Part 27- Christmas, 1915-6, and the Reality of War
Letter from Lieut. Walter Lawson, 26th Battalion, to Miss Freda Wren of St. Andrews, N.B.
Somewhere in Belgium, January 3rd, 1916.
“The Battalion spent Christmas day in the trenches but I was detailed for a Grenade Course for that week, so missed the experience. However, we don’t distinguish much between days here, and it passed very quietly.
We came out of the trenches Dec. 29 and had a big spread for New Year’s. Just at present we are in a town about five miles back of the firing line, for six days, and are very comfortable. We come here now once every month.
It is rather muddy here just at present, and rains all the time; but we are getting use to it now, and everybody is fairly hardened to it, and we are now quite old soldiers. I like it very much myself and wouldn’t change it for anything. Just at present everything is fairly quiet, and the work consists of draining and repairing the trenches, building other defences, and sentry work etc., in the front line. However, I imagine that in a couple of months things will start one way or another.
All our work here is done at night, and we sleep in the daytime. Most of our casualties are caused at night by stray bullets. During the day there is very little firing, but at dusk it begins and continues till day; and working in the open as we do, it is a wonder that more aren’t hurt.
I suppose you are in St. Andrews now. I would like to be in St. Andrews for just one night to have a skate… I haven’t seen Frank Fraser yet. He is several miles from here, and I hope to see him some of these days. I was very glad to get your letter and hope to get another one soon. Thank you very much once more for the candy. Regards to all in St. Andrews.”
In reading Walter Lawson’s letter, one gets a sense of longing for the simple pleasures of day-to-day life such as skating at Christmas time with friends and family. After enduring a full year of conflict and now another Christmas season, soldiers and communities like Grand Manan began to lose the euphoria for the call to arms. Increasing casualties were now touching every level of society and the weeks did not pass without reports in local newspapers about young men killed in battle, missing in action or wounded in horrendous actions on the Western Front. By this time, Grand Manan had contributed at least thirty young men to the war effort and more were intending to depart on the ferry for training camps in Saint John and Sussex by January, 1916 for enlistment in the 115th Battalion.
When news filtered down through newspapers and letters about the terrible casualties being inflicted on the Canadians at the battles of Ypres and Festubert, a sombre cloud fell over many Charlotte County communities. This uncertainty about the future was even reflected in the marital plans of people. In previous years, the number of marriages performed on Grand Manan in the fall season usually numbered more than a dozen. Between mid-September, 1915 and early Jan. 1916, not one marriage bond was concluded. I daresay, in great part, this had much to do with the uncertainty facing young couples and their families with the dismal situation in Europe.
In the midst of these uncertain times, Grand Mananers still tried to carry on with normal Christmas holiday activities. The United Baptist Church at Seal Cove held its annual Christmas concert on a Friday evening with a heavy turnout. This event followed a very successful patriotic, missionary program and pie social sponsored by the Women’s Missionary Society of the Grand Harbour United Baptist Church. In addition to recitations by island ladies like Mrs. Lester Tate who rendered “Only a Bit of Bunting”, and Mrs. William Cronk, who recited, “A Psalm of Knitting”, the evening was capped off by a tableau in which Miss Sadie Dakin depicted “Canada” with the Patriotic Fund to help “Britannia and her Allies protecting Belgium”. A chorus of young girls finished with “Rule Britannia” while other ladies were attired in the colours and flags of other allied nations including Russia, Italy, Serbia and France. (St. Croix Courier, 2 Dec. 1915)
Aware that another group of men had been recruited before Christmas, people from across the island banded together to put on a reception and entertainment on New Year’s Day. Inspiring speeches by Sergeant George Dalzell, already a veteran of the war, and old Sergeant George Polkinhorn were followed by refreshments, games and music provided by the K.P. Band. (St. C. C. 15 Jan. 1916) Likewise, the build up to Christmas was one of the most active periods for the Soldiers Comforts Committees, Women’s Institute and church groups churning out blankets, bandages, socks, facecloths and supplying quantities of matches, ointments and toiletries for overseas packages. Grateful soldiers like Lieut. Lawson especially looked forward to boxes of candy and chocolates which usually carried the Ganong label.
Frank Wise Fraser
Walter Lawson, whom I covered in Part 8 of a previous installment, refers to his friend Frank Fraser, another Charlotte County boy. In fact, Frank Wyse Fraser was born in Woodward’s Cove on 18 August 1890, third son of Aldice John Fraser and Florence Melva MacLellan. Aldice’s father, John G. Fraser, had been instrumental in starting successful commercial fishing, mercantile and shipping businesses in the Cove in the 1880s which eventually was carried on by two other sons, Henry and William.
Frank was one of the first to sign up in Sept. 1914. After graduating from Mount Allison University in 1912, he went to the Pacific coast where his brother Arthur was already a resident. Here he joined for the next year the surveying branch of the British Columbia Dept. of Lands stationed in Victoria. Then he became employed as an assistant engineer with Forest Products Laboratories of Montreal in charge of timber testing. When war broke out he enlisted in 14th Battalion, Royal Montreal Regiment. At the Second Battle of Ypres, his “B” Company suffered major losses. A series of engagements were fought from April 22nd until May 25th in a salient of land in the ancient Flemish town of Ypres in Western Belgium. The Canadians suffered staggering casualties during this first mass use of poison gas by the Germans.
In a letter to his mother, then living in Saint John, he wrote in May, 1915:
“Our company was in the thick of the big fight and was successful in holding the line for several valuable hours. We were unfortunate in losing all our company’s officers, five in all, besides a non-com, and 84 men.
Our platoon suffered perhaps, more than any other, as only nine men answered to their names at roll call after we had been relieved.
Between April 15 and May 2, we had our boots off only once and, during that period, enjoyed only a few hours rest.” (St. C.C. 3 June 1915)
Within another year, Sgt. Fraser was wounded while out in “No Man’s Land” giving aid and attempting to rescue one of his officers. He was to remain in hospital probably in England and eventually got invalided out to Canada in April of 1917. That same year he rekindled his ties with Forest Product Laboratories attached to McGill University in Montreal. Thereafter, Frank spent several years in Essex, New Jersey, where he worked for a paper company. He remained long enough to be required to register for the U.S. draft in September, 1918. Here he met and married Annie Louise Clarke, also a Canadian, and was living in Norwich, Connecticut, in 1920, where he was an office manager with a paper mill office. It was here that they had their only son, Frank Clarke Fraser, who later became a graduate of McGill University and Canada’s first pioneering medical geneticist.
In the new decade he seems to have had a relationship with Clark Bros. pulp and paper plant in Bear River, N.S. By 1925 he had switched employment to the Commercial Intelligence Service of Canada, a predecessor to the Trade Commissioner Service in the Dept. of External Affairs. In 1926 he was appointed Dominion Trade Commissioner for the Irish Free State and three years later took up a similar post as representative to Jamaica where he remained through most of the Second World War. In January, 1945, he received a new posting as Trade Commissioner to Australia.
In the next installment we will examine the exploits of Frank’s other three brothers.
For further suggested reading, I recommend:
Peter Hart’s The Great War: A Combat History of the First World War, published by Oxford University Press, 2013, which gives a global perspective of events; and,
Tim Cook, At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1914-1916, Viking Canada, 2014.