Archivist wants every soldier’s story told

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Gary Kean
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Bert Riggs, archivist for the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives at Memorial University, discusses the roles men from the Bay of Islands played during and after the First World War. — Photo by Gary Kean/The Western Star

At first glance, it can look as though Arthur Francis Jesseau was the only man from the Bay of Islands region among the so-called “First Five Hundred” soldiers of the Newfoundland regiment to head overseas to the First World War.

Upon closer inspection, there were others who may have been living elsewhere when they enlisted and boarded the SS Florizel as she steamed for Europe in 1914.

Many more Newfoundlanders would follow them and, through the course of the war, there were at least 60 of them who hailed from the Bay of Islands and joined the regiment.

On Thursday night, Bert Riggs, archivist for the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives at Memorial University, detailed the lives of five of those men, including their contributions to the war and their lives afterward, if they survived.

In riveting detail, he discussed the short life of

Pte. Hugh Walter McWhirter, the first member of the regiment to be killed in action.

According to an account from someone who was there when he was killed, McWhirter never knew what hit him when he was struck by a Turkish shell at Gallipoli on Sept. 22, 1915.

The inglorious immediacy of his death, read Riggs, made the survivors of that particular attack realize war was serious business.

“He had simply been standing, deafened by the screech and explosion of artillery: a terrified boy in an ill-fitting uniform in a front-line trench. ... Then, from out of nowhere, he had been blasted to red bits of khaki and flesh by a Turkish shell,” read Riggs. “Suddenly, he was gone and those beside him in the shallow firing trench were stunned, sprayed by bits of shrapnel and dirt and intestine. They knew just as suddenly what this war was going to be about.”

Discipline issues

Not all of the stories were as disturbing as that. Riggs talked about Charles Ballam, who may have had his issues with discipline, but would go on to become a respected union leader at the Corner Brook pulp and paper mill and a long-serving minister in Joey Smallwood’s first cabinet after Confederation in 1949.

He talked of the scholarly Paul Young, an award-winning student who enlisted and went on to become a Rhodes scholar and a physician after the war.

Then there was the athletic Albert Mortimer Martin, who was taken as a prisoner of war, but would later become an honorary lieutenant colonel of the regiment and would be inducted into the Newfoundland and Labrador Sports Hall of Fame.

And, of course, Arthur Jesseau, the soldier who had developed a reputation as a sure-shot sniper and who was also held captive for a period of time as a prisoner of war.

After living a long post-war life with such experiences embedded in his memory, Riggs said, it should be no wonder Jesseau would later be described by some who knew him as “the meanest man” around.

Thursday’s presentation, tiled “For King and Country: The Bay of Islands and the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in World War 1,” was presented by Grenfell Campus Alumni Affairs and Development and the Corner Brook Museum and Archives.

Memorial University has set about actively engaging the public in its operations and, with the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War less than two years away, Riggs said it is incumbent on everyone to tell the stories of everyone who fought.

“We owe it to them to be ready to commemorate each of their lives — each and every one of them,” said Riggs. “We need to find out as much about each one of them as we can, to bring them back to the land of the living where they can become part of our lives, our memories and our legacy to future generations.”

The Western Star

Organizations: Newfoundland Studies Archives, Newfoundland and Labrador Sports Hall, Grenfell Campus Alumni Affairs Corner Brook Museum Archives.Memorial University

Geographic location: Bay of Islands, Newfoundland, Europe Corner Brook Western Star

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  • Joseph Arthur Jesseau
    January 04, 2013 - 12:40

    Thanks for the interesting information about my GrandFather, Arthur Francis Jesseau. Every little tid bit is added to the already Lengthly File that I and my Father before me ( Albert Jesseau ) has accumulated over the past 40 years. Your Truly Joseph Jesseau

  • paul
    October 08, 2012 - 09:18

    if telling these stories also tells about the true horrors of war and the loss of life ,limb, and humanity not about the glory of winning medals, serving your country, and such nonsense, then it might be a worthwhile pursuit. war is horror and should never be presented as anything else.

  • John Shortiss
    October 08, 2012 - 08:33

    Delighted to hear that MUN is carrying out this project and bringing the lives of the men and boys who served with the Royal Newfoundland Regt and other units during WWI to the fore as the 100th Anniversary approaches . No doubt there will be "Nay Sayers" who will knock the project with the usual trite rubbish and accusations of it being a celebration of Imperialism/Militarism. To them I say go and stand in a military graveyard in Europe, your thoughts wont be about glorifying Imperialism/Militarism. Your thoughts will be with all those young men and their families and the lyrics of "The Green Fields of France" (Well how do you do,young Willie McBride....) should come to mind. My great-granduncle John Doran a boy soldier, sailed on the SS Sicilan from St. Johns on August 28th 1916. He died on Sept 23rd 1917 from wounds received near Ypres. He is buried at Canada Farm Cemetery. Ar dheis De go raibh an-anam dilis