Grand Manan and the Great War (Part 13)

Part 13- Thomas Morgan and the Siberian Expeditionary Force

At the outbreak of war on August 4, 1914, the initial response by civilians to enlistment was overwhelming and typically filled with euphoria to be part of the rush to join up before “the great adventure” was over by Christmas. Nothing was further from the truth when the war dragged on for four years. As one might expect, a large percentage (60%) of the First Contingent were British-born emigrants to Canada who felt the urgency to respond to England’s call to arms.

Perhaps this formed part of Thomas William Morgan’s motivation to come forward since he was born on July 31, 1891, in Bristol, England, son of William and Margaret (Birkmyre) Morgan.  When conscription became a fact of life for eligible young men in 1917, Tom stepped forward. He indicated that he already had served four weeks in the 62nd Regiment, Saint John Fusiliers. Initially Tom enlisted in the 1st Depot Battalion, New Brunswick Regiment, a reserve unit meant to supply trained soldiers primarily to the depleted ranks of the 26th Battalion in France. Under those orders new enlistees began training up at Camp Sussex under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James McAvity. But that was not to be Tom’s eventual fate.

Tom must have been accustomed to sudden disruption in his life as witnessed by the circumstances of events in the 1910s. For whatever reason it is not known how he came to connect with Grand Manan and more precisely White Head. Perhaps he was a product of the migration of many British families to Canada prior to 1914 who sought a new life and the prospect of free homestead land from the Canadian government. The census of 1921 implies that he first migrated to Canada in 1900. Unfortunately, something occurred to his family from Bristol that left him homeless by 1911, and according to his obituary, he became officially linked with Grand Manan by 1912.

There on White Head he was taken in by the fishing family of Melvin and Blanche (Guptill) Cossaboom who already had two girls, Laurel and Juanita. By the time Tom became a foster child to their family at age twenty-one, Laurel, the eldest daughter, had already married Garfield Morse in 1907. Perhaps for the Cossabooms the motivation to accept Tom into the family was purely practical where there was no other male to provide for a family in the small fishing community. Whatever the reason, we know he recognized his foster family when he put Melvin down as his next of kin on his attestation papers in 1918.

The Siberian Intervention

A little known sideshow to the closing year of the First World War was the action seen by soldiers of the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force in far flung parts of Russia in 1918 and through most of 1919. The CSEF was composed of nearly 4,200 men from across Canada which was part of an Allied effort near the close of the war to bolster their allied presence in Vladivostok, Russia, during the midst of the Russian Revolution. Tom Morgan became part of this intervention in eastern Russia near the Sea of Japan.

With the eruption of the first Russian Revolution in March, 1917, and the subsequent overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II and his family, the country suffered major defeats on the Eastern Front with Germany. By Nov., 1917, Lenin’s Bolshevik Government had signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers led by Germany. Suddenly the Allies had to re-evaluate their military options in light of these events and continue to reinforce anti- Bolshevik supporters in the widespread civil war. German victories in eastern Russia and pushes toward Archangel and Murmansk in the north and potentially Vladivostok in the west threatened the stockpiles of Allied war materiel supplied to the desperate Russian army.

By the summer of 1918, allied leaders in Great Britain, Canada, United States, Japan, and France felt that concrete military intervention was necessary to block the Bolshevik army and support the anti-Bolshevik White Russians in Vladivostok. In Oct., 1918, plans were well advanced to form two infantry battalions, the 259th and 260th Canadian Rifles, along with two artillery batteries, a machine gun company, and a squadron of cavalry made up of Royal Northwest Mounted Police. One company of the 260th was drawn from Atlantic Canada and this was likely where Tom Morgan was assigned and made his way to Vancouver in the autumn of 1918 for formation of the brigade and embarkation for Russia. An advance party of 706 troops which included medical support, administration, food and general logistics boarded the Empress of Japan on 11 October 1918, arriving 25 days later in Vladivostok.

Winter weather had already set in when Canadian troops arrived in the Russian seaport and while not the conditions faced by soldiers on the Western Front, it was nevertheless fraught with risk, exposure to harsh environment, and subject to attacks by Bolshevik-backed forces attempting to capture the port from White Army defenders. To Tom and his comrades it must have seemed quite strange to be fighting against elements of a previous ally in the conflict with Germany, particularly after the Armistice was declared on Nov. 11, 1918. The Siberian Expeditionary Force continued to be engaged well into 1919 until Tom’s unit became the first unit of Canadian troops to sail from Hong Kong on April 8th on the same steamship that brought them from Victoria, B.C. the year earlier. After formal discharge from his battalion, Tom eventually boarded a train for the long journey to Saint John and home to Grand Manan.

By 1921 Tom was back on Grand Manan pursuing a fisherman’s life but he did not settle on White Head with the Cossabooms. Instead, he had met Vashti Beulah Ellingwood, a widow living in North Head with her father, George Albert Babcock, a local carpenter. Vashti had been previously married to William Burke Ellingwood, son of Sidney and Addie (Green) Ellingwood on Dec. 3rd, 1916, just as he joined up in the war effort. However, after his return, he suffered heart failure in Feb. 1920. On Sept. 25th of the same year Vashti married Tom Morgan at Wilson’s Beach, Campobello, where she had been living through the war years with her cousin, Herman Matthews, from at least the spring of 1911. We can only speculate that he may have met her working in the sardine factories in Lubec or Eastport which was often a source of employment for island people in this period. Possibly he got to know her through a fellow soldier, John Henry Morrison, of North Head who married Vashti’s sister, Daissie or Hadassah, in 1904 before  joining  the 115th battalion in 1916. John made it through the war and returned to Grand Manan but died in 1935 at the relatively young age of fifty; prossibly from the side effects of the horrors he faced in the trenches.

After the war, Tom carried on in the fishery but by 1930 he became a merchant seaman on many vessels sailing to different parts of the world. For more than a decade he secured a position with the Life Saving Station at Shag Cove, Wood Island which he held until at least the beginning of the Second World War. When war erupted again in 1939 Tom served in the Grand Manan Home Guard unit throughout the war years. During his retirement years he became president of the Grand Manan Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion. The last four years of his life were spent at the Lancaster DVA Hospital in Saint John where he died August 31st, 1962 at age seventy-one.


Family Photos Courtesy of Ami MacNeill, great grand-daughter of Thomas Morgan.

Library and Archives Canada

St. Croix Courier, St. Stephen

Ian C. D. Moffat, “Forgotten Battlefields- Canadians in Siberia 1918-1919”, Canadian Military Journal, Vol. 8, No. 3, Autumn, 2007.