Past, Present & Beyond – The Great War – Pt. 1: Willing and anxious to serve

Barbara Roden's new series on local participation in World War I. She starts with Walhachin.

This is the first in an intermittent series looking at Ashcroft and area during World War I.

It began innocuously enough, when the heir to a European monarchy was assassinated in what was then called Serajevo, Bosnia on June 28, 1914.

It was the touchpaper that ignited World War I; but for most people it was merely another news item. Readers of The Journal were more interested in the weather (“It is one of the real old time summers – hot and dry,” wrote editor R.D. Cumming) and the state of the roads (“The Cariboo wagon road is in a deplorable condition just now. The surface seems to be entirely gouged out of it in some places, and the holes are filled with dust. The long drought is no doubt responsible.”).

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand merited two paragraphs in The Journal on July 4, 1914, and the report is remarkable for being unremarkable; a bare bones account which gives no hint that the entire course of the twentieth century is about to be irrevocably altered.

All that changed, however, on Aug. 4, 1914, when Great Britain declared that it was at war with Germany. Canada, as a Dominion of Great Britain, automatically found itself at war too; and almost immediately the first ramifications of that far-off conflict were felt in this area. On Aug. 8 The Journal reported that C Squadron of the 31st B.C. Horse Regiment, based in Walhachin, was “ready and prepared to mobilize at a moment’s notice . . . Every man is willing and anxious to serve.”

A week later C Squadron received orders that it would proceed to Valcartier, Quebec, where a military training camp had been set up. “Recruits have come forward from the neighboring towns of Ashcroft and Savona,” wrote Cumming, “and several more of the single men here have enrolled. Those of us who are left behind will envy them their chance of active service.” On Aug. 21 the men left for Quebec, and were given “a great send-off from the depot, and the whole population turned out to do them honour. We understood that 14 men had joined at Savona.” The population of Walhachin was, at the time, around 150 people; within a month of the start of the war, 43 men from that community had left for active service.

As soon as the war started, profiteering began. “Although Great Britain has been in a state of war for less than a week, the price of at least two staple articles has increased considerably in Canada. Both flour and sugar made a sharp advance in price,” reported The Journal on Aug. 15. “This merciless putting on of the screws at such a time is contemptible.”

Despite the increased demands on local pocketbooks, money was found to help support the Canada Hospital Ship. Vancouver mayor Truman Baxter wrote to The Journal to acknowledge Miss Janet Sutherland and Miss Thelma Porter of Ashcroft, who had collected $51.50 for the hospital ship. He also thanked the citizens of Ashcroft for their “splendid donation towards this most worthy object.”

By Aug. 15, Russell’s Movie House in Ashcroft was giving war bulletins with the show every evening, and special war reports arrived in town twice daily from Montreal: “they are very eagerly anticipated.”

On Aug. 29 The Journal reported that Archie Lee, who had been the B.C. Express Co. agent in Clinton before settling on a pre-emption a mile from town, was leaving for Valcartier. Lee had been attached to the Royal Horse and Field Artillery in his native Britain before emigrating to Canada, and left to re-join his regiment. “From the vague reports that filter through from the battle line it would seem that the various artillery corps are in the thick of the fight and suffering severe losses on both sides,” reported The Journal, “so in all probability Lee will see a good deal of action before he returns from capturing Berlin.”

The final sentence is an indication of the prevailing belief, in August and September 1914, that the war would be over by Christmas. That belief was bolstered by an article in The Journal, also on Aug. 29, which reported the view of a prominent European diplomat that Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany would sue for peace within two months.

Nonetheless, the “Local News” column of The Journal noted a steady stream of departures, as local men went off to fight. Lewis Lawson joined the Edmonton Engineers; Cecil Stork, of the Bank of British North America in Ashcroft, left to join the volunteers in Victoria; Horace Roxford, who worked for Charles Semlin, went to Vancouver to enlist. The men were doubtless encouraged by news that a separation allowance of $20 a month was to be paid to the wives and families of married men serving with the Canadian forces. Pre-emptors like Archie Lee were also reassured by the fact that “all reservists and those who are volunteering for the war will be able to hold their pre-emptions during their absence.”

It was a grim time, but Cumming managed a few humorous notes. On Aug. 29 he reported in “Local News” that “Spies have been discovered in an orchard at North Ashcroft – they are the Northern variety” (Northern Spies are a type of apple), and on Sept. 5 he noted that “J. Cameron, chief of the CPR depot staff, has abandoned his post and gone to the front: Front St., Toronto.” It was perhaps just as well that Cumming was able to see the lighter side of the situation; for it was soon apparent that the war was going to go on much longer, and exact a far higher cost, than anyone could have anticipated.

Barbara Roden