples Military Cemetery. He was the son of Canon William Charles White, the first native-Newfoundlander to become Bishop of the Church of England for the Diocese of Newfoundland.
On this day in 1918, President Woodrow Wilson delivers his Fourteen Points speech to the United States Congress. Initially greeted with sweeping enthusiasm, the Fourteen Points would create substantial complications and diplomatic tension at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. (See MacMillan, Paris 1919 – Six Months That Changed The World).
On this day in 1918, thousands of kilometres from the front, four men of the Canadian Railway Troops and Service Guard die in Montreal. Unfortunately, their personnel records provide little details of their service, and it is only known that all four died of “accidental injuries” suffered on 4 January 1918. Privates Thomas Kelly and Delore Lalonde are buried in Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery and Privates Andrew Hunter and John Mackie are buried in Mount Royal Cemetery.