May 30, 2016
Chronicle Journal (A3)
Thousands of men and women from Port Arthur, Fort William and the region served in the armed forces during the First World War. The poppy was adopted as a national symbol of remembrance in Port Arthur in 1921.This monthly column will share stories and photos about life here in Thunder Bay and overseas during World War One.
The local newspapers of May 1916 were dominated by stories relating to the First World War. The locally recruited 52nd Battalion was playing its part in the attrition on the Western Front, in the trenches, mud, gas, lice and rats which characterized the world’s first truly global and industrialized conflict. Meanwhile, back at the Lakehead, recruitment was still in full flow to provide a constant stream of replacements to ensure that the Canadian contingent was fully up to strength for the impending Somme offensive.
May 1916 was the lull before the storm and, to echo the title of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic war novel, it was ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’. But this was a relative term as the Canadians suffered upwards of two thousand casualties that month; among these were twelve men from the Twin Cities, including Wilfred Belanger, who was one of four brothers from what was then known as the Fort William Indian Reserve who fought in the Great War
When Wilfred enlisted at Fort William on April 6 1915 he was a labourer, single, with no previous military service. He became Private 438441 in the 52nd Battalion of the Canadian Infantry, and went off to France with the First Contingent. Wilfred was killed in action on May 30 1916, just five days short of his twentieth birthday. His death was caused by a ‘minenwerfer’, which was a particularly lethal form of short range trench mortar. The weapons were intended to be used by engineers to clear obstacles including bunkers and barbed wire that longer range artillery would not be able to accurately target. Due to their extremely short range there was very little warning and no form of protection from these deadly devices. Wilfred’s body was not found and his name is remembered on the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial in Ypres, Belgium, which is dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the Ypres Salient and whose graves are not known. The memorial contains nearly 55,000 names.
Wilfred’s mother, Mrs Mary Belanger, lived at 310 S. Brodie Street, Fort William, and this is where she received the dreaded telegram announcing her son’s death. More tragedy was to follow when Private Cyprian Belanger (born 1894) died of wounds on September 20 1916 and Private Augustin Belanger (born 1897) was killed on May 25 1917. Only one of the four brothers, Peter Belanger (born 1889), survived the war.
Several other men in the 52nd Battalion who died in May 1916 are also listed on the Menin Gate, including: Private Edward John McCartney (died on May 28 1916 age 34), a cook whose wife Elizabeth lived at Crown Street, Port Arthur; Private Robert Edward Hughes (died May 30 1916 age 19), a shipyard worker whose wife Maud lived in the Merrick Block, Port Arthur; and Lieutenant Samuel Dawson Naylor, a civil engineer who had been born in England and served previously with the 96th Lake Superior Regiment. He was killed in action late in the afternoon of May 31 1916 by artillery, along with Privates Charles Plumridge (a British born bricklayer) and William Ernest Pollard, a baker, whose wife Edith lived at Birch Street, Brent Park, Port Arthur.
It was recorded in the 52nd Battalion War Diary that the men were ‘Becoming in critical condition owing to prolonged period under constant and heavy shell fire and relief needed. Eight day tour under these conditions very much trying.’ War weariness was also starting to set in at the Lakehead, where the initial hope that the war would be ‘over by Christmas’ (1914) had faded long ago.
This article runs on the fourth Monday of each month. John Pateman is a member of the World War One Thunder Bay Centennial Project committee. Please visit www.tbayworldwarone.com for more information about this project or to contribute personal stories and photos.