Grand Manan and the Great War- (Part 9)


Horses and Mules moving ammunition Source-LAC PA-001229

Horses and Mules moving ammunition Source-LAC PA-001229

Part 9- Doctors and Dogs at the Front

In the previous installment we discussed the participation of health professionals on the warfront. One individual who served island residents as their personal physician and surgeon was Dr. Brougham Freeze Johnson. Following graduation from McGill University in 1906, Johnson took up his first practice on Grand Manan in the same year. Born in Norton, Kings County, on 27 April 1879, he was the son of Samuel Hiram and Eleda Edna Johnson, a local farming family. Prior to his medical pursuits he was teaching in his hometown as early as 1901.

By 1906, Dr. Johnson had settled in Grand Harbour to take over the private practice of Dr. Duvernet Jack and joined fellow McGill graduate, Dr. John Francis Macaulay, who had just opened his own practice two years earlier in Castalia. Johnson provided both medical services and a drug store where he was assisted by his younger brother, Clinton, before 1911. Perhaps Dr. Johnson needed the extra help since his marriage to Emma Louise Martin in 1907 and arrival of their first child, Alta Marjorie in March, 1909. Mrs. Johnson was the daughter of local merchant/trader and fisherman, Frederick Joseph Martin and his wife, Victoria Ellen Guptill.

With the addition of a son, Winston Case Johnson, on May 21, 1912, balancing family life, a household and meeting the needs of the communities on the main island and small outer islands like White Head, Ross’ Island, and Wood Island must have been hectic indeed. The announcement of war with Germany and the Axis powers in August, 1914, brought a whole new layer of activity for the doctors in small communities. They were now expected to also examine and confirm the medical fitness of soldiers rushing forward to volunteer. Likewise, many medical practitioners soon realized the urgent need on the battle front for staff and nurses with professional medical training. This was particularly evident after casualty figures climbed dramatically for Canadian troops in 1915 with the battles at Ypres, Givenchy, St. Julien, Festubert and Flanders.

The steady recruitment of island boys may have prompted Dr. Johnson to come forward himself in 1915 and enlist with the Canadian Medical Army Corps. By January, 1916, at age thirty-six, he like many other men with young families was on his way to Halifax for initial training and then be shipped to England. (St. Croix Courier, Jan. 13, 1916)  Unfortunately we do not know much about his activities here or overseas. Many civilian doctors who volunteered did not enlist in the formal manner undertaken by soldiers through attestation records. The records of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps at Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa contain details on stationary hospitals such as at Halifax, and various overseas field hospitals. Photos of Dr. Johnson have also not been forthcoming.

In some cases families of doctors might accompany their doctor husbands to locations like Fredericton or Halifax, but it is not known if Louise and their two children followed. However, it is certain that Dr. Johnson gave up his practice on Grand Manan to Dr. Frank D. Weldon. Following the war the Johnsons settled in Saint John where he opened a private practice at 287 King Street. After Winston, their youngest child, graduated from Saint John High School in 1928, the family made a sudden departure in August, 1929, to Pasadena, California. They were still recorded there in the 1930 census where Dr. Johnson was listed as “retired” at age fifty.

Before the beginning of the Second World War in 1939, it seems the Johnsons returned to Saint John where Winston enlisted in the Carleton and York Regiment. Before being shipped overseas he married Dorothy Eileen Steele in March, 1940. Sadly he was killed in action at Ortona, Italy, in Dec. 1943.

Dr. Johnson died in Saint John on Sept. 29th, 1950 but may have resumed his practice for a few years on the west side of that city according to an announcement in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (Nov., 1950). His death certificate noted that he last worked at his profession in 1945. Louise lived on until her death in Saint John on May 18th, 1961. Both are buried at Erb’s Cove Baptist Cemetery, Kings County.

It should be mentioned that Dr. Johnson’s brother, Clinton Ora, continued as a druggist until he also enlisted in Amherst, N.S. in March, 1915, and joined the 6th Canadian Mounted Rifles. After embarking for England in the summer of 1915 and then on to France in October, the battalion participated in all the major battles like Vimy, Hill 70, Ypres and Passchendaele. After the war, he eventually married and settled in Perth, N.B.

The Dogs of War

In my last article I wrote about the Dr. Lawson’s son, Walter, who fought in France. Recently I discovered that Lieutenant Lawson, while attached to the 26th Battalion, had a most unusual but not rare arrangement. He received permission in 1917 to have a “police dog”. Having a pet or mascot was not unique among the soldiers of World War 1, but having an officially registered dog assigned to a battalion was not that common an occurrence.

Walter Lawson with Don the dog and officers of 26th Battalion 1917. Source: PANB MC300, MS68-45

Walter Lawson with Don the dog and officers of 26th Battalion 1917. Source: PANB MC300, MS68-45

On July 26, 1917, “Don”, a nineteen month old white fox terrier with brown mixed hair was enlisted by the Canadian Army Veterinary Services. After a medical examination, he was cleared of any contagious disease and placed under command of Lieut. Lawson.

While Don may have been called a police dog, research into the role of dogs in the war seem to point to the likelihood that he was a messenger dog. Often it was found practical to train dogs to carry messages between command posts and front lines when telegraph or phone communications were destroyed in battle. Likewise, the four-legged creature did double duty with patrols, outpost work and as ambulance dogs to assist the Red Cross in locating wounded soldiers in No Man’s Land (St. Croix Courier, April 19, 1917). Dogs were specifically trained for these purposes in what was called the British War Dog School. Animal recruits were drawn from dog pounds, by public donation and various police stations across England. The best breeds for messenger dogs included sheep dogs, drovers’ dogs (collies), lurchers, Irish terriers, Welsh terriers, Airedales, and deerhounds.

Three Airedales Wearing Gas Masks Source: Telegraph UK

Three Airedales Wearing Gas Masks Source: Telegraph UK

Over a passage of several weeks, dogs being trained for messenger service were put through a gradual program that introduced them to the sounds of war including rifle fire, artillery smoke, heavy bombardment blasts, and even dealing with poison gas. Terriers became the best adapters to operate under fire followed by collies. It is reported that over 20,000 dogs served in various capacities during the war.

While dogs were important to the war effort, the major load, figuratively and literally, goes to horses and mules. Estimates are that the British sent over one million horses into the conflict on fronts from Belgium to Egypt; only 62,000 may have survived (London Daily Mail, Nov. 9, 2007). At the end of 1918, Canada overseas contingent had used close to 23,000 horses compared to 1,009 motor lorries, 223 cars, 84 ambulances and 2,327 bicycles.

Horses Going into Battle

Horses Going into Battle

In many instances the bond between horse and soldier was so strong that it was reflected in the comments by one horse driver in 14th Machine Gun Company: “I believe my saddle horse knew more than I did and it is one of the reasons why I lasted as long as I did. He took care of me.”     ( Quoted in Cook and Iarocci)  Lieut.-Col. John McCrae, surgeon and well known creator of the poem, In Flanders Fields, had both a dog mascot named Bonneau and a horse called Bonfire.

Alongside dogs in the trenches, one also found many cats which roamed the devastated countryside and often adopted by soldiers. These trench cats, as they were called, along with many dogs, helped control the rat and mice population. These animals, as well as even rabbits and goats, were treasured by the fighting men as companions, mascots and general pets. Steps were taken by many soldiers to protect horses and dogs with innovative gas masks during savage poison gas attacks.

And last of all we should not forget the pigeons which became indispensible throughout the war in carrying messages. Carrier pigeons were especially invaluable when telephone and telegraph lines were destroyed. The volume of messages transmitted in this way is illustrated by the fact that one contemporary reporter calculated that the French forces alone used 15,000 carrier pigeons on any given day. (St. C.C., April 19, 1917)

Steps were even taken by the Canadian Expeditionary Force to establish two veterinary hospitals in France and England under the command of the Canadian Army Veterinary Corps. In addition, before war’s end they collaborated with eighteen Imperial Veterinary Hospitals and mobile support services  where over 221 officers and sergeants oversaw the care of 23, 484 horses under the CEF.

To commemorate the contribution made by animal soldiers to the Canadian war effort, a monument of a bronze dog was erected in November, 2012 in Confederation Park in Ottawa to memorialize horses, mules and dogs.


Sources: Library and Archives Canada New Brunswick Provincial Archives Vital Statistics

St. Croix Courier, St. Stephen

Ingersoll, L.K., “MD for the Islands: Dr. John Francis Macaulay”, Grand Manan Historian , No. XXV, 1993.

Andrew G. Morrison, “The Case for Reactivating the Royal Canadian Army Veterinary Corps”, Canadian Military Journal, Vol. 12, No.2, Spring , 2012.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

To commemorate the contribution made by animal soldiers to the Canadian war effort, a monument of a bronze dog was erected in November, 2012 in Confederation Park in Ottawa to memorialize horses, mules and dogs.