Grand Manan and the Great War (Part 19)

Part 19- From Grand Manan to Mesopotamia

            Few would have thought in 1917 that Grand Manan would have ties with the port city of Basra in ancient Mesopotamia or what today is Iraq. More surprising were the connections between that area of the Middle East and tiny Wood Island off Seal Cove. Yet this would become an important feature in the life of Caleb Shepherd’s fishing family who lived on that tiny island when their son, Wilfred, joined up in January of that year.

The sixth of eight children to Charles Caleb and Sarah Maude (Green) Shepherd, Wilfred was born June 19, 1896 on Wood Island, where his family came to reside from Grand Harbour after 1891. Here Wilfred was to learn the ways of the sea through fishing and sailing. Family records reveal that he initially worked as a crew member on the fisheries patrol vessel Curlew around Grand Manan for the year ending Mar. 31st, 1916, and, then signed on shipping vessels to New York and throughout the Great Lakes.

Probably during this latter event he decided at age twenty to ship to sea as a crew member aboard the tanker Imperoyal owned by Imperial Oil. Sometime in 1916 Wilfred, as an able-bodied seaman, journeyed from the east coast of Canada through the Panama Canal to Peru, and, eventually arrived in the port of Vancouver in Dec., 1916. According to family correspondence he contracted a severe respiratory ailment and thought it wise to get off that “old tub” before it killed him. Little did he realize how prophetic this statement would become.

For whatever reason, it was in January of that new year while on the west coast that Wilfred chose to enlist. After unsuccessfully approaching several Canadian recruiting centres he opted to join the ranks of the British Royal Engineers in the Inland Water Transport unit. The deciding factor may have been the opportunity to use his skills as a seaman especially his wig wag signalling abilities gained at sea.

In a letter to his mother he proclaims: “I tried to join the 11th Regiment (10 Jan 1917) of Irish Canadian Fusiliers but the doctor turned me down.  Next day I tried to join the 231 Battalion of Highlanders but met with no better success, so next day I joined the Inland Water Transportation service.  I had no difficulty in joining that. The doctor there wasn’t half as particular as to the other places.” This probably had to do with his chronic breathing issues.

In the course of battle most of us forget the role played by engineers and other trades. Without them there would not have been builders and operators of railways, roads, water supply, bridges and transport to get men and materiel to the battle zones or remove the casualties to hospitals behind the lines.  They also insured that communication lines, underground protection, tunneling and even chemical technology were operational. The Inland Water Transport (IWT) Section attracted soldiers who had a background in either the river traffic or fishing industries. On the Western Front this applied to supplying the war effort with war materials for the war effort up and down the seacoast, river systems and canals including the operation of barge hospitals.

By Feb. 1917, the IWT Section was transported by rail to Montreal and after initial training at Camp Valcartier embarked for England arriving in Liverpool on March 31, 1917. His service record does not reveal specific training details in England where he spent the next two months in his rank as a sapper. Instead of heading to the trenches and tunnels of the Western Front, his unit finally received orders by May, 1918 to assemble at the port of Plymouth. On the 6th of June his IWT Section embarked by ship to Egypt probably through the Suez Canal where he wrote home to his sister. After making their way through the Red Sea, the contingent, according to his correspondence, reached Aden in present day Yemen in early December. Their final objective was to support the allied effort in the Middle East at the port of Basra on the Euphrates River which flows into the Persian Gulf.

From the onset of the war, Britain was determined to protect its interests in Basra by occupying the oilfields and pipeline near the city in November, 1914. Over the next three years, in addition to British officers and other ranks totaling approximately 3,500 soldiers, a contingent of nearly 10,000 men joined them from elements of the Indian Army, British West Indies Regiment, the Nigerian Marine, the West African contingent, Royal Engineers Coloured Section, Mauritius Labour Battalion, Egyptian Labour Corps, and upwards of 40,000 skilled and unskilled Indian and Chinese labourers.

Into this foreign world of extreme heat and diverse peoples and cultures stepped Private Shepherd on March 8, 1918.  For a local boy it must have a bewildering mixture of high adventure and intimidation. By this point, the fleet of craft where Wilfred was probably employed on the river systems or in the dockyards included over 1600 self-propelled vessels, barges and motorboats. But by June he suffered immensely from the unyielding temperatures which aggravated his childhood asthma. On the 26th he was admitted to the field hospital at Qualet Saleh with the effects of heat which caused vomiting and general weakness. By July 1st he appeared to be improving and in “cheerful spirits” but by the afternoon his temperature soared to 106.4 degrees Fahrenheit. The daytime temperature by this point had reached 119.2 F. Even with immediate efforts to lower his temperature utilizing an ice chamber, Wilfred Shepherd collapsed and died from heat stroke.

In a letter addressed July 2nd to his sister, Alice, the family learned about Wilfred’s fate as a casualty of war from a senior officer. “It is with a sad heart I write to tell you we buried your brother Wilfred today at 6:00 a.m. He died yesterday at 5:00 p.m. in a hospital from heat-stroke. Your brother is missed by all of us. He was one of our quietest boys, always cheerful and a sticker to the last. Wilfred was buried with full military honours in a little burial ground in Qualet, Saleh. May God sustain you and comfort his mother in this sad bereavement.”

Wilfred was awarded the British War and Victory medals posthumously in Sept. 1922 by the British War Office and forwarded to his family. Unfortunately his father, Caleb, was not there to witness that day; he died previously on July 7th at age seventy-one.


Hughitson Burns Shepherd

When Wilfred was about to leave Canada after training in Quebec in 1917, his brother, Hugh, was drafted under the Military Service Act in late October. Through this process he came forward to take his medical on the island from Dr. Macaulay and then received a telegram to report to training camp in Saint John in December. (St. Croix Courier, 6 Dec. 1917) The correspondent noted that unlike a number of other draftees, he did not seek any special exemption. Under the Act introduced in April, exemption from duty could be granted where a person’s occupation i.e. fisherman was essential to the support of a family.

By this time, Hugh, aged twenty-three, was contributing income to his family where his parents, Caleb and Sarah, were respectively aged sixty-six and fifty-six. Meanwhile, their older brother, Arthur, and youngest brother, Charles, along with sisters, Alice and Lila were still living at home. Addie, the oldest daughter had married Lewis Wesley Wilcox by 1905, and, the second daughter, Irene, died in 1915.

Hugh was assigned to the 1st Depot Battalion New Brunswick Regiment which served as a reserve unit to bolster the ranks of depleted active battalions like the Fighting 26th who had suffered considerable casualties in the trenches of France. However, while in Saint John barracks he contracted a foot infection and while hospitalized his unit shipped out without him. It was here that he was later to hear the news that Wilfred had died 10,000 kilometres away in Mesopotamia.

At demobilization in 1918 Hugh returned to his home and family on Wood Island. He continued to reside with his parents until 1922 when he married Madeline Green on March 25th. They raised five daughters and four sons; he died in 1992 at age ninety-eight.


P.S. I wish to thank Elaine Ingalls Hogg, the grand-daughter of Hugh Shepherd, for her generous access to family correspondence that illuminated the life and times of him and her great uncle Wilfred.