Remembering two soldiers from the First World War
There's an old adage that you don’t die once, but twice: the first time when you stop breathing, and many years later when someone mentions your name for the very last time. That’s why, as we near Remembrance Day in 2018, I’d like to talk about the First World War, which ended exactly 100 years ago. Two of my relatives served in that war. One came home and had a full life and many descendants (including me). The other did not.
Andrew John (“Jack”) Wilson was my Dad’s father. When he entered the Canadian Army in 1915, he was assigned to the Canadian Corps Cyclist Battalion (“CCCB”), whose members were sent on bicycles to spy on German lines, dispatch messages along the trenches, and take part in direct combat. Ironically, it’s the same job Hitler had in the First World War, but on the German side of the front. Jack was gassed at Passchendaele but survived the war. He eventually moved his family to Victoria where he died in 1961 at 72. When my Dad died in 1996, I inherited an old pair of binoculars Jack took off of a German soldier at Passchendaele who presumably didn’t need them anymore.
Although my mother’s father, Frank Parsons, was a merchant mariner during the war and didn’t serve, his younger brother Graham was conscripted in September 1918. I only discovered Graham’s existence 22 years ago when I had to store an old trunk filled with stacks of my late grandmother’s papers and photos. I learned for the first time I had a great uncle who never made it home.
Graham was born in Victoria in 1895 and grew up in an old brick house at 1400 Pembroke Street that still stands today. He worked as a deckhand on small ships that transported coal and produce between Victoria and New Westminster with his father Harry Parsons, one of Victoria’s early marine pilots. Unfortunately, Graham would not enjoy the full life, or the descendants given to his elder brother Frank. He died on October 26, 1918, a mere 16 days before the war ended.
Graham didn’t die in the trenches of Belgium or France. Instead, he died in that other great catastrophe of the early 20th century: the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919. The flu killed as indiscriminately as mustard gas or machine guns, and it killed him in North Wales, where he was awaiting deployment at a transit camp called Kinmel Park.
What you might not know is that Kinmel Park is a story of incompetence so profound, it makes Blackadder’s General Melchett look brilliant. 15,000 Canadian soldiers desperately waiting to go home after the war ended couldn’t return to Canada because there were no ships available to transport them. At least one ship allocated to them ended up transporting American soldiers instead. So, they were confined to camp like prisoners until mid-1919. They weren’t paid on time and had no money for cigarettes and other extras at the canteen. There wasn’t enough food, so they were all on half rations. There weren’t enough beds or blankets, so many soldiers slept on the cold and wet floors of their overcrowded huts. And there wasn’t enough coal to heat the huts, so the flu took hold of the camp. The result, not surprisingly, was an armed mutiny. Five Canadian soldiers were shot and killed, and 23 others were wounded in the revolt. As one of the first flu victims, Graham missed all that. He’s buried in Saint Margaret’s churchyard in Bodelwyddan, together with 87 other Canadian soldiers who were trapped at Kinmel Park and died there.
So there. Now all of you know about two soldiers from the First World War, and perhaps some unpleasant Canadian history as well. By mentioning their names in this column, perhaps I can keep Jack Wilson and Graham Parsons alive just a little longer and delay that “second death” for a few more years.
The entire military service records of Canadian soldiers who served in the First World War are digitized and available at the Library and Archives Canada’s website. If you had relatives who served in the First World War, please look them up, read their service records, and this year in particular, say their names.