Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Remembrance of Things Past, Part II

If you didn’t read my last post, a short piece of memory writing by Kay Yull about her parents, go back and read it now. Otherwise, what follows, a gloss on Kay’s story with some historical context, won’t make much sense.  

Kay's original typescript (date unknown, but pre-2005)

First, Tom and Edith (Gladman) Smith came to Canada, we think, in 1910 or 1911. We know they were married in England at St. John’s Church, Whetstone, Middlesex, near their homes, on March 8, 1910. They were 24 and 22. So yes, they were young to be leaving home and family to come to a “foreign” country. That said, Canada was a fairly British place in those days.

Tom and Edith married (the lower entry)

We do not have definitive evidence of their first arrival in Canada, although many ships’ passenger manifests from the period survive and records were generally meticulously kept. Tom and Edith were not counted in the 1911 census in England, however. And they were certainly here by early 1912, the year, most likely, of the events Kay describes in her first vignette.

(We do, as a side note, have a record of them arriving back in North America from England a few years later in January 1915, on a ship from Liverpool that docked in Philadelphia. They must have spent some time at home over Christmas, perhaps to introduce their new son, Jack – who not only lived, but lived a very long time – to his English grandparents. Jack, aged 1, is named in the ship’s manifest along with his parents.)

Kay believed her parents were living in London, on Briscoe Street, at the time of their first child’s birth. This appears not to be the case – such are the vagaries of memory, either Edith’s in the original telling, or Kay’s in the remembering of it.

We have a death record, dated March 20, 1912 in Toronto for baby George Smith, aged 0, son of Tom H. and Edith (Gladman) Smith. The death came five days after the birth, as in Kay’s story. Tom, who was a journalist early in his career, is likely the Thomas H Smith who was listed in the 1912 Might Directory for Toronto, living at 427 Yonge St. If this is our Tom in Might's (his name was often mis-recorded as Thomas, but he was christened Tom), he was working at the time in the editorial department at The News, a long-defunct daily newspaper, presumably as a reporter. (Tom and Edith did later live at 151 Briscoe Street in London, in 1918.)

It is possible, I suppose, that George was not their first, that Tom and Edith had an earlier child who also died, although the fact that this baby was named, apparently, for his paternal grandfather suggests he was a firstborn.

Tom’s military service during WWI – he was a Lieutenant in the army – is a bit of a mystery. We do have his supposedly complete Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) records, but there are, um, ambiguities. They indicate he enlisted on February 11, 1918. However, the enlistment record shows he also served from December 1915 to June 1916 in the 142nd Battalion, London’s Own. The 142nd, first formed in September 1915, went overseas in November 1916, without Tom, evidently. It’s interesting also to note that conscription came into force in Canada in January 1918.

None of this is to criticize our ancestor or imply he shirked his duty. But we do know that young able-bodied men out of uniform, at least in England, were often assumed to be and treated as cowards. Women of the White Feather Campaign might accost them in the street and press a white feather on them, symbolizing their supposed cowardice. To be fair, Tom was already 28 when war broke out in 1914 and over 30 by the time he went overseas – not old, but no longer in the first blush of youth either. And he did have a wife and two young children to support in Canada.  

By the time he was declared fit to join the CEF early in 1918, most of the great battles that defined Canada’s war had been fought – Ypres (1915), the Somme (1916), Vimy Ridge (1917) – and over 45,000 Canadians had already perished. Amiens, August 8, 1918, was yet to come, but by then, Tom was back home in Canada again.

Did he fight? Did he even get to the front? The CEF records are frustratingly unclear. A UWO History professor who looked briefly at them last year questioned whether Tom had gone overseas at all. On closer examination of the records, though, its clear he did, if briefly.

Page from Tom H Smith's CEF records, showing return on troop ship Tunisian (lower left, highlighted)

In his pay records, he is shown returning on the Tunisian, a troop ship, on April 1, 1918. Even if he was sent overseas immediately after enlisting, he couldn’t have been away long. Why did he return so soon? Was he wounded? We do have a photo of him from this period, in uniform, carrying a cane, so it's possible. But again, the records are unclear.

And what did he do in the war? The only clue is a card catalogue entry in the CEF records for “Smith, Thomas H, Lieutenant.” “Conducting officer” is written in the space for “Remarks.” Presumably this is what he was. But what exactly was it? It appears a conducting officer – with nothing in front of it, such as “train conducting officer” – was a minder for important people or, especially, for war correspondents visiting military installations. A PR flak in other words. This makes sense given his journalistic background. Certainly in the second war, conducting officers often had newspaper experience.

So did he catch a bullet while squiring some journo around the trenches in France – or fall off a bicycle in Picadilly Circus? We’ll probably never know. If it was either.

To get back to Kay’s story, it must have taken place later in April 1918 in London (Canada), where Edith was living – on Briscoe Street. The two children, of course, were Jack, then four, and Betty, two. And here they are, probably shot a few months, aren't they cute!

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