Grand Manan and the Great War (Part 12)




Part 12- J. Wallace McLean of North Head and the Medical Corps 


With the Declaration of War in August, 1914, many young islanders stepped forward to volunteer for service in the first year of conflict. Eventually, more than 100 signed up from the various communities on Grand Manan. However, a number of island-born men were to enlist in communities far away from their island home. Sometimes this might have happened because they were attending school, college or university on the mainland in Fredericton, Halifax or Wolfville. Still others may have been at institutions of higher learning such as McGill University in Montreal or at religious colleges in nearby Maine. By far the largest proportion of future enlistees was simply seeking new economic opportunities for employment that could not be realized in a fishing village that had suffered recent hard times in the years just prior to the outbreak of war.

John Wallace McLean from North Head was just such a person. Son of W. Norman and Mary (Ellingwood) McLean, Wallace was born 17 August 1886, the eldest son of five children. His father arrived on Grand Manan as a young man from Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, and by 1884 had married and established a small livery stable business near the ferry wharf landing in the north end of the village. By the end of the century Norman was financially stable enough to expand the livery and freight business into a general store. In the spring of 1899, he opened in leased quarters in the old Thomas Redmond building at the head of the ferry wharf, where “ Mr. Mclean now offers to the public any article of furniture, useful or ornamental, and he has placed a piano in one or two homes.” As well, he partnered with George Letteny, a fisherman from Digby, to establish a sardine factory at Pettes Cove. (St. Croix Courier, April 27, 1899) The partnership, it should noted, had close ties with J. Sutton Clark, a druggist from St. George, who became captivated by the potential for canning fish. This eventually lead to successful investments in sardine factories and weir operations including a factory at Pettes Cove. Sutton is credited with the invention of the “keyed” sardine can which helped revolutionize the industry.

Just when Wallace’s family seemed to become economically stable, tragedy struck with the death of his mother, Mary, in December, 1911. This may have prompted Wallace and later his sister, Julia, now trained as a nurse, to seek greener pastures out West. Julia, who was living in North Head at this time, had been trained at Westborough State Hospital in Worcester, Mass., graduating about 1910. By August, 1915, these two siblings reunited in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. This was a period in Canada’s history when the government was undertaking substantial promotional campaigns to attract new settlers and immigrants to western Canada. In fact, border crossing documents record that Wallace had ventured west to Lincoln, Nebraska, as early as July, 1910, until Oct. 1912, eventually settling in neighbouring Saskatchewan.

We can only assume from their address on the military attestation papers for Wallace that he and his sister had established themselves long enough for him to get a permanent job in Moose Jaw where he was employed in the unlikely position of an embalmer. This background made him most suitable for assignment to the Canadian Army Medical Corps. to which he was drafted for the rest of the war.

Following initial training Wallace shipped out to England in the early spring of 1916 from Saint John. As with other soldiers before heading overseas, he must have received a short furlough to visit Grand Manan. A letter to his sister-in-law, Grace (Lamson) McLean, wife of brother, William L., forwarded to the editor of the St. Croix Courier (27 April 1916),  throws light on his views of England, the war and pending transfer to the battlefield in France.

“Dear Grace,

Have been doing a lot of letter writing tonight as it will be about the last chance for a while. We expect to go to France tomorrow, and if what they tell us is right, we are only allowed one letter every ten days and three postcards a week, so you can see that will limit my letter writing somewhat.

Well, I covered some distance since I left you in St. John. I hope you had a good time during the rest of your stay in St. John and that you got back home safely without being sick. We were twelve days on our trip and struck some pretty rough weather…

We had a convoy of one cruiser with us all the way and the last two days we had an extra convoy of six torpedo boats into port. One of them sunk a submarine just outside of port on the same day we landed. It was supposed to have been one that was waiting for us, but we got into Plymouth harbour all safe – after a pretty anxious time. There were about 3500 men on our boat and the “Missanabie” which accompanied us, and we had a full load of munitions, so we would have been worth sinking….

Was down to London on leave for two days and took in as much of the town as was possible in so short a time period. It is a wonderful old town but seems so old and out of date, is not at all like New York or Chicago, only it is of course much larger and very interesting in many ways. …

The whole country is all taken up by the war here, one sees soldiers everywhere. We were down to Buckingham Palace where the King was holding a reception for one thousand wounded men, and it was pitiful to see them go by in the big busses. Some were only slightly wounded while others had big, ugly scars, and some had lost a leg or an arm or perhaps both but they all seemed happy as they drove by to see the King. Then we saw dozens of men on leave from the trenches, covered with mud and filth just as they left the front. Two were washing the blood from their bayonets as we went down in the washroom one morning and you see blood stains on their coats and equipment almost always when they come in. It is a hideous business this war. The people here seem to think it will be over by fall. I hope it is.”

We do not know much about his activities in the war but it is hinted that he became part of the field operations which included field ambulances, casualty clearing stations, General and Stationary Hospitals. Soldiers in the Medical Corps could also be attached to base camps, forestry and railway units. Wallace’s obituary in 1955 hinted that he may have been an active member of the Dental Corps where soldiers underwent dental inspections, treated for wounds or trench mouth, and sometimes underwent more serious reconstructive surgeries.

When Wallace finally returned from the conflict in 1919, travel documents disclosed in 1920 that he still gave his permanent address as Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, like his sister, Julia. She met her husband Charles Kay Crawford in that area and married in 1922. Later that decade the couple moved to Chicago, Illinois where he was a steel salesman and she managed an apartment building. Not unlike many soldiers after the war, Wallace felt the urge to travel and departed Saint John in 1920 for Boston by steamer. For the better part of the next decade he wandered as far as Chicago, probably to meet his sister who was then settled there.

Certainly before his father’s death in 1936 and probably as early as 1930, Wallace returned to the island and joined the mercantile business of William McLean and Son, replacing his brother, William Lorenzo, who had moved to Wisconsin by 1924. McLean Sr. had continued to not only run the general merchandise store in North Head but provided livery services, freighting and held the contract for mail delivery from the ferry to post offices throughout the island.

Within a year of taking over his father’s business Wallace met and married Mary Florence Cahill, daughter of Nathanial and Ethel (Holmes) Cahill of Beechwood in Victoria County on Dec. 10, 1937. He went on to serve on the Board of Directors for the Grand Manan Hospital and was elected secretary and president of the Board of Trade,  and an avid promoter of better communication and transportation services for Grand Manan. On July 13th, 1955, he succumbed to a six month battle with lung cancer and was interred in the North Head Cemetery beside his parents.


Library and Archives Canada

St. Croix Courier, St. Stephen