CORNER BROOK — At first glance, it can look as though Arthur Francis Jesseau was the only man from the Bay of Islands region among the so-called “First Five Hundred” soldiers of the Newfoundland regiment to head overseas to the First World War.
Upon closer inspection, there were others who may have been living elsewhere when they enlisted and boarded the SS Florizel as she steamed for Europe in 1914.
Many more Newfoundlanders would follow them and, through the course of the war, there were at least 60 of them who hailed from the Bay of Islands and joined the regiment.
On Thursday night, Bert Riggs, archivist for the Centre for Newfoundland Studies Archives at Memorial University, detailed the lives of five of those men, including their contributions to war and their lives afterward if they survived.
In riveting detail, he discussed the short life of Pte. Hugh Walter McWhirter, the first member of the regiment to be killed in action. According to an account from someone who was there when he was killed, McWhirter never knew what hit him when he was struck by a Turkish shell at Gallipoli on Sept. 22, 1915.
The inglorious immediacy of his death, read Riggs, made the survivors of that particular attack realize war was serious business.
“He had simply been standing, deafened by the screech and explosion of artillery: a terrified boy in an ill-fitting uniform in a front-line trench ... Then, from out of nowhere, he had been blasted to red bits of khaki and flesh by a Turkish shell,” read Riggs. “Suddenly, he was gone and those beside him in the shallow firing trench were stunned, sprayed by bits of shrapnel and dirt and intestine. They knew just as suddenly what this war was going to be about.”
No all of the stories were as disturbing as that. Riggs talked about Charles Ballam, who may have had his issues with discipline, but would go on to become a respected union leader at the Corner Brook pulp and paper mill and a long-serving minister in Joey Smallwood’s first cabinet after Confederation in 1949.
He talked of the scholarly Paul Young, an award-winning student who enlisted and went on to become a Rhodes scholar and a physician after the war. Then there was the athletic Albert Mortimer Martin, who was taken as a prisoner of war, but would later become an honorary lieutenant colonel of the regiment and would be inducted into the Newfoundland and Labrador Sports Hall of Fame.
And, of course, Arthur Jesseau, the soldier who had developed a reputation as a sure-shot sniper and who was also held captive for a period of time as a prisoner of war. After living a long post-war life with such experiences embedded in his memory, Riggs said it should be no wonder Jesseau would later be described by some who knew him as “the meanest man” around.
Thursday’s presentation, tiled “For King and Country: The Bay of Islands and the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in World War 1,” was presented by Grenfell Campus Alumni Affairs and Development and the Corner Brook Museum and Archives.
Memorial University has set about actively engaging the general public in its operations and, with the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War less than two year away, Riggs said it is incumbent on everyone to tell the stories of everyone who fought.
“We owe it to them to be ready to commemorate each of their lives — each and every one of them,” said Riggs. “We need to find out as much about each one of them as we can, to bring them back to the land of the living where they can become part of our lives, our memories and our legacy to future generations.”