Grand Manan and the Great War (Part 2)

Scene_at_embarkation_of_26th_Battalion_and_ammunition_column_CEF,_St_John,_New_Brunswick,_June_13,_1915

Part 2- Donning the Khaki

Compiled by Roger P. Nason

            As summer turned to autumn of 1914, Grand Manan residents reacted to war events very much like folks on mainland Charlotte County. A national call had gone out for young men to respond to voluntary enlistment and “don the khaki” in one of the many battalions being formed in Fredericton, Saint John and Halifax. Many communities began by forming local Patriotic Fund committees to raise money that could aid British and Belgian allies. In the opening months, most of the news carried in the St. Croix Courier and Saint John newspapers tended to emphasize the invasion of Belgium by the Germans in early August with a force of 600,000 troops, hoping strategically to encircle the French from the north and sweep any British support into the sea. It was truly a struggle between David and Goliath, with the tiny mostly civilian Belgian army pitted against the professional German onslaught; only, in this case, Goliath won.

German Invasion of Belgium and France 1916

German Invasion of Belgium and France 1916

Reports of atrocities against the civilian population in Belgium added to the propaganda spread by the British press. Newspapers in New Brunswick gave ample space to these accounts.

Calls for recruits and financial support for the Belgians was a primary concern for local committees and Grand Manan rose to the occasion during the fall and winter months. Meetings in Seal Cove, Grand Harbour and North Head were held regularly from September through the spring of 1915. The Courier reported that in those villages across the Island “British, Canadian, French, Belgian, Russian, Japanese and United States flags are displayed at every meeting…” Often, spirited and patriotic speeches were delivered by Dr. John Macaulay, the chairman of the committee, and, reinforced by Scott D. Guptill, M.L.A. Financial subscriptions and boxes of clothes were generally gathered for the Belgian effort.

Organizations like the Women’s Institute on Grand Manan were among the first to encourage recruitment efforts. On March 4th, 1915, a local report indicated the week before eight men left for Saint John “to join the Colonial forces for our national defence. The band from Grand Harbor was in attendance and the boys were given a good send off”.

When the call went out in weeks following August 4, 1914, for volunteers to enlist, recruiting offices opened in the major centres of the counties. St. Stephen became a key focal point for enlistment in Charlotte County. Many residents who intended to sign up often ventured to that community and then were often referred for initial training in Saint John, Fredericton, and after 1915, to Sussex. Still others were later sent on to Halifax. Many of these recruits in the first year became members of the 25th, 26th, 40th and 55th Battalions. Following their initial period of training they were moved to Camp Valcartier, Quebec, the major staging ground for the First Canadian Contingent. The next stop was England.

Before I begin to examine the events surrounding the lives of those recruited from Grand Manan, a word of explanation is required for the reader. Although I have identified ninety-one individuals who enlisted with Island connections, the task of identifying them is not easy. As I mentioned earlier, it is much easier to pinpoint the casualties of the war who were often memorialized through monuments erected in communities after the conflict was over.

But there is no comprehensive list to show who came forward to volunteer, when they took this step or when they signed up. They are hidden among more than 600,000 records of men and women whose service files were generated by military authorities and held now in the National Archives in Ottawa. What makes the task of identification more difficult is that some enlistees might sign up at the nearest office where they worked away from the Island, when visiting friends and relatives in other towns or provinces, or, when absent at school, colleges or universities in other provinces. Still others, who normally called Grand Manan their home, might have sought temporary employment in neighbouring Maine, Nova Scotia, or even as far as Manitoba to British Columbia. For this was the period before 1914, like today, when the draw of opportunity in the West was a beckoning call for young men and sometimes whole families.

Although recruiting efforts started immediately, many residents of Grand Manan chose to volunteer in offices at St. Stephen or more likely Saint John. Their attestation forms, of which an example is shown, reveals their background, vital statistics and general physical description even down to height, weight and colour of eyes. Following a physical examination by the battalion doctor, the document is signed, dated and the enlistee is confirmed as fit to serve.

One of the most effective ways to encourage enlistment was to hold special meetings in communities where the military recruiting officer would be accompanied by local soldiers from the area who had already earned honours in the field. One such individual was George Alden Dalzell, son of George Y. and Susan Dalzell of North Head. George Sr. was the well known keeper of the Swallow Tail Lighthouse. His son was a perfect candidate to represent the model soldier who stepped up for King and Empire.

Born in 1883, George got the urge for adventure as early as 1900 when he turned seventeen. In that year he travelled to Saint John to take the steamboat to New York and shipped on a steamer for South America where he engaged essentially as a foreign mercenary in one of the many revolutions occurring at that time in Latin America. Along with many other European revolutionary fighters, he was engaged in battles which erupted between Chile and Bolivia. After being wounded in Antofagasta, a northern port of Chile, he became disillusioned and returned to New York.

In short order, the spirit of adventure struck him again and he signed on a voyage going to India. Taking passage from there, he travelled to Demerara in the Caribbean and eventually ended up in England. By the spring of 1902, he had enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery and served as a gunner in South Africa during the Zulu uprising of 1906 where he was wounded. Shortly afterward, he and his unit shipped off to India serving under Lord Kitchener and Sir O’Moore Creagh for the next two years. With his service concluded, he returned to Canada in 1911, only to wander to Prince Rupert, B.C. where he became engaged in commercial fishing.

George Dalzell's attestation form. Source: Library Archives Canada

George Dalzell’s attestation form. Source: Library Archives Canada

George A Dalzell Attestation Form 2                          When war erupted in 1914, he made his way to Quebec and left to rejoin his regiment in the British Army. The Royal Field Artillery was one of the first to see action in September near Nantes, France. George sustained two broken legs when a team of horses hauling gunnery supplies bolted and in an attempt to stop them, he was run over. By 1915, he was back with his regiment near St. Eloi, France, where he fought alongside other Canadians at the battle of Ypres. His valour and courage earned him a “mention in dispatches” to General Sir John French, Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force.

Even after receiving head wounds he stayed active for several weeks during the assault on Ypres. During that action he was gassed and wounded by shrapnel in the stomach. Subsequently, George was transferred to hospital in England where he spent four months recovering. After discharge from hospital, he was made sergeant instructor in Kitchener’s army recruiting and training program.

Royal Field Artillery, Gunnery Crew 1914; Dalzell's Unit

Royal Field Artillery, Gunnery Crew 1914; Dalzell’s Unit

After several weeks carrying out this duty, he was released and returned to Canada where he continued the recruitment program.

The St. Croix Courier for January 13, 1916 went to great lengths to report all the details of his adventures and military service to inspire others to join up. George successfully attracted at least seven new recruits from Grand Manan who followed him to Saint John to sign up. When interviewed by the Courier, he optimistically predicted that a full platoon (approx.26-64   men) could probably be raised on the island alone.

George Dalzell 115th Battalion 1916

George Dalzell 115th Battalion 1916

Once again he donned the uniform with the 115th Battalion under Colonel F. V. Wedderburn and soon found himself in England with the rank of sergeant major. While in England he attained a commission as lieutenant and was posted to Scotland with the Canadian Forestry Corps in Inverness-shire.

It was while he was stationed there that he met and married Ella McDonald on Dec. 1, 1917. With the close of the war they sailed for Saint John and George returned to civilian life on Grand Manan as a clerk in a fish canning factory in North Head.  But his dedication to the military did not stop there. With his intimate knowledge of the various regiments raised in southwestern New Brunswick for the war effort, George immediately joined the cause of returning soldiers through the formation of the Great War Veterans Association of Canada (GWVA). He was recognized as directly responsible for the establishment of a branch in Saint John as well as two others in Charlotte County including the GWVA on Grand Manan. This organization evolved into what we now know as the Canadian Legion.

Tragically, in March, 1920, he died from tuberculosis which apparently plagued him for up to two years. No doubt the gas attacks in the battlefields of France were a contributor. The only consolation for his family was that his burial took place at North Head while many casualties of the war never made it home. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission listed Isabella Janet Dalzell of Toronto as his widow.

It should be noted that George Dalzell was not the only member of his family to fight in the Great War. Younger brother Wilfred enlisted in January 1916 with the 115th Battalion, perhaps influenced by George’s recruiting efforts at the time. And another brother, Leonard, after spending time as a seaman along the eastern seaboard, registered with the U.S. military draft in New York in 1917. More will be said of their service records in future installments.

For further suggested reading on the Great War, 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, 2007.   P.S. I wish to thank the reader who alerted the Editor about the absence of Sam Greenlaw on the veterans list. I am sure there are others who will emerge as this series goes on and we will be able to tell their story. I can be reached directly through the Island Times or by e-mail at a special web site being established to commemorate Grand Manan and the Great War at info@grandmananfundyhistory.com , or, at roger.nason@gmail.com.