Grand Manan and the Great War (Part 29)

Part 29- How Military Service Records Bring the Reality of War to Life

Benjamin Joseph Gaskill- Update

            In detailing Benjamin Gaskill’s activities on the war front in Part 5 of the Island Times, certain details were not available at that time about his wounds and honours he earned. Now his service record casts more light on those events. Attached to the 26th Battalion, he was not only wounded in June, 1916, trying to tend to other fallen soldiers on the battlefield as a stretcher bearer, but was traumatized by these events resulting in “shell shock”. At the time this affliction was not well understood by military leaders and often the “cure” was to get the soldier right back into action. And so within six days, Ben was back on the front lines with his unit but continued to suffer significant pain which put him in hospital again later that month.  In December, he received news that he was awarded the Military Medal for bravery.

When he risked his life again to aid soldiers on the field of battle in April, 1917, he was awarded a Bar to the Military Medal in July, which, in effect, meant that he had won the honour twice- an amazing feat for a soldier and even more so for a stretcher bearer. He was subsequently promoted to corporal status in August. Although he was rewarded with a well-earned ten day leave in September, within a month he had to return to hospital while in Lourdes, no doubt for his continuing myalgia. The military authorities must have recognized his suffering because after returning to his unit, he was approved to take a course in June, 1918, at the Canadian Corps Reinforcement Camp Infantry School at Bramshott, England. This was done with a view to obtaining a commission in the Canadian Infantry.

For the next four months Ben mainly continued as an officer cadet at the Canadian Training School at Bexhill where he was attached to the 13th Reserve Unit. He was eventually granted a discharge for being medically unfit; that is, he suffered from chronic pain in his right hip, finger joints, and from both legs from shins to his ankles. On most occasions this kept him from getting any proper rest and probably plagued him the rest of his life. Moreover, the military medical examiner noted that in 1903 he suffered from mastoiditis, an infection of the bone structure just behind the ear which might have caused further swelling, pain or even loss of hearing. In some cases, the infection could be fatal.

Ben may have been one of the lucky ones to escape the onslaught of the first wave of the influenza epidemic to hit the frontline troops in early 1918. Tim Cook in his work on the Allied armies and in particular the Canadian Expeditionary Force concluded the flu compounded losses in the field of battle. This was especially the case when a second more virulent strain of the virus hit later that year. Worldwide it is estimated that 50 million people died from influenza including 50,000 in Canada. Within the CEF the toll of infected soldiers reached probably 45,000 of whom 776 died directly from the flu and maybe as high as 3,000 who had symptoms of the disease.

For all of these reasons, Ben was discharged for “disability due to service” arriving in Halifax on the “Olympic” and travelling by special train to Saint John on the 18th of January. He proceeded to Fredericton where he was given a final medical examination and discharge on 4 March 1919. Within a few days he was heading home on the ferry and attempting to return to civilian life. By the spring of 1921 he was living with his older sister, Arvilla, whom the census incorrectly enumerated as his wife. Throughout the war it was Arvilla who was the beneficiary for his pay during his time at the front, probably to help her maintain the old homestead after their parents died and other siblings moved out.

How long he stayed on the island is difficult to say. By 1927 he turned up in Windsor, Ontario, heading to Chicago and gave his brother Joseph E. Gaskill as a reference contact. When Arvilla died in July, 1930, her obituary in the Courier mentioned him residing in Toronto. The newspaper also took note of his visit from Toronto to relatives at Grand Manan in the spring of 1930 where he stayed at Ebenezer Gaskill’ s place, his twin brother. (St. Croix Courier, 16 April 1930) At present it is not known if he ever married or where he eventually settled. In 1955 when his brother, Rev, Frank Barrows Gaskill, died in Windsor, N.S., the notice said he was the last of his family. We can assume this meant Benjamin was already deceased.

Many more details could be learned of his war experiences from his personal diary which was donated some years ago to the Grand Manan Museum but not presently available. Wade Reppert, former President of the Grand Manan Historical Society has transcribed the diary and has plans to publish it.

Joseph Paul Gaskill

            It seems Paul’s efforts to enlist were bumpy to say the least. After attesting on 12 January 1916 for the 115th Battalion, he went through training principally in Saint John. On July 20th, Joseph was declared a deserter because he apparently missed the ship transporting his unit to England. Whatever the reason might have been, the authorities saw fit to cancel the desertion charge when they learned that the Medical Officer had sent him home after spending part of February and March, 1916 in the Saint John General Hospital.

To add insult to injury, by Sept. 1917, he received a full discharge based on the discovery that his health made him unfit for service.


Frederick Foster’s Service in Europe

            After enlisting on 4 April 1916 Fred entered his new life as a private in the 224th Battalion. After a train ride to Quebec he arrived to take his medical at Camp Valcartier where he spent nearly two months in training before being shipped off to England through Halifax on the 19th of May. His unit disembarked eleven days later at Liverpool, England where many other overseas troops arrived during the course of the war.

Training up for soldiers before they were transported to France and the war front usually took place at Salisbury Plain. In Fred’s case, he was transferred in November, 1916, in London, to the Canadian Forestry Corps and used his logging experience with teams of horses in and around the headquarters at Sunningdale. During May of the following year he was assigned to forestry activities near Edinburgh, Scotland, and, then returned to London. The following month he received word of a posting to the No. 45 Company of CFC in France and landed there on the 17th for the camp at Bordeaux near the coast.

It seems Fred may not have been inclined to follow military discipline in this new battlefield atmosphere. Barely a week into his new role, he was brought up on charges and sentenced to five days in the stockade for, as they recorded, “An act to the prejudice of good order & military discipline in that he created a disturbance on Parade Field.“ We are not sure what was involved in the offence but it must not have been too serious. He seems to have towed the line for the better part of a year probably logging and milling railway, trench and bridge ties for the war effort. In July, 1918, he was granted a fourteen day leave of absence in England to relieve his unit from war front action.

Even with the end of hostilities with the signing of the Armistice in November, the Forestry Corps stayed to ensure the efficient evacuation of troops, horses and war materiel. Eventually on 18 July 1919 he was transferred from France to Camp Witley, the main Canadian headquarters, to embark for Canada. He was formally discharged in Saint John on July 29th.


Basil D. Foster

Frederick’s cousin, Basil, also enlisted but after the period when conscription was introduced in 1917. Son of David Melvin and Jennie (Green) Foster, he was born in Grand Harbour on 3 Sept. 1894, to a family of eventually four sisters and three other brothers.

After enlisting in Camp Sussex on 30 July 1918 with the 1st Canadian Depot Battalion, N.B. Regiment, he shipped out to Devonport, England by way of Quebec. Unfortunately for Basil his time overseas after training was spent almost entirely in hospital. Soon after arriving it seems he had acquired a fever on the transport. By October he fell victim to the great influenza epidemic which spread quickly through the ranks; but recovered sufficiently after about a month to rejoin his unit.

At General Depot headquarters at Camp Witley he was transferred to the Canadian Railway Corps. However, the disease held a grip on him throughout 1918 and until his formal discharge came through in May, 1919. His medical record hinted that a previous bout of pneumonia and emphysema six years earlier probably made him more susceptible to the influenza bug. He spent those remaining months shifting from hospital to hospital until his return to Saint John in July. On the 12th he was officially demobilized and made his way to Grand Manan.

Sadly that was not the end of his influenza attacks. On the 26th of January, 1920, he succumbed to the effects of tuberculosis. The military authorities recognized that his death came about through circumstances of his service and erected a grave stone in his honour. As a result, he is listed in the Canada War Graves Commission register.

Hospitalization from various diseases by soldiers was a principal part of all overseas casualties in the Great War. While most of the wounded in the First World War came as a result of artillery bombardment, the overwhelming number of hospital casualties for all Allied forces resulted from infection. Official records for Canada show that of nearly 540,000 hospitalizations for deployed troops, approximately 395,000 or over ninety percent accounted for medical attention to various diseases. The most common diseases include trench fever, typhoid, dysentery, meningitis, jaundice, tetanus, trench foot and mouth; not without mentioning influenza, pneumonia, smallpox, conditions of the nervous system, venereal disease, shell shock, and the devastating impact of poison gas.


Library and Archives Canada

New Brunswick Provincial Archives Vital Statistics

St. Croix Courier, St. Stephen

Tim Cook, Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1914-1916, Vol. 2, Viking Canada, 2008.