In the past, I’ve posted some of my family’s ties to the First World War but today, in honour of the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, I thought I’d share a brief, new perspective, looking at the war and its impact as my great-great grandfather, James Proven, recorded in his diaries.
James Proven was a farmer in rural Manitoba and he kept a diary for most of his adult life, mostly documenting his farm work. On Nov 7, 1918 he noted, “Germans hard pushed” and, on the following day, “Hear Germany has collapsed. Believe it is true this time.” On November 11, he added “Germany surrenders”
The war had claimed two of his three sons, with Ernest dying of wounds received at Vimy Ridge in April 1917. The entry for April 13 reads, Mrs. McDugle came up and told of Ernest’s death.” They receive what seems to be his last letter three days later.
His eldest son, Harry, died of wounds received on the advance of Cambrai in late September 1918, just a month and a half before the war’s end. The family received the news on October 10 and His diary reads “The sad news of Harry’s end 29th Sept.”
My great-grandfather, Sidney, was conscripted but never went overseas. The last of his siblings, he remained in Clanwilliam and eventually took over the family farm.
On the 10th anniversary of Ernest’s death, James added, “April 9, 1917 Ernest got killed at Vimy Ridge. Just 10 years ago now. Ten long years for me to be without my boy.”
A very special thank you to Lisa for sharing these diaries with me.
By Alan Horwood
These men knew war: In youth and strength they went
Forth into battle, when the world was rent
By conflict, born of arrogance and hate;
To force all nations to a vassal state.
They bore the burden, blood, and sweat, and tears,
Of strife, and toil, and sorrow, through the years
That tried their courage, broke, or steeled their pride;
Confirmed the strong, and cast the weak aside
Back from the war they came, grim-faced and lean,
Tight lipped about the things their eyes had seen;
Burned in their hearts too deep to be revealed
The mud and horror of the battlefield.
Their faces now etched with lines of care;
The hoar-frost of the years is in their hair;
But sagging shoulders stiffen in salute
As youth swings by; but in their eyes the mute
And hopeless longing for the days when they
Marched to the bugles of another day.
They say that the old soldier never dies;
And that is true; till under sod he lies,
His martial spirit flames on undiminished
Till death blots out the light, and all is finished.
They did not shrink from duty when once more
Dark war clouds loomed, more deadly than before;
They vied with you, eager to do their share
Of service, here, abroad, or anywhere.
And those the years had touched with gentleness,
Are serving with the troops in battle dress;
Holding the line, until to son and sire
Victorious bugles around the call “Cease Fire.”
Source: Robert H. Henderson Collection, Royal Alberta Museum.
I haven’t been able to do any further research but apparently the YMCA produced stationery specifically for soldiers writing home for Mother’s Day. I can’t imagine the YMCA thought that this would be used by a Canadian Forestry Corps company to record some productions statistics but it looks like they used anything on hand.
Anyways, Happy Mother’s Day!
Today marks the 97th anniversary of the Canadian assault on Vimy Ridge. Among the thousands of Canadian soldiers who went “over-the-top” that fateful morning were two of my great-great uncles, Harry and Ernest Proven. While Harry survived the attack (read more about him here), his younger brother was not so lucky.
On December 13, 1895, James and Harriet Proven of Clanwilliam, Manitoba, welcomed the birth of their son, Ernest Albert Proven. Ernest, or Ernie, was eventually one of three children; his older brother, Harry, was born two years previous, and his younger brother, Sidney, was born in 1896.
Shortly before war broke out in 1914, Ernie and Sid purchased land in the Alonsa area and started working on homesteads there. I do not know where the Proven brothers were war was declared but like the many prairie farming families, they were likely more concerned with their crops than war in Europe. This, however, would soon change as his older brother, Harry, enlisted in January 1915 with the 45th Battalion.
On March 18, 1916, Ernie and a number of the Clanwilliam boys not yet in uniform attended a recruiting rally. There, alongside fourteen of his comrades, twenty-one year old Ernest Proven volunteered his services for Lt. Col. Glen Campbell’s 107th Battalion.
Following a brief stay in Winnipeg, Ernie and the 107th Battalion relocated to Camp Hughes for summer training. Here, the men of the 107th Battalion trained in the mock trench system, practiced marksmanship, learned how to throw grenades, and prepared for life at the front.
On September 13, 1916, Ernie and the 107th Battalion left Camp Hughes and began their journey East. Stopping briefly in Winnipeg for a final send-off, the Manitoba Free Press remarked the “…platforms were quickly converted into one mass of humanity.” Some ten thousand people had gathered to send off the 107th and two other local battalions. Allowed to detrain for half an hour, the battalion’s men did their best to find their friends and family and spend some final time with them before heading overseas. As the paper reported, the men of the three battalions, “with bronzed faces and stout hearts took a farewell of their relatives and friends…” who had gathered at the station.
The battalion arrived in Halifax a few days later and was quickly loaded upon the S.S. Olympic, the sister ship of the RMS Titanic. With 6,000 men on board, the Olympic left Halifax on September 19, 1916 and arrived in England without incident on September 24.
Ernie’s time in England was brief, spent mostly at Camp Witley in Surrey. In December 1916, Ernie recieved notice that he was to proceed to France for service with Harry’s battalion, the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles (CMRs). Upon arrival in France, Ernie spent the next two months at a depot camp training and preparing for the rigors of trench warfare.
Ernie finally joined the 1st CMRs on February 14, 1917. Assigned to “D” Company with his brother Harry, Ernie was also joined by some of the Clanwilliam boys he had enlisted with almost a year previous. Soon after, Ernie and Harry and their Clanwilliam friends Fred Minns, Herman Klemet, Nelson Graham, and Hugh Sanderson got together to take a souvenir photograph. As the sender of the photograph, Herman Klemet noted, they expected to return to the trenches soon. He was not wrong.
In mid-February, the Canadian Expeditionary Force began training for the eventual assault of Vimy Ridge. On March 21, 1917, the unit moved into the front lines but Ernie’s here, however, was fortunately uneventful.
On April 5, Ernie, Harry, and the rest of “D” and “C” Companies, moved into the front lines in preparation for the assault.
In the early hours April 9, 1917, the twenty-four officers and 890 other ranks of the 1st CMRs moved from the dugouts to the jumping-off trenches (highlighted in blue on the map below), from which they would begin the assault. The battalion was assigned to take three objectives: the German Front line (red), the Swischen Stellung Trench (green), and a Sunken Road (yellow). Harry, Ernie, and the rest of “D” Company was assigned the first enemy trench systems (red) and clean up any resistance as the rest of the battalion pushed forward. Once this was completed, the company was told to move forward and help capture the other objectives.
At 5:30 am, friendly artillery opened fire on the German lines and, three minutes later, the whistle blew.
Ernie, Harry, and the rest of “D” Company climbed out of the trenches and led the assault. The company kept close to the creeping barrage and the men struggled over the shell-torn ground as shrapnel and machine gun fire filled the air. The Germans who were fortunate to survive the bombardment quickly recovered and opened fire upon the advancing Canadians.
At some point during the assault, an artillery shell landed close to Ernie as he advanced across no man’s land. Shrapnel tore into his right shoulder, leaving him seriously injured. As a comrade stopped to provide aid, Ernie reporteldy told him, “Go on, I’ll manage.” These were to be Ernie’s last words to him.
Harry and the rest of the company pressed forward and left Ernie behind to wait for aid. Ernie was eventually picked up by stretcher-bearers and taken to a nearby Regimental Aid Post. From here, men of the 8th Canadian Field Ambulance transported Ernie to the advanced dressing station at Neuville St. Vaast, where his wounds were once again treated.
On April 11, 1917, Ernie arrived at the No. 2 Canadian Stationary Hospital at Outreau, near Boloulogne. A message was dispatched to the Proven family notifying that Ernie was “dangerously ill.” The following day, on April 12, 1917, Ernie succumbed to his wounds.
His body was buried in the Boulogne Eastern Cemetery and news of his death was published in the April 19, 1917 edition of the Minnedosa Tribune. On May 10, the paper published a short obituary, noting that he had died “somewhere in France.”
In 1922, the village of Clanwilliam erected a monument to its war dead. Ernest Proven’s name, along with his brother, Harry Proven, are inscribed alongside the the names of the area’s twenty-seven men who died for King and Country.
One of my more recent interests is the work of the Canadian Forestry Corps (CFC) during the First World War. The CFC was raised specifically to supply the Allied armies with a desperately-needed resource: timber. Whether it was to needed to support dugouts, hold barbed-wire, or aircraft frames, wood became one of the most basic resources of the First World War. Composed primarily of lumberjacks and foresters, the CFC eventually operated in France, England, and Scotland and succeeded in preventing a timber shortage. For a bit more of a background, you can read another of my posts here.
The CFC was organized into numbered companies of about 100-200 men and were assigned specific forests or woodlands to cut. One of these companies, the 107th (originally No. 7), received a timber limit in Keppernach, Scotland (South of Nairn in the Scottish Highlands). The area in which the company found itself in, the Forest of Cawdor, was no comparison to the Canadian “wilderness” they had left behind. Between 1825 and 1854, over fourteen million trees had been planted here, in an area covering just over 4,000 acres. The majority of the area was populated with Scotch Fir, the most-desired wood for wartime use.1
The company’s advance party of fifteen men arrived in late July 1916 and within ten days, had a Scotch mill up and running. A Canadian mill was built in August and the mills ran almost continuously until the camp closed in August 1917. By September 1917, the company had cut 6.5 million F.B.M. (foot board measure).2
As I’m interested in the relationship between forests and war as well as forest regeneration, I decided to see what I could learn using GIS. Fortunately, the online war diary of the 107th Company includes a relatively uncommon map of the company’s operation at Keppernach.
Even more fortunate, when you search Keppernach in Google Maps, the first (and only) result is Keppernach Farm and takes you to the exact location the 107th Company worked in (see below). This saved me quite some time as I would have otherwise had to search all over Nairnshire for roads that matched up with my map.
In trying to locate some contemporary maps of the site, I discovered that Scotland, and Great Britain for that matter, has some great HGIS sources available online, notably A Vision of Britain Through Time and Old Maps Online. While some of these require you to live in Britain (A Vision of Britain) or charge for digital copies, I was able to get some high quality and detailed maps (here’s an example) from the National Library of Scotland. These maps were produced by the Ordnance Survey and published in 1905 so they provide the perfect backdrop to CFC operations in the following decade.
I then threw everything I had into Quantum GIS (QGIS) and georeferenced the maps.
Then adding the CFC map (in red)…
While the hand-drawn CFC map doesn’t line up perfectly with the other layers, it still provides a sufficient sense of what the operation looked like. I was somewhat surprised to find that from the air, it is impossible (for me at least) to tell that this forest had been completed cleared in 1917 and that the roads, pathways, and borders remain virtually unchanged. I also found it interesting in that the forested area had actually expanded (likely the result of interwar afforestation efforts brought about by the wartime shortage of timber) and that you can still make out the site of the Canadian camp (large rectangle on the left).
For the moment, this is a chance for me to refresh my GIS skills (which I apparently lost while home for the holidays) and a quick experiment to see what I can extract from the archival records. While it is very much a microhistory, I’m hoping that it will lead to some new information and insight into the role of the Canadian Forestry Corps.
Stay tuned to see what else I can find!
1. Historical Record, Keppernach Camp War Diary – 107th Company, War diaries – No. 51 District, Canadian Forestry Corps, Reel T-10901-10902, Volume 5018, Series III-D-3, RG 9, Library and Archives Canada.↩
A post of mine about the Canadian Forestry Corps in the First World War has just been posted on NiCHE’s The Otter. Based upon some of my research from last year, it briefly examines the transplanting of Canadian forestry methods to British forests. To learn more, click the link below!
September 29, 2013 marks the 95th Anniversary of the death of my great-great uncle, Sergeant Harry Proven. Unfortunately, in the past ninety-five years, much of the history has been lost to time as his younger brother, Ernest Proven, was mortally wounded at Vimy Ridge, and the third brother, my great-grandfather, shared few stories about his older siblings. That being said, I am still in possession of some documents and photographs that provided some light into their military service but it was not until last year’s First World War course that I was actually able to bring his story to light.
I hope to show that even with a few seemingly irrelevant records, there are still the tools and resources out there that can shed some light on Canadian Soldiers in the First World War. For those interested, I will post a follow-up describing some of these resources I used in filling in the gap in my family’s history.
Harry Proven was born on January 2, 1893 to James and Harriet Proven of Clanwilliam, Manitoba. In the years before the outbreak of war, Harry attended school in Clanwilliam but, like many prairie boys, spent most of their time working on the family farm.
On January 30, 1915, at the age of twenty-two, enlisted in the Brandon-based 45th Battalion under the command of Lieutenant Colonel F.J. Clark. Following training at Camp Hughes, the battalion relocated to Winnipeg where it remained before going overseas in March 1916. Harry’s time in England was relatively short as he was transferred to the 1st Canadian Mounted Rifles (CMRs) to replace the staggering casualties the battalion had received at Mount Sorrel in June 1916.
Harry’s first night in the trenches likely came in July 18, introducing him to the apparent endless supply of mud, rats, and lice. However, activity in the area was relatively quiet and Harry spent the next few months rotating in and out of the line. Christmas 1915 was spent in the front line but fortunately enemy fire remained minimal.
In early 1917, the battalion spent most of its time behind the lines preparing for the eventual assault on Vimy Ridge. Harry was joined by fellow Clanwilliam boys, including his younger brother, Ernest Proven, who had just been transferred to the unit from the Winnipeg-based 107th Battalion.
In the early hours of April 9, 1917, Harry, Ernie and the rest of the 1st CMRs went “over the top” following a spectacular artillery barrage on the German lines. As part of the first wave, Harry and Ernie were tasked with capturing and clearing the front lines and to then move forward to assist with the rest of the assault. Either in the initial assault or as “D” Company moved forward to assist, Ernie was struck in the shoulder by shrapnel, a wound that would claim his life three days later. Harry, however, remained unscathed and, by the end of the day, found himself fortifying his position in preparation for a counterattack.
The summer of 1917 was relatively uneventful as Harry was assigned to various courses and was also granted leave to Paris in August. While in Paris, Harry received his promotion to Sergeant. Fortunately, Harry was spared the nightmares of Passchendaele as he was transferred to the Canadian Corps School for the next five months, following which he was granted two weeks’ leave in England.
In late September 1918, Harry and the 1st CMRs prepared themselves for the assault on the town of Cambrai. Facing thirteen German divisions and numerous machine gun companies, the Canadian Corps launched its assault in the morning of September 29, 1918.
At 8:00 a.m., the 1st CMRs launched their attack under the cover of a rolling barrage. As they advanced, German machine gunners in and around St. Olle opened fire. Caught advancing across open fields, Harry and his men were prime targets for the enemy fire. While “A” and “C” Companies received the brunt of the casualties, “D” Company was not spared; German machine gun fire struck Harry in the chest.
Evacuated to the Regimental Aid Post, Harry was taken to the 12th Canadian Field Ambulance’s Advanced Dressing Station to have his dressing changed before being taken to the Main Dressing Station at Quéant. While in transport or following his arrival at Quéant, Harry succumbed to his wounds.
Harry was interned in the Quéant cemetery where he remains today. At home in Clanwilliam, the Proven family mourned the loss of another son and a service commemorated his “supreme sacrifice.” In 1922, the village of Clanwilliam erected a monument to its war dead and Harry and Ernest’s names were inscribed along the names of twenty-eight Clanwilliam men who died for King and Country.