Called to war

With a telegram delivered 100 years ago, the bloody battle commenced

Barb Sweet
Published on August 2, 2014

The watch is stopped at 10 after two and to hold it is a privilege, though no one knows when it stopped.
A century old, with a small crack and a tiny leather strap, it may have quit with the passage of time or maybe it was forever quieted on the battlefield at Monchy-le-Preux.

It was there in 1917 on a day in April when Walter Tobin brushed his hand across it in the mud while crawling to safety.

He’d been twice wounded in the leg on that day. Tobin was previously wounded in the leg at Beaumont Hamel, July 1, 1916, the bloodiest, most horrific day for the Newfoundland Regiment.

Tobin didn’t talk much about the horrors he’d seen in battle with his friend, Dr. W. David Parsons, but he passed on that military issue officer’s watch he’d found, along with  other personal mementoes.

One thing he did speak about was the excitement and fervour that swept over lads like him and his brother, James, in 1914.

On Aug. 4, 1914, HMS Calypso Lt.-Commander A. MacDermott delivered news to Newfoundland Gov. Sir Walter Davidson at Government House of a telegram the admiralty had received from London at 6:30 p.m.

“The War telegram will be issued at midnight (London time) authorizing you to commence hostilities against Germany. But in view of  terms of our ultimatum that may decide to open fire at any moment. You must be ready for this,” the Calypso was informed.

The British secretary of state for the colonies, Lewis Harcourt, followed with the message at 9:25 p.m. — “War has broken out with Germany.”

The message back read “Acknowledge receipt of telegram Declaration of War.”

By  Oct. 1, 20-year-old barber James Tobin had his regimental number — 69.

Walter was still in school at St. Bon’s, and the next spring he followed the brother he idolized and went overseas on The Calgarian.

“Walter would say to why did he go, that he was a wild lad and this was going to be a great adventure. All the boys were going, so let’s go,” Parsons said.

James was killed in action in 1917.

Walter Tobin was discharged in 1918 and Parsons met him decades later when he came back to St. John’s from the United States.

They travelled to Beaumont Hamel together in 1991.

Tobin, like many veterans, did not glorify the war.

Parsons had, by then, become an amateur historian, but his own connection to the First World War is rich in lore and sorrow.

A chat with him is so rich in detail, it’s as if the contingent of historical characters is drifting through his living room, including Tobin, who died in 1995.

A thumbnail-size framed photo of his aunt, Maysie Parsons — the first Newfoundland nurse to go overseas — was sitting on his couch as Parsons began his story.

There are the family members  — his father, Harbour Grace-born Dr. William Henry Parsons, who, widowed from his first marriage, joined up at age 35 in 1915 with the British Royal Army Medical corp, but contracted dysentery at Malta. In summer 1916, he brought wounded soldiers back to Newfoundland.

Parsons said his father was awarded a military cross for his evacuation of 400 casualties at the Battle of the Somme in September 1916.

He finished his career as a Newfoundland pay and records officer in London, where in 1918 he married Margaret, who was known as Madge. She went over as a volunteer aid department  nursing assistant after promising to wait for William Henry.

Madge’s mother, then living in Montreal, didn’t want her to go, but relented when Madge’s brother, Richard Hayward Taylor, a member of the Princess Patricia Light Infantry, went missing in action. Dick’s mother hoped for a slim chance that Madge would find him with amnesia or suffering shell shock.

But Dick was never recovered and was believed to have perished at Passchendaele in 1917, never to be the engineer he’d dreamed of being.

Madge carried vats of hot water from the basement of a London school converted to a hospital and bathed the mud of the battlefield off wounded soldiers.

When Germany began using planes, the volunteers first went to the roof of their barracks when the sirens went off. Admonished, the second time they went to the basement, and the next time she just stayed in her bed, exhausted from the work.

There was his uncle, Alexander, a Blue Puttee who fought at Gallipoli and was back in North America training for the RAF when the war ended, two cousins killed at Beaumont Hamel and at least two dozen in all of Parsons’ extended family who served.

Parsons was just five when his father died of cancer, a complication of the dysentery.

“So, growing up, naturally my father was a hero figure. So was my Uncle Dick,” said Parsons, who also went on to work with First World War veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Veterans would be called in for exams as part of the pension process.

Among them was famed war hero Tommy Ricketts, who’d earned the top British honour — the Victoria Cross — at age 18 and had lied about his age to join up at 15.

Parsons had the pharmacist’s file open on his desk.  

“He said, ‘Don’t write a word on that. My family doctor, he knows all about me.’ We had a nice little chat and that was it,“ Parsons recalled.

“Some said that Tommy Ricketts was a man of few words. He was a man of almost no words. … I think he was perhaps fed up being the hero.”

Parsons, a member of the advisory committee to The Rooms archives and museum Great War project, has not only maintained a lifetime interest in First World War history, but has written two books, one with his son, Dr. Ean Parsons.

One is a guide and the other explores the often overlooked history of the naval reserve, the official military in Newfoundland at the time of the war’s outbreak.

His son Andrew is curator and archivist of the London Scottish Regimental Headquarters military museum in London.

“It’s very difficult to appreciate 20th century history without looking at the effects of the war,” Andrew Parsons said.

The fervour among those who joined up in droves in Newfoundland was rooted in the belief that all thought it would be a short war, the oft repeated “They will be home by Christmas.”

That was true on both sides, said Memorial University archivist Bert Riggs.

“The German Kaiser was quoted as saying that to the German troops,” Riggs said.

No one knew what they were in for until the first British troops engaged in battle.  

It was adventure, a chance to earn $1 a day and the first recruits committed to a year when they signed their documents.

“There was a spirit of patriotism, loyalty of empire and enthusiasm to be part of this,” Riggs said, adding that the tragedy for him is that there was no compelling reason for the war.

Several thousand Newfoundlanders served and about 1,500 never came back.

On Monday evening, the Basilica of St. John the Baptist and St. Bonaventure’s College in St. John’s will host an ecumenical service of remembrance to mark the moment when Davidson received the telegram.

The event, from 8:15–9:30 p.m. at Basilica, is open to the public.