Editor’s note: this is the fifth in a series of articles commissioned by Action Canada which The Telegram will publish throughout the summer. Action Canada is a national fellowship program building leadership for Canada’s future.
By Bert Riggs
There is no accurate count of the number of brothers who served in the Newfoundland Regiment during the First World War, but it is safe to assume that the number would be in well into the hundreds. Add to this those who had brothers in other fighting forces, then the number would be even higher.
Brothers enlisting in the Newfoundland Regiment take many forms. Some joined up together or in close proximity to one another, while others were years apart, some even after their brothers had been killed or died of wounds. Others, once they had experienced the fighting, were adamant in letters home to their parents that their younger brothers not be allowed to enlist. Lance Cpl. Curtis Forsey of Grand Bank exhorted his parents on a number of occasions not to allow his younger brother Sam to join up, as did Pte. Lester Barbour of Newtown in reference to his younger brother, Carl. Brothers did join up, however, and their stories compound the tragedy of the war for their families at home.
By the time war broke out in 1914, Charles Robert Ayre had already been dead for 25 years. A resident of St. John’s, he was the founder of Ayre & Sons Ltd. His marriage to Mary Hannah Bray produced six sons and one daughter, who in turn produced 22 grandchildren, 11 girls and 11 boys. Six of those boys, three sets of brothers, took part in the First World War, four as members of the Newfoundland Regiment.
The first pair are Capt. Eric Ayre and Capt. Bernard Ayre, the only children of Lydia Gertrude Pitts and Robert Chesley Ayre. Eric was in St. John’s working at Ayre & Sons when the war broke out, while Bernard was in England, attending Cambridge University.
Eric was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Newfoundland Regiment within days of the declaration of war and formation of the Regiment. Bernard, too, was granted a commission as a lieutenant but he opted to remain in England where his commission was with the Norfolk Regiment.
Both were recognized for their leadership abilities and were soon promoted to captain. Eric was given command of D Company and led his men over the top at Beaumont Hamel on July 1, 1916, where he met his death.
The Norfolk Regiment also took part in the Battle of the Somme on July 1st and one of the officers killed that day was Bernard Ayre. Robert and Lydia had lost both their sons within a few hours of each other, although it took some time for news of their deaths to reach St. John’s.
Also with the Newfoundland Regiment that July 1st morning were two Ayre cousins: 2nd Lt. Gerald Ayre, son of Mary Julia Pitts and Frederick William Ayre; and 2nd Lt. Wilfred Ayre, son of Diana Agnes Stevenson and Charles Pascoe Ayre.
Gerald was part of the second contingent which went over under his cousin Eric’s command in April 1915, while Wilfred was one of the First Five Hundred. Both rose through the ranks quickly and both were part of the officer corps at Beaumont Hamel, where they met their death.
The two Ayre cousins who returned to Newfoundland were Gerald’s brother Charles and Wilfred’s brother Ronald.
Another group of brothers and cousins were the five grandsons William Patrick Walsh, an Irish immigrant to Newfoundland who spent many years operating a grocery and provisions establishment on Water Street.
A dabbler in politics, in 1869 he was elected to the House of Assembly as an anti-Confederate supporter of Charles Fox Bennet, whose electoral victory gave short shrift to Newfoundland becoming part of Canada at that time. Walsh and his wife were the parents of four daughters, one of whom, Mary, married Dr. Lawrence Keegan, a medical doctor originally from Ireland, while Margaret married Thomas Edens, who operated a successful mercantile establishment.
The best known of Walsh grandsons was Kevin Keegan, who was partway through medical studies at Trinity College, Dublin, when the war broke out. He returned to Newfoundland immediately and enlisted in the Newfoundland Regiment. He saw action throughout the war, won the Military Cross for his gallantry at Monchy-le-Preux and a Bar to the Military Cross for his actions at Broembeek, where he was wounded.
After the war, his life took a major career change. Instead of returning to medical studies in Ireland, he went to the United States where he joined The Philip H. Collins Company, Investment Dealers, in Cleveland, Ohio. He married there in 1921 and he died there in 1948, aged 56.
His younger brother, Patrick, enlisted in the Newfoundland Regiment late in the war. After discharge, he studied law under John Fenelon and was called to the Bar of Newfoundland in 1932. Sometime later in that decade he, too, moved to the United States. He enlisted in the United States Navy in the Second World War after which he was engaged in business in Cambridge, Mass. He died there, just a few months after his brother, in the spring of 1949, aged 51.
The Keegan brothers both survived the First World War; their cousins, the Edens brothers, were not so lucky. The three Edens boys, John, Francis and Leonard, all joined the Newfoundland Regiment and saw service overseas. John was first to enlist but was delayed going overseas because of an attack of appendicitis. He eventually made it to the Western Front where he was killed in the fighting at Masnières on Nov. 20, 1917.
Leonard was next to sign up. He saw little action with the Regiment before being allowed to transfer to the Royal Air Force in the summer of 1917. He was shot down in a dogfight over Roulers, Belgium, on June 13, 1918 and was taken prisoner. He was later reported as having died in captivity.
Francis was the last of the brothers to enlist; he came through the war and lived in St. John’s, where he worked for a number of years as an investment broker. He never married and lived with his mother until his untimely death in 1942 at age 47. His mother lived on alone, having lost all three of her sons to the war or its aftereffects, until her death in 1947.
Three sons of Mary Grace Lee and John Riggs of Grand Bank also enlisted in the Newfoundland Regiment. All three survived the war, in that they returned to Newfoundland after it ended. However, the war had taken its toll.
Sgt. Leslie Riggs was one of the 68 men who survived the carnage at Beaumont Hamel and answered role call some days later. He lived in Flat Islands, Placentia Bay, after the war, where he died in 1937, at age 45. His brother, Sgt. Rennie Riggs, lived in Marystown after the war, where he died in 1930, at age 34. The bodies of both brothers were brought to Grand Bank for burial. So, too, was the body of their brother Morgan. He spent much of his life after the war in the Hospital for Mental and Nervous Diseases, a victim of what today is called post-traumatic stress disorder. He died there in 1962, age 69.
Josiah and Louisa Goodyear lived in Ladle Cove before moving to Grand Falls shortly after the paper mill was built around 1908. They were the parents of six sons and one daughter. Five of their sons fought in the First World War, four as members of the Newfoundland Regiment. The fifth, Hedley, was teaching school in Toronto at the time, and joined up there with the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
Of the four who joined the Newfoundland Regiment, Stan, the eldest, and Ray, the youngest, were both killed: Stan, a lieutenant, at Broembeek, on Oct. 10, 1917, was awarded the Military Cross posthumously; and Ray, a private, at Gueudecourt on Oct. 12, 1916. Ken, a captain, and Joe, a lieutenant, both survived the war. Hedley was not so lucky; he, too, was killed, near Rosières-en-Santerre, France, on Aug. 22, 1918.
These are just four of the many families whose lives were permanently changed by the events of the First World War. There are hundreds more whose stories need to be told.
Joe Goodyear’s grandson, David Macfarlane, has written an exceptional account of the Goodyear family and the war entitled “The Danger Tree.” He sums up the effect the war had on not just his, but all of those families: “The century that carried on past the moments of their deaths was not what it might have been. It was largely a makeshift arrangement, cobbled round their constant and disastrous absence.”
Bert Riggs is an archivist and the editor of “Grand Bank Soldier: The War Letters of Lance Corporal Curtis Forsey.”
As part of its 2015 Newfoundland and Labrador conference, Action Canada will host a discussion in St. John's in early September on Newfoundland's participation in the First World War. Details will be posted at www.actioncanada.ca.