Past, Preset & Beyond – Pt. 2: Best regards to mutual friends

Barbara Roden writes about the effects of World War I on Ashcroft, as reported at the time in The Journal.

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

By mid-September 1914 the first wave of volunteers had gone off to fight, and many on the home front were equally anxious to do their bit for the war effort. In Ashcroft that took the form of potatoes; 17 tons of them, to be precise (plus five tons of mixed vegetables), which – as The Journal reported on Sept. 19 – were to be donated to the Vancouver War Fund by “all the principal growers in the district” (including C. Semlin, P. Parke, M. McAbee, Lin Kee, Lueng Louie, and Wing Wo Lung). The CPR agreed to transport the vegetables for free, and in the Oct. 3 issue of the paper editor R.D. Cumming exhorted those who had donated to get their produce to the station by the following Friday. A letter of thanks from Vancouver Mayor Truman Smith Baxter commended the town for its “very handsome donation”.

On Sept. 19 The Journal also reported that “the president of one of our most important chartered banks” had given, as his considered opinion, the view that “the great European conflict must more or less consume itself within 60 to 90 days,” since the cost in business, men and money was “almost incalculable”. Despite this optimism, however, a preliminary meeting was held in Ashcroft on Sept. 23 to discuss starting a war fund. A follow-up meeting on Sept. 28 was attended by “a very large number of citizens, including a great many of the ladies, some of whom have taken an active interest in the work.” It was decided that all funds collected in Ashcroft and area would be donated to the Canadian Patriotic Fund “for the assistance of wives and families of those soldiers who have gone to the front”.

Despite the gravity of the meeting’s subject, the attendees made room for some enjoyment. “A short but very entertaining program was rendered by some of the local gifted ones, among which was an orchestral selection by Mr. C.E. Gooding and Mrs. W.M. Huston; a solo by J. Burr; a speech by the Revd. W. Sandilands; and solos by Messrs R. Gilbert and the Revd. Bennett.”

The war still seemed very far away, as those at home awaited news from soldiers who had departed for the Canadian base at Valcartier, Quebec and thence to Europe. Cumming could even make a small joke of it, in the paper of Sept. 26, writing of a news item headlined “Austrians capture Semlin” that “We did not know the enemy was so near home.” (Semlin was the anglicized name of Zemun, a town in Serbia that had been fought over by Austria and Serbia since 1717.) However, this deep-seated animosity between neighbouring countries in Europe hit home in the B.C. interior when, on Oct. 5, four Serbians were held on suspicion of the murder of a 42-year-old Austrian near Quesnel. The Journal reported that “it is believed the crime was committed as a result of racial hatred”.

At last Ashcroft received news from the front, when a postcard from local recruit Alan Barclay was received by his father. Barclay, on board the HMS Bacchante, wrote “Am still going strong. The rest of our squadron was sunk while we were refitting.”

An indication that the war would probably not be over in the immediate future came when Ottawa announced, on Oct. 19, that the officers commanding Canada’s six military divisions had been ordered to start work at once on recruiting 15,000 infantry volunteers. “It can be safely assumed,” it was announced, “that a practically unlimited number of infantry can be made use of by the War Office.”

On Oct. 31 it was reported that Walhachin was still “anxiously awaiting the first mail from the men who have gone to war, and are now in training on Salisbury Plain.” A week later, however, Ashcroft residents heard from another one of their own: 27-year-old James Rennie Rae, who before his enlistment had been a clerk at the post office in Ashcroft. Rae, who was born in Glasgow, Scotland, had come to Ashcroft in 1910, and was one of the first locals to sign up. His letter, written aboard the SS Lapland, was sent to R.D. Cumming, and published in the paper (credited to “The Journal special war correspondent”) on Nov. 7, 1914.

“With plenty of leisure aboard this luxurious liner, I thought I might write a few lines which might interest you, and, through the Journal, my friends in Ashcroft.

‘Land of our birth, our faith, our pride

For whose dear sake our fathers died

O Motherland, we pledge to thee

Head, heart and hand through years to be.’

“It is all summed up in the foregoing verse, the reason why we are here on our way to the Motherland, ready and anxious to do our little. Most of the officers and men of the 54th Battalion are from the Prairie, and all have had experience of a varied character.

“We have had a most pleasant voyage to date and the sight of the fleet in the sunlight each morning has been right glorious to behold. Passing ships have sent us pleasant greetings, and the alert British bulldogs ahead, astern, and on our flanks have enabled us to sleep peacefully in our berths, and each night, without even a thought of danger.

“Paddy Keating is with me in the 5th Battalion, and he is a very smart soldier; his polished appearance and shining morning face would rejoice the hearts of his old friends on Railway Avenue, to whom he sends his kind regards.

“Give my best regards to mutual friends. J. Rennie Rae, 5th Battalion, 2nd Brigade.”

Barbara Roden