Surviving letters from one of two prairie brothers shed light on the tragic experiences of Canadian soldiers in the First World War
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice Agreement, which ended the First World War on Nov. 11, 1918.
When it began in 1914, most thought it would be a brief skirmish.
“I’ll be home by Christmas” was the phrase used often by volunteers.
On their homesteads west of Lloydminster, two young brothers, Harold and Herbert Hathaway, read the news in the Lloydminster Times and had decisions to make.
They had immigrated with their family in 1903 when they were 12 and eight years old, as members of the Barr Colony. An older brother, Arthur, remained in England and a free trip to Europe offered a chance to visit him, their homeland and cousins. The soldier’s income, though small, must have also been attractive.
What held them back were their farms and a reluctance to cause their father hardship. Alfred still farmed the original family homestead and the three men shared work and equipment. If both brothers enlisted, the work of three farms would overwhelm Alfred.
Harold made an agreement with his brother that while he enlisted, Herbert would maintain both their homesteads alongside with help from their father. He gave Herbert the use of his horses. Realizing his younger brother’s poor health while recovering from pneumonia, Harold advised him not to join.
On May 1, 1915, Harold volunteered for one year of service. His letters home, some eight or nine pages long, in small, neat handwriting have been passed down through generations, giving a glimpse of his life in and out of the trenches:
“There was considerable shell fire and an awful smell on the account of the warm weather. It is not the work in the trenches which tell on the men, it is the continued watching and waiting for something to happen. You have to be on alert all the time, knowing the enemy is not many yards away. There you are, standing in the trench waiting and suddenly you hear shells coming and the first thing you know, you see part of your trench go up in the air and not know whether the next shell will take part of the tunnel where you are standing. You do not know what is coming next. It might be gas, bombs or cold steel. The earth seems to rock when the bombs explode. Both sides jump over the parapets to see who takes possession of the crater, which is caused by the mine. Whoever explodes the mine has their big guns trained on the communication trenches to prevent the enemy bringing up support. “
Harold was a machine gunner. He was quickly wounded in the left wrist but unable to languish in hospital, he discharged himself and returned to the front where he was assigned to the 9th Canadian Rifle Brigade Machine Gun Company on April 16, 1916.
In his first letters, he sounds cavalier about the fighting.
“Of course, during all this confusion, we usually find time to have a smoke, and it is very annoying sometimes when your match is blown out in the act of lighting your pipe, caused by a bullet sailing by and making such a breeze.”
Although the fighting occupied him, his mind remained close to home and farming. As seasons passed in Europe, he thought of work on the Canadian Prairies:
“The crops around here look fine. Some of the grain, I notice, is coming out in head.… I notice (from newspapers sent to him) prices are going up in Canada and potatoes are very scarce. I guess by the time you get this, seeding operations will be in full swing.… What do you think of this? The other day we passed a place which was well known to us and used to be a pretty hot spot last spring, and when we passed it this time the same place was being plowed by motor tractors. It looked pretty good to me and I thought it a pretty good ad for the maker of the tractor. They were just those small, one-man tractors drawing a gang plow. Avery tractor — and they were going right along and you can be sure the land was pretty rough. If I ever come back and fuel is cheap enough, Avery tractor will be the power for me. They were doing splendid work.”
In spite of Harold’s efforts to keep his brother home, Herbert enlisted on January 15, 1916. After training in Calgary, he was sent to Britain and then France on Nov. 14. When Harold learned of Herbert’s actions, he wasn’t happy.
“I wish Herbert had stayed at home and carried on with mine and his place; he would have made a good thing out of it this fall with the market so high. I guess he will come to the same conclusion before he is finished with what he is going on with now.”
Herbert was assigned to the construction battalion. He and his comrades dug the trenches that are still visible in France today.
“The next time I write it will be from France as we are all C.B. and got our packs already packed to march away when the bugle blows.”
Neither brother knew they were close to each other in Herbert’s last battle. He died on Jan. 12, 1917, in one of the skirmishes before the famous Battle of Vimy Ridge and is buried at Cabaret-Rouge British Cemetery, France. In spite of both brothers trying to connect, the two never saw each other in Europe.
“I was very sorry to hear about poor Herbert. I had not even seen him in this country and was expecting to hear from him every day. I got the news first from cousin Harry and it came as a great surprise to me and as far as I can make out, he could not have been very far away from me on the 12th of January. He must have been just on my left, and I noticed there was some very large bombing raids in progress in that locality about that time, and I have no doubt it was in one of those raids that he was killed. “
Canada’s victory at Vimy Ridge on April 12, 1917, and his part in it filled Harold with pride.
“A short distance away is Vimy Ridge, which cost the French so many men and over which the Canadians went like a burst of fury.”
Shelling plowed up the land and the constant rain of a French winter, made mud their second enemy.
“I think it was the hardest time I have had yet, as the ground was knee deep in mud, and for the wet weather, I guess we would have driven him further.”
As the war dragged on, he became more desperate for home.
“Two years since I enlisted on the first of May, and still the war continues. Surely it will finish before another winter sets in. I wonder what it is like around Lloydminster. Has any of the old people moved out and any new come in? How is Mr. Smith and family getting on? I suppose he is like yourself just now, fully occupied with seeding operations. I wish I was back on the same job and wish you all lots of luck and good season.”
Loyalty to comrades had a stronger pull than homesickness.
“I guess if it came right to the point I could get away now because as you know, I signed on only for one year, but you may be sure I would not think of leaving at a time like this.”
He was grateful when, at last, he received a 10-day leave to England where he evaluated his situation if they had not emigrated to Canada.
“I remembered some of the places in England where we used to live before leaving for Canada and came to the conclusion that it was the finest thing you ever did for us all, when you took us to Canada.”
Harold often hinted about farming advice to Alfred as well as money management. He had a portion of his soldier’s pay assigned to him and eventually, advised him to sell his homestead and Herbert’s, saying he would start fresh when he returned.
On June 29, 1917, he was promoted to corporal. He informed his father with a photo.
“The one you see with the pipe in his mouth is Corporal Hathaway. How does that sound?”
Harold was killed by a bomb at Passchendale on Oct. 26, 1917. His father wrote to an older son, Edward: “Yesterday I received a letter from my cousin Warman stating that they had received a letter from a comrade of Harold’s stating that poor Harold had been killed on the 26th of October. Poor Harold, he was a brave boy.”
Harold’s remains were never found and his name is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium. Edward named his son after him the following year. Corporal Hathaway would have been astonished to learn that the Great War, as it was called, dragged on for another year after his death.