Part 4- Christmas at Home and in the Trenches
As each Christmas approached for soldiers and islanders affected by the First World War, it was often met with a mixture of excitement and regret. By November-December, 1914, many new recruits from Charlotte County had not yet left training camps in Saint John, Sussex or Halifax. Still others, including those from Grand Manan, had made their way with new battalion formations to the major staging area at Camp Valcartier, Quebec. And others found themselves about to board troop ships, like the 26th Battalion, and cross the Atlantic for eventual disembarkation at Plymouth, England, where they would begin more rigorous training as part of the more than 30,000 troops of the First Canadian Contingent at Salisbury Plain. For those closest to their home areas, it might mean a pass or leave to visit friends and loved ones at that time of the year. More often than not, relatives and local community groups prepared special packages to send to the soldiers on their first Christmas away from home. By the time Christmas of 1916 was approaching, the Grand Harbour Women’s Institute and other island church groups associated with the Red Cross Society and the Patriotic Fund were busy deciding about upcoming holiday greetings and packages for the soldiers overseas. Requests by the Red Cross went out in November, 1916, for knitted socks, scarves, wristers, mitts, sleeping caps and trench caps. Another urgent need was for flannel shirts for the trenches. (St. Croix Courier, Nov. 2, 1916) The Women’s Institute on the island met every third Monday of the month at the I. L. Newton store in Grand Harbour and encouraged any woman or girl over the age of fourteen to join for twenty-five cents. Many members had already started knitting and sewing for the soldiers, as well as bringing sample Christmas gift suggestions to exhibit. Some may have borrowed ideas from the Red Cross groups in other branches of the county where they filled Christmas stockings with a mixture of items such as towel, toilet soap, wash cloth, tooth brush and paste, mirror, comb, handkerchief, gum, cigarettes, and a pair of socks.(St. C.C., Nov. 2 and 12, 1916) Very likely, the Institute undertook to create unique Christmas cards such as recommended by the Patriotic Fund contributors in
St.Stephen where special poetic verses and greetings were composed for soldier boys at the front. In some cases, cards were printed and sold to raise donations. (See sample photos) Ethel J.Todd, wife of William F. Todd who was the current Member of Parliament for Charlotte County and future Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick, penned a special Christmas greeting for all the county soldiers which groups were encouraged to place in cards:
Hail to the land of the Maple Leaf,
Hail to her Soldiers Bold,
It is nearing the anniversary
Of the simple sweet story of old.
The spirit of peace and of gladness,
Spread over the land and the sea,
When it was known of the birth of the baby,
The Saviour of you, and of me.
That spirit, today, is forgotten,
As nations rise up in their might,
Defying the God of their fathers,
Treading down the spirit of right.
Home friends are watching and waiting,
Loved ones are thinking of you,
May this be a blessed Christmas
To all our men brave and true.
—St. Croix Courier, Oct. 21, 1915
Another urgent concern heading into Christmas was the scarcity of toys for children. As early as September, the ladies of the Canadian Club reflected on the lack of toy makers in Charlotte County. The impact of the “war has deprived the children of the usual supply from Germany and it is intended that trade with that nation shall not again be renewed to any great extent”. To encourage the making of toys in Canada, and, especially across the county, the organization invited all amateurs to display at the fall exhibition in St. Stephen where they could win prizes for small boats, bows and arrows, carts and sleds, and anything produced from wood, metal, cloth or other materials. They stressed this effort would be a contribution to the patriotic cause. (St. C.C. Aug. 31, 1916) By now, citizens had become accustomed to stories and letters to the editor in the St. Croix Courier about the horrendous fighting in the trenches. Major battles in 1915 like those encounters at Ypres, Eloi, Festubert had brought news of the boys of Charlotte County who were wounded or worse still, killed in action. But major actions involving Canadian troops at the Battle of the Somme, Courcelette and the devastating engagements during the capture of Regina Trench in 1916 came closer to home. Grand Manan was not spared.
Private Ronald (Rodney) J. Flagg was believed to be the first casualty of the war from Grand Manan. Son of George and Annie (Wilson) Flagg of North Head, he was one of the earliest volunteers to sign up in March of 1915. Ronald enlisted at age twenty-nine which at the time was considered older than the general average of 21-24 for recruits. The Courier reported on May 11, 1916 that over his year of active service on the front with the First Canadian Battalion, he saw many actions. However, at the Battle of St. Eloi Craters near Ypres which lasted from 27 March to 16 April, 1916, it is likely where he was killed in action.
This must have been especially devastating news for the Flagg family since his younger brother, Wellington Lewis, joined the ranks earlier that year in January. Wellington, however, survived the conflict and settled back on Grand Manan by 1921 and married the local school teacher, Sadie May Gaskill, the day before Christmas in 1923. By this time he was employed as an assistant to the Life Saving Station in North Head. Welly lived until 1961 when he passed away at the age of seventy-three. Sadie lived until 1981.
Another Flagg family living down the road from George Flagg also suffered tragedy in 1916. His nephews, William Walter and Eugene Needham Flagg, both felt the impact of battles in the trenches at the sharp end of events in the summer of that year. Eugene was the youngest son of John Nelson Flagg and his wife Eva Teresa Cronk, born in 1892. Like his cousin Ronald, he also enlisted in March, 1915, and ended up in the 1st Canadian Battalion, the same as his cousin. On 9 July, 1916, Eugene was part of a movement against German lines south-east of Ypres near what was called Sanctuary Wood in Belgium. In a vicious artillery assault by the Germans, Eugene was killed in a bombed out crater, where his body was later recovered and buried in the shell hole. A memorial stone stands to this day in the cemetery at North Head.
William’s son, Walter Guy Flagg, fared much better as a member of the 115th Battalion, which he joined in January, 1916. His mother, the former Amanda Bernice Urquhart from Castalia, allowed their son to sign up at the minimum age of eighteen according to the attestation papers. The family must have been fearful for his wellbeing when news had arrived in May and July about his cousin and uncle, Ronald and Eugene. Nevertheless, young Walter survived the conflict and was back with his family in 1921. But not without the sudden shock from the death in early February of his little brother, William, at the tender age of sixteen. With the absence of their father, it was left to Walter to sign the death certificate.
It seems that William Flagg, the father, had actually gone to Bar Harbor, Maine, where in Sept. 1918, he registered for the military draft, giving his wife, Amanda, as next of kin. At that late date it is unlikely that he actually was called up since the war ended by Nov. 11. But this may explain why Walter chose to move to Bar Harbor in July 1924 except for a brief stopover in St. Stephen in Oct. 1926 when he married Georgena Grimmer. By this time he was established in that Maine town as an electrician and remained there until his death in 1978. The Flagg families were not the only ones to receive bad news in 1916. Other island communities would also be affected in a similar way.
Photos courtesy of Nancy Wormell.
Sources: Library and Archives Canada
New Brunswick Provincial Archives Vital Statistics
Ancestry.com St. Croix Courier, St. Stephen
Flagg family photos, courtesy of Nancy Wormell, grand-daughter of Winnifred (Winnie) Flagg Wormell.