Grand Manan and the Great War (Part 5)


Part 5- Recruiting, Casualties and Compensation

Compiled by Roger P. Nason


            Among the earliest recruits from Grand Manan was Benjamin Joseph Gaskill, who signed up in November, 1914. Just a month shy of thirty-three years of age, Ben, the son of Ebenezer and Sarah Blake (Scribner) Gaskill, left his position as a clerk which he recorded on his attestation form. Perhaps he had been working in his father’s fishing and mercantile business; or, it could refer to his previous two year employment as postmaster in the North Head post office.

Like many others from Charlotte County, he became a member of the 26th Battalion which formed up in Saint John, received initial training and sailed for England in April, 1915. After further training exercises at East Sandling Camp in Kent, England, Ben became a stretcher bearer in the trenches for a period of about thirteen months after October, 1915. He witnessed some of the most devastating actions of the war, particularly the Battle of the Somme. There he charged forward into “No Man’s Land”, found and dressed the wounds of ten men who were all saved. At the conflict in Courcelette, he was recognized for his heroic actions with a promotion to sergeant. At the battle for Regina Trench, even after wounds to his hand and arm, he persisted in maintaining a dressing station for soldiers in a dugout in the trenches which also took a direct hit. For his efforts he was awarded the “Military Metal Bar” for bravery.

The St. Croix Courier reported on Nov. 16, 1916 that he recuperated for a week in a casualty field hospital behind the lines and then returned to the front. Ben got further recognition in April, 1917, at Vimy Ridge when he demonstrated “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty… under the heaviest shell fire dressing wounded … and at all times displayed the greatest courage and zeal in the care of the wounded.”

Unlike a lot of younger men from his community and perhaps due to his father’s successful fish business, Ben had ventured away to the mainland on several occasions, especially to New England. In 1903, he seems to have resided for a while in Portland, Maine, at 88 Park Street. He had gone there, perhaps at the request of his father, Ebenezer, to seek out his Uncle Joseph, who apparently had sought adventure in the Klondike goldfields. Based on this information, Ben ran an advertisement in the Yukon Sun on May 30, 1903. According to border travel records, he also returned to Maine in 1904-05 and to Boston in 1910-11.

Although a twin to his brother, Ebenezer Jr., he seems to have been particularly close to his younger brother, Frank Barrows Gaskill, who received a Anglican curate’s position in Hampton, N.B., where he lived in 1911. By 1914, he was a minister in Petite (Little) River, N.S., that identified Frank as the official family contact on Ben’s enlistment papers. Upon his return to Grand Manan following nearly five years of military service, Ben took up a position as agent in North Head, probably in connection with the Gaskill family fishing business. By the spring of 1921, he is listed in the North Head census with his new wife, Arvilla.

Ben’s nephew, Joseph Paul Gaskill, son of David and Abbie Belle (Cronk) Gaskill, may have been influenced by his uncle’s exploits in the battlefield when he enlisted on 12 January, 1916 with the 115th Battalion.  The family also suffered the loss of their mother during child birth in May, 1914. More likely, he was caught up in the recruitment fever on the island in 1916 when he joined his future brother-in-law, Wellington Flagg, who later married his sister, Sadie. (See Installment 4) Their battalion sailed for Liverpool, England on July 23rd where it reinforced the Canadian Corps in the fields of France. Later, in October, 1916, it was absorbed into the 112th Battalion (Nova Scotia). Paul, as he was called, would have come into action at the height of the Battle of the Somme and in 1917, at Arras, Hill 70 and Ypres.

When Paul was discharged it is not known if he returned to Grand Manan but in 1922 he appears to be living in Bloomfield, Kings Co., N.B. where, on July 1st he married Mary Elizabeth Kelly from that area. Somewhere along the way he apparently acquired sufficient skills to list his occupation as a cabinet maker. Whether it was contact with his brother, King, who had ventured to Vancouver in 1922 as a crew member on a steamboat, Paul and Lizzie eventually settled in that area where he passed away on Sept. 3, 1952.

Major battles raged throughout the fall and winter of 1915-16, culminating in the Battle of the Somme, which dragged on from July to November, 1916, exacting a huge toll in casualties.  On July 1 alone, the British suffered nearly 60,000 killed or wounded. Total Commonwealth numbers for the period exceeded half a million, of which Canada suffered more than 28,000 dead and wounded. The depletion of the ranks in various battalions was becoming a major concern in the government of Prime Minister Robert Borden. Efforts to attract more recruits were stepped up with the formation of new battalions and the public’s attention was focused even more on young lads in the communities who had not yet come forward to enlist- or so it seemed.

At the beginning of the war, recruits came forward for all sorts of reasons beyond pure patriotism. It has been suggested that a downturn in the general economy prompted many young men to seek other employment where they could get “a dollar per day and all found”. We can only speculate on their motives to enlist; whether from social pressure, peer pressure from friends and neighbours, escape from family ties, self-respect, dead-end jobs or simply to prove one’s manliness. Some evidence suggests the eldest sons in large households, where their mother was a widow, found it attractive to sign up for the additional family income. A private, for instance, could earn $1.00 per day plus 10 cents more per day if they saw overseas service; a sergeant, $1.35 plus 15 cents. For example, for a married soldier with three children, his wife could be eligible for a monthly $20 separation fee, a contribution from the Canadian Patriotic Fund (usually $25 depending on the province and community), and half the soldier’s pay. Initially, a wife had to give her permission for the husband to enlist and thus ensure she got the separation allowance. After 1915, this requirement was dropped. A copy of Ernest Hawkins’ service file, who returned to Pennfield after the war, confirms that a soldier could receive, in addition to his regimental pay, a field allowance, separation allowance for his widowed mother, clothing allowance of $35.00 and post discharge pay of $70.00 per month.

It is not clear what families received as a survivor or widow’s allowance should the soldier die in action. Regrettably, many may have gone without except for the deceased soldier’s remaining half pay while overseas. The Board of Pension Commissioners in Ottawa in 1916 awarded a widow with seven children whose husband was killed in action, with an annual allowance of $384.00 and $6.00 a month per child, so long as she did not re-marry.

In the midst of the many reports reaching the island about wounded, missing or those killed in action throughout 1915 and 1916, the efforts by individuals and organizations to support the troops went on in spite of bad news. With many ties through families and business on the mainland, reports in newspapers often carried battalion news, lists of casualties and battle details. The Women’s Institute in Grand Harbour found new ways to support the war effort beyond regular knitting bees, socks, pajamas and other fund raisers. The Courier for 27 April 1916 reported the Institute had voted to “adopt two friendless Canadian prisoners [of war] in Germany”, and, provide $15.00 per month for a three month period. Mrs. Willard Russell, Mrs. William Cronk and Mrs. Clarence A. Newton often hosted knitting and quilting circles at their homes.

The family of Charles and Nettie (Wilson) Small of North Head may be a typical example with sons who responded early to the call to arms. Out of six children, two sons, Harold Eugene and Clayton Earl, both signed up voluntarily within a month of each other in 1915. Clayton joined the 1st Battalion in March, and, Harold, the 55th Battalion by April 26th. The 55th was mobilized in Valcartier, Quebec, and embarked from Montreal for England on the S.S. Corsican on October 31, 1915. Members of the battalion would have seen action at battles in Mount Sorrel, Courcelette, Thiepval, Vimy Ridge and Amiens.

Harold may not have witnessed all of these encounters since the St. Croix Courier reported him on the casualty list published on June 1, 1916. He may very well have been seriously wounded, hospitalized in England and invalided back to New Brunswick. This may explain why Harold had time to meet and marry Eltha Ross Cook, daughter of Edgar and Josephine Cook of Deer Island, on Nov. 17, 1918. Eltha’s family had moved in 1902 to Lubec, Maine, where most of them worked in a sardine factory including her as a sardine packer. Likewise, many Grand Manan residents also journeyed to Lubec and Eastport to work in the many fish factories along the Maine shore throughout the summer and fall. It seems realistic that Harold as a fisherman may have encountered her on one of these trips. .

Before the war, he and his brother, Clayton, frequently travelled to Lubec for factory work when things were tough economically on the island. In fact, the whole family of Charles Small including the two boys as well as brothers Herbert, William and Ralph, all lived in Lubec in 1910 where they worked in the sardine factory. By 1921, Harold and Eltha were living in North Head where he was still employed as a fisherman. However, within two years Harold was seeking work in Lubec and subsequently settled with his wife in that city in 1924. Sometime before 1930 he died in his new home in Maine.

Standing at nearly six feet tall with a sailor’s tattoo on his right arm marked C.E.S., Clayton Small must have stood out among his fellow soldiers. It was probably not a complete surprise when Harry and Clayton both signed up in 1915. While we don’t know any details about Private Clayton’s activities at the front, the 1st Battalion saw some of the most brutal fighting at the first battle of Ypres and the first exposure to gas attacks by the Germans in April, 1915. Private George Bell, a fellow member of the battalion observed the destruction poignantly: “Ahead of me I see men running. Suddenly their legs double up and they sink to the ground. Here’s a body with the head shot off. I jump over it. Here’s a poor devil with both legs gone, but still alive.” Without any chance of cover, the slaughter of Canadians took place on a battlefield “as level as a billiard table.” (Quoted in Tim Cook, At the Sharp End)

When Clayton returned from military service to marry his next door neighbour, Cora Flagg, daughter of George and Annie, and, brother to Wellington Flagg, a fellow soldier, it was probably not a complete surprise to family and friends. Clayton continued to pursue a life devoted to the sea with employment as a fog alarm keeper on Duck Island from 1922 until at least 1937, and then shifted to Long Eddy Fog Whistle after George Tatton. In the meantime, he and Cora raised a family of three daughters and one son.


Library and Archives Canada

New Brunswick Provincial Archives Vital Statistics

St. Croix Courier, St. Stephen

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