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‘Death Penny’ a reminder of soldier’s war service


Published on June 29, 2017

Ralph Douglas holds the “Death Penny” of his uncle, First World War soldier Aaron Keeping Douglas, who was killed near the end of the war. Douglas found the plaque in a box in his father’s attic years ago.

©Photo courtesy of Barbara Barnes

Grand Bank resident Ralph Douglas said it was a nice surprise recently to learn that Canadian soldiers and provincial Fish and Wildlife Enforcement officers training on Brunette Island had cleaned up the grave marker of his uncle, Aaron Keeping Douglas.

Pte. Aaron Keeping Douglas was a member of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment who died in 1918, just months before the First World War ended.

Though his body lies in Europe, the little community on Brunette Island at the time erected a headstone there in his honour. Brunette Island — a large island in the middle of Fortune Bay — was resettled in the 1950s and 1960s.

Over the years, the headstone had fallen over and was nearly covered in moss and grass.

Earlier this month, 16 soldiers from Canadian Forces Station (CFS) St. John’s, along with 10 Fish and Wildlife Enforcement officers, cleaned and restored the headstone.

Ralph Douglas said that years ago, he often cleaned it when he visited the island during the summer months. Now, at age 81, he doesn’t go there anymore.

“That was nice, to see the headstone all cleaned up and them all gathered around it,” Douglas said, referring to an article and photos about it in The Telegram.

“The headstone was over there lying on its side in the graveyard behind where the church use to be. I’ve been over there sometimes and cleaned it off and stuck it up, me and a buddy of mine, when we’d go over there for a boil-up. But I no longer have a boat now.”

Ralph said there were five boys and five girls in his father’s family, but he only got to know — other than his father — one of his uncles. He said his father was always away from the island working on schooners, and they never spoke much about Pte. Douglas.

A medallion bears the name of Aaron Keeping Douglas, who died in the First World War as a member of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. Douglas was from Brunette Island in Fortune Bay, which was resettled in the 1950s and 1960s.
Photo courtesy of Barbara Barnes

“The Keeping part of his name is after his mother. When he died, they tell me, he was with another feller who was from Harbour Breton somewhere I think, and they were in this old shack having a snack when it got shelled,” Douglas said. “Other than that, the only thing I can tell you is I heard he rowed from Brunette Island in a dory when he decided to go and enlist.”

To row the distance from Brunette Island to Grand Bank in a dory may seem a near impossible task, but Pte. Douglas was no slacker.

According to documents on the Royal Newfoundland Regiment website, Douglas was 22 when he enlisted at St. John’s.

While he stood just five feet, five inches tall, his record shows a man of strength and courage. Months after joining the regiment in the field in December 1916, he was gassed and sent to hospital.

He was released from hospital and rejoined the regiment in the field on Sept. 3, 1917. About a month and half later — on Nov. 20, 1917 — he suffered a severe gunshot wound to the arm and was sent back to hospital.

He was released from hospital and rejoined the regiment again on April 13, 1918. Records indicate he was admitted to hospital once again on Aug. 10, 1918, but it’s not clear what it was for at that time.

He was discharged from hospital Sept. 1, 1918 and soon returned to the regiment.

On Sept. 29, 1918, Pte. Aaron Keeping Douglas was killed in action. He was 24.

Ralph Douglas says the only thing he has of his uncle now is his “Death Penny.”

Soldiers from Canadian Forces Base St. John’s and officers from the province’s Fish and Wildlife Enforcement section pose near the grave marker of First World War soldier Pte. Aaron Keeping Douglas on Brunette Island in Fortune Bay.
CFS St. John’s photo

According to greatwar.co.uk website, in October 1916 the British Government came up with the idea for a commemorative memorial plaque to be given to relatives of men and women whose deaths were attributable to the First World War. It is a circular plaque with the words “He died for freedom and honour” written on it, with the figure of Britannia holding a laurel wreath over the fallen soldier’s name. A lion stands in front of Britannia. A very small lion can be seen underneath the larger lion’s feet, biting into a winged creature representing the German Imperial eagle.

Douglas said that after his father died in 1963, he found his uncle’s Death Penny in a box in his father’s attic.

“It’s too bad we didn’t know more about him,” Douglas said.

According to the greatwar website, a scroll was also to be sent with the Death Penny, but Douglas has no idea what happened to that.

The wording on the scroll would have been: “He whom this scroll commemorates was numbered among those who, at the call of King and Country, left all that was dear to them, endured hardness, faced danger, and finally passed out of the sight of men by the path of duty and self sacrifice, giving up their own lives that others might live in freedom. Let those who come after see to it that his name be not forgotten.”

 

Restoring markers

Bruce King, projects officer at CFS St. John’s, said repairing the grave marker on Brunette Island was something the group had wanted to do for the past few years while going to the island for training.

It’s not the first time CFS St. John’s and the provincial Fish and Wildlife Enforcement had teamed up to restore a monument to a First World War soldier.

In June 2015, they made an overnight trip to the resettled community of Little Bona in Placentia Bay, where they restored a fallen monument to Pte. Michael John White.

White left the tiny, isolated outport and enlisted with the Newfoundland Regiment in St. John’s on Nov. 15, 1917. Though he was only 16 and still underage, he wrote “19 years, eight months” on the documents — a trick employed by many young men of the time and usually overlooked by recruitment officers.

The last battle of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in the First World War came near the Belgium town of Ledeghem on Oct. 3, 1918 — the day White was killed in action.

The war ended just over a month later.

After the war a tall marble monument was erected on an outcropping of rock on the hillside in Little Bona, overlooking the cove.

Years after all the residents left Little Bona during the resettlement years, the monument tumbled over, which was noticed by Fish and wildlife enforcement officer Doug Hayes, who contacted King at CFS St. John’s. They put a team together and went to Little Bona, where they cleaned and reassembled the monument in honour of White.