May 23, 2017
Chronicle Journal (A7)
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.
In his iconic poem, In Flanders Fields, John McCrae writes of the larks “still bravely singing” in the sky above the war-torn landscape of Flanders. While that might suggest a more benign environment than the battlefields below, the presence of the air forces of Britain, France and Germany ensured that was not so. Aircrew were spared the mud and mayhem of the trenches, returned to relatively safe and comfortable billets behind the lines after an operation and ate better than the infantry at the front.
However, the dangers they faced were many. Exposed in open cockpits at high altitude they suffered frostbite and lack of oxygen, even if they did not encounter the enemy. Flying in machines built of wood and canvas, with no parachute, shot at by flak from the ground, and by other planes in the air, the life of an airman was full of danger and often short. In 1917, the life expectancy of a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was only 3 weeks, not much different from that of an infantryman in the trenches. On top of that, the sky was a dangerous place even before the pilots reached the front. In 1917, one fifth of the airmen in training were killed in accidents before they had learned to fly.
Experiencing these hazardous conditions were airmen who called Fort William or Port Arthur home, or who were originally from elsewhere and would settle at the Lakehead when they returned to Canada at war’s end. When war broke out aviation was virtually unknown in the northwest and some of the future aviators enlisted in the infantry regiments of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). Stanley Rosevear from Port Arthur, for example, enlisted in the University of Toronto Overseas Training Company, and then in the following year transferred to the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). Stanley and Wilfred Rutledge from Fort William both served in the CEF before transferring to the RFC in 1917, as did James Dickie, originally from Manitoba, but returning to Fort William after the war. Hector Fraser Dougall from Winnipeg and later Fort William enlisted in the CEF in 1916 before learning to fly in Toronto and transferring to the RCF in 1917. Ernest Potter from Port Arthur also learned to fly in Toronto in 1915 and enlisted in the RNAS the following year. Between them they covered the whole gamut of WWI flying. Rosevear and Dougall flew scouts, as fighter aircraft were then known; Potter was a bomber pilot; Wilfred Rutledge flew as an observer and later as a pilot; Stanley Rutledge and James Dickie were instructors.
Scout pilots tended to receive more attention, both then and now, in part because their success could be measured in the number of enemy planes they shot down. Rosevear scored 23 victories in 9 months in 1917 and 1918, receiving the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) as a result. Other roles were equally important. Observers like Wilfred Rutledge provided information on enemy movements and directed fire during artillery shoots. Bomber pilots like Potter, who was decorated by the French government, struck airfields and armament factories in enemy territory, while the instructors prepared new pilots to replace those who had been lost. Rosevear, shot down in 1918, and Stanley Rutledge, killed in a training accident in 1917, did not survive the war. The others returned to the Lakehead using the skills they had learned during the war to contribute in a variety of ways to the development of aviation in the region.
This article runs on the fourth Monday of each month. Dave Kemp 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.