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Remembering a bloody conflict a century later

By: Heidi Ulrichsen - Sudbury Northern Life

 | Jul 23, 2014 - 5:00 AM |
Kaireen Crichton shows off photos of her father, William Orlando Kelly of Sudbury, who served in the First World War. Photo by Heidi Ulrichsen.

Kaireen Crichton shows off photos of her father, William Orlando Kelly of Sudbury, who served in the First World War. Photo by Heidi Ulrichsen.

Families remember loved ones' sacrifices during First World War

Like many young men of his generation, William Orlando Kelly — born in Sudbury in 1897 — was keen to leave high school, enlist in the Canadian Army and fight in the First World War.

Now 89 years old, his daughter Kaireen Crichton recounts the story her grandmother told her about that time.

“She told him 'If you come first in your class you can enlist,' ” she said.

“And of course, she never thought he'd do it, and he did it. He went right to the enlistment office as he got his report card. He enlisted when he was about 18, I think. That's towards the end of the war.”

Although Kelly survived the conflict — dubbed the “the war to end all wars” — and went on to have a family and work for the Canadian Pacific Railway, he didn't escape unscathed.

He endured ill health for the rest of his life as a result of gunshot and shrapnel wounds he'd suffered in battle, as well as the after-effects of a mustard gas attack, finally passing away in 1963.

Kelly never spoke to his family about what he'd experienced, although he did sing songs he'd learned in the war for them.

“I think he just wanted to forget it,” Crichton said.

With the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War approaching — the four-year conflict officially began July 28, although Canada didn't declare war until Aug. 5 — Crichton said it brings back memories of her long-dead father.

“He was the soldier I knew the best,” she said. “He and I had a very close relationship.”

Tracing the beginning

The political situation in Europe a century ago was fraught with with turmoil, said Dieter Buse, a Laurentian University history professor emeritus who has taught European history for 35 years and specializes in German history.

The nations in the region were involved in a system of alliances that meant if one country went to war, others would follow.

The war's trigger came on June 28, 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, was assassinated in Serbia, which the empire then controlled.

As Austria — which was allied with Germany — considered how it would punish the Serbians, it drew the ire of the Russians, who had a treaty with the Serbians.

Because Russia was allied with France and Britain, these countries were drawn into the conflict, along with their colonies, including Canada, whose foreign policy was then controlled by the British.

It went from a local war to a European war to a world war in a matter of six weeks, Buse said.

Influenced by technology and battle tactics developed in the American Civil War — including submarines and trench warfare — the First World War was a bloody conflict, killing an estimated eight to 10 million people, he said.

Of the 600,000 Canadian soldiers who enlisted, more than a 10th of them — or 65,000 — were killed. Buse is writing a book about two of these casualties, Frank and William Betts of Brantford, Ont., who are relatives of his wife's.

Home front

Here in Sudbury, men also heeded the call to enlist, with 2,026 of them volunteering for overseas service during the First World War, according to information provided by Library and Archives Canada.

According to the official register at the Sudbury branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, 85 men from Sudbury and Copper Cliff were killed in the conflict, said the 1993 book "Sudbury: Rail Town to Regional Capital."

By Aug. 20, 1914, 255 Sudbury men had already enrolled in the 97th Algonquin Rifles, the book said. These first Sudbury units merged with Toronto's 48th highlanders to form the 15th Overseas Infantry Division.

Almost 75 per cent of its members were listed as casualties of a German gas attack at St. Julien in April 1915.

In marking the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, people should avoid glorifying the conflict, and instead learn more about the war and its human cost, Buse said.

“I think that wars should be commemorated, but not celebrated,” he said.

Buse's Laurentian colleague, Huntington University president Kevin McCormick, has been commemorating the anniversary in his own way.

McCormick purchases Canadian veterans' medals and personal artifacts on the Internet, and either gives them back to veterans' families or donates them to museums or community groups across the country.

He's undertaken the project at his own expense as part of his role as the Honourary Lieutenant Colonel of the Irish Regiment of Canada, a position he's held for more than two years.

It's a gesture that's meant a lot to families, McCormick said.

“You bring back a WWI medal — victory medal — and it may only be worth $100, depending on where the person served,” he said. “But for the family member, it speaks volumes of history.”

The 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War is a “time of reflection,” and also it's a time to honour all those who have served in Canada's military, McCormick said. 

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Heidi Ulrichsen

Heidi Ulrichsen

Staff Writer


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