COLUMN: More to be said about Doukhobors and the war

At least 60 Doukhobors volunteered and two were conscripted for service during the First World War.

Koozma Diakoff’s grave in the Boulder Creek Doukhobor cemetery near Salmo.

Several follow-ups to a recent story about Doukhobors and the First World War.

The Doukhobors received a military exemption before they emigrated to Canada from Russia in 1899. Nevertheless, at least 60 volunteered and two more were conscripted for service between 1914 and 1917.

Only two were from BC. However, cemetery buff Pat Goulden points out that another, Koozma Diakoff (d. 1949), is buried at Boulder Creek, outside Salmo. Unusual for a Doukhobor cemetery, his gravemarker mentions his military service, naming him as a private with the 188th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces.

Diakoff may have lied about his age when he enlisted at Kamsack, Sask. in 1915. The papers he signed said he was born in 1877, which would have made him 38 at the time. His gravemarker, however, says he was born in 1864 while his death registration says he was born in 1870. If either of the latter two is correct, he would have been beyond the upper age limit of 45.

Meanwhile, Jon Kalmakoff, who compiled the list of Doukhobor soldiers for his Doukhobor Genealogy Website notes that much more can be said on the subject.

For starters, without exception, all those who volunteered were independent Doukhobors. “These Doukhobors were more integrated than their community brethren, in the sense of having accepted naturalization, pubic education, private ownership, and other tenets of Canadian citizenship,” Kalmakoff says. “This fostered a stronger attachment to, and sympathy towards, their adopted country that enabled some to cast aside their religious and philosophical objections to military service.”

Some may have been swept up in patriotic fervour, others by peer pressure, and still others may have enlisted for economic reasons. Twenty-seven Doukhobor enlistees were landless farm workers and labourers, who may have joined the armed forces out of desperation. Twenty-two arrived in Canada between 1909 and 1914. Their pacifist convictions were weaker, Kalmakoff notes, than those who arrived in 1899.

Two men — Michael Holoboff of Canora, Sask. and Demetri Kolesnikoff of Thrums — were inexplicably conscripted in 1917, despite listing themselves as Doukhobors on their attestation forms.

“In all likelihood, some Doukhobors who enlisted were conflicted with guilt and remorse for having abandoned their pacifist principles,” Kalmakoff says, pointing to examples of men who misspelled or distorted their names when they signed up.

At least two men deserted before their units left for overseas: Alex Antifaev of Arran, Sask., and Peter Gritchin of Kamsack, Sask. were both arrested, sent to clearing depots, and discharged. Samuel Karaloff of Blaine Lake, Sask. was charged with being “illegally absent” from his training unit, tried, and discharged.

Three others were court martialled while overseas: John Zmaeff of Swan River, Man. for “disobeying lawful orders from a superior officer” and “acting to the prejudice of good order and military discipline” in 1917; Fred Sherstabetaff of Blaine Lake, Sask. for “leading and taking part in a mutiny or refusing to report soldiers planning to mutiny” and “striking or threatening a superior officer” in 1919; and Thrums resident John Nevacshonoff for being absent without leave in 1918. (Nevacshonoff told his family he and other Russian-Canadian soldiers refused to kill Russian troops and were dishonourably discharged.)

Kalmakoff also discovered two Doukhobor enlistees — John Holokoff of Veregin, Sask., and William Strelioff of Kamsack — appear to have convinced military officials they were Austrian nationals and were therefore discharged as “enemy aliens.”

Eight men were discharged as “medically unfit” after being injured, falling ill, or suffering shell shock — including Koozma Diakoff, who was buried outside of Salmo. Alex Antifaev died of his wounds soon after his discharge. William Gloeboff of Kamsack of the 8th Battalion (Manitoba Regiment) of the Canadian Infantry died on September 1, 1918 of wounds suffered on the Drocourt-Queant line. Gloeboff, who was 22, is buried at Ligny-Saint-Flochel British cemetery west of Arras, France.

Further information on these men should come to light as Library and Archives Canada continues to digitize military service records.

NURSING SISTERS-IN-LAW: My recent round-up of West Kootenay nursing sisters of the First World War overlooked three who later married brothers from Queens Bay, Nancy Corrin notes.

According to a 2010 article by Barbara Bavinton in the BC History of Nursing Society News, English-born Bessie Irving Watson graduated nursing school in Liverpool and was working in Victoria as a graduate nurse in 1914 when she joined the medical staff of the Royal Canadian Navy’s first hospital ship, the HMCS Prince George.

The passenger liner was converted in response to reports of a German ship off the BC coast. However, it was only in service for 26 days before the presence of more modern Japanese and British cruisers made it redundant.

The following year, Bessie joined the Canadian Army Medical Corps and spent time in France and England. In February 1916, while on leave in England, she married Capt. Basil Aylmer, whom she had likely cared for. He was from a family of Anglo-Irish gentry who settled at Queens Bay. His father, Sir Matthew, Lord Aylmer, was inspector-general of the Canadian Forces from 1904-07.

Bessie resigned her commission after the wedding and returned to Canada. She was awarded the Royal Red Cross 2, the 1914-15 Star, and the British War and Victory Medals. She lived at Queens Bay until her death in 1956. Her only son, Matthew, died in Normandy in 1944.

Emma Gertrude (Blackie) Black also served aboard the Prince George. She was born in Fort William, Ont. and moved to Victoria as a child. She graduated from Royal Jubilee Hospital in 1912 and served four years in England and France, returning home in early 1919. She taught school at Queens Bay from 1926-28 and married Basil Aylmer’s elder brother John in 1928. She died in Vancouver in 1977, age 92.

Meanwhile, in 1924 another Aylmer brother, Kenneth, married a friend of Bessie’s, Eleanor Katharine Rogers (pictured above left, with Bessie). We don’t know as much about her; she was the daughter of John Francis and Misaria Rogers of Swanington, Norfolk, England. She and Bessie travelled from England in 1911 on the same passenger ship to New York. She enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces in October 1915. At the time of her marriage, she was nursing at Shaughnessy Military Hospital in Vancouver. She died in 1970 in Nelson.