Names on a Cenotaph: Kootenay Lake Men in World War I
September 3, 2015
Review By Duff Sutherland
Sylvia Crooks’s Homefront and Battlefront: Nelson BC in World War II (2005) brought to life the lives of all the men honoured on the Nelson cenotaph and the impact of the war on their families and hometown. In this new book, Names on a Cenotaph: Kootenay Lake Men in World War I, Crooks does the same for the Great War of 1914-1918. In Homefront and Battlefront, we learned of the lives of seventy West Kootenay men who went to war and never came back. In Names on a Cenotaph, Crooks introduces us to over 200 of the 280 men listed on the Nelson cenotaph and on community cenotaphs around Kootenay Lake. The much higher Great War losses reflected that conflict’s very high rate of military casualties that is noticeable on most community cenotaphs across Canada. Names on a Cenotaph is a token of remembrance; an offering of respect for men, families, and communities prepared to sacrifice so much for what they believed to be a righteous cause. As the portraits accumulate through chapters dedicated to each year of the war, the reader can also share in Crooks’s anger at so many ghastly deaths “in a futile war” (xiii). Crooks’s work, now stretching over two impressively researched books, began with a desire to know more about Maurice Latornell, who taught her how to skate as a three-year-old growing up in Nelson. He died in a bombing raid over Berlin in 1944. Historians and researchers of British Columbia have benefited from Crooks’s work that came from her memory of this young man.
In 1914 Nelson was a city of 5,000, the hub of a West Kootenay region transformed since the 1880s by mining, fruit farming, railway construction, and large-scale British immigration. As in other parts of the province, the outbreak of war led many men to enlist for patriotic and personal reasons, especially the recent arrivals from Britain. The first contingent left Nelson at the end of August; by the spring of 1915, they were fighting in Belgium as part of the First British Columbia Regiment. Over the course of the war a substantial number of region’s men would sign up for British Columbian, Canadian, and British battalions, including over a thousand for the 54th Kootenay Battalion established in 1915 with headquarters in Nelson. Crooks calculates that a third of the first 600 who joined the 54th Kootenay Battalion did not survive the war. West Kootenay men, along with other Canadians, fought in some of the war’s bloodiest battles: they were gassed at St. Julien near Ypres, experienced heavy casualties on the Somme, participated in the victory at Vimy Ridge, suffered “the horrors” of Passchendaele, and were involved in Canada’s “Hundred Days Offensive” on the road to Cambrai in the last months of the war. A sniper killed 21-year-old Private Percival Frederick Coles on 6 November 1918 along the Grand Honnelle River in northern France. He was the last of the Kootenay soldiers commemorated on the cenotaphs to die in battle. Crooks found that before the war Coles worked with his widowed father on a fruit ranch at Proctor on Kootenay Lake. As was common for Kootenay Lake families that suffered losses, his father gave up the ranch and returned to England soon after the war.
Crooks’s painstaking research on the lives and deaths of these men who came from all walks of life in the region shows how well local history can illuminate a wider experience such as the Great War. On the one hand, we are reminded of the incredible violence and suffering that soldiers experienced during the war. The portraits reveal over and over again how death came from guns fired at close range, from shrapnel shells, and through explosions during intense artillery bombardments. In 1916, an officer let Lance Corporal George Roe’s mother know that her son’s death was “instant and painless” when a shell destroyed his dugout (64). Crooks’s evidence shows that in many other cases wounded men suffered terribly before they died on the battlefield or in field hospitals. In September 1918, Captain Garland Foster, a former editor of the Nelson Daily News, suffered a gunshot wound to the chest at Bourlon Wood. Foster’s nurse wrote to his widow that he suffered “untold agonies” and, “….[o]ne felt the last few days [that] it would be a blessing to see him go” (163).
On the other hand, Crooks’s research and photographs bring the war dead back to life. Her evidence and images document many young men like Corporal Alfred Killough of Castlegar who enlisted as an 18-year-old and died two years later on the Somme. Older men also fought and died; Private Frank Laberge, a lumberjack from the Slocan Valley, was 50 years old when he died in the battle for Hill 70 in 1917. Fathers and sons fought together. Brothers fought together. Close friends fought together. Bert Herridge of Nakusp reported that a shell killed his friend Private Frederick “Freddie” Day as he was singing him a song. And, in many cases, men died courageously in horrendous battles and while rescuing wounded comrades. Many know of Nelson’s Lieutenant Hampton “Hammy” Gray who was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously for heroism during World War II. Crooks tells the less well known story of the first Nelson man from to win the VC, Lieutenant Commander Rowland Bourke, who daringly rescued drowning sailors at Ostend Harbour, Belgium. Bourke survived the war but Crooks reminds us of the appalling human cost of the war on every page of her book.
Crooks shows that the people of Nelson, like people in most communities across the province, gave strong public support for the war to the very end. Along with high enlistment rates, citizens provided financial support to families of men serving overseas, raised money to send “comforts and supplies” to the men of the 54th Kootenay Battalion, attended “win the war” rallies in support of conscription in 1917, and contributed heavily to Victory Loan campaigns. Individual women and women’s organizations in Nelson also offered strong support for new recruits, men on leave, and men overseas. Local women served as nurses, filled jobs vacated by enlisted men, and pledged in large numbers to support at home the government’s efforts to increase the export of foodstuffs. Yet by 1918 the government’s perceived need for more censorship and the increasing numbers of arrests for speaking out against the war suggested a growing weariness. In September 1918, police charged the Secretary of the Miners’ Union in Silverton for sedition after he stated, “that the soldiers in France were not fighting his battles” (131). We do not learn what happened to him. More broadly, we wonder at the end of Names on the Cenotaph how Nelson and Kootenay Lake families coped with their grief, and how the city and resource economy of the region recovered from so many losses. These sorts of questions come from Sylvia Crooks’s excellent research and writing.
Names on a Cenotaph: Kootenay Lake Men in World War I
Vancouver: Granville Island Publishing, 2014. 249 pp. $19.95 paper