Just a few hours before church bells were scheduled to ring to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War, George Egan acknowledged it’s hard for us to imagine the horror of that war.
Egan, chairman of the Wartime Heritage Association, was guest speaker for Royal Canadian Legion branch 155’s annual Remembrance Day banquet in Wedgeport.
“In our modern world, it is perhaps difficult to imagine the tragedy of the First World War,” Egan said. “The maimed, the injured among those who returned and the loss of those who did not ... officers ordering men into no man’s land to face the onslaught of gas, bullets and artillery from the enemy.”
Thousands could be wounded or killed in less than an hour along the western front, he said.
“And on the home front, the worry of parents, of small children missing their older brothers ... of mothers, fathers and wives awaiting news from overseas.”
Egan has devoted much of his time and effort to preserving local military history. In a recent interview, he had expressed concern over history being lost, a point he raised again during his talk in Wedgeport.
“War memorials list the names of those who died and in some cases those who served,” he said. “If we walk the cemeteries of our communities, we find the gravestones of World War I veterans that give a name, perhaps a battalion, a date of birth and a date of death. But after 100 years, our knowledge of those who served – beyond a name – is fading away, lost to time.”
The Wartime Heritage Association certainly has done its part to stem the tide. At last count, the association had identified 1,578 men and women who served between 1914 and 1918 with a connection either to the Town of Yarmouth or to villages of Yarmouth County.
Among them was Malcolm Cann, an 18-year-old Yarmouthian and one of the first four Canadians killed in the war when the ship on which they were serving – HMS Good Hope – was sunk by a German destroyer on Nov. 1, 1914, some 50 miles off the coast of Chile. Six days later, Egan said, the Yarmouth Light newspaper published a “war extra” listing Cann’s death.
Up to that point, enlistments in this part of Nova Scotia had been slow, Egan said. This changed after people learned of Cann’s death.
“The news ‘galvanized our area into wartime activity,’” Egan said, “In the weeks following, some 50 enlisted, including Manning Muise, born in Surette’s Island, George Nicol, born in Pleasant Lake, Edward Hubbard of Tusket and William Nadeau, born in Wedgeport. They enlisted with the 25th Battalion: a shoemaker, a clerk, a fisherman and a cook.”
There were many others, of course. Egan referred to more than 30 of them in his Wedgeport talk, focusing on people from the villages in the catchment area of the Wedgeport legion.
Among others, he cited the “somewhat unique” story of Albert Pothier of Wedgeport and his three sons – Luc, Charles and Cyrille – all of whom served in the First World War. The elder Pothier, who had served as local MLA from 1894 to 1897, was 53 when he enlisted, although he claimed to be 45.
Egan read from a letter sent to the wife of Edwin Woollard, who had received word that her husband was missing in action after the battle at Passchendaele on Oc. 30, 1917.
“She lived in hope but heard nothing further until a letter arrived dated March 27, 1918, written in a dugout in a trench in France by Private Mills, a stretcher bearer,” Egan said.
The letter writer told Woollard’s widow, Elsie, that Woollard “was a man we all knew and all liked.” After offering a few details about what happened the day her husband was killed – describing the scene as a “hell of bursting shells and flying shrapnel” – Mills wrote, “I think we will have to resign ourselves to the fact that your husband has gone to a better front, where all is peace and quiet.”