“We are the Dead.
Short days ago we lived,
felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
loved and were loved,
and now we lie in Flanders Fields.”
— John McCrae
Over 600,000 men and women enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) during the First World War, (1914-1918) as soldiers, nurses and chaplains. The CEF database is an index to those service files, which are held by Library and Archives Canada.
This free online searchable database includes over 600,000 men and women who participated in WWI (1914-1918) including soldiers as well as nurses and clergy:
These service files contain the name, address, service number, name of the next of kin, their physical description , skin colour, eye colour and scars or identifiable markings, and the unit number and location where they signed up for service.
On this site you can find links to the soldier’s file, which contain medical and pay records, and encompass a more detailed personal history of the soldier, and includes the specific units where they served, after going overseas. The soldier’s full service records are not available online, however, they may be ordered for a fee from Library and Archives Canada.
Also available are links to the Canadian Virtual War Memorial if the soldier died while in service.
War Diaries – This is a link to the diaries of the unit, not to personal diaries, but of the records of day to day life in a particular unit. This will give you great insight to how your ancestor lived in times of war in their group as they trekked across Europe and participated in various battles – some successful and some not.
Using the resources and links mentioned in this article, I was able to search and locate cousin Harry Stafford’s enlistment papers, his detailed medical files, including x-ray images and comments from attending physicians, his pay statements, physical description, and name and address of his next of kin.
I was also able to find out about the specific battle where he was wounded and subsequent hospitals in Europe where he received treatment. The records also state his date and condition at discharge, and pay records of any amount owing.
Harry’s story begins with the 130th Battalion, Lanark and Renfrew Scottish Regiment which was the ‘130th also known as the ‘overseas’ Battalion, based in Perth, Ontario.
They began recruiting in the fall of 1915, in Lanark and Renfrew Counties.
Nine-year old Harry stood by the shore, and watched in horror as his eldest brother Wilfred struggled to the surface again and again, until he finally slipped out of sight into the deep blue waters of the Mississippi River near Lanark.
Harry and his brothers often played near the water, although none of them could swim. The four brothers stood on the shore that fateful day in July, and skipped stones on the surface of the water, just as they had so many times before.
Wilfred, two days shy of his thirteenth birthday, was the eldest of the four. He took great pride in showing his younger brothers how to pick the longest flattest stones. He coached them on how to hold the stones on their flat side, and throw them parallel to the water, so they would skip farther along the waves. Dick, at age ten, was beginning to get the hang of it. Harry and his twin brother Frank had turned nine two months before and were doing their best to keep up with the older boys.
Harry, the stronger and more athletic of the twins was trying to help his brother Frank as he struggled with the task. Frank had kyphosis which meant that he had a severe curvature of the spine. People in those days referred to Frank as a ‘hunchback’, but he was still able to do most things; although it might take him a little longer.
One of the boys had thrown his prized pocket-knife into the water by mistake, and Wilfred had gone into the water to retrieve it, slipped on a rock and fell into a deep hole, unable to swim, and drowned. The younger boys had raced back into Lanark to get help, but it was too late. By the time they had met up with the first grown-up it was already after five. Mr. Baker, the local tailor in Lanark hurried back to the spot, and pulled Wilfred’s lifeless body from the river.
Mr. Baker laid the body gently on the shore, and headed back to the Stafford home to deliver the news. Harry’s mother Mary (Murphy) Stafford was pregnant with her next child Carmel at that time, and both she and Harry’s father Peter were overcome with grief.
This would be Harry’s first, though not his last encounter with death at a young age. Two years later in the spring, his mother once again gave birth to twins – this time a boy and a girl – Rose Marie and Martin Wilfred, named for his late brother. The twins were born in the spring, and Harry’s parents were delighted to welcome the new babies into their growing family. Sadly, tragedy struck once again, and Harry’s new little brother Martin Wilfred, the weaker of the two passed away quietly, just seven weeks after his birth.
A few short years after the second tragic event in Harry’s family, war was declared in Europe. Canada was still under British rule at the time and as such would be expected to join in the war efforts overseas.
Within the next couple of years tales of the excitement and adventure on the front lines travelled back to Perth, and acts of heroism and valour were recounted in the local papers. Life on the farm, and the daily chores seemed mundane, compared with the glorified life of a soldier fighting for freedom.
The 130th Battalion, Lanark and Renfrew Scottish Regiment which was the ‘130th “Overseas” Battalion, CEF’ Based in Perth, Ontario, began recruiting in the fall of 1915 in Lanark and Renfrew Counties. When a recruitment officer arrived in the village of Lanark one winter, young Harry, just sixteen at the time lied about his age and signed up on the spot.
The Canadian Expeditionary Forces, as they were known, specifically recruited men between the ages of 18 and 45, so Harry claimed that he was born the same year as his brother Dick and was actually eighteen years old. They took him at his word, and Harry became an enlisted man on January 9th, 1916.
Harry, along with some local lads, was sent for basic training in Valcartier, Quebec and returned home for a brief visit before going overseas.
August 4 1916 – ‘The Perth Courier’
“Corporals Ronald Scott, William Strang and Jack Scott (McDonald’s Corners) and Privates Lance Affleck, Ralph Craig, John Kingston, Harry Stafford, Henry Barrie (Watson’s Corners), and Joseph Bennett (Fallbrook) of the 130th Batt., Valcartier, are home on a week’s furlough – their farewell visit before going overseas.” (Harry was 17 by then)
The 130th Battalion left the Halifax harbour and sailed for Britain on 23 September 1916. After two weeks at sea, arriving in Liverpool, England on October 6th, Harry and the other members of the unit were absorbed by the ’12th Reserve Battalion, CEF. Their prime function was to provide reinforcements for the Canadian Corps that were already fighting in the field.
After fighting bravely in both England and France, Harry found himself participating in one of the most significant campaigns in WWI. Known as the Third Battle of Ypres (or Passchendaele) this battle was remembered both for its tremendous loss of life and casualties and because of the horrendous conditions of the battlefield.
The siege of Passchendaele went on for over three months from July through November 1917. More than 4,000 Canadians died and over 12,000 were wounded. The battlefield consisted of flat, swampy lowlands, and when heavy rainfall pounded the fields that autumn, the ground became a sea of mud. The men had to struggle through the thick mud with very little cover, while German soldiers tore them to pieces with their machine guns.
By November the Canadians were finally beginning to win the battle and began to push the Germans back from their stronghold. It was on the 6th day of November 1917 that 18 year old Harry was wounded in the leg by German gunfire at Passchendaele.
Harry was dragged out of the line of fire, received basic care from one of the medics to stop the bleeding and was sent to a hospital in England. He was admitted two days later on November 8th.
Word of Harry’s injuries was sent to his parents, back on the farm, in Lanark:
” Mr. and Mrs. Peter Stafford received a telegraph from the Director of Records, Ottawa, on Friday, informing them that their son, Pte. Harry Stafford, 787104, had been wounded by gunshot in thigh and leg on Nov 6th, and admitted to No. 6 Field Ambulance Depot. Harry went overseas with the 130th Batt. in September, 1916, was transferred to another battalion for service in France, and has been through some severe engagements since crossing the channel. His many friends hope that Harry’s wounds are not serious.”
—-21 November, 1917, “The Lanark Era”
The medical care during WWI was a very complex set of institutions, which cared for wounded soldiers from the battlefield, as soon after injury as possible. The soldier was evacuated as quickly as possible for treatment, and provided care.
The Field Ambulance was a mobile unit equipped with horse-drawn ambulances. They brought soldiers from the battlefields to an Advanced Dressing Station located at the rear of the siege out of harm’s way.
After Harry was shot, the first day he was sent to the #6 Field Ambulance Nov 6 1917, and after a month’s time was transferred to the Pavilion General Hospital Brighton Nov 23 1917, for three weeks.
Harry’s condition was not improving, and he suffered infection after infection. He was transferred to the Military Convalescent Hospital at Woodcote Park, Epsom, England on Dec 22, 1917 and he remained there receiving treatment for four and a half months.
In March 1918 he was transferred to Bramshott Military Hospital, where he was treated for one month, with still no sign of improvement.
It was during this time that Harry received word from his parents at home that his brother Carl had enlisted in a month earlier, and like Harry had lied about his age in order to join the service.
On July 8th, 1918 Harry was admitted to the Granville Canadian Special Hospital in Buxton, Derbyshire, England.
In November of 1918 WW1 finally ended. Losses of human life by Canadians and the allies were in the thousands.
After six months of unsuccessful treatment at the Granville Hospital in England Harry was finally discharged on December 3rd, 1918.
His condition continued to deteriorate, and on December 23 1918 Harry embarked for Canada sailing on the S.S. Tunisian.
Due to his medical condition, Harry was discharged from the military at Ottawa, on February 5, 1919.
Jan 10 1919 Perth Courier:
“Pte. Harry Stafford, son of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Stafford, Lanark, returned home Monday from overseas. He went overseas with the 130th Batt. In November 1917 he was wounded in the leg and latterly has been receiving hospital treatment in England.”
Harry’s condition never improved, and once again he was admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital in Ottawa on February 4th, 1920. He developed a cold two days after being admitted, and his operation was postponed until Feb 9th. Pneumonia developed 12 hours following operation, and Harry died two days later. There was speculation at the time that he may have contracted the flu while in the hospital, and that it turned to pneumonia in his already weakened state.
The influenza pandemic of 1917-1920 was a global disaster, and was actually responsible for killing more people than WWI. It has been said that it was the most devastating flu epidemic in recorded world history.
Because of the close quarters and huge troop movements during the war it is possible that these two factors hastened the pandemic and likely increased transmission of the virus. Many soldiers’ immune systems were weakened by lack of proper nutrition, the stresses of combat and chemical warfare, increasing their susceptibility to any illness.
Feb 20 1920 –
“Died: In St. Luke’s Hospital, Ottawa on Thursday February 12th, Harry Alphonsus Stafford, son of Mr. and Mrs. Peter Stafford of Lanark, aged 20 years and 9 months.”
Because he died at St. Luke’s Hospital in Ottawa, Harry’s death was registered in the County of Carleton, Division of Ottawa. His official cause of death was listed as pneumonia.
Harry is buried at the Sacred Heart Cemetery, Lanark, Ontario
Rest in Peace Harry. Our nation thanks you for your service.
Are you researching a Canadian Soldier? I invite you to share the names of the soldiers that you are researching in the comments field below and if you would like to be contacted by anyone researching the same families. You may be able to connect with someone researching the same family. Good luck with your search!
(the above is an excerpt from a book on the life and military service of Pte. Harry Stafford. The hard-cover book is available for research purposes at the Lanark Museum, 80 George Street, Lanark Ontario firstname.lastname@example.org, and at Archives Lanark, 1920 Concession 7 Road, Drummond Centre, Perth, Ontario email@example.com)
(photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, Harry Stafford and Jimmy Traill, both of Lanark, Ontario)
Lest We Forget