Part 3- Socks, Cigarettes and Machine Guns-War on the Home Front
Compiled by Roger P. Nason
As the winter of 1914 turned towards the spring of 1915, it became more and more obvious to the residents of Grand Manan and across the county that the war in Europe was not about to end as quickly as many expected. This outlook was reinforced with every weekly issue of the St. Croix Courier.
Throughout Charlotte County, community support for the war effort in the early months took the form of donations to the Belgian Relief Fund, a provincial initiative to provide aid to the sufferers of the German invasion of that country. In addition to cash contributions, island churches, clubs, societies and Sunday Schools raised a variety of goods through teas, socials, concerts and collections. Some of these items included clothing, boots, shoes, quilts and bedding, as well as non-perishable food stuffs (St. Croix Courier, Nov. 12, 1914).
Many local organizations like the Women’s Institutes supported both the Canadian Patriotic and Belgian Relief Funds. Individual island communities like White Head often published a list of cash donations which on Jan. 28, 1915 totaled $105.35 from 73 residents. The Institute at Grand Harbour, which had only formed in 1913 with Mrs. William Ingalls as President, had turned its attention to gathering two cases of clothing for Belgian refugees in November, 1914. In addition, they began to start knitting and sewing for the soldiers overseas. Likewise, the ladies at a class of the United Baptist Church of Grand Harbour were sending sheets and pillow cases to the relief fund.
But as the months turned into a year of the war and more reports about action from the Western Front appeared in the Courier, residents became very conscious of the impact of the war on soldiers from Charlotte County. The paper and telegraph lines were busy reporting on personal accounts of local boys on the front. As news trickled in about major battle events, they took on more personal meaning when augmented by weekly columns devoted to letters from soldiers forwarded by relatives and friends. From November, 1914, weekly issues of the Courier gave front page attention to battalion news, letters from the war front or training/staging camps in England, and, listings of local enlistments brought a new reality of distant war events to the folks on the home front.
To focus on the specific needs of the men in the trenches in France or the wounded recovering at hospitals in England, Comforts Associations began to appear in many communities in 1915 which emphasized contributions of two major items- socks and cigarettes. Letters from soldiers repeatedly talked about the practicality of knitted socks for troops faced with constant wet weather and exposure to “trench foot”. One soldier deplored “the waste of time and material in making knitted wristlets or cuffs and neck mufflers”, when what they really desired was good woolen socks. Instructions for knitting the most appropriate kind of wool socks were published in the paper. (St. C.C. Dec. 17, 1914 and Jan. 21, 1915) Starting in May, 1915, the emphasis on sock donations was such a priority that the newspaper began to print numerous lists of donors from around the county.
Grand Manan knitters were featured prominently in this listing, as well as men and children in families where they may have just made a donation. An example of this was the Polkinhorn family in Woodward’s Cove where Miss Kathleen Polkinhorn, aged eight, (later Mrs. Frank Daggett), as well as Sgt. (retired) George, her grandfather, and masters Gordon (Ben), aged five, and Franklin,
aged four, each donated a pair apiece. In the period leading up to May, 1915, the newspaper listed over 200 donors of socks from across the island, not including 15 pairs made by the Red Cross Society. (St. C.C. May 20, June 3, June 17, July 27, 1915)
The knitting bees of the Women’s Institutes were often supported by members who produced quilts and flannel pajama suits for the soldiers. The Soldiers Committee, as it became known, reported on Dec.2, 1915 that it finished 15 sets of pajamas in which local young men donated pocketfuls of cigars, gum and caramels-just in time to be shipped for Christmas.
The inclusion of cigarettes became a priority item for many groups, especially after a series of letters from soldiers in the trenches decried the lack of “smokes” for Canadian troops compared to their British counterparts. One member of the Royal Field Artillery observed that “ you only get a small packet of cigarettes a week and no tobacco, it’s like offering a sardine to a starving man.” The local Overseas Clubs of Canada, established in the early months of the war had raised only $50,000. over eleven months since January, 1915; which translated into about five packages for 40,000 men over that period of time. “What we want almost more than anything else”, explained the gunner, ”are cigarettes and tobacco for our pipes. It isn’t simply a fancy-but a real need. They are of big comfort. It is something when you are with the guns to have some whiffs of tobacco smoke. It eases your mind. You forget about things. It stops you thinking hard.”
By the middle of 1915, the donations list of comforts for soldiers expanded beyond socks, cigarettes and quilts to include suggestions for cakes, candy, dulse, molasses kisses, nuts, olives, gum, pocket handkerchiefs, notepaper, writing pads, pencils, shoe laces, face cloths, combs, envelopes, soap, towels, carbolic soap, face lotion, footease, Vaseline, vermin killer, and, safety matches. (St. C.C. June 17, 1915) Later, the items were supplemented by contributions from a Linen and Cotton Day which were produced into dressing cloths for wounds. (St. C.C. Sept. 15, 1915)
The most interesting campaign for cash donations undertaken by local committees became the urgent need for machine guns. A direct appeal for this weapon began in the summer of 1915 by members of the 55th Battalion who experienced the devastating advantage the Germans had by its first strategic use in battle. While the Germans deployed the weapon widely in its front lines, the British, and to an even lesser extent, the Canadian Expeditionary Forces overlooked its impact on inflicting casualties on enemy infantry charges. Colonel J.R. Kirkpatrick put it bluntly: “The fire of one machine gun is considered as equal to that of a platoon of forty to sixty men”. Up to this point, the Germans had a machine gun for each platoon; sixteen per battalion. With only four Vickers machine guns (see photo) in each British battalion, the Canadians were clearly suffering from the lack of tactical weapons like them. That came true in the Battle of the Somme in July, 1916, where British forces suffered 60,000 casualties. (St. C.C. July 22, 1915)
Throughout Charlotte County the appeal was taken up initially by the Canadian Women’s Club and then rapidly by local patriotic committees, Women’s Institutes and even church groups. A target donation of $1000.00 seems to be the amount chosen in support of the purchase of one machine gun. By Dec. 1915, The Grand Harbour Women’s Institute had already attained its goal and forwarded its donation to the Patriotic Fund which would see to it that the name of the group, community, society or person would be engraved on each gun coming from Canada. (St. C.C. Dec.9, 1915) These efforts increased throughout the next year as the first reports of casualties had a direct impact on island families.
In addition to the original 89 veterans that I discovered in the course of my initial research, a further dozen individuals have come to light through primary documents, newspapers and from information provided by readers of this column. I thank everyone for their interest. They include:
Bancroft, Halton Donald
Cronk, Charles Walter
Flagg, Wellington Lewis
Greenlaw, Samuel Melville
Lawson, Gordon Redvers
McLaughlin, Clarence Meredith
Parlee, Gordon Eules
Richardson, Grover Cleveland
Small, Arthur Burton
Small, Harold Eugene
Wickerson, Cecil Bethwood
Wilson, Harry Shepherd
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 email@example.com , or, at firstname.lastname@example.org.