War stories in N.L. find new life

Rooms road show arrives in St. John’s hoping to collect more tales

Published on June 14, 2014
Anne Chafe, director of The Rooms provincial museum division, holds the cap of Royal Newfoundland Regiment soldier William J. Driscoll.
— Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram

An old trunk found in the attic of a newly-purchased home in Harbour Grace had surprising contents — an old Royal Newfoundland Regiment uniform from the First World War.

Belonging to the late William J. Driscoll of St. John’s, that uniform was recently donated to The Rooms when its First World War Road Show stopped in Bay Roberts.

Launched in early May, the road show has visited 14 communities across the province, documenting 888 artifacts and collecting 231 stories that will help form a permanent exhibition on the war effort.

“Everything that we saw was just things we hadn’t seen before or (filled) gaps in the story or helped us just bring the personal side of the war,” said Anne Chafe, director of the provincial museum at The Rooms. “That’s what we want to do. You know, how do we get people interested in this when so many of us don’t have any current connection to that war?”

The Rooms hopes today’s launch of the St. John’s component of the road show will prove particularly useful for the project. The vast majority of the 537 enlisted Newfoundlanders and Labradorians came from there.

“The St. John’s one is a little different in that it’s going to be an exhibit — it’s not only going to be people bringing things in.”

So far, efforts to document items and collect stories have been fruitful, filling many gaps that existed within The Rooms’ collection.

The road show targeted communities where enlistment was heavy in hopes of coming across relatives. Artifacts were documented either through photos or with a scanner. Many were agreeable to loaning artifacts to The Rooms, and in some cases people offered to donate them. Stories were also recorded.

The Rooms hoped to find “I Offered” pins given to men who offered to enlist but were disqualified for any number of reasons. A collector in Grand Falls-Windsor did have such a pin, along with one that read “I Volunteered.” The Rooms was not aware of the latter pin, according to Chafe.

A pair of sealskin boots was found in Springdale. Their waterproof properties were useful during the war — trench foot due to dampness was an ongoing concern for soldiers. Unique stories were also collected, like one about a sniper from Labrador whose skills were tested through wagers made amongst soldiers. Another concerned a man who died oversees. His family later received his belongings along with an itemized list.

“One of them (on the list) was ‘a housewife,’” said Chafe, who explained the deceased soldier’s family had remained confused by this entry for years. Other items on the list were ordinary by comparison — for example, a duffle bag or a prayer book. It turns out ‘housewife’ is an old term used to describe a personal sewing kit.

Gaps remain in what The Rooms hopes to track down.

Stories about the war experience for women, nurses, merchant mariners and doctors are in short supply, and Chafe said a nursing uniform from that era years ago would be a great find. The Rooms is also looking for tin triangles that were displayed on the backs of soldiers.

“They were made out of biscuit tins, and the idea behind them was that they were supposed to identify other Newfoundlanders, but they had the opposite effect, because July 1 was a beautiful sunny day in Beaumont Hamel, and it just reflected the sun.”

Rooms staff will be available weekdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. to collect stories and document artifacts.


Twitter: @TeleAndrew