First in a series marking the centennial of the First World War
A century ago today, thousands of people converged on Nelson to send 175 volunteers — the first Kootenay contingent — off to war.
Three-quarters were going to fight for their homelands. But others said they enlisted for “glory and satisfaction” and one man admitted his motives weren’t purely patriotic: “Part of it was the love of adventure, and a desire to see the world.”
At the same time, Rev. Father John Althoff was disturbed at “the intoxication of praise and the glory of war” and warned of its “soberness and gravity.”
Even those who listened to Althoff’s admonitions wouldn’t have anticipated the horrors to come over the next four years. Many who departed that day didn’t return.
In her new book, Names on a Cenotaph: Kootenay Lake Men in World War I, Sylvia Crooks (pictured at left) takes a closer look at the local men who died on European battlefields in what was supposed to be the war to end all wars.
She previously wrote Homefront and Battlefront: Nelson BC in World War II and during her research on that book was intrigued by the fact that even though similar numbers enlisted locally in both wars — about 1,300 — nearly four times as many men from the earlier conflict appear on the Nelson cenotaph.
“That was pretty overpowering,” Crooks says, attributing the difference partly to strategy. “They were using Victorian military strategy with more modern weapons. These men were walking into wave after wave of machine gun fire.”
It wasn’t unusual for 1,000 or more to die in a single battle, many from blood poisoning.
Another stark statistic: one-third of the names on the Nelson cenotaph have no known resting place. As the battleground was repeatedly churned up, makeshift graves were blown apart.
Crooks, a Nelson native and retired University of BC library science instructor, began collecting biographical information on each soldier and placed it in binders at the Touchstones Nelson archives. It came to more than 400 pages.
“I had all this info and decided I’d like to do something to bring some of these men alive again and tell their stories,” she says.
Her starting point was the 280 names on the Nelson cenotaph — who also hailed from the Slocan Valley, Trail, the Boundary and other points — as well as memorials at Procter, Kaslo, and Boswell.
Those names are notoriously difficult to research, however. As Crooks notes in her book, when cenotaphs were erected, there was “no overseeing body, no official lists of the dead for each city and town, no standards set or guidelines provided. Names were assembled from townspeople who wanted their loved ones or friends remembered.”
Consequently, there are many errors: misspelled names, incorrect initials, omissions, and even the inclusion of men who survived the war.
Crooks’ job was made easier, however, by the fact enlistment papers for the Canadian Expeditionary Forces have been digitized and are available online.
She also corresponded with many soldiers’ family members, although in most cases they were a couple of generations removed.
Crooks herself had an uncle who served overseas in the 54th Kootenay Battalion and survived, while her family had a Bealby Point cottage next to the McVicar sisters, whose two brothers were both killed. “It’s 100 years ago I’m writing about and yet here’s a family I had such personal contact with,” she says.
In contrast to her previous book, which devoted equal space to the war effort at home and abroad, Crooks spends more time discussing individual soldiers.
“The men didn’t all grow up together in the way they did in World War II,” she explains. “Most were immigrants and arrived as young boys or teenagers in the first part of the century. It wasn’t as closely knit a community as it was later.”
Every First World War soldier named on the Nelson cenotaph is listed in the book, and a little over half receive more detailed biographies. Crooks says she tried to include a representative sample and those with especially interesting stories.
She admits, however, that writing at length about young men cut down in their prime was “depressing.”
“These were almost like people I knew by the time I started writing. It was difficult sometimes because the stories were so terribly sad. It’s a sad book, but important to remember these people — not just to pay tribute to the names but to the men themselves.”
• Sylvia Crooks launches her book at Touchstones Nelson on Thursday, September 4 at 5:30 p.m. and has a signing at Otter Books on Saturday, September 6 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. She’ll also give a presentation hosted by the West Kootenay Family Historians Society in the lower level of the Castlegar Public Library on Monday, September 8 at 6:45 p.m. and do a reading and presentation at the Boswell Memorial Hall on Thursday, September 11 at 7 p.m.
Sedition and the war
In Names on a Cenotaph: Kootenay Lake Men in World War I, author Sylvia Crooks doesn’t shy away from troubling aspects of the war that occurred off the battlefield.
It’s hard to imagine today, but back then, expressing the least bit of doubt or indifference was regarded as unpatriotic and could have serious consequences. Citizens were encouraged to join a “Loyalty League” and report any dissent.
Crooks cites three examples from 1918 alone: a man who was rude to a Red Cross canvasser in Nelson was immediately arrested. Another man alleged to have said “It doesn’t matter whether Britain or Germany wins this war” was similarly jailed. And the secretary of the Miners’ Union at Silverton was charged with sedition for stating soldiers in France were not fighting his battles.